Upanishads is the Sanskrit for “sit at the feet of”; the name given to more than a hundred separate texts that make up the last part of the VEDA, the most sacred of Hindu writings. Their most important themes are two notions central to H INDUISM, the self or ATMAN and the BRAHMAN or universal reality.
The Upanishads are also known as the VEDANTA, Sanskrit for “the end of the Veda.” They preserve esoteric knowledge, originally shared with only selected groups of gifted students. Eventually these writings became the foundational texts for the most signiﬁ cant schools of orthodox Indian philosophy, the Vedanta schools.
The Upanishads may be seen as records of conversations and discussions about the most basic questions of existence. To judge from the texts themselves, these discussions were not limited to priests but included both nobles for whom the priests performed RITUALS and prominent women. Given their origin, the texts cannot be expected to have a tight structure or a uniform perspective.
As Vedic literature, the Upanishads were occasioned by the performance of Vedic rituals. They stand in a tradition that sought to explain how Vedic SACRIFICES could affect the world and thus beneﬁ t the sponsor of the sacriﬁ ce. But most Upanishads have very little concern for the actual rituals themselves. They concentrate instead on the topics of the self and the world, or rather, the realities that underlie the self and the world that we consciously perceive, atman and brahman, respectively.
The sages of the Upanishads use several different methods in exploring these topics. They operate with a rich and complex series of classiﬁ cations and draw numerous correlations between the self and the world. They also construct series in which each item presumably requires or depends upon the next; the eventual goal is to work back to what all items require. Another technique is to develop special interpretations of sacred formulae and syllables. For example, the relatively brief Mandukya Upanishad contains reﬂ ections on the parts of the sacred syllable “om”—in Sanskrit, a+u+m. The ﬁrst element is the state of being awake, the second the state of dreaming, and the third the state of deep, dreamless sleep. Beyond these three is a fourth state, pure atman or self, which is the word “om” in its entirety.
Because the Upanishads are compilations, they support many different points of view. Different schools of thought have tried to give a systematic presentation of Upanishadic teachings, but in doing so they have given opposite interpretations of even the very same verse. A good example is the famous saying, tat tvam asi ( Chandogya Upanishad 6.8–16). For nondualists, such as the philosopher SANKARA, this saying has three words, tat tvam asi, “you are that.” The reality that underlies the self that we experience (the atman) and the world that we experience (brahman) are the same. For dualists, however, this verse has only two words, tattvam asi, “Indeed, you are.” On their reading, the verse asserts that a self or soul (atman) exists distinct and independent of universal reality (brahman). The most common view interprets the Upanishads from a nondualist perspective.