Vedas and Principal Upanishads 02
The Vedas and the Principal Upanishads – II

The purpose of the Upanishads is to raise the human from the outer rituals towards the quest of the inner-self to make her/his life happier and the society around harmonious.

The metaphysical and theological ideas in the Upanishads

The Upanishads are the end portion of the Vedas and it is difficult to separate the metaphysical ideas in the Vedas from those of the Upanishads. However, the Upanishads are the place where the metaphysical inquiry really begins and ends in a fully grown Hindu philosophy (Max Muller, 1892)[1]. Aurobindo (1998:5)[2] notes, ‘the Upanishads……. [could be] conceived as a revolt of the philosophical and speculative minds against the ritualistic materialism of the Vedas’.

Different names of the same Brahman

The Upanishads addressed metaphysical questions such as what is the Reality?  What is that by knowing which everything can be known?  What is Brahman? What is Atman? The Upanishads, however, use the words Brahman, Atman, Being or Supreme Being alternately to mean the same Absolute or Pure consciousness or the Principle.  An important development from metaphysical perspective is the focus of the Upanishads on the Self rather than on the Vedic gods.  The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.4.10) contains one of the brahmavakyas: Ahum Brahmsi (I am the Brahma).  ‘If a man knows. ‘I am Brahman’ in this way, he becomes this whole world….So when venerates another deity, thinking, ‘He Is one and I am another’, he does not understand’ (Olivelle, 1996:15)[3].


The Real Self is covered by five koshas or sheaths (De Long, 2016:164-165)[4].  As per the Taittariya Upanishad, these are the anna-maya-kosha (physical body), prana-maya-kosha (vital energy or breath), mano-maya-kosha (mind), vijnana-maya-kosha (intellect) and anand-maya-kosha (bliss) notes Ramakrishnaaiyar (2016)[5].

Goal of life

According to the Upanishad, realisation of the Self (atmanjnana) is the highest of all knowledges. ‘The method of self-realisation lies through the control of the lower Self, its deep-rooted interests and impulses and through the study, reasoning and repeated meditation (sravana, manana and nididhyasana) till the forces of the past habits and thoughts are completely overcome by a firm belief in the truth learnt’ (Chatterjee and Datta, 1984:357).  The Upanishads also exhort us to choose sreyas (good or beneficial) instead of preyas (pleasurable).

Against rituals

Upanishads lay stress not on rituals but on jnana.  The Mundaka Upanishad, for example, warns us rituals are ‘inferior karma’ and not to get deluded by them (Radhakrishnan, 1992)[6]. Upanishads tell us the superiority of knowledge vis-à-vis the empty rituals. It is only through the acquiring of supreme knowledge about the Self or the Brahman can one get out of the cycle of Samsara.

The Ultimate Bliss

The Upanishads tell us that the greatest bliss or infinite joy can only be obtained by a seer by Knowing Thy Self. In the Brihadarnayaka Upanishad (4.3.32) Yajnyavalka tells King Janaka ‘This is his highest goal, this is his highest attainment, this is his highest world, this is his highest bliss’ (Olivelle, 996:62)[7].  In the same Upanishad (4.5.6), Yanjnavalkya tells Maitreyi his wife that it is the ‘Self’ which is the source of all joy and bliss. ‘One loves another person or thing because he identifies himself with that person or thing, regards him or it as his own self’ (Chatterjee and Datta, 1984:359)[8]. Similarly, the desire to live and the survival instinct really comes from the joy the Self gets from living.  As the Self or the Atman or the Brahman is where bliss or joy originates, being one with the Self would be the Ultimate Bliss. ‘All through the Upanishads, they speak of Brahman, then it is said that Brahman exists

in you as your consciousness, as your Self’ (Ranganathanand, 2016:301)[9].

Epistemology in the Shrutis

The six systems of Vedic philosophy show a great concern for the nature, source and valid ways of acquiring knowledge. A systematic treatise on the Vedanta epistemology is the one by Dharmaraja. Consisting of eight chapters, six of these are devoted to methods of knowing while the seventh discusses ‘tat’ and ‘tvam’ while the last discusses ‘moksha’ (Rambachan, 1984:[10]). Similar to present day research methods, novelty (anadhigatatva) and non-contradictedness (abädhitatva) are considered to be the essential conditions for valid knowledge – the latter test is considered to be the crucial test for knowing the truth according to Advait Vedanta. ‘It is held to be valid until it is falsified by a superior pramäna (Rambachan, 1984)[11]. Similarly, the Advait Vedanta borrows the epistemological theory of swatah-pamanya-vada (intrinsic and self-evident validity of knowledge) from poorva mimansa.

In the Kena Upanishad, ‘the term Kena shows that the critical investigation called epistemology started in India long, long time ago’ (Baneshanand, 2002:37)[12]. The Upanishad tells us that though the Brahman is infinite it is reflected in the vritties. The latter are, however, finite but this indicates that the Brahman can be comprehended by our mind. As our senses are limited and everyone looks at things through his own subjective prism.  The knowledge thus acquired is not complete or real since it is subject to the limitations imposed by the senses. Accordingly, one must go beyond sensory perception to know the Reality or to get the complete knowledge. The Upanishad puts to test belief, information and philosophy. Such a critical examination is called adhyatma vidya which is considered to be the best among all branches of knowledge ‘because it enquires about the inquirer who is not distanced by time and space – it is in me and ever present’ (Baneshanand, 2002: 37).

One comes across the epistemology of the Self in the Upanishads. Adi Sankara asserts that Upanishads are the pramanas for the knowledge of the Self.  ‘The ultimate philosophic fact is no doubt to be known through the testimony of the Upanishads; but if the knowledge conveyed by it is to bring real freedom, one should verify it by one’s own living experience in the form ‘I am Brahman’ or Aham Brahma Asmi. It is this immediate experience or direct intuition of the Absolute which is described as vidvadanubhava to distinguish it from lay experience, that accordingly becomes the final criterion of Truth here’. Sankara considers Shrutis as the main source to gain knowledge about Brahmajnana. ‘It is clear that in relation to the gain of Brahmajnana, Sankara saw all other sources of knowledge, as being subordinate to the Shrutis and supported his views by detailed and well-reasoned arguments’ (Rambachan, 1984:2)[13].

In the Advaita epistemology, one finds that Adi Sankara made a distinction between paramarthik (the Real from transcendental perspective) and vyavaharik (the Real from the practical or empirical perspective) knowledge. From the Absolute Reality perspective, the knower and the known are One. But from the empirical perspective, the subject-object dichotomy arises. ‘The Atman is Pure Consciousness, although, as it were. It views itself as a knowing subject in relation to a known object’ (Grimes, 1991:291)[14]. Vivekanand considered the knowledge gained from the Shrutis not enough as it needed to be verified by self-experience (anubhava)[15]. Devaraja (1972)[16] provides a detailed account epistemology of Advaita for those interested.

Ethics in the Shrutis

With the conception of Vedic gods – Mitra and Varuna- the discussion of moral power ensued in the Vedas.  ‘The conception of Varuna as a moral power is particularly striking and the hymn in the Atharva Veda (IV.16) is describing his power which extends beyond the physical universe to the moral world, where his laws are equally strong and inviolable, expresses his omniscience and omnipresence as no other Vedic hymn does’ (Ghananand, 2006:335)[17].  Later, the responsibility is transferred to Indra without undermining the position of Varuna. Bloomfield (1908:122)[18] writes Varuna ‘sees all the past and all the future, he is present as the third wherever two men secretly scheme, his spies do not close their eyes’.

Logic in the Shrutis

When describing the Reality, philosophy introduces reasoning and the laws of logic. It is logic that distinguishes religion / mythology from philosophy. The Shrutis present to us the early attempts by Vedic Rishis in the use of logic to provide an explanation of the Ultimate Reality. As per the Shrutis, as the Brahma (consciousness) permeates everything, it can be present in non-human’s as well. Modern science appears to accept this view now. ‘The integrated information theory….leaves open the possibility that  non-human creatures can have some level of consciousness’ (Ball, 2017:3)[19]. Furthermore, the concept of Maya is interestingly getting some traction now in the modern science. “It assumes that there is this one external world out there which is ultimately responsible for our experiences. My approach starts without assuming such a world” (Muller cited by Ball, 2017)[20]. Non-assumption of such an external world is the latest advance of quantum physics, though at a very nascent stage still.

Swami Vivekanand emphasizes that the logical conclusion of a religion is Advaita.  Our body is a changing entity and the oneness experienced by the Self with the Brahman is the logical conclusion from Shrutis (Ray, 2016)[21]. Mundaka Upanishad, introduces basic logic. It asserts that the nature of reality is to be known by induction.  “…by one clod of clay all that is made of clay is known….by one nugget of gold all that is made of gold is known” (Radhakrishnan, 1923:263)[22].

Shrutis acknowledge that the Ultimate Reality can’t be known by logic alone.  The Advaita position is that the Self is the innermost and deepest reality. The Self is its own knower as the distinction between the knower and known disappears. This, however, requires Nididhyasana (contemplative meditation) so that the idea of Brahman obtained logically can be perceived spiritually (Radhakrishanan, 1923)[23]. As the absolute monism of Adi Shankara and subsequent idealism of Buddha and Mahavira was found to be rather cold, the need for a personal God was felt.  It is here that the Bhagvad Gita comes in picture where ‘Krishna is represented as an incarnation of Vishnu as well as the eternal Brahman of the Upanishads…’ (Radhakrishnan, 1923:276)[24].

Among the Shad Darsanas (six-philosophical systems of Hinduism), the Nyaya system of Gautama is exclusively about the logical foundations of Hindu thought.

The Principal Upanishads: A brief survey

The purpose of the Upanishad was to raise the human from the outer rituals towards the quest of the inner-self to make her/his life happier and the society around harmonious.  The Aitareya Upanishad classifies men into three types. First, those that were turned away from worldly pleasures and sought to know the Truth. For this class the study of Upanishads was suggested. Second, those who wanted to gradually liberate themselves from the worldly things, focus on ‘prana’ was suggested and for those engrossed in worldly pleasures, a study of the Samhita’s was intended (Radhakrishnan, 1992)[25].  The central message of each of the principal Upanishads is summarised below which would help an individual to lift herself/himself to a higher plane.

Brihad-aranyaka: This is the oldest of the Upanishads and is contained in the Satpath Brahmana of the Shukla Yajurveda. The shanti mantra (purnam adah, purnam idam…) is from this Upanishad.  The Upanishad conceptualises the whole universe as a horse and meditate thereon.  The head of the horse is the dawn, the sun are his eyes, fire is his mouth, the year as his soul, the earth the hoof etc.  The Upanishad deals with issues such as the creation of the universe from the Self and asserts the superiority of the breath among all bodily functions. The gods and the demons are our senses – when directed inward towards the Atman they are the gods or good but when these are drawn outward to worldly things the same become demons.  The Upanishad contains one of the most beautiful prayers ‘asato ma sad gamaya, tamaso ma jyotir gamaya, mrtyorma amritam gamaya’ meaning lead from the unreal to the real, from the darkness to light and from death to immortality (Radhakrishnan, 1992)[26].  It is the nama and rupa (name and form) that leads to differentiation.

Chandogya: Is from the Samveda and elucidates the five-fold saam worship that causes rainfall. It is followed by another five-fold worship of water. The importance the Rishis attached to water can be seen from this Upanishad. Water continues to be a major issue facing the world today. Similar to the Mandukya, this Upanishad too extols the superiority of aum. Like the Brihad-aranyaka Upnishad, the Chandogya also underlines the importance of the Gayatri chant prayer which is a sacred verse from the Rig Veda. The Upanishad also discusses the course of the soul after death, the Universal Self and Uddalaka’s teaching concerning the oneness of the Self.  One the grandest concept of life as a sacrifice is found in this Upanishad.

Ramakrishnan (2003)[27] considers that these Brihand-aranyaka and Chandogya Upanishads are the longest, oldest, most comprehensive and most important among the Upanishads.

Mandukya: This shortest of the Upanishads belongs to the Atharvaveda and contains only twelve aphorisms (verses) but has great philosophical significance. It contains the very essence of the Vedanta. It deals with the sacred syllable OM and identifies it with the entire universe, the Brahman and the Atman. The A, U, and M of the syllable represent respectively the past, present and the future. The dot that one puts on the syllable OM represents the transcendent -something that is beyond past, present and the future time (Ranganathanand, 2016)[28].  OM represents both the phenomenal and the transcendental Brahman. According to Radhakrishnan (1992)[29] the A, U and M represents the three states, that is, vaisva (jagrut or waking), taijasa (Swapna or dreaming), prajna (sushupti, deep or dreamless sleep) as well as the fourth, the transcendental consciousness (turiya). The vaisva stage involves outward-moving consciousness, the taijasa, inward-moving consciousness, prajna involves consciousness that has no sense of external or internal objects and only knowledge and bliss are present while ‘in the turiya there is permanent union with the Brahman… a mystical ecstatic union with the Absolute’ (Radhakrishnan, 1992:699)[30]. Lao Tze calls the Ultimate Reality or the Brahma as the Tao.

Mundaka:  Munda or mundane means shaving off.  The Upanishads that shaves off ignorance, the Mundaka, belongs to the Atharva Veda. It makes the distinction between what is higher knowledge (para vidya) and what is the lower knowledge (apara vidya).  The knowledge about Brahman is the former and that about the empirical world is the latter. The Mundaka exhorts ‘to meditate on aum as the self..may you be successful in crossing over to the farther shore of darkness’ (Radhakrishnan, 1992:684)[31]. The Upanishad contains the famous verse ‘bhidyate hrdaya-granthis, chidayante sarva-sansayah, ksiyante casya karmani tasmin drste paravare’ which can be loosely translated as with the realisation of the Brahma, the knot of the heart is put asunder, all doubts are dispelled, and one experiences the bliss. Another of the verse is satyam eva jayate or Truth alone triumphs which is inscribed on the seal of India. The Upanishad also tells us that unfulfilled desires lead to re-birth.

Kena: What is it that propels the mind towards its objects? What is that which makes the life-force move? These are the questions which this Upanishad asks.  Men ordinarily concern themselves with the little bodily circle made by the senses without any thought of what is behind the senses.  However, that can’t be known by the mind that is guided by the senses since in that case the Brahman would be finite and knowable.  Yet it can be known if the mind is withdrawn from the senses and is purified. It is only in the light of the cosmic intelligence that the mind can fathom the first cause. However, understanding the Brahman at the intellectual level is not enough, the Upanishadic teacher tells the discipline to experience it and only then s/he can understand the real nature of the Brahman. It is the union of the subject and object that leads to true knowledge. When the Brahman is known it is known in all stages of consciousness (Paramanand, 1919)[32].  The dialogue of Indra and Uma is famous.  Uma tells Indra, the Brahman is the agent you are only an instrument in his hands.

Isha: This Upanishad brings home the core of Hindu philosophy. The core matra (isavasyam idam sarvam…) or ‘all this is…. enveloped by God is from this Upanishad. Therefore, find your enjoyment in renunciation; do not covet what belongs to others’ (Radhakrishnan, 1992:567)[33]. Enjoy everything with the conviction that all belongs to God and you have no proprietary rights.  Sri Ramakrishna explained this beautifully. “As a maid in a rich family brings up the child of her master, loving the baby as if it were her own, yet knowing well that she has no claim upon it; so also, should you think that you are but trustees and guardians of your children, whose real father is the Lord Himself” (RKM, Delhi, n.d.)[34]. ‘By cultivating the fact that the giver of all is the Supreme Lord, we cultivate the quality of detachment vairagya’ (Radhakrishnan, 1992:568)[35].

Katha: This Upanishad contains the famous interaction between Nachiketa and Yama (the Lord of Death). Nachiketa reveals the inadequacy of rituals. ‘True prayer and sacrifice are intended to bring the mind and the will of the human being in to harmony with the great universal purpose of God’ (Radhakrishnan, 1992:506)[36].  The theory of rebirth can be found in the dialogue of Nachiketa with Yama. Human life is transitory like that of vegetation which springs up, grows, decay, death and rebirth or rejuvenation again. The unity of all life points to similar course being followed by humans.  Nachiketa is given three boons by Yama who promises him all wealth and all pleasurable things in life but Nachiketa insists that he is interested only in the Atmavidya –the knowledge of the Self.   Yama finally agrees and tells the secret. The sreya (good) and the preya (pleasant). ‘The highest good of man is not pleasure but moral goodness…the wise chooses the good in preference to the pleasant’ (Radhakrishnan, 1992:607,608)[37].  A worldly being typically runs after materialism and life swings like a pendulum, happiness, sorrow, neutrality and back.  To attain complete poise, it is important to focus on the real or the transcendental or spiritual wisdom, but this requires purity of heart.  By refusing the temptations of the material world offered by Yama, Nachiketa demonstrates that his thirst and hunger is only for the eternal.  Yama highlights the significance of the mystic word aum.   The immortality of the Self is emphasized like the Bhagvad Gita.  When an individual realises that beyond the nama and rupa (name and form) is the real Self which is unborn, eternal and indestructible it is then s/he acquires lasting peace. So, the answer to Nachiketas question is there is no death to the Self – know this. Consequently, the wise man should not grieve by the destruction of the body -only an outer cover. The thought line of this Upanishad one finds carried forward in the Gita. The Upanishad compares body to a chariot, buddhi the driver, senses the horses and mind the rein.  Using intellect control the mind and rein in senses.  The Upanishad calls for the control not suppression of the senses. The Self is of the size of a thumb and resides in the middle of the body. The Upanishad describes the world-tree rooted in the Brahman.  The tree of life has unseen roots in the Brahman.  One can become immortal only when all desires residing in human heart are cast off.    

Tattariya: The Upanishad has three parts.  The first part Siksa-valli includes the advice that a teacher gives to the disciple about right conduct post his Vedic studies. The second part, Brahmanda-valli, describes Brahma and the course of its evolution.  The order of creation is described.  Brahman is described as bliss.  There is also an inquiry concerning bliss. The third Bhrgu-valli, undertakes the investigation of the Brahman. It equates Brahman with matter, life, mind, intelligence and bliss. It also describes the importance of food, earth, water and ether.

Aitariya:  The central message of this Upanishad is the unity of Atman and Paramatman.  It describes the creation of the cosmic person. The relation between the cosmic power and the human persons is described. The secret of birth and how the Self enters the body has been described. Interestingly, the Upanishad describes the biology of humans and how life is created.  The embryo is formed by the union of a man and woman (first birth), the Upanishad notes and advises that the pregnant woman should be nourished. The nourishing that she does is the second birth and when the man finally departs after doing his work here that is his third birth.

Prasna: The Upanishad contains six fundamental question which are mainly metaphysical in nature.  The first question is how life began. The answer is the union between the riya (matter or feminine) and prana (spirit or masculine) which were created by Prajapati led to the creation of life. To the second question, what is a living being, the answer is it consists of five gross elements, five senses and five organs of actions. Prana is considered the most essential part for life. The next question is what the nature of a man and the answer is: from the Atman life begins. The Atma then empowers other bodily functions. The Upanishad does recognise the value of married life. ‘Brahmacarya or chastity is not sexual abstinence but sex control. With all their exaltation of celibacy the Upanishads recognise the value of married life’ (Radhakrishnan, 1992:655)[38]. The fourth set of questions, among others, is who is that sleeps in a man and who is that who becomes happy? The answer is when everything circles in to the mind then the person doesn’t see, doesn’t hear etc or stated simply he sleeps. When the Atman is in a state of calm then happiness is established. The fifth set of questions is about meditation. The answer is one who meditates on the syllable aum becomes one with the light. The last or the sixth question is about a person with sixteen parts.  The answer is every human being is in the image of the Prajapati (shodashin) and is in sixteen parts. Furthermore, just as a river loses its form and name as it merges with the ocean similarly when the individual merges with the Supreme Purusha it loses all the sixteen parts.

Svetaswatara: This Upanishad declares Shiva to be the creator, preserver and destroyer. The Upanishad discusses issues such as the ultimate cause, the divine wheel, and god world and man (‘this universe which consists of a combination of the perishable and the imperishable, the manifest and the unmanifest’[39]). It also discusses the process of meditation, the realisation, the parable of the two birds, the avenue of peace, the hidden truth and such other issues.


[1] Max Muller, (1892) India: What it can teach us, Longmans, Green & Co, London. (Reprinted by Forgotten Books 2016). Lectures delivered at Cambridge University.

[2] Aurobindo (1998) The secret of the Vedas, Shri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Pondicherry, India.

[3] Olivelle, P. 1996. Op.cit.

[4] De Long, J. (2016) Tantra: A much misunderstood path to Liberation, Prabuddha Bharat, vol. 121 No. 1. Pp, 157-167.

[5] Ramakrishnaiyar, L. (2016) Consciousness Revisited, Prabuddha Bharat, vol 111, pp. 640-644.

[6] Radhakrishnan, S. (1992) op cit

[7] Olivelle 1996, op. cit.

[8] Chatterjee and Datta, 1984 op.cit.

[9] Ranganathanand, S. (2016) Mandukya Upanishad, Prabuddha Bharat, vol. 121, no. 2, Advait Ashram, Kolkata.

[10] Rambachan, R. 1984. Op. cit.

[11] Rambachan, R. 1984. Op. cit.

[12] Baneshanand, S. (2002) Kena Upanishad, Prabuddha Bharat, Vol. 107. No. 2. Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata

[13] Ramabachan, A. (1984) The attainment of Moksha according to Shankara and Vivekananda with special reference to the significance of the scriptures (sruti) and experience (anubhava). PhD thesis, University of Leeds, UK

[14] Grimes, J. (1991) Some problems in the Epistemology of Advaita, Philosophy East & West, vol. 31, no 3. pp. 291-301.

[15] Ramabachan, A. (1984) op. cit.

[16] Devaraja, N. (1972) An introduction to the Sankara’s Theory of Knowledge, Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi.

[17] Ghananand, S. (2006) The dawn of Indian philosophy, in the Cultural Heritage of India, The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Kolkata.

[18] Bloomfield (1908) The religion of the Veda, Putnam’s sons, New York. [Forgotten Books, 2016].

[19] Ball, P. (2017) Reality? Its what you make it, New Scientist, November 11.

[20] ibid

[21] Ray, S. (2016) Vivekananda’s Addresses at the Parliament of Religions: Reflections on the Historic Significance of A Landmark Document, Prabuddha Bharat, vol. 121, issue 11.

[22] Radhakrishnan, S. (1923) Indian Philosophy Vol 1, George, Allen and Unwin, London.

[23] ibid

[24] ibid

[25] Radhakrishnan, S. (1992) op. cit.

[26] Radhakrishnan, S. (1992) op cit

[27] Ramakrishnan, C. (2003) The charm of the Upanishads, Prabuddha Bharat, vol. 108, no. 6, Advaita Ashram, Kolkata.

[28] Ranganathanand, S. (2016) op.cit.

[29] Radhakrishnan, S. (1992). Op. ct.

[30] Radhakrishnan, S. (1992), ibid

[31] Radhakrishnan, S. (1992) ibid

[32] Parmanand, S (1919) The Upanishads, The Vedanta Centre, Los Angeles.

[33] Radhakrishnan, S. (1992) op cit.


[35] Radhakrishnan, S. (1992) op cit

[36] Radhakrishnan, S. (1992) op cit

[37] Radhakrishnan, S. (1992) op cit

[38] Radhakrishnan, S (1992) op cit


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