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The Upanishads are the concluding portions of the Vedas or the end of the Vedas. The teaching based on them is called Vedanta.  The Upanishads are the gist and the goal of the Vedas. They form the very foundation of Hinduism.

There are as many Upanishads to each Veda as there are Sakhas, branches or recensions, i.e., 21, 109, 1000 and 50 respectively to the four Vedas (The Rig-Veda, The Yajur-Veda, The Sama-Veda and the Atharva-Veda).

The different philosophers of India belonging to different schools such as Monism, Qualified Monism, Dualism, Pure Monism, Difference-cum non-difference, etc., have acknowledged the supreme authority of the Upanishads.

They have given their own interpretations, but they have obeyed the authority. They have built their philosophy on the foundation of the Upanishads.

Even the Western scholars have paid their tribute to the seers of the Upanishads. At a time when Westerners were clad in barks and were sunk in deep ignorance, the Upanishadic seers were enjoying the eternal bliss of the Absolute (God) and had the highest culture and civilisation.

The most important Upanishads are:

Isa, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Chhandogya, Brihadaranyaka, Kaushitaki, and Svetasvatara and Maitrayani. These are supremely authoritative.

May the fundamental truths of the Vedas be revealed unto you all, like the Amalaka fruit in the palm of your hand. May Gayatri, the blessed Mother of the Vedas, impart to you the milk of Knowledge, the ancient wisdom of the Upanishads.

Chhandogya Upanishad Wisdom versus Knowledge
Katha Upanishad Preyas-Sreyas
Mandukya Upanishad Consciousness- three states
Mundaka Upanishad Wisdom versus knowledge
Mundaka Upanishad Creation
Svetasvatara Upanishad Self-realisation

Chandogya Upanishad
Translation and commentary;

By Sri C. Rajagopalachari (Abridged).

The sixth chapter of the Chhandogya Upanishad begins with the old, old riddle: Was there a first cause? Shall we, seeing that the search for causes leads us backwards along an interminable chain, give up the theory of causation and say that the world came out of nothing? This cannot be, says the Rishi (seer of truth). Out of nothing, nothing could come. Non-Being cannot produce Being. Much less could the phenomenon of consciousness come out of nothing. We must hold that there was a first Cause: Sat: i.e., Being with consciousness.

Sat willed that it may expand and multiply. So, it produced light, Tejas. The Spirit in Tejas willed to multiply and produced water. The Spirit in Water willed to become manifold, and it produced all the living things of the world.

Lest the reader imagine that the march of modern science has made this explanation out of date, it may be recalled that neither Chemistry nor Biology nor any other physical science explains anything. Plato depicted mankind as chained in a cave in such a way that they can look only on the wall which forms the back of the cave; they cannot see the busy life outside but only the shadows which objects moving in the sunshine cast on the walls of the cave. For the captives in the cave, the shadows constitute the whole phenomenal world, the world of reality remaining for ever beyond their ken. Sir James Jeans, the great physicist, says that modern science has come to the same conclusion. The reality behind the phenomenal world is unreachable. Chemical and other ‘laws’ are only classifications and simplifications of observed phenomena, and nothing more. Neither familiarity nor classification can itself be explanation. The unexplained factor outside the cave that permanently circumscribes our knowledge is the Sat of the Chhandogya.

“How can this vast universe with its multitudinous variety be produced in this simple way?” asked Svetaketu, whom his father Uddalaka, was instructing as to how the entire world has been evolved out of the Sat.

Chhandogya Upanishad VI-(14)-1-3

Uddalaka said: ‘Fetch a fruit of the big fig tree’

Svetaketu said: ‘Here is one, Sir.’

‘Break it, what do you see there?’

‘These little seeds.’

‘Crush one of the little seeds.’

‘Yes, Sir, I have done it.’

‘What do you see inside?’

‘Nothing,’ said the son.

‘Yet in the subtle substance inside that little seed, which your eye does not even perceive, existed all this big branching Nyagrodha tree. Do you wonder at it? Likewise, all that exists, this universe, was in that Sat which thou too art. Believe it, dear child, thou art that.’

Chandogya Upanishad
Translation and commentary;

By Sri C. Rajagopalachari (Abridged).

‘If the Sat is the all-pervading cause of all, why is it not
perceived clearly?’ is the next question.

As a lump of salt is dissolved in water and disappears, so is the Sat lost from view in the world but is still immanent in everything in the universe, as the salt is present in every part of the water.

‘How are we to gain knowledge of the Sat, which is imperceptible?’ is the next question.

VI-(14)-1-3

Like unto that of a man blindfolded and carried away by robbers from his own country is a man’s condition. The folds of cloth over his eyes being removed by a friend, he recovers the use of his eyes and slowly finds his way home, step by step, enquiring at each stage.

So also, the good teacher instructs the seeker of Truth and helps him to unloose his bonds of desire and saves him from the robbers. The robbers are his past deeds that brought him to this condition. Recovering his sight as soon as the desires and attachments that blind his vision are removed, he finds his way to the Sat. Thereafter, it is only a matter of waiting for natural death.

Chandogya Upanishad (introduction)
Excerpts from the writings of Swami Nikhilananda
Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre, New York

The Sama-Veda includes among its treasures the Chhandogya Brahmana, consisting of ten parts; of these, the last eight constitute the Chhandogya Upanishad. In turn, the eight parts of the Upanishad may be broadly divided into two sections.

The first consists of five parts, deals with upasana, or ritualistic worship with emphasis on meditation. The second section, of three parts, discusses certain fundamental doctrines of the Vedanta philosophy; in the sixth part, the Vedantic dictum “Tattvamasi,” or “That Thou art”; in the seventh part, the doctrine of Bhuma, or Infinity; and in the eighth part, the doctrine of Atman (Self).

The Brihadaranyaka and the Chhandogya, which are the longest of the Upanishads, occupy a superior position among the Upanishads known to us. Discussing profound philosophical truths through numerous anecdotes, they form the basis of the later development of the Vedanta philosophy. Sankaracharya, in establishing the philosophy of non-dualism, derived support from such statements of the Chhandogya Upanishad as: “One only without a second” (Vi, xiv.1),

“From It the universe comes forth, into It the universe merges, and in It the universe breathes. Therefore, a man should meditate on Brahman (the Supreme Reality) with a calm mind” (III, xiv, 1), and “That is the Self. That thou art” (VI, viii. 7). If a serious student carefully reads the Chhandogya Upanishad with the help of Sankaracharya’s commentary, he will come to know all the major topics of the Upanishads and will be directed toward the philosophy of the inscrutable Brahman.

Katha Upanishad in Brief Compiled, paraphrased and explained
By Sri C. Rajagopalachari (Abridged)

Vajasravasa performed an elaborate sacrifice, which terminated with a parting of all his possessions as gifts to the guests assembled. Vajasravasa’s son, Nachiketas, watched the proceedings and, as he saw the gifts being given, he was filled with the thought of the vanity of it all.

“Of what use is it” he said to himself “giving these toothless old cattle and cows, past the age of bearing? Should not my father, if he is minded giving what is dear to him, give me away?”

So, he went to his father and said: “Father! To whom are you going to give me?”

His father did not pay heed to the question but went on with the routine of the great sacrifice. Nachiketas repeated the question again and again till Vajasravasa, losing patience, exclaimed without meaning like what he said: “You? I shall give you to Yama (the god of death).

Nothing could be uttered on such a solemn occasion but must be carried out. The father was aghast at his own exclamation. Nachiketas, however, decided to go to Yama.

“Many have gone before me and many yet must go after me. I go not alone to Death, and what can Yama do to me? Consider what has happened before this and consider what is going to happen in the future. Countless are the mortals that have died before this and will die hereafter. The life of mortals, indeed, is like that of a corn that grows and ripens and is reaped, and like the grains that fall that spring again into life.”

So Nachiketas went to Yama. Yama was not prepared for the voluntary visitor. He was not willing to receive anyone before time. Nachiketas had to wait for three days before Yama received him. A Brahmin could not thus be disregarded even by Yama (the god of death). So, to make up for the offence, Death (Yama) offered to Nachiketas three boons in return. Death offered to Nachiketas whatever boons he might desire. He offered many gifts – length of days, and all kinds of earthly possessions that one could desire, and Swarga (heaven) thereafter. But the youth chose for the boon – instruction from Yama himself about the nature of the soul.

“There is no boon that I desire other than this knowledge” said Nachiketas, “and there can be no better instructor than you for imparting this knowledge. What use is length of days and what joy can possessions (give), or song or dance or houses and chariots give, so long as you are there as an ever-present termination to it all?”

Yama pleaded with Nachiketas:

Kathopanishad verse (1)-21

Even the gods have had doubts in this matter. The nature of it (the soul) is so subtle that it is not possible to comprehend it satisfactorily. Choose some other boon, Nachiketas. Do not insist; release me from this.

Katha Upanishad in Brief Compiled, paraphrased and explained
By Sri C. Rajagopalachari (Abridged)

But Nachiketas answered: 

(1)22: Even if the gods had doubts in this matter and you say that it is not easily comprehended, who then could expound it as you can, O Death, and what other boon can equal this? None, indeed.

Yama pleaded again:

(1)23: Ask for sons and grandsons who may live for a hundred years. Ask for numerous cows, elephants, and gold and horses. Ask for large tracts of land and live as many autumns as you desire.

(1)24: Or choose any boon that you can conceive equal to this, with wealth and long life. Be lord of wide dominions, O Nachiketas, I will make you the enjoyer of every desire.

(1)25: Ask freely for every rare enjoyment in the world of mortals. Here are nymphs in chariots playing on lutes, such as men have never seen. These will serve you at my command. But, do not ask me about Death.

Nachiketas was unmoved. He said:

(1)26: These ephemeral pleasures, O Death, consume the powers of the mortal’s senses. Even if they lasted all life, they are of little worth. You say you give me these gifts but being all limited by the death of the enjoyer, they remain but yours though you appear to give them away, these chariots, and song and dance. [Keep these ephemeral things for yourself. I do not care for them.]

(1)27: How can man get satisfied with wealth? Can we hold wealth when we see you? All wealth disappears on death. We live but if you command it to be. That boon alone, therefore, is worthy of being desired that I craved of you.

Yama thus failed to persuade Nachiketas to give up his enquiry into the mystery of life even for all the pleasures of this world and of the world of the gods.

“You have displayed courage and resolve,” said Yama. “There can be no better seeker than such a one, even as you stated that there can be no better instructor than myself. Listen, then, I shall explain.”

Then follows the teachings.

The first thing that man should learn in the pursuit of Truth is that the Good is something different from the Pleasant.

Yama said:

(2) 1-2: The Good is one thing, the Pleasant is another. These two-lead man to very different ends. He who chooses the Good attains happiness. He who prefers the pleasant ever loses his object. The wise are not deceived by the attractions of the Pleasant. They choose the Good. Fools are snared into the mere pleasant and perish.

Katha Upanishad in Brief Compiled, paraphrased and explained
By Sri C. Rajagopalachari (Abridged)

(2)5: Steeped in ignorance, men engage themselves in activities and pursuits and considering themselves men of understanding and learned, stagger along aimlessly like blind men led by the blind, going around and round in the cycle of births.

The main obstacles in the path of the man striving for the higher life is the identification of oneself with the body. Therefore, all teaching in Hindu Vedanta stresses on man finding his soul within. If one realizes the divinity of the eternal spirit within, the battle is won.

(2)12: Concentrating the mind on the Spirit within, man should realize the divine character of his own soul and its inherent freedom. The Spirit lodged within oneself is unperceived because of the perplexities of joy and grief and attachment to worldly objects. When one realizes the divine Spirit within himself, all the confusion of joy and grief disappears.

(2) 23-24: This realization can come only if from inside one’s own heart spring purity of resolve and earnestness of spirit. It does not come by study or learned discussions. It comes to one whose Self yearns for realization, and whose mind has turned away from evil and has learnt to subdue itself and to be at peace with the world.

In other words, it comes out of the longing for self-realization that leads to detachment, rather than from much learning; it comes out of the grace of the Supreme Spirit that dwells within us.

The Self is other than the changing body. It is other than the fears and the passions that agitate the mind. The Soul is divine in origin. It is not altered in nature by the qualities of the mind in which it is embodied. It can be released from the meshes of these qualities by a realization of its own intrinsic divine nature.

The reader may note that the following verses are almost identical with the verses in the Gita (chapter 2).

(2)-18: You are not born, nor do you die. You did not come from anything else, nor were made from something other than yourself. You are unborn, eternal, everlasting and always existed. You are not slain, though the body is slain.

(2)-19: If you think you slay someone, or that you will be slain by someone, you are wrong in both cases. The soul neither slays nor is slain.

(2)-20: Subtler than the atom, greater than the greatest, the Atman (soul) resides in the hearts of living beings. He who makes himself desireless and has cast off grief beholds the greatness of the Spirit within him.

(2)-21: The man of understanding realizes this bodiless Spirit dwelling in the bodies, this imperishable substance lodged in the perishable and realizing it casts off grief.

Katha Upanishad in Brief Compiled, paraphrased and explained
By Sri C. Rajagopalachari (Abridged)

(3) 3-4-5-9: The journey of life can be safely completed, and the Supreme world of Vishnu reached only if one keeps a watchful control over the senses. The body is like a chariot to which the senses are yoked like horses. The mind is like the reins, which enable the charioteer, viz., the understanding, to hold the horses, i.e., the senses, in check. The Soul rides on the chariot, and the road is the world of objects over which the senses move. If the reins are not held firmly and wisely, the senses, like wild horses, will get out of control, and the chariot will not reach the goal, but will go around and round in births and re-births. If the man is wise, and controls his mind, his senses will be like good horses driven by a good driver.

(4) 1- 2: The self-existent Spirit worked its way out from within and thus the openings of the mind are directed outwards, viz., the sense organs. Therefore, do men’s thoughts ever tend outwards. But the few, who have true understanding, turn their mind inwards and realize the Self within.

[The senses are created with outward tendencies like a bar door with hinges that allow it to swing open outward only. The Self -existent pierced the senses outward, and so one looks outward and not within oneself. Some wise man, however, seeking immortality, and turning his eyes inward, sees the inner Self.]

Those without understanding, who do not control themselves and pursue external pleasures fall into the widespread net of Birth and Death. Those of steady mind, realizing what is truly lasting, do not turn their thoughts to transient pleasures.

(4)- 8, (4) 9: The sacred fire is well concealed in the wood like a child in the womb of the mother. The Soul is contained in the body as the fire is contained and concealed in the wood. Fire manifest takes shape in accordance with the thing burning. It is now the flame of a lamp, now a furnace and now a forest-fire, according as to where it is manifested. The fire by itself is one and the same. So also, the Soul though manifold in embodiment, is the same as that in which it abides for the time being.

(4)-10-11: What is here is there and what is there is here; i.e., things and beings seem various but are, indeed one Being. We are liberated when we perceive this Oneness. We go from death to death if we perceive difference. It is the mind that by enlightenment can overcome the notion of difference and have a vision of the transcendent Oneness of all.

Katha Upanishad in Brief Compiled, paraphrased and explained
By Sri C. Rajagopalachari (Abridged)

(4)-14-15: The rain falling on the hill divides itself and flows down the hillsides in many torrents. The ignorant man sees manifoldness in beings and is confused and he runs after the manifoldness. If water is poured into water, it becomes one and the same with it. Thus, it is with the Self of the man of understanding who sees unity in manifoldness.

It is the light of the Spirit within that really enables us to see, not the light that falls from outside. Does this Spirit within shine by its own light or does it shine by Another Light? Is it a Self-luminous Soul or is it a reflection of the One lustrous Being? It is on this note of sublime doubt that the fifth valli of the Upanishad closes. The following two verses go together:

(5)-14: They say that the Indefinable Spirit of Supreme Bliss is this that is within me. How can I make out whether this Spirit within me shines by itself or shines by the reflected light from the Universal Spirit?

(5)-15: The sun does not furnish the light there, nor the moon, nor the stars, nor these flashes of lightning born of the clouds; certainly not the light of these sacrificial fires. The Spirit shines and all things else shine as a result. Everything in the universe reflects but that light.

Merely to know is not enough to escape from the tangle of illusion. Faith and discipline of life are necessary. The illusion arises not so much from ignorance as from attachments. Enlightenment comes with detachment, not with learning. This is the main teaching to which all the schools of Hindu philosophy ultimately revert and on which they lay the greatest emphasis. The discipline and meditation that serve to help the Soul to detach itself from the things or the world is what is called Yoga.

(6)-15: When the knots of the heart are untied, and man is freed from worldly attachments, he becomes immortal. This is the whole of the teaching

The Antaratman is lodged in the secret recess of our hearts. It is sheathed as the reed plant is sheathed in its blades. We should abstract it with understanding, tearing ourselves from attachments and desires and separating the pure from the gross. The Spirit within is pure and is immortal. Thus, ends Yama’s exhortation in this Upanishad:

(6)-17: Of the size of a thumb, the Spirit within is lodged in the hearts of men and is there always. With understanding, separate Him from the sheaths of the body in which He is lodged, even as you take off the blades of a reed plant. Know that He is immaculate and deathless.

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