I was first introduced to the Upanishads a few years ago during yoga teacher training and have found them a great source of wisdom and beauty ever since. The Upanishads are spiritual commentaries of the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of Hinduism, written down between 1500 and 1000 BCE. Four chief Vedas were written called the Rig Veda, the Sama Veda, the Yajur Veda, and the Atharva Veda. These compilations of texts contain hymns, philosophy, and guidance on ritual for priests in Vedic religions. In studying the Vedas, sages wrote commentaries to supplement the teachings, to comprehend them better and to make their themes more digestible for others. The Upanishads do not contain information about rituals, instead they discuss the role of the soul, the afterlife, god, and their relationship with matter. The Upanishads played an important role in the development of spiritual ideas in ancient India, marking a transition from Vedic ritualism to new ideas and institutions centred around the spiritual and transcendental wisdom summarized in the Upanishads. In this article, I dive into the core background of these spiritual texts and share my own commentary and opinions on some of their wisdom.

The Meaning of Upanishad

The word Upanishad is composed of the Sanskrit words ‘upa’, ‘ni’, and ‘sad’. Upa means “near to”, ni can be translated to “below” or “down”, and sad meaning “to sit” or “draw close”. Literally, the Upanishads can be translated as “sitting down near and below”, referring to a student sitting down near a teacher while receiving spiritual knowledge.

It is emphasized throughout the texts that only a competent teacher, through direct experience, can reveal to a qualified student the true significance of the Vedas and the Upanishads. Both were originally handed down orally from teacher to disciple long before they were written down and to this day Vedic religions hold the sound of the words to the highest esteem.

How Many are There?

Since the Upanishads were passed down verbally before being transcribed, it is very difficult to be certain of their authorship and chronology. In total, some say that there are over 200 Upanishads. Most commonly, 108 Upanishads are named and printed since this is the number referred to in the Muktika Upanishad. Of these 108, 10 are considered the Principal Upanishads and are the most ancient and widely studied; these are called the Mukhya Upanishads.

Brahman and Atman

A prominent theme throughout the Vedas and the Upanishads is the Unity of Existence. This seamless Unity is called Brahman and is said to pervade the universe and yet remain beyond it. Hard to definitively define, Brahman is also translated as the Ultimate Reality, Pure Consciousness and to some it is God.

According to many commentaries, the purpose of the Upanishads is to prove the reality of Brahman and the unreality of the universe of names and forms [1].

Brahman can also take the form of the indestructible Spirit in a person, referred to as Atman. Atman is called the soul, spiritual essence or eternal self. The Upanishads teach that the true self is beyond the identity of the ego. Beneath all we have come to identify with, Atman represents something timeless and untouchable.

The Mundaka Upanishad (1.1.6) says “The eye cannot see it; the mind cannot grasp it. The deathless Self has neither caste nor race, neither eyes nor ears not hands nor feet. Sages say this Self is infinite in the great and in the small, everlasting and changeless, the source of life [1].” This exemplifies the importance and place for mindfulness and meditation in modern day life to listen inward and connect deeply with ourselves.

Lessons from the Upanishads

The Katha Upanishad

The Katha Upanishad has been widely read in both the East and the West for centuries. It tells the story of a young boy, Nachiketa who is the son of a great rishi, Vajasravasa. For a sacrifice to the gods, Vajasravasa offers a heard of his own cattle, but in noticing that they are old and sickly cows, Nachiketa questions his father. “To whom would you offer me” asks Nachiketa, wanting to know what his father deemed worthy of a much greater sacrifice. In anger, his father responds, “I will give you to death.”

Taking his father literally, Nachiketa proceeds to the abode of Yama, the King of Death where he must wait outside for three days until Yama arrives. To make amends for not being there to welcome Nachiketa, Yama offers him three boons (wishes).

Nachiketa asks, as the first boon, for his father to be freed of his anger and of his sorrow. For the second, he desires to learn the Fire Sacrifice which leads to heaven. Yama grants him both of these.

Now, with asking of the third boon the real teachings of this story begin. Nachiketa wishes to know whether or not there is an immortal substance in a man that can survive after the death of the body. “Tell me the truth of what happens after death, Yama” Nachiketa asks. Yama is taken aback by this, “Even the gods have had their doubts about this subject, it is not easy to understand. Choose another boon, O Nachiketa.” says Yama. Nachiketa persists even after Yama offers him elephants, gold and sons and grandson who will live for 100 years. “Even the longest life is short indeed and wealth cannot bring a man happiness. No boon will be accepted by me but the one I have asked.”

Seeing the determination and faith of Nachiketa, Yama agrees to tell him about the Ultimate Reality: Brahman and Atman. Death goes on elaborating about the subtlety and nuances of the means and methods to achieve the transcendental state and in doing so the consciousness of Nachiketa is also expanded to experience those truths.

One of my favourite quotes from Yamas monologue here is: “There is One who is the eternal Reality among non-eternal objects, the one [truly] conscious Entity among conscious objects, and who, though non-dual, fulfils the desires of many. Eternal peace belongs to the wise, who perceive Him within themselves- not others.” (Katha Upanishad, 2. 2. 13).

From the Katha Upanishad, we learn from Yama that we do not need to look to others for the answers, in fact often the answers we seek exist within us. We have all the knowledge inside us already, we may just need guidance to perceive it.

The Kena Upanishad

The third section of the Kena Upanishad tells a fable of a war between gods and demons. The Brahman wins the great battle for the gods; however, the gods praise themselves for the victory, saying, “Of us in this victory, of us in this might and glory.” Only Agni (the god of fire), Vayu (the god of air), and Indra (the lightning god) approach him and soon discover what a mighty being Brahman is. It is they that learn and recognize that the victory of the battle was out of their control in the end and was truly thanks to Brahman.

The Kena Upanishad teaches us to detach ourselves from our successes and failures [4]. Neither are owned by us; in fact, they are really the result of many factors that are out of our control. Some of those factors we enjoy acknowledging like our own hard work and perseverance, and I am a firm believer that hard work attracts luck. But there are many other factors that we recognize less often like our lineage, our upbringing, our education, being in the right place at the right time. Instead, we're better to detach ourselves from the outcomes and "be goldfish" as the wise Ted Lasso once said.

The Mundaka Upanishad

The Mundaka Upanishad is considered of great importance in the Vedic Traditions. Notably, it is the only Upanishad containing a verse used directly in the Vedanta Sutras, considered the most authoritative books on the Vedic philosophy [1].

The third chapter of the Mundaka Upanishad contains an illustrative story which is now a personal favourite of mine. The story goes that two beautiful birds are sitting in a fruit tree. One of them gorges on the fruits, every day hopping around the tree to eat as much as she can, biting one moment into a sweet fruit, and the next a bitter one. The other bird is quite different. She sits peacefully at the top of the tree in the golden sunlight not tempted by the fruit around her. One day, the lower bird bites deep into a completely rotten and bitter fruit and is struck with such misery that she looks up at the golden bird who is so calm and happy, and flies to join her. Miraculously as she gets closer and closer, she is enveloped by the sun and is transformed into the golden bird herself. She realizes that there had been but one bird all the time, the lower bird was merely a reflection of the one above. We are our best selves already; we are all already divine.

Concluding Remarks

What I have found most fascinating in my readings on the Upanishads is that many of the struggles faced thousands of years ago are the same ones that plague us still. Suffering with anger, jealousy, finding purpose, and finding truth were as prevalent then as they are now. This commonality makes the Upanishads surprisingly timeless and many of the themes found throughout the texts are still applicable today.


[1] Swami Paramananda (1962). The Upanishads (Abridged Edition). Bell Publishing Company.

[2] Yanush (2017). The Upanishads Best Quotes. http://yogananda.com.au/upa/Upanishads01.html.

[3] Eknath Easwaran (1981). Katha Upanishad Translation. http://veda.wikidot.com/katha-upanishad-eknath.

[4] Roopa Pai (2019). Ten Powerful Ideas from Ancient India - Wisdom from the Upanishads. TEDx Talks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9UvkK2xxr0.