THE UPANISADS: The Upanisads which are the concluding portion as the cream of the Veda and are therefore rightly called ‘Vedanta’.
The word ‘Upanisads’ is derived from the root ‘sad’ which means :
- To sit down
- To destroy
- To loosen.
‘Upa’ means ‘near by’ and ‘ni’ means, ‘devotedly’. The word therefore means the sitting down of the disciple near his teacher in a devoted manner to receive instruction about the highest reality which loosens all doubts and destroys all ignorance of the disciple. Gradually the word came to signify any secret teaching about reality and it is used by the Upanisads in this sense. The Muktikopanisad gives the number of the Upanisads 108. But ten or eleven Upanisads are regarded as important and authentic, on which Shankaracharya has commented. These are Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chhandogya and Brhadaranyaka. The teaching, being the highest, was imparted at private sitting only to the qualified disciples. Heraclitus has also said that if men care for gold, they must dig for it or be content with straw. If one wants pearls, one has to dive deep into ocean or be content with pebbles on the shore.
The traditional views hold that the Upanisads as Revealed Texts teach the same doctrine. But there has been extremely wide difference in their interpretation. The problems discussed in them as well as their unique style make them liable to many interpretations. All their teachings are not equally prominent. Some are mere flashes of thought; some are only hinted at; some are slightly developed ; some are mentioned by the way ; while some are often repeated, emphasized and thoroughly dealt with. There is an essential unity of purpose in them. They emphasize the same fundamental doctrine which may be called monistic idealism or idealistic monism. These poetic – philosophic works are full of grand imagery, extremely charming and lucid expression abounding in crystal clarity. To the mind they bring sound philosophical doctrines and to the heart, peace and freedom. They are full of Ananda or Supreme Joy out of which all things arise, by which they live and into which they return again. Passionate yearning for knowledge, restless striving after truth, and a ceaseless search for reality have found a most touching expression in them. Deussen says that the Upanisads seers have thrown, ‘ If not the most scientific, yet still the most intimate and immediate light upon the last secret of existence,’ and that there are in them ‘ philosophical conceptions unequalled in India or perhaps anywhere else in the world’. Prof. Winternitz writes that these old thinkers ‘wrestle so earnestly for the truth and in their philosophical poems the eternally unsatisfied human yearning for knowledge has been expressed so fervently’ that these works are invaluable for mankind. Some of them match the Platonic Dialogues. Impressed by them the great German philosopher Schopenhauer declared : ‘in the whole world there is no study so beneficial and so elevating. It has been the solace of my death’. Such masterly works have always been ‘the ridicule of fools and the endless meditation of sages’.
The Upanisads develop the monistic ideas scattered in the Samhitas. During the Brahmana period, these scattered philosophical ideas were almost overlooked and emphasis was laid on merely the rigorous ritualistic sacrifice. The Aranyakas mark the shifting of the emphasis from the ritualistic to the philosophical thought which work was completed by the Upanisads. The Upanisads tell us that the Vedas – the storehouse of knowledge – have been breathed forth from Him; but they regard the Karma – Kanda as secondary , being only a help to purify the mind by which purification one is made fit to receive the real teaching about Brahman. Thus we found the sage Narada telling Sanatkumara: ‘ I know the Rgveda, sir, the Yajuh, the Sama, with all these I know only the Mantras and the sacred books, I do not know the Self………I have heard from persons like you that only he who knows the self goes beyond sorrow ‘. The Mundaka tells us: ‘two kinds of knowledge must be known, the higher and the lower. The lower knowledge is that which the Rk, Sama, Atharva, Ceremonial, Grammar give ……but the higher knowledge is that by which the immortal Brahman is known’. In the Gita also the Lord asks Arjuna to rise above the three Gunas, telling him that the Vedas deal with the three Gunas and that he who has known Brahman has little to do with the Vedas. Sometimes the Mantras are interpreted as subjective symbolism or psychological spiritualism concealed in a concrete and material way to hide the truth from the profane and reveal it only to the qualified and the initiated. Thus Surya signifies intelligence, Agni will, soma feelings; Ashvamedha means meditation where the whole universe offered as the horse and desires are sacrificed and true spiritual autonomy is attained. The Brahmana ceremonialism is often contrasted with spiritual meditation. There is a satirical passage in the Chhandogya where dogs are described as marching in a procession like the priest saying: ‘ Aum! Let us eat, Aum! Let us drink etc.’ thus the complicated and rigorous ritualism and ceremonialism of the Brahmanas was fortunately arrested in the Upanisads. But it is important to note that the criticism are directed against ritualism and ceremonialism only and not against the lofty philosophical conception found in the Mantras, which are faithfully acknowledged and developed.