The Upanishads

Published on
July 21, 2020

The tradition of yoga originates from a long line of complex yet potent written teachings. While the Vedas are considered the most sacred and treasured spiritual texts of India, it is the Upanishads that transferred the foundational wisdom of the Vedas into practical and personal teachings. The stories and lessons in the Upanishads may seem distant and vague, they are essential for a dedicated yogi to study and understand. There are four primary teachings that create the framework and foundation of yogic philosophy.

What are the Upanishads?

The word Upanishad is usually interpreted as “sitting down beside.” This Sanskrit word can be broken down into three parts and translated as “upa” meaning near, “ni” as down and “shad” as to sit. Thus the meaning of the word confers the intent of these texts to directly transfer knowledge and truth from teacher to student. The collection of Sanskrit texts known as the Upanishads are thought to be the direct teachings received at the foot of the ancient Indian sages or Rishis.

In these sacred texts, we see an internalization of the sacrifice and worship extolled in the Vedas and a deeper understanding and exploration of the internal world of mind and spirit. Composed over several centuries and in many volumes, the Upanishads reflect a strong need to express and communicate the deep mystical states and spiritual contemplations that the ancient yogis experienced.

According to tradition, there were over two hundred Upanishads, but there are only eleven “principal” Upanishads, as commented on by the ancient sage Shankara. The texts are written in a passionate poetic verse describing mystical states and spiritual concepts or in descriptive short stories and dialogues between historical figures.

The 4 main teachings

The teachings of the Upanishads revolve around four primary spiritual themes. These four philosophical concepts are described in many different ways as they can be difficult to grasp. These main teachings are repeatedly reinforced in the texts of the eleven principal Upanishads.

  1. The first and most important is the realization that the ultimate, formless, and inconceivable Brahman (Godhead) is the same as Atman, as our internal soul. Brahman represents the entire universe, and the Atman is a little piece of that divine oneness that we contain inside us. This philosophical idea is summed up in the mantra Tat Tvam Asi (That Art Thou).
  2. The idea that the Atman is eternal, and becomes reborn over and over again is central to the concept of reincarnation that is taught in the Upanishads.
  3. This concept of rebirth is highly tied to the teachings of Karma: the future consequences of one’s current intentions, thoughts, behaviors, and actions.
  4. It is the accumulation of Karma that binds us to Samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth. To escape the endless cycle of Samsara requires one to attain enlightenment through the realization of Atman/Brahman. It is this state of Self realization that the majority of the Upanishads attempt to describe and encourage us to achieve through the yoga practices of meditation, mental discrimination, and mantra recitation.

The 11 most important Upanishads

  1. Aitareya Upanishad. This is one of the oldest Upanishads and is linked with the ancient Rigveda text. It discusses a four-tier universe, the creation of beings, the embodiment of Atman as the divine creator, and the qualities of Brahman.
  2. Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. This Upanishad was written by the ancient sage Yajnavalkya. Within its three chapters,  it describes the relationship between Jiva and the Atman and explains different methods of meditation.
  3. Isha Upanishad. This is a shorter Upanishad of only eighteen verses. The word “Isa” means “Lord of the Universe,” which is described in this text as “unembodied, omniscient, beyond reproach, without veins, pure and uncontaminated.”
  4. Taittiriya Upanishad. This Upanishad is divided into three parts and the second section proclaims that the highest aim is to see Brahman as omniscient, infinite, and the highest truth.
  5. Katha Upanishad. This is one of the most Upanishads, and some of its passages are found in the Bhagavad Gita. It is a discussion between Yama, the god of death, and Nachiketa, a young Brahman boy. They discuss in detail the spiritual path to liberation, the concept of re-birth, and the way in which a yogi should leave their body behind.
  6. Chandogya Upanishad. This Upanishad discusses the importance of meditation,  the power of the Om mantra, and the significance of Prana, the central life force energy.
  7. Kena Upanishad. This Upanishad narrates the uniqueness of creation and the single power that controls the whole world.
  8. Mundaka Upanishad. This Upanishad contains sixty-four mantra-like poems. This text provides instruction on meditation and discusses the nature of Brahma and Atman.
  9. Mandukya Upanishad. This is the shortest of all the Upanishads with only 12 verses. It describes the four states of consciousness in which the Om mantra represents.
  10. Prasna Upanishad. This Upanishad is a series of philosophical questions asked by several disciples and answered by the Sage Pippalada. The text discusses the nature of Brahman and the origin, existence, and goal of life.
  11. Svetastara Upanishad. This Upanishad is unique in that the emphasis is not on the Brahman but focuses on the bhakti or devotion of personal deities. This text contains several metaphysical discussions about the creation and purpose of existence.

The Four Mahavakyas

The Mahavakyas are the most revered and powerful sayings in the Upanishads. The regular contemplation and meditation on these mantras purify our minds, promote introspection and insight, and lead to transcendental states of awareness. The Mahavakyas present different points of view on how to see the indivisible oneness of all things.

  1. Prajnanam Brahma–Brahman (Ultimate Reality) is supreme consciousness.
  2. Aham Brahmasmi–I am Brahman (the Supreme Self )
  3. Tat Tvam Asi–Thou art that.
  4. Ayam Atma Brahma–Atman (True Self) is Brahman (Ultimate Reality).
Jnana Yoga

The Practice of Jnana Yoga

Jnana Yoga is the path of attaining knowledge of the true nature of reality through the practice of meditation, self-inquiry, and contemplation. Jnana Yoga can be defined as the “awareness of absolute consciousness,” and draws on the teachings of the Upanishads.

Important quotes

Reading through the over two hundred Upanishads would be a difficult and tedious task. Many of the themes and discussions are repeated in various ways, so a full reading is not necessary. There are many famous and powerful quotes from these texts that can serve as powerful reminders and seeds of contemplation.  This sampling of sixteen of these potent and profound gems of wisdom will give you a taste of what the Upanishads aim to illuminate.

  1. That which is consciousness alone which is all-pervading, which is eternal, which is all-full, which is of the form of bliss and which is indestructible, is the only true brahman (infinite consciousness). – Varaha Upanishad
  2. This syllable Om is indeed brahman. This syllable is the highest. Whosoever knows this syllable obtains all that he desires. – Katha Upanishad
  3. Om is the bow; the atman is the arrow; Brahman is said to be the mark. It is to be struck by an undistracted mind. Then the atman becomes one with Brahman, as the arrow with the target. – Mundaka Upanishad
  4. The knowing self is not born; it does not die. it has not sprung from anything; nothing has sprung from it. Birthless, eternal, everlasting, and ancient, it is not killed when the body is killed. – Katha Upanishad
  5. It is indeed the mind that is the cause of men’s bondage and liberation. The mind that is attached to sense-objects leads to bondage, while dissociated from sense-objects it tends to lead to liberation. – Amrita-Bindu Upanishad
  6. The self that is subtler than the subtle and greater than the great is seated in the heart of every creature. One who is free from desire sees the glory of the self through the tranquillity of the mind and senses and becomes absolved from grief. – Katha Upanishad
  7. This Atman, resplendent and pure, whom the sinless sannyasins behold residing within the body, is attained by the unceasing practice of truthfulness, austerity, right knowledge, and continence.  – Mundaka Upanishad
  8. To the seer, all things have verily become the Self: what delusion, what sorrow, can there be for him who beholds that oneness? – Isa Upanishad
  9. Whether the body perishes now or lasts the age of moon and stars, what matters it to me having consciousness alone as my body? What matters it to the sky in the pot, whether it (the pot) is destroyed now or exists for a long time. – Varaha Upanishad
  10. Like the butter hidden in milk, the pure consciousness resides in every being. That ought to be constantly churned out by the churning rod of the mind. – Amrita-Bindu Upanishad
  11. In order to realize the self, renounce everything. having cast off all (objects), assimilate yourself to that which remains. – Annapurna Upanishad
  12. When all longings that are in the heart vanish, then a mortal becomes immortal and attains Brahman (infinite consciousness) here. – Katha Upanishad
  13. Those who are clever in arguments about Brahman, but are without the action pertaining to brahman (infinite consciousness) and who are greatly attached to the world – those certainly are born again and again (in this world) through their ajnana (ignorance). – Tejo-Bindu Upanishad
  14. As rivers, flowing down, become indistinguishable on reaching the sea by giving up their names and forms, so also the illumined soul, having become freed from name and form, reaches the self-effulgent supreme self – Mundaka Upanishad.
  15. As flowing rivers disappear in the sea, losing their names and forms, so a wise man, freed from name and form, attains the Purusha, who is greater than the great. – Mundaka Upanishad
  16. Arise! awake! approach the great and learn. like the sharp edge of a razor is that path, so the wise say—hard to tread and difficult to cross. – Katha Upanishad

The importance of the Upanishads

These spiritual concepts have exerted a profound influence on the development of Yoga, Hindu, and Indian philosophy. While the yogic practices taught in the Upanishads were primarily mediation based, these philosophical teachings will remain the core beliefs for all of the future developments in the many paths and practices of yoga. A great place to begin to read and study more is with The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran.

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7 responses to “The Upanishads”

  1. Lysedt Avatar

    I love the clear and simple way of this article. Thanks

  2. Dawn Avatar

    Thank-you so much for this simple, yet interesting explanation, Namaste!

  3. vinoth yoge Avatar
    vinoth yoge

    my name is vinoth.v iam in puducherry thank you for giving new information.

  4. Kathleen Steeves Avatar
    Kathleen Steeves

    Wonderful article many thanks

  5. Shreya shukla Avatar
    Shreya shukla


  6. Sofia Hernandez Avatar
    Sofia Hernandez

    I have been exposed to some of the teachings of the Upanishads through my yoga classes, and this article has helped me gain a deeper understanding of them. The Upanishads are a treasure trove of spiritual knowledge and guidance for anyone seeking to understand the meaning of life.

  7. max Schmitz Avatar
    max Schmitz

    The Upanishads offer a powerful message that transcends time and culture.This article opened my eyes to the rich history and philosophy that underpins yoga.

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Timothy Burgin Avatar
About the author
Timothy Burgin is a Kripalu & Pranakriya trained yoga instructor living and teaching in Asheville, NC. Timothy has studied and taught many styles of yoga and has completed a 500-hour Advanced Pranakriya Yoga training. Timothy has been serving as the Executive Director of YogaBasics.com since 2000. He has authored two yoga books and has written over 500 articles on the practice and philosophy of yoga. Timothy is also the creator of Japa Mala Beads and has been designing and importing mala beads since 2004.
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