Introduction to The Principal upaniShads

By S. Radhakrishnan

General Influence

The upaniShads represent a great chapter in the history of the human spirit and have dominated Indian philosophy, religion and life for three thousand years. Every subsequent religious movement has had to show itself to be in accord with their philosophical statements. Even doubting and denying spirits found in them anticipations of their hesitancies, misgivings and negations. They have survived many changes, religious and secular, and helped many generations of men to formulate their views on the chief problems of life and existence.

Their thought by itself and through Buddhism influenced even in ancient times the cultural life of other nations far beyond the boundaries of India, Greater India, Tibet, China, Japan and Korea and in the South, in Ceylon, the Malay Peninsula and far away in the islands of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. In the West, the tracks of Indian thought may be traced far into Central Asia, where, buried in the sands of the desert, were found Indian texts. [ 'For the historian, who pursues the history of human thought, the upaniShads have a yet far greater significance. From the mystical doctrines of the upaniShads, one current of thought may be traced to the mysticism of the Persian Sufism, to the mystic, theosophical logos doctrine of the Neo-Platonics and the Alexandrian Christian mystics, Eckhart and Tauler, and finally to the philosophy of the great German mystic of the nineteenth century, Schopenhauer.' Winternitz: A History of Indian Literature. E. T. Vol I (1927), p. 266. See Eastern Religions and Western Thought. Second Edition (1940), Chapters IV, V, VI, VII. It is said that Schopenhauer had the Latin text of the upaniShads on his table and 'was in the habit, before going to bed, of performing his devotions from its pages.' Bloomfield: Religion of the Veda (1908), p. 55. 'From every sentence {of the upaniShads}, deep original and sublime thoughts arise, and the whole is pervaded by a high and holy and earnest spirit. In the whole world ... there is no study ... so beneficial and so elevating as that of the upaniShads. They are products of the highest wisdom. They are destined sooner or later to become the faith of the people.' Schopenhauer. ]

The upaniShads have shown an unparalleled variety of appeal during these long centuries and have been admired by different people, for different reasons, at different periods. They are said to provide us with a complete chart of the unseen Reality, to give us the most immediate, intimate and convincing light on the secret of human existence, to formulate, in Deussen's words, 'philosophical conceptions unequalled in India or perhaps anywhere else in the world,' or to tackle every fundamental problem of philosophy. [ Cp. W. B. Yeats: 'Nothing that has disturbed the schools to controversy escaped their notice.' Preface to the Ten Principal upaniShads (1937), p. II. ] All this may be so or may not be so. But of one thing there is no dispute, that those earnest spirits have known the fevers and ardours of religious seeking; they have expressed that pensive mood of the thinking mind which finds no repose except in the Absolute, no rest except in the Divine. The ideal which haunted the thinkers of the upaniShads, the ideal of man's ultimate beatitude, the perfection of knowledge, the vision of the Real in which the religious hunger of the mystic for divine vision and the philosopher's ceaseless quest for truth are both satisfied is still our ideal. A. N. Whitehead speaks to us of the real which stands behind and beyond and within the passing flux of this world, 'something which is real and yet waiting to be realised, something which is a remote possibility and yet the greatest of present facts, something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal and the hopeless quest.' [Science and the Modern World, (1933), p. 238.] A metaphysical curiosity for a theoretical explanation of the world as much as a passionate longing for liberation is to be found in the upaniShads. Their ideas do not only enlighten our minds but stretch our souls.

If the ideas of the upaniShads help us to rise above the glamour of the fleshy life, it is because their authors, pure of soul, ever striving towards the divine, reveal to us their pictures of the splendours of the unseen. The upaniShads are respected not because they are a part of shruti or revealed literature and so hold a reserved position but because they have inspired generations of Indians with vision and strength by their inexhaustible significance and spiritual power. Indian thought has contantly turned to these scriptures for fresh illumination and spiritual recovery or recommencement, and not in vain. The fire still burns bright on their altars. Their light is for the seeing eye and their message is for the seeker after truth. [ In an article on Christian VedAntism, Mr. R. Gordon Milburn writes, 'Christianity in India needs the VedAnta. We missionaries have not realised this with half the clearness that we should. We cannot move freely and joyfully in our own religion; because we have not sufficient terms and modes of expression wherewith to express the more immanental aspects of Christianity. A very useful step would be the recognition of certain books or passages in the literature of the VedAnta as constituting what might be called an Ethnic Old Testament. The permission of ecclesiastical authorities could then be asked for reading passages found in such a canon of Ethnic Old Testament at divine service along with passages from the New Testament as alternatives to the Old Testament lessons.' Indian Interpreter. 1913. ]

The Term 'upaniShad'

The word 'upaniShad' is derived from upa (near), ni (down) and sad (to sit), i.e., sitting down near. Groups of pupils sit near the teacher to learn from him the secret doctrine. In the quietude of forest hermitages the upaniShad thinkers pondered on the problems of the deepest concern and communicated their knowledge to fit pupils near them. The seers adopt a certain reticence in communicating the truth. They wish to be satisfied that their pupils are spiritually and not carnally minded. [ Cp. Plato: 'To find the Father and Maker of this universe is a hard task; and when you have found him, it is impossible to speak of him before all people.' Timaeus. ] To respond to spiritual teaching, we require the spiritual disposition.

The upaniShads contain accounts of the mystic significance of the syllable aum, explanations of mystic words like tajjalAn, which are intelligible only to the initiated, and secret texts and esoteric doctrines. upaniShad became a name for a mystery, a secret, rahasyam, communicated only to the tested few. [ guhyA AdesAH - ChAndogya upaniShad  III. 52;  paramaM guhyam - KaTha upaniShad  I. 3. 17; vedAnte paramaM guhyam - SvetAsvatara upaniShad  VI. 22;  vedaguhyam, vedaguhyopaniShatsu gUDham - SvetAsvatara upaniShad  V. 6;  guhyalamam - MaitrI upaniShad  VI. 29;  abhayaM vai brahma bhavati ya evaM veda, iti rahasyam - NrhsiMhottaratApanI upanishad  VIII;  dHarme rahasy upaniShat syAt - Amarakosa;  upaniShadaM rahasyam yac cintyam - shankara on Kena upaniShad  IV. 7.  The injunction of secrecy about the mysteries reserved for the initiated is found among the Orphics and the Pythagoreans. ] When the question of man's final destiny was raised, yAjnavalkya took his pupil aside and whispered to him the truth. [ bRhad-AraNyaka upaniShad III. 2. 13. ] According to the chAndogya upaniShad, the doctrine of brahman may be imparted by a father to his elder son or to a trusted pupil, but not to another, whoever he may be, even if the latter should give him the whole earth surrounded by the waters and filled with treasures. [ III. 11. 5; bRhad-AraNyaka upaniShad III. 2. 13. ] In many cases it is said that the teacher communicates the secret knowledge only after repeated entreaty and severe testing.

shankara derives the word upaniShad as a substantive from the root sad, 'to loosen', 'to reach' or 'to destroy' with upa and ni as prefixes and kvip as termination. [ Introduction to the KaTha upaniShad.  In his commentary on TaittirIya upaniShad, he says, upaniShannaM vA asyAm paraM sreya iti. If this derivation is accepted, upaniShad means brahma-knowledge by which ignorance is loosened or destroyed. The treatises that deal with brahma-knowledge are called the upaniShads and so pass for the VedAnta. The different derivations together make out that the upaniShads give us both spiritual vision and philosophical argument. [ Oldenberg suggests that the real sense of upaniShad is worship or reverence, which the word upAsana signifies. upAsana brings about oneness with the object worshipped. See Keith: The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and the upaniShads (1925), p. 492. ] There is a core of certainty which is essentially incommunicable except by a way of life. It is by a strictly personal effort that one can reach the truth.

Number, Date and Authorship

The upaniShads form a literature which has been growing from early times. Their number exceeds two hundred, though the Indian tradition puts it at one hundred and eight. [ See the muktikA upaniShad, where it is said that salvation may be attained by a study of the hundred and eight upaniShads. I. 30-39 ] Prince Muhammad Dara Shikoh's collection translated into Persian (1656-1657) and then into Latin by Anquetil Duperron (1801 and 1802) under the title Oupnekhat, contained about fifty. Colebrooke's collection contained fifty-two, and this was based on nArAyaNa's list (c. A.D. 1400). The principal upaniShads are said to be ten. shankara commented on eleven, Isa, kena, kaTha, prasna, muNDaka, mANDUkya, taittirIya, aitareya, chAndogya, bRhad-AraNyaka and svetAsvatara. He also refers to the kauShItakI, jAbAla, mahAnArAyaNa and paingala upaniShads in his commentary on the brahma sUtra. These together with the maitrAyaNIya or maitrI upaniShad constitute the principal upaniShads. rAmAnuja uses all these upaniShads as also the subAla and the cUlika. He mentions also the garbha, the jAbAla and the mahA upaniShads. vidyAraNya includes nrsimhottara-tApanI upaniShad among the twelve he explained in his sarvopaniShad-arthAnubhUti-prakAsa. The other upaniShads which have come down are more religious than philosophical. They belong more to the purANa and the tantra than to the veda. They glorify vedAnta or yoga or sanyAsa or extol the worship of siva, sakti or viShNu. [ There is, however, considerable argument about the older and more original upaniShads. Max Müller translated the elevan upaniShads quoted by shankara together with maitrAyaNIya. Deussen, though he translated no less than sixty, considers that fourteen of them are original and have a connection with Vedic schools. Hume translated the twelve which Max Müller selected and added to them the mAndUkya. Keith in his Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and upaniShads includes the mahAnArAyaNa. His list of fourteen is the same as that of Deussen.
English translations of the upaniShads have appeared in the following order: Ram Mohan Roy (1832), Roer (1853), (Bibliotheca Indica) Max Müller (1879-1884) Sacred Books of the East, Mead and Chattopadhyaya (1896, London Theosophical Society), Sitaram Sastri and Ganganath Jha (1898-1901), (G. A. Natesan, Madras), Sitanath Tattvabhusan (1900), S. C. Vasu (1911), R. Hume (1921). E. B. Cowell, Hiriyanna, Dvivedi, Mahadeva Sastri and Sri Aurobindo have published translations of a few upaniShads.
shankara's commentaries on the principal upaniShads are available in English translations also. His interpretations are from the standpoint of advaita or non-dualism. Rangaramanuja has adopted the point of view of rAmAnuja in his commentaries on the upaniShads. Madhva's commentaries are from the standpoint of dualism. Extracts from his commentaries are found in the edition of the upaniShads published by the pANini Office, Allahabad. ]

Modern criticism is generally agreed that the ancient prose upaniShads, aitareya, kauShItakI, chAndogya, kena, taittirIya and bRhad-AraNyaka, together with Isa and kaTha belong to the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. They are all pre-Buddhistic. They represent the vedAnta in its pure original form and are the earliest philosophical compositions of the world. These upaniShads belong to what Karl Jaspers calls the Axial Era of the world, 800 to 300 B.C., when man for the first time simultaneously and independently in Greece, China and India questioned the traditional pattern of life.

As almost all the early literature of India was anonymous, we do not know the names of the authors of the upaniShads. Some of the chief doctrines of the upaniShads are associated with the names of renowned sages as AruNi, yAjnavalkya, bAlAki, svetaketu, sANDilya. They were, perhaps, the early exponents of the doctrines attributed to them. The teachings were developed in pariShads or spiritual retreats where teachers and pupils discussed and defined the different views.

As a part of the Veda, the upaniShads belong to sruti or revealed literature. They are immemorial, sanAtana, timeless. Their truths are said to be breathed out by God or visioned by the seers. They are the utterances of the sages who speak out of the fullness of their illumined experience. They are not reached by ordinary perception, inference or reflection, [ They are relevant in matters which cannot be reached by perception and inference. aprApte sAstram arthavat. mImAmsA sUtra I. 1. 5. ] but seen by the seers, even as we see and not infer the wealth and riot of colour in the summer sky. The seers have the same sense of assurance and possession of their spiritual vision as we have of our physical perception. The sages are men of 'direct' vision, in the words of yAska, sAkShAt-kRhta-dharmANaH, and the records of their experiences are the facts to be considered by any philosophy of religion. The truth revealed to the seers are not mere reports of introspection which are purely subjective. The inspired sages proclaim that the knowledge they communicate is not what they discover for themselves. It is revealed to them without their effort. [ puruSha-prayatnam vinA prakaTIbhUta. shankara. ] Though the knowledge is an experience of the seer, it is an experience of an independent reality which impinges on his consciousness. There is the impact of the real on the spirit of the experiencer. It is therefore said to be a direct disclosure from the 'wholly other', a revelation of the Divine. Symbolically, the upaniShads describe revelation as the breath of God blowing on us. 'Of that great being, this is the breath, which is the Rhg Veda.' [ bRhad-AraNyaka upaniShad II. 1. 10; muNDka upaniShad II. 1. 6; Rhg Veda X. 90. 9. ] The divine energy is compared to the breath which quickens. It is a seed which fertilises or a flame which kindles the human spirit to its finest issues. It is interesting to know that the bRhad-AraNyaka upaniShad tells us that not only the Vedas but history, sciences and other studies are also 'breathed forth by the great God.' [ II. 4. 10. The naiyAyikas maintain that the Vedas were composed by God, while the mImAmsakas hold that they were not composed at all either by man or by God, but have existed from all eternity in the form of sounds. It is perhaps a way of saying that the timeless truths of eternity exist from everlasting to everlasting. Aristotle regards the fundamental truths of religion as eternal and indestructible. ]

The Vedas were composed by the seers when they were in a state of inspiration. He who inspires them is God. [With reference to the prophets, Athenagoras says: 'While entranced and deprived of their natural powers of reason by the influence of the Divine Spirit, they uttered that which was wrought in them, the spirit using them as its instrument as a flute-player might blow a flute.' Apol. IX.
Cp. 'Howbeit, when he the spirit of truth is come he shall guide you unto all the truth; for he shall not speak for himself, but whatsoever things he shall hear, these shall he speak.' John XVI. 13. ]
Truth is impersonal, apauruSheya and eternal, nitya. Inspiration is a joint activity, of which man's contemplation and God's revelation are two sides. The svetAsvatara upaniShad says that the sage svetAsvatara saw the truth owing to his power of contemplation, tapaH-prabhAva, and the grace of God, deva-prasAda. [ VI. 21. ] The dual significance of revelation, its subjective and objective character, is suggested here.

The upaniShads are vehicles more of spiritual illumination than of systematic reflection. They reveal to us a world of rich and varied spiritual experience rather than a world of abstract philosophical categories. Their truths are verified not only by logical reason but by personal experience. Their aim is practical rather than speculative. Knowledge is a means to freedom. Philosophy, brahma-vidyA, is the pursuit of wisdom by a way of life.

The upaniShads as the VedAnta

The vedAnta meant originally the upaniShads, though the word is now used for the system of philosophy based on the upaniShads. Literally, vedAnta means the end of the Veda, vedasya antaH, the conclusion as well as the goal of the Vedas. The upaniShads are the concluding portions of the Vedas. Chronologically they come at the end of the Vedic period. As the upaniShads contain abstruse and difficult discussions of ultimate philosophical problems, they were taught to the pupils at about the end of their course. When we have Vedic recitations as religious exercises, the end of these recitals is generally from the upaniShads. The chief reason why the upaniShads are called the end of the Veda is that they represent the central aim and meaning of the teaching of the Veda. [ tileShu tailavad vede vedAntaH su-pratiShTHitaH. muktikA upaniShad. I. 9. Again, vedA brahmAtma-viShayA. bhAgavata. XI. 21. 35. Atmaikatva-vidyA-pratipattaye sarve-vedAntA Arabhyante. shankara's Commentary on the brahma sUtra Introduction. vedAnto nAma upaniShat pramANam. vedAnta-sAra. ] The content of the upaniShads is vedAnta vijnAnam, the wisdom of the vedAnta. [ muNDaka upaniShad. III. 2. 6. svetAsvatara upaniShad speaks of the highest mystery in the vedAnta. vedAnte paramam guhyam VI. 22. ] The samhitAs and the brAhmaNas, which are the hymns and the liturgical books, represent the karma-kANDa or the ritual portion, while the upaniShads represent the jnAna-kANDa or the knowledge portion. The learning of the hymns and the performance of the rites are a preparation of true enlightenment. [ Much of the material in the chAndogya upaniShad and bRhad-AraNyaka upaniShad belongs properly to the brAhmaNas. ]

The upaniShads describe to us the life of spirit, the same yesterday, to-day and for ever. But our apprehensions of the life of spirit, the symbols by which we express it, change with time. All systems of orthodox Indian thought accept the authoritativeness of the Vedas, [ Even the Buddhists and the Jainas accept the teaching of the upaniShads, though they interpret it in their own ways. See Introduction to Dhamma-pada and ViseShAvasyaka bhAShya, Yasovijaya Jaina GranthamAlA. No. 35. ] but give themselves freedom in their interpretation. This variety of interpretation is made possible by the fact that the upaniShads are not the thoughts of a single philosopher or a school of philosophers who follow a single tradition. They are the teachings of thinkers who were interested in different aspects of the philosophical problem, and therefore offer solutions of problems which vary in their interest and emphasis. There is thus a certain amount of fluidity in their thought which has been utilised for the development of different philosophical systems. Out of the wealth of suggestions and speculations contained in them, different thinkers choose elements for the construction of their own systems, not infrequently even through a straining of the texts. Though the upaniShads do not work out a logically coherent system of metaphysics, they give us a few fundamental doctrines which stand out as the essential teaching of the early upaniShads. These are recapitulated in the brahma sUtra.

The brahma sUtra is an aphoristic summary of the teaching of the upaniShads, and the great teachers of the vedAnta develop their distinctive views through their commentaries on this work. By interpreting the sUtras which are laconic in form and hardly intelligible without interpretation, the teachers justify their views to the reasoning intelligence.

Different commentators attempt to find in the upaniShads and the brahma sUtra a single coherent doctrine, a system of thought which is free from contradictions. bhartRhprapanca, who is anterior to shankara, maintains that the selves and the physical universe are real, though not altogether different from brahman. They are both identical with and different from brahman, the three together constituting a unity in diversity. Ultimate Reality evolves into the universal creation sRhShTi and the universe retreats into it at the time of dissolution, pralaya. [ See Indian Antiquary (1924), pp. 77-86 ]

The advaita of shankara insists on the transcendent nature of non-dual brahman and the duality of the world including isvara who presides over it. Reality is brahman or Atman. No prediction is possible of brahman as prediction involves duality and brahman is free from all duality. The world of duality is empirical or phenomenal. The saving truth which redeems the individual from the stream of births and deaths is the recognition of his own identity with the Supreme. 'That thou art' is the fundamental fact of all existence. [ chAndogya upaniShad VI. 8. 7; bRhad-AraNyaka upaniShad I. 4. 10. ] The multiplicity of the universe, the unending stream of life, is real, but only as a phenomenon.

rAmAnuja qualifies the non-dual philosophy so as to make the personal God supreme. While brahman, souls and the world are all different and eternal, they are at the same time inseparable. [ a-pRhthak-siddha. ] Inseparability is not identity. brahman is related to the two others as soul to body. They are sustained by Him and subject to His control. rAmAnuja says that while God exists for Himself, matter and souls exist for His sake and subserve His purposes. The three together form an organic whole. brahman is the inspiring principle of the souls and the world. The souls are different from, but not independent of, God. They are said to be one only in the sense that they all belong to the same class. The ideal is the enjoyment of freedom and bliss in the world of nArAyaNa, and the means to it is either prapatti or bhakti. The individual souls, even when they are freed through the influence of their devotion and the grace of God, retain their separate individuality. For him and Madhva, God, the author of all grace, saves those who give to Him the worship of love and faith.

For Madhva there are five eternal distinctions between (1) God and the individual soul, (2) God and matter, (3) soul and matter, (4) one soul and another, (5) one particle of matter and another. The supreme being endowed with all auspicious qualities is called viShNu, and lakShmI is His power dependent on Him. mokSha is release from rebirth and residence in the abode of nArAyaNa. Human souls are innumerable, and each of them is separate and eternal. The divine souls are destined for salvation. Those who are neither very good nor very bad are subject to samsAra, and the bad go to hell. Right knowledge of God and devotion to Him are the means to salvation. Without divine grace there can be no salvation. [ mokShas ca viShNu-prasAdena vinA na labhyate. ViShNu-tattva-nirNaya. ]

Baladeva adopts the view of acintya-bhedAbheda. Difference and non-difference are positive facts of experience and yet cannot be reconciled. It is an incomprehensible synthesis of opposites. rAmAnuja, bhAskara, nimbArka and baladeva believe that there is change in brahman, but not of brahman. [ See Indian Philosophy by Radhakrishnan, Vol. II, pp. 751-765; Bhagavad-gItA, pp. 15-20. ]

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