Around 2000 B.C., scholars believe, groups of Indo-Europeanspeaking peoples calling themselves arya, or noble, began to enter the Indian subcontinent through the Hindu Kush. There, in the Indus river valley, they found a civilization already a thousand years old, thriving and advanced in technology and trade. From the fusion of these two cultures, the Aryan and the Indus Valley, Indian civilization was born.
The Aryans brought their gods and a religion based on ritual sacrifice, with lyrical, life-affirming hymns meant for incantation in an ancient form of Sanskrit. These hymns, dating from perhaps 1500 B.C., reveal an intimate, almost mystical bond between worshipper and environment, a simultaneous sense of awe and kinship with the spirit that dwells in all things. Even in translation they have a compelling beauty. They worship natural forces and the elemental powers of life: sun and wind, storm and rain, dawn and night, earth and heaven, fire and offering.
These powers are the devas, gods and goddesses sometimes recognizable in other religions of Aryan origin. In the hymns they seem very near, present before us in the forms and forces of the natural world. Fire is Agni, worshipped as the actual fire on the hearth or altar and as the divine priest who carries offerings to the gods. The storm is Indra, leader of the gods and lord of war and thunder, who rides into battle on his swift chariot to fight the dragon-demon of the sky or the enemies of the Aryan hosts. The wind is Vayu. Night is Ratri and the dawn is Usha, loveliest and most luminous of the goddesses. The sun is Surya, who rides his chariot across the sky, or Savitri, the giver of life. And death is Yama, the first being to die and thereby first in the underworld.
Throughout the hymns of this early age there is little or no trace of fear. The forces of life are approached with loving reverence and awe, as allies of humanity in a world that is essentially friendly so long as its secrets are understood. And although the devas must once have been a pantheon of separate deities, it seems clear even in the earliest hymns that one Supreme Being is being worshipped in different aspects. “Truth is one,” one hymn proclaims, “though the wise call it by many names.”
These poetic outpourings of worship served as liturgy in a complicated ritual religion centering around symbolic sacrifice: the holy words of the hymns were chanted as offerings were poured
into the fire. Such ceremonies were performed for the kshatriyas, the warriors and rulers of the clans, by priests called brahmins, whose function in society was to preserve rites already too ancient
to be understood.
As time passed, brahmins produced commentaries to explain the meaning of these ancient rites. Hymns and commentaries together became a sacred heritage passed from generation to generation.
These are the Vedas, India’s scriptures. Veda comes from the root vid, “to know”: the Vedas are revealed knowledge, given to humanity, according to the orthodox view, at the very dawn of time. They exist in four collections, each associated with its own family tradition: Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva, with the Rig Veda easily the oldest. The first and largest part of each collection, called karma kanda, preserves the hymns and philosophical interpretations of rituals used in Hindu worship to this day.
Yet this is only a part of Hinduism, and the least universal. The second part of each Veda, called jnana kanda, concerns not ritual but wisdom: what life is about; what death means; what the human being is, and the nature of the Godhead that sustains us; in a word, the burning questions that men and women have asked in every age. The ritual sections of the Vedas define the religion of a particular culture; but the second part, the Upanishads, is universal, as relevant to the world today as it was to India five thousand years ago.What is an Upanishad? Etymologically the word suggests “sitting down near”: that is, at the feet of an illumined teacher in an intimate session of spiritual instruction, as aspirants still do in India today. Often the teacher is one who has retired from worldly life to an ashram or “forest academy” along the banks of the upper Ganges, to live with students as a family, teaching in question-andanswer sessions and by example in daily living. Other settings are explicitly dramatic: a wife asks her husband about immortality, a king seeks instruction from an illumined sage; one teenage boy is taught by Death himself, another by fire, beasts, and birds.
Sometimes these sages are women, and some of the men who come for spiritual instruction are kings.
The Upanishads record such sessions, but they have little in common with philosophical dialogue like Plato’s. They record the inspired teachings of men and women for whom the transcendent Reality called God was more real than the world reported to them by their senses. Their purpose is not so much instruction as inspiration: they are meant to be expounded by an illumined teacher from the basis of personal experience. And although we speak of them together as a body, the Upanishads are not parts of a whole like chapters in a book. Each is complete in itself, an ecstatic snapshot of transcendent Reality.
When these texts were composed, or who composed them, no one knows. 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 irrelevant. We do not even know how many once existed. For the last thousand years, however, ten have been considered the “principal Upanishads” on the authority of Shankara, a towering eighth-century mystic who reawakened India to its spiritual heritage. These ten Upanishads are offered in this book, along with one other of equal importance and great beauty, the Shvetashvatara. Four of the so-called Yoga Upanishads have been added to represent later traditions.
Fascinatingly, although the Upanishads are attached to the Vedas, they seem to come from an altogether different world.
Though harmonious enough in their Vedic setting, they have no need of it and make surprisingly little reference to it; they stand on their own authority. Rituals, the basis of Vedic religion, are all but
ignored. And although the Vedic gods appear throughout, they are not so much numinous beings as aspects of a single underlying power called Brahman, which pervades creation yet transcends it
completely. This idea of a supreme Godhead is the very essence of the Upanishads; yet, remarkably, the word brahman in this sense does not appear in the hymn portion of the Rig Veda at all.
These are signs of a crucial difference in perspective. The rest of the Vedas, like other great scriptures, look outward in reverence and awe of the phenomenal world. The Upanishads look inward, finding the powers of nature only an expression of the more inspiring powers of human consciousness.
If mysticism can arise in any age, there is no reason to suppose that the Upanishads are a late flowering of Vedic thought. They may represent an independent tributary into the broad river of the
Vedas. Some age-old elements of Hindu faith can be traced more easily to the pre-Aryan Indus Valley civilization than to Vedic ritual, and archaeologists have uncovered there a striking stone image which a Hindu villager today would identify without hesitation as Shiva, Lord of Yoga, seated in meditation, suggesting that the disciplines of mysticism might have been practiced in
India before the Aryans arrived.
All this is speculation, of course. But the fact remains that the Upanishads, while fully at home in the Vedas, offer a very different vision of what religion means. They tell us that there is a Reality underlying life which rituals cannot reach, next to which the things we see and touch in everyday life are shadows. 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 oneness can be realized directly, without the mediation of priests or rituals or any of the structures of organized religion, not after death but in this life, and that this is the purpose for which each of us has been born and the goal toward which evolution moves. They teach, in sum, the basic principles of what Aldous Huxley has called the Perennial Philosophy, which is the
wellspring of all religious faith.