What are the Upanishads?
The sacred scriptures of India are vast. Yet they are only different ways of seeing the same thing, the One Thing which makes them both valid and ultimately harmonious. That unifying subject is Brahman: God the Absolute, beyond and besides whom there is no “other” whatsoever.
The thirteen major Upanishads are the fountainhead of all expositions of Brahman. The word “upanishad” itself comes from the root word upasana, which means to draw or sit near, and is usually considered to mean that which was heard when the student sat near the teacher to learn the eternal truths.
We do not know who wrote the Upanishads. This has a distinct advantage in that the image of a historical, finite personality does not intervene to obscure the revelation handed on to spiritual aspirants. The authority of the Upanishads rests not upon those who wrote them, but upon the demonstrable truths they express. They are as self-sufficient and self-evident as the multiplication tables or the Table of Elements. They are simply the complete and unobscured truth. And realization of that Truth alone matters.
The teachings of the Upanishads are the supreme expressions of the eternal wisdom, the eternal vision of the ancient rishis (sages) of India. Consequently, though simple in their mode of expression, they can be extremely difficult to grasp. There are many things in this world that we need not know, but the truths embodied in the Upanishads and their inspired digest-summary, the Bhagavad Gita, are invaluable for all who would ascend to higher consciousness.
The Upanishads have long interested students of philosophy in the West. The English philosopher David Hume translated some of them into English in the eighteenth century. Later he travelled to America where he taught Sanskrit to Thomas Jefferson and together they studied the Upanishads in their original form.
In this commentary I am using the translation of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, one of India’s most distinguished scholars in religion and philosophy. He was also the first Vice President of India (1952–1962) and the second President of India from 1962 to 1967. His works, which included English translations of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada, are of continuing value both intellectually and spiritually. Here I am giving only his translation of the upanishadic texts, but his translation, The Principal Upanishads, contains the original Sanskrit text in transliteration and a great deal of notes to clarify the text. So I recommend you obtain this most valuable book as a major element in your spiritual library. The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal by Swami Prabhavananda is a beautiful interpretive translation like his marvelous translation: Bhagavad Gita: The Song of God. I recommend that you obtain them both.
I have only commented on passages that seemed to need it. But I have included all the passages that convey eternal truths and need no comment. I have omitted passages that do not deal directly with realization of the Self or those which are so obscure (especially in symbolism as well as the ancient form of Sanskrit) it is anyone’s guess as to what they really mean.
Read the next chapter in The Upanishads for Awakening: The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad