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The Upanishads represent the loftiest heights of ancient

Indo-Aryan thought and culture. They form the wisdom portion or

Gnana-Kanda of the Vedas, as contrasted with the Karma-Kanda or

sacrificial portion. In each of the four great Vedas–known as

Rik, Yajur, Sama and Atharva–there is a large portion which

deals predominantly with rituals and ceremonials, and which has

for its aim to show man how by the path of right action he may

prepare himself for higher attainment. Following this in each

Veda is another portion called the Upanishad, which deals wholly

with the essentials of philosophic discrimination and ultimate

spiritual vision. For this reason the Upanishads are known as the

Vedanta, that is, the end or final goal of wisdom (Veda, wisdom;

anta, end).

The name Upanishad has been variously interpreted. Many claim

that it is a compound Sanskrit word Upa-ni-shad, signifying

“sitting at the feet or in the presence of a teacher”; while

according to other authorities it means “to shatter” or “to

destroy” the fetters of ignorance. Whatever may have been the

technical reason for selecting this name, it was chosen

undoubtedly to give a picture of aspiring seekers “approaching”

some wise Seer in the seclusion of an Himalayan forest, in order

to learn of him the profoundest truths regarding the cosmic

universe and God. Because these teachings were usually given in

the stillness of some distant retreat, where the noises of the

world could not disturb the tranquillity of the contemplative

life, they are known also as Aranyakas, Forest Books. Another

reason for this name may be found in the fact that they were

intended especially for the Vanaprasthas (those who, having

fulfilled all their duties in the world, had retired to the

forest to devote themselves to spiritual study).

The form which the teaching naturally assumed was that of

dialogue, a form later adopted by Plato and other Greek

philosophers. As nothing was written and all instruction was

transmitted orally, the Upanishads are called Srutis, “what is

heard.” The term was also used in the sense of revealed, the

Upanishads being regarded as direct revelations of God; while the

Smritis, minor Scriptures “recorded through memory,” were

traditional works of purely human origin. It is a significant

fact that nowhere in the Upanishads is mention made of any author

or recorder.

No date for the origin of the Upanishads can be fixed, because

the written text does not limit their antiquity. The word Sruti

makes that clear to us. The teaching probably existed ages before

it was set down in any written form. The text itself bears

evidence of this, because not infrequently in a dialogue between

teacher and disciple the teacher quotes from earlier Scriptures

now unknown to us. As Professor Max Mller states in his lectures

on the Vedanta Philosophy: “One feels certain that behind all

these lightning-flashes of religious and philosophic thought

there is a distant past, a dark background of which we shall

never know the beginning.” Some scholars place the Vedic period

as far back as 4000 or 5000 B.C.; others from 2000 to 1400 B.C.

But even the most conservative admit that it antedates, by

several centuries at least, the Buddhistic period which begins in

the sixth century B.C.

The value of the Upanishads, however, does not rest upon their

antiquity, but upon the vital message they contain for all times

and all peoples. There is nothing peculiarly racial or local in

them. The ennobling lessons of these Scriptures are as practical

for the modern world as they were for the Indo-Aryans of the

earliest Vedic age. Their teachings are summed up in two

Maha-Vakyam or “great sayings”:–Tat twam asi (That thou art) and

Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman). This oneness of Soul and God lies

at the very root of all Vedic thought, and it is this dominant

ideal of the unity of all life and the oneness of Truth which

makes the study of the Upanishads especially beneficial at the

present moment.

One of the most eminent of European Orientalists writes: “If we

fix our attention upon it (this fundamental dogma of the Vedanta

system) in its philosophical simplicity as the identity of God

and the Soul, the Brahman and the Atman, it will be found to

possess a significance reaching far beyond the Upanishads, their

time and country; nay, we claim for it an inestimable value for

the whole race of mankind. .

Whatever new and unwonted paths the philosophy of the future may

strike out, this principle will remain permanently unshaken and

from it no deviation can possibly take place. If ever a general

solution is reached of the great riddle . . . the key can only be

found where alone the secret of nature lies open to us from

within, that is to say, in our innermost self. It was here that

for the first time the original thinkers of the Upanishads, to

their immortal honor, found it….”

The first introduction of the Upanishads to the Western world was

through a translation into Persian made in the seventeenth

century. More than a century later the distinguished French

scholar, Anquetil Duperron, brought a copy of the manuscript from

Persia to France and translated it into French and Latin.

Publishing only the Latin text. Despite the distortions which

must have resulted from transmission through two alien languages,

the light of the thought still shone with such brightness that it

drew from Schopenhauer the fervent words: “How entirely does the

Oupnekhat (Upanishad) breathe throughout the holy spirit of the

Vedas! How is every one, who by a diligent study of its Persian

Latin has become familiar with that incomparable book, stirred by

that spirit to the very depth of his Soul! From every sentence

deep, original and sublime thoughts arise, and the whole is

pervaded by a high and holy and earnest spirit.” Again he says:

“The access to (the Vedas) by means of the Upanishads is in my

eyes the greatest privilege which this still young century (1818)

may claim before all previous centuries.” This testimony is borne

out by the thoughtful American scholar, Thoreau, who writes:

“What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like the

light of a higher and purer luminary which describes a loftier

course through a purer stratum  free from particulars, simple,


The first English translation was made by a learned Hindu, Raja

Ram Mohun Roy

Since that time there have been

various European translations–French, German, Italian and

English. But a mere translation, however accurate and

sympathetic, is not sufficient to make the Upanishads accessible

to the Occidental mind. Professor Max Muller after a lifetime of

arduous labor in this field frankly confesses: “Modern words are

round, ancient words are square, and we may as well hope to solve

the quadrature of the circle, as to express adequately the

ancient thought of the Vedas in modern English.”

Without a commentary it is practically impossible to understand

either the spirit or the meaning of the Upanishads. They were

never designed as popular Scriptures. They grew up essentially as

text books of God-knowledge and Self-knowledge, and like all text

books they need interpretation. Being transmitted orally from

teacher to disciple, the style was necessarily extremely

condensed and in the form of aphorisms. The language also was

often metaphorical and obscure. Yet if one has the perseverance

to penetrate beneath these mere surface difficulties, one is

repaid a hundredfold; for these ancient Sacred Books contain the

most precious gems of spiritual thought.

Every Upanishad begins with a Peace Chant (Shanti-patha) to

create the proper atmosphere of purity and serenity. To study

about God the whole nature must be prepared, so unitedly and with

loving hearts teacher and disciples prayed to the Supreme Being

for His grace and protection. It is not possible to comprehend

the subtle problems of life unless the thought is tranquil and

the energy concentrated. Until our mind is withdrawn from the

varied distractions and agitations of worldly affairs, we cannot

enter into the spirit of higher religious study. No study is of

avail so long as our inner being is not attuned. We must hold a

peaceful attitude towards all living things; and if it is

lacking, we must strive fervently to cultivate it through

suggestion by chanting or repeating some holy text. The same

lesson is taught by Jesus the Christ when He says: “If thou bring

thy gift to the altar and there rememberest that thy brother hath

aught against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar and go

thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and

offer thy gift.”

Bearing this lofty ideal of peace in our minds, let us try to

make our hearts free from prejudice, doubt and intolerance, so

that from these sacred writings we may draw in abundance

inspiration, love and wisdom.


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The Upanishads translated by Swami Paramananda

Text from: Project Gutenberg


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