The Message of the Upanisads

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The Message of the Upanisads
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The Message of the Upanishads is a study, verse by verse, of three of the principal Upanishads, namely, Isa, Kena, and Katha. The first contains eighteen, the second thirty-five, and the third one hundred and nineteen verses. Though constituting a small portion of the total Upanishadic literature, they yet contain a lucid exposition of all the essential ideas of this immortal literature.

Scholars are divided as to the date of the composition of the Upanishads. Many of them are agreed, however, that most of the principal Upanishads belong to the period prior to the event of Buddha in the seventh century before Christ. There are over two hundred Upanishads, many of them sectarian in character and palpably post-Buddhistic and even post-Sankaracharya.

The Principal Upanishads

The principal Upanishads are accepted to be those which Sankaracharya (A.D. 788-820) chose to comment upon; they are ten in number and are enumerated in the Indian tradition as follows:, Isa, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, and Brhadaranyaka.

According to some scholars, Sankara also commented on an eleventh Upanishads the Svetasvatara. In his commentary on the Brahma-Sutra, he refers to four more, namely, Kausitaki, Jabala, Mahanarayana, and Paingala.

The Isa Upanishad embodies in its very opening verse the central theme of all the Upanishads, namely, the spiritual unity and solidarity of all existence.

The Kena illumines the nature of knowledge by pointing out the eternal known behind all acts of knowing, and purifies man's concept of ultimate reality of all touch of finitude and relativity by revealing its character as the eternal Self of man and the Self of the universe.

The Katha holds a special fascination for all students of the Upanishads for its happy blend of charming poetry, deep mysticism, and profound philosophy; it contains a more unified exposition of Vedanta than any other single Upanishad; its charm is heightened by the two characters of its dialogue, namely, old Yama, the teacher, and young Naciketa, the student.

The Prasna, as its name implies, is an Upanishad of questions; each of its six chapters comprises a question asked by each of a group of six inquiring students on various aspects of Vedanta, and the answers given by their teacher, the sage Pippalada.

The Mundaka, after classifying all knowledge into para, higher, and apara, lower, and describing all science, art, literature, politics, and economics – in fact, all positive knowledge, the knowledge of the changeful many – as apara, and boldly including even the holy Vedas and all sacred books in this category, proclaims that one knowledge as para 'by which the imperishable changeless reality (of the One behind the many) is realized'. And the Upanishad sings in ecstasy the glorious vision of the One in the many.

In the brief compass of its twelve verses of condensed thought, the Mandukya surveys the whole of experience through a study of the three states of waking, dream, and dreamless sleep, and reveals the Atman, the true Self of man, the Turiya or the Fourth, as it puts it, as pure consciousness, eternal and non-dual. It a pregnant utterance – one of the four mahavakyas or 'great utterances' of the Upanishads; ayam atma brahma – 'This Atma (Self of man) is Brahman.'

The Taittiriya, after majestically proclaiming that 'the knower of Brahman attains the Supreme': Brahmavidapnoti param, describes the five kosas or sheaths that enclose and hide Brahman, and demonstrates the technique of piercing these sheaths of relativity and finitude with a view to reaching the infinite and the eternal at the core of experience. It also provides a scientific definition of Brahman as 'That from which all these beings are born, by which, after being born, they live, and into which they merge when they cease to be'.

The Aitareya establishes the spiritual character of the Absolute through a discussion of the nature of the Self of man, and proclaims this truth in another of the four mahavakyas (V.3): Prajnanam brahma – 'Brahman is pure Consciousness.'

The Chandogya introduces us to charming truth-seekers like Satyakama, Svetaketu, and Narada, and outstanding spiritual teachers like Aruni, Sanatkumara, and Prajapati. Through several illuminating teacher-student dialogues, the Upanishad helps us to discriminate the utterance of deep spiritual and philosophical import, treated as another of the four mahavakyas, it sings in refrain the divinity of man: tat tvam asi – 'That thou art.' It prescribes knowledge of this innate divinity of man as the one remedy for the deeper ills of life (VI.8.7): tarati sokam atmavit – 'The knower to the Atman crosses all sorrow.' In its profoundly human episode of the discipleship of India under Prajapati, it instructs us in the true nature and technique of man's spiritual quest and the blessings that flow from spirituality. It is an impressive account of man's spiritual education, his growth from worldliness to spirituality. It points out the limitations of materialism as a philosophy of life and the evils that flow from it.

The Brhadaranyaka, the longest of the Upanishads, is, as its name implies, a big (brhat) forest (aranya) of philosophical thought and spiritual inspiration. Four outstanding personalities illumine its pages – two men and two women – Janaka, the philosopher-king, Yajnavalkya, the philosopher-sage, Maitreye, the deeply spiritual wife of Yajnavalkya, and Gargi, the vacaknavi, the 'gifted women speaker and philosopher', who is foremost among the questioners of Yajnavalkya in philosophical debate. The Upanishad majestically expounds, through its fascinating dialogues conducted by these outstanding and other lesser personalities, the central theme of all the Upanishads, namely, the divinity of man and the spiritual solidarity of the whole universe in Brahman. It contains another of the four mahavakyas (I.4.10), namely, aham brahmasmi – 'I am Brahman', besides the ayam atma brahma of the Mandukya already referred to. It dares to characterize Brahman as 'the fearless', and presents its realization by man as the attainment, here and now, of the state of absolute fearlessness and fullness of delight.


From Obscurity to Prominence

It goes to the eternal credit of Sankara that, through his masterly commentaries on the principal Upanishads, he brought out of obscurity this immortal literature, as also the great Bhagavad-Gita, and made them accessible and intelligible to a wider audience; and that audience has been steadily widening ever since, aided by the contributions of subsequent commentators, thinkers, and sages, until, in the present age, thanks to the techniques of modern western civilization, the whole world has become its actual or potential audience. Apart from the great western orientalists, whose translations and expositions brought this and other books of the Indian tradition to the attention of scholars in East and West, it was from Swami Vivekananda, the most authentic voice of Vedanta in the modern age, that vast masses of men and women in both the hemispheres became drawn to the spiritual charm and rational strength of this literature and to a recognition of its relevance to man in the modern age. In his lecture on 'Vedanta and Its Application to Indian Life', the Swami says (Complete Works, Vol. III, Eighth Edition, pp. 237-38):

'Strength, strength is what the Upanishads speak to me from every page. This is the one great thing to remember, it has been the one great lesson I have been taught in my life. Strength, it says, strength, O man, be not weak. Are there no human weaknesses? – Says man. There are, say the Upanishads, but will more weakness heal them, would you try to wash dirt with dirt? Will sin cure sin, weakness cure weakness… Ay, it is the only literature in the world where you find the word abhih 'fearless', used again and again; in no other scripture in the world is this adjective applied either to God or to man…. And the Upanishads are the great mine of strength. Therein lies strength enough to invigorate the whole world. The whole world can be vivified, made strong, energized through them. They will call with trumpet voice upon the weak, the miserable, and the down-trodden of all races, all creeds, all sects, to stand on their feet and be free. Freedom – physical freedom, mental freedom, and spiritual freedom – are the watch-words of the Upanishads.'

Samara's commentaries of these Upanishads, especially on those of their passages pregnant with philosophical and spiritual import, are masterpieces of philosophical discussion illumined by deep spiritual insights. His masterly handling of the Sanskrit language in these commentaries gives us a prose which is marked by brevity and vigour, simplicity and poetic charm.


What the Upanishads Contain

In the Upanishads, we get an intelligible body of verified and verifiable spiritual insights mixed with a mass of myths and legends and cosmological speculations relating to the nature and origin of the universe. While the former has universal validity, and a claim on human intelligence in all ages, the latter forswears all such claim. All positivistic knowledge contained in any literature, including religious literature, is limited and conditioned by the level of contemporary scientific knowledge. Modification, and even scrapping, of much of this knowledge due to subsequent advances has affected the truth-validity of much of man's literary heritage, including his religious and philosophical ones.

The spiritual insights of the Upanishads, however, are an exception to this tyranny of time. Subsequent scientific advances have not only not affected their truth-value but have, on the contrary, only helped to reveal the rational basis of their insights and enhance their spiritual appeal. This is no wonder, because these insights are the products of an equally scientific investigation into a different field of experience, namely, the world of man's inner life.


Back of the Book


The Author

Born in the village of Trikkur, Kerala State, on December 15, 1908, Swami Ranganathananda joined the Ramakrishna Order, the international spiritual and cultural movement founded by Swami Vivekananda, at its branch in Mysore in 1926. he was formally initiated into Sannyasa in 1933 by Swami Shivananda, one of the eminent disciples of Sri Ramakrishna and the second president of the Order. After spending the first twelve years in the Order's branches in Mysore and Bangalore, the first six years of which as cook, dish-washer and house-keeper and later as warden of student's hostel, he worked as Secretary and liberation at the Ramakrishna Mission branch at Rangoon – from 1939 to 1942, and thereafter as President of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, Karachi, from 1942 to 1948.

From 1949 to 1962, he worked as the Secretary of the New Delhi branch of the Mission, and from 1963 to 1967, he was the Secretary of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta (Kolkatta), Director of its school of Humanistic and Cultural Studies, and Editor of its monthly journal.

From 1973 to 1993 he was President of Ramakrishna Math, Hyderabad. From 1994 to 1998 he was Vice-President of World-Wide Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission and became its President in 1998. He stayed at Belur Math, till his passing away on April 25, 2005.

He was undertaken extensive lecture tours from 1946 to 1972 covering 50 countries. From 1973 to 1986 he visited annually Australia, U.S.A., Holland and Germany.

In 1986 he was awarded the first Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration.




  Publishers' Preface v
  Hints on Transliteration and Pronunciation ix
  Introduction: The Charm and Power of the Upanishads. 1
  The Principal Upanishads – From Obscurity to Prominence – What the Upanishads contain – Satyasya Satyam – Inquiry into the 'Within' of Nature – Science and Religion – Sruti verses Smriti – Sanatana Dharma: its Uniqueness – Meaning of the Term 'Upanishad' – Truth verses Opinion – The Mental Climate of the Upanishads – The Upanishads and Indian Secularism – The Upanishads and the Modern Crisis – Lead Kindly Light.  
1. Our Spiritual Heritage 46
  The Challenge of Human Experience – the True Nature of Man – The Moving Power of the Spirit – The Need for broad-based Education – A Message of Fearlessness – Universal Man.  
2. Isa Upanishad – 1 62
  What is this Word? – Beyond Time and Space – Striving for Fulfilment - The Dangers of Stagnation – Seek and Ye Shall Find – The Technique of Enjoyment.  
3. Isa Upanishad – 2 81
  Zest in Life – Joyful old Age – Coming to Grips with Life – A Warning.  
4. Isa Upanishad – 3 100
  Space-Time Continuum – Faster than the Mind – Tat Tvam Asi – Entering the Profound – Correcting the Error of Separateness – Practical Application.  
5. Isa Upanishad – 4 123
  True Nobility – The 'Universe Souls' – Theory to Flow into Practice – Renunciation and Service – Education as Assimilation of Ideas – Man-Making and Character-building Education – The Synthesis of All Experience – The Self and the Not-Self – Being and Becoming – Worldliness and Other-Worldliness – Samyaginana or the Philosophy of Total Vision – The Nitya and the Lila – Perfection Here and Now.  
6. Isa Upanishad – 5 146
  Strength Through Education – Work is Worship – Dharma and Amrta – The Synthesis of Character and Vision – Prayer for Divine Revolution – Reality and Its Symbol – Facing Death in a Grand Manner – Death as a Creative Crisis – Vedantic Jivanmukti – Prayer for Passage to Heaven - .The Indian Fear of Rebirth – The Vedantic Message of Fearlessness – True Spirituality – Birth in a Punyabhumi.  
7. Kena Upanishad – 1 176
  The Critical Approach in Philosophy – The Critical Approach in Religion – The Spiritual Urge – The Inadequacy of Knowledge from 'Without' – The Importance of the Knowledge from 'Within' – The Unification of All Experience – The Grip of the Inner World on the Indian Mind – The King of Sciences – The Monotheistic God in the Light of the 'King of Sciences' – The Unity of Brahman and Atman – Prayer for Strength and Light.  
8. Kena Upanishad – 2 194
  The Pure Mind – The Discipline of Mind in Science – The Discipline of Mind in Vedanta – The Power of Discipline – From Manliness to Godliness – The Search for the Highest.  
9. Kena Upanishad – 3 214
  The Nature of Reality – The Spiritual Character of the Absolute – Conceptual God verses True God – Pitfalls in the Path – Cautiousness of Statement – The Nature of Brahman-Realization – The Continuity of the Indian Spiritual Tradition – Totapuri and Ramakrishna – The Fruit of Wisdom Is Strength.  
10. Kena Upanishad – 4 232
  Footprints of the Atman on the Sands of Experience – Scholarship versus Spirituality – Realization Here and Now – Universality of Vision – The Evolutionary Vision – From Knowledge to Wisdom – The Spiritual Training of the Will – The Direction of Human Evolution – The Dynamics of Human Evolution – The Uniqueness of Man – The Place of the Ego in the Strategy of Evolution – The true Life for Man – Immortality.  
11. Kena Upanishad – 5 251
  A Fascinating Story – The Grace of Knowledge – Unity of Microcosm and Macrocosm – Hints and Suggestions – Ethical Basis of Spiritually – An Infinite Personality.  
12. Katha Upanishad – 1 263
  Education as Illumination – The Science of the Soul – Sraddha – Fearless Love of Truth.  
13. Katha Upanishad – 2 275
  The First Two Boons – A Question Fraught with Great Blessings – Temptations Refused.  
14. Katha Upanishad – 3 291
  The Paths of Sreya and Preya – Abhyudaya and Nihsreyasa – The Yogaksema Mood – Vidya and Avidya – Yama's Eulogy of Naciketa  
15. Katha Upanishad – 4 301
  The Vedantic Concept of Education – The Blind Leading the Blind – The Delusion of Wealth – The Tyranny of the Sensate – True Humanness – Lower Self and Higher Self – The Vedantic View of Evolution – The Self of Man Indestructible – 'All Expansion Is Life; All Contraction Is Death' – Modern Knowledge and Sri Ramakrishna's Wisdom – Wisdom Verses Scholarship  
16. Katha Upanishad – 5 312
  Science and the Non-physical Aspects of Experience – The Fruits of such a Study – The Main Theme of Vedanta: The Immortal Self of Man – Limitations of Logical Reason – Wonderful the Teacher – Extraordinary the Student – The Aim of Teacher-Student Communion: Illumination – The Unfathomable Nature of Spiritual Illumination – The Transcendence of Logical Reason – Logical Reason verses Philosophical Reason – Naciketa's Will to Truth – The Extraordinary Nature of Vivekananda's Discipleship under Ramakrishna.  
17. Katha Upanishad – 6 327
  Limitations of Logical Reason: How and Why? Vedanta Upholds Reason – Reason in Classical Physics – Reason in Twentieth-century Physics – Reason in Modern Science versus Reason in Western Philosophy – Modern Scientific Reason versus Vedantic Reason – Scientific Reason versus the Prejudices of Scientists – Reason in Twentieth-Century Biology – Reason in Modern Depth Psychology – The New Dimensions of Scientific Reason – The Development of Scientific Reason into Philosophical Reason – The Function of Philosophical Reason as understood in Vedanta.  
18. Katha Upanishad – 7 346
  The Resolute Spiritual Will of Naciketa – Worldly Achievements versus Spirituality – The Journey Outward and Journey Inward – The Spiritual Utility of the Outward Journey – Achievement versus Personality – The Way of the Spiritually Gifted – Naciketa's Spirit of Renunciation – The Soil is Ready for the Seed.  
19. Katha Upanishad – 8 356
  The Characteristics of the Self – The Quest of the Self – The Imagery of the Two Birds – Dharma and Amrta – The Marvellous Touch of the Soul – Positivism versus Religion – Man in Quest of Bliss – The House of Truth is Wide Open for Naciketa.  
20. Katha Upanishad – 9 366
  Maya a Fact of Existence – Beyond Maya – Om: the Symbol of Total Reality – The Power of Tapas.  
21. Katha Upanishad – 10 381
  Man Viewed in Depth – The Message of Hope – The Nature of the Atman – The True Glory of Man – The Self-Revelation of the Atman – Grace versus Personal Effort – Man's Struggle to Become God-Worthy – The Fruit of Spirituality Is Fearlessness.  
22. Katha Upanishad – 11 397
  The Kingdom of Heaven Is Within You – Life Is a Journey to Fulfilment – The Imagery of the Chariot – Two Types of Journey – The Meaning of the Chariot Imagery – The Emancipation of Buddhi or Reason – Life under the Guidance of Buddhi – Life Itself Is Religion – Human Life: Its Uniqueness – Sanity in Spiritual Life – Freedom Is the Birthright of All.  
23. Katha Upanishad - 12 413
  Light on the Path – The Need for Inner Penetration – Vedanta on the Inner Layers of the Universe – Modern Science on the Inner Layers of the Universe – Nature: Differentiated versus Undifferentiated – The Concept of Personality – Limitations of Personality – The Impersonal behind the Personal – The Inner Layers as Kosas – The Changeless behind the Changing – The Purification of Reason – Man: the Perennial Theme of Vedanta.  
24. Katha Upanishad – 13 430
  The 'Imprisoned Splendour' – The Splendour Can be Released – The Pre-eminence of Adhyatmavidya – Yoga as the Science and Art of the Spiritual Life – Jnana Yoga: The Awesome Yet Fascinating Path – Arise, Awake, O Man! – The Philosophy of Spiritual Awakening – The Need for a Teacher – The Vedantic Concern for Man – Diving to the Depth – The Conquest of Death – The Spiritual Basis of Character-Development – In Praise of, Wisdom.  
25. Katha Upanishad – 14 446
  The Divergent Paths of Death and Deathlessness – The Phenomenon of Awareness – Human Immaturity versus Maturity – Equipping Reason for the Higher Life – The Direct Technique of the 'Study of the Book Within' – India and the 'Science of Human Possibilities' – The Self: Lower versus Higher – Homeostasis and Evolution – Emergence of the Higher Mind – The Way of the Dhara – The Dhara of the Upanishads – The Dhara: The Modern Courageous Type – The Philosophy of Total Experience – The Avrttacaksu – The Senses Conceal More Than They Reveal – Concentration of Mind – Buddha: A Glowing Example – Blessedness: the Fruit of the Science of Religion.  
26. Katha Upanishad – 15 464
  The Many in the Light of the One – Fearlessness – The Footprints of the Atman in Experience – The Non-Difference of Cause and Effect – Evolution Presupposes Involution – Unity of Matter and Energy – Vision of Unity in Diversity – Three Types of Knowledge – The Evils of Separateness in Religion – Emergence of the Unifying Vision in Religion in the Modern Age – The Indian Heritage of this Unifying Vision in Human Relations in the Modern Age – Training the Mind in this Unifying Vision – The Use of Symbols in Meditation – The Glory of this Unifying Vision.  
27. Katha Upanishad – 16 488
  The City of the Unborn – The Uniqueness of Man – The Unity of Consciousness – The Atman: and Moral Man – Karma and Rebirth – Brahman Revealed in Experience – Unity in Diversity – Realization – The Light of all Lights – The Vision Sublime.  
28. Katha Upanishad – 17 509
  The Sacredness of Trees in Indian Culture – Its Philosophical Orientation – The Tree of Existence: Scandinavian – The Tree of Existence: Indian – The Uniqueness of the Asvattha Imagery – The Tree Imagery and the Philosophy of Reality – Being and Becoming – Brahman and Sakti Inseparable – The Vedantic Vision of Reality: Its Immense Sweep – Sankara's Vision of the World-tree – Life: True and False – Brahman as Cosmic Order – Brahman Is to Be Realized Here and Now – The Concept of Planes of Existence – The Supreme Excellence of the Human Plane.  
29. Katha Upanishad – 18 526
  Spiritual Realization and Its Utility – Rising from Knowledge to Wisdom – 'Seek Ye the Infinite' – Landmarks on the Spiritual Journey – The Technique of Yoga – Need for Alertness – Yoga: the Highest State of Existence – Homeostasis and Evolution – Characteristics of Homeostasis - Homeostasis versus Yoga – Characteristics of Yoga – Existence as the Ultimate Category – Realization Here and Now – Man: Mortal versus Immortal – The Central Message of Vedanta.  
Appendix One: Text of the three Upanishads in Devanagari Script. 555
Appendix Two: Vedanta and Modern Sciences (Correspondence between Sir Julian Huxley and Swami Ranganathananda on the Message of the Upanishads). 569
Index:   611

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