( Extracted from The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran. There are many commentaries on the Upanishads but I will for the purpose of the next few posts stick to this book for the sake of coherence.)
What is an Upanishad?
An Upanishad is an utterance of mystical truth that has come down to us as an attachment to the Vedas, the ancient and scared hymn collections.
Etymologically the word ‘Upanishad’ suggests “sitting down near”: that is, at the feet of an illumined teacher or guru in an intimate session of spiritual instruction. In the Upanishads the Guru takes many forms and the settings are dramatic: a wife asks her husband about immortality, a king seeks instruction from a sage; one teenage boy is taught by Death himself, another by fire, beasts and birds. Sometimes the sages are women.
The Upanishads record such sessions but their purpose is not so much instruction as inspiration. They are mean to be expounded by the teacher from the basis of personal experience.
Although we speak of them together as a body, the Upanishads are not part of a whole like chapters in a book. Each is complete in itself, an ecstatic snapshot of transcendent Reality.
When the texts were composed and by whom we don’t know. The sages who gave them to us did not care to leave their names: the truths they set down were eternal, and the identity of those who arranged the words was irrelevant.
Fascinatingly, although the Upanishads are attached to the Vedas, they seem to come from an altogether different world. While the Vedas look outward in reverence and awe of the phenomenal world, the Upanishads look inward, finding the powers of nature only an expression of the awe-inspiring powers of human consciousness.
They tell us that there is a Reality underlying life which rituals cannot reach. They teach that this Reality is the essence of every created thing, and the same Reality is our real Self, so that each of us is one with the power that created and sustains the universe.
And, finally, they testify that this reality can be realised directly, without the mediation of priests or rituals or any of the structures of organised religion, not after death but in this life. And, that is the purpose for which each of us been born and the goal to toward which evolution moves.
How did the sages realise this Truth they testify to? By adopting what we know today as the Scientific Method of questioning and investigating phenomena. We’ll look at Upanishads as the Supreme Science in the next part of the series.