The Upanishads are wisdom teachings that explore the deeper, internal meaning of sacrifice. They were written in the sixth century BCE, during a period of great ferment – the time of the Buddha and Mahavira. The Upanishads were dialogues between gurus and their students, and they emphasize the esoteric dimension of sacrifice. Sacrifice has various meaning, including a person’s life, breath-control exercises, or celibacy. Brahman (the real) is sound, mantra, or prayer that conveys insight into ultimate reality if heard properly. Atman is the soul or spirit that is attached to the body.


I.        The literature of the Upanishads

A.     The Upanishads are Vedanta (the “end of the Vedas”). Each of the Vedic samhitas has Brahmanas (ritual texts), Arayakas (forest books) and Upanishads affiliated with it.

B.     The Upanishads are “wisdom teachings” that explore the deeper, internal meaning of sacrifice. Jnana – revolutionary wisdom that transforms and enlightens one’s consciousness – is an important goal of Upanishadic teachings.

C.     The social context of the Upanishads.

1.      They were written in the sixth century BCE, during a period of great ferment marked by urbanization, social instability, competition for resources, dissatisfaction with traditional ways, and a search for new answers.

2.      The locus of this searching was both the city and the wilderness. Some teachers and seekers pursued spiritual knowledge of deeper reality by renouncing settled village life.

D.     Seekers were not only Brahmins but also kshatriyas, women, and bastards.

1.      King Janaka asks Yajnavalkya, “What light does a person have?” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3)

2.      The woman Gargi asks Yajnavalkya, “On what is the world woven, warp and woof?” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.8).

3.      The bastard Satyakama Jabala asks about his lineage (Chandogya Upanishad 4.4).

E.      The Upanishads are dialogues between gurus and their students. “Upanishad” can mean either “to set down side by side” (e.g., the correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm), or “to sit down side by side” (i.e., near a teacher).

II.     Knowledge of sacrifice

A.     The rites are powerful, world-ordering acts, but they can degenerate into formal rote observances divorced from their original meaning.

1.      If the external – exoteric – aspect of the sacrifice is overemphasized, the ritual can become hollow and lifeless.

2.      If the internal – esoteric – aspect is overemphasized, the ritual can become incomprehensible.

3.      The Upanishads emphasize the esoteric dimension of sacrifice; they contain many layers of esoteric meaning.

B.     Interpretations of sacrifice in the Upanishads.

1.      Sacrifice has various meanings – a person’s life, breath-control exercises or pranayama (Chandogya 3.16 ff.), or celibate student life (brahmacharya (Chandogya 8.5).

2.      Sacrifices are “unsafe boats” for the crossing (Mundaka 1.2.7), since one might possibly be born again into this or a lower world.

C.     Goal of the Upanishads:

Asato ma sad gamaya                         From untruth lead me to truth

Tamaso ma jyotir gamaya                  From darkness lead me to light

Mritorma-amritam gamaya                From death, lead me to immortality

III.   Knowledge of Brahman or “the Real”

A.     Meanings of Brahman:

1.      Sound, mantra, or prayer – the holy power of sound, which conveys insight into ultimate reality if heard properly.

2.      Those people who know the mantras and prayers; i.e., the brahmanas or Brahmins.

3.      A class of ritual texts – the Brahmanas.

4.      The Supreme Being or Ultimate Reality – the holy power that undergirds all reality.

B.     The dialogue of Gargi and Yajnavalkya (Brihadaranyaka 3.8 ff.).

IV.  Knowledge of Atman, the Self or Soul

A.     The dialogue of Prajapati and Indra (Chandogya VIII.7 ff.) on the Self. Atman is the soul or spirit (the breath of life) that is yoked to the body.

B.     The story of the “Contest of the Senses,” won by breath (prana) (Brihadaranyaka VI.7 ff.). When breath departs, death follows.

C.     The dialogue of Uddalaka and Svetaketu after the latter’s return from the ashram (Chandogya 6). Uddalaka teaches Svetaketu that self-knowledge is the fundamental knowledge that allows one to make sense of all particular learning.

1.      Sat, meaning the Real, lies at the heart of all.

2.      Atman is like the invisible inside of a fig seed, from which the tree grows.

3.      Atman is like the taste of salt in water, pervasive but invisible.

4.      Tat tvam asi – “That thou art, Svetaketu.”

D.     Yajnavalka’s teaching in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad defines Being exclusively – it is not anything that one can name.