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What Is Upanishad?

An Upanishad is a section of a religious text in Hinduism. The most prominent works of collected scriptures in Hinduism consist of four Vedas: the Rig Veda, the Sama Veda, the Yajur Veda, and the Atharva Veda. Each of these is divided into four parts. The last of these sections is an Upanishad, which is a doctrinal exposition on the rule of humans in the cosmos. Upanishads are the final section of the Veda, called Vedanta, and today are the most significant part of the Hindu scriptures. Upanishads are the most widely used portion of the Vedas in Hindu theological discourses.

Upanishads are the textual basis for one of the most significant schools of philosophy from India. This school is also called Vedanta. Texts analyzing the Upanishads are also called Upanishad, to borrow religious authenticity and legitimacy. The religious text themselves, however, are not philosophical in nature but are doctrinal expositions and transcriptions of rituals. Philosophical meaning is extrapolated from the Upanishads.

Upanishads: Definition & Meaning

To simplify things, a basic definition of Upanishads is that it is the religious text at the end of each Veda in Hindu scripture. On the whole, the Upanishads have two major parts:

  • expositions on the relation of humanity to the Hindu cosmos
  • instructions on how to harness this connection and bring the favor of the gods.

The etymologic meaning of Upanishad is ”sitting near the enlightened” in the context of connection. The word emphasizes the strong connection between humans and Hindu deities and forces. This connection, and the rituals meant to take advantage of it, became one of the most important facets of Hinduism. As a result, the use of Upanishads in religious discourse became increasingly prevalent. Priests who were authorized to use Hindu rituals took their title from one of the main themes of the Upanishads: brahman, or the power that established the human-deity connection.

Who Wrote the Upanishads?

Different groups have various theories on the origin of the Upanishads. As explained later, some Hindus believe that the Upanishads have always existed. Others believe that one or two Vedic sages wrote the entire corpus of Upanishads. One of the main theories, the one that is most widely believed by modern scholars, is that the Upanishads originated as oral traditions of ascetics (individuals who deprive themselves of physical comforts as part of their efforts to follow religious teachings). These monks eventually wrote them down in their compilations of Vedas around the fifth to second centuries B.C.E., according to the accepted origination date of thirteen Upanishads. These texts were written in either prose or verse, and sometimes a combination of the two.

Upanishads Summary

Indra and other Hindu gods were manifestations of Brahman as written about in Upanishads.

Color image of a bronze. Indra and other Hindu gods were manifestations of Brahman as written about in Upanishads.

Over two hundred Upanishads exist, all written in Sanskrit. The main religious ideas of the Upanishads include the Hindu interpretations of:

Religious Idea Hindu Interpretation
brahman the central force of the Hindu cosmos. This force is manifested through natural events as well as deities and their priests.
atman humanity, which is another physical manifestation of brahman.
connectedness the belief that brahman and atman are inextricably connected, and that this connection is the main reason for Hindu rituals, beliefs, and actions.
karma the actions of an individual
dharma an individual’s responsibility to fulfill their role, which was been appointed to them by cosmic forces. This dharma varies from person to person.
samsara the cycle of death and rebirth
moksha the privilege of being released from samsara. This means the unification of atman with brahman as a natural result of perfect fulfillment of an individual’s dharma.

The main goal behind learning these principles is that by complete knowledge of the truth, one can finally have moksha.

Upanishads in Hinduism

The Upanishads are today the most significant religious texts in Hinduism. They have contributed to major developments in religion. The Upanishads are the fundamental texts of Vedanta, one of the six major philosophical schools of Hinduism. The name of this school is derived from the placement of the Upanishads in the Vedas: the very end. Commentaries of the Upanishads focus on the fundamental tenet of the texts, that Brahman, the supreme force of the universe, was connected with Atman, humanity, and was manifested through the Hindu deities.

Although many different interpretations of the Upanishads exist, there are common principles that the Vedanta schools share:

  • samsara
  • that brahman is both tangible and intangible
  • that atman, or humanity, has an obligation to act according to its dharma, or divinely-designed role in the cosmos
  • that humans can make their own decisions and that those actions have unavoidable consequences

History of The Upanishads

Before the Upanishads were created, the Vedic religion placed a heavy emphasis on ritual. When the Upanishads were produced, the emphasis was transferred to religious knowledge and the importance of following cosmic laws. Rituals were now regarded as actions performed by priests to fulfill their dharma.

The first Upanishads were written by followers of Hindu priests such as Yajnavalkya, to whom is attributed the doctrine of karma. They were created to help residents of the region of India find religious and cosmological meaning for various changes in society.

The Upanishads were initially not widely read or used by members of the Hindu religion. They were considered to be relatively nonessential writings. Eventually, however, the reputation and role of the Upanishads were elevated. The priests of Hinduism took their title from the central teaching of the Upanishads, that brahman, the force that ruled the cosmos, was permanently connected with humanity.

Over time, the Upanishads influenced the creation of various Hindu philosophical schools, as mentioned above. Many Hindus believe that the Upanishads hold the underlying religious truths behind the rest of the Hindu scriptures. To them, the text of the Upanishads always existed. The ascetics who created the Vedas, therefore, did not write the words but simply transmitted truths that were given to them by the brahman.

T.S. Eliot was significantly influenced by the Upanishads in his work, especially The Wasteland.

Black and white image. T.S. Eliot was significantly influenced by the Upanishads.

Upanishads have also had significant impacts on Western writers and philosophy. For example, one Upanishad was a significant impact on the writings on T.S. Eliot, especially The Wasteland. Thirty years later, the Beat Generation writers also turned to the Upanishads for their inspiration, including Jack Kerouac.

Lesson Summary

The Upanishads were documents containing the central teachings of Hinduism. There are over two hundred Upanishads, each written in Sanskrit. They were once passed along orally and were eventually written down in the Vedas. Ascetic monks, religious devotees who denied themselves many physical comforts in an effort to follow religious truths, first spoke the texts that became the Upanishads. They explain the Hindu concepts of karma, dharma, samsara, and moksha. Dharma is an individual’s personal responsibility to the cosmos. This varies from person to person. Samsara is the Hindu cycle of birth and rebirth.

The Vedic religion that came before the Upanishads placed a heavy emphasis on rituals. The Upanishads, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of religious knowledge and obedience to divine law rather than following ritual formulae. Upanishads have influenced the development of many philosophical schools. While these schools have varying emphases and beliefs, they share central principles:

  • samsara
  • that brahman is both tangible and intangible
  • that atman, or humanity, has an obligation to act according to its dharma, or divinely-designed role in the cosmos
  • that humans can make their own decisions and that those actions have unavoidable consequences

Upanishads have also had significant effects on Western thinkers and writers, such as T.S. Eliot and Jack Kerouac.

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