The Puzzle of the Upanishads

asato mā sadgamayaFrom ignorance, lead me to truth;
tamasomā jyotir gamayaFrom darkness, lead me to light;
mrityormāamritam gamayaFrom death, lead me to immortality
Oṁ śhānti śhānti śhāntiḥOm peace, peace, peace
Brihadaranyaka Upanishads (1.3.28)


  1. Introduction
  2. A Short History of the Upanishads: From Rituals to Knowledge
  3. Central Doctrine of the Upanishads
  4. The Bewildering Maze of Words in the Upanishads
  5. Different Things Regarded as The Absolute in the Upanishads
  6. Confusions Evinced by Modern Scholars
  7. The Wrestlings of Ancient Teachers
  8. The Problem With Using Reason As a Means to Decode the Truth of the Upanishads
  9. Conclusion


The words of the introductory verse are from the patron of the yajña (vedic ritual sacrifice), who recites them as the priest sings the Introductory Praise of the Sāman. As the author of this section of the Bṛhādaraṇyaka Upaniṣad points out, the unreal is death, and the real is immortality, even as darkness is death and light is immortality. In other words, the patron is saying, “Make me immortal.” (1.3.28)

This was also the verse that used to be constantly in my mind at the end stages of my inquiry. In my article “Self inquiry: Have you questioned Death?” I had discussed how the question of death played the most important role in my journey of self inquiry. I have interwoven it with the role deaths plays in the story of Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad and that of Buddha.

That the question of death would form a part of one’s self-inquiry is inevitable. No matter what is one’s philosophy, one has to contend with death if one has to know the truth of life. About three thousand years back, the concern with immortality – going beyond death – became a profound preoccupation with the people of the Vedic age. The Upanishads – concluding portion of the Vedas – are engaged solely in the quest for that principle which lies beyond the pale of death.

Therefore, for any inquirer into truth, it would be a case of great exception that he/she has not had a brush with the Upanishads. “From every sentence, deep original and sublime thoughts arise, and a high and holy and earnest spirit pervades the whole. In the whole world, there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads… It has been the solace of my life, and it will be the solace of my death. They are the product of the highest wisdom…“, said the German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. That the Upanishads were his solace is acceptable but did Schopenhauer or can any casual reader of the Upanishads unlock the real knowledge of the Upanishads? The thrust of this article is to show that even though the Upanishads hold the promise to lead one to immortality, they are a puzzle.

A Short History of the Upanishads : From Rituals to Knowledge

The quest for immortality, which is a central theme of the Upaniṣads, is something new, something not found in the earlier Vedic literature. Indeed, between the earliest portions of the Vedas, the verses of the Ṛg Veda, and the Upaniṣads, which constitute the latest portions of the Vedas, separated by perhaps a thousand years, a dramatic change in world-view occurs. But we also find important continuities.

The thinkers of the Upaniṣads, like the Vedic thinkers before them, were concerned with finding the connecting threads that hold everything together. For Vedic thinkers, whose central concern was with the efficacy of ritual, it was especially important to know the connections between the human world, the ritual world, and the cosmic world in which the divine powers operated. Only with this knowledge was it possible to follow the patterns of connectedness between these three realms and only by following these patterns could the rituals achieve their purpose of benefiting the people on whose behalf the offerings were being made. In the Upaniṣads, it was also important to know the connections between things, but now the connection that must be known in order to achieve immortality was the connection between the person and the ultimate ontological reality of the universe. As the various aspects of the person came to be connected to the ultimate Self (Ātman) and the various aspects of the cosmos came to be identified with an underlying reality called Brahman, the powerful knowledge that could liberate one from the cycle of re-death, that could achieve immortality, in the Upaniṣads was, in the final analysis, the connection between Ātman and Brahman.

Departing from the ritualistic traditions of the earlier Vedic age, the Upaniṣadic sages were engaged in a radical rethinking of the nature of self and reality that was destined to deeply influence the course of religion, philosophy, and life in India and beyond. Radical and profound, their discoveries were shared only with qualified learners, thereby creating a body of secret knowledge. According to the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, even Indra, king of the Gods, had to live with his teacher for 101 years, practising self-discipline, before Prajāpati thought him prepared to receive the highest knowledge about the self.

The earliest collections of these esoteric teachings, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, Chāndogya, Aitareya, Taittirīya, Kena, Kaŭha, Kauṣitākī, Praśna, Muṇḍaka, Maāṇḍūkya, Śvetāśvatara, and Īś Upaniṣads, were probably composed between 800 and 500 B.C.E. and have been commented on by most major Indian thinkers. Most are parts of Āraṇyakas and belong to Brāhmaṇas appended to the Vedas, thus revealing the textual continuity of the Vedic tradition. [1]

Central Doctrine of the Upanishads

The central Upaniṣadic concern to attain immortality requires answers to three questions: What am I, in the very depths of my being? What is the ultimate basis of all existence? and What is the relation between my deepest self and the ultimate reality?

What sets the Upaniṣads apart from the earlier scriptures is their emphasis on knowledge as a means of liberation. The rituals of yajña come to be regarded as taking a person only as far as the realm of the ancestors. To go beyond that, to achieve immortality, meditative knowledge is necessary. But the movement from ritual to knowledge as the way of salvation is by way of a gradual transformation of yajña into meditative wisdom through a process of internalization.The Bṛhadāraṁyaka Upaniṣad (part of the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, which belongs to the Yajur Veda) shows how ritual is transformed into meditative knowledge. It begins with a description of the great horse sacrifice, which it then proceeds to interpret as being really an internal meditative act through which the whole world (not just a horse) is sacrificed. By this sacrificial act of renouncing the world, the individual achieves spiritual autonomy (rather than earthly sovereignty).[2]

The Bewildering Maze of Words in the Upanishads

However, an examination of the contents of the Upanisads themselves will show that they were never confined to profound philosophical doctrines. All sorts of miscellaneous ideas, injunctions, incantations, theological interpretations, conversations, traditions, and so forth, regarded at the time are secret principles or secret teachings, were assembled and set down without any sequence: and even the sections which do bear on what may be called philosophical thought are really only including that as one of the secret teachings. And since the parts which do specially expound, philosophical thinking in clear and distinct terms are made up mostly of conversations and dialogues between master and disciple, father and child, husband and wife, etc., or else records of debates held in public places, various and diverse philosophical thoughts are expounded in them; but neither is there any record of the speculations of one philosopher nor is there any collection of the thought of philosophers belonging to a definite philosophical school founded by one person. These sections are no more than mere extracts from the various secret beliefs which many orthodox Brahmins, living over a period of several centuries after the appearance of Sakyamuni, had advocated or adopted; the dates of these thinkers, moreover, differ greatly from one another, and there are not a few cases in which the name of the advocate of a special doctrine has not been clearly recorded.

In such circumstances, no philosophical school had yet been set up, nor had any fixed doctrine been established. “The Philosophy of the Upanisads” is a title like “philosophy prior to Socrates” or “the system of Old Testament ideas”. One can see common tendencies, characteristics and historical significances but nothing like a “system” of Upanishadic philosophy, is possible at all. If one tries to discover a “system”, one can occasionally find some systematic explanations of a sort in the individual conversations or in individual passages out of the Upanishadic corpus. These systematic explanations, however, are extremely brief and were never put together in a complex detailed form. Accordingly, the “systems” in the schools of Indian philosophy or later centuries and those of modern Western philosophy are greatly different. [3]

Different Things Regarded as The Absolute in the Upanishads

The Upanishads superficially read, seem to be intended to teach something about what they call Brahman or Atman, about the universe, and the individual soul.

Thus the Upanisads emphasize knowledge, and cognition of the Absolute in particular, but what is this Absolute which is to be cognized ? On this point, the explanations in the various passages of the Upanisads are by no means in accord. In addition to the creator Prajapati, other things related to the rituals have already been set up as the fundamental principle in the development of the world in the Brahmana literature; and in the Upanisads, still others have been assumed as the fundamental principle. Chief’ among them are the following :

1. Natural objects such as wind, water, ether, etc. (Although these are frequently regarded as the world-principle in the Vedic Samhita, they are no more than merely mentioned in the Upanisads.
2. Vital force (prana). This was widely regarded in Vedic literature in general as the individual subject or the essential life-force of each individual existence, but also at the same time identical with the supreme principle of the myriad existences (A History of Early Vedanta by Hajime Nakamura, Vol. III, Part VI, commentary note on 1.6 of the Mandikya Karikas.)
3. Consciousness (vijnana). This is a word meaning individual cognition but is sometimes proposed as a metaphysical principle, which should be called pure spirit or absolute spirit. (ibid, Part 11, Chap. I, Sect, 2.)
4. Purusa (the primal man) This word originally meant “man” or “human being”, but already in the final period of the Rig-Veda, it was being taken as the fundamental principle which evolves the universe. Again, it was also used in the sense of “the basic substance of the individual person” and “the spiritual sell.” The more importance given to “purusa” as a philosophical concept. the less was its personal significance though that was never altogether extinguished. (ibid, Part Il, Chap. I, Sect. 5, item 2)
5. Being (sat) This is particularly stressed in the metaphysics of Uddalaka Aruni.(Chand. Up. VI.2.2.).
6. Non-being (asat).(RV. X, 72, 23; X, 129, 45 Tait. Up. I, 7 Chand. Up.111, 19, 1)
7. That which is neither being nor non-being.(Purusasukta (RV.X.129). This hymn also came to be regarded later as an independent Upanisad.)
8. The Unevolved (avyakyta).(Brhad. Up. 1.4.7.)
9. The Inner Ruler (antaryamin). So-called because it exists latently within the myriad beings and controls them.(Ibid. 111, 7.)
10. The Indestructible (aksara).(Ibid. III, 8.)
11. Presiding Deity. This is particularly stressed in the Upanisads Isa, Svetasvatara, etc.
12. Brahman. “Brahman” meant originally the hymns, sacrificial addresses and incantations of the Vedas and, further, the mystical power latent in them, but it finally was taken among, the Brahmins who respected the Vedic rituals, as the usual term for the fundamental principle of the world. “The word in time lost its original meaning in the Vedanta school to become a technical term used only for the Absolute itself.
13. Atman, The word “Atman” originally meant “Breath”, but it was also employed derivatively in the sense of “vital force”, “body”, and further became a word meaning “one’s self. As a philosophical concept, it was taken as a technical term meaning “one’s ego”, “one’s self, and further, “soul”

Thus, each one of these many principles has been set up as the world-principle, the Absolute, in the respective passages of the Upanishads, where it is asserted that this evolved and brought about the formation of the phenomenal world, and perhaps also maintains and controls the entire world. Because these principles are concepts formally differing from one another their mutual relations thereupon become a problem, already discussed in the Upanisads themselves. But later, in the Vedanta school, they really form a central problem of discussion. At any rate one can say that to assume a unique fundamental principle and to explain the manifold and diverse aspects of the phenomenal world as based upon that principle. is one of the common characteristics of the thought of the Upanisads [4]

Confusions Evinced by Modern Scholars

Considering the preceding paragraph, it is no surprise therefore, that many a modern scholar has dipped into the profound wisdom of the Upanishads, nay, given their life to decoding the puzzle of the Upanishads through their scholarship and reading, and come up with the following verdict:

(1) “A system of the Upanishads, strictly speaking, does not exist. For these treatises are not the work of a single genius, but the total philosophical product of an entire epoch.” [P.Deussen, The Philosophy of the Upanishads, Publisher: T & T Clark. p. 51]
(2)“There is little that is spiritual in all this’ ; ‘this empty intellectual conception, void of spirituality, is the highest form that the Indian mind is capable of .” Gough, quoted by [S.Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy. Vol. 1, . 139]
(3) “If anything is evident even on a cursory review of the ‘Upanishads -and the impression so created is only strengthened by a more careful investigation – it is that they do not constitute a systematic whole.” [G.Thibaut, Vedanta Sutras. Intro. ciii]
“If we understand by philosophy a philosophical system coherent in all its parts, free from all contradictions and allowing room for all the different statements made in all the chief Upanishads, a philosophy of the Upanishads cannot even be spoken of.” [Ibid, p.cxiv]
(4) “For gaining an insight into the early growth of Indian philosophic thought, this period (the Upanishadic period) is, in fact, the most valuable; though of systematized philosophy, in our sense of the word, it contains, as yet, little or nothing.” [Max-Muller, Six Systems of Indian Philosophy by Max-Muller, Publisher: Longmans Green & Co., p.6]
“With us a philosophy always means something systematic, while what we find here (in the Upanishads) are philosophic rhapsodies rather than consecutive treatises.” [Ibid, p.182]
(5) “The Upanishads had no set theory of philosophy or dogmatic scheme of theology to propound, They hint at the truth in life, but not as yet in science or philosophy. So numerous are their suggestions of truth, so various are their ‘guesses at God, that almost anybody may seek in them what he wants and find what he seeks, and every school of dogmatics may congratulate itself on finding its own doctrine in the sayings of the Upanishads.” [S.Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, p. 140]
(6) “ The difficulty of assuring oneself that any interpretation is absolutely the right one is enhanced by the fact that germs of diverse kinds of thoughts are found scattered over the Upanishads which are not worked out in a systematic manner.” [Dasgupta, History of Indian Philosophy Vol. I. p. 41-42]
“Under these circumstances, it is necessary that a modem interpreter of the Upanishads should turn a deaf ear to the absolute claims of these exponents, and look upon the Upanishads not as a systematic treatise but as a repository of diverse currents of thought – the melting pot in which all later philosophic ideas were still in a state of fusion.” [ibid, p. 42]

The Wrestlings of Ancient Teachers

The apparent maze of various narratives, epigrams, symbolic expressions, metaphors and similes, might have been a source of trouble even for the inquirers who came some centuries after the Upanishads were created.

Many Upanishads were compiled in the various Vedic sub-schools; and when later they had to be revered and worshipped as an absolutely authoritative sacred canon of divine revelation, the thinkers of later centuries who revered the Upanisads were under the pressure of the need to resolve somehow the contradictions among the various ideas. If theory “A” contradicts theory “B”, it is impossible to admit both at the same time. Truth must be only one. Various contradictory philosophical theories have been expounded in the Upanisads, ‘but which one ought to be regarded as the teaching which expounds the ultimate truth ?- One must first pick out, from among the theories in the Upanisads, the true teaching, which can be literally accepted. This was their first task. [5]

Yet, even if one determined the true theory in this way, further problems remain. If one were to make any one of the various doctrines of the Upanisads the correct theory or the true theory, how ought he to regard the other theories which contradict it? Since the Upanisads are given absolute authority as sacred canon in the orthodox Brahmanic teaching, it could not be allowed that some theories be regarded as true and others as false, for all the theories expounded in them have to be true. If any one of the theories were to be made the true teaching, then what is its relation to the other theories ? Again, why is it that such different and diverse teachings are expounded in the Upanishad canon? ‘The resolution and elucidation of such difficult questions became the second task of the scholars of later centuries who revered the Upanisads. And they came to be chiefly engaged in the unificative interpretation of the Upanisads. [6]

This was why the Vedanta Sutras were compiled: to demonstrate a unificative interpretation of the Upanishads. “However, since the meanings of Upanishadic utterances are ambiguous, there came to be several Vedanta philosophies, corresponding to differing interpretations of the essential genius of the texts that inspired them. Despite an evident similarity in terminology, which is derived from their common allegiance to the same basic literature, these Vedanta philosophical systems vary substantially among themselves, and there is a polite but perfectly clear rivalry among them as to which system ‘really’ represents the teaching of the Upanisads.”[7]

I have done a detailed study of the different interpretations of Upanishads by ancient scholars in the following article Difficulties in Finding the True Method of Advaita Vedanta of Shankaracharya – Part 2 : Pre-Shankara Schools

The Problem With Using Reason As a Means to Decode the Truth of the Upanishads

There are numerous commentaries embodying the conflicting interpretations of the several Bhashyakaras of Vedanta whose followers are extant to this day. For any scholar skilled in exegetics might bring out any additional system of his own without impunity out of these utterances of the ancient sages, if only he could adduce cogent reasons to show that his system is consistently built. And no one can rule out the legitimacy of the ingress of any system or systems in the future, each one of them resting its structure on the foundation of consistency and even on some individual intuition and experience to be gained through spiritual discipline. I have talked about the various schools of Vedanta – Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita in my article No Vedantic Schools of Duality Present Till the Time of Shankara

So clearly reason of human mind is not capable of coming to a conclusion that there is a single all encompassing truth mentioned in the Upanishads.


Does this mean that the Upanishads really don’t have any central doctrine? Are we to believe like most modern scholars as well as the many ancient ones that there is simply no single Asbsolue Reality that the Upanishads speak about. Do we resign to the dictates of reason and exclaim that “It is an issue that, in the nature of the case, may well be insoluble.” [8]

Or do we have a clue in some one of utterances in the Upanishads like this one:

‘This can be well understood only when taught by another’ (Katha Upanishad 2.9)

I shall take this up for another article in the future.


  • [1] – The excerpts under this heading are from ” The Indian Way: An Introduction to the Philosophies and Religions of India”, Chapter 4, by John M. Koller
  • [2] – ibid
  • [3] – All paragraphs under this section are from “A History of Early Vedanta Philosophy – Hajime Nakamura”, pages 109 & 110
  • [4] – ibid, pages 104-106
  • [5] – ibid, page 110
  • [6] – ibid, page 111
  • [7] – Karl H. Potter, Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Vol. 3 “Advaita Vedanta Upto Shankara And His Pupils”, page 4
  • [8] – ibid

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