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The Principal Upanishads

Chandogya, Kena, Aitareya, Kaushitaki, Katha, Mundaka & Taittiriya Upanishads


In the Upanishads we can study the graceful conflict of thought with thought, the emergence of more satisfactory thought and the rejection of inadequate ideas. Hypotheses were advanced and rejected on the touchstone of experience and not at the dictate of a creed. Thus thought forged ahead to unravel the mystery of the world in which we live. Let's have a quick look at the 13 principal Upanishads:

Chandogya Upanishad

The Chandogya Upanishad is the Upanishad that belongs to the followers of the Sama Veda. It is actually the last eight chapters of the ten-chapter Chandogya Brahmana, and it emphasizes the importance of chanting the sacred Aum, and recommends a religious life, which constitutes sacrifice, austerity, charity, and the study of the Vedas, while living in the house of a guru. This Upanishad contains the doctrine of reincarnation as an ethical consequence of karma. It also lists and explains the value of human attributes like speech, will, thought, meditation, understanding, strength memory and hope.

Read the full text of the Chandogya Upanishad

Kena Upanishad

The Kena Upanishad derives its name from the word 'Kena', meaning 'by whom'. It has four sections, the first two in verse and the other two in prose. The metrical portion deals with the Supreme Unqualified Brahman, the absolute principle underlying the world of phenomenon, and the prose part deals with the Supreme as God, 'Isvara'. The Kena Upanishad concludes, as Sandersen Beck puts it, 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.

Read the full text of the Kena Upanishad

Aitareya Upanishad

The Aitareya Upanishad belongs to the Rig Veda. It is the purpose of this Upanishad to lead the mind of the sacrificer away from the outer ceremonial to its inner meaning. It deals with the genesis of the universe and the creation of life, the senses, the organs and the organisms. It also tries to delve into the identity of the intelligence that allows us to see, speak, smell, hear and know.

Read the full text of the Aitareya Upanishad

Kaushitaki Upanishad

The Kaushitaki Upanishad explores the question whether there is an end to the cycle of reincarnation, and upholds the supremacy of the soul ('atman'), which is ultimately responsible for everything it experiences.

Read the full text of the Kaushitaki Upanishad

Katha Upanishad

Katha Upanishad, which belongs to the Yajur Veda, consists of two chapters, each of which has three sections. It employs an ancient story from the Rig Veda about a father who gives his son to death (Yama), while bringing out some of the highest teachings of mystical spirituality. There are some passages common to the Gita and Katha Upanishad. Psychology is explained here by using the analogy of a chariot. The soul is the lord of the chariot, which is the body; the intuition is the chariot-driver, the mind the reins, the senses the horses, and the objects of the senses the paths. Those whose minds are undisciplined never reach their goal, and go on to reincarnate. The wise and the disciplined, it says, obtain their goal and are freed from the cycle of rebirth.

Read the full text of the Katha Upanishad

Mundaka Upanishad

The Mundaka Upanishad belongs to the Atharva Veda and has three chapters, each of which has two sections. The name is derived from the root 'mund' (to shave) as he that comprehends the teaching of the Upanishad is shaved or liberated from error and ignorance. The Upanishad clearly states the distinction between the higher knowledge of the Supreme Brahman and the lower knowledge of the empirical world — the six 'Vedangas' of phonetics, ritual, grammar, definition, metrics, and astrology. It is by this higher wisdom and not by sacrifices or worship, which are here considered 'unsafe boats', that one can reach the Brahman. Like the Katha, the Mundaka Upanishad warns against "the ignorance of thinking oneself learned and going around deluded like the blind leading the blind". Only an ascetic ('sanyasi') who has given up everything can obtain the highest knowledge.

Read the full text of the Mundaka Upanishad

Taittiriya Upanishad

The Taittiriya Upanishad is also part of the Yajur Veda. It is divided into three sections: The first deals with the science of phonetics and pronunciation, the second and the third deal with the knowledge of the Supreme Self ('Paramatmajnana'). Once again, here, Aum is emphasized as peace of the soul, and the prayers end with Aum and the chanting of peace ('Shanti') thrice, often preceded by the thought, "May we never hate." There is a debate regarding the relative importance of seeking the truth, going through austerity and studying the Vedas. 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. Finally, it says that the highest goal is to know the Brahman, for that is truth.

Read the full text of the Taittiriya Upanishad

Next Page: Brihadaranyaka, Svetasvatara, Isavasya, Prashna, Mandukya, Maitri Upanishads

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