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The Upanishads
by Dr.Shashi Tiwari (Retd.), Sanskrit Department, Delhi University

Now, we discuss to the concluding part of the Veda namely 'the Upanishads. The Upanishads come towards the end of the Aranyakas. If the Samhita is likened to a tree, the Brahmanas are its flowers and the Aranyakas are its fruit yet not ripened, the Upanishads are the ripe fruits.

1. Nature of Upanishads

The Vedas are generally considered to have two portions viz., Karma-Kanda (portion dealing with action or rituals) and Jnana-Kanda (portion dealing with knowledge). The Samhitas and the Brahmanas represent mainly the Karma-Kanda or the ritual portion, while the Upanishads chiefly represent the Jnana-Kanda or the knowledge portion. The Upanishads, however, are included in the Shruti. They are at present, the most popular and extensively read Vedic texts.

The Upanishads are often called 'Vedanta'. Literally, Vedanta means the end of Veda, Vedasya antah, the conclusion (Anta) as well as the goal (Anta) of the Vedas. Chronologically they came at the end of the Vedic period. As Upanishads contain difficult discussions of ultimate philosophical problems, they were taught to the pupils at about the end of their course. The chief reason why the Upanishads are called the 'end of the Veda' is that they represent the central aim of the Veda and contain the highest and ultimate goal of the Veda as they deal with Moksha or Supreme Bliss.


2. Meaning of the word 'Upanishad'

The word 'Upanishad' has been derived from the root Sad (to sit), to which are added two prefixes: Upa and Ni. The prefix Upa denotes nearness and Ni totality. Thus, this word means 'sitting near by devotedly'. This no doubt refers to the pupil's sitting down near his teacher at the time of instruction. The word in course of time gathered round it the sense of secret teaching or secret doctrine (Rahasya) which was imparted at such sittings. Upanishads are frequently spoken of as Rahasya (secret) or Guhya (mystery) also. We find in Upanishads, that due to secrecy and mystery of the teachings, a teacher refuses to impart instruction to a pupil who has not proved his worthiness to receive the instruction. Through another definition, the word primarily signifies knowledge, yet by implication it also refers to the book that contains that knowledge.


3. Number of the Upanishads

There is a good deal of speculation concerning the number of Upanishads. Traditionally, the old Upanishads had their place in the Brahmanas and Aranyakas. There is only one instance of a Samhita containing Upanishad - the Vajasaneyi Samhita comprises the Ishavasya Upanishad forming the 40th Book.

In later times, the Upanishads obtained a more independent position but still they professed to belong more particularly to one or the other of the four Vedas.

It is difficult to ascertain the exact number that should be regarded as authentic Upanishads. A religious system is considered valid in India only when it is supported by Shruti, hence the founders of religious sects have sometimes written books and called them Upanishads in order to give their views scriptural authority. The Allah Upanishad, for instance was composed in the sixteenth century, at the time of emperor Akbar.

Different estimates of their number have been given by scholars and they have been put by some scholars at as many as 200.

One hundred and eight Upanishads are enumerated in the Muktikopanishad and a popular edition contains them. However, among these Upanishads, ten Upanishads, the names of which have been mentioned in the Muktikopanishad, are considered the most important Upanishads from the point of view of Vedantic Philosophy.

Ten Principal Upanishads known as 'Dashopanishad' are :

Isha, Kena, Katha , Prashna , Munda , Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka.

Besides, Shvetashvatara, Kaushitaki and Maitrayaniya Upanishads are often listed in old Upanishads.


4. Division of the Upanishads

According to the Muktikopanishad 108 Upanishads are divided according to four Vedas are as follows:

(1) 10 Upanishads from the Rigveda
(2) 19 Upanishads from the Shukla-Yajurveda
(3) 32 Upanishads from the Krishna-Yajurveda
(4) 16 Upanishads from the Samaveda and
(5) 31 Upanishads from the Atharvaveda.

The Principal thirteen Upanishads, related to the Vedas are:

(A) Upanishads of the Rigveda :

(1) Aitareya Upanishad,
(2) Kaushitaki Upanishad

(B) Upanishads of the Shukla-Yajurveda:

(3) Brihadaranyaka Upanishad,
(4) Isha Upanishad

(C) Upanishads of the Krishna-Yajurveda:

(5) Taittiriya Upanishad,
(6) Katha Upanishad,
(7) Shvetashvatara Upanishad,
(8) Maitrayaniya Upanishad

(D) Upanishads of the Samaveda:

(9) Chandogya Upanishad,
(10) Kena Upanishad

(E) Upanishads of the Atharvaveda:

(11) MundakaUpanishad,
(12) MandukyaUpanishad,
(13) Prashna Upanishad.


5. Major Theme of the Upanishads

The Upanishads are religious and philosophical treatises. They constitute the last phase of the Vedic revelation. They represent the knowledge of Brahman (Brahma-Vidya). What is this world? Who am I? What becomes of me after death? - Such questions are asked and answered in these Upanishads. The essential theme of the Upanshads is the nature of the world and God. Already in the hymns of the Rigveda, we notice here and there a shift of emphasis from the innumerable gods to the one Infinite as in the famous passage. 'Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti '. This becomes more pronounced in the Upanishads and is very well illustrated here. The doctrine of true knowledge and salvation are major subjects of the Upanishadic philosophy. These treatises mark the culmination of the earlier line of investigation into the nature of ultimate reality.

In the Upanishads, we get an intelligible body of verified and verifiable spiritual insights mixed with a mass of myths and legends and cosmological speculations relating to the nature and origin of universe. Besides, Brahman and His creation, are also discussed in these texts.. The principal contents of the Upanishads are philosophical speculations. The spirit of their contents is anti-ritualistic. Although the subject-matter of most of the Upanishads is almost the same, yet each Upanishad has its own unique idea or ideas and its own method of enquiry.


6. Importance of the Upanishads

(1) The Upanishads occupy a unique place in the development of Indian philosophical thought. They contain the highest authority on which the various systems of philosophy in India rest. So Vedanta Philosophy is directly related to the Upanishads. Not only the Vedanta philosopher professes his faith in the ends and objects of the Veda, but the Sankhya, the Vaisheshika, the Nyaya and Yoga philosophers, all pretend to find in the Upanishads some warranty for their tenets.

(2) The Upanishads are associated with the Vedas and make the entire range of Vedic knowledge as complete. 'The Upanishads generally mention the Vedas and their study with respect. Certain verses from the Vedas, such as the Gayatri, form the subject of meditation here.

(3) Brahmavidya or the knowledge of Brahman, the Supreme Reality is the great kingdom of the principal Upanishads. They give importance to 'Knowledge' alone. Any one having knowledge may be Guru or Acarya. Even kings approached to them for the attainment of knowledge. The story of Satyakama Jabala, who though unable to give his father's name, was yet initiated into spiritual life, shows this fact. In the Chandogya Upanishad (4.1-3) Raikva a Brahmana not by caste but by his knowledge, instructed king Janashruti. In the same Upanishad (5.3), the king Pravahana instructed the Brahmana Gautama in the new doctrine of transmigration. This story together with the one in which king Ashvapati kaikeya instructed five Brahmanas in the doctrine of Atman (Chan. Up. 5.11) shows that for Upanishads knowledgeable person is the most important and not the Brahmana, Kshatriya or anyone else.

(4) Each of the Vedas has many Mahavakyas or great sayings. But four Mahavakyas found in the Upanishads related to four Vedas are very important, thought-provoking and powerful. These spell out the non-duality of the Jiva and the Brahman-

Prajnanam Brahma- –Rigveda
Aham Brahmasm - Yajurveda
Tattvamasi –- Samveda
Ayamatma Brahma --Aharvaveda

(5) Without understanding the Upanishads, it is impossible to get an insight into Indian history and culture. Every subsequent development of philosophy and religion in India has drawn heavily on the Upanishads.


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