BECK index

Vedas and Upanishads

Harappan Civilization
Rig Veda
Sama Veda
Yajur Veda
Atharva Veda

Early Upanishads
Kena, Katha, Isha, and Mundaka
Later Upanishads

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Harappan Civilization

Prehistoric Cultures

Although they did use some writing with pictographic symbols at Mohenjo-daro, they were not extensive nor alphabetic nor have they been deciphered yet, and the Indo-European Sanskrit which did develop in India is probably quite different. Nevertheless the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley in what is now Pakistan did borrow many ideas from Mesopotamia and is considered the third civilization to develop. Two seals of the Mohenjo-daro type were discovered at Elam and Mesopotamia, and a cuneiform inscription was unearthed at Mohenjo-daro.

The pastoral villages that spread out east of Elam through Iran and Baluchistan prepared the way for the cities that were to develop around the Indus River, particularly at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. By about 3000 BC they were building mud-brick houses; burials in the houses included funereal objects; and pottery had fine designs and the potters' marks. After 2500 BC farmers moved out into the alluvial plain of the Indus River valley and achieved full-sized villages using copper and bronze pins, knives, and axes; figurines of women and cattle indicate probable religious attitudes.

The urban phase began about 2300 BC and lasted for about six hundred years with elaborate cities like Mohenjo-daro (called locally Mound of the Dead), which was excavated in the 1920s. This city and others not yet excavated had about 40,000 inhabitants congregated in well built houses with private showers and toilets that drained into municipal sewer lines. Suffering from occasional flooding by the Indus, Mohenjo-daro was rebuilt seven times. The largest structures were the elevated granary and the great bath or swimming pool which was 12 by 7 meters. Around the pool were dressing rooms and private baths.

The people of the Harappan culture did not seem to be very warlike, although they hunted wild game and domesticated cattle, sheep, and goats. Wheat and barley were the main food supplemented by peas, sesame, and other vegetables and fruits, beef, mutton, pork, eggs, fish, and milk. Compared to other ancient civilizations, the houses were of nearly equal size, indicating a more egalitarian social structure. The potter's wheel and carts were used; children played with miniature toy carts. Cotton, perhaps first used here, and wool were made into clothing. A bronze figurine was found of an expressive dancing girl with her hand on her hip, naked except for jewelry. The numerous figurines of the Mother Goddess indicate a likely source for what later became the Shakti worship of the feminine power in India. A male god in a yoga posture, depicted with three faces and two horns, has been identified with Shiva, another important figure in later Indian religion. Phallic lingams, also associated with Shiva, have been found. A civilization that endured dangerous flooding for six hundred years very likely had a strong religion to help hold people together.

With no written histories the decline of this civilization is subject to much speculation. The traditional theory is that the Aryans invaded from the northwest. Although this is likely, the decline of Harappan culture was quite gradual and indicates problems beyond foreign conquest. One theory is deforestation, because of all the wood needed for the kilns to make the bricks used to keep out the flood waters that gradually brought about salinization of the soil, as it had to Sumer over centuries, so that the Harappan culture had greatly declined by 1900 BC.

However, a more comprehensive explanation comes from an analysis of the consequences of the extensive herds of cattle that indicate overgrazing and a general degradation of the ecosystem, including salinization of water supplies. This led farmers to move on to greener pastures, leaving behind abandoned villages and depopulated cities. Even though fodder was probably grown to feed the cattle, this would not have been enough; and the overgrazing by the bullocks and milk cows could have caused the surrounding land to deteriorate. By 1500 BC the Harappan civilization had faded away into a culture that was spreading throughout India with new ideas from the west.

The traditional theory, well documented by the ancient hymns of the Vedas, is that a people calling themselves Aryans conquered the native peoples of India and destroyed their forts. Because of language similarities these Aryans are associated particularly with the Iranians and even further back with the origins of the Indo-European language group. The general consensus seems to be that this culture must have begun somewhere in the Russian steppes and Central Asia about 2000 BC, though some have put their origin in Lithuania because of similarity to that language. The branch of these speakers, who came to India under the name Aryans, which means "noble ones," is the Indo-Iranian group. In fact "Iran" derives from the Persian cognate of the word for Aryan. Other branches spread into Greece and western Asia as Hittites, Kassites, and Mitanni. A rock inscription found at Boghaz Koi dated about 1400 BC, commemorating a treaty between the Mitanni and Hittites, invokes the Aryan gods Indra, Varuna, Mitra, and the twins Nasatya (Asvins).

The ancient writings of the Persian Avesta and the Hindu Vedas share many gods and beliefs. Eventually they must have split, causing later authors to demonize the divinities of their adversaries. In early Hindu writings the asuras were respected gods, but later they became the demons most hated, while Ahura Mazda became the chief god of the Zoroastrians. (Persian often uses an h where Sanskrit uses an s, such as haoma for soma.) On the other hand the Hindu term for divinities, devas, was used by Zoroastrians to describe the devils from which even our English word is derived. Some scholars have concluded that the ancient Hindus did not want to admit that they came from Iran, and therefore the origin of the Aryans is never mentioned in the ancient texts, although they frankly boast of their conquest over the indigenous Dasas or Dasyus in India.

The word Veda means knowledge, and the Vedas are considered the most sacred scripture of Hinduism referred to as sruti, meaning what was heard by or revealed to the rishis or seers. The most holy hymns and mantras put together into four collections called the Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Vedas are difficult to date, because they were passed on orally for about a thousand years before they were written down. More recent categories of Vedas include the Brahmanas or manuals for ritual and prayer, the Aranyakas or forest texts for religious hermits, and the Upanishads or mystical discourses.

Rig Veda

The hymns of the Rig Veda are considered the oldest and most important of the Vedas, having been composed between 1500 BC and the time of the great Bharata war about 900 BC. More than a thousand hymns are organized into ten mandalas or circles of which the second through the seventh are the oldest and the tenth is the most recent. The Hindu tradition is that even the Vedas were gradually reduced from much more extensive and ancient divine revelations but were perverted in the recent dark age of Kaliyuga. As the only writings from this ancient period of India, they are considered the best source of knowledge we have; but the ethical doctrines seem to have improved from the ancient hymns to the mystical Upanishads.

Essentially the Rig Veda is dominated by hymns praising the Aryan gods for giving them victories and wealth plundered from the local Dasas through warfare. The Aryans apparently used their advances in weaponry and skill in fighting to conquer the agricultural and tribal peoples of the fading Harappan culture. Numerous hymns refer to the use of horses and chariots with spokes which must have given their warriors a tremendous advantage. Spears, bows, arrows, and iron weapons are also mentioned. As a nomadic and pastoral culture glorifying war, they established a new social structure of patriarchal families dominated by warriors and, eventually with the power of the Vedas themselves, by priests also.

The Rig Veda does mention assemblies, but these were probably of the warrior elite, which may have had some controlling influence on the kings and the tribal priest called a purohita. The gods worshiped resemble the Indo-European gods and were headed by the powerful Indra, who is often credited with destroying ninety forts. Also popular was Agni, the fire-god considered a messenger of the gods. Varuna and Mitra, the gods of the night and day sky, have been identified with the Greek Uranos and the Persian Mithras respectively. Dyaus, who is not mentioned nearly as often, has been correlated with the Greek Zeus. Surya the sun-god is referred to as the eye of Varuna and the son of Dyaus and rides through the sky on his chariot led by his twin sons, the Asvins who represent his rays; Ushas the dawn is his wife or daughter. Maruts are storm-gods shaped by Rudra, who may have been one of the few indigenous deities adopted by the Aryans. Like the Iranian Avesta, the Rig Veda refers to the thirty-three gods.

Generally the hymns of the Rig Veda praise the gods and ask them for worldly benefits such as wealth, health, long life, protection, and victory over the Dasa peoples.

He, self-reliant, mighty and triumphant,
brought low the dear head of the wicked Dasas.
Indra the Vritra-slayer, Fort-destroyer,
scattered the Dasa hosts who dwelt in darkness.
For men hath he created earth and waters,
and ever helped the prayer of him who worships.
To him in might the Gods have ever yielded,
to Indra in the tumult of battle.
When in his arms they laid the bolt,
he slaughtered the Dasyus
and cast down their forts of iron.1

They call upon Brihaspati or Brahmanaspati, who has been related to a Hittite thunder-god, to avenge the sinner and protect them from the deceitful and wicked man. The Aryans did have a concept of eternal law called rita, which the immortal Agni in serving the gods is said to never break (Rig Veda III:3:1).

In Rig Veda III:34:9 Indra killed the Dasyus and "gave protection to the Aryan color." Not only did the Aryans shamelessly pray for booty in war, but they based their militarily won supremacy on the lightness of their skin color compared to the dark colors of the native Dasyus. They arrogantly proclaimed, "Let those who have no weapons suffer sorrow." (Rig Veda IV:5:14.)

Renowned is he when conquering and when slaying:
'tis he who wins cattle in the combat.
When Indra hardens his indignation
all that is fixed and all that moves fear him.
Indra has won all kine, all gold, all horses, -
Maghavan, he who breaks forts in pieces;2

Indra is praised for killing thousands of the abject tribes of Dasas with his arrow and taking great vengeance with "murdering weapons." (Rig Veda IV:28:3-4) One hymn mentions sending thirty thousand Dasas "to slumber" and another hymn sixty thousand slain. A hymn dedicated to the weapons of war (Rig Veda VI:75) refers to a warrior "armed with mail," using a bow to win cattle and subdue all regions, "upstanding in the car the skillful charioteer guides his strong horses on whithersoe'er he will." The arrows had iron mouths and shafts "with venom smeared" that "not one be left alive." Hymn VII:83 begins, "Looking to you and your alliance, O ye men, armed with broad axes they went forward, fain for spoil. Ye smote and slew his Dasa and his Aryan enemies."

Only occasionally did the authors of these hymns look to their own sins.

Free us from sins committed by our fathers,
from those wherein we have ourselves offended.
O king, loose, like a thief who feeds the cattle,
as from the cord a calf, set free Vasishtha.
Not our own will betrayed us, but seduction,
thoughtlessness, Varuna! wine, dice or anger.
The old is near to lead astray the younger:
even sleep removes not all evil-doing.3

A hymn to the frogs compares the repetitions of the priests around the soma bowl to the croaking of the frogs around a pond after the rains come. (Rig Veda VII:103)

The basic belief of the prayers and sacrifices is that they will help them to gain their desires and overcome their enemies, as in Rig Veda VIII:31:15: "The man who, sacrificing, strives to win the heart of deities will conquer those who worship not." Some awareness of a higher law seems to be dawning in the eighth book in hymn 75: "The holy law hath quelled even mighty men of war. Break ye not off our friendship, come and set me free." However, the enemies are now identified with the Asuras and still are intimidated by greater weapons: "Weaponless are the Asuras, the godless: scatter them with thy wheel, impetuous hero." (Rig Veda VIII:85:9)

Many of the hymns refer to the intoxicating soma juice, which is squeezed from the mysterious soma plant and drank. All of the hymns of the ninth book of the Rig Veda are dedicated to the purifying soma, which is even credited with making them feel immortal, probably because of its psychedelic influence. The first hymn in this book refers to the "iron-fashioned home" of the Aryans.

In the first book of the Rig Veda the worshipers recognize Agni as the guard of eternal law (I:1:8) and Mitra and Varuna as lovers and cherishers of law who gained their mighty power through law (I:2:8). In the 24th hymn they pray to Varuna, the wise Asura, to loosen the bonds of their sins. However, the prayers for riches continue, and Indra is thanked for winning wealth in horses, cattle, and gold by his chariot. Agni helps to slay the many in war by the hands of the few, "preserving our wealthy patrons with thy succors, and ourselves." (Rig Veda I:31:6, 42) Indra helped win the Aryan victory:

He, much invoked, hath slain Dasyus and Simyus,
after his wont, and laid them low with arrows.
The mighty thunderer with his fair-complexioned friends
won the land, the sunlight, and the waters.4

Control of the waters was essential for agricultural wealth. Indra is praised for crushing the godless races and breaking down their forts. (Rig Veda I:174)

In the tenth and last book of the Rig Veda some new themes are explored, but the Dasyus are still condemned for being "riteless, void of sense, inhuman, keeping alien laws," and Indra still urges the heroes to slay the enemies; his "hand is prompt to rend and burn, O hero thunder-armed: as thou with thy companions didst destroy the whole of Sushna's brood." (Rig Veda X:22)

One unusual hymn is on the subject of gambling with dice. The speaker regrets alienating his wife, wandering homeless in constant fear and debt, envying others' well-ordered homes. He finally warns the listener not to play with dice but recommends cultivating his land. (Rig Veda X:34) Hymn 50 of this most recent last book urges Indra to win riches with valor "in the war for water on their fields." Now the prayer is that "we Gods may quell our Asura foemen." (Rig Veda X:53:4) A wedding ceremony is indicated in a hymn of Surya's bridal, the daughter of the sun. (Rig Veda X:85)

The first indication of the caste system is outlined in the hymn to Purusha, the embodied human spirit, who is one-fourth creature and three-fourths eternal life in heaven.

The Brahmin was his mouth,
of both his arms was the Rajanya made.
His thighs became the Vaisya,
from his feet the Sudra was produced.5

The Brahmin caste was to be the priests and teachers; the Rajanya represents the king, head of the warrior or Kshatriya caste; Vaishyas are the merchants, craftsmen, and farmers; and the Sudras are the workers. In hymn 109 the brahmachari or student is mentioned as engaged in duty as a member of God's own body.

The hymn to liberality is a breath of fresh air:

The riches of the liberal never waste away,
while he who will not give finds none to comfort him.
The man with food in store who,
when the needy comes in miserable case
begging for bread to eat,
Hardens his heart against him -
even when of old he did him service -
find not one to comfort him.6

Yet later we realize that the priests are asking for liberality to support their own services, for the "plowing makes the food that feeds us," and thus a speaking (or paid) Brahmin is better than a silent one.

The power of speech is honored in two hymns.

Where, like men cleansing corn-flour in a cribble,
the wise in spirit have created language,
Friends see and recognize the marks of friendship:
their speech retains the blessed sign imprinted.7

In hymn 125 of the tenth mandala Vak or speech claims to have penetrated earth and heaven, holding together all existence.

A philosophical hymn of creation is found in Rig Veda X:129. Beginning from non-being when nothing existed, not even water nor death, that One breathless breathed by itself. At first this All was concealed by darkness and formless chaos, but by heat (tapas) that One came into existence. Thus arose desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit. Sages searching in their hearts discovered kinship with the non-existent. A ray of light extended across the darkness, but what was known above or below? Creative fertility was there with energy and action, but who really knows where this creation came from? For the gods came after the world's creation. Who could know the source of this creation and how it was produced? The one seeing it in the highest heaven only knows, or maybe it does not.

Sama Veda

The Sama Veda contains the melodies or music for the chants used from the Rig Veda for the sacrifices; almost all of its written verses are traceable to the Rig Veda, mostly the eighth and ninth books and most to Indra, Agni, or Soma. These are considered the origin of Indian music and probably stimulated great artistry to make the sacrifices worthwhile to their patrons who supported the priests. The Sama Veda helped to train the musicians and functioned as a hymnal for the religious rites.

The animal sacrifices did not use the Sama chants, but they were used extensively in agricultural rites and in the soma rituals for which the plant with inebriating and hallucinogenic qualities was imported from the mountains to the heartland of India. By this time the priests were specializing in different parts of the sacrifices as professional musicians and singers increased. The singing was like the strophe, antistrophe, and epode of the Greek chorus and used the seven tones of the European scale. By the tenth century BC the Aryans had invaded most of northern India, and once again trade resumed with Babylon and others in the near east. As the sacrifices became more complex, the priestly class used them to enhance their role in the society. Many considered this musical portion the most important of the Vedas.

Yajur Veda

Though also following many of the hymns of the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda deviates more from the original text in its collection of the ritual formulas for the priests to use in the sacrifices, which is what yaja means. It explains how to construct the altars for new and full-moon sacrifices and other ceremonies. The Yajur Veda has two collections or samhitas called White and Black, the latter being more obscure in its meanings.

By this time (10th century BC and after) the Aryan conquest has proceeded from the northwest and Punjab to cover northern India, especially the Ganges valley. The caste system was in place, and as the warriors settled down to ruling over an agricultural society, the role of the priests and their ceremonies gained influence and justified the Aryan ways to the native workers, who labored for the farmers, merchants, craftsmen, who in turn were governed by their kings and priests. Land and wealth were accumulated in the hands of a few ruling families, and with food scarce the indigenous people were enslaved or had to sell their labor cheap to the ruling classes.

By instituting more elaborate sacrifices for their wealthy patrons, the priests could grow both in numbers and wealth as well. The famous horse sacrifice was not celebrated often but was used by a king to show his lordship over potential adversaries, who were invited to acknowledge this overlordship in the ritual. The parts of the horse symbolize different aspects of the universe so that tremendous power is invoked. The complicated and obscure rituals were presided over by the priests - the three symbols of the lotus leaf, the frog (for rain), and the golden man (for the sun) representing the Aryan dominance over the land and waters of India and the natural powers that sustain agriculture.

The soma sacrifice was the most important and could last up to twelve years. Since the soma plant was imported from distant mountains, it had to be purchased. A ritual drama re-enacted this business and aggressive Aryan history by showing the buyer snatching back the calf, which was paid for the soma plant, after the transaction occurs. The soma plant was then placed in a cart and welcomed as an honored guest and king at the sacrifice. Animals were slain and cut up in the rites before their meat was eaten. After various offerings and other ceremonies the soma juice is poured and toasted to different gods, and finally the text lists the sacrificial fees, usually goats, cows, gold, clothes, and food.

Coronation ceremonies supported the inauguration of kings. The priests tried to keep themselves above the warrior caste though by praising soma as king of the Brahmins. Waters were drawn from various rivers to sprinkle on the king and indicate the area of his kingdom, and he strode in each direction to signify his sovereignty. The king was anointed by the royal priest, giving some water to his son, the designated prince, and ritually enacting a raid against a kinsman's cattle, once again affirming their history of conquest. The booty was taken and divided into three parts for the priest, those who drank, and the original owner. A ritual dice game was played, which the king was allowed to win. The king then rode out in his chariot and was publicly worshiped as a divine ruler.

Agricultural rites were common and regular, and chariot races were no doubt popular at some of the festivals. The Purusha (person) sacrifice symbolized human sacrifice, which may refer back to the time when a hunting and pastoral people did not allow their enemies to live because of the shortage of food. However, in an agricultural society more labor was needed and could produce surplus food. The Purusha sacrifice recognized 184 professional crafts and guilds.

Finally the highest sacrifice was considered to be the Sarvamedha in which the sacrificer offered all of his possessions as the fee at the end of the ceremony. The last chapter of the Yajur Veda is actually the Isha Upanishad, expressing the mystical view that the supreme spirit pervades everything.

This society was highly patriarchal, and the status of women declined, especially as men often married non-Aryan women. Women did not attend public assemblies and could not inherit property on their own. Polyandry was discouraged, but polygamy, adultery, and prostitution were generally accepted except during certain rituals. A sacrificer was not allowed to seek a prostitute on the first day of the sacrificial fire, nor the wife of another on the second day, nor his own wife on the third day.

The priests placed themselves at the top of the caste system as they supervised a religion most of the people could not understand without them. After the Atharva Veda was accepted, each sacrifice required at least four priests, one on each side of the fire using the Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Vedas, plus their assistants. After the wars of conquest were completed and the warrior caste settled down to rule, the priests were needed to sustain social stability. Yet in these times the caste system was much more flexible, as it is indicated that one should not ask about the caste of a learned man. The Brahmins, as the priest caste was called, had three obligations or debts to pay back in life: they paid back the seers by studying the Vedas, the gods by offering sacrifices, and their fathers by raising a family.

Like their European ancestors, the Aryan warriors considered themselves above laboring for food and so organized society that food would be provided for them. One ethical duty later found in the epics was that of taking care of refugees, probably because as marauding raiders they had often been refugees themselves. The priests assured their livelihood by making sure that penance through religious ritual was a prime social value.

Atharva Veda

The latest and fourth Veda is in a different category. For a long time many referred to only three Vedas, by which complete ceremonies could be conducted with the Rig hotr reciting, the Sama udgatri singing, and the Yajur adhvaryu performing the ritual. Even later the Atharvan Brahmin's part was often performed unaccompanied by the other three priests. Also much of it draws from the customs and beliefs of pre-Aryan or pre-Vedic India. The Atharva Veda is much longer than the Sama and Yajur and only about a sixth of it is from the Rig Veda.

The Atharva Veda is primarily magical spells and incantations. The line between prayer and magic and between white and black magic is usually drawn by ethical considerations. The bheshajani are for healing and cures using herbs to treat fever, leprosy, jaundice, dropsy, and other diseases. The Aryans looked down on doctors and medicine, probably because the natives were more skilled in these than they. Other more positive spells were for successful childbirth, romance, fecundity, virility, etc.

The negative or bewitching spells were called abhichara and attempted to cause diseases or harm to enemies; often they were aimed at serpents and demons. The sorcery is ascribed to one of the authors, Angiras, whose name is related to Agni (Latin ignis), the divine messenger and possibly a distant cognate of the Greek word for messenger, angel. Another author, Atharvan, derives from the old Iranian root, atar, meaning fire. The third author, Bhrigu, was the name of a tribe which opposed Sudas in the battle of ten kings in the Rig Veda, and his name has also been related to a Greek word for fire. The fourth author is Brahmin, the name which was given to the Atharvan priest, which eventually became so sacred that it was used as a name not only for the priestly caste but even for God the Creator.

In addition to physicians the Vedic Aryans also held in contempt Atharvan astrologers as well as magic, but from this came not only astrology but also the beginning of Ayurvedic medicine. Like most ancient peoples, they also believed that the main cause of disease was evil spirits, possession, or what we would call psychological factors. The magical elements, particularly the abhicara, and the subjects of healing, herbs, and cooking, which were mostly in the woman's domain, made the Atharva Veda obnoxious to many Vedic priests. However, these rituals were very popular, and the Brahmin priest's share of the fees soon became equal to the other three priests' combined. Eventually this shamanic tradition had to be incorporated into the Vedic religion, especially later when it faced the new challenges of Jainism and Buddhism.

The Brahmin caste became even stronger, and their wealth can be seen by the belief that the cow by right belonged exclusively to them. Taxes were collected probably by the warrior Kshatriya caste from the Vaisya artisans, farmers, and merchants. The Sudra workers were too poor to be taxed, and the Brahmins were exempt. One verse (Atharva Veda 3:29:3) describes heaven as "where a tax is not paid by a weak man for a stronger."

Marriage ceremonies are included. Here is a brief example:

I am he; you are she.
I am song; you are verse.
I am heaven; you are earth.
Let us two dwell together here;
let us generate children.8

According to the Atharva Veda (5:17:8-9), a Brahmin could take a wife from the husband of any other caste simply by seizing her hand. Book 18 contains only funeral verses. There are coronation rites for kings, though the prayer is that the people will choose the king, usually already selected by heredity or the council. Philosophy and abstraction are creeping in, as there are two hymns to the deity of time, and kama (love, desire, pleasure) is praised as "the first seed of the mind" that generated heaven. (Atharva Veda 19:52)

Let us conclude this section on the Atharva Veda with some selections from its beautiful hymn to the Earth as a sample of the more positive expression of the Vedas:

High Truth, unyielding Order, Consecration,
Ardor and Prayer and Holy Ritual
uphold the Earth, may she, the ruling Mistress
of what has been and what will come to be,
for us spread wide a limitless domain.

Untrammeled in the midst of men, the Earth,
adorned with heights and gentle slopes and plains,
bears plants and herbs of various healing powers.
May she spread wide for us, afford us joy!

On whom are ocean, river, and all waters,
on whom have sprung up food and plowman's crops,
on whom moves all that breathes and stirs abroad -
Earth, may she grant to us the long first draught!

To Earth belong the four directions of space.
On her grows food; on her the plowman toils.
She carries likewise all that breathes and stirs.
Earth, may she grant us cattle and food in plenty!

On whom the men of olden days roamed far,
on whom the conquering Gods smote the demons,
the home of cattle, horses, and of birds,
may Earth vouchsafe to us good fortune and glory!

Bearer of all things, hoard of treasures rare,
sustaining mother, Earth the golden-breasted
who bears the Sacred Universal Fire,
whose spouse is Indra - may she grant us wealth!

Limitless Earth, whom the Gods, never sleeping,
protect forever with unflagging care,
may she exude for us the well-loved honey,
shed upon us her splendor copiously!

Earth, who of yore was Water in the oceans,
discerned by the Sages' secret powers,
whose immortal heart, enwrapped in Truth,
abides aloft in the highest firmament,
may she procure for us splendor and power,
according to her highest royal state!

On whom the flowing Waters, ever the same,
course without cease or failure night and day,
may she yield milk, this Earth of many streams,
and shed on us her splendor copiously!

May Earth, whose measurements the Asvins marked,
over whose breadth the foot of Vishnu strode,
whom Indra, Lord of power, freed from foes,
stream milk for me, as a mother for her son!

Your hills, O Earth, your snow-clad mountain peaks,
your forests, may they show us kindliness!
Brown, black, red, multifarious in hue
and solid is this vast Earth, guarded by Indra.
Invincible, unconquered, and unharmed,
I have on her established my abode.

Impart to us those vitalizing forces
that come, O Earth, from deep within your body,
your central point, your navel, purify us wholly.
The Earth is mother; I am son of Earth.
The Rain-giver is my father; may he shower on us blessings!

The Earth on which they circumscribe the altar,
on which a band of workmen prepare the oblation,
on which the tall bright sacrificial posts
are fixed before the start of the oblation -
may Earth, herself increasing, grant us increase!

That man, O Earth, who wills us harm, who fights us,
who by his thoughts or deadly arms opposes,
deliver him to us, forestalling action.

All creatures, born from you, move round upon you.
You carry all that has two legs, three, or four.
To you, O Earth, belong the five human races,
those mortals upon whom the rising sun
sheds the immortal splendor of his rays.

May the creatures of earth, united together,
let flow for me the honey of speech!
Grant to me this boon, O Earth.

Mother of plants and begetter of all things,
firm far-flung Earth, sustained by Heavenly Law,
kindly and pleasant is she. May we ever
dwell on her bosom, passing to and fro!...

Do not thrust us aside from in front or behind,
from above or below! Be gracious, O Earth.
Let us not encounter robbers on our path.
Restrain the deadly weapons!

As wide a vista of you as my eye
may scan, O Earth, with the kindly help of Sun,
so widely may my sight be never dimmed
in all the long parade of years to come!

Whether, when I repose on you, O Earth,
I turn upon my Right side or my left,
or whether, extended flat upon my back,
I meet your pressure from head to foot,
be gentle, Earth! You are the couch of all!

Whatever I dig up of you, O Earth,
may you of that have quick replenishment!
O purifying One, may my thrust never
reach Right into your vital points, your heart!

Your circling seasons, nights succeeding days,
your summer, O Earth, your splashing rains, your autumn,
your winter and frosty season yielding to spring---
may each and all produce for us their milk!...

From your numberless tracks by which mankind may travel,
your roads on which move both chariots and wagons
your paths which are used by the good and the bad,
may we choose a way free from foes and robbers!
May you grant us the blessing of all that is wholesome!

She carries in her lap the foolish and also the wise.
She bears the death of the wicked as well as the good.
She lives in friendly collaboration with the boar,
offering herself as sanctuary to the wild pig....

Peaceful and fragrant, gracious to the touch,
may Earth, swollen with milk, her breasts overflowing,
grant me her blessing together with her milk!

The Maker of the world sought her with oblations
when she was shrouded in the depth of the ocean.
A vessel of gladness, long cherished in secret,
the earth was revealed to mankind for their joy.

Primeval Mother, disperser of men,
you, far-flung Earth, fulfill all our desires.
Whatever you lack, may the Lord of creatures,
the First-born of Right, supply to you fully!

May your dwellings, O Earth, free from sickness and wasting,
flourish for us! Through a long life, watchful,
may we always offer to you our tribute!

O Earth, O Mother, dispose my lot
in gracious fashion that I be at ease.
In harmony with all the powers of Heaven
set me, O Poet, in grace and good fortune!9


Between about 900 and 700 BC the Brahmanas were written in prose as sacerdotal commentaries on the four Vedas to guide the practices of the sacrifices and give explanations often mythical and fanciful for these customs. However, their limited focus of justifying the priestly actions in the sacrifices restricted the themes of these first attempts at imaginative literature. Nevertheless they do give us information about the social customs of this period and serve as a transition from the Vedas to the Aranyakas and the mystical Upanishads.

The caste system based on color (varna) was now established, though not as rigidly as it became later. The essential difference was between the light-skinned Aryans, who made up the top three castes of the priestly Brahmins, warrior Kshatriyas, and artisan Vaishyas, and the dark-skinned Dasas, who were the servant Sudras. Sudras, like women, could not own property, and only rarely did they rise above service positions. The Vaishyas were the basis of the economic system of trade, crafts, and farming. The Vaishyas were considered inferior by the Brahmins and Kshatriyas, and a female was generally not allowed to marry below her caste, though it was common for a male to do so. Even a Brahmin's daughter was not supposed to marry a Kshatriya.

The rivalry for prestige and power was between the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas or rajanyas. Brahmins often held debates on Brahman and other religious issues. Janaka, a rajanya gained knowledge and defeated some Brahmins in discussion. So some Brahmins suggested a symposium on Brahman to prove who was superior, but since Brahmins were expected to be superior on these issues, Yajnavalkya prudently replied, "We are Brahmins; he is a rajanya. If we win, whom shall we say that we have defeated? But if he defeats us, they will say a rajanya has defeated Brahmins; so let us not convene this symposium."10

Kings were consecrated by Vedic rites and ruled with the help of the assembly (sabha) that met in a hall to administer justice; women were excluded. Ordeals were used, such as making a suspected thief touch a hot ax to see if his hand burned, which might be the origin of the saying, "being caught red-handed." Politics and legislation took place in a larger council (samiti). Taxes were collected to support these institutions and the army.

Each village was administered by a Gramani, a Vaisya who functioned like a mayor with civil rather than military authority. The Gramani and the royal charioteer (Suta) were considered the kingmakers. This latter privileged position was not merely the driver of the king but also his chief advisor and perhaps storyteller as well. The royal priest or Purohito was also supposed to advise the king in peace and protect him in war. The season of dew after the monsoons ended was considered the time for "sacking cities," as ambitious kings came into conflict with each other in wars.

In addition to the discussions of sacerdotal matters, the Brahmanas do contain some stories meant to explain or rationalize their religious practices. Some of these are quite imaginative, though the usual pattern is for the hero to discover a rite to perform or a chant to intone which miraculously solves whatever problem is pressing to give a happy ending.

Wendy O'Flaherty has translated some stories from the Jaiminiya Brahmana, illustrating how they dealt with the fears of death, God, the father, wives, and demonic women; many of these stories are sexually explicit, indicating that these people were not afraid of discussing their sexuality. However, since the usual way of handling these fears was to use a sacrificial ritual, the solutions probably had only limited social and psychological value.

The most famous of these stories, and the best in my opinion, is the tale of Bhrigu's journey in the other world. Bhrigu was the son of Varuna and devoted to learning, and he thought that he was better than the other Brahmins and even better than the gods and his own father. So Varuna decided to teach him something by stopping his life breaths, causing Bhrigu to enter the world beyond, where he saw someone cut another man to pieces and eat him, a second man eating another who was screaming, a third eating a man who was silently screaming, another world where two women were guarding a treasure, a fifth where a stream of blood was guarded by a naked black man with a club and a stream of butter provided all the desires of golden men in golden bowls, and a sixth world where flowed five rivers of blue and white lotuses and flowing honey with wonderful music, celestial nymphs dancing and singing, and a fragrant odor.

When Bhrigu returned, his father Varuna explained to him that the first man represented people who in ignorance destroy trees, which in turn eat them; the second are those who cook animals that cry out and in the other world are eaten by them in return; the third are those who ignorantly cook rice and barley, which scream silently and also eat them in return; the two women are Faith and non-Faith; the river of blood represents those who squeeze the blood out of a Brahmin, and the naked black man guarding is Anger; but the true sacrificers are the golden men, who get the river of butter and the paradise of the five rivers.

To me this myth is a clear warning against the harmful actions of deforestation and meat-eating, and even the eating of living vegetables is to be done in silent respect. It shows an intuitive understanding of the principle of karma or the consequences of action as well as the growing importance of the concept of faith in addition to the usual theme of the sacrifice.

The power of the word is increasing, as the sacrifices were glorified and given power even over the Vedic gods. Japa or the practice of chanting a mantram like Aum practiced ascetically with the sacrifices was believed to produce all one's desires. At the same time knowledge was beginning to be valued. In one exchange mind says that speech merely imitates it, but speech emphasizes the importance of expression and communication; however, Prajapati decides that mind is more important even than the word.

This new god, Prajapati, is said to have given birth to both the gods and the demons. The ethical principle of truth appears as the gods are described as being truthful and the demons as being false. However, realizing the ways of the world, many complain that the demons grew strong and rich, just as cattle like salty soil; but by performing the sacrifice the gods attained the whole truth and triumph, as, analogically I might add, people will eventually realize that cattle as well as salt ruins the land.

Prajapati not only was the first to sacrifice but was considered the sacrifice itself. He practiced tapas to create by the heat of his own effort, and this heat was also related to cosmic fire and light as well as the warmth of the body and breath. Another concept of energy associated with the breath was prana; it also was identified with goodness, as the texts imply that as the life force it cannot be impure or bad. Prajapati not only created but entered into things as form and name, giving them order. Eventually Prajapati would be replaced by Brahman, who was identified with truth and would become the Creator God in the trinity that would include Vishnu, a sun-god who becomes the Preserver, and Shiva, who is derived from the indigenous Rudra, the Destroyer. With all the mental activity going on analyzing the rites and their explanation, abstractions were increasing in the religion.

A judgment after death using a scale to weigh good against evil is described in the Satapatha Brahmana, an idea which may have been transported from Egypt by merchants. This text recommends that the one who knows this will balance one's deeds in this world so that in the next the good deeds will rise, not the evil ones. Belief in repeated lives through reincarnation is indicated in several passages in the Brahmanas. A beef-eater is punished by being born into a strange and sinful creature. As knowledge rivaled the value of ritual, this new problem of how to escape from an endless cycle of rebirth presented itself.


The larger body of Vedic literature is divided into two parts with the four Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Samhitas and their Brahmanas making up the Karmakanda on the work of the sacrifices and the Aranyakas and the Upanishads the section on knowledge called the Jnanakanda. The Aranyakas and the Upanishads were tacked on to the end of Brahmanas, and the only three Aranyakas extant share the names of the Brahmanas they followed and the Upanishads they preceded: Aitareya, Kausitaki, and the Taittiriya; the first two are associated with the Rig Veda, the last with the Yajur Veda.

The Aranyakas are called the forest texts, because ascetics retreated into the forest to study the spiritual doctrines with their students, leading to less emphasis on the sacrificial rites that were still performed in the towns. They were transitional between the Brahmanas and the Upanishads in that they still discuss rites and have magical content, dull lists of formulas and some hymns from the Vedas as well as the early speculations and intellectual discussions that flowered in the Upanishads. The sages who took in students in their forest hermitages were not as wealthy as the Brahmins in the towns who served royalty and other wealthy patrons.

The Taittiriya Aranyaka tells how when the Vataramsa sages were first approached by other sages, they retreated; but when the sages came back with faith and tapas (ardor), they instructed them how to expiate the sin of abortion. Prayers were offered for pregnant women whether they were married or not, even if the father was unknown because of promiscuity. Yet the double standard against women for unchastity was in effect, unless a student seduced the teacher's wife. Truth was the highest value; through truth the right to heaven was retained. Debtors were in fear of punishment in hell, probably because the social punishments in this world were severe---torture and perhaps even death.

The emphasis now was on knowledge, even on wisdom, as they prayed for intelligence. The concept of prana as the life energy of the breath is exalted as that which establishes the entire soul. Prana is found in trees, animals, and people in ascending order. Human immortality is identified with the soul (atman), not the body. Hell is still feared, but by practicing austerity (tapas) to gain knowledge individuals hope to be born into a better world after death or be liberated from rebirth. Non-attachment (vairagya) also purifies the body and overcomes death.

The essence of the Vedic person was considered Brahman, and the knower or inner person was known as the soul (atman). The guardians of the spiritual treasures of the community were called Brahmavadins (those who discuss Brahman). A son approached his father and asked what was supreme. The father replied, "Truth, tapas, self-control, charity, dharma (duty), and progeny."11

Early Upanishads

The term Upanishad means literally "those who sit near" and implies listening closely to the secret doctrines of a spiritual teacher. Although there are over two hundred Upanishads, only fifteen are mentioned by the philosophic commentator Shankara (788-820 CE). These fifteen and the Maitri are considered Vedic and the principal Upanishads; the rest were written later and are related to the Puranic worship of Shiva, Shakti, and Vishnu. The oldest and longest of the Upanishads are the Brihad-Aranyaka and the Chandogya from about the seventh century BC.

The Brihad-Aranyaka has three Aranyaka chapters followed by six Upanishad chapters. The first chapter of the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad describes the world as represented by the horse-sacrifice. The primordial battle between the gods and the devils accounts for the evil found in the senses, mind, and speech, but by striking off the evil the divinities were carried beyond death. The priest chants for profound aspiration, one of the most famous verses from the Upanishads:

From the unreal lead me to the real!
From darkness lead me to light!
From death lead me to immortality!12

The primary message of the Upanishads is that this can be done by meditating with the awareness that one's soul (atman) is one with all things. Thus whoever knows that one is Brahman (God) becomes this all; even the gods cannot prevent this, since that one becomes their soul (atman). Therefore whoever worships another divinity, thinking it is other than oneself, does not know.

Out of God (Brahman) came the Brahmin caste of priests and teachers and the Kshatriyas to rule, development through the Vaishyas and the Sudras. However, a principle was created as justice (dharma), than which nothing is higher, so that a weak person may control one stronger, as if by a king. They say that those who speak the truth speak justice and vice versa, because they are the same. By meditating on the soul (atman) alone, one does not perish and can create whatever one wants. Whatever suffering occurs remains with the creatures; only the good goes to the soul, because evil does not go to the gods.

The soul is identified with the real, the immortal, and the life-breath (prana), which is veiled by name and form (individuality). By restraining the senses and the mind, one may rest in the space within the heart and become a great Brahmin and like a king may move around within one's body as one pleases. The world of name and form is real, but the soul is the truth or reality of the real. Immortality cannot be obtained through wealth, and all persons and things in the world are dear not for love of them (husband, wife, sons, wealth, gods, etc.); but for the love of the soul, all these are dear. The soul is the overlord of all things, as the spokes of the wheel are held together by the hub.

The principle of action (karma) is explained as "one becomes good by good action, bad by bad action."13 How can one get beyond the duality of seeing, smelling, hearing, speaking to, thinking of, and understanding another? Can one see the seer, smell the smeller, hear the hearer, think the thinker, and understand the understander? It is the soul which is in all things; everything else is wretched. By passing beyond hunger and thirst, sorrow and delusion, old age and death, by overcoming desire for sons, wealth, and worlds, let a Brahmin become disgusted with learning and live as a child; disgusted with that, let one become an ascetic until one transcends both the non-ascetic and the ascetic states. Thus is indicated a spiritual path of learning and discipline that ultimately transcends even learning and discipline in the soul, the inner controller, the immortal, the one dwelling in the mind, whom the mind does not know, who controls the mind from within.

The one departing this world without knowing the imperishable is pitiable, but the one knowing it is a Brahmin. The following refrain is repeated often:

That soul is not this, not that.
It is incomprehensible, for it is not comprehended.
It is indestructible, for it is never destroyed.
It is unattached, for it does not attach itself.
It is unfettered; it does not suffer; it is not injured.14

The soul is considered intelligent, dear, true, endless, blissful, and stable. As a king prepares a chariot or ship when going on a journey, one should prepare one's soul with the mystic doctrines of the Upanishads. The knowledge that is the light in the heart enables one to transcend this world and death while appearing asleep. The evils that are obtained with a body at birth are left behind upon departing at death. One dreams by projecting from oneself, not by sensing actual objects. In sleep the immortal may leave one's nest and go wherever one pleases. In addition to being free from desire the ethical admonition of being without crookedness or sin is also indicated. At death the soul goes out first, then the life, and finally the breaths go out.

The soul is made of everything; as one acts, one becomes. The doer of good becomes good; the doer of evil becomes evil. As is one's desire, such is one's resolve; as is the resolve, such is the action, which one attains for oneself. When one's mind is attached, the inner self goes into the action. Obtaining the consequences of one's actions, whatever one does in this world comes again from the other world to this world of action (karma).

By releasing the desires in one's heart, one may be liberated in immortality, reaching Brahman (God). One is the creator of all, one with the world. Whoever knows this becomes immortal, but others go only to sorrow. The knowing is sought through the spiritual practices of repeating the Vedas, sacrifices, offerings, penance, and fasting. Eventually one sees everything, as the soul overcomes both the thoughts of having done wrong and having done right. The evil does not burn one; rather one burns the evil. In the soul's being the world-all is known. The student should practice self-restraint, giving, and compassion.

The Chandogya Upanishad belongs to the Sama Veda and is the last eight chapters of the ten-chapter Chandogya Brahmana. The first two chapters of the Brahmana discuss sacrifices and other forms of worship. As part of the Sama Veda, which is the chants, the Chandogya Upanishad emphasizes the importance of chanting the sacred Aum. The chanting of Aum is associated with the life breath (prana), which is so powerful that when the devils struck it, they fell to pieces.

The religious life recommended in the Chandogya Upanishad has three parts. The first is sacrifice, study of the Vedas, and giving alms; the second is austerity; and the third is studying the sacred knowledge while living in the house of a teacher. One liberal giver, who had many rest-houses built and provided with food, said, "Everywhere people will be eating of my food."15

The soul in the heart is identified with Brahman (God), and it is the same as the light which shines higher than in heaven. Knowing and reverencing the sacrificial fire is believed to repel evil-doing from oneself. To the one who knows the soul, evil action does not adhere, just as water does not adhere to the leaf of the lotus flower. To know the soul as divine is called the "Loveliness-uniter" because all lovely things come to such.

The doctrine of reincarnation is clearly implied in the Chandogya Upanishad as it declares that those whose conduct is pleasant here will enter a pleasant womb of a Brahmin, Kshatriya, or Vaisya; but those of stinking conduct will enter a stinking womb of a dog, swine, or outcast. Thus reincarnation is explained as an ethical consequence of one's actions (karma).

At death the voice goes into the mind, the mind into the breath, the breath into heat, and heat into the highest divinity, the finest essence of truth and soul. Speaking to Svetaketu, the teacher explains that a tree may be struck at the root, the middle, or the top, but it will continue to live if pervaded by the living soul. Yet if the life leaves one branch of it, it dries up; and if it leaves the whole of it, the whole dries up. Then the teacher explains how the soul is the essence of life and does not die, concluding with the repeated refrain that his student thus ought to identify with the soul.

Truly, indeed, when the living soul leaves it,
this body dies; the living soul does not die.
That which is the subtle essence
this whole world has for its soul.
That is reality (truth). That is the soul.
That you are, Svetaketu.16

Then the teacher placed salt in water and asked his student to taste different parts of the water. Just so is Being hidden in all of reality, but it is not always perceived. Just as the thief burns his hand on the hot ax when tested, the one who did not steal and is true does not burn his hand, so the whole world has that truth in its soul.

Speech is to be valued, because it makes known right and wrong, true and false, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. Mind is revered, because it enables one to do sacred works. Will is valued, because heaven and earth and all things were formed by being willed. Thought is important, because it is better not to be thoughtless. Meditation is revered, because one attains greatness by meditating. Understanding is valued, because by it we can understand everything. Strength maintains everything. Food, water, heat, and space each have their values. Finally also memory, hope, and life (prana) are to be revered.

Those, who take delight in the soul, have intercourse with it and find pleasure and bliss in it and freedom; but those, who do not, have perishable worlds and no freedom. The seer does not find death nor sickness nor any distress but sees the all and obtains the all entirely. The soul is free of evil, ageless, deathless, sorrowless, hungerless, and thirstless. For those, who go from here having found the soul here, there is freedom in all worlds. No evil can go into the Brahma-world.

The chaste life of the student of sacred knowledge is the essence of austerity, fasting, and the hermit life, for in that way one finds the reality of the soul. The soul must be searched out and understood. The Chandogya Upanishad concludes with the advice that one should learn the Veda from the family of a teacher while working for the teacher, then study in one's own home producing sons and pupils, concentrate one's senses upon the soul, be harmless toward all living things except in the sacrifices (The religion has not yet purified itself of animal sacrifices.), so that one may attain the Brahma-world and not return here again. The implication is that one may become free of the cycle of reincarnation.

The Taittiriya and Aitareya Upanishads were associated with Aranyakas of the same name. In the Taittiriya Upanishad once again Aum is emphasized, as is peace of soul. Prayers often end with Aum and the chanting of peace (shanti) three times. This may be preceded by the noble sentiment, "May we never hate."17 One teacher says truth is first, another austerity, and a third claims that study and teaching of the Veda is first, because it includes austerity and discipline.

The highest goal is to know Brahman, for that is truth, knowledge, infinite and found hidden in the heart of being and in the highest heaven, where one may abide with the eternal and intelligent Spirit (Brahman). Words turn away from it, and the mind is baffled by the delight of the eternal; the one who knows this shall not fear anything now or hereafter. Creation becomes a thing of bliss, for who could labor to draw in breath or have the strength to breathe it out if there were not this bliss in the heaven of one's heart?

The Aitareya Upanishad begins with the one Spirit creating the universe out of its being. As guardians for the worlds, Spirit made the Purusha (person). Out of the cosmic egg came speech, breath, eyes and sight, ears and hearing, skin, hair, and herbs; from the navel and outbreath came death, and from the organ of pleasure seed and waters were born.

In the concluding chapter of this short Upanishad the author asked who is this Spirit by whom one sees and hears and smells and speaks and knows? The answer is the following:

That which is heart, this mind---that is,
consciousness, perception, discernment, intelligence,
wisdom, insight, persistence, thought, thoughtfulness,
impulse, memory, conception, purpose, life, desire, will
are all names of intelligence.18

All things are guided by and based on this intelligence of Spirit (Brahman). Ascending from this world with the intelligent soul, one obtains all desires in the heavenly world, even immortality.

The Kaushitaki Upanishad begins by asking if there is an end to the cycle of reincarnation. The teacher answers that one is born again according to one's actions (karma). Ultimately the one who knows Spirit (Brahman) transcends even good and evil deeds and all pairs of opposites as a chariot-driver looks down upon two chariot wheels.

A ceremony is described whereby a dying father bequeaths all he has to his son. If he recovers, it is recommended that he live under the lordship of his son or wander as a religious mendicant. This practice of spiritual seeking as a beggar became one of the distinctive characteristics of Indian culture.

A story is told of Pratardana, who by fighting and virility arrives at the beloved home of Indra, who grants him a gift. Pratardana asks Indra to choose for him what would be most beneficial to humanity, but Indra replies that a superior does not choose for an inferior. Pratardana responds that then it is not a gift. After bragging of many violent deeds and saying that anyone who understands him is not injured even after committing the worst crimes such as murdering a parent, Indra identifies himself with the breathing spirit (prana) of the intelligent soul (prajnatman). This breathing spirit is the essence of life and thus immortal. It is by intelligence (prajna) that one is able to master all of the senses and faculties of the soul. All these faculties are fixed in the intelligence, which is fixed in the breathing spirit, which is in truth the blissful, ageless, immortal soul.

One does not become greater by good action nor less by bad action. One's own self (atman) causes one to lead up from these worlds by good action or is led downward by bad action. The soul itself (atman) is the world-protector and the sovereign of the world. Thus ultimately the soul is responsible for everything it experiences.

It is mentioned in the Kaushitaki Upanishad that it is contrary to nature for a Kshatriya to receive a Brahmin as a student. However, the Upanishads represent a time when the Kshatriya caste began to compete with Brahmins in spiritual endeavors. Though the Brahmins had control of the formal religion in the villages where the Kshatriyas controlled the government, by tutoring their sons and others in the forest the Kshatriyas developed a less ritualistic and traditional spirituality that is recorded in the mystical Upanishads.

Kena, Katha, Isha, and Mundaka

The Kena Upanishad consists of an older prose section and some more recent verse with which it begins. The word Kena means "by whom" and is the first word in a series of questions asking by whom is the mind projected, by whom does breathing go forth, by whom is speech impelled? What god is behind the eye and ear? The answer to these questions points to a mystical self that is beyond the mind and senses but is that God by which the mind and senses operate.

Those, who think they know it well, know it only slightly. What relates to oneself and the gods needs to be investigated. Beyond thought it is not known by those who think they know it. Beyond understanding it is not known by those who think they understand it, but by those who realize they do not understand it. It is correctly known by an awakening, for the one who knows it finds immortality. It can only be known by the soul. If one does not know it, it is a great loss. The wise see it in all beings and upon leaving this world become immortal.

In the prose section this mystical Spirit (Brahman) is shown to transcend the Vedic gods of fire (Agni), wind (Vayu), and even powerful Indra, who being above the other gods at least came nearest to it, realizing that it was Brahman. In summary the Kena Upanishad concludes that austerity, restraint, and work are the foundation of the mystical doctrine; the Vedas are its limbs, and truth is its home. The one who knows it strikes off evil and becomes established in the most excellent, infinite, heavenly world.

The Katha Upanishad utilizes an ancient story from the Rig Veda about a father who gives his son Nachiketas to death (Yama) but brings in some of the highest teachings of mystical spirituality, helping us to realize why the Upanishads are referred to as the "end of the Vedas" in the double sense of completing the Vedic scripture and in explaining the ultimate goals.

When Vajashrava was sacrificing all his possessions, faith entered into Nachiketas, his son, who asked his father three times to whom would he give him. Losing patience with these pestering questions, the father finally said, "I give you to Death (Yama)." Nachiketas knew that he was not the first to go to death, nor would he be the last, and like grain one is born again anyway.

When he arrived at the house of Death, Yama was not there and only returned after three days. Because Nachiketas had not received the traditional hospitality for three days, Yama granted him three gifts. His first request was that his father would greet him cheerfully when he returned. The second was that he be taught about the sacrificial fire. These were easily granted.

The third request of Nachiketas was that the mystery of what death is be explained to him, for even the gods have had doubts about this. Death tries to make him ask for something else, such as wealth or long life with many pleasures, but Nachiketas firmly insists on his original request, knowing that these other gifts will soon pass away.

So Death begins by explaining that the good is much better than the pleasant, which Nachiketas has just proved that he understands. He wisely wants knowledge not ignorance, and Death describes how those, who think themselves learned but who are ignorant, run around deluded and are like the blind leading the blind. Those, who think this world is the only one, continually come under the control of Death. Death explains that this knowledge cannot be known by reasoning or thought, but it must be declared by another. I interpret this to mean that it must be learned by direct experience or from one who has had the experience.

Death tells how the truth is hard to see, but one must enter into the hidden, secret place in the depth of the heart. By considering this as God, one through yoga (union) wisely leaves joy and sorrow behind. One must transcend what is right and not right, what has been done and will be done. The sacred word Aum is declared to be the imperishable Spirit (Brahman). The wise realize that they are not born nor die but are unborn, constant, eternal, primeval; this is not slain when the body is slain.

Smaller than the small, greater than the great, the soul is in the heart of every creature here. The one who is not impulsive sees it and is free of sorrow. Through the grace of the creator one sees the greatness of the soul. While sitting one may travel far; while lying down one may go everywhere. Who else but oneself can know the god of joy and sorrow, who is bodiless among bodies and stable among the unstable?

This soul is not obtained by instruction nor by intellect nor by much learning, but is obtained by the one chosen by this; to such the soul reveals itself. However, it is not revealed to those who have not ceased from bad conduct nor to those who are not peaceful. Those, who drink of justice, enter the secret place in the highest heaven. Thus correct ethics is a requirement, and one must also become peaceful.

Psychology is explained in the Katha Upanishad by using the analogy of a chariot. The soul is the lord of the chariot, which is the body. The intuition (buddhi) is the chariot-driver, the mind the reins, the senses the horses, and the objects of the senses the paths. Those, who do not understand and whose minds are undisciplined with senses out of control, are like the wild horses of a chariot that never reaches its goals; these go on to reincarnate. The wise reach their goal with Vishnu and are not born again. The hierarchy, starting from the bottom, consists of the objects of sense, the senses, the mind, the intuition, the soul, the unmanifest, and the person (Purusha).

Though hidden, the soul may be seen by subtle seers with superior intellect. The intelligent restrain speech with the mind, the mind with the knowing soul, the knowing soul with the intuitive soul, and the intuitive soul with the peaceful soul. Yet the spiritual path is as difficult as crossing on the sharpened edge of a razor. By discerning what has no sound nor touch nor form nor decay nor taste nor beginning nor end, one is liberated from the mouth of death.

A wise person, seeking immortality, looked within and saw the soul. The childish go after outward pleasures and walk into the net of widespread death. The wise do not seek stability among the unstable things here. Knowing the experiencer, the living soul is the lord of what has been and what will be. This is the ancient one born from discipline standing in the secret place. This is the truth that all things are one, but those, who see a difference here, go from death to death like water runs to waste among the hills. The soul goes into embodiment according to its actions and according to its knowledge.

The inner soul is in all things yet outside also; it is the one controller which when perceived gives eternal happiness and peace. Its light is greater than the sun, moon, stars, lightning, and fire which do not shine in the world illuminated by this presence. The metaphor of an upside down tree is used to show that heaven is the true root of all life.

The senses may be controlled by the mind, and the mind by the greater self. Through yoga the senses are held back so that one becomes undistracted even by the stirring of the intuition. Thus is found the origin and the end. When all the desires of the heart are cut like knots, then a mortal becomes immortal. There is a channel from the heart to the crown of the head by which one goes up into immortality, but the other channels go in various directions. One should draw out from one's body the inner soul, like an arrow from a reed, to know the pure, the immortal. The Katha Upanishad concludes that with this knowledge learned from Death with the entire rule of yoga, Nachiketas attained Brahman and became free from passion and death, and so may any other who knows this concerning the soul.

Greatly respected, the short Isha Upanishad is often put at the beginning of the Upanishads. Isha means "Lord" and marks the trend toward monotheism in the Upanishads. The Lord encloses all that moves in the world. The author recommends that enjoyment be found by renouncing the world and not coveting the possessions of others. The One pervades and transcends everything in the world.

Whoever sees all beings in the soul
and the soul in all beings
does not shrink away from this.
In whom all beings have become one with the knowing soul
what delusion or sorrow is there for the one who sees unity?
It is radiant, incorporeal, invulnerable,
without tendons, pure, untouched by evil.
Wise, intelligent, encompassing, self-existent,
it organizes objects throughout eternity.19

The One transcends ignorance and knowledge, non-becoming and becoming. Those, who know these pairs of opposites, pass over death and win immortality. The Isha Upanishad concludes with a prayer to the sun and to Agni.

The Mundaka Upanishad declares Brahman the first of the gods, the creator of all and the protector of the world. Connected to the Atharva Veda the Mundaka Upanishad has Brahman teaching his eldest son Atharvan. Yet the lower knowledge of the four Vedas and the six Vedangas (phonetics, ritual, grammar, definition, metrics, and astrology) is differentiated from the higher knowledge of the imperishable source of all things. The ceremonial sacrifices are to be observed; but they are now considered "unsafe boats," and fools, who approve them as better, go again to old age and death.

Like the Katha, the Mundaka Upanishad warns against the ignorance of thinking oneself learned and going around deluded like the blind leading the blind. Those, who work (karma) without understanding because of attachment, when their rewards are exhausted, sink down wretched. "Thinking sacrifices and works of merit are most important, the deluded know nothing better."20 After enjoying the results of their good works, they enter this world again or even a lower one. The Mundaka Upanishad recommends a more mystical path:

Those who practice discipline and faith in the forest,
the peaceful knowers who live on charity,
depart without attachment through the door of the sun,
to where lives the immortal Spirit, the imperishable soul.
Having tested the worlds won by works,
let the seeker of God arrive at detachment.
What is not made is not attained by what is done.21

To gain this knowledge the seeker is to go with fuel in hand to a teacher who is learned in the scriptures and established in God. Approaching properly, calming the mind and attaining peace, the knowledge of God may be taught in the truth of reality by which one knows the imperishable Spirit.

The formless that is higher than the imperishable and is the source and goal of all beings may be found in the secret of the heart. The reality of immortal life may be known by using the weapons of the Upanishads as a bow, placing an arrow on it sharpened by meditation, stretching it with thought directed to that, and knowing the imperishable as the target. Aum is the bow; the soul is the arrow; and God is the target. Thus meditating on the soul and finding peace in the heart, the wise perceive the light of blissful immortality. The knot of the heart is loosened, all doubts vanish, and one's works (karma) cease when it is seen. Radiant is the light of lights that illuminates the whole world. God truly is this immortal, in front, behind, to the right and left, below and above; God is all this great universe.

By seeing the brilliant creator, the God-source, being a knower, the seer shakes off good and evil, reaching the supreme identity of life that shines in all beings. Enjoying the soul, doing holy works, such is the best knower of God. The soul can be attained by truth, discipline, correct knowledge, and by studying God. Truth conquers and opens the path to the gods by which sages, whose desires are satisfied, ascend to the supreme home. Vast, divine, subtler than the subtle, it shines out far and close by, resting in the secret place seen by those with vision. It is not grasped by sight nor speech nor angels nor austerity nor work but by the grace of wisdom and the mental purity of meditation which sees the indivisible.

Whatever world a person of pure heart holds clearly in mind is obtained. Yet whoever entertains desires, dwelling on them, is born here and there on account of those desires; but for the one whose desire is satisfied, whose soul is perfected, all desires here on earth vanish away. This soul is not attained by instruction nor intellect nor much learning but by the one whom it chooses, who enters into the all itself. Ascetics with natures purified by renunciation enter the God-worlds and transcend death. As rivers flow into the ocean, the liberated knower reaches the divine Spirit. Whoever knows that supreme God becomes God.

Later Upanishads

These Upanishads are being discussed in this chapter in their estimated chronological order. The previous group is from about the sixth century BC, and thus some of them are probably contemporary with the life of the Buddha (563-483 BC). This next group is almost certainly after the time of the Buddha, but it is difficult to tell how old they are.

The Prashna Upanishad is also associated with the Atharva Veda and discusses six questions; Prashna means question. Six men approached the teacher Pippalada with sacrificial fuel in hands and questions in their minds. Pippalada agreed to answer their questions if they would live with him another year in austerity, chastity, and faith.

The first question is, "From where are all these creatures born?"22 The answer is that the Creator (Prajapati) wanted them, but two paths are indicated that lead to reincarnation and immortality. The second question is how many angels support and illumine a creature and which is supreme? The answer is space, air, fire, water, earth, speech, mind, sight, and hearing, but the life-breath (prana) is supreme. The third question seeks to know the relationship between this life-breath and the soul. The short answer is, "This life is born from the soul (atman)."23

The fourth question concerns sleep, waking, and dreams. During sleep the mind re-experiences what it has seen and heard, felt and thought and known. When one is overcome by light, the god dreams no longer; then all the elements return to the soul in happiness. The fifth question asks about the result of meditating on the word Aum. When someone meditates on all three letters, then the supreme may be attained. The sixth question asks about the Spirit with sixteen parts. The sixteen parts of the Spirit are life, faith, space, air, light, water, earth, senses, mind, food, virility, discipline, affirmations (mantra), action, world, and naming (individuality). All the parts are like spokes of a wheel, the hub of which is the Spirit.

In the Shvetashvatara Upanishad monotheism takes the form of worshipping Rudra (Shiva). The later quality of this Upanishad is also indicated by its use of terms from the Samkhya school of philosophy. The person (Purusha) is distinguished from nature (Prakriti), which is conceived of as illusion (maya). The method of devotion (bhakti) is presented, and the refrain "By knowing God one is released from all fetters" is often repeated. Nevertheless the Upanishadic methods of discipline and meditation are recommended to realize the soul by controlling the mind and thoughts. Breathing techniques are also mentioned as is yoga. The qualities (gunas) that come with action (karma) and its consequences are to be transcended. Liberation is still found in the unity of God (Brahman) by discrimination (samkhya) and union (yoga). By the highest devotion (bhakti) for God and the spiritual teacher (guru) all this may be manifested to the great soul (mahatma).

The short Mandukya Upanishad is associated with the Atharva Veda and delineates four levels of consciousness: waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and a fourth mystical state of being one with the soul. These are associated with the three elements of the sacred chant Aum (a, u, and m) and the silence at its cessation. Thus this sacred chant may be used to experience the soul itself.

The thirteenth and last of what are considered the principal Upanishads is the Maitri Upanishad. It begins by recommending meditation upon the soul and life (prana). It tells of a king, Brihadratha, who established his son as king and, realizing that his body is not eternal, became detached from the world and went into the forest to practice austerity. After a thousand days Shakayanya, a knower of the soul, appeared to teach him. The king sought liberation from reincarnating existence. The teacher assures him that he will become a knower of the soul. The serene one, who rising up out of the body reaches the highest light in one's own form, is the soul, immortal and fearless.

The body is like a cart without intelligence, but it is driven by a supersensuous, intelligent being, who is pure, clean, void, tranquil, breathless, selfless, endless, undecaying, steadfast, eternal, unborn, and independent. The reins are the five organs of perception; the steeds are the organs of action; and the charioteer is the mind. The soul is unmanifest, subtle, imperceptible, incomprehensible, selfless, pure, steadfast, stainless, unagitated, desireless, fixed like a spectator, and self-abiding.

How then does the soul, overcome by the bright and dark fruits of action (karma), enter good or evil wombs? The elemental self is overcome by these actions and pairs of opposites, the qualities (gunas) of nature (prakriti) and does not see the blessed one, who causes action standing within oneself. Bewildered, full of desire, distracted, this self-conceit binds oneself by thinking "This is I," and "That is mine." So as a bird is caught in a snare, it enters into a good or evil womb.

Yet the cause of these actions is the inner person. The elemental self is overcome by its attachment to qualities. The characteristics of the dark quality (tamas) are delusion, fear, despondency, sleepiness, weariness, neglect, old age, sorrow, hunger, thirst, wretchedness, anger, atheism, ignorance, jealousy, cruelty, stupidity, shamelessness, meanness, and rashness. The characteristics of the passionate quality (rajas) are desire, affection, emotion, coveting, malice, lust, hatred, secretiveness, envy, greed, fickleness, distraction, ambition, favoritism, pride, aversion, attachment, and gluttony.

How then may this elemental self on leaving this body come into complete union with the soul? Like the waves of great rivers or the ocean tide, it is hard to keep back the consequences of one's actions or the approach of death. Like the lame bound with the fetters made of the fruit of good and evil, like the prisoner lacking independence, like the dead beset by fear, the intoxicated by delusions, like one rushing around are those possessed by an evil spirit; like one bitten by a snake are those bitten by objects of sense; like the gross darkness of passion, the juggling of illusion, like a falsely apparent dream, like an actor in temporary dress or a painted scene falsely delighting the mind, all these attachments prevent the self from remembering the highest place.

The antidote is to study the Veda, to pursue one's duty in each stage of the religious life, and to practice the proper discipline, which results in the pure qualities (sattva) that lead to understanding and the soul. By knowledge, discipline, and meditation God is apprehended, and one attains undecaying and immeasurable happiness in complete union with the soul. The soul is identical with the various gods and powers.

Having bid peace to all creatures and gone to the forest,
then having put aside objects of sense,
from out of one's own body one should perceive this,
who has all forms, the golden one, all-knowing,
the final goal, the only light."24

The means of attaining the unity of the One is the sixfold yoga of breath control (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), attention (dhyana), concentration (dharana), contemplation (tarka), and meditation (samadhi).

When one sees the brilliant maker,
lord, person, the God-source,
then, being a knower, shaking off good and evil,
the sage makes everything one in the supreme imperishable.25

When the mind is suppressed, one sees the brilliant soul, which is more subtle than the subtle; having seen the soul oneself, one becomes selfless and is regarded as immeasurable, without origin - the mark of liberation (moksha). By serenity of thought one destroys good and evil action (karma). In selflessness one attains absolute unity.

The sound Aum may be used. Meditation is directed to the highest principle within and also outer objects, qualifying the unqualified understanding; but when the mind has been dissolved, there is the bliss witnessed by the soul that is the pure and immortal Spirit. But if one is borne along by the stream of the qualities, unsteady, wavering, bewildered, full of desire, and distracted one goes into self-conceit. Standing free from dependence, conception, and self-conceit is the mark of liberation.

The influence of Buddhism can be seen in the description of liberation from one's own thoughts. As fire destitute of fuel goes out, so thought losing activity becomes extinct in its source. What is one's thought, that one becomes; this is the eternal mystery. By the serenity of thought one destroys good and bad karma; focused on the soul, one enjoys eternal delight. The mind is the means of bondage and release. Though the sacrificial fire is still important, meditation has become the primary means of liberation.

The Mahanarayana Upanishad is a long hymn to various forms of God with prayers for everything from wealth to liberation. At one point the author identifies with the divine light:

I am that supreme light of Brahman
which shines as the inmost essence of all that exists.
In reality I am the same infinite Brahman
even when I am experiencing myself
as a finite self owing to ignorance.
Now by the onset of knowledge
I am really that Brahman which is my eternal nature.
Therefore I realize this identity
by making myself, the finite self,
an oblation into the fire
of the infinite Brahman which I am always.
May this oblation be well made.26

The Jabala Upanishad, which is quoted by Shankara, gives a description of the four stages of religious life for a pious Hindu. Yajnavalkya suggests that after completing the life of a student, a householder, and a forest dweller, let one renounce, though one may renounce while a student or householder if one has the spirit of renunciation. Suicide apparently was not forbidden, for to the one who is weary of the world but is not yet fit to become a recluse, Yajnavalkya recommends a hero's death (in battle), fasting to death, throwing oneself into water or fire, or taking a final journey (to exhaustion). The wandering ascetic though wearing an orange robe, with a shaven head, practicing non-possession, purity, nonviolence, and living on charity obtains the state of Brahman.

The Vajrasuchika Upanishad claims to blast ignorance and exalts those endowed with knowledge. It raises the question who is of the Brahmin class. Is it the individual soul, the body, based on birth, knowledge, work, or performing the rites? It is not the individual soul (jiva), because the same soul passes through many bodies. It is not the body, because all bodies are composed of the same elements even though Brahmins tend to be white, Kshatriyas red, Vaishyas tawny, and Sudras dark in complexion. It is not birth, because many sages are of diverse origin. It is not knowledge, because many Kshatriyas have attained wisdom and seen the highest reality. It is not work, because good men perform works based on their past karma. It is not performing the rites, because many Kshatriyas and others have given away gold as an act of religious duty.

The true Brahmin directly perceives the soul, which functions as the indwelling spirit of all beings, blissful, indivisible, immeasurable, realizable only through one's experience. Manifesting oneself directly through the fulfillment of nature becomes rid of the faults of desire, attachment, spite, greed, expectation, bewilderment, ostentation, and so on and is endowed with tranquillity. Only one possessed of these qualities is a Brahmin. This flexible viewpoint indicates that the caste system may not yet have been as rigid as it was later to become.

Although as the major teachings passed down orally from the century before the Buddha, the Upanishads don't tell us too much about the worldly society of India, they do express a widespread mysticism and spiritual life-style that was to prepare the way for the new religions of Jainism and Buddhism as well as the deepened spirituality and mystical philosophies of Hinduism. The values of the teachers and ascetics of this culture that has been likened to the New Thought movement of the recent New Age philosophy were spiritual and other worldly, but if they did not do much to improve the whole society, at least they did not do the harm of the conquering Aryans.

A personal educational system of spiritual tutoring for adults developed, and individuals were encouraged to improve themselves spiritually as they gave and received charity. (When renouncing they gave to charity; then they accepted charity for basic sustenance.) The rituals of animal sacrifices were de-emphasized, and knowledge became greatly valued, especially self-knowledge. The doctrine of reincarnation made the sacrifices for a better life now or in the future eventually give way to the higher spiritual goal of liberation from the entire cycle of rebirth. Thus austerity and meditation became the primary methods of spiritual realization.

Mahavira and Jainism


1. Rig Veda tr. Ralph T. H. Griffith, II:20:6-8.
2. Ibid. IV:17:10-11.
3. Ibid. VII:86:5-6.
4. Ibid. I:100:18.
5. Ibid. X:90:12.
6. Ibid. X:117:1-2.
7. Ibid. X:71:2.
8. Atharva Veda, W. D. Whitney, 14:2-71.
9. Atharva Veda 12:1:1-17, 32-36, 47-48, 59-63 tr. Raimundo Panikkar The Vedic Experience: Mantramanjari, p. 123-129.
10. Bhattacharji, Sukumari, Literature in the Vedic Age, Vol. 2, p. 109.
11. Taittiriya Aranyaka 10:63:1.
12. Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad tr. Robert E. Hume, 1:3:28.
13. Ibid. 3:2:13.
14. Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad tr. S. Radhakrishnan, 3:9:26.
15. Chandogya Upanishad tr. Robert E. Hume, 4:1:1.
16. Chandogya Upanishad tr. S. Radhakrishnan, 6:11:3.
17. Taittiriya Upanishad 2:1:1.
18. Aitareya Upanishad tr. S. Radhakrishnan, 3:1:2.
19. Isha Upanishad English version by Sanderson Beck 6-8.
20. Mundaka Upanishad English version by Sanderson Beck 1:2:10.
21. Ibid. 1:2:11-12.
22. Prashna Upanishad English version by Sanderson Beck 1:3.
23. Ibid. 3:3.
24. Maitri Upanishad tr. S. Radhakrishnan, 6:8.
25. Ibid. 6:18.
26. Mahanarayana Upanishad tr. Swami Vimalananda, 1:67.

Copyright © 1998-2004 by Sanderson Beck

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SOUTH ASIA 1800-1950

Vedas and Upanishads
Mahavira and Jainism
Buddha and Buddhism
Political and Social Ethics of India
Hindu Philosophy
Literature of Ancient India
India 30 BC to 1300
Delhi Sultans and Rajas 1300-1526
Mughal Empire 1526-1707
Marathas and the English Company 1707-1800
Southeast Asia to 1800
Pacific Islands to 1800
Summary and Evaluation


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