The philosophy of the Vedas is as old as the hills. Learn more about some of the greatest works of world literature.
"In the whole world there is no study so beneficial and as elevating as that of the Upanishads. They are destined sooner or later to become the faith of the people." - Arthur Schopenhauer
What are the Upanishads?
The Upanishads are Hindu scriptures that discuss the nature of God, reality, and the individual soul. The word 'Upanishad' literally means 'sitting down beside,' referring to the practice of disciples sitting on the ground while the guru (spiritual teacher) imparts his teaching.
The Upanishads are the holy books of the Hindus. In their verses lies the spiritual and philosophical backbone of Hinduism. The core philosophy was discovered by sages over a long period of more than 2,500 years. Some call the Upanishads 'Vedanta' (literally the 'end of the Vedas'), which means that the Upanishads represent the ultimate culmination of the Vedas.
Who wrote the Upanishads?
The Upanishads are anonymous works, written by several sages over many centuries. Since the sages who wrote these works did not seek eternal fame, it is impossible to list the authors. Yet, their works have withstood the test of time, and continue to be read today.
What do the Upanishads say?
The Upanishads deal with basic questions and universal situations that we all have asked at some point or the other. Hence, they truly can be classified as world literature. Though it is estimated that there are 108 Upanishads, eleven are considered to be the principal Upanishads.
Here are the principal Upanishads and some selective teachings.
The Katha Upanishad compares the individual body to a chariot driven by senses instead of horses. Our goals are the roads. The individual soul is said to be the master of this chariot, the intellect the charioteer, and the mind the reins. When an individual has a restrained mind, firmly holding the reins, he reaches the end of the road—self realisation.
The Katha Upanishad also mentions the famous story of Nachiketas. In the story, Nachiketas is a boy who receives three boons from the god of death, Yama. In his final boon, Nachiketas desires to know the mystery of death itself. Yama offers him other gifts such as wealth, a long life, etc. instead of this boon. Yet, Nachiketas is adamant, saying that all material things come to an end. Finally, Yama has no choice but to satisfy Nachiketas' request.
"In the beginning was Atman; the one without a second."
"We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe."
"You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny."
"The wise man sees all beings in the Self, and the Self in all beings, and hence does not hate anybody."
"One who always sees all living entities as one with the Supreme; what delusion or sorrow can be there for him?
"Let both of us protect each other together, may both of us enjoy together, may both of us work together, let our study become radiant, let there be no hatred between us, OM Peace, Peace, Peace."
"There is a light that shines beyond all things on earth, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in your heart."
The Kena Upanishad starts with disciples asking questions about the nature of Brahman (the Supreme Being). The teacher replies:
"The ears cannot hear it; it is what makes the ears hear. The eyes cannot see it; it is what makes the eyes see…The mind cannot imagine it; it is what makes the mind think…Those who feel they know Him know Him not. Those who know that anything perceived by the senses is not Brahman, they know it best. When it is known as the innermost witness of all mental processes, whether sensation, perception or thought, then it is known. One who knows thus reaches immortality."
India's famous motto 'Satyameva Jayate' (truth alone prevails) is actually taken from this Upanishad.
"The immortal Brahman is before and behind.
He extends to the right and to the left.
He extends above; he extends below.
There is no one here but Brahman.
He alone is; in truth, he alone is."
The Mandukya Upanishad states that the three syllables of Aum (or Om) represent the three states of consciousness—wakefulness, dreams, and deep sleep. A fourth state, which is beyond these three states, is likened to the silence that arises after the Aum is pronounced.
The Prashna (literally 'question') Upanishad deals with six questions such as 'Where did all living organisms originate?'
"Health, a light body, freedom from cravings, a glowing skin, sonorous voice, and fragrance of body: these signs indicate progress in the practice of meditation."
Vedanta Way of Life
The Upanishads are not just abstract philosophies. They can be used in day-to-day life to find one's true purpose in life and achieve ever-lasting joy. Help your children learn these eternal teachings to live life the Vedanta way.
Have you read any of the Upanishads? What is your favourite mantra or verse? Do you think the Upanishads are understood by most people? To share your experience and tips, click here.