Category Archives: e. The Upanisads

The Katha Upanisad

            The origin of the Katha Upanisad is disputed. Scholars are undecided whether this Upanisad is associated with the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda or the Atharva-Veda. There is however, a story of Nichiketa (the protagonist of the Katha Upanisad) in the Brahamana of the Taittiriya Yajur-Veda, so it may be likely that the Upanisad is from the Yajur-Veda, but we do not really know(Nikhilananda 67). The Upanisad is composed in two chapters or adhyaya, each made up of three sections or vallis. It is disputed whether the first adhyaya was written well before the second, therefore negating the necessity of the second. The dispute is due to literary variances, such as metre, grammar, language, and thought (Muller, introduction xxiii). Muller goes on to say that “we know so little of the time and the circumstances when these half-prose and half-metrical Upanisads were first put together, that I should hesitate before expunging even the most modern-sounding lines from the original context of these Vedantic essays.” (Muller introduction xxiv).

            The first valli of the Upanisad tells the story of a rsi named Vajasravasa who performs a sacrifice wherein he must sacrifice all of his possessions. His son, Nichiketa, points out that as he also is property of his father he too must be sacrificed. Vajasravasa becomes angry with Nichiketa, and perhaps out of fear of losing his son, he hesitates. Nichiketa has to prompt his father three times before Vajasravasa, in order to stay true to his word and complete the ritual fully, angrily declares he will sacrifice his son to Yama, the god of death. Nichiketa travels to the abode of Yama and after three days of solitude, Yama arrives. As compensation for his waiting, Yama offers Nichiketa three wishes. The first wish is to appease his father’s anger and to return joyfully to him, the second is lifelong morality (that he can live the rest of his life morally upright) (Deussen 270), and the third is to know if there is a part of the body (Atman) that is immortal and lives after death (Nikhilananda 68). The first wish is granted easily, Yama says Vajasravasa will sleep peacefully and be free from anger (Muller 4). Yama fulfills the second wish by teaching Nichiketa a fire sacrifice and then naming the sacrifice after the boy. It is said in verse 17 of the first valli, that when one learns this sacrifice and learns “all that is born of Brahman, which is venerable and divine, then he obtains everlasting peace.” (Muller 5). For the final wish, Nichiketa has to implore Yama who admits that even the gods have doubts about death. Yama tries to entice his guest to choose wealth, prosperity, women, land or the whole earth rather than ask about death. Nichiketa persists, stating that no amount of worldly possessions compare to knowing about the eternal soul. As the god of death, Yama knows that if Nichiketa achieves liberation (moksha) he will be out of his reach, whereas if Nichiketa succumbs to the temptations, he would die and be trapped by Yama (Kath. Up. II.6).

            This is where the second valli starts, and Yama begins his teaching. He starts by differentiating between what is good and what is pleasant. Wise men pursue what is good, fools pursue what is pleasant. Evidently Nichiketa is a wise man for pursuing what is good and dismissing what is pleasant when offered. It turns out, Yama is pleased to have such a wise guest enquiring of him (Chakravarti 97). Yama articulates the existence of Atman in this single verse:

“He (the Atman), difficult to be seen, full of mystery, the ancient primeval one lying concealed deep in the cavern,- He who, with self surrender or devotion, comprehends that Atman in one’s own innermost self as God, leaves behind (goes beyond) joy and sorrow” (Deussen 283).

Atman or The Self is described as invisible and small. It is hard to obtain if taught by an “inferior man” (Muller 9). Since Nichiketa is being taught by Yama, the god of death, he is fortunate to have a skilled teacher and he successfully acquires this knowledge. The concept of ‘Om’ is then introduced by Yama. Described as meaning Brahman, and “[anyone] who knows that syllable, whatever he desires, is his.” (Muller 10). Atman is described according to its own essential nature (Deussen 272). It is eternal, uncreated, incorruptible, and immortal. One cannot attain it through the Veda, nor understanding, nor through learning. One must be chosen by the eternal Self in order to gain the eternal Self (Muller 11). There is a call to morality at the end of this valli. Yama states that in order to obtain the Self, one must turn from his wickedness, one must be tranquil, and subdued. Otherwise one cannot receive the Self even by knowledge. Action precedes reception.

            The third valli emphasizes Atman in the physical body and returning out of it (Deussen 272). In verse 3 Atman is described as a rider in a chariot, the body as the chariot itself, and the senses as the horses of the chariot. The union of these three elements forms one into an ‘enjoyer’ (Deussen 287). Because this may take place inside of an individual (as stated in valli II, one must be chosen by the Self) this has ethical implications for that individual. One must be wise and use his intelligence properly, and if he fails to do so, he will remain trapped in the cycle of death and rebirth, (samsara). But if one is wise, and self-controlled, he will “reach the end of his journey,  and that is the highest place of Visnu” (Muller 13). Yama then describes Purusa as the highest goal; there is nothing beyond him, he is the final goal (Deussen 288). All beings are indwelt with Atman, which is concealed from view, and can only be obtained by the upright. Yama then dismisses Nichiketa to pursue this highest goal. It is a difficult path that he must depart on but to get to the end “he becomes full of glory in the world of Brahman” (Deussen 290).

            Atman as the subject of knowledge is the focus of the fourth valli. It denies that there are differences between beings,  asserting that everything is part of Atman. Verse 10 states: “he who sees any difference here (between Brahman and the world), goes from death to death” (Muller 16). This denial of plurality must be central to achieving Atman, otherwise one will not escape samsara. Atman exists whether one is awake or asleep, it is great and all pervading, even the gods are connected to Atman. One who knows Purusa will not feel alarmed at anything, as rain falls down on a mountain and scatters down all sides, so does a man who does not know Purusa. However, pure water poured into pure water remains pure (Deussen 293). Again, asserting that one must be in a sense, righteous before one can understand or attain Atman.

            The fifth valli continues to expound on the omnipresence of Atman.

“He (Brahman) is the swan (sun), dwelling in the bright heaven;he is the Vasu (air), dwelling in the sky; he is the sacrificer (fire), dwelling on the hearth; he is the guest (Soma), dwelling in the sacrificial jar; he dwells in men, in gods (vara), in the sacrifice (rita), in heaven; he is born in the water, on earth, in the sacrifice (rita), on the mountains; he is the True and the Great” (Muller 18).

This verse references the Rgveda 4.40.5, it is almost a direct quote, the original meaning of which was unknown, it is here applied to Atman (Deussen 293). Atman is described as the essence of life, even more important than the breaths humans take every second of every day (Kath. Up. V.5). After death, one’s fate is determined by his actions and knowledge. He may return as another human, or he may “migrate into plants” (Deussen 294). However, the presence of Atman is independent of one’s actions. Atman is always working, even if one does not know they possess Atman. Yama uses three similes to illustrate the omnipresence of Atman, and show that despite being present in all creatures, Atman also exists independently from all creatures. It is as light penetrates all space and clings to all the forms in that space. Or as air is all around us, and also within us, and as the sun exists, it is free from imperfections, so too is Atman. In the transcendent place where Atman dwells, nothing shines. Not the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars. “He alone shines; all else takes its splendour from him, the whole world shines by his splendour” (Deussen 296).

            The banyan tree is a famous tree that looks as though its roots are growing upwards into the sky, and its branches downwards into the Earth. This is the way that Yama describes Brahman in the sixth and final valli, as a transcendent tree that reaches its branches down from the transcendent place to this world, and into all beings (Deussen 296). Yama goes on to talk about fear of prana (vital breath), which has been interpreted as analogous to ‘fear of God’ in Christianity. However that is not entirely accurate, as ‘fear of God’ is a fear of the divine that exists outside of oneself, whereas prana exists in all objects, animate and inanimate. To fear Brahaman within oneself is to fear the only thing. Yama is saying that those who fear the manifestations of Brahman; wind, water, fire, the sun, and even death are those that are unaware of the existence of Brahman and will remain trapped in the endless cycle of rebirth. (Deussen 296-297).Yama then emphasizes again how Brahaman cannot be sensed, but only attained through devotion or yoga. The valli ends with an assertion that one who achieves unity with Brahman will gain immortality. After one has relinquished all desires and fears, then he becomes liberated, then he becomes part of the one. It is asserted that the remaining 3 verses in the Katha Upanisad are there as an appendix(Whitney 111). After his time spent with the god of death, Nichiketa departs, having been enlightened, obtaining Brahman, and likewise “another who is thus knowing as to the self” (Whitney 112). Yama concludes the final verse with a request for the two of them to continue to be united with Brahman. As he said previously, even the gods are part of Brahman, and now that Nichiketa is as well, and the boy is free from death, perhaps the god now sees them as equals when he says “let us not be at odds” (Whitney 112).

Bibliography and Further Recommended Reading

Deussen, Paul (1980) Sixty Upanishads of the Vedas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Chakravarti, Sures Chandra (1979) The Philosophy of the Upanishads. Delhi: NAG Publishers.

Muller, F. Max (1975) The Upanishads. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

(1963) The Upanishads. Translated by Swami Nikhilananda. New York: Harper & Row publishers.

Whitney, W. D. (1890) “Translation of the Katha Upanishad.” Transactions of the American Philological Association Vol. 21 88-112

Related Topics for Further Investigation










Taittiriya Upanisad



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Graham Jantz (Spring 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad is the primary book of the Upanishads, a collection of Hindu philosophical texts. It is one of the oldest Upanishads and its name translates into “the Great Forest Book” (Sastri 29). Written entirely in prose form, this text is one of the more philosophical books of the Upanishads and largely comments on the nature of reality and the basic identity of atman.

The history and dates of the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad is still a somewhat debated topic. Through analyzing the linguistics used in the text, philologist Max Muller speculated that the text was written between 1000-800 BCE (Muller 333). Other estimates have been given around the same time period but due to the antiquity of the text it is difficult to confidently date the text.

The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad largely follows the sage Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi. Yajnavalka is sage who is portrayed to be an important advisor in the court of Janaka. Through the stories of the Brhadaranyaka, Yajnavalkya comments on many philosophical issues including consciousness and perception, creation and self, and the laws of karma. The main virtues that occur in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad are self-restraint, giving, and compassion, or self-restraint, self-sacrifice, and merciful-benevolence (Sastri 16).

Some evidence suggests that the text was written in a ring composition, where themes are discussed in a cyclical fashion (Hock 279). Ring composition is commonly found in narratives that have a history of being orally passed through generation (Hock 279).

There is one story that is particularly interesting because it is told twice in the Brhadaranyaka with one version differing only slightly from the other. This story follows a conversation between Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi on the nature of knowledge. In one version Yajnavalkya uses the word “vijnyanam,” meaning “knowing apart,” and later in the same version uses the phrase “nothing but discerning knowledge,” to describe vijnyanam (Wood 7-9). In the other version of the story, Yajnavalkya uses the term “prajnyanam,” meaning “knowing before,” and “nothing but underlying knowledge,” (Wood 7-9). In both versions of the story Maitreyi is confused by Yajnavalkya’s comments and in response to her confusion Yajnavalkya begins a discussion on dual and non-dual ideas of knowledge. Duality of knowledge can be thought of as knowledge gained through perception and non-duality can be thought of in Cartesian terms; the only knowledge one can be certain of is the knowledge of self (Wood 6-8). With this, Yajnavalkya ends the conversation with Maitreyi and leaves her, along with the reader, wondering about the nature of knowledge, consciousness, and perception (Wood 6-8). The two versions of this story in the text offer evidence of ring composition structure perhaps, in this particular case, to portray a different concept to the reader (Hock 282). In the first telling of the story, Yajnavalkya responds to Maitreyi’s question of whether having wealth would make her immortal with a blunt “neti,” or “no.” This is different from the second telling where he answers her question with “neti neti,” (Hock 282). This respond is a clear allusion to the advaita refrain (Hock 282).

The advaita refrain is a passage that is found in multiple places in the Brhadaranyaka (Hock 280). The passage describes the nature of atman using negative definitive approach (Hock 280).

“This atman is “not (this), not (this)”; not comprehensible, for it is not comprehended; not destructible, for it is not destroyed; not attached, not fettered, (for) it is not (being) attached, it does not suffer” (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 3.9.26, Hock 280)

Another story involving Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi that is of interest is one concerning the absolute nature of the self. This conversation between Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi addresses the difference between true happiness and happiness that arises from the acquisition of material possessions. In this story, Yajnavalkya tells Maitreyi that he has decided to leave the householder stage of life and move onto the next stage, a stage of renunciation. He announces that he is going to divide his possessions between Mairtreyi and his other wife Katayani. In response to this, Maitreyi asks Yajnavalkya if she will be able to gain happiness from the acquisition of the property and, further, if it is possible to gain true happiness from the satisfaction and comforts that accompany material possessions. The story portrays Yajnavalkya as being very pleased with Maitreyi for asking such a question. He tells her that one cannot attain true happiness through the comfort and satisfaction through material possessions or anything that gives any comfort, including psychological or social comfort (Sastri 348-357).

Here, the conversation shifts to properties of material possessions. Yajnavalkya explains to Maitreyi that the laws of time give material possessions a temporal aspect and that things with temporal aspects cannot bring true happiness. Things that are exempt from temporal properties are what is needed to attain true happiness, and things of this nature are known a eternal or immortal (Sastri 348-357).

Another main concept discussed in the Brhadaranyaka is the nature of creation. The text describes creation as coming from one absolute self that existed before creation on its own (Wood 35). This portion of the text has many psychological and metaphysical aspects. The text asserts that in the beginning there was nothing and this is likened to darkness and light, with darkness being characterized by a lack of sensory perception and light being characterized by perception being possible. A metaphysical question that arises from this is how did something (the universe) come to be if in the beginning there was nothing? It is illogical to believe that something came from nothing, and the text addresses this through saying nothing is fully created but only transformed into something different (Sastri 308-315). The text also says that each person’s true self is the same as complete reality and because of this it is possible to understand reality through understanding the inner self, the emphasis here is on creation from self (Wood 26).

Another large part of the Brhadaranyaka is spent on the laws of karma. The text describes how the laws of karma predict one’s rebirth. The text describes karma as

“…after death we go to the next world, bearing in mind the subtle impressions of our deeds; and after reaping there harvest of such deeds, return again to this work of action. Thus, whoever has desire continues subject to rebirth.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.1-2)

Through this passage, the Brhadaranyaka sums up karma to say that rebirth is a product of one’s actions and desires in life, and rebirth will continue as such. Another passage describes the cessation of the rebirth cycle if one desire has been calmed (Brahamaprana 4). The latter part of this passage may be interpreted to mean that rebirth will cease if one has attained the highest form of realization, brahman. After attaining brahman, the text implies that the cycle of karma will stop.

This view is carried over into the description of death as well. Death is described as a state where one has no perception of the senses and one is detached from the physical body of life (Brahamaprana 6). The text articulates that all souls that have passed will momentarily stay in a state of light. Those who have attained realization will stay in this state, while those souls who did not attain realization will pass through karmic retribution until a future rebirth occurs (Brahamaprana 6-7).


References and Further Recommended Readings

Sastri, S.K. (1950) The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad with commentary by Sankaracarya. Advaida Ashrama: Mayavati Almora, Himalayas.


Singh, U. (2008) A history of ancient to medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th century. Delhi: Pearson Longman.


Wood, A. E. (1996) Interpreting the Upanisads. East Anglia: Full Circle Publishing.


Radhakrishan, S. (1953) The Principal Upanishads. New York: Harper.


Brahmaprana, P (2001) “Vedanta: Death and Art of Dying.” Cross Currents, Fall 2001: 337-345.


Hock, H.H. (2002) “The Yajnavalkya cycle in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad” Journal of American Oriental Society 122(2), 279-286.


Relate Topics for Further Investigation



Max Muller

Chandogya Upanishad




“The Honey Doctrine”




Vidagha Sakalya




Related Websites


Article written by: Brinn Lemke (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.





The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad

Brinn Lemke – 001095647

Rels 2100

Apr. 15/’13

Chandogya Upanisad

     The Upanisads are a collection of texts, initially oral, that were written down by one or more editors. Scholars suggest the Chandogya was one of the earliest Upanisads produced, written around the 6th century BCE (Olivelle 1996: xxxii). The Upanisads along with The Vedas, Brahmanas, and Aranyakas constitute what is considered sruti, or divinely revealed texts, by most Hindus. The Samaveda is a collection of texts to be sung by Udgatr priests, while doing soma sacrifices. The Chandogya Upanisad is an attempt to find the, “cosmic and ritual correspondence of the Saman” (Olivelle 1996: 95). The Saman is the Samaveda hymn of the soma ritual. The Chandogya Upanisad has been very influential in establishing Hindu cosmology and represents, according to some Hinduism scholars, “the transition from the archaic ritualism of the Veda into new religious ideas and institutions” (Olivelle 1996: xxiii). In general, what differentiates the Upanisads from other sruti texts are attempts to reveal the hidden truths of the rituals and chants of the Vedas (Olivelle 1996: Lii).

There are many different hidden truths revealed in the Chandogya Upanisad, but no other passage has seemed to be more influential than the story of Uddalaka and his son Svetaketu (Chandogya 6. 1-16). Svetaketu attended school in his youth learning the Vedas but came back seemingly unable to grasp the hidden meanings of the Vedas according to his father Uddalaka (Singh 45). Uddalaka taught Svetaketu that the true self, Atman, is like the water in a river, a river could be polluted, dry up, or flow into the sea. The river is just a form that water takes, and river is simply the name given to that form of water. However, the water is still water no matter what form it takes, even if it is in a cloud, a raindrop, or an ocean. Just like the water in the river, the self transfers to different bodies and can be polluted by worldly distractions, ultimately it is still the inner self (Singh 47). Uddalaka told his son to put a lump of salt into a container full of water (Chandogya 6. 13). The next day Uddalaka asked Svetaketu to retrieve the salt, but it was gone. Uddalaka asked his son to taste the water in many different places, it was salty everywhere. Uddalaka taught his son the salt was like Atman. One cannot see the salt, but it is there, it is everywhere. This helped Svetaketu, who is able to eventually realize his true self and is ultimately able to liberate himself from samsaric existence, attaining what Hindus call moksa.

The other philosophical concept often paired with Atman is Brahman, the ultimate reality of everything material. Atman is essentially Brahman, what this means is that the true self is Brahman. Brahman is the infinitely pervasive true nature of everything. Brahman is everywhere, and constitutes all aspects of the universe. [A clear explanation of Brahman occurs in the Mundaka Upanisad, “Brahman alone here extends to the east; Brahman, to the west; it alone to the south, to the north, it alone extends above and below; it is Brahman alone that extends over the whole universe, up to its widest extent” (Olivelle 1996: 274).]

The fact that Brahman has this pervasive nature has led some scholars to consider the philosophy of the Upanisads to be considered pantheistic because god, “is both the universe as unified totality and something one in the same, appropriately regarded as divine, existing as the inner core of everything. And this whole and shared essence are said to be somehow identical” (Sprigge 192). In contrast, Gods in western religions are seen to be superior to people, separate, and the creators of everything except for themselves (Sprigge 193). In this way western religions are dualistic, gods and humans are separate entities. On the other hand pantheistic theologies, like those contained in the Upanisads, are considered non-dualistic in that god, or Brahman, is all encompassing. While pantheism is an effective concept that can be used to understand the philosophy of the Chandogya, it should be noted that not all Hindu philosophies are considered pantheist.

The story of Uddalaka and Svetaketu is an example of an important feature of the Chandogya. It shows the literary technique often used in the Chandogya to convey messages, where a teacher, or guru, instructs a student, or sisya. However, a guru is not a teacher in the way westerners might think. A guru is: a spiritual instructor, an analyst, a fatherly figure, sometimes even seen as semi-divine (Mlecko 34). Ultimately, the main focus of a guru is to transmit the most fundamental spiritual meanings of Hinduism to their student. Gurus are often considered crucial to the attainment of spiritual goals and realizations for anyone (Mlecko 34). The necessity of a guru in attaining holy information is seen in the Chandogya 4. 7-15, when Indra, a god, and Virochana, a demon, visit Prajapati. Both Indra and Virochana initially spend thirty-two years learning about Atman with Prajapati, a great guru. Both god and demon leave after thirty-two years believing they understood Atman. Upon further reflection Indra realized he needed more time with his guru, and he ended up spending a total of one hundred and one years with his guru. Indra was constantly reworking his understandings of Atman. Ultimately, because Indra spent more time learning the spiritual necessities from Prajapati he received a much fuller understanding of Atman then his demon counterpart Virochana.

                       In the Chandogya 1.3.6-7, another idea is created that helps set the cosmological foundations of the varna, or class, system. This passage says that all things are made of three essential bits: brilliance, water and food and this relationship can be seen throughout the world. For example fire has these three elements, the brilliance is associated with the flames. The smoke is associated with water, or steam. The food is associated with the firewood. This relationship extends to all things in the cosmos, including the classes. The Brahmins associated with brilliance, heaven and flames; the Ksatriyas associated with water, clouds and steam; the Vaisyas associated with wood, food and agricultural labour (Lincoln 129). People who have had their consciousness altered by the same cosmic understanding are trained to accept this understanding in all of its occurrences (Lincoln 139). In this sense, the cosmology outlined in the Chandogya has agency because to this day the text still has an effect on how Hindu society arranges itself into the varna system.

It is also important to note, along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Badarayana Sutra, the Upanisads were fundamental in establishing what is known as Vedanta philosophy (Hiriyanna 151). Vedanta literally means, “end of the Vedas” (Hiriyanna 151), and refers to the final portion of the Vedas, the Upanisads. However, the meaning of Vedanta has changed over time, now the term is synonymous with the general conclusions of the Vedas (Hiriyana 151). Vedanta has many different interpretations of the same influential texts, consequently 3 major Vedanta philosophies arose: Samkara’s Advaita, Ramanuja’s Visistadvaita, and Madvha’s Dvaita (Hiriyana 152). These philosophies have different cosmological understandings because each of them had a different interpretation of the same foundational texts.

         The Chandyoga is a very influential text, partly because of its ability to articulate the nature of Brahman and Atman. Scholars have studied the meanings associated with the Chandogya vigorously. For a long time in western countries, the philosophy contained in the Chandogya has often been over represented essentially as the philosophy of Hinduism. While there is no doubt that the Chandogya is one of the most influential philosophical texts, the Hindu religion is much too vast and variable to be considered having one fundamental philosophy.


References and Further Recommended Reading

Hiriyana, M. (1949) The Essentials of Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen and Unwin.


Kunst, Arnold (1976) “Indeterminism Versus Determinism: The Seventh Prapathaka of the Chandogya Upanisad.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1: 67-72.


Lincoln, Bruce (2006) “How to Read a Religious Text: Reflections of Some Passages of the Chandogya Upanisad.” History of Religions, Vol. 46, No. 2 (November): 127-139.


Mlecko, Joel D. (1982) “The Guru in the Hindu Tradition.” Numen, Vol. 29, No. 1 (July): 33-61.


Olivelle, Patrick (1996) Upanisads. New York: Oxford University Press.


Olivelle, Patrick (1996)“Dharmaskandhaaḥ and Brahmasaṃsthaḥ: A Study of Chandogya Upaniṣad 2.23.1.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 116 No. 2 (April): 205-219.


Olivelle, Patrick (1999) “Young Svetaketu: A Literary Study of an Upanisadic Story.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 119 No. 1 (January): 46-70.


Singh, Balbir (1983) The Philosophy of Upanishads. New Jersey: Humanities Press.


Sprigge, T.L.S. (1997) “Pantheism.” The Monist, Vol. 80 No. 2 (April): 191-217.


List if Terms for Future Exploration







High Chant


















List of Helpful Websites


Article written by Brendan Bloomfield (March 2013) who is solely responsible for this content.




The Upanisads

The sacred Indian texts, the Upanisads, contain the accumulation and interpretations of the many philosophical ideas presented in the Vedas, forming the concluding portion of Veda. For this reason the Upanisads are referred to as the Veda-anta, literally meaning the end or anta (kumar 37). Underlying this literal meaning is a far more implicit of spiritual interpretation of a central goal or purpose, whereby their ultimate reason for existence – their highest Knowledge – is expressed (Prabhavananda 39). Such inference suggests that within the Upanisad writings are the central essence of Vedic teachings (Radhakrishnan 138). In Sankara’s introduction to the Taittiriya Upanisad, he says: “Knowledge of Brahman is called Upanisads, because in the case of those who devote themselves to it, the bonds of conception, birth, decay, ect., become unloosed or because it destroys them altogether, or because therein the highest God is seated.” (Radhakrishnan 138). As Sankara’s interpretation of the essence of these texts indicates, the underlying meaning behind the Upanisads has developed into a secret doctrine, which enables the expression of truth destroying error and ignorance (Radhakrishnan). The word, Upanisad, itself implies an implicit spirituality. Derived from upa ni sad, “sitting down near,” Upanisad means to sit down near a teacher (Radhakrishnan 138). While this interpretation is of most significance, the Upanisads have other underlying meanings including the secret teachings and knowledge of the Gods (Prabhavananda 39). This idea of secret doctrine and secret teachings is exemplified by the few individuals and groups that are interested in spiritual development. The language present within the Upanisads also conjures beliefs of secrecy through word selections such as rahsayan (meaning secret) and paraman guhyam (meaning supreme secret) (kumar 39-40). The secrecy of teachings found within these texts implies the esoteric nature of the ideas present within the Upanisads emphasizing the importance of subjectively grasping their concepts rather than analyzing or describing them (Kumar 39).

The many ambiguities concerning the Upanisad’s authorship and dates of composition lead to them being regarded as impersonal (aparusheya), as their teachings are from more than one rsi (Kumar 38). The Upanisads have no set individual philosophical theories, containing ideas and interpretations derived through intuition, leading towards readers towards the truth in life (Radhakrishnan 140-141). Contrasting with the Veda’s externalization through Vedic rituals and sacrifices, the Upanisads focus on an inwardness, openly ridiculing the rituals and practices of Brahmin priests (Kumar 40). The Upanisad texts recognize priestly ritualistic worship as preparation for true “enlightenment,” as a manner of mental discipline to aid in the recognition of spiritual insight (Kumar 40). This realized inwardness is recognized as Atman and Brahman, translated as the supreme spirit, Brahman literally means the “ever growing,” the “expanding,” the “Absolute” (Raju 49). Atman is often associated synonymously with Brahman, meaning “spirit” or “self,” being the highest reality attained by human beings (Raju 49). The Upanisads are complementarily concerned with the recognition of two forms of experiences, internal and external, which contribute to a realized inwardness (Kumar 41). External experiences are concerned with the physicality of the senses, such as sight, sound, touch, taste, etc., while internal experiences are concerned with experiences which lead to the discovery of the inner most self, Atman (Kumar 41). The Upanisads recognize two sources of awareness, higher (para) and lower (apara), which allow individuals to have internal and external experiences. Apara vidya classifies and studies physical, mental, and emotion experiences, giving them names and recognizable forms (Kumar 41). Para vidya is achieved through the attainment of Atman, allowing objects to be recognized in their true form (Kumar 42).

While the total number of existing Upanisads is uncertain, one hundred and eight texts, of varying lengths, have been preserved. The literary style and manner found in these works varies greatly, often exemplified within individual pieces of work (Prabhavananda 39). Little to nothing is known about the rsi authors(s) who composed these texts, as well as the time periods in which the Upanisads were written. The Indian philosopher, Sankara, composed several commentaries on the Upanisads, where he recognized sixteen of the hundred and eight confirmed Upanisads as authentic and authoritative (Prabhavananda 40). Sankara wrote elaborate commentaries on ten of the sixteen texts, while he discussed the other six in his Vedanta Aphorisms commentary (Prabhavananda 40). The ten in which Sankara composed commentaries around have become regarded as the principal Upanisads, containing the primary objects of attention for Hindu religion. The ten principal texts include: Isavasya, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Chandogya, Brhadaranyaka, Aitareya, and Taittiriya (Prabhavananda 40).

The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, believed to be composed first is the largest of the Upanisad texts. This Upanisad belongs to the transition period between the Aranyakas and the Upanisads as it is a Forest Treatise and an Upanisad (Raju 54). The philosophical speculations found within this text lead to the reality of Atman, where everything in the material world, species of animals, and the laws of nature and ethics originated from (Raju 54). The Brhadaranyaka specifically says that Atman is Brahman where its nature is consciousness and bliss, indicating the light of Atman is and the same as the light of the sun (Raju 54).

In the Isavasya Upanisad, Atman is described as the lord of the Universe, expressing pure activity, movement, having no definite description which truly expresses its nature (Raju 55). The Kena Upanisad examines the profound connection between Atman and the senses and an organ, questioning that which makes the mind, senses, and speech (Raju 55).

In the Katha Upanisad the story of Naciketas, son of Vajasravasa, is described. Naciketas gives away all that he has to charity in a ceremony, thereby angering his father who in turn sends him to the house of death (Raju 55). At the house of death Naciketas waits three days without eating for the god Death. As result Death grants Naciketas three boons. For his last boon Naciketas asks Death to instruct him in what occurs to people after they die. Having no choice Death is forced to answer his question, revealing in the process, the secret of the universe, that Atman is found within everyone. Through Naciketas’ story in the Katha Upanisad, Atman is explained as the ultimate truth, being imperishable with no birth or death, where there is no deeper or greater form of reality than Atman itself; it is existence and being (Raju 56).

The Mundaka Upanisad uses the tale of two birds to distinguish the existence of the two kinds of knowledge, higher and lower. While one bird eats sweet fruit the other simply looks on, similarly to the manner in which Atman is present within the body to enjoying the pains and pleasures of the world while being unable to unbind itself from the ties that hold it to the world (Raju 56).

Considered by some scholars to be the most important of the Upanisad texts the Mandukya Upanisad explains the nature of Atman as it passes through four states: the state of pure Atman, waking state, dream state, and the state of deep sleep (Raju 47). In the waking state Atman is called vaisvanara (the worldly person) as Atman is a gross body, identifying itself with the physical body, directing it consciousness outwards (Raju 57). The dream state identifies Atman as taijasa (the person of the psychic force), projecting its consciousness inward, distinguishing the objects and things found within this state as results from the impressions of the waking state (Raju 58). In the state of deep sleep Atman is referred to as prajna (Intensely Conscious Being), as people are in a state of complete unity and rest, finding absolute satisfaction within themselves (Raju 58).

The Taittiriya Upanisad presents the five ways of explaining the world in the form of secret meaning: physical entities (adhilokam), gods or luminaries (adhijyotisam), creative powers (adihividyam), creativity of the sexes (adiprajam), and the world as it originates from Atman (Raju 59). Through a mythologically cloaked story of creation, the Aitareya Upanisad presents the philosophically important account of Atman’s creation of man and the gods. This text establishes the relation between macrocosm and microcosm, and between man, the universe and the penchant towards spiritual absolutism and idealism (Raju 60-61).

The Chandogya Upanisad identifies Brahman. Brahman is the Supreme spirit, the entire universe; it is found within every heart in the depths of all beings. Brahman is like the Unconsciousness; it watches and retains every experience. People are identical to Brahman, unable to act without it (Raju 61). The Svetasvatara Upanisad details the numerous doctrines found within its time period, discussing Maya (the God of the creation of the world) as the source of the world (Raju 61).


Krishna, Daya (1991) Indian Philosophy a Counter Perspective. Delhi: Oxford University Press

Kumar, Frederick L. (1991) The Philosophies of India: A New Approach. Wales: The Edwin Mellen Press Ltd.

Prabhavananda, Swami (1980) The Spiritual Heritage of India. California: Vedanta Press

Radhakrishnan, S. (1971) Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen and Uwin Ltd.

Raju, P.T. (1971) The Philosophical Traditions of India. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge

Related Websites

Related Topics

Isavasya Upanisad

Kena Upanisad

Katha Upanisad

Prasna Upanisad

Mundaka Upanisad

Mandukya Upanisad

Chandogya Upanisad

Brhadaranyaka Upanisad

Aitareya Upanisad

Taittiriya Upanisad




Written by Jessica Durand (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Related Readings (The Upanisads)

Chakravarti, S. C. (1935) The Philosophy of the Upanisads. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

Deussen, Paul (1906)The Philosophy of the Upanishads. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1966.

Hume, R. (trans.) (1921) The Thirteen Principal Upanisads. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keith, A. B. (1925) The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanisads. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nikhilananda, Swami (1949-59) The Upanishads, 4 vols. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center.

Olivelle, Patrick (1996) Upanisads: A New Translation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Radhakrishnam, S. (1967) The Principal Upanisads. London: Allen & Unwin.