Upanishads - The Source of Vedanta and Spirituality

Upanishads are the main source of Vedanta and are referred as श्रौत-प्रस्थान Shrauta-Prasthan i.e. Shruti-based (Veda) scripture conducive to Liberation. Vedas contain various rituals, prayers or hymns, meditations, and philosophical inquiry; the philosophical inquiry part, though minor in size, is of immense value to humankind and is termed as Upanishads. Upanishads deal with the real nature of human being and of the world; the Upanishadic sages spent their lives in pursuit of Truth, which they initially tried to search outside in the world and later within themselves. They proclaimed their discovery through the dialogues depicted in the Upanishads. Humans, through ages, have always inquired about the nature of ever-changing world and have wondered about the fixed/immovable/eternal substratum behind the changing phenomenon. The Upanishadic seers proclaimed their discovery of such a substratum; it is called 'Brahman' in Upanishads. The seers further boldly proclaimed that the same substratum is ever-present in human beings and in relation to the human being it is called 'Atman' (Self). The real nature of all beings and the universe is Pure Being, Pure Consciousness, and Pure Bliss (Sat-chid-ananda), asserts the Upanishads.

Thus the main theme of all Upanishads being the discovery of immortal, changeless dimension of human being and the world, they remain the greatest fountainhead of Spirituality. Swami Vivekananda highlights the importance of Upanishads as, 'This Vedanta, the philosophy of the Upanishads, I would make bold to state, has been the first as well as the final thought on the spiritual plane that has ever been vouchsafed to man.' and Swami Ranganathananda rightly points out the immortal aspect of the Upanishads: 'In seeking for the immortal, the sages [Upanishadic Seers] conferred immortality on the literature which conveyed it and the culture which embodied it.' They discovered the immortal dimension of a human being and hence their discovery is important to all humanity for all times. The ideas of Upanishads have influenced whole world from time immemorial and yet it has happened silently and peacefully. Swami Vivekananda puts it beautifully as:

'Away back, where no recorded history, nay, not even the dim light of tradition, can penetrate, has been steadily shining the light, sometimes dimmed by external circumstances, at others effulgent, but undying and steady, shedding its lustre not only over India, but permeating the whole thought-world with its power, silent, unperceived, gentle, yet omnipotent, like the dew that falls in the morning, unseen and unnoticed, yet bringing into bloom the fairest of roses: this has been the thought of the Upanishads, the philosophy of the Vedanta. Nobody knows when it first came to flourish on the soil of India.'

The total number of Upanishads is unknown as also the names of its authors; the Vedic seers cared not for name and fame and thus only their discovery is known to the world and not their names. Though much of the Vedic text is lost in the course of time, hundred-and-eight Upanishads remain and through them we get a glimpse of 'thirst for Truth' that the sages had. Out of these hundred-and-eight Upanishads, Sri Shankaracharya wrote detail commentary on ten Upanishads. Hence these ten Upanishads came to be known as principal or main Upanishads; these are: Ishavasya, Kena, Katha, Mundaka, Mandukya, Prashna, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Chhandogya, and Brihadaranyaka. Swami Vivekananda observes:

'The Upanishads are the Bible of India. ... There are [more than] a hundred books comprising the Upanishads, some very small and some big, each a separate treatise. The Upanishads do not reveal the life of any teacher, but simply teach principles. They are [as it were] shorthand notes taken down of discussion in [learned assemblies], generally in the courts of kings. The word Upanishad may mean "sittings" [or "sitting near a teacher"].... Only the luminous points are mentioned there. The origin of ancient Sanskrit is 5000 B.C.; the Upanishads [are at least] two thousand years before that. Nobody knows [exactly] how old they are.'

The Upanishads do not merely state this truth. They do not want man/woman to know this as just an information-piece. They exhort us to realize this truth for ourselves. And Swami Vivekananda wanted that everyone in India and rest of the world apply the teachings of Upanishads in their lives. He said:

No books, no scriptures, no science can ever imagine the glory of the self that appears as man, the most glorious God that ever was, the only God that ever existed, exists or ever will exist. Bold, brave beyond the conception of the present day stand the giant minds of the sages of the Upanishads, declaring the noblest truths that have ever been preached to humanity, without any compromise, without any fear. This, my countrymen, I want to lay before you. . . . go back to your Upanishads, the shining, the strengthening, the bright philosophy, and part from all these mysterious things, all these weakening things. Take up this philosophy; the greatest truths are the simplest things in the world, simple as your existence. The truths of the Upanishads are before you. Take them up, live up to them, and the salvation of India will be at hand.

And also:

The Upanishads are the great mine of strength. Therein lies strength enough to invigorate the whole world; the whole world can be vivified, made strong, energized through them. They will call with trumpet voice to the weak, the miserable and the downtrodden of all races, all creeds and all sects, to stand on their feet and be free. Freedom, physical freedom, mental freedom and spiritual freedom are the watchwords of the Upanishads.

The Upanishads are also sublime poetry and genius of intuitiveness of human mind; in words of Swami Vivekananda, 'Apart from all its merits as the greatest philosophy, apart from its wonderful merit as theology, as showing the path of salvation to mankind, the Upanishadic literature is the most wonderful painting of sublimity that the world has. Here comes out in full force that individuality of the human mind, that introspective, intuitive Hindu mind.'
As to the question, 'what does realization of the Truth mean?', 'What kind of immortality would a person achieve?', the Upanishads clearly point out that the immortality of Atman/Brahman is free of time and space. The finite self of human being can not be made immortal in time since anything under the influence of time is always mortal. This point is aptly explained by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj as:

'...realize that your present existence is like a shower of sparks, each spark lasting a second and the shower itself a minute or two. Surely a thing of which the beginning is the end can have no middle. ...Reality can not be momentary. It is timeless, but timelessness is not duration.'

The 'immortality' offered by the Upanishads sounds contrary to human aspirations. We like to think ourselves as separate individual entities with a notion of time flowing endlessly; and we like this personality of ours to exist forever with all its associations! This is a radical misunderstanding of ours, points out the Upanishads. Swami Yatishwaranandaji says, 'The soul as such is infinite. We deny its infinite nature, and so it comes to us in the forms of the phenomenon. We want to realize the infinite in the finite. That is the fun of it! - we do not want to realize the infinite as It is, and now the infinite comes putting this garb of the finite, and we try to realize It in the finite. But the Infinite can never be realized in the finite. This is the whole contradiction of our life.'

What we consider as ourselves is a reflection of our real nature on ever-changing body-mind complex. This ever-changing projection can never give us satisfaction; it is to be abandoned and the real Self is to be abided in. Since we are accustomed to this illusory personality that functions through 'me' and 'mine', we need practice to stay connected to the real Self. This is sadhana or spiritual practice. Swami Shraddhananda, in his book 'Seeing God Everywhere', points this out as: 'The grand maxim of our spiritual struggle is "There is fear from the second". The "second" referes to the idea of duality, our mistaken notion that something exists other than God. The quotation, "There is fear from the second", occurs in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and refers to the unitary experience - the supreme spiritual unity of everything. This unity is our true Self, its nature is Pure Consciousness. Finding this unity is the goal of spiritual endeavour.'

The fundamental ideas of Upanishads are enumerated by Swami Ranganathananda as :
'(1) the divinity of man;
(2) the non-duality and spiritual character of the ultimate reality;
(3) the basic solidarity of all existence;
(4) realization, and not a mere belief or creed, as the criteria of religion; and
(5) the harmony of religions.'

In the following pages we have noted some points from a few Upanishads with the help of audio talks by Revered Ramananada Saraswati; it is advisable that the original text of the Upanishads/Bhashya/Karika etc. be studied along with the notes given in the following pages for better understanding of the topic.