The Upanishads or Vedanta (the end of the Vedas) are the scriptures that contain the essence of the Vedic philosophy. “Upanishad” literally means “learning at the feet of”; thus pointing to “at the feet of a Master.” Thus was born the ancient guru system in Hindu society. In each of the Vedas, there are two main divisions: the Karma Kanda deals with the rituals, and the Jnana Kanda, deals with knowledge or wisdom. The Upanishads are part of the Jnana Kanda. The guru would lead his pupil (shishya), step by step, to the stage whereby the pupil recognized the Self, or the Divine in himself. This is indeed the avowed final destination of a Hindu life.
Discovering the Divine, or Self, within also implies elevating oneself to the highest spiritual status. This is, in reality, the sacred stage of all virtuous conduct. The Upanishads are therefore considered a road map, complete with a “guru guide,” to reach the highest peak of human development.
The Upanishads truly heralded free thought in Hindu society. In the Upanishads, we also see the identification of the sage (the Rishi) associated with each teaching program, a factor that was conspicuous by its absence in the Vedas. The major Upanishads, or the Primary Upanishads, were formed along with the Vedas. These were compiled before the Buddhist era, around the seventh century BCE or earlier. The learned gurus of the Upanishads brought the important teachings to the forefront and downplayed the teachings that were less relevant to mankind. The teachings were properly explained with correct interpretations.
The earlier Upanishads (Brhadarayaka and Chandogya) relied strongly on the rituals used to interpret the spiritual knowledge. The later Upanishads became more and more liberated from the rituals, however, moving toward internal processes of meditation and personal religious experiences. It is more likely that some factions at this stage totally defied the orthodox Vedic supremacy and formed a separate group that advocated the pre-historic ancient philosophy of renunciation and meditation, naming it as the Sramana ideology, which ultimately gave birth to Jainism and Buddhism.32 The later Upanishads became more and more liberated from the rituals, however, moving toward internal processes of meditation and personal religious experiences. External rituals were subordinated to internal spiritual practices, called sadhanas. The rituals, however, did continue their influence and dominance in many different ways in the Hindu society. Even as the new religions and sects opposed and denounced the old rituals, they soon formed their own new rituals. Both the rituals and meditation have grown in Hindu system side by side ever since. An individual may prefer one over the other according to one’s own aptitude and propensity. There is no serious antagonism in Hindu theology; rather there is complete freedom to pursue one’s own path.
Hindu thought continued to march with the passage of time. Newer Upanishads came into being. In the post-Buddhist and post-Shankaracharya eras, a number of minor Upanishads were created to impart the spiritual teachings to posterity. Indeed, even the writings of modern holy men and women might be regarded as divine revelation, thus maintaining an evolutionary continuity of the Hindu tradition.33
More than two hundred Upanishads are in writing. Among the 108 Upanishads available, the most important ones are Mundaka, Isha, Kena, Katha, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Chhandogya, Prashna, Shvetashvatara, and Brihadaranyaka.
The Vedas taught worship of the gods of nature, such as the sun, sky, wind, and fire. The Upanishads emphasized that behind the façade of these many gods, there is but one Supreme God. In fact, the concept of one universal God was also originally expressed in the Rig Veda itself:
Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti.
(One alone exists; sages call it by various names.)
In the Upanishads, this ancient philosophical thought came to the forefront, overshadowing the idea of multiple gods, who were considered simply as the manifestation of the transcendental Supreme Divine. Modern world has adopted this concept of God more vigorously, especially in the face of the many religions and sects around the world. It is interesting to note that the Supreme Court of the United States recommended the use of the term “Supreme Being” in place of “God” in the Constitution of the United States, after hearing the plea in which the above quotation of the Rig Veda was presented.34
Some of the most important hymns of the spiritual knowledge are reproduced:
From the Chandogya Upanishad,
“Speech, eyes, ears, limbs, life are in union with spirit.”
Thus, we see how the sages created the union between body and soul. Soul and body work together. Condemnation of the body and senses is not the right attitude. Putting the body to proper and good use is the right way.
From the Isha Upanishad,
Everything belongs to the Supreme Self. Self is the supreme. It is everywhere and all powerful. It gives us the breath-to-breath to live. We may claim nothing as our own. A wise man sees unity in all. Spiritual knowledge comes from austerity, self-control, and meditation.
The Vedic gods of nature are not disowned, but they are certainly subordinated. The subtle, formless, transcendental, spiritual God was conceived already in the Vedas, but now, in the Upanishads, this concept is highlighted and forcefully presented. God is everywhere, in all beings and so, too, within one’s own self. The concept of transcendental formless God also points to the universal aspect of the Divine; same God is present everywhere and in everyone. This realization of oneness with all beings at once sows the seeds of love and adoration with each other.
In the Mundaka Upanishad, we learn that: -knowledge is of two types: lower knowledge (Apara Vidya), which deals with the secular knowledge of grammar, sciences, rituals, astrology, etc.; and higher knowledge (Para Vidya), which deals with divine or spiritual knowledge. Indeed, the Para Vidya is more concerned with the inner spiritual transformation of man than with only the book knowledge, which is also considered to be the apara, or the lower knowledge.
“As the flowing rivers disappear into the ocean, leaving their names and forms, so the wise man, freed from name and form, attains the highest of the high—the eternal Parampurusha.” 35
Swami Paramannanda, one of the pioneer gurus of Hindu philosophy in the West, writes:
“In the Vedas, we find a clear distinction between what man calls his own self, the Jivatman, and the Divine Over-self, the Paramatman. The search for God is man’s eternal quest. Every person must do this for himself. The method of this individual search can be traced to the Upanishad teaching. It is not so much the learning of the Divine, which is important; it’s living like the Divine that is essential in this pursuit.”
The Upanishads heralded the true learning of the religion. The practice of Guru-Shishya (Teacher-Student) originated in Hindu theology and has continued over millennia. Free discussion and question-answer tradition was set in motion; students were encouraged to confront their teachers with the most arduous and grueling questions, till all their doubts were answered with agreeable explanations and interpretations. This system truly laid the foundation for rational teaching.