The Upanishads: History, Religion & Oral Tradition

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  • 0:01 Sitting Near the Enlightened
  • 0:55 History of the Upanishads
  • 1:35 Major Ideas in the Upanishads
  • 4:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

The Upanishads are a collection of documents that form the basis of Hinduism. In this lesson, you'll learn how these written texts came to exist and some of the major teachings they contain.

Sitting Near the Enlightened

Imagine this scene: you're sitting on the bank of a river, beneath the shade of a tree. Except for the small comforting sounds of water moving, no other noises disturb this scene. Next to you sits your guru, a spiritual teacher who has opened your mind to the profound truths of the universe. The type of profound truths that he might pass on to you are exactly the sort of philosophical concepts found in a collection of over 200 texts written in Sanskrit called the Upanishads.

The Upanishads are the documents that contain the central teachings of Hinduism. The word Upanishad literally translates to mean 'sitting near the enlightened.' That scene you imagined describes these core documents; they're the teachings that you would learn from sitting near an enlightened teacher.

The History of the Upanishads

Around 1500 BCE, the major spiritual practice in India was what we now call the Vedic religion. Vedic comes from the Sanskrit word 'to know.' The Vedic religion put a heavy emphasis on ceremony and ritual, and it put a lot of power in the hands of the priestly class, since they were the ones to perform the necessary rituals.

Hundreds of years later, ascetics began withdrawing themselves from society and the Vedic religion. An ascetic is one who practices severe self-denial. These ascetic hermits first began passing down their ideas orally, from teacher to student, but eventually their teachings were written down. The written versions became the first of the Upanishads.

Major Ideas in The Upanishads

The Upanishads are a collection of religious texts, not chapters in a single book. Each one stands independent of the others. These texts were written between 800 BCE and 500 BCE. They document the thoughts of men and women, many of whom had set themselves apart from society in order to spend time in contemplation of the truths of life. Over 200 texts make up the Upanishads, but they have some common themes running through them.

One theme is the turning away from religious ritual and a greater emphasis on contemplation and questioning. The collection of writings is not so much a prescriptive list of what a person should and should not do. Instead, the books are a source of inspiration and a point of reference for the enlightened teacher.

While a great many ideas appear in the Upanishads, there are four basic principles that underpin the rest of the texts. These ideas are samsara, karma, moksha, and dharma. Dharma is responsibility or duty and it is the concept that holds together society. Dharma is not the same for everyone, though - a person's dharma can change based on social position, gender, or age.

Karma refers to the idea that for every action there is an equal reaction. This reaction could be immediate, or it could happen at some point in the future. Karma tracks across an entire life and through all a person's lives. Thus, karma influences samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth. Moksha is the escape from that cycle of samsara through enlightenment.

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