Aarti Natarajan Sharma
The Upanishads are ancient religious and philosophical texts in Hinduism. The word in Sanskrit means ‘to sit closely’ or ‘to sit at the feet of’. The Upanishads played an important role in developing religious traditions in India. These were written over a period of 700-400 BCE. There are over 200 Upanishads (some accounts peg them at 251). Each finds a mention in one of the four Vedas (the oldest religious texts in Hinduism containing teachings of gurus in the Vedic times). Out of these 200, 13 are most well known
The Upanishads talk of spiritual knowledge and enlightenment. They provide guidance on how to achieve knowledge that can provide salvation or freedom from the cycle of birth and death. The Upanishads talk about how the atma (soul) can be united with the Brahman (Ultimate Truth) through meditation. They also talk about Karma.
Unlike a lot of other religious texts, the Upanishads have not been written by a single person. They have been compiled over the years by scholars and poets. The Upanishads teach us several things, but there are five important concepts that are relevant even today.
1. Samsara or Reincarnation
We are all living out a cycle where the soul is born and reborn according to the actions it performs. Like the wheel of a cycle turns continuously, so is our life in a constant state of movement. There is no state that remains the same for very long. The concept of Samsara says that energy is never destroyed, it is only transferred from one cycle of birth and death to another.
This vast universe is a wheel, the wheel of Brahman. Upon it are all creatures that are subject to birth, death, and rebirth. Round and round it turns, and never stops.
—Svetasvatara Upanishad 1.6-8
2. Karma or Action
The law of Karma talks about how every action will have a reaction, quite similar to Newton’s third law of Physics. While present philosophy talks about Karma as something we face in our current birth, the Upanishads refer to it as actions that determine how our next birth shall be. In Sanskrit, the word Karma means ‘actions or deeds.’ The theory of Karma encourages us to think before we say and do anything, because it all goes into our tally of Karma.
3. Dharma or Universal Law
The Sanskrit root of the word Dharma means ‘to hold and maintain’. In the Upanishads, it means an invisible law that governs all human beings. In simple terms, Dharma means the ‘right way of living’. The concept encourages us to live the right way, do our duty towards society with courage and truth.
It is better to do your own dharma even imperfectly, than someone else’s dharma perfectly. (Krishna to Arjun in the Bhagwad Gita)
4. Moksha or Liberation
Derived from the Sanskrit word muc (to free), Moksha means ‘liberation from Samsara’. The concept means freedom or salvation from all worldly pain and suffering. It represents nirvana, the ultimate abode of peace. The word is often used to talk about moving away from all bonds of attachment and attaining a sense peace within oneself.
5. Atman or Soul
In Sanskrit, the word atman means ‘self or breath.’ It represents the core of the philosophy of the Upanishads. The ego is a false or outwardly reflection of the Atman. The true Atman is deep within and considered to be the essence of an individual.
The eye cannot see it; the mind cannot grasp it. The deathless Self has neither caste nor race, neither eyes nor ears nor hands nor feet. Sages say this Self is infinite in the great and in the small, everlasting and changeless, the source of life.
Mundaka Upanishad 1.1.6
Despite being written ages ago, the Upanishads hold valuable life lessons that are relevant even today and can be applied to almost every context of our lives, both professional and personal.