The meaning of upanishad is ‘to sit close by'. Upa means close, and nishad means to sit. When two people sit close to each other and discuss a topic, it is called upanishad. The Upanishads are dialogues between guru and chela or disciple. It is not a public lecture given to dozens or hundreds of people but an intimate dialogue between guru and disciple. The disciple is asking about the nature of reality and the guru gives an answer.
In each Upanishad the question is the same, only the answers are slightly different. The main theme of the upanishadic philosophy is that the ultimate reality is one, homogeneous, interpenetrating and present in everything. The experience can be gained by controlling the senses and the mind, and diving deep into the nature of reality.
There are 108 Upanishads, ten are considered to be the major and most ancient Upanishads, and thirty are considered minor. The rest were composed at a much later date.
In India, the ancient literature is called Veda, which means higher knowledge. There are four Vedas: Rigveda, the most ancient; Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda.
These Vedas have four sections. Every Veda has a book called mantra which are used for ceremonies, such as the birth ceremony, name giving, marriage or death ceremonies.
The second section of the Vedas is known as Brahmana, which discusses social responsibilities, customs, marriages, social laws, disposing of a dead body and the functions of a householder. There is a system of marriage, but if a girl is kidnapped, what will be the social position of her marriage to the man who kidnapped her? If a woman has become a widow and wants to remarry, what will be the position of that marriage? Society has to decide the different positions called Brahmanas.
The third section of the Vedas is called Aranyaka. It is considered important for the people who have completed their household responsibilities and are stepping into spiritual life. They should be taught how to practise detachment and make themselves free from the involvements they had for twenty years or more. The husband and wife are taught to live like recluses, like karma sannyasins. This section talks about how to live with wife or husband, but remain detached and aloof from previous involvements.
The fourth section is the Upanishads. They only discuss one thing: what is reality? The seekers of truth, sat together and discussed the following topics: How did the individual come into this life? Why did he come? What is going to happen after he dies? What is the basis of existence? What is the source of life? What is the individual's relationship with the whole cosmos? Is he a non-entity? Is he an integral part of the entire reality of the cosmos? These spiritual topics are discussed in the Upanishads.
The most ancient Upanishad is known as Ishavasya Upanishad, the last chapter of the Yajurveda. Isha means God, and avasya means dwelling. The theme is that whatever is seen as manifest and whatever exists as unmanifest has an indwelling presence. It appears to be matter, but it is not. Whether it is sentient or insentient, moving or immobile, visible or invisible, manifest or unmanifest, everything has beyond its external appearance, an indwelling entity which is called God, Ishwara atma.
The second Upanishad is the Kenopanishad, answering the question: Is it possible to have the experience of the supreme spirit with lower and limited vehicles like speech, ears, nose or mouth? Or does one have to go beyond the senses and the mind in order to have the experience of a higher entity?
The third important Upanishad is known as Kathopanishad. The story goes like this: A great rishi, a sage, was performing sacrifices and giving away all his belongings in charity to the needy. His son was looking at his father and saw that he was giving the cows, goats and sheep to the people. He was thinking, ‘Whom is he going to give me to? For, after all, a son is also a possession of the father. If he is giving his possessions in charity, he should also give me.'
So he asked, "Father, to whom will you give me?" The father did not reply. For a second time the boy asked, "Father, to whom will you give me?" The father was quiet for he did not intend to give him in charity to anyone. For a third time the boy asked, "To whom will you give me?" The father became angry and said, "Damn it, I will give you to death."
The name of the boy was Nachiketa. In spiritual terminology, Nachiketa represents the highest quality of dispassion, vairagya. If anybody has this highest dispassion, it will be said, "He is a Nachiketa." Swami Sivananda wrote about me, saying that I had the qualities of Nachiketa.
Nachiketa, by virtue of his father's curse, transcended the mortal plane of consciousness and ascended into yamaloka, the plane of Yama, the Lord of the Death, who is the registrar of the dead. When Nachiketa went there, Yama was not present. He had gone on his weekly inspection tour. So this boy was waiting at the door for three days and nights. After three nights, Yama returned and asked the boy, "Who are you?" Nachiketa said, "My father has sent me to you, and I have been waiting for three nights." Yama said, "Oh my boy! You have been suffering here for three nights in this freezing cold. I give you three boons. Ask me."
The boy asked for the first boon, "My father has denounced me and sent me to death. When I go back to him, let him recognize and accept me. That is my first request." It is difficult to recognize one's nearest and dearest, kith and kin, if one dies and comes back in another form, one may not be recognized. Yama said, "Okay, that will happen."
Nachiketa asked for the second boon, "What is dispassion? How to develop vairagya, where the whole world with its wealth and pleasures does not affect me at all and where the agonies of the past and the ambitions of the future do not touch my personality?" Yama answered that question too.
The third question was a very naughty question. Nachiketa said, "You are the Lord of Death and you have been moving in both the countries of death and after-death whenever you like. Tell me, is there survival, and if there is survival, what survives? Does the body or the mind survive? Does the soul survive, and if the soul survives, what is the soul? Nobody has seen it. Is it just a philosophical and abstract item?"
Yama was astounded and said, "I will give you many things, but don't ask this question. I will give you elephants, horses, cows, damsels, palaces to live in, long life, eternal kingdoms. Take everything, but don't ask this question which ordinary people cannot ask. Even devas, divine beings, rishis and spiritual masters do not know the ultimate reply to this question. They search for an answer, but they can't find it. I am not going to tell you."
Nachiketa said, "Lord, you are giving me all this wealth, but for how long will it last, maybe one thousand or two thousand years? It will not be with me until eternity. A man eats food, digests everything and turns it into faeces. In the same way, the pleasures are turned into pain. That is the process." There was a lot of struggle between Yama and Nachiketa. Finally, Yama considered saying, "Look here, I have never come across a boy like you. So sit down and listen."
From here the whole Upanishad proceeds about the nature of the soul, the body and concentration. Yama talks about yoga, he explains that as an archer points his arrow at a target and finally merges the arrow in that point, in the same way, the mind is the bow and Om is the arrow and the supreme reality is the target. Through yoga one merges the arrow with the target.
Yama continues, "You go by horse cart. The driver is drunk, the horses are untrained and on both sides of the road is green grass. It is obvious what is going to happen. However, if the horses are trained and the driver is alert, it does not matter if the grass is growing on both sides of the road. Such a horse-cart can reach the destination."
Fire is hot and water is liquid. Similarly, the quality of the senses is to always draw one to the external objects and never to the internal objects. Therefore, a patient seeker will have to work again and again, for even if the senses are brought under control, they go out again. Every time one has to work with greater patience and not lose courage. The mind is the medium between unreality and reality. This is the theme of the Kathopanishad.
Somerset Maugham composed his novel The Razor's Edge on this Upanishad which has the following mantra (1:3:14):
Uttishthatajaagrata praapya varaan nibodhata;
Nishitaa duratyayaa durgam pathastat kavayo vadanti.
Awake, arise! Learn this wisdom from the great ones. As narrow as the razor's edge is that path, difficult to traverse and hard to tread, say the wise.
This is the razor's edge on which yogis are walking, who are trying to tread the path to the ultimate reality. It is not the path of flowers but the razor's edge. It is a tiny, narrow passage. If you are a little bit careless either you fall to the right or to the left.
The great masters say that this path is difficult and hazardous. So what is to be done? They say, "The only way is to remain awake and keep moving all the time until one attains the final gift and boon of self knowledge."
The Prashnopanishad is another Upanishad. Prashna means questions. In this Upanishad the main topic is the life-force and the mental force which are like two birds.
The largest Upanishad is the Chhandogya Upanishad, in which there are many topics including the science of Om. How to chant Om, what is Om, how was it produced, is it the name of a god or a sound, or is it related to the cosmos?
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad talks about little-known meditations. The word meditation was known as vidya, while now it is called dhyana. There are various meditations such as prana vidya, meditation on prana; panchagni vidya, meditation on five fires; madhu vidya, meditation on honey and many more.
Ultimately, the Upanishads are trying to discover the total reality of the universe. However, the final reply is: Neti, neti – not this, not this. The Upanishads have not come to a conclusion, though they have tried their level best. No thought and no philosophy in this world has worked so much in trying to discover the total reality of the seen and unseen universes, but they have not made any claim that they have known it. They say, "We have come this far, but this is not the final conclusion."
—6 February 1983, Manchester, UK