Basic Concepts in Upanishads
It is no exaggeration to say that the Upaniṣads constitute the basic springs of Indian thought and culture. They have inspired not only the orthodox systems of Indian philosophy but also some of the so-called heterodox Schools like those of Buddhism.
The Upaniṣads are not systematic treatises on philosophy; they are not the works of a single author. The teachers whose intuitions are recorded in the Upaniṣads are more mystic seers than metaphysical investigators.
There is a directness about their teachings, and an authenticity born of first-hand experience of the highest reality. They pour forth their findings in the form of stories and parables, informal discussions and intimate dialogues.
The method they adopt is “more poetic than philosophic”. Even where the language used is prose the poetic quality is only too evident.
It is true that in many places symbolic expressions are employed which hide the meaning rather than make it obvious. Sometimes there are puns on words and mystic explanations of certain abstruse terms. Even these, it may be noted, add to the charm of the Upaniṣads.
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The Upaniṣads are called the Vedanta, as most of them constitute concluding portions of the Veda, and also their teaching represents the aim or goal of the Veda. The Sanskrit word 'anta', like the English end, may mean both “terminus” and “aim.” The later Vedāntic Schools derive their name Vedanta or Veda-anta from the fact that they claim to interpret the Upaniṣads.
Upaniṣads by their nature are opposed to ritual. In the Brihadāraṇyaka, he who worships a divinity other than the self is described as a domestic animal of the gods. Lordship on earth may be gained by sacrificing a horse. But spiritual autonomy is to be achieved renouncing the whole universe which the Upaniṣad conceives in the image of a horse.
The Upaniṣads make a distinction between two kinds of knowledge, the higher (parā) and the lower (a-parā).The lower knowledge consists of all the empirical sciences and arts as also of such sacred knowledge as relates to things and enjoyments that perish."Widely contrasted and different are these two,” says the Kaṭha, “nescience (avidyā) and what is known as knowledge (vidyā).
“Brāhman” and “ātman” are the two words, without grasping whose meaning and significance it is impossible to understand the Upaniṣads. In certain contexts where the inquiry is into the source of the universe, the expression “ātman” is employed, and in certain others where the topic of investigation is the true self of man the term “Brāhman” is used.
There are in the Upaniṣads two conceptions of the world, one which considers the world to be a real emanation of Brāhman, and the other which regards it as an appearance of the Absolute. But on one point there is unanimity of view, i.e. the origin of the whole world is traced to the self, and not to a material source.
The individual soul is called “Jīva,” from the root jīv which means “to live.” Mokṣa, or release, is the goal of every man; and release consists in the soul's freedom from the need to be re-born. Both according to the cosmic and the acosmic views, the individual is not different in essence from the absolute spirit.