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I go into the Upanishads to ask questions. - Niels Bohr, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

"What is this version based on?" you may come to ask. It is the two-volumed The Upanishads, where Max Muller translated twelve ancient ones from the Sanskrit. Here they are, more or less updated.

However, it could be wise to have a look at the book references at the bottom of the page, for the sake of getting translations that have benefitted from many sorts of developments in some 135 years since.

The Upanishads (also: Upanisads) are among the core teachings of Vedanta. They are ancient Sanskrit texts that contain philosophical concepts and ideas that are shared with Buddhism and Jainism. The Upanishads date from between the middle of the first millennium BCE and medieaval and early modern times. More than 200 Upanishads are known. The very influential, oldest dozen or so are referred to as the main (mukhya) Upanishads.

Upanishads speak of a universal spirit (Brahman) and an individual spirit (soul, Atman), and at times assert they are one and the same. "Tat Tvam Asi" (That you are) is one of the key phrases. Upanishads also explain the syllable Aum or OM.

Eleven "principal" (mukhya) Upanishads are associated with the four Vedas. They are:

  1. Aitareya (Rikveda)
  2. Brihadaranyaka (White Yajurveda)
  3. Taittiriya (Black Yajurveda)
  4. Chandogya (Samaveda)
  5. Kena (Samaveda)
  6. Isa (White Yajurveda)
  7. Svetasvatara (Black Yajurveda)
  8. Katha (Black Yajurveda)
  9. Mundaka (Atharva)
  10. Mandukya (Atharva)
  11. Prasna (Atharva)

The Kausitaki and Maitrayani Upanishads are sometimes added, as in Müller's translation. All these date from before the Common Era (CE). And later Upanisads are often highly sectarian.

Müller did not include the influential Mandukya Upanishad of the Atharvaveda in his two-volumed collection - the five first books, Khandogya, Kena, Aitareya-aranyaka, Kaushitaki, and Isa constitute his first volume, and the rest of the Upanishads make up the second volume.

Central ideas from F. Max Muller's preface

The following ideas are extracted and condensed from the first volume of the Upanishads as published by Clarendon Press, Oxford, in 1879 and 1884. Diacritical marks are dropped here, except in quotations.

Muller thought:

I is but natural that scholars in their joy at finding one or two fragrant fruits or flowers should gladly forget the brambles and thorns that had to be thrown aside in the course of their search.

The study of ancient thoughs of mankind need to be approached in a discriminating and scholarlike spirit. What we want is the truth, and if that truth must be told, it is that it is not without its dark clouds and chilling colds. Thus, we are called to face the problem in its completeness,

Teachings told by certain ancestors . . . [i]n the end they were never questioned and criticised.

Oral tradition can work as a very faithful guardian of original utterances, but it is not perfect in its copying . . . Nor is it without dangers. Thus, many a word may have been misunderstood, many a sentence confused, even before it became fixed in a tradition or a written work.

Apart from that, a certain priestly influence that sought power and prestige for priests, was at work on the works too. So it has been told.

We meet with many passages and whole chapters which either never had any life or meaning at all, or if they had, have completely lost it in the form in which they have come down to us.

We have to make much and wide allowance for cultural estrangement too. So it is ordinarily most difficult for a Western observer "here and now" to see things and thoughts under exactly the same angle and in the same light as they would appear to an Eastern eye "there and then" under other circumstances.

Here is another danger; that of overlooking evidence:

It often requires an effort to spoil a beautiful sentence by a few words which might so easily be suppressed, but which are there in the original, and must be taken into account . . . We want to know the ancient religions such as they really were.

Muller launches only one exception:

There are in ancient books, and particularly in religious books, frequent allusions to the sexual aspects of nature ... We may regret that it should be so, but tradition is too strong . . . and I have therefore felt obliged to leave certain passages untranslated, and to give the original, when necessary, in a note.

He does that against "their outspoken simplicity", and also thinks that "those who want to study ancient man, must learn to study him as he really was, an animal," [!] and so on.

Muller further finds it dangerous to generalise even where there exist complete translations of certain sacred books. "It is far easier to misapprehend, or even totally to misunderstand," he asserts.

Then there are perplexing statements that need to be dealt with. Muller:

What can be more perplexing than the beginning of the Khandogya-upanishad? 'Let a man meditate,' we read, or, as others translate it, 'Let a man worship the syllable Om.' It may seem impossible at first sight to elicit any definite meaning from these words and from much that follows after . . .

Meditation on the syllable Om consisted in a long continued repetition of that syllable with a view of drawing the thoughts away from all other subjects, and thus concentrating them on some higher object of thought of which that syllable was made to be the symbol. This concentration of thought . . . is something to us almost unknown . . . or almost impossible, ever to arrive at that intensity of thought which the Hindus meant by ekagrata [undivided, undisturbed attention], and the attainment of which was to them the indispensable condition . . .

Om or Aum

Abridgements, symbols or keywords may vary, but what competes with Om?

Om [variant spelling: Aum] is said to be the essence of the Sama-veda, which, being almost entirely taken from the Rig-veda, may itself be called the essence of the Rig-veda. And more than that. The Rig-veda stands for all speech, the Sama-veda for all breath or life, so that Om may be conceived again as the symbol of all speech and all life. Om thus becomes the name ... of the ... Prana or spirit.

The spirit within us is identified with the spirit in the sun. . . . The lesson that is meant to be taught in the beginning of the Khandogya-upanishad is really this, that none of the Vedas with their sacrifices and ceremonies could ever secure the salvation of the worshipper, i.e. ... that meditation on Om alone, or that knowledge of what is meant by Om alone, can procure true salvation, or true immortality. Thus the pupil is led on step by step to what is the highest object of the Upanishads, viz. the recognition of the self in man as identical with the Highest Self or Brahman.

Behind . . . the sacred writings of the Hindus . . . there may be sometimes aspirations after truth which deserve careful consideration . . . After careful sifting, treasures may be found in what at first we may feel inclined to throw away as utterly worthless, says Dr Muller.


What is lost in the good or excellent translation is precisely the best. - Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel

Even from one neighbouring European language to another: How difficult to render justice to certain touches of genius which the true artist knows how to give to a sentence in his mother's tongue! . . . It is an undertaking which admits of merely partial success for most of us. . . . We must not expect that a translation of the sacred books of the ancients can ever be more than an approximation of our language to theirs, of our thoughts to theirs.

In very many places a translator has to select and choose from among alternatives and stick to one option . . . Hence, he will prefer to do some possible "narrowing-down" injustice to content and phrasing in the clothing of new terms and periods which do not fit the original thoughts perfectly, or only in limited ways, perhaps.

Thus, "do not expect too much from a translation," for "easy as it might be to render word by word, it is difficult, aye, sometimes impossible, to render thought by thought," Muller considers.

True art selects and paraphrases, but seldom gives a verbatim translation. - Thomas Bailey Aldrich

The term Atman

"Words don't come easy", and without relevant experience, one's understanding of old descriptions could be like unpalatable, hard husk only.

The term 'Atman' in philosophical treatises, such as the Upanishads and the Vedânta system that is based on them, it has generally been translated by soul, mind, or spirit. However, Muller "was driven at last to adopt self and Self as the least liable to misunderstanding".

Beyond the Aham or Ego, with all its accidents and limitations, such as sex, sense, language, country, and religion, the ancient sages of India perceived, from a very early time, the Atman or the self, independent of all such accidents.

The individual atman or self, however, was with the Brahmans . . . the Absolute. . . . to know was to be, to know the Atman was to be the Atman, and the reward of that highest knowledge after death was freedom from new births, or immortality.

That Highest Self . . . was looked upon . . . as the starting-point of all phenomenal existence, the root of the world, the only thing that could truly be said to be . . .

As the root of all that exists, the Atman was identified with the Brahman, which in Sanskrit is both masculine and neuter, and with the Sat, which is neuter only, that which is, or Satya, the true, the real. It alone exists in the beginning and for ever;

Spirit . . . means intelligence in general, . . . may be predicated of the Atman . . . [and has] no independent being, apart from Atman . . . [as] "in the beginning all this was Self, one only."

The Self and the self

What competes with Om? One's Self.

What could be meant by the Sanskrit dictum, "Know the Self by the self"? It may or may not be the same as in the Greek gnôthi seautón, know yourself. In the Sanskrit teaching the meaning is to know one's individual self as a temporary reflex of the Eternal Self. Were we to translate this atmavidya, self-knowledge, by knowledge of the soul, we should not be altogether wrong, but we should nevertheless lose much sense that is there in original Sanskrit terms.

English equivalents for basic Sanskrit terms may or may not fit very well. Take, for example, the word Sat (existence). From this Sat was derived in Sanskrit Sat-ya, meaning originally 'endowed with being,' then 'true.' This is an adjective; but the same word, as a neuter, is also used in the sense of truth, as an abstract; and in translating it is very necessary always to distinguish between Satyam, the true, frequently the same as Sat, and Satyam, truth, veracity. Muller: "The clearness of a translation depends on the right rendering of such words as atman, sat, and satyam."

In a dialogue between Uddalaka and his son Svetaketu, in which the father tries to open his son's mind, and to make him see man's true relation to the Highest Self (Khandogya-upanishad VI), the father first explains how the Sat produced what we should call the three elements . . .

This Sat, the root of everything, is called para devata, the highest deity [which expresses] the highest abstraction of the human mind. Accordingly, such Sat is the Highest Being.

Muller: "The same Sat, as the root or highest essence of all material existence, . . . I have translated it by subtile essence."

The father then goes on explaining: 'All this universe has the (Supreme) Deity for its life. That Deity is Truth. He is the Universal Soul. You are Himself, Svetaketu.'


The question then is, what is further to be said about this subtile essence. I have ventured to translate the passage in the following way:

'That which is the subtile essence . . . truly and really exists . . . It is the Self, i.e. the Sat is what is called the Self of everything.'


In The Early Upanishads (1998), Patrick Olivelle says he tries to be faithful to the traditionally transmitted text. His decision was "sparked by the inexcusable and often scandalous liberties that previous scholars have taken with Upanisadic texts, liberties that often amount to textual butchery." (Olivelle 1998, xv)

Olivelle says no to "textual emendation without any basis in manuscript evidence." and finds that hubris is not absent where translators have incorporated conjectures into the text. (Ibid. xv-xvi) Moreover: "The spate of emendations and conjectures introduced into the texts has made it difficult in some cases to recover the traditional text and the variant readings found actually in the manuscripts." (Ibid xvi)

"The faithfulness of the native tradition of copyists and commentators stands in sharp contrast to the tampering of these texts by modern scholars." (Ibid. xvii)

"These observations, I believe, justify a return to the traditionally transmitted text until truly critical editions of these documents become available." (Ibid. xvii)

"My most serious emendation of the traditional text is in the [Kausítaki Upanisad]. This Upanisad has been transmitted badly, probably because it lacked an old commentary." (Ibid. xviii)

"[T]o reproduce the manuscript format, which does not even divide words! . . . is an alternative few editors will follow." Yet "the manuscripts themselves write the text in continuous and unbroken lines." (Ibid. xix)

"Texts, especially ancient texts . . . composed in a different language, at a different time, and by people with social and cultural backgrounds and levels of scientific knowledge far different from our own, pose many and diverse problems of understanding and interpretation to their readers and, especially, to their translators." (Ibid. xx)

"Whether a translator is aware of this or not, a translation is always an interpretation." (Ibid. xx)

"[W]ith the Upanisads, their interpretive history consists both of formal commentaries and further commentaries on earlier commentaries, and of interpretations . . . a translator may choose one of these interpretations over the others." (Ibid. xx).

"Like any other historical work, mine is a reconstruction of the past." (Ibid. xxi)

"Three terms that cause special difficulty for the translator are prana, atman, and brahman; they have multiple meanings." (Ibid. xxii).

"In translating and interpreting these ancient documents, I have drawn on the most current philological, historical, and anthropological research available to me." (Ibid. 3)


Major Upanishads, tr. Fritz Max Müller, Literature  

Aurobindo, Sri. 2017. The Upanishads: Translations and Commentary. Pondicherry, IN: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department: Auro e-books. ⍽▢⍽ This volume contains Sri Aurobindo's final translations of and commentaries on the Isa and Kena Upanishads, his final translations of the Mundaka and Katha Upanishads, and a commentary on part of the Taittiriya Upanishad.

Black, Brian. 2007. The Character of the Self in Ancient India: Priest, Kings, and Women in the Early Upanishads. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Deussen, Paul, tr. 1980. Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, Vols 1-2. Varanasi: Banarsidass, 1980.

Gambhirananda, Swami, tr. 1957. Eight Upanishads. Vol. 1. Calcutta (Kolkata), IN: Advaita Ashrama. ⍽▢⍽ With the commentary of Shankara.

Gambhirananda, Swami, tr. 1958. Eight Upanishads. Vol. 2. Calcutta (Kolkata), IN: Advaita Ashrama. ⍽▢⍽ With the commentary of Shankara.

Katz, Vernon, and Thomas Egenes, trs. 2015. The Upanishads: A New Translation. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher.

Müller, F. Max, tr. 1879. The Upanishads. Part I. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1879. ⍽▢⍽ Chandogya, Kena, Aitareya, Kaushitaki and Isa.

Müller, F. Max, tr. 1884. The Upanishads. Part II. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1884. ⍽▢⍽ Katha, Mundaka, Taittiriyaka, Brihadaranyaka, Svetasvatara, Prasna and Maitrayana.

Nikhilananda, Swami, tr. 1977-79. The Upanishads. Vols 1-4. 4th ed. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center. ⍽▢⍽ Vol. 1: Katha, Isa, Kena and Mundaka. - Vol 2: Svetasvatara, Prasna and Mandukya with Gaudapada's Karika. - Vol. 3: Aitareya and Brihadaranyaka. - Vol. 4: Taittiriya and Chhandogya.

Olivelle, Patrick, tr. 1992. Samnyasa Upanishads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and Renunciation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Olivelle, Patrick, tr. 1998. The Early Upanishads: Annotated Text and Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roebuck, Valerie, tr., ed. 2003. The Upanishads. Rev. ed. Penguin Books India. ⍽▢⍽ 13 major Upanishads.

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