Have you ever stopped, and looked around you, and wondered, “Is this it? Is this what life is all about?” Or pondered questions like, “Who am I? Where have I come from, where am I going? Do I have a purpose?” Or have you ever felt a sense of void inside yourself, a sense of something missing despite everything that you possess, and all that you have achieved, acquired and done?

The Upanishads deal with thoughts like this. They offer you a glimpse of something deeper, a sense of what it is that is missing, an indication of what you have the potential to achieve and experience. They are not so much a guide to what to do, but rather a vision or snapshot of what is possible and achievable. Like photos of a far-away land that a traveler to those places has brought back.

Much of what follows here is taken from “The Upanishads” by Eknath Easwaran. This is my personal favourite copy of the Upanishads, and I’d encourage you to read it yourself. (Anything written by Eknath Easwaran is worth reading.)

In essence [p 22] the Upanishads show us that there is a Reality underlying life, not reachable by ritual, nor by our every-day senses, and that compared to this Reality the every-day world we live in is just a shadow. They show us that this Reality is the essence of every one of us and every created thing, and that same Reality is our Real Self. Each of us is one with that power, that underlying Reality, that created and sustains the universe. They show us that this Oneness can be realised directly, without the input of priests or rituals or any other structure of modern day religion, not after death but in this life, and that this is the purpose for which each of us has been born. They encourage us to embrace this purpose and to experience our innate potential. One feature of that underlying Reality is that it is unchanging. Everything we see around us is subject to change.

The Upanishads are a part of the Vedas, India’s scriptures. Veda comes from the Sanskrit root ‘vid’ – ‘to know’. The root of the word Upanishad suggests “sitting down near”. This is sitting down near an illumined teacher. Often, the teacher is one who has retired from worldly life to an ashram or a “forest academy” along the banks of the upper Ganges to live with students as a family. This is a tradition that has been going on for thousands of years in India. The Upanishads are not like chapters in a book to be taken together, rather they are snapshots of teachings, each complete within itself. The Upanishads form the later parts of the Vedas, and they are also referred to as Vedanta.

Exactly who composed these texts or when is not certain. Nor are we certain of how many there once were. In the eight century, the mystic Shankara commented on his selection of Upanishads and these have come to be known as the Principle Upanishads. So the Principle Upanishads are ‘principle’ because Shankara commented on them – not because they are any more significant than any other one. Also, the Upanishads that are not the Principle ones are not necessarily less significant. Most academics say there are 208 Upanishads.

All of this is not an intellectual study. Rather it is like a laboratory experiment you can conduct yourself. The mind is both object and laboratory. Attention is trained inward, on itself through a process of meditation. In this sense meditation means pure concentration, training the mind to dwell on an interior focus without wandering. This is not an exotic experience, but an integral part of what we are and what we do, like eating and breathing.

We will look briefly at the Upanishads, and some threads of the thoughts and teachings contained within them. It is very much a sample selection of teachings and concepts to give a feel of the material. In the samples below, references are to names of various Upanishads. For example in the first quote, “Brihadaranyaka” refers to the “Brihadaranyaka Upanishad”

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad there is a description of the states of mind the sages explored, calling them waking, dreaming and dreamless sleep. In dreaming, we leave one world and enter another. We have all experienced dreams. Who or what is the experiencer in these two different states, and what is the fabric in each of those states?

When you are having a bad dream, your heart races, your breathing is fraught. Dreams and waking are made of the same stuff and as far as the nervous system is concerned, both kinds of experience are real. When we wake up from a dream, we do not pass from unreality to reality. We pass from one level of reality (or level of consciousness) to another.

The Brihadaranyaka is one of the longest and most revered [p 95] of the Upanishads. A significant thread of the teaching is that the Self is identical in all of us, the Life in all that lives, that innermost spark of awareness. Shankara declared that one phrase from this Upanishad gives us the essence of their teachings – “meditate on the Self” and become one with the underlying Reality.

Mahatma Gandhi [p 53] paid tribute to the Isha Upanishad. He said, “If all the Upanishads and the other scriptures were suddenly reduced to ashes, but the first verse of the Isha was left in the memory of Hindus, Hinduism would live forever.”

“The Lord is enshrined in the hearts of all.
The Lord is the supreme Reality.
Rejoice in him through renunciation.
Covet nothing, all belongs to the Lord.
Thus working may you live a hundred years
Thus alone will you work in real freedom.”   (Isha 1+2)

(It might be useful to add here, that in the Upanishads, references to “The Lord” or “Brahman” does not refer to a common modern concept of “God as a man sitting on a cloud with a long white beard”. Rather, it refers to that underlying Oneness, that Reality that underlies all living beings, and all of creation)

Another significant thread [p 181] of teaching is found in the Mundaka Upanishad, Satyam eva jayate, nanritam “Truth alone prevails, not unreality” – the motto of the modern Indian nation. This teaches us that there is a path to this Truth, and it has been taken by saints and sages before us. So we can take it ourselves today. It is not out of our reach. It is not something relevant only to our ancestors. But it is a step that we need to take ourselves. No-one can do it for us.

Another thread from the Upanishads relates to what we are. A concept that a lot of us have, is that we think we are separate – there is me here, and you there – separate. This underlies many of the problems we face in life. The Upanishads teach that this is not true. We are not separate. Rather we are all of that Original One. The underlying essence of you, of me, of everyone is One. The concept that we are individual is false. Realise the Self and realise that everything is one.

“Like two golden birds perched on the self same tree,
Intimate friends, the ego and the Self
Dwell in the same body. The former eats
The sweet and sour fruits of the tree of life
While the latter looks on with detachment.

As long as we think we are the ego
We feel attached and fall into sorrow.
But realise that you are the Self, the Lord
Of life, and you will be freed from sorrow.
When you realise that you are the Self,
Supreme source of light, supreme source of love,
You transcend the duality of life
And enter the unitive state.” (Mundaka III.1.1-3, p 192)

In many places in the Upanishads, we are encouraged to strive towards this goal of life. Strive, through meditation to look beneath the waves and patterns of our thinking, to experience the Self, to realise that the Self and the underlying Reality are one and the same.

The Mandukya is the shortest of all the Principle Upanishads [p 199], with only twelve verses. Shankara declared that if one could only study a single Upanishad it should be this one. It is said that “the Mandukya alone is sufficient for deliverance.”

It talks about the four states of consciousness that we all experience – the waking state, dreaming sleep and deep dreamless sleep – and a fourth indescribable state that is our birthright, simply called turiya.

Another concept in the Upanishads is that the one Reality has become the infinite variety of shifting things that we experience in the world around us. In the Upanishads this one Reality is called Brahman, coming from the Sanskrit root ‘brih’ – to grow, to expand.) In essence, from the Upanishads, and in mysticism generally, there is a method of practice through which we can gain direct experience of this one Reality. We are not limited or restricted to the infinite variety of shifting things that we experience in the world around us. We have the capability to dig deep within ourselves, underneath our own thinking and realise that One.

“Brahman is all and the Self is Brahman” (Mandukya 2, p 203)

Another thread from the Upanishads is found in the Aitareya Upanishad [p 265], and relates to what it really means to be a human being. We are reminded that all of the environment is sacred in nature, so are all living creatures, so is each one of us, so is our own inner reality. We are not this fragile body, but rather that which causes it to breathe, to move, to be alive – in short consciousness. Another of the great sayings, is “all reality is consciousness”.

This Self is all in all. He is … all creatures
Great and small, born of egg, of womb, of heat,
Of shoots; horses, cows, elephants, men and women;
All beings that walk and all beings that fly
And all that neither walk nor fly…
All is pure consciousness, and consciousness is Brahman.  (Aitareya III.1.2+3, p 274)

All of life is sacred, and all of life is one – and we are not separate from it.

Another concept in the Upanishads, is that this same one Self is present in all of us. Present but hidden – yet accessible through the right practice.

“The Self is hidden in the hearts of all,
As butter lies hidden in cream. Realise
the Self in the depths of meditation,
The Lord of Love, supreme reality,
Who is the goal of all knowledge.
This is the highest mystical teaching.” (Shvetashvatara 1.15, p 162)

This concept of not seeing or recognising the Self within us and thinking we are the body is echoed in the Chandogya Upanishad.

(of people who look at themselves and see only the physical)
“They have seen the Self, but they have not recognised the Self.
They mistake the Self to be the body.
Those who think the Self is the body
Will loose their way in life.” (Chandogya VIII.8.3, p146)

The Upanishads show us that we are so much more than the physical form. The potential of our human experience is so much more than the day-to-day world accessible via the senses. It is so easy to spend our lives, to live our lives, ignorant of this and “loose our way in life”. To live our lives and never glimpse our potential. There are many allusions in the texts to us living as paupers, while every day walking over a treasure of huge wealth buried just beneath our feet. Yet we remain ignorant of it and continue to live as paupers.

The Upanishads teach that we have the possibility to reach for the stars, way beyond the stars, to realise the Self, to realise Brahman. Or we can remain in separateness, in focusing only on our physical form and the experiences of the senses, never recognising the Self, never touch that abiding joy, never experience our real potential, loosing our way in life. Which path is the path of wisdom?

In summary, the aim of this essay has been to introduce the Upanishads as a text, and some of the concepts contained in them. They are rooted in the Vedas, which is a sacred text of Hinduism. Yet they are not tied to Hinduism. At their heart is a depiction of the road of the mystic. The mystic turns their attention inward, learns to still the ever-hopping, jumping about of mind and explores the inner spaces, inner experiences. The road of the mystic is as old as humankind, and not rooted in any one culture or place or language. You can see comparable concepts in the writing of other mystic traditions. Read the Indian mystics Kabir, Paltu, Dadu, Sahajobai, Nanak. Or the Sufi mystics Rumi, Shams Tabriz, Bahu. There is nothing new here. But the Upanishads do offer a magnificent expression of these ideas.

“The Upanishads” by Eknath Easwaran (Nilgiri Press, The Blue Mountain Centre of Meditation, Canada, 2008).