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The Upanishads: An Introduction

The Upanishads represent the pinnacle of Indian spirituality. The Upanishads advocate the ultimate principle of the Vedas, namely the ultimate triumph of the spirit over matter.

The word ‘Upanishad’ mean ‘sitting devotedly near’. The Upanishads are revealed by God at the commencement of each cycle of creation to the worthy few Rishis. It is sitting at their feet that we have to learn them.

The Muktikopanisad gives a list of 108 Upanishads, out of which the principal Upanishads are

Aitareya Upanishad

Brhadaranyaka Upanishad

Chandogya Upanishad

Ishavasya Upanishad

Jabala Upanishad

Kaivalya Upanishad

Katha Upanishad

Kausitaki Upanishad

Kena Upanishad

Mandukya Upanishad

Mahanarayana Upanishad

Mundaka Upanishad

Prashna Upanishad

Svetasvatara Upanishad

Taittiriya Upanishad

The minor Upanishads are sometimes grouped as follows:
a) Shaiva Upanishads

b) Sakta Upanishads

c) Vaisnava Upanishads

d) Yoga Upanishads

e) Samnyasa Upanishads

The Shaiva, the Sakta and the Vaisnava Upanishads deal with respective cults of Shiva, Devi and Visnu. The Yoga Upanishads supply a lot of information about Hathayoga and Rajayoga based on the Yogasutras of Patanjali and other works. The Samnyasa Upanishads deal exclusively with monasticism, its ideals and practices.

Various Commentaries on the Upanishads

Sankara is the earliest and the first to comment upon the Upanishads. His bhashyas or commentaries, further elucidated by the tikas or glosses of Anandagiri (13th century) are invaluable source books to unlock the wisdom of the Upanishads.

Ramanuja has not commented upon any of the Upanishads though he has tried to amplify some of their concepts in his Vedartha Sangraha. Rangaramanuja (circa A.D. 1600) has completed the work by commenting on all the major Upanishads Madhva (A.D. 1197-1276) has written brief commentaries on all the ten ancient Upanishads upon which some like Raghavendra Tirtha (A.D. 1595-1671) have written glosses.

A later writer, Upanishad Brahmayogi, has done remarkable work by commenting on most of the minor Upanishads.


FAQs


Q1. How many books are there in Upanishads?

 

There are close to 200 Upanishads but the best known are the 13 which are embedded in the four Vedas known as Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharva Veda. The most well-known Upanishad is the Chandogya Upanishad. The Muktikā Upanishad contains a list of 108 canonical Upanishads. These are further divided into Upanishads associated with Shaktism (goddess Shakti), Sannyasa (renunciation, monastic life), Shaivism (god Shiva), Vaishnavism (god Vishnu), Yoga, and Sāmānya (general, sometimes referred to as Samanya-Vedanta).

 

These Vedik texts assert to be an Upanishad, thereby a Śruti. Most of these sectarian Upanishads, for example, the Rudrahridaya Upanishad and the Mahanarayana Upanishad, assert that all the Hindu gods and goddesses are the same, all an aspect and manifestation of Brahman.


Q2. What are the questions discussed in the Upanishads?

 

The main questions are


a. What happens after death?


The goal in life should be to attain self-actualization so that after death it can return home (to the Brahma).


b. Is there any life after death?


Reincarnation or the cycle of birth and rebirth, If a soul fails in its dharma or deed in a lifetime, then it has to take birth again. On completion of its dharma, it attains moksha or complete salvation and is reunited with its origin, the Brahma.


c. Why should sacrifices be performed?


d. Is there anything permanent in the universe, which lasts even after death?


e. how does life interface its relation with nature and senses?


Q3. What is the main purpose of Upanishads?

 

The Upanishads developed from the religious-philosophical system of Brahmanism which maintained that the creator of the universe, and the universe itself, was a Supreme over Soul they called Brahman.

 

Generally, the Upanishads are concerned with the nature of reality, the individual soul (atman), and the universal soul (Brahman) and with the theory of the transmigration of souls and the nature of morality. Various ideas about the relationship between Atman and Brahman can be found, and later commentators tried to harmonize this diversity.

 

The main philosophy of the Upanishads is Upasana (worship) and Bhakti (devotion). The Upanishads give importance to the worship of one God. They explain the Hindu concepts of karma, dharma, samsara, and moksha.


Q4. Which type of book is Upanishads?

 

The Upanishads are late Vedic Sanskrit texts of Hindu philosophy that form the foundations of Hinduism. They are the most recent part of the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, and deal with meditation, philosophy, consciousness, and ontological knowledge. Earlier parts of the Vedas deal with mantras, benedictions, rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices.

While among the most important literature in the history of Indian religions and culture, the Upanishads document a wide variety of "rites, incarnations, and esoteric knowledge" departing from Vedic ritualism. Of all Vedic literature, the Upanishads alone are widely known, and their diverse ideas, interpreted in various ways, informed the later traditions of Hinduism.


Q5. Which is the largest Upanishads?

 

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Sanskrit: बृहदारण्यक) is the largest and Principal Upanishads scripture of Hinduism. A key scripture to various schools of Hinduism, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is tenth in the Muktikā or "canon of 108 Upanishads".

 

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is estimated to have been composed about the 7th-6th century BCE, excluding some parts estimated to have been composed after the Chandogya Upanishad. The Sanskrit language text is contained within the Satapatha Brahmana, which is itself a part of the Shukla Yajur Veda.

 

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is a treatise on Ātman (Self), includes passages on metaphysics, ethics, and a yearning for knowledge that influenced various Indian religions, ancient and medieval scholars, and attracted secondary works such as those by Adi Shankara and Madhvacharya.