“Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self. That thou art…” (Chandogya Upanishad)
The Upanishads are texts in which the central concepts of what would come to be called Hinduism were first set forth. Karma and rebirth as well as the concept of Brahman as the One Reality and the means of realizing oneself to be this Ultimate Reality through various disciplines or yoga are presented in verse and prose in these ancient Vedic scriptures.
The Upanishads are “Sruti” meaning they are authoritative texts. Collections of them are appended to of the four Vedas; therefore they are known also as “Vedanta” or the end of the Veda. This is interpreted both literally and as meaning the essence or fulfillment of the Vedas. The word Upanishad is most commonly translated as “sitting at the feet of” as a student sits at the feet of the teacher. It has also been interpreted as carrying the meaning “setting to rest ignorance.” Buddhism and Jainism, arising shortly after the earliest Upanishads were written, were deeply influenced by the philosophies of these texts as well.
Composed at a time of great transformations in Indian society, including the questioning of the Vedic rituals themselves, the Upanishads are often severely critical of the traditional religion. At the same time they offer commentary and interpretation of the rituals meant to reveal their deeper meaning. According to Patrick Olivelle, thirteen principle Upanishads (there would be hundreds composed) were written over a period of time from approximately the 5th century and the 2nd century BCE. The philosophical stances of the texts therefore are varied, and while they are the single most important influence on Indian religion they do not present a unified vision. This is especially true of the later Upanishads which are found at the end of the Arthava Veda, many of which were written from the viewpoint of particular schools as opposed to the earliest Upanishads which are attached to the three early Vedas and whose authors showed no particular group affiliation.
The central concepts of the Upanishads continue to guide and inspire the lives of millions of people the world over, including many who are not themselves Hindu or Buddhist or Jain. If one would know the genesis of these concepts, perhaps most importantly the vision of what constitutes the realization of the Self, freedom from suffering, ultimate liberation, reading and reflecting on Upanishads will open the door to understanding.
By: Astadhi Sadakha