Upanishads and Vedas

The Vedas are the cornerstone of Hindu philosophy. They deal with the aatman (self) and the brahman (cosmos). These complex and abstract thoughts are explained in more detail in the Upanishads. These explanations were usually given by the sages to the pupils sitting at their feet. In fact, upa means near, ni means down, and shad means to sit. Thus, Upanishad literally means the knowledge gained by the disciples at the feet of their master. Another word frequently used for the Upanishads is vedanta (culmination of the Vedas). The Upanishads are also known as shrutis (what is heard), since they were transmitted orally from teacher to student.

There are more than 200 known or recorded Upanishads. Of these, eleven have been commented on by Adi Shankaracharya and hence are considered to be the principal ones. These are: Aitereya, Brihadaranyak, Chandogya, Ish, Kena, Kath, Maandookya, Mundak, Prashna, Shvetashvatara and Taittireeya. These eleven are also the most ancient, with various scholars dating the composition of the two oldest ones – Brihadaranyak and Chandogya to around 800 BC. Most of the Upanishads do not have a unique author. Rather, they have evolved over time as a number of different sages have added their own contemplations to the knowledge existing beforehand.

The teachings of the Upanishads are encapsulated in four mahavakyas, (great statements):

Prajnanam Brahma - Consciousness Is Brahman

Aham Brahmasmi - I Am Brahman

Tat Tvam Asi - That Thou Art

Ayam Atma Brahma - This Self Is Brahman.

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Aitereya Upanishad
Artist: Pt. Ganesh Vidyalankar
Brihadaranyak Upanishad ( selected verses)
Artist: Pt. Ganesh Vidyalankar

The Brihadaranyak Upanishad is a part of the Shukla (White) Yajurveda. It is possibly the most voluminous of all the Upanishads. The name literally translates to large-forest-book (brahad – large, aranyak – forest book).

This Upanishad contains six chapters divided into three sections (Kaands):

· Madhu Kaand (Chapters one and two)
· Yagyavalkya Kaand (Chapters three and four)
· Khila Kaand (Chapters five and six)

The Madhu Kaand explains the teachings of the basic identity of the individual and the Self. This is the section that describes in great detail the sacrificial horse used in the Ashvamedha Yagya.

Yagyavalkya Kaand, also known as the Muni Kaand, provides the philosophical justification of the teaching. It is in the form of a dialog between Yagyavalkya and other philosophers. When asked to describe the Divine, Yagyavalkya replies "neti, neti" (not this, not that). In other words, human vocabulary is insufficient for an apt description of God. This Kaand also includes a famous dialog between Yagyavalkya and his wife Maitreyi on the Absolute Self.

The Khila Kaand discusses various methods of upasana (worship), corresponding to the three states to the path of self-realization : shravan (listening to the guru's teachings), manan (reflection on the learned material in order to produce intellectual conviction) and nididyhasana (contemplative meditation).

The Upanishad concludes by stating the three virtues one should practice: daan (giving), dayaa (compassion) and daman (self-restraint)

Reference: S Radhakrishnan, The Principal Upanishads

Shlokas on YouTube:
Ish Upanishad
Artist: Pt. Ganesh Vidyalankar

The Ish Upanishad is contained in the final chapter of the Shukla Yajurveda. It consists of 17 two-line verses covering a wide spectrum of philosophy, religion, ritualism and metaphysics in a concise manner. It assumes a Lord (Ish) of the universes who has the capacity to know everything infinitely, including everything that can be known about a character such as his/her thoughts, feelings, fears, desires etcetera.

The Ish Upanishad is also called the Ishavaasyoponishad. It derives this name from the first word of the first verse, which reads.

Ishaavasyam idam sarvam
Yat kinha jagatyam jagat
Tena tyaktena bhujitha
Ma gridhah kasya svida dhanam

Swami A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada has very succinctly given the meaning of this verse as thus:

"Everything animate or inanimate that is within the universe is controlled and owned by the Lord. One should therefore accept only those things necessary for oneself, which are set aside as one's quota, and refrain from accepting other things, knowing full well to whom they truly belong."

In other words, "This universe is enveloped by the Lord". This explanation is what forms the gist of the Ish Upanishad.

Shlokas on YouTube:
Kena Upanishad
Artist:Pt. Ganesh Vidyalankar

The Kena Upanishad derives its name from the first word of the text Kena, which means "By whom". This Upanishad is also referred to as the Talavakara Upanishad, since it belongs to the Talavakara Brahmana of the Saamveda. The Upanishad has 4 sections - the first two are in verse and the last two are in prose. Despite its conciseness, the Kena Upanishad is considered one of the more important Upanishads. In fact Adi Shankaracharya has written two separate commentaries on this Upanishad - the Kenopanishad Pada Bhashya and the Kenopanishad Vakya Bhashya.

This Upanishad explains the nature of the Supreme Being. The ears cannot hear it, the eyes cannot see it, the tongue cannot describe it. The nose cannot smell it. The mind cannot even imagine it. The Supreme Being is what gives the ability to hear to the ears, the ability of sight to the eyes, the ability of speech to the tongue, the ability of smell to the nose and the ability to think to the mind. It cannot be known through the senses, because it directs the senses themselves.

The Brahman is infinite and indescribable; hence the mind lacks the capacity to fully understand it. Those who think that they have understood it, have no knowledge of it. Those who think that they do not know Brahman, know it, because they have realized its infinite nature.

Shlokas on YouTube:
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