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The Upanishads: An Introduction

Om. That supreme Brahman is infinite, and this conditioned Brahman is infinite. The infinite proceeds from infinite. Then through knowledge, realizing the infinitude of the infinite, it remains as infinite alone.
May He protect us both (the teacher and the taught) together by revealing knowledge! May He protect us both by vouchsafing the results of knowledge! May we attain vigour together! Let what we study be invigorating. May we not cavil at each other! Om! Peace! Peace! Peace!
The Vedas are the oldest scriptures of India as well as the world. Vedas are revealed knowledge; seers of the Truth visualized the mantras or the text of the Vedas and stored for the benefit of the world by oral and later written tradition through the tradition of Guru and disciples. Vedas are not written by anyone, but they are the knowledge of God, nay they are personification of Brahman as words. Vedas are chiefly divided into two portions: karma-kanda and Jnana-kanda. Samhitas, Brahmanas, and Aranyakas form the Karma portion, while Upanishads form the knowledge portion of Vedas. The essence of the knowledge of the Vedas is called by the name Vedanta, which comprises the Upanishads.

The philosophical concepts contained in the Upanishads served as the basis of one of the six orthodox systems of Hindu philosophy, Vedanta. Some 150 Upanishads exist (108, according to the traditionally accepted number), but in the flow of time many of them were lost to posterity. Shankaracharya studied nearly sixteen of them and wrote very good commentaries on ten of them. These are called as principal Upanishads. They are Isha Upanishad, Kath Upanishad, Kena, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka, Aitareya, and Taittriya Upanishad. Most are written in prose with interspersed poetry, but some are entirely written as verses or mantras. Their lengths vary: The shortest can fit on 1 printed page, while the longest is more than 50 pages. In their present form they are believed to have been composed between 4000 and 1000 years BCE; they represent the post-Vedic aspect of Hinduism.

In Sanskrit Upanishad literally means 'sitting near devotedly', and so brings to the mind an earnest disciple devotedly sitting near his Guru and learning from him the highest secrets of life. Shankaracharya defined Upanishads as knowledge of God. And since they were placed in the end -anta- of Vedas they were also called as Vedanta. Figuratively, they mean goal or purpose of Vedas and of life.

Essence of Upanishads

The basic concern of the Upanishads is the nature of Brahman, the universal soul, and the fundamental doctrine expounded is the identity of Atman or the innermost soul of each individual with Brahman. Formulations of this doctrinal truth are stressed throughout the Upanishadic writings. Other topics include the nature and purpose of existence, various ways of meditation and worship, moksha or liberation, and the theory of the transmigration of souls.

The essential teaching of Upanishads is the revelation of Highest Truth, i.e. there is one Reality as Absolute Consciousness, which is separate from our body-mind complex. This is called as God, Brahman, Self, Consciousness, or Atman. We are also in essence this Highest Reality; our true nature is divine. Because of cosmic ignorance, which is termed as Maya, the Reality appears to get identified with our body-mind complex and we begin to perceive ourselves as this limited body and senses.

Based on such interpretations many sects are seen today in Hindu religion leading to great confusion, but essentially they do not contradict each other. Depending upon the qualifications and path undertaken by the spiritual aspirant or the sadhaka he or she may experience a particular stage, and at higher level they all become one. For instance, a sadhaka of Jnana Yoga (path of knowledge) would experience Brahman in its non-qualified aspect, while a sadhaka of Bhakti Yoga (path of devotion) would perceive the same reality as Brahman with attributes of love and compassion. But when one attains highest level of bhakti, para-bhakti as it is called, then he also becomes Jnani! Similarly a Jnani becomes a Bhakta; Jnana and bhakti are two sides of the same coin.

Transmigration of soul, or the Law of Karma

The central theme in Upanishadic system of interpretation is the nature and the relation between universal Soul, Brahman and the Jeevatman, or individual soul, also called Atman. According to Shankaracharya, the two are identical. The individual self, however, is prevented by avidya, or ignorance, from understanding the nondual universal nature of pure being (Brahman). Thus it perceives multifarious existence in this universe and things (that is, the whole world of material, temporal existence) as real and never realizes that all separate existences are essentially unreal. This phenomenon is produced by Maya, the power of illusion mysteriously inherent in and projected from Brahman.

As long as the individual self remains without real Knowledge, it will blindly look for its true self in the phenomenal world. It remains enmeshed in that world, again and again experiencing samsara, or the series of existences, deaths and rebirths. Each unenlightened soul passes through series of such cycles as a consequence of its good or bad karma, which determine the form of future existences. Through the proper knowledge of The Truth, however, the individual soul recognizes the limitless reality forever existing behind the cosmic veil of Maya, realizes that its own true nature is identical with Brahman, and through this self-realization achieves moksha (release from samsara and karma) or Freedom.

Although Upanishads teach about our essential nature as divine, in essence, three stages can be deciphered from their study. 1) We are not God, but we are very closely related to God, 2) we are part of God like sparks of a hot iron rod, and 3) we are God, nothing short of It. The first is dualism as expounded by Madhvacharya, second one qualified monism of Ramanujacharya, and the third is Advaita monism of Shankaracharya.
C S Shah

Further Reading: Kath Upanishad || Tat Tvam Asi || Isha Upanishad

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