This is a short tour of the Upanishads conducted by a London professor of Comparative Religions. He translates the Sanskrit atman, as Soul, while a more common term would be Self, referring more to the authentic “higher” self as distinguished from the ego-self. In some dialogues it is revealed that the human soul and the cosmic Soul are fundamentally identical. Most scholars date the earliest Upanishads to around 600 B.C. though some Indian scholars date them much earlier. However, some were no doubt added much later. The Upanishads are considered the earliest Indian philosophical writings as the older Vedas dealt mostly with ritual and hymns. The Vedas, however, did seem to contain the seeds of many ideas that flowered in the Upanishads. The metaphysics of the Upanishads form the foundation of both Buddhism and Hinduism.
The translator notes that the Upanishads can be difficult to understand at times and so also difficult to translate. Easily followed narratives offset the cryptic passages. He also thinks it may be possible that some ideas in the Upanishads may have come from other groups than Vedic Aryans, such as the transmigration of souls, even though many of the sages are of the Brahmin class and some from the king and warrior classes. In actuality, the forest-dwellers likely belonged to mixed societies.
Most of the sages are from the Brahmin and warrior classes so that Brahminic customs are part of the narratives, such as offering the teacher sticks as fuel for his sacrificial fire before knowledge is imparted. In that sense, there is reciprocity, so that knowledge may flow from teacher to student as generosity flows from student to teacher. Making ceremonial offerings to teachers is still very common in eastern traditions. The author notes that some Upanishad teachers seemed monotheistic, in that they portray attributes of the Supreme Being. However, the Upanishads are more in line with intuition about the nature of things than any dogma. The spirit of inquiry and contemplation is apparent.
Another subject is the power of the mantra Om. The forest ascetics also practiced yoga and development of psychic powers. Indeed, a part-legendary visionary class, as the rishis, or seers, with god-like powers, was present from the beginning as the originators of the Vedic hymns, which were said to be “revealed” teachings (shruti).
One of the most prominent sages in the Upanishads is Yajnya-Valkya. He has sometimes been called the Indian Plato. Another sage is Uddalaka, and also his son, Shveta-ketu, and another son of Uddalaka, Nachiketas. Another sage is Pippalada. There were also female sages and Gargyi, daughter of Vachaknu.
Another revealer in the Upanishads is the ‘Lord of Creatures’. In one odd passage three children ask the Lord of Creatures to speak to them. He utters three syllables: “Da, Da, Da” which they understand to mean: “restrain yourselves, give, be compassionate.”
The sacred mantra OM is a subject of several Upanishads. It is said to hold all speech together and to be equivalent to the whole universe. Going progressively deeper it is said to be sound, breath, food, water, and heaven. The essence and support of this world is said to be Space. From Space we come and to Space we go. Sage Ushasti says: “… all things come into life with Breath and leave it with Breath.” Identification of the individual soul with the cosmic Being was taught by sage Shandilya.