The Upanishads

THE UPANISHADS (800 – 200 B.C)

Brahmanism (The Way of Knowledge)

1. Meaning ‘to sit down near’, so close that the teacher could whisper in your ear – the Upanishads are often called ‘the secret teachings of Hinduism. They are the philosophical commentaries on the Vedas.

2. They were also a reflection on the dominance of the priests for instead of turning outwardly to the Gods, it was to look inwardly within oneself to where Brahman resides.

3. The teaching is concerned with the discovery of the real Self (that which is the same in all things). The Self – ATMAN (in Sanskrit) is Brahman and the discovery of the identity between self & Power leads to MOSKA (liberation). It is the Guru’s task to bring his SISYA – pupil, to this realisation to understand who he is (Remember the Story of the Tiger – ‘Tat Tvam Asi’[‘That you are’] folklore).

4. The Upanishads look to bring out the interconnecting relationship of the Atman & Brahman as can be seen in the CHANDOGYA Upanishad (750 B.C) were Uddalaka is trying to teach his son, SVETAKETU:

‘My son, place this salt in this water and in the morning come to me, once again.’ Svetaketu did so. In the morning his father said to him, ‘That salt that you placed in the water last night, please bring it to me.’ Svetaketu looked for it but could not find it, for it was totally dissolved. Then his father said to him, ‘Please take a sip from this end. How does it taste?’ ‘Salty,’ Svetaketu replied. ‘Please take a sip from the middle. How does it taste?’ ‘Salty’, he replied again. ‘Take a sip from that end. How does it taste?’ ‘Salty as well’ he said. Then his father told him to set it aside and then sit with him. Svetaketu said to him then, ‘It is everywhere the same.’ The father replied ,’Yes my son, you do not perceive that Being here but it is truly here, nonetheless. For that invisible essence is the finest essence of all this world, and in that invisible essence every creature has its Self. That is Reality. That is Atman. Tat tvam asi, Svetaketu.’

Brahman is everywhere, and discovering the Atman leads to liberation from Suffering (SAMSARA), and it is the suffering that drives people to search for liberation.

5. The Liberation From Suffering in the Upanishads:


i.) The problem for Upanisadic men & women was SAMSARA which means rebirth & also suffering. Rebirth must go on until MOSKA (liberation) is reached and therefore rebirth is the chief source of suffering.

ii.)The concept of rebirth is not in the RG veda (it may have come from the Harappans of the Indus Valley civilisation) – but it appears in the Upanishads as a well-developed concept.

iii.)One of its first appearances is in the BRHADARANYAKA Upanishad, the oldest (800 B.C). In it Svetaketu is taking instruction from a teacher called Jaivali who says:

’Do you know how people here, on dying, separate in different directions?’
’No,’ he answered.
’Do you know how they return to this world?’
’No,’ he answered.
’Do you know why that other world (heaven) is not filled up with the many who go there, again and again?’
’No,’ he answered.

iv.)The reason people do not fill up heaven is because they are reborn. Why are they reborn? because of KARMA. They get the cosmic justice they deserve (Vedic concept of RTA). As stated in the BRHADARANYAKA:

’Truly, one becomes good by good actions, bad by bad action.’ III 2:13



i.) The self is reborn because it chooses to it is its desire (KARMA), therefore this is a major cause of SAMSARA, –

’He who desires desirable things and broods upon them is born again because of that desire.’ Mundaka Upanishad III 2:2

ii.)Only when desire for the world has ceased will we not be reborn.


i.)The other cause of this bondage is ignorance AVIDYA

ii.)It is ignorance and the absence of higher knowledge (of the self) which is the chief cause of bondage:

’Believing falsely that the rites and sacrifices of the Vedas are the highest these fools do not understand that other way (knowledge of the Self), so having enjoyed the temporary fruits of heaven they re-enter this world or a lower one.’ Mundaka Upanishad I 2.5-10


i.) One of the consequences of AVIDYA is MAYA, originally meant the magical power through which Brahman reveals and conceals itself in creation.

ii.) The Upanishads argued that Brahman as a creator projects itself as the world, thereby revealing itself in the creation.

iii.) The creation is said to be MAYA or appearance to be caught in MAYA is to believe in the illusion that the world is real.


i.) The solution to the problem of Samsara, of re-birth is MOSKA liberation.

ii.) In Hinduism MOSKA is one of the four ARTHAS (aims) in the life of a person.

iii.)They have a legitimate place within the ASRAMAS (stages) of Hindu life


i.) According to tradition these stages came into being during the Upanishadic period. A human life time ideally should be 100 years and be split into 4 periods of 25 years:

¨ BRAHMACARYA – Student Stage

¨ GRHASTHA – The householder stage, during which time he attendeds to which ever life he inherits from his father i.e. priest, soldier , merchant etc.

¨ VANAPRASH – The retirement/forest dweller stage, ‘he may go forth from the village into the forest and reside there, controlling his senses. In order to attain complete(union with) the Self, (let him study) the various sacred texts contained in the Upanishads..’

Laws of Manu Vi 36 41-43

¨ SANNYASA – The ascetic wanderer stage. The wandering holy man moves from village to village intent only on pursuing MOKSA.


i.) Each of the ASRAMAS has a ARTHA – goal, at which it aims:

¨ ARTHA – also means wealth and the accumulation of during the householder stage helps to achieve the other asramas.

¨ KARMA – is the goal of sensual love/sexual desire, by pursuing Karma the householder produces sons & daughters. It is an acceptable goal of the householder.

¨ DHARMA – goal of duty, duty to follow ones vocation and obey the laws of God & man. It is a goal for the Student, householder & forest dweller. The wanderer has already passed beyond laws and desires.

¨ MOKSHA – the goal of liberation, release or freedom from Samsara. It is the immediate goal of the forest dweller and the wanderer, achieving the goal brings wisdom & contentment as both ignorance and desire are destroyed and the Self is absorbed into Brahman.


i.) The ways to MOSKA are found in the practice of two yogas:

¨ DHYANA YOGA – the way of meditation

¨ JNANA YOGA – the way of knowledge

ii.)The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yui meaning ‘to control’ – controlling the ego/self OR ‘to join’ – being absorbed into Brahman in knowing ATMAN.

iii.)The Upanishads recognise a lower self – JIVA and a higher self – ATMAN.

iv.) By calming the self through DHYANA yoga, it lets the self be uncovered and known by mystical knowledge through JNANA – this leads on to MOKSHA and enlightenment.

v.) To reach the pure self you must go through three circles (the gunas).

vi.) To reach the Atman the Yogi must pass through the three Gunas, they are described in the MAITRI Upanishad in the following terms:

¨ Guna 1 – ‘SATTVA GUNA is the strand or quality of goodness, rightness, purity, light. Illumination, knowledge, and wisdom, in a word brightness.’

¨ Guna 2 – RAJAS GUNA is the strand or quality of ‘inner lusting, attachment, feelings, jealousy, outer lusting, maliciousness, hatred,envy, insatiability….ambitiousness…and gluttony,’ in a word, action.

¨ Guna 3 – TAMAS GUNA is the strand or quality of ‘delusion, fear, depression, sleepiness, tiredness, forgetfulness, old age, sorrow, hunger, thirst, anger, heterodoxy (believing false doctrines), ignorance, stupidity..’, in a word inertia.

vii.) Every object in the Universe is made up of the 3 Gunas, in some objects one Guna predominates etc. One may be present actually whilst the other two are present potentially.


i.)Their aim is to penetrate the guna layers and reach the Atman:

‘Take up the great weapon, the Upanishads, as the bow, fix on it the arrow sharpened by meditation. Draw it back with a thought directed to the very center of Reality and then penetrate to that Unchanging Target.’ Mundaka Upanishad II 2.3-4

ii.)The Maitri Upanishad lists a series of stages through which the Yogi will pass in meditation:

‘The way to the uniting of the ATMAN and the BRAHMAN is this: The control of the breath (PRANAYAMA); the withdrawal of the activity of the senses (PRATYAHARA); meditation (DHYANA); concentration (DHARANA); contemplation (TARKA); and finally absorption (SAMADHI) into that ultimate unity of Brahman and Atman. This is the sixfold way of Yoga.


i.) JNANA yoga leads to Brahman and absorption into Brahman and escape from Samsara. Once achieved it is unalterable and the person becomes a JIVANMUKTA (a liberated-while-yet-alive-being).

ii.) DHYANA yoga leads to temporary absorption (SAMADHI) into Brahman producing states of tranquility but it does not lead to MOKSHA. It last as long as the meditation and is part of the path on to JNANA yoga.

iii.) The Upanishads seem to show liberation for BRAHMINS, KSATRIYAS and VAISYAS, whilst previously in the Vedas only the BRAHMINS held the key.

iv.)They do not show escape for the SUDRAS, this becomes reality in the BHAGAVAD GITA


PROBLEM Samsara as suffering in this world and the rebirth in the next.

CAUSES Ignorance (AVIDYA) of self is the chief cause of Samsara with desire (Kama) i.e lusting for anything that is not self, as a secondary cause.

SOLUTION Liberation (Moksha) as mystical absorbtion into Brahman and release from Samsara.

WAYS JNANA yoga, the way of knowledge of the identity of the real self with Brahman, and also DYWANA yoga the way of meditation which leads to glimpses of Moksha, i.e Samadhi.