The term "Upaniṣad" literally means the inner or mystic teaching. It is derived from upa, ni and s(h)ad, i.e., sitting down near, which refers to groups of pupils sitting near their teacher to learn from him the secret doctrine. In the serenity of forest hermitages, the Upaniṣad thinkers pondered on the problems of deepest concerns and communicated their knowledge to the capable pupils that sat near them.
Samkara derives the word Upaniṣad as a substitute from the root sad, 'to loosen,' 'to reach' or 'to destroy' with Upa and ni as prefixes and kvip as termination. If this determination is accepted, Upaniṣad means brahma-knowledge by which ignorance is loosened or destroyed. The Upaniṣads are found in the concluding sections of the Vedas and are classified as Vedanta or the end of the Vedas.
There are five Vedas and each of these five books has several Sākas. Each Sāka has a Karma Khanda dealing with the actions to be performed and is made up of Mantras and Brahmanās. The latter deals with Upāsana or meditation and has Aranyakas inside them for the benefit of those who have resorted to the quiet habitat of the forest to pursue their spiritual quest.
The Upaniṣads are found mostly in the Aranyaka section of the Vedas. The five Vedas have 1180 Sākas and thus there should be 1180 Upaniṣads. Of these, what exists today is a collection of 108 Upaniṣads. The list of these 108 Upanishads is given in the Mukthikopaniṣad.
Out of the 108 Upaniṣads, only 10 have been commented upon by several Ācharyas like Ādi Śankarācharya. These are Ishavasya, Kena, Katha, Aithreya, Brihadaranyaka, Prashna, Mandukya, Taittireeya, Chandogya and Mundaka. These have also been popularized by many savants like Swami Vivekananda, Swami Chinmayānanda etc. They all deal with highest category of philosophy and metaphysics. Because of this, there is a general impression that all Upaniṣads are texts of Hindu Philosophy. This is not true. There are Upaniṣads which even tell you how to wear the sacred ash, how to worship a particular God and so on. But the majority of them deal with methods of Yoga and Renunciation.
"From every sentence of the Upaniṣads deep, original and sublime thoughts arise, and the whole is pervaded by a high and holy earnest spirit...In the whole world there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. They are destined sooner or later to become the faith of the people." - Dr. Arthur Schopenhauer
The Vedas and Upaniṣads
The breakdown among the 108 Upaniṣads according to the 5 Vedas are as follows:
|Veda||Number of Upaniṣads|
|Kṛṣṇa Yajur Veda|
The 16 associated with the Sāma Veda are:
The 19 Upaniṣads belonging to Śukla Yajurveda are:
<sort2> Isavasya Brahadaranyaka Jabala Haṅsa Paramahaṅsa Subala Mantrika Niralamba Trisikhibrahmana Mandalabrahmana Advayataraka Paingala Bhikṣuka Turiyatita Adhyātma Yajnavalkya Satyayani Tarasara Muktika</sort2>
The 32 Upaniṣads belonging to the Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda are: <sort2> Kathā Taittiriya Brahma Kaivalya Svetasvatara Garbha Nārāyaṇa Amṛtabindu Amṛtanada Kalagnirudra Kshurika Sarvasara Sukharahasya Tejobindhu Dhyānabindhu Brahmavidyā Yogatattva Dakshinamurti Skanda Sariraka Yogasikha Ekakshara Akṣi Avadhuta Katharudra Rudrahrudhaya Yogakundalini Panchabrahma Pranaagnihotra Varaha Kalisantarana Sarasvatirahasya</sort2>
The 31 Upaniṣads belonging to the Atharvaveda are :
<sort2> Prasna Mundaka Māndukya Atharvasira Atharvasikha Brahajjabala Nrsimhatapini Nārada Parivrajaka Sitā Sarabha Tribadvibhutimahanarayana Ramarahasya Ramatapini Śandilya Paramahaṅsaparivrajaka Annapurṅa Surya Atma Pasupatabrahma Parabrahma Tripuratapini Devi Bhavanā Bhasmajabala Ganapati Mahavakhya Gopalatapini Kṛṣṇa Hayagriva Dattātreya Garuda</sort2>
The ten major Upaniṣads which contain great philosophical discussions and knowledge are:
It is a very succint summary of philosophy that explains life.
Kenopaniṣad derives its name from the word Kena, meaning 'by whom'. It belongs to the Talavakara Bahmana of Sama Veda and is therefore also referred to as Talavakara Upaniṣad. In short, it says that,
"The One power that illumines everything and every one is indivisible. It is the Ear behind the ears, Mind behind the mind, Speech behind speech, the Vital Life behind life. The ears cannot hear it; it is what makes the ears hear. The eyes cannot see it; it is what makes the eyes see. You cannot speak about it; it is what makes you speak. The mind cannot imagine it; it is what makes the mind think. It is different from what all we know; yet it is not known either. Those who feel they know Him, know Him not. Those who know that anything amenable to the senses is not Brahman, they know it best. When it is known as the innermost witness of all cognitions, whether sensation, perception or thought, then it is known. One who knows thus reaches immortality.
The Kathopaniṣad is divided into six Vallis. Valli literally means a creeper. A Valli, like a creeper, is attached to the Śakhas or Branches of the Veda. This Upaniṣad is also divided into two Ādhyāyas of three Vallis each. This is one of the most beautiful Upaniṣads, in which the eternal truths are given in the form of a narrative. The narrative is taken from Taittiriya Brāhmana, with some variations. The same story is told in the Taittiriya Brāhmana, the only difference being that in the Brahmana, freedom from death and birth is obtained by a peculiar performance of a sacrifice, while in the Upaniṣad, it is obtained by knowledge only.
The Aitareya Upaniṣad is one of the oldest of the Upanishads. It belongs to the Aitareya Aranyaka of the Ṛgveda. It is divided into three chapters and contains thirty three verses. This Upaniṣad deals with the process of creation.
Bṛhadaranyaka Upaniṣad means the "great forest-book". This Upaniṣad is one of the oldest of all the Upanishads. It consists of three sections or kāndas: the Madhu kānda, the Yajnavalkya or the Muni kānda and the Khila kānda. Here the Brahman is portrayed as universal and undifferentiated consciousness. The doctrine of the indescribability of the absolute and the doctrine of 'Neti, Neti' are explained. This Upaniṣad concludes by stating the three virtues that one should practice, i.e. self-restraint, giving and compassion.
In Sanskrit, Praśna means 'question'. This book consists of six questions and their answers, hence the name. It is in a question-answer format. Except the first and last questions, all other questions are actually a group of smaller sub-questions. As narrated in the beginning of this Upaniāad, six pupils interested in knowing divinity or Brahman come to the sage Pippalada and ask questions of great spiritual importance. Pippalada asks them to take up a penance of one year. Upon completion of the penance, they again come to the sage and ask questions, and then the sage answers their questions.
For the very reason that it explains the esoteric meaning of the fundamental syllable Aum of Hindu spiritual tradition, the Upaniṣad has been extolled greatly. The Muktikopaniṣad, which talks about all other Upaniṣads, says that if a person cannot afford to study all the hundred and more Upaniṣads, it will be enough to read just the Māndūkya Upaniṣad. According to Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, in this Upaniṣad, we find the fundamental approach to the attainment of reality by the road of introversion and ascent from the sensible and changing, through the mind which dreams, through the soul which thinks, to the divine within but above the soul.
The Taittireeya Upaniṣad belongs to the Taittireeya 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; it is the science of phonetics and pronunciation. The second is the Brahmananda Valli and the third is the Bhrugu Valli. These two deal with the knowledge of the Supreme Self, or 'paramatma-jnana'.
Along with Brhadaranyaka Upaniṣad, the Chandogyopaniṣad is an ancient source of principal fundamentals for Vedanta philosophy. Considering the number of references made to this Upaniṣad in Brahma sutras, this Upaniṣad is given special importance in Vedanta philosophy. Important spiritual practices like Dahara Vidya and Shandilya Vidya are its specialty.
This Upaniṣad begins with an invocation that the eye may see auspicious things, the ear may hear auspicious sounds and life may be spent in the contemplation of the Lord. The teaching of this Upaniṣad is referred to as Brahmavidyā, either because it describes first the message of Hiranyagarbha, the casual Brahma or because the message relates the glory of Brahmam. This Upaniṣad speaks of Brahmavidyā as the mystery which only those with shaven heads and those who go through a rite of having Fire on the shaven head can understand. So, it is called Mundaka, or shaven Head. Apart from this, this Upaniṣad is honored as the crest of all, since it expounds the very essence of Brahma Jnāna. It is assigned to the Fourth Veda, the Atharvana.
Although this classification is made, there are still some subjects discussed in them that overlap. Short notes on each of these Upaniṣads given below, based on the categories mentioned above:
There are 27 Upaniṣads. They are mentioned below.
This Upaniṣad is taught by sage Pippalada and deals with the growth of fetus in the womb. It also gives the number of different parts of the body, like the bones, nerves, flesh etc.
This Upaniṣad tells us about the penance of a king called Brahadratha. The king asked the sage Sakanya about the feeling of desire in this meaningless world. Sage Sakanya relates to him what had been told to him by Sage Maithreya. He teaches him the great science of Brahma Vidya. Finally he tells him that the mind and illusion are responsible for this contradiction.
This Upaniṣad is taught by Sage Chithra to Sage Udhalaka and his son, Shwethakethu. It deals with the science of the soul. The temporary nature of rituals and good deeds and permanent nature of doing everything without desire is emphasized. It also tells the need for a father to give up all his personality and knowledge to his son and enter Sanyāsa.
This is the teaching of Sage Angiras to Sage Raikwa. It tries to answer the question of the time and method of creation of the world. It also tries to find out the properties of the soul of beings and discusses several aspects of philosophy.
It deals with the properties of Brahman. It explains that whatever is produced, vanishes and then is reproduced. It concludes that the one who knows it well is the Brahman.
It is an independent text of Hindu philosophy. It tries to investigate what is Brahmam and concludes that the Sanyāsi has a better chance of attaining salvation by following the proper methods.
This Upaniṣad is supposed to have been taught to Sage Śuka, so that he would understand the philosophy of salvation. It contains and extensive explanation of the words and ideas that describe this philosophy.
This Upaniṣad investigates and tries to answer the question, "Who is a Brahmin?" It also says that caste does not come by birth.
Takes a conciliatory stand between Śaiva and Vaiṣnava and concludes that both are the same.
This Upaniṣad aims at explaining the mantras of the great Puruṣa suktham.
This is taught by Sage Yagnavalkya to Sage Paingala. It gives an explanation of the term 'Kaivalya'. It also attempts to explain the Maha Vākyas of the Vedas like 'Aham Brahmasmi', as well the duties of Jnanis.
Describes the initial creation of the universe, starting From Lord Nārāyana to Lord Brahma. After this, there is a discussion between Sage Suka and King Janaka regarding the creation of the Saṅsāra. This is followed by a discussion of several aspects of philosophy between Sage Nidhaka and his guru, Sage Ripu. It explains that the Sastras are burden for a Jnāni, Jnāna is a burden to those who are attached, and so on.
Talks about the different aspects of the human body, including states of knowledge.
This is an Upaniṣad which deals with the letter, 'Om.' This is more of a prayer towards 'Om.'
Contains the prayer of sage Sankruthi to Lord Surya which contains the Chakshushmathi Mantra. This is followed by the teaching of Brahma Vidya by Surya.
This is initially taught by Sadāṣiva to Sage Apantharathamas. It says that there is nothing but Atma and the feeling of existence of others is only illusion.
Explains who is Savitri and the difference between Savitha and Savitri. It also recites the Savitri Mantra.
Deals with various aspects of Atma and how a Brahma Jnani does not see anything except Atma.
This is the teaching of Brahma Vidya by Lord Brahma himself to the Devas. The treatment is philosophical.
Details the five stages by which Parā Brahmam was evolved.
This Upaniṣad deals with the Sarrera Yagna, or the sacrifice to the body. It lists out all the mantras that are to be chanted before eating food. The usual mantras that a Brahmin chants before eating are contained in this Upaniṣad.
It has 13 Upaniṣads. They are mentioned below:
In this Upaniṣad, Brahma teaches the knowledge of Brahmam to sage Aswalayana. Though Adi Śankara wrote commentaries only for ten Upaniṣads, he also considered this to be an important Upaniṣad. It deals with the state where the person is himself. The path shown is through meditation and devotion, keeping the person as the plank and considering Om as the stick which rotates on the plank and gives out the light of fire.
It emphasizes the greatness of the holy letter "Om." It also explains that the form of Lord Rudhra is the form of Praṇava.
This is taught by Sage Adharva to great sages like Pippaladha, Angiras and Sanathkumara which emphasizes on the need and benefits of the meditation of the Praṇava.
This Upaniṣad was told by Kalagni Rudra to Sage Busundi. It deals in detail with the method of preparation of holy ash and the method of wearing it.
It talks in detail about the method of wearing holy ash along with mantras for wearing the same. This was taught by Kalagni Rudra to the great sage, Sanathkumara.
Dakshinamurthi is the 'teacher form' of Śiva in which he teaches without talking. This Upaniṣad gives the Dakshinamurthi Mantra and the method of practicing it.
Shuka asks his father which God exists in all devas and in which God all the devas exist. The answer is Rudra which is the content of the whole Upaniṣad.
This is the teaching Lord Shiva gave to Jabala expressing how Vibhuthi has to be prepared along with the daily duties of a Brahmana.
This is the teaching of Kalagni Rudra to Sage Busunda and deals exclusively with Rudraksha.
Starts with a prayer to Lord Ganapathi and gives the Ganapathi Mantra. It describes how the worship of Ganapathi is to be performed.
Sage Jabali tells Sage Pippalada about Lord Pasupathi, the need and method of wearing Vibhuti in this Upaniṣad.
It has 9 sections. They can be delineated as belows:
It explains the Śathakshari Mantra for meditating on Tripura, the Goddess Parvathy. Several great manthras like Gayatri and Panchadasakshari are a part of this. It also discusses Srividya Upāsana.
The Devi tells the Devas who she is in this Upaniṣad. It even lists the Panchadasakshari and Navakshari mantras to worship her.
Talks about Sri Chakra and the worship of the devi through the right and left methods.
It discusses one important aspect of Sri Vidya Upāsana.
Lord Narayana tells about the Śakthi from whom every God originated and teaches the devas the worship of Saubhagyalakshmi.
This Upaniṣad is taught by Sage Asvalayana to the other sages. He teaches them the ten Saraswathi mantras and methods of worshiping her.
It talks in detail about the existence of Śakthi from whom all gods and knowledge originated and gives the hints of worship of Sri Vidyā.
"After having saluted Vishnu, the Highest Being, the Lord who is the aim of all Upanishads, I shall tell you (knowledge given by Narada muni.)" - Prahlada
It has 14 branches of Upaniṣads under it as follows:
It describes the principle of Tripath Nārāyaṇa and introduces the Nārāyaṇa ashtakshara Mantra and describes the benefits of chanting it.
It has two parts. In the Poorva part, it speaks in detail about the greatness of Lord Narasimha. It also has the great king of mantras, called the Narasimha Mantra, and depicts in detail how to meditate on it. In the Uthara part, it talks about the greatness of Praṇava and the Narsimha Rājā Mantra. It gives a detailed method of meditating on Lord Narasimha.
Brahma did tapas for one thousand years to know about Brahmam from Lord Vishnu. This upanishad contains what Lord Vishnu told him. He also clears his doubts, such as whether Brahmam has a form or not and also gives the shapes of several yantras.
There are two parts, the Poorva Thapini and the second Uthara Thapini. It talks about the greatness of the word, "Rama", as well as Rama Yantra, which is similar to the Śri Chakra. It also discusses the belief that Lord Shiva tells the Tāraka Mantra in the ears of all people dying in Varanasi and the method of worship of Rama.
Explains what Urdhwa Pundra is and the rules for wearing it.
Deals with the creation of clearly defined things from that unclear past. Tells how Parajapati came from Avayaktha and went on to create the world. It also gives a mantra to worship Lord Vishnu.
Narrates about the holiness of Kurukshethra, Tharaka Mantra and Pranava and illustrates the method of worship of Lord Narayana.
Sages approach Lord Brahma to know the procedure to worship Krishna. What he tells them is contained in this Upanishad. The Upāsanā Mantra of Govinda is also given here.
The sages, when they meet Rama, wanted to embrace him. Hence he gave him birth as Gopis and himself took the avatāra of Krishna, so that they could embrace him. This book discusses who were born as what in Krishnāvatāra.
Brahma tells Narada that whoever meditates and worships Lord Hayagreeva gets to know the Brahma vidya. The mantra for worship of Lord Hayagreeva is given here.
It depicts the method of meditation and worship of Dattatreya through the Dattatreya Mantra.
The method of meditation and worship of Garuda, the vehicle of Lord Vishnu is given here.
Kali Santarana Upaniṣad
Talks about how the evils of the Kali age are to be crossed. The sixteen letter prayer on Rama would help one in doing this.
It has 16 sub branches as follows:
It tells us about how the great sage of wisdom comes out of all mundane things and lives a life where there is no need for rituals and no differences exist. The Mantra for changing Yagnopavita occurs in this Upanishad.
This is compiled by Sage Jabala which gives more emphasis on mediation and the chanting of Rudra. The importance of concentrating between the centers of eyes is stressed here.
This Upanishad deals with the teaching of Prajapathi to sage Aaruni. It gives in detail the rules of life that are to be followed by a Brahmachāri and a Sanyāsi.
It is the teaching of Lord Parameshwara to sage Maitreya. To a large extent, what is given in Maithrayani Upanishad is repeated. In addition, God describes to him in detail about his formless form.
It describes the Sanyāsa mārga involving Nirvana and how the people follow it.
Nārada Parivrajaka Upaniṣad
This is the teaching of Nārada to the Śaunaka Sages. It discusses the methods to attain salvation, the rules to be followed by a Sanyāsi and the time when a person should enter Sanyāsa. It also talks about Karma Sanyāsa.
It defines the different types of Sanyasis like Kuttesaka, Bahoodhaka, Hamsa and Parama Hamsa.
It is taught by Lord Nārāyaṇa to Lord Brahma and talks about the rules of the life of an Avadhootha.
It elucidates who can take Sanyāsa and what is the procedure.
This is taught by Lord Narayana to Lord Brahma which deals mainly with the procedure of taking sanyāsa.
It explains all the things a Sanyāsi should posses and how he should behave.
Explains what is Yagnopavitha as well as Shika, for the sanyāsis as well as people of the world. It also gives clearly the total length of the Upavitha. For the sanyāsi, it is the pranava which acts as Yagnopavitha and Shika.
Dattatreya teaches sage Sankrithi as to who is Avadhootha and how he should behave.
The Upanishad reveals when to assume sanyāsa and also the properties of a sanyāsi.
The mind becomes the reason for attachment and salvation. The Saatyayani Upanishad relates that a real Brahmin should search for Brahmam. It also explains that one taking sanyāsa gives redemption for three generation of manes.
It has 19 sub branches as below:
This Upaniṣad is taught by a sage called Swethaswadhara. More emphasis is given in teaching Sankhya Yoga and the philosophy of illusion.
This talks about meditation on Hamsa Mantra and is being taught by Sage Gauthama to Sage Sanathkumara. The method of meditating on the Haṅsa Mantra is fully described here.
It gives the knowledge of atma in the tasty form of nectar and gives it as briefly as a dot. It talks about what is Brahman and other concepts of Hindu Philosophy.
This describes the way to chant the holy letter 'Om' in great detail. It is referred to as a nectar-like letter in this text.
Kshrika means knife. It is so called because it cuts ignorance using the knife of wisdom. This is an Upaniṣad which in detail describes Yoga and its practice.
This Upaniṣad is the teaching of Lord Paramashiva to his son, Subrahmanya. It talks in detail about Yogic practices, defines Chinmathra Swaroopa, Athmanubhava, Jeevan Muktha etc.
Nāda Bindu Upaniṣad
Discusses in detail the meditation on Omkāra. The correct method of meditation and some problems, which may occur, are pointed out.
Dhyāna Bindu Upaniṣad
The meditation on Pranava and Ajabha Gayatri is dealt in detail along with the method involved.
It teaches the methods of attaining Brahma through meditation. Emphasizes the role of a guru and explains why Śruti is more important than Pramāṇa.
This is the teaching of Lord Vishnu to Lord Brahma. It details out the yogic practice and even enumerates the stages in Yoga, defines them and how to recognize them.
This is the teaching of Lord Surya to a Brahmin called Trishiki Brahmana. He clears his doubts about the definition of the body, soul, Karaṇa and yogic practice.
Yoga Chudamani Upaniṣad
It tells about Yogic practice involving Ajaba Gāyatri. Describes the seats of Yoga, how to wake up the Kundalani and reach her up to Brahma Randra.
This is the teaching of Sun God to his disciple, Yajnavalkya. This deals with the principle of the soul through yogic practice. Definitions of various terms used in Yoga is also given. Tells in detail about Yogic practice and tells us about what is Sambhavi Mudrā.
This is taught by Sage Atharvana to sage Śandilya. It deals with Ashtāngayoga and Brahma Vidyā.
This is the teaching of Lord Maheswara to Lord Brahma. It deals with subjects like Mukti, Śakti, Nadha, Chaitanya and Yoga.
It talks about Kundalani and yogic practice.
This is the teaching of Lord Dattātreya to his disciple sage Sankriti about how the Yoga should be done, in great detail.
It confirms that the knowledge "That this Sun is Brahma" would be realized by chanting of Ajapa Gayatri. Explains the merger of mind with Brhamā.
It talks about the Brahma Vidyā of the body of Varāha. Lord Vishnu as Varāha tells how he should be meditated upon and worshiped. It also deals in detail about the stages of Yoga.
“The Main Message of the Upanishads Explained” By Yogapedia Editorial Team (October 24, 2017)
- It means near.
- It means down.
- It means to sit.
- It means Branches.
- It means Sanyāsa.
- It means chapters.
- Taittiriya Brāhmana 3-11-8
- It means the limbs or auxiliaries of the Veda.
- Here it refers to common interest.
- It means dealing with Lord Śiva.
- It means dealing with the divine mother Śakti.
- It means dealing with Lord Viṣṇu.
- It means dealing with renunciation.
- It means dealing with Yogic practices.
- It means Māyā.
- It means rosary.
- It is called as Vibhuthi.
- He is the Lord of all living things.
- It is the basis which is the foundation.
- P. 3199 Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology Volume 47: The Padma-Purana Part 9 By Dr. G.P. Bhatt, Dr. N.A. Deshpande
- It means first.
- It is the sign worn by Vaiṣnavites.
- He is the sanyasi at an advanced stage.
- It also refers to nudity here.
- It means Māyā.
- It means pranava.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore