10 Upanishads: Culmination of the Vedas
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 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.