Upanishads: Meaning, Development and Problems related to Upanishads

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Read this article to learn about the meaning, transition, problems and development of thought from the Vedas!

Meaning of the Word, "Upanishads"

Literally speaking, the word, "Upanishad", means 'sitting down near'. It means sitting down near the teacher to receive instructions.

The Upanishads are records of instructions given by the teachers to their disciples. Gradually, the word, "Upanishads" itself came to mean what was received from the teacher, a sort of secret doctrine, 'rahasya'.

It is possible that the word ‘Upanishad’ may have been originally for the cryptical great sentences (Malta Vakya) 'Tat Twam Asi', etc. According to Prof. Max Muller, the word originally meant 'session', particularly a session consisting of pupils assembled at a respectful distance round their teacher. In his Philosophy of Upanishads, Paul Deussen maintains that the term 'Upanishad' means "Secret Instructions".

According to Dr. Radhakrishnan, sometimes the term means the knowledge which destroys error and enables one to approach the truth. In his Introduction to the Commentary on Taittiriya Upanishad, Samkar points out, "True knowledge of Brahman is rolled Upanishad, because in the case of those who devote themselves to it, the bonds of conception, birth and death, etc., become unloosed or because it destroys them altogether, or because it leads the people very near to Brahman or because therein the highest God is seated."

The Upanishads have also been called Vedanta, meaning Ved+Ant, i.e., the essence of Vedas. All these interpretations, throw light on some significant aspects of the Upanishads. The Upanishads mean all this and much more. Like the Vedas they are the sources of Indian philosophy.

Transition from the Vedas to Upanishads:

When the spontaneous and natural philosophy of the Vedas was lost in the activism of the Brahamanas, a philosophical reaction followed in the form of the Upanishads. In the history of Indian philosophy, the Upanishads represent the age when Indian philosophy, originating in the Vedas and passing through the narrow and hard ground of the Brahmanas, divided itself into many undercurrents finding suitable outlets in the Upanishads, so much so that it became difficult to imagine its small origin by seeing its present vast form. In the development from the Vedas to the Upanishads, one finds wide divergence in thought.

Development of Thought from the Vedas to the Upanishads:

In the development of thought from the Vedas to the Upanishads one notices the following points of difference:

1. Difference in the practical aspect of philosophy:

In the evolution of thought from the Vedas to the Upanishads one notices difference in the practical aspect of philosophy. Spiritual practice in the Vedas is extrovert while in the Upanishads it is directed towards internal experience. The Upanishads find that introversion is necessary for the realization of the self.

2. Transition from objective to subjective religion:

In the Vedas, one finds hymns in praise of the natural powers represented by different Gods and Goddesses. Thus the Vedic religion is extrovert, while the religion of the Upanishads is introvert. The Vedic seers wondered at the multiplicity of the creation and worshipped natural powers as Gods. The seers of the Upanishads found God in the soul. Thus, in the Upanishads, thinking, concentration and meditation have been substituted for the Vedic prayers and ritualism.

According to Kathopanishad, human mind is naturally extrovert. Hence introversion of the mental tendencies is considered as the first step to spirituality in the Upanishads.

3. Thinking and Reasoning:

The Vedic philosophy is full of imagination and emotion. In the Upanishads, thought and reasoning have been substituted for imagination and emotion. The seers of the Upanishads aimed at the enquiry of truth. Their ideal was not to please Gods or Goddesses, but to realize the self within and without. Thus in the Upanishads, the naive child-like attitude of the Vedic seers has been replaced by dissatisfaction at the existing order of things.

4. Moral Purpose of Metaphysics:

As a general rule, the Vedic thought, too, has a moral purpose, but a moral purpose appears to be more explicit in the Upanishads. The ultimate end, according to the Upanishads, is the realization of the soul. They aim at neither science nor philosophy, but at an integral life. Intellectual efforts are subordinated to moral evolution. It should be noted here that in spite of their having an ideology different from that of the Vedic seers, the seers of the Upanishads had a strong faith in the past. As a matter of fact, the Upanishads have liberated the Vedic thought from ritualism.

5. Indifference to the Vedas:

Thus, several Upanishads, absolutely ignore the Vedas. The seers of the Upanishads were mystic philosophers. For a mystic, the self-realization is the be-all and end-all, the alpha and omega of philosophy. After the realization of the self, he finds no purpose in the Vedas or other scriptures.

6. Monism:

Monistic thought is the most important current in the philosophy of the Upanishads. This monism has its root in Vedic thought. In the Purusa hymn of the Vedas one finds a reference to the Universal Reality. It was this insight into reality which developed into the concept of Sachchidananda in the Upanishads.

Problems of the Upanishads:

Before studying the philosophy of the Upanishads in detail, it is necessary to survey the main problems which have been dealt with by the seers. These problems are as follows:

1. What is that by knowing which everything else can be known?

The seers of the Upanishads wanted to achieve the acme of knowledge. On the basis of their personal experience, they believed that behind the multiple forms and phenomena of the universe there is some reality by reaching which the mind, the intellect and the senses can attain peace. The philosophical inquiry begins in the dissatisfaction with the existing order of things. Our senses do not give us real knowledge. The mind always moves among dualities. The search for the One in Many is the natural urge of human beings. In the words of Mundak Upanishad, “What is that by the knowledge of which all this can be known?”

2. What remains after death?

Behind the enquiries into rebirth, the eternity of soul, the consequences of actions, etc., the basic questions are—what is that which remains after the body is dead? Wherefrom have we come and whereto will we go? In the words of Yajnavalkya, What is the real root from where, in spite of being repeatedly caught by death, the tree of life springs again and again?

3. Search for Ultimate Reality:

Thus the Upanishads were in search of the Ultimate Reality in the psychological as well as physical world. It is this reality which has been sometimes called Prana, sometimes mind, sometimes reason and sometimes soul. What is that which remains even while the body is in the sleeping stage and which is always creating? In the psychological field, the Upanishads, aimed at the search of that reality which is existent in all the stages of a man's life—waking, dreaming and sleeping. In the Kena Upanishad, the disciple asked the teacher, By whose wish the mind goes to its aim? By whose order the first breath begins, by whose desire we speak? Which god guides the eyes and the ears?

4. Search for the Creator, the Sustainer and the Destroyer of the world:

In brief, the Upanishads were set to enquiry into the original cause, the creator, the sustainer and the destroyer of the world. They searched for Him first in the physical world. When they were disappointed, they searched for Him in the psychological field. Lastly, they searched and found Him through mystic experience and their spiritual, moral and psychological enquiry thus culminated in mysticism.

5. The practical problems:

The problems of the Upanishads were mostly practical, moral, religious, and those of every-day life. They did not aim at the knowledge of truth alone, but also at its realisation. How can truth be attained? How can truth be interpreted in the internal life? It is for this reason that the seers of the Brhdaranyaka Upanishad pray to the Almightly to take them from ignorance to truth, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality.


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