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Upanishads are that section of Vedas, which reveal its philosophy. They represent the culmination of Vedic thought and are thus also called Vedanta. They are mostly in question and answer form. There are many such discussions and therefore many Upanishads. They are all indeed a treat to read, they transport the reader to a different dimension all together. They are highly inspiring. All Upanishads expound & reveal the one non-dual reality. As the reality is one therefore the essence of everyone & everything is that one reality alone. The Atman is thus revealed as the Brahman. The real essence of all finite things & beings is the infinite, transcendental, imperishable and blissful reality. Discovering yourself as that one non-dual reality of this cosmos is the highest possible state which can be ever imagined. Upanishads reveal that Brahman has a divine, incomprehensible power called Maya. Wielding this power the Lord projects fields of experiences just as the mind projects the dream world. Whatever is created by Maya is seen but is not really there, just as the mirage-water. Not knowing this fact a person takes all this ephemeral objective world as real and thus not only starts taking him or herself as this objectifiable body-mind complex but also starts seeking fulfillment in this perceptible world. This seeking of permanence in the impermanent world is called samsara, an endless trip. Ending of samsara is possible only by knowing the Self as Self and the non-self as non-self. The moment this knowledge dawns all seeking ends, and one awakes to a state of total fulfillment. Knowledge alone redeems thunder the Upanishads, while karma and devotion facilitate bringing about of the right state of mind to get knowledge. These Upanishads should never be studied by oneself but only through a competent teacher, who is Srotriya & Brahma-nishtha, i.e. one who has awakened to the state of total contentment within and also is aware of the methodology of Upanishads properly. He alone can rightly interpret what each word and line means and still more important as to what is the implication between the lines.
Upanishads are Pramana for knowing the Self. Pramana means that which is the means of knowledge. Upanishads are unanimously accepted by all the different sects of Hinduism as the 'means of knowledge' for the knowledge of Self, just as direct perception is the means of knowledge to know the forms & colors of the things outside. Having known color etc. of an object directly with our own eyes we never require any other means to substantiate this knowledge. That is what is meant by pramana. The Self which is the very knower behind all knowledge is not available to be known by any other means of knowledge. It is not an object of perception and therefore Pratyaksha Pramana (Direct Perception) is not applicable and so also any other pramana which depend on direct perception in some way or the other. Upanishads are sabda-pramana and are independently capable of revealing the Self when expounded by a competent teacher to a competent student. One should do the sravana of Upanishads, which means that the real vision & message of Upanishads should be discerned with the help of a teacher. Unlike the Karma-kanda of Vedas the Upanishads do not have any do's or don'ts, they are just revelatory in nature. They reveal the truth, which is an end in itself. Being pramana they are looked upon as definite as the principles of science. There is nothing more higher than the Upanishadic reference on something. This is taken with greatest reverence.
The word Upanishad is formed from the root 'sad' with prefixes upa and ni. There are three meanings of the root, to loosen, to lead somewhere and to destroy. Upanishad represents that knowledge which loosens something pertaining to the self (something very near), it loosens our various misapprehensions regarding ourselves, and finally it leads us to the direct knowledge of the truth of ourself. Basically Upanishad means knowledge and not a class of literature or text. The word is used for texts only in a secondary way. Taking secondarily it to be a class of text, then we have various Upanishads. All of them are equally respectful, but today some of them are referred to as the major Upanishad and some are called the minor ones. The reason for this is simply that on some Upanishads we have very beautiful commentaries by our great Acharyas. Because of this it is easy to get proper insights into the vision of Upanishads, and thus they are preferred to be studied first. That is the only reason why they are referred to as major Upanishads. The Upanishads on which Sri Adi Sankara has written his bhashyas are Isa, Katha, Kena, Aitreya, Taittreya, Mundaka, Mandukya, Prasna, Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka. The division of these major Upanishads in the Four Vedas is as follows :
Rig Veda - Aitreya
Sama Veda - Kena and Chandogya
Yajur Veda - Isa, Katha, Taittreya and Brihadaranyaka
Atharva Veda - Prasna, Mundaka and Mandukya
These ten upanishads become a 'must-study ' for all those who want to discern the real purport of Upanishads. It is needless to say that these Upanishads should always be studied along with their commentaries (bhashyas) and that also through a competent teacher alone.
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