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The Upanishads

by T.N. Dhar 'Kundan'

“Jnani Twatmaiva Me Matam, B.G.7.18- A knowledgeable one is my very soul,” proclaims Shri Krishna in the Bhagwad Gita. In order to become knowledgeable one has to acquire knowledge. Vedas are the store house of knowledge, but then there is a lot of other matter in the Vedas; mantras relating to actions and deeds, mantras relating to devotion and worship, mantras relating to Yajna, the sacrifice and mantras relating to knowledge relevant to body, mind and soul, the creator and the creation. It is this knowledge content of the Vedas which has been culled out and put forward in the form of various Upanishads, sometimes as a narrative, sometimes in question and answer form, and sometimes in the form of a fable or two. There are a lot many Upanishads, some named after the Rishi who has compiled them, like Kathopanishad, some named after the initial word of the first Mantra, like Ishavasya Upanishad, and others named with reference to their distinguishing features, like Prashnopanishad. Since these Upanishads are the core of Vedanta and contain the wisdom of ancient India, it is the duty of every one of us who claims to be an Indian, to have at least a basic knowledge of this rich and invaluable heritage of ours. Since their number is large, it would suffice if some of the more important and prominent Upanishads are explained.

An inquisitive mind wants to know the reality of what he sees around him. He wants to unravel the secrets of the nature. He looks to this whole universe with awe, surprise and astonishment, as stated in the Gita, ‘Aashchariyavat Pashyati Kashchitenam….B.G. 2.29’. It is therefore of paramount importance for him to see, hear, think, analyse, discern and experience with utmost concentration in order to know and gain knowledge, “….drashtavyah shrotavyo mantavyo nididhyasitavyah atmasakhshatkarah kartavyah”. The Upanishads help him, show him the way and guide him. The Gita also says in very clear terms, “tatvidhi pranipaten pariprashnen sevaya B.G. 4.34”. One has to approach, enquire and serve in order to gain knowledge.

The vivid most questions that arise in the mind of a seeker are about the creation as such, the origin of this universe, the nature of life and death, the evolution and the management and the administration of the cosmos. For an answer to these questions, for a detailed discussion on these points and for an explanation to this phenomena, one has to turn to five important Upanishads viz. Aitreya, Brihadaranyaka, Shwetashwatar, Prashna and Chhandogya.

1. Aitreyopnishad is the work of Mahidas. He was born of a maid named Itera, hence was known as Aitreya and his work also gets his name. This Upanishad has three chapters. The first one deals with the creation of the cosmos and the universe. The second narrates the creation of a human being, transmigration of soul and the liberation. The third deals with the nature of the soul and the Divine. Two statements made in this Upanishad would be noteworthy. It says. “ Atma va idameka evagre aasit nanyatkim chinmishat, sa eekshat lokan nu srijai iti”. Prior to creation only Parmatma the supreme soul existed. He saw and desired to create. The Upanishad explains this statement and goes on to add, “Atma vai jayate santatih, it is the self, the procreator who is re-born in the form of his progeny”.

2. Brihadaaranyak, In size, it is voluminous (Brihad) and has been narrated in a jungle (Aranya) and thus its name. This Upanishad has six chapters and starts with the description of Ashwamedha Yajna. It contains some fables and all important dialogues of Yagyavalka with Janaka, with Maitreyee and with Gargi and that between Gargya and Ajatshatru, Through the medium of these interesting conversations the intricate secrets have been explained, the origin of Time and Speech and the life essence (Prana) have been revealed. Three important statements made in this Upanishad are I). Paranchikani vyatrinat swayambhu - the Lord has made the senses extrovert because of which these are drawn towards sense objects. II) Ekamevaadwitiyam Brahma. - the creator is one and unmatched, without any second. III) aatmaivedam sarvam - the entire creation is self incarnate.

3. Shwetashwatar. This important work of a Rishi by the same name is a very important treatise on the creation of atoms, electrons, protons, and the structure of cells. It also discusses the role of time, nature, destiny and other elements like positive and negative charges of a magnet. It explains the relationship between the Divine, the man, and the nature. It has been stated that ‘Maya tu prakritim vidyat Mayinam tu Maheshwaram. - in other words, the nature is an illusion created by the Lord who said in the beginning ‘Ekohum bahusyam - I am single and let me become multiple.

4. Prashnopanishad. As the name itself suggests, this Upanishad is based on the answers given to six questions put by Sukesh, Satyakam, Gargya, Kaushalya, Vaidarbhi and Kabandhi. Acharya Pippalad takes up the last question first and from the answer to that question derives answers to the remaining five. The last question was, how did the creation take place ? The answer given is by the combination of matter and force, positive and negative, active and passive called Prana and Rayi, symbolised in male and female. The importance of the life essence Prana, has been established in this Upanishad and the life after death has been described.

5. Chhandogya. This is one of the voluminous Upanishads divided into eight sections with 154 sub sections. This is said to have been compiled by Angirus, and starts with a detailed account of the worship of ‘OM’. There are quite a few illustrative fables in this Upanishad relating to Jana Shruti - Raikva Rishi, Jabala-Satyakam, Shwetaketu-Jaibali, Ashwapati-Uddalak Rishi and Sanat Kumar-Narada. A very important scientific fact has been established in this Upanishad, that the physical elements like water, light etc. are necessary to sustain the mental and psychological elements like mind, speech, resolution, attention etc. The Upanishad narrates the gradual development of spirituality. It says, “Chatushkalah padah Brahmanah prakashawan nama’. The supreme shines on all sides and “Bhuma eva parmam sukham” i.e the search for the eternal and endless only is supreme bliss.

All the Upanishads have proclaimed and established the omnipresence of the God. Yet Ishavasyopanishad and Mandukyopanishad have special significance in regard to this subject. Shwetashwataropansihad says ‘Eko devah sarvabhuteshu gudah sarva vyapi sarvabhutantratma’ - there is one supreme pervading everything which is the soul of everything.

6. Ishavasyopanishad. This Upanishad has a distinct place in as much as it forms the last fortieth chapter of Shuklayajurveda. It begins with the words ‘Ishawasyam’ and thus gets its name. After stating the established truth of the omnipresence of the Divine it says ‘Tyekhtena bhunjithah’ - enjoy, but with an attitude of sacrificing and not that of attachment. It further enjoins ‘Ma gridhah Kasyachit dhanam’ - covet not others wealth. The life span in ancient times was hundred years and above. Referring to that, the Upanishad says ‘Kurvannevaha Karmani jijivishet shatam samah’ - desire to live a hundred years but utilise this span of life in doing good deeds.

7. Mandukya. This Upanishad was compiled by Rishi Mandukya whence it gets its name. Running into only twelve mantras, it explains the all pervading Brahman in the form of ‘OM’. It analyses its four components, a, o, m and the silent ‘n’, and connects them to the four aspects of the Supreme and the human being viz. Wakefulness, sleeping state, dreaming state, and the fourth one beyond these three. It also gives an account of the five constituents of a human being i.e. body structure made of food (anna), the ability to perform due to the life essence (prana), the aspect of desire in human mind (mana), knowledge and ego of the intellect (vijnan) and the ability of deriving pleasure (ananda) from both desire and action. This Upanishad has in effect said that the Divine is all pervading in the form of ‘OM’ and can be known either as ‘He’ or as ‘I’. In the former case one becomes a devotee (Bhakta) and in the latter a knowledgeable soul (Jnani).

Kena, Katha and Mundaka are the three Upanishads in which again vital questions about the secrets of this universe, knowledge and liberation have been explained. Let us start with Mundakopanishad.

8. Mundaka. It has an interesting beginning. Shaunaka Rishi approaches Acharya Angira, the perceiver of this Upanishad and asks ‘Pray ! teach me some such subject by knowing which all the branches of Knowledge become known. In reply the Acharya says that knowledge is of two types, Para (higher) and Apara (lower). It is the former which leads to liberation and self realisation. A quotable quote of this Upanishad is ‘Sa vidya ya vimuktaye’ - education is that which has liberation as its aim.

It is interesting to note that each Upanishad has something or the other to it which has become axiomatic. Ishavasya has brought out (Vidya and Avidya), experienced knowledge and acquired knowledge. Prashnopanishad has established two elements, Prana and Rayi, the active and the passive , necessary for creation. Mundak describes two types of education, Para, the hidden and superior one and Apara, the mundane. Similarly, Kenopanishad has mentioned the two driving forces as Jivatma, the individual soul and Parmatma, the collective supreme soul. Kathopanishad has referred to two important factors, Shreya, the beneficial and Preya, the attractive one.

9. Kenopanishad gets its name by the first word of the question raised in the beginning itself. Kena, by whom. The full question is ‘Keneshitam patati preshitam manah ?’ - by whom is the mind diverted towards sense objects ? In other words, who is the driving force behind all activities, physical, mental etc. There is a detailed discussion on this subject in this Upanishad which establishes the existence of the supreme power that pervades, guides and controls the entire universe. There is a tale relating to Vritrasur through the medium of which this has been explained. The power has been described as unimaginable, indescribable, yet existing in the form of Jeevatma, the individual soul and Parmatma, the collective supreme soul.

10. Kathopanishad. This Upanishad perceived by Rishi Katha is famous because of the dialogue between Nachiketa and Yama. Because of the insistence of Nachiketa, the Yama is forced to divulge the secrets of self realisation for which he says one has to peep inside one’s self with due discipline and yogic practices.

Let us before concluding, take up yet another important Upanishad viz. Taittirya.

11. Taittirya. This Upanishad, in three parts, is unique as it throws light on the ancient educational system. The first part is called Shikshadhyay Balli., or the chapter on education. The second part is Brahmanand Balli, or the chapter on supreme bliss, and the third part is Bhrigu Balli, the chapter explaining the worship of the Supreme. This Upanishad is a treatise on learning process, pronunciation, recitation, phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax, etymology etc. It gives the duties of the teacher and the taught, the essence of education, self study, study of scriptures and the development of the spirit of a student. There is also an account of Gurukula, campus of the preceptor and the Deekshanta, the present day convocation after which a Brahmachari, i.e. a celibate used to start Grihasta, the family life.

The study of all these Upanishads is fascinating, illuminating, informative and educative. Let us conclude this brief account of this important treasure of Upanishads with an Upanishadic quotation - ‘ Swadhyaya Pravachanabhyam na pramaditavyam’ - one should shirk neither from learning nor from teaching.

T. N. Dhar Kundan's Articles

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