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Monday, January 30, 2012

The Upanishads

Vedic Rishi

he sacred scriptures of India are vast. Their importance is ranked differently according to the particular viewpoint of the individual. In Hinduism there are six darshanas, or systems of philosophy. They often seem to contradict themselves (and their professed adherents usually docontradict those of the other darshanas), but the wise know that they are only different ways of seeing the same thing, and it is that One Thing which makes them both valid and ultimately harmonious. That unifying subject is Brahman: God the Absolute, beyond and besides Whom there is no "other" whatsoever.1 Yet, according to differences in outlook, there is difference in evaluation of the scriptures. However, all followers of the Eternal (Sanatana) Dharma2 agree that the Vedas are the supreme authority, and the Vedas are always understood to include those treatises of mystical and speculative philosophy known as the Upanishads. The word "upanishad" comes from the root word upasana, which means "to draw near," and is usually considered to mean that which was heard when the student sat near the teacher to learn the eternal truths.

We do not know who wrote (or relayed from inner perception) the Vedas or the Upanishads, though we do have the names of those considered the original seers of the Vedic knowledge, though we know virtually nothing about their lives. This has a distinct advantage over the scriptures of other religions, for then the image of a historical, finite personality does not intervene to obscure the revelation they handed on to their students. It is in no way unjust to say that in other religions concentration on, adulation, and worship of the person who gave the revelation has often obscured and even abrogated their purpose in giving the teachings. Words and behavior diametrically opposed to the Messenger's teachings are sanctified by "devotion," "love," and "dedication" to "the Master," "the Lord," or "the Savior" who has a heaven to which he will welcome all faithful and believing devotees. "Following" is the ideal rather than becomingwhat the Teacher was. Lost in the personality of the Messenger, they forget the Message. "Adore the Messenger and ignore the Message" becomes the norm.

The authority of the Vedic scriptures rests not upon those who wrote them down but upon thedemonstrable truths they express. They are as self-sufficient and self-evident as the multiplication tables or the Table of Elements. They are simply the complete and unobscured truth. And realization of that Truth alone matters.


The Upanishads have long interested students of philosophy in the West. The English philosopher Hume translated some of them into English in the eighteenth century. Later he travelled to America where he taught Sanskrit to Thomas Jefferson and together they studied the Upanishads in their original form.

The greatest boon seekers of truth in this country have received are the translations of the Upanishads3 and the Bhagavad Gita4 made by Swami Prabhavananda of the Vedanta Society of Southern California in the nineteen-forties. I was privileged to hear him speak in 1962, and the value and clarity of his insights were remarkable. In his translations he did not attempt an exact literalism, yet they convey the meanings of the texts far better than most who try for literal wording. Reading his translation of the Gita changed my life in 1960, and everything which happened afterward was a consequence of that. My debt to him is incalculable and therefore unpayable. I looked at many translations before taking up the task of commenting on the Upanishads, and I found Swamiji's version inescapable. The Light of the Self (Atma Jyoti) radiates from the pages, conveying to us the illumination and blessing of his teacher Swami Brahmananda and his Master, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, of Whom it can be rightly said: "He shining, everything shines."5

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