The Great Upanishads
Oriental Department, January, 1894
“From every page of the Upanishads, deep, original, lofty thoughts step forth to meet us while a high and holy earnestness breathes over all. This is the richest and loftiest study possible in the world it has been the comfort of my life, and will be the comfort of my death.”—Schopenhauer.
All that Narada and the Seven Sages knew is contained in the twelve Great Upanishads. They are the Vedanta— Veda-end—as being the crown and end of Vedic wisdom and as ending the Vedas in their collected form.
Indian tradition tells us that Vyasa, the Arranger, compiled the four Vedas—Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, Atharva Veda—in the days of the Mahabharata War between the Pandu and Kuru princes, five thousand years ago.
Vyasa, or Indian tradition before him, linked the great Upanishads to one or other collection of Vedic hymns; thus the Aitareya Upanishad is joined to the Rig Veda; Katha Upanishad to the Yajur Veda; Kena Upanishad to the Sama Veda; Mundaka Upanishad to the Atharva Veda.
How much older than Vyasa’s days, five milleniums back, is the wisdom of the Upanishads? “Thus have we heard from those of old who taught us”, the Upanishads tell us, and nothing more.
We can only say Brahmins but Kshttriyas; not priests but king the mighty Râjanya race. But it would perhaps be truest to say that the wisdom of the Upanishads is as old as the divinity of man; as old as Brahmâ, ‘former of all, and guardian of the world’.
We shall translate these twelve great Upanishads one by one,1 in the spirit of Indian thought and Indian earnestness; adding such commentary as comparison may suggest, such light as study and thought can give.
In the words of Anquetil Duperron, the first European who read the Upanishads:
“Here, reader, is the key of India’s sanctuary, somewhat rough with rust. Enter, if thou darest, if thou canst, with pure and clean heart, drawing near to the highest being, and merging in it. Let the outer senses rest; awaken the inner. Let thy body be as dead, and sunk in the ocean of wisdom and unwisdom. Know it—after Indian custom—as a divine law, that thou seest nothing but the Eternal; that nothing is, but the Eternal.”
1. This is in reference to Johnston’s work on behalf of the Oriental Department of the Theosophical Society, in which he translated several Upanishads (though did not complete the twelve hoped for) and numerous other Eastern texts. Johnston later completed full translations of the 10 Principle (Mukhya) Upanishads. [ED.]