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The Upanishads (Devanagari: उपनिषद्, IAST: upaniṣad), often regarded as the “crown” or the “cream” of the Vedas are the Hindu scriptures which primarily discuss philosophy, meditation, and the nature of God; they form the core spiritual thought of Vedantic Hinduism. They are an unsystematized compilation of dialogs, monologues and anecdotes composed by multiple authors, which contain the foundations for most of the later philosophies and religions of India. Vedic texts are traditionally categorized into four classes: The Samhitās (mantras), Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads. Each Upanishad is associated with one of the Samhitas. Vedanta, “the culmination of the Vedas,” is chiefly composed of Āranyakas and Upanishads. The oldest, such as the Brhadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanishads, have been dated to around the eighth century B.C.E.; later ones were still being composed at the time when Islamic influence was spreading through India. According to tradition, there were over two hundred Upanishads, but the philosopher and commentator Shankara (who lived sometime between 509 and 820 C.E.) only composed commentaries to eleven of them, generally regarded as the oldest and most important ones. The Muktika Upanishad lists 108 Upanishads.
Because the Upanishads were regarded as revealed truth (sruti), most of the subsequent systems of philosophy attempted to reconcile themselves to at least some of the doctrines of the Upanishads, and to represent themselves as further developments of those doctrines. The fundamental idea which runs through the early Upanishads is that underlying the exterior, changing world, there is an unchangeable reality (Brahman) which is identical with that which underlies the essence in man (Atman). The essence of the universe can only be known through the Atman, the inmost essence of man, the individual self, soul, and mind. The Upanishads were a revival of spiritualism, a reaction to the complicated ritualism, ceremonialism and formalism of the Brahmanas. They declared that perfection was inward and spiritual, rather than outward and mechanical, and that God was to be honored by spiritual worship, not external ceremony.
The Sanskrit term upaniṣad literally means "sitting down beside." The word derives from “upa” (near), “ni” (down), and “sad” (to sit), and refers to "sitting down near" a spiritual teacher (guru) in order to receive instruction in the Guru-shishya tradition.
Monier-Williams notes that "according to some the sitting down at the feet of another to listen to his words (and hence, secret knowledge given in this manner; but according to native authorities upanishad means 'setting at rest ignorance by revealing the knowledge of the supreme spirit…')" Other dictionary meanings include "esoteric doctrine" and "secret doctrine."
A gloss of the term upanishad based on Shankara's commentary on the Kaṭha and Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishads equates it with Ātmavidyā, that is "knowledge of the Self," or Brahmavidyā "knowledge of Brahma." Shankara derived the word from the root “sad” (to destroy, loosen) and equated its meaning with the destruction of ignorance.
The first Upanishads, Aitareya, Kauśītāki, Chāndogya, Kena, Taittirīya, Brihadāranyaka, Īśa, and Katha, were composed as early as the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. and predate Buddha. The accepted dates for the early Upanishads are 1000 to 300 B.C.E. Though the first Upanishads were compiled by 500 B.C.E., later ones were still being composed at the time when Islamic influence was spreading through India. The language of the Upanishads is Sanskrit, the oldest among them still classifying as late Vedic Sanskrit. The Upanishads were transmitted orally by the Vedic schools sakhas long before they were committed to writing. The oldest and longest Upanishads, the Brihadāranyaka and the Chāndogya were composed in prose. Later Upanishads such as the Īśa, Māṇḍukya, Katha, and Śvetāśvatara Upanishads, were composed in verse.
The authorship of the Upanishads is unknown, but some of their chief doctrines are associated with the names of particular sages such as Aruni, Yajnavalkya, Bâlâki, Svetaketu, and Sândilya. The Upanishads belong to the class of sruti, or revealed literature, uttered by sages in the fullness of an illumined understanding of truth.
According to tradition, there were over two hundred Upanishads, but the philosopher and commentator Shankara (who lived sometime between 509 and 820 C.E.) only composed commentaries to eleven of them, generally regarded as the oldest ones. The Muktika Upanishad lists 108 Upanishads. According to Panini's Ashtadhyayi (also known as Panineeyam), the total number of Upanishads was 900, and Patanjali also puts the number at 900; it appears that most of them are lost forever. The Nigeernopanishad, of apocryphal nature, names 187 Upanishads. However, many of the interpolations of Nigeerna are as late as the fourteenth century.
In 1640, Dara Shikoh, eldest son of the Emperor Shāh Jahān, heard about the Upanishads while staying in Kashmir, and recognized elements of monotheism that might pave the way for a common mystical bond between Islam and Hinduism. He invited several Pandits to come to Delhi and translate them from Sanskrit into Persian, a task that was completed in 1656. In 1775, Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil Du Perron, the discoverer of the Zend-Avesta, was presented with a copy by his friend Le Gentil, who was then French resident at the court of Shuja-uddaulah in Faizabad. From 1802 to 1804, Anquetil published a two-volume Latin translation from the Persian Oupnek'hat, or Upanishada. It was a curious mixture of Latin, Greek, Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit.
This translation was read by Schopenhauer (1788–1860), whose philosophy was profoundly influenced by it. In the Preface to Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, he wrote:
And if, indeed, in addition to this he is a partaker of the benefit conferred by the Vedas, the access to which, opened to us through the Upanishads, is in my eyes the greatest advantage which this still young century enjoys over previous ones…then he is best of all prepared to hear what I have to say to him…I might express the opinion that each one of the individual and disconnected aphorisms which make up the Upanishads may be deduced as a consequence from the thought that I am going to impart, though the converse, that my thought is to be found in the Upanishads, is by no means the case….In the whole world there is no study, except that of the originals, so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Oupnek'hat. It has been the solace of my life; it will be the solace of my death!
Vedic texts are traditionally categorized into four classes: the Samhitās (mantras), Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads. Scholars of the Vedic books consider the four samhitā (collectively called “mantra”), Rig Veda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda, as poetic liturgy, adoration, and supplication to the deities of vedic religion, in parts already melded with monist and henotheist notions, and an overarching order (Rta) that transcended even the gods. Each samhitā is followed by Brāhmana, which came after the Mantra, and were a collection of ritual instructions and books detailing the priestly functions. The Aranyakas ("of the forest"), detailing meditative yogic practices, contemplations of the mystic one and the manifold manifested principles, were an outgrowth of the Brahmanas, and were followed and fulfilled by the Upanishads, the philosophical and meditative tracts that form the backbone of Hindu thought. Vedanta, “the culmination of the Vedas,” is chiefly composed of Āranyakas and Upanishads.
Of the early Upanishads, the Aitareya and Kauṣītāki belong to the Rig Veda, Kena, and Chāndogya to the Samaveda, Īṣa and Taittirīya and Brihadāranyaka to the Yajurveda, and Praṣna and Muṇḍaka to the Atharvaveda. In addition, the Māṇḍukya, Kathā, Śvetāśvatara are very important, and some scholars also include Mahānārāyaṇa and Maitreyi Upanishads among the most important Upanishads.
The Upanishads were a revival of spiritualism, a reaction to the complicated ritualism, ceremonialism and formalism of the Brahmanas. Instructions for horse sacrifices, for example, were replaced with directions for inner meditations on the nature of the horse. The Upanishads declared that the soul would not obtain salvation by the performance of sacrifices and rituals, but only by living a truly religious life, based on insight into the heart of the universe. Perfection was inward and spiritual, rather than outward and mechanical, and God was to be honored by spiritual worship, not external ceremony.
The Upanishads distinguish between a higher and lower knowledge of the truth. While considering that the Vedas are of divine origin, they recognize that Vedic knowledge will not liberate the soul. The sage Nārada tells Sanatkumāra, “I know the Rgveda, sir, the Yajih, the Sāma, with all these I know only the Mantras and the sacred books, I do not know the Self…I have heard from person like you that only he who knows the Self goes beyond sorrow” (Brihadāranyaka 2.4.10). The Mundaka says, “Two kinds of knowledge must be known, the higher and the lower. The lower knowledge is that which the Rk, Sama, Athtarva, Ceremonial, and Grammar give…but the higher knowledge is that by which the immortal Brahman is known” (Mundaka I.1. 4-5).
The Upanishads contain injunctions to secrecy in the communication of their doctrines, and emphasize that they should only be taught to students who show themselves worthy by their moral restraint and sincere desire for truth. To see the Self, one must become “Calm, controlled, quiet, patiently enduring and contented” (Brihadāranyaka Upanishad IV.iv.23).
The Upanishads contain the essence of the Vedic teaching, and the foundations for most of the later philosophies and religions of India. Because the Upanishads were regarded as revealed truth, most of the subsequent systems of philosophy attempted to reconcile themselves to at least some of the doctrines of the Upanishads, and to represent themselves as further developments of those doctrines. Reason was regarded as subservient to revelation; the highest truths could be found in the revelation of the Vedas, and the role of reason was to find the real meaning in the conflicting ideas of the Vedas. The highest knowledge of the truth is declared in the Upanishads.
The Upanishads are an unsystematized compilation of dialogs, monologues and anecdotes composed by multiple authors. They are characterized by a unity of purpose and a consistency of intuition, rather than by consistency of logic, and contain certain fundamental ideas that provide the first sketch of a philosophical system. The Upanishads emphasize the difference between an ignorant, narrow, selfish way, which leads to transitory satisfaction, and the way of wisdom which leads to eternal life. The supreme goal is self-realization, release from the suffering caused by earthly desires, and union with the Supreme Being.
He who knows the Bliss of Brahman, whence words together with the mind turn away, unable to reach It? He is not afraid of anything whatsoever. He does not distress himself with the thought: "Why did I not do what is good? Why did I do what is evil?." Whosoever knows this regards both these as Atman; indeed he cherishes both these as Atman. Such, indeed, is the Upanishad, the secret knowledge of Brahman (Taittiriya Upanishad Chapter 9, II-9-1).
Traditionally it has been believed that, as revealed texts, all the Upanishads teach the same truths. In fact, there have been numerous and widely varying interpretations of the Upanishads, and all of their teachings are not equally developed. However, they display a unity of purpose and all emphasize the same fundamental doctrine, which can be considered as a monistic idealism, or idealistic monism.
The Upanishads contain the first and most definitive explications of aum as the divine word, the cosmic vibration that underlies all existence and contains multiple trinities of being and principles subsumed into its One Self.
The fundamental idea which runs through the early Upanishads is that underlying the exterior, changing world, there is an unchangeable reality which is identical with that which underlies the essence in man. The Upanishads are preoccupied with the search for the nature of this unchanging reality, identified as Brahman, the ultimate essence of the universe.
The essence of the universe can only be known through the Atman, the inmost essence of man, the individual self, soul, and mind. The substance of Upanishad teaching is that Brahman and Atman, the cosmic and psychical principles, are one and the same.
Whoever sees all beings in the soul
and the soul in all beings
does not shrink away from this.
In whom all beings have become one with the knowing soul
what delusion or sorrow is there for the one who sees unity?
It has filled all.
It is radiant, incorporeal, invulnerable,
without tendons, pure, untouched by evil.
Wise, intelligent, encompassing, self-existent,
it organizes objects throughout eternity (Isha Upanishad Verses 6, 7, & 8).
The ideal of intellect is to discover this unity of Brahman and Atman. However, intellect and reason, which are limited by time, space and cause, are inadequate to achieve this understanding. According to the Upanishads, man has a faculty of divine insight or intuitive realization which transcends the intellect in order to grasp the fullness of reality. Intellect and intuition must support each other in order to arrive at true understanding.
The Upanishads reconcile the unchanging essence of Brahman with the reality of the external world by holding that the universe has come out of Brahman, has its essence in Brahman and will return to Brahman.  The world is sometimes spoken of as having a twofold aspect, organic and inorganic. All organic things, whether plants, animals, or men, have souls (Chāndogya VI.ii). Brahman, desiring to be many, created fire (tejas), water (ap), and earth (ksiti), then entered into these three, and by their combinations all other physical bodies were formed (Chāndogya VI. 2, 3, 4). The Taittirīya, II. I, speaks of ether (ākāśa) as proceeding from Brahman, and the other elements, air, fire, water, and earth each proceeding directly from the one which preceded it.
The Upanishads develop the concept that a human being is recompensed for his good deeds not only in an afterlife, but by rebirth in another body in the physical world. Those who cultivate faith and asceticism may enter directly into Brahman at the death of their physical bodies. The desires of the self are the cause and motivation for the progression of a person’s development. When the self continues to desire and to act, it is reborn into this physical world in order to continue desiring and acting. A person acts according to his desires, and those good and bad actions shape his soul and determine his future course.
In the Upanishads, mukti or Emancipation means the state of infiniteness attained when a person knows himself. The wise man who has divested himself of all desire and knows he is Brahman at once becomes Brahman, and is no longer restricted by bondages of any kind. All sufferings and limitations are true only because man does not know himself. Emancipation is the natural goal of man, because it represents the essence and true nature of man.
The following is a list of the eleven "principal" (mukhya) Upanishads that were commented upon by Shankara, and that are accepted as shruti by all Hindus. They are listed with their associated Veda (Rigveda (ṚV), Samaveda (SV), White Yajurveda (ŚYV), Black Yajurveda (KYV), Atharvaveda (AV)).
The Kauśītāki and Maitrāyani Upanishads are sometimes added to extend the canon to 13. They are also the oldest Upanishads, likely all of them dating to before the Common Era. From linguistic evidence, the oldest among them are likely the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and Chāndogya Upanishads, belonging to the late Vedic Sanskrit period; the remaining ones are at the transition from Vedic to Classical Sanskrit.
The older Upanishads are associated with Vedic Charanas (Shakhas or schools). The Aitareya Upanishad with the Shakala shakha, the Kauśītāki Upanishad with the Bashakala shakha; the Chāndogya Upanishad with the Kauthuma shakha, the Kena Upanishad, and the Jaiminiya Upanishad Brahmana, with the Jaiminiya shakha; the Katha Upanishad with the Caraka-Katha shakha, the Taittirīya and Śvetāśvatara with the Taittiriya shakha; the Maitrāyani Upanishad with the Maitrayani shakha; the Brihadāranyaka and Īṣa Upanishads with the Vajasaneyi Madhyandina shakha, and the Māndūkya and Muṇḍaka Upanishads with the Shaunaka shakha. Additionally, parts of earlier texts, of Brahmanas or passages of the Vedas themselves, are sometimes considered Upanishads.
The following is a list of the 108 canonical Upanishads of the Advaita school, according to the Muktika Upanishad (number 108), 1:30-39 (which does not list the associated Veda). In this canon,
The first 10 are grouped as mukhya "principal," and are identical to those listed above. 21 are grouped as Sāmānya Vedānta "common Vedanta," 23 as Sannyāsa, 9 as Shākta, 13 as Vaishnava, 14 as Shaiva and 17 as Yoga Upanishads.
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