Upanishads for Dummies




Not all Hindus know that the root of their religion, as it is practiced today, lies solidly in the Upanishadic thought. For them, as well as for others, here is a primer.


First, the basics.

A traditional synopsis (lifted from the net), would describe Upanishads in following words:

“The Upanishads, the earliest of which were composed in Sanskrit between 800 and 400 BC by sages and poets, form the basis of the Hindu religion. Each Upanishad, or lesson, takes up a theme ranging from the attainment of spiritual bliss to karma and rebirth, and collectively they are meditations on life, death and immortality. The essence of their teachings is that truth can be reached by faith rather than by thought, and that the spirit of God is within each of us – we need not fear death as we carry within us the promise of eternal life.”

Now this definition is misleading due to its extreme simplicity. What preceded Upanishads and what are the implications of its philosophy, is a subject important not only for the Hindus, because it is influencing the world in a number of subtle ways.

What came before.

The Vedas were the first writings (actually passed down through oral tradition, that is, by memory, and later written) of the Aryans in the Indian subcontinent. Nature worship and seeking blessings from Gods though prayers and sacrifices (through Agni, or fire God), was the core of the Vedas. Intellectual inquiry into nature and religion started in the Vedic Hymns.

Why Upanishads.

The process of evolution of Hinduism and interaction with other religions like Buddhism led to refinement of thought. Modern saints say that the discoveries made by the sages in the spiritual world led to their sharing of experiences, leading to a collection, later called Upanishads.

Major departure from the past.

Concepts of Bramha, Atma, Karma, Moksha, Advait and Om. Now you see how Upanishads are linked to modern thought? We will come to that later, in greater detail, but first some key concepts.

Key concepts.

1. Bramha/Brahma/Brahman: The universe has one unique, constant feature/element – the Bramha. This force pervades all beings and non-beings, even vacuum.Satyam jnanam anantam brahma – Truth, Knowledge, Timeless Brahma”.

2. Atma or Self: Whereas Brahma is the ultimate, unifying essence of the universe, Atman is the inmost essence and unifying principle in man. Here ‘self’ is clarified to be something beyond the current body and consciousness. It is undying and untouched by the substances of the world, uninfluenced by experiences and hidden from average person’s consciousness. Realization of this Self is what we have to aim for.

3. Realization of Bramha: One has to merge with the Brahma. How? Now comes the basic departure from earlier thought – consciousness or realization of Self and Bramha is linked. It happens simultaneously. There is a non-duality (Advait). We will come to that later.

4. Bhakti: The process of attaining the consciousness of Self and Bramha is what religion strives at, and it is also the basic goal of man.

So how is it to be done? Mundaka Upanishad says,

Not through discourse, not through the intellect, not even through study of the scriptures can the Self be realized. The Self reveals Himself to the one who longs for the Self. Those who long for the Self with all their heart are chosen by the Self as his own… Those who know the Self become the Self. Freed from the fetters of separateness, they attain to immortality.

Bhakti, or love, is one of the ways of attainment of consciousness of self, and, says Upanishads, the best way. (There are others like Gyana Yoga, or Intellectual Path).

Bhakti is also at the root of Hinduism’s acceptance of Idolatry. Let us see the linkage.

It is through love for the supreme that one meditates and seeks. (The logic is – only by seeking shall one find something.) It is not easy to set aside our worldly wisdom, our involvement with what we are doing, dabble in the paradoxes of the higher consciousness and focus our attention inwards. Hence an intense love for the supreme being (via understandable forms or avatars), is the way out.

Longing has to come first:

“From the unreal lead me to the real!
From darkness lead me to light!
From death lead me to immortality!”  -Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

Then comes the question, how best to go about it:

“Seek not the Truth by abandoning this world
Or by renouncing all your bounden duties.
This is indeed not the path of salvation.
Rather, desire ye to live a full life of a hundred years,
Actively engaged in the selfless performance
of your duties and enjoined actions at all times.
This is the only way for man’s salvation,
And not the opposite.”                                  – 
Ishavasya Upanishad

Thus Bhakti has three elements – longing for attaining, the process of intense loving and meditating and doing so within the framework of normal life.

(This last element is important, as it seeks to place religion within the legitimate goals of life. Also, it is said, an unsatisfied mind will not focus on the eternal, and so enjoy the world as well – have your cake and eat it too!)

5. Karma and Moksha: These serve as clarifications in the above process. Since Atma is unending, it carries the residue of experiences over various forms that it takes. The residue is our karma or our deeds. Good past karma helps, bad karma is a drag. Simple! Moksha is the destination – eternal bliss, merger with the parent force, realization of the Self and Bramha, freedom from the cycle of living blindly.

6. Advait: In the commentaries to Upanishads by Shankaracharya (788-820AD), Ramanuja (1027-1137AD) and Madhava (1199-1278AD), the theological question of separateness or oneness of Atman and Brahma is dealt-with extensively. Philosophically it is an important question, and needs some attention.

Consider this. In “Zen and the art of Motorcycle MaintenanceRobert S. Pirsig points out how frustrated we are when a screw of a motorcycle gets jammed. We curse it. If, however, we realize that that poor screw is a part of us, our extension, and is not doing anything deliberately to annoy us, and is only acting under the rules of physics, we would be calm and happy.

Here Persig shows the impact of Advait concept.

Advait means non-duality – there is no Us and Him, there is no Man and Nature, there is no Living and Non-living. Everything is pervaded by the force and consciousness of the Brahma – we are just not tuned to ‘realising’ the continuity of ourselves with everything else in the universe.

7. Om: The divine sound. It is the cosmic energy that mystics perceive, in form of the sound, which roughly spells out as Om or Aum. This revelation is supposed to be a big step forward, and is something like a shortcut to attaining ‘consciousness’. Just meditate on this sound, it is said, and hitch your consciousness upwards. It is not as easy as it sounds, actually, but still, its a way forward.

Key phrases.

Aham Brahmasmi–  “I am Brahman”: Vedic The Truth is within us, in our own heart. This states the identity of the inner most consciousness of the individual with the supreme Divine.
Ayam Atma Brahma– “The Self is Brahman”: This states that not only individual soul is Divine but all beings are identified with the Absolute Truth.
Tat Tvam Asi– “That art thou”: Whatever we see or think about, we are That. We are the ultimate Thou and I in all.
Prajnanam Brahma– “Knowledge is Brahman”: Supreme intelligence is present inherently within us and is capable of returning us to the Divine. Our understanding of the truth is the Truth itself.
Sarvam Kalvidam Brahma– “The whole universe is Brahman”: Not only the consciousness in you and I but also the `principle of being’ are all Divine. The entire universe is Divine, which includes our Self.
So `ham– “Here am I”: This identifies the Divinity in our Self in something that happens naturally like breathing. “So” is inhalation and “Ham” is the natural sound of exhalation.


That ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ formula is awesome – it is the ultimate empowerment tool for man, transporting us directly into the realm of the Supreme God. At a practical level, it gives the Hindus confidence in times of crisis, and also gives hope and leads to a renewal of faith.

What happened next.

These concepts became central to Hindu religion and led to the Bhakti cults of the later middle ages. The stories of Rama and Krishna and even that of Buddha were reinterpreted in the light of the Upanishadic ideals of love and self-realization. Thus Rama and Krishna, Shiva and the Mother Goddess became the God-heads on whom to concentrate your love.

Under the influence of Sufi practices (the mystical version of Islam that came to India from the 12th century onwards), mysticism without idols or God-heads also started in form of love for the nirguna or featureless God. Says Kabir, one of the greatest Bhakti saints-

“I am not a Hindu, nor a Muslim am I!
I am this body, a play of five elements; a drama
Of the spirit dancing, with joy and sorrow.”


The unintended consequences.

Some of the unfortunate developments caused by this philosophy stemmed form mis-understandings and partial-implementation-

1. Instead of raising self-belief and making Hindus karma-oriented, it led to a feudal-subservient culture, where the poor and the under-privileged were told that they deserved the punishments they were getting due to their own bad-karma of past lives.

2. It undermined learning, as if guileless bhakti was an equivalent of dumbness.

3. It led to escapism and theory of pre-determination. Nothing done by man in current life was too significant. Love for the deity was the only way out of trouble. Religion was, once again, divorced from life.

4. Priestly class made a comeback through temples. They found an institution where they could act as mediators between man and God.

5. New age Gurus, phony mysticism and marijuana are the shortcuts that can have dangerous repercussions for the society.

Influence on the world.

Upanishads influenced Buddhist philosophy, and it has a close resemblance with Zen thought.

Beyond the jargon that the world has picked up (Karma, Yoga etc), and the Gurus, western philosophy has seriously engaged itself with this thought. Here is what Wiki says on the subject:

Arthur Schopenhauer developed a philosophy that was essentially a synthesis of Hinduism with Western thought. He anticipated that the Upanishads would have a much greater influence in the West than they have had.

Recent attempts to incorporate Western philosophy into Eastern thought include the Kyoto School of philosophers, who combined the phenomenology of Husserl with the insights of Zen Buddhism. Watsuji Tetsurô, a 20th century Japanese philosopher attempted to combine the works of Søren Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger with Eastern philosophies.

The late-19th-century spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda was an elegant writer in English on broadly philosophic and psychological topics. He founded the Ramakrishna Mission, gave it a modern version of Vedanta and took it to the western world.

The 20th century Hindu guru Sri Aurobindo was influenced by German Idealism and his Integral yoga is regarded as a synthesis of Eastern and Western thought.”

Phew. So there…it wasn’t as difficult as it seemed at first, right? The internet is full of material on all these concepts. Even full texts of the various Upanishads are there to enjoy and understand.

(PS: This simplified version too can lead to unintended mis-understandings, so take care.)



About Abhishek

I will let the blog speak for itself...or, at times, for me. View all posts by Abhishek

2 responses to “Upanishads for Dummies

  • Senthil

    Boss in between your Humour(Satire) in Office pieces this is a bolt from the blue – a very thought provoking and serious piece – You should simplify it further for people below the level of dummies -like me

    • Abhishek

      It has resulted from a discussion with Anjali – wives are prone to making us spiritual. For further clarifications, religious or otherwise, contact your wife.

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