by Jayaram V

Summary: This is a brief introduction to the meaning, importance, knowledge and the main teachings of the Upanishads.

The Upanishads constitute the end part of the four Vedas namely the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. Hence, they are also known as Vedanta, meaning the end of the Vedas (Veda + Anta). They represent the highest thought of the Vedic religion, and so also Hinduism.

The Vedanta school of philosophy is derived mainly from the knowledge of the Upanishads only. It has many branches such as the Dvaita, Advaita, Vishishtadvaita, Dvaita Advaita and so on. All these schools acknowledge Brahman as the highest supreme reality and the whole creation as his manifestation, emanation or projection, representing the alternate reality or the illusion (Maya). Understanding Brahman and our relationship with him is crucial to spiritualize our lives and achieve liberation by practising Dharma and exemplifying God’s eternal duties upon earth.

The meaning of the word Upanishad

Two possible, traditional meanings have been ascribed to the word Upanishad. According to the first, Upanishad (upa+ni+sad) means sitting near or down. It refers to the way the Upanishads were taught to the students in ancient India. The knowledge of the Upanishads was confined to a few teachers who were either Kshatriyas or Brahmanas. They directly passed on the knowledge in person to a few select students according to their merit and under an oath of secrecy.

Since the knowledge was taught to students who sat near the master, at a lower level or at his feet, while the master sat on a higher seat (asana), his teaching was called Upanishad. Since secrecy was associated with the teachings, the knowledge of the Upanishads is also known as the secret knowledge (gudha) or utmost secret knowledge (athi gudha).

According to the second interpretation Upanishad means the knowledge which destroys the bonds of ignorance and leads to liberation. The knowledge of the Upanishads is essentially the knowledge of Supreme Self (Brahman) and the individual Self (Atman). Knowledge of these two eternal realities is considered true knowledge or pure knowledge (sat), in contrast to the worldly knowledge (asat) which is temporary and which leads to ignorance, delusion and bondage to the cycle of births and deaths. Since the knowledge of the Upanishads destroys ignorance, it is considered liberating knowledge. In his commentary on the Taittiriya Upanishads, Sri Shankaracharya suggested that Upanishad meant that which led to the highest bliss. What he probably meant was that the knowledge of the Upanishads would lead to eternal bliss by destroying bondage and suffering.

A third interpretation is also possible which leads to the same meaning. Upa, which is usually used as prefix to a verb or a noun has several meanings. It means an advice or the instruction of a teacher, reverence or worship and nearness or proximity in space, number, time or degree. Traditional interpretations of the Upanishad take the last meaning into consideration. If we go by the other meanings, Upanishads means an instruction or advice by a teacher  in close proximity from a higher ground of awareness (upa) to students sitting below (ni) regarding the destruction (shad) of ignorance, bondage, etc.

Knowledge and ignorance

The two types of knowledge are mentioned in some Upanishads such as the Isa Upanishad and even in the Bhagavadgita (which is considered by some as an Upanishad in itself). They are the knowledge of the rituals (karma kanda) and the knowledge of liberation (jnana kanda). They are also alternatively described as vidya and avidya (knowledge and ignorance). Vidya is the knowledge of the Self (jnanakanda), which leads to liberation and immortality. Those who attain it go to the world of Brahman by the sunlit path of immortal gods (devayana). Avidya is the knowledge of sacrifices, rites and rituals, including worldly knowledge, which helps individuals to appease gods and fulfill their desires. It leads to rebirth and suffering and extreme cases to punishment in the lower, darker worlds.

The Upanishads, however, do not ignore the importance of worldly knowledge and the obligations of worldly life, without which the world cannot continue. By renunciation of worldly life alone one does not have to practice spirituality to achieve liberation. One can live the life of a householder and still achieve the same goal by leading a wholesome and virtuous life. Hence, they urge people to practice balance and moderation and pursue both types of knowledge. One should pursue worldly knowledge (avidya) to perform obligatory duties and ensure the continuation of the worlds and the family lineage. Once those obligations are met, one should pursue spiritual knowledge (vidya) and strive for liberation.

The importance of Upanishads in Hinduism

The Upanishads played an important role in the evolution of ancient Indian thought. Many schools of Hindu philosophy, sectarian movements and even the later day religions like Buddhism and Jainism derived richly from the knowledge contained in them. Hinduism owes its philosophical depth to the knowledge of the Upanishads only. Otherwise it would have remained a religion of superficial rituals and rites and become vulnerable to superstition and obscurantism. Indeed, they were largely responsible for its popularity and philosophical and intellectual appeal.

If today Hinduism is able to attract the attention of many contemporary thinkers and scholars from diverse backgrounds, not only from India but elsewhere, the credit goes mainly to the spiritual and philosophical knowledge of the Upanishads and their ageless wisdom. Regarding them Schopenhauer commented thus, “The access to (the Vedas) by means of the Upanishads is in my eyes the greatest privilege which this still young century may claim before all previous centuries.” Upon reading the French translation of the Upanishads from Persian by Anquetil du Perron, he said, “It is the most satisfying and elevating reading (with the exception of the original text) which is possible in the world; it has been the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death.”

The age of the Upanishads

It is difficult to determine the age of the Upanishads. They were composed at different times and ages by different seers and scholars in the long history of Hinduism. Some like the Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya, Taittiriya, Aitareya and Kaushitaki Upanishads are the oldest, while some were composed during the medieval period up to 17th and 18th Centuries.

The oldest Upanishads, or at least portions of them, were probably composed during the early Vedic period when the Vedas themselves were in formative stages and the Atharvaveda, the fourth in the series, was yet to be formally recognized as a Veda. Some were probably composed in the later Vedic period. The oldest Upanishads are also probably re-renditions or fragments of the earlier Upanishads.

There is little doubt that the knowledge and philosophy of the Upanishads has evolved over time, through the contribution of many seers, masters and self-realized souls. As a result, they acquired greater depth and complexity for which they are known today.

There is also no unanimity as to their number. There might have been 300 Upanishads or so in the past. Most of them were lost due to the secrecy associated with them and the restrictions imposed upon their teaching by the tradition. The principal Upanishads are 108, of which the major Upanishads are about 12 or 13 namely Aitareya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka Taittiriya, Kaushitaki, Svetasvatara, Kena, Katha, Maitrayani, Isa, Mandukya, Mundaka, Prasna. About 30 or so are also classified as minor Upanishads since their knowledge seems to be derived from previous Upanishads.

The main teachings of the Upanishads

The Upanishads occupy an important place in Hinduism as an important branch of spiritual knowledge which is conducive to liberation. They along with the Bhagavadgita and the Vedanta Sutras are considered Prastanatraya, the triple means to the great journey of liberation. However, the Upanishads are not well structured or systematic. The same chapter or section may contain many ideas, loosely put together, without any correlation between one verse and another. You may also find in them repetitions and redundant information.

The following are the important topics and recurring themes, which are frequently found in most Upanishads.


He is the universal, supreme Self, the highest God of Hinduism, who is the source of all and the destination of all. He is described as the indescribable, eternal, indestructible, mysterious supreme being who is both known and unknown, with form and without form, and transcendental and immanent.


He is the individual Self, an aspect of Brahman, who is pure, eternal, indescribable and indestructible in his transcendental state. In the field of Nature, he becomes the embodied Self (jivatma), experiences duality and undergoes numerous births and deaths until his liberation.


She is the material aspect of Brahman, who provides materiality, dynamism, diversity and change to the manifested reality of Brahman. She is the active principle of Brahman, divisible but indestructible, who manages the entire creation with her innumerable powers (shaktis) and deluding nature (maya).


The Upanishads contain many verses which describe how the creation happened. They describe Brahman as the source of all creation. According to them, creation was an act of personal sacrifice by Brahman. In the beginning, there was Brahman only. Nothing else existed. Then he became many and manifested the worlds and beings


The gods are aspects of Brahman. They may know him or may not know him or may know him partially. They play an important role in creation and represent Brahman in their highest and purest state. Their hierarchy in creation depends upon their knowledge of Brahman and purity.


The organs in the body are partial manifestations of Brahman. They are also considered devas in the microcosms of beings. They are vulnerable to evil influences and desire-ridden actions. Breath is their lord. They remain in the body as long as the body is alive. Upon death, they leave the body and depart to their respective spheres.


The Upanishads describe the ritual sacrifices such as the horse sacrifices or the full moon sacrifices as well as the internal sacrifice such as Dhyana. They also contain descriptions of symbolic sacrifices such as sexual intercourse, breathing and digestion of food in the body. The sacrifice itself is compared to Brahman and different aspects of it are compared to different aspects of Brahman or his creation.


Upanishads such as the Mandukya contain references to the sacred syllable Aum and its correlation with Brahman. They describe Aum as Brahman in the form of word (aksharabrahma). Each syllable in it has a symbolic significance. They represent the different states and forms of Brahman. Since it is Brahman himself, by meditating upon it and chanting it one can become pure and attain liberation.


It is one of the recurring themes in the Upanishads and described as one of the first manifestations of Brahman. Death rules our world. Hence, ours is a mortal world. He is the great devourer who devours everything and whose hunger is insatiable. All that exists here is his food and end up becoming his food. In the sacrifice of life, all beings become the offerings to the god of Death.


References to Yoga are found in several Upanishads. Some Upanishads are also known as Yoga Upanishads since they exclusively deal with the theory and practice of yoga. Frequent references to Yoga in the Upanishads prove beyond doubt that the practice of Yoga is rooted in the knowledge of the Upanishads and integral to Hindu spirituality.


The Upanishads explain the process of rebirth, what happens when a person dies, how the soul leaves the body and departs to the world of ancestors, how it returns to the earth and takes another birth. They also explain the circumstances which lead to rebirth. According to the Upanishad both men and women play an important role in the transmigration of souls and both act as carriers.


The idea of karma is mentioned in some earliest Upanishads such as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. They explain how desire-ridden actions subject the body to impurities and lead to the rebirth of the souls in the mortal world while those who indulge in most sinful actions fall down into the lower worlds and are reborn as worms and insects.


The ultimate goal of the Upanishads is to help humans achieve liberation by overcoming their desires, ignorance and delusion. They explain the importance of cultivating purity through detachment and renunciation and by contemplating upon the Self. According to the Upanishads, liberation means freedom from birth and death.


The wisdom of the Upanishads is often condensed into short statements or phrases, which are traditionally used in spiritual discussions and contemplation. They are known as Mahavakyas. The Upanishads contain important Mahavakyas such as aham brahmasmi (I am Brahman), prajnanam brahma (Brahman is intelligence), tat tvam asi (you are that).

Apart from the above, the Upanishads also contain references to esoteric rituals, anecdotes about seers and sages, important conversations and dialogues about the Self or Brahman, references to historic events and ancient belief systems, social and religious practices, caste system, status of women, the nature of consciousness and types of spiritual knowledge (Brahmavidyas), etc.


The Upanishads elevate our thoughts and expand our awareness. They not only represent the unity and oneness of the whole existence but also remind us of our unity and oneness with Brahman. Since we are divine beings who possess the spark of Brahman and represent his consciousness and beingness as his aspects, it becomes obligatory on our part to live up to the lofty vision they represent and elevate our consciousness into still greater heights.

From the Upanishads, we learn this. A devotee may worship God in initial stages, but eventually he must overcome his limitations and become God in word and deed so that he manifests the best and the highest in him. Through perseverance, faith and purity he must transcend mortality and enter the realm of Brahman. This is the most important message of the Upanishads.

Truly, the Upanishads are the greatest contribution of India and Hinduism to the religious and philosophical wisdom of the world. There is no exaggeration in stating that even a cursory study of the Upanishads is bound to change our thinking and ways of living. They point to the possibilities and opportunities that await us in the spiritual realm. Unfortunately, although the knowledge of the Upanishads is now freely available to all, many Hindus still tend to focus on the knowledge of rituals rather than the knowledge of the Upanishads. It is probably how the world is meant to be. As the Bhagavadgita suggests, out of millions of people only a few feel inspired to pursue the knowledge of the Self and liberation.

Upanishads Outline

The Principle Upanishads

The Upanishads are books that set forth the mystical secrets contained within the spiritual ideas of the Vedas, and set them forth as the philosophy of Vedanta.

More than 200 Upanishads are known, of which the first 12-13 are the oldest and most important and are referred to as the principle or main Upanishads.

The word Upaniṣad (u = at, pa = foot, nishat = sitting down) translates to sitting at the foot/feet of, referring to the student sitting down near the teacher while receiving spiritual knowledge.

The “Early” Upanishads 700–500BC

• Bṛhadāraṇyaka • Chāndogya
• Taittirīya• Aitareya• Kauṣītaki

The “Early” Upanishads


They are often composites or anthologies from many ideas and sources (and often contradictory), perhaps put together over centuries.

They do not use the term “yoga” to indicate a system of thought or practice.

But they contain tantalizing references to ideas which become important in later yoga, including:

  • The superiority of ascetic practice (tapas) over-ritualistic (i.e., Vedic) practice
  • Ideas of the “yogic body”
  • The breath/mind connection
  • The movements of prāṇa — the Vayus

The Superiority of Ascetic Practice in the “Wilderness”

Chāndogya Upaniṣad 600 BC

“...those who in the wilderness meditate on faith as asceticism (tapas)... a person who is not human leads them...on the path to the gods...”

“The path to the gods” suggests the path from which there is no return; there is no rebirth after taking this path. Asceticism and isolation is the preferred path.

The Yogic Body of Nadis

Chāndogya Upaniṣad 600 BC

There are 101 channels (nāḍī) of the heart, of which one leads up to the crown of the head. Going up through that one, one becomes immortal. The rest spread out in all directions.

It does not say what flows through the nadis or what their function is, apart from the central channel leading to immortality. But it is a template for later thinking.

Second Model of the Yogic Body: the Koshas

Taittirīya Upaniṣad 500 - 400 BC
This is the first hint of the Koshas, which is not integrated

into yogic texts until the 17th or 18th century AD.
“Different from and lying within that which is formed from

the essence of food is the self (ātman) consisting of prāṇa ... different from and lying within the self consisting of prāṇa

is the self consisting of mind (manas)
... different from and lying within the self consisting of mind

is the self consisting of intelligence (vijñāna)

... different from and lying within this self consisting of intelligence is the self consisting of bliss (ānanda).”

The Mind-Breath Connection

Chāndogya Upaniṣad 600 BC

“Just as a bird that is tied with a string flies fly off in every direction and, when it cannot find a resting place anywhere else, settles back on the thing to which it is tied...

so too the mind flies off in every direction and, when it cannot find a resting place anywhere else, it settles back on

the breath itself, for the mind...is tied to the breath (prāṇa bandhanam).”

The Prana Vayus as Our Foundation

Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 700 BC
For the first time, the Vayus start to be presented together as an

interrelated group of five Vayus:

“On what are you and your self (ātman) founded? On prāṇa. On what is prāṇa founded? On apāna.
On what is apāna founded? On vyāna.
On what is vyāna founded? On udāna. On what is udāna founded? On samāna. “

The Vayus in the Vedas

The subdivision of Prana into the five Vayus begins in the Vedas, by the time of the Yajur Veda, but has not fully crystallized yet.

  • The main division is into Prana and Apana; prana signifies physical exhalation while apana signifies physical inhalation. This is the opposite of how we have come to think of them.
  • Vyana signifies awareness of the pervasiveness of the breath in the body during pauses in the breath.
  • Udana is the “up-breath,” which seems to suggest that Udana was inhalation more than apana was. Apana eventually fills the role of the “down breath,” elimination or evacuation from the body.
  • Samana is too rarely mentioned to adequately characterize.Overall, there is no clear reference to practices aimed at controlling the prana.

The Internalization of Practice

The elaboration of the Vayus that takes place in the Brahmanas begins to explore the mystical significance of Vedic ritual, and prana takes on an increasingly significant role as Vedic ritual is internalized, as something you do inwardly.

The five Vayus or sub-pranas begin to be organized under the theme that, just as prana is the principle of life, knowledge of the sub-pranas leads to mastery of “life” and thus immortality since “knowledge” always implies the ability to control.

The sub-pranas are given symbolic meaning in the building of the sacrificial fire altar.

The Vayus are also associated with bodily functions, but not yet the specific functions, which are given later in medical texts.

In the Upanishads

The Upanishads begin to elaborate upon Prana and the Vayus in practice:

  • The early Upanishads begin to introduce the idea of “uniting” with the prana as a path to immortality.
  • And at the same time, the idea of prana becomes subordinate or secondary to the atman as a metaphysical principle of the self.The distinction of the five Vayus begins to appear, not always consistently, and they are more directly linked to the senses and physical organs and functions.

Prana in
the Emerging Medical Tradition of Ayurveda

Around the time that the earlier Upanishads were developing the metaphysical ideas surrounding Prana, the Indian medical tradition Ayurveda was developing.

While this Ayurveda had points of contact with the Vedic tradition, it emerged substantially from Sramana sources.

Especially in its early form, this medical tradition was concerned with physical healing, rather than metaphysical or spiritual concerns.

An Interpretive Look at the Vayus

Prana had from the earliest times stood for the Life Force or the energy of life itself.

The word prana has two roots: 1. Pra-tofill

2. An–movement

When Pra is used as a prefix, it means constant, so Prana gives life by filling a being with constant movement.

The Five Vayus

The five forms that Prana takes in order to support life in the body are the Vayus.

• Each of the 5 Vayus governs how our body functions.

•Our contemplation of each vayu brings our awareness to a particular feeling-quality involved in the breath, refining our awareness and focus.

  • And each vayu provides a connection to the specific functions of the body — as well as our mental and emotional make-up.
  • But above all, in the Upanishads the vayus provide a progressive path of focus that leads us into meditation.

Prana Vayu: The Power to Receive

Prana as Prana Vayu is the experience of the in-breath and how the senses are energized and empowered by the energy we receive through the breath.

  • “The Prana himself dwells in eye, ear, mouth, and nose.”
  • Prana is also equated with the principle of the sun, tejas or illumination.
  • Prana Vayu is the energizing aspect of the inhalation, which has to do with receiving and being empowered by receiving.
  • In the Upanishads it is described as an upward- moving and expansive energy.

Apana Vayu: The Power to Let Go

  • Apana Vayu works a direction opposite to the movement of the Prana Vayu. Apana Vayu is located in the bowl of the pelvis below the navel.
  • “The Apana, which is the second Prana, rules the organs of excretion and generation.”
  • Apana is the energy which releases or expels from the body what is not needed, or what is ready to go or to be let go of.
  • Apana Vayu is the grounding aspect of the exhalation which has to do with letting go and becoming grounded by not “holding on.”
  • Apana Vayu is associated with the out-breath and downward sensation; experiencing grounding and rooting, balancing receiving with letting go and letting be.

Samana Vayu: The Power to Pause & Digest

  • “The Samana which is the third Prana inhabits the navel and governs digestion and assimilation.”
  • Samana suggests an equilibrium and calm. Sama means equal. It suggests equilibrium, a state of balance, of stillness and pause between prana and apana in which we absorb.
  • It is the energy present in the natural pause between inhalation and exhalation, when Prana and Apana are balanced.
  • Samana Vayu is blocked by our inability to pause and “be with” an experience.

Udana Vayu: The Power of Intention & Expression

  • Udana Vayu arises upward and delivers or directs energy.
  • Udana carries the energy derived from Samana Vayu (digestion) upward and outward to Vyana Vayu; which in turn fills and pervades the body with physical strength and vitality, especially the limbs.
  • With regard to mental and spiritual function it is the power of expression and intention.
  • Udana Vayu is located in the throat and face, enabling swallowing, facial expression, and speech; it is the energy behind all expression. It is the aspect of breath having to do specifically with thought, intention, expression, and emotion.
  • What blocks Udana Vayu is our inability to express our insight — or suppression of it, which can also be repressed by others.

Vyana Vayu: The Power of Pervasive Awareness

  • Vyana is the pervasive energy that spreads prana throughout the body; regulating and circulating nutrients, fluids, and energy.
  • Vyana “holds” all of the parts of the body together and resists disintegration or deterioration of the body.
  • All of the other Vayus produce Vyana, but they are at the same time dependent upon Vyana for their function. Vyana completes the self-sustaining loop of life.
  • What blocks Vyana Vayu is our unwillingness to “be in” the body.

The Spiritual Significance of

Vyana and Udana Vayu

Vyana in the Upanishads:

“The Self dwells in the lotus of the heart, whence radiate a hundred and one nerves. From each of these proceed one hundred others,

which are smaller, and from each of these, again, seventy-two thousand others, which are smaller still.

In all these moves the Vyana, which is the fourth prana.”

Awareness of Vyana allows us to focus on the source of Vyana in the “Self” that dwells in the “Cave” or “Lotus” of the Heart.

Udana in the Upanishads

From the practice of this central awareness comes mastery of the Prana in the form of the mastery of Udana Vayu, the expression of intention.

“And then at the moment of death, through the nerve in the center of the spine, the Udana, which is the fifth Prana, leads the virtuous man upward to higher birth, the sinful man downward to lower birth, and the man who is both virtuous and sinful to rebirth in the world of men.”

Udana in the Upanishads

“The Udana is fire, and therefore he whose bodily heat has gone out dies, after which his senses are absorbed in the mind, and he is born again.”

“Whatever his thought at the moment of death, this it is that unites a man with Prana, who in turn, uniting himself with Udana and with the Self, leads the man to be reborn in the world he merits.”

“It was said of old: One who knows the Prana – whence he has his source, how he enters the body, how he lives thereafter dividing himself five-fold, what are his inner workings – such an one attains to immortality.”

The Later



• Kena • Kaṭha • Īśā • Śvetāśvatara • Muṇḍaka • Praśna
• Māṇḍūkya • Maitrī

The Later Upanishads


They are shorter, often in the form of poetic meter and have more of a story line.

These more clearly reflect the influence of “non-Vedic” sources from the Greater Magadha — the Sramanas, Buddhists, and Jains.

They further develop the speculations of earlier Upaniṣads on the nature of the universe and begin to treat the ultimate reality as “God.”

Their most important contribution: For the first time they provide the earliest definition of yoga and treat it as a practice and continue to develop the idea of Prana and the flow of Prana.

Give some early glimpses of practical ideas of yoga practice:

  • positioning of the physical body
  • control of breath
  • meditative practices


of the Idea of Prana

Praśna Upaniṣad

100 AD

It introduces the idea that Prana was one of the two original created entities in the universe.

Praises prāṇa as:

  • one of the two original created entities (alongside “matter”)
  • the “most excellent” support of the individual
  • arising from the Self (ātman)
  • the source of the five elements, the senses, and the mind

The Katha Upanishad: The Definition of Yoga

300 BC

The story of the Katha Upanishad:

  • The main character, Nachiketa, criticizes what he sees to be the hypocrisy and selfishness of his father, a Brahmin, in how he conducts a sacrificial rite “on the cheap.” The father, Vajasrabasa, is required to give away his possessions as part of a Vedic ritual he is performing to gain divine favor; but the father gives away only the old, sick, and useless among his cattle.
  • Nachiketas asks if his father views him as cheaply; to whom would he sacrifice his son?
  • Vajasrabasa represents how the Brahmins — and we — bargain with Death while still trying to cling to things we are not meant to value: sacrificing them is entirely the point of the ritual seeking divine favor, yet he cheats.
  • This criticism angers Vajasrabasa and tells Nachiketas “I give you to Death.”
  • Nachiketas, rejected by his father (and by extension, the Brahmins themselves) for his criticism, offers himself to “Death.” He seeks out Yamaraj, the “Lord of Death,” to more deeply understand life.

How the Story Is Framed: Austerity Wins Three Boons

Nachiketas asks for:

1. For reconciliation with his father and, by extension, by the Brahmin community for his criticisms.

• The criticisms he lodges reflect the criticisms made by the Sramanas, but as a Brahmin, he does not want to be separated from the Vedic community. He does not want to be seen as an enemy to Vedic Brahmanism, but to fulfill its integrity by deeper inquiry.

2. To know the “five sacred fire rituals” wanting to go beyond Vedic rituals for material prosperity to gain the knowledge by which we can know the true meaning of birth and death. The five rituals represent the five stages in the journey of the soul.

  • Again, Nachiketas is placing himself firmly within the traditions of Vedic Brahmanism, even while venturing beyond its materialistic concerns to deeper questions.
  • Yamaraj teaches him the fire ritual that leads to heaven, where there is no fear, hunger, old age, or sorrow, and he names the sacrifice after Nachiketas.
  • And Nachiketas wants to look even beyond the reward of “heaven.”

Third Wish: The Central Question of Yoga

Nachiketa’s question:

“When a man dies, there is this doubt...Some say he is...others say that he is not. Taught by thee, I would know the truth.”

It is the question posed by death after physical death, does the “self” continue to exist or not?

Third Wish: The Central Question of Yoga

Yamaraj tries to bribe Nachiketas out of asking the question by offering all that traditional Vedic ritual offers, if he will not ask the “secret of death”:

“Ask for sons and grandsons who shall live a hundred years. Ask for cattle, elephants, horses, gold. Choose for thyself a mighty kingdom. Or if thou canst imagine aught better, ask for that — not for sweet pleasures only but for the power, beyond all thought, to taste their sweetness. Yea, verily, the supreme enjoyer will I make thee of every good thing.”

Knowing that these are temporary, Nachiketas rejects the offer and insists on an answer.

Foundations of Yoga

As a foundation to his teaching, Yamaraj lays out two foundations for knowing the truth.

1. “The good is one thing, the pleasant is another.”

  • What is good is for the soul and what is pleasant is for the body and senses and causes you to miss the good. Yamaraj praises Nachiketa for his renunciation of the pleasant, which holds no temptation for him.
  • The “pleasant” is identified with attachment to the world and its things and is treated as ignorance that leads to rebirth. One who is attached to possessions believes “This world alone is real; there is no hereafter... Thinking thus, he falls again and again, birth after birth, into my jaws.”

Foundations of Yoga

2. Knowledge is the good to which we should aspire, but it does not come from learning or theories.

  • “The ancient, effulgent being, the indwelling Spirit, subtle, deep-hidden in the lotus of the heart, is hard to know. But the wise man, following the path of meditation, knows him, and is freed alike from pleasure and from pain.”
  • The “knowing” is experiential and once the Self is “known” through meditation, the Self is attained. Knowledge is attainment.

The Path to Knowledge

Yamaraj places knowledge of this Self firmly in the Vedas.

“(The) goal which all the Vedas declare, which is implicit in all penances, and in pursuit of which men lead lives of continence and service...
It is Om. This syllable is Brahman.”

What follows will be echoed in the Bhagavad Gita.

“The Self, whose symbol is OM, is the omniscient Lord. He is not born. He does not die. He is neither cause nor effect.

This Ancient One is unborn, eternal, and imperishable; though the body be destroyed, he is not killed.

If the slayer thinks that he slays, if the slain think that he is slain, neither of them knows the truth. The Self slays not, nor is he slain.

Smaller than the smallest, greater than the greatest, this Self forever dwells within the hearts of all.

When a man is free from desire, his mind and senses purified, he beholds the glory of the Self and is without sorrow.

Though seated, he travels far; though at rest, he moves all things. Who but the purest of the pure can realize this Effulgent Being, who is joy and who is beyond joy?”

The Self

This description of the Self, who is now identified with Brahman as the goal of knowledge, is described in terms reflecting the Sramanas of the Greater Magadha:

  • The Self is not touched by good or bad actions.
  • The Self is who you really are, different from both the body and the mind,and does not act.
  • Actions are performed by the body and mind. Since “I” am my self, rather than my body or mind, then ultimately “I” cannot be affected by karma.Worthiness of this knowledge is strongly tied to purity, ethical purity in addition to control of the senses and the mind. It is not an intellectual achievement.

The Self

There is a hint that there is an element of grace, which goes beyond your own effort at purity and stillness, the Self is attained by those whom the Self chooses.

“The Self is not known through study of the scriptures, nor through subtlety of the intellect, nor through much learning. But by him who longs for him is he known...

Verily unto him does the Self reveal his true being. By learning a man cannot know him, if be desist not from evil, if he control not his senses, if he quiet not his mind, and practice not meditation.”

The Individual Self & Brahman

Are the Self and Brahman one and the same? Yamaraj does not go that far.

“The individual self and the Universal Self have entered the cave of the heart, the abode of the Most High, but the knowers of Brahman and the householders who perform the fire sacrifices see a difference between them as between sunshine and shadow.”

“May we know the imperishable Brahman, who is fearless, and who is the end and refuge of those who seek liberation.”

Brahman is the end of the journey and the refuge for those seeking liberation from rebirth, suggesting that knowing Brahman is or grants liberation for the self.


The Effort to Control Mind and Senses

Guided by Understanding: The Metaphor of the Chariot

“Know the self (ātman) as a rider in a chariot, and the body as the chariot itself. Know the intellect (buddhi) as the charioteer, and the mind (manas) as the reins. The senses... are the horses, and the objects of the senses are the paths...

When a person has no understanding (vijñāna), and his mind is never controlled, his senses do not obey him, as bad horses do not obey the charioteer. When a person has understanding, and his mind is always controlled (yuktena), his senses do obey him...

The one who has understanding, who has control over his mind, reaches the goal from which he is not born again.”

The State of Yoga

“When the five senses are stilled, and so is the mind, and even intellect does not stir, they call it the highest state.

This state, the steady control of the senses, is considered to be yoga...”

The quotes, taken together, put together the control of the mind and senses as the essence of yoga, with escape from the cycle of reincarnation as the goal of yoga.

The essence of yoga is the control or stilling of the mind and senses, but without yet quite telling us how to do it; there is no mention of asana or pranayama.


The Practice & the Effort or the Goal? Or Both?

Some ambiguities:

• Is yoga the ongoing effort to control the senses, or is yoga the firmly established state of control over the senses?

• If it is the state, then what brings us to that state of control? What do we call that? Is that also yoga?

• The Self is the driver of the chariot, riding toward the goal of Brahman:

  • “The one who has understanding, who has control over his mind, reaches the goal from which he is not born again.”
  • When the goal is reached, what is the relationship between Self and Brahman? If they are not the same, like sunlight and shadow, then what distinguishes them as different?These are questions that receive different answers moving forward, especially the second question.


The Katha Upanishad does pick up on the idea of energetic channels or nadis. The Katha Upanishad directly quotes the Chāndogya Upaniṣad:

“There are 101 channels (nāḍī) of the heart, of which one leads up to the crown of the head. Going up through that one, one becomes immortal. The rest spread out in all directions.”

This suggests that whatever it is that flows through these channels will have a role to play in achieving the goals of yoga.

Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad

Written either around the time of the Katha Upanishad or later.

It gives some idea of the process of controlling the mind, and refers again to the same metaphor of controlling the mind and senses like horses “yoked” to a chariot.

“Keeping his body straight...compressing his breaths, and curbing his movements, the wise person should exhale through one nostril when his breath is exhausted.

He should keep his mind vigilantly under control, just as he would a vehicle yoked (yuktam) to badly behaved horses.”

These practices are closer to the Jain practices of ceasing action or movement, but the Upanishads do temper or reduce the painful asceticism associated with the effort!

Less Ascetic & More Supportive of Health

The Śvetāśvatara Upanishad also presents the right atmosphere for practice as being less severe and ascetic; it is more pleasant and cultivates peace.

“In a level, clean place, free from gravel, fire, and sand; near quiet running waters and the like; pleasing to the mind but not offensive to the eye...in such a spot should one practice yoga.

When the quality of yoga is produced...the person who has obtained a body tempered by the fire of yoga will no longer experience sickness, old age, or death.”

This is the first suggestion that yoga promotes the health of the body; this idea is developed much later with the hatha yoga texts.

Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad

200-300 AD

The “One” at the center of the channels, perhaps the ultimate reality.

“Where the channels (nāḍī) come together like spokes, there is the One which becomes manifold. Meditate on the Self (ātman) as OṂ, and may you successfully cross beyond darkness.”

Maitrī Upaniṣad

200 AD

This is called the six-limbed (ṣaḍaṅgā) yoga:

• prāṇāyāma-breathcontrol
• pratyāhāra-sensewithdrawal
• dhyāna-meditation
• dhāraṇā-one-pointedconcentration • tarka-discriminativeawareness
• samādhi-perfectconcentration

Thanks to Doug Keller at Yoga International for the Yoga History & Philosophy outline of the Upanishads. Doug Keller has a very thorough online course on the Yoga & History of Yoga, where he goes into great detail in a simplified and easy to understand presentation.