The Upanishads,

the Mystics of the Vedas


The history of Hinduism shows, there are several levels of thought and experience that gave rise in
time to several schools of philosophy. Hinduism, the oldest of the world religion, is founded on the
sacred scriptures, called Vedas. Hindu Scriptures are broadly classified into Sruti, Smriti, Itihaasa,
Puraana and Aagama. Vedas constitute Sruti (heard and transmitted). Scriptures, compiled by the
great sages, Yaajnavalkya, Manu and Paraas'ara are known as Smriti (remembered and collated).
Itihaasa (history) comprises of the two epics: Raamaayana and Mahaabhaarata written respectively
by Vaalmeeki and Vedavyaasa. Vedavyaasa also wrote the eighteen Puraanas and eighteen
Upa-puraanas. The purpose of each purana is to emphasize a specific "Hindu Value." Each purana is
a well written drama with a virtuous hero, an evil villain, other supporting characters on either side!
The hero is the favored deity, the Supreme Reality and all other deities are made subservient to the
one deity extolled in that puraana. The Aagamas constitute prayers and rituals and are more specific
to the construction of temples and worship of idols.

Rig, Saama, Yajur and Atharva Vedas are the primary source of Hinduism and they are treasured as
our most ancient heritage. Staunch hindus believe that Vedas are eternal and consequently never
created! The subject-matter of the vedas is classified into three categories: Karmaa, Upaasanaa, and
jnaana. Karmaa discusses obligations of each individual. Upaasanaa provides guidance for divine
communion and worship. Jnaana is the philosophical disquisition about Brahman, the supreme

The four important phases of Vedic revelation contain Mantras(Samhitas), Brahmanas, Aranyakas,
and the Upanishads. The Mantras or Samhitas are the Vedic hymns orally passed from generations
to generations. The Brahmanas are prose expositions of the hymns describing the rituals and
performance of yajnas and tapas. They discuss rituals and sacrifices, the hymns to be sung, and the
gods to be invoked. They also define the duties of the officiating priests. The Aranyakas and the
Upanishads articulate the mystical elements of the Mantras. Aranyaks and the Upanishads came into
existence as a result of an intellectual revolt against the ritualistic dominance.
The Upanishads (more than hundred), are parts of Vedas and are spread all over. It describes the
relationship between Atman, the human soul and Brahman, the universal soul. Of the eleven major
Upanishads, one is from Rigved (Aitareya), five are from Yajurved (Katha, Taitiriya and Shvetashvatar
from Krishna , Ishavasya and Brihadaranyak from Shukla), two from Samved (Ken and Chhandogya)
and three from Atharvaved (Prashna, Mundak and Mandukya). Some are from Aranyaks, some from
Brahmanas and one (Ishavasya) from Samhita. So chronologically they are not the last parts of
vedas. However, in terms of evolution of the thought process or flowering of thoughts they represent
the last phase of the Vedas. Because of this reason, the philosophy is known as the Vedanta.
Although the seed of Upanishadic thoughts is found in some early hymns of Rigved (Nasadiya Sukta
10-129), real metaphysical problems began to be discussed only in the Aranyak phase when the
quest for truth began in earnest. Since the Vedic literature was compiled by different sages over a
period spanning many centuries, it is not surprising that the flowering of thoughts occurred at
different times in different places. In the sense of ascendance of knowledge, therefore, the
Upanishads represent the culmination and, hence, the appelation Vedanta. In a literal sense the
Upanishads do not constitute the end of Vedas but within the process of the quest of truth they do
represent the pinnacle of the Vedic literature. The subsequent literary works consisting of purans
and the epics generally attempted to either summarize the ideas of Upanishads or expound on some
of them.

The Upanishads compare God to a spider that weaves its web out of its own body and lies at the
center of it. There is general agreement that the principle and source of the universe is Brahman. The
resolution of the relationship between Brahman and the universe is the central theme of Vedanta, and
the Upanishads. The relative standpoint is Saguna Brahman, the manifestation of Brahman by the
human soul, viewed through the human spectacles. Nirguna Brahman, is the absolute standpoint,
where Brahman is God as He views Himself independently. Sankara's Advaita Vedanta explains why
Brahman, individual soul (Atman), and the Universe is not different. Madhvacharya's Dvaita Vedanta
describes the conception of God with the basic assumption that Brahman, individual souls, and the
world are different. The Taittiriya Upanishad using the story of the enlightenment of Bhrigu, the son
of Varuna explains the ideas of creation and realization. The universe has five orders of beings:
material objects, living plants, conscious animals, intelligent human beings and God in bliss. The four
important ingredients to realize SELF, are Annam (food), Prana (air), Manas (consciousness), Vijnana
(knowledge). The goal of human life is ananda (bliss), the realization of SELF (Tat Tvam Asi). Human
being, in the scale of spiritual progression, has dual personality. They are partly animal and partly
god, moving in two worlds, the world of Nature and the world of Spirit. The Taitriya Upanishad
suggests the path of spiritual progression. The path has movements from food, life, mind,
knowledge, and ultimately to Brahman, the SELF. By eliminating all the limitations of the body, mind
and intellect, the SELF can be realized. The human being is potentially divine, and that can overcome
the world and break the bonds, and ultimately can realize the SELF. The Mundaka Upanishad states "
As the flowing rivers disappear in the sea, losing their name and form, so does a wise man freed from
name and form go into the Divine Spirit greater than the great." This experience has different names
at different times, as Prana, Jyotis, Akasa, Brahman, Atman, Ananda, or simply as Sah.

The Doctrine of Karma and Samsara In support of the realization of SELF, Upanishads outlines
several additional explanations. The universe has the natural tendency to guide the realization by the
human soul. The natural forces of the universe maintain the balance between the material objects,
living plants, conscious animals, and intelligent human beings. The transition from human
consciousness into divine (transcendental) consciousness is a long and laborious process.
Ordinarily, within the span of a single lifetime, it is not feasible to transit from human to divine. Life is a
continuous journey, carried over and continued through the succeeding lives till the attainment of
SELF realization. The Doctrine of Karma and Samsara rationalizes the role of the soul during the
transition between the lives. The law of Karma rationalizes the purpose of the movement. Rebirth is
dependent on moral behavior in a previous phase of existence and life on the universe is transient.
In the Upanishads, it is no longer a question of rewards and punishments meted out by an external
judge. The human beings become the architect of their own spiritual fortunes, no longer subject to
chance or the will of an hypothetical God. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad states that the actions of
the human beings decide the outcome. The doer of good becomes good, the doer of evil becomes
evil. One becomes virtuous by virtuous action and sinful by sinful action. As is his desire so is his
will, as his will so is the deed, he does, and whatever deed he does, that he will reap. Ultimately, being
Brahman, he goes to Brahman!

The Bhagavad Gita elaborates the doctrine of Karma-yoga, established in the Upanishads. The
Karma-yoga is the solvent of the Law of Karma. It is an effective spiritual discipline for persons who
seek knowledge of God or knowledge of SELF. According to this doctrine, all works done in a spirit
of renunciation and sacrifice with no desire for their fruit lead not to rebirth but to moksha or
Self-realization. In nature, the behavior of plants and trees is in the spirit of renunciation and sacrifice
with no desire. The path to moksha, is no desire! Desires are the root cause of deaths and births.
Work done without any desire for personal gain, becomes spiritual action. Action should be natural
and spontaneous, prompted by the circumstance. An excellent example of this spontaneity is the
blooming of the flowers during the morning sunlight (J. Krishnamoorthy's Video Discourse). It is not
the renunciation of the action itself, but renunciation of the gains from such action is important.
The Path to Self-realization - Sravana, Manana, and Nididhyasana: What are the guidelines to reach
the goal of life? What type of life one has to lead in order to realize God? The answers to these
questions are not directly addressed in the scriptures. It is impossible to outline the path of
Self-realization because such a possibility is a logical contradiction. Rightly, the acquisitions of
knowledge, the cultivation of virtues, the development of character and the discharging of the duties
of the citizen are the only true concerns of the scriptures. However, there are hints and suggestions
with regard to the essential pre-requisites of spiritual illumination. It is not the knowledge of
scriptures but the realization of the SELF that brings liberation to the spirit of the human being. The
Sanskrit sloka " Mantravideva asmi na atmavit." illustrates the true perspective in the quest for
knowledge. Infinite knowledge on Mantras does not lead one to Self-realization.

Vedanta, the philosophy of life derived from the scriptures, is an elaboration of the path to
Self-realization. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad discusses the essence of Vedanta in greater depth.
The discussion between Rishi Yajnavalkya and his wife, Maitreyi elaborates the essence of Vedanta.
The three recognized states to the path of Self-realization are: Sravana, Manana and Nididhyasana.
Sravana is the study of scriptures under a qualified Guru. Manana means constant reflection upon
what has been learnt so that intellectual conviction may be produced in the mind. Finally,
Nididhyasana implies meditation that helps to cause a direct realization of the unity of things in God.
Knowledge should lead to experience, intellectual conviction should result in perception. That is why
meditation comes in the last stage of the spiritual journey. Again the scriptures insist that successful
completion of the states are neither necessary nor sufficient for Self-realization.

Patanjali, the greatest authority on Yoga, discusses the different kinds of meditation techniques from
the scriptures. Yoga, the practice of meditation is deep thinking. Human beings meditate in their daily
work to get knowledge and power. The Yogi practices yogas with a specific goal in life. A genuine
yogi has no interest in the enjoyment of powers because they are barriers to Self-realization. The
scriptures discuss the true form of meditation, the path to Self-realization. The Upanishads outlines
the details of Upasanas, the preliminary steps of meditation. The Upasanas include the choice of
symbol or object to represent SELF, the mystic syllable AUM, and other key elements. Prana (breath),
Asana (posture), Pratyahara (training of mind for detachment), Dharna (concentration of mind to
specific part of body), and Dhyana (get the power to think) are the critical elements of the upasanas.
The last part of meditation is Samadhi, the total absorption. In this state of the mind, the yogi rejects
the external part, the object of meditation, and contemplates only its essence.

The word AUM is primordial and uncreated sound. The mystics absorbed in contemplation, when
their minds and senses are withdrawn from the world heard the sound AUM. AUM, often written OM
(to rhyme with home), is the most sacred word in the Gayatri mantra, which contains the essence of
Vedanta. This is an effective symbol of Brahman. The Upanishads describe AUM as the symbol of the
Atman, or individual soul, in its various aspects. The unique sound of A, U, and M represents the
Atman free from the experiences of the relative world, Turiya, the pure consciousness. Joseph
Campbell in his book "Power of Myth" confirms the eternal significance of AUM. The televised
version of "Power of Myth" was shown in Public Television and copies of the video version are
available in public libraries. Dr. Campbell affirms the fact that sound of AUM actually comes without
the movement of lips. No vocal sound is possible without moving lips and AUM is a known exception.
The sound of AUM is Divine: First, the sound of AUM is eternal. Second, the body, mind and intellect
stands still at the time of recitation of AUM. Finally, AUM is a symbolic representation of Brahman. For
advaitists, AUM represents "Self-Realization." For Dualists, AUM idealizes Lord Krishna (See
Bhagavad Gita: Chapter VII, Verse 8: "I am the symbol AUM in all vedas" and Chapter VIII, Verse 13:
"He who utters the word AUM, will leave the body and come to me").

States of Consciousness and Transcendental Consciousness: There are four states of
consciousness, waking, dream, dreamless sleep, and Turiya, (self-realization). The state of waking
consciousness contains the impressions derived directly from the objects presented to the senses.
The state of dream consciousness fills with impressions not directly from the objects but from the
images of objects stored in the memory. At the state of dreamless sleep, not only the senses and but
the mind is quiescent. Here there are no impressions and the mind is a temporary cessation of
normal consciousness. Finally, the fourth state of consciousness, Turiya, where the subject is
permanently free from the principle of objectivity. The person has the positive experience of Atman,
the liberated spirit and this experience is not within the experience of ordinary persons. This state
according to Mandukya Upanishad is neither cognitive nor non-cognitive, it cannot be seen, cannot
be described, and cannot be designated. This is the state of the realization of Atman, the knowledge
of oneness of the SELF, where the world ceases to exist!

All creatures seek happiness, and most of them seek the lowest quality and for the shortest duration.
True happiness consists in expanding our souls in every direction and reaching out in brotherly
union with other souls, to that universal spirit who is the perfection of knowledge, beauty and love.
This path to true happiness is Pravritti Marga. The acquisition of knowledge, the worship of beauty,
and the thrilling experience of love is only knowing the different phases of knowing the SELF. This is
Nivritti Marga, the path of concentration. The internal world and the external world needs equal
attention to reach the transcendental consciousness. The Bhagavad Gita says, " He who sees that
the way of renunciation and the way of works are one, he sees indeed."
Conclusion: Sharma, in his book, The Upanishads-An Anthology, states "It may be remarked that this
aspect of the Upanishadic teaching, bearing on what is now called Nature mysticism, as well many
other aspects, is either lost sight of or is reduced to a cold hardened doctrine in most of our later
scriptures, without the warm enthusiasm and the profound mystic insight of the original seers."
Parthasarathi, a well known scholar of Vedanta, in his book Vedanta Treatise, states " The goal of all
religions is one and the same. To unveil your real Self. To discover your true nature. To draw out the
divinity in you." The Upanishads and Gita contain the essence of vedanta and specifically the
thoughts on creation, the creator, and the salvation. The stories of Nachiketas in Katha, of Bhrigu in
Taittiriya, Janaka in Brihadaranyaka, and of Satyakama, Upakosal, Svetaketu and several others in
Chandogya are good illustrations of Vedanta. I do not pretend that I have possessed the necessary
skills to understand and unravel the profound facts. On the contrary, I am certain that I have exposed
my ignorance and please forgive my errors. My sincere thanks to all those who enlightened me with
their comments on earlier version posted in Alt.Hindu news.

Ideas are taken from the excellent book by Sharma D. S., The Upanishads - an anthology, published
by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. However, Ram Chandran is responsible for all the errors and omissions
Sharma, D. S. The Upanishads - an anthology, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1975.
A. Parthasarathy, Vedanta Treatise, Vedanta Life Institute, Bombay, 1984.
Swami Nikhilananda, Hinduism, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Madras, 1968.
McCormick, Alvena, The Mystery of Creation, Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Bombay, 1986