Category Archives: The Upanisads

Gaudapada (and Advaita Vedanta)

Legendary Life

Of the many philosophers in the history of Hinduism, Gaudapada is one of whom little is known, although he had a large effect on the tradition as a whole. His origin is the most prominent feature in legends concerning him; however, due to liberties taken in the oral tradition, they are rarely a strong source of factual information (Pande 96). For example, some legends state that Patanjali himself taught Gaudapada, and due to his disobedience, had cursed him until Gaudapada could find a suitable student (Pande 96). Of course, there is great scepticism surrounding this story, as the timelines in which Patanjali and Gaudapada are proposed to have lived are separated by hundreds of years (Pande 96). Other sources seem to believe that he was, at some point, the student of a sage named Suka. However not much is known about Suka, other than he was believed to be the son of the legendary Vyasa (Comans 2). As such, Gaudapada emerges as more of a pseudo-legendary person, than a concrete historical figure. There is virtually no indication of his existence other than his works, or reference to him by his students later in history (Comans 1).

The estimated periods when Gaudapada lived varies greatly, according to different sources. Generally, it is calculated in relation to the dates of his distant student Sankara, who was believed to live around 780-820 CE. This placed Gaudapada at around 680 CE, although it shifts based on estimation of Sankara’s life time (Isayeva 15). Scholars also examine motifs used by Gaudapada in his works, which seem to reflect particular Buddhist values. They thus propose that Gaudapada had lived during the time when certain Buddhist philosophies flourished (Isayeva 15).

Similarly, we are uncertain as to where Gaudapada came from or lived. Some propose that he lived in northern Bengal, near the Hiraravati River, where a tribe known as the Gaudas resided. As such, some propose Gaudapada lived as a master, taking his name from the tribe of which he was a part of (Isayeva 15).

Although we know little about how, when, or where he lived, we know more about whom he influenced via his philosophical ideas. The most well-known of these is the great thinker Sankara, whos strong influence from Gaudapada is evident in his own work (Isayeva 14). The time gap between Sankara and Gaudapada leads scholars to generally agree that Gaudapada perhaps taught a man named Govinda, who went on to teach Sankara (Isayeva 14).



Gaudapada is most well-known for his commentary on the Mandukya Upanisad. Of the ten Upanisads, the Mandukya is the shortest, and deals with cosmology as well as absolute truth known as brahman (Isayeva 16). His works, known as the Mandukya-Karika, is made up of four chapters: “treatise concerning the scriptural text”, “treatise concerning unreality”, “treatise on non-duality”, and “treatise on the quelling of the fire brand” (Comans 2). Of the four chapters, only the first is tied to a text, which Gaudapada discusses, namely the Mandukya Upanisad. The other three chapters are not involved directly with any other text, but expand on the ideas developed in the first chapter (Comans 2).

The basis of Gaudapada’s philosophy, which makes up Advaita Vedanta, is concerned with the illusory nature of things. In particular, this stem of Hindu philosophy focuses on absolute reality, brahman, the inner self, atman, and maya, which is the illusion that holds us in the cycle of samsara, rebirth (Rodrigues 94). Gaudapada explains four stages, or steps, that one would go through in order to achieve the state of absolute reality. As well, he holds that the concept of absolute truth or reality is already in each individual (Isayeva 23).

The first stage, called vaisvanara, means waking self or waking state (Comans 3). This stage pertains to the self as it lives within the illusion of maya, unaware of its illusory nature (Isayeva 21). In essence, it is the spiritual ignorance of the self that this stage speaks of. The Mandukya Upanisad describes atman here as having “seven limbs, nineteen mouths, and who experiences gross objects” (Comans 3). Gaudapada explains that it is these extremities that the atman uses to experience illusory existence. In this waking state, the atman is unaware and so it thrashes about, attempting to experience everything it can. In this way, the consciousness of the atman is seen as external here (Comans 3).

The next stage pertains to the dream like state, taijasa, where the atman notices the illusory nature of everything (Comans 4). In this state, Gaudapada would maintain that consciousness begins to move inward as it starts to realize the nature of itself (Comans 4). It is essentially at this stage that one could say the atman, previously external and ignorant, begins its journey inward towards truth, as it begins to see the existence of maya (Isayeva 21).

Prajna, stage three, speaks of deep sleep, or slumber (Comans 4). In this stage, Gaudapada holds that one is saved from illusion, though not truly liberated (Isayeva 22). In contrast to the previous two states, in which the self is separated due to its interaction with illusion, self, illusion, and consciousness all become one here; just one “lump of consciousness” (Isayeva 22). Instead, he cautions about this stage because those on their way to truth may get caught up in the bliss of freedom from maya, thinking they are liberated just because they have become aware that they were ignorant before. He says that although it is a wonderful state to be in, even greater bliss comes from full understanding of the nature of the atman, which cannot be obtained whilst in this stage (Isayeva 22).

Finally, the last stage is where the main concept of advaita emerges. Advaita means non-dualism, and refers to absolute truth, or brahman (Isayeva 23). In essence, brahman is seen as the only thing, rather than multiple aspects of reality, as described in more dualistic philosophies of Hinduism like Sankhya (Rodrigues 199). This stage is called turiya, although Gaudapada would argue that even giving this state a name undermines the very idea of it (Comans 5). Examples such as, “brahman is neither here nor there”, “living nor dead”, “waking or asleep”, are all given by Gaudapada to illustrate this view. As an absolute truth, there is nothing but it, which in turn means it is all, and it is nothing (Comans 5). This is the essence of what advaita means as well, which conflicts with the general dualistic orthodox view of brahman and atman (Absolute Reality, and Self) being two different things (Rodrigues 71).


Later Influences

Hundreds of years after his time, Gaudapada’s philosophies live on through his students. The most noted of these distant students was Sankara, whose teacher was taught by Gaudapada. Within Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta, we see many parallels between the two philosophers. A major similarity is that Sankara proposed that the only absolutely real thing is brahman, which is the only thing in existence (Rodrigues 374). Although this may seem completely identical to Gaudapada’s belief, the emphasis Gaudapada put on the paradoxical nature of brahman varies slightly with Sankara’s viewpoint. Instead Gaudapada held that brahman neither exists, or exists, among other examples of his extreme non-dualistic viewpoint or darsana (Comans 5). Sankara still held many other core values that were quite similar to Gaudapada’s viewpoint. The concept of neti-neti­, meaning not one or the other, in regards to absolute truth (Rodrigues 374). This is more aligned with the idea that Gaudapada seems to be conveying in regards to brahman, as well as the abstract concept of understanding brahman. It is in this unification of brahman that causes Advaita Vedanta to be considered so radical. Many other philosophies, such as Sankhya, propose that brahman is made up of many aspects that make up our reality. In the particular example of Sankya, prakrti and purusa, the creator and observer (Rodrigues 199). Although Advaita Vedanta seems to undermine philosophies such as this, the Vedas themselves are not openly criticized, and as such Advaita Vedanta is accepted within the Hindu orthodoxy (Rodrigues 376).



Comans, Michael (2000) The Method of Early Advaita Vedanta: A Study of Gaudapada, Sankara, Suresvara and Padmapada. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Isayeva, Natalia (1995) From Early Vedanta to Kashmir Shaivism: Gaudapada, Bhartrhari, and Abhinavagupta. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Pande, Govind (1994) Life and Thought of Sankaracarya. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: the EBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd.

Tenzin, Kencho (2006) Shankara: A Hindu Revivalist or a Crypto-Buddhist? Atlanta: Georgia State University.


Related Topics














Noteworthy Websites / Additional Readings

Banerji, Sures (1989) A Companion to Sanskrit Literature. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Dvivedi, Manilal (trans.) (1894) Mandukya-karika. Boimbay: Tatva-vivechaka Press.

Karmarkar, Raghunath (trans.) (1953) Mandukya-karika. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

Lochetfeld, James (2002) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism. The Rosen Publishing Group.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. Abingdon: Routledge.

Wilson, Horace (trans.) (1837) Samkhya-karika. London: Valpy.


Article written by: Jordan Wingfield (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad is the primary book of the Upanishads, a collection of Hindu philosophical texts. It is one of the oldest Upanishads and its name translates into “the Great Forest Book” (Sastri 29). Written entirely in prose form, this text is one of the more philosophical books of the Upanishads and largely comments on the nature of reality and the basic identity of atman.

The history and dates of the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad is still a somewhat debated topic. Through analyzing the linguistics used in the text, philologist Max Muller speculated that the text was written between 1000-800 BCE (Muller 333). Other estimates have been given around the same time period but due to the antiquity of the text it is difficult to confidently date the text.

The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad largely follows the sage Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi. Yajnavalka is sage who is portrayed to be an important advisor in the court of Janaka. Through the stories of the Brhadaranyaka, Yajnavalkya comments on many philosophical issues including consciousness and perception, creation and self, and the laws of karma. The main virtues that occur in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad are self-restraint, giving, and compassion, or self-restraint, self-sacrifice, and merciful-benevolence (Sastri 16).

Some evidence suggests that the text was written in a ring composition, where themes are discussed in a cyclical fashion (Hock 279). Ring composition is commonly found in narratives that have a history of being orally passed through generation (Hock 279).

There is one story that is particularly interesting because it is told twice in the Brhadaranyaka with one version differing only slightly from the other. This story follows a conversation between Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi on the nature of knowledge. In one version Yajnavalkya uses the word “vijnyanam,” meaning “knowing apart,” and later in the same version uses the phrase “nothing but discerning knowledge,” to describe vijnyanam (Wood 7-9). In the other version of the story, Yajnavalkya uses the term “prajnyanam,” meaning “knowing before,” and “nothing but underlying knowledge,” (Wood 7-9). In both versions of the story Maitreyi is confused by Yajnavalkya’s comments and in response to her confusion Yajnavalkya begins a discussion on dual and non-dual ideas of knowledge. Duality of knowledge can be thought of as knowledge gained through perception and non-duality can be thought of in Cartesian terms; the only knowledge one can be certain of is the knowledge of self (Wood 6-8). With this, Yajnavalkya ends the conversation with Maitreyi and leaves her, along with the reader, wondering about the nature of knowledge, consciousness, and perception (Wood 6-8). The two versions of this story in the text offer evidence of ring composition structure perhaps, in this particular case, to portray a different concept to the reader (Hock 282). In the first telling of the story, Yajnavalkya responds to Maitreyi’s question of whether having wealth would make her immortal with a blunt “neti,” or “no.” This is different from the second telling where he answers her question with “neti neti,” (Hock 282). This respond is a clear allusion to the advaita refrain (Hock 282).

The advaita refrain is a passage that is found in multiple places in the Brhadaranyaka (Hock 280). The passage describes the nature of atman using negative definitive approach (Hock 280).

“This atman is “not (this), not (this)”; not comprehensible, for it is not comprehended; not destructible, for it is not destroyed; not attached, not fettered, (for) it is not (being) attached, it does not suffer” (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 3.9.26, Hock 280)

Another story involving Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi that is of interest is one concerning the absolute nature of the self. This conversation between Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi addresses the difference between true happiness and happiness that arises from the acquisition of material possessions. In this story, Yajnavalkya tells Maitreyi that he has decided to leave the householder stage of life and move onto the next stage, a stage of renunciation. He announces that he is going to divide his possessions between Mairtreyi and his other wife Katayani. In response to this, Maitreyi asks Yajnavalkya if she will be able to gain happiness from the acquisition of the property and, further, if it is possible to gain true happiness from the satisfaction and comforts that accompany material possessions. The story portrays Yajnavalkya as being very pleased with Maitreyi for asking such a question. He tells her that one cannot attain true happiness through the comfort and satisfaction through material possessions or anything that gives any comfort, including psychological or social comfort (Sastri 348-357).

Here, the conversation shifts to properties of material possessions. Yajnavalkya explains to Maitreyi that the laws of time give material possessions a temporal aspect and that things with temporal aspects cannot bring true happiness. Things that are exempt from temporal properties are what is needed to attain true happiness, and things of this nature are known a eternal or immortal (Sastri 348-357).

Another main concept discussed in the Brhadaranyaka is the nature of creation. The text describes creation as coming from one absolute self that existed before creation on its own (Wood 35). This portion of the text has many psychological and metaphysical aspects. The text asserts that in the beginning there was nothing and this is likened to darkness and light, with darkness being characterized by a lack of sensory perception and light being characterized by perception being possible. A metaphysical question that arises from this is how did something (the universe) come to be if in the beginning there was nothing? It is illogical to believe that something came from nothing, and the text addresses this through saying nothing is fully created but only transformed into something different (Sastri 308-315). The text also says that each person’s true self is the same as complete reality and because of this it is possible to understand reality through understanding the inner self, the emphasis here is on creation from self (Wood 26).

Another large part of the Brhadaranyaka is spent on the laws of karma. The text describes how the laws of karma predict one’s rebirth. The text describes karma as

“…after death we go to the next world, bearing in mind the subtle impressions of our deeds; and after reaping there harvest of such deeds, return again to this work of action. Thus, whoever has desire continues subject to rebirth.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.1-2)

Through this passage, the Brhadaranyaka sums up karma to say that rebirth is a product of one’s actions and desires in life, and rebirth will continue as such. Another passage describes the cessation of the rebirth cycle if one desire has been calmed (Brahamaprana 4). The latter part of this passage may be interpreted to mean that rebirth will cease if one has attained the highest form of realization, brahman. After attaining brahman, the text implies that the cycle of karma will stop.

This view is carried over into the description of death as well. Death is described as a state where one has no perception of the senses and one is detached from the physical body of life (Brahamaprana 6). The text articulates that all souls that have passed will momentarily stay in a state of light. Those who have attained realization will stay in this state, while those souls who did not attain realization will pass through karmic retribution until a future rebirth occurs (Brahamaprana 6-7).


References and Further Recommended Readings

Sastri, S.K. (1950) The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad with commentary by Sankaracarya. Advaida Ashrama: Mayavati Almora, Himalayas.


Singh, U. (2008) A history of ancient to medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th century. Delhi: Pearson Longman.


Wood, A. E. (1996) Interpreting the Upanisads. East Anglia: Full Circle Publishing.


Radhakrishan, S. (1953) The Principal Upanishads. New York: Harper.


Brahmaprana, P (2001) “Vedanta: Death and Art of Dying.” Cross Currents, Fall 2001: 337-345.


Hock, H.H. (2002) “The Yajnavalkya cycle in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad” Journal of American Oriental Society 122(2), 279-286.


Relate Topics for Further Investigation



Max Muller

Chandogya Upanishad




“The Honey Doctrine”




Vidagha Sakalya




Related Websites


Article written by: Brinn Lemke (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.





The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad

Brinn Lemke – 001095647

Rels 2100

Apr. 15/’13

Chandogya Upanisad

     The Upanisads are a collection of texts, initially oral, that were written down by one or more editors. Scholars suggest the Chandogya was one of the earliest Upanisads produced, written around the 6th century BCE (Olivelle 1996: xxxii). The Upanisads along with The Vedas, Brahmanas, and Aranyakas constitute what is considered sruti, or divinely revealed texts, by most Hindus. The Samaveda is a collection of texts to be sung by Udgatr priests, while doing soma sacrifices. The Chandogya Upanisad is an attempt to find the, “cosmic and ritual correspondence of the Saman” (Olivelle 1996: 95). The Saman is the Samaveda hymn of the soma ritual. The Chandogya Upanisad has been very influential in establishing Hindu cosmology and represents, according to some Hinduism scholars, “the transition from the archaic ritualism of the Veda into new religious ideas and institutions” (Olivelle 1996: xxiii). In general, what differentiates the Upanisads from other sruti texts are attempts to reveal the hidden truths of the rituals and chants of the Vedas (Olivelle 1996: Lii).

There are many different hidden truths revealed in the Chandogya Upanisad, but no other passage has seemed to be more influential than the story of Uddalaka and his son Svetaketu (Chandogya 6. 1-16). Svetaketu attended school in his youth learning the Vedas but came back seemingly unable to grasp the hidden meanings of the Vedas according to his father Uddalaka (Singh 45). Uddalaka taught Svetaketu that the true self, Atman, is like the water in a river, a river could be polluted, dry up, or flow into the sea. The river is just a form that water takes, and river is simply the name given to that form of water. However, the water is still water no matter what form it takes, even if it is in a cloud, a raindrop, or an ocean. Just like the water in the river, the self transfers to different bodies and can be polluted by worldly distractions, ultimately it is still the inner self (Singh 47). Uddalaka told his son to put a lump of salt into a container full of water (Chandogya 6. 13). The next day Uddalaka asked Svetaketu to retrieve the salt, but it was gone. Uddalaka asked his son to taste the water in many different places, it was salty everywhere. Uddalaka taught his son the salt was like Atman. One cannot see the salt, but it is there, it is everywhere. This helped Svetaketu, who is able to eventually realize his true self and is ultimately able to liberate himself from samsaric existence, attaining what Hindus call moksa.

The other philosophical concept often paired with Atman is Brahman, the ultimate reality of everything material. Atman is essentially Brahman, what this means is that the true self is Brahman. Brahman is the infinitely pervasive true nature of everything. Brahman is everywhere, and constitutes all aspects of the universe. [A clear explanation of Brahman occurs in the Mundaka Upanisad, “Brahman alone here extends to the east; Brahman, to the west; it alone to the south, to the north, it alone extends above and below; it is Brahman alone that extends over the whole universe, up to its widest extent” (Olivelle 1996: 274).]

The fact that Brahman has this pervasive nature has led some scholars to consider the philosophy of the Upanisads to be considered pantheistic because god, “is both the universe as unified totality and something one in the same, appropriately regarded as divine, existing as the inner core of everything. And this whole and shared essence are said to be somehow identical” (Sprigge 192). In contrast, Gods in western religions are seen to be superior to people, separate, and the creators of everything except for themselves (Sprigge 193). In this way western religions are dualistic, gods and humans are separate entities. On the other hand pantheistic theologies, like those contained in the Upanisads, are considered non-dualistic in that god, or Brahman, is all encompassing. While pantheism is an effective concept that can be used to understand the philosophy of the Chandogya, it should be noted that not all Hindu philosophies are considered pantheist.

The story of Uddalaka and Svetaketu is an example of an important feature of the Chandogya. It shows the literary technique often used in the Chandogya to convey messages, where a teacher, or guru, instructs a student, or sisya. However, a guru is not a teacher in the way westerners might think. A guru is: a spiritual instructor, an analyst, a fatherly figure, sometimes even seen as semi-divine (Mlecko 34). Ultimately, the main focus of a guru is to transmit the most fundamental spiritual meanings of Hinduism to their student. Gurus are often considered crucial to the attainment of spiritual goals and realizations for anyone (Mlecko 34). The necessity of a guru in attaining holy information is seen in the Chandogya 4. 7-15, when Indra, a god, and Virochana, a demon, visit Prajapati. Both Indra and Virochana initially spend thirty-two years learning about Atman with Prajapati, a great guru. Both god and demon leave after thirty-two years believing they understood Atman. Upon further reflection Indra realized he needed more time with his guru, and he ended up spending a total of one hundred and one years with his guru. Indra was constantly reworking his understandings of Atman. Ultimately, because Indra spent more time learning the spiritual necessities from Prajapati he received a much fuller understanding of Atman then his demon counterpart Virochana.

                       In the Chandogya 1.3.6-7, another idea is created that helps set the cosmological foundations of the varna, or class, system. This passage says that all things are made of three essential bits: brilliance, water and food and this relationship can be seen throughout the world. For example fire has these three elements, the brilliance is associated with the flames. The smoke is associated with water, or steam. The food is associated with the firewood. This relationship extends to all things in the cosmos, including the classes. The Brahmins associated with brilliance, heaven and flames; the Ksatriyas associated with water, clouds and steam; the Vaisyas associated with wood, food and agricultural labour (Lincoln 129). People who have had their consciousness altered by the same cosmic understanding are trained to accept this understanding in all of its occurrences (Lincoln 139). In this sense, the cosmology outlined in the Chandogya has agency because to this day the text still has an effect on how Hindu society arranges itself into the varna system.

It is also important to note, along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Badarayana Sutra, the Upanisads were fundamental in establishing what is known as Vedanta philosophy (Hiriyanna 151). Vedanta literally means, “end of the Vedas” (Hiriyanna 151), and refers to the final portion of the Vedas, the Upanisads. However, the meaning of Vedanta has changed over time, now the term is synonymous with the general conclusions of the Vedas (Hiriyana 151). Vedanta has many different interpretations of the same influential texts, consequently 3 major Vedanta philosophies arose: Samkara’s Advaita, Ramanuja’s Visistadvaita, and Madvha’s Dvaita (Hiriyana 152). These philosophies have different cosmological understandings because each of them had a different interpretation of the same foundational texts.

         The Chandyoga is a very influential text, partly because of its ability to articulate the nature of Brahman and Atman. Scholars have studied the meanings associated with the Chandogya vigorously. For a long time in western countries, the philosophy contained in the Chandogya has often been over represented essentially as the philosophy of Hinduism. While there is no doubt that the Chandogya is one of the most influential philosophical texts, the Hindu religion is much too vast and variable to be considered having one fundamental philosophy.


References and Further Recommended Reading

Hiriyana, M. (1949) The Essentials of Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen and Unwin.


Kunst, Arnold (1976) “Indeterminism Versus Determinism: The Seventh Prapathaka of the Chandogya Upanisad.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1: 67-72.


Lincoln, Bruce (2006) “How to Read a Religious Text: Reflections of Some Passages of the Chandogya Upanisad.” History of Religions, Vol. 46, No. 2 (November): 127-139.


Mlecko, Joel D. (1982) “The Guru in the Hindu Tradition.” Numen, Vol. 29, No. 1 (July): 33-61.


Olivelle, Patrick (1996) Upanisads. New York: Oxford University Press.


Olivelle, Patrick (1996)“Dharmaskandhaaḥ and Brahmasaṃsthaḥ: A Study of Chandogya Upaniṣad 2.23.1.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 116 No. 2 (April): 205-219.


Olivelle, Patrick (1999) “Young Svetaketu: A Literary Study of an Upanisadic Story.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 119 No. 1 (January): 46-70.


Singh, Balbir (1983) The Philosophy of Upanishads. New Jersey: Humanities Press.


Sprigge, T.L.S. (1997) “Pantheism.” The Monist, Vol. 80 No. 2 (April): 191-217.


List if Terms for Future Exploration







High Chant


















List of Helpful Websites


Article written by Brendan Bloomfield (March 2013) who is solely responsible for this content.




The Upanisads

The sacred Indian texts, the Upanisads, contain the accumulation and interpretations of the many philosophical ideas presented in the Vedas, forming the concluding portion of Veda. For this reason the Upanisads are referred to as the Veda-anta, literally meaning the end or anta (kumar 37). Underlying this literal meaning is a far more implicit of spiritual interpretation of a central goal or purpose, whereby their ultimate reason for existence – their highest Knowledge – is expressed (Prabhavananda 39). Such inference suggests that within the Upanisad writings are the central essence of Vedic teachings (Radhakrishnan 138). In Sankara’s introduction to the Taittiriya Upanisad, he says: “Knowledge of Brahman is called Upanisads, because in the case of those who devote themselves to it, the bonds of conception, birth, decay, ect., become unloosed or because it destroys them altogether, or because therein the highest God is seated.” (Radhakrishnan 138). As Sankara’s interpretation of the essence of these texts indicates, the underlying meaning behind the Upanisads has developed into a secret doctrine, which enables the expression of truth destroying error and ignorance (Radhakrishnan). The word, Upanisad, itself implies an implicit spirituality. Derived from upa ni sad, “sitting down near,” Upanisad means to sit down near a teacher (Radhakrishnan 138). While this interpretation is of most significance, the Upanisads have other underlying meanings including the secret teachings and knowledge of the Gods (Prabhavananda 39). This idea of secret doctrine and secret teachings is exemplified by the few individuals and groups that are interested in spiritual development. The language present within the Upanisads also conjures beliefs of secrecy through word selections such as rahsayan (meaning secret) and paraman guhyam (meaning supreme secret) (kumar 39-40). The secrecy of teachings found within these texts implies the esoteric nature of the ideas present within the Upanisads emphasizing the importance of subjectively grasping their concepts rather than analyzing or describing them (Kumar 39).

The many ambiguities concerning the Upanisad’s authorship and dates of composition lead to them being regarded as impersonal (aparusheya), as their teachings are from more than one rsi (Kumar 38). The Upanisads have no set individual philosophical theories, containing ideas and interpretations derived through intuition, leading towards readers towards the truth in life (Radhakrishnan 140-141). Contrasting with the Veda’s externalization through Vedic rituals and sacrifices, the Upanisads focus on an inwardness, openly ridiculing the rituals and practices of Brahmin priests (Kumar 40). The Upanisad texts recognize priestly ritualistic worship as preparation for true “enlightenment,” as a manner of mental discipline to aid in the recognition of spiritual insight (Kumar 40). This realized inwardness is recognized as Atman and Brahman, translated as the supreme spirit, Brahman literally means the “ever growing,” the “expanding,” the “Absolute” (Raju 49). Atman is often associated synonymously with Brahman, meaning “spirit” or “self,” being the highest reality attained by human beings (Raju 49). The Upanisads are complementarily concerned with the recognition of two forms of experiences, internal and external, which contribute to a realized inwardness (Kumar 41). External experiences are concerned with the physicality of the senses, such as sight, sound, touch, taste, etc., while internal experiences are concerned with experiences which lead to the discovery of the inner most self, Atman (Kumar 41). The Upanisads recognize two sources of awareness, higher (para) and lower (apara), which allow individuals to have internal and external experiences. Apara vidya classifies and studies physical, mental, and emotion experiences, giving them names and recognizable forms (Kumar 41). Para vidya is achieved through the attainment of Atman, allowing objects to be recognized in their true form (Kumar 42).

While the total number of existing Upanisads is uncertain, one hundred and eight texts, of varying lengths, have been preserved. The literary style and manner found in these works varies greatly, often exemplified within individual pieces of work (Prabhavananda 39). Little to nothing is known about the rsi authors(s) who composed these texts, as well as the time periods in which the Upanisads were written. The Indian philosopher, Sankara, composed several commentaries on the Upanisads, where he recognized sixteen of the hundred and eight confirmed Upanisads as authentic and authoritative (Prabhavananda 40). Sankara wrote elaborate commentaries on ten of the sixteen texts, while he discussed the other six in his Vedanta Aphorisms commentary (Prabhavananda 40). The ten in which Sankara composed commentaries around have become regarded as the principal Upanisads, containing the primary objects of attention for Hindu religion. The ten principal texts include: Isavasya, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Chandogya, Brhadaranyaka, Aitareya, and Taittiriya (Prabhavananda 40).

The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, believed to be composed first is the largest of the Upanisad texts. This Upanisad belongs to the transition period between the Aranyakas and the Upanisads as it is a Forest Treatise and an Upanisad (Raju 54). The philosophical speculations found within this text lead to the reality of Atman, where everything in the material world, species of animals, and the laws of nature and ethics originated from (Raju 54). The Brhadaranyaka specifically says that Atman is Brahman where its nature is consciousness and bliss, indicating the light of Atman is and the same as the light of the sun (Raju 54).

In the Isavasya Upanisad, Atman is described as the lord of the Universe, expressing pure activity, movement, having no definite description which truly expresses its nature (Raju 55). The Kena Upanisad examines the profound connection between Atman and the senses and an organ, questioning that which makes the mind, senses, and speech (Raju 55).

In the Katha Upanisad the story of Naciketas, son of Vajasravasa, is described. Naciketas gives away all that he has to charity in a ceremony, thereby angering his father who in turn sends him to the house of death (Raju 55). At the house of death Naciketas waits three days without eating for the god Death. As result Death grants Naciketas three boons. For his last boon Naciketas asks Death to instruct him in what occurs to people after they die. Having no choice Death is forced to answer his question, revealing in the process, the secret of the universe, that Atman is found within everyone. Through Naciketas’ story in the Katha Upanisad, Atman is explained as the ultimate truth, being imperishable with no birth or death, where there is no deeper or greater form of reality than Atman itself; it is existence and being (Raju 56).

The Mundaka Upanisad uses the tale of two birds to distinguish the existence of the two kinds of knowledge, higher and lower. While one bird eats sweet fruit the other simply looks on, similarly to the manner in which Atman is present within the body to enjoying the pains and pleasures of the world while being unable to unbind itself from the ties that hold it to the world (Raju 56).

Considered by some scholars to be the most important of the Upanisad texts the Mandukya Upanisad explains the nature of Atman as it passes through four states: the state of pure Atman, waking state, dream state, and the state of deep sleep (Raju 47). In the waking state Atman is called vaisvanara (the worldly person) as Atman is a gross body, identifying itself with the physical body, directing it consciousness outwards (Raju 57). The dream state identifies Atman as taijasa (the person of the psychic force), projecting its consciousness inward, distinguishing the objects and things found within this state as results from the impressions of the waking state (Raju 58). In the state of deep sleep Atman is referred to as prajna (Intensely Conscious Being), as people are in a state of complete unity and rest, finding absolute satisfaction within themselves (Raju 58).

The Taittiriya Upanisad presents the five ways of explaining the world in the form of secret meaning: physical entities (adhilokam), gods or luminaries (adhijyotisam), creative powers (adihividyam), creativity of the sexes (adiprajam), and the world as it originates from Atman (Raju 59). Through a mythologically cloaked story of creation, the Aitareya Upanisad presents the philosophically important account of Atman’s creation of man and the gods. This text establishes the relation between macrocosm and microcosm, and between man, the universe and the penchant towards spiritual absolutism and idealism (Raju 60-61).

The Chandogya Upanisad identifies Brahman. Brahman is the Supreme spirit, the entire universe; it is found within every heart in the depths of all beings. Brahman is like the Unconsciousness; it watches and retains every experience. People are identical to Brahman, unable to act without it (Raju 61). The Svetasvatara Upanisad details the numerous doctrines found within its time period, discussing Maya (the God of the creation of the world) as the source of the world (Raju 61).


Krishna, Daya (1991) Indian Philosophy a Counter Perspective. Delhi: Oxford University Press

Kumar, Frederick L. (1991) The Philosophies of India: A New Approach. Wales: The Edwin Mellen Press Ltd.

Prabhavananda, Swami (1980) The Spiritual Heritage of India. California: Vedanta Press

Radhakrishnan, S. (1971) Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen and Uwin Ltd.

Raju, P.T. (1971) The Philosophical Traditions of India. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge

Related Websites

Related Topics

Isavasya Upanisad

Kena Upanisad

Katha Upanisad

Prasna Upanisad

Mundaka Upanisad

Mandukya Upanisad

Chandogya Upanisad

Brhadaranyaka Upanisad

Aitareya Upanisad

Taittiriya Upanisad




Written by Jessica Durand (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Related Readings (The Upanisads)

Chakravarti, S. C. (1935) The Philosophy of the Upanisads. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

Deussen, Paul (1906)The Philosophy of the Upanishads. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1966.

Hume, R. (trans.) (1921) The Thirteen Principal Upanisads. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keith, A. B. (1925) The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanisads. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nikhilananda, Swami (1949-59) The Upanishads, 4 vols. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center.

Olivelle, Patrick (1996) Upanisads: A New Translation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Radhakrishnam, S. (1967) The Principal Upanisads. London: Allen & Unwin.