The Gold Scales Site Portal

Upanishads Introduction

RESERVATIONS Twelve Upanishads, tr. Max Müller – COLLECTION YOGA TERMS


The Upanishads (also: Upanisads) are Hindu scriptures. They are the core teachings of Vedanta. They date from between the middle of the first millennium BCE and medieaval and early modern times. Considered as a body of literature, and not separate items, they are considered one of the 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written.

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 here make up the second volume. Some Mandukya verses are near the bottom of the page in Paul Deussen's masterful translation (below).

Earlier, European writers claimed to find essential wisdom in Upanishads. Here is a statement by one, the German philologist and Orientalist Friedrich Max Müller:

The earliest of these philosophical treatises will always . . . maintain a place in the literature of the world, among the most astounding productions of the human mind in any age and in any country. - F. Max. Müller, Sanskrit scholar.

Central Ideas from F. Max Muller's Preface

THE FOLLOWING ideas were extracted and condensed from the first volume of the Upanishads as published by Clarendon Press, Oxford, in the late 1800s. For the sake of easy reading several diacritical marks are dropped, except in quotations.

To begin with, here are three cautions as to:

  1. The character of the original texts translated here;
  2. Difficulties in making a proper use of translations;
  3. What is possible and what is not in rendering ancient thought into modern speech.

Fresh readers who have been led to believe that the Vedas of the ancient Brahmans are books full of primeval wisdom and religious enthusiasm, or at least of sound and simple moral teaching, are likely be disappointed on consulting these volumes. I have long felt that it was high time to dispel such illusions, even though it 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 came to be looked upon as more than human utterances. In the end they were never questioned and criticised. Some of these ancient sayings were preserved because they looked beautiful. Lots of people came to feel and vouch for that they also told eternal truths, perhaps expressed for the first time in human language.

Then there were other sayings which struck the minds of the listeners with great force under peculiar circumstances that evoked them, but when these circumstances were forgotten, many such sayings and rituals became more trivial and halfway unintelligible.

Also, in ancient as in our times, utterances of men who had once gained a certain prestige, would often receive attention far beyond their merits.

Besides, oral tradition can work as a very faithful guardian of original utterances, but it is not perfect in its copying power. 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 sourght power and prestige for priests, was at work on the works too. So it has been told.

Now 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.

Among other dangers Muller 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, ekâgratâ or one-pointedness, as the Hindus called it, is something to us almost unknown. . . . it has become impossible, or almost impossible, ever to arrive at that intensity of thought which the Hindus meant by ekagrata, and the attainment of which was to them the indispensable condition of all philosophical and religious speculation. . . . [We need to] try to appreciate the object they had in view.

Om or Aum

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 fantastic and whimsical phraseology of the sacred writings of the Hindus . . . there may be sometimes aspirations after truth which deserve careful consideration . . . and . . . after careful sifting, treasures may be found in what at first we may feel inclined to throw away as utterly worthless. [OM is capitalised by us here]


LET IT not be supposed that a text up to three thousand years old - much distant from our own sphere of thought - should be translated in the same manner as a book from our neighbourhood today.

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! And what is a translation of modern German into modern English compared with a translation of ancient Sanskrit ... or Chinese into any modern language? It is an undertaking which admits of merely partial success for most of us. Therefore, 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, leaven perhaps equally fit but different meanings behind or in footnotes. 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," writes Muller further.

The term Atman

WHEN ATMAN occurs in philosophical treatises, such as the Upanishads and the Vedânta system which is based on them, it has generally been translated by soul, mind, or spirit. However, they are for most part inadequate translations, so Muller "was driven at last to adopt self and Self as the least liable to misunderstanding".

Such verbiage may manage to "ruffle the surface of the mind, and stir up some reflection in the reader," he finds. Thus:

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 a phase or phenomenal modification only of the Highest Self, and that Highest Self was to them the last point which could be reached by philosophical speculation. It was to them . . . the Absolute. . . . Here 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, if it means breath or life; mind, if it means the organ of perception and conception; soul, if, like kaitanya, it means intelligence in general, all these may be predicated of the Atman, as manifested in the phenomenal world. But they are never subjects in the sense in which the Atman is; they have no independent being, apart from Atman . . . [as] "in the beginning all this was Self, one only."

The Self and the 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 [and next] entered into them, but not with its real nature, but only with its 'living self', which is a reflection (Abhasamatram) of the real Sat, as the sun in the water is a reflection of the real sun. ...

The teacher afterwards shows how in death, speech returns to mind, mind to breath, breath to heat, and heat to the Sat (VI, 8, 6). 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, is called animan, from anu, small, subtile, infinitesimal, atom. It is an abstract word, and I have translated it by subtile essence."

The father then goes on explaining in various ways that this Sat is underlying all existence, and that we must learn to recognise it as the root, not only of all the objective, but likewise of our own subjective existence [:] 'All this universe has the (Supreme) Deity for its life. That Deity is Truth. He is the Universal Soul. You are Himself, Svetaketu.' Muller:

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 (the Sat, the root of everything), in it all that exists has its self, or more literally, its self-hood. It is the True (not the Truth in the abstract, but that which truly and really exists). It is the Self, i.e. the Sat is what is called the Self of everything.' Lastly, he sums up, and tells Svetaketu that, not only the whole world, but he too himself is that Self, that Satya, that Sat.
      No doubt this translation sounds strange to English ears.

Mandukya Upanishad Selections

1.1 Om! This syllable is the whole world. Its explanation is as follows:

The past, the present and the future, all this is the sound Om. And besides, what still lies beyond the three times, that also is the sound Om.

1.6. "He is the lord of all" (Brh. 4, 4, 22) he is "the omniscient" (Mund. 1, 1, 9), he is "the inner guide" (Brh. 3, 7), he is the cradle of the universe (cf. Mund. 1, 1, 6), verily he is creation and the disappearance of creatures.

1:28. Know the Holy Call as the God,
Who is enthroned in the heart of all;
The sage, who the Om-sound knows
As all-pervading grieves not.

3:20. Of existence that is unborn
Those teachers assume a becoming, –
The unborn, immortal,
How could it turn into mortal?

3:48. No soul is ever born,
No originating of the wide world,
It is the highest holy truth,
That there is no such thing as becoming.

4:28. So there is no such thing as becoming,
Not in the subject, not in the object;
Who makes it take place in both,
He walks in skies only.

6:45. Becoming is appearance, movement appearance,
The objective is sheer appearance;
Non-becoming, motionless, unobjective,
Calm, dualityless, reality is. [So 611-38, passim]

Twelve Upanishads, tr. Max Müller 
Twelve Upanishads, tr. Max Müller - END MATTER

Twelve Upanishads, tr. Max Müller, LITERATURE  

F. Max Müller, tr. The Upanishads. Part I. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1879.

F. Max Müller, tr. The Upanishads. Part II. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1884.

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

Twelve Upanishads, tr. Max Müller - TO TOP SET ARCHIVE SECTION NEXT

Twelve Upanishads, tr. Max Müller USER'S GUIDE to abbreviations, the site's bibliography, letter codes, dictionaries, site design and navigation, tips for searching the site and page referrals. [LINK]
© 1999–2011, Tormod Kinnes, MPhil [E-MAIL]  —  Disclaimer: LINK]