The Low Down on the Upanishads

I have a Philosophy quiz this weekend for my 500-hour teacher training, so I thought I’d study for it with you guys :). Please please please correct any misunderstandings or anything that looks like blatant figment of my imagination.

Why are the Upanishads called “secret teachings”?

  • It was literally kept secret until about the sixteenth century (they clearly did not have Twitter back then).
  • It’s meant to be practiced, lived and *experienced*, and only those willing to do it can discover the “secret”. (Some even say that only the selected few are fit and “worthy” to receive it, and that’s why it’s a secret.)

What is the meaning of the word “upanishad”?
The word Upanishad (Devanagari: उपनिषद्,) in Sanskrit literally means sitting down near or close to: upa (near), ni (down) and sad (to sit, and not just sitting around watching TV, my understanding is upa+ni= to sit with strong determination). In the words of Vanilla Ice, it’s “Alright, stop, collaborate, and listen”.

Some prefer to sit under the tree, others in it

Some prefer to sit under the tree to listen to the teacher, others in it

What is the origin of the Upanishads?
Timewise, it’s speculated (by Important Scholars, no less) that the composition of the Upanishads dates around 800 – 400 B.C (give or take a couple hundred years doesn’t seem to be such a problem when something is just plain *old*.)

Philosophically speaking, the Upanishads are eternal knowledge. The teachings were heard, and as such, the origin is, well, unknown. We could say that the knowledge existed long before the creation of this world as we know it.

The Upanishads contain what we could boldly state as “universal truths”, which came about when the Ancient Seers encountered their quarter-life, mid-life, and identity- crises, and wanted to do something about it.

They asked all those Big Questions that we have all asked, “What are the fundamental truths of being?”. “Where did we come from?”, “Why are we here?”, “What am I supposed to do with my life?”, “Is there more to life than this?”, “Is there life after death? If so, where is it? *What* is it?”, “All those nice things that our yoga teachers talk about, like freedom, eternal bliss, internal peace, Atman, Brahman, the Supreme Soul, do they exist?”, “Who will go to Prom with me?”

What is śhruti literature? Smṛti?

Śruti means “to hear” or “to listen” in Sanskrit, and Sruti literature is nothing short of revelations from the cosmos, heard by ancient Rishis, or seers, who then had the mojo to translate what they heard into something understandable by humans.

Smṛti literature, in contrast, is “remembered text”, and of course is inferior to to Sruti because what could be more divine than the teachings of the Gods?

Both śruti and smṛti literature were used to lay down the law within the Hindu tradition (cuz you know, you gotta regulate).

We make a distinction between the two to see two different treatments of the material. Śruti is of divine origin, so it was preserved and recited as a whole, and there was little need or desire to break it down. With smṛti, you could recite it verse by verse and interpret for more understanding.

I'm not a girl, not yet a woman.

I'm not a girl, not yet a woman.

What is the main shift in emphasis between the Vedic and Upanishad literature?
Vedic literature is concerned with what is outward, that is, the cosmos. Life wasn’t easy, to say the least, and people were looking for ways to escape the karmic cycle of birth and death. In Vedic literature, we see a lot of mentioning of external rituals and Gods and Goddesses.

In contrast, in the Upanishads, or Vedanta literature, literally, the end or appendix to the Veda, saw a shift from external to internal, namely, the self, or Atman, and the relationship with Brahman. The philosophy was more concerned with self-realization, and the tone was more skeptical of the roles and importance of the Gods. In the Katha Upanishad, which is actually where the word “yoga” was first mentioned, we saw this shift, as Yama told Naciketas in chapter IV:

This in truth is That.

What is here is also there, and what is there is also here.  Who sees the many and not the One, wanders on from death to death. Even by the mind this truth is to be learned: there are not many but only One.

What is the time period that the Upanishads develop?
The Upanishads do not belong to any particular time period. The oldest upanishads are said to date around the middle of the first millennium BCE.

  • Indus Valley Civilization: C3000 – 1700 BCE
  • Vedic Culture: C1700 – 800 BCE
  • Upanishads (the oldest ones): C800 – 500 BCE

Common themes include samsara, karma, moksha. How did these themes develop?
Samsara is the cycle of birth and death, of continuing to reincarnate into another human life full of suffering and misery. Karma is something that the world creates, and to find liberation, or moksha, one needed to push the world away and to look inside.

These themes developed through the desire to go beyond the hardship of daily life. The teaching was that the universal soul, or Brahman, is one and the same as the individual soul, or Atman. And if one wasn’t savvy enough to know this, one remained in ignorance and took everything in this universe as real. Then, one continues to experience that world, over and over again (kinda like Groundhog Day). The samsara keeps happening, and it doesn’t matter if one has good or bad karma, one keeps staying in the cycle.

However, if aimed with The Truth! (dun dun dun), the individual soul can recognize its own nature as identical to Brahman, and get released from samsara and karma to achieve moksha, or Freedom (not to be confused with George Bush’s Operation Freedom.)

What is the major contribution or emphasis of the Upanishad?
The major teaching of the Upanishad is to recognize our True Self. Not only are our minds and bodies not separated, but we are not separated from each other.


What does it mean to be liberated?

To be liberated is to meditate on the self and to know our Self. As the ancient Greeks said, “Know Thyself”, or the Bard would say, “To thine own self be true.”

Who are we (that needs to be liberated)?
We are the ones that are still associating ourselves with our thoughts and our bodies. We haven’t realized that we already have the divinity inside us, and we keep looking for liberation in the external dualistic world.

How does the world view flow into the practice for the individual during the time of the Upanishads?

I'm stuck!

I'm stuck!

What is a mahavakya? What does the word mean?

A mahavakya is a  “great saying” from the Upanishads. “The Mahavakyas” is the Elite Four: the four statements about the unity of Atman and Brahman.

  1. Prajnanam Brahma – “Consciousness is Brahman” (Aitareya Upanishad 3.3)
  2. Ayam Atma Brahma – “This Self (Atman) is Brahman” (Mandukya Upanishad 1.2)
  3. Tat Tvam Asi – “Thou art That” (Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7)
  4. Aham Brahmasmi – “I am Brahman” (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10)

What is the main teaching of the Taittiriya Upanishad?
The central theme states that to know Brahman is to attain supreme knowledge, which can end our miseries.

“He who knows Brahman attains the supreme goal. Brahman is the abiding reality, he is pure knowledge, and he is infinity. He who knows that Brahman dwells within the lotus of the heart becomes one with him and enjoys all blessings.”

We learn this theme through the conversation of Bhrigu and his father Varuna. Varuna guides Bhrigu through the five sheaths (or koshas) of the human body, and shows that they are ultimately Brahman or “God”.

  1. Food sheath (Anna-maya kosa)
  2. Energy sheath (Prana-maya kosa)
  3. Mind, or mental sheath (Mana-maya kosa)
  4. Intellectual, or insight sheath (Vignana-maya kosa)
  5. Bliss sheath (Ananda-maya kosa)

Brahman, is that you?

What are the key insights of the Mandukya Upanishad?

Om is all, and all is Om. This is said to be the most important Upanishad, the kind that if you studied no other Upanishad, this is the one. Or, if you can only take 1 Upanishad onto a deserted island, this would be it, and for a very good reason: this Upanishad explains the significance of the sound Om.

The Mandukya Upanishad talks about the four aspects of Atman, which corresponds to the sound Aum, or Om.

  • The waking state – Vaishvanara (represented by the letter A)
  • The dreaming state – Taijasa (letter U)
  • The deep sleep state – Prajna (letter M)
  • The Turiya state – Turiya (literally, the fourth state, nothing fancy here :)) (the silence from which all sounds emerge and end in).

By accessing all the different states of consciousness, we eventually come to realize that we already have access to prajna.