What exactly are the Upanishads, and how are they relevant to our lives today?
The great German philosopher Schopenhauer was said;

“ In the whole world there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. It has been the solace of my life; it will be the solace of my death. They are products of the highest wisdom.”

Richard George on the Upanishads - Hot Nude Yoga teacher for gay menThe Upanishads - a Vedanta Philosophy

The Historical Background of the Upanishads.

Upanishad – From the verb root ‘sad’ meaning to sit and the prefixes ‘upa’ (near) and ‘ni’ (down). Literally translates as “to sit down near” or “to place one self close with devotion” or sit at the feet” of the guru.

The Upanishads are linked to the Vedas, and are also called the Vedanta, meaning literally “ the end of the Vedas”. But the spiritual meaning of Vedanta is the cream of the Vedas, or the goal of the inner life.

In Sri Chinmoy’s, The Three branches of India’s Life Tree, he describes;

“ The Vedas represent the cow. The Upanishads represent milk. We need the cow to give us milk, and we need milk to nourish us.”

Around 2000 B.C., some people believe that, groups of Indo-European-speaking people called ‘Arya’ or ‘noble’, entered the Indian subcontinent. It is believed that they discovered a civilization already thousands of years old, showing a sophisticated social and politically ordered society. Advanced in technology and trade, excavations of these historical sites have found traces of large central buildings, and evidence of rituals.

These Aryans brought with them their Gods and most importantly their language, and lyrical hymns used for incantation, which is believed to be an ancient form of Sanskrit.
The merging of the two cultures (Aryan and Indu) gave rise to the oppressive hierarchical society we now know as the caste system.

Brahmins – Priests
Kshatria – Royal/ Military
Vaishya – Crafts people
Shudra – underclass

Richard George on the Upanishads - Hot Nude Yoga teacher for gay men Also with this came the literature known as the Vedas (secret knowledge). These were the Hymns and commentaries the Brahmins produced to explain the meaning of their ancient ceremonies and rites, which were passed down from generation to generation. (These hymns, which date back from around 1500 B.C. reveal a mystical bond between worshipper and environment.)

However the idea that Brahmin priests were the only bridge between God and humanity created a sense of alienation amongst the Indus, and a new wave of thought was born. A new philosophy was born known as Sramanical philosophy.

This was the belief that through knowledge (jnana yoga) it was possible for anyone to gain a relationship with God. This in turn gave birth to the idea of an alternative means of connecting to God through taking the practice personally inward (meditation), instead of through the act of rituals and sacrifice.

The Sramanas, or ‘strivers’, were mainly tolerated by the Brahmin, but some were exiled into the forests, where around them collected a following of dedicated students. This was the beginning of the Upanishads “sitting down near” at the feet of the illumined one!

These would probably have been the first ashrams, where students would gather with the teacher, removed from society, to live like a family, learning in question and answer sessions, discussing daily living. The Upanishads record these very first discussions, and can be seen in that most of the Upanishads are written in dialogue between guru and student. In turn, these recorded discussions gave birth to the idea of abstract thought, which revolutionised human thought and philosophy.

The Upanishads are not so much to instruct but more to inspire, and were written to be expanded on by teachers from their personal experiences.

Eknath Easwaran writes;

“ They record the inspired teachings of men and women for whom the transcendent Reality called God was more real than the world reported to them by their senses”.

The Upanishads

The teachings of the Rishis or ‘forest philosophers’ combined with their direct experiences of meditation provided the foundations for the practice of yoga as we know it today.

According to Indian tradition, there were once 1,180 Upanishads. Out of these two hundred made their proper appearance, and out of these, one hundred and eight Upanishads are now traceable.

Sri Chinmoy’s commentaries on the Upanishads he tells us:

“ If a real seeker, a genuine seeker, wants to get abundant light from the Upanishads, then he has to study the thirteen principle Upanishads. If he studies the principal Upanishads, and at the same time wants to live the Truth that these Upanishads embody, then he will be able to see the face of Divinity and the heart of Reality.”

Richard George on the Upanishads - Hot Nude Yoga teacher for gay men The main themes in the Upanishads

In my opinion the Upanishads offer to each individual, or aspiring heart countless messages. But most of these can be categorised into main themes or questions.

Who am I?

One of the greatest questions of the universe is “What makes me, me?” “What am I?” “Who am I?” “What is it that makes my body move?” “What makes my ears hear, my eyes see and my mind think?”

In order to try and make sense of the world we live in, we begin by trying to make sense of who we are.

The sages came to a conclusion that there was a part of the self that survived death, a consciousness within that created the world that we live in through its physical receptors. This they referred to as the inner self.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, there is much discussion over this inner self, and that this inner self resides in all things, human, animal, and within the whole universe itself.

“ Everything is loved not for its own sake, but because the Self lives in it. The Self has to be realised. Hear about the Self and meditate upon him, Maitreyi. When you hear about the Self, meditate upon the Self, and finally realise the Self, you come to understand everything in life.”

Within the Chandogya Upanishad, there is discussion that the self can be identified with different elements. In Chapter 4, the story of Satyakama and his journey to seek where he comes from. We can see from this that the Self can be identified with

• Water (associated with life as it can change states – liquid, solid, gas..)
• Breath (associated with life, but only a part of who we are.)
• Fire (associated with rituals, purity, and the transformation of elements)
• Knowledge (associated with immortality, permanence, detachment from physical body)

This knowledge provided them with the key to freedom, the opening to immortality and freedom from death. The knower himself could die, but the knowledge would always remain in existence.

This leads us into another theme of the Upanishads, that of the different states of consciousness. The different manifestations of the true Self, the Self beyond physical body, one of knowledge and consciousness.

This is beautifully approached in the Chandogya Upanishad, in Chapter VIII. Here the great teacher Prajapati is in conversation with two students Indra and Virochana. There is a wonderful description of how he asks them to see beyond the physical self to look beyond this to the inner Self. They are asked to meditate on their own reflections to see the Self, then to remove their clothes and adornment, and to see again, and then to dress in their finest adornment, and then to see again. They reply that they have seen the self, but Prajapati is not convinced that they have seen beyond the physical manifestation.

Indra later returns;

“…if the Self is well dressed when the body is well dressed, well adorned when the body is well adorned, then the Self will be blind when the body is blind, lame when the body is lame, paralyzed when the body is paralyzed. And when the body dies, the Self too will die. In such knowledge I see no value.”

Indra stays with Prajapati for many years where they discuss and learn that there are four states consciousness within the being;

• Normal waking state – Jagrita – Lowest form of existence, Left brain activity.
• Dreaming state – Svapna – Where the Self is not tied to logic or the physical constraints of the body.
• Dreamless state – Susupti – When the different states of the Self come together and the Koshas meet.
• Pure awareness – Turiya – The purest state of the Self, when one becomes conscious of consciousness itself, free from the restraints of the body.

“In that state free from attachment, they move at will, laughing, playing, and rejoicing. They know the Self is not the body, but only tied to it for a time as an ox is tied to a cart. Whenever one sees, smells, speaks, hears and thinks; the senses are but his instruments.”

Another theme in the Upanishads is the question of Birth and death, and that of reincarnation. It must be remembered at this time, the caste system and peoples questioning probably was greatly influence by their desire to break free from this cycle, or the desire to be reborn into a high caste in the next life time.

As with many of these themes they are difficult to explain without looking at the other themes of the Upanishads as a whole. As with any of the themes they must be seen as a whole within the context of the teachings of the Upanishads.

We have briefly looked at the belief that there contains within each human body, a part of us that lives on beyond death, we can now begin to look at why we continue to be reborn back to this reality of existence in the universe as we believe to know it, through these studies ultimately what they were seeking was the purpose of existence.

In the Amritabindu Upanishad, Verses 9 – 14

“….realising him, sages attain freedom, and declare there are no separate minds. They have but realised what they always are. Waking, sleeping, dreaming, the Self is one. Transcend these three and go beyond rebirth. There is only one Self in all creatures. The One appears many, just as the moon appears many, reflected in water. The Self appears to change its location but does not, just as the air in a jar changes not when the jar is moved about. When the jar is broken, the air knows not; but the Self knows well when the body is shed.”

The Upanishads discuss that there is a veil of illusion or ignorance (Maya) which keeps us from realising the higher Self. Because of this ignorance man is destined to remain in the cycle of rebirth known as Samsara. This is also more commonly known as reincarnation, the cycle of rebirth, life and death,

The endless cycles of Samsara must be transcended by the individual in order to free the mind to achieve liberation. (Moksha)

Linked to Samsara is the concept of Karma, the meaning of action, or the concept of cause and effect: the idea that our current situation in this life is the result of past actions in previous lifetimes. Again this is strongly linked to that of the caste system at the time, and the wish for the people to try and find a way to escape being born into a lower caste in the next life.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the king of Videha, Janaka, questions the sage, Yajnavalkya about this:

“When the sun sets, Yajnavalkya, and the moon sets, what is the light of man?

Fire is the light, for by that we sit, work, go out, and come back.

When the sun sets, Yajnavalkya, and the moon sets, and the fire goes out, what is the light of man?

Then speech is our light, for that by that wesit, work, go out, and come back. Even though we cannot see our own hand in the dark, we can hear what is said and move towards the person speaking.

When the sun sets, Yajnavalkya, and the moon sets, and the fire goes out and no one speaks, what is the light of man?

The Self indeed is the light of man, your majesty, for by that we sit, work, go out, and come back….

…. When the Self takes on a body, he seems to assume the body’s frailties and limitations; but when he sheds the body at the time of death, the Self leaves all these behind.”

In this translation by Eknath Easwaran, he beautifully describes in a subtle way that the light within us is determined by our actions and indeed our thoughts towards others and our lives. That although these may indeed be restricted by our given or chosen body, of this life, the Self that is beyond these restraints is still completely able to consciously be responsible for our actions or Karma.

Atman and Brahman.

One of the main themes running through the Upanishads, is that of Atman and Brahman.

We have so far spoke of the ‘Self’, the part of existence that lives on beyond the physical restrictions of the body. This is itself ‘Atman’.

This word itself is thought to derive from either the root at (to breathe) or the root ap (to pervade, or to reach up to). Atman is the transcendental Self, or the highest form of the Self. The Upanishads teach us that atman is the ultimate existence of the universe and the vital breath of human beings.

In the Brihadranyaka Upanishad, during the conversation between Yajnavalkya and his wife we come across the concept of a duality;

“As long as there is seperateness, one sees another as separate from oneself….but when the Self is realised as the indivisible unity of life, who can be seen by whom, who can be heard by whom, who can be smelled by whom, who can be spoken by whom, who can be thought by whom, who can be known by whom? Maitreyi, my beloved, how can the knower ever be the known?”

The notion that there is a greater Self that connects us all is throughout this discussion, and later suggests that in order to except the Self we must also except that we are in fact part of a greater Self. Throughout the Upanishads this universal Self is known as Brahman, the supreme Self. The way to experience Brahman is through atman, as atman is a part of Brahman or indeed the same?

The Isha Upanishad, although a shorter one, provides us with many relevant verses;

“The Self is one. Ever still, the Self is swifter than thought, swifter than the senses. Though motionless, he outruns all pursuit. Without the Self, never could life exist. The Self seems to move, but is ever still. He seems far away, but is ever near. He is within all, and he transcends all.”


The concept that we are all one, can sometimes seem a little overwhelming, but I always remember something I read once in Gary Renards book, The disappearance of the Universe. Within this book he tackles this issue and also questions the actual physical existence of this reality. He states the argument that if we close our eyes, then the universe as we know it ceases to exist, because in order for something to exist within our minds, it needs the receptors to process the information to our consciousness. Yet we also know that it will continue to exist through the senses of others. He later argues that if everyone in the entire Universe closes there eyes, that the universe would entirely disappear, as there would be no physical receptors to process the light and hence no vision. Although this concept in itself is a wonderful topic of debate, what I see here is very conclusive evidence, of a connection between human consciousness within the universe. That although the universe exists for us through our own experience, we also have a presumed knowledge that we all experience the same world, as there is a universal, or underlying force which connects us all.

In the chapter six of the Chandogya Upanishad, there is a wonderful dialogue between Uddalaka and his son Svetaketu. Uddalaka asks his son to add some salt to a glass of water and then to bring it to him in the morning. When morning rises, Uddalaka then asks his son to separate the salt from the water, but Svetaketu replies that the salt has disappeared. He then asks his son to take a sip from each side of the glass, when Svetaketu is amazed that the water tastes salty from wherever he sips.

“It is everywhere, though we see it not. Just so dear one, the Self is everywhere, within all things, although we see him not…. He is the truth; he is the Self supreme. You are that, Shvetaketu; you are that.”

As a complete lover of the water, and in particular the Ocean, I have found my self on numerous occasions resting beside the shores of the vast blue sea of wonders, with many questions racing through my mind. I remember my first encounter with the concept of Atman and Brahman and being fortunate to have the time in my life to go and ponder it by the shore. Within an hour of staring into the waters and being soothed by the soothing sounds of its waves, it all became clear. Just as the waves separate them selves from the ocean, just as the splashes of water become detached from the great vastness, so they still belong, and will always return.

We cannot look at the concept of Atman and Brahman and not look at one of the most well known of phrases of the Upanishads, again from the Chandogya Upanishad. In Chapter 6. 14.3;

“ There is nothing that does not come from him.
Of everything he is the inmost Self.
He is the truth; e is the Self supreme.
You are that, Shvetaketu, you are that.”

Om Tat Sat - Thou Art That, denotes that we are the Divine and that the only way for us to see this and remember his is to remember to look within ourselves as we and the Divine are one.

When studying the Upanishads and Indian spiritual philosophy, it is easy to forget the importance of our existence within this reality, this universe, this realm of experience. It is therefore important to acknowledge that our physical body and the world we live in serves us the purpose of being able to experience and consciously come to terms with these principles of existence itself. Although we seek to look beyond the physical to the mind, beyond the mind to the atman, and beyond atman to reconnect with Brahman, it is also wise to question that without the experience we have within this reality, would any of this be possible?

Sri Chinmoy, also reminds us that by living within this reality, we also become walking and living manifestations of Brahman. I personally believe that to know this is to smile, and to learn to not only see this, but also to experience this, is to truly exist.

“The Upanishads offer us three lessons. The first lesson is Brahman. The second lesson is atman. The third lesson is jagat. Brahman is God, atman is the soul and jagat is the world. When we meditate on Brahman, our life grows into immortalising Bliss. When we meditate on the soul, our life becomes a conscious and speedy evolution. When we do not neglect the world, our life becomes fulfilling manifestation.”

Sri Chinmoy, commentaries on The Upanishads.

Richard George on the Upanishads - Hot Nude Yoga teacher for gay men


Easwaran, Eknath (1987) The Upanishads, Nilgiri Press
Sri Chinmoy, (1996) The Three Branches of India’s Tree, Aum Publications
Olivelle, Patrick (1996) Upanisads, Oxford Uni Press
Renard, Gary (2003) The Disappearance of the Universe, Hay House
Sri Chinmoy (1994) The Upanishads, Aum Publications
Datta, Lowitz (2005) Sacred Sanskrit Words, Stone Bridge Press
Feuerstein, Georg (2002) The Yoga Tradition, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers
Reddy& Egenes (1999) All Love Flows to the Self, Samhita Productions