The Eternal Wisdom of the Sages of India is stored up in the Upanishads. These Upanishads have been a source of great inspiration to the philosophers, Acharyas and seekers of Truth, in India, and all over the world.
The Upanishads are often called ‘Vedanta‘. Literally, Vedanta means the end of Veda, Vedasya antah, the conclusion (Anta) as well as the goal (Anta) of the Vedas. Chronologically they came at the end of the Vedic period. As Upanishads contain difficult discussions of ultimate philosophical problems, they were taught to the pupils at about the end of their course. The chief reason why the Upanishads are called the ‘end of the Veda’ is that they represent the central aim of the Veda and contain the highest and ultimate goal of the Veda as they deal with Moksha or Supreme Bliss.
The Veda is unique in its purity and sanctity. The text of the Veda is preserved in its pure and original form without any alteration or interpolation even after thousands of years. According to Indian traditional thoughts ‘Veda’ is regarded as revealed scripture, self-evident, and self authoritative. It is not composed by any human authors. The Vedic hymns (Suktas) or verses (Mantras) are seen and only spoken by the seers (Rishis). These seers are neither authors of the Mantras nor are they responsible for the contents of the Mantras. Yaska, the oldest expositor of Veda, has distinctly said that these seers received the sacred knowledge or knowledge that was revealed to them. They then handed it down to descendants by oral instruction. The great Vedic commentator Sayana has defined the Veda;
‘Ishtaprapti-anishtapariharyor-alaukikam-upayam yo grantho vedayati sa vedah’
It means, “The scripture, which describes the divine method for obtaining what is desirable and for giving up what is undesirable, is called Veda.” This definition presents the purpose of the Veda
Every Vedic Scripture has 4 types of texts: Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishad. There are special Vedic grammar rules for each Shakha (branch) known as Pratisakhya (sub-branch) and phonetic rules known as Shiksha. Mimansa Sutras describe rules for interpretation of Vedic text, Nyaya & Vaisesika sutra-s (deal with logical aspects, ontological classification, process of human understanding), Purana-s are narrations of messages and teachings of Veda-s, Dharma Sastra-s describe code of conduct for universal harmony.
The Vedas are generally considered to have two portions viz., Karma-Kanda (portion dealing with action or rituals) and Jnana-Kanda (portion dealing with knowledge). The Samhita and the Brahmanas represent mainly the Karma-Kanda or the ritual portion, while the Upanishads chiefly represent the Jnana-Kanda or the knowledge portion. The Upanishads, however, are included in the Shruti. They are at present, the most popular and extensively read Vedic texts. The Karma-Kanda leads man to the world by happiness and enjoyment in Svarga or heaven and the Jnana-Kanda (Upanishads) to Moksha or liberation.
Major Theme of the Upanishads
The Upanishads are philosophical treatises. They constitute the last phase of the Vedic revelation. They represent the knowledge of Brahman (Brahma-Vidya). What is this world? Who am I? What becomes of me after death? – Such questions are asked and answered in the Upanishads. The essential theme of the Upanishads is the nature of the world and God. In the hymns of the Rigveda, we can notice there a shift of emphasis from the innumerable gods to the one Infinite as in the famous passage. ‘Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti ‘. This becomes more pronounced in the Upanishads and is very well illustrated. The doctrine of true knowledge and salvation are major subjects of the Upanishadic philosophy.
In the Upanishads, we get an intelligible body of verified and verifiable spiritual insights mixed with a mass of myths and legends and cosmological speculations relating to the nature and origin of the universe. Besides, Brahman and His creation, are also discussed in these texts. Although the subject matter of most of the Upanishads is almost the same, yet each Upanishad has its own unique idea or ideas and its own method of inquiry.
Significance of Upanishads
Brahmavidya or the knowledge of Brahman, the Supreme Reality is the great kingdom of the principal Upanishads. They give importance to ‘Knowledge’ alone.
The Upanishads occupy a unique place in the development of Indian philosophical thought. They contain the highest authority on which the various systems of philosophy in India rest. Not only the Vedanta philosopher professes his faith in the ends and objects of the Veda, but the Sankhya, the Vaisheshika, the Nyaya and Yoga philosophers, all pretend to find in the Upanishads some warranty for their tenets.
Without understanding the Upanishads, it is impossible to get an insight into Indian history and culture. Every subsequent development of philosophy and religion in India has drawn heavily on the Upanishads.
Each of the Vedas has many Mahavakyas (Great Sentences) or great sayings. But four Mahavakyas found in the Upanishads related to four Vedas are very important, thought-provoking and powerful. These spell out the non-duality of the Jiva and the Brahman:
1. Prajnanam Brahma – Rigveda 2. Aham Brahmasm – Yajurveda
3. Tattvamasi – Samveda 4. Ayamatma Brahma –Atharvaveda
The Vedas are the source of integral wisdom, science, tradition and culture of a remarkable civilization. They are oral compilations of the distilled wisdom of cosmic knowledge that survived from time immemorial. They are not only identified as scriptures, but also as the fountainhead of Indian culture and human civilization.
The Upanishads, the Gita and the Brahma Sutras are technically called the Prasthanatraya. These are the three authoritative books on Hindu Philosophy. Any teacher who claims himself as an Acharya and who wants to open a new school of thought must write a commentary on these three important books. All the previous Acharyas, Sri Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhva have written commentaries on these books.
The Veda is the only unadulterated treasure house of true knowledge. So much so that even UNESCO declared it as part of the Intangible cultural heritage of humanity. (http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/en/RL/tradition-of-vedic-chanting-00062).
Message of Upanishads in Nutshell
The Upanishads teach the philosophy of absolute unity.
The Atman is self-evident (Svatah-siddha). It is not established by extraneous proofs. It is not possible to deny the Atman, because It is the very essence of the one who denies It. The Atman is the basis of all kinds of knowledge, presuppositions and proofs.
The principle that consciousness is existence, chit is sat, also implies that the knowledge that you have gained has to become part of your life, part of your daily existence. Your existence is to be your consciousness; your learning, your knowledge, is your existence.
The world is relatively real (Vyavaharika Satyam), while Brahman is absolutely real (Paramarthika Satyam). The world is the product of Maya or Avidya (Ignorance). The unchanging Brahman appears as the changing world through Maya. Maya is a mysterious indescribable power of the Lord which hides the real and manifests itself as the unreal.
The Jiva or the individual soul is only relatively real. Its individuality lasts only so long as it is subject to unreal Upadhis or limiting conditions due to Avidya (Ignorance). The Jiva identifies itself with the body, mind and the senses, when it is deluded by Avidya or ignorance. It thinks, it acts and enjoys, on account of Avidya. In reality it is not different from Brahman or the Absolute. The Upanishads declare emphatically: “Tat Tvam Asi-That Thou Art.”
— Salutations to Shruti Mata. Om Tat Sat —
The self that is subtler than the subtle and greater than the great is seated in the heart of every creature. one who is free from desire sees the glory of the self through the tranquility of the mind and senses and becomes absolved from grief.