Upanishads ‘09

The Vedas, meaning “knowledge,” are compositions of ancient Sanskrit hymns and mantras which were brought to the Indus Valley by the Sanskrit speaking Aryans during what is considered to be the “Iron Age” of India. The Vedas are considered the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism, and even the oldest known, the Rig Veda (dated anywhere from 2000 – 1200 BCE), is considered to be a product of perhaps as long as a thousand years of previously exclusively orally transmitted tradition. The more recent developing Indian schools of philosophical thought, or darshana (vision/worldview), are considered to be orthodox if the school/worldview accepts the authority of the Vedic scriptures. However, the Upanishads, a set of commentaries that comprise a more recent addition to the Vedas (800 – 200 CE), present a departure from the central focus of the early Vedic culture, and philosophically challenge the very roots of earlier Vedic thought. Common themes of the early Vedic literature are primarily focused on stressing the importance of correct rituals, to be performed by the priestly caste (Brahmin), to secure the favor of a number of gods and goddesses. The Rig Veda contains cosmology, explanations of the Eternal Law (rta), and many various hymns to be chanted to the various Visvedevas (pantheon of god-forms). The Rig Veda shares its 33 deities with the Iranian Avesta (the most sacred text of Zoroastrianism, thought to be composed between 1200 -1000 BCE as a rejection of the Rig Veda’s warlike aggression and blood sacrifices). The most important deities are Indra (ruler of Heaven), Agni (God of Fire), Surya (the Sun God) and Varuna (ruler of mysterious law). Additionally, Soma (a Moon offering considered by modern researchers to have been a psychedelic plant producing states of expanded consciousness and ecstasy) was popularly praised. Distinctions between types of people described by the division of Purusa, the primal man, may be the early roots of the still existing caste system. Much of the Vedas consist of the Aryan’s nomadic warrior society offering praise for their conquests and dominance over the darker skinned society,

making prayers for increased gain, and are comprised of rituals celebrating the gods of their pantheon and cosmology. These rituals were performed for the wealthy by the priest class who had access to this “revealed knowledge” which continued to be passed down primarily through oral teachings. The later additions of the various Upanishads, though variance inevitably occurs, are a dramatic change of position. These commentaries on the earlier Vedas are mystical texts, but they involve a sort of self-conscious evaluation and employ argumentation which is separate from the cosmological myths and historical rituals. The self (atman) is a recurring topic, and perhaps the most important message of the Upanishads is that the self (atman) is the Absolute Reality (Brahman). “Tat Tvam asi,” (you are that) is employed as a positive identification with all in the universe, and that which is underlying the universe. The ideas of samsara (reincarnation) and moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirths) are introduced, and new values are applied. In the Katha Upanishad, the big men of the Vedas, the Brahmann (priests) and the ksatra (royalty) are shown to be foolish for chasing after ephemeral things and in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad they are considered food for the Gods. Knowledge, especially inner self (atman) knowledge is the value replacing rituals, and this can be achieved through yoga (“yoking” the mind) to mystically discover the Absolute Reality (Brahman) which is a state of nondualistic consciousness (Advaita). Through these reassignments of value, the Upanishads open the religious system which had previously been only accessible through priests and ritualistic offerings limited to the wealthy. Though the Upanishads were considered the “secret doctrine” of the Vedas, cumulatively, they provided the philosophical concepts and reassignments of value which later inspired and developed into greater accessibility to the general public (such as Mahayana Buddhism – the “big vehicle” and its later manifestations of Chan/Zen Buddhism) to religious participation. The notion of samsara, or repeating reincarnation involving karma (accumulated actions), has been used to justify the caste system and can

certainly be witnessed to be amazingly effective to control the mass population to adhere to prescribed moral actions. However, these Upanishadic ideas, more than any which occurred in the earlier Vedic texts are the foundation of Indian darshana/thought/religion and have led to the philosophical questioning which gave birth to the many varieties of orthodox and heterodox (nastika) traditions which are present now.

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