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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Upaniṣads

The Sanskrit name, often written “Upanishads,” for a collection of texts appended to the Vedas, perhaps dating from 1500 BCE into the Common Era, although the twelve (or fourteen) oldest are considered “principal” and clearly pre-date Buddhism. The term comes from the fact that these were once secret wisdom (gupta vidya or guha vidya) and, as their name indicates, were taught by a teacher (guru) to pupils who would sit (sad) down (upa-) near (ni-) him to receive the instruction. They also imply the traditional four stages (asramas) of life, the third being retirement into a forest, since one of the oldest of the Upaniads is titled “the great forest” (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad). It is thought, also, that the term upaniad can be interpreted to mean “placed side by side,” implying that the teachings had a metaphorical, not a literal, significance.

Helena P. Blavatsky says, “The Upanishads are to the Vedas what the Kabala is to the Jewish Bible. They treat of and expound the secret and mystic meaning of the Vedic texts. They speak of the origin of the Universe, the nature of Deity, and of Spirit and Soul, as also of the metaphysical connection of mind and matter” (SD I:270). She also claims that they contain an esoteric teaching and that “half of their contents have been eliminated, while some of them were rewritten and abridged” (idem).

The Upaniads teach by means of metaphysical insights, exhortations, stories, and myths. Their language is sometimes poetic, but mostly philosophic and not always easy to understand. Their basic motif is the quest for realization of ultimate Reality, identified as Brahman (from the Sanskrit root brh, meaning “increase,” “expand,” “grow strong,” etc.), which is said to be identical with one’s deepest Self (Atman). And this realization cannot be attained through mere philosophic speculation, using only the rational mind, but only through direct experience. As such, techniques of meditation are suggested, including meditating on the Self seated in one’s heart. They do not claim realization to be easy to accomplish; indeed the Katha (lit. “conversation”) Upanisad (1.3.14), says that the Path to enlightenment is “narrow and difficult” and “as sharp as the edge of a razor.”

Where the Vedic hymns and their adjuncts, the Brahmanas, extol sacrificial rituals as a means to attain a goal (usually identified as wealth or heaven, svarga), the Upanisads state that knowledge is superior to such rites, and leads to release from the round of rebirths. But knowledge itself is said to be of two kinds, the higher and the lower (Mundaka Upanisad 1.1.4). The latter relates to liturgics, phonetics, grammar, etymology, metrics, astronomy, etc.; the former is that by which the Indestructable is realized (loc. cit. 2.1.5) — and is the goal of the Upaniadic teaching (cf. Ch. Upaniad. 7.1.2ff). The approach to this ultimate Reality, Brahman, is described in both negative and positive terms to imply that this Reality pervades everything that exists, yet cannot itself be confined or limited by such things. The former approach is summed up in the famous phrase of the Brhadaranyaka Upaniad (4.5.15), “neti, neti” usually translated “not this, not that” (na + iti, i.e., “not this” repeated). In other words, anything that one can point to or define or delimit is not the ultimate Reality. The latter approach is suggested by such passages as, “Just as innumerable sparks fly forth from a blazing fire, so are various things brought forth from the Imperishable, my friend, and to it also return” (Mundaka Upanisad 2.1.1; cf. Br. Upanisad 1.4.10,2.5.1-14, etc). But since this Reality pervades everything, it also exists in our real Self, in fact is identical to that Self, as the phrase from the Chandogya Upanisad (4.8.6, 4.9.4, etc.) puts it, “tat tvam asi” (“That [i.e., Brahman] art thou [i.e., atman]”).

Since the ultimate Reality is the very core of our being, a direct realization of it is possible. In fact, this Hindu formula (“That thou art”), according to a theosophical understanding, also throws light on Jesus’ statement “I and my Father are one” (John 10.30), since the Christ Nature in us (cf. St. Paul’s statement in Colossians 1.27, “Christ in you the hope of glory”; cf. I Cor. 3.16,23) is one with the Godhead. Where Greek philosophers like Plato or German philosophers like Kant and Schopenhauer arrived at this conclusion by reasoning, the Indian sages reached it through direct experience, as did some of the Christian mystics, S™fi mystics, Hindus and Muslims during the medieval bhakti movement in India, and Taoist sages.

The Secret Doctrine of H. P. Blavatsky terms this underlying Reality “Be-ness,” since “Being” suggest a kind of movement, therefore limitation. Nor is this “Be-ness” a bare abstraction, but is the very basis of our consciousness (Sk. cit). Also it has the nature of utter bliss (Sk. ananda). Hence the Taittiriya Upanisad (2.1) identifies the basic nature of Brahman as reality (satya), knowledge (jñana), and infinity (ananta), later termed in Vedanta philosophy saccidananda, i.e., sat (be-ness) + cit (consciousness) + ananda (bliss). This transcendent Reality, is described as follows in The Secret Doctrine:

The ever-unknowable and incognizable Karana alone, the Causeless Cause of all causes, should have its shrine and altar on the holy and ever untrodden ground of our heart — invisible, intangible, unmentioned, save through the “still small voice” of our spiritual consciousness. (SD I:280)

PR.W.B.

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