About the book
The upanisads are the records of the great spiritual experience of the seers and saints of ancient India. They point out the possibility of realizing the supreme Goal by every sadhaka. The major texts are of great value in disciplining the mental, moral, and physical activities of the individual to whatever creed he belongs. These profound works forming the integral core of perennial philosophy are eternally valuable to man. The need of these texts is more in modern times when man is tossed between conflicting desires, goal, ideals, and ways of life. They must be made to speak to the modern man is a medium he can easily comprehend. This is what Swami Gabhirananda has achieved in this work. In a simple language, freed from technicalities of a philosophical or a theological discourse, the Swamiji has offered us this great treasure. After going through his version, one would long to cleave to the text for ever. More of such is the need of the hour.
According to Sri Sankaracarya, the word ‘Upanisad’ means the knowledge of Reality which destroys or loosens the hold of ignorance on the mind of man, and which takes him to mask or Self-realization. Like a lamp illuminating a cavern, where darkness has reigned from beginning less time, is the spiritual light of the Upanisads. It instantaneously dissipates the darkness of ignorance in an aspirant’s understanding, and destroys his false identification with the body-mind complex; it establishes him in his true spiritual splendour.
Modern scholars have interpreted the word ‘Upanisad’ etymologically. They take it as the knowledge imparted to a specially qualified disciple who approaches a teacher and serves him with great devotion and strong spiritual aspiration. If it is imparted to all and sundry, to those who are unfit to grasp its high spiritual import, they will misunderstand and misapply it, as illustrated by the parable of Indra and Virocana in the Chandogya Upanisad. So it is given to the chosen few who are very close to the teacher by virtue of their fitness to grasp its correct import. This idea is also echoed by Sri Sankara in his comments on the Kena Upanisad (4.7). He explains the word ‘Upanisadam’ as ‘the essential truth (lit, secret) or Brahman to be meditated upon.’
Both these interpretations point to the true purpose of the texts called Upanisads. It is not mere scholarship or mere proficiency in quoting texts in debates in order to establish one’s reputation as a scholar. It is the assimilation and practice of the teaching; it is the attainment of the direct knowledge of the supreme Reality, consequent on the dissipation of the darkness of ignorance which enshrouds the aspirant’s apprehension of the Self and of nature.
The Upanisads are also known by the term Vedanta, for they are, literally interpreted, the anta or the conclusion of the Vedas. But ‘conclusion’ here is not to he understood as ‘the last page’. The bulk of the Vedas deal with the rituals and other kinds of actions that are to be performed for the sake of worldly prosperity. But the ultimate purpose of the Vedas is not the fulfilment of these transitory values. It is to reveal the saving knowledge which removes all the sorrows of man and which establishes him in divine Bliss. The section of the Vedas which expounds this knowledge is known as Upanisad. It is not that these teachings are not present in all the other parts of the Vedas too. They are there in scattered form. The Upanisads present them in a more concentrated and direct way. They do not, however, form their ‘end’ or last portion, as already pointed out. For, some of them like the Isavosya Upanisad are found in the Samhita portion of the Vedas, and some others, which are long and important, like the Brhadaranyaka and the Chandogya, in the Aranyakas. So ‘end’ should be understood as the purport or the philosophy of the Vedas. As Deussen, the great German orientalist, declared ‘The sparks of philosophic light appearing in the Rgveda, shine out brighter and brighter until at last in the Upanisads they burst into that bright flame which is able to light and warm us today.’
What is the fundamental teaching of these Upanisads? In a foreword such as this, a detailed discussion of it is superfluous. Briefly, it may be described as the discovery of the unity of all existence. To be satisfied with the perception of mere diversity and its utility in one’s daily life, is the characteristic of the pragmatic man. He merely lives, dies and takes rebirth until he realizes the futility of a life absorbed in meaningless diversity. Thereafter, he searches for a meaning. This quest ultimately leads him to the unity behind the diversity. The Upanisadic thinkers have described that unity as Sacciddnanda-Parabrahman (the Supreme Being who is• Existence-Knowledge-Bliss). He is further described as satyam (Truth), jnanam (Consciousness), anantam (Infinity) and anandam (Bliss). From Him this diversity has come, in Him it rests, by Him it is infilled and contained, Him it dissolves.
Is it possible to prove this in a way more convincing than the presumption on which it is based? The answer of the Upanisadic seers is that there is a way, and it consists in direct experience. A mere external quest, as it obtains in most non-Vedantic religions, can lead one only to a dogmatic assumption about it. That Unity is then only a transcendental Reality which words and thoughts cannot penetrate. But to the Vedantist, Brahma, is not only transcendental, It ensouls the whole universe and every jiva in it; Brahman is immediate. By proper introspection, It can be intuited within by a pure mind. According to some schools of Vedanta, intuition gives the experience of the identity of the jiva with the supreme Self; and thus gives the most intimate understanding through ‘being and becoming’. According to these schools, as the essence of the jiva is Brahman itself, this self-validating intuition of it as the Self can be had through proper striving.
This brings us to the two main trends of teaching contained in the Upanisads —the Saprapanca (cosmic) and Nisprapanca (acosmic) doctrines about the supreme Reality. These have crystallized into what are known today as Visistadvaita and the Advaita philosophies. Generally there is an idea among students of Indian philosophy that these doctrines originated with Sri Ramanuja and Sri Sankara, their systematic exponents of modern times. This is not correct. The Brahmasutro.s mention the names of three Upanisadic thinkers— Asmarathya, Ausulomi and Kasakrtsna—s representing these two trends of thought. In the Saprapanca ideal expounded by Sri Ramanuja, the world of multiplicity, including the jivas and jagat, have ultimate reality with a dependent status. The prapanca (the cosmos of multiplicity) is only the body, the mode, the indissolubly dependent attribute of Naryana or Purusottama who is described in the Upanisads as Satyam (Truth), jnanam (Consciousness), anandam (Bliss) and anantam (Infinity). The way to gain the direct and immediate experience of Him is by adoration and self-surrender, which make the uplifting and enlightening grace of Narayana available to the jiva.
The Nisprapanca doctrine, familiarly known Advaita and associated with the holy name of Sri Sankaracarya, seeks to establish the unity of existence by the denial of ultimacy to the prapanca or multiplicity. It is given only a prima facie (vyavaharika) reality, which is relevant only so long as the jiva is in ignorance. The usual idea of God as the real cause of the universe, and the practice of religion based on adoration of Him, and also all the values and disvalues of life, have only this prima facie validity when the jiva is in ignorance. Ignorance can be destroyed by vicara (discriminative Knowledge