The Upanisads (or Upanishads) are the earliest Supreme Wisdom literature of the world. It is not often, however, that they have been presented as a spiritual path or approach in their own right. Even in India, where they have inspired and to some extent shaped a vast civilization, they are studied primarily only in the light of Vedanta, a powerful systematization of the original texts. This book represents an attempt to present the spiritual aspects of the Upanisadic teachings on the basis of the texts themselves, and in a way that respects tradition and is defensible in the modern world today. The emphasis is not so much on ideas and issues, as on the meaning which the individual texts have in terms of spiritual life. The Infinite Truths of the Upanisads can emerge only when one takes them seriously and makes efforts to live them in one's daily life.
The book was written with conviction that the Upanisads have the capability to uplift mankind today, and that they desperately need to be made available to a winder western – oriented audience. Generally speaking, high level Indian spiritual literature may be divided into three overlapping types: literature focusing God and God consciousness, such as the medieval bhakti literatures in Hindi, Tamil, etc,; literature detailing yogic and Tantric paths; and High Wisdom literature. Of these, the first two are unlikely to find a widespread response in the West. The modern cultural and intellectual climate is not favourable to walking the path of total dedication to love of God. Western Tradition has its own great knowledge-of-God literatures, such as the writings of the Catholic Saints. But these are seldom read and put into practice. There is little appreciation that these works are basically universal documents whose essence can be absorbed and used in one's life without a specifically Christian orientation. Next, the yogic literature undoubtedly has some appeal, and life and practice along such lines may lead to considerable individual uplift and approach to the goal. But without a deep cultural base such as in India, yogic and Tantric practice is bound to touch only a few. And even in India the true deeper stages of these paths are almost beyond reach today. High Wisdom literature, by comparison, does not have these kinds of handicaps. Indeed, the general cultural and intellectual climate in the West seems mildly favourable to wisdom paths. Many individuals are seriously pursuing Buddhist practice in Zen or Tibetan traditions, or follow J. Krishnamurty. Western philosophers are turning to Samkara, or Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, or to Plotinus, for that matter. And there are many individuals who follow Indian traditions that are permeated by Upanisadic teachings. All these trends have vitality, but they are quite small scale. My aim has been to produce an introduction to the Upanisads which is based on the original texts and does not hide difficulties of interpretation, but which still enables the reader to get an insight into the Upanisadic teachings and at least start thinking about how he/she could bring them into his/her own life. I have tried to write a book which is useful to individuals that are already on an Indian path, as well as one that can speak to persons who are serious about the meaning of life and existence, and who would like to get an introduction to the Upanisadic Supreme Wisdom. But the intended audience also includes people who are already somewhat acquainted with Indian philosophy and religion, and who would like to get a deeper understanding in this area.
The core of the book is a small number of vidyas, or teachings outlining specific paths involving meditation and leading to highest realization. Modern Indian students of the Upanisads and spiritual teachers agree that the vidyas are the heart of the Upanisads and that any true entrance into the higher Upanisadic teachings must be through the vidyas. But unfortunately, much of the inner (spiritual, yogic and otherwise esoteric) meaning of the vidyas has been lost or is preserved only in small traces. In this book I have tried to recover some of this meaning using first textual analysis, and then consideration of traditional views of the text (Brahma Sutra, Samkara) and modern scholarship. (Textual analysis includes using parallel texts and tracing the use of important terms or phrases of the text elsewhere in the Vedic literature, as well as considering the form of the texts and their literary aspects.) In addition, I have also taken into account comments on a given Vidya by great modern spiritual figures such as Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sri Sathya Sai Baba. Obviously the results depend much on my own personal biases and understanding of things; writing the book over the last several years has played a large role in my own spiritual life. Bu I believe that it is possible in this way to have these Infinite teaching emerge closer to their true from and speak directly to modern spiritual understanding.
Since the main goal is to get a deeper understanding of the Upanisadic teachings themselves, the basic format in the book is one of text and commentary. Typically, an Upanisadic text is presented in translation and then discussed by outlining its overall structure, giving necessary background and parallel texts, highlighting or elaborating particular points, and trying to get an idea of its spiritual meaning. I believe that detailed preoccupation with individual texts of this kind is a must. If the Upanisadic Wisdom is to take deeper roots in the West, then it must be shown in detail how this Wisdom emerges from the texts. There must be scholarly consideration of inner, deeper aspects of the Upanisadic teachings similar to the consideration of biblical passages in Christian or Islamic theology and mysticism. To this end, open discussion of the deeper meaning (s) which one sees in a given text is essential. Whatever general background in Indian tradition is needed is given in chapter 1. Thereafter, specific concepts, historical background, general concepts and issues, and more universal aspects of the Upanisadic teachings are all developed gradually and cumulatively in connection with particular passages or texts where they arise. I have met many people who told me that they had tried to read Eastern spiritual literature but found it too difficult to penetrate. I have tried to address this problem by adopting various devices, such as constant translation of Sanskrit terms, references to relevant modern philosophical or scientific developments, attempts to place a particular point in a larger historical context, and attempts to identify some of the more universal validity that a given teaching might have. But with so much modern critical scholarship on top of so many layers of Indian tradition, complexity is unavoidable and there are bound to be many controversial issues.
The book synthesises a large amount of material from many sources while trying to keep the lines of argument clear. The first chapter contains historical and religious-philosophical background; thereafter, scope and spiritual depth increase substantially with every chapter until a highpoint is reached in chapters 5 and 6. Chapter 2 presents great and timeless texts like the Yajnavalkya-Maitreyi Dialogue to give an initial idea of Atman/Brahman. The next two chapters deal with Purusa, the all-encompassing and transcendent "Person", and the "Sense Powers" (Sight, Hearing, Mind, Speech, Breath). They have, however, a very different focus. Chapter 3 discusses four "mythological" and philosophical texts and shows that each of them must be based on some kind of higher realization or "enlightenment". In chapter 4 on the other hand, the interest is on the nature of meditation (which was completely out of the picture in chapter 3). In additions this chapter is concerned with the problem of how the Upanisadic Wisdom arose from out of the Vedic and Brahmanical religions, which are characterized more by Knowledge of Divinity than by Wisdom. To address these questions, the chapter