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Preface

This book is an outgrowth of the ‘scattered notes’ that I prepared in the Spring of 2002 when Prof. Christopher Chapple invited me to teach a 10-hour course on Upanishads at the Religion and Theology Department of Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. I had to start preparing my own notes because the many excellent books on ‘Upanishads’ written by well known Saints, Realized Masters, Philosophers, Research Scholars and other knowledgeable persons emphasize very early in these books the essence of the Upanishads and the Upanishadic Teachings. The task of teaching Upanishads using some of these excellent books to the students of the University and practitioners of Yoga in the Western World appeared very daunting and challenging to me. The beginning reader gets lost fairly early in those books due to the absence of a proper introduction and road map to the vast literature of Vedas and Vedanta. This book provides such a road map and introduction to the study of Vedas and Upanishads by first discussing the Sanatana Dharma and an overview of the vast literature of its scriptures. The simple viewpoints on this vast literature provided herein allow the readers the required pre-requisite for further study of the other excellent books on Upanishads.

Essentially, then, no claim is made to call this book an original work. Rather, this book is simply considered as author’s notes from various excellent works on the Upanishads. While compiling these notes, oftentimes it was necessary to quote verbatim from those works; re-statement in author’s own words of such ideas was difficult and observed to lessen the impact of those ideas so well articulated by those great writers. Wherever possible, credit and acknowledgement of such works are provided; all such references are also provided for in this book so that the curious reader may follow the original text for additional details. All authors and publishers of these excellent works are hereby gratefully acknowledged.

Undoubtedly, my credentials to write such a pre-requisite book must first be addressed before I undertake this effort. My own interests in Upanishads started more as a curiosity when I was a teenager – not usually the time in one’s life that one would consider or think about such esoteric topics as Upanishads. As I and few of my friends were following a temple procession in my hometown of Tripunithura (in the State of Kerala in India) where the presiding deity of the temple is taken in a procession, once a year, to the homes of devotees in the town to the fanfare of music, ensemble of Vedic and Vedantic chantings and fireworks, few of the learned priests were chanting Taittiriya Upanishad (one of the ten principal Upanishads). One of my friends, who was the son of one of the priests chanting the mantras, told us that what was being chanted by the priests were the Upanishad mantras; when we inquired further about what the Upanishads were, he stated that the Upanishads were treatises on knowledge and that they probed deeply into problems of human existence and of spiritual realization. Neither concerned with any problems of ‘existence’ nor of ‘realization’ at that time of life when everything appeared simple and solvable, those statements were dismissed by most of us as not of much further interest; yet, that ‘spark’ within me of wanting to find out more about Upanishads was never extinguished. Many years later, after successful professional studies in India, marriage and settling down, and advanced study and research in USA, questions like ‘who am I ’, ‘why are we here’, ‘where do we go from here’ and so on started arising within me. I met a learned teacher of Vedas by name Mr. Cochin Srinivasa Iyer during my visit to India. I started taking lessons from him and also started reading more and more of the great Upanishadic literature. The earlier study of Sanskrit, the initial religious training from my father, Sri S. Ramakrishna Iyer, subsequent learning of the mantras pertaining to the Krishna Yajur Veda, and Taittiriya Upanishad and Mahanarayana Upanishad, from Sri Cochin Srinivasa Iyer, the self-study of Bhagavad Gita and the self-study of all the principal Upanishads Isa, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Madukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Svetasatara, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka, Kaivalya and some of the minor Upanishads Amritabindu and others, the listening to talks of, and discussions with, many learned Masters, the opportunity to correspond with many learned Pandits – all these have provided me with an understanding of the lofty ideas and ideals described in these treatises on ‘spiritual knowledge’.

Having been trained in our educational system, we are taught to look at things objectively. The thing to be known, the object, is different from the person who wants to know or who is the investigator (or the subject). There is thus the object-is-different-from-the-subject relationship in everything we study and learn during our education; such study and education, in the absence of a better term, will be denoted by the term ‘secular knowledge’. As we search for answers to questions like ‘who am I’, ‘where have I come from’, ‘where do I go from here’ etc., we seek the counsel of masters and realized souls who encourage us to study the Upanishads. Upanishads respond with statements like ‘tat tvam asi (that art thou)’ or ‘you are that’ and again ‘aham brahmasmi (I am Brahman)’ – we thus are entering the realms of the study of the ‘spirit’, variously called also as the ‘Soul’, ‘Self’, ‘Atman’, or ‘Brahman’. The answer to these questions and the one who wants to know the answers is one and the same – the ‘Self’. Upanishads, that address such questions and provide answers to such questions, therefore, teach us to look inwards, to look inside of ourselves; such study and education will be identified here as ‘spiritual knowledge’. The ‘object’ to be known and realized is thus the ‘subject’ itself and no amount of ‘objective’ analysis is going to help resolve this fundamental aspect of the study of spirituality. We must learn, understand, practice and ‘experience’ the teachings of the Upanishads to find out about our ‘spirit’ and the all-knowing entity, the ‘Para Brahman’. Herein lies the challenge – where the ‘object’ of knowledge and the ‘subject’ inquiring of that knowledge is one and the same. It is this problem that is addressed by the Upanishads primarily by forcing us to look inwards when, during all these years of our secular education, we have looked outside, with the aid of our senses, mind and intellect, to discern the ‘object’. Great, indeed, are the rewards for those who are consumed by this ‘quest’ to learn and understand the Upanishadic teachings.

This pre-requisite book, therefore, starts with Sanatana Dharma, its scriptures, its philosophical systems and so on before proceeding to discuss the various terms and terminology used in Upanishads and later on to the study of few of the Upanishads themselves. Chapter One starts with Sanatana Dharma and defines the various terms associated with the Dharma and the texts associated with this Dharma. The classification, organization of the Vedas and the philosophical systems of the religion are all discussed herein. Chapter Two proceeds to pose the what, where and why of these Upanishads and the reason for studying the same and the requirements for one to undertake the study. Chapter Three discusses the various terms like Brahman, Atman, Maya, Vidya and Avidya and sets the stage for study of Upanishads proper. Chapter Four discusses few Upanishads with verses and their meaning. Chapter Five provides brief summaries on the ‘Principal Upanishads’ and Chapter Six provides the summary or the essence after which the concluding chapter, Chapter Seven, follows. The Appendices A thru G provide additional information and details that are discussed, but are not covered in great detail, in the main text. Few ‘points to ponder and ideas to think about’ are provided in Appendix A, some ‘random thoughts and notes’ are provided in Appendix B, Appendix C provides list of available texts in Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads, Appendix D discusses Vedaangaas and Upavedas and Appendices E thru G discuss Puraanaas, the philosophical systems of Hindu religion (the Shad Darsanaas) and Smrithis, respectively.

Upanishads are also known as ‘Vedanta’, both due to its being placed at the end of the ‘Vedas’ and also due to their representing the ‘essence’ of the Vedas. Practitioners of Upanishads are known as ‘vedantins’; mere ‘book knowledge’ or ‘academic knowledge’ won’t make one a vedantin. Only ‘realized masters’ and/or ‘practising’ vedantins have the right to provide ‘commentary’ on Upanishads; since this book is a road map and introduction to, but not a commentary on, Upanishads, I feel justified, in my own mind, to have the ‘credentials’ to write this ‘pre-requisite’ book even though I realize that I have a long way to go before laying any claim to be a practicing vedantin. If this book provides the road map and introduction to Upanishads and provides some of its readers an insight into the vast treasurehouse of the Upanishadic literature and prompts them to take up the study and practice of Vedanta, I would be gratified and would consider this undertaking to be worth its while and the effort fully rewarded.