Upanishads

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Introduction

The Upanishads are the concluding portions of the Vedas and the basis for the Vedanta philosophy, “a system in which human speculation seems to have reached its very acme,” according to Max Muller. The Upanisads have dominated Indian philosophy, religion, and life for nearly three thousand years.

The ideal of man’s ultimate beatitude, the perfection of knowledge, the vision of the real in which the spiritual hunger of the mystic for direct vision and the philosopher’s quest for truth are both satisfied – is the ideal of the Upanisads.

The word “Upanisad” is derived from “upa” – near, “ni” – down, “sad” – to sit. Groups of pupils sat near the teacher to learn from him the truth by which ignorance is destroyed.

There are over 200 Upanisads, although the traditional number is 108. Of these the 14 principal Upanisads are: Isa, Ken, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, Brhadaranyaka, Svetasvatara, Kausitaki, Mahanarayana and the Maitri.

The names of the authors of the Upanisads are not known. Some of the chief doctrines of the Upanisads are associated with the names of renowned sages such as Aruni, Yajnavalkya, Balaki, Svetaketu, and Sandilya.

The Upanisads belong to sruti or revealed literature, and are the utterances of sages who spoke out of the fullness of their illumined experience. They are vehicles more of spiritual illumination than of systematic reflection. Their aim is practical rather than speculative. They give us knowledge as a means to spiritual freedom.

The Upanishads lay great stress on the distinction between the ignorant, narrow, selfish way which leads to transitory satisfaction and the way of wisdom which leads to eternal life. The Upanisads speak of the way in which the individual self gets at the ultimate reality by an inward journey, an inner ascent. This inner ascent requires adequate preparation, “The Self is not to be attained by one without fortitude, not through slackness nor without distinctive marks of discipline.” To see the Self one must become “calm, controlled, quiet, patiently enduring, and contented.”