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Hindu texts



The Upanishads (upaniṣad; Devanagari उपनिषद्) are part of the Hindu Shruti scriptures which primarily discuss meditation and philosophy and are seen as religious instructions by most schools of Hinduism.

The Upanishads are mystic or spiritual interpretations on the Vedas, their putative end and essence, and thus known as Vedānta ("the end of the Vedas"). The Sanskrit term upaniṣad derives from upa- (near), ni- (down) and ṣad (to sit), i.e. referring to the "sitting down near" a spiritual teacher (guru) in order to receive instruction in the Guru-shishya tradition or parampara. The teachers and students appear in a variety of settings (husband answering questions about immortality, a teenage boy being taught by Yama, etc.). Sometimes the sages are women and at times the instructions (or rather inspiration) are sought by kings.


The major Upanishads

Different Upanishad serve as commentaries or extensions of each of the four Vedas (Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda). The longest Upanishad are the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya.

According to tradition they were transmitted orally and at the end of Dvapara Yuga written down by Vyasa. Their language is generally Classical Sanskrit, although the very oldest of them may be considered to be written in Vedic Sanskrit. Taken together, they do not date to a particular epoch, but the most recent ones were written in Early Modern or Modern times (depending on the definition of the canon, some schools accept up to 350 Upanishads). The oldest Upanishads are the Bŗhadāraṇyaka and the Chhāndogya ones, dating to the "Brahmana" period of Vedic Sanskrit (from roughly 900 BCE). A second stratum belongs to the "Sutra" period (from roughly 600 BCE), including the Katha and Maitrāyaṇi ones.

Reputedly, there were over two hundred Upanishads, but the philosopher Shankara only considered fifteen or so to be primary. The Muktika Upanishad lists 108 Upanishads, accepted as shruti by the Advaita school, but only 12 of them are accepted by all Hindus. The Upanishads were not fully recorded until 1656, at the order of Dara Shikoh.

These philosophical and meditative tracts form the backbone of Hindu thought. Of the early Upanishads, the Aitareya and Kauṣītāki belong to the Rig Veda, Kena and Chāndogya to the Samaveda, Īṣa and Taittirīya and Bŗhadāraṇyaka to the Yajurveda, and Praṣna and Muṇd.aka to the Atharvaveda. (Associated Upanishad and Vedic book information taken from Radhakrishnan Indian Philosophy, Vol. 1.) In addition, the Māṇd.ukya, Katha, Ṣvetāṣvatara are very important. Others also include Mahānārāyaṇa and Maitreyi Upanishads as key.

Place in the Hindu canon

Scholarly breakdowns of the Vedic books see the four Vedas as poetic liturgy, collectively called mantra or sam.hitā-, adoration and supplication to the deities of Vedic religion, in parts already sort of melded with monist and henotheist notions, and an overarching Order (Ŗta) that transcended even the Gods.

The Brāhmaṇa 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.

In Vedanta, we have the Aranyakas and Upanishads. The Araṇyaka ("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 Upanishad hold information on basic Hindu beliefs, including belief in a world soul, a universal spirit, Brahman, and an individual soul, Atman (Smith 10). 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. For Advaita philosophers Brahman is not a God in the monotheistic sense, as they do not ascribe to it any limiting characteristics, not even those of being and non-being, and this is reflected in the fact that in Sanskrit, the word brahman has no gender(masculine or feminine or neuter). Dvaita philosophy holds that Brahman is ultimately a personal God, Vishnu, or Krishna (brahmano hi pratisthaham, Bhagavad Gita 14.27).

"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.

The philosophy of the Upanishad

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, the Upanishad have a universal feel that has led to their explication in numerous manners, giving birth to the three schools of Vedanta.

Vedantin philosopher Adi Shankara summed up all the Upanishad in one phrase "Tat Twam Asi" (Thou Art That) and said that in the end, the ultimate, formless, inconceivable Brahman is the same as our soul, Atman. We only have to realize it through discrimination and piercing through Maya.

A distinctive quotation that is indicative of the call to self-realization, one that inspired Somerset Maugham in titling a book he wrote on 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.
--- Death Instructing Nachiketa in the Katha (Word) Upanishad

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 Ishopanishad):

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 language between Islam and Hinduism.

List of Upanishads

Wikisource has original text related to this article:

"Principal" Upanishads

The following is a list of the ten "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)

The Kauśītāki, Śvetāśvatara and Maitrāyaṇi Upanishads are sometimes added to extend the canon to 12 or 13. They are also the oldest Upanishads, likely all of them dating to before the Common Era.

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 Upaniṣads are associated with the Rigveda and have the Shānti beginning vaṇme-manasi.
  • 16 Upaniṣads are associated with the Samaveda and have the Shānti beginning āpyāyantu.
  • 19 Upaniṣads are associated with the White Yajurveda and have the Shānti beginning pūrṇamada.
  • 32 Upaniṣads are associated with the Black Yajurveda and have the Shānti beginning sahanāvavatu.
  • 31 Upaniṣads 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 Yoga Upanishads.[citation needed]

  1. Īṣa, (ŚYV, Mukhya) "The Inner Ruler"
  2. Kena (SV, Mukhya) "Who moves the world?"
  3. Kaṭha (KYV, Mukhya) "Death as Teacher"
  4. Praśna, (AV, Mukhya) "The Breath of Life"
  5. Muṇḍaka (AV, Mukhya) "Two modes of Knowing"
  6. Māṇḍūkya (AV, Mukhya) "Consciousness and it's phases"
  7. Taittirīya (KYV, Mukhya) "From Food to Joy"
  8. Aitareya, (ṚV Mukhya) "The Microcosm of Man"
  9. Chāndogya (SV, Mukhya) "Song and Sacrifice"
  10. Bṛhadāraṇyaka (ŚYV, Mukhya)
  11. Brahma (KYV, Sannyasa)
  12. Kaivalya (KYV, Shaiva)
  13. Jābāla (ŚYV, Sannyasa)
  14. Śvetāśvatara (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. Maitrāyaṇi (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) [1]
  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-Saṇṭāraṇa (Kali) (KYV, Vaishnava)
  104. Jābāla (SV, Shaiva)
  105. Saubhāgya (ṚV, Shakta)
  106. Sarasvatīrahasya (KYV, Shakta)
  107. Bahvṛca (ṚV, Shakta)
  108. Muktika (ŚYV, Samanya)


  • Edmonds, I.G. Hinduism. New York: Franklin Watts, 1979.
  • Eknath Easwaran, The Upanishads. Nilgiri Press, 1987.
  • Embree, Ainslie T., ed. The Hindu Tradition. New York: Random House, 1966.
  • Merrett, Frances, ed. The Hindu World. London: MacDonald and Co, 1985.
  • Pandit, Bansi. The Hindu Mind. Glen Ellyn, IL: B&V Enterprises, 1998.
  • Smith, Huston. The Illustrated World’s Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions. New York: Labrynth Publishing, 1995.
  • Wangu, Madhu Bazaz. Hinduism: World Religions. New York: Facts on File, 1991.

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