After the Vedas, the Vedanta.  After the Vedic symphony, the Upanishadic epiphany.  The Upanishad is like a splendour of light which burst upon the world at the dawns of Indian civilization.  It is as if a being of Light who hid himself behind symbolic masks during the earlier Vedic period, throwing the mask from his face and revealing his body of light.  While the true meaning of the Vedic samhithas was discerned only by a few, the Upanishad was recognised by many spiritual seekers and thinkers from East as well as the West, from the ancient period to the modern age, as a source of highest spiritual knowledge and as one of the greatest spiritual classics of the world.  This article examines the evolutionary transition from Vedas to Upanishad in a psychological perspective.

Key Perspectives

On The Upanishad; Psychological Transition; Upanishadic Epiphany

On The Upanishad

Some of the greatest minds of the modern west like Emerson and Schoephenour have paid glowing tributes to this Indian scripture.  If we put together all the tributes lavished on this scripture by the many thinkers, seer, saints and sages of the East and West, ancient and modern, it may perhaps run to hundreds of pages.  We give here below a few such tributes betowed on the Upanishad by some of the great minds of the modern age.

One can hew material for a hundred philosophies out of the Upanishad as if from some bottomless Titan’s quarry and yet no more exhaust it than one can exhaust the opulent bosom of our mother Earth or the riches of our father Ether.

-Sri Aurobindo

Apart from all its merits as the greatest philosophy, as showing the path of salvation to mankind, the upanishadic literature is the most wonderful painting of sublimity that the world has.

-Swami Vivekananda

 In fact, whatsoever is of eternal value has been so well told in the Upanishad that sometimes I wonder if it is at all possible to add anything to them which is not already there.  Can Upanishads be refined any further? Can they be improved upon¾I doubt it, it seems very difficult to make any improvement.  It is doubtful that it can be done, there seems to be no way.


In the whole world—there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishad.  It has been the solace of my life ¾It will be the solace of my death.


 Here— are the oldest extant philosophy and psychology of our race; surprisingly subtle and patient effort of man to understand the mind and the world and their relations.

-Will Durant

The Psychological Transition

The first and the earliest self-expression of the Vedic spirit in its progressive evolution is the Upanishad.  The Vedas are the creation of the spiritual mind expressing directly through the sensational mentality of the physical being of man.  For, in the Vedic age the intellectual-rational mind was not well-developed.  When the intellectual mind started developing the spirituals consciousness which inspired the Vedas expressed itself though this newly developed faculty.  The Upanishad is the expression of the vedic spirit through the intellectual and thinking mind in the form of a compact, luminous and intuitive thought.  In this process the thinking mind of the community opened itself to the influence of the spiritual consciousness and this influence remained as one of the firmly implanted features of the Indian civilisation and culture.

Most of the western and Indian scholars viewed the Upanished as some sort of a radical and revolutionary departure from the Vedic spirit.  But as we have discussed in our earlier chapters, there is no such revolt or radical  shift  in the spirit but only a shift in the faculty and form of expression.  These scholars, unable to penetrate behind the mystic symbolism of the vedic sages, mistook the luminous intellectual clarity of expression in the upanishad as a sign  of spiritual superiority.  They tend to forget the fact that upanishadic sages held the vedic revelation in highest respect and frequently quoted the vedas as the highest authority for supporting their own intuitions.

So there is no radical change in the spirit of the Vedas and the spirit of the upanishads.  In fact there is a smooth and gradual evolutionary continuity, some of the earliest upanishads like Brihadaranyaka using the same vedic symbols.  The essential experiences, the central spiritual intuitions and the seed-ideas of the Vedas are nowhere denied in the Upanishads but only reexperienced, rediscovered, clarified, developed and reexpressed in a different  form and through a different mentality.

In the Upansihadic age, the spiritual consciousness descends into the newly developing intellectual faculty of the mind, so that the spiritual possibility or influence may be fixed and generalsied in the thinking mind of the race.  The spiritual minds of the age, in making use of this faculty to express their intuitions and experiences, create the possibility for this part of the human consciousness to open itself to the Spirit.  Thus the Upanishadic spirituality represents the taking up of the intellectual mind by the spirit and creating in it the capacity to receive and express the spiritual truth.  This gave birth to a new type of spiritual man: the seer-poet of the Vedas is replaced by the sage-philosopher.

Thus in the Upanishadic movement the vedic spirit rediscovers itself in a new form and temperament.  There is a change in the temperament and form of expression in the transition from the vedic to the upanishadic literature.  The first noticeable change is from the intuitive and symbolic mentality to a more reflective and conceptual, not in the original inspiration which remains very much intuitive, but in the outer expression.  The symbols are replaced by concepts like Brahman, Atman, Purusha and Prakrithi.  They are not exactly abstract intellectual concepts created by the speculative mind.  They are what we may call as intuitive or experiential concepts.  They may be abstract to most of us who don’t have the inner realsiation behind the concept, but not to the sages who gave birth to these concepts from the depth of their inner experience.  But the main difference here is that while the Vedic seers expressed their inner experiences through concrete symbols of the outer world like Sun, Dawn and the Horse, Upanishadic sages expressed their inner experiences in philosophical concepts like Atman and Brahman.

In the Upanishads, the vedic intuitions are perceived with a greater mental clarity and a clear distinction between the various aspects of the Divine.  In the Veda  the One God and the many gods are fused in a complex, mutually inclusive unity.  But in the Upanishad, the One Reality disengages from the many gods and perceived as something beyond and superior to the gods.  This intuition of the transcendent Oneness of Brahman becomes the dominant note of the Upanishad and the central object of contemplation of the Upanishadic seeker and the sage.  The multiplicity of gods of the Vedas are more and more subordinated to the indivisible Oneness of Brahman and at a certain stage disappear in the white Light of the One.

The second major change in the upanishadic synthesis is the note of impersonality.  As the thinking mind develops it tends more and more towards universal and impersonal principles.  This change of temperament which manifests as a result of the increasing development of the thinking mind has perhaps a corresponding influence in the character of the inner perceptions, intuitions and experiences of the upanishadic sage and the thinker.  The warm note of personal devotion and intimacy with the gods is no longer there in the Upanishad.  The intuition of the upanishadic thinker and the sage tends more towards the impersonal cosmic principle behind the gods rather than the outer personal form of the god.  For example the vedic god Vayu becomes the universal principle of life-force, prana, in the upanishad.  As Swami Vivekanada sums up this aspect of the upanishadic thought:

“In almost all of the upansihads we find the climax coming at the last, and that is the dethroning of this God of the universe.  The personality of God vanishes, the impersonality comes.  God is no more a person, no more a human being, however magnified and exalted who rules the universe.  He has become an embodied principle in every being, immanent in the whole universe.  The person is only a phenomenon, the principle is behind.  Thus from both sides, simultaneously breaking down of personalities and the approach towards principles, the personal God approaching the Impersonal,(God) the personal man approaching the Impersonal Man.”

The Upanishadic Epiphany

 We present here a brief summary of the upanishadic revelation in the inspired words of the upanishadic sages.

One Eternal of all those that pass and are not, One Consciousness in all consciousness—–

-Svteshwatara Upanishad

 It is He that has gone abroad-that which is bright, bodiless, without scar of imperfection without sinews, pure, unpierced by evil.  The Seer, Thinker, the One who becomes everywhere, the Self-existent has ordered objects perfectly according to their nature from years sempiternal

-Isha Upanishad

Thou art woman and Thou art man also.  Thou art the boy or else Thou art the young virgin, and Thou art yonder worn and aged man that walketh bending upon a staff.  Lo Thou become all and the universe grows full of Thy faces.  Thou art the blue bird and the green and the scarlet eyed.  Thou art the womb of Lightning and the Seasons and the Oceans.  Spirit without beginning, because Thou has poured Thysel manifoldely into all forms, therefore the worlds have being”.

-Svteshwatara Upanishad

 He is other than Time and From and the Tree of Cosmos and He is greater than they.  From Whom this world of phenomenon becometh and revolveth.  Know Ye the Master of Grace who bringeth virtue and driveth away sin.  He dwelleth in the Spirit of Man, the Immortal, in whom all things have their home and dwelling place.

-Svteshwatara Upanishad

 All this is Brahman immortal, naught else.  Braham is in front of us, Brahman behind us and to the south of us and to the north of us and below us and above us; it streches everywhere.  All this is Brahman alone, this magnificient universe.

-Mundaka Upanishad

 The Unseen, incommunicable, unseizable, featureless, unthinkable, undesignable by Name, self-evident in its one selfhood—-that is the Self, this is That which has to be known.

-Mandukya Upanishad

Thou art That, O Svetaketu

-Chandogya Upanishad

 The Spirit who is here in man and the Spirit who is there in the Sun, lo, it is One Spirit and there is no other.

-Taittria Upanishad

But he who sees everywhere the Self in all existences and all existence in the Self, shrinks not therefore from aught.

-Ishvasya Upanishad

The passages given above are not exhaustive but expresses the central intuitions of the upanishadic seers.

–M.S. Srinivasan

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