Compilation of the Upaniṣads

As a major source of Indian philosophy and culture, the Upaniṣads are second only to the Vedas in importance, and they purport to explain the hidden meaning of the Vedas.

Summary of Event

The Upaniṣads (or Upanishads) are a group of classical Sanskrit texts in prose and verse that interpret and elaborate in philosophical language the “central aim and the meaning of the teaching of the Veda,” according to philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Because they are appended to the Vedas (writings concerning aspects of religious thought and customs compiled 1500-1100 b.c.e.), the Upaniṣads are also called the Vedānta, meaning the end of the Vedas. Etymologically, the compound word upaniṣad is derived from Sanskrit roots that imply “to sit down near,” which apparently refers to the practice of trusted disciples sitting down at the feet of spiritual masters to gain a deeper understanding of the Vedas. Their compilation spanned several centuries from 1000 to 200 b.c.e.

To understand the broader sociohistorical context leading to the compilation of the Upaniṣads, it is important to note that the majority of these texts were committed to writing during the period that the German thinker Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) described as the Axial Age. Jaspers thought that the period between 800 and 400 b.c.e. was axial because the cultural axis of the world today was established during this time through the emergence of what were to become the major philosophical systems and world religions in both Asia and the West: China (Daoism and Confucianism), India (Hinduism and Buddhism), Greece (Western philosophy), Persia (Zoroastrianism), and Palestine (Judaism). They offer collective, though differing, responses to the perennial questions about the meaning and purpose of life and how human beings are to live. The beginnings of the Indian axial age are characterized by the compilation of the Upaniṣads, followed by the founding of Buddhism.

The concerns of this period sharply contrast with those of the Vedic age. The thrust of the Vedic age was to understand and manipulate the forces of nature, personified as powerful and capricious divine beings, to serve human purposes. Attributing human emotions to the behavior of these gods, the Vedic authors believed that they could be controlled by prayers and sacrifices offered at proper times in proper ways. Elaborate rituals and expensive sacrifices were devised and performed by Brahman priests to invoke the favor of these gods and to ask their forgiveness for human offenses. Vedic religion eventually became little more than a shell of ceremonialism, and it failed to answer the fundamental questions about the meaning and purpose of life and human beings’ ethical obligations to one another. Brahmanism, the ritualized socioreligious system created by the Brahman priests, legitimized its dominance and social control by an elaborate belief system that included such notions as karma (the belief that one’s station in life is the consequence of one’s actions in a previous life), dharma (the moral obligation to follow the established rules of the social and cosmic order), and varṇa (the caste system), which gradually became the hallmarks of Hinduism. Known as varṇaśrama dharma, Brahmanism forced people into a pre-established social categories that determined their occupational choices and social interactions. Understandably, the majority of the people were disillusioned by the oppressive effects of Brahmanism and was eager to find alternatives means of achieving liberation from life’s sufferings.

A major reaction to Brahmanism emerged in movements that rejected its ritualism and sought refuge in ascetic and meditative practices promoted by thinkers and religious figures who had chosen to withdraw from the world. Leaders of these movements also turned to philosophical reflection that reinterpreted the Vedic religion in new ways. These reflections crystallized in oral teachings that were eventually committed to writing to help propagate these teachings. Though they differ in emphasis, reflecting independent but related schools of thought, the Upaniṣads provide a distinctive pattern of answers that supports the view that redemption from suffering can be achieved through one’s own effort without resorting to sacrifices and rituals. They teach that freedom from desire would assure freedom from suffering, and consequently, the cycle of birth and rebirth will be broken because desire lies at the root of all suffering, a theme that Buddha was to pursue much later. The means recommended by the Upaniṣads to extinguish desire is tapas, or asceticism, and meditation leading to self-knowledge and achieving oneness with the supreme being.

The actual authors of the Upaniṣads are unknown. However, some of the names to which the authorship of the major Upaniṣads has been traditionally attributed include Yajñavalkya, Svetāśvatara, Pratradana, Bhṛgu, Trisanku, Maitrī, Uddālaka, Śvetaketu, Aitareya, Kauśītaki, Kaikeya, Ajātaśatru, Pippalada, Sandilya, Sanatakumara, and Aruni. They were mystics, poets, critics, metaphysicians, moralists, and cosmologists. The Upaniṣads in their extant form probably are the result of additions and alterations made to original texts by the leaders of the various schools of thought that flourished between 1000 and 200 b.c.e. There is little consensus on the exact number of the Upaniṣads. Estimates range from several dozen to approximately two hundred. Many texts are believed to have been lost, but most scholars agree that of those extant, about 108 are authentic. According to most commentators, the principal Upaniṣads are Bṛhad-āraṇyaka, Chāndogya, Aitareya, Taittirīya, Īśa, Kena, Kaṭha, Praśna, Muṇḍaka, Māṇḍūkya, Svetāśvatara, Kauṣītakī, Maitrī, Subāla, Jābāla, Paiṅgala, Kaivalya, and Vajrasūcikā.

The longest and the oldest Upaniṣad is Bṛhad-āraṇyaka, which expounds the doctrine of the identity of the individual self and the universal self. Its main thrust is reflected in the following prayer: “From the unreal lead me to the real, from darkness lead me to light, from death lead me to immortality” (as translated by Radhakrishnan). Critical of the excesses of the Brahmanic ritualism, the Chāndogya Upaniṣad explains the symbolic meaning of sacrifices. It also lays the foundation for a philosophy of sound and music as it analyzes the famous meditative syllable aum, which is said to contain all possible sounds.

Picking up on the theme of sacrifice as a symbolic action, the Aitareya Upaniṣad urges readers to focus on the inner meaning of sacrifices rather than on their outer forms. It also suggests that inner freedom is achievable by all regardless of the differences in their lifestyles. The nature of Brahman, the ultimate reality, is the focus of the Taittirīya Upaniṣad, and the Īśa Upaniṣad explains the role of knowledge in attaining eternal life. The Kena Upaniṣad distinguishes between the popular conception of God (Iśvara) and the absolute reality (Brahman), assigning superiority to the latter. The Kaṭha Upaniṣad unequivocally asserts the fundamental identity of everything and warns the readers that failure to grasp this truth will lead to rebirth, and Muṇḍaka explains that desire is the root of ignorance itself. Unrivaled in its analysis of consciousness, the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad inquires into the progressive levels or states of consciousness represented by simple wakefulness, dream, dreamless sleep, and transcendental consciousness to argue that only transcendental consciousness is capable of grasping the essential oneness of all reality.

It would be incorrect to state that all Upaniṣadic texts are equally lofty in their philosophical intent. Also scattered throughout these texts are reflections on many mundane concerns. However, they are overwhelmingly devoted to philosophical and mystical thinking.


The effect the Upaniṣads have had on Indian history and civilization is immeasurable. Although Brahmanism eventually co-opted the Upaniṣads by appending them to the Vedas, it was profoundly transformed by the communities that generated these texts. Arguably, the dominant themes of the Upaniṣads also underscore the general character of the Indian civilization, which is to be inward looking, reflective, and tolerant. The ascetic and spiritual practices the Upaniṣads promote have profoundly influenced the cultural ethos of India, in particular the veneration of ascetics, the teaching of the value of nonviolence, and the practicing of vegetarianism.

The emergence of Buddhism, which ultimately rejected Brahmanism, would also not have been possible without a Buddha being culturally predisposed, at the moment of his enlightenment, to accept the Upaniṣads’ fundamental teaching that desire is the cause of all suffering. Many sophisticated techniques of mediation and the practice of yoga were also spawned by the Upaniṣads’ focus on self-knowledge and asceticism as means of liberation.

Further Reading

  • Gotshalk, Richard, The Beginnings of Philosophy in India. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988. Gotshalk discusses the emergence of the Upaniṣads against the social and historical background of early India.
  • Pershad, Guru. An Introduction to the Vedas and the Upaniṣads: A Compilation from the Writings of Sri Aurobindo. Hyderabad, India: Sri Aurobindo Society, 1991. This is a compilation of essays written by one of India’s foremost scholars on Indian thought.
  • Radhakrishnan, S. The Principal Upaniṣads. 1935. Reprint. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1968. Radhakrishnan, a highly respected Indian philosopher, presents the texts and his own translation of eighteen principal Upaniṣads with a comprehensive introduction to their main themes.
  • Ranade, R. D. A Constructive Survey of Upaniṣadic Philosophy. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1968. Ranade provides an excellent discussion of the background of the Upaniṣads as well as a masterly exposition of their contents.

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