Vedas #2 The Upanishads and Vedanta Sutra

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Uddalaka speaks to his son Svetaketu in the Katha Upanishad (For an extract of their conversation see end)

Samhita, Brahmana and Aranyaka

Samhita means ‘that which has been collected and arranged.’ A samhita brings out the meaning of the particular Veda in the shape of mantras systematically arranged. In addition to the samhita portion, each Veda has a part known as a brahmana and another section called an aranyaka.

The brahmana portion lists what rituals are to be performed and exactly how they are to be done. When the mantras contained in a samhita are converted into a ritual action called yajna, the brahmanas serve the purpose of a guidebook or a handy manual explaining how each word should be understood.

The word aranya means ‘forest’ and the aranyakas are texts for ‘forest dwellers,’ those who have renounced sensory pleasures and now live in the tranquil forest of contemplation. These texts are meant to explain the inner meaning, the doctrine or philosophy contained in the samhita as mantras, and in the brahmanas as yajnas. According to the aranyakas it is important to understand the reasons why yajnas are required to be done, and not merely their actual performance.


The Upanishads come towards the end of the aranyakas. Their main theme is philosophical enquiry and an urgent recommendation to rise above the mental states that keep the soul within the cycle of repeated reincarnation. This message is in contrast to other sections of the Vedas which tend to attract the soul to celestial enjoyments or power and beauty within this world and the next. Because of these two, somewhat contradictory, messages the Vedas are considered to have two portions. The first is the portion dealing with ‘actions’ or ‘ritual’ and is known as the Karma Kanda. The second portion deals with ‘higher knowledge of the self’ and is consequently known as the Jnana Kanda. These are also referred to, respectively, as the Purva Mimamsa and the Uttara Mimamsa.

sanskrit vowels

sanskrit consonants 02

sanskrit consonants

The Vedas were first orally preserved in spoken Sanskrit or ‘purified language,’ as a chain of recitation from guru to disciple, then written down in Devanagari, the written form. Sanskrit has 46 characters and each has a precise pronunciation.

It may appear to be a paradox that the deva worship recommended in the beginning of the Vedas is negated by it in the later sections. Certainly it is strange for the western reader who may, rightly, expect to notice consistency within the same holy text. But there is a central commandment running through the Vedas: so long as we wish to enjoy the world we must worship the devas and perform karma; and as soon as we understand the temporary nature of material happiness and the transience of our short lifetime we must take to cultivating knowledge of the self, or jnana.

The word upa-ni-shat means to ‘sit by the side’ and refers to the student of the Vedas who is called forward to receive higher instruction. In the Upanishads we find that the very same gods who are the objects of obligatory worship in one portion of the Vedas are described as themselves being either students or teachers of higher knowledge. Indeed, even in the Vyakaran section of the Vedas, a dictionary of Sanskrit terminology, the word devanampriya or ‘beloved of the gods’ is synonymous for ‘fool.’ In the Taittiriya Upanishad (2.5) and in the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad (2.3.33) there is a stinging comparison of the bliss attainable by the soul who has become free from material entrapment compared to the soul who enjoys celestial happiness in the heavenly realms. After a progressive analysis – which reads like a multiplication table – we learn that the happiness of a young man in the prime of life here on earth is surpassed by the bliss of the self-realised soul by 100 to the power of 10. But when men learn of the paltry ‘bliss’ attainable in this world, and they try to practise yoga, they tend to fall out of favour with the gods themselves. The Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad (1.4.10) says that the gods do not like men who try to realise their inner self and often choose to send temptations and distractions their way. Many are the aspirant yogis who have become confounded by the intrigues of the gods.

The Upanishads are so important to the philosophical and theological strength of the Vedic path, that the religion itself was often known as Upanishad Dharma. Although the number of the Upanishads is variously calculated, most schools of the Vedas count at least ten to thirteen as being of great importance. Accordingly, these are studied the most. Srila Prabhupada has regularly cited from the Katha, Kena, Chandogya, Mundaka and Svetasvatara Upanishads, and of course has published his own commentary on the Isha Upanishad.

The Brahma Sutra or Vedanta Sutra

The Sanskrit word sutra means a ‘summarized code’ and in the Skanda Purana and Vayu Purana the definition is given: ‘when a thesis is presented in few words, but with great volumes of meaning and, when understood, is very beautiful.’

Vedanta means ‘the end of knowledge’ and is meant to be the ultimate Vedic text in the matter of exploring the nature or ‘perfect being’ of Brahman (spirit) and its relationship to matter. The Vedanta Sutra covers the nature of the infinitesimal, individual being and the infinite being. Since describing the relationship between them must include analysing how the individual living being falls into ignorance and suffers the nature of forgetfulness and illusion is examined.

The Vedanta Sutra was composed by Srila Vyasadeva as an exegesis of all the Upanishads and is compromised of 555 sutras divided into 192 adhikaranas, logical arguments or syllogisms, each of which consist of five parts: 1.Visaya (thesis or statement) 2.Samsaya (doubt in the tenability of the statement) 3.Purvapaksha (presentation of a view opposing the original statement) 4.Siddhanta (determination of the ‘final conclusion,’ by quotation from Vedic texts) 5.Sangati (confirmation of the final conclusion by quotation from Vedic texts.

All schools of thought in India have their own commentary on the Vedanta Sutra written by the original preceptor of their lineage.

The distinction between matter and spirit is introduced in the famous conversation between father and son in the Katha Upanishad. I read it here.


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