Vedas and Upanishads
they did use some writing with pictographic symbols at Mohenjo-daro,
they were not extensive nor alphabetic nor have they been deciphered yet, and
the Indo-European Sanskrit which did develop in India is probably quite
different. Nevertheless the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley in what
is now Pakistan did borrow many ideas from Mesopotamia and is considered the
third civilization to develop. Two seals of the Mohenjo-daro type were
discovered at Elam and Mesopotamia, and a cuneiform inscription was unearthed
pastoral villages that spread out east of Elam through Iran and
Baluchistan prepared the way for the cities that were to develop around the Indus
River, particularly at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. By about 3000 BC they were
building mud-brick houses; burials in the houses included funereal objects;
and pottery had fine designs and the potters' marks. After 2500 BC farmers
moved out into the alluvial plain of the Indus River valley and achieved
full-sized villages using copper and bronze pins, knives, and axes; figurines
of women and cattle indicate probable religious attitudes.
urban phase began about 2300 BC and lasted for about six hundred years with
elaborate cities like Mohenjo-daro (called locally Mound of the
Dead), which was excavated in the 1920s. This city and others not yet
excavated had about 40,000 inhabitants congregated in well built houses with
private showers and toilets that drained into municipal sewer lines.
Suffering from occasional flooding by the Indus, Mohenjo-daro was rebuilt
seven times. The largest structures were the elevated granary and the great
bath or swimming pool which was 12 by 7 meters. Around the pool were dressing
rooms and private baths.
people of the Harappan culture did not seem to be very warlike, although they
hunted wild game and domesticated cattle, sheep, and goats. Wheat and barley
were the main food supplemented by peas, sesame, and other vegetables and
fruits, beef, mutton, pork, eggs, fish, and milk. Compared to other ancient
civilizations, the houses were of nearly equal size, indicating a more
egalitarian social structure. The potter's wheel and carts were used;
children played with miniature toy carts. Cotton, perhaps first used here,
and wool were made into clothing. A bronze figurine was found of an
expressive dancing girl with her hand on her hip, naked except for jewelry.
The numerous figurines of the Mother Goddess indicate a likely source for
what later became the Shakti worship of the feminine power in India.
A male god in a yoga posture, depicted with three faces and two horns, has
been identified with Shiva, another important figure in later Indian religion.
Phallic lingams, also associated with Shiva, have been found. A civilization
that endured dangerous flooding for six hundred years very likely had a
strong religion to help hold people together.
written histories the decline of this civilization is subject to much
speculation. The traditional theory is that the Aryans invaded from the
northwest. Although this is likely, the decline of Harappan culture was quite
gradual and indicates problems beyond foreign conquest. One theory is
deforestation, because of all the wood needed for the kilns to make the
bricks used to keep out the flood waters that gradually brought about
salinization of the soil, as it had to Sumer over centuries, so that the
Harappan culture had greatly declined by 1900 BC.
a more comprehensive explanation comes from an analysis of the consequences
of the extensive herds of cattle that indicate overgrazing and a general
degradation of the ecosystem, including salinization of water supplies. This
led farmers to move on to greener pastures, leaving behind abandoned villages
and depopulated cities. Even though fodder was probably grown to feed the
cattle, this would not have been enough; and the overgrazing by the bullocks
and milk cows could have caused the surrounding land to deteriorate. By 1500
BC the Harappan civilization had faded away into a culture that was spreading
throughout India with new ideas from the west.
traditional theory, well documented by the ancient hymns of the Vedas, is that a people calling themselves
Aryans conquered the native peoples of India and destroyed
their forts. Because of language similarities these Aryans are associated
particularly with the Iranians and even further back with the origins of the
Indo-European language group. The general consensus seems to be that this
culture must have begun somewhere in the Russian steppes and Central Asia
about 2000 BC, though some have put their origin in Lithuania because of
similarity to that language. The branch of these speakers, who came to India
under the name Aryans, which means "noble ones," is the
Indo-Iranian group. In fact "Iran" derives from the Persian cognate
of the word for Aryan. Other branches spread into Greece and western Asia as
Hittites, Kassites, and Mitanni. A rock inscription found at Boghaz Koi dated
about 1400 BC, commemorating a treaty between the Mitanni and Hittites,
invokes the Aryan gods Indra, Varuna, Mitra, and the twins Nasatya (Asvins).
ancient writings of the Persian Avesta
and the Hindu Vedas share many
gods and beliefs. Eventually they must have split, causing later authors to
demonize the divinities of their adversaries. In early Hindu writings the asuras were respected gods, but later
they became the demons most hated, while Ahura Mazda became the chief god of
the Zoroastrians. (Persian often uses an h where Sanskrit uses an s, such as haoma for soma.) On the other hand the Hindu term for divinities,
devas, was used by Zoroastrians to describe the devils from which even our
English word is derived. Some scholars have concluded that the ancient Hindus
did not want to admit that they came from Iran, and therefore the origin of
the Aryans is never mentioned in the ancient texts, although they frankly
boast of their conquest over the indigenous Dasas or Dasyus in India.
word Veda means knowledge, and
the Vedas are considered the
most sacred scripture of Hinduism referred to as sruti, meaning what was heard by or revealed to the rishis or seers. The most holy hymns and
mantras put together into four collections called the Rig, Sama,
Yajur, and Atharva Vedas are difficult to date,
because they were passed on orally for about a thousand years before they
were written down. More recent categories of Vedas
include the Brahmanas or
manuals for ritual and prayer, the Aranyakas
or forest texts for religious hermits, and the Upanishads or mystical discourses.
hymns of the Rig Veda are
considered the oldest and most important of the Vedas, having been composed between 1500 BC and the time
of the great Bharata war about 900 BC. More than a thousand hymns are
organized into ten mandalas or circles of which the second through the
seventh are the oldest and the tenth is the most recent. The Hindu tradition
is that even the Vedas were
gradually reduced from much more extensive and ancient divine revelations but
were perverted in the recent dark age of Kaliyuga.
As the only writings from this ancient period of India, they are considered
the best source of knowledge we have; but the ethical doctrines seem to have
improved from the ancient hymns to the mystical Upanishads.
the Rig Veda is dominated by hymns praising the
Aryan gods for giving them victories and wealth plundered from the local
Dasas through warfare. The Aryans apparently used their advances in weaponry
and skill in fighting to conquer the agricultural and tribal peoples of the
fading Harappan culture. Numerous hymns refer to the use of horses and
chariots with spokes which must have given their warriors a tremendous
advantage. Spears, bows, arrows, and iron weapons are also mentioned. As a
nomadic and pastoral culture glorifying war, they established a new social
structure of patriarchal families dominated by warriors and, eventually with
the power of the Vedas
themselves, by priests also.
The Rig Veda
does mention assemblies, but these were probably of the warrior elite, which
may have had some controlling influence on the kings and the tribal priest
called a purohita. The gods
worshiped resemble the Indo-European gods and were headed by the powerful
Indra, who is often credited with destroying ninety forts. Also popular was
Agni, the fire-god considered a messenger of the gods. Varuna and Mitra, the
gods of the night and day sky, have been identified with the Greek Uranos and
the Persian Mithras respectively. Dyaus, who is not mentioned nearly as
often, has been correlated with the Greek Zeus. Surya the sun-god is referred
to as the eye of Varuna and the son of Dyaus and rides through the sky on his
chariot led by his twin sons, the Asvins who represent his rays; Ushas the
dawn is his wife or daughter. Maruts are storm-gods shaped by Rudra, who may
have been one of the few indigenous deities adopted by the Aryans. Like the
Iranian Avesta, the Rig Veda
refers to the thirty-three gods.
the hymns of the Rig Veda praise the gods and ask them for
worldly benefits such as wealth, health, long life, protection, and victory
over the Dasa peoples.
self-reliant, mighty and triumphant,
brought low the dear head of the wicked Dasas.
Indra the Vritra-slayer, Fort-destroyer,
scattered the Dasa hosts who dwelt in darkness.
For men hath he created earth and waters,
and ever helped the prayer of him who worships.
To him in might the Gods have ever yielded,
to Indra in the tumult of battle.
When in his arms they laid the bolt,
he slaughtered the Dasyus
and cast down their forts of iron.1
call upon Brihaspati or Brahmanaspati, who has been related to a Hittite
thunder-god, to avenge the sinner and protect them from the deceitful and
wicked man. The Aryans did have a concept of eternal law called rita, which the immortal Agni in serving
the gods is said to never break (Rig
In Rig Veda
III:34:9 Indra killed the Dasyus and "gave protection to the Aryan
color." Not only did the Aryans shamelessly pray for booty in war, but
they based their militarily won supremacy on the lightness of their skin
color compared to the dark colors of the native Dasyus. They arrogantly
proclaimed, "Let those who have no weapons suffer sorrow." (Rig Veda
is he when conquering and when slaying:
'tis he who wins cattle in the combat.
When Indra hardens his indignation
all that is fixed and all that moves fear him.
Indra has won all kine, all gold, all horses, -
Maghavan, he who breaks forts in pieces;2
is praised for killing thousands of the abject tribes of Dasas with his arrow
and taking great vengeance with "murdering weapons." (Rig Veda
IV:28:3-4) One hymn mentions sending thirty thousand Dasas "to
slumber" and another hymn sixty thousand slain. A hymn dedicated to the
weapons of war (Rig Veda VI:75) refers to a warrior
"armed with mail," using a bow to win cattle and subdue all
regions, "upstanding in the car the skillful charioteer guides his strong
horses on whithersoe'er he will." The arrows had iron mouths and shafts
"with venom smeared" that "not one be left alive." Hymn
VII:83 begins, "Looking to you and your alliance, O ye men, armed with
broad axes they went forward, fain for spoil. Ye smote and slew his Dasa and
his Aryan enemies."
occasionally did the authors of these hymns look to their own sins.
from sins committed by our fathers,
from those wherein we have ourselves offended.
O king, loose, like a thief who feeds the cattle,
as from the cord a calf, set free Vasishtha.
Not our own will betrayed us, but seduction,
thoughtlessness, Varuna! wine, dice or anger.
The old is near to lead astray the younger:
even sleep removes not all evil-doing.3
to the frogs compares the repetitions of the priests around the soma bowl to
the croaking of the frogs around a pond after the rains come. (Rig Veda
basic belief of the prayers and sacrifices is that they will help them to
gain their desires and overcome their enemies, as in Rig Veda
VIII:31:15: "The man who, sacrificing, strives to win the heart of
deities will conquer those who worship not." Some awareness of a higher
law seems to be dawning in the eighth book in hymn 75: "The holy law
hath quelled even mighty men of war. Break ye not off our friendship, come
and set me free." However, the enemies are now identified with the
Asuras and still are intimidated by greater weapons: "Weaponless are the
Asuras, the godless: scatter them with thy wheel, impetuous hero." (Rig Veda VIII:85:9)
the hymns refer to the intoxicating soma juice, which is squeezed from the
mysterious soma plant and drank. All of the hymns of the ninth book of the Rig Veda
are dedicated to the purifying soma, which is even credited with making them
feel immortal, probably because of its psychedelic influence. The first hymn
in this book refers to the "iron-fashioned home" of the Aryans.
first book of the Rig Veda the worshipers recognize Agni as
the guard of eternal law (I:1:8) and Mitra and Varuna as lovers and
cherishers of law who gained their mighty power through law (I:2:8). In the
24th hymn they pray to Varuna, the wise Asura, to loosen the bonds of their
sins. However, the prayers for riches continue, and Indra is thanked for
winning wealth in horses, cattle, and gold by his chariot. Agni helps to slay
the many in war by the hands of the few, "preserving our wealthy patrons
with thy succors, and ourselves." (Rig
Veda I:31:6, 42) Indra helped
win the Aryan victory:
much invoked, hath slain Dasyus and Simyus,
after his wont, and laid them low with arrows.
The mighty thunderer with his fair-complexioned friends
won the land, the sunlight, and the waters.4
of the waters was essential for agricultural wealth. Indra is praised for
crushing the godless races and breaking down their forts. (Rig Veda
tenth and last book of the Rig Veda some new themes are explored, but
the Dasyus are still condemned for being "riteless, void of sense,
inhuman, keeping alien laws," and Indra still urges the heroes to slay
the enemies; his "hand is prompt to rend and burn, O hero thunder-armed:
as thou with thy companions didst destroy the whole of Sushna's brood."
(Rig Veda X:22)
unusual hymn is on the subject of gambling with dice. The speaker regrets
alienating his wife, wandering homeless in constant fear and debt, envying
others' well-ordered homes. He finally warns the listener not to play with
dice but recommends cultivating his land. (Rig
Veda X:34) Hymn 50 of this most
recent last book urges Indra to win riches with valor "in the war for
water on their fields." Now the prayer is that "we Gods may quell
our Asura foemen." (Rig Veda X:53:4) A wedding ceremony is
indicated in a hymn of Surya's bridal, the daughter of the sun. (Rig Veda
first indication of the caste system is outlined in the hymn to Purusha, the
embodied human spirit, who is one-fourth creature and three-fourths eternal
life in heaven.
Brahmin was his mouth,
of both his arms was the Rajanya made.
His thighs became the Vaisya,
from his feet the Sudra was produced.5
Brahmin caste was to be the priests and teachers; the Rajanya represents the
king, head of the warrior or Kshatriya caste; Vaishyas are the merchants,
craftsmen, and farmers; and the Sudras are the workers. In hymn 109 the brahmachari or student is mentioned as
engaged in duty as a member of God's own body.
The hymn to liberality is a breath of fresh air:
riches of the liberal never waste away,
while he who will not give finds none to comfort him.
The man with food in store who,
when the needy comes in miserable case
begging for bread to eat,
Hardens his heart against him -
even when of old he did him service -
find not one to comfort him.6
later we realize that the priests are asking for liberality to support their
own services, for the "plowing makes the food that feeds us," and
thus a speaking (or paid) Brahmin is better than a silent one.
The power of speech is honored in two hymns.
like men cleansing corn-flour in a cribble,
the wise in spirit have created language,
Friends see and recognize the marks of friendship:
their speech retains the blessed sign imprinted.7
125 of the tenth mandala Vak or speech claims to have penetrated earth and
heaven, holding together all existence.
philosophical hymn of creation is found in Rig
Veda X:129. Beginning from
non-being when nothing existed, not even water nor death, that One breathless
breathed by itself. At first this All was concealed by darkness and formless
chaos, but by heat (tapas) that
One came into existence. Thus arose desire, the primal seed and germ of
Spirit. Sages searching in their hearts discovered kinship with the
non-existent. A ray of light extended across the darkness, but what was known
above or below? Creative fertility was there with energy and action, but who
really knows where this creation came from? For the gods came after the
world's creation. Who could know the source of this creation and how it was
produced? The one seeing it in the highest heaven only knows, or maybe it
The Sama Veda
contains the melodies or music for the chants used from the Rig Veda
for the sacrifices; almost all of its written verses are traceable to the Rig Veda,
mostly the eighth and ninth books and most to Indra, Agni, or Soma. These are
considered the origin of Indian music and probably stimulated great artistry
to make the sacrifices worthwhile to their patrons who supported the priests.
The Sama Veda helped to train the musicians and
functioned as a hymnal for the religious rites.
animal sacrifices did not use the Sama
chants, but they were used extensively in agricultural rites and in the soma
rituals for which the plant with inebriating and hallucinogenic qualities was
imported from the mountains to the heartland of India. By this time the
priests were specializing in different parts of the sacrifices as
professional musicians and singers increased. The singing was like the
strophe, antistrophe, and epode of the Greek chorus and used the seven tones
of the European scale. By the tenth century BC the Aryans had invaded most of
northern India, and once again trade resumed with Babylon and others in the
near east. As the sacrifices became more complex, the priestly class used them
to enhance their role in the society. Many considered this musical portion
the most important of the Vedas.
also following many of the hymns of the Rig
Veda, the Yajur Veda
deviates more from the original text in its collection of the ritual formulas
for the priests to use in the sacrifices, which is what yaja means. It explains how to construct
the altars for new and full-moon sacrifices and other ceremonies. The Yajur Veda has two collections or samhitas called White and Black, the
latter being more obscure in its meanings.
time (10th century BC and after) the Aryan conquest has proceeded from the
northwest and Punjab to cover northern India, especially the Ganges valley.
The caste system was in place, and as the warriors settled down to ruling
over an agricultural society, the role of the priests and their ceremonies
gained influence and justified the Aryan ways to the native workers, who
labored for the farmers, merchants, craftsmen, who in turn were governed by
their kings and priests. Land and wealth were accumulated in the hands of a
few ruling families, and with food scarce the indigenous people were enslaved
or had to sell their labor cheap to the ruling classes.
instituting more elaborate sacrifices for their wealthy patrons, the priests
could grow both in numbers and wealth as well. The famous horse sacrifice was
not celebrated often but was used by a king to show his lordship over
potential adversaries, who were invited to acknowledge this overlordship in
the ritual. The parts of the horse symbolize different aspects of the
universe so that tremendous power is invoked. The complicated and obscure
rituals were presided over by the priests - the three symbols of the lotus
leaf, the frog (for rain), and the golden man (for the sun) representing the
Aryan dominance over the land and waters of India and the natural powers that
soma sacrifice was the most important and could last up to twelve years.
Since the soma plant was imported from distant mountains, it had to be
purchased. A ritual drama re-enacted this business and aggressive Aryan
history by showing the buyer snatching back the calf, which was paid for the
soma plant, after the transaction occurs. The soma plant was then placed in a
cart and welcomed as an honored guest and king at the sacrifice. Animals were
slain and cut up in the rites before their meat was eaten. After various
offerings and other ceremonies the soma juice is poured and toasted to
different gods, and finally the text lists the sacrificial fees, usually
goats, cows, gold, clothes, and food.
ceremonies supported the inauguration of kings. The priests tried to keep
themselves above the warrior caste though by praising soma as king of the
Brahmins. Waters were drawn from various rivers to sprinkle on the king and
indicate the area of his kingdom, and he strode in each direction to signify
his sovereignty. The king was anointed by the royal priest, giving some water
to his son, the designated prince, and ritually enacting a raid against a
kinsman's cattle, once again affirming their history of conquest. The booty
was taken and divided into three parts for the priest, those who drank, and
the original owner. A ritual dice game was played, which the king was allowed
to win. The king then rode out in his chariot and was publicly worshiped as a
rites were common and regular, and chariot races were no doubt popular at
some of the festivals. The Purusha (person) sacrifice symbolized human
sacrifice, which may refer back to the time when a hunting and pastoral
people did not allow their enemies to live because of the shortage of food.
However, in an agricultural society more labor was needed and could produce
surplus food. The Purusha sacrifice recognized 184 professional crafts and
the highest sacrifice was considered to be the Sarvamedha in which the
sacrificer offered all of his possessions as the fee at the end of the
ceremony. The last chapter of the Yajur
Veda is actually the Isha Upanishad, expressing
the mystical view that the supreme spirit pervades everything.
society was highly patriarchal, and the status of women declined, especially
as men often married non-Aryan women. Women did not attend public assemblies
and could not inherit property on their own. Polyandry was discouraged, but
polygamy, adultery, and prostitution were generally accepted except during
certain rituals. A sacrificer was not allowed to seek a prostitute on the
first day of the sacrificial fire, nor the wife of another on the second day,
nor his own wife on the third day.
priests placed themselves at the top of the caste system as they supervised a
religion most of the people could not understand without them. After the Atharva Veda
was accepted, each sacrifice required at least four priests, one on each side
of the fire using the Rig, Sama, Yajur,
and Atharva Vedas, plus their assistants. After the
wars of conquest were completed and the warrior caste settled down to rule,
the priests were needed to sustain social stability. Yet in these times the
caste system was much more flexible, as it is indicated that one should not
ask about the caste of a learned man. The Brahmins, as the priest caste was
called, had three obligations or debts to pay back in life: they paid back
the seers by studying the Vedas,
the gods by offering sacrifices, and their fathers by raising a family.
their European ancestors, the Aryan warriors considered themselves above
laboring for food and so organized society that food would be provided for
them. One ethical duty later found in the epics was that of taking care of
refugees, probably because as marauding raiders they had often been refugees
themselves. The priests assured their livelihood by making sure that penance
through religious ritual was a prime social value.
latest and fourth Veda is in a
different category. For a long time many referred to only three Vedas, by which complete ceremonies
could be conducted with the Rig
hotr reciting, the Sama udgatri
singing, and the Yajur adhvaryu performing the ritual. Even
later the Atharvan Brahmin's
part was often performed unaccompanied by the other three priests. Also much
of it draws from the customs and beliefs of pre-Aryan or pre-Vedic India. The
Atharva Veda is much longer than the Sama and Yajur and only about a sixth of it is from the Rig Veda.
The Atharva Veda
is primarily magical spells and incantations. The line between prayer and
magic and between white and black magic is usually drawn by ethical
considerations. The bheshajani
are for healing and cures using herbs to treat fever, leprosy, jaundice,
dropsy, and other diseases. The Aryans looked down on doctors and medicine,
probably because the natives were more skilled in these than they. Other more
positive spells were for successful childbirth, romance, fecundity, virility,
negative or bewitching spells were called abhichara
and attempted to cause diseases or harm to enemies; often they were aimed at
serpents and demons. The sorcery is ascribed to one of the authors, Angiras,
whose name is related to Agni (Latin ignis),
the divine messenger and possibly a distant cognate of the Greek word for
messenger, angel. Another author, Atharvan, derives from the old Iranian
root, atar, meaning fire. The
third author, Bhrigu, was the name of a tribe which opposed Sudas in the
battle of ten kings in the Rig Veda, and his name has also been related
to a Greek word for fire. The fourth author is Brahmin, the name which was
given to the Atharvan priest,
which eventually became so sacred that it was used as a name not only for the
priestly caste but even for God the Creator.
addition to physicians the Vedic Aryans also held in contempt Atharvan astrologers as well as magic,
but from this came not only astrology but also the beginning of Ayurvedic
medicine. Like most ancient peoples, they also believed that the main cause
of disease was evil spirits, possession, or what we would call psychological
factors. The magical elements, particularly the abhicara, and the subjects of healing, herbs, and cooking,
which were mostly in the woman's domain, made the Atharva Veda
obnoxious to many Vedic priests. However, these rituals were very popular,
and the Brahmin priest's share of the fees soon became equal to the other
three priests' combined. Eventually this shamanic tradition had to be
incorporated into the Vedic religion, especially later when it faced the new
challenges of Jainism and Buddhism.
Brahmin caste became even stronger, and their wealth can be seen by the
belief that the cow by right belonged exclusively to them. Taxes were
collected probably by the warrior Kshatriya caste from the Vaisya artisans,
farmers, and merchants. The Sudra workers were too poor to be taxed, and the
Brahmins were exempt. One verse (Atharva
Veda 3:29:3) describes heaven
as "where a tax is not paid by a weak man for a stronger."
ceremonies are included. Here is a brief example:
he; you are she.
I am song; you are verse.
I am heaven; you are earth.
Let us two dwell together here;
let us generate children.8
to the Atharva Veda (5:17:8-9), a Brahmin could take a
wife from the husband of any other caste simply by seizing her hand. Book 18
contains only funeral verses. There are coronation rites for kings, though
the prayer is that the people will choose the king, usually already selected
by heredity or the council. Philosophy and abstraction are creeping in, as
there are two hymns to the deity of time, and kama (love, desire, pleasure) is praised as "the
first seed of the mind" that generated heaven. (Atharva Veda 19:52)
conclude this section on the Atharva
Veda with some selections from
its beautiful hymn to the Earth as a sample of the more positive expression
of the Vedas:
Truth, unyielding Order, Consecration,
Ardor and Prayer and Holy Ritual
uphold the Earth, may she, the ruling Mistress
of what has been and what will come to be,
for us spread wide a limitless domain.
Untrammeled in the midst of men, the Earth,
adorned with heights and gentle slopes and plains,
bears plants and herbs of various healing powers.
May she spread wide for us, afford us joy!
On whom are ocean, river, and all waters,
on whom have sprung up food and plowman's crops,
on whom moves all that breathes and stirs abroad -
Earth, may she grant to us the long first draught!
To Earth belong the four directions of space.
On her grows food; on her the plowman toils.
She carries likewise all that breathes and stirs.
Earth, may she grant us cattle and food in plenty!
On whom the men of olden days roamed far,
on whom the conquering Gods smote the demons,
the home of cattle, horses, and of birds,
may Earth vouchsafe to us good fortune and glory!
Bearer of all things, hoard of treasures rare,
sustaining mother, Earth the golden-breasted
who bears the Sacred Universal Fire,
whose spouse is Indra - may she grant us wealth!
Limitless Earth, whom the Gods, never sleeping,
protect forever with unflagging care,
may she exude for us the well-loved honey,
shed upon us her splendor copiously!
Earth, who of yore was Water in the oceans,
discerned by the Sages' secret powers,
whose immortal heart, enwrapped in Truth,
abides aloft in the highest firmament,
may she procure for us splendor and power,
according to her highest royal state!
On whom the flowing Waters, ever the same,
course without cease or failure night and day,
may she yield milk, this Earth of many streams,
and shed on us her splendor copiously!
May Earth, whose measurements the Asvins marked,
over whose breadth the foot of Vishnu strode,
whom Indra, Lord of power, freed from foes,
stream milk for me, as a mother for her son!
Your hills, O Earth, your snow-clad mountain peaks,
your forests, may they show us kindliness!
Brown, black, red, multifarious in hue
and solid is this vast Earth, guarded by Indra.
Invincible, unconquered, and unharmed,
I have on her established my abode.
Impart to us those vitalizing forces
that come, O Earth, from deep within your body,
your central point, your navel, purify us wholly.
The Earth is mother; I am son of Earth.
The Rain-giver is my father; may he shower on us blessings!
The Earth on which they circumscribe the altar,
on which a band of workmen prepare the oblation,
on which the tall bright sacrificial posts
are fixed before the start of the oblation -
may Earth, herself increasing, grant us increase!
That man, O Earth, who wills us harm, who fights us,
who by his thoughts or deadly arms opposes,
deliver him to us, forestalling action.
All creatures, born from you, move round upon you.
You carry all that has two legs, three, or four.
To you, O Earth, belong the five human races,
those mortals upon whom the rising sun
sheds the immortal splendor of his rays.
May the creatures of earth, united together,
let flow for me the honey of speech!
Grant to me this boon, O Earth.
Mother of plants and begetter of all things,
firm far-flung Earth, sustained by Heavenly Law,
kindly and pleasant is she. May we ever
dwell on her bosom, passing to and fro!...
Do not thrust us aside from in front or behind,
from above or below! Be gracious, O Earth.
Let us not encounter robbers on our path.
Restrain the deadly weapons!
As wide a vista of you as my eye
may scan, O Earth, with the kindly help of Sun,
so widely may my sight be never dimmed
in all the long parade of years to come!
Whether, when I repose on you, O Earth,
I turn upon my Right side or my
or whether, extended flat upon my back,
I meet your pressure from head to foot,
be gentle, Earth! You are the couch of all!
Whatever I dig up of you, O Earth,
may you of that have quick replenishment!
O purifying One, may my thrust never
reach Right into your vital
points, your heart!
Your circling seasons, nights succeeding days,
your summer, O Earth, your splashing rains, your autumn,
your winter and frosty season yielding to spring---
may each and all produce for us their milk!...
From your numberless tracks by which mankind may travel,
your roads on which move both chariots and wagons
your paths which are used by the good and the bad,
may we choose a way free from foes and robbers!
May you grant us the blessing of all that is wholesome!
She carries in her lap the foolish and also the wise.
She bears the death of the wicked as well as the good.
She lives in friendly collaboration with the boar,
offering herself as sanctuary to the wild pig....
Peaceful and fragrant, gracious to the touch,
may Earth, swollen with milk, her breasts overflowing,
grant me her blessing together with her milk!
The Maker of the world sought her with oblations
when she was shrouded in the depth of the ocean.
A vessel of gladness, long cherished in secret,
the earth was revealed to mankind for their joy.
Primeval Mother, disperser of men,
you, far-flung Earth, fulfill all our desires.
Whatever you lack, may the Lord of creatures,
the First-born of Right, supply to you fully!
May your dwellings, O Earth, free from sickness and wasting,
flourish for us! Through a long life, watchful,
may we always offer to you our tribute!
O Earth, O Mother, dispose my lot
in gracious fashion that I be at ease.
In harmony with all the powers of Heaven
set me, O Poet, in grace and good fortune!9
about 900 and 700 BC the Brahmanas
were written in prose as sacerdotal commentaries on the four Vedas to guide the practices of the
sacrifices and give explanations often mythical and fanciful for these
customs. However, their limited focus of justifying the priestly actions in
the sacrifices restricted the themes of these first attempts at imaginative
literature. Nevertheless they do give us information about the social customs
of this period and serve as a transition from the Vedas to the Aranyakas
and the mystical Upanishads.
caste system based on color (varna)
was now established, though not as rigidly as it became later. The essential
difference was between the light-skinned Aryans, who made up the top three
castes of the priestly Brahmins, warrior Kshatriyas, and artisan Vaishyas,
and the dark-skinned Dasas, who were the servant Sudras. Sudras, like women,
could not own property, and only rarely did they rise above service
positions. The Vaishyas were the basis of the economic system of trade,
crafts, and farming. The Vaishyas were considered inferior by the Brahmins
and Kshatriyas, and a female was generally not allowed to marry below her
caste, though it was common for a male to do so. Even a Brahmin's daughter
was not supposed to marry a Kshatriya.
rivalry for prestige and power was between the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas or
rajanyas. Brahmins often held
debates on Brahman and other religious issues. Janaka, a rajanya gained knowledge and defeated
some Brahmins in discussion. So some Brahmins suggested a symposium on
Brahman to prove who was superior, but since Brahmins were expected to be
superior on these issues, Yajnavalkya prudently replied, "We are
Brahmins; he is a rajanya. If
we win, whom shall we say that we have defeated? But if he defeats us, they
will say a rajanya has defeated
Brahmins; so let us not convene this symposium."10
were consecrated by Vedic rites and ruled with the help of the assembly (sabha) that met in a hall to administer
justice; women were excluded. Ordeals were used, such as making a suspected
thief touch a hot ax to see if his hand burned, which might be the origin of
the saying, "being caught red-handed." Politics and legislation
took place in a larger council (samiti).
Taxes were collected to support these institutions and the army.
village was administered by a Gramani, a Vaisya who functioned like a mayor
with civil rather than military authority. The Gramani and the royal
charioteer (Suta) were
considered the kingmakers. This latter privileged position was not merely the
driver of the king but also his chief advisor and perhaps storyteller as
well. The royal priest or Purohito
was also supposed to advise the king in peace and protect him in war. The
season of dew after the monsoons ended was considered the time for
"sacking cities," as ambitious kings came into conflict with each
other in wars.
addition to the discussions of sacerdotal matters, the Brahmanas do contain some stories meant
to explain or rationalize their religious practices. Some of these are quite
imaginative, though the usual pattern is for the hero to discover a rite to
perform or a chant to intone which miraculously solves whatever problem is
pressing to give a happy ending.
O'Flaherty has translated some stories from the Jaiminiya Brahmana,
illustrating how they dealt with the fears of death, God, the father, wives,
and demonic women; many of these stories are sexually explicit, indicating
that these people were not afraid of discussing their sexuality. However, since
the usual way of handling these fears was to use a sacrificial ritual, the
solutions probably had only limited social and psychological value.
most famous of these stories, and the best in my opinion, is the tale of
Bhrigu's journey in the other world. Bhrigu was the son of Varuna and devoted
to learning, and he thought that he was better than the other Brahmins and
even better than the gods and his own father. So Varuna decided to teach him
something by stopping his life breaths, causing Bhrigu to enter the world
beyond, where he saw someone cut another man to pieces and eat him, a second
man eating another who was screaming, a third eating a man who was silently
screaming, another world where two women were guarding a treasure, a fifth
where a stream of blood was guarded by a naked black man with a club and a
stream of butter provided all the desires of golden men in golden bowls, and
a sixth world where flowed five rivers of blue and white lotuses and flowing
honey with wonderful music, celestial nymphs dancing and singing, and a
Bhrigu returned, his father Varuna explained to him that the first man
represented people who in ignorance destroy trees, which in turn eat them;
the second are those who cook animals that cry out and in the other world are
eaten by them in return; the third are those who ignorantly cook rice and
barley, which scream silently and also eat them in return; the two women are
Faith and non-Faith; the river of blood represents those who squeeze the
blood out of a Brahmin, and the naked black man guarding is Anger; but the
true sacrificers are the golden men, who get the river of butter and the
paradise of the five rivers.
this myth is a clear warning against the harmful actions of deforestation and
meat-eating, and even the eating of living vegetables is to be done in silent
respect. It shows an intuitive understanding of the principle of karma or the
consequences of action as well as the growing importance of the concept of
faith in addition to the usual theme of the sacrifice.
power of the word is increasing, as the sacrifices were glorified and given
power even over the Vedic gods. Japa
or the practice of chanting a mantram
like Aum practiced ascetically
with the sacrifices was believed to produce all one's desires. At the same
time knowledge was beginning to be valued. In one exchange mind says that
speech merely imitates it, but speech emphasizes the importance of expression
and communication; however, Prajapati decides that mind is more important even
than the word.
new god, Prajapati, is said to have given birth to both the gods and the
demons. The ethical principle of truth appears as the gods are described as
being truthful and the demons as being false. However, realizing the ways of
the world, many complain that the demons grew strong and rich, just as cattle
like salty soil; but by performing the sacrifice the gods attained the whole
truth and triumph, as, analogically I might add, people will eventually
realize that cattle as well as salt ruins the land.
not only was the first to sacrifice but was considered the sacrifice itself.
He practiced tapas to create by
the heat of his own effort, and this heat was also related to cosmic fire and
light as well as the warmth of the body and breath. Another concept of energy
associated with the breath was prana;
it also was identified with goodness, as the texts imply that as the life
force it cannot be impure or bad. Prajapati not only created but entered into
things as form and name, giving them order. Eventually Prajapati would be
replaced by Brahman, who was identified with truth and would become the
Creator God in the trinity that would include Vishnu, a sun-god who becomes
the Preserver, and Shiva, who is derived from the indigenous Rudra, the
Destroyer. With all the mental activity going on analyzing the rites and
their explanation, abstractions were increasing in the religion.
judgment after death using a scale to weigh good against evil is described in
the Satapatha Brahmana, an idea which may have been
transported from Egypt by merchants. This text recommends that the one who
knows this will balance one's deeds in this world so that in the next the
good deeds will rise, not the evil ones. Belief in repeated lives through
reincarnation is indicated in several passages in the Brahmanas. A beef-eater is punished by
being born into a strange and sinful creature. As knowledge rivaled the value
of ritual, this new problem of how to escape from an endless cycle of rebirth
larger body of Vedic literature is divided into two parts with the four Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Samhitas and their Brahmanas making up the Karmakanda on
the work of the sacrifices and the Aranyakas
and the Upanishads the section
on knowledge called the Jnanakanda. The Aranyakas
and the Upanishads were tacked
on to the end of Brahmanas, and
the only three Aranyakas extant
share the names of the Brahmanas
they followed and the Upanishads
they preceded: Aitareya, Kausitaki, and the Taittiriya; the first two are associated
with the Rig Veda, the last
with the Yajur Veda.
The Aranyakas are called the forest texts,
because ascetics retreated into the forest to study the spiritual doctrines
with their students, leading to less emphasis on the sacrificial rites that
were still performed in the towns. They were transitional between the Brahmanas and the Upanishads in that they still discuss
rites and have magical content, dull lists of formulas and some hymns from
the Vedas as well as the early
speculations and intellectual discussions that flowered in the Upanishads. The sages who took in
students in their forest hermitages were not as wealthy as the Brahmins in
the towns who served royalty and other wealthy patrons.
The Taittiriya Aranyaka tells how when the Vataramsa sages were first
approached by other sages, they retreated; but when the sages came back with
faith and tapas (ardor), they
instructed them how to expiate the sin of abortion. Prayers were offered for
pregnant women whether they were married or not, even if the father was
unknown because of promiscuity. Yet the double standard against women for
unchastity was in effect, unless a student seduced the teacher's wife. Truth
was the highest value; through truth the right to heaven was retained.
Debtors were in fear of punishment in hell, probably because the social
punishments in this world were severe---torture and perhaps even death.
emphasis now was on knowledge, even on wisdom, as they prayed for
intelligence. The concept of prana
as the life energy of the breath is exalted as that which establishes the
entire soul. Prana is found in
trees, animals, and people in ascending order. Human immortality is
identified with the soul (atman),
not the body. Hell is still feared, but by practicing austerity (tapas) to gain knowledge individuals
hope to be born into a better world after death or be liberated from rebirth.
Non-attachment (vairagya) also
purifies the body and overcomes death.
essence of the Vedic person was considered Brahman, and the knower or inner
person was known as the soul (atman).
The guardians of the spiritual treasures of the community were called
Brahmavadins (those who discuss Brahman). A son approached his father and
asked what was supreme. The father replied, "Truth, tapas, self-control, charity, dharma (duty), and progeny."11
term Upanishad means literally
"those who sit near" and implies listening closely to the secret
doctrines of a spiritual teacher. Although there are over two hundred Upanishads, only fifteen are mentioned
by the philosophic commentator Shankara (788-820 CE). These fifteen and the Maitri are considered Vedic and the
principal Upanishads; the rest
were written later and are related to the Puranic worship of Shiva, Shakti,
and Vishnu. The oldest and longest of the Upanishads
are the Brihad-Aranyaka and the
Chandogya from about the
seventh century BC.
The Brihad-Aranyaka has three Aranyaka chapters followed by six Upanishad chapters. The first chapter of
the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad
describes the world as represented by the horse-sacrifice. The primordial
battle between the gods and the devils accounts for the evil found in the
senses, mind, and speech, but by striking off the evil the divinities were
carried beyond death. The priest chants for profound aspiration, one of the
most famous verses from the Upanishads:
the unreal lead me to the real!
From darkness lead me to light!
From death lead me to immortality!12
primary message of the Upanishads
is that this can be done by meditating with the awareness that one's soul (atman) is one with all things. Thus
whoever knows that one is Brahman (God) becomes this all; even the gods
cannot prevent this, since that one becomes their soul (atman). Therefore whoever worships
another divinity, thinking it is other than oneself, does not know.
God (Brahman) came the Brahmin
caste of priests and teachers and the Kshatriyas to rule, development through
the Vaishyas and the Sudras. However, a principle was created as justice (dharma), than which nothing is higher,
so that a weak person may control one stronger, as if by a king. They say
that those who speak the truth speak justice and vice versa, because they are
the same. By meditating on the soul (atman)
alone, one does not perish and can create whatever one wants. Whatever
suffering occurs remains with the creatures; only the good goes to the soul,
because evil does not go to the gods.
soul is identified with the real, the immortal, and the life-breath (prana), which is veiled by name and
form (individuality). By restraining the senses and the mind, one may rest in
the space within the heart and become a great Brahmin and like a king may
move around within one's body as one pleases. The world of name and form is
real, but the soul is the truth or reality of the real. Immortality cannot be
obtained through wealth, and all persons and things in the world are dear not
for love of them (husband, wife, sons, wealth, gods, etc.); but for the love
of the soul, all these are dear. The soul is the overlord of all things, as
the spokes of the wheel are held together by the hub.
principle of action (karma) is
explained as "one becomes good by good action, bad by bad
action."13 How can one get beyond the duality of seeing, smelling,
hearing, speaking to, thinking of, and understanding another? Can one see the
seer, smell the smeller, hear the hearer, think the thinker, and understand
the understander? It is the soul which is in all things; everything else is
wretched. By passing beyond hunger and thirst, sorrow and delusion, old age
and death, by overcoming desire for sons, wealth, and worlds, let a Brahmin
become disgusted with learning and live as a child; disgusted with that, let
one become an ascetic until one transcends both the non-ascetic and the
ascetic states. Thus is indicated a spiritual path of learning and discipline
that ultimately transcends even learning and discipline in the soul, the
inner controller, the immortal, the one dwelling in the mind, whom the mind
does not know, who controls the mind from within.
departing this world without knowing the imperishable is pitiable, but the
one knowing it is a Brahmin. The following refrain is repeated often:
soul is not this, not that.
It is incomprehensible, for it is not comprehended.
It is indestructible, for it is never destroyed.
It is unattached, for it does not attach itself.
It is unfettered; it does not suffer; it is not injured.14
soul is considered intelligent, dear, true, endless, blissful, and stable. As
a king prepares a chariot or ship when going on a journey, one should prepare
one's soul with the mystic doctrines of the Upanishads.
The knowledge that is the light in the heart enables one to transcend this
world and death while appearing asleep. The evils that are obtained with a
body at birth are left behind upon departing at death. One dreams by
projecting from oneself, not by sensing actual objects. In sleep the immortal
may leave one's nest and go wherever one pleases. In addition to being free
from desire the ethical admonition of being without crookedness or sin is
also indicated. At death the soul goes out first, then the life, and finally
the breaths go out.
soul is made of everything; as one acts, one becomes. The doer of good
becomes good; the doer of evil becomes evil. As is one's desire, such is
one's resolve; as is the resolve, such is the action, which one attains for
oneself. When one's mind is attached, the inner self goes into the action.
Obtaining the consequences of one's actions, whatever one does in this world
comes again from the other world to this world of action (karma).
releasing the desires in one's heart, one may be liberated in immortality,
reaching Brahman (God). One is
the creator of all, one with the world. Whoever knows this becomes immortal,
but others go only to sorrow. The knowing is sought through the spiritual
practices of repeating the Vedas,
sacrifices, offerings, penance, and fasting. Eventually one sees everything,
as the soul overcomes both the thoughts of having done wrong and having done
right. The evil does not burn one; rather one burns the evil. In the soul's
being the world-all is known. The student should practice self-restraint,
giving, and compassion.
The Chandogya Upanishad belongs to the Sama
Veda and is the last eight chapters of the ten-chapter Chandogya Brahmana. The first two chapters of the Brahmana discuss sacrifices and other
forms of worship. As part of the Sama Veda,
which is the chants, the Chandogya
Upanishad emphasizes the
importance of chanting the sacred Aum.
The chanting of Aum is
associated with the life breath (prana),
which is so powerful that when the devils struck it, they fell to pieces.
religious life recommended in the Chandogya
Upanishad has three parts. The
first is sacrifice, study of the Vedas,
and giving alms; the second is austerity; and the third is studying the
sacred knowledge while living in the house of a teacher. One liberal giver,
who had many rest-houses built and provided with food, said, "Everywhere
people will be eating of my food."15
soul in the heart is identified with Brahman
(God), and it is the same as the light which shines higher than in heaven.
Knowing and reverencing the sacrificial fire is believed to repel evil-doing
from oneself. To the one who knows the soul, evil action does not adhere,
just as water does not adhere to the leaf of the lotus flower. To know the
soul as divine is called the "Loveliness-uniter" because all lovely
things come to such.
of reincarnation is clearly implied in the Chandogya
Upanishad as it declares that
those whose conduct is pleasant here will enter a pleasant womb of a Brahmin,
Kshatriya, or Vaisya; but those of stinking conduct will enter a stinking
womb of a dog, swine, or outcast. Thus reincarnation is explained as an
ethical consequence of one's actions
death the voice goes into the mind, the mind into the breath, the breath into
heat, and heat into the highest divinity, the finest essence of truth and
soul. Speaking to Svetaketu, the teacher explains that a tree may be struck
at the root, the middle, or the top, but it will continue to live if pervaded
by the living soul. Yet if the life leaves one branch of it, it dries up; and
if it leaves the whole of it, the whole dries up. Then the teacher explains
how the soul is the essence of life and does not die, concluding with the
repeated refrain that his student thus ought to identify with the soul.
indeed, when the living soul leaves it,
this body dies; the living soul does not die.
That which is the subtle essence
this whole world has for its soul.
That is reality (truth). That is the soul.
That you are, Svetaketu.16
the teacher placed salt in water and asked his student to taste different
parts of the water. Just so is Being hidden in all of reality, but it is not
always perceived. Just as the thief burns his hand on the hot ax when tested,
the one who did not steal and is true does not burn his hand, so the whole
world has that truth in its soul.
is to be valued, because it makes known right and wrong, true and false, good
and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. Mind is revered, because it enables one to
do sacred works. Will is valued, because heaven and earth and all things were
formed by being willed. Thought is important, because it is better not to be
thoughtless. Meditation is revered, because one attains greatness by
meditating. Understanding is valued, because by it we can understand
everything. Strength maintains everything. Food, water, heat, and space each
have their values. Finally also memory, hope, and life (prana) are to be revered.
who take delight in the soul, have intercourse with it and find pleasure and
bliss in it and freedom; but those, who do not, have perishable worlds and no
freedom. The seer does not find death nor sickness nor any distress but sees
the all and obtains the all entirely. The soul is free of evil, ageless,
deathless, sorrowless, hungerless, and thirstless. For those, who go from
here having found the soul here, there is freedom in all worlds. No evil can
go into the Brahma-world.
chaste life of the student of sacred knowledge is the essence of austerity,
fasting, and the hermit life, for in that way one finds the reality of the
soul. The soul must be searched out and understood. The Chandogya Upanishad concludes with the advice that one should learn
the Veda from the family of a
teacher while working for the teacher, then study in one's own home producing
sons and pupils, concentrate one's senses upon the soul, be harmless toward
all living things except in the sacrifices (The religion has not yet purified
itself of animal sacrifices.), so that one may attain the Brahma-world and
not return here again. The implication is that one may become free of the
cycle of reincarnation.
The Taittiriya and Aitareya Upanishads were associated with Aranyakas of the same name. In the Taittiriya Upanishad once again Aum
is emphasized, as is peace of soul. Prayers often end with Aum and the chanting of peace (shanti) three times. This may be
preceded by the noble sentiment, "May we never hate."17 One teacher
says truth is first, another austerity, and a third claims that study and
teaching of the Veda is first,
because it includes austerity and discipline.
highest goal is to know Brahman,
for that is truth, knowledge, infinite and found hidden in the heart of being
and in the highest heaven, where one may abide with the eternal and
intelligent Spirit (Brahman).
Words turn away from it, and the mind is baffled by the delight of the
eternal; the one who knows this shall not fear anything now or hereafter.
Creation becomes a thing of bliss, for who could labor to draw in breath or
have the strength to breathe it out if there were not this bliss in the heaven
of one's heart?
The Aitareya Upanishad begins with the one Spirit creating the universe
out of its being. As guardians for the worlds, Spirit made the Purusha (person). Out of the cosmic egg
came speech, breath, eyes and sight, ears and hearing, skin, hair, and herbs;
from the navel and outbreath came death, and from the organ of pleasure seed
and waters were born.
concluding chapter of this short Upanishad
the author asked who is this Spirit by whom one sees and hears and smells and
speaks and knows? The answer is the following:
which is heart, this mind---that is,
consciousness, perception, discernment, intelligence,
wisdom, insight, persistence, thought, thoughtfulness,
impulse, memory, conception, purpose, life, desire, will
are all names of intelligence.18
things are guided by and based on this intelligence of Spirit (Brahman). Ascending from this world
with the intelligent soul, one obtains all desires in the heavenly world,
The Kaushitaki Upanishad begins by asking if there is an end to the cycle
of reincarnation. The teacher answers that one is born again according to
one's actions (karma). Ultimately
the one who knows Spirit (Brahman)
transcends even good and evil deeds and all pairs of opposites as a
chariot-driver looks down upon two chariot wheels.
ceremony is described whereby a dying father bequeaths all he has to his son.
If he recovers, it is recommended that he live under the lordship of his son
or wander as a religious mendicant. This practice of spiritual seeking as a
beggar became one of the distinctive characteristics of Indian culture.
is told of Pratardana, who by fighting and virility arrives at the beloved
home of Indra, who grants him a gift. Pratardana asks Indra to choose for him
what would be most beneficial to humanity, but Indra replies that a superior
does not choose for an inferior. Pratardana responds that then it is not a
gift. After bragging of many violent deeds and saying that anyone who
understands him is not injured even after committing the worst crimes such as
murdering a parent, Indra identifies himself with the breathing spirit (prana) of the intelligent soul (prajnatman). This breathing spirit is
the essence of life and thus immortal. It is by intelligence (prajna) that one is able to master all
of the senses and faculties of the soul. All these faculties are fixed in the
intelligence, which is fixed in the breathing spirit, which is in truth the
blissful, ageless, immortal soul.
does not become greater by good action nor less by bad action. One's own self (atman) causes one to lead up from
these worlds by good action or is led downward by bad action. The soul itself
(atman) is the world-protector
and the sovereign of the world. Thus ultimately the soul is responsible for
everything it experiences.
mentioned in the Kaushitaki Upanishad that it is contrary to nature
for a Kshatriya to receive a Brahmin as a student. However, the Upanishads represent a time when the
Kshatriya caste began to compete with Brahmins in spiritual endeavors. Though
the Brahmins had control of the formal religion in the villages where the
Kshatriyas controlled the government, by tutoring their sons and others in
the forest the Kshatriyas developed a less ritualistic and traditional spirituality
that is recorded in the mystical Upanishads.
Isha, and Mundaka
The Kena Upanishad consists of
an older prose section and some more recent verse with which it begins. The word
Kena means "by whom"
and is the first word in a series of questions asking by whom is the mind
projected, by whom does breathing go forth, by whom is speech impelled? What
god is behind the eye and ear? The answer to these questions points to a mystical
self that is beyond the mind and senses but is that God by which the mind and
who think they know it well, know it only slightly. What relates to oneself
and the gods needs to be investigated. Beyond thought it is not known by those
who think they know it. Beyond understanding it is not known by those who
think they understand it, but by those who realize they do not understand it.
It is correctly known by an awakening, for the one who knows it finds
immortality. It can only be known by the soul. If one does not know it, it is
a great loss. The wise see it in all beings and upon leaving this world
prose section this mystical Spirit (Brahman)
is shown to transcend the Vedic gods of fire (Agni), wind (Vayu), and even
powerful Indra, who being above the other gods at least came nearest to it,
realizing that it was Brahman. In summary the Kena Upanishad concludes
that austerity, restraint, and work are the foundation of the mystical
doctrine; the Vedas are its
limbs, and truth is its home. The one who knows it strikes off evil and
becomes established in the most excellent, infinite, heavenly world.
The Katha Upanishad utilizes
an ancient story from the Rig Veda about a father who gives his son
Nachiketas to death (Yama) but brings in some of the highest teachings of
mystical spirituality, helping us to realize why the Upanishads are referred to as the
"end of the Vedas" in
the double sense of completing the Vedic scripture and in explaining the
Vajashrava was sacrificing all his possessions, faith entered into
Nachiketas, his son, who asked his father three times to whom would he give
him. Losing patience with these pestering questions, the father finally said,
"I give you to Death (Yama)." Nachiketas knew that he was not the
first to go to death, nor would he be the last, and like grain one is born
arrived at the house of Death, Yama was not there and only returned after
three days. Because Nachiketas had not received the traditional hospitality
for three days, Yama granted him three gifts. His first request was that his
father would greet him cheerfully when he returned. The second was that he be
taught about the sacrificial fire. These were easily granted.
third request of Nachiketas was that the mystery of what death is be
explained to him, for even the gods have had doubts about this. Death tries
to make him ask for something else, such as wealth or long life with many
pleasures, but Nachiketas firmly insists on his original request, knowing
that these other gifts will soon pass away.
Death begins by explaining that the good is much better than the pleasant,
which Nachiketas has just proved that he understands. He wisely wants
knowledge not ignorance, and Death describes how those, who think themselves
learned but who are ignorant, run around deluded and are like the blind
leading the blind. Those, who think this world is the only one, continually
come under the control of Death. Death explains that this knowledge cannot be
known by reasoning or thought, but it must be declared by another. I
interpret this to mean that it must be learned by direct experience or from
one who has had the experience.
tells how the truth is hard to see, but one must enter into the hidden,
secret place in the depth of the heart. By considering this as God, one
through yoga (union) wisely
leaves joy and sorrow behind. One must transcend what is right and not right,
what has been done and will be done. The sacred word Aum is declared to be the imperishable
Spirit (Brahman). The wise
realize that they are not born nor die but are unborn, constant, eternal,
primeval; this is not slain when the body is slain.
than the small, greater than the great, the soul is in the heart of every
creature here. The one who is not impulsive sees it and is free of sorrow.
Through the grace of the creator one sees the greatness of the soul. While
sitting one may travel far; while lying down one may go everywhere. Who else
but oneself can know the god of joy and sorrow, who is bodiless among bodies
and stable among the unstable?
soul is not obtained by instruction nor by intellect nor by much learning,
but is obtained by the one chosen by this; to such the soul reveals itself.
However, it is not revealed to those who have not ceased from bad conduct nor
to those who are not peaceful. Those, who drink of justice, enter the secret
place in the highest heaven. Thus correct ethics is a requirement, and one
must also become peaceful.
is explained in the Katha Upanishad by using the analogy of a
chariot. The soul is the lord of the chariot, which is the body. The
intuition (buddhi) is the
chariot-driver, the mind the reins, the senses the horses, and the objects of
the senses the paths. Those, who do not understand and whose minds are
undisciplined with senses out of control, are like the wild horses of a
chariot that never reaches its goals; these go on to reincarnate. The wise
reach their goal with Vishnu and are not born again. The hierarchy, starting
from the bottom, consists of the objects of sense, the senses, the mind, the
intuition, the soul, the unmanifest, and the person (Purusha).
hidden, the soul may be seen by subtle seers with superior intellect. The
intelligent restrain speech with the mind, the mind with the knowing soul,
the knowing soul with the intuitive soul, and the intuitive soul with the
peaceful soul. Yet the spiritual path is as difficult as crossing on the
sharpened edge of a razor. By discerning what has no sound nor touch nor form
nor decay nor taste nor beginning nor end, one is liberated from the mouth of
person, seeking immortality, looked within and saw the soul. The childish go
after outward pleasures and walk into the net of widespread death. The wise
do not seek stability among the unstable things here. Knowing the experiencer,
the living soul is the lord of what has been and what will be. This is the
ancient one born from discipline standing in the secret place. This is the
truth that all things are one, but those, who see a difference here, go from
death to death like water runs to waste among the hills. The soul goes into
embodiment according to its actions and according to its knowledge.
inner soul is in all things yet outside also; it is the one controller which
when perceived gives eternal happiness and peace. Its light is greater than
the sun, moon, stars, lightning, and fire which do not shine in the world
illuminated by this presence. The metaphor of an upside down tree is used to
show that heaven is the true root of all life.
senses may be controlled by the mind, and the mind by the greater self.
Through yoga the senses are held back so that one becomes undistracted even
by the stirring of the intuition. Thus is found the origin and the end. When
all the desires of the heart are cut like knots, then a mortal becomes
immortal. There is a channel from the heart to the crown of the head by which
one goes up into immortality, but the other channels go in various
directions. One should draw out from one's body the inner soul, like an arrow
from a reed, to know the pure, the immortal. The Katha Upanishad concludes
that with this knowledge learned from Death with the entire rule of yoga,
Nachiketas attained Brahman and became free from passion and death, and so may
any other who knows this concerning the soul.
respected, the short Isha Upanishad is often put at the beginning of
the Upanishads. Isha means "Lord" and marks
the trend toward monotheism in the Upanishads.
The Lord encloses all that moves in the world. The author recommends that
enjoyment be found by renouncing the world and not coveting the possessions
of others. The One pervades and transcends everything in the world.
sees all beings in the soul
and the soul in all beings
does not shrink away from this.
In whom all beings have become one with the knowing soul
what delusion or sorrow is there for the one who sees unity?
It is radiant, incorporeal, invulnerable,
without tendons, pure, untouched by evil.
Wise, intelligent, encompassing, self-existent,
it organizes objects throughout eternity.19
transcends ignorance and knowledge, non-becoming and becoming. Those, who
know these pairs of opposites, pass over death and win immortality. The Isha Upanishad concludes
with a prayer to the sun and to Agni.
The Mundaka Upanishad declares
Brahman the first of the gods, the creator of all and the protector of the
world. Connected to the Atharva Veda
the Mundaka Upanishad has Brahman teaching his eldest
son Atharvan. Yet the lower knowledge of the four Vedas and the six Vedangas
(phonetics, ritual, grammar, definition, metrics, and astrology) is
differentiated from the higher knowledge of the imperishable source of all
things. The ceremonial sacrifices are to be observed; but they are now
considered "unsafe boats," and fools, who approve them as better,
go again to old age and death.
the Katha, the Mundaka Upanishad warns against the ignorance of
thinking oneself learned and going around deluded like the blind leading the
blind. Those, who work (karma)
without understanding because of attachment, when their rewards are
exhausted, sink down wretched. "Thinking sacrifices and works of merit
are most important, the deluded know nothing better."20 After enjoying
the results of their good works, they enter this world again or even a lower
one. The Mundaka Upanishad recommends a more mystical
who practice discipline and faith in the forest,
the peaceful knowers who live on charity,
depart without attachment through the door of the sun,
to where lives the immortal Spirit, the imperishable soul.
Having tested the worlds won by works,
let the seeker of God arrive at detachment.
What is not made is not attained by what is done.21
this knowledge the seeker is to go with fuel in hand to a teacher who is
learned in the scriptures and established in God. Approaching properly,
calming the mind and attaining peace, the knowledge of God may be taught in
the truth of reality by which one knows the imperishable Spirit.
formless that is higher than the imperishable and is the source and goal of
all beings may be found in the secret of the heart. The reality of immortal
life may be known by using the weapons of the Upanishads as a bow, placing an arrow on it sharpened by
meditation, stretching it with thought directed to that, and knowing the
imperishable as the target. Aum
is the bow; the soul is the arrow; and God is the target. Thus meditating on
the soul and finding peace in the heart, the wise perceive the light of
blissful immortality. The knot of the heart is loosened, all doubts vanish,
and one's works (karma) cease
when it is seen. Radiant is the light of lights that illuminates the whole
world. God truly is this immortal, in front, behind, to the right and left,
below and above; God is all this great universe.
seeing the brilliant creator, the God-source, being a knower, the seer shakes
off good and evil, reaching the supreme identity of life that shines in all
beings. Enjoying the soul, doing holy works, such is the best knower of God.
The soul can be attained by truth, discipline, correct knowledge, and by
studying God. Truth conquers and opens the path to the gods by which sages,
whose desires are satisfied, ascend to the supreme home. Vast, divine,
subtler than the subtle, it shines out far and close by, resting in the
secret place seen by those with vision. It is not grasped by sight nor speech
nor angels nor austerity nor work but by the grace of wisdom and the mental
purity of meditation which sees the indivisible.
world a person of pure heart holds clearly in mind is obtained. Yet whoever
entertains desires, dwelling on them, is born here and there on account of
those desires; but for the one whose desire is satisfied, whose soul is
perfected, all desires here on earth vanish away. This soul is not attained
by instruction nor intellect nor much learning but by the one whom it
chooses, who enters into the all itself. Ascetics with natures purified by
renunciation enter the God-worlds and transcend death. As rivers flow into
the ocean, the liberated knower reaches the divine Spirit. Whoever knows that
supreme God becomes God.
These Upanishads are being discussed in this
chapter in their estimated chronological order. The previous group is from
about the sixth century BC, and thus some of them are probably contemporary
with the life of the Buddha (563-483 BC). This next group is almost certainly
after the time of the Buddha, but it is difficult to tell how old they are.
The Prashna Upanishad is also
associated with the Atharva Veda and discusses six questions; Prashna means question. Six men
approached the teacher Pippalada with sacrificial fuel in hands and questions
in their minds. Pippalada agreed to answer their questions if they would live
with him another year in austerity, chastity, and faith.
first question is, "From where are all these creatures born?"22 The
answer is that the Creator (Prajapati) wanted them, but two paths are
indicated that lead to reincarnation and immortality. The second question is
how many angels support and illumine a creature and which is supreme? The
answer is space, air, fire, water, earth, speech, mind, sight, and hearing,
but the life-breath (prana) is
supreme. The third question seeks to know the relationship between this life-breath
and the soul. The short answer is, "This life is born from the soul (atman)."23
fourth question concerns sleep, waking, and dreams. During sleep the mind
re-experiences what it has seen and heard, felt and thought and known. When
one is overcome by light, the god dreams no longer; then all the elements
return to the soul in happiness. The fifth question asks about the result of
meditating on the word Aum. When someone meditates on all three letters, then
the supreme may be attained. The sixth question asks about the Spirit with
sixteen parts. The sixteen parts of the Spirit are life, faith, space, air,
light, water, earth, senses, mind, food, virility, discipline, affirmations (mantra), action, world, and naming
(individuality). All the parts are like spokes of a wheel, the hub of which
is the Spirit.
In the Shvetashvatara Upanishad
monotheism takes the form of worshipping Rudra (Shiva). The later quality of
this Upanishad is also indicated
by its use of terms from the Samkhya school of philosophy. The person (Purusha) is distinguished from nature (Prakriti), which is conceived of as
illusion (maya). The method of
devotion (bhakti) is presented,
and the refrain "By knowing God one is released from all fetters"
is often repeated. Nevertheless the Upanishadic methods of discipline and
meditation are recommended to realize the soul by controlling the mind and
thoughts. Breathing techniques are also mentioned as is yoga. The qualities (gunas) that come with action (karma) and its consequences are to be
transcended. Liberation is still found in the unity of God (Brahman) by
discrimination (samkhya) and
union (yoga). By the highest
devotion (bhakti) for God and
the spiritual teacher (guru) all
this may be manifested to the great soul (mahatma).
short Mandukya Upanishad is associated with the Atharva Veda
and delineates four levels of consciousness: waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and
a fourth mystical state of being one with the soul. These are associated with
the three elements of the sacred chant Aum
(a, u, and m) and the silence at its cessation. Thus this sacred chant may be
used to experience the soul itself.
thirteenth and last of what are considered the principal Upanishads is the Maitri Upanishad.
It begins by recommending meditation upon the soul and life (prana). It tells of a king,
Brihadratha, who established his son as king and, realizing that his body is
not eternal, became detached from the world and went into the forest to
practice austerity. After a thousand days Shakayanya, a knower of the soul,
appeared to teach him. The king sought liberation from reincarnating
existence. The teacher assures him that he will become a knower of the soul.
The serene one, who rising up out of the body reaches the highest light in
one's own form, is the soul, immortal and fearless.
body is like a cart without intelligence, but it is driven by a
supersensuous, intelligent being, who is pure, clean, void, tranquil,
breathless, selfless, endless, undecaying, steadfast, eternal, unborn, and
independent. The reins are the five organs of perception; the steeds are the
organs of action; and the charioteer is the mind. The soul is unmanifest,
subtle, imperceptible, incomprehensible, selfless, pure, steadfast,
stainless, unagitated, desireless, fixed like a spectator, and self-abiding.
then does the soul, overcome by the bright and dark fruits of action (karma), enter good or evil wombs? The
elemental self is overcome by these actions and pairs of opposites, the
qualities (gunas) of nature (prakriti) and does not see the blessed
one, who causes action standing within oneself. Bewildered, full of desire,
distracted, this self-conceit binds oneself by thinking "This is
I," and "That is mine." So as a bird is caught in a snare, it
enters into a good or evil womb.
cause of these actions is the inner person. The elemental self is overcome by
its attachment to qualities. The characteristics of the dark quality (tamas) are delusion, fear,
despondency, sleepiness, weariness, neglect, old age, sorrow, hunger, thirst,
wretchedness, anger, atheism, ignorance, jealousy, cruelty, stupidity,
shamelessness, meanness, and rashness. The characteristics of the passionate
quality (rajas) are desire,
affection, emotion, coveting, malice, lust, hatred, secretiveness, envy,
greed, fickleness, distraction, ambition, favoritism, pride, aversion,
attachment, and gluttony.
then may this elemental self on leaving this body come into complete union
with the soul? Like the waves of great rivers or the ocean tide, it is hard
to keep back the consequences of one's actions or the approach of death. Like
the lame bound with the fetters made of the fruit of good and evil, like the
prisoner lacking independence, like the dead beset by fear, the intoxicated
by delusions, like one rushing around are those possessed by an evil spirit;
like one bitten by a snake are those bitten by objects of sense; like the
gross darkness of passion, the juggling of illusion, like a falsely apparent
dream, like an actor in temporary dress or a painted scene falsely delighting
the mind, all these attachments prevent the self from remembering the highest
antidote is to study the Veda,
to pursue one's duty in each stage of the religious life, and to practice the
proper discipline, which results in the pure qualities (sattva) that lead to understanding and
the soul. By knowledge, discipline, and meditation God is apprehended, and
one attains undecaying and immeasurable happiness in complete union with the
soul. The soul is identical with the various gods and powers.
bid peace to all creatures and gone to the forest,
then having put aside objects of sense,
from out of one's own body one should perceive this,
who has all forms, the golden one, all-knowing,
the final goal, the only light."24
means of attaining the unity of the One is the sixfold yoga of breath control
(pranayama), withdrawal of the
senses (pratyahara), attention (dhyana), concentration (dharana), contemplation (tarka), and meditation (samadhi).
one sees the brilliant maker,
lord, person, the God-source,
then, being a knower, shaking off good and evil,
the sage makes everything one in the supreme imperishable.25
the mind is suppressed, one sees the brilliant soul, which is more subtle
than the subtle; having seen the soul oneself, one becomes selfless and is
regarded as immeasurable, without origin - the mark of liberation (moksha). By serenity of thought one
destroys good and evil action (karma).
In selflessness one attains absolute unity.
sound Aum may be used.
Meditation is directed to the highest principle within and also outer
objects, qualifying the unqualified understanding; but when the mind has been
dissolved, there is the bliss witnessed by the soul that is the pure and
immortal Spirit. But if one is borne along by the stream of the qualities,
unsteady, wavering, bewildered, full of desire, and distracted one goes into
self-conceit. Standing free from dependence, conception, and self-conceit is
the mark of liberation.
influence of Buddhism can be seen in the description of liberation from one's
own thoughts. As fire destitute of fuel goes out, so thought losing activity
becomes extinct in its source. What is one's thought, that one becomes; this
is the eternal mystery. By the serenity of thought one destroys good and bad
karma; focused on the soul, one enjoys eternal delight. The mind is the means
of bondage and release. Though the sacrificial fire is still important,
meditation has become the primary means of liberation.
The Mahanarayana Upanishad is a long hymn to various forms of God with
prayers for everything from wealth to liberation. At one point the author
identifies with the divine light:
that supreme light of Brahman
which shines as the inmost essence of all that exists.
In reality I am the same infinite Brahman
even when I am experiencing myself
as a finite self owing to ignorance.
Now by the onset of knowledge
I am really that Brahman which is my eternal nature.
Therefore I realize this identity
by making myself, the finite self,
an oblation into the fire
of the infinite Brahman which I am always.
May this oblation be well made.26
The Jabala Upanishad, which is quoted by
Shankara, gives a description of the four stages of religious life for a
pious Hindu. Yajnavalkya suggests that after completing the life of a
student, a householder, and a forest dweller, let one renounce, though one
may renounce while a student or householder if one has the spirit of
renunciation. Suicide apparently was not forbidden, for to the one who is
weary of the world but is not yet fit to become a recluse, Yajnavalkya
recommends a hero's death (in battle), fasting to death, throwing oneself
into water or fire, or taking a final journey (to exhaustion). The wandering
ascetic though wearing an orange robe, with a shaven head, practicing
non-possession, purity, nonviolence, and living on charity obtains the state
The Vajrasuchika Upanishad claims to blast ignorance and
exalts those endowed with knowledge. It raises the question who is of the
Brahmin class. Is it the individual soul, the body, based on birth,
knowledge, work, or performing the rites? It is not the individual soul (jiva), because the same soul passes
through many bodies. It is not the body, because all bodies are composed of
the same elements even though Brahmins tend to be white, Kshatriyas red,
Vaishyas tawny, and Sudras dark in complexion. It is not birth, because many
sages are of diverse origin. It is not knowledge, because many Kshatriyas
have attained wisdom and seen the highest reality. It is not work, because
good men perform works based on their past karma. It is not performing the
rites, because many Kshatriyas and others have given away gold as an act of
The true Brahmin directly perceives the soul, which functions as the
indwelling spirit of all beings, blissful, indivisible, immeasurable,
realizable only through one's experience. Manifesting oneself directly
through the fulfillment of nature becomes rid of the faults of desire,
attachment, spite, greed, expectation, bewilderment, ostentation, and so on
and is endowed with tranquillity. Only one possessed of these qualities is a
Brahmin. This flexible viewpoint indicates that the caste system may not yet
have been as rigid as it was later to become.
Although as the major teachings passed down orally from the century before
the Buddha, the Upanishads
don't tell us too much about the worldly society of India, they do express a
widespread mysticism and spiritual life-style that was to prepare the way for
the new religions of Jainism and Buddhism as well as the deepened
spirituality and mystical philosophies of Hinduism. The values of the
teachers and ascetics of this culture that has been likened to the New
Thought movement of the recent New Age philosophy were spiritual and other
worldly, but if they did not do much to improve the whole society, at least
they did not do the harm of the conquering Aryans.
A personal educational system of spiritual tutoring for adults developed, and
individuals were encouraged to improve themselves spiritually as they gave
and received charity. (When renouncing they gave to charity; then they accepted
charity for basic sustenance.) The rituals of animal sacrifices were
de-emphasized, and knowledge became greatly valued, especially
self-knowledge. The doctrine of reincarnation made the sacrifices for a
better life now or in the future eventually give way to the higher spiritual
goal of liberation from the entire cycle of rebirth. Thus austerity and
meditation became the primary methods of spiritual realization.
1. Rig Veda tr. Ralph T. H. Griffith,
2. Ibid. IV:17:10-11.
3. Ibid. VII:86:5-6.
4. Ibid. I:100:18.
5. Ibid. X:90:12.
6. Ibid. X:117:1-2.
7. Ibid. X:71:2.
8. Atharva Veda, W. D. Whitney,
9. Atharva Veda 12:1:1-17,
32-36, 47-48, 59-63 tr. Raimundo Panikkar The
Vedic Experience: Mantramanjari, p. 123-129.
10. Bhattacharji, Sukumari, Literature in
the Vedic Age, Vol. 2, p. 109.
11. Taittiriya Aranyaka 10:63:1.
12. Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad tr. Robert E. Hume, 1:3:28.
13. Ibid. 3:2:13.
14. Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad tr. S. Radhakrishnan, 3:9:26.
15. Chandogya Upanishad tr. Robert E. Hume, 4:1:1.
16. Chandogya Upanishad tr. S. Radhakrishnan, 6:11:3.
17. Taittiriya Upanishad 2:1:1.
18. Aitareya Upanishad tr. S. Radhakrishnan, 3:1:2.
19. Isha Upanishad English version by Sanderson
20. Mundaka Upanishad English version by Sanderson
21. Ibid. 1:2:11-12.
22. Prashna Upanishad English version by Sanderson
23. Ibid. 3:3.
24. Maitri Upanishad tr. S. Radhakrishnan, 6:8.
25. Ibid. 6:18.
26. Mahanarayana Upanishad tr. Swami Vimalananda, 1:67.
© 1998-2004 by Sanderson Beck