Glimpses of Vedic Literature - Upanishads



THERE is a view that while the Vedas represented primitive mentality, the Upanishads indicate a state of mature thought and subtle philosophy. This view is in contradiction to what the Upanishads themselves declare about the Vedas. The Upanishads look upon the Vedas as their authority, and their own realisations are referred to the Vedic pronouncements for determining their veracity and authenticity. In the Indian tradition, Vedas are looked upon as the ultimate source of both Karmakanda and Jnanakanda. It is true, however, that in course of time, when the Vedic texts came to be utilised predominantly for ritualistic purposes (Karmakanda), the word Jnanakanda came to be restricted to the Upanishads. It is also true that the Upanishads are written in a language less antique than the Vedic language, and the symbolism of the Upanishads is easier to understand than that of the Vedas; hence the knowledge contained in the Upanishads is more intelligible and recoverable. It is again true that the Upanishads



represent an age of renewal of Vedic knowledge by fresh realisations and contain certain lines of enrichment, subtilisation and even culmination of the Vedic tradition of seeking and methodology. This aspect of the culminating summits of the Upanishads has provided justification for the word "Vedanta" which is used to designate the Upanishads. "Vedanta" means both the end of the Veda as also the culmination of the Veda, and both these senses have their rationale. Nonetheless, when we study the Veda and the Vedanta with inner insights of the Indie tradition, two things stand out. Firstly, the heights of the Vedic realisations, as distinguished from subtleties and specialisations, were not surpassed in the Upanishads. And, secondly, the Vedas contained many elements of richness, which are not present in the Upanishads.

The word "Upanishad" means the secret teaching that leads to the ultimate truth. This word has also reference to the mode of instruction that was used by the Rishis in communicating the secret knowledge of the Upanishads. For, the tradition required that the pupil had to sit close to the teacher so that the latter could communicate to the pupil by a close and intimate psychological contact in fewest possible words or even in silence.

Even today, when the Upanishads are available in print and in the form of collections, it can be seen that the texts reveal their deeper layers of meaning only when they are studied in appropriate manner so that what is read is repeatedly contemplated and dwelt upon. We find that some of the most important statements of the Upanishads consist of a few words and they are stated with such force of compactness that they strike our consciousness with the power of deep penetration.

Four great pronouncements, viz., "That art thou"



(tattvamasi), "I am He" (so'ham), "It is not this, it not that" (neti neti) and "All this is Brahman" (sarvam khalvidam br- ahma) once heard continue to knock our consciousness and compel us to reflect again and again until their truth is caught in our experience and realisation.

According to the Muktopanishad, the total number of Uoanishads is 108, and they are derived from the four Vedas as follows:

1. 10 Upanishads from the Rigveda;

2. 19 Upanishads from the Shukia Yajurveda;

3. 32 Upanishads from the Krishna Yajurveda;

4. 16 Upanishads from the Samaveda; and

5. 31 Upanishads from the Atharvaveda.

Among these Upanishads, the following ten are considered to be the most important:

1. Isha

2. Kena.

3. Katha

4. Prashna

5. Mundaka

6. Mandukya

7. Taittiriya

8. Chhandogya

9. Aitareya

10. Brihadaranyaka

Shankaracharya has also referred to five other Upanishads in his commentaries, and they are:

(a) Shwetashwatara; (b) Mahanarayana; (c) Maitrayani;(d) Kaushitaki and (e) Nrisimhatapani.



A number of Upanishads are in poetic form, and the literary quality of the Upanishads, whether in poetry or prose, is of the highest order. Some of the Upanishads contain allegories, which provide insights into the inner and outer life of people of the Upanishadic age.

One of the instructive stories is that of Satyakama fabala which we find in the Chhandogya Upanishad and which underlines the importance of truthfulness. According to this story, Satyakama fabala, who was very much desirous tostudy under a preceptor, once approached his mother and said:

"Venerable mother, I wish to join school as a brahmacharin. Please tell me from what family I hail."

She said to him in reply:

"My child, I don't know from what family you are. In my youth, I went about in many places as a maid servant; during that period I begot you; I myself do not know from what family you hail; I am called fabala and you are called Satyakama; so call yourself Satyakama Jabala, the son of Jabala."

Then he went to Haridrumata Gautama and said:

"I wish to join your school, venerable Sir, as a brahmacharin, if you, venerable Sir, would like to accept me."

The teacher said to him:

"My dear child, from what family do you hail?"

In reply, Satyakama repeated truthfully what his mother had told him. On hearing this, the teacher said:

"Only a Brahmin can speak so truthfully. My dear child, bring here the fuel sticks. I will accept you, because you have not swerved from truthfulness."



After he had accepted him, he separated from the herd four hundred lean and weak cows and said: "My dear, go after them and tend them." Satyakama then drove forth the cows and promised to his teacher:

"Not before they have become one thousand, will I return."

So he lived far away for a number of years, and when he returned, the teacher found that the pupil had that glow on his face, which comes only when the Ultimate Reality is known.

(Chhandogya Upanishad, IV.4)

The following interesting story is taken again from the Chhandogya Upanishad. This story brings out the distinction between learning and self-knowledge. According to this story, the great Narada once approached the Rishi Sanatkumara and said:

"Teach me, venerable Sir." Sanatkumara replied:

'Tell me first what you already know; then I will impart to you what lies behind it."

Then Narada said:

"I have, 0 venerable Sir, learnt the following:

1. Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda;

2. Epic and mythological poems as the fifth Veda;

3. Grammar;

4. Rituals

5. Arithmetic;

6. Reckoning of time;

7. Economics;



8. Dialectic;

9. Politics;

10. Divine Lore;

11. Lore of Prayers;

12. Lore of Ghosts;

13. Science of Warfare;

14. Astronomy;

15. Spell against serpents; and

16. Art of the muse.

"This it is, 0 venerable Sir, what I have learnt.

"0 Venerable Sir, I am learned in scripture, but not in the lore of the Atman. I have heard from such as are like you that he who knows the Atman, overcomes sorrow; but venerable Sir, I am afflicted with sorrow; that is why you will carry me, 0 Sir, to that yonder beach beyond sorrow."

Then Sanatkumara told him:

"All that you have studied is mere name." Namda then asked his teacher:

"Is there, 0 venerable Sir, anything greater than name?"

The teacher replied:

"Well, there is one thing greater than name."

The dialogue then continued, and Sanatkumara revealed to Narada the knowledge of the Self (Atman).

(Chhandogya Upanishad/ VII. 1)


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