Meaning of the Term Upanishads

That this is the traditional view is evident from what Sankara says on the etymology of the term Upanishad. The term means knowledge received by the student 'sitting close to' the teacher. Explaining the derivation of the term in the introduction to his commentary on the Katha Upanishad, Sankara says:

'By what etymological process does the term Upanishad denote knowledge? This is now explained. Those who seek liberation, being endowed with the spirit of dispassion towards all sense objects, seen or heard of, and approaching this knowledge indicated by the term Upanishad, presently to be explained, devote themselves to 'it with one pointed determination --of such people, this knowledge removes, shatters, or destroys the avidya (ignorance or spiritual blindness), which is the seed of all relative existence or worldliness. By these etymological connections, Upanishad is said to mean knowledge:

Truth versus Opinion

One of the fascinating features of the Upanishad is love of truth and this fearless quest.

In them we are always in the company of earnest students and teachers who discuss the central problems of all philosophy and religion with a sincerity and thoroughness, objectivity and detachment, rare in the history of philosophic thought.

A belief is true if it has stood, and can always stand, the test of experience, and not because it has been said by a man or written in a book. The essential Vedantic truths belong to this category; they possess universal validity as they are verifiable by all men. This is forcefully brought out by Sankara in a remarkable passage of his commentary on the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad dealing w1th the validity of scriptural statements.

'The test of the validity of a sentence is not that it just states something about a thing or about an act. What (is it) then? (It is) its capacity to generate certain and fruitful knowledge. A sentence that has this is valid; while one that lacks it is invalid.'

Such truths are far different from the private beliefs of an individual or a group, a sect or a church, held with all emotional intensity and projected for other people's acceptance with equal fervour. Such beliefs cannot chum 'the greatest reward' because they have not paid 'the heaviest penalty' involved in being subjected to the rigorous scrutiny of reason and being thrown open to universal verification.

Fearless Quest of Truth

I have referred before to the fearless quest of truth characteristic of these Upanishads. Any reader of this literature cannot also escape being struck by the rational bent and speculative daring of these sages of ancient India.

The spirit of inquiry which possessed them led them to question experience, to question the environing world; it also led them to fearlessly question their gods and the tenets of their traditional faiths. The Upanishadic, and earlier, even the Vedic, sages did not also fear to doubt ,when rational, certain knowledge was difficult to come by. They illustrate the truth of the creative role of scepticism: In the pursuit of truth, such scepticism is but the prelude to traditional faith.

Intrepid Thinkers

Referring to this charac-teristic of the Upanishads in his book Six Systems of Indian Philosophy Max Muller says :

'It is surely astounding that such a system as the Vedanta, should have been slowly elaborated by the indefatigable and intrepid thinkers of India thousands of years ago, a system that even now makes us feel giddy, as in mounting the last steps of the swaying spire of a Gothic cathedral. None of our philosophers, not excepting Heraclitus, Plato, Kant, or Hegel, has ventured to erect such a spire, never frightened by storms or lightnings. Stone follows on stone after regular succession after once the first step has been made, after once it has been clearly seen that in the beginning there can have been but one, as there will be but one in the end, whether we call it Atman or Brahman. '

The Upanishads were far in advance of human thought when they decided to dedicate themselves to the tackling of the inner world. By their emphasis on inner penetration, by their whole-hearted advocacy of what the Greeks centuries later promulgated m the dictum 'Man, know itself;’ hut at which they themselves stopped halfway, the Upanishads not only gave a permanent orientation to Indian culture and thought, but also blazed a trail for all subsequent philosophy in the East and the West.

The Upanishads do not disclose any details as to the personal histories of their thinkers; but they provide us with a glimpse of the working of their minds; we can study in this literature the graceful conflict of thought with thought, the emergence of newer and newer thought more satisfactory to reason and more in accord with experience at deeper levels, and the rejection of the less adequate ones without a tear. Hypotheses are advanced and rejected on the touchstone of experience and reason, and not at the dictate of a creed.

The Upanishads reveal an age characterised by a remarkable ferment, intellectual and spiritual. It is one of those rare ages in human history which have registered distinct breakthroughs in man's quest for truth and meaning and which have held far-reaching consequences for all subsequent ages. The mental climate of the Upanishads is saturated with a passion for truth and a similar passion for human happiness and welfare. Their thinkers were 'undisturbed by the thought of there being a public to please or critics to appease'

Bhakti in Upanishads

Emphasising the pervasive influence of the Upanishads on Indian religions, Swami Vivekananda says:

‘In the Upanishads also, we find all the subsequent development of Indian religious thought. Sometimes it has been urged without any grounds whatsoever that there is no ideal of bhakti in the Upanishads. Those that have been students of the Upanishads know that that is not true. There is enough of bhakti. in every Upanishad, if you will only seek for it; but many of these ideas which are found so fully developed in later times in the Puranas and other Smrtis are only in the germ in the Upanishads. The sketch, the skeleton, was there, as it were. It was filled in in some of the Puranas. But there IS not one full-grown Indian ideal that cannot be traced back to the same source--the Upanishads.'

Unlike philosophies elsewhere and other systems here, Vedanta is a living philosophy; and from the time it was first expounded in that dim antiquity down to our own times, it has been the spiritual inspiration behind the vast and varied Indian cultural experiment.

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