What Is The Teaching Of The Upanishads?

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 meaning dreaming, and the third sound is 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.

Notes on the Isha Upanishad

In the Isha Upanishad (perhaps meaning hidden or enveloped in the lord or ruler), there is an acknowledgement of the distinction between the ‘transient’ and the ‘eternal.’ In the opening line, the eternal is identified as superior to the transient. One who dwells exceedingly on the latter will descend into darkness, but one who acts according to the former, and sees himself in light of all things in the cosmos, loses fear. Christianity embraces a like-minded dualism, though the self is not annihilated or subjugated to the greater universe.

Similar to the project embarked upon by Lucretius in his later Epicurean work entitled De Rerum Natura, the Isha Upanishad attempts to address man’s primal fear. This fear is best described as the terror of death in light of eternity, or the gripping fear that comes from an awareness of the cold, purposeless, and chaotic cosmos. The author advises us to see ourselves in everything, and thus to lose fear. Death is not unique, as it would be infinitely to the solipsist, but rather a part of the greater unfolding of all things. Another way of formulating the proposition is to say that fear grows from a demonstrative belief in the self alone, divorced from the rest of the cosmos. By shedding this fear, a “sage” can also necessarily depart from his delusions and sorrows.

The Isha Upanishad, although one of the shortest Upanishads, also advises against both “action” and “knowledge,” for both lead down a path to deeper darkness. Man is positioned at a great abyss -transience leads man into darkness, and knowledge and action lead man into an even greater darkness. However, curiously by knowing both, a sage can overcome death and reach immortality.

The Upanishad closes with a prayer to the spirit or god to “reveal” the hidden truth, and to the sun containing the sacred word “OM”, and a plea to shed the body so that it may become ashes in favor of remembrance of “past strivings.” As the scripture concludes, the author longs to follow the path of the good.


For this reading I used the Penguin Classics Edition translated by Juan Mascaro.

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.