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..:: The Upanishads ::..


Alan Schneider


               The term “Upanishad” is derived from a composite of three additional terms; upa (near), ni (down), and s(h)ad (to sit) – to sit down near.  Groups of devotees would sit near the Master or Guru and receive the sublime doctrines and teachings of spiritual belief and consciousness. The great thinkers and communicators of the Upanishads tended to live in hermitage dwellings deep in the forests, in a serene environment which facilitated both meditation and contemplation. As they attained realization regarding such basic human issues as the nature of God and man, the Soul and God, man’s highest role in the world, the ultimate purpose of existence, and the nature and requirements of salvation, they disseminated these insights to their local communities through Darshan – the discourses of the Master given to disciples. These more relatively subordinate individuals then passed the information from there into the general society of India.

            The consensus of opinion among scholars is that the Upanishads developed from a need to define specific methods whereby people could attain moksa, or liberation, from worldly bondage to the physical senses, needs that were not satisfied by the original Vedic sacrificial rituals to such Beings as Indra or Agni. The simple sacrifices by themselves did not convey enough spiritual knowledge and insight to the practitioner.  These texts were written after the Vedas, between nine hundred and two hundred BCE, and frequently (although not always), involve the teachings of the Sage Yajnavalkya, generally regarded as the Father of subsequent Hindu and, eventually, Buddhist philosophy. The  body  of  discourse expressed  in  the  Upanishads contains specific directions for the  attainment of certainty of spiritual perception through correct living, stressing the necessity of personal effort and involvement in the search for truth and liberation. The various texts of the Upanishads elaborate on this central set of themes, providing details on the meaning of correct living and personalized seeking, self realization, yoga and meditation, and karma and reincarnation, all originally veiled behind the Vedic symbolism of that earlier, more mystical religious tradition. 

            The first Upanishads were frequently affiliated with a particular Veda, through the agency of a Brahmana (Priest) or Aranyaka (Scribe), although this  practice was abandoned in the later texts. There are nineteen generally recognized Upanishads composed during this phase of Hindu religious development, including the Brhad-Aranyaka, Chandogya, Isa, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Katha, Prasna, Kena, Mundaka, Mandukya, Kausitaki-Brahmana, Maitri, Subala, Jabala, Paingala, Kaivala, Svetasvatara, and Vajrasucika. Some of the Upanishads are generally felt to be of greater central significance in Hindu religious thought than others, but they are all important to the subsequent development of  Vedanta, which  became the defining philosophy of modern Hinduism. The Upanishads bring forth and emphasize the deep spiritual meanings of the Vedas. 

            The concept of Brahman assumes new, even more powerful significance in the philosophy of the Upanishads, becoming a central theme in the attainment of Enlightenment. Brahman here comes to mean the fundamental unity underlying all conditions and concepts perceptible at any level in the sequence of the reincarnated lives of illusion in the physical senses, or samsaras. To attain the experience of Brahman is to attain the direct knowledge of God, and be released from the cycle of regeneration and suffering in our material form. All of the Upanishads have this attainment either explicitly or implicitly expressed as their primary goal. 

            Probably the most significant Upanishad is the Brhad-Aranyaka, although this can be argued, particularly in the case of the Chandogya Upanishad.  The Brhad-Aranyaka is concerned with three subdoctrines, or Kandas; the Madhu Kanda, which describes the relationship between the individual and the Universal Self (i.e. God), the Muni Kanda, which provides the detailed philosophical foundation for the final Kanda, the Khila Kanda, and the Khila Kanda itself, concerned with the modes of worship and meditation best suited to the three basic types of religious life – sravana, or listening to the sacred teachings, manana, logical reflection, and upapatti, contemplative meditation. It can be said that the three Kandas of the Brhad-Aranyaka Upanishad embrace all of the essential elements of modern Hindu religious thought in one single volume. 

            The Chandogya Upanishad, on the other hand, is an affiliated element of the Sama Veda, one of the four Vedic texts. It should be noted here that the verses of the Vedas and Upanishads are just that – verses,  written with the intention of being sung or recited in metered format to others. This was the primary method of conveying spiritual information in the Hindu tradition, and has continued up to the present day. Chandoga was the (probably mythological) singer of the Saman, one of  the verses of the Sama Veda. The Chandogya Upanishad is part of another body of instruction called the Chandogya Brahmana, or divine revelation, which is divided into ten chapters. The first two chapters deal with sacrifice and other modes of worship, while the last eight comprise the Chandogya Upanishad proper. Included under the headings of “sacrifice and other modes of worship” are an extended discussion of the derivation and liturgy of AUM (Om, in Sanskrit), and the meaning and names of the Saman. 

            The development of the Upanishads also paralleled the development of renunciation in the Hindu tradition. This is particularly evident in the view taken of the relationship between the Brahman and the individual personal consciousness. The undisciplined mind will tend to automatically seek out sensory gratification of various kinds, but this gratification will tend to obscure the manifestation of the Brahman, whether or not it is successfully attained. This realization of the ancient Hindu Seers was the root of the development of the aesthetic or renunciation tradition. Yoga, (literally an ox yoke) for example, is one set of techniques for developing spiritual union with the Brahman, and is heavily involved with the concept of discipline and focusing of the senses seen in a predominantly aesthetic life style. The general concept of attainment of Enlightenment through austere living is a recurrent theme in the Upanishads, which contain numerous examples of how this may be accomplished. 

            The writing of the sequence of Upanishads was almost certainly complete by the time of the Life of Christ in Galilee. This series of elucidations of Hindu religious thought and practices represents a new level of sophistication in Hindu spiritual history, one characterized by a transition from the ritualized forms of the Vedas to the deeper, detailed description of what individuals can (and must) do within the concept of the religious life style to demonstrate belief and achieve liberation from Karmic bondage to the senses and samsaras. 

            It can be argued that the ancient origin of the insights contained in the Upanishads, coupled with their sometimes awkward terminology and esoteric conceptualism, makes them of questionable value in the modern industrial world of machines, digital technology, and the Internet.  However, the moral and spiritual lessons embodied in these doctrines remain as relevant to human life and consciousness today as they were when first Realized by the Hindu Masters millennia ago. Although the external circumstances of living have changed, the internal coefficients of human awareness have remained essentially as they were then – we are still driven by hedonism and sensory gratification, and these still obscure the recognition of the Truth of  Consciousness and the attainment of Enlightenment in our human perception. Austerity and discipline of the senses remain every bit as necessary and effective as spiritual provisions for the attainment of higher consciousness, perhaps even more so now, as they were then.  As soon as the individual realizes the futility of hedonism as means of attaining lasting happiness, the ancient wisdom of the Upanishads becomes instantly relevant as a set of alternative prescriptions and techniques for pursuing the meaningful existence that really will lead to lasting Peace and spiritual fulfillment.  

            In this time of Kali Yuga, the modern period of history, and the Dark Time of spiritual blindness for all humanity, the sensory focus of the physical body has all but completely obscured spiritual Truth. Postural Yoga, and the associated Yoga lifestyle, has developed in this time as the medication for Kali Yuga, enabling the human consciousness to reconnect with God and the Truth. Through the practice of the Yamas, Niyamas, and Yogas, we can once again live in peace and harmony with God and nature.  For the sake of completeness, these provisions are enumerated here:

        Yama  –   A “restraint” or moral injunction. These include:

                      Satyama                      Truthfulness – Honesty to self and others.

                      Brahmacharya            Moderation – Self control / self denial.

                      Aparigraha                  Detachment – Negation of desire.

                      Asteya                          Observance of Laws – Particularly against theft.

                      Ahimsa                        The Taking of No Life – Nonviolence

        Niyama  –   An observance or provision of living, including:

                      Tapa                            Austerity – The avoidance glamour and excess.

                      Saucha                         Cleanliness – Mental and physical health.

                      Santosha                      Repose – Seeking contentment in simplicity.

                      Swadhaya                    Study – Specifically of sacred (Hindu) literature.

                      Ishwara                       Awareness of God – Guidance by Divine Will.

        Asana  –  The Yoga postures. Directly release Karma through physical Dharma.

        Pranayama  –  Control and awareness of the breath. Complements the postures.

        Dharana  –  The intentional focusing of awareness through concentratio

        Dhyana  –  The practice of meditation.

        Pratyahara  –  The negation or calming of the senses to relax the ego.

        Samadhi  –  The complete experience of Divine Union.

            Taken together as an integrated, comprehensive lifestyle, these stipulations and practices will reconstitute human awareness of and in the full continuum of expanded consciousness of the Cosmos known as the Psyche. Without this awareness, we remain blind, woefully inadequate creatures hopelessly struggling in the darkness. Let us choose instead to stand in the Light!


                                                                                - With Love, Alan -

                                                                        (CR2008, Alan Schneider) 


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