The Upanishads are a great body of Hindu philosophical texts that are part of what we call the Vedas, and was birthed at least 2,800 years ago. They’re a seemingly vast collection of spiritual offerings, with around 200 of them at our hands for the taking - or at our eyes for the reading, rather.
The lofty Upanishads found their way into the landscape of global human knowledge by way of Kashmir - that northern state in India - when the oldest son of the Mughal emperor (the emperor who built the Taj Mahal) overheard the pundits of Kashmir speaking and reciting the Upanishads.
The eldest son, who became deeply mesmerized by the literature, started an Upanishad translation council. Over the course of 17 years (1640 to 1657 C.E.), he arranged for 15 of the Upanishad texts to be translated from Sanskrit, the sacred language of India, into Persian, the courtly language of the Mughal emperor. The vast Mughal empire was the wealthiest place on the planet during this time period.
Philosopher Schopenhauer's Contributions
From Persian, the Upanishads were translated into Latin. From Latin, the Upanishads made their way to the great scholar, teacher and philosopher, Schopenhauer, who took up the Upanishads as his life’s greatest work. In fact, he once wrote that the reading of these texts had been the great consolation of his life and would also be the great consolation of his death.
Schopenhauer further expressed that the Upanishads were “the production of the highest human wisdom.” He influenced countless scholars and students over the years of his teachings and writings by deeply exploring this ancient text and then making it accessible for Europeans. From this great scholar we get all the insights into the correlation between the microcosm and the macrocosm that the Upanishads teach. It’s like when we look up at the great constellations of the stars at night, there’s something so vast but also so deeply intimate to our experience when we do.
Message #1: Connection
The primary message of the Upanishads urges us to dedicate ourselves in a way that we can always experience our best moments. They want us to be in a state of being where we feel – to the core of our beings – that place of connection between the small and the large. The Upanishads want us to understand and be in the place of connection between the breath and the cosmos. This is basically the main aim and goal of the Upanishads.
Message #2: Reflection
For mankind, the Upanishads might just be the first offering of systematic and reflective thought on the relationship between the “above” and the “below.” It’s the first offering for mankind that teaches us how to find the point of connection between the internal and the external. The more one delves into this great collection of texts, the more one will see all the grandiose questions that begin to arise. Such is the vast beauty of these ancient texts.
Message #3: Guidelines
For the most part, the Upanishads take their form in conversations between people. They take the form of dialogues between man and woman, husband and wife. Discussions between teachers and students arise, and conversations between kings and courtiers unfold. The discussions are all quite vast, wide and ranging in nature. They cover just about anything and everything in existence – what’s the point of language, how does grammar work, what constitutes the human body, what must we value above all else in order to find meaning – and the list goes on and on.
There are discussions regarding health and well-being, conversations about relationships, and even detailed teachings and instructions on how to meditate. (Read more about meditation and being more meditative here.) Most of all, guidelines are set forth for those pathways to connection on the microcosmic and macrocosmic level.
Message #4: Principles
The world of the Vedas conceptualizes the human body as correlative – as standing in correlation with the grandeur of all that is possible. This is the first principle – correlation. The second principle the Upanishads give us is a theory of hierarchy. It’s not a kind of hierarchy that has to do with status or superiority. It’s one that focuses on reciprocity between the above, the middle and the below.
For instance, it states that without the feet, the body cannot walk, and without the legs, the body cannot move about in the world. Without the breath, the body cannot breathe and would perish. Without its senses, and without its mind, the human being would have no access to that great point of connection that the Upanishads are trying to get us to. (Read more about the mind here.)
The Overall Message
The Upanishads are all about the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm. As the famous poet, William Blake, famously coined:
“To find a whole universe in a single grain of sand.”
This is the message of the Upanishads.