The Upanishads are the end part of the Vedas which briefly expound the philosophic principles of the Vedas and are considered the essence of the Vedas. The philosophy of the Upanishads is sublime, profound, lofty and soul-stirring. The Upanishads speak of the identity of the atman (individual soul) and brahman (the Supreme Soul). They reveal the most subtle and deep spiritual truths.
There is no book in the whole world that is so thrilling, soul-stirring and inspiring as the Upanishad. The philosophy taught by the Upanishads has been the source of solace for many, both in the East and the West. The human intellect has not been able to conceive of anything more noble and sublime in the history of the world than the teachings of the Upanishads.
The Upanishads contain the essence of the Vedas. They are the concluding portions of the Vedas and are the source of the Vedanta philosophy. Profound, original, lofty and sublime thoughts arise from every verse. They contain the direct spiritual experiences or revelations of seers, or sages, the rishi. They are the products of the highest wisdom, supreme divine knowledge. Hence they stir the hearts of people and inspire them.
The glory or grandeur of the Upanishads cannot be adequately described in words, because words are finite and language is imperfect. The Upanishads have indeed greatly contributed to the peace and solace of mankind. They are highly elevating and soul-stirring. Millions of aspirants have drawn inspiration and guidance from the Upanishads. They are the cream of the Vedas. They are treasures of incalculable value. They are rich in profound philosophical thought. Their intrinsic value is very great. There is immense depth of meaning in the passages and verses. The language is beautiful.
The Upanishads give a vivid description of the nature of the Atman, the Supreme Soul, in a variety of ways, and expound suitable methods and aids to attain the Immortal Brahman, the Highest Purusha.
Ages have passed since they were first presented to the world. Even now they are remarkably sweet and charming. Their freshness is unique. Their fragrance is penetrating. Many cannot live today without the study of Upanishads daily. They give supreme food for the soul.
It is said that Schopenhauer, the renowned philosopher of the West, had always a book of the Upanishads on his table, and was in the habit, before going to bed, of performing his devotions from its pages. He said,
The Upanishads have undoubtedly exercised and will continue to exercise a considerable influence on the religion and philosophy of India. They present a view of reality which would certainly satisfy the scientific, the philosophic, as well as the religious aspirations of man.
Origin Of the Upanishads
The Upanishads are metaphysical treatises which are replete with sublime conceptions of Vedanta and with intuitions of universal truths. The Indian Rishis and seers of yore endeavoured to grasp the fundamental truths of being. They tried to solve the problems of the origin, the nature and the destiny of man and of the universe. They attempted to grasp the meaning and value of knowing and being. They endeavoured to find a solution for the problems of the means of life and the world and of the relation of the individual to the ‘Unseen,’ or the Supreme Soul. They sought earnestly satisfactory solution of these profound questions: Who am I? What is this universe or Samsara? Whence are we born? On what do we rest? Where do we go? Is there any such thing as immortality, freedom, perfection, eternal bliss, everlasting peace, Atman, Brahman, or the Self, Supreme Soul, which is birthless, deathless, changeless, self-existent? How to attain Brahman or Immortality?
They practised right living, Tapas, introspection, self-analysis, enquiry and meditation on the pure, inner Self and attained Self-Realization. Their intuitions of deep truths are subtle and direct. Their inner experiences, which are direct, first-hand, intuitive and mystical, which no science can impeach, which all philosophies declare as the ultimate goal of their endeavours, are embodied in the sublime books called the Upanishads.
The Upanishads are the knowledge portion, or Jnana-Kanda, of the Vedas. They are eternal. They came out of the mouth of Hiranyagarbha, or Brahman. They existed even before the creation of this world.
The Upanishads are a source of deep mystic divine knowledge which serves as the means of freedom from this formidable Samsara, earthly bondage. They are world-scriptures. They appeal to the lovers of religion and truth in all races, and at all times. They contain profound secrets of Vedanta, or Jnana-Yoga, and practical hints and clues which throw much light on the pathway of Self-Realization.
There are four Vedas., Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and atharvaveda. There are as many Upanishads to each Veda as there are Sakhas or branches (subdivisions). there are 21, 109, 1000, and 50 subdivisions to Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva Vedas respectively. Thus there are one thousand and hundred and eighty (1,180) Upanishads.
108 Principal Upanishads
There are total 108 Upanishads according to the Muktika Upanishad. Of these, the following 12 are considered the principle Upanishads. They are:
Significance and Ideal
Knowledge of the Upanishads destroys ignorance, the seed of Samsara. 'Shad' means to 'shatter' or 'destroy'. By having knowledge of the Upanishads one is able to sit near Brahman, i.e., to attain Self-realisation. Hence the name 'Upanishad'. Knowledge of Brahman is called 'Upanishad', because it leads to Brahman and helps aspirants to attain Brahman. The term 'Upanishad' is applied to the book also in a secondary sense, by courtesy.
The following two ideas dominate the teaching of all the Upanishads:
(1) Final emancipation can be attained only by knowledge of the Ultimate Reality, or Brahman (Brahmajnana):
(2) He who is equipped with the four means of salvation, viz., Viveka, (discrimination), Vairagya (dispassion), Shad-Sampat (the six-fold treasure; self-control, etc.) and Mumukshutva (yearning for liberation), can attain Brahman.
The Upanishads teach the philosophy of absolute unity.
The goal of men, according to the Upanishads, is realisation of Brahman. Self-Realization alone can dispel ignorance and bestow immortality, eternal bliss, and everlasting peace. Knowledge of Brahman alone can remove all sorrows, delusion and pain.
The Upanishads are rightly called the Vedanta, the end of the Vedas, that which is reserved for those who have freed themselves from the bonds of formal religion.
The Upanishads are not meant for the masses, as they contain the highest speculations of philosophy. They are meant only for the select few, who are fit and worthy to receive the instructions. Hence the term 'Upanishad' signified at first 'secret teaching' or 'secret doctrine'. As already stated, Sadhana-Chatushtaya (the fourfold means) is the primary qualification of an aspirant of Jnana-Yoga, or one who seeks the knowledge of the Upanishads.
Study the Upanishads systematically. Acquire the four means of liberation. Meditate on the non-dual Atman or Brahman and attain ever-lasting Bliss!