The Upanishads; A New Translation

[extract from the first few pages of Thomas Egenes' brilliant Introduction]

The word upanishad means "sit down near"; upa (near), ni (down) and shad (sit). Traditionally, the student sat down near the teacher to receive secret instruction, and in this way knowledge was passed down from teacher to student, linking each new generation back to the ancient tradition of the Upanishads. Many of the upanishads consist of a dialogue between teacher and student in the deep quietude of a forest hermitage (ashrama) or in the home of the teacher (where the students lived as part of a system called gurukula).

The great teacher Shankara explained the word upanishad as "the knowledge of Brahman by which ignorance is destroyed " In other accounts, "sit down near" (upanishad) refers to the hidden connection between everything, whether it is the connection between the teacher and student, or more broadly, the infinite correlation among all things, the oneness of reality. In this way the word upanishad might be thought of as a state of consciousness in which everything is connected to one's own Self.

According to lndia's ancient tradition of knowledge, the Upanishads were cognised by rishis, or seers. The profound truths dawned spontaneously in the silent depths of their consciousness and were recorded by them and passed down through generations, first orally and later in written form.

According to the Muktika Upansshad there are 108 Upanishads, although scholars later recorded more than two hundred. The first ten are considered to be the principal Upanishads: Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandakya, Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka. Sometimes the Shvetashvara is also added, bringing the list to eleven. Shankara commented on these eleven. Because he also referred to four other Upanishads (Kaushitaki,ana and Paingala) in his commentary on the Brahma Sutras these Upanishads are sometimes also included as principal upanishads bringing the list to fifteen (or fourteen, if the Shvetasvatara Upanishad is not included). Each of the Upanishads is associated with one of the four Vedas: Rik, Sama, Yajur and Atharva. For the nine Upanishads in this volume, the Aitareya belong to the Rig Veda; the Kena belongs to the Sama Veda; the Katha, Taittiriya and Shvetashvatara belong to the Krishna Yajur Veda (the Yajur Veda has two branches; the Isha belongs to the Shukla Yajur Veda; and the Prashna, Mundaka and Mandu belong to the Atharva Veda. Upanishads of the same Veda often have the same introductory and concluding verse (shanti-patha).

Some of the Upanishads are in verse, others are in prose and a few are a mixture of both. While several Upanishads are short, such as the Mandukya (twelve verses) and the Isha (eighteen verses), other Upanishads are considerably longer, such the Brihadaranyaka and Chandogva Upanishads. Slight variations in wording are found, as they have been passed down in an oral tradition for thousands of years.

The Upanishads are the last part or culmination of the Veda and so are called Vedanta. They are known as the gyana kanda, the section of the Veda that deals with knowledge—knowledge of the ultimate reality. Since the Upanishads are part of the Veda, they are regarded as Shruti, or "that which is heard." Traditionally, they are considered to be apaurasheya, which means they are not the creation of individuals, not made up like poetry; rather they were revealed to enlightened seers who saw and heard these truths in the depths of their awakened consciousness. The Upanishads are also thought to be
nitya—true tor all time, all places and all people.


The Upanishads have enjoyed a growing global influence over the centuries. The first known translation of the Upanishads, from the original Sanskrit into Persian, was commlssloned in 1656 by Muhammad Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shah Jehan, who built the Taj Mahal. In 1802, the French scholar Abraham Anquetil-Duperron translated the Persian volume into French and Latin. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer read Anquetil-Duperron’s Latin translation and famously said of the Upanishads:

'The Upanishads are the production or the highest human wisdom and I consider them almost superhuman in conception. The study or the Upanishads has been a source or great inspiration and means or comfort to my soul. From every sentence of the Upanishads deep, original and sublime thoughts arise, and the whole is pervaded by a high and holy and earnest spirit. In the whole world there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. The Upanishads have been the solace or my life and will be the solace of my death.'

Influenced by Schopenhauer, the German scholar Paul Deussen translated the Upanishads and said, "On the tree of wisdom there is no fairer flower than the Upanishad and no finer fruit than the Vedanta philosophy." Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman were among the first to read the literature of India. Thoreau described the universal nature of the Ved and eloquently gave an account of reading them:

'What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like the light of a higher and purer luminary, which describe a loftier course through a purer stratum.—free from particulars, simple, universal. It rises on me like the full moon after the stars have come out, wading through some far summer stratum of the sky. . . . one wise sentence is worth the state of Massachusettes many times over.’

Emerson noted. also eloquently, how the ancient literature of India resolves many of the questions of existence that the modern mind is engaged in solving:

'It was if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence. which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the questions that exercise us.'

Walt Whitman read the Upanishads and described the universal spirit of this knowledge:

'These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands.
   they are not original with me.
If they are not yours s much as mine
   they are nothing or next to nothing.
If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing.
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle
   they are nothing.
If they are not as close as they are distant
   they are nothing.'

The Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger discussed the universal nature of knowledge and the universal nature of consciousness found in the Upanishads:

'There is no kind of framework within which we can find consciousness in the plural; this is simply something we construct because of the temporal plurality of individuals, but it is a false construction. . . . The only solution to this conflict insofar as any is available to us at all lies in the ancient wisdom of the Upanishad.' 

Schroedinger's contemporary, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, said, "I go into the Upanishads to ask questions".

Referring to the Upanishads as "some of the most sacred words that have ever issued from the human mind," Rabindranath Tagore wrote, "The messages contained in these, like some eternal source of light, still illumine and vitalise the religious mind of India. . . . Seekers of life’s fulfilment may make living use of the texts, but can never exhaust them of their freshness of meaning."

One of the most influential persons to introduce the Upanishads to a wider Western audience was the Oxford scholar and second president of India, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. in 1953, while vice president of India, he published his translation of the Upanishad. Here he identifies their central theme:

'Anyone who reads the Upanishads in the original Sanskrit will be caught up and carried away by the elevation, the poetry, the compelling fascination of the many utterances through which they lay bare the secret and sacred relations of the human soul and the ultimate reality.'

'The Upanishads, a New Translation', is available on


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