The Upanishads in a
Rationalist-Buddhist Perspective

by Dr. Victor Gunasekara

1. The Vedic System

The earliest expression of Indian religious speculation is contained in the Vedas. They have been dated variously (some with an exaggerated antiquity), but their composition may have been in process when the Indo-Aryans migrated to India from Iran about 1500 BCE. But the bulk of the Vedas, and the development of the Vedic religion is undoubtedly Indian. By the time of Mahavira and the Buddha (the fifth century BCE) it had produced a large body of texts which were maintained in an oral tradition. The foundation of what may be designated simply as the Vedic system [Note 1] were the three original Vedas which formed its first tier.


  1. The Vedic System
  2. Vedas and the Brāhmaṇas
  3. Upanishads: General Considerations
  4. Brief Consideration of the Early Upanishads
    • (a) the Bṛihadāraṇyaka Upanishad
    • (b) The Chāndogya Upanishad
    • (c) The Taittiriya Upanishad
    • (d) The Aitreya Upanishad
    • (e) The Kaushītaki Upanishad
    • (f) Other early Upanishads
  5. The Central Concepts of the Upanishads
  6. Upanishads and Buddhism
  7. Upanishads and Rationalism
  8. Conclusion

These original Vedas postulated a whole pantheon of gods who were worshiped and oblations offered to them. The worship of these gods became associated with the practice of animal sacrifice to propitiate them. The meat of the slaughtered animals together with the juice of the Soma plant (unidentified but thought to be alcoholic) along with other oblations were offered to the gods. As the system developed the sacrifice became highly organized with a special class of Brahmin priests devoted to the conduct of the ritual. The religious texts associated with these sacrificial rituals came to be known as the Brāhmanas which were simply appended to the various Vedas. These formed the second tier of Indian religious texts.

It was during this time that social divisions embodied in the varna (caste) theory became an integral part of the social system. According to this society was divided into four castes [Note 2], Brāhmana (hereditary priests) considered the highest, Kṣatriya (kings and warriors), Vaisyas (artisans, farmers and the like) and Sūdras (slaves, servants, menial workers, and ‘outcasts’ who were usually the non-Aryan inhabitants). The Sūdras occupied the lowest position in society, while the other three were considered the higher castes. At the same the life a person of the higher castes was divided into four stages (āṣramas) consisting of (1) the Brahmacārya devoted to study under a Vedic teacher, (2) the householder (Gṛihasta) devoted to family and professional life, (3) the Vanaprastha phase when the person left the communal life and retired to the forest, and finally (4) the Sanyāsa phase which the person became a wandering ascetic.

The Upanishads, which constituted the third tier of the Vedic system, were composed by sages who had retired to the forest either as Vanaprastha or Sanyāsin. Even though their names are given in the texts not much more is known about them [Note 3]. The Upanishads are appended to the traditional Vedas and Brahmanas as a third section called the āranyakas (or forest treatises). In course of time they came to be regarded are different genre of writing. They were the first texts to pose philosophical questions in their own right. While the Upanishads did not reject either the Vedas or the Brāhmanas and in fact incorporated the ancient pantheon into their thinking they attempted to explain the Vedic-Brāhmanic practices, including the sacrifice, in philosophical or metaphorical terms. It is generally claimed that most of later philosophical speculation in India were derived from the Upanishadic tradition, and thus ultimately from the Vedas. With the early classical Upanishads we may consider the Vedic tradition to have come to its culmination. For this reason the Upanishads are sometimes referred to as the Vedānta (end-of-Veda).

Post-Upanishadic speculation took several routes. One was to deny the Vedic system altogether, especially its supernatural aspects including its pantheon of gods and the doctrine of post-mortem survival which the Upanishadic seers had developed from the rudimentary views on the subject contained in the early Vedic hymns. They are generally reffered to in Indian philosophy as the Cārvākas or Lokāyatikas. [Note 4]

Directly opposite to the materialists were those who took Upanishadic speculation in the direction of Monotheism. The Upanishadic seers were, of course, theists as they accepted most of the Vedic pantheon. Even in the earliest Upanishads the central concepts like Brahman and Ātman were interpreted in theistic terms. However many of the later verse Upanishads were unabashedly theistic. This line of thinking culminated in the Theism of the Bhagavat Gitā, and from there it passed into medieval, and modern Hinduism.

In between these two developments leading to materialism on the one hand and monotheism on the other several other schools emerged associated with various sramana thinkers. Of these two have been of continuous historical importance in India. These were the teaching of Mahāvira who founded the Jain religion, and the Buddha whose teaching came to be known as the Buddha-Dhamma. While the Jains have been a continuous force in India they have been a minority movement and have not been able to break out of India. Buddhism however flourished in India for many centuries after Asoka adopted it as his religion. During this period it was India’s principal religion. Its relationship to the doctrines of the Upanishads will be explored in this essay. The decline of Buddhism came from two sources – the resurgence of Hinduism, and the persecution from the Muslims who conquered most of Northern India. But the decline of Buddhism in India took place at a time that it spread to other parts of Asia, and thus it has survived in various schools.

Other than Jainism and Buddhism there are several other developments which fall between the extremes of materialism and monotheism. These include the Vaisheshika, the Nyāya and the Sāṅkya systems. The first two of these are closely related to each other. They emphasized the investigation of the material world by using the rules of logic. Salvation comes from a logical understanding of the conditions of the material world. Their failing was that they did not employ the methods of experimentation which was the reason for the dominance of Western Science since the eighteenth century. The metaphysical approach which was characteristic of these systems is best exemplified in the Sāṅkya. It developed a system of “metphysical dualism” which recognizes two dominant forces Nature (prakṛti) and Person (Puruṣa) without giving a place to a supreme deity. These developments will not be explored in this essay.

In the next section we shall consider briefly the Vedic and Brāhman background, and in the succeeding sections explore various aspects of the Upanishads.

2. The Vedas and the Brāhmanas

Since the Upanishad were the continuation of the Vedas and the Brahmanas something need be said about them. At its origin this religion was essentially a deification of the forces of nature and provided some kind of rationalization of the observed world. This is true of many other primitive religions as well. But in time Vedas grew into an elaborate system of religion, going through several stages of development.

There were originally three Vedas the Ṛg, Yagur and Sāma Vedas [Note 5]. It is to them that reference is made in the Buddhist and Jain texts. They contained chants and hymns recited by the priests who presided over various stages in the Vedic sacrifices. The Ṛg hymns were recited by the chief priest (hotṛ) and the Yagur by the priests in charge of the details of the sacrifice (advatyu) The Sāma contained chants sung during the Soma sacrifice by the initiating priest (udgātr). Of these the Ṛg was the most important, many of the hymns in the other two Vedas being culled from the Ṛg.

The Vedas introduced a whole pantheon of deities. The principal ones (with the roles assigned to them) were: Prajāpati (Creator, especially in the Ṛg), Brahmā (the Chief), Mitra and Varuṇa (kingship, guardian of ṛta, Indra (Controller), the twin Aśvins (divine physicians), Agni (fire), Bṛhaspati (divine priest), Dhātar (‘Establisher’), the Maruts (storm, etc.), Parjanya (rain), Ṛbhu (artisans), Rudra (nature), Savitar and Sūrya (Sun), Tvaṣṭar (Carpenter ?), Vāyu (wind), Vṛtra (adversary of Indra), Yama (ruler of the deceased), Yami (twin sister of Yama) etc. It is said that 33 gods (some of them actually groups of gods) have been counted in the Vedas [Note 6]. As the functions assigned to them show that they not only covered the forces of nature but are also persons capable of intervening in the affairs of humans.

The centre of the Vedic religion was the sacrifice. The grandest of them was the Horse Sacrifice (aṣvamedha) which could be afforded only by kings and the wealthy. [Note 7] But even householders were expected to offer oblations to gods sometimes the meat of sacrificed domestic animals. Thus in the Soma sacrifice in which the juice of the Soma plant was offered as the oblation it was customary to sacrifice a goat. In the early period the gods were supposed to come in chariots to partake of the offerings. Later they were offered through the instrumentality of the fire (agnihotra).

It is not necessary to consider the hymns even in the most important of the Vedas, the Ṛg. Whether they have literary merit is not our concern, but they certainly contribute little to physical or metaphysical knowledge. The section of the Ṛg that is quoted the most is the cosmological theory contained in Chapter 10 of the Ṛg, particularly the creation stanza (129) also known as the Nāsadiya Hymn. This story of creation persisted through the Brāhmanas and into the Upanishads. Because of its pervasive influence it deserves to be quoted here:

1. THEN was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.
What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?

2.Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day's and night's divider.
That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.
3.Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos.
All that existed then was void and form less: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.
4.Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit.
Sages who searched with their heart's thought discovered the existent's kinship in the non-existent.
5.Transversely was their severing line extended: what was above it then, and what below it?
There were begetters, there were mighty forces, free action here and energy up yonder
6.Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation?
The Gods are later than this world's production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?
7. He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.

 (Ṛg Veda 10.129)

This hymn displays a degree of scepticism which is later revived in the Upanishads. It begins by postulating that the primordial condition was one of complete void neither existent nor non-existent. Then creation takes place and everything is post-creation, even the Gods said to be later than creation. But despite this scepticism it is clearly implied that a Creator as the primeval cause of creation (“That One Thing”). But its cause is not explained because no one knows “whence it came into being”. This continued to be the theory of creation underlying the Upanishads, even though various details are changed or added in different Upanishads. The next verse (10.130) extols the efficacy of sacrifice.

The Brāhmaṇas, of which there are several compilations, were mainly concerned with the Vedic ritual of the sacrifice. A student of these texts has described their content as follows:

“The practically all-powerful sacrificial (śrauta) rites are the one and only theme from which all discussions start and on which everything including the secondary themes hinges. The very aim of the compilers is not to describe, but to explain the origin, meaning, and raison d’etre of the ritual acts to be performed and to prove their validity and the significance and suitability of the mantras and chants used as well as the mutual relations of the acts and their connections with the phenomenal reality.” Jan Gonda, Vedic Literature (Sahitās and Brāhmaṇas) (1975), p.339.

As the Brāhmanas were closely associated with the sacrificial ritual, and as this did not figure prominently in the practice of the Upanishadic seers there is no need to consider them further in this essay.

3. The Upanishads: General Considerations

This essay is mainly concerned with the Upanishads which form the final tier of the Vedic system. They were composed by forest dwellers they had little opportunity to perform the elaborate sacrifices. So the Brāhmaṇas were of little use to them. But it is significant that they did not repudiate the Vedic sacrifices completely; their position was that it was the duty of the householders to attend to this ritual obligations. [Note 8]

In particular we shall consider the Upanishads from two perspectives the Buddhist and the rationalist-materialist. In doing so we shall consider primarily those Upanishads which scholars believe were composed before the time of the Buddha. There are well over hundred Upanishads in existence but only a dozen or less of these are considered as early. These are the Upanishads commented on by the Medieval Hindu commentator Sankara [Note 9] who flourished in the eighth century CE. They are also the ones that were considered as the “principal Upanishads” by early Western commentators like Paul Deussen. [Note 10]. The earliest of the extant Upanishads are the Bṛihadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya Upanishads all in prose. Not only are they the earliest but also the longest accounting for over three-quarters of the principal Upanishads. They are considered as being composed about the sixth century BCE. Three other prose Upanishads are also considered pre-Buddhist. These are the Taittiriya, Aitreya and Kausitaki Upanishads. The other “principal” Upanishads were the Kena, the Kaṭha, the Iśā, the Muṇḍaka, the Praśna, the Māṇḍūkya, and the Śvetāśvatara. To these the Maitri Upanishad is sometimes added although it is clearly post-Buddhist. As stated this essay will be confined to the five pre-Buddhist Upanishads and only few references will be made to the other principal Upanishads.

The principal doctrines of the Upanishads have been summed up by an Indian writer who is fundamentally sympathetic to these doctrines. He lists them as follows:

“The fundamental doctrines of the Upanishads may be summed up as follows: the Self in man is Brahman; nothing but Brahman exists, because everything exists in Brahman, and Brahman is therefore the one ultimate reality ; the world is real ; it cannot be unreal, because it emanated from Brahman, the True of the true ; that the object of the Upanishads is to impart the right knowledge, by means of which Ātman would be found identical with Brahman; lastly, Brahman is full of bliss, feelings not being contraband for Brahman. The reader will now be able to find for himself that there is not the slightest resemblance between Buddhism and the doctrines of the Ātman Philosophy” (Sures Chandra Chakravarti, The Philosophy of the Upanishads. Nag Publishers, n.d., p. 160)

Some students of the Upanishads may disagree with Chakravarti’s summary, but there is substantial agreement that the main propositions stated in the above summary are in fact contained in the principal Upanishads. If in Chakravarti’s fashion the principal conclusions of the present essay are summarized they could be stated as follows:

“The fundamental concepts of Brahman and Ātman are pure metaphysical inventions and do not correspond to anything in reality. Brahman though presented as an abstract ‘ground of being’ or the ‘ultimate reality’ is nothing but the personification of Brahmā, the chief god in the Vedic pantheon also known under other names. Like the other gods of the Vedic pantheon Brahmā does not exist in reality. To state that “everything exist in Brahman” is a meaningless statement, as there is no evidence that Brahman itself exists. The Self in man is a mythical component corresponding to the Soul in some other religions. It does not correspond to Brahman which is the representation of a mythical god posited to exist in a plane different to that of humans. The world is certainly real, but it is not an emanation from Brahman or the handiwork of some creator. There is no resemblance between Buddhism and the Ātman philosophy.”

It will be seen that except for the last sentence the thesis of the present essay is almost the opposite of the fundamental doctrines which Chakravarti has found in the Upanishads.

This does not mean that the Upanishads did not introduce concepts that have been new to Indian thinking and that these concepts had some influence on subsequent thinking. In many respects it was an improvement over the views advanced in the early Vedas like the Ṛgveda. Under the Brahmanical system the worship of gods enjoined in the early Vedas had degenerated into a barbaric cult of animal sacrifice and indulgence in food and drink. The Upanishads curbed these tendencies and put the emphasis on the search for knowledge even though the knowledge that it claimed to have discovered is no knowledge at all in terms of modern rational and scientific ways of discovering truth. It also developed new theories, notably the doctrine of Karma and Sasāra which whether they were right or wrong did pave the way for a more humane ethical system. With sacrifice downplayed the Upanishads introduced meditation as a spiritual exercise. Versions of these Upanishadic innovations have passed on to most Indian modes of thought, including to some extent the Jain and the Buddhist.

4. Brief Outline of the Earliest Upanishads

Before considering the principal doctrines of the Upanishads it would be useful to consider how they are presented in the individual Upanishads. The longer Upanishads are divided into chapters and sections, e.g in the Brihadāraṇyaka they are called Adyāyas and Brāhmaṇas, in the Chāndyogya they are called Prapāṭhakas and Khaṇḍas, etc. But there is very little systematic organization of content, and the same doctrine is presented in various way in the different Upanishads. It is not the intention below to summarize the various Upanishads, but only mention the principal doctrines contained in them which are necessary to distill the essence of Upanishadic thinking.

(a) The Bṛihadāraṇyayaka Upanishad

The Bṛihadāraṇyaka is the earliest and the longest of the Upanishads. It consists of six chapters (adyāya). It starts by an attempt to explain the horse sacrifice (aśvamedha) in symbolic terms (e.g. dawn is the head, sun is the eye, etc.) There is no condemnation of this sacrifice of an innocent animal merely to please (and feed) the gods. It shows the ambivalence of the Upanishads towards the sacrifice which was the centre-piece of the Vedas and the Brāhmanas, not directly approving of it, not condemning it. In Ṛg Veda (10.129-130) creation is seen as the sacrifice of the primeval man. Now the sacrifice of the horse is equated to the act of creation. From the various parts of the horse come things as varied as water, earth, fire, The organ of speech, and other human faculties. Other forms of the creation myth are also recounted in this chapter.

In the second chapter we have the first foray into Upanishadic metaphysics. This is contained in the discussion between Bālāki Gārgya and Ajātaśatru, king of Benares. Bālāki claims to reveal the nature of Brahman if he is given a large number of cows. After the king agrees to this Bālāki says that Brāhman is the being in the sun, moon, lightening, space, fire, water, ‘being in the mirror’, etc. It was easy for the king to refute these claims, and he then gives what is considered the true answer viz. that Brahman is the Self (Ātman). [Note 11] This gives the famous Upanishadic equation: Brahman = Self. But neither of the terms in this equation is really explained either in this Upanishad or any of the others which repeat this formula ad nauseum. To add to the confusion two forms of Brāhman are mentioned – the gross Brahman which is ultimately equated to the Sun, and the subtle form which is equated to the breath (prāna) and lives within the human body. Thus prāna also enters the vocabulary as an important term in the Upanishads.

After Bālāki accepts Ajātaśatru’s view the two encounter a sleeping man. This lead Ajātaśatru to give a discourse on sleep which is another favourite theme in the Upanishads. During sleep it is claimed the inner Soul is set free to roam about and this explains the dream state. Various stages of sleep are identified, but not in the way a modern psychologist would analyze dreams.

Next comes the discourse of Yājñavalkya (who is about to become a Vanaprastin) with his wife Maitreyī. [Note 12] His wife wanted to know the secret of immotality and the husband replies that this comes not through wealth but through the knowledge that Brahman as the immortal self (or soul). When one has gained this knowledge then “after death there is no consciousness (na pretya sajñāsti)”. This statement confuses Maitreyī, as is likely to confuse anyone, but her remonstrance is met by the statement that there is no duality but only non-duality (advaitya) , i.e. only the Brahman which is the eternal Soul is real and true. Once again one unknown is explained by another unknown.

The last section of the second chapter of this Upanishad is the so-called “honey” (madu) section, which is an instruction said to have been given by Dadyañc Ārthavaṇa to the two Aśvins. It lists 14 entities namely: earth, waters, fire, wind, sun, quarters of heaven, moon, lightning, thunder, space, Law (dharma), truth, mankind and Soul (Ātman). Then with respect to each it makes the following statement (illustrated here for the first item ‘earth’): “This earth is (like) honey for all beings, and all beings are (like) honey for this earth. (The same with) the shining, immortal being who is in this earth, and the shining, immortal corporeal being in the body. (These four) are but this Self. This (Self-knowledge) is (the means of) immortality; this (underlying unity) is Brahman; this (knowledge of Brahman) is (means of becoming) all” [Note 13]. This formula is repeated for each of the other entities in the list (with slight changes). The reference to an “immortal being” is an indication always immanent in the Upanishads but rarely stated openly is that the Brahman is not really a neuter but a person (of unspecified gender) which it is not too difficult to identify with God for the theistically oriented. This “honey” section is considered as an important passage giving the essence of the Upanishadic position; it is therefore necessary to point out that it is basically an unsound argument that is advanced in this section.

In the third Chapter we have Yājñavalkya at the sacrifice of Janaka, king of Videha. The king offers reward to the most learned Brahmin. Yājñavalkya stakes his claim, but eight other Brahmins contest this. Then debate ensues. The Brahmns (with the subjects debated) were: Aśvala (sacrificial rewards), Ārthabhāga (life after death), Bhujyu (where horse-sacrificers go), Ushasta (self), Kahola (giving up desires), Gārgi (the Universe), Uddālaka (string which holds the worlds). Clearly these questions cannot be settled then (or even now). Yājñavalkya simply answers his critics with his theory of the Self. The rest of the Chapter deals with debates with several other seers.

The fourth Chapter records debates in the court of Janaka with the king and with several others on the subject of what Brahman is. Yājñavalkya rejects Jitvan's view that it is speech, Uddālka's view that it is the life-breath, Barku's view that it is sight, Gardabhivipita's view that it is hearing, Satyakāma's view that it is the mind, and finally Vidagdha's view that it is the heart. He sticks to his view that it is the Self.

Several other matters are discussed in the court of Janaka. There is a long discussion on the Vedic gods. To Janaka’s question ‘What is the light of man’, Yājñavalkya first mentions the sun, moon, fire etc. and finally says that when all these are gone it is the Self that is the light of man. He identifies the state of sleep as an existence between the present world and the next one. The dream state is seen as one where the Soul wanders free. This chapter also contains a rudimentary doctrine of karma again attributed to Yājñavalkya. It also contains Yājñavalkya’s exposition of the doctrine of reincarnation. It concludes with another version of Yājñavalkya’s dialogue with his wife Maitreyi,

The fifth Chapter deals with a miscellany of matters starting with subjects of meditation. As Brahman is the central concept in this Upanishad the first “meditations” mentioned relate to it. Brahman is first to be considered as space (ākāśa), then as the heart, then as the real or the true (satya-brahman). This meditation consists of reflecting on the three syllables making the word ‘satya’. Then comes meditations on mind, lightning, ‘vedas as a cow’, and lastly on the digestive process (called the Vaisvanāra fire). The path of the departing soul after death is described as first reaching the air, then the sun, then the moon, and finally “a world free of grief and cold where it dwells for endless years”. No karma or reincarnation is considered. The Chapter concludes with a disquisition on the breath, the Gayatri verse and a prayer for the safe passage after death as indicated previously.

The last chapter begins with a disputation among the various human organs (like speech, eye, ear, mind, ‘organ of generation’) as which is the best. They all concede that the this has to be accorded to the ‘vital breath’ because this is the last to be extinguished at death. Then follows an account of what happens after death which is quite different from that given in the previous chapter. Now two paths are identified, one going to the world of the gods, and the other to the world of the fathers, depending on their actions. Those who do not qualify of either of these two paths become insects, moths and the like. This is taken as another statement of the doctrine of transmigration. This theory also occurs in the Chādogya Upanishad.

(b) The Chāndogya Upanishad

This Upanishad is the last section of the Chāndogya Brāhmaṇa which is in turn is attached to the Sāma Veda. The Upanishad has 8 chapters and most of it is concerned with the “Saman”, which is the Samavedic chant of the Soma sacrifice. There is an overlap between this Upanishad and the Bṛihadāraṇyaka with some repetitions. It is speculated that both these Upanishads were composed out of preexisting Upanishadic material..

The first two chapters glorify the chanting of the Sāma Veda. It equates the High Chant (Udgita) to the mystical word ‘Om’. It goes into great detail about the conduct of the Soma sacrifice. This is pure Brāhmaṇa stuff.

In Chapter 3 the sun is called the honey of the gods, and the various chants are compared to the rays of the sun. In this chapter Brahman (usually in the neuter) is referred to as the (masculine) god Brahmā: “Verily, all this universe is Brahman. From Him do all things originate, into him do they dissolve, and by Him are they sustained.” ( 3.14, Swahananda translation). This is the same as the later traditional Hindu view of God as the Creator, Sustainer and Destroyer. The chapter concludes with the origin of the world as the primordial egg [Note 14], another elaboration of the Vedic creation myth. Chapter 4 narrates several stories and contains instructions for the conduct of the sacrifice.

Chapter 5 begins by extolling the breath above other bodily functions (as in the contest between the bodily functions given in the Bṛihadāraṇyaka). It then details the “five fires” into which offerings have to be made to obtain certain benefits. The leads (5.5 - 5.10) to another of the classic statements of the doctrine of transmigration as it appears in the Upanishads. This knowledge is given by a Kṣatriya king to a Brahmin Gautama. The two paths, the way of the fathers (Pitṛiyāna) and the way of the gods (Devayāna) are mentioned, and in addition the return to the earth (Manussayāna?). The last is the true doctrine of transmigration. But what is not clear is whether the first two paths lead to a final destination or only to a temporary reward to be followed by the transmigration based on action (karman).

Chapter 6 begins with the famous conversation between Uddalāka Āruni and his son Svetaketu. Uddalāka asks his son if he has been instructed in the teaching by which “that (which) is unheard becomes heard”, and so on for the other senses. On being told that he has not Uddalāka gives the metaphor of clay: “... just as through a single clod of clay all that is made of clay would become known, for all modifications is but the name based upon words but the clay alone is real.” ( 6.1.6) He then extends the analogy to creation and says “In the beginning this was Being alone only one without a second” (6.2.1). Then after a long conversation, with that peculiar Upanishadic logic, he reduces the ultimate substance (clay in his analogy) to Self. The chapter closes with Svetakatu fully instructed: “‘That Being which is this subtle essence (cause), even That all this world has for its self. That is the true. That is the Atman. That thou art, O Svetaketu.’” (6.14.3) This then is the “highest and ultimate truth” of the Upanishads, its supreme mystery, which is said to lead the person who has this knowledge to ultimate liberation.

Chapter 7 starts with the conversation between Nārada and Sanatkumāra. Nārada claims to have mastered all the traditional knowledge from the Vedas to more secular subjects. But Sanatkumāra dismisses all that as mere Name only. He then goes to list the things that are greater than Name. He gives a typical Upanishadic list, each of the items in this list being greater than the preceding one, as follows: Speech, Mind, Will, Intelligence, Contemplation, Understanding, Strength, Food, Water, Fire, Space, Memory, Aspiration and Breath (prāna). Worshiping any one of these gives its own rewards, but Nārada is encouraged to go to the next on the list. The culmination of Sanatkumāra’s instruction thus ends with Prāna: “Just as the spokes of the wheel are fastened to the nave, so is all this fastened to this Prāna . Prāna moves by Prāna , Prāna gives Prāna and it gives Prāna . Prāna is the father, Prāna is the mother, Prāna is the brother, Prāna is the sister, Prāna is the preceptor, Prāna is the Brahmana.” (7.15.1) But Prāna itself is not the ultimate origin because “Everything springs from Atman” (7.26.1),

The last Chapter 8 contains a particular Upanishadic doctrine on which we have not commented so far. This is the doctrine of the Heart, which could actually be called the Fallacy of the Heart. This is that the heart is at the centre of the cognitive process in humans. A Vedic teacher is asked to instruct his pupils: “As far, verily, as this world-space (aya ākāśa) extends, so far extends the space within the heart. Within it, indeed, are contained both heaven and earth, both fire and wind, both sun and moon, lightning and the stars, both what one possesses here and what one does not possess ; everything here is contained within it.” [Note 15] The heart is called the “City of Brahman”.

The heart fallacy would have come naturally to the authors of the Upanishads. As priests officiating at the sacrifice they would have been aware of the anatomy of the animals they butchered. They would have observed the large heart in animals like the horse, and noticed its links through veins and arteries to other organs. They transposed this to humans and thought that the human heart (from which 101 arteries are supposed to spread) is the centre of all emotions and thinking. This Chapter (and this Upanishad) ends with the popular story Prajāpati, Indra and Virochana.

(c) The Taittiriya Upanishad

This short Upanishad is considered one of the earlier Upanishads. It is attached to the Yajur Veda and has only 3 chapters traditionally called the Śikshā Valli, Brahmānanda Valli and the Bhṛigu Valli. It adds very little to what we have encountered in the Bṛihadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya Upanishads.

The first Valli, called the Student’s Chapter gives instruction to a new student. It deals with the teacher’s and student’s prayers, phonetics, the student’s discipline, reading of Vedas etc. What may be called the students’ curriculum is stated as including the following: Right (ṛta), Truth (satya), Austerity (tapas), Self-control (dama), Tranquillity (lama), the [sacrificial] Fires, the Agnihotra sacrifice, Guests, Humanity (manussa), Offspring, Begetting, and Procreation. It is curious to find offspring, begetting and procreation included in he Student phase whereas it is traditionally placed in the householder phase. Perhaps what is meant is that students are taught to engage in these activities after their student phase is over. The chapter contains a great deal of Vedic lore such as the four mystical utterances: Bhūr, Bhuvas, Suvar and Mahas.

The second Valli called the “Bliss of Brāhman (or Brahmā)” introduces the doctrine of the “five sheaths”. This attempts to trace the course of evolution from the primal Ātman through the the five essences (or sheaths) to the human person. These five elements are listed as food, breath, mind, understanding and bliss. A reverse progression is also mentioned when it is stated that “He who knows this, on departing from this world, proceeds on to that self which consists of food, proceeds on to that self which consists of breath, proceeds on to that self which consists of mind, proceeds on to that self which consists of understanding, proceeds on to that self which consists of bliss.” [Note 16] (Tait, 2,8) This has been interpreted as implying that “ within the self there are various selves, but the true knower must advance to the highest self” (Hume, Thirteen Principal Upnishads, p. 289, note)

The doctrine of the five sheaths is a curious classification of the components of the human personality. It could be contrasted to the five components of personality in Buddhism, viz. form (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), Mental formations, (saṅkāra), and consciousness (viñāṇa).

The final Valli is another instruction from father to son, here from Varuṇa to Bhṛigu. Varuṇa guides his son to Brahman through food, then breath, then mind, then understanding, and finally the bliss of brahman. These are stages which occur in various combinations in many other places in the Upanishads.

(d) The Aitreya Upanishad

This Upanishad, which is a part of the Aitreya Āraṇyaka of the Ṛg Veda, is the short Upanishad consisting of three short chapters; its authorship is attributed to Mahidāsa.

The first Chapter deals with creation. It starts with the sentence: “In the beginning, Ātman (Self, Soul), verily, one only, was here– no other winking thing whatever. He bethought himself: ‘Let me now create worlds.’” This faces the dilemma of all creation theories. It posits of a creator (here Ātman) but it cannot explain how the creator came to be on the scene. The use of the masculine pronoun “he” with reference to Ātman indicates that the creator is a person, not an inanimate principle.

The order of creation as given in this Upanishad differs from versions in other Upanishads but involve the same kind of elements. Here Ātman is said to have first created “these worlds: water (ambhas), light-rays (marīci), death (mara), the waters (ap)”. Then other elements like speech, breath, sight, hearing, etc. are said to have been created next. These together form the person (puruṣa). We have the peculiar situation where personal characteristics like speech are created before the person is fully existent.

The second Chapter is interpreted as giving a version of the reincarnation doctrine. But it is a very anemic version of reincarnation, not as clear as in other places in the Upanishads. Three births are identified in this section, two in the current and the third in the future life. The first is the physical conception as an embryo (garbha). The next stage is self-becoming (ātma-bhūya). This allows the person to do pious deeds (punya karman). After the person dies the third birth takes place according to his deeds (kṛta-kṛtya). We shall examine the Upanishadic theoryof reincarnation later.

The third section identifies the Self with knowledge (or intelligence) which is the ultimate Brahman.

(e) The Kausitaki Upanishad

This belongs to the Ṛg Veda and consists of four chapters. The first chapter contains a more detailed account of reincarnation than is found in the Aitreya Upanishad. Here the sage Citra Gāṅgyñyani tells Uddalāka: “All who depart from this world go to the moon. In the former, (the bright) half, the moon delights in their spirits; in the other, (the dark) half, the moon sends them on to be born again. Verily, the moon is the door of the Svarga world (the heavenly world). Now, if a man objects to the moon (if one is not satisfied with life there) the moon sets him free. But if a man does not object, then the moon sends him down as rain upon this earth. And according to his deeds and according to his knowledge he is born again here as a worm, or as an insect, (etc.)or as a man, or as something else in different places.” (Kau 1.2) Clearly the moon is seen as the gateway either to the path of the gods (devayāna) or the “world of the fathers” (pītriyāna) or for rebirth again on earth. If one is on the path of the gods he could pass through the worlds of various gods (like Varuna or Indra) and finally reach the world of Brahmā (Hiranyagarbha) as his ultimate destination. This final destination is described in terms not too different from that of the Islamic paradise!

Chapter 2 starts by giving the views on Brahman by a number of seers. They do not say anything new other than going through the usual Upanishadic repertoire of Speech, Breath, Eye, Ear, Mind and Intelligence. Then it goes on to give rites and sacrifices that should be done to secure various favours. Considerable ingenuity is expended on this subject. Thus Pratardana speaks of an “Inner Agnihotra Sacrifice” as follows: “As long as a person is speaking he is not able to breathe. Then he is sacrificing breath (prāṇa) in speech. As long as a person is speaking he is not able to breathe. Then he is sacrificing speech (vāc)in breath” (2.5.4). So whether you are speaking or breathing you are automatically making a sacrifice. Similar absurdities are given as rites to obtain all manner of things like securing one’s own welfare, securing the welfare of one’s children, winning another’s affection, removing sin, etc. There is even a rite prescribed during sexual intercourse (2.10)! The chapter concludes with the ritual to be followed when the father is about to die to transfer his tradition to his son (2.15).

The third chapter begins with Indra’s instruction to Pratardana. This discourse is concerned with the breath. There is nothing new here and can be omitted.

The fourth and last chapter deals with the promise to “declare Brahman” given by Gārgya Bālāki to Ajātaśatru king of Kāsi for the reward of a thousand cows. (These Upanishadic seers will not give out anything without some material gain for themselves!) Bālāki then gives a succession of definitions like ‘the person in the sun’, ‘the person in the moon, ‘the person in fire’, ‘the person in the mirror’. ‘the person here who asleep moves about in a dream’, etc. All these are refuted by Ajātaśatru. Finally Bālāki acknowledges defeat by accepting studentship under (“goes fuel in hand” to) Ajātaśatru. Taking the example of a sleeping man who hs just woken up Ajātaśatru explains that it is the breathing spirit (prāṇa) and the intelligential self (prajñātman) within the body (śarirātmn) that is what should be taken as the Brahman.

(f) Other Upanishads

While the five Upanishads we have considered are important for our purpose as they are claimed to be the pre-Buddhist Upanishads the others too may be briefly noticed.

The Kaṭha Upanishad is the first Upanishad to be translated to a European language. It begins with Vājaśravasa about to sacrifice some old cows. His son Nachiketas pesters him for sacrificing worthless cows to the gods. In a fit of rage he gives Nachiketas to Yama the ruler of the afterworld. The Upanishad records the conversation between Nachiketas and Yama. Yama gives Nachiketas three boons. The first that Nachiketas chooses is to be reconciled with his father, the second on how go to the heavenly world, and the third what happens after death. This leads to a discussion of what takes place after death, and on the life-breath (prāṇa) which is the favourite topic in the Upanishads.

The Śvetāśvatara Upanishad is one of the most theistic of the Upanishads with many similarities to the Bhagavad Gītā [Note 17]. Each of its six chapters consists of an adulation of God. This Upanishad also introduces concepts which have become integral to later Hinduism. The fourth Chapter mentions māyā for the first time and last chapter extols devotion (bhakti) to God as an essential virtue. The Upanishad ends in this vein: “To one who has the highest devotion (bhakti) for God, ... to him these matters which have been declared become manifest, a great soul (mahātman)”.

The Muṇḍaka Upanishad is somewhat eclectic and seems to both endorse and to oppose the old Vedic tradition. In the first of the three chapters Aṅgiras instructs his pupil that there are two kinds of knowledge, the lower knowledge which includes the traditional Vedas and the higher which contains only the knowledge of the “Imperishable”. It is interesting that it says that this Imperishable is without caste (avarṇa). However the performance of the traditional ritual is endorsed: “the works which the sages saw [in the Vedic hymns] follow them, this is your path to the world of good deeds” (1.2.1). The second chapter states the by now traditional doctrine of the self. The last chapter, which deal with the way to Brahma extols ascetism. This is the path to the Brahman, while the rituals endorsed in the first chapter only lead to a heavenly realm.

The śā Upanishad is the shortest of the Principal Upanishads. It is extremely theistic and starts with: “By the Lord (īśā) enveloped must all this be...”

The Praśna Unpanishad is a relatively late Upanishad. It consists of answers to six questions posed to Pippalāda by six other seers. These questions deal with a miscellany of matters such as: the origin of creatures, superiority of breath, how the ātman exits the body, dreams, ‘OM’, and the sixteen parts of man. These are treated in the traditional Upanishadic manner.

The Kena Upanishad says that people cannot know Brahman and what people worship as it is false: “That which is not expressed by speech and by which speech is expressed, that alone know as Brahman, not that which people here adore ” (1.5-6). In the next khanda there is a confusing verse which says that Brahman “is not understood by those who understand it, it is understood by those who do not understand it” (2.3). This illustrates the kind of confusion that the very concept of Brahman leads to. It claims that Brahman is a mysterious entity yet speaks of it at other times in human terms. This Upanishad concludes with the story of Brahman engaged in a battle with the Asuras! Once again Brahman is well and truly personified.

The six Upanishads covered in this section complete the Upanishads which are regarded as the main Upanishads. Sometimes the Maitri Upanishad is also included in the early Upanishads. But it is clearly a post-Buddhist Upanishad.

5. The Central Concepts of the Upanishads

The summary of the principal early Upanishads given in the previous section has already uncovered some of the principal concepts which underlie the philosophy of the Upanishads. We shall now consider these concepts critically, including some which had not been specifically discussed.

(i) Brahman

Brahman is the central concept of the Upanishads. But there is a fundamental contradiction in the usage of this term. It is usually represented, especially by Western admirers of the Upanishads, as an abstract “Ground of Being” or the substrate of the Universe on which everything is founded. [Note 18] In this sense it could be seen as an impersonal force. In Sanskrit the gender of the term is neuter and this will tend to confirm this interpretation. Yet it is also spoken of as a person, and identified with the supreme God of the Brāhmanism. In many places in the Upanishads the question is posed “What is Brahman” or “Explain Brahman”. When this is explanation is given the reference is invariably to a person, a person of the masculine gender and referred to as a “He”. In fact Brahman and Brahmā are used interchangeably in many places. Several examples of this usage are given in the previous section of this Essay.

‘What is Brahman ?” is a frequent question asked of seers in the early Upanishds. The answer given to this is often a list of things and qualities. Amongst these are: speech, breath, eye, touch, mind, heard, etc. Usually each one of these is rejected in favour of the succeeding term which to is rejected. The process usually ends with Self (ātman) being identified.

Ingenious explanations have been adduced to explain the fundamental contradiction which underlies Brahman, whether is an impersonal state or a person analogous to the divine being of many other religions, and therefore a person of some kind. The problem which this kind of things leads to could be illustrated from a statement in the Muṇḍaka Upanishad: “Brahman is infinite, and this conditioned Brahman is infinite. The infinite proceeds from infinite. Then through knowledge, realizing the infinitude of the infinite, it remains as infinite alone”.

If Brahman is taken as the supreme God then it would be similar to the God of other monotheistic religions like Yahweh in Judaism or Allah in Islam [Note 19]. This is also what the term ended in becoming in classical Hinduism. Already in the Vedic texts we encounter the anthropomorphic god Brahmā who is considered the chief the Vedic pantheon (but sometimes Indra or Prajāpati is given that title)

In both senses of the term, either as an impersonal ground of being, or as a personal god, the term Brahman is a purely metaphysical term. There is no empirical counterpart or evidence produced in either of these interpretations. It has to be accepted purely on faith.

There is also the frequent assertion Brahman is Ātman. Indeed this is often referred to as the supreme mystery of the Upanishads and its most important piece of “knowledge”. But this is simply replacing one undefined term with another. So it is to the Ātman that we must turn.

(ii) Ātman

This term is usually translated as ‘Self’ or ‘Soul’, with the former rendition being the more common. However ‘Self’ can have many meanings. There is the usage of the term to refer to a physical person, and the more specialized usages in the Upanishads. ‘Soul’ on the other hand is a metaphysical term referring to an entity which supposed to cohabit with the physical body to form a functioning person. In this view body and soul are different. In the Abrahamic religions the soul is supposed to be created by God at the birth (or conception) of an individual, and this soul has an eternal existence even after death going to its reward either in Heaven or Hell. Both meanings of ātman exist in the Upanishads with the empirical physical meaning sometimes made clear by referring to it as the self-in-the-body (śarirātman). However it was usual to attach ātman to any physical or mental function, e.g. the intelligent soul (vijñānātman) by which is meant the power of intelligence, the ātman being added purely for emphasis.

In many Upanishads (e.g. the Kaṭha Upanisahd) the ātman is said to reside in the cavity of the heart. In this sense the ātman is clearly looked upon as the soul. Although the ātman is said to temporarily leave its place of residence when the person is in deep sleep, the final departure occurs at death. Then the ātman is said to leave the cavity of the heart by any one of the hundred odd nerves that radiate from the heart. Each of these take the soul to a different destination, but only one channel, that which leads to the top of the head, is the one that the soul will take to ascend to the realm of the devas. This view of the ātman as soul is the view that came to be accepted in later Hinduism.

Even in this metaphysical sense the matter is complicated by identifying two different kinds of soul – the individual soul(s) and the universal soul. One would expect that logically it is only this universal Soul that should be equated to Brahman, but this is not clearly stated, and even the soul which resides in the heart of a single individual is said to be connected to the universal or cosmic soul.

In whatever way we interpret the ātman it is a deeply flawed concept.

(iii) Cosmology

Cosmology deals with theories relating to the structure and the origin of the Universe. Views on both these aspects are scattered throughout the Upanishads.

The Vedas had a simplified view of the structure of the universe. It consisted of 3 planes – the earth (bhūr) below, the sky (svar) above and the intermediate regions (bhuvas). The sky contained the sun, moon, stars, etc. and the intermediate region contained rain, storms, lightning, etc. All these were deified. Later on more realms were added even beyond the sky leading up to the Brahma world. Curiously the Upanishads do not mention hellish realms, although these too were added in later times. There is mention of the spirit world of the Gandharvas and similar beings. This cosmology may be slightly superior to the Biblical cosmology of a flat earth with a hemispherical vault above it containing the celestial bodies. We cannot expect a better view of the universe in that early age.

On another level we have the three fold division into the world of the gods, the world of the fathers and the world of humans. This was related to destination of humans after death as given in the speculations of the Kausitaki Upanishad and other Upanishads.

On the question of the origin of the Universe the Vedas (including the Upanishads) believed in creation. The doctrine of creation which underlies all theistic religion is most rudimentary in the Vedas,. The Upanishads provided no improvement. At the start of the Bṛihadāranyake we read: “In the beginning there was nothing whatsoever in the universe. By Death, indeed, all this was covered– by hunger, for hunger is, verily, death. ‘Let Me have a mind’, was His desire and He created the mind. Then He moved about, worshiping Himself. From Him, thus worshiping, water was produced” (2.1.1) and so on. Who the ‘He’ was is never explicitly specified but the Creator God most commonly mentioned is Prajāpati although this name does not occur in the Bṛihadāraṇyaka in this connection.

The failure of the Upanishads, like other views before the emergence of the modern view, on the origin of the universe and life on the planet, indicates that what it says about other subjects must be subjected to the same degree of suspicion.

(iv) Physiology and Psychology

Physiology relates to bodily features and functions and psychology to mental aspects of the person. The Upanishads did not make a sharp distinction between the two and elements belonging to both were often grouped in the same list.

On the physiology side we have already mentioned the importance attached to the heart. In this they were perpetuating an ancient misunderstanding about the function of the heart in the human body. [Note 20] They had no idea of the functioning of the brain. They were interested in finding the “Inner Controller” and the Heart was their choice. But modern physiology has shown that the heart merely responds to electrical and chemical signals sent by the brain. Other than their concern with the heart and the network of veins, arteries and nerves proceeding form it the Upanishads show little concern with the physical body.

Of the bodily functions the greatest importance is attached to breath (prāṇa). Originally this term meant the entire breathing process. Later on it was restricted to mean the expiration of the breath, while the in-breath was denoted by apāna. The intermediate stage between the inspriation and the expiration was terms vyāna, sometimes translated as “interspiration. There is an up-breath (udāna) mentioned but probably was another term for apāna. This concern with the breath was probably because when breathing stops the person dies immediately. The other faculties like eating, speaking, hearing, smelling, touching,, procreating, etc. are also mentioned but people can have these impaired and still live. This is a trite observation and does not justify the importance which is given to breath, even equating it to Brahman and Ātman, the supreme concepts of the Upanishads. [Note 21]

The Upanishadic seers had a good idea of anatomy. After all they were expert butchers of the animals they sacrificed and were fully aware of the anatomy of the animals they dismembered. They would have correctly surmised that the human anatomy was similar. While most human organs are inside and the person is not aware of them this is not the case of the heart.

(v) Karman and Sasāra

As is well known most Indian religions and philosophies accept a version of the doctrine of karma and reincarnation (or rebirth) [Note 22]. The specifics relating to this differ in the various traditions Brahmanical, Jain, Buddhist and Hindu. As such many people have been searching for the origin of these ideas. The Vedic eschatalogy thought that a person on death goes either to the moon or the Sun depending on how well he observed the sacrifices and made the oblations to the gods. And the Upanishadic authors can rightfully stake a claim in this regard.

Karma refers to actions done by individuals. Some see it more narrowly as the action of doing the sacrifice. The karma theory asserts that actions have consequences sometimes seen in the present life and sometimes in a future existence. According as these consequences are deemed good or bad the corresponding actions are approved or disapproved. The evaluation of actions in terms of their being right or wrong is the concern of ethics. So a theory of karma is also an ethical theory.

The ethical theory in the Upanishads is weak. The good actions which bring good results are those which are in conformity with ritual actions. For householders it is centered on sacrifice, offering of oblations and worship of gods. Later on karma was used to denote the doing of things prescribed by he caste system.

A theory of karma usually posits of the possibility of reincarnation or rebirth. If a series of re-births or re-incarnations is postulated we have the cycle of sasāra. Then the eschatological question arises when and how sasāra ends. Buddhism postulates Nirvāna as the end of sasāra. Later Hinduism posits union with Brahmā as the end of sasāra. The Upanishadic answer to this question is not as clear.

There are many instances that Upanishadic seers posited a theory of reincarnation. We have mentioned the doctrine of the three births in the Aitreya where the third birth is really a reincarnation. But it is Yājñavalkya who is considered the true author of the doctrine of transmigration. In the Bṛihadāranyaka he gives the famous analogy of the caterpillar: “Now as a caterpillar, when it has come to the end of a blade of grass, in taking the next step draws. itself together towards it, just so this soul in taking the next step strikes down this body, dispels its ignorance, and draws itself together.” (4.4.2).

The doctrines of karma and rebirth has left its mark in all later Indian religion and philosophy although there are radical differences in the way these are interpreted.

(vi) Knowledge

In the Upanishads great emphasis is given to the acquisition of knowledge and the elimination of Ignorance (avidyā). The Aitreya calls knowledge the ultimate Brahman. However what is meant by knowledge is not what would be considered today as secular knowledge. It consists of belief in metaphysical concepts which are accepted without any credible proof.

It is believed that having this kind of knowledge confers special powers on the person with the knowledge. The Indian doctrine of the satyakṛiyā states that the very utterance of a truth has direct consequences for the benefit of the person uttering it.

6. The Upanishads and Buddhism

In this section we shall explore the relationship between the Upanishadic theory and Buddhism by which term we shall mean the Dhamma-Vinaya ascribed to the Indian sage Gotama (Gautama) popularly known as the Buddha [Note 23].

(a) Some General Considerations

Here we consider matters relating to time, place and persons which are relevant to establish the connections between the two systems of thought. It is generally accepted that the some of the early Upanishads (including the two most important of them, the Bṛihdāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya) came before the Buddha. But unfortunately there is not enough evidence to date these Upanishads more precisely. It is generally believed that they were in existence by 600 BCE. Given that the Buddha’s Enlightenment has been placed about 500 BCE [Note 24] this means that the Upanishadic doctrines were known for at least a century before the Buddha’s time.

With regard to geography there has been some scholarly interest in finding the areas in which the Upanishadic doctrines arose. This has some relevance in establishing links between Upanishad doctrines and those of Buddhism. While it is generally believed that the original Vedic hymns were composed in the region of the Indus basin it is thought that the centre of later Vedic speculation moved eastwards along the Ganges basin. It is of course well known that the cradle of Buddhism was in the middle Ganges basin, particularly the kingdoms of Maghada and Kosala.

It is believed that the early Upanishads were composed in the regions Kuru-Pancāla and Videha. These are well to the east of the Indus river which was the birthplace of the original Vedic hymns and to the west of what was the cradle of Buddhism. So it is quite possible that the Upanishadic teaching originated in the area immediately to the West of the region where Buddhism arose.

With regards to the personalities involved we know next to nothing of the seers mentioned in the Upanshads except the names that were given to them. The Buddhist texts mention the teachers who existed during the Buddha’s time, or immediately prior to it. The question is whether any of them could be identified as followers of the Upanishad teaching. There is a conventional listing of six schools but they were ascetic (samanas) outside the main Brahmanical shools. He names of Brahamins who came to dispute with the Buddha and the arhants are given, but they are not the seers of the Upanishads. Of course those seers, even if they existed, would have died by the time of the Buddha.

We may finally notice the question posed by scholars whether elements of the Buddha’s doctrine is contained in Upanishadic teaching. These scholars have advanced the view that either the Upanishads contain the central ideas of Buddhism or that Buddhism is itself a development of the Upanishads. Both the Pali texts and the Upanishads came to the attention of Western scholars in the nineteenth century and it was natural to compare them with each other. [Note 25] One of the early Orientalists Max Müller asserted that “The Upanishads are ... the germs of Buddhism, while Buddhism is in many respects the doctrine of the Upanishads carried out to the last consequences...” (Sacred Books of the East, XV, Far from agreeing with this view it will be shown that Buddhism is in many respects the opposite of what the authors of the Upanishads were talking about. If the Upanishads exerted any influence it was a detrimental one relating to some minor doctrines which the Buddha seems to have tolerated. The principal of these is the acceptance of he existence of extra-human beings like the gods of the Vedic system and the demons. Only the doctrine of the cycle of births whose origin has been traced to the Upanishadic seers seems to be major debt that Buddhism owes to the Upanishads.

(b) The Buddha’s refutation of Brahman and Ātman

As we have seen the Upanishadic system was based on the twin pillars of Brahman and Ātman. In some situations these two were declared to be the same, with the latter term the more commonly used to denote the combined entity. The Buddha demolished both these pillars of the Upanishadic system.

The neuter term Brahman does not occur in the Pali Canon. From this some people have argued that either that the Buddha was unaware of this usage, or that he tacitly accepted, or that he could not refute this. None of this can be accepted. The Buddha was quite aware that by Brahman those who used this term meant the Vedic deity Brahmā who is credited with all kinds of feats. So he used the term ‘Mahā Brahmā’ to denote the entity that is referred to in the Upanishads as Brahman.

In the Buddhist texts Mahā Brahmā is represented as claiming the following attributes for himself:

"I am Brahmā, the Great Brahmā, the Supreme One, the Mighty, the All-seeing, the Ruler, the Lord of all, the Maker, the Creator, the Chief of all appointing to each his place, the Ancient of days, the Father of all that is and will be." (Dīgha Nikāya, II, 263).

The Buddha dismisses all these claims of Mahā Brahmā as being due to his own delusions brought about by ignorance. He argues that Mahā Brahmā is simply another deva, perhaps with greater karmic force than the other gods, but nonetheless a deva and therefore unenlightened and subject to the samsāric process as determined by his karma. In such suttas as the the Aggañña Sutta the Buddha refutes the claims of Maha Brahmā and shows him to be subject to karmic law (i.e. cosmic law). Even though long-lived Mahā Brahmā will be eliminated in each cycle of inevitable world dissolution and re-evolution. In the Khevadda Sutta Mahā Brahmā is forced to admit to an inquiring monk that he is unable to answer a question that is posed to him, and advises the monk to consult the Buddha. This clearly shows the Brahmā acknowledges the superiority of the Buddha.

With Brahman equated to Mahā Brahmā, and the latter reduced to the status of a deva with limited powers the Buddha goes on to demolish the second pillar of the Upanishads, i.e the ātman doctrine. As we have seen there are several versions of ātman mentioned in the Upanishads the most basic being the physical body of the persons (the sarīrātman). In this sense the Buddha simply equation the ātman to the rūpa component of the empirical person. As such it could be accepted and it is simply referred to as the empirical self.

But the Upanishadic notion of a metaphysical ātman residing in the core of the human person, in the “cavity” of the heart is totally rejected by the Buddha. We can refer to this as the soul concept to contrast it with the empirical person.

One of the cardinal principles of the Buddha’s teaching is the absence of a soul (the anattā doctrine). This distinguishes Buddhism not only from the Vedic tradition but also some other non-Vedic philosophies like Jainism. The Buddha includes anattā as one of the three characteristics of all Dhammas, the other two being dukkha (‘suffering’, ‘unsatisfactoriness’) and anicca (‘impermanence’). It is even more important than its denial of a Creator God to which it is related to.

If we remove ātman from the Upanishadic doctrine nothing worthwhile remains. Even Brahman is validated by its identification with ātman. So even those who refuse to accept that Mahā Brahmā as the Buddha’s equivalent to the neuter Brahman of the Upanishads will find the Buddha’s rejection of the ātman doctrine as equivalent to the rejection of Brahman because of the Upanishadic equation: Brahman = Ātman. Without Ātman there is no Brahman, and the Buddha rejects Ātman, so he rejects Brahman.

(b) The Evidence from the Suttas

There is no sutta which specifically refers to the Upanishads. But a number of the Buddha’s discourses refer to the Vedic system. By the “three Vedas” the Buddha did not simply mean the three original Vedas but the whole corpus which came to be attached to the original Vedas including the later Brāhmanas and the Āranyakas (which of course include the Upanishads). We can now examine some of that evidence.

At the very commencement of the Sutta Piṭaka in the Brahmajālas Sutta the Buddha considers 62 systems as unsatisfactory or erroneous. Most of them are attributed to “certain samaṇas and brāhmanas”. Unfortunately it is not possible to tell which school of samaṇas or brahmanas propagated each individual error. This has to be inferred from the doctrines of different schools as we have them.

The 62 errors could be classified in many ways. 18 relate to the past of the world and/or the soul. Of there 4 are described as “eternalist” (i.e. both the world and the soul are eternal), 4 are semi-eternalist (i.e some are eternal and some not), 4 relate to the origin and size of the universe, 4 take a skeptical (amarāvikkhepikā) position, and 2 relate to causality. The remaining 44 are doctrines about the future, i.e. to the question of rebirth. Of these 16 posit conscious post-mortem survival, 8 of unconscious post-mortem survival (i.e. people cannot recall the previous births), 8 of “Neither-Conscious-nor-Unconscious Post-Mortem Survival”, and 7 of non-survival. The last 5 five relate to ways of attaining Nibbāna .

None of these views seem to fit the Upanishads perfectly, but some appear to of these views approximate to the Upanishadic view. Thus the semi-eternalists are given as those holding that: “Brahma,. . . he made us, and he is permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change, the same for ever and ever. But we who were created by that Brahma, we are impermanent, unstable, short-lived, fated to fall away, and we have come to this world.” This description may fit some views expressed in the Upanishads where Brahman is spoken as a male person responsible for creation. But it is difficult to find any statement in the Upanishads that corresponds exactly to the categories mentioned in the Brahmajāla.

There are other discourses specifically on the Vedic system as well as conversations with Brahmins which involve their beliefs. We may consider two discourses representative of this kind of Sutta. One is the Tevijja Sutta contained in the Long Discourses of the Buddha and the other is the Caṅki sutta included in the Middle Length Discourses.

In the Tevijja sutta (DN I. 13) the Buddha deals specifically with the three Vedas. The preamble to the Sutta states that two Brahmins, followers respectively of Pokkarasādi and Tārukkha were disputing as to whose path (to union with Brahmā) [Note 26] was the correct path. They the decide to consult the Buddha and one of the disputants Vāseṭṭha mentions several Brahmin schools ( Addhariyā, Tittiriyā, Chandokā, Bavharijā) [Note 27] and asks the Buddha “Are all those saving paths?”.

In his reply the Buddha asks if any of the classical Vedic teachers had seen Brahmā (or the personified Brahman) and Vaseṭṭha is forced to admit that they had not. This leads the Buddha to give the analogy of the chain of blind men, each holding on the other, none of them knowing where they are going. This of course applies to all kinds of blind beleif, and all Upanishadic beliefs, especially those about Brahman and Ātman were blind beliefs.

In Upanishadic cosmology he moon and the sun are seen as realms of habitation of gods, and as the destination of humans who have followed the vedic rituals. The Buddha uses this veneration of these celestial objects to ridicule th absurdity of Vedic worship: “The Brahmans versed in the Three Vedas, who can very well – like other, ordinary, folk – see the Moon and the Sun as they pray to, and praise, and worship them, turning round with clasped hands to the place whence they rise and where they set – are those Brahmans, versed in the Three Vedas, able to point out the way to a state of union with the Moon or the Sun, saying: ‘This is the straight path, this the direct way which makes for salvation, and leads him, who acts according to it, to a state of union with the Moon or the Sun?’”

The Buddha then points out that prayer to the Vedic deities is as futile as asking the further bank of a river to come to the opposite side. The Buddha concludes:

‘In just the same way, Vāseṭṭha, do the Brahmans versed in the Three Vedas – omitting the practice of those qualities which really make a man a Brahman, and adopting the practice of those qualities which really make men non-Brahmans say thus: “Indra we call upon, Soma we call upon, Varuṇa we call upon, Āsāna we call upon, Pajāpati we call upon, Brahmā we call upon, Mahiddhi we call upon, Yama we call upon!” Verily, Vāseṭṭha, that those Brahmans versed in the Three Vedas, but omitting the practice of those qualities which really make a man a Brahman, and adopting the practice of those qualities which really make men non-Brahmans–that they, by reason of their invoking and praying and hoping and praising, should, after death and when the body is dissolved, become united with Brahmā verily such a condition of things can in no wise be!’

The Buddha then concludes his discourse by giving Vāseṭṭha the correct path to salvation, and Vāseṭṭha becomes a follower of the Buddha.

The Chaṅki Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya No. 95) is a discourse given to a group of Brahmins headed by Chaṅki where the Buddha again refutes the Vedic claims. There is disagreement amongst the brahmins about the correct path to union with Brahmā. They decide to consult the Buddha. Most of conversation is between the Buddha and a young brahamin student, whom the Buddha addresses as Bhāradvāja. Bhāradvāja asks the Buddha’s opinion about the brahamin view of their scriptures: ‘Only this is true, anything else is wrong.’. In his reply the Buddha demonstrates that even though the Brahmins assert this none of them know for certain if what their doctrines assert is true or not. Their belief is based purely on blind faith, and the Buddha repeats the example of the file of blind men. The purpose of the discourse is twofold. Firstly to sheds more light on the conditions set out in the Kālāma sutta for acceptance of views, and secondly to consider what “faith” (saddhā) means in the Buddha’s teaching. Our main purpose here is to examine the vedic beliefs that the Buddha considers as an example of unacceptable beliefs.

In the Upanishads we sometimes get sraddhā (faith in the teacher) praised as a virtue. But the Upanishadic concept of sraddhā is different to the Buddhist saddhā. In the brahminical usage sraddhā is more akin to blind faith. In the Buddhist sense saddhā can only be developed in a teacher if certain requisites are satisfied. Firstly the teacher should be a person of moral rectitude. the Vīmasaka Sutta the Buddha lays down certain six moral requiements that the teacher should pass before faith is placed in him. [Note 28] In the Caṅki sutta the teaching itself should satisfy certain tests if faith is to be placed in the teacher propounding it however worthy he may be in terms of the tests posed in the Vīasaka sutta.

The Caṅki Sutta restates the Buddha’s fundamental disagreement with the Vedic-Upanishadic theory:

“How then, Bhāradvāja, the ancient brahmin seers, the creators of the hymns, the composers of the hymns, whose ancient hymns that were formerly chanted, uttered, and compiled, the brahmins nowadays still chant and repeat, repeating what was spoken and reciting what was recited – that is, Aṭṭhaka, Vāmaka, Vāmadeva, Vessāmitta, Yamataggi, Angirasa, Bhāradvāja, Vaseṭṭha, Kassapa, and Bhagu did even these ancient brahmin seers say thus: ‘We know this, we see this: only this is true, anything else is wrong’?” – “No, Master Gotama.”,

“So, Bhāradvāja, it seems that among the brahmins there is not even a single brahmin who says thus: ‘I know this, I see this: only this is true, anything else is wrong.’And among the brahmins there is not even a single teacher or a single teacher’s teacher back to the seventh generation of teachers, who says thus: ‘I know this, I see this: only this is true, anything else is wrong.’And the ancient brahmin seers, the creators of the hymns, the composers of the hymns ... even these ancient brahmin seers did not say thus: ‘We know this, we see this: only this is true, anything else is wrong.’Suppose there were a file of blind men each in touch with the next: the first one does not see, the middle one does not see, and the last one does not see. So too, Bhāradvāja, in regard to their statement the brahmins seem to be like a file of blind men: the first one does not see, the middle one does not see, and the last one does not see. What do you think, Bhāradvāja, that being so, does not the faith of the brahmins turn out to be groundless?”

There are several other sutta’s which criticise the Vedic theory along the lines of the two discourses considered above.

(c) Burrowings from the Vedic theory?

It must not be thought that there were no aspects of the Vedic-Upanishadic theory that is found in Buddhism. But these generally relate to less important doctrines, or the doctrines even though they are considered basic to the Dhamma could be considered not relevant to the issue of human salvation.

The first of these is the place given to supernatural entities and planes of existence in the Buddhist scheme. The Buddha asserts that gods exist, even though the notion of a creator God (issaro or Mahā Brahmā) is denied. There are suttas in which the Buddha discourses with devas. One entire Suttanta, the Mahāgovinda sutta (Digha Nikāya No. 19) is given to a Gandabba. This is a past life of the Buddha and it affirms the existence of realms like the Heaven of the Thirty-Three gods which, as we saw, is a burrowing from the Vedas. It is also said to indicate a transition from the earlier gods of the three Vedas to the more sophisticated speculations of the Brahmanas and Aranyakas. Deva worlds are postulated in which the inhabitants have extra-ordinarily long lifetimes.

But even more important than the devas is the doctrine of sasāra and the associated notions of kamma and re-birth. We saw that this doctrine originated with Yājñavalkya the well-known Upanishadic seer. But of course there are differences in the Upanishadic and the Buddhist versions. Yājñavalkya postulated the Vedic ātaman, but Buddhism denies such an entity. This poses the hoary question: if there is no soul what then is reborn? The usual answer is that it is not the soul but the karmic energy contained in the Saṅkhāras that at death activates a new life elsewhere. Whatever the validity of this argument in popular interpretation re-birth is seen as if the individual keeps on being reborn until Nibbāna is reached. As regards the karma which drives this process of sasāra there is a difference between the Upanishads and the Buddha’s teaching. In Vedic doctrine karma is the right performance of duty as stipulated in the revealed scriptures (ṛta). The most important of these is the observance of caste law. In Buddhism however karma is essentially the observance of ethical precepts like non-killing.

Another important difference between the Upanishadic theory of Transmigration and the Buddhist theory of re-birth is that the Upanishads refer to a place of existence called the plane of the fathers (in addition to the plane of the devas). Buddhism knows not “plane of the fathers”, but on various deva realms, hellish planes, and the human plane.

The Buddhist notion of Nirvana (nibbāna) has been compared to Brahman. As we have seen the latter for all practical purposes is identifiable with the god Brahmā while nibbāna is a state of being which the fully liberated person reaches. If it can be assigned a gender it has to be neuter. The similarity is that both terms cannot be defined in positive terms. The Upanishadic seers often said that Brahman is “not this, not that” (neti neti). In Buddhism too Nirvana is often described as not being things that are readily perceptible. Thus the fully liberated person, who has reached the state of nibbāna is said neither to exist or not to exist. Thus his existence after is neither affirmed not denied. While this may be compatible with one the logical categories of ancient Indian thinking it is not one that is accepted in modern logical theory.

There are other brahmanical notions which the Buddha seems to have accepted. Thus the Buddha is said to have mastered the meditation techniques of his mentors during the period of his search mainly Alāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta. While we cannot exactly state what theory these samanas subscribed it is most likely one of the brāhmanical theories current at the time. The importance given to breath even as a preliminary stage in Buddhist meditation may be an echo of the central position that breath (prāṇa) was given in the Upanishadic system.

7. The Upanishads and Rationalism

Another angle from which the Upanishads could be considered is that of rationalism and materialism. We have seen that Buddhism adopted a basically rational approach, but it still did tolerate certain elements of Vedic thinking. In particular this included a belief in the existence of devās, though not of a supreme creator God. While the term deva has many meanings, including being an exalted person like a king, it is generally thought to be supernatural beings living in non-terrestrial realms. Empirical proof of such beings cannot be made. Also Buddhism asserts the doctrine of rebirth, which is similar to the reincarnation theory advanced by the Upanishadic seers. A more through critique of the Upanishadic system would involve a rejection of these elements as well.

Strict rationalist and materialist views did exist at the time when the Upanishads were composed. They were generally called doctrines of nihilism (nāstikavādā). [Note 29] The most prominent of these were attributed to a thinker of that age called Cārvāka of whom virtually nothing is known [Note 30]. He is said to have composed a work called Brihaspati Sūtra, but this has been lost. There are at least two sources when verses allegedly from this treatise have been published. One is by Jayarāśi Bhaṭṭa [Note 31], the other by Madhavacharya. [Note 32] Whether these works give authentic statements of Cārvāka may be questioned. But more reliable are the views of these schools given by their opponents be they Brahmanical, Buddhist or Jaina. Where all these traditions ascribe the same view to the Cārvākas it could be assumed to have been a view they held. It is on this kind of basis that some reconstruction of the Cārvāka position could be made. But we still would not know if the original Cārvāka texts made explicit reference to the Upanishads.

The school that has come to be known as the Lokāyata is also equated to the Cārvākas. The first mention of the Lokāyata is in Kautilya’s Arthasastra where it is considered from the epistemological point of view. Later it was given ideological content and seen as a doctrine emphasizing an extreme position of materialism. Those who upheld these views were called Lokāyatikas.

The Cārvāka-Lokāyatika position is said to assert a number of propositions. These could be considered to see if they are asserted or denied in the Upanshads, and also in Buddhism and other non-Vedic traditions. The principal of these propositions are:

1. Only the Material World Exists. This denies that a non-material component exists. Clearly this is contrary to Upanishadic belief. If we take this to mean that the material world is “real” it would be denied by some of the later Upanishads which espouse the māyā doctrine that all is illusion.

2. Pleasure and Pain. This asserts the hedonic principle that only pleasure counts even if it is accompanied by a degree of pain. Some Upanishads that espouse the doctrine “brahman is bliss (ānanda)” seem to uphold the hedonic principle, but later Upanishds which emphasize austerity see a virtue on self motification.

3. Ritual as a Livelihood. This denounces the old Brahmanical practice of earning their livelihood by performing the various Vedic rituals.

4. Suffering exists only in this world. This is the denial of a post-mortem Hell and that the only suffering a person suffers from is the mundane suffering caused by the travails of existence.

5. Intelligence is a human attribute and resides in the Body. This proposition may not conflict with some Upanishadic propositions relating to learning, etc.

6. Such methods as logic, testimony or analogy do not provide a valid ground for inference. These are similar to the ten grounds identified by the Buddha as not providing as a valid ground for correct inference. There is no such recognition in the Upanishads.

7. Nature as spontaneous and independent. This is similar to the Sāṅkya doctrine which is a later development from the Upanishads, but it contrary to the general principles of Upanishadic philosophy.

The above principles of the Cārvāta-Lokayāta would be consonant with many of the propositions of modern rationalism and atheism. But they appear to be late developments and we cannot be sure if the original Cārākas and Lokayātikās held them. Little is known of their social views. They may have rejected the social divisions of the Vedic system such as the caste system, but in the absence of textual evidence from their writings we cannot be sure of this.

8. Conclusion

By way of conclusion we may compare the Upanishads with Western philosophy and religion, both the classical theistic Christianity and the more reformed Christianity resulting from Enlightenment thinking such as deism. It is easy to see some resemblance between the Lord (Bhagavat, Iśā) of the theistic Upanishads and the monotheistic God of Christianity. Like these Upanishads Christianity too admits of a plurality of supernatural beings (the other elements of the Trinity, the Angels and Archangels).

It is, however, not for this reason that the Upanishads have been given exaggerated importance by Western scholars. It was Schopenhauer who saw in the Upanishads he encountered in an imperfect vision of Kant’s re-evaluation of Christianity. Kant had rejected the ontological explanation of the traditional Christian God and it was easy to see in the imprecise and confused conception of Brahman something akin to the Godhead of Kant. In fact the notion of Brahman was closer to the God of faith-based Christianity than the deity in the Deistic religion.

We have seen that the central concept of Brahman does not represent an impersonal ground of being as the neuter designation of the term seems to indicate. Even the early Upanishadic seers could not put away the notion of the old Vedic gods. Of course when we come to the later Upanishads, all of which are post-Buddhistic even the pretext of a neutral ground of being is given up, or at least only lip-service is paid to it. In Upanisads like the śā, the Śvetasvatara, the Praśna etc. we have the notion of a creator god (śvara) very much in the manner of the Abrahamic religions. Thus a great endeavour, which was seen as a revolution in Indian philosophy, simply ended up as tame faith-based religion of God.


1It has been claimed that the Vedas were the earliest religious documents of the Indo-aryan people. Next would probably be the religious documents of the Semitic people which culminated in the Old Testam ent.

2The caste differences were set up at the very creation of mankind in the mythical sacrifice of the primordial man: “ The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rājanya made. His thighs became the Vaiśya, from his feet the Śūdra was produced.” (Ṛg Veda 10.90.12).

3Names like Yājñavalka the famous seer of the Bṛihadāraṇyaka are well known, sometimes even deities like Prajāpati and Rudra are mentioned as authors. See summary of the principal Upanishads in Section 4 of this Essay. The author of principal parts of the Ṛg Veda is given as Aghamarsaṇa. This kind of information usually comes from the Commentators.

4See section 7 of this Essay for information on them.

5 Later a fourth Veda, the Arthava, was added but it will not be considered here as this compilation is clearly post Buddhist.

6ṛta was a term denoting the natural order, ( which also included the human) . The physical basis of ṛta was the universe (as it was then known), while the social aspect included the caste system and the religious ritual.

6The “heaven of the 33 gods” is also mentioned in Buddhist writings. This indicates that the supernatural elements of Buddhism like the existence of gods, asuras, pretas, etc. and realms where they exist, were simply taken over from Vedic beliefs and do not constitute an original element of the Buddha-dhamma. The Upanishadic seer Yājñavalkya also affirms that there are 33 gods and he lists them as 8 Vasus, 11 Rudras, 12 Adityas, Indra and Prajāpati.

7While the central act of the Horse sacrifice was the killing of the horse the ritual involved contained many other unsavory aspects. The most notorious of these was the role assigned to the wife of the sacrificer, usually the queen if the sacrificer was the king . This involved some degree of ritual cohabitation between the animal that was to be sacrificed and the queen. The materialist critics who opposed Vedic practices described this practice as obscene.

8There are some passages in the Upanishads which condemn the old Vedic sacrifices, and supporters of the Upanishads point to them. But these were the exception. The general rule was to be vague about was sacrifices, but sacrifice is considered a virtue by the Upanishadic seers.

9Sankara (788-820 CE) is a commentator on 10 early Upanishads. He was also known as a persecutor of Buddhism in its declining years in India, although others accuse of reading Buddhist ideas into his interpretation of he Upanishads.

10Paul Deussen, The Philosophy of the Upanishads, originally published in German

11It will be seen that here a kṣatriya refutes a brahmana. Indeed this Upanishad categorically states that the Kṣatriyas are superior to the Brahmins (cf. 1.4.11). This is another peculiarity of the Upanishads when compared to the Brahmanas.

12Another version of this conversation is also reported later in this Upanishad in Chapter 4.

13Translated by Swami Madvananda. Other translations give different readings of this passage, but they are all equally incomprehensible.

14This is the Hiraṇyagarbha theory which is mentioned in different contexts throughout the Upanishads. The idea dates from the Ṛg Veda (X.121.1) where it is the first born out of the primodal creation. Sometimes Hiraṇyagarba us taken as the personification of Brahman as Brahmā. This will be taken up later in our consideration of Brahman as Brahmā by the Buddha.

15As translated by Hume, Thirteen Principal Upanishads, p.263.

16That is, within the self there are various selves, but the true knower must advance to the highest self.

17The Bhagavad Gītā has become the central text of modern Hinduism. But the date of its composition is not certain. Most scholarly opinion date it as being composed after the Buddha (perhaps in the third Century BCE), and indeed it has been seen as the Brahmanical answer to Buddhism. But some people date it much earlier than that, perhaps even predating the Buddha. If this is true it could be contemporaneous with the composition of some of the theistic Upanishads.

18Thus J. Brereton considers Brahman as providing “an integrative vision by identifying a single comprehensive and fundamental principle which shapes the world” (in his article "The Upanishads" in Approaches to the Asian Classics, Columbia University Press, 1990). The use of the word “principle” can give the impression that it represents some impersonal force like the force of Gravity. But in the Upanishads this “principle” turns out to be nothing more than the conventional God!

19The “father God” of Christianity is not usually given a personal name even though some sects use the term Jehovah, a corruption of Yahweh, as the name of the alleged father of Jesus.

20See the present writer’s essay “The Mind and the Heart in Buddhism and Other Religions” available on the Internet at

21Meditation on the breath is a standard part of Upanishadic meditation. Buddhist meditation also begins with meditation on breath, and is probably copied from the Upanishadic practice.

22The terms ‘reincarnation’ and ‘rebirth’ are taken as synonyms. But Buddhists in particular make a distinction between reincarnation which assumes the existence of a Soul or Self, and rebirth which is possible even without a Soul or Ātman. We shall consider the two terms as interchangeable, except when considering the Buddhist doctrine specifically.

23The earliest texts of Buddhism are those preserved in the Pali Canon. This comprises three sections: (1) Dhamma dealing with doctrine, (2) Vinaya dealing with monastic disciples, and (3) Abhidhamma deling with some advanced doctrines. The third section is generally considered to be a later addition. The Pali terminology will be used throughout with the Sanskrit equivalent will be given in parentheses if necessary.

24This is based on the presumed dates for Asoka which in turn are based on Greek and Sri Lankan texts. More recently it has been argued that the Buddha lived at least a century after the earlier accepted dates. If so it is possible that more of the Upanishads would have been composed before the Buddha’s time.

25The first Western philosopher to praise the Upanishads was Schopenhauer. He had access only to a Latin translation of a Persian translation of the Kaṭha Upanishad. He considered it as an oriental form of Kantian philososphy. Buddhism came t the attention of the West somewhat later through the efforts of Rys-Davids and the Pali Text Society of London.

26Union with the Godhead was how liberation (moksha) was described in later Hinduism. In the Upanishads we have constant reference to gaining knowledge of Brahman which could be taken as the equivalent of union with Brahmā of later Hinduism.

27Some of the schools mentioned here may refer to Upanishadic schools like the Taittiriya and the Chāndogya. In his reply the Buddha also mentions several Brahmin teachers (Aṭṭhaka, Vāmaka, Vāadeva, Vessāmitta, Yamataggi, Yamataggi, Aṅgirasa, Bhāradvāja, Vaseṭṭha, Kassapa, Bhagu) who ressemble some of the seers mentioned in the Brāhmaṇsas and the Upanishads.

28These are (1) Are there any defilements in the Teacher? (2) Are his attainments of long standing? (3) Is he convinced of these attainments? (4) Is sensuality, greed or fear evident in him? (5) On what grounds does the Teacher claim that he does not indulge in sensuality because greed is destroyed and not through fear? (6) Is he rightfully enlightened?

29The term nāstikavādā us sometimes used to denote any system which denies the Vedas. Thus even Buddhism and Jainism were described by this term as they did not endorse the notion of a supreme Creator God who presides over the destiny of people. But these systems were not completely nihilist ic and therefore cannot be described as nāstikavādā if that term is used to denote a completely nihilist system of belief, as we shall take it to mean.

30Some have speculated that no real person named Cā rvāka existed, and consider the name has been taken from a minor character in the Mahabhārata who is regarded as an evil person.

31In a work titled Tattvopaplavasimha which has been dated to the 8th Century CE, Though presented as an original Cārvāka text it is mainly concerned with epistemology rather than doctrine. It is sceptical of a completely reliable source of knowledge. It also develops a strong critic of supernatural beings. The text was only discovered in the twentieth century.

32In his Sarva-darsana-sangraha a work dated to the 13th or 14th Century CE. The first chapter of this work was devoted to Cārvāka. This work is much more doctrinal than that of Bhaṭṭa. Thus the author attributes to Cārvāka the view: “The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the ascetic's three staves, and smearing oneself with ashes – Brihaspati says, these are but means of livelihood for those who have no manliness nor sense”.