“The true prevails, not the untrue.”
~ Mundaka Upanishad, Hymn III.1.6
सत्यमेव जयते नानृतं
In January 1950, in the wake of her freshly acquired independence, India adopted the motto that was to adorn the base of the Lion Capital of Ashoka, one simple phrase: “The true prevails, not the untrue.” How revealing that this country has put on her national emblem a mantra excerpted from the Mundaka Upanishad (Hymn III.1.6). This mantra is a profoundly significant spiritual message, and it will be inscribed on all Indian currency and official documents. The author is unknown, as is the case with all authors of the Upanishads, these ancient texts which Eknath Easwaran described as “towering peaks of consciousness”. The time has come here to pay tribute to these anonymous sages or rishis who produced these famous hallmarks of spirituality.
The Upanishads are a collection of hymns that have been, according to tradition, ‘seen’ or ‘heard’ (Shruti in Sanskrit, ‘that which is heard’), and transmitted orally. They ring in many a spiritual seekers’ memory with names like Isha, Kena, Katha, or Chandogya, and as a source of sacred knowledge. They were embedded in the Vedas – meaning ‘knowledge’ – which are old bodies of text formulated in Sanskrit between the 17th and 8th century BC in northwestern India. These Vedas are made of four collections of hymns – usually in verse – that form the basis of the Vedic religion, namely the Rg-Veda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda, and the Atharvaveda. The community and domestic religious life in these ancient times revolved around complex ceremonies, which could easily last a day, a week, or sometimes even weeks or months. This vast literature is filled with cultic formulas, liturgical chants, mythological stories, praises to a God, magic hymns, commentaries, the purpose of which was most often to obtain favors from the Gods. The most important hymns were the ones to Agni, the fire in all its forms, to Soma, the drink of immortality and a special offering in any ritual act, to the Gods (Indra, Mitra, Varuna, and many others) or to nature (the Sun, the Earth, Heaven, Night, Dawn). They may also contain some early philosophical speculations.
“What thing I am I do not know.
I wander secluded, burdened by my mind.
When the first-born of Truth has come to me
I receive a share in that self-same Word.”
~ Rig Veda, I.164.37
The Vedas – with the Upanishads – were transmitted orally from master to disciple, from generation to generation, thanks to the only memory and according to codified modes of recitation (svādhyāya) which, by a game of comparisons, forbade any mistake. Michael Witzel explains: “This ensured an impeccable textual transmission superior to the classical texts of other cultures; it is, in fact, something like a tape-recording. … Not just the actual words, but even the long-lost musical (tonal) accent (as in old Greek or in Japanese) has been preserved up to the present.” The Upanishads are the latest productions in the Vedas, but take a different direction. They are the end of the Vedas (Vedānta) and their culmination. They question ritualism in the Vedic religion and are texts of a very high spiritual significance. They look inwards, and their descriptions of the non-dual nature of experience are precise, impressive and modern for texts ranging from roughly the 9th century before Christ to the very beginning of our Christian Era.
Another important thing, according to Eknath Easwaran, is that “the Upanishads are not philosophy. They do not explain or develop a line of argument. They are darshana, ’something seen’, and the student to whom they were taught was expected not only to listen to the words but to realize them.” It is only at the beginning of the 19th century that they were translated for a western audience. They had a big impact on some philosophers, especially Arthur Schopenhauer who called them “the production of the highest human wisdom“. About them, he said again: “It has been the solace of my life, it will be the solace of my death.” Even the poet T.S. Eliot found inspiration in them. Etymologically, ‘upanishad’ means ‘sitting down near’ and seems to refer to ‘being in the presence of a spiritual instructor or teacher’. They were aptly named for they are really just about teaching, passing or revealing truths that were seen, understood, and were the expression of pure living. This following famous mantra shows the importance already given to the teacher or guru in these old times, and gives to this relationship an extraordinarily subtle shine. It starts with the famous line: ‘Om! Saha nāvavatu’ and ends with the repetition of ‘shānti’ or ‘peace’.
सह नाववतु ।
सह नौ भुनक्तु । सह वीर्यं करवावहै ।
तेजस्वि नावधीतमस्तु मा विद्विषावहै ।
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥
May it (Brahman) protect us both (teacher and student)!
May we both enjoy knowledge! May we learn together!
May our study be brilliant! May we never quarrel!
Om! Peace! peace! peace!”
~ Taittiriya Upanishad, II.1.1
Other commentators have come up with different meanings for ‘upanishad’. Eight century Adi Shankara suggested “a doctrine that disintegrates or loosen up the bond of ignorance” or “that leads the disciple to the highest Brahman”. The Upanishads refer themselves as being a “secret or hidden knowledge”. They are not like one body of work, each Upanishad is whole, and stands independently. Altogether 108 Upanishads have been recognised, many of them composed later in our era, until the 15th century CE. I have chosen to present here 10 Upanishads, amongst the oldest and principal ones (mukhya Upanishads – all of them before CE, some pre-buddhist), and the most famous ones.
The Isha Upanishad is presented under the form of a short poem. Its full name is ‘Ishavāsyam’, which means ‘hidden in’ or ‘enveloped by the master’, or ‘the lord’. Mahatma Gandhi once said: “If all the Upanishads and all the other scriptures happened all of a sudden to be reduced to ashes, and if only the first verse in the Ishopanishad were left in the memory of the Hindus, Hinduism would live forever.”
“All this, whatsoever moves on earth,
is to be hidden in the Lord (the Self).
When thou hast surrendered all this,
then thou mayest enjoy.”
~ Hymn 1
“For liberation, know your Atman,
which is motionless yet faster than mind,
it is distant, it is near, it is within all,
it is without all this. It is all pervading.
And he who beholds all beings in the Self,
and the Self in all beings,
he never turns away from it [the Self].”
~ Hymns 4-6
“He (the Self) encircled all, bright, incorporeal, scatheless,
without muscles, pure, untouched by evil;
a seer, wise, omnipresent, self-existent,
he disposed all things rightly for eternal years.”
~ Hymn 8
Sanskrit language has infinite flexibility and subtlety. The translation I have used here is, unless otherwise stated, from Max Müller (1823-1900), a German-born philologist and Orientalist. Although a little archaic, it is closer to the actual Sanskrit, and keeps some of the original flavour of the text, compared to more modern translations which do not hesitate to move away from the actual words, privileging the overall meaning. So it is important to chew the words, which are all significant and carefully chosen. How lovely to speak of ‘Consciousness’ as being ‘without muscles’!
The Kena Upanishad is also in verse, under the form of a dialogue between student and teacher. ‘Kena’ means ‘by whom?’, so the Upanishad opens with a series of questions: “At whose wish does the mind sent forth proceed on its errand? At whose command does the first breath go forth? At whose wish do we utter this speech? What god directs the eye, or the ear?”
“The eye does not go thither,
nor speech, nor mind.
We do not know, we do not understand,
how any one can teach it.”
~ Hymn 1.3
“That which is not expressed by speech
and by which speech is expressed,
that alone know as Brahman,
not that which people here adore.” (repeated)
~ Hymn 1.5
“He who knows this Upanishad,
and has shaken off all evil, stands
in the endless, unconquerable world of heaven,
yea, in the world of heaven.”
~ Hymn 4.9
“I am Brahman”
~ Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, I.4.10
अहं ब्रह्म अस्मि
The Katha Upanishad is one of the most known and appreciated Upanishad. It tells the story of a young boy named Nachiketas and his meeting with Yama, the god of death. In Hymn I.1.20, Nachiketas asks him: “There is that doubt, when a man is dead, — some saying, he is; others, he is not. This I should like to know, taught by thee; this is the third of my boons.” The conversation takes us on the subjects of the Self (Atman), infinite consciousness (Brahman), liberation (moksha), ignorance (maya), bliss (ananda). Note here that the words ‘Person’ or ‘Ancient’ are synonymous with Self or consciousness. On commenting this Upanishad, Michael Nagler wrote: “Nothing places the question ‘Who am I?’ in such stark relief as the fact of death. What dies? What is left?”
“The wise who, by means of meditation on his Self,
recognises the Ancient, who is difficult to be seen,
who has entered into the dark, who is hidden in the cave,
who dwells in the abyss, as God, l
he indeed leaves joy and sorrow far behind.”
~ Hymn I.2.12
“A mortal who has heard this and embraced it,
who has separated from it all qualities,
and has thus reached the subtle Being, rejoices,
because he has obtained what is a cause for rejoicing.
The house (of Brahman) is open, I believe, O Nachiketas.”
~ Hymn I.2.13
“The Ancient [the knowing (self)] is unborn, eternal, everlasting;
he is not killed, though the body is killed.”
~ Hymn I.2.18
“The wise who knows the Self
as bodiless within the bodies,
as unchanging among changing things,
as great and omnipresent,
does never grieve.”
~ Hymn I.2.22
“He for whom the priesthood and the nobility
Both are as food,
And death is as a sauce —
Who really knows where He is.”
~ Hymn I.2.25
“After Him, as He shines, doth everything shine,
this whole world is illumined with His light.”
~ Hymn II.2.15 (Trans. by Robert Hume)
“As the sun, the eye of the whole world,
Is not sullied by the external faults of the eyes,
So the one Inner Soul of all things
Is not sullied by the evil in the world, being external to it.”
~ Hymn II.2.11
“By the words ‘He is’, is he to be apprehended,
and by (admitting) the reality of both
(the invisible Brahman and the visible world, as coming from Brahman).
When he has been apprehended by the words ‘He is’,
then his reality reveals itself.”
~ Hymn II.6.13
“The Person not larger than a thumb, the inner Self,
is always settled in the heart of men.
Let a man draw that Self forth from his body with steadiness,
as one draws the pith from a reed.
Let him know that Self as the Bright, as the Immortal;
yes, as the Bright, as the Immortal.”
~ Hymn II.6.17
स य एषोऽणिमैतदात्म्यमिदँ सर्वं तत्सत्यँ स आत्मा तत्त्वमसि श्वेतकेतो
“That which is the finest essence
– this whole world has that as its soul.
That is Reality. That is Atman (Soul).
That art thou, Śvetaketu.”
~ Chandogya Upanishad, Hymn VI.8.7 (Trans. by Robert Hume)
The Prashna Upanishad is showing six seekers who in their turn ask a question to the sage Pippalada. The word ‘prashna’ today means ‘question, query, inquiry’, but has also older etymologies that indicate a ‘task’ or ‘lesson’ or even a ‘paragraph’. There are sometimes repetitions and reminiscences from the distant, secret, obscure, ritual-based Vedas, in the Upanishads, but hidden in and behind every one of them, you will find gems of pure wisdom.
“Sir, What are they that sleep in this man,
and what are they that are awake in him?
What power (deva) is it that sees dreams?
Whose is the happiness?
On what do all these depend?”
~ Hymn 4.1
“For he it is who sees, hears, smells,
tastes, perceives, conceives, acts,
he whose essence is knowledge, the person,
and he dwells in the highest, indestructible Self,—
He who knows that indestructible being,
obtains (what is) the highest and indestructible,
he without a shadow, without a body, without colour, bright —,
yes, O friend, he who knows it, becomes all-knowing, becomes all.
He, O friend, who knows that indestructible being
wherein the true knower, the vital spirits (prânas),
together with all the powers (deva), and the elements rest,
he, being all-knowing, has penetrated all.”
~ Hymn 4.9-11
“All this is Brahman”
~ Chandogya Upanishad, III.14.1
सर्वं खल्विदं ब्रह्म
The Mundaka Upanishad is written in verse, and adopts the form of mantras. The meaning of the word ‘mundaka’ is ‘shaved, shorn, lopped trunk of a tree’. Maybe does it point to shaving or clearing away the superimposed illusory self that keeps consciousness hidden, or veiled? This Upanishad is the one containing the phrase “The true prevails, not the untrue” that appears on the national emblem of India and was mentioned at the beginning of this page.
“He who knows this hidden in the cave (of the heart),
he, O friend, scatters the knot of ignorance here on earth.”
~ Hymn II.1.9
“That which is brilliant, smaller than small,
that on which the worlds are founded and their inhabitants,
that is the indestructible Brahman,
that is the breath, speech, mind;
that is the true, that is the immortal.
That is to be hit.
Hit it, O friend!”
~ Hymn II.2.2
“In him the heaven, the earth, and the sky are woven,
the mind also with all the senses.
Know him alone as the Self, and leave off other words!
He is the bridge of the Immortal.”
~ Hymn II.2.5
“The sun does not shine there,
nor the moon and the stars,
nor these lightnings, and much less this fire.
When he shines, everything shines after him;
by his light all this is lighted.”
~ Hymn II.2.10
“Two birds, inseparable friends, cling to the same tree.
One of them eats the sweet fruit,
the other looks on without eating.
On the same tree man sits grieving, immersed,
bewildered by his own impotence.
But when he sees the other lord contented and
knows his glory, then his grief passes away.
When the seer sees the brilliant maker and lord (of the world)
as the Person who has his source in Brahman,
then he is wise, and shaking off good and evil,
he reaches the highest oneness.“
~ Hymn III.1.1-3
“That [Brahman] is one, without a second”
~ Chandogya Upanishad, VI.2.1
The Mandukya Upanishad is composed in a prose form and is the shortest amongst the Upanishads. It speaks of the nature of Om, of the waking, dreaming, and deep sleep states, to which is added a fourth state called turiya, which it names ‘the fourth’. It is home to one of the ‘mahā-vākyas’ or “Great Sayings” on the concept of Brahman.
“Brahman is all, and the Self is Brahman.”
~ Hymn 2 EE
“He who is neither inward-wise, nor outward-wise,
nor both inward- and outward-wise, nor wisdom self-gathered,
nor possessed of wisdom, nor unpossessed of wisdom,
He Who is unseen and incommunicable,
unseizable, featureless, unthinkable, and unnameable,
Whose essentiality is awareness of the Self in its single existence,
in Whom all phenomena dissolve,
Who is Calm, Who is Good,
Who is the One than Whom there is no other,
Him they deem the fourth:
He is the Self,
He is the object of Knowledge.”
~ Hymn 7 Aurobindo
“The Self is Brahman”
~ Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, IV.4.5
अयम् आत्मा ब्रह्म
The Taittiriya Upanishad seems to be more oriented towards the world or behaviour. It is filled with philosophical instructions, prayers and benedictions, ethics and morals. Along with the practice and recitation of the Vedas, one should have (in Paul Deussen’s translation), “Hospitality to one’s guest to the best of one’s ability”, “Kind affability with all human beings”, “Raising children to the best of one’s ability”, “Tranquility and forgiveness”. It is advised: “Do not cut off the line of children! Do not swerve from the truth! Do not swerve from duty! Do not neglect what is useful! Do not neglect greatness!”
“O God, may I become a vessel of immortality.
May my body be swift to all works,
may my tongue drop pure honey.
May I hear vast and manifold lore with my ears.
O Indra, thou art the sheath of the Eternal
and the veil that the workings of brain have drawn over Him;
preserve whole unto me the sacred lore that I have studied.”
~ Hymn I.4 (Translation by Sri Aurobindo)
”In the beginning this was non-existent
(not yet defined by form and name).
From it was born what exists. That made itself its Self,
therefore it is called the Self-made.
That which is Self-made is a flavour (can be tasted),
for only after perceiving a flavour can any one perceive pleasure.
Who could breathe, who could breathe forth,
if that bliss (Brahman) existed not in the ether (in the heart)?
For he alone causes blessedness.“
“When he finds freedom from fear
and rest in that which is invisible,
incorporeal, undefined, unsupported,
then he has obtained the fearless.”
~ Hymn II.7
“Bliss is Brahman;
from bliss beings are born;
by bliss, when born, they live;
into bliss they enter at their death.”
~ Hymn III.6
“O wonderful! O wonderful! O wonderful!
I am food (object)! I am food! I am food!
I am the eater of food (subject)! I am the eater of food! I am the eater of food!
I am the poet (who joins the two together)! I am the poet! I am the poet!
The first-born of the Ṛta (right, just) I am,
Prior to Gods I am,
In the source point of the eternal I am,
I am the one who distributes myself, refreshing myself therewith,
Because I am food (for others), and I eat the eater of food,
I am elevated over this whole world,
I am radiant as the sun.
Whosoever understands this, attains liberation.”
~ Hymn III.10
“Consciousness is Brahman”
~ Aitareya Upanishad, III.3.7
The Aitareya Upanishad is a short one, delivered in prose. Three themes are being discussed here, that turn around the nature of Atman. Adi Shankara commented this Upanishad, saying: “Atman exists, I am consciousness, and that self-realization of one’s Atman, its Oneness with Universal Soul is the path to liberation and freedom. Know yourself. Worship yourself.”
”Hari OM. In the beginning the Spirit was One
and all this (universe) was the Spirit;
there was nought else moving.
The Spirit thought,
‘Lo, I will make me worlds from out my being.’”
~ Hymn II.4.1.1-2
“The Self thought, ‘How can this be without me?
If speaking is done by speech, breathing by
Breath, seeing by eyes, hearing by ears, smelling
By nose, and meditation by the mind,
Then who am I?’”
~ Hymn I.3.11-12
“Who is he whom we meditate on as the Self? Which is the Self?
Everything are various names only of Knowledge (the true Self)
Everything is led (produced) by knowledge.
It rests on Knowledge. The world is led by Knowledge. Knowledge is its cause.
Knowledge is Brahman.”
~ Hymn II.6.1.2-7
पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात्पूर्णमुदच्यते ।
पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते ॥
“That is full, this is full.
This full proceeds from that full.
On grasping the fulness of this full
there is left that full.”
~ Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Hymn V.1
The Chandogya Upanishad is amongst the oldest and largest Upanishads. It derives its name from the word ‘chanda’ which means ‘poetic meter, prosody’. The text starts by giving importance to language and sound in apprehending the nature of the universe, particularly with the syllable Om. It then moves to questions about mind, and the nature of reality. It has one of the very first mentions of non-violence (ahimsa), and contains the famous Tat Tvam Asi, ‘That Thou Art’, repeated nine times in Hymns VI.8-16.
“This whole universe is Brahman.
In tranquility, let one (a man) worship It,
as Tajjalan (that from which he came forth,
as that into which he will be dissolved,
as that in which he breathes).” (Translation by Robert Hume)
~ Hymn III.14.1
“The intelligent, whose body is spirit,
whose form is light, whose thoughts are true,
whose nature is like ether (omnipresent and invisible),
from whom all works, all desires, all sweet odours and tastes proceed;
he who embraces all this, who never speaks, and is never surprised,
He is my self within the heart, smaller than a corn of rice,
smaller than a corn of barley, smaller than a mustard seed,
smaller than a canary seed or the kernel of a canary seed.
He also is my self within the heart, greater than the earth,
greater than the sky, greater than heaven,
greater than all these worlds.”
~ Hymn III.14.2-3
“In the beginning, my dear,
there was that only which is,
one only, without a second.
Others say, in the beginning
there was that only which is not,
one only, without a second;
and from that which is not,
that which is was born.”
~ Hymn VI.2.1
“As a bird when tied by a string flies first in every direction,
and finding no rest anywhere,
settles down at last on the very place where it is fastened,
exactly in the same manner, my son, that mind,
after flying in every direction, and finding no rest anywhere,
settles down on breath; for indeed, my son, mind is fastened to breath.”
~ Hymn VI.8.2
“There is this city of Brahman (the body),
and in it the palace, the small lotus (of the heart),
and in it that small ether. Now what exists within that small ether,
that is to be sought for, that is to be understood.”
~ Hymn VIII.1.1
“By the old age of the body, that (the ether, or Brahman within it) does not age;
by the death of the body, that (the ether, or Brahman within it) is not killed.
That (the Brahman) is the true Brahma-city (not the body).
In it all desires are contained. It is the Self, free from sin,
free from old age, from death and grief, from hunger and thirst.”
~ Hymn VIII.1.5
“When a man being asleep, reposing, and at perfect rest, sees no dreams,
that is the Self, this is the immortal, the fearless, this is Brahman.”
~ Hymn VIII.4.2
“He who has crossed that bank, if blind, ceases to be blind;
if wounded, ceases to be wounded; if afflicted, ceases to be afflicted.
Therefore when that bank has been crossed, night becomes day indeed,
for the world of Brahman is lighted up once for all.”
~ Hymn VIII.4.2
“Thou art that”
~ Chandogya Upanishad, VI.8.7
तत्त्वमसि (tat tvam asi)
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the oldest Upanishads. It is said to have been composed by the sage Yajnavalkya, one of the earliest philosophers in recorded history. The word ‘Brihadaranyaka’ means ‘great forest’. This is the longest of all Upanishads and it takes us on many a paths of illuminating wisdom and insight, as indeed all these ancient Upanishads do. For example when the sage Yajnavalkya, who is about to retire in the forest, shares with his wife Maitreyi some ultimate teachings about the nature of life, pointing to the primacy of the self: “Verily, everything is not dear that you may love everything; but that you may love the Self, therefore everything is dear.” He then ends his teaching with: “When the Self only is all this, … how should he know Him by whom he knows all this? How, O beloved, should he know (himself), the Knower?” (Hymn II.4.5&13)
“He does not become greater by good works, nor smaller by evil works.”
~ Hymn IV.4.2
“And when (it is said that) there (in the Sushupti)
he does not see, yet he is seeing, though he does not see.
For sight is inseparable from the seer, because it cannot perish.
But there is then no second, nothing else different from him that he could see.”
~ Hymn IV.3.23
“That Self is to be described by No, no (Neti Neti)!
He is incomprehensible, for be cannot be comprehended;
he is imperishable, for he cannot perish;
he is unattached, for he does not attach himself;
unfettered, he does not suffer, he does not fail.
How, O beloved, should he know the Knower?
Thus, O Maitreyî, thou hast been instructed.
Thus far goes immortality.”
~ Hymn IV.5.15
“The Self, pure awareness, shines as the light within the heart,
surrounded by the senses.
Only seeming to think, seeming to move,
the Self neither sleeps nor wakes nor dreams.”
~ Hymn IV.3.7 (Translation by Eknath Easwaran)
“As a falcon, or any other (swift) bird,
after he has roamed about here in the air, becomes tired,
and folding his wings is carried to his nest,
so does that person hasten to that state where,
when asleep, he desires no more desires,
and dreams no more dreams.”
~ Hymn IV.3.19
“Lead me from the unreal to the real!
Lead me from darkness to light!
Lead me from death to immortality!”
~ Hymn I.3.27
We have now come to the end of our journey. These old Upanishads have immense secrets to tell, and they do it remarkably, thanks to the vision and modesty of many Rishis of these distant times. “Adoration to the highest Rishis!” says Mundaka Upanishad, III.2.11. What blessings they were, and what paths they have paved! Max Müller, the translator who gave so much of his life to them, wrote: “The key-note of the old Upanishads is ‘know thyself’. … [which] means, know thy true self, that which underlines thine Ego, and find it and know it in the highest, the eternal Self, the One without a second, which underlies the whole world.” I sometimes think of these Upanishads as musical symphonies, with repetitions that are as variations on a theme, with some melodic moments of pure awe and beauty, and ending quietly as one closes a dearly loved book. In Aitrrya Upanishad, III.2.6.19: “This (the Veda thus learnt and studied) is the name of that Great Being; and he who thus knows the name of that Great Being, he becomes Brahman, yea, he becomes Brahman.”
“This is the Upanishad.”
~ Taittiriya Upanishad, III.10.6
Upanishad verses by anonymous
Translation by Max Müller (1823-1900)
Text by Alain Joly
Pictures by Cornelia Kopp
All excerpts presented here come from Internet Sacred Text Archive. You can enjoy there the Upanishads in their totality…
– ‘The Upanishads’ – By Eknath Easwaran – (Nilgiri Press)
– ‘Ten Principal Upanishads’ – by Shri Purohit Swami et W. B. Yeats – (Faber & Faber)
– Back to Pages