Understanding The Upanishads: The Basics

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If you’ve dipped your toe into the vast and rich history of yoga, you’ll most likely have come across the Upanishads.  The Upanishads are a collection of Hindu texts providing philosophical and spiritual insight into the big questions about life.

The Upanishads are an extensive array of texts within a much larger body of spiritual works known as the Vedas.  It would be impossible to gain a thorough overview of their philosophical and religious ideologies here, so we’ll focus on an introduction to the Upanishads and their basic principles.

In this article, we’ll take a look at:

  • An Upanishads definition
  • Key facts about the Upanishads
  • The different Upanishads and their key concepts
  • How they fit into yoga
a piece of text from an ancient upanishad

Upanishads Definition

To look at a definition of the Upanishads, we must break down the word, which comes together as “sitting down near” or, more commonly, “sitting at the feet of.”

upa” = near  |  “ni” = down   |  “shad” = to sit

The knowledge within the Upanishads was not intended for everyone; in fact, there was some secrecy around sharing their wisdom.  The Upanishads were shared orally from guru to committed student who sat at his feet, ready to receive.

“On the tree of Indian wisdom, there is no fairer flower than the Upanishads and no finer fruit than the Vedanta philosophy.”  -Paul Deussen

The Upanishads are a group of texts within a larger group of texts called The Vedas, which are religious-philosophical works.  Veda means “to know” or “knowledge” and the Upanishads are generally referred to as Vedanta or Advaita Vedanta (Advaita means “not two”).  They signify the end or conclusion of the Vedas. They are therefore called Vedanta, which can be translated as “end of the Vedas”.

Rooted in Hinduism they provide a set of philosophical conversations and stories illuminating various concepts and ideas on all of existence and metaphysics.  The Vedas, Upanishads included, are not an easy read but are considered a must for keen yoga practitioners.

“The Upanishads encourage an audience to explore their inner landscape through interaction with the characters who are doing the same thing.” – worldhistory.com

How are the Upanishads different from the other Vedas?

The Upanishads are shorter, often poetic, and hone in on “supreme reality” or “highest truth.”  The early Vedas were concerned with ritual and sacrifice, while the Upanishads focused on wisdom and knowledge. 

It’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean intellectual wisdom but insight and knowledge of Atman.

a yellow book jacket that reads 'the upanishads'

What important terms can we find in the Upanishads?

There are some critical philosophical ideas set out in the Upanishads which are worth knowing about:

  • Karma – Actions within life that affect future reincarnation.
  • Moksha – Liberation from samsara (the cycle of death and re-birth).
  • Brahman – Absolute reality. Supreme Being.  Brahman is the unchanging absolute and that which cannot be described. 
  • Atman – The essence of our existence or the deepest layer of the self. Our true essence. 

When Were The Upanishads Written?

The earliest Upanishads existed before Buddhism, but we can consider most of them around 2000 years old.  It is essential to distinguish the Upanishads from the Yoga Upanishads, which were written much more recently.

a piece of annotated sanskrit text from the upanishads

What are the primary Upanishads?

There are many Upanishads, but the traditional view is that there are 108. There are, and there is some dispute around this, 10-13 principle Upanishads commented on by the philosopher Shankara, and there is a significant amount of overlap within them. The Isha, Kena, Katha, Svetasvatara, and Mundaka are considered poetic Upanishads.

Let’s briefly examine the principle Upanishads and their place within the Vedas.

Brihadaranyaka | ( Yajur Veda) Considered the oldest of the Upanishads; you’ll find themes on metaphysics, Atman, ethics, and the “illusion of all reality.”

Chandogya | (Sama Veda)  There is much overlap between the Brihadaranyaka and the Chadogya, but the latter is written with a metric structure and develops the ideas of Atman, Brahman, and dharma. 

Taittiriya | (Yajur Veda) This one deals with the concept of Oneness or unity. 

Kausitaki | (Rig Veda) You’ll find an exploration of the disillusion of duality and the problem of Individuality which results in feelings of separateness from God.

Aitreya  | (Rig Veda) It highlights philosophical ideas about the relationship between Atman and Karma.

Kena | (Sama Veda) Explorations of the concept of Brahman and how knowledge of Brahman cannot be attained intellectually.

Katha |  (Yajur Veda) Formed around the story of a young boy named Nachiketa who speaks with Yama about knowledge, Atman, and moksha.

Svetasvatara  | (Yajur Veda) Themes of metaphysics and again of the relationship between Atman, Brahman, and Oneness.

Isha | (Yajur Veda) Explorations of karma, dharma, and non-duality.

Mundaka | (Atharva Veda) This mantra-based text focuses on “higher knowledge” and lower knowledge” and the relationship of the world with Brahman.

Prashna | (Artha Veda) You’ll find metaphysical and philosophical questions and liberation from the cycle of rebirth and discussions about Om.

Maitri | (Yajur Veda) The Maitri or Maitrayana Upanishad looks at self-actualization as liberation.

Mandukya | (Athar Veda) You’ll find an exploration of the layers of consciousness through the syllable Om.

an om symbol engraving

Is there any mention of yoga in these Upanishads?

There isn’t much explicit reference to yoga in the Upanishads. However, we find some mention of the word yoga as practice in both the Katha and Shvestashvatara Upanishads, roughly dated around 400 BCE. 

The first mention of the word yoga explicitly is in the Katha Upanishad. 

“When the control of the senses is fixed, that is yoga….And with this comes freedom from distractions and reaching the “highest state.”

We also find a seated posture described in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, referring to the body as part of the practice.  

“When he holds the body steady, with the three sections erect, and withdraws the senses into his heart with the mind, a wise person will cross over all the frightening rivers [of embodied existence] by means of the boat of Brahman.”  

What are the practices in the Upanishads?

Unlike modern yoga, the practice referred to in the Upanishads is meditation, concentration, discrimination, and mantra, as well as ritualistic practices in the early Vedas.  The main focus of yoga was pure concentration and complete absorption via introspective meditation.

the book jacket of a copy of the upanishads

What are the critical questions in the Upanishads?

The Upanishads explain the principles of self-realization, which is achieved through yoga. 

“Yet the Upanishads are not philosophy.  They do not explain or develop a line of argument.  They are darshana, “something seen,” and the student to whom they were taught was expected not only to listen to the words but to realize them: that is, to make their truth an integral part of character, conduct, and consciousness.” – Eknath Easwaran

Within The Upanishads is a vast body of wisdom, the pinnacle of which might be considered its approach to ethical concepts such as compassion and non-violence.  Because there are so many of them covering a vast range of topics, it’s tricky to pin down precisely what they teach as a common thread, but some of the main conversations and questions you’ll find are:

“How did I come to be alive?”

“Who am I?”

“What is real?”

“What is the self?”

“What is the nature of reality?”

“What activates the mind?”

“What is the nature of morality?”

Eknath Easwaran sums the gist of the Upanishads up pretty well –  “They [the Upanishads] show a burning desire to know the world we live in.”

a yoga mat with books on a table behind it

The Upanishads as self-inquiry

The Upanishads help us to bridge the gap between ourselves and everything else, and they help move us beyond the minutia of our lives and what we perceive to be our existence. This has often been referred to in opposites such as external versus internal, microcosm versus macrocosm, and as simple as the small to the big.

Our perception of whom we think we are clouds the fact that there is no separation between us and everything else (the divine, Brahman, absolute reality ).  In yoga, we call this non-duality.  A common way to view this tricky concept is through water.  While the wave might think of itself as an individual, its true nature is the entire ocean.

Key themes in the upanishads

  • The Wheel of Life | The behaviors and actions throughout our lives (karma) influence the “wheel of life” known as samsara.  Rebirth is without end unless Moksha (liberation) is attained.
  • Non-Duality | Enlightenment is attained by breaking the samsara cycle by realizing Atman and Brahman are the same. 
a golden wheel of life sculpture
The Wheel Of Life

Key Take Aways

Sometimes the Upanishads, like the Vedas, are contradictory, and there is a lot of repetition and overlap. Still, some things need reiterating, especially when concerned with gaining knowledge of the self and liberation.  The Upanishads aim to illuminate that which cannot be described, Brahman, and how self-realization can only take place if one has destroyed the illusion that we are anything but Brahman.

“The goal of life, then, is self-actualization – to become completely aware of and in touch with one’s higher self – so that one could live as closely as possible in accordance with the Eternal Order of the Universe and, after death, return home to complete union with Brahman.”- worldhistory.org

Want to find out more about the philosophy of yoga?

The Upanishads are a body of Hindu spiritual literature that informed subsequent thought and inquiry.  If you want to dive deeper into the philosophical teachings of yoga, take a look at the dualistic approach of Patanjali and his Yoga Sutras.

Photo of author
Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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