Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part XX

Scriptures and Texts - Part 'C' Upanishads

Continued from Part XIX

Following the Vedas, the Upanishads are the next sacred layer of the core texts that represent the central theme of the ancient philosophical, cultural and religious heritage and traditions of Hinduism in the Shruti category. They include the knowledge and discussion pertaining to the philosophical principles and concepts of Hinduism, including credo, doctrines and convictions on Brahman (God or ultimate reality), the Atman (true Self or soul), Karma, Moksha and a whole lot of subjects with Vedic doctrines including the Self-realization through yoga and meditation practices. In fact, Upanishad is a Sanskrit term with no exact corresponding English term which broadly implies to “sitting at the feet of” thereby giving a connotation of obtaining wisdom and guidance humbly from a Guru (teacher).

Perhaps the accurate count is not available but it is widely believed that more than two hundred Upanishads exist in Hinduism from the oral traditions passed down the ages. Out of these, some 108 are more authenticated and accepted as such, and ten out of them represent core philosophical teachings of the Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). These represent the embedded Upanishads of the four Vedas as follows: Aitareya (Reg Veda), Kena and Chandogya (Sama Veda), Katha, Isa, Brihadaranyaka, and Taittiriya (Yajur Veda), and Prasna, Mundaka and Mundukya (Atharva Veda). Three other Upanishads namely Shvetashvatara, Kaushitaki and Maitri with detailed commentaries by Adi Shankara are also considered important by the scholars and followers. A brief synopsis of ten principal Upanishads have been presented as follows.

Isa Upanishad

It is also known as Isha or Isavasya Upanishad which is one of the smallest texts comprising of just eighteen mantras embedded to Shukla Yajur Veda. Isa Upanishad is the only Upanishad that is attached to the Samhita - considered to be the most ancient layer of the Vedic scriptures known for their mantras and benedictions. All other Upanishads are attached to the later layers of Brahmanas and Aranyakas of the Vedic texts. Hence it is also called a Samhitopanishad. It has two recensions Kanva and Madhyandina and is listed as number 1 in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads.

It is one of the more popular Upanishads on which Adi Shankara and several other Indian Acharyas (scholars) have written commentaries and even the Dasopanishad verse begins with the Isavasya. The Upanishad got its name because of the beginning verse as “Isavasyam Idam Sarvam” - the initial words being “Isa” and “Avasyam”. Isa as well as all other principal Upanishads begin with a Shanti Path invoking the grace of the almighty God.

Isavasyam idam sarvam
yat kincha jagatyam jagat
tena tyaktena bhunrjitha
ma grdhah kasya svid dhanam.   - 
{Isa: Hymn 1}

(Everything animate or inanimate that is within the universe
is controlled and owned by the Lord. Hence one should take
only those things necessary for self, set aside as his quota;
and one must not accept other things, knowing well to whom they belong.)

In the above hymn, the Advaita Vedanta scholar Adi Shankara interpreted "the Lord" as the Atman (Soul or Self) while Madhvacharya of the Dvaita Vedanta philosophy interpreted the Lord as Vishnu, as a monotheistic God in a henotheistic sense. In Isa Upanishad, the hymns 2-6 address the empirical life of householder with action (Karma) and the spiritual life of renunciation with knowledge (Jnan). The hymn 7-11 glorify the pursuit of Vidya as the eternal truth (Real Knowledge) in contrast to Avidya (empirical truths) and in hymns 15 to 18, the importance of true Knowledge has been asserted.

Thus while touching various facets of life, the Upanishad essentially focuses on the paths of knowledge (Jnan) and action (Karma) as the former follows the Atman in its transcendent form and the latter in immanent form. To achieve self-realization through true wisdom, both knowledge and action are necessary. The Upanishad addresses the paradoxical nature of the Self. Essence of the Upanishad is that a wise man who can perceive all beings in own Self and own Self in all beings gets rid of sorrow fear and delusion and attains true wisdom. It also invokes prayer to Sun (the deity of light), Agni (deity of fire) as well as the Creator of universe to guide the Atman for pursuit of the proper knowledge and action.

Kena Upanishad

This is another small but important Upanishad embedded in the last section of the Talavakara Brahmanam of Sama Veda, also known as Kenopanishad, and is listed as number 2 in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads., . It has 4 chapters with a total 35 mantras, each chapter known as a Khanda, Kanda or Adhyaya. The first Khanda has eight verses; the second has five verses; the third has twelve paragraphs; and the fourth has nine of which last six constitute the epilogue. Thus it has an unusual mix of verses and prose text. The term Kena in Sanskrit literally means "by whom, who, or what cause!" The inquisitive first verse of the Kena Upanishad reads as under:

Keneshitam patati preshitam manah
Ken pranah pratahmah praiti yuktah
Keneshitam vachmimam vadanti
Chachhuh shrotam ka u devo yunakti.

{Kena: Verse 1}

(By whom willed and directed does the mind lights on its subjects?
By whom commanded does prana, the first, move?
By whose will do men speak this speech?
What Intelligence directs the eye and the ear?)

Kena Upanishad is significant for its discussion on Brahman without attributes and with attributes through illustration and narratives. It emphasizes that the efficient cause of all the gods, symbolically envisioned as the forces of nature, is Brahman. In essence, Brahman is that which cannot be perceived as empirical reality. It is that which "hears" the sound in ears, "sees" the view in eyes, "speaks" the words of speech, "smells" the aroma in breath, and "comprehends" the meaning in thought. The Atman-Brahman is in man, and not that what one worships outside.

Thus Kena Upanishad provides a foundational scripture to the Vedanta school of Hinduism, as it endeavours to explain Brahman, the real power behind the phenomenal universe and the actions of beings. It poses the questions about Atman and Brahman and explores the nature of the Absolute Reality (Nirguna Brahman); it discusses Ishvara-Parmesvara, ways to gradually acquire true knowledge (Jnan) that eventually shows the path of liberation. Interestingly, Kena Upanishad elaborates paradoxical nature of Brahman through the following quote, “It is not understood by those who say they understand It. It is understood by those who say they understand It not.”

Katha Upanishad

The Katha Upanishad is embedded in the Krishna Yajurveda and is also known as Kathopnishad or Ka?haka Upanishad listed as number 3 in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads. Katha in Sanskrit literally means a story or legend. It comprises of two chapters (Adhyayas), each with three sections (Vallis). In the first chapter, the first section contains 29 verses, the second 25 verses and the third 17 verses. The second chapter comprises of the fourth section with 15 verses, fifth too with15 verses and the last one has 17 verses. The Upanishad is a narration of the legendary tale of the little boy Nachiketa, Sage Vajasravasa’s son, who meets Yama (the deity of death), and the meeting turns out to be a metaphysical discussion about the nature of man, knowledge (Jnan), Atman (Soul) and Moksha (liberation).

The Katha Upanishad is a fairly large Upanishad and important ancient corpus of the Vedanta schools in shruti tradition. In the first chapter, it asserts the existence of Atman and underlines the virtue of seeking Self-knowledge of the highest bliss. The teachings of Katha Upanishad have been variously interpreted in the Advaita and Dvaita sub-schools of Vedanta. It teaches that Atman-knowledge, or Self-realization, is not attained through instruction, arguments or reasoning from scriptures; instead it comes through meditation and introspection. It is attained by only those who live ethically and are composed, tranquil and internally peaceful. The Katha Upanishad asserts that one who does not use his powers of reasoning, his life drifts to chaos and confusion of the samsara. In the second chapter, the virtue of the inner knowledge is glorified which is that of unity, eternal calmness and spiritual Oneness. On the contrary, the external knowledge only culminates in plurality, perishable "running around" and sensory objects. It also talks about the Karma and Reincarnation theory stating that those who know (acquire Jnan) are liberated but those who (Atman) do not know, return to the world of creation again.

According to some scholars, the Katha Upanishad is probably the most philosophical of all the Upanishads. They ascribe this to the famous dialogue between Nachiketa and Yama. Sage Vajasravasa, Nachiketa's father, in a fit of rage, commits his son to Yama as sacrifice and sends him to Yama's abode. As Yama was away, Nachiketa waits for him three days without food or water. On return and being apologetic for the inconvenience faced by Nachiketa, Yama offers him three boons. While two boons namely return of Nachiketa to his father and the meaning of the sacrificial fire were readily granted, Yama himself found it difficult to explain the meaning of death as the third boon. Nachiketa persisted with seeking the answer declining alternate offer of the worldly possessions and this followed the lengthy philosophical discourse on the death and immortality inter alia including the concept of the soul using the body as chariot, sorrow of samsara, Karma, Reincarnation and liberation.

Prasna Upanishad

The Prasna Upanishad is embedded inside Atharva Veda, also known as Prashna Upanishad or Prasnopanishad, and is listed as number 4 in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads of Hinduism. Prasna in Sanskrit literally means question and the Upanishad contains six Prasnas (questions), with each representing a chapter with discussions of answer ending with the phrase, prasnaprativakanam (i.e. thus ends the answer to the question) with a total of sixty-seven verses.

The opening verses of Prasna Upanishad explain how Vedic pupils arrive in a school seeking knowledge about Brahman. They request sage Pippalada to explain this knowledge who refuses to straightway answer; instead, he insists them to live with him ethically for some time before he answers their queries.

Tan ha sa rishiruvach bhuyah
Ev tapsa brahmacharyen shraddhya samvatsaram samvatsyath
yathakamam prasnan prichchhat
yadi vigyasyamah sarvam ha vo vachhyam eti.

{Prasna: Verse 1.2}

(To them then the Rishi said:
Dwell with me a year, with Tapas, with Brahmacharya, with Shraddha (faith);
Then ask what questions you will, if we know, we will tell you all.)

The three ethical virtues stressed in the above verse are Tapas (austerity), Brahmacharya (chastity or self-discipline) and Shraddha (faith in an entity or institution). The first question related to - how did the life begin? The answer of sage was that Prajapati did Tapas and created two principles viz. Riya (matter, feminine) and Prana (spirit, masculine), contemplating they together would couple to produce creatures in many ways. The second question was – what is a living being? The answer glorified Prana (breath, spirit) is the most essential and powerful element without which nothing could survive. The third and fourth questions were - what is the nature of man, and how is it so? What establishes man? The fifth and sixth questions were - what is meditation, and why meditate? What is immortal in man?

Thus there are 6 chapters in all with 67 mantras in this Upanishad to explore these questions and each chapter is a dialogue of sage Pippalada with one of the six disciples. In each chapter, Pippalada is answering question(s) raised by the pupils, hence the Upanishad got the name Prasna Upanishad. The first three questions of the Upanishad focused on cause and effect of the transient, empirical, manifested world; the fourth to sixth questions focused on the nature of the independent and unchanging soul. According to some scholars, first three questions are metaphysical without any well-defined philosophical answers which represent more of embellished mythology and symbolism. The fourth question (section) of the Upanishad contains substantial philosophy while the last two discuss the concept of Om (Aum) and Moksha.

Mundaka Upanishad

The Mundaka Upanishad, also known as Mundakopanishad, is embedded inside Atharva Veda and among the ten principal Upanishads, it is listed at 5th position in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads. Compiled in a poetic style, it has total 64 verses in the mantra form mostly used for learning and meditation on the spiritual plateau and knowledge. Mundaka in Sanskrit literally means ‘head’, which symbolizes importance of any body, treaty or organization. The Upanishad has been given this name because of its eminence and excellence in imparting knowledge among the primary Upanishads.

The Mundaka comprises of three Mundakams (i.e. parts) with each further sub-divided in two khandas (sections). The section 1 contains 9 verses structured in metered poetic form; section 2 comprises of 13 verses; section 3 has 10 verses; section 4 includes 11 verses; section 5 consists of 10 verses; and the final section 6 with 11 verses. The Upanishad has been found with multiple manuscripts with minor variations. The Mundaka Upanishad begins with declaring Brahma as the first among the gods as the creator of the universe and the knowledge of Brahman as the foundational requirement of all knowledge.

The first Mundakam explains the virtue of knowledge under high and low categories asserting that the all carnal and mundane things such as oblations and pious gifts are superfluous which neither lead to ultimate bliss in the current life nor the next one; instead, it is the knowledge (Jnan) that liberates a being. In the second Mundakam, the nature of Brahman, the Self (soul), the relation between the empirical world and Brahman as also the path to know Him is explained. The third Mundakam further expands the concepts put forth in the second Mundakam establishing that the knowledge of Brahman leads to adequacy, freedom, fearlessness, liberation and ultimate bliss.

This Upanishad appears to recognize the superiority of knowledge over the traditional ancient tradition of sacrifice and actions. By distinguishing between the higher and lower knowledge as knowing Brahman and empirical world, respectively, it stresses on renouncing mundane worldly belongings to achieve highest knowledge or truth. Mundaka also literally means 'shaven’ suggesting the life of a Sanyasin (ascetic) to achieve higher goal of life. The Upanishad has also listed a succession of sages who shared the knowledge of Brahman with the following generations, somewhat pointing towards the ancient Vedic parampara of teacher-student tradition.

Mandukya Upanishad

The Mandukya Upanishad, also known as Mandukyopanishad and embedded into Atharva Veda, is the shortest of all the Upanishads with only 12 mantras and listed as number 6 in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads. These mantras are in prose form which discuss the syllable Aum (Om) and the concept of the four states of consciousness and asserts the existence of Atman-Brahman. Origin of name has several suggestions as the root Manduka in Sanskrit refers to many things like ‘frog’, ‘a breed of horse’, ‘Vedic school’ and/or ‘teacher’. Also there was an ancient Rishi Manduka and possibly the Upanishad has been named after him.

The Mandukya Upanishad is an important Upanishad particularly in the context of the Advaita Vedanta for its formulations on Brahman, Atman and states of consciousness. The meaning and importance of the syllable Aum (Om) has been discussed at length. The Upanishad itself opens with Aum, declaring the syllable encompasses the whole world. The four states of consciousness, as per Mandukyopanishad, are the waking state, the dreaming state, the deep sleep and Turiya or Ekatma – the pure consciousness. In the first state, we are aware of the daily world; in the second state, we are inward-looking subtle body; in the third state, it is undistracted casual body; and the last state is true state of the experience of the infinite and non-different reality.

The underlying philosophy is that the Self has four stages of "four fourths" or "fourfold". The first fold is the state of waking, when one is outwardly aware and enjoys all that is around. The second fold is the state of dreaming, when one is inwardly aware and is in a brilliant state. The third fold of the profound sleep is free from the desires and dreams. Hence it is a blissful state of thoughtfulness and cognition. The principal of Aum comprising of three elements a, u, m, corresponds to these first three states. The last fold is without an element and the one that needs to be discerned. It is the state of 'being one with the Self.'

Taittiriya Upanishad

The Taittriya Upanishad belongs to the Krishna Yajur Veda and is listed as number 7 in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads. The Upanishad appears to have been named after the sage Tittiri associated with the Taittiriya School of the Yajurveda. This Upanishad consists of three chapters, namely the Siksha Valli, Ananda Valli and Bhrigu Valli. The Siksha Valli consists of twelve Anvakas (lessons); the Ananda Valli is comprised of nine verses; and the Bhrigu Valli includes ten verses. Structurally, the index is included at the end of each section in this Upanishad.

This is an important Upanishad in the Vedantic as well as Karma Kanda (ritualistic) traditions. Adi Shankara accorded high preference to this Upanishad from the Vedanta point of view and several verses of it are chanted in temples for various rituals. It includes verses for prayers and benedictions, instructions on phonetics and praxis as also on the moral and ethical values of the graduating students in the ancient Vedic Gurukuls (Schools). The Upanishad also contains treatise on allegory and Vedic philosophy. It discusses the 'Five Sheaths' of the Self, namely food, breath, mind, intellect and bliss; it also analyzes the five features of the Self - prana, vyana, apana, udana and samana.

The chapter Siksha Valli derives its name from the Sanskrit term Shiksha which literally means ‘instruction or education’. The lessons of this chapter are related to education of students in ancient Vedic age of India, their induction schools and duties and responsibilities after graduation. Though it talks about the lifelong pursuit of knowledge to attain ‘Self-knowledge’ but does not have much connotation on metaphysical aspects. The second chapter Ananda Valli, also referred to as Brahmananda Valli, discusses Atman and Self-knowledge, and asserts that knowing Atman-Brahman is the highest, empowering and liberating knowledge. It establishes that knowing one's Self is the correct path for getting rid of fears and concerns, for a blissful living. The third and final Bhrigu Valli reiterates the concepts of Anand Valli through a legend about the famous sage Bhrigu.

Aitareya Upanishad

Among the principal Upanishads, the Aitareya Upanishad is the only Upanishad embedded in the Rig Veda as part of the Aitareya Aranyaka of the Rig Vedic text. It is relatively a small Upanishad with thirty-three mantras. The Upanishad comprises of three chapters, the first chapter with three sections and the remaining two chapters with one section each. It is named after the sage Aitareya. There is legend that Aitareya once was depressed because he felt his father did not love him; hence he shared his sorrow with his mother Itara. So the son and mother together prayed and invoked deity Prithvi who then appeared and blessed knowledge to Aitareya who thus became a great sage and brought out the Aitareya Brahmanam of Rig Veda.

This Upanishad deals with the creation and life after death at length. It holds Atman as Brahman the key concept of all creation which existed alone prior to the creation of the universe. Arguably the Atman created the universe in stages. In the beginning came four entities, namely space, maram (earth, stars), maricih (light-atom) and apas (water, cosmic fluid), followed by the cosmic self and eight psyches and principles (speech, in-breathing, sight, hearing, skin/hair, mind, out-breathing and reproductivity). Atman then created eight guardians corresponding to these psyches and principles. All living creatures and the five elements, namely, earth, wind, space, water and light are also the creation of the Atman-Brahman.

The Upanishad could be summarized in three basic philosophical themes: first, the world and man is the creation of the Atman-Brahman (Advaita concept); second, the Atman undergoes threefold birth; and third, the Consciousness is the essence of Atman. The Upanishad also discusses three classes of men aspiring wisdom. The highest class comprises of people renouncing the world with liberated minds. The second category attempts to systematically gain knowledge through the worship of prana (the life breath) and the third category belongs to men who crave for the worldly possessions and seek knowledge through the meditative worship of Samhita (scriptures). Aitareya Upanishad, like other Upanishads of Hinduism, asserts the existence of Consciousness as Atman, the Self or Brahman.

Chandogya Upanishad

One of the oldest Upanishads, the Chandogya is embedded in the Sama Veda and listed as number 9 in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads. This Upanishad is one of the largest compilations with eight Prapathakas (chapters), each chapter with several Khandas (volumes) and each volume with multiple verses. Each volume is a diverse collection of verses in the form of stories and themes with chants and poetic flavour on human quest for the knowledge and liberation, metaphysical questions, inquisitiveness and rituals. The first chapter contains thirteen volumes, the second chapter 24 volumes, the third 19 volumes, the fourth 17 volumes, the fifth 24 volumes, the sixth 16 volumes, the seventh 26 volumes and the eighth chapter has 15 volumes. Among all the principal Upanishads, Chandogya has the highest number of 627 mantras.

In Sanskrit, the term Chand has two meanings viz. first, to give happiness; and the second, to protect. The nomenclature Chandogya is derived from the root ‘Chand’ meant to give happiness and/or protect. From among the ten principal Upanishads, sage Vyasa derived maximum number of mantras from the Chandogya Upanishad for his analytical writing of the Brahma Sutra; hence this Upanishad gained considerable importance. A well-known and popular dialogue in Hinduism between Satyakama Jabala and his mother, involving a long discourse and assertion that the status of the caste Brahmin is attained by character and not by the by birth, is found in the same Upanishad.

Yet another narration on Brahman and Bliss is also part of the same Upanishad. Rishi Narada approaches Sage Sanatkumara seeking knowledge. The latter asks the former to reveal first what all he already knew. Rishi Narada answers that he has complete knowledge of Vedas, Sashtras, Itihasas-Puranas, grammer, all sciences and arts but he is still a seeker of Self. Sanatkumara told Narada what he knew so far was the Name only. He must meditate on the Name as Brahman to attain independence and ultimate bliss. The Upanishad discusses a whole range of metaphysical aspects of Hinduism in various chapters and volumes including Aum, the identity of Self and Brahman as one and the same through the famous doctrine “tat tvam asi” (that art thou), and creation through the cosmic-egg theory.

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad belongs to Shukla Yajur Veda and is listed as tenth in merit order in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads. The term Brihadaranyaka in Sanskrit literally means ‘the great wilderness or forest Upanishad’ which is credited to sage Yajnavalkya and refined by the later ancient Vedic scholars. This Upanishad has six adhyayas (chapters) in total with two major recensions namely - the Madhyandina and Kanva. As mentioned earlier, the Isa Upanishad is a Mantra Upanishad but Brihadaranyaka a Brahmana Upanishad; the latter being largely a detailed commentary on the former Upanishad.

This Upanishad is essentially a great treatise on Atman (Soul or Self), including discussion on metaphysics, ethics and knowledge that influenced Indian religions, various acharyas and scholars leading to the secondary works and commentaries such as those by Adi Shankara, Madhvacharya and host of others. Even though this has two recensions, content-wise both the versions read almost the same with minor differences. The Brihadaranyaka is a great Upanishad not only in terms of the volume but also in terms of the content and depth of its reach and influence. This Upanishad has a total of 434 mantras; in terms of numbers, the Chandogya Upanishad appears larger with 627 mantras but size and length wise mantras in the Brihadaranyaka make it almost as big as the former.

The content wise, Chandogya has more meditative content while the Brihadaranyaka is more philosophical text. Also in the former, the meditative and Vedanta content are organized and segregated while in the latter both the contents are interspersed. The six chapters are organized in three Kandams or Khandas. The chapter one and two make the Updesha or Madhu Kandam because it teaches the truth of the universe expounding the basic identity of the individual and the Universal Self. The second kandam comprising of third and fourth chapters is logical in nature and known as Upapatti or Muni Kandam because it also contains sage Yajnavalkya's dialogues with his scholar wife, Maitreyi. It also contains the metaphysical dialogue between ten ancient sages, on the nature of the Absolute Reality, Atman and Mukti.

The third Kandam consists of the fifth and sixth chapters and is called Khila Kandam which deals with the worship, meditation and a variety of miscellaneous subjects. The famous doctrine of 'Neti, Neti' (not this, not this) also appear in the same Upanishad, suggesting the indescribability of Brahman, the Absolute Reality. The three cardinal virtues of self-restraint (Damana), alms giving (Dana) and compassion (Daya) are also part of this Upanishad. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is an important text that discusses several early concepts and foundational theories on the subjects like Karma, Atman and others.


The authorship of the most Upanishads is not precisely known. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, who had a deep insight of the Indian philosophy and Upanishads, wrote, "almost all the early literature of India was anonymous, we do not know the names of the authors of the Upanishads". The early few Upanishads are embedded in the Vedas, and treated as the oldest divine shruti scriptures, and mostly considered "impersonal and authorless". However, the Vedic concepts and philosophical theories in the early Upanishads have been attributed to the well-known ancient sages like Yajnavalkya, Uddalaka Aruni, Shvetaketu, Shandilya, Aitareya, Balaki, Pippalada, Tittiri and Sanatkumara. Some scholarly and philosopher women such as Maitreyi, Gargi (the daughter of sage Vachaknu) and Lopamudra (Kaushitaki, wife of Vedic Rishi Agastya) from the ancient age are also known to have contributed to the traditionally rich cultural and religious heritage of Hinduism.

It is widely believed that they were diligently created by ancient Rishis (sages), inspired by the divine will, just as a carpenter builds a chariot. Many scholars, particularly from the Western countries, believe that many interpolations were done in the early Upanishads later on to further expand and enrich them. Then there are differences among the manuscripts of the same Upanishad discovered from different sources and parts of the Indian sub-continent in some cases, particularly in the context of their style, grammar and structure.


As is the case with authorship, the exact chronology of the composition of the principal Upanishads too is not certain though guestimates have been made based on logical and collateral summations. According to philosopher and Indologist Stephen Phillips, the exact chronology of the early Upanishads is difficult to arrive at for the reasons: one, opinions rest on scanty evidence and analysis of archaism, style and repetitions across the texts; and two, inferences have been derived by assumptions about likely evolution of ideas, and presumptions about philosophies having influenced each other. Some scholars have also tried to derive conclusions based on analogies between the Upanishads and Buddhist literature.

Indologist Patrick Olivelle has given the following chronology for the Principal Upanishads: The Brihadaranyaka and the Chandogya may be the two earliest Upanishads from pre-Buddhist era around the 7th to 6th centuries BCE. The vintage of Aitareya and Taittiriya Upanishads could be assigned to the 6th to 5th centuries BCE. Then the Kena is the oldest of the verse Upanisads, most likely followed by the Katha, Isa and Mundaka Upanishads pre-5th century BCE. Remaining two Upanishads, the Prasna and Mandukya, most probably emerged in the second half of 1st millennium BCE during the late fifth and early fourth centuries.


Adi Shankara had written detailed commentaries on all the above Upanishads as also on Shvetashvatara, Kausitaki and Mahanarayana Upanishads. Hence many scholars consider thirteen Upanishads as primary or principal Upanishads. Some others include the Maitri Upanishad too among the principal Upanishads. The remaining 94 Upanishads listed in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads are of relatively less significance and are treated as minor Upanishads. As could be seen from the synopsis of the ten principal Upanishads in the preceding paragraphs, there are certain commom fundamental concepts and doctrines as central theme in all Upanishads.

The concept of Atman as Brahman and one God has taken root and reflected in most of the Upanishads. The concept of one God, and all other beings as His manifestations, is the core concept that took root in Upanishads thousands of years back in Hinduism when civilization was in rudimentary form in many other parts of the world. The Upanishads consistently insisted on the Self (Atman) as the Brahman. This aspect is also reflected through some of the mahavakyas in Upanishads such as 'Tat Tvam Asi' (That art Thou) and 'Aham Brahmasmi’ (I am Brahman). Essence of all this is that the Truth is within us and the Atman and Brahman are one and the same that can be discovered through introspection. This philosophy subscribes to monotheism which later gave rise to Advaita Vedanta. The Upanishads have also made distinction in the Saguna and Nirguna aspects of Brahman i.e. manifested and unmanifested forms. The main Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahmasutra collectively form the famous Prasthanatrayi in Hinduism.

In the light of the knowledge contained in the Vedas and Upanishads, it appears so paradoxical when the adherents of the other dominant religions in the world criticize Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) for the polytheism and Saguna worship. Many Western educated yet ignorant Hindus too ditto and subscribe to similar thoughts and arguments. On the contrary, there is every likelihood that the Vedas and Upanishads have inspired the human civilization world over in some way or the other through the passage of time. What some more recent religions try to preach and teach as ‘Cosmic Truth’, the same Truth was revealed in Upanishads in more lucid and logical manner at least a millennium ago, even if we go by the conservative estimates of the Western Scholars and Indologists.

Continued to Part XXI


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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