Upanishads: Vedic Scripture of Ancient Hinduism

      Forming core spiritual thoughts of Vedanta Hinduism, Upanishads primarily discuss philosophy, meditation and form of God. Literally meaning as mystic teachings—it means, "sitting near the teacher to learn secret doctrine. It also means Brahm knowledge by which ignorance is loosened or destroyed. Originally, there were around 1200 different Upanishads but later on only about 108 remained available. Upanishads take Vedic learning to highest metaphysical state beyond which is only realm of silence. Upanishads have explained and elaborated on identity of Brahman, Jivatma, 'you are that', the quest for unity in diversity and law of Karma. Upanishads characterize universality. Upanishads deal with their subject matter in such details that these are beyond any possible controversy in terms of their principles. All sides of arguments are discussed and deliberated to reach the truth in a unique manner where there is no room for any one to express difference of opinions or ask for evidences and arguments. Truly speaking, these are highest level of philosophy ever conceived by human mind.

Upanishads basically develop the Vedic ideas and symbols and provide them new meanings as a proof of awakening of mind. With the passage of time, old ideas are always reinterpreted in newer lights and with newer explanations. To that extent, Upanishads are but a natural expansion of Vedic doctrines in so far as these belong to philosophical contents and ignoring Vedic emphasis on rituals and sacrifices as external offerings for pleasing the Gods for seeking personal blessings.

      Upanishads basically develop the Vedic ideas and symbols and provide them new meanings as a proof of awakening of mind. With the passage of time, old ideas are always reinterpreted in newer lights and with newer explanations. To that extent, Upanishads are but a natural expansion of Vedic doctrines in so far as these belong to philosophical contents and ignoring Vedic emphasis on rituals and sacrifices as external offerings for pleasing the Gods for seeking personal blessings.

      Upanishads are product by groups of mystics embarking on the peaceful conquest of inner space. By the time Upanishads were starting to get compiled at Guru Kuls (forest academies) in north of India, external rituals were getting faded and were getting increasingly replaced by rigorous introspection. The worshippers had been over Vedic rituals as the only route for seeking their divinity. They were no more that focused on directing all their attention on the Devas of Vedas. The focus was certainly changing from external performance of a rite to its interior significance. The entire focus of Upanishads was on the 'Atman', the Self within, which is supposed to be identical with the 'Brahman'.

      The format of Upanishads is pretty bizarre and full of riddles and hence quite hard to penetrate easily. To a new reader without much background of Indian scriptures, these will sound incredible statements of abstract thinking so difficult to comprehend. It must have been the practice of the day that sages choose to write using as few words as possible to convey the point in view rather than systematic writing like now a day. As prevalent in that period, a debate will follow with arguments and counter arguments being hurled from either side of the debaters but finally the debate will end with one side of contestants falling silent. Their silence leads the reader to probable final position. It was certainly a very unique but very interesting indication of developing a consensus on spiritual matters. Many of these debates have involved influential kings and their priests to indicate the importance these commanded.

      The great conclusions of Upanishads cannot be easily understood using the lenses of logic or sense perception. Deep understanding will require long period of meditation training so that the seeker is able to develop total transformation of looking at self and the rest of the world outside. I am taking pain to explain to first time readers to ensure that you do not get discouraged in your efforts to comprehend the meaning in very first or initial efforts. Please remember that there is deepest possible treasure of spiritual knowledge lying beneath our Upanishads and additional patience required for sharpening your understanding will be worth all efforts.

      But let us not assume that entire population of that time was equally involved in pursuing studying Vedas or Brahmanas or Upanishads. As is always the case, in all times and cultures, during this period also there were only a handful of enlightened spiritually inclined members of academies which were involved in creating new Upanishads. Only those select few were drawn to contemplate and come up with their own renditions of specific aspects of ultimate supreme power governing this universe vis-a-vis human mind. Spirituality, by its very nature does not attract every one as it always required special talent, intelligence level and deep desire to shift focus from externally visible objects of attachment to the internal Shunya (vacuum of inside world of a human), it is easy to assume that it was not, and it will never be, for all ordinary people.

      Many people even at this point of history were offering rituals and sacrifices in traditional Vedic ways. External symbols are easy to visualize and hence, draw ordinary people. In all times, deeper subjects attract but only a handful of people. What is interesting is to note that the results of their findings effect humanity at large. Certainly; concentrating human mind with its monkey like nature on the core of human of inside would have been as difficult in ancient times as it is today.

      Sages of Upanishads were aiming at enhancing spirituality of their students so that they are moved away from carnally oriented thinking. In that process, the sages used to ponder problems of the deepest concerns of the human beings. With to and from communication between the teachers and students, new theories were devised. Idea was to prompt students to respond spiritually for which it was like mandatory for the students to develop spiritual dispositions. With the same purpose in mind, the language was reticence where as few words were used as possible so that the person uses his own contemplation to understand the true meaning hidden behind the words.

      The two earliest Upanishads are Brhadarankya and Chandogya. A single author writes neither. These are anthologies of separate texts put together at a later stage by different editors. It might be safely concluded that the process of compiling an Upanishads would have been where a particular new idea was developed by Brahmin Teachers originally and discussed among the fellow gurus and disciples at the academy. Later, the revised theme was well debated among other Brahmins, kings and learned Kshatriyas leading to fresh refinements. Finally, after incorporating all the points, final text was getting compiled by lead Guru of the concerned academy. The learned people involved in such debates came from diverse background of social structures and classes. Anyone with right orientation without considering what his class is was welcome to participate in evolution and debates of these ideas. This democratic approach resulted in very cross-cultural contributions bringing out these unique ideas.

      This has no parallel in human history which has rather seen continuous violence and hatred for each one's own view point on all matters including theology and spirituality. Growth of spirituality is known to progress in the serene, peaceful and congenial environment where there is no horror of aggression or deprivation or violence among majority of inhabitants.

      Ideas of Upanishads were to help us rise beyond the glamour of fleshly life. The authors of Upanishad share with us their own experiences of divine efforts and the successes achieved by them in visualizing the splendours of the unknown. Since there is a minimum level of spiritual awakening being necessary to appreciate these findings, these teachings made more sense only to selected few who have been able to cross a threshold limit of spiritual awakening. Also, these experiences were desired to be well guarded and were to be shared with eligible candidates. Chandyoga Upanishad says that secret doctrines of Brahman may be shared by a father only with his elder son or a trusted pupil alone but not with any other person even if that person offers the whole world with all its treasures. The sages were to share these sacred teachings with strict testing about capability and willingness of their pupils.

      The theme of Upanishads moves away from Vedic hymns and gets engaged in searching the reality which lies beneath the flux of things — "what is that which being known, everything else becomes known?" Actually, going a step further, there are several indicators in Upanishads which clearly make adverse comment on empty barren ritualistic religion being propagated by Brahmanas based on Vedic rituals. The understanding by this time had improved to conclude that undertaking rituals and sacrifices do not lead to liberation but, at best, takes us to the world of Fathers from where one has to come back again to the earth in new life in due course. Also that when all the things already belong to the God, what is the point in making any offering of the material things? After all, what can be given by a human to a God? Upanishads highlighted one's own self and one's own will as the right offerings to be made to God.

      Special mention is required for Yajnavalka who was the personal philosopher of King Janak of Videha who himself is known as leading exponent of emerging spirituality of his time. Yajnavalka is credited to come up with one of the most critical finding ever that each human has an immortal spark at his core, which participated in and was of the same nature as the immortal Brahman that sustained and gave life to this cosmos. This was a discovery of great relevance and later became central insight in every major religious tradition. People called it 'Atman' or 'soul' or 'rooh' but it was established that there is some thing which remains even after the physical body gets destroyed.

      During Vedic period, the view was that it is immortal Brahman that gave life and sustains to the entire cosmos. New Spirituality of Upanishads focused on Atman as an immortal spark at the core of the human person. The ultimate reality was very much permanent and was having everlasting presence in every single human being which can be discovered in the depth of Self "Atman". This means that an enlightened person could experience transcendence by exploring and tuning the mysteries of their own nature rather than by taking part in magical external rituals. As in a dreaming stage during the sleep, one take external world apart and create his own joy, pleasure, delight, fears, pressures etc. But what happens in dreams is only a temporary release similar to orgasm. The moment the person is awakened, the dream gets over and reality takes over. But such joys and pleasures are just momentary and are just like a glimpse or peep of the permanent liberation which is the ultimate aim of all spiritual quests. It is in such an enlightened state of permanence that the sage experiences the Atman. Simply put, once a person is able to reach the depth of his own inward world and come across his own Self, he is bound to experience the orgasm like joy constantly without any disruption or fear of ending.

      Knowledge of deep inner self is an experience of bliss. This knowledge lay beyond concepts and did not depend upon logical deduction. Logic is meant for a mechanical mind. Contrary to that, bliss is rather an awareness of an inner light within the heart. Before this, the followers of Vedic rituals believed that the Self was perceived by accumulating a stock of perfectly executed sacrifices. But by the time of Upanishads, it was agreed that simple rituals were not enough and that the internal self was possible to be conditioned only by our actions, thoughts and experiences. This is the doctrine which got popular as a new concept and was later called "Karma". In later periods, as we all know, Karma became and continues to be basic tenet of Indian spirituality. It was here in Upanishad stage that Karma was first introduced to Indian philosophy.

      The Upanishads were promoting yet another basic theme of Indian spiritual thought of "Moksha" (liberation of soul), from painful cycle of life and death. With proper deliberations and taking the internal Self experience to its final stage, Moksha was taken as the ultimate goal of spiritual life. It was also realized by sages that Moksha couldn't be achieved by external rituals but only by the quest of interior knowledge. The Atman is not considered as soul or psyche as Indian spirituality didn't separate body from spirit unlike Christianity rather saw human being as a composite whole.

      There is another way of linking Upanishads with Rig-Veda; while Rig-Veda dealt with five elements of which the human body is made of. It suggested that the body dies and get merged into the five elements that it is made of. But Upanishads raised the questions of what happens to the soul? Upanishads constantly talk about "Transmigration", yet other basic tenets of Indian thoughts. Looking to momentary, petty and frivolous existence of human life, some people started feeling that the cycle of life and death need to be broken by getting out of this vicious cycle. These people got engaged in searching for ways to get out of the said cycle. Upanishads offered a way to such people by offering them ways and means of conquest over rebirth by exposing such person with the complete knowledge of Atman and following the teachings suggested in Upanishads. This was a big shift as until then, the Brahmanas were promising the same thing to every person who had acquired the right knowledge and was performing the rituals in complete manner. It takes years to open up the depths of the Self through silence, meditation and spiritual discipline that leads the aspirant to realize the futility of desiring transient desires and objects. Many more ways of achieving Moksha were to be worked upon by later sages who came out with alternate philosophies for this very purpose like Nynyu, Vuishcshika, Sankhya and Yoga. All these are shared out in sufficient details under a specific chapter dedicated to Indian Philosophies.

      As mentioned earlier that there are about 108 Upanishads available out of a total of about twelve hundred composed initially. But the great thinker of all time, Shankaracharya wrote his detailed commentaries on eleven of these. Relying on his intellectual judgement and theological supreme knowledge, only those eleven Upanishads are considered main Upanishads until present time. The names of these eleven are — Isa, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, Brahad-arnakya and Swetashvatara. (Radhakrishnan)

      In addition, there are many others Upanishads which are actually more religious than philosophical in their contents. This justifies their classification under Puranas and Tantra rather than Vedanta. As mentioned earlier, the Upanishads were compiled as a group effort and hence are not attributed to any specific composers but main doctrines of Upanishads are attributed to sages by the names of Aruni, Yajnavalkya, Balaki, Svetaketu, and Sandilya. Most of these are supposed to have been composed during 800 BC to 500 BC period. There is fair amount of certainty for their composition period as Gautama Buddha has been found to rely on some of these during evolving his separate theology. Undoubtedly; these are earliest philosophical compositions of the whole world.

      Various Upanishads are related to different Vedic traditions and family lineage but their source of stories are common and all through, these remain tied into a common thread and also remain in communication with each other. Bridging Brahmanas and Upanishads and overlapping both these are another group of Vedic literature called Aranyakas. As the very name suggests, Aranyakas were composed in forests but dealt more with rituals and much less with metaphysics like Upanishads did.

      Dara Shikoh is credited with translation of many Upanishads into Persian language (1656-57) and from Persian these also got translated to Latin and finally reached to the Western world. Upanishad belong to Axial Era named by Karl Jaspers which cover the period of 800 BC to 300 BC, when for the first time and almost simultaneously; mankind in Greece, China and India are said to have questioned the traditional pattern of life and focused to look to the depth of individual soul.

      Upanishads are also called "Gyan Khand" of Veda meaning 'knowledge portion' of Vedic scriptures. The famous Brahmsutra is an aphoristic summary of the teachings contained in Upanishads and commentaries prepared by learned thinkers on Brahmsutra forms the basis of all philosophical approaches of Vedic branch. To that extent, Brahmsutra are truly called seeds which can be planted to let grow into full fledged trees with the efforts of a great mind.

      My reader may have noticed that I have been constantly mentioning only Indian thoughts and not Hindu thoughts. It is precisely because until this stage of history, there was no separation or segregation in different branches. Jainism and Buddhism alike with their own interpretations also accept Upanishad's teachings equally. This speaks universality of these teachings. The moment we connect these thoughts to Hinduism, there is a risk of limiting their true nature. One must be clear with the real definition of Hinduism (the one which relates to Sanatan Dharma with all its inclusiveness and all pervading moral and social harmony among all elements and living beings of this universe) before proudly identifying Vedas and Upanishads with Hinduism. Clearly, limiting the scope of these infallible scriptures with generally understood Hinduism (being one among Christianity, Islam and likes) will be a great injustice to their universal character.

      The Upanishads are undoubtedly great heritage of entire mankind for eternity.

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