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India's Greatest Contribution to Human Thought - A Layman's View of the Upanishads



I recently asked someone who is well versed in the Bhagvad Gita if she had also read the Upanishads. She replied that she hadn’t and that in her opinion the Gita was sufficient. Although not said in so many words, her tone implied that with so much to choose from one just didn’t have enough time to go in different directions, particularly when the Gita has all the answers.

Considering that the Bhagvad Gita contains the essence or the Nichorr of Upanishadic thought, I thought the answer was a bit unusual especially since it came from someone who can recite verses from the Gita with the ease of a child reciting nursery rhymes. Upon reflection, however, it should have come as no surprise at all.
The Upanishads are universal in their scope. Though conceived centuries earlier, the Upanishadic thought confirms and supports the central tenet of every major religion in the world. It upholds the essential teachings of the Bible, the Koran, the Jewish Torah, the Buddhist Dhammapada and the Guru Granth Sahib. The Gita, on the other hand, is an adaptation of Upanishadic thought to suit the Hindu mind-set.

To quote late Krishna Chaitanya, regarded as the renaissance man of modern India, Maharishi Veda Vyasa has used an incredibly daring creative strategy in his Bhagvad Gita to give Shri Krishna, the historical person, a Divine form. A form which is familiar to most Hindus, a form which a majority of Hindus can relate to, a form which is deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of the Bhakti oriented Hindus who regard Lord Krishna as the 7th Avatar of Vishnu. With this strategy, Maharishi Veda Vyas brought the impersonal message of the equally impersonal Upanishadic seers, whose names are not known to us, to a personal level for the benefit of the Hindu devotee.


The Upanishads refer to certain universal qualifications or prerequisites for the attainment of Atman-Jnyana – direct perception of the Ultimate Reality. The requirement of being a Hindu is certainly not one of them. By cultivating and developing certain qualifications and assuming the right Sanskars exist, any person whether a Hindu, Moslem, a Christian or even a confirmed atheist has the means of being able to experience the Ultimate Reality. These prerequisites are:

VIVEKA, the ability to differentiate between real and the unreal, between the Self and the not-Self.

VAIRAGYA, absence of passion towards worldly joys and sorrows through constant practice of Nishkam-Karma or selfless action where the fruit of action is not the driving motive. 

                SHAT SMPATTI, the six spiritual values of Shama (peace of mind), Dama (restraint of senses), Titiksha (endurance),      Uparati (contentment), Shraddha (faith), and Samadhan (mental poise).

                 MUMUKSHUTWA, a burning desire to know.

In the Bhagvad Gita, on the other hand, which further develops the Upanishadic thought to its logical conclusion, Maharishi Veda Vyas expands on these themes and reconciles the three paths of Jnayna-Yoga, the path of knowledge; Karma-Yoga, the path of selfless action; and Bhakti-Yoga, the path of devotion, all of which when adopted equally assist one in the quest of the Upanishadic Truth.

The entire 12th chapter of the Bhagvad Gita is devoted to the question of which is the better of the three paths. Depending on the degree of the Mumukshutwa and the temperament or personality of the seeker one path might be preferred over another. Thus for an emotional person the path of Bhakti might be more appealing, whereas for the analytical minded, Jnyana-Yoga would be an obvious choice. The key is not to follow one path to the exclusion of the others but to adopt a mix of all three paths. As a well known saying goes, Jnayna without Bhakti is madness, Bhakti without Gyan is superstition. In Lord Krishna’s words, in reality Vyas’ message, the path of Bhakti is through unconditional surrender to Lord Krishna as the Supreme Godhead while the path of Gyan, the more difficult path, involves knowledge of one’s Atman or the inner self.

According to the Upanishadic thought the highest path is fixing the mind on the unmanifest, attribute less, Brahman. But if that is difficult in the initial stages, which indeed it is for the vast majority of us, then the mind can be trained by first concentrating on a personal god, be it Lord Krishna, Shiva, or Jesus of Nazareth. To attain the Upanishadic Truth, Krishna consciousness or Christ consciousness are equally valid as they are stepping stones in the same quest.

The Upanishads constitute the knowledge part of the four Vedas which were classified by Veda Vyas thousands of years ago into three broad categories. The first category is the Samhitas which are essentially hymns. The word Samhita means compilations. The second category is Brahmana Granthas which are meanings, interpretations, and rituals associated with those hymns. The last category is the Gyan-Kanda, the knowledge part, constituting the Aranykas which mean “of the forest”. All but one of the 108 known Upanishads are appended to the Aranykas. The exception being Ishavasyo Upanishad which is the 40th chapter of the Yajur Veda.

The word Upanishad literally means come sit beside me for they are essentially dialogues in the form of questions and answers between a realized soul and his or her shishya. They are profoundly philosophical and deeply religious even though the word God does not appear even once in the Upanishads.


The Upanishadic thought is considered by many to be one of the most original thoughts in the history of human thought. Taken in its entirety it bears a startling resemblance to today’s understanding of the cosmos, particle physics, Quantum Mechanics, the Field Theory, and the Theory of Evolution.


The universe of the Upanishads and the Quantum physicist is insubstantial. It has relative existence. Particle A changes to particle B. There is a continuous cosmic dance at the sub-atomic level. Even the gross human body completely replaces -itself every seven years. Matter is simply a packet of energy, each transferable to the other without any gain or loss. In a dazzling verification of the Field Theory which states that wherever the field is unusually intense it gives rise to particle-matter, scientists have been able to record the sudden appearance of sub-atomic particles in total vacuum, instantly transforming themselves into other particles and disappearing just as quickly leaving no trace behind whatsoever. What we consider as total vacuum is actually a reservoir full of energy.

Ordinary matter is nothing but a bunch of atoms each consisting of a minuscule nucleus surrounded by electrons with vast empty space in between. It is the state of vibration of the electrons which determines whether matter is gaseous, liquid, or solid. When the electrons are spinning at higher levels of energy we see the water molecules as vapor or clouds. At somewhat lower energy levels we see them as plain water which we can hold in our hands and wade our fingers through. At still lower energy level we have solid ice through which even a bullet cannot go through.

Present day scientists refer to the ultimate reality as the single unified field which existed at one trillion, trillion, trillionth of a second after the Big Bang when all four fundamental forces of nature; the electromagnetic force, the strong and the weak forces and the force of gravity were unified in what is called a Singularity. The Upanishadic Rishis called it Brahman.

There is a hymn to creation in the 10th mandala of the Rig Veda. In the words of Jean Le Mee very few hymns equal in majesty the creation hymn known to tradition as the Nasadiya Sukta. In summary, it says; There was neither being nor non-being as yet. There was neither death nor immortality then. Neither night, nor day. No water, fire, akash (space), or even time. Darkness was concealed within darkness. Who truly knows when or why it all came to be. Surely the gods would not know for they were the later creations of man’s imagination. Perhaps the one in the highest heaven knows when or why it all came to be or perhaps even he does not know. This last sentence — perhaps even he does not know — sets the tone of enquiry. It was this and similar other elements of doubt which set the Upanishadic Rishis in their search for the ultimate truth.

the body and the mind. They practiced Kaya-Sthariyam (stillness of the body), Pratyahar (sense withdrawal), Dharana (concentration) and Dyane (meditation) eventually reaching the stage of Samadhi.

As a result of their deep meditation, what they discovered astonished them and no doubt thrilled them as reflected in their collective Upanishadic thought. Deep in meditation the truth gradually came to them — not by way of dictation from a mountain top but by direct perception which is why this part of the Vedas is called Sruti meaning revealed wisdom.


What they uncovered, not discovered, was this:


1.         There is no reality other than an ultimate reality which they chose to call Brahman whose power is manifest every where and in everything. All else is relative existence, illusory, temporary, transient, finite.


2.         Our very inner self is a particular aspect of this Brahman. The Rishis called it Atman. There is no comparable word in English, or for that matter in any other language, to describe this Atman. It is similar in meaning to the word self, soul, consciousness, spirit. All of these. None of these.


3.         Of the 8.4 million species on earth, only the humans are sufficiently evolved to both achieve an academic understanding of Atman and the means of being able to realize the oneness of Atman and Brahman or Param-atman.


Whereas points 1 and 3 can be accepted without much argument, it is the 2nd point which creates the most difficulty for ordinary souls like me. Not just in terms of the actual realization of the oneness of the Atman and Param-atman but even to have an academic understanding of the concept.

In describing Atman, the difficulty lies not with what is being explained but in the insufficiency of the “language of perception”. How can anyone truly understand Atman through ordinary sense perceptions of touch, smell, sight, sound, comprehension, or visualization when it is the very Atman itself which makes the mind and the sense organs function in the first place.

Carl Sagan, a renowned cosmologist, has an apt analogy to illustrate the difficulty in understanding concepts which are beyond the realm of ordinary sense perception. Imagine if you will a world with only two dimensions. Just length and breadth. No height. The creatures of this imaginary world go about their daily business but have no concept whatsoever of height. Everything is flat. Their cars, houses, factories, even their bodies are flat. Now let us imagine we drop an apple on one of the streets of these hypothetical two dimension creatures. They will be bewildered. They will certainly notice something making a contact with of contact is difficult to move or is leaving a large shadow. Now imagine the difficulty their scientists or even a few of their Rishis with revealed wisdom will face in trying to find the right language or expressions in explaining to the average two dimension creature that the obstruction on the road is being caused by an alien object which has something called height.

We know from Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity that we ourselves live in a four dimension world where time is the fourth dimension. Scientists have long since confirmed that atomic clocks do slow down when they are in motion at high speed. But try explaining in simple and easy-to-understand language the paradox of one of the twins returning from high speed interstellar space travel to find that his twin brother who stayed behind is now 30 years older than him!


The author of the Kena Upanishad says: Brahman is unknowable in the ordinary sense of the word “to know”. If you think you know well the truth about Brahman, know that you know very little. It is not known to him who thinks he knows it. He who thinks he does not know it, knows it. It is understood by those who do not understand it. It is not understood by those who understand it.

Expressing the futility of the human mind to fully understand the concept of Atman, the composer of the Brihadaranyka Upanishad says repeatedly; neti, neti, neti; it is not this, it is not this.

The Rishi who composed the Taittriya Upanishad makes an attempt in explaining it indirectly as follows: There are five sheaths or koshas which make up a human being. Each sheath enveloping the other. First there is the Anna-Maya kosha, the food sheath. The grossest of all. From the moment of our birth our gross physical body is nothing but the result of our intake of food. Next there is the Prana-Maya kosha, the life principle we breathe. Then there is the Mano-Maya kosha, the mental sheath by which we experience heat and cold, colors, smells, pain and pleasure etc. In evolutionary terms, when life first started on our little planet, anaerobic microbes existed at the bottom of the oceans by taking food as energy from the sun. Then evolved the aerobic bacteria, which not only took food as energy but also breathed. This was followed by plant and animal life which have the additional mental faculty, albeit of varying capability. Humans, being more evolved, also have Vigyan-Maya kosha, the buddhi or the intellect sheath. It is the intellect which gives us the power of visualization, the ability to discriminate between the real and the unreal. Each sheath is subtler than the previous one. Each more difficult to perceive by the sense organs. The last and the innermost sheath is Anand-Maya kosha, the Bliss sheath. That is where the Atman has its roots. This last sheath is also represented by the symbol Om in Upanishadic thought and is none other than the symbol for Brahman itself.

The Mandukya Upanishad explains it in yet another way: There are four states we all go through each when our subconscious plays back, as it were, experiences of either earlier that day or as far back as in our childhood, and  the state of’ Susupti, or deep sleep, which comes after the Rapid Eye Movement ceases. When all our gross: ‘faculties of sense perception’ are relatively calm and at rest. In this state of deep sleep, without realizing it, we, the gross body, are closest to Atman our true and real self. In this state of bliss, lasting no more than ‘8 to 10 minutes for an average, adult during each ;sleep cycle, we feel no pain or sorrow: During this state of-deep sleep,: the expression on the face of. a saint or a sinner, a sick or a healthy person, is the same. For each is relatively in tune with his, or her Atman which is one ‘and the same for all living beings There is one more state beyond that called Turiya or the state of Samadhi, when the fortunate few amongst us are at last able to perceive, first hand, the oneness of the Atman and Param-atman.

The guest for Atman-Gyan is like a razor’s edge. Only a precious few souls have actually achieved it.  In addition to the Upanishadic Rishis, Jesus of Nazareth was certainly a realized soul. So were Moses, Prophet Mohammed, Shakya Muni later called the Buddha and no doubt scores of’ other saints and prophets. Gandhiji certainly had the. prerequisites for attaining Atman-Gyan so did Swami Vivekananda and Maharishi Dayanand Sarasvati. So does Mother Teresa and many other lesser known souls like her in different parts of the world who are close to realizing their divine potential but choose instead to serve humanity through selfless action.

An obvious question is why o through with this exercise at all. When the path requires qualifications which need a life time of effort to master and when at the end of it all only a handful of humans can achieve Atman-Gyan ‘in ‘any case. Why go ‘through with the bother? The point is that the very exercise to understand the Upanishadic thought will hopefully make us realize the unity of ALL religious thought. One Allah. The Kingdom of God is within our heart. The insignificance of the individual Jivatman in the cosmic context. We have every reason to be proud. Not because of our individual or even collective achievements, but because we took birth as human beings. As the existentialists say, and as the Upanishadic Rishis said it before even writing was invented, it is Only human beings who have choices not ordinarily available to anyone or to anything else. Hopefully, the Upanishadic thought will inspire us to be like a good surgeon’ performing a delicate operation; to excel in whatever it is that we do, but not to let the results of our actions elate us or depress us.

To quote the Gita Saar Whatever is happening is good, whatever happened is good, and whatever is yet to happen will also be good.

Chander Khanna