The Upanishads comprise some of the foundational texts of Indian history and philosophy and provide a touchstone for late-20th- and early-21st-century Indian and Hindu identities. The early “classical” Upanishads were composed from about 900 to 300 bce, and they depart from the primarily Vedic sacrificial perspective and incorporate a renunciant way of life. The Upanishads engage speculative ideas about the sacrifice and the power animating it. While the etymology of the term Upaniṣad has been debated, it is generally understood as upa + ni + ṣad, “to sit down near,” signifying the close...
The Upanishads comprise some of the foundational texts of Indian history and philosophy and provide a touchstone for late-20th- and early-21st-century Indian and Hindu identities. The early “classical” Upanishads were composed from about 900 to 300 bce, and they depart from the primarily Vedic sacrificial perspective and incorporate a renunciant way of life. The Upanishads engage speculative ideas about the sacrifice and the power animating it. While the etymology of the term Upaniṣad has been debated, it is generally understood as upa + ni + ṣad, “to sit down near,” signifying the close relationship between student and teacher in teaching the texts. Many scholars prefer to understand the term as meaning “a secret or esoteric teaching.” The Upanishads were part of different Vedic schools and vary according to the scholarly and recitational emphasis of the school. Each Upanishad was attached to one of four Vedas: the Rig Veda, or the Veda of the sacred formulas; the Sama Veda, or the Veda of the chants; the Yajur Veda, or the Veda of the ritual formulas; and the Atharva Veda, or the Veda of the everyday formulas. Each Vedic school had a Brāhmaṇa text, a ritual philosophical work that expounded on the etiologies of the cosmos and the etiologies and procedures of the rituals that sustained the cosmos. Many Brāhmaṇas had Āraṇyakas, literally “forest books,” containing teachings to be passed down in the seclusion of the forest. The Upanishads were attached to these Brāhmaṇas and Āraṇyakas, sometimes as their final sections and sometimes as separate texts. While early Western Indologists tended to view the Upanishads as the “beginning” of Indian philosophy, it would be a mistake to consider the Upanishads strictly philosophical texts, because they contain a great deal of references to the sacrificial rituals. The idea of Brahman—the monistic force that animates and unites the universe—is at the core of most Upanishadic teachings. The idea is that the “small self,” or atman, within each individual and this uniting force, Brahman, are identical. And the purpose of teaching and contemplation in the Upanishads is to understand this concept experientially. Much of Upanishadic discourse is passed on in highly structured teacher-student relationships. The texts focus on breath and body and the internalization of the sacrifice into the body. This identification of atman and Brahman was taught by making bandhus, or essential, almost supernatural linkages between two otherwise unconnected elements in the universe. The canonical number of Vedic Upanishads is said to be fourteen, with some earlier Upanishads reflecting the language of the Veda and the later, shorter Upanishads reflecting the language of classical Sanskrit. In medieval India the term Upaniṣad came to be designated as a kind of multipurpose moniker attached to a number of sectarian texts involving renunciant and esoteric traditions. One common motif is that there are 108 Upanishads—108 representing the most sacred number in Hinduism. During the period of the development of classical Hinduism, in the 8th and 9th centuries ce, the Hindu thinker Śaṃkara made the Vedic Upanishads the basis of his nondual (Advaita) philosophy, which focused on the role of ultimate reality. That reality was understood by Śaṃkara as Brahman, and all else was understood as maya, or cognitive illusion. Other Vedantan thinkers who engaged with Śaṃkara, such as Mādhva and Rāmānuja, also commented on the Upanishads. The later sectarian or “minor” Upanishads took up specific theological agendas, such as that of Saivism or Vaishnavism, but continued with the aphoristic genre of the earlier texts. Western thinkers, such as Arthur Schopenhauer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, also read the Upanishads and understood them as a powerful alternative to Western ideas of the separation between the self and the body. In early-21st-century India as well as in the West, the Upanishads are understood as foundational texts for the 18th- and 19th-century teachings of Indian reformers, such as Rammohun Roy and Vivekananda. And while on a global scale the Upanishads are not quite as widely known as the Bhagavad Gita, many Vedanta centers and other Hindu organizations in India and diaspora Hindu communities use them as a basis for teaching about Hinduism.
Article. 14057 words.
Full text: subscription required