Historical Background Of The Upanishads Philosophy Essay

The Upanishads are said to contain the essence of the Vedas and the Vedas are the source of the (no need for ‘the’ here) Vedanta philosophy. They contain the spiritual experiences and revelations of sages, the Rishis. They are said to be the products of the highest wisdom, supreme divine knowledge, which was directly heard (shrutti) in meditation. “Hence they stir the hearts of people and inspire themaˆ¦..They give supreme food for the soul” [1] They are rich in profound philosophical thought and there is great depth of meaning in the passages and verses. They give “a vivid description of the nature of Atman, the Supreme Soulaˆ¦ and expound suitable methods and aids to attain the Immortal Brahman, the Highest Purusha.” [2] They have exercised considerable influence on the religion and philosophy in India.

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The Upanishads are regarded as the final part of the Vedas, and primarily discuss philosophy, meditation and the nature of God and form the core spiritual thought of Vedantic Hinduism. They are considered as mystic and spiritual contemplations of the Vedas, and are known as Vedanta (the end/culmination of the Vedas). Although the Vedas look outward in reverence and awe of the phenomenal world, the Upanishads look inward to the powers of human consciousness.

Opinion differs as to the age of the Upanishads. Some Western scholars have fixed the age as 6th century BCE, but they do not belong to a particular period of Sanskrit literature. The oldest, such as Brhadaranyaka and Chandogya may date to the Brahmana period (roughly before the 7th century BCE) while the youngest may date to the medieval or early modern period. However, Sivananda would say they are dateless and eternal as they came out of the mouth of Brahman and so existed before the creation of the world.

“Shad” means to shatter or destroy so by having knowledge of the Upanishads one destroys ignorance, and knowledge of Brahman is called Upanishad because it leads to Brahman and helps aspirants attain Brahman. Other schools of thought say Upanishad means sitting at the feet of the teacher. The Upanishads were not meant for the masses, as they contain the highest speculations of philosophy. They were only meant for the select few, who were seen as worthy to receive instruction initially from the rishis and later from the Brahmin teaching caste, hence the term Upanishad at first signified secret teaching or doctrine. The teachers integrated to become the Brhma Rishis. The Vedas were initially not written down but passed on orally, by chants and hymns. The Aryan migrants brought Sanskrit to India and so the Upanishads were eventually written down by the Rishis and Brahmin priests. Over 1000 have been recorded but Sankaracharya (8th century mystic who reawakened India to its spiritual heritage) is said to have collected together 108 Upanishads, which are summarised in his famous work The Viveka Chudamani. Of these the principal 10 Upanishads still studied today, are the Brhadarnayaka, Chandogya, Isha, Kena, Katha, Mandukya, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Mudaka and Prashna.

The ancient rishis sought to understand the fundamental truths of man’s being; the origins, the nature and the destiny of man and his universe, the meaning of life, the world and the relation of the individual to the supreme soul. They sought answers to these basic questions:

who am I, what is the universe, whence are we born, on what do we rest, where do we go, are there such things as immortality, freedom, perfection, eternal bliss, everlasting peace,

what is Atman, Brahman, or the Self, which is birthless, deathless, changeless, self-existent

how to attain immortality or Brahman, what is the means of freedom from earthly bondage.

The road to self-discovery is discussed in the Taittiriya Upanishad, which gives us rules for right conduct in our lives and advises “If you are in doubt about right conduct, Follow the example of the sages, who know what is best for spiritual growth.” [3] (chpt 11-v4). It tells us the body is only the outer layer surrounding our ‘self’, each layer less physical than the last: the physical sheath is made up of food (Pt 2, 2.1), the vital sheath is made up of living breath (3.1), the mental sheath is made up of waves of thought (3.1) and the sheath of wisdom is the intellect and within this is the sheath of bliss. “Bliss is the heart, and Brahman the foundation. Those who affirm the Lord affirm themselves.” [4] In the journey to discover who we are, the rishis looked at these states of consciousness (Brihadranyaka Upanishad chpt4). As awareness is withdrawn from these layers of consciousness it was discovered that the mind is not conscious, it is only an instrument of our consciousness. If we were able to observe from within each state, would that be the knower, ie the self? In all creatures, all persons the Self is the innermost essence. Janaka asks who is the self and Yajnavalka replies: “The Self, pure awareness, shines as the light within the heart, surrounded by the sense. Only seeming to think, seeming to move, the Self neither sleeps nor wakes nor dreams.

This notion of the Self and Brahman being one is considered in the Katha Upanishad (chpt2-v20). “Hidden in the heart of every creature exists the Self, subtler than the subtlest, greater than the greatest. They go beyond sorrow who extinguish their self-will and behold the glory fo the Self through the grace of the Lord of Love.” A similar theme can be seen in the Isha Upanishad in its description of the Lord as being enshrined in the hearts of all. This seems to merge into a description of the Self culminating in v8 “He it is who holds the cosmos together.”

The question of attaining immortality or Brahman is discussed in the Katha Upanishad, where we have a teenage boy (Natchiketa) as the student and Death (Yama) being the teacher. This studies the notion of reincarnation, wherein Natchiketa is sacrificed to death by his father but Natchiketa is granted three wishes, one for each of the three nights he has spent in the house of Yama (Pt 1-chpt1-v9-29. Natchiketa asks that when he is reincarnated his father will recognise him, secondly that he wants to remember what has gone before, he doesn’t want to lose prior knowledge and thirdly he wants to know for certain if his sole really exists after death. The answer is to renounce passing pleasures and seek wisdom (chpt2-v3-4). Death says, “The truth of the Self cannot come through one who has not realised the Self” [5] , so self-realisation is the key. The ignorant believe that when the body dies, they die.

This is further expounded by the Mandukya Upanishad which teaches us the need for knowledge through awareness and how this can be passed on through teachers. There are two types of knowledge, that taught through study, or lower knowledge, and the higher knowledge which leads to self-realisation, through mediation – “those who are pure in heart, who practice meditation and conquer all their senses and passions, shall attain the immortal Self..”

The Prashna Upanishad also tells us after the sage Pippalada’s explanation of where we come from (qu1-v4-10), that those who meditate, seek wisdom, self-discipline and faith in God will travel after death to the “Supreme refuge, beyond the reach of fear and free from the cycle of birth and death. This Upanishad concludes with the question “Do you know the self?” (QuVI-v1) and Pippalada’s summary describes the sixteen forms of the self within the body and that one must realise the self so that these sixteen forms disappear. Then there is no more name or form for us as human beings and we attain immortality. “The self is the paramount goal of life. Attain this goal and go beyond death.” (QuVI-v)

iii) Where did I come from?

This question is posed by the Kena Upanishad: by whom? “Who makes my mind think?…who sees through my eyes and hears through my ears?” The teacher replies “The Self is the ear of the ear, the eye of the eye and the mind of the mind..” This Upanishad is about knowing Brahman yet how can this not be an impossible task for the average man? How can we possibly conceive of understanding something so abstract and inscrutable? Yet we are urged to try: “It is the power of Brahman that makes the mind to think, desire, and will. Therefore use this power to meditate on Brahman.” (chpt4-v5-6) However, it seems we are compelled to continually ask questions – without questions we cannot develop. What gives us this desire to know, to attain self-realisation?

Easwaran’s interpretation of this question is: by whom impelled do all the motions of life stir? [6] Easwaran also quotes Shankara, “By whose mere presence does that desire arise which moves the universe?” Swami Vishnudevananda says just as the perception of things in the gross world is impossible without light, so knowledge of self cannot emerge other than by inquiry. “Who am I? How was this universe born? What is its cause?” [7] Just as man’s quest for enjoyment finds that joy is within himself, knowledge will never be complete until he turns his vision inwards. The Upanishads tell us that all knowledge is in the self, and in fact, knowledge is self. That eternal knowledge of the self when reflected through the mind and brain of man becomes intuition, reason and instinct. In lower animals it is manifested as instinct, in man as reason and in advanced man as intuition. Individual existence is therefore a manifestation of the real existence of the self. So it seems to me we are compelled to seek knowledge, and therefore by implication to seek knowledge of the self. As Easwaran points out, exploring the unconscious requires the daring of youth, as in the Katha Upanishad. The Katha Upanishad seems to be saying that within all human experience it is only the Self that is the enjoyer, and so once one attains self-realisation there will nothing further to know. In the meantime man is forever searching, searching, even when he doesn’t know what he is looking for. As Vishnudevananda points out some scale Mount Everest to learn, others navigate under the Artic oceans, while others fly into outer space. Others retire from the world to study or roam the world in search of knowledge. I feel this will go on for a long time yet until man has reached a stage of intellect where self-realisation becomes attainable for all, in ages to come. In the meantime we aspire to seek out extra little bits of knowledge and we pick up lots more along the way by accident without even realising it. The problem for us lowly mortals is in a quote I heard a long time ago when I was at college and has stuck with me ever since, although I don’t know who said it or when: is not just the known unknown but the unknown unknown. I am aware of many things I do not know but there is of course an ocean of things which I don’t even realise are there to be known. It seems an impossible task. Perhaps as I take the advice of the Upanishads and practise meditation, in years to come I may begin to feel as if I have started on my own journey.