18 Upanisadas Overview

Overview of 18 Upanisads

(From S. Radhakrishnan – The Principal Upanisads) 

Aitareya Upanisad

The Aitareya Upanisad belongs to the Rig Veda and the Upanisad proper consists of three chapters. This is part of the part of the Aitareya Aranyaka, and the Upanisad begins with the Fourth chapter of the second Aranyaka, and comprises Chapter IV, V and VI. The preceding parts deal with sacrificial ceremonies like mahavrata and their interpretations. It is the purpose of this Upanisad to lead the mind of the sacrificer away from the outer ceremonial to its inner meaning. All true sacrifice is inward. 

Sankara points out that there are three classes of men

who wish to acquire wisdom. The highest consists of those who have turned away

from the world, whose minds are free and collected, who are eager for freedom.

For these the Upanisad (Aitareya Aranyaka II. 4-6) is intended. There are

others who wish to become free gradually by attaining to the world of

Hiranya-garbha. For them the knowledge and worship of the prana, life-breath is

intended. (Aitareya Aranyaka II 1-3). There are still others who care only for worldly

possessions. For them the meditative worship of Samhita is intended. (Aitareya

Aranyaka III.) 

Brhad-Aranyaka Upanisad

The Brhad-Aranyaka Upanisad which is generally recognized to be the most important of the Upanisads forms part of the Satapatha Brahmana. It consists of three Khandas or sections, the Madhu Khanda which expounds the teachings of the basic identity of the individual and the Universal Self, the Yajnavalkya or the Muni Kanda which provides the philosophical justification of the teaching of Khila Kanda, which deals with certain modes of worship and meditation, upasana, answering roughly to the three stages of religious life, sravana, hearing the upadesa or the teaching, manana, logical reflection, upapatti and nisidhyasana or contemplative meditation. Of the two recensions of the Satapatha Brahmana, the Kanva and Madhyandina, Sankara follows the former. 

Chandogya Upanisad

The Chandogya Upanisad belongs to the Sama Veda. Chandoga is the singer of the Saman (1). It is part of the Chandogya Brahmana which has ten chapters. The first two chapters of the Brahmana deal with sacrifices and other forms of worships. The other eight constitutes the Chandogya Upanisad. 

The first and the second chapter discuss the problems of liturgy and doctrine such as the genesis and significance of Aum and the meaning and names of Saman. Chando sama gayati iti chandogah. 

Isa Upanisad

The Isa, also called the Isavasya Upanisad, derives its name from the opening word of the text Isavasya or Isa. It belongs to the Vajasaneyi school of the Yajur Veda. The Vajasaneyi Samhita consists of forty chapters of which this Upanisad is the last. Its main purpose is to teach the essential unity of God and the world, being and becoming. It is interested not so much in the Absolute in itself, Parabrahman, as in the Absolute in relation to the world, Paramesvara. It teaches that life in the world and life in the Divine Spirit are not incompatible. 

Jabala Upanisad

The Jabala Upanisad belongs to the Atharva Veda and discusses a few important questions regarding renunciation. 

Kaivalya Upanisad

The Kaivalya Upanisad belongs to the Atharva Veda and is called Kaivalya Upanisad as its study and practice lead to the state of Kaivalya or aloneness. 

Katha Upanisad

Katha Upanisad, also called Kathakopanishad which belongs to the Taittiriya school of the Yajur Veda, uses the setting of a story found in ancient Sanskrit literature (1). A poor and pious Brahmana, Vajasravasa, performs a sacrifice and gives as presents the priests a few old and feeble cows. His son, Naciketas, feeling disturbed by the unreality of his father’s observance of the sacrifice, proposes that he himself may be offered as offering (daksina) to a priest. When he persisted in his request, his father in rage said, ‘Unto Yama, I give thee.’


Naciketas goes to the abode of Yama and finding him

absent, waits there for three days and nights unfed. Yama on his return, offers

three gifts in recompense for the delay and discomfort caused to Naciketas. For

the first, Naciketas asked, ‘Let me return alive to my father.’ For the second,

‘Tell me how my good works (ista-purta) may not be exhausted’; and for the

third, ‘Tell me the way to conquer re-death (punar mrtyu).’ In the Upanisad, the third request is one for enlightenment on the ‘great transition’ which is called death. The Upanisad consists of two chapters, each of which has three Vallis or sections.

 There are some passages common to the Gita and Katha


(1) Taittiriya Brahmana III. I. 8; see also Mahabharata Anusasana Parva: 106. The first mention of the story is in the Rig Veda (X. 135) where we read how the boy Naciketas was sent by his father to Yama (Death), but was allowed to get back on account of his great faith, sraddha.

 Kausitaki-Brahmana Upanisad

Kausitaki-Brahmana Upanisad, also called Kausitaki Upanisad (1) does not form a part of the Kausitaki Brahmana of thirty chapters which has come down to us and the name can be accounted for by treating the Aranyaka of which it forms a part as itself included in the Brahmana literature of the Rig Veda. (2) Sankara refers to it in several places in his commentary on the Brahma Sutra and Sankarananda has commented on it. There are various recensions of the text. The Upanisad has four chapters. 

Sankarananda explains the name thus: ku kutsitam nindyam heyam ity arthah, sitalam samsarikam sukham yasya sa kusitah eva kusitakah tasyapatyam kausitakih. II. I. 

Brahmanas also deal with Vedanta and so sometimes include the Upanisads: brahmanam api trividham, vidhi-rupam, arthavada-rupam, tad-ubhaya-vilaksanam ca, vidhy-arthavdobhaya-vilaksanam tu vedanta-vakyam. Madhusudana: Prasthana-bheda.


Kena Upanisad

The Kena Upanisad derives its name from the first word Kena, by whom, and belongs to the Sama Veda. It is also known as the Talavakara, the name of the Brahmana of the Sama Veda to which the Upanisad belongs. 

It has four sections, the first two in verse and the

other two in prose. The metrical portion deals with the Supreme Unqualified

Brahman, the absolute principle underlying the world of phenomenon and the

prose part of the Upanisad deals with the Supreme as God, Isvara. The knowledge

of the Absolute, para vidya, which secures immediate liberation (sadyo-mukti)

is possible only for those who are able to withdraw their thoughts from worldly

objects and concentrate on the ultimate fact of the universe. The knowledge of

Isvara, apara vidya, puts one on the pathway that leads to deliverance

eventually (karma-mukti). The worshiping soul gradually acquires the higher

wisdom which results in the consciousness of the identity with the Supreme. 

Maitri Upanisad

The Maitri or Maitrayaniya Upanisad, belongs to the Maitrayaniya shakha or branch of the Black Yajur Veda. (1) Maitri is the principal teacher and Maitrayana is the name of the shakha to which the Upanisad belongs. It contains seven chapters of which the last two are comparatively modern. The whole Upanisad is later in date than the classical Upanisads which it quotes frequently. (2) 

We have a reference to the trimurti conception Brahma,

Vishnu and Siva in IV. 5, which also indicates the late date of the Upanisad.

The three forms are traced to the three gunas, rajas, sattva and tamas in V. 2.

Suggestions of the illusory character of the world, momentousness of phenomenon

show the influence of Buddhist thought. Ramatirtha’s commentary on the Upanisad

is of much interest. In some texts it is assigned to the Sama Veda. 

From the grammatical peculiarities found in this Upanisad Max Muller ascribes the Upanisad ‘to an early rather than late period.’ Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XV (1900), p.6 

Mandukya Upanisad

The Mandukya Upanisad belongs to the Atharva Veda and contains twelve verses. It is an exposition of the principle of aum as consisting of three elements, a, u, m, which refer to the three states of walking, dream and dreamless sleep. The Supreme Self is manifested in the universe in its gross, subtle and causal aspects. Answering to the four states of consciousness, wakefulness, dream, dreamless sleep, transcendental consciousness (1) these are aspects of the Godhead, the last alone being all-inclusive and ultimately real. The Absolute of mystic consciousness is the reality of the God of religion. The Upanisad by itself, it is said, is enough to lead one to liberation. (2) Gaudapada, Sankara’s teacher’s teacher wrote his famous Karika on the Upanisad, which is the first systematic exposition of Advaita Vedanta which has come down to us. Sankara has commented on both the Upanisad and the Karika. 

See Nrsimha-purva-tapaniya Upanisad U. IV. I.

Mandukyam ekam evalam mumuksunam vimuktaye, Muktika Upanisad I. 27. 

Mundaka Upanisad

The Mundaka Upanisad belongs to the Atharva Veda and has three chapters, each of which has two sections. The name is derived from the root mund, ‘to shave,’ as he that comprehends the teaching of the Upanisad is shaved or liberated from error and ignorance. The Upanisad states clearly the distinction between the higher knowledge of the Supreme Brahman and the lower knowledge of the empirical world. It is by this higher wisdom and not by sacrifices or worship that one can reach Brahman. Only sannyasin who has given up everything can obtain the highest knowledge. 

Paingala Upanisad

Paingala Upanisad belongs to the Sukla Yajur Veda and is in the form of a dialog between Yajnavalkya and his pupil Paingala. Some of the important questions such as meditation on the Supreme, the nature of release, are discussed in this. 

Prasna Upanisad

The Prasna Upanisad belongs to the Atharva Veda and has six sections dealing with six questions put to a sage by his disciples who were intent on knowing the nature of the ultimate cause, the power of aum, the relation of the Supreme to the constituents of the world. The Upanisad is so called as it deals with prasna or question. 

Subala Upanisad

The Subala Upanisad belongs to the Sukla Yajur Veda and is in the form of a dialog between the sage Subala and Brahma, the creator God. It discusses the nature of the universe and the character of the Absolute. 

Svetasvatara Upanisad

The Svetasvatara Upanisad belongs to the Taittiriya School of the Yajur Veda. Its name is derived from the sage who taught it. 

(1) It is theistic in character and identifies the Supreme Brahman with Rudra who is conceived as the material and the efficient cause of the world, not only the author of the world but its protector and guide. The elements associated with theism, Personal God and devotion to Him, which are to be met with undoubtedly in the other Upanisads, become prominent in the Svetasvatara Upanisad. 

The emphasis is not on Brahman the Absolute, whose complete perfection does not admit of any change or evolution but on the personal Isvara, omniscient and omnipotent who is the manifested Brahma. 

Terms which were used by the later Samkhya philosophy occur in the Upanisad, but the dualism of the Samkhya, purusa and prakrti, is overcome. Nature, or pradhana, is not an independent entity but belongs to the self of the divine, devatma-sakti. God is the mayin, the maker of the world which is maya or made by him. 

(2) The Upanisad teaches the unity of the souls and world in the one Supreme Reality. The Upanisad is an attempt to reconcile the different philosophical and religious views, which prevailed at the time of its composition. 

sveta – pure, asva – indriyas (senses). Sankarananda: literally, he who has a white (?). Cf. Jarad-gavah, he who has an old cow. 

Mayi srjate sarvam etat. 

Taittiriya Upanisad

The Taittiriya Upanisad belongs to the Taittiriya school of the Yajur Veda. It is divided into three sections called Vallis. The first is the Siksa Valli. Siksa is the first of the six Vedangas (limbs or auxiliaries of the Veda); it is the science of phonetics and pronunciation. The second is the Brahmananda Valli and the third is the Bhrgu Valli. These two deal with the knowledge of the Supreme Self, paramatma-jnana. 

Vajrasucika Upanisad

The Vajrasucika Upanisad belongs to the Sama Veda and describes the true character of a Brahmana and incidentally offers comments on the nature of the Supreme Reality. The Upanisad is valuable in that it undermines caste distinctions based on birth.

(c) 2001 Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, authors and Jan Mares

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