On Upanishads

By Major General (Ret’d) V S Karnik, PhD

Its generally true, that if we are scared of something, we keep that object or issue, away from us. We secretly fear that we will not understand the basics of Upanishads (it is “too difficult” a subject.). Therefore, we do not even attempt to learn a little bit of it.

Do you know the difference between Ved, Upanishad and Vedanta? I bet 90 % of the educated Hindus do not know. Do you challenge the figure? In that case, let me tell you that, 95 % of the MBA students, whom I was teaching “Business Ethics with Indian Values” were not aware of it. Is it not a matter of worry that our present generation is not aware of these basic things of our scripture? The foundation on which, the cultural and spiritual heritage of the present India is based, is Vedas and Upanishads. Therefore, lets learn the basics of certain important Upanishads.

(There are more than 1600 Upanishads, of which 108 are most important. – Suresh Vyas) What is given at the end of the Vedas is known as Vedanta, and Vedanta is also known as Upanishad. The Upanishads contain the essential principles of the ageless philosophy of deep and serious inquiry into the very nature of life itself. The Upanishad cannot be described as religious in character. The following issues are worth remembering: –

(a)        The entire teaching of the Upanishad centers on a teacher or a guru.

(b)        The subject matter of almost all the Upanishads is Brahma, (the Ultimate Reality) and Aatma, (the individual self). (Brahma, means, Braha-tam that is Very Big. Brahma is, Infinite Eternal Absolute. One should not get confused Brahma with Brahmadev—the one who is borne from the naval of Shri Vishnu)

(c)        The Upanishads are concerned with the process of thinking and not with conclusion of thought (therefore, the Upanishads have been interpreted in different ways by different people. Two persons may not agree on the same issue or they may interpret same Shloka in different way.)

(d)        The contents of the Upanishads are timeless, universal, applies to all ages and all countries. It is all about spiritual perspective of the life.

(e)        The possible easy essence of only few Upanishads has been given here .Some individuals may not agree what is given here.

Isavasya Upanishad

This Upanishad starts from the word “Isa” ,hence the name.

The main points are as under: —

(a) The innovation associated with this Upanishad is intriguing and significant. It says “That is Whole; this is Whole. The Whole comes out of the Whole. Taking the Whole from the Whole, the Whole remains”. The essence is that quality is indivisible. Quality of an atom of diamond will be same that of a big dimond. The theme is, Brahma and Aatma are same, of same quality—they are identical and we all are part of Brahma, or Brahma is residing in us.

(b) The universe is filled with Isa (God). God has given everyone some- thing. Accept and enjoy that which is given to you. (Enjoy the role given to you by the God) Do not covet the wealth of others.

(c) Whosoever neglects the Sprit (The Brahma) goes to the region of darkeness. Brahma or the Reality is in front of us but it is covered with the golden veil. We are unwilling to remove this golden veil, because it is attractive to us. If we remove this veil, we will realize the Reality

Kena Upanishad

The Upanishad represents a deep inquiry into the fundamental problems of existananc.

In this Upanishad the main issue under discussion is – What is it that impels and motivates the particular pattern of actions?

Katha Upanishad

In this Upanishad the theme of death is dissuced. Yama (as a teacher), the lord of death discusses the secret of death with the Nachiket (the disciple). Nachiket asks Yama,”What happens in the actual moment of death” His question is what happens in the moment of death itself. (When a man dies, not after a man dies)

The main points are:–

(a)        The importance of the word “OM”, which is equated with Brahma.

(b)        Brahma can be known only through Aatma.

(c)        Aatma is, “beyond, sound and form, without touch or taste and smell. It is eternal, unchangeable and without beginning or end”.

(d)        One’s own life can be considerate as a chariot. This chariot has several horses tied to it–& these are the sences. The mind which constitutes the reins, controls, the horses. The reins are held by intelligence or Buddhi, for that is the charioter Inside the chariot, sits the master of the chariot, the Aatma.

(e)        The wise should restrain speech in mind, and the mind in the intelligence.

(f)        When all desires that cling the heart, disappear, then the mortals become immortals.

(g)        If one finds the Aatma, one will know the secret of death.


Prasna Upanishad


In this, six students (highly learned rishis) ask questions to Pippalada rishi. The students are engaged in truly scientific inquiry into the nature of things. This Upanishad leads the students from the known to the unknown.


Mundaka Upanishad


(a)It begins with the importance of listening and seeing, without which no integration of man is possible. Learning requires total listening and a total seeing.

(b) There are two kinds of knowledge, — higher and lower. (“Para” is higher and “Apara “is lower. Para is wisdom and apara is knowledge. Knowledge is indirect and wisdom is direct. All knowledge gathered through external sources, is lower, because it is indirect. The higher knowledge is that by which the Immutable is known. By means of higher knowledge the wise behold Brahma everywhere.


Mandukya Upanishad


This is the shortest of all Upnishads, and is named after its teacher.

This Upanishad discusses about sub conscious, unconscious and super-conscious of mind.


Taittiriya Upanishad


Named after the teacher, Taittiri.

(a) Deals with social, intellictual and spiritual education of the students.

(b)This Upanishad tells the fundamantal principle of the science of education.

(c )It explains the science of communicating (Speaking and listening and effective communication).It emphasizes that effective communication is based on relationship (communication is most effective, only when it takes place at the same time, at the same level and with the same intensity between two people.

(d) This Upanishad is also concerned with relationship amongst people.

(e) In this the teacher is advising the students, who are about to leave the Gurukul. It is a sort of convocation address. The last teaching of the teacher is that, Brahma is Bliss.


Aitareya Upanishad

The main issues are:–

(a)`This gives the story of creation or beginning of the universe.

(b) It also gives a statement of the functions of the mind. These are consciousness, perception, discrimanation, intelligence, wisdom, insight, impulse, thought, memory conception, life desire and will.

(c) This Upanishad sums up its entire teaching as thus: —

“ He is Brahama, he is Indra ,he is prajapati, he is all these gods and the five elements, earth, air, space, water, light, these things and those which are mingled of the fine, as it were; origin of one sort of another, those born from an egg, and those borne from a womb, and those born from the sweat, and those borne from the sprout; horses, cows, persons, whatever breathing thing there is here—whether moving or flying and also what is stationary. All this is guided by Intelligence. The world is guided by Intelligence. Brahma is Intelligence.


Chandogya Upanishad

This constitute the dialogue between Narada and Sanatkumara.Narada requests Sanatjumara, to show him the path of real knowledge—the path of wisdom.


Brahadaranyaka Upanishad

The main issues are:–

(a)This Upanishad tells the way to spiritual mutation. In this Upanishad, the teaching is imparted by Yajnavalkya to his wife Maitreyi.

(b)The famous “Neti,  Neti”—“Not this, not this “ is in this Upanishad.The flame and the spark are identical in nature—for the spark emanates from the fire and shares all the qualities of the fire. Similarly, the man is a part of Brahma. In Aatma resides the Brahma. Brahma’s forms are so numerous, that no one form, can convey its true meaning. Therefore, indication of Brahma is” Neti, Neti,” for, beyond saying” Neti Neti”, there is nothing possible—for it is Truth beyond Truth.


Svetasvatara Upanishad

This is not included in the ten major Upanishads. But it has been commented upon by many. This Upanishad indicates, students discussing among themselves, subject matters such as — What is the Cause? Is it Brahma? Whence are we borne? What sustains us? Where we are going? Who distributes pleasure and pain in the differing condition of life?



The above is to give an idea of the major (important) Upanishads. Not difficult, as you must have imagined. The teaching and contains of these Upanishad are immense, and cannot be explained or justified in this short article. The purpose of this article is to awaken the interest in Upanishads. Last and the most important thing is, whatever we are trying to learn from the western world, is already given in our Shastras, in our Smrities and Sruties.—– Now, come on, are you asking  me, what are Smrities and Sruties ?

(written during 2002)

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