When beginning to study Yoga or Yogic Philosophy we begin to become overwhelmed. What we thought were one or two simple textbooks turned into an entire universe of mystical and magical lessons, and teachings that will change your life. The Upanishads are not an exception.
The Upanishads are an assortment of texts central to Hinduism that are recorded from oral traditions. They contain information regarding the philosophical principles and concepts of Hinduism, including karma (right action), brahman (ultimate reality), the Atman (true Self or soul), moksha (liberation from the cycle of reincarnation), and Vedic doctrines that explain Self-realization through yoga and meditation practices.
Upanishad is a Sanskrit word that translates in English to mean “sitting at the feet of” or “sitting down near." This illustrates the position of receiving wisdom and guidance humbly from a teacher or guru.
There are more than 200 Upanishads that have been recorded from oral traditions and passed down over centuries. Thirteen of these include the core philosophical teachings of Hinduism. The philosophical concepts contained in the Upanishads are principal to Hinduism, but some are shared with Buddhism and Jainism as well.
The texts govern and explain the idea of Self-realization, which can require the practice of yoga and meditation. They also cite the concepts of non-violence, compassion, charity, and self-restraint as ethical characteristics. Many people translate the texts subjectively, which contributes to the varied Hindu schools of philosophy and religious practice. It also contributes, in part, to the various schools of yoga.
THE 4 MAIN TEACHINGS
The teachings of the Upanishads revolve around four primary spiritual themes. These four philosophical concepts are described in many different ways as they can be difficult to grasp. These main teachings are repeatedly reinforced in the texts of the eleven principal Upanishads.
The first and most important is the realization that the ultimate, formless, and inconceivable Brahman (Godhead) is the same as Atman, as our internal soul. Brahman represents the entire universe, and the Atman is a little piece of that divine oneness that we contain inside us. This philosophical idea is summed up in the mantra Tat Tvam Asi (That Art Thou).
The second is the idea that the Atman is eternal, and becomes reborn over and over again, is central to the concept of reincarnation that is taught in the Upanishads.
The third is the concept of rebirth and how highly it is tied to the teachings of Karma: the future consequences of one’s current intentions, thoughts, behaviors, and actions.
The fourth is the accumulation of Karma that binds us to Samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth. To escape the endless cycle of Samsara requires one to attain enlightenment through the realization of Atman/Brahman. It is this state of Self realization that the majority of the Upanishads attempt to describe and encourage us to achieve through the yoga practices of meditation, mental discrimination, and mantra recitation.
THE 11 MOST IMPORTANT UPANISHADS
Aitareya Upanishad - This is one of the oldest Upanishads and is linked with the ancient Rigveda text. It discusses a four-tier universe, the creation of beings, the embodiment of Atman as the divine creator, and the qualities of Brahman.
Brhadaranyaka Upanishad - This Upanishad was written by the ancient sage Yajnavalkya. Within its three chapters, it describes the relationship between Jiva and the Atman and explains different methods of meditation.
Isha Upanishad - This is a shorter Upanishad of only eighteen verses. The word “Isa” means “Lord of the Universe,” which is described in this text as “unembodied, omniscient, beyond reproach, without veins, pure and uncontaminated.”
Taittiriya Upanishad - This Upanishad is divided into three parts and the second section proclaims that the highest aim is to see Brahman as omniscient, infinite, and the highest truth.
Katha Upanishad - This is one of the most Upanishads, and some of its passages are found in the Bhagavad Gita. It is a discussion between Yama, the god of death, and Nachiketa, a young Brahman boy. They discuss in detail the spiritual path to liberation, the concept of re-birth, and the way in which a yogi should leave their body behind.
Chandogya Upanishad - This Upanishad discusses the importance of meditation, the power of the Om mantra, and the significance of Prana, the central life force energy.
Kena Upanishad - This Upanishad narrates the uniqueness of creation and the single power that controls the whole world.
Mundaka Upanishad - This Upanishad contains sixty-four mantra-like poems. This text provides instruction on meditation and discusses the nature of Brahma and Atman.
Mandukya Upanishad - This is the shortest of all the Upanishads with only 12 verses. It describes the four states of consciousness which the Om mantra represents.
Prasna Upanishad - This Upanishad is a series of philosophical questions asked by several disciples and answered by the Sage Pippalada. The text discusses the nature of Brahman and the origin, existence, and goal of life.
Svetastara Upanishad - This Upanishad is unique in that the emphasis is not on the Brahman but focuses on the bhakti or devotion of personal deities. This text contains several metaphysical discussions about the creation and purpose of existence.
The importance of the Upanishads
These spiritual concepts have exerted a profound influence on the development of Yoga, Hindu, and Indian philosophy. While the yogic practices taught in the Upanishads were primarily meditation-based, these philosophical teachings will remain the core beliefs for all the future developments in the many paths and practices of yoga. A great place to begin to read and study more is with US! We will be beginning a full course in November and hope you will join us. More information on Rajayogini Upanishads
Thank you for reading and your continued patronage, without you I would have no purpose.