The Upanishads are either a scattered collection of esoteric writings, filled with conflicting messages, or they contain a coherent Vedanta teaching, as demonstrated by later dogmatists. Though they are the collected writings concluding many of the Vedas (the Sanskrit word for either “knowledge” or “wisdom”), the Upanishads are often recognized for the most relevant 10-14 scriptures, and they were developed as explanations for the ancient Vedic rituals by the Brahmin, or priestly caste.
In order to examine this conflict, we acknowledge several common points.
As with much of ancient literature, the content of the Upanishads is the result of intergenerational oral recitations, and thus there is no single authority. That is to say, the Upanishads cannot be considered a whole or a part of a whole. The texts are frequently mystical and inconsistent. Later factions were formed within Vedanta by identifying particular texts and ways of reading them. For example, much of the Vedic literature is devoted to detailing proper rituals, while the Upanishads are the portions devoted to discussing theology. However, is there a cogent piece that unifies the seemingly disparate Upanishad texts? Is there a teaching that can be gleaned from the Upanishads?
Because there is nothing comprehensive in the Upanishads we must limit our speech. First, we survey the gods of the ancient Upanishads. Agni is the god of fire who is sorely embarrassed by his lack of power over Brahman (the Supreme Spirit) when failing to ignite straw in the Kena Upanishad, Indra is the god war and thunder who leads the other gods into battle, Vayu is the wind god, Ratri is the god of night, Usha is the god of dawn, Surya is the sun god who rides his chariot across the sky Phoebos to the Greeks, Satiri is the god the sky and giver of life, and Yama is the first creature to die and is thus the god of the underworld.
Second, a common theme that is ubiquitous throughout the Upanishads is the desire to either discover the Atman (innermost self) or to release the Atman from the transience of ordinary life, through Moksha or liberation. Here we make mention of an early Buddhist seed -a great longing to draw inward, seek redemption from the burdens of daily life, and also we recognize the fruits of later religious dogmas, such as Christianity, that offer redemption from the problem of human suffering.
Third, the sacred word OM is a vague term that is described in the Mandukya Upanishad as “eternal” and “what was, what is and what shall be, and what is beyond eternity. All is OM.” The first sound is a, meaning waking consciousness that is common to all men, the second is u meaning dreaming, and the third sound is m meaning sleeping consciousness. The full word OM is the fourth state of supreme consciousness. Eternally, this sacred word is said to bring the human being beyond the senses and the end of evolution.
Fourth, key ideas introduced include: yoga meaning the act of meditation and contemplation allowing the wise to “see the power of a god.” As in Greek philosophy and Confucianism, there is an obsession with ritual and “right actions” undertaken in the Upanishads, as in the case of Dharma (meaning “right action”), Karma (“action”), and Moksha.
The Upanishads shares common themes to other theological texts. The Upanishads predicate their teachings on “revelation,” they are darshana, or “something seen.” Revealed truths were to be studied and memorized by classical students for twelve years before students could be examined on their learning. It is unclear to what extent the Upanishads advise humans to pursue knowledge, or, instead, to resist the transience of thought and otherwise seek “eternity.” Perhaps the most significant transformation come to us from the Upanishads, as a scattered collection of ontological teachings from the East, is the idea of eternity -later adopted by all monotheistic religions, as well as others not typically considered ‘theistic’, such as Buddhism. The notion of the eternal is a significant shift away from the transient world, for example the gods of the Greeks were very much present in the everyday. However eternity stultifies the human mind that is naturally prone to understanding causes, first and final.
For this reading I used the Penguin Classics Edition translated by Juan Mascaro.