Introduction to the Upanishads

The word “Upanishad” comes to us from the Sanskrit meaning ‘to sit at the foot of’ -presumably referring to a student or a disciple sitting at the foot of a master, eager to consider his esoteric wisdom. Other translations interpret the Sanskrit to mean “to sit below” or “to sit near.”

The Upanishads are the highest texts of the Vedic scripture, and also they are the most ancient texts of India, and modern scholars seem to search in vain for the origins and authors of these scriptures. As with the Homeric question or the question concerning Biblical authorship, in searching for one single mind from which the Upanishads sprang is a fabled mission, destined to end with modern scholars tilting at windmills.

Classical Hindu schools acknowledge the first 10-12 Upanishads as the Mukhya Upanishads, and they are considered central to the teaching. Each Upanishad is localized to one Brahmana, which then is matched to one of the four Veda. The Upanishads are considered the ‘end’ of each Veda, both as the conclusion and also the teleological purpose. Although impossible to pinpoint, the oldest Upanishads date back to somewhere between the 800-400 B.C. era.

Two concepts are elemental to the ancient Hindu mind: Brahman and Atman. Brahman comes from the Sanskrit word for “all” and appropriately it is the spirit from which all things emanate, the ultimate reality. In Aristotelian terms, Brahman is the material, efficient, formal, and final cause of all things in the cosmos. It is, in vulgar terms, the “highest reality.” Atman is commonly called the soul or self. We might say Brahman is outward truth, and Atman is inward truth. Perhaps as an early root of Greek thought, the Upanishads encourages self knowledge above all else. In addition, it has been said that the Upanishads presents a dualistic cosmos, between Brahman and Atman, however the text is vague on this point as elsewhere it is said that both spirits emanate from the same “oneness”.

The rediscovery of the Upanishads and the Vedas comes to the Western world through the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Schelling, and the American Transcendentalist movement. This fascination with vague, contradictory eastern mysticism pervades Western thought up to the present day.

There exist approximately 112 Upanishads. If collected in whole, they would fill a book about the size of the Bible. However, they have always been scattered and never entirely compiled as a cohesive whole. The notion of one distinct and cohesive book that is complete is a fundamentally Western design. However, the Upanishads are part of the four Vedas: the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, and the Atharvaveda. The Upanishads constitute the Vedanta, or the concluding portions of the Vedas.

Prophecy and Apocalypse in Isaiah

The Book of Isaiah, a favorite of Jesus Christ and his followers, is unique in the Tanakh. While the the author laments the fallen and sinful nature of the Israelites, he looks forward to a future of redemption wherein Jerusalem will regain its glory. The great messiah who will lead Israel out from oppressive occupation under Babylonians is identified as Cyrus the Great of Persia in Chapter 45, though followers of Jesus later interpreted this to mean Jesus Christ, rather than Cyrus.

Curiously within the book of Isaiah is contained an oft repeated line: the Lord will judge the nations of the earth. Almost certainly written in the era post judges, Isaiah is a book that identifies YHWH as a universal god. It espouses one of the earliest conceptions of monotheism. God is both universal and a judger of all nations. Humans are servile, fallen creatures in need of redemption from their own evil devices. One need not stray to far to recognize the radical reversal of archaic Hebrew traditions, as well as the striking connections to the latter day apocalyptic beliefs of the Christians.

In Isaiah we encounter the seed of a schism beginning in Judaism. God has become universal, for all places and all times. In addition, He is now regularly referred as a “redeemer” rather than a powerful Canaanite war-god, as encountered in the Torah. There is also an acknowledged decay among the culture of the Israelites as witnessed by Isaiah. They must be made to fear God, obey the laws, but also long for a future redemption from oppressive nation of Babylon. This apocalyptic future is one in which the lion will be expected to lie down with the lamb, and yet, it will also be a time of great ‘vengeance.’ The self-righteous indignation of Isaiah is most apparent when he appears as a lone voice crying in the wilderness -again, not unlike the figure of Jesus in the Gospels.

Isaiah is, above all, a book of decay.


Michelangelo’s Isaiah at the Sistine Chapel (1508-1511)

For this reading I used the King James Version.