The Pinnacle of Religion
by Dr. Shyam Narayan Shukla
Abstract: All the world religions created the concept of heavens as a reward for
their followers who abided by their dictates. According to these religions
the ultimate goal of a human being is to acquire a place in the heaven,
after this life. Hindu religion is not an exception to this philosophy
either. However, the Hindu sages did not stop there. Like scientists they
continued their experiments to achieve freedom from the effect of space and
time. Ultimately they realized that once they caught hold of 'that', which
is not relative but is full and absolute, they could live eternally in that
experience. The main theme of the Upanishads deals with that state of mind
in which all shackles are destroyed.
The Upanishads form the Jnanakanda of the Vedas. The word 'Upanishad'
literally means 'to sit near'. The secret knowledge of Brahman taught to
the disciple by sitting near the preceptor was Upanishad. The Upanishads
propound the subtle truth. It is latent in the Vedas. Its knowledge is
called Rahasya or secret. They were such confidential personalized
instructions that they were taught only to those who were fit to receive
them. It was Sage Veda Vyasa who made the secret knowledge of the
Upanishads easily comprehensible, by putting it in the Bhagvadgita, which
is considered the gist of the Upanishads. He also wrote Brahmasutra to put
the knowledge in the form of aphorisms. The Upanishads give four
Mahavakyas, one from each of the four Vedas. The Mahavakyas are very
important thought provoking sentences which the sages formulated after
having reached the end of their journey and realizing the ultimate
objective. The Upanishadic philosophy forms the pinnacle of human religion
unparalleled in world history.
UPANISHADS: The Pinnacle of Universal Religion
Shyam Narayan Shukla, Ph.D.
The principal objective of all the religions of the world has been to make
sure that their followers have a fulfilling life on this earth. If a person
abides by certain laws of nature he would enjoy his life better here. If he
leads a disciplined life he would be physically and emotionally stronger.
With these basic principles in mind the prophets or founders of the
religions preached their followers during their life time. Their teachings,
when written in the form of books, eventually became the scriptures of the
religions. All the religions have one commonalty. That is the concept of
the Heavens. If a person follows the dictates of religion he would be
rewarded with a place in Heaven, where there is long lasting peace and
happiness. The Hindu religion did not have a prophet or a founder. However,
it too has heaven and hell for good and evil people, respectively.
The Hindu sages did not feel contented with the concept of Heaven as
the ultimate goal. They were very innovative people like the scientists.
They continued in their search for achieving freedom from the effect of
time and space. They discovered that when a man identifies himself with his
body, with all its limitations, then he is a tiny, weak and mortal creature
in this vast universe. On the other hand, when he identifies himself with
his inner self, the Atman, which is limitless, immortal and blissful, he
achieves divinity in this very life. The Upanishads are collections of
their teachings. They are the unique gifts from our sages of Ancient India
to this world. The Upanishadic teachings are not a mere philosophical
concept but are realized facts experienced by our sages. Those teachings
inspired when they were composed and they inspire even today, thousands of
years later. They are as inspirational in America as they are in India. The
Upanishads are beyond time and space.
VEDA AND VEDANTA
When each Veda shakha is taken, first comes the Samhita, then the Brahmana
and lastly the Aranyaka1. The Upanishads occur in the concluding portion of
the Aranyaka. Since the Upanishads occur at the end of the Vedas they are
called the Vedanta, which literally means 'the end of the Vedas'. The
ultimate goal of the Vedas is contained in the Upanishads. Also because
they are the end products of the Vedas, they are appropriately called the
Vedanta. The part of a Veda where there are methods of rituals and
sacrifices, are the Karmakanda and the part where the supreme knowledge of
the Vedanta is dealt with is the Jnanakanda.
The western scholars have done more research on the Vedas than Indian
scholars. They have tried to establish the time when the Vedas and the
Upanishads were written. The estimate ranges from 1500 B.C. to 3000 B.C.
According to Bal Gangadhar Tilak the Vedas came into existence around 6000
B.C. However, according to one school of traditional vedic scholars, the
Vedas are considered anadi or without beginning. It is stated in the Vedas
that they are vast and endless (ananta vai Vedah). They are also without
human authorship (apaurusheya). What we have is a small portion of what
God created as the Vedas. A portion of what was revealed to the Rishis is
available to us today. Therefore, a Rishi who wrote down an Upanishad or a
shakha of a Veda, is not its creator or karta but is its seer or drishta.
It was Sage Vyas who organized the Vedas and wrote Bhagvadgita and
Brahmasutra, which made it possible for the scholars to know how deep the
philosophy of the Upanishads is. In the Bhagvadgita Vyas put the essence of
the Upanishads in the form of a conversation between Arjuna, the disciple,
and Lord Krishna, the teacher. About 10 years ago, when the Vedic
knowledge was in danger of extinction, Adi Shankaracharya (788-8 A.D.)
came as a teacher of the era (yuga pravartaka). He wrote commentaries to
the Bhagvadgita, Brahmasutra and some principal Upanishads. Only then the
mystic knowledge of the Vedanta became easier to comprehend for others.
However, mere study of the Upanishads is not enough to fathom the depth of
the philosophy or to achieve the supreme knowledge which is their main
theme. In the Chhandogya Upanishad there is a story of Narada who
approached Sanatkumara and said that he had studied all the scriptures and
all the sciences and arts. He knew only the mantras but he had no knowledge
of the Atman (Mantravideva asmi na atmavid). The Upanishads have to be
studied at the feet of a Brahmajnani teacher (a teacher who has achieved
the Brahman). That is why it is called the Upanishad, which literally means
'to sit near (with devotion)'. It also means2 'secret teachings'. When a
student studies in a Gurukul, the mystic knowledge permeates into the
student's mind by the subtle manner the teacher explains the subject, by
merely observing his daily sadhana and his way of life. The teacher imparts
the secret knowledge of Brahman only to those students who are spiritually
ready for it. That is why the Katha Upanishad says, "Many, though they hear
of it, do not understand it. Wonderful is he who speaks of it. Blessed is
he who, taught by a good teacher, is able to comprehend it." The Upanishads
mention that the meditation on 'Om' is the meditation on the Atman or the
Brahman which resides within a man3. Chhandogya Upanishad says that all the
sacrifices prescribed in the Vedas cannot bring salvation. It is meditation
on Om that leads one, step by step, to the highest object of the
Upanishads, that is, the realization of the Brahman.
DO VEDAS AND VEDANTA CONTRADICT EACH OTHER?
Some people believe that the Vedas and Vedanta clash with each other. To
prove their point they quote Lord Krishna. In the Gita Lord Krishna says:
* Vedavadaratah Partha nanyadasteeti vadinah (Gita II-42),
* Kamatmanah svargapara janmakarmaphala pradam (Gita II-43)
"O Partha, those who follow the words of the Vedas literally and say that
there is nothing other than this, are full of desire to dwell in Heaven,
which leads to new birth as a result of their actions."
*Traigunya vishaya veda nistraigunyo bhavarjuna (Gita II-45)
"O Arjun, the Vedas deal with the three gunas (satva, raja and tama). You
should transcend these three gunas."
These verses give an impression that Lord Krishna encourages us to follow
the teachings of the Upanishads directly, and ignore the rituals prescribed
in the Vedas. The traditional Vedantis (scholars of the Vedanta) tell us
that jumping to the study of the Upanishads directly, without preliminary
preparation of purifying the mind and body does not help a student to
realize Atman. The mind and body are disciplined by the yajnas and worships
prescribed in the Vedas. Only after undergoing that discipline we are
qualified to take up the study of the Upanishads. When the mind is purified
by yajnas, then the world around us ceases to be real. Then all the actions
we perform become yajnas and we are no more separate from the Brahman. Then
we are ready to merge in Him. That is why Adi Shankaracharya tells us in
his book, Sopana Panchaka that first we must study and recite the Vedas,
perform the prescribed rituals, be guided by the Mahavakyas, meditate on
them constantly and then only try to reach the Brahman. (We will discuss
about the Mahavakyas in a later paragraph). The fact that the seers of the
Upanishads quoted hymns from the Vedas in support of their teachings shows
that they were not against the Vedas.
The reason why Lord Krishna says the above about the Vedas has to be
understood in the context of the Mahabharata period. During those days a
majority of the people performed yajnas as a means to achieve worldly and
heavenly pleasures. They behaved as if that was the ultimate teaching of
the Vedas. They almost ignored the teachings of the Upanishads, that
realization of the Brahman is the ultimate goal in their lives. Lord
Krishna has chastised those people in the Gita. He rebuked those who took
the Karma path and did not go beyond it to adopt the Jnana path in their
lives. He would have certainly taken to task those also who would directly
go to study the Upanishads without performing the Vedic Karmas.
Even in the time of Shankaracharya many great scholars specialized only in
the Karma path of the Vedas. Mandan Mishra, a famous Vedic scholar of
Varanashi, was a staunch follower of Poorva Meemansha (scholarly analysis
of the Karmakanda of the Vedas), before he became a disciple of
Shankaracharya. After he entered Sanyasa Ashrama and became
Sureshwaracharya he shifted from karma to jnana path. He wrote the Vartika
(explanation) of the Shankara Bhashya on the Brahmasutra.
THE PRINCIPAL UPANISHADS
It is believed that there are more than two hundred Upanishads3. However,
only about one hundred and eight have been preserved2. The principal
Upanishads are those which Adi Shankaracharya selected to comment upon.
They are ten in number and are traditionally studied in a certain order.
The following shloka1 (Sanskrit verse) enumerates the principal Upanishads
in that order:
Isha Kena Katha Prashna Munda Mandukya Taittiri
Aitareyam cha Chandogyam Brahadaranyakam Dasha
"Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya,
Chhandogya and Brahadaranyaka are the ten (principal) Upanishads."
Shankaracharya also commented on an eleventh Upanishad, the Shvetasvatara.
In his commentary on the Brahmasutra he has made references to four more
Upanishads. They are: Kausheetakee, Jabala, Mahanarayana and Paingala.
Ishopanishad (or Ishavasyopanishad): Usually the Upanishads appear at the
end of an Aranyaka. As an exception this Upanishad appears in the Samhita
portion of Shukla Yajurveda. The very opening verse of this Upanishad
contains the central theme of all the Upanishads. It says that Ishvara or
God pervades the whole universe and we should realize Him by offering the
fruits of all our actions to Him. Offering the fruits of action to Brahman
is Karmayoga in a nutshell. This is the first time that the principle of
Karmayoga is introduced in the Upanishads. Only in the Gita we see its more
Kenopanishad: It is also called 'Talvakara Upanishad' because it occurs in
the Talvakara Brahmana of the Jaimini Shakha of Sama Veda. This Upanishad,
teaches through an allegorical story, that all our powers are derived from
the Mahashakti, the Supreme God or the Parmatma. The Paramatma is without
beginning or end.
Kathopanishad: The Kathopanishad occurs in the Katha Shakha of the Krishna
Yajurveda. This Upanishad became very popular for its fascinating story of
young Nachiketa going to Yama, the God of Death, and asking him to teach
him about what happens to the soul after one's death. Yama then tells him
about the true nature of the soul or the Atman. It defines Atman as divine,
without birth and death, indestructible, etc.
Prashnopanishad: This belongs to the Atharva Veda. As the name implies
(prashna means question) this answers six questions on how creation began;
who are the devas; how does life get connected to the body; what is the
truth about the states of awakening, sleep and dreaming; why should one
worship Onkara; and what is the relationship between Purusha and Jeeva.
Mundakopanishad: This Upanishad too is from the Atharva Veda. Mundak means
shaven head. Its teachings are meant for the Sanyasis or monks who are
free from worldly attachment. It talks of Akshar Brahman which is free from
destruction. It classifies the knowledge into para, higher and apara,
lower. The knowledge of Atman is para and all other knowledge is apara.
Mandukyopanishad: This is the third Upanishad from the Atharva Veda. Manduka
means a frog. This Upanishad shows the way to pass the three stages of
waking, dream and dreamless sleep and reach the fourth stage of Turiya in
one leap. Turiya is the stage of pure consciousness which reveals the Atman
Taittiriyopanishad: This is the most widely studied Upanishad. Its first
part Shikshavalli teaches self controls involved in Brahmacharya, the order
in which the Vedas should be studied, the worship of Pranava, etc. The
precepts such as "speak the truth", "follow the dharma", "treat mother,
father and teacher as divinities" appear in this. Its second part
Anandvalli describes how there is an ascending order of bliss, starting
from that of a human being and culminating into Brahmananda. Bhriguvalli,
the third part, is what Varun taught to his son, Bhrigu
Aitareyopanishad: This Upanishad occurs in the Rigveda. It talks about how a
Jiva (soul) takes birth again and again according to sin and merit and how
liberation from birth and death is possible only through the realization of
the true nature of the Atman. The Upanishad proclaims that the thought
(Prajna) itself is the Brahman.
Chhandogyopanishad: The last two Upanishads, namely, the Chhandogya and the
Brahdaranyaka are large in size. The Chhandogya Upanishad appears in the
Chhandogya Brahmana of the Sama Veda. Chhandogya means one who sings the
'sama gana' (singing of the Sama Veda hymns, which are the source of the
Indian classical music, praising all the gods). This Upanishad introduces
us to devout truth seekers like Satyakama, Shvetaketu and Narada and
learned spiritual teachers like Aruni, Sanatkumara and Prajapati. The
Upanishad teaches that there is no difference between the Atman within a
person and the Brahman. It tells us how starting from purity of food and
going up to purity of mind and soul we reach a stage when we get rid of all
the bonds and achieve Atmananda (bliss).
Brahadaranyakopanishad: 'Brihad' means large and 'Aranyaka' means forest.
As its name suggests this is the largest of all the Upanishads and it is a
forest of spiritual inspiration and thoughts. Usually the Upanishads appear
at the end of an Aranyaka as mentioned earlier. The entire Aranyaka of the
Shukla Yajurveda forms the Brahadaranyaka Upanishad. (The Samhita of Shukla
Yajus contains the Isha Upanishad). We learn of two Kshatriya kings,
namely, Ajat Shatru and Janaka who were well versed in the Vedantic
philosophy. Then there is an interesting anecdote and philosophical
dialogue of Sage Yagyavalkya and his learned wife Maitreyi. Yagyavalkya
says that the nature of the Atman is love and happiness. The Upanishad
expounds the central theme of all the Upanishad that man is divine and that
this whole universe is Brahman.
The Four Mahavakyas
There are four Mahavakyas or ' great statements'. in the Upanishads. An
Upanishad from each of the four Vedas proclaims boldly the ultimate conclus
ion of its philosophy, in the form of a Mahavakya. The Aitareya Upanishad
of the Rig Veda proclaims, Prajnanam Brahma - 'Brahman is pure
consciousness'. The Brahadaranyaka Upanishad of the Shukla Yajur Veda says,
Aham Brahmasmi - 'I am Brahman'. The Mahavakya of the Chhandogya Upanishad
of the Sama Veda is, Tat Tvamasi - 'You are That'. Here 'That' means
Brahman, according to the language of the Upanishads. Finally, the Mandukya
Upanishad of the Atharva Veda proclaims as a Mahavakya, Ayamatma Brahma -
'This Atman is Brahman'.
This kind of bold proclamation, that a human being has Atman (soul) within
him or her which is none other than the Supreme Brahman Himself, is
unparalleled in the history of religions anywhere other than in the Vedas.
The Concept of Brahman in the Upanishads
It is very difficult to describe5 the Brahman or the Supreme God in words.
That is why it is said: Ekam Sat, vipra bahudha vadanti, or "Truth is one,
the wise speak of It in different ways." The devotees usually heap many
highest human qualities on the God to describe him. Even then they are
unable to describe Him adequately and end up making Him human-like. The
Rishis finally gave up human like description of the Brahman and described
Him by saying "Not this, not this." In the Upanishads the Brahman is
compared to a spider and His creation with the spider's cobweb, which comes
out of it. The whole universe comes out of the Brahman who resides in the
center of it. The Atman residing within the body is Brahman too. Taittiriya
Upanishad says, "Brahman is That from which these beings are born, That by
which they live when born, and That into which they enter on passing away."
There is a subtle difference between the God (Ishvara) and the Brahman.
Ishvara is God when viewed through human eyes, in relation to the universe.
It is then Saguna Brahman. When Brahman is God as He is and viewed
independently, He is Brahman, or Nirguna Brahman. Some sages believed that
the best way of indicating Brahman is by silence.
The Upanishads form the Jnanakanda, or the portion dealing with the supreme
knowledge, of the Vedas. They contain the ultimate messages of the Vedas.
They tell us that a human being is not only made up of a body which is
subject to old age, decay and death, but also of Atman within it, which is
divine, eternal and blissful. A person can realize the Atman by meditating
on Om, the symbol of the Supreme God, and become immortal and blissful in
this very life.
1. Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati (Shankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti
Peetham), The Vedas, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1991.
2. Swami Prabhavananda, The Upanishads, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, 1979.
3. F. Max Muller, The Upanishads, Part 1, Dover Publications, Inc, New York,
4. Swami Ranganathananda, The Message of the Upanishads, Bharatiya Vidya
Bhavan, Bombay, 1968.
5. D.S. Sarma, The Upanishads an Anthology, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Shyam Narayan Shukla
B.E. (Hon's), M.Sc. (Eng'g), Ph.D., P.E., F. ASCE
Dr. Shyam Narayan Shukla was born in India. He was taught Sanskrit and
the Bhagavadgita at home by his grandfather. He received B.E. (Hon's) degree
in Civil Engineering from the University of Jabalpur in 1957, and then
worked as an Assistant Engineer in Madhya Pradesh P.W.D. for five years.
He left for North America for higher studies in 1962. He received M.Sc.
(Eng'g) degree from the University of New Brunswick (Canada) in 1964 and
Ph.D. from the Ohio State University in 1968, in structural engineering.
Thereafter, he worked for a year in the U.S.A. and went back to India,
where he worked at the Structural Engineering Research Center, Roorkee for
four years. In 1973 he went to Iraq and taught at the University of
Sulemaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan for a year. He came back to the U.S.A. in
1974 and worked for Bechtel Corporation at San Francisco for five years.
Since 1979 he has been working for the University of California, Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory, Livrmore. He has lived in Fremont,
California, in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1976.
Dr. Shukla is very active in the Indian community of the San Francisco Bay
Area. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the Vedic Dharma Samaj,
which built a Hindu temple at Fremont in 1982. He has been the General
Secretary and is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Brahman Samaj of
North America. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the
International Hindi Association and is in the Editorial Board of its
magazine, Vishva. He is also Secretary of the World Association of Vedic S
In addition to many publications in his technical field, Dr. Shukla has
written numerous articles on the spiritual topics in Hindi magazines. He
regularly delivers lectures on the Bhagvadgita and Upanishads in the
temples of the Bay Area and in the Indo American Community Service Center.
Recently two of his books in Hindi, namely, Ganga Se Mississippi Tak and
Mississippi Ke Paar were published in India. They are the author's
impressions as a foreign student and an immigrant in North America. He has
also written the English version of the books as one volume entitled, From
the Ganges to the Mississippi and Beyond, which was published in July 1998.
Dr. Shukla's latest book, "The Upanishads" was published in April 1999. It
is the English translation of ten principal Upanishads (Isha, Kena, Katha,
Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chhandogya and
Brihadaranyaka) and is meant for those who cannot read Sanskrit but are
eager to know the contents of the Upanishads.
Dr. Shyam Shukla is married to Nirmala Shukla who is a software engineer.
They have three daughters, a son, and four grandsons who all live in the San Francisco Bay
OM TAT SAT