We often wonder what exactly is the meaning of the word Upanisad and why is it referred in plural as Upanisads. Is it a word representing knowledge or is it just a series of texts? Who is qualified to learn these and who is qualified to teach?
This brief one pager gives a lovely overview of the meaning of UPANISHADS. Its a response by Pujya Swami Dayananda to a useful question raised by a seeker. Pujya Swamiji explains so clearly in his lucid style and puts all doubts to rest in such a short explanation, its his amazing Divine ability.
Question: Swamiji, please discuss the meaning of the word Upaniṣad.
The word Upaniṣad is the name of a given subject matter, self-knowledge, just as the words geography and biology are names denoting particular subject matters. Thus, the meaning of the word Upaniṣad is self-knowledge.
The word itself is made up of two prefixes upa and ni, and a word, sat or sad, from the root sad. This root has a three-fold meaning: wearing out (visaraṇam); putting an end to (avasādanam); and reaching or knowing (gamanam). The word sat is the agent of the action indicated by its root and, therefore, means that which wears out, puts an end to, and makes you reach or know.
Since the root sad has these three meanings, we need to see whether all three are applicable here or only one or two. We find that all three apply, as evidenced by the word “sat” itself and the two prefixes upa and ni.
The prefix ni means definiteness, that which is well ascertained. Therefore, knowledge is called ni. The prefix upa means that which is the nearest. The nearest is oneself, “I,” ātmā, and about this “I” there is confusion. What I have to know to remove this confusion is not away from myself. Because it is not other than myself, the word “nearest” is used for want of a better word. The two prefixes together, then, upa-ni mean the definite knowledge of oneself.
This knowledge wears out one’s sorrows, meaning that it disintegrates them. They just fizzle out and they do not return, either in this life or any other. Self-knowledge removes them for good. This is because the root cause for sorrow is ignorance about oneself. Self-knowledge removes the cause for sorrow so thoroughly that it puts an end to the product as well. Just as a tree cut down will not grow up again once its roots have been completely destroyed, sorrow will not recur once its cause, self-ignorance, has been removed by self-knowledge.
Ignorance of the fact that the self (ātmā) is the whole (Brahman), is the cause of all sorrow and this ignorance goes in the wake of knowledge. How does this happen? The knowledge of oneself enables one to recognize the fact of one being Brahma (Brahma gamayati). This recognition is the very knowledge itself.
Self-knowledge, then, is the subject matter called Upaniṣad, found in the last portion of the Vedas. The word Vedanta indicates the location of the subject matter, anta meaning end. Thus Vedanta is Upaniṣad. The word Upaniṣad itself reveals the desirability of pursuing this knowledge because its result is the end of sorrow. Self-knowledge is something that can be gained – and to do so requires a means of knowledge (pramāṇa). This means of knowledge is Vedanta, the end portion of the Vedas, whose subject matter is Upaniṣad, self-knowledge.
The subject matter itself becomes the name of the Vedanta textbooks – the Upaniṣads. The plural is used because there are four Vedas and, therefore, four antas or endings. Collectively, they are referred to as Upaniṣad, but, with reference to the subject matter, there is only one. There is no plural; there is only Upaniṣad.
The Upaniṣads are in the form of various dialogues and each dialogue is called Upaniṣad, the subject matter being the same. Because the subject matter is the same, each book is also called Upaniṣad, after its subject matter, just as a book about American history bears the title “American History.” Here, too, a book about self-knowledge is called Self-knowledge, the meaning of Upaniṣad.
Because there are many teacher-student dialogues, there are many Upaniṣads. To distinguish one from the other, a qualifying word precedes the word Upaniṣad in each title. Thus we have Īśopaniṣad, Kenopaniṣad, Praśnopaniṣad, Kaṭhopaniṣad, Muṇḍakopaniṣad, Māṇḍūkyopaniṣad, Taittiriyopaniṣad, Aiterayopaniṣad, Chāndogyopaniṣad, and Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad, among others. The first words of Īśopaniṣad and Kenopaniṣad, Īśa and Kena respectively, appear in the titles solely to distinguish these two dialogues from the others. Similarly, all the other Upaniṣads have qualifying words that have no other meaning than to identify a particular dialogue.
Modern academicians have identified the ten Upaniṣads cited above as major Upaniṣads only because Śaṅkara wrote commentaries on them. Because the subject matter is the same, commentaries are not required for the others. Śaṅkara thought that the study of these ten alone would enable the student to understand the subject matter. Therefore, these ten became known as major Upaniṣads and the rest are referred to as minor.
The words major and minor are in no way intended to reflect on the quality of the Upaniṣads themselves, but merely serve to indicate whether Śaṅkara wrote commentaries on them or not. Although not included in the list of ten, Śaṅkara did quote from several other Upaniṣads, such as Paramahamsopanisad, Kausītakyupanisad, Svetaśvataropanisad, and Kaivalyopanisad.
The Upaniṣads, then, are the source books of this knowledge and they are commented upon by the teacher.