Many faiths do not allow critical examination or review of their scriptures. Even death penalty can be inflicted upon the offenders for violation of this dictate, but Hinduism has allowed cross examination of concepts. Every individual is free to accept or reject the dogma of his predecessor or contemporary and offer his own thesis for acceptance to others. Because of total freedom of thought and expression, there has been no fundamentalist mindset in Hinduism. Every view is open to reasoning. That is how many off shoots have kept emerging in Hinduism from time to time. In Upanishdas Vedic concepts have been critically evaluated and dwelled upon.
Relevance of Upanishads
Every Veda consists of three parts. The first part is known as Gyan Khand; second part is called Mantra part, and the third part is called Brahmanas. Vedas contain subtle truth referred as Brahma Gyana. Knowledge about 1180 subjects has been dealt in the Vedas which is compressed in language and style of Mantras, composed within the constraints of poetic meters called Chhandas. Many Chhandas are complex to be understood and require further elaboration or explanation. Therefore subject matter of every part of Veda had one or more Upanishad to deal with the subject in detail.
After Vedas were compiled, subsequent Rishies continued not only adding to the knowledge of Vedas, but they critically reviewed, interpreted, and elaborated the Vedic knowledge subjectively by commenting upon the same. To bring out all aspects of the subject with clarity, the Upanishads have followed the format of discussion between the learned Rishi and his inquisitive disciples. The compendiums of such interpretations are called Upanishads. They were estimated to be numbering 108 to 200, but now only eleven Upanishads are available today. The rest have been thoughtlessly destroyed by invaders.
In Upanishads large numbers of Rishies appear in discourse with their disciples pondering over complex subjects like – What is Soul? What is its relationship with God? How life is sustained? What is the purpose of life? Who motivates all living beings to live and act? The discussions go on around several topics. Disciples ask and Rishies answer. That way several scientific, philosophical, spiritual concepts are seen taking shape. For explaining the subject in detail, Rishies often illustrate their views by citing suitable narratives and examples. The philosophy of Upanishads was further carried forward in Darshan Shastras and simplified in Puranas through narratives and pictorials. Thus Vedas, Upanishads, Darshan Shastras and Puranas are inter linked and are referred as Vedas, Vedantas, and Vedangas.
A brief account of existing Upanishads is as under:-
- Isavasopanishad: This is the briefest. It is related to Shukla Yajurved. There are 18 Mantras. It contains knowledge and discussions about soul, the Almighty, states of wisdom and ignorance. Discussions related to material and immaterial matters are also given. According to the discussions regarding the science of Yoga, human longevity is assessed to be one hundred years. It is also explained that human heart has 72 veins. There is detailed account of the process of soul leaving the body at the time of death. It is significant to say that when this kind of knowledge was compiled there was no trace of allopathic or any other kind of Medical Science in the world, except Ayurveda.
- Kenopanishad: The word ‘Ken’ implies “Who does”? Kenopanishad is made up of four chapters, which contain 34 Mantras. Beginning with an ‘OM’ Mantra, it goes on to ask questions: who controls the mind – and the final answer given there is that – all things happen because of the power of the Ultimate Reality.
- Kathopanishad: Authored by Katha Rishi, this treatise is affiliated to Yajurveda. It is made up of two chapters. The famous ‘Nachiketa Upakhyana’ is included in it. The important theme of this Upanishad is the spirited education given by God ‘Yama’ to Nachiketa. As per discussion all our senses gather outward knowledge, and until our senses are shut outwardly and concentrated inwardly the realization of soul is not possible. God is regarded as being in all things. He is the bodiless among bodies. He is the inner soul of the things. Further knowledge about five Koshas (Awareness Centers) in human body has also been explained. They are called Annamaya Kosha, made up from the food intake, Pranamaya Kosha – sustained through our breath, as there are 14 types of wind energies residing in human body, Manomaya Kosha – supported by our senses, Vigyanmaya Kosha – knowledge acquired through action of senses, and Anandamaya Kosha – the ultimate bliss of knowledge. The position of soul in body is like invisible butter present in milk. In another part of this Upanishad Rishi Piplada has explained the development process of human body in womb right from conception to birth. Awakening of Kundalini power in human body has also been elaborately discussed.
- Prashnopanishad: This Upanishad is affiliated to Atharvaveda primarily concerning medical science. It has six divisions and 64 Mantras. In this Upanishad, six Rishies namely Bhradwaj, Sathyakam, Gargi, Aswalayan, Bhargava, and Katyayna are asking questions to Maharshi Pipalada. In response to their questions the Maharshi teaches them the Brahmavidya. He explains five kinds of wind present in human body. The breath inhaled in lungs purifies blood in heart, the part of breath affecting nerve center in umbilicus is identified as Smaan, and the wind affecting rectum part is called Apaan. The wind felt in nerves cells is Dhyana, and in Sushmana wind pipe it is called Udyana. All the aforesaid winds reside in semen which should never be wasted. For this reason Brahmcharya is recommended for enjoying longevity. The description of Northern and Southern Hemispheres is also explained in this document.
- Mundakopanishad: This Upanishad is also affiliated to Atharvaveda In this Brahma teaches Brahmavidya to his son Atharva, who afterwards passed this knowledge to Rishis Angira and Rishi Shounaka. There are two parts in Mundakopanishad, one dealing with worldly knowledge and other dealing with spiritual knowledge.
- Mandookyopanishad: Another Mandookyopanishad is also affiliated to Atharvaveda This Upanishad has four branches. They are ‘Agama’, ‘Vaidadhya’, ‘Advaita’, and ‘Athalasanthi’. The conditions of mind such as jagrati and sushupti are explained in it. Explanation of OM mantra is also given in this treatise.
- Taiteropanishad: This Upanishad is philosophical in content and affiliated to Krishna Yajurveda. This document contains doctrines concerning Adiloka, Adi-jyothisha, Adi-pragyaa, Adi-vidya and Adhyatma.
- Eiteropanishad: There are three chapters in Eiteropanishad. It is affiliated to Rigveda. Besides creation of Universe, the subject matter of this Upanishad deals with development of spiritual powers, the working of Indris (senses), spiritual awakening, the birth and rebirth in detail.
- Chhandogyaupishad: This Upanishad is affiliated to Samaveda. It is voluminous and contains elaboration of Onkara. In addition, several subtle matters like post death, rebirth, Yama , Niyams, body parts and various Chkras located in human body have also been described in detail.
- Brihadaranyakaopanishad: It is the largest Upanishad of all and it is affiliated to Shukla Yajurveda. There are six chapters on various subjects. The dialogue discussions takes place between Rishi Yaglavakya and his learned wife Maitri on matters like Sandhya, Karma, Vichara, Brahma, Saguna, Nirguna, Prajapati, Devas, Asuras, Jiva and Gyana.
- Swetaswataropanishad: This Upanishad was written in around 250-200 BC by some un-identified author. It is the last of the classical Upanishads. It can be studied as a human document describing the struggles, longings, failures, and achievements of an earnest soul.
The Upanishads played a very significant role in the formation and evolution of Indian philosophical thought. Over and above they have made significant contribution towards scientific element in Hindu thought. Many schools of Hindu philosophy, sectarian religions like Buddhism and Jainism derived richly from the knowledge contained in the Upanishads.
Even Islam also could not remain unaffected from the influence of Upanishads. The Vedanta philosophy found its expression through Sufism in Islam. During seventeenth century, Emperor Shahjehan’s eldest son Crown Prince Dara Shikoh was so much impressed by Upanishads that he got them translated. An Upanishad known as Ilo-Upanishad is attributed to have been authored by Dara Shikoh himself. However the noble prince paid the price for subscribing to un-Islamic views. He was denounced as Kafir and beheaded on orders from his younger brother Aurangzeb.
As a matter of fact Upanishads are the oldest philosophical literature in search of scientific truths. They deal with secular knowledge applicable to entire humanity and by no stretch of imagination have any communal bias. Upanishads are treasure of earliest scientific thought and concepts for the mankind.
Chand K Sharma
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