Volume - 12 : Issue - 2

Published : April - June 2013

Group : Spirituality

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The Upanishads

by Dr. Hiro Badlani

It is said that the gods dictated the Vedas, and the sages first heard them internally and then passed them on. The authorship of these earliest scriptures is thus regarded as nonhuman (apauarusya) in origin. Upanishads, which are also called ‘Vedanta’ or literally meaning the end of the Vedas, are in fact part of the Vedas. Even so Upanishads also herald the first of the many transitions the Hindu theology would go over the coming centuries and millennia. Hinduism thus came to become a rather dynamic religion incorporating changes according to time and situation. The unique factor about these changes however is the change took place in most subtle manner without invoking any confrontation and violence. The old were always revered but ingeniously modified. 

The early Vedic scriptures were more occupied with mythological nature gods, such as the sun (Suray) or the moon (Chandra). In later periods of the Vedic era (1000–700 BCE), there was a shift toward the Brahmana rituals and sacrifices that were devoted to the transcendental divine. The Upanishads (800–500 BCE) represent the subtle reaction to the glorification of the ritual philosophy, giving more attention to the mystical or transcendental thoughts, such as identity of the individual soul (atman) and the soul of the universe (Brahman). The rituals and the nature gods were not totally disowned; rather these have continued till today with some modifications, often commanding utmost respect and attention, occasionally occupying a very dominant position!

The Upanishads or the Vedanta are the scriptures that contain the essence of the Vedic philosophy. “Upanishad” literally means “learning at the feet of”; meaning “at the feet of a Master.” Thus was born the ancient guru system in Hindu society. In each of the Vedas, there are two main divisions: the Karma Kanda, which deals with the rituals, and the Jnana Kanda, whichdeals with spiritual knowledge or wisdom. The Upanishads are part of the Jnana Kanda. The guru would lead his pupil (shishya), step by step, to the stage whereby the pupil recognized the Self, or the Divine in himself. This is indeed the avowed final destination of a Hindu life.

These learning discussions are also known as samvada—the teacher talks and the student listens. The student can ask questions to clarify genuine doubts, but the topics under consideration only deal with the spiritual knowledge of the Divine (Brahmvidya). It is thought that thus may have been the beginning of the ‘democratic thought’ in mankind! The Upanishads truly heralded free thought in Hindu society.

Discovering the Divine, or Self, within also implies elevating oneself to the highest spiritual status. This is, in reality, the sacred stage of all virtuous conduct. The Upanishads are therefore considered a road map, complete with a “guru guide,” to reach the highest peak of human development.

Most of the Upanishads are the reproduction of the dialogues and discussions between the teacher and his pupils—the guru and his shishyas. In the Upanishads, we also see the identification of the sage (the Rishi) associated with each teaching program, a factor that was conspicuous by its absence in the Vedas. The major Upanishads, or the Primary Upanishads, were formed along with the Vedas.

These were compiled before the Buddhist era, around the seventh century BCE or earlier. The Vedas are vastly full of many prayers, rituals, and ceremonial verses. The learned gurus of the Upanishads brought the important virtuous teachings to the forefront and downplayed the teachings that were less relevant to mankind. The spiritual teachings were properly explained with correct interpretations.

Swami Paramannanda, one of the pioneer gurus of Hindu philosophy in the West, writes:

In the Vedas, we find a clear distinction between what man calls his own self, the Jivatman, and the Divine Over-self, the Paramatman. The search for God is man’s eternal quest. Every person must do this for himself. The method of this individual search can be traced to the Upanishad teaching. It is not so much the learning of the Divine, which is important; it’s living like the Divine that is essential in this pursuit.

The earlier Upanishads (Brhadarayaka and Chandogya) relied strongly on the rituals used to interpret the spiritual knowledge. The later Upanishads became more and more liberated from the rituals, however, moving toward internal processes of meditation and personal religious experiences. It is more likely that some factions at this stage totally defied the orthodox Vedic supremacy and formed a separate group that advocated the pre-historic (Saraswati-Sindhu Civilization) ancient philosophy of renunciation and meditation, naming it as the Sramana ideology, which ultimately gave birth to Jainism and Buddhism. External rituals were subordinated to internal spiritual practices, called sadhanas. In the Upanishads, we also find the final climb of the human mind, beyond the senses and the mind, into the realm of spiritual realization. The rituals are meant to prepare grounds for learning the ultimate truth of the Divine and the spiritual laws—so, too, is the role of the guru—but when the rituals or gurus become the end, in and of themselves, the very purpose is lost. The rituals, however, did continue their influence and dominance in many different ways in the Hindu society. Even as the new religions and cults opposed and denounced the old rituals, they soon formed their own new rituals.

Rituals in the Vedas were essentially based on the principle of sacrifice. The various ingredients, mainly the cereals and clarified butter were offered as sacrifice to the fire god Agni. These would be transported in some mystic manner to benefit the worshipper or his ancestors and other family members in this life or another.

In Bhagavad Gita, the deeds done in life were considered as the rituals; these would then be called the Karmas. In the Vedas, the rituals formed the Karma-kanda portion of the Vedas.

In modern period, Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi named ‘service’ to other beings as the true sacrifice ritual.

Hindu thought continued to march with the passage of time. Newer Upanishads came into being. In the post-Buddhist and post-Shankaracharya eras, a number of minor Upanishads were created to impart the spiritual teachings to posterity. Indeed, even the writings of modern holy men and women might be regarded as divine revelation, thus maintaining an evolutionary continuity of the Hindu tradition.

The knowledge of the Vedas and Upanishads remained out of bounds for most common people for millennia. Dara Shuka, the Mogul emperor, was the first to translate some of these scriptures into Persian in the seventeenth century. French scholar Auquetail Duperron (1773–1805) first introduced the ancient Hindu philosophy to Western people by translating fifty Upanishads. Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1775–1833) made the first English translation. In 1876, Max Muller presented the German translation, along with extensive commentary. The world interest in these scriptures since that time has continued to grow unabated

The Vedas taught worship of the gods of nature, such as the sun, sky, wind, and fire. The Upanishads emphasized that behind the façade of these many gods, there is but one Supreme God.

In fact, the concept of one universal God was also originally expressed in the Rig Veda itself:

            Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti.

      (One alone exists; sages call it by various names.)

In the Upanishads, this ancient philosophical thought came to the forefront, overshadowing the idea of multiple gods, who were considered simply as the icons or manifestations of the transcendental Supreme Divine. Modern world has adopted this concept of God more vigorously, especially in the face of the many religions and sects around the world.

In the Chandogya Upanishad, a ponderous dialogue between Shwetaketu and his father guru, Uddalka:

Just as the salt dissolves in the water, so too the Divine pervades everywhere. It may not be visible, and yet its presence cannot be denied. The great banyan tree has sprung from a tiny seed. So too, are all beings grown from the seed of the spirit. In the tiny seed, the banyan tree is not visible. So, too, we may not visualize the infinite cosmos, inside the spirit.

It is interesting to note that the Supreme Court of the United States recommended the use of the term “Supreme Being” in place of “God” in the Constitution of the United States, after hearing the plea in which the above quotation of the Rig Veda was presented. An eminent Sindhi author and very well-respected attorney Ram Panjwani brought into light this fact in one of his articles published in Hindvasi Weekly! Ancient Hindu ideology was thus vindicated—and the universality of the Upanishads attracted spiritual seekers around the world.

(Dr Hiro Badlani is the author of Hinduism: Path of the Ancient Wisdom He lives at Los Angeles and can be contacted at,).