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The Early Upanishads

The earliest Indian philosophical texts, and indeed the earliest known non-mythological works of philosophy, are the Upanishads, a corpus of magnificent spiritual-mystic-yogic treatises written from about the eighth century before Christ onward.  The word Upanishad itself means literally "to sit down near"; i.e. to sit at the feet of the Master.  The Upanishads are often also called "Vedanta" meaning the end or cul-mination of the Vedas (poetic hymns compiled by the Aryan invaders who conquered India in the second millennium).  But although ostensibly philosophical commentaries on the Vedic sacred texts, in their yogic experiential em-phasis the Upanishads bear practically no relation to those earlier, ritualistic and mythological, scriptures.  Rather, they constitute independent philosophical speculation and mystical experience, and are among the great classics of human spirituality

The topic of most of the early Upanishads is the identity of the individual self or Atman with the Cosmic Absolute, Brahman.  These and other philosophical concepts are presented in a rather unsystemmatic form, due to the fact that these Sages had not yet  broken completely free of the earlier Vedic mythic thinking, and so had not yet achieved the system-matic clarity of thought that characterises later philosophical speculation.  Yet even so we have here the first definite expression of true Monism

This Monism began with the Great or Revealed Sayings (Mahavakya, Shruti Vakya) of the early and middle Upanishads (8th to 3rd Century B.C.E.):

 [cited in D.B.Gangolli, The Magic Jewel of Intuition, p.14 (Adhyatma Prakasha Karyalaya, Holenarasipur, 1986]
and of course the renowned "That thou art" (tat tvam asi) of the Chandogya Upanishad; perhaps one of the most inspiring pieces of mystical prose ever written:
 "That which is the subtle essence this whole world has for its self.  That is the true.  That is the self (atma).  That art thou, Shwetaketu."
[Chandogya Upanishad, VI.8.7; translated by S. Radhakrishnan, The Principle Upanishads, p.458 (George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London, 1953)

It was only much later, with the development of the non-dual Vedantic philosophy, that this Monism was expressed in a proper systematic form

Yet already at this early stage we find the tension between the two primary mystical-metaphysical paradigms, that is, between Monism and Emanationism; or perhaps more precisely (in view of the all-pervading presence of some form of Monism in all early Indian philosophy) between strict Monism and emanationist Monism.


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internal link Early Upanishadic Emanationism: The Chandogya Upanishad

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content by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 30 June 1999