The term "Upanishad" literally means the inner or mystic teaching. It is derived from upa (near), ni (down) and s(h)ad (to sit), i.e., sitting down near, which refers to groups of pupils sitting near their teacher to learn from him the secret doctrine. In the serenity of forest hermitages, the Upanishad thinkers pondered on the problems of deepest concerns and communicated their knowledge to the capable pupils that sat near them.
Samkara derives the word Upanishad as a substitute from the root sad, 'to loosen,' 'to reach' or 'to destroy' with Upa and ni as prefixes and kvip as termination. If this determination is accepted, Upanishad means brahma-knowledge by which ignorance is loosened or destroyed. The Upanishads are found in the concluding sections of the Vedas and are classified as Vedanta , or the end of the Vedas .
There are five Vedas and each of these five books has several Saaakas (Branches). Each Saaka has a Karma Khanda dealing with the actions to be performed and is made up of Mantras and Brahmanaas. The latter deals with Upasana or meditation and has Aranyakas inside them for the benefit of those who have resorted to the quiet habitat of the forest to pursue their spiritual quest.
The Upanishads are found mostly in the Aranyaka section of the Vedas. The five Vedas have 1180 Saaakas and thus there should be 1180 Upanishads. Of these, what exists today is a collection of 108 Upanishads. The list of these 108 Upanishads is given in the Mukthikopanishad.
Out of the 108 Upanishads, only 10 have been commented upon by several Acharyas like Adi Shankaracharya These are Ishavasya, Kena, Katha, Aithreya, Brihadaranyaka, Prashna, Mandukya, Taittireeya, Chandogya and Mundaka. These have also been popularized by many savants like Swami Vivekananda, Swami Chinmayananda etc. They all deal with highest category of philosophy and metaphysics. Because of this, there is a general impression that all Upanishads are texts of Hindu Philosophy. This is not true. There are Upanishads which even tell you how to wear the sacred ash, how to worship a particular God and so on. But the majority of them deal with methods of Yoga and Renunciation (Sanyasa).
The Vedas and Upanishads
The breakdown among the 108 Upanishads according to the 5 Vedas are as follows:
Number of Upanishads
Krishna Yajur Veda
Sukla Yajur Veda
The 10 Upanishads belonging to the Rig Veda are the following:
The 16 associated with the Sama Veda are:
The 19 Upanishads belonging to Sukla Yajur Veda are:
The 32 Upanishads belonging to the Krishna Yajur Veda are:
The 31 Upanishads belonging to the Atharva Veda are :
The ten major Upanishads which contain great philosophical discussions and knowledge are:
It is a very succint summary of Indian philosophy that explains life itself.
Kenopanishad derives its name from the word Kena, meaning 'by whom'. It belongs to the Talavakara Bahmana of Sama Veda and is therefore also referred to as Talavakara Upanishad. In short, it says that "The One power that illumines everything and every one is indivisible. It is the Ear behind the ears, Mind behind the mind, Speech behind speech, the Vital Life behind life. The ears cannot hear it; it is what makes the ears hear. The eyes cannot see it; it is what makes the eyes see. You cannot speak about it; it is what makes you speak. The mind cannot imagine it; it is what makes the mind think. It is different from what all we know; yet it is not known either. Those who feel they know Him, know Him not. Those who know that anything amenable to the senses is not Brahman, they know it best. When it is known as the innermost witness of all cognitions, whether sensation, perception or thought, then it is known. One who knows thus reaches immortality.
The Kathopanishad is divided into six Vallis. Valli literally means a creeper. A Valli, like a creeper, is attached to the Sakhas or Branches of the Veda. This Upanishad is also divided into two Adhyayas (chapters) of three Vallis each. This is one of the most beautiful Upanishads, in which the eternal truths are given in the form of a narrative. The narrative is taken from Taittiriya Brahmana (3-11-8), with some variations. The same story is told in the Taittiriya Brahmana, the only difference being that in the Brahmana, freedom from death and birth is obtained by a peculiar performance of a sacrifice, while in the Upanishad, it is obtained by knowledge only.
The Aitareya Upanishad is one of the oldest of the Upanishads. It belongs to the Aitareya Aranyaka of the Rig Veda. It is divided into three chapters and contains thirty three verses. This Upanishad deals with the process of creation.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad means the "great forest-book". This Upanishad is one of the oldest of all the Upanishads. It consists of three sections or kandas: the Madhu kanda, the Yajnavalkya or the Muni kanda and the Khila kanda. Here the Brahman is portrayed as universal and undifferentiated consciousness. The doctrine of the indescribability of the absolute and the doctrine of 'Neti, Neti' are explained. This Upanishad concludes by stating the three virtues that one should practice, i.e. self-restraint, giving, and compassion.
In Sanskrit, Prashna means 'question'. This book consists of six questions and their answers, hence the name. It is in a question-answer format. Except the first and last questions, all other questions are actually a group of smaller sub-questions. As narrated in the beginning of this Upanishad, six pupils interested in knowing divinity or Brahman come to the sage Pippalada and ask questions of great spiritual importance. Pippalada asks them to take up a penance of one year. Upon completion of the penance, they again come to the sage and ask questions, and then the sage answers their questions.
For the very reason that it explains the esoteric meaning of the fundamental syllable Aum of Hindu spiritual tradition, the Upanishad has been extolled greatly. The Muktikopanishad, which talks about all other Upanishads, says that if a person cannot afford to study all the hundred and more Upanishads, it will be enough to read just the Māndūkya Upanishad. According to Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, in this Upanishad, we find the fundamental approach to the attainment of reality by the road of introversion and ascent from the sensible and changing, through the mind which dreams, through the soul which thinks, to the divine within but above the soul.
The Taittireeya Upanishad belongs to the Taittireeya school of the Yajur Veda. It is divided into three sections called Vallis. The first is the Siksa Valli. Siksa is the first of the six Vedangas (limbs or auxiliaries of the Veda); it is the science of phonetics and pronunciation. The second is the Brahmananda Valli and the third is the Bhrugu Valli. These two deal with the knowledge of the Supreme Self, or 'paramatma-jnana'.
Along with Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, the Chandogyopanishad is an ancient source of principal fundamentals for Vedanta philosophy. Considering the number of references made to this Upanishad in Brahma sutras, this Upanishad is given special importance in Vedanta philosophy. Important spiritual practices like Dahara Vidya and Shandilya Vidya are its speciality.
This Upanishad begins with an Invocation that the eye may see auspicious things, the ear may hear auspicious sounds, and that life may be spent in the contemplation of the Lord. The teaching of this Upanishad is referred to as Brahmavidya, either because it describes first the message of Hiranyagarbha, the casual Brahma, or because the message relates the glory of Brahmam. This Upanishad speaks of Brahmavidya as the mystery which only those with shaven heads and those who go through a rite of having Fire on the shaven head can understand. So, it is called Mundaka, or shaven Head. Apart from this, this Upanishad is honoured as the crest of all, since it expounds the very essence of Brahma Jnana. It is assigned to the Fourth Veda, the Atharvana.
The other 98 Upanishads are again classified according to their content as follows. They are General (of common interest), Saiva (dealing with Lord Shiva), Saktha (dealing with the divine mother Shakthi), Vaishnava (dealing with Lord Vishnu), Sanyasa (dealing with renunciation) and Yoga (dealing with Yogic practices) Upanishads.
Although this classification is made, there are still some subjects discussed in them that overlap. Short notes on each of these Upanishads given below, based on the categories mentioned above:
General Upanishads (27)
This Upanishad is taught by a sage called Svetasvatara. Its main emphasis is on the teaching of Sankhya Yoga and the philosophy of illusion (Maya).
This Upanishad is taught by sage Pippalada and deals with the growth of foetus in the womb. It also gives the number of different parts of the body, like the bones, nerves, flesh etc.
This Upanishad tells us about the penance of a king called Brahadratha. The king asked the sage Sakanya about the feeling of desire in this meaningless world. Sage Sakanya relates to him what had been told to him by Sage Maithreya. He teaches him the great science of Brahma Vidya. Finally he tells him that the mind and illusion are responsible for this contradiction.
This Upanishad is taught by Sage Chithra to Sage Udhalaka and his son, Shwethakethu. It deals with the science of the soul. The temporary nature of rituals and good deeds and permanent nature of doing everything without desire is emphasized. It also tells the need for a father to give up all his personality and knowledge to his son and enter Sanyasa.
This is the teaching of Sage Angiras to Sage Raikwa. It tries to answer the question of the time and method of creation of the world. It also tries to find out the properties of the soul of beings and discusses several aspects of philosophy.
It deals with the properties of Brahmam. It explains that whatever is produced, vanishes, and then is reproduced. It concludes that the one who knows it well is the Brahman.
Defines and explains several words like Katha, Bandha, Annamaya etc, which occur constantly in Upanishadic philosophy.
It is an independent text of Hindu philosophy. It tries to investigate what is Brahmam and concludes that the Sanyasi has a better chance of attaining salvation by following the proper methods.
This Upanishad is supposed to have been taught to Sage Suka, so that he would understand the philosophy of salvation. It contains and extensive explanation of the words and ideas that describe this philosophy.
This Upanishad investigates and tries to answer the question, "Who is a Brahmin?" It also says that caste does not come by birth.
Expounds about meditation on Pranava and the great Vaishnava Mantra, "Om Narayanaya Nama." It also defines and discusses the identities of an evolved soul.
Takes a conciliatory stand between Shaiva and Vaishnava and concludes that both are the same.
This Upanishad aims at explaining the mantras of the great Purusha suktham.
This is taught by Sage Yagnavalkya to Sage Paingala. It gives an explanation of the term 'Kaivalya'. It also attempts to explain the Maha Vakyas of the Vedas like 'Aham Brahmasmi', as well the duties of Jnanis.
Describes the initial creation of the universe, starting From Lord Narayana to Lord Brahma. After this, there is a discussion between Sage Suka and King Janaka regarding the creation of the Samsara. This is followed by a discussion of several aspects of philosophy between Sage Nidhaka and his guru, Sage Ripu. It explains that the Sastras are burden for a Jnani, Jnana is a burden to those who are attached, and so on.
Talks about the different aspects of the human body, including states of knowledge.
This Upanishad is taught by Guha to Lord Brahma. It discusses in detail about how to choose the mala (rosary) for use in meditation.
This is an Upanishad which deals with the letter, 'Om.' This is more of a prayer towards 'Om.'
Tells about Surya Angirasa Mantra and Gayatri, which is a prayer to the Sun, and further goes on to illustrate the ashtakshara to worship Lord Surya.
Contains the prayer of sage Sankruthi to Lord Surya which contains the Chakshushmathi Mantra. This is followed by the teaching of Brahma Vidya by Surya.
This is initially taught by Sadashiva to Sage Apantharathamas. It says that there is nothing but Atma and the feeling of existence of others is only illusion.
Explains who is Savithri and the difference between Savitha and Savithri. It also recites the Savithri Mantra.
Deals with various aspects of Atma and how a Brahma Jnani does not see anything except Atma.
This is the teaching of Brahma Vidya by Lord Brahma himself to the Devas. The treatment is philosophical.
Details the five stages by which Para Brahmam was evolved.
This Upanishad deals with the Sarrera Yagna, or the sacrifice to the body. It lists out all the mantras that are to be chanted before eating food. The usual mantras that a Brahmin chants before eating are contained in this Upanishad.
This Upanishad is the Teaching of Lord Rama to Hanuman. It tells about the Vedas, Vedangas and Kaivalya, and also summarizes the Hindu Vedanta. The list of 108 Upanishads is also given in this Upanishad.
In this Upanishad, Brahma teaches the knowledge of Brahmam to sage Aswalayana. Though Adi Sankara wrote commentaries only for ten Upanishads, he also considered this to be an important Upanishad. It deals with the state where the person is himself. The path shown is through meditation and devotion, keeping the person as the plank and considering Om as the stick which rotates on the plank and gives out the light of fire.
It emphasizes the greatness of the holy letter "Om." It also explains that the form of Lord Rudhra is the form of Pranava.
This is taught by Sage Adharva to great sages like Pippaladha, Angiras and Sanathkumara. It emphasizes the need and benefits of the meditation of the Pranava.
This Upanishad was told by Kalagni Rudra to Sage Busundi. It deals in detail with the method of preparation of holy ash (Vibhuthi) and the method of wearing it.
It talks in detail about the method of wearing holy ash (Vibhuthi) along with mantras for wearing the same. This was taught by Kalagni Rudra to the great sage, Sanathkumara.
Dakshinamurthi is the 'teacher form' of Shiva in which he teaches without talking. This Upanishad gives the Dakshinamurthi Mantra and the method of practicing it.
Sarabha is the animal, man and bird form of Lord Shiva. It is believed that he took this form to control the anger of Vishnu when he took the form of Narasimha. This Upanishad talks about Lord Sarabha.
Talks about Lord Shiva's aspect of Pasupathi (the Lord of all living things). Discusses how the entire universe is really one and there is no differentiation.
Shuka asks his father which God exists in all devas and in which God all devas exist. The answer, Rudra, is this Upanishad.
Expresses how Vibhuthi has to be prepared and also the daily duties of a Brahmana. This is the teaching Lord Shiva to Jabala Busunda.
This is the teaching of Kalagni Rudra to Sage Busunda, and deals exclusively with Rudraksha.
Starts with a prayer to Lord Ganapathi and gives the Ganapathi Mantra. It describes how the worship of Ganapathi is to be performed.
Sage Jabali tells Sage Pippalada about Lord Pasupathi. The need and method of wearing Vibhuti (holy ash) is given in detail.
Brahma tells the Devas about who is Sita. He tells them that she is the Adhara Shakthi (the basis which is the foundation) in the feminine form. He also tells about her different forms.
Explains the Sathakshari Mantra for meditating on Tripura, the Goddess Parvathy. Several great manthras like Gayatri, and Panchadasakshari are a part of this. It also discusses Srividya Upasana.
Sage Rupu tells Sage Nidhaka about Devi Annapurna. He also teaches him the Annapurna Mantra. This is followed by teaching of philosophical aspects like Maya, Yoga and Mukthi.
The Devi tells the Devas who she is in this Upanishad. It lists the Panchadasakshari and Navakshari mantras to worship her.
Talks about Sri Chakra and the worship of the devi through the right and left methods.
Discusses one important aspect of Sri Vidya Upasana.
Bhagawan Narayana tells about the Shakthi from whom every God originated and teaches the devas the worship of Saubhagyalakshmi.
This Upanishad is taught by Sage Asvalayana to the other sages. He teaches them the ten Saraswathi mantras and methods of worshipping her.
Talks in detail about the existence of Shakthi from whom all gods and knowledge originated. Gives hints of worship of Sri Vidhya.
Describes the principle of Tripath Narayana. It also introduces the Narayana ashtakshara Mantra and describes the benefits of chanting it.
It has two parts. In the Poorva (first) part, it speaks in detail about the greatness of Lord Narasimha. It also has the great king of mantras, called the Narasimha Mantra, and depicts in detail how to meditate on it. In the Uthara part, it talks about the greatness of Pranava and the Narsimha Raja Mantra. It gives a detailed method of meditating on Lord Narasimha.
Brahma did tapas for one thousand years to know about Brahmam from Lord Vishnu. This upanishad contains what Lord Vishnu told him. He also clears his doubts, such as whether Brahmam has a form or not and also gives the shapes of several yantras.
Explains that Lord Rama is Brahma Taraka and expounds various mantras for worshipping him. Also gives yantras for worshipping Lord Rama.
There are two parts, the Poorva Thapini and the second Uthara Thapini. It talks about the greatness of the word, "Rama", as well as Rama Yantra, which is similar to the SriChakra. It also discusses the belief that Lord Shiva tells the Tharaka Mantra in the ears of all people dying in Varanasi and the method of worship of Rama.
Explains what Urdhwa Pundra (the sign worn by Vaishnavites) is and the rules for wearing it.
Deals with the creation of clearly defined things from that unclear past. Tells how Parajapati came from Avayaktha and went on to create the world. It also gives a mantra to worship Lord Vishnu.
Narrates about the holiness of Kurukshethra, Tharaka Mantra and Pranava and illustrates the method of worship of Lord Narayana.
Sages approach Lord Brahma to know the procedure to worship Krishna. What he tells them is contained in this Upanishad. The Upasana Mantra of Govinda is also given here.
The sages, when they meet Rama, wanted to embrace him. He caused them to be born as Gopis and himself took the avatara of Krishna, so that they could embrace him. This book discusses who were born as what in Krishnavatara.
Brahma tells Narada that whoever meditates and worships Lord Hayagreeva gets to know the Brahma vidya. The mantra for worship of Lord Hayagreeva is given here.
Depicts the method of meditation and worship of Dathathreya through the Dathathreya Mantra.
The method of meditation and worship of Garuda, the vehicle of Lord Vishnu is given here.
Kali santarana Upanishad
Talks about how the evils of the Kali age are to be crossed. The sixteen letter prayer on Rama would help one in doing this.
Sanyasa Upanishads (16)
Tells us about how the great sage of wisdom comes out of all mundane things and lives a life where there is no need for rituals and no differences exist. The Mantra for changing Yagnopavita occurs in this Upanishad.
This is compiled by Sage Jabala. This gives more emphasis on mediation and the chanting of Rudra. The importance of concentrating between the centres of eyes is stressed here.
This Upanishad deals with the teaching of Prajapathi to sage Aaruni. It gives in detail the rules of life that are to be followed by a Brahmachari and a Sanyasi.
It deals with the discussion between Sage Narada and God on who is a paramahamsa (sanyasi at an advanced stage) and methods to identify him.
It is the teaching of Lord Parameshwara to sage Maithreya. To a large extent, what is given in Maithrayani Upanishad is repeated. In addition, God describes to him in detail about his formless form.
Describes the Sanyasa marga involving Nirvana (nudity) and how the people follow it.
Narada Parivrajaka Upanishad
This is the teaching of Narada to the Souunaka Sages. It discusses the methods to attain salvation, the rules to be followed by a Sanyasi, and the time when a person should enter Sanyasa. It also talks about Karma Sanyasa.
It defines the different types of Sanyasis like Kuttesaka, Bahoodhaka, Hamsa and Parama Hamsa.
It is taught by Lord Narayana to Lord Brahma and talks about the rules of the life of an Avadhootha.
Elucidates who can take Sanyasa and what is the procedure.
This is taught by Lord Narayana to Lord Brahma. It deals mainly with the procedure of taking sanyasa.
Explains all the things a Sanyasi should posses and how he should behave.
Explains what is Yagnopavitha as well as Shika, for the sanyasis as well as people of the world. It also gives clearly the total length of the Upavitha. For the sanyasi, it is the pranava which acts as Yagnopavitha and Shika.
Dathathreya teaches sage Sankrithi as to who is Avadhootha and how he should behave.
The Upanishad reveals when to assume sanyasa and also the properties of a sanyasi.
The mind becomes the reason for attachment and salvation. The Saatyayani Upanishad relates that a real Brahmin should search for Brahmam. It also explains that one taking sanyasa gives redemption for three generation of manes.
This Upanishad is taught by a sage called Swethaswadhara. More emphasis is given in teaching Sankhya Yoga and the philosophy of illusion (Maya)
This talks about meditation on Hamsa Mantra and is being taught by Sage Gauthama to Sage Sanathkumara. The method of meditating on the Hamsa Mantra is fully described here.
Amrutha bindu Upanishad
It gives the knowledge of athma in the tasty form of nectar and gives it as briefly as a dot. It talks about what is Brahmam, and other concepts of Hindu Philosophy.
This describes the way to chant the holy letter 'Om' in great detail. It is referred to as a nectar-like letter in this text.
Kshrika means knife. It is so called because it cuts ignorance using the knife of wisdom. This is an Upanishad which in detail describes Yoga and its practice.
This Upanishad is the teaching of Lord Paramashiva to his son, Subrahmanya. It talks in detail about Yogic practices, defines Chinmathra Swaroopa, Athmanubhava, Jeevan Muktha etc.
Nada Bindu Upanishad
Discusses in detail the meditation on Omkara (pranava). The correct method of meditation and some problems, which may occur, are pointed out.
Dhyana Bindu Upanishad
The meditation on Pranava and Ajabha Gayathri is dealt in detail along with the method involved.
Teaches methods of attaining Brahma through meditation. Emphasizes the role of a guru and explains why Sruthi is more important than Pramana.
This is the teaching of Lord Vishnu to Lord Brahma. It details out the yogic practice. It also enumerates the stages in Yoga, defines them and how to recognize them.
This is the teaching of Lord Soorya to a Brahmin called Trishiki Brahmana. He clears his doubts about the definition of the body, soul, Karana and yogic practice.
Yoga Choodamani Upanishad
Tells about Yogic practice involving Ajaba Gayatri. Describes the seats of Yoga, how to wake up the Kundalani and reach her up to Brahma Randra.
This is the teaching of Sun God to his disciple, Yagna Valkya. This deals with the principle of the soul through yogic practice. Definitions of various terms used in Yoga is also given. Tells in detail about Yogic practice and tells us about what is Sambhavi Mudhra.
This is taught by Sage Atharvana to sage Sandilya. It deals with Ashtangayoga and Brahma Vidhya.
This is the teaching of Lord Maheswara to Lord Brahma. It deals with subjects like Mukthi, Shakthi, Nadha, Chaithanya and Yoga.
Talks about Kundalani and yogic practice.
This is the teaching of Lord Dathathreya to his disciple sage Sankriti about how the Yoga should be done, in great detail.
Confirms that the knowledge "That this Sun is Brahma" would be realized by chanting of Ajapa Gayathri. Explains the merger of mind with Brhama.
Talks about the Brahma Vidya of the body of Varaha. Lord Vishnu as Varaha tells how he should be meditated upon and worshipped. Also deals in detail about the stages of Yoga.