Vedas and Upanishads

By Prasad Sundararajan

Among the Hindu Scriptures, The Vedas, consisting of Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharvana, are considered the most authoritative. It is because the Vedas are considered eternal, called Shruti, ‘That which was heard’. Vedas are considered to be apaurusheya, i.e., not man-made, and revealed by God (“ultimate reality”). The word Veda is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘vid’ (to know). So, Veda means true knowledge.

Each Veda is made up of four sections: (1) Samhita – consist of Hymns in praise of the Vedic gods (2) Brahmanas – deal with the correct ritual performance of the Vedic fire sacrifice and also contains stories and legends (3) Aranyakas – discuss the mystical and symbolic meanings of the various Vedic rituals and (4) Upanishads – expound on the origin and nature of the Universe and on the purpose and basis on which it rests through philosophical inquiry.

The idea that proper ritual technique allows an individual to tap into the powers that govern the universe was fundamental to the Vedic Samhita worldview. The Vedas also developed the concept of an Ultimate Reality, Brahman, which manifests itself in ritual recitation of Vedic Hymns. The idea that all things share a common foundation and some common substance and are therefore connected was central to Vedic thought and was further elaborated in the Upanishads.

The Upanishads are an integral part of Vedas, rooted in the Vedic rituals and as they are located at the end of the Vedic body of literature, the Upanishads are also referred to as ‘Vedanta’ (“culmination of knowledge”).  It is in the Upanishads that we find ideas that remain central in many strands of contemporary Hinduism. The Upanishadic thought are an important component of Indian culture, including to the development of Buddhism and Jainism.

The most important concept drawn in the Upanishads is that the individual self, or atman, and Ultimate Reality, Brahman. The goal of the religious practice in the Upanishads involves discovering one’s true identity, the atman. In the Vedic Upanishads, ritual acts (karma-kanda) must be complemented by the pursuit of true knowledge (jnana-kanda) as expounded in the Upanishads by an individual in their quest for understanding the true identity, atman, which is a part of the Brahman. Recognizing the atman within oneself opens a person to knowledge about the entire Universe. The Upanishads show an inquiry in determining what happens when one dies and how one’s actions affect the afterlife. The atman, as part of Brahman, the very foundation of being, is eternal and indestructible. It is in this context the teachers of the Upanishads introduced the ideas of Atman, Brahman, karma and rebirth that remain central to Hindu thought thereafter.

Today, more than 108 Upanishads are in written form. Of these, ten Upanishads are considered as important and authoritative by the great acharyas and scholars of the Hindu sampradayas. These ten Upanishads are Brihand Aranyana, Chandogya, Ishavasya, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, and Aitareya. The Upanishads are full of variety of examples, metaphors and illustration to make the deep spiritual knowledge comprehensible. The Upanishads are discourses that lead one to moksha.

In many Upanishads, the cycle of death and rebirth is called samsara and a person’s movement through samsara is governed by karma, and escape from samsara, known as moksha (liberation) is possible through direct knowledge of the atman. Once a person moves beyond selfish desires and recognizes the atman as his or her true identity, the atman merges back into the Brahman rather than being born again. The Bhagavad Gita attests that ‘One who attains the association of brahman attains eternal bliss’ (sa brahmayogayuktatma sukhamakshayyamashnute’) (Gita 5.21).

Among the Upanishads, the Brahand Aranyaka Upanishad (BAU) and Chandogya Upanishad (ChU) are generally considered as the oldest and much closer to the Veda Samhitas than the other Upanishads. The form of spirituality espoused by them is the knowing of the Ultimate Reality, Brahman, through knowledge by comprehending the higher spiritual principle with not much concern for worship of God.

Brihand Aranyaka Upanishad is part of the White Yajur Veda. BAU states that ‘In the beginning this world was only Brahman and it knows itself only, thinking “I AM BRAHMAN”. In this way, the Brahman becomes the whole universe. If a person truly realizes this Mahavakya, “aham brahmasmi”, not even the gods can prevent it and such a person becomes their very self, Atman. In reply to the question on what is immortality? by his beloved and contemplative wife, Maitreyi, Sage Yagnavalkya explains that ‘Atman resides in one’s wife as well and only by the wish of the atman is a wife dear to her husband’ (BAU 2.4.5). He further states that ‘one must endeavor to realize this atman’. In order to do that, ‘one must listen to his glory, his divine actions and attributes, his divine powers, etc.’ ‘One who has done shravan, manan and nididhyasan on the atman properly and attained realization has known everything.’ Also, in response to a female, Gargi, Yagnavalkya replied that, ‘Brahmaloka is greater and larger than all other lokas and warned her not to ask any further (as there is no higher entity). (BAU 3.6.1).

Even the Sun and the Moon are under the control of the akshar brahman as are the other realms and the division of time are all controlled by akshar brahman. By the eternal wish of the atman, brahman is the controller. (BAU 3.8.9). One who leaves this world knowing akshar brahman has nothing to worry about. He is a true brahmagnani, one who has attained liberation (moksha). (BAU 3.8.10).

The concept of rebirth and karma, key elements of contemporary Hinduism are also expressed in BAU where it states, ‘As a caterpillar near the tip of a grass, reaches out to a new foothold and draws itself onto it, so the self (atman), after it has knocked down this body and rendered it unconscious, reaches out to a new foothold and draws itself onto it’. ‘Just as a weaver can dye a cloth with a more attractive pattern, perhaps, one can take a higher or inferior state of being based on action (karma).

Further, BAU states that, “punyah punyena karmana bhavati, papah papena” that is ‘One becomes prosperous (punyah) through virtuous deeds (punyena karmana) and sinful (papah) through evil deeds (papena)’. According to BAU, it is the desire that shapes resolve (kratuh) and one’s resolve determines the actions one performs. This is the doctrine of karma and of good and evil. Desire is not to be condemned but It is the direction of the desire (kama) that is the key point in determining the nature of one’s actions and the future destiny shaped by those actions. The BAU states, “Damyata, datta, dayadhvam iti, tad etat trayam śikset”, meaning self-restraint, charity and mercy are the three great virtues every spiritual aspirant should aim to acquire in their quest to understand brahman. (BAU 5.2.3).

In summary, Brahad Arankaya Upanishad (BAU) states that atman is brahman and that brahman is the unchanging absolute and on which everything is based on and it is designated as Akshara, the imperishable. One who knows that their self (atman) is brahman is liberated (attains moksha). BAU also provides some of the foundational principles of contemporary Hinduism such as Karma, cycle of rebirth through papa and punya and the supporting principles for the non-dual Advaita philosophy.

Chandogya Upanishad (ChU) is part of the Sama Veda, where Sage Uddalaka Aruni teaches his son, Shvetaketu, the identity of Atman and Brahman. ChU states that, “Aum ityetad Aksharam udgeetham upaseeta” meaning ‘one should contemplate on Akshaar whose name Aum and who has been sung in all the Vedas’. (ChU 1.1.1). The Mandukya Upanishad says the same, “Aum ityetad Aksharam”. (Mandukya Upanishad 1.1).  

ChU in the third chapter, Shandilya Vidhya (wisdom of Shandilya) states that, ‘deep inside one’s heart (lotus) lies the self (atman). It is made of mind; the vital functions (prana) are its physical form; it is luminous in appearance; it contains all actions, all desires, all smells, and all tastes; it has captured this whole world; it neither speaks, nor it pays any heed. This self (atman) is smaller than a grain of rice or barley, smaller than a seed, but is larger than the Earth, larger than the sky and even larger than all these worlds put together. It is the Brahman that on departing from here after death, I will become that’.

In the sixth chapter, ChU declares that before creation there was sat, an eternally unchanging element which is above maya. It is from the sat that the entire creation has arisen. (ChU 6.2.1). Uddalaka instructs his son that “sa atma tat tvam asi”, meaning ‘This is the atman, that is what you are’. (ChU 6.8.7). This passage with the mantra ‘tat tvam asi’ is an important feature of Advaita philosophy and occurs many times in the Upanishad along with examples such as salt pervading in the water, and the seed of the banyan tree. This mantra is a key element of contemporary Hinduism that teaches about the self (atman) and God. ChU states that Brahman is the whole world. With inner tranquility, one should venerate it as jalam (holy water).

In the eighth chapter, ChU states that the form of Brahman is sinless, free of maya, without old age and untouched by death, it is eternal. It has no regrets or misery. It is not disturbed by things like hunger or thirst. That is why it is ‘Satyan kaman’. (CHU 8.1.6). Akshar Brahman is the bridge to attain ultimate liberation (moksha), and it is the support of all. (ChU 8.4.1).

In summary, Chandogya Upanishad indicates that the absolute reality (Brahman) that pervades and sustains all existence is identified as the true self (atman) existing within each and every one of us in the lotus of our hearts.

Katha Upanishad is part of the Krishna Yajur Veda and the narrative setting for the Upanishad is that of a young Nachiketas, dismissed by his father to the world of Justice and Death, inquiring Yama (Mrityu), about the highest principle of all existence beyond which nothing is superior. Yama instructs young Nachiketas that, ‘Subtler than the atom, greater than the greatest, the Atman resides in the hearts of living beings. He who makes himself desire-less and has cast off grief beholds the greatness of the spirit within him’. (Katha U. 2.20).

The journey of the life of atman can be safely completed and the Supreme Abode of Vishnu reached only if one keeps a watchful control over the senses. The body is like a chariot to which the senses are yoked like horses. The mind is like the reins, which enable the charioteer, the understanding, to hold the horses (senses) in check. The soul (atman) rides on the chariot (body), and the road is the world of objects over which the senses move. The final abode of the realized atman is Vishnu pada (‘param apnoti tad visnoh paramam padam’). (Katha U. 3.9). The soul (atman) is contained in the body as the fire is contained and concealed in wood. (Katha U. 4.8).

In answering the question of absolute liberation from rebirth (moksha), Katha Upanishad states the hierarchy of principles as follows: Higher than the senses are the objects they perceive; the mind (manas) is higher than the objects. Beyond the mind is the intellect and higher than the intellect is the greatest soul (mahat atman), higher than the great soul is the Unmanifest (avyakta) and higher than the Unmanifest is the purusha or ‘Cosmic Man’. This cosmic purusha is the highest and can be identified as the Supreme Deity in a theistic thought. (Katha U. 3.10-11). This theistic understanding is supported by the statement, ‘the self (atman) cannot be known by study, intelligence or hearing. It is known only by a person to whom the self (atman) chooses to reveal itself’. This is a fundamental contemporary Hinduism principle of bhakthi yoga where the knowledge of God is obtained only by the grace or gift of God. (Katha U. 2.23).

In summary, the Katha Upanishad emphasizes the importance of the development of personal integrity, moral and ritual life as essential prerequisite for the transcendental quest for realization of the true self within, on the spiritual quest for liberation (moksha). (Katha U. 2.24). The highest abode of Vishnu is the ultimate destination at end of the road for a realized atman. (Katha U. 3.9).

The Ishavasya Upanishad (Isha U.) is the only Upanishad to be found in the Samhita portion of the Vedas, appearing as the final chapter of the Shukla (white) Yajur Veda Samhita. The Isha Upanishad of 18 mantras (verses) explains the sovereignty and pervasiveness (‘isha vasyam idam sarvam’…) of Brahman. It also gives guidance on the life-oriented approach of karma-yoga, the balance of knowledge and karma (action) in life and the benefits of imbibing these principles. Thus, Ishavasya Upanishad brings out the coexistence of Jnana (knowledge) and Karma (action) in one’s quest for liberation.

The 14th verse states, ‘He who understands both the manifest and the un-manifest together, crosses death through the un-manifest and attains immortality (moksha) through the manifest’. The 16th verse requests for the favor of the Lord (‘Divine Grace’), a key theistic attribute found in contemporary Hinduism based on bhakthi (devotion to the Deity). The message of the final verse of the Isha Upanishad is to develop humility and practice humble prayers on a path to Self-realization.

In summary, Isha Upanishad establishes that Atman, which is wholly transcendent and beyond this world and incomprehensible, is the all-pervading God (Isha). It also teaches that one who realizes this profound truth gets in a disposition of renunciation even when continuing to perform the worldly duties. In this way, we realize the sovereignty and pervasiveness of Atman as Brahman.

The Svetasvatara Upanishad is a short Upanishad consisting of 113 mantras and it belongs to the Krishna Yajur Veda. This Upanishad marks a transition from the primarily knowledge-orientation of the Upanishads towards a more theistic and devotional tendencies. The teachings of the Upanishad tend to indicate that a distinction exists between the individual self (atman), the world of matter (prakriti) and the Deity (Isha), who is the sustainer of the Universe. The Upanishad also provides a well-developed exposition of the yoga practice.

In summary, the Svetasvatara Upanishad explains that the final aim of yoga practice is to gain a perception of the true self (atman), which is knowledge of brahman and knowledge of God (deva) who is unborn. The Upanishad provides two paths to achieve liberation from rebirth and to achieve moksha: (1) Jnana yoga through which one perceives the atman as brahman and discovers true self-realization and (2) Bhakthi yoga through which one develops devotion to Isha (God) and gains the divine grace as the mercy of God (prasada).

In the Taittiriya Upanishad, Varuna (Lord of Water) instructs his son Bhrigu on the immanence of Brahman in matter and in the Spirit. The food we eat and the air we breathe are sacred forms of Brahman that builds us up, enables us to think, speak, act and exercise the will and understand that all beings are interdependent and made into the one linked whole in the world. (Tait. U 3.2, 7-10).

Mandukya Upanishad extols the significance of the syllable, ‘Om’, as identical with Brahman, as it stands above and apart from normal existence. Omkara is often the representation of Hindu dharma.


1) Notes on “HS102-Vedas and Upanishads”, Oxford Center for Hindu Studies, 2016.

2) Swami Prabhupada, “Sri Isopanishad”, The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2010.

3) Sadhu Bhadreshdas (translated by Sadhu Paramvivekdas), “Essence of the Upanishads”, Swaminarayan Aksharpith, 2012.

4) C. Rajagopalachari, “UPANISHADS”, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 2001.

5) Eknath Easwaran, “The Upanishads: The Classics of Indian Spirituality”, The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, 2007.

6) Swami Krishnananda, “Lessons on Upanishads”, The Divine Life Society, 2001.

7) Sri Aurobindo, “Isa Upanishad”, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 2003.

8) Swami Tyagisananda, “Svetasvataropanishad”, Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1949.