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The word Upanishad literally means to sit near, and this invokes the image of devotees or aspirants sitting at the feet of a master. Whether that master is a yogi, Zen master or Christian mystic, the transmitted teachings can be called a Upanishad. In fact, Juan Mascaro comments that the Sermon on the Mount, with the disciples at the feet of Jesus, can be considered a Upanishad.
The Upanishads which concern us in this context are of course the writings that sealed the close of the Vedic period, a great collection of spiritual texts which are the distillation of hundreds of years of oral teachings, which, until their committal to writing, were the secret preserve of the initiated. The Upanishads contain the highest wisdom, revealed to illumined sages in the depth of meditation. As such, one should not describe them as philosophy as we understand it. The Upanishads emphasise the importance of meditation and other yoga practices, so that their wisdom becomes clear as our hearts and minds become less opaque; we then realise for ourselves a wisdom that we feel in the marrow of our bones, and which remains constant and unshaken by the dry polemic of philosophical argument. The Chandogya Upanishad states that meditation is higher than thought".
The Upanishads were written at different times, over a time span of at least a thousand years; however they are very much associated with the period around the fifth and sixth century before the birth of Christ. Bede Griffiths describes this as the axial period in human history, a key period of spiritual discovery, which saw the birth of the Buddha, the composition of the Bhagavad Gita, the formulation by Greek philosophers of the concept of the Logos, and the revelations of the Hebrew prophets. It was a period when the Eternal plunged into the temporal, and, according to Bede Griffiths,
"practically all religion today stems from this great experience".
One hundred and eight Upanishads have been preserved, like beads in a cosmic mala; of these, ten are of particular importance, and have come to be known as the Principal Upanishads. They are the quintessence of the mysterious Sramanic stream, incorporated into the Hindu religion, and appended to the end of the Vedas as "Vedanta". However, they are the spiritual inheritance of every age and universal in their message. Each Upanishad contains priceless wisdom, and are the very pith of Yoga, indispensable to anyone who would tread that path or aspire to teach it. If you seek to know the nature of Prana, go to the Prasna Upanishad; or if you would learn of the Spirit Supreme, go to the Kena panishad. If you wish to learn the doctrine of the sacred mantra Om, seek out the Mandukya Upanishad. And of course, there is the Chandogya Upanishad, where the young Brahmin, filled with learning, is taught that knowledge whereby what is not thought is thought", at the breaking of the seed of the Banyan tree.
Peering into its essence and seeing nothing, he is told by his father "believe me, my son, an invisible and subtle essence is the Spirit of the whole universe. That is reality. that is Atman. Thou art That".
The Upanishads are rendered in beautiful poetry, and wisdom is taught by sages, by the elements, by birds and animals, by father to son, and sage to king. We enter the timeless world of the "forest academies" where seekers sought out bramha-vidya, the "science of the Supreme". Eknath Easwaran describes them as ecstatic snapshots of supreme reality", and adds that unlike other great scriptures that look outward in reverence and awe, "the Upanishads look inward, finding the powers of nature only an expression of the more awe-inspiring powers of human Consciousness."
Reproduced with kind permission from the Yoga Therapy and Training Centre's Newsletter. The YTTC is Northern Ireland's foremost yoga therapy training centre.