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Re: Upanishads

From: Mani Varadarajan (
Date: Wed Nov 01 2000 - 18:00:51 PST

Malolan Cadambi writes:
> I understand that there are 108 Upanishads in total ( I stand to be
> corrected in the number). Further more, I understand that there are
> 'later' questionable upanishads which are not reffered to by any of the
> schools of vedAnta.

Of the hundreds of texts today bearing the name 'upanishad', only a
handful are universally accepted by orthodox Vedantins.  The principal 
Upanishads can be roughly identified by analyzing their style and
investigating whether there are any references to them in early 
literature.  The Brahma-Sutras, the aphorisms whose purpose is to
codify the philosophy of the Upanishads, refer to nine or ten of these 
texts according to the earliest commentators.  We also have a 'muktaka'
(stray) sloka which refers to 10 of these Upanishads as being the 
most important. They are, in order of their mention:

  (1) ISa
  (2) kena
  (3) kaTha
  (4) praSna
  (5) muNDaka
  (6) mANdUkya
  (7) aitareya
  (8) taittirIya
  (9) bRhadAraNyaka
  (10) chAndogya

Of these ten, together known as 'daSopanishad', the mANDUkya receives no mention 
in the Brahma-Sutras.

Sri Adi Sankaracharya commented on these ten and no other.  
A commentary on the SvetASvatara upanishad is sometimes attributed 
to him, but quite clearly it is a work by a later, inferior writer.

In addition to these ten, a few others are referred to by the early
commentators and are considered ancient and consequently are accepted by 
all Vedantins. They are:

  (11) SvetASvatara
  (12) kauSItaki 
  (13) maitrAyaNIya or maitrI

Only two sections of the taittirIya are commented upon by Sri Sankaracharya,
but he and his school also refer to the third section.  This section 
contains many mantras used primarily for ritual, so it is known as 'yAjnikI',
pertaining to the yajna.  There are also many philosophical portions, including
the famed 'nArAyaNa sUkta', the jnAna-yajna, and the second anuvAka of the 
purusha-sUkta. Consequently, this section, also known as the mahAnArAyaNa 
upanishad, is also of significance, and is sometimes reckoned a separate 
upanishad by itself:

  (14) mahAnArAyaNa

There is also the subAla upanishad, which, while not directly referred
to by Sri Sankaracharya, is hinted at in his commentary on the brhadAraNyaka
upanishad (maitreyi brAhmaNa) and which is mentioned by his immediate
disciple Suresvara.  The subAla is of fundamental importance to Sri Ramanuja
so we also include it here:

  (15) subAla

While the ancient commentators may mention a few other Upanishads here
and there, by and large, the 15 above are the fundamental ones and are
acknowledged as being the true sourcebooks of Vedanta.

In later days, many other texts were written and given the title 
of Upanishad, either to enhance their stature or as a sign of respect. 
For example, even the Bhagavad Gita is known as 'gitopanishad', though 
it is not part of the Veda. With time, the original intention was 
forgotten and any such text began being considered by their respective
votaries as a real, honest-to-god Upanishad.  So, we have texts such as
'rAma-tApanIya-upanishad', 'kali-santaraNa-upanishad', etc., which,
while not devoid of value, are essentially later, sectarian religious 
documents which can hardly compare to the philosophical depth of the
principal 14 or 15.  [ In much later times, an 'allopanishad' was written,
  presumably to honor Allah, the Muslim name for God, and in recent
  times people refer to a 'rAmakrishnopanishad' and 'tyagopanishad',
  referring to Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Tyagaraja respectively. ]

Many of these later upanishads are authoritative in their own way.
For example, there are a class of upanishads that deal of the rites
involving renunication or sannyAsa.  These are mentioned when dealing
with the roles and rituals of a sannyAsi, but are ignored in most
philosophical discourse, particularly between schools of Vedanta.
Similarly, there are many Upanishads which deal with the yogic
process, known as the 'yoga upanishads'.  These are fascinating 
to study the ideas behind yoga and their development, but simply
cannot be held up as authoritative texts establishing the philosophy
of the Vedanta.

Sri Malolan refers above to the number 108.  This comes from the muktika upanishad, 
itself a late text, wherein it is said that a study of the 108 upanishads leads to 

It is probably appropriate to mention here that Sri Ramanuja, Sri Sankara,
and their respective followers carefully stick to these 15 texts when
debating and expounding Vedanta.  Other ancient Vedantins such as Bhaskara
also do the same. The notable exception is Sri Madhvacharya, who tends
to go his own way, citing many non-traditional, lost, or unknown texts in
the course of his commentaries. Sri Madhva's approach to the Brahma-Sutras
is similarly novel and is quite different from the rest of the Vedantic

Incidentally, the most often cited text in the commentaries of the
early acharyas is not the taittirIya, but probably the bRhadAraNyaka upanishad,
from which we get such magnificent vAkyas such as 'aham brahmAsmi' (I am Brahman),
'AtmA are draStavyaH Srotavyo mantavyo nididhyAsitavyaH' (The Self should be
seen -- heard, reflected upon, and meditated upon), 'neti neti' ([Brahman] is
not just so much, not just so much), etc. This is closely followed by
the chAndogya, which houses the equally famous vAkyas 'tat tvam asi' (you
are that) and 'sarvam khalv idam brahma' (all this is indeed Brahman).

aDiyEn rAmAnuja dAsan

           - SrImate rAmAnujAya namaH -
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