The Beginner’s Guide to the Upanishads

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Can’t face tackling over 200 versions of the Upanishads? I hear you. Check out this article for the main facts about these epic texts.

Get to Know the Upanishads

Name: The Upanishads

Date written: As always with these ancient texts, it’s very hard to pin down an exact date, but it’s generally thought that the books were written between 800BCE – 200BC. This makes them older than the Vedas, but earlier than the Sutras. Some texts are thought to be pre-Buddhist. The Upanishads are known as ‘Vedanta’, the final chapters of the Vedas.

Author: The Upanishads are not one book – the term Upanishad is used to group together lots of different texts (known as sruti, or heard) on the nature of human reality, and the path to freedom (moksha). The writers were poets, and not always from higher caste. Much like the Gita, the Upanishads were passed down orally until being written down around 16th BC.

First translated into English: Sometime around the 19th century.

Popular translations: U means ‘up’, pa means ‘foot’ and shad means ‘to sit’, so we can think of Upanishads as meaning something like ‘sitting down near’ or ‘sitting at the foot of a teacher’. It’s not hard to imagine eager students sitting by the feet of their guru or teacher to learn before the days of Google, and, um, articles like this. Like an ancient version of Q&A, the students would ask questions and the guru would give answers. The idea of questioning is something which is a key theme to the Vedic questions, as this is the only way we truly discover and learn.

Key Themes

The concept of Brahman and Atman are central to the Upanishads; the idea that reality and the true nature of the Self are resolved through yoga and meditation are often part of the modern-day yoga practitioners’ quest today.

Other themes include:

  • Samsara (the cycle of life and death)
  • Karma (our actions in life)
  • Dharma (our obligations in life)
  • Moksha (freedom from all of the above!).

What are the Upanishads?

Short answer: religious and philosophical ponderings.Tthe Upanishads are not actually just one book, more a collection of texts grouped under one name. They each have their own message and story, and are written from different perspectives. The Upanishads teach us that intellect is not superior to direct experience and intuition. That’s why in class we try to feel the body and the movement, not over-think about what we are doing.

See Also: An Exercise in Mindful Eating (All You Need is a Raisin!)

Why Should I Read Them?

Good luck trying to read them all – no one knows how many there are! However if you want somewhere to get started, 14 Upanishads are thought to be the most important. They are: Isa, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, Brhadaranyaka, Svetasvatara, Kausitaki, Mahanarayana and the Maitri.

Interesting fact: The Upanishads are visible in Hindu, Buddhist and Jainism culture, but aren’t really a religious text. Perhaps this is why they have such longevity, as they seek to answer the universal questions that all religions try to explore: namely, who are we, and why are we here.

Inspiring Quotes

“From the unreal lead me to the real! From darkness lead me to light! From death lead me to immortality!”
From Brihadaranyaka, one of the longest and oldest Upanishads, exploring the theme of moksha

“Brahman is the only truth, the world is unreal, and there is ultimately no difference between Brahman and Atman, individual self.”
From Vivekachudamani, summarising the theme of non-duality


Key Sanskrit terms

Aham brahmaasmi – I am Brahman

Prajnaanam brahma – Brahman is knowledge

Ayamaatmaa brahma – This self is Brahman

Tattvamasi – That thou art

I’ve Got 10 Minutes, Which Bit Should I Read?

Yeah, good luck with that – there are quite a few to choose from! However popular author Eknath Easwaran has an accessible version of the Upanishads which might be a good place to start. Also, Yeats has an easy to read, poetic translation. Enjoy!

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