Indian Mythology (by ApamNapat)

Upanishads - Essense of the Vedas


The Upanishads (उपनिषद्) are commentaries on the material covered in the Vedas, and extend the philosphies found therein. The term Upanishad literally means, sitting down under a tree, and they were mostly composed in the form of a dialogue between a guru and his disciple, where questions are posed and answers to them found on the basis of reason and the proof in the Vedas. Most of the Upanishads are associated with the sage Yagyvalkya.

There are over two hundred upanishads but only around fifteen are considered important. The oldest Upanishads are the BrihadAranyaka and the Chandogya. The BrihadAranyaka describes a horse-sacrifice and the primordial battle between the Gods and the Demons and it supplies one of the most famous verses:

From unreality lead me to reality
From darkness lead me to light
From death lead me to immortality

The Upanishads explore the higher reality above the common Gods. The expound the concept of the indestructability of atman (the soul) and its oneness with Brahman, the ultimate truth.

The Chandogya Upanishad is attached to the Sama Veda. It emphasizes the importance of chanting the sacred syllable Aum, which is associated with Prana, or the life-breath. It also introduces the concept of reincarnation and the doctorine of Karma. It also explores the idea of Mukti, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

The Aitareya Upanishad explains the creation of the world. It tells the story of how Brahman created the universe out of its own being. It made the first Purusha (man) and out of the HiryanaGharba (cosmic egg) came all the senses. And from this first man came the whole of creation.

The Kaushitakhi Upanishad starts of by posing the question "Is it possible to conquer the cycle of birth and death?". The teacher in this Upanishad says that by realizing Brahman, the one spirit, it is possible to attain Mukti. It also tells the story of Pratardana, who arrives at the home of Indra after many trials. Indra offers him a boon, but Pratardana asks Indra to choose an appropriate gift himself. This leads to some passages where Indra brags of his prowess and identifies himself with the life-breath Prana.

The literal meaning of Kena in the Kena Upanishad, is "by whom?", and is a series of questions asking "by whom is the mind projected?", by whom does breathing occur?" and "by whom is speech produced?" etc. It establishes Brahman as being greater than the Vedic gods of the elements, and also Indra.

In the Katha Upanishad tells the story of a Brahmana named Vajshrava, who performs a sacrifice and plans to give away a major portion of his wealth. However, he is overcome by greed and keeps the major portion of his cattle-wealth for himself. His son Nachiketa is pained by this duplicity and asks his father that since the son is the greatest wealth of a man, to whom should Nachiketa be gifted? In anger, Vajashrava replies that "I gift you to death."

Nachiketa takes his father's words to heart and leaves for the abode of Yama (death). However, when he reaches there he finds that Yama was away from his palace. He waits outside the palace for three days and is finally able to meet Yama. Yama grants him three boons, which he uses to ask questions regarding death, atman (soul) and the ultimate goal of life. The rest of the Upanishad is the answer by Yama to these questions.

The Isha (Lord) Upanishad is one of the most widely quoted Upanishads. It propounds a markedly monetheistic view. It concludes with a prayer to Surya and Agni.

The Mundaka Upanishad, which is associated with the Atharva Veda, propounds the supremacy of Brahman. It marks the first point at which the Upanishads refer to rituals and sacrifices as waste of time and that only by realizing Brahman will a soul be able to achieve salvation.

The later upanishads are the Prashna Upanishad, the Shvetashvatara Upanishad (which worships Shiva), the Mandukya Upanishad, the Mahanarayana Upanishad, The Jabala Upanishad, and the Vajrasuchika Upanishad.


Last Modified At: Sat Nov 6 20:53:00 2004