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Decoding The Upanishads

A gradual progression from our earlier blogs on Yoga history and Vedas is yet another intriguing topic often spoken about, albeit briefly. Did you know that the essence of each Veda is contained in the sacred Sanskrit texts known as the Upanishads?

The word Upanishad is interpreted as sitting down beside. Simply put, Upanishad comprises three parts and is translated as ‘upa’ meaning near, “ni” as in down and “shad” as to sit. It refers to how the Upanishads were taught to students in ancient India.

It is a common belief that each 108 Upanishads contains at least one hidden doctrine. Most Upanishads are in the form of a dialogue between a disciple and Guru or God. Guru clears the disciple's doubts at the disciple's request through discourse on a specific religious dogma. Hence Upanishads are the spiritual teachings of the enlightened.

These sacred scriptures are found in the final texts of the Vedic revelation. They feature towards the end of the Vedas and are therefore referred to as Vedanta (“Anta” meaning end).

At the core, the Upanishads transfer knowledge and truth directly from the teacher to the student. The knowledge here refers to the nature of the world & God.

These sacred texts reflect a deep desire to communicate spiritual contemplations experienced by ancient yogis.

The realisation of the Upanishad is found in recurring themes predominantly featuring –


Brahman is the universal knowledge of the Supreme Self (Brahman) that destroys ignorance and is considered the destination leading to a state of eternal bliss.


It refers to the individual self, an integral aspect of Brahman. In nature, he becomes the embodied self (Jivatma), experiences duality and undergoes numerous births and deaths until liberation.

Understanding these two eternal realities is considered pure knowledge, contrary to worldly knowledge, which is temporary. It is this knowledge of the Upanishads that destroys bondage & suffering and is considered eternal.


It refers to the material aspect of Brahman. She is the active principle of Brahman. Indestructible, she manages the entire creation with her immeasurable powers (Shakti’s)


Many verses in the Upanishads describe the story of creation. According to these verses, creation was an act of personal sacrifice by Brahman. In the beginning, there was Brahman only. Then he became many and manifested the world and its beings.


Devas refer to the gods that play an essential role in the creation and represent Brahman in the highest and purest state. Their hierarchy in creation depends upon their knowledge of Brahman and purity.


Organs of the human body are also considered devas. They are vulnerable to desires and evil. While they are a partial manifestation of Brahman, they remain in the body until it is alive. Upon death, they depart from the body.


describes the ritual animal or the full moon sacrifice and internal sacrifice such as Dhyana (silence). Symbolic sacrifices such as breathing, digestion and sexual intercourse are also contained in the Upanishads. The analogy here is the comparison of sacrifice to Brahman and its different aspects compared to his creation.


Aum is the sacred syllable and is correlated to Brahman. Aum represents the different states and forms of Brahman. Since Aum is Brahman himself, meditation and chanting Aum can help one become pure and attain freedom.


Death or Mrtyu is a recurring theme; it is described as one of the first manifestations of Brahman. Our world is mortal, and death devours everything. In the sacrifice of life, all beings become the offerings of the God of Death.


References to Yoga are found in several Upanishads. These frequent references are testimony that the practice of Yoga is rooted in the knowledge of the Upanishads.

Yoga Upanishads are twenty in number. They describe different types of yogas, like Raja Yoga, Laya Yoga, Mantra Yoga, and Hatha Yoga.


the Upanishads explain that when a person dies, the soul leaves the body and departs to the ancestral world. It then returns back to earth and takes another birth. The circumstances leading to rebirth are also explained in the Upanishads.


Karma in the earliest Upanishads is explained as how desire-ridden actions subject the body to impurities and lead to the rebirth of the soul in the mortal world.


is the ultimate goal of the Upanishads. Helping humans overcome their desires and ignorance is true liberation (freedom from birth and death). The importance of cultivating purity through detachment and renunciation and by contemplating upon the Self is key.


Wisdom from the Upanishads is sandwiched into short phrases and used during spiritual discussions. These short phrases are known as Mahavakyas. Some important Mahavakyas are Aham Brahmasmi ( I am Brahman) , Prajnanam Brahma ( Brahman is intelligence), Tat Tvam Asi ( You are that).

Last but not least, the Upanishads do not ignore the importance of worldly knowledge and the obligations of worldly life, without which the world cannot continue.

By renunciation of worldly life alone, one does not have to practice spirituality to achieve liberation. One can live a simple life and still achieve the same goal by leading a wholesome and virtuous life.

Hence, they urge people to practice balance and moderation and pursue both types of knowledge. One should pursue worldly knowledge (avidya) to perform obligatory duties and ensure the continuation of the world and the family lineage.

Once those obligations are met, one should pursue spiritual knowledge (vidya) and elevate one’s consciousness to greater heights.

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