[oo-pan-i-shad, oo-pah-ni-shahd]
The Upanishads (Devanagari: उपनिषद्, IAST: , also spelled "Upanisad") are Hindu scriptures that constitute the core teachings of Vedanta. They do not belong to any particular period of Sanskrit literature: the oldest, such as the Brhadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanishads, date to the late Brahmana period (around the middle of the first millennium BCE), while the latest were composed in the medieval and early modern period. The Upanishads realize monist ideas, some of which were hinted at in the earlier texts, and they have exerted an important influence on the rest of Hindu and Indian philosophy.

The philosopher and commentator Shankara is thought to have composed commentaries on eleven mukhya or principal Upanishads, those that are generally regarded as the oldest, spanning the late Vedic and Mauryan periods. The Muktika Upanishad (predates 1656) contains a list of 108 canonical Upanishads and lists itself as the final one. Dara Shikoh (d. 1659), son of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, translated fifty Upanishads into Persian. Max Müller (1879) was aware of 170. Sadhale, in his massive verse index , has drawn on 223 different extant texts that call themselves by this name. Additionally, parts of earlier texts, of Brahmanas or passages of the Vedas themselves, are sometimes considered Upanishads.


The Sanskrit term derives from upa- (nearby), ni- (at the proper place, down) and sad, that is "sitting down near" a teacher in order to receive instruction - "laying siege" to the teacher, as Schayer puts it. Monier-Williams adds that "according to native authorities upanishad means 'setting to rest ignorance by revealing the knowledge of the supreme spirit');... A gloss of the term based on Shankara's commentary on the and Upanishads equates it with Ātmavidyā, that is "knowledge of the Self", or Brahmavidyā "knowledge of Brahma". Other dictionary meanings include "esoteric doctrine" and "secret doctrine".


The Upanishads speak of a universal spirit (Brahman) and an individual soul, (Atman) and at times assert the identity of both. Brahman is the ultimate, both transcendent and immanent, the absolute infinite existence, the sum total of all that ever is, was, or shall be. The mystical nature and intense philosophical bent of the Upanishads has led to their explication in numerous manners, giving birth to three main schools of Vedanta. Shankara's exegesis of the Upanishads does not describe Brahman as the God in a monotheistic sense; he ascribes to it no limiting characteristics, not even those of being and non-being. Thus, Shankara's philosophy is named advaita, "not two" as opposed to dvaita, founded by Madhvacharya, which holds that Brahman is ultimately a personal God, to be aligned with Vishnu, or Krishna (brahmano hi pratisthaham, I am the Foundation of Brahman Bhagavad Gita 14.27). The third major school of Vedanta is Vishishtadvaita, founded by Ramanujacharya and it has some aspects in common with the other two.

The ninth chapter of the Taittiriya Upanishad says:

He who knows the Bliss of Brahman (divine consciousness)... does not distress himself with the thought "why did I not do what is good? why did I do what is evil?". Whoever knows this (bliss) regards both of these as Atman (self, soul), indeed he cherishes both as Atman. Such, indeed, is the Upanishad, the secret knowledge of Brahman.

The key phrase of the Upanishads, to Advaita Vedanta, is तत् त्वं अिस "Tat Tvam Asi" (That thou art). Vedantins believe that in the end, the ultimate, formless, inconceivable Brahman is the same as our soul, Atman. We only have to realize it through discrimination. (However, interpretations of this phrase differ.) Verses 6, 7 & 8 of Isha Upanishad:

Whoever sees all beings in the soul and the soul in all beings...
What delusion or sorrow is there for one who sees unity?
It has filled all. It is radiant, incorporeal, invulnerable...
Wise, intelligent, encompassing, self-existent,
It organizes objects throughout eternity.

The Upanishads also contain the first and most definitive explications of the divine syllable Aum or OM, the cosmic vibration that underlies all existence. The mantra "Aum Shanti Shanti Shanti" (the soundless sound, peace, peace, peace)is often found in the Upanishads. Devotion to God is foreshadowed in Upanishadic literature, and was later realized by texts such as the Bhagavad Gita.

List of Upanishads

"Principal" Upanishads

The following list includes the eleven "principal" (mukhya) Upanishads commented upon by Shankara, and accepted as shruti by most Hindus. Each is associated with one of the four Vedas (Rigveda (ṚV), Samaveda (SV), White Yajurveda (ŚYV), Black Yajurveda (KYV), Atharvaveda (AV));

  1. (ṚV)
  2. (ŚYV)
  3. (KYV)
  4. (SV)
  5. (SV)
  6. (ŚYV)
  7. (KYV)
  8. (KYV)
  9. (AV)
  10. (AV)
  11. (AV)

The and Upanishads are sometimes added. All these date from before the Common Era. From linguistic evidence, the oldest among them are the and Chāndogya Upanishads. The Jaiminīya Upaniṣadbrāhmaṇa, belonging to the late Vedic Sanskrit period, may also be included. Of nearly the same age are the Aitareya, Kauṣītaki and Taittirīya Upaniṣads, while the remnant date from the time of transition from Vedic to Classical Sanskrit.

The older Upanishads are associated with Vedic Charanas, Shakhas or schools; the Aitareya and Upanishads with the Shakala shakha, the Upanishad with the Kauthuma shakha, the Kena Upanishad with the Jaiminiya shakha, the Upanishad with the Caraka-Katha shakha, the and Upanishads with the Taittiriya shakha, the Upanishad with the Maitrayani shakha, the and Upanishads with the Vajasaneyi Madhyandina shakha, and the and Upanishads with the Shaunaka shakha.

In the Muktika Upanishad's list of 108 Upanishads the first 10 are grouped as mukhya "principal". 21 are grouped as Sāmānya Vedānta "common Vedanta", 23 as Sannyāsa, 9 as Shākta, 13 as Vaishnava, 14 as Shaiva and 17 as Yoga Upanishads.

Shakta Upanishads

Later Upanisads are often highly sectarian: this was "one of the strategies used by sectarian movements to legitimate their own texts through granting them the nominal status of Śruti. For the most part, the canonical Shakta Upanishads are sectarian tracts reflecting doctrinal and interpretative differences between the two principal sects of Srividya upasana (a major Tantric form of Shaktism). As a result, the many extant listings of "authentic" Shakta Upanisads vary in content, reflecting the sectarian bias of their compilers:

"Past efforts to construct lists of Shakta Upanisads have left us no closer to understanding either their 'location' in Tantric tradition or their place within the Vedic corpus. [...] At stake for the Tantric is not the authority of sruti per se, which remains largely undisputed, but rather its correct interpretation. For non-Tantrics, [it is a text's] Tantric contents that brings into question its identity as an Upanisad. At issue is the text's classification as sruti and thus its inherent authority as Veda."

Of the texts listed in the Muktika Upanishad nine are classified as Shakta Upanishads:

  1. Sītā (AV)
  2. (AV)
  3. Devī (AV)
  4. Tripurātapani (AV)
  5. Tripura (RV)
  6. Bhāvana (AV)
  7. Saubhāgya (RV)
  8. Sarasvatīrahasya (KYV)
  9. (RV)

The list excludes several notable and widely used Shakta Upanisads, including the , the and the .


Further reading

  • Edmonds, I.G. Hinduism. New York: Franklin Watts, 1979.
  • Eknath Easwaran
  • Embree, Ainslie T., ed. The Hindu Tradition. New York: Random House, 1966.
  • Merrett, Frances, ed. The Hindu World. London: MacDonald and Co, 1985.
  • Pandit, Bansi. The Hindu Mind. Glen Ellyn, IL: B&V Enterprises, 1998.
  • Smith, Huston. The Illustrated World’s Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions. New York: Labrynth Publishing, 1995.
  • Wangu, Madhu Bazaz. Hinduism: World Religions. New York: Facts on File, 1991.

External links

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