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The Upanishads are part of the Vedas and form the Hindu scriptures which primarily discuss philosophy, meditation, and the nature of God; they form the core spiritual thought of Vedantic Hinduism. Considered as mystic or spiritual contemplations of the Vedas, their putative end and essence, the Upanishads are known as Vedānta ("the end/culmination of the Vedas").

The Upanishads were composed over several centuries. The oldest, such as the Brhadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanishads, have been dated to around the eighth century BC.



The Sanskrit term upaniṣad literally means "sitting down beside".

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..." It derives from upa- (near), ni- (down) and sad (to sit), i.e. referring to the "sitting down near" a spiritual teacher (guru) in order to receive instruction in the Guru-shishya tradition.

Other dictionary meanings include "esoteric doctrine" and "secret doctrine".

A gloss of the term upaniṣad 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".

Major Upanishads

Different Upanishads are affiliated with the four Vedas (Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda). The Upanishads were transmitted orally by the Vedic schools sakhas. The longest and oldest Upanishad are the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya respectively.

The language of the Upanishads is Sanskrit, the oldest among them still classifying as late Vedic Sanskrit. The oldest Upanishads, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya are composed in prose. These early texts may date back to the 8th-7th centuries BCE. Later followed a series of Upanishads composed in verse, such as the Īṣa, Māṇd.ukya, Katha, and Ṣvetāṣvatara Upanishads.

According to tradition, there were over two hundred Upanishads, but the philosopher and commentator Shankara only composed commentaries to eleven of them. The Upanishads commented on by Shankara are generally regarded as the oldest ones. The Muktika Upanishad lists 108 Upanishads. In 1656, at the order of Dara Shikoh, the Upanishads were translated from Sanskrit into Persian. From 1802 to 1804 Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil Du Perron published a Latin translation (2 vols.) from the Persian of the Oupnek'hat or Upanishada. It is a curious mixture of Latin, Greek, Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit.

These philosophical and meditative tracts form the backbone of Hindu thought. Of the early Upanishads, the Aitareya and Kauoītāki belong to the Rig Veda, Kena and Chāndogya to the Samaveda, Īoa and Taittirīya and B'hadāra yaka to the Yajurveda, and Praṣna and Mu'd.aka to the Atharvaveda. In addition, the Mādukya, Katho, 'vetā'vatara are very important. Others also include Mahānārāya'a and Maitreyi Upanishads as key.

Place in the Hindu canon

Scholars of the Vedic books consider the four Vedas as poetic liturgy, collectively called mantra or samhitā-, 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.

The Brāhmana were a collection of ritual instructions, books detailing the priestly functions (which first were available to all men, and so concretized into strictly Brahmin privilege). These came after the Mantra.

Vedanta, is chiefly composed of Āranyakas and Upanishads. The Aranyakas ("of the forest") detail meditative yogic practices, contemplations of the mystic one and the manifold manifested principles. The Upanishad basically realized all the monist and universal mystical ideas that started in earlier Vedic hymns, and have exerted an influence unprecedented on the rest of Hindu and Indian philosophy. However, by adherents they are not considered philosophy alone, and form meditations and practical teachings for those advanced enough to benefit from their wisdom.


The Taittiriya Upanishad says this in the Ninth Chapter:

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.

The Upanishads hold information on basic Hindu beliefs, including belief in a world soul, a universal spirit, Brahman, and an individual soul, Atman (Smith 10). In Sanskrit, the word Brahman has two genders (masculine, Brahmâ, the creator-god or Brahman, neuter, the Absolute). A variety of lesser gods are seen as aspects of this one divine ground, Brahman (different from Brahma). Brahman is the ultimate, both transcendent and immanent, the absolute infinite existence, the sum total of all that ever is, was, or ever shall be. Shankara's exegesis of the Upanishads describes Brahman not as God in the monotheistic sense; he ascribes to it no limiting characteristics, not even those of being and non-being. Thus, Shankara's philosophy is named advaita, "not two." Dvaita philosophy is a very different interpretation. Founded by Madhvacharya, this school holds that Brahman is ultimately a personal God, Vishnu, or Krishna (brahmano hi pratisthaham, I am the Foundation of Brahman Bhagavad Gita 14.27). Vishishtadvaita is the third major school of Vedanta, and it has some aspects in common with the other two.

Who is the Knower?

What makes my mind think?

Does life have a purpose, or is it governed by chance?

What is the cause of the Cosmos?

The sages of the Upanishad try to solve these mysteries and seek knowledge of a Reality beyond ordinary knowing. They also show a preoccupation with states of consciousness, and observed and analysed dreams as well as dreamless sleep.


Due to their mystical nature and intense philosophical bent that does away with all ritual and completely embraces principals of One Brahman and the inner Atman (Self), the Upanishads have a universal feel that has led to their explication in numerous manners, giving birth to the three schools of Vedanta.

The Upanishads are summed up in one phrase तत् त्वं असि "Tat Tvam Asi" (That thou art) by the Advaita Vedanta and they believe that in the end, the ultimate, formless, inconceivable Brahman is the same as our soul, Atman. We only have to realize it through discrimination.

A distinctive quotation that is indicative of the call to self-realization, one that inspired Somerset Maugham in titling a book he wrote about a young American who travels from Europe to India and returns somewhat enlightened (The Razor's Edge; another editor says it was about Christopher Isherwood), is as follows:

Get up! Wake up! Seek the guidance of an

Illumined teacher and realize the Self.

Sharp like a razor's edge is the path,

The sages say, difficult to traverse.

The Upanishads also 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 Isha says of the Self (Verses 6, 7 & 8 of Isha Upanishad):

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.

Aum Shanti Shanti Shanti" This, too, is found first in the Upanishads, the call for tranquility, for divine stillness, for Peace everlasting.

Dara Shikoh, the Muslim sufi, and son of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, translated the Upanishads in Persian in order to find in it elements of monotheism that might pave the way for a common mystical bond between Islam and Hinduism.

List of Upanishads

"Principal" Upanishads

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)).

  1. Aitareya (ṚV)
  2. Bṛhadāraṇyaka (ŚYV)
  3. Īṣa (ŚYV)
  4. Taittirīya (KYV)
  5. Kaṭha (KYV)
  6. Chāndogya (SV)
  7. Kena (SV)
  8. Muṇḍaka (AV)
  9. Māṇḍūkya (AV)
  10. Praśna (AV)
  11. Śvetāśvatara

The Kauśītāki and Maitrāyaṇi 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.

Canon by Vedic Shakha

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 Kaṭha Upanishad with the Caraka-Katha shakha, the Taittirīya and Śvetāśvatara with the Taittiriya shakha; the Maitrāyaṇi Upanishad with the Maitrayani shakha; the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and Īṣa Upanishads with the Vajasaneyi Madhyandina shakha, and the Māṇḍūkya 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 Muktika canon

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,

  • 10 Upanishads are associated with the Rigveda and have the Shānti beginning vaṇme-manasi.
  • 16 Upanishads are associated with the Samaveda and have the Shānti beginning āpyāyantu.
  • 19 Upanishads are associated with the White Yajurveda and have the Shānti beginning pūrṇamada.
  • 32 Upanishads are associated with the Black Yajurveda and have the Shānti beginning sahanāvavatu.
  • 31 Upanishads are associated with the Atharvaveda and have the Shānti beginning bhadram-karṇebhiḥ.

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 History of YogaYoga Upanishads.Factdate=February 2007

  1. Isha UpanishadĪṣa, (ŚYV, Mukhya) "The Inner Ruler"
  2. KenopanishadKena (SV, Mukhya) "Who moves the world?"
  3. Katha UpanishadKaṭha (KYV, Mukhya) "Death as Teacher"
  4. PrashnopanishadPraśna, (AV, Mukhya) "The Breath of Life"
  5. Mundaka UpanishadMuṇḍaka (AV, Mukhya) "Two modes of Knowing"
  6. Māṇḍūkya (AV, Mukhya) "Consciousness and its phases"
  7. Taittiriya UpanishadTaittirīya (KYV, Mukhya) "From Food to Joy"
  8. Aitareya UpanishadAitareya, (ṚV Mukhya) "The Microcosm of Man"
  9. ChandogyaChāndogya (SV, Mukhya) "Song and Sacrifice"
  10. Bṛhadāraṇyaka (ŚYV, Mukhya)
  11. Brahma (KYV, Sannyasa)
  12. Kaivalya (KYV, Shaiva)ParentCategoryName=_StaticContent/SriAurobindoAshram/-09%20E-Library/-01%20Works%20of%20Sri%20Aurobindo/-12_The%20Upanishad_Volume-12]
  13. Jābāla (ŚYV, Sannyasa)
  14. Shvetashvatara UpanishadŚvetāśvatara (KYV, Sannyasa) "The Faces of God"
  15. Haṃsa (ŚYV, Yoga)
  16. Āruṇeya (SV, Sannyasa)
  17. Garbha (KYV, Sannyasa)
  18. Nārāyaṇa (KYV, Vaishnava)
  19. Paramahaṃsa (ŚYV, Sannyasa)
  20. Amṛtabindu (KYV, Yoga)
  21. Amṛtanāda (KYV, Yoga)
  22. Śira (AV, Shaiva)
  23. Atharvaśikha (AV, Shaiva)
  24. Maitrayaniya UpanishadMaitrāyaṇi (SV, Sannyasa)
  25. Kauśītāki (ṚV, Samanya)
  26. Bṛhajjābāla (AV, Shaiva)
  27. Nṛsiṃhatāpanī (AV, Vaishnava)
  28. Kālāgnirudra (KYV, Shaiva)
  29. Maitreyi (SV, Sannyasa)
  30. Subāla (ŚYV, Samanya)
  31. Kṣurika (KYV, Yoga)
  32. Mantrika (ŚYV, Samanya)
  33. Sarvasāra (KYV, Samanya)
  34. Nirālamba (ŚYV, Samanya)
  35. Śukarahasya (KYV, Samanya)
  36. Vajrasūchi (SV, Samanya)
  37. Tejobindu (KYV, Sannyasa)
  38. Nādabindu (ṚV, Yoga)
  39. Dhyānabindu (KYV, Yoga)
  40. Brahmavidyā (KYV, Yoga)
  41. Yogatattva (KYV, Yoga)
  42. Ātmabodha (ṚV, Samanya)
  43. Parivrāt (Nāradaparivrājaka) (AV, Sannyasa)
  44. Triśikhi (ŚYV, Yoga)
  45. Sītā (AV, Shakta)
  46. Yogachūḍāmaṇi (SV, Yoga)
  47. Nirvāṇa (ṚV, Sannyasa)
  48. Maṇḍalabrāhmaṇa (ŚYV, Yoga)
  49. Dakṣiṇāmūrti (KYV, Shaiva)
  50. Śarabha (AV, Shaiva)
  51. Skanda (Tripāḍvibhūṭi) (KYV, Samanya)
  52. Mahānārāyaṇa (AV, Vaishnava)
  53. Advayatāraka (ŚYV, Sannyasa)
  54. Rāmarahasya (AV, Vaishnava)
  55. Rāmatāpaṇi (AV, Vaishnava)
  56. Vāsudeva (SV, Vaishnava)
  57. Mudgala (ṚV, Samanya)
  58. Śāṇḍilya (AV, Yoga)
  59. Paiṅgala (ŚYV, Samanya)
  60. Bhikṣu (ŚYV, Sannyasa)
  61. Mahad (SV, Samanya)
  62. Śārīraka (KYV, Samanya)
  63. Yogaśikhā (KYV Yoga)
  64. Turīyātīta (ŚYV, Sannyasa)
  65. Sannyāsa (SV, Sannyasa)
  66. Paramahaṃsaparivrājaka (AV, Sannyasa)
  67. Akṣamālika (Mālika) (ṚV, Shaiva)
  68. Avyakta (SV, Vaishnava)
  69. Ekākṣara (KYV, Samanya)
  70. Annapūrṇa (AV, Shakta)
  71. Sūrya (AV, Samanya)
  72. Akṣi (KYV, Samanya)
  73. Adhyātmā (ŚYV, Samanya)
  74. Kuṇḍika (SV, Sannyasa)
  75. Sāvitrī (SV, Samanya)
  76. Ātmā (AV, Samanya)
  77. Pāśupata (AV, Yoga)
  78. Parabrahma (AV, Sannyasa)
  79. Avadhūta (KYV, Sannyasa)
  80. Devī (AV, Shakta)
  81. Tripurātapani (AV, Shakta)
  82. Tripura (ṚV, Shakta)
  83. Kaṭharudra (KYV, Sannyasa)
  84. Bhāvana (AV, Shakta)
  85. Rudrahṛdaya (KYV, Shaiva)
  86. Yogakuṇḍalini (KYV, Yoga)
  87. Bhasma (AV, Shaiva)
  88. Rudrākṣa (SV, Shaiva)
  89. Gaṇapati (AV, Shaiva)
  90. Darśana (SV, Yoga)
  91. Tārasāra (ŚYV, Vaishnava)
  92. Mahāvākya (AV, Yoga)
  93. Pañcabrahma (KYV, Shaiva)
  94. Prāṇāgnihotra (KYV, Samanya)
  95. Gopālatāpani (AV, Vaishnava)
  96. Kṛṣṇa (AV, Vaishnava)
  97. Yājñavalkya (ŚYV, Sannyasa)
  98. Varāha (KYV, Sannyasa)
  99. Śāṭyāyani (ŚYV, Sannyasa)
  100. Hayagrīva (AV, Vaishnava)
  101. Dattātreya (AV, Vaishnava)
  102. Gāruḍa (AV, Vaishnava)
  103. Kali-Santarana UpanishadKali-Saṇṭāraṇa (Kali) (KYV, Vaishnava)
  104. Jābāla (SV, Shaiva)
  105. Saubhāgya (ṚV, Shakta)
  106. Sarasvatīrahasya (KYV, Shakta)
  107. Bahvṛca (ṚV, Shakta)
  108. Muktika (ŚYV, Samanya)


The Upanishads were denounced by Lala Hardayal, a Hindu Nationalist, as "full of absurd conceits, quaint fancies and chaotic speculations". He also was critical of Hindu religious figures for allegedly dogmatizing the texts without "learning that they are worthless".

Dalit activist Bhimrao Ambedkar, contended that the Upanishads were the "true source of Hindu philosophy", but questioned whether the philosophy had any influence on Hinduism as a social and political system. According to his analysis, philosophy of Upanishads "turned out to be most ineffective and inconsequential piece of speculation with no effect on the moral and social order of the Hindus."