ETYMOLOGY AND HISTORY OF THE UPANISHHADS

JaneSmith105

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The word upanishhad is said to have been derived from the roots upa (near) and sad (to sit)." Groups of pupils sit near the teacher to learn from him the secret doctrine " [Radhakrishnan]. My own interpretation is slightly different: in my opinion, the knowledge was not intended to be secret (although later on such overtones did arise); it was intended to be imparted to a select few who had the intellectual and spiritual maturity to understand it. As Plato said, " To find the Father and the Maker of this universe is a hard task; and when you have found him, it is impossible to speak of him before all people " [Timaeus]. This was why the seers adopted a certain reticence in communicating the Truth. According to the upanishhads, this Truth must be communicated to only the tested few (" guhyaadeshaH " [C.U. III. 52.], " paramam guhyam " [KaTha I.3.17], "vedaante; paramam guhyam" [S.U. VI. 22]). The word guhya can be translated to mean either hidden or secret, and this is probably why the word upanishhad was interpreted as secret knowledge. Considering the exceptional courage of thought exhibited in the upanishhads, this interpretation is not justifiable. The word hidden would be much more appropriate, because the Truth is not easy to understand: therefore the seeker must be evaluated for intellectual, moral and spiritual courage and sincerity before imparting this knowledge to him/her. This view finds further corroboration in Shankaraachaarya's Brahma Suutra Bhaashya (cf. gloss on the word atha (now) in the very first suutra athaato brahma jiGYaasaa).
Shankaraachaarya derives it as a substantive from the root sad, loosen, to reach, to destroy with upa and ni as prefixes and the kvip as termination (" upanishhannam vá asyam param shreya iti " [Gloss on T.U]). The word upanishhad then means the knowledge by which ignorance is loosened or destroyed.

There is thus "a core of certainty that is essentially incommunicable except by a way of life" [Radhakrishnan]. Therefore only personal effort can enable one to realize the Truth.

The date of origin of upanishhads is generally accepted to be between 800 B.C. and 300 B.C., what Karl Jasper calls the Axial era. It is perhaps much earlier, circa 4000 B.C., according to researchers who refute the Aryan Invasion Theory . Chronologically, they are earlier than puraaNas.

Almost all the early literature was anonymous. Consequently, we do not know the names of the authors of upanishhads. Some of the chief doctrines of the upanishhads are, however, associated with such renowned sages as AaruNi, YaaGYaavalkya, Baalaaki, Shvetaketu and Saandilya.They were, perhaps, the early exponents of the doctrines attributed to them. Much of the vedic literature is said to be apaurushheya, meaning impersonal. A common interpretation of this word is that they were revealed. This appears to be rather naive, because purushha is a word of reference to God, suggesting that the origin must not be traced to God. There is enough evidence to suppport this conclusion in the Vedas and associated literature. In Satapatha BraahmaNa, there is a verse which says that the Vedas were dug out of the mind-ocean with the shovel of speech [iii; 39, 1]. This appears to be merely a poetic way of saying that they were the product of human intellect. Also, the anukramaaNi or explanatory contents of several hymns in the vedas contain the composer's names. For instance, in the R^ig Veda there are statements like the following: " I have created this hymn for thee, O powerful, as a skilful workman fashions a chariot" [V; 2, 11] " Vrhadukta, the maker of hymns, has thus uttered this hymn to Indra " [X; 54, 6] " Nodhas, descendent of Gothama, fashioned this new hymn to Indra " [I; 62, 13]. The Shvetaashvatara upanishhad says that Shvetaashvatara saw the Truth owing to the power of his contemplation (tapah-prabhaava) and refers to his knowledge as deva prasaada. The word deva means `the shining one'. At that time it did not mean God.

It can thus be reliably established that the upanishhads were indeed composed by human beings, although we do not as yet know who the authors were.
 
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