Shruti- The Vedas (Part 4)
As the concluding portions of the Aranyakas, the Upanishads are the doctrines of “secret knowledge”. The name is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘upa’ which means near, “ni” which means down and “shad” meaning sit. Thus, it literally means to sit down near someone and is applied to doctrines that may be imparted to a son or a trusted disciple seated near the teacher. The central subject of this portion of the Vedas is the knowledge of God.
Since they brought to a close each of the Vedas, as well as to present the essence or conclusions of the Vedas, the Upanishads came to be spoken of as Vedanta – the anta or end of the Vedas. It is generally accepted that the most important Upanishads were written between 800 to 500 BC. The Upanishads contain deep speculations of a philosophical character and revolve around the twin concepts of Brahman and Atman, i.e. the Universal Soul (the Absolute) and the individual self.
How many Upanishads once existed is not known. About two hundred and fifty are present, although the traditional number given is one hundred and eight, and these vary in length between a few hundred to many thousands of words, some in prose, some in poetry, some a combination of the two. Who wrote them? No one knows. The rishis whose insight they embody remain abstract and impersonal.
Of the many Upanishads, sixteen were regarded as genuine and authoritative by the great commentator Sri Shankara. He wrote elaborate commentaries on and quoted lengthily from them. These sixteen, partly no doubt because of their intrinsic value, but mainly because of Shankara’s commentaries, are considered the principal Upanishads, and together, they constitute the primary scriptures of Hindu philosophy. They are – Isavasya, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Chandogya, Brhadaranyaka, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Shvetashvatara, Mahanarayana, Kausitaki, Kaivalya, Jabala and Nirsimhatapani.
While each Upanishad may emphasise a certain idea or take a certain perspective, what is remarkable about them is their essential homogeneity. The Upanishads mildly rebuke the great emphasis placed at that time on ceremonial rites and succeeded in introducing a new dimension into the religious quest of India – a quest for knowledge which would make the entire universe understood. The Upanishads form the first of the three great works that constitute the pillars of Hinduism.