Click here to load whole tree
NITAAI-Veda.nyf > All Scriptures By Acharyas > Upanishads > Essentials of the Upanishad > Introduction


The Upanishads have been perennial sources of spiritual knowledge. The word upanishhad means secret and sacred knowledge. This word occurs in the Upanishads themselves in more than a dozen places in this sense. The word also means "Texts incorporating such knowledge." There are ten principal Upanishads. Other than these, a few more like Shvetaashwatara and KaushiTaki are also considered important. Though it is known that even before Shri Shankara, commentaries were written on the Upanishads, these have been lost. Shri Shankara's commentaries on the principal Upanishads are the earliest available. Shri Ramanuja has not written any commentaries on them, but a later disciple Shri Rangaramanuja has written them. Shri Madhvacharya has written commentaries (bhaashya-s) on the ten principal Upanishads. Interpretation of passages from these and other Upanishads is also discussed by him in his Suutra-Bhaashya, which is mainly about the interpretation of Shruti texts and also in his other major works like Anu-vyaakhyaana, Vishnu-tatva-vinirNaya, and Tattvodyota.


Place of Upanishads in Vedanta

Modern thinkers generally hold that the earliest literature of India is the Vedas, of which Rg Veda was the first to be composed. These were hymns in praise of nature gods, which emphasised ritualism and had little philosophic content. Some have even attempted statistical analysis of the number of times individual god names were taken up for praise and concluded that Vishnu , later extolled as the Supreme God, has fewer hymns than the more common Indra, Agni and Varuna. Subsequent compositions called braahmaNa-s and araNyaka-s both in verse and prose contain attempts in explaining philosophical and cosmological questions. Upanishads were composed next in order and contain the highest flights of philosophical speculation in Vedantic thought. While perhaps it is comforting to reduce the entire source material of Vedanta philosophy into a well ordered scheme which the modern mind can easily understand, there are serious discrepancies in this theory. Vedantins who profess the Vedic streams of all hues have traditionally believed that the Vedas and Vedanta literature is apaurushheya, not composed by anyone (including God) and hence beginningless and eternal. Even the name used for the Vedas for thousands of years of human memory -- Shruti indicates this fact, which is also justified by rigorous logic. Far from being a collection of disjointed hymns, which the Vedas are made out to be by people ignorant of them, there is in them a thread of unity of thought, in describing a Supreme Being, who is different and who is the inner controller of all other beings , including the so called nature gods. The artificial division of the mass of Vedic literature into karma kaaNDa (dealing with rituals) and j~nAna kANDa dealing with Philosophy is untenable, in the context of the three fold interpretation of the Vedas, explained for the first time by Shri Madhva, in his Rgbhashya.

According to Madhva, the Brahma Suutra's OM gatisAmAnyAt.h OM clearly indicates the decided position of its author, Veda Vyaasa, that all the Vedas, believed to be infinite in extent, have eka-vaakyata unity in stating the conclusion. Be as that as may, the ten principal Upanishads contain the essence of the philsophical teaching of the entire Vedic religion. The Brahma Suutra, composed by Veda Vyaasa, accepted as the authority for the correct interpretation of the Vedas refers to a number of well known Upanishadic texts and gives clues regarding their correct and consistent interpretation. All the different founders of Vedanta schools have started from the basic position of the infallibility of the Vedas, Upanishads and the Brahma Suutra and have tried to justify the claims that their own conclusions are in accordance with them.


Central Theme of the Upanishads

Shri Shankaracharya and some of his modern followers take Monism or Atmaikya, and Absolutism or nirguNa-brahmavaada to be the central theme of Upanishads. Consequently, Idealism or the world being merely a projection, which is unreal, is also taken to be a tenet of the Upanishads. Thus upaasanaa (worship) and bhakti (devotion) are relegated to a secondary position, being needed only up to a point in the spiritual evolution of the soul. Liberation, the final goal of spiritual development becomes less attractive, as the seeker loses his own identity in his merger with the Absolute. The entire process of Creation delineated with such great care in the Upanishads is reduced to a mere illusion. Texts describing Brahman, the Supreme Being, as sarvaj~na (all knowing), sarva-shaktimaan (All Powerful) are also relegated to be descriptions of Ishwara or the Saguna Brahman, who is also a product of the universal Avidya, while Brahman is actually nirguNa or without any attributes in absolute reality. Some of the richest material in the Upanishads delineating the glory of God, the process of creation, prescribing different methods of upaasanaa, Eschatology, recommending meditation, devotion etc. have to be relegated to a secondary position, as they are essentially dealing with the machinations of the unreal Avidya, which vanishes into "nothing," when the soul is liberated and discovers its identity with the formless and attributeless Brahman. In other words, much of Upanishadic texts are worthless and untrue in the domain of the final reality. On the other hand, a few passages are elevated to decisive importance, as they can be interpreted, in a limited sense, to convey Monism. Anyone who has an acquaintance with the deep and mystical atmosphere conjured up by the Upanishads can not accept this position. The central theme of the Upanishads is not Monism but Monotheism, the concept of an all pervasive, immanent supreme being. He is not nirguNa (attributeless), but is guNaparipuurNa -- full of all possible auspicious qualities. The very word brahma indicates this basic delineation of the Supreme Lord. Such a theme brings all the rest of the passages in the Upanishads into proper focus and makes them fully meaningful and essential for the aspirant. All of them will contribute in one way or the other to the development of this central theme and none of them will look secondary or suprefluous. In the larger context of the Vedanta, as a whole, the Vedas, Brahmana-s, Aranyakas, Upanishads and the great Epics which include the other Prasthaana texts -- Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Suutra are woven into a glorious tapestry of the indescribable but realizable, fathomless but understandable glory of the Supreme Person, who has been extolled by great devotees in all Bhakti compositions. The artificial concept of two Brahmans, Saguna and Nirguna simultaneously existing, though totally different in essence, created by Monism to explain away the wealth of texts describing the glory of the Lord is done away with, with a simple explanation of nirguNa being One who completely transcends the three guNa-s -- sattva, rajas and tamas constituting prak.rti, which is responsible for the world as we know it.


Canons of Interpretation

It is not very difficult to decide between guNaparipuurNa and nirguNa Brahman being accepted as the purport of the Upanishads. There are well-known canons of interpretations, priority and preference laid down for the purpose, which are accepted as valid by all schools. These are:

1.       upakrama, upasamhaara, etc. -- 6 determinatives of purport.

2.       Shruti, Linga, etc. -- 6 aids for fixing the meanings.

3.       saavakaasha and niravakaasha position of Shruti-s.

4.       upajiivya and upajiivaka position of pramaaNa-s, to accord preference.

However, the Niravakaashatva and Upajiivyatva criteria are not strictly followed in the Advaita tradition, leading to undue priority being accorded therein to Monistic-looking texts or passages, and the relegating of others to secondary positions. This has led to another criteria being evolved by the Advaita school, viz., tatvaavedaka and atatvaavedaka. These are defined as passages which expound the final truth or a tentative position, which is shown to be incorrect after due examination. Such a basis would have to be primarily arbitrary, as it seperates the innately valid Shruti-s into two groups depending on whether they appear to support Advaita or otherwise. There is nothing available in the Shruti-s themselves to determine this, and to decide on the classification on the basis of the purport of the Shrutis, which is yet to be determined is admittedly invalid. Another basis relied upon by Advaita, to relegate a group of Shruti-s to a secondary position is that they are anuvaadaka. Any Shruti text which appears to speak of something that can be known from some other valid means such as pratyaksha (direct cognition) is given this handicap and considered as inferior in value to one, which can be known only by Shruti pramANa. In fact, this is the exact opposite of even the modern concept of evidence, which considers corroboration as a factor which strengthens the evidentiary value, particularly when each source has independently concluded the same. In view of these adverse features, these criteria peculiar to Advaita are not accepted by other commentators.

Shri Madhva has shown in his compositions, especially in his Brahma Suutra Bhaashya, Anu-vyaakhyaana and other Suutra-prasthaana compositions that application of these principals de novo, without any bias, to the Upanishads yields only a guNaparipUrNa Brahman and not the attributeless nirguNa Brahman of Advaita.