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What are the Upanishads?

Updated Mar 06, 2024
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The Upanishads are ancient, sacred texts that form the final part of Hindu religious thought. The Sanskrit word ‘Upanishad’ literally means to sit at the feet of a master to receive instruction. Chronologically, they follow the Vedas and are often referred to as the Vedanta (‘veda’, knowledge and ‘anta’, end or conclusion) for this reason. Of the approximately 108 existing Upanishads, twelve are considered to be the core teachings. They take the form of dialogues, with each discoursing on a metaphysical, moral or teleological theme. In brief, the thought in the Upanishads is concerned with the Brahman (universal soul) and the Atman (individual soul) and the relationship between the two. The Brahman is the all encompassing plane of being that acts as the informing principle of all other existence.

As with any religious text, exegeses of the Upanishads are many and are informed by differing metaphysical and religious beliefs; the principal commentaries, however, are to be found in the writings of Shankara, Madhvacharva and Vishishtadvaita. The most salient differences between these various schools is to be discerned in how they regard the metaphysical status of Brahman. Shankara and Madvacharva differ most obviously in this regard, for the former postulates that Brahman is limitless and beyond temporal notions of being, while the latter positions Brahman in the pantheon along with gods such as Vishnu and Krishna.

The Upanishads record the thoughts and philosophical musings of a succession of Hindu teachers and sages who worked around 1000BC, but who were particularly prominent in 600BC. It has been speculated that the Upanishads from the earlier period form part of Brahmanas (commentaries) of their respective Vedas, yet they are to be distinguished from them because the bias of their enquiry is more philosophical and mystical and conversely they pay less attention to the deities of the Vedas and their associated sacrificial rites.

The influence of the Upanishads isn’t limited to Hinduism. They are known to have been studied by Jains and Buddhists. Equally, during the Middle Ages, Muslim scholars such as Dara Shikoh, the elder son of Shajahan, were influenced by Hindu philosophy and the Upanishads in particular. He had a number of the Upanishads translated into his native Persian. However, it was with the establishment of the British Raj in India and the well regarded translations made by German Philologist Max Muller that the Upanishads met with a large European audience.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon56718 — On Dec 16, 2009

About sixteen years ago during a night out with a girlfriend at a dive bar in P.B. San Diego called "Stingers" I was approach by an average looking guy whose face seemed to hold a secret. Throughout the entire night he and I conversed, joked and laughed he was really quite funny. Never did he seem to ever cross that boundary between friend vs. lover. He always was most respectful.

At the end of the night, before departing, he asked if I'd do him one favor. As long as it didn't creep me out I'd be much obliged. He then proceeded to ask me if I'd go to the Hare Krishna temple with him. At this point I didn't know what to think. Asking why? Aren't they the people you avoid at the airport?

He continued pleading and every time I'd resist the idea he'd counter it with a more intensified plea. He was not taking no for an answer to the point I realized maybe I should check this temple thing out just to see what's the big deal.

Ascending the steps little did I realize the importance of me being in a Hare Krishna Temple.

To describe the beauty inside every square inch is ornate with decoration, nothing is left untouched. You become awestruck.

The most curious feature was the little lone tree that sat square in the middle of the temple. I was then asked if I would like to join in dance and song encircling the "tree of purification". At first I declined to participate but after a short time of seeing their kind expressions even after my rejection I gave in and joined in encircling the "tree of purification". I had taken maybe two or three steps around the tree where I then burst into tears. Tear after tear fell uncontrollably I looked to the little lady leading the dance and asked why am I crying? Why can't I stop? The answer she gave me took me about sixteen years to understand fully.

Looking intently into my eyes with the sweetest expression of love she said "You are a Demigod". So my question is "What is a Demigod" and how many of us are there?

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