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The Upanishads

The Upanishads

What Are They?

What Principal Themes Do They Teach?

Comparing the Views of Shankara and Dayananda 


Satish Prakash, PhD


Maharshi Dayananda Gurukula, New York City & Guyana 


The Upanishads – What Are They?

Arya-Hindu tradition tells us that the four Vedas – Rig, Yajur, Saama, and Atharva – were revealed by God in the beginning of human creation.  These Vedas contain principal branches of knowledge for all mankind to use.  Very many scholars posit that the Vedas are made up of Sanhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads.  Swami Shankaracharya specifically says that the Upanishads are the end-portions of the Vedas, for which reason he labeled the Upanishads as Vedanta [end of Vedas].  Rishi Dayananda disagrees with Shankara and, in his writings, says that the knowledge revealed by God to the first four Rishis [Agni, Vaayu, Aaditya, and Angiras] is contained in the Sanhitas only and that Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads were written by later Rishis expressly to explain the contents of the Veda Sanhitas. 


The Age Of The Upanishads

The Age of the Upanishads is very difficult to determine. Some historians claim that Upanishads do not belong to any particular period of Sanskrit Literature. They posit that the earliest Upanishads, such as the Brihad Aaranyaka and Chhaandogya, date to around the middle of the first millennium BC, while the latest were composed in the medieval and early modern period. Because Upanishads bring to the fore the philosophy laid out in the Vedas, they have exerted an important influence on later books dealing with aspects of Vedic Philosophy like Smritis, Darshanas, Raamaayan, Mahaabhaarat-Bhagavad Gita, and to an extent, even Puraanas.


Meaning Of The Term ‘Upanishad’ 

Most Sanskrit scholars posit that the term Upanishad is derived from UPA (nearby), NI (at the proper place, down) and SAD (to sit), and it yields the literal meaning of instruction received by sitting down near a teacher.  A second meaning of the verb SAD is to destroy, and as the famous Sanskrit Lexicographer, Sir Monier-Williams, notes, the term Upanishad can also mean knowledge that destroys passion and ignorance. Other dictionary meanings include esoteric doctrine and secret doctrine.  Professor Max Muller prefers to interpret UPANISHAD as a session consisting of pupils assembled at a respectful distance around their teacher (F. Max Muller, Sacred Book of the East Series, Upanishads, Part 1 – p. lxxxi).


Upanishads – How Many?

The Muktikaa Upanishad (predates 1656) contains a list of 108 Upanishads and lists itself as the final one. In 1657, Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, translated 50 Upanishads into Persian. Max Muller (1879) was aware of 170 Upanishads. Sadhale, in his massive verse index Upanishad-Vaakya-Mahaa-Kosha, has identified 223 different texts that call themselves by this name. Additionally, parts of the earlier Brahmana texts are sometimes considered Upanishads. Swami Shankaracharya (AD 788-820) composed commentaries in Classical Sanskrit on 11 Principal Upanishads, those that are generally regarded as the oldest, spanning the late Vedic and Mauryan periods. Rishi Dayananda Saraswati (1824-1883), concurring with Swami Shankaracharya, also mentions 11 Principal Upanishads [each being associated with one of the four Vedas (Rigveda (RV), Samaveda (SV), Shukla Yajur Veda (SYV), Krishna Yajur Veda (KYV), Atharva Veda (AV)] as follows:  

  1. Eesha (SYV) 
  2. Kena (SV) 
  3. Katha (KYV) 
  4. Prashna (AV) 
  5. Mundaka (AV) 
  6. Maandookya (AV) 
  7. Aitareya (RV) 
  8. Taittireeya (KYV) 
  9. Chhaandogya (SV) 
  10. Brihadaaranyaka (SYV) 
  11. Shwetaashwatara (KYV) 


Upanishads – Early Translations and Commentaries

As mentioned above, Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, completed a Persian translation of the Upanishads in 1657.  Persian at that time was the most widely read language of the East. It was understood by many European scholars, and so, through Shikoh’s Persian translations, they came into contact with the Upanishads. In 1775, the French scholar Anquetil Duperron (1731-1805) procured manuscripts of these Persian translations, and he used them to translate some of the Upanishads into both French and Latin. The Latin translations were published in 1801 and 1802. The famous German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), came into contact with these Latin translations, and after studying them, proclaimed for the world “the philosophical value of the Upanishads” and “the benefit of the Vedas, the access to which using the Upanishads is in my eyes the greatest privilege which this still young century (1818) may claim before all previous centuries” (Muller, page lix). From 1832 to 1876, translations of the Upanishads in English, German, French, and Latin, were written and published by Indian and European scholars like Rammohan Roy, H.T. Colebrooke, K. Windishmann, E. Roer, Rajendralal Mitra, E.B. Cowell, A. Weber, A.E. Gough and P. Regnaud.


Upanishads – Their Themes

Is There Only One Existence, That of God? 

Swami Shankaracharya was an uncompromising advocate of a non-dualistic [monistic] philosophy called Adwaita. He asserted that this philosophy is found in the Upanishads, along with other texts like the Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras.   According to Shankara’s Non-dualism, there is only one existence – that of God – and that all plurality in existence in the universe amounts to illusion. Therefore, in this doctrine, there is nothing called a separate individual Soul.  It is important, therefore, for us to ask and answer the question of whether the Upanishads teach the existence of only One Existence, One Soul, God.  The following verse from the Katha Upanishad sheds some light. It says:

Ritam pibantau su-kritasya loke

Guhaam pravishtau parame paraardhe

Chhaayaa’tapau brahma-vido vadanti

Panchaa’gnayo ye cha tri-naa-chi-ke-taah – [1:3:1]

This body is the Abode for good deeds to be performed. In this body, there are two Souls engaged in Knowledge [lit. drinking Knowledge]. Both Souls are found in the Cave of the Heart described as a Supreme Abode. Rishis who know Veda compare these two Souls to Shade and Light. The same comparison is made by householders who perform the five Great Daily Duties, and by hermits who have kindled the Nachiketaa Fire three times in their Life. 

The reference is to the Universal Soul, God, and the Individual Soul.  God is compared to Light and the individual Soul is compared to Shade. Light is a reference to complete Knowledge, whereas Shade is a reference to limited Knowledge. God possesses unlimited Knowledge and the Soul possesses limited Knowledge. Also, Light and Shade enjoy an inseparable relationship, but what is important to understand is that Light is not Shade and Shade is not Light – they never become each other and they are fundamentally different from each other. God and Soul enjoy an inseparable relationship, but God is not Soul and Soul is not God – they never become each other and they are fundamentally different from each other.


The above is one of the verses that Rishi Dayananda would use to vigorously disagree with Swami Shankaracharya, claiming that the non-dualistic doctrine is inherently flawed and has no basis in Vedas, Upanishads, and other authoritative writings. This current Katha verse is proof that there are two kinds of Soul, not One.  To support his theory that there are three eternally co-existing entities, God, Soul, and Matter, Rishi Dayananda quotes as follows:  

Trayah keshina rituthaa vi-chakshate

Samvatsare vapata eka eshaam

Vishwam eko abhi chashte shachee-bhir

Dhraajir ekasya dadrishe na roopam – Rig Veda 1:164:44

Three shining substances are perceived as acting according to Eternal Law.  One of them (God) sows the Original Seed for Creation to evolve.  Another One (Soul) observes the Creation through Its inherent Powers.  The Power of the Third (Primordial Matter) is seen, though Its Form is not visible –


Is God Without Qualities?

Swami Shankaracharya further explains that God is Nirguna – He is a homogeneous entity that has no qualities, and so, indeterminate. He cannot be defined and cannot be labeled with assignable adjectives because adjectives limit Him.  The following Katha verse, however, tells us something different:

Tam dur-darsham goodham anu-pra-vishtam

Guhaa’hitam gahwareshtham puraanam

Adhyaatma yogaa’dhi-gamena devam

Matwaa dheero harsha shokau jahaati – [1:2:12]

After restraining his senses from pursuing their respective objects, and stabilizing his Mind like God, a Yogi knows God as follows:

  1. He is ‘seen’ only after one has undergone austere practices – Dur-darsha;
  2. He is ‘hidden’ from the physical organs, i.e. He cannot be seen, heard, smelt, tasted and touched by the active senses – Goodha;
  3. He has ‘entered’ into, and pervades, our Soul – Anu-pravishta;
  4. He is ‘set’ in the Cave of the Intellect – Guhaa’hita;
  5. He is present even in the most inaccessible places – Gahware’stha;
  6. He is Eternal, without a beginning, and ever new – Puraana;
  7. He illumines the Sun and other luminous bodies – Deva.

Realizing God described above, the wise person renounces joy and sorrow; no longer does he exult because of material gains, no longer does he sulk because of material losses.

This verse above defines God in at least seven different ways. And since the Knowledge of the Upanishads is uniform, this Katha verse finds support from Eesha Upanishad Mantra 8 which says: God encircles everything of the Universe. He is Radiant. He is without body, without flaw, and sinews. He is ever Pure, unpierced by evil, far-sighted, Wise, All-surpassing, (and) Self-existent. Appropriately, He has assigned meanings to words, and purposes to objects, for (the benefit of all) His Children living through the Ages. Rishi Dayananda concurs by saying in the 2nd Principle of the Arya Samaj: God is existent, intelligent, and blissful. He is formless, omnipotent, just, kind, unborn, endless, unchangeable, beginningless, unequaled, the support of all, the lord of all, omnipresent, immanent, unaging, immortal, fearless, eternally holy, and the Creator of the universe. He alone should be communed with.]

The Soul – Is It A Mere Witness?

Swami Shankaracharya continues to explain that, by a process of self-alienation, God, draws out from Himself the separate individual Souls who inhabit human and animal bodies.  Each Soul, in its absolute, real state, is a mere witness, and so, does nothing and consequently enjoys nothing.  The Acharya postulates that any supposed enjoyership for the Soul is created by mind and intellect which act as limiting adjuncts. Let us examine Shankara’s view in the light of the following Katha verses:

Aatmaanam rathinam viddhi

Shareeram ratham eva tu

Buddhim tu saa-rathim viddhi

Manah pra-graham eva cha – [1:3:3]

Know the body to be a chariot.  The Soul sits in the chariot as the master-passenger traveling to his destination.  The intellect drives the chariot, while the mind is the reins yoked to the horses.


Indriyaani hayaan aahur

Vishayaans teshu gocharaan

Aatme’ndriya-mano yuktam

Bhote’tyaahur maneeshinah – [1:3:4]

Wise thinkers say that the senses are the horses pulling the chariot, and the sense objects are the paths on which sense horses travel. Wise thinkers also say that the Soul enjoys the world journey when in union with the senses and mind. 

Shankara’s understanding ascribes a negative function to intellect. This current Katha verse specifically says that the Soul enjoys the world when in union with the senses, intellect, and mind. Explaining the intent in this Katha verse, Rishi Dayananda says that the Soul has an inherent ability to enjoy, and needs an instrument with which to enjoy. It enjoys the world through the intellect, mind, and senses, and also enjoys God’s bliss in the state of emancipation through a spiritual body. Throwing light on the positive function of the intellect, Dayananda quotes the Sanskrit grammarian Rishi Panini who says that the Soul perceives an object through the intellect and inspires a desire in the mind to possess that object – Aatmaa buddhyaa sameti arthaan, mano yunkte vivakshayaa.  Even Maharshi Kath, in Katha verse 1:3:12, assigns a very positive function to the intellect by saying that though hidden in all beings, the Soul does not make itself manifest to the senses, but can be seen by subtle seers through their sharp and subtle intellect.    


Rishi Dayananda would have us understand that it is God, not the Soul, who is a witness.  To support such a theory, the Rishi would quote Mundak Upanishad 3:1:1 [and Rig Veda 1:164:20] in which God is described as the Witness who watches us as we bird-like souls taste sweet [and bitter] fruits plucked from the Cosmic Tree, while He, the Cosmic Bird, smiles and does nothing.


Is The Individual Soul Infinite?

As stated above, Swami Shankaracharya posits that the embodied Soul is actually God, and so, the Soul is all-pervading and not atomic in size.   Let us examine his statement in the light of the following Katha verse:

Asya visransa-maanasya

Shareerasthasya dehinah

Dehaad vimuchya-maanasya

Kim atra pari-shish-yate – [2:2:4]

When the embodied Soul slips away and is released from this body, then what remains in this body? 

Using the above and other authorities, Rishi Dayananda vigorously disagrees with Shankara, saying that an all-pervading Soul would not – in fact, cannot – slip away and depart the body, as the above Katha Upanishad verse says. Only something finite in size can slip away and depart. In positing that the Soul is of a finite size, Rishi Dayananda quotes Vedaant Darshan 2:3:19 which says that the Soul is not infinite in size because scriptures talk of the Soul passing out of the body, going forth and returning – Ut-kraanti-gati-aa-gateenaam.  Also, the Shwetaashwatara Upanishad, in clear terms, says that 

Baalaa’gra-shata-bhaagasya shata-dhaa kalpitasya cha  

Bhaago jeevas sa vijyëyas sa chaa’nantyaaya kalpate – 5:9 

The Individual Soul is to be known as a part of the 100th part of the point of a hair-strand divided a hundredfold.


The Universe – Is It A Mere Dream-Like Illusion?

Swami Shankaracharya, like his predecessor Gaudapaada, argues with tremendous polemical skill that, given God being the only existence, the world is unreal and false. Due to ignorance and misrepresentation human beings see a multiplicity of things and they witness change.  Phenomena have the appearance of reality for the same reason that things seen in a dream look real.  When the dream ends, the appearances end. In the same way, Shankara claims, that when life and death end and enlightenment dawns, the world of so-called reality disappears.  The opening verse of the Eesha Upanishad, however, gives us a different perspective – that the world constitutes dynamic realism. It says:

Eeshaa’vaasyam idam sarvam

Yat kincha jagatyaam jagat

All of this – whatever moves in this moving universe – is pervaded, occupied, and owned by Eesha, God. 

A close study will reveal that the Upanishad in the above verse is teaching that everything in the universe is filled with movement.  Movement points to dynamic realism and such movement inheres even in the tiniest of objects – in atoms and molecules. There is also movement in revolving planets and expanding galaxies. Everything in the universe is a movement within a movement. Everything exists by movement and is dissolved by a cessation of movement.  And, because of movement, everything changes each moment. Nothing is permanent in shape, size, color, and form.  So, every moment we live on Earth we see birth, growth, decay, and death, and then rebirth – and it’s all real because we experience it.  In this changing world, there is no steady base on which we can safely erect the structure of life. This Upanishad, however, assures us that if we look deeper, we can perceive a changeless being amid change and a deathless being amid death.  This points to a very positive relationship between the Creator and his creation.  This relationship between God and this dynamic universe is imaged in the fact the universe is dark, inert, useless, and unproductive, and in pervading the universe, God energizes every atom, instilling life, light, and motion. He is the changeless substratum that holds together the chain of changing forms.  He is the motionless base that regulates, superintends, and owns everything.  God is real and his creation is real.



The Difference Between Shankara And Dayananda

The Adwaita [non-dualistic, monistic] philosophy of Shankaracharya can be summarized in the following half verse:

Brahma satyam jagan mithyaa

Jeevo brahmai’va naa’parah

God is real, the world is unreal, and the Soul is no other than God.

Shankara was uncompromisingly emphatic in declaring the sole reality of the Impersonal Being called Brahman, and the mere illusion of the plurality of phenomenon apparent to us.  As said before, through a process of self-alienation, He, the Impersonal Brahman-God, draws out from Himself

  1. A personal God [called Eeshwara],
  2. the separate individual souls present in living bodies, and
  3. the varied manifestations of this phenomenal world.

All three mentioned above, Shankara says, are unreal.


The Traita [triadistic] philosophy of Rishi Dayananda can be summarized in the following Katha verse:

Ya esha supteshu jaagarti

Kaamam kaamam purusho nir-mi-maanah

Tad eva shukram tad brahma

Tad eva amritam uchyate

Tasmin lokaah shritaah sarve  

Tadu naatye’ti kash-chana – [2:2:8]

Pervading every atom, this God fashions objects in the universe to fulfill the desires of Souls. He remains awake while Souls are asleep. He shines in purity and is beyond all parameters. He alone is called the Immortal One, free from birth and death. In Him are contained all cosmic regions. No one can circumvent His laws. 

[This verse establishes a few important tenets relating to the Triad of God, Soul, and the World, as follows:

  1. God pervades every pore, fiber, atom, and molecule of the universe.  For this reason, He is called Purusha.  
  2. He creates the universe, filled with objects, primarily to fulfill the desires and needs of Souls.
  3. He is awake in his Super Omniscience, while Individual Souls sleep in the slumber of ignorance and sloth.
  4. He is ever pure and beyond all dimensions.  Nothing circumvents Him.  The Soul has dimensions and is circumvented by ignorance.
  5. Death cannot affect Him.  The Soul is caught in the wheel of birth and death.
  6. All planets, solar systems, and galaxies exist in Him.
  7. People may try, but they can never succeed in violating His laws.

This verse rejects Shankara’s notion that the universe is a dream-like illusion. The universe is a dynamic reality that exists in God – God pervades the universe, while Souls exist in the universe and  God.]