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Adi Shankara, 788-820 AD, founder of the Advaita Vedanta, the oldest extant sub-school of Vedānta, a tradition of interpretation of the Upanishads, by Raja Ravi Varma.	Source: Raja Ravi Varma / Public domain

India’s Vedic Sanskrit Upanishads: Foundation of Religions and Karma!

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The Upanishads are a genre of texts that form the final and last section of the Vedas. The Upanishads were composed orally in Sanskrit, and the earliest surviving ones dating to the 1st millennium BC. The number of Upanishads varies, though according to tradition, there were over 200 in total. The Muktika canon, on the other land, provides a list of 108 Upanishads. In any case, there are 11 (sometimes 13) major Upanishads, and these are the most important ones. The Upanishads deal mainly with philosophical and religious themes, including the concept of karma. They are significant as the foundation of Hinduism as well as the later philosophies and religions in India, including Jainism and Buddhism.

Vyasa, the sage who, according to tradition, composed the Upanishads. (Ramanarayanadatta astri / Public domain)

Vyasa, the sage who, according to tradition, composed the Upanishads. (Ramanarayanadatta astri / Public domain)

The Root Meanings of the Upanishads

According to one interpretation, the word “Upanishad” is a derived from the Sanskrit root word, “sad”, and two prefixes, “upa” and “ni.” These three parts of the word are translated as “to sit,” “nearness,” and “totality,” respectively. Therefore, “Upanishad” may be translated to mean “sitting nearby devotedly.”

From this etymology of the word, it is assumed that this refers to students sitting near their teacher when being instructed. Another interpretation, however, suggests that the word “Upanishad” meant “connection” or “equivalence,” and that it referred to the “homology between aspects of the human individual and celestial entities or forces.” Yet another interpretation of the word is derived from a commentary by Shankara, an 8th century AD Indian philosopher and theologian. Shankara derived the word from the root “sad,” meaning “to destroy / loosen,” thereby associating it with the destruction of ignorance.

The earliest Upanishads are believed to have been composed during the 1st millennium BC, though they cannot be dated with precision. According to one division, the major Upanishads, which are associated with the Vedas (hence known also as the Vedic Upanishads) may be divided into two chronological periods.

During the first period, which lasted from 700 to 500 BC, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, Chāndogya, Taittirīya, Aitareya, and Kauṣītakī were composed. These texts were composed prior to the emergence of the so-called “heterodox” schools of Indian philosophy, i.e., the Buddhists, Jains, and Ajivikas. The second period, which lasted from 300 to 100 BC, saw the composition of the Kena, Katha, Īśā, Śvetāśvatara, Praśna, Muṇḍaka, Māṇḍūkya, and Maitrī.

The Upanishads continued to be composed over the centuries, even after the arrival of Islam in the Indian subcontinent. Moreover, newer Upanishads are said to have been composed during the early modern and modern eras. These are referred to as the “New Upanishads,” which, unlike the older ones, do not usually deal with themes associated with the Vedas.

Another difference between the older and newer Upanishads is that the former were generally composed in prose, whereas the later ones tended to be composed in metrical form. Nevertheless, it has been pointed out that even in individual texts, different compositional styles can be identified. In addition to the composition of the Upanishads, numerous commentaries and sub-commentaries of this genre of texts were produced.

Geography of the Late Vedic Period when the Upanishads were written. (Avantiputra7 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Geography of the Late Vedic Period when the Upanishads were written. (Avantiputra7 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Upanishads, Like the Bible: Written by Various Authors

As the Upanishads were composed over an extended period of time it follows naturally that they were written by various authors. The identity of these authors, however, is unknown. Nevertheless, some of the important doctrines contained in these texts can be traced to such renowned Indian sages as Aruni, Yajnavalkya, Bâlâki, Svetaketu, and Sândilya. The Upanishads are regarded as a part of sruti, or “revealed literature.”

This means that they are believed to have been “uttered by sages in the fullness of an illumined understanding of truth.” It is thought that the Upanishads were first composed and transmitted orally. It was only at a much later time that these compositions were written down and transformed into texts.

In terms of number, it is traditionally thought that the Upanishads contain over 200 texts. Some authors claim that there were up to 900 Upanishads. If this were true, then it would be safe to say that most of these texts are now lost. The Muktika (meaning “deliverance”) canon provides a list of 108 Upanishads. The 108 Upanishads are listed during a dialogue between Rama, the 7th avatar of Vishnu, and one of his devotees, the monkey god Hanuman.

During the dialogue, Rama proposes teaching Hanuman the Vedanta (meaning “the culmination / conclusion of the Vedas”), which consists of the Upanishads and the Aranyakas. After Rama proclaimed that “Even by reading one verse of them [any Upanishad] with devotion, one gets the status of union with me, hard to get even by sages.” Hanuman enquires about the different types of deliverances (“mukti,” hence the name of the canon), to which Rama replies that “the only real type [of liberation] is Kaivalya.” Subsequently, Rama introduces the 108 Upanishads.

A page from the Isha Upanishad manuscript written in Sanskrit. (Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0)

A page from the Isha Upanishad manuscript written in Sanskrit. (Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0)

As the “End” of the Vedas, the Upanishads Came Last

As mentioned earlier, the Upanishads form the last part of the Vedas, and hence are referred to as the Vedanta. The word “Veda” may be translated to mean “knowledge.” The Vedas are thought to have been composed during the 2nd millennium BC and are considered to be the oldest scriptural texts in Hinduism. Additionally, the Vedas are the oldest scriptural texts of any religion that is still being practiced.

The Vedas were composed in archaic Sanskrit and transmitted orally before being committed in written form. There are four Vedic texts – the Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda, and Atharva-Veda.

Each of the Vedas is divided into four parts: the Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka, and Upanishad. The first consists of a collection of hymns or sacred formulas, the second is a liturgical prose exposition, and the last two are appendices to the Brahmana. The word “Aranyaka” translates to mean “Book of the Wilderness,” and contains esoteric doctrines. These doctrines are supposed to be studied by initiates in remote places, for example, forests, hence its name. The Upanishads, on the other hand, contains speculations on the ontological connection between human beings and the cosmos.

Although the Upanishads were composed in a ritual context, they are also said to “mark the beginning of a reasoned enquiry into a number of perennial philosophical questions.” Indeed, Western scholars have dubbed the Upanishads the first “philosophical treatises” of the Indian subcontinent. Some have argued, however, that the Upanishads do not actually approach philosophical reflections in a systematic manner. In addition, the texts do not present a unified doctrine.

Furthermore, philosophical methods were not normally used in the investigation of the philosophical questions. For instance, ideas may be presented as truths or insights known to certain sages, instead of logical propositions that may be independently verified.

The impact of a drop of water on a water surface is a common analogy for Brahman and Atman. (Sven Hoppe / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The impact of a drop of water on a water surface is a common analogy for Brahman and Atman. (Sven Hoppe / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Key Concepts of Brahman and Atman

The lack of coherence and a unified doctrine that disqualifies the Upanishads as philosophy is due largely to the fact that the texts are composite and fragmented in nature. It has been pointed out that the texts were composed by different schools of thoughts, which were often in competition with one another. This would explain the diversity of teachings found within the texts.

Nevertheless, where a text, or group of texts are ascribed to a particular school, a degree of coherence can be observed. Apart from that, there are also certain themes, mutual interests, or philosophical questions that are explored in the Upanishads by the different schools, and it is here that overlaps may be seen.

One of the significant ideas explored in the Upanishads is the idea of Brahman and Atman. These two concepts would subsequently become key terms in Indian philosophy, and some of the earliest discussions about them are found in the Upanishads.

Brahman refers to the “ultimate / unchangeable reality,” whilst Atman refers to “the self.” In other words, the former is the “essence of the universe,” and the latter the “essence of man.” According to the Upanishads, Brahman resides in Atman, and the former can only be known through the latter.

The concept of Brahman and Atman is considered by many later Indian religious and philosophical schools of thought as the core teaching of the Upanishads. In addition, it has been asserted that this teaching, and the Upanishads by extension, represent a “revival of spiritualism, a reaction to the complicated ritualism, ceremonialism and formalism of the Brahmanas.” The concept of Brahman and Atman has been interpreted to mean that God is pleased by spiritual worship, rather than external rituals and ceremonies, and that perfect is inward and spiritual, rather than outward and mechanical.

The Upanishads also contain some of the earliest discussions related to karma, another key idea in Indian thought. The word “karma” literally means “action,” though it has been developed into the principle of cause and effect, which people may be more familiar with today.

Within the context of the Upanishads, karma is associated primarily with the performance of rituals. In general, any ritual action that is performed correctly is believed to yield positive results (good karma). Conversely, ritual action that is performed incorrectly will yield negative results (bad karma).

Karma as action and reaction: if we show goodness, we will reap goodness. (Himalayan Academy Publications / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Karma as action and reaction: if we show goodness, we will reap goodness. (Himalayan Academy Publications / CC BY-SA 2.5)

The Upanishads Also Speak of The Beginnings of Karma

Whilst the notion of karma being the principle of cause and effect is not stated explicitly in the Upanishads, there are some teachings in the texts that may be regarded as its precursor. For instance, in one of the texts, the sage Yājñavalkya was asked about the fate of a person after death. The sage replied that a person becomes good by performing good actions and becomes bad by performing bad actions.

One of Yājñavalkya’s essential assumptions is that “present actions have consequences in the future and that our present circumstances have been shaped by our past actions.” But this ancient sage does not indicate that the future is set in stone, and that people can create good consequences in the future by doing good in the present. In other words, Yājñavalkya’s teaching of karma does not present it as a fatalistic doctrine in which the future is pre-determined, but as a concept to encourage good deeds.

A belief connected with karma is that of rebirth or reincarnation. Although Yājñavalkya recognized that karma takes place over multiple lifetimes, he does not explore the issue of rebirth in relation to karma. The relationship between these two concepts, however, is looked at in more detail elsewhere in the Upanishads.

For instance, in one of the Upanishads, Pravāhaṇa Jaivali, a philosopher king, uses a naturalistic philosophy to describe the link between karma and rebirth. In another Upanishad, the same king expounds the teaching of the “five fires,” whereby human life is depicted as a cycle of regeneration, and that the essence of life (the fire) takes on different forms as it passes through the various phases of existence. The five fires can be described as follows,

“when humans die, they are cremated and travel in the form of smoke to the other world (the first fire), where they become soma; as soma they enter a rain cloud (the second fire) and become rain; as rain they return to earth (the third fire), where they become food; as food they enter man (the fourth fire), where they become semen; as semen they enter a woman (the fifth fire) and become an embryo.”

The king adds that those who lived good lives will enter into a “pleasant womb,” i.e., that of members of the higher caste, whereas those who lived bad lives will enter into the wombs of animals or outcasts, thus alluding to karma as the principle of cause and effect. 

The cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth is referred to as saṃsāra, another concept mentioned in the Upanishads. Saṃsāra affects all living things, including the gods, and therefore is a fundamental aspect of existence. Nevertheless, it is also believed that it is possible to escape form this cycle, and achieve mokṣa, or “liberation.” Although this concept would later become another important aspect of Indian thought it was also not explained explicitly in the Upanishads. In fact, in these texts, especially the early ones, life is depicted as pleasant and desirable, and not a condition from which human beings need to liberate themselves.

It is without doubt that the Upanishads were extremely influential in the development of subsequent Indian philosophical and religious thought. The concepts first mentioned in these texts would later be expanded on and developed by later thinkers into the form that we are more familiar with today.

Lastly, it may be said that the Upanishads provide a means of gaining some insight into Indian culture and history, considering the great influence these texts had on later Indian philosophical and religious thought.

Top image: Adi Shankara, 788-820 AD, founder of the Advaita Vedanta, the oldest extant sub-school of Vedānta, a tradition of interpretation of the Upanishads, by Raja Ravi Varma. Source: Raja Ravi Varma / Public domain

By Wu Mingren                                                                                                                          


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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