Nearly every book about the classical Upanishads emphasizes their importance for every Hindu. The Upanishads are considered part of Shruti.

  • My question asks for the relevance of the Upanishads for the religious belief of the majority of contemporary Hindus. Please note that my question refers to contemporary Hindus and to the majority.

I assume that most non-theistic passages of the Upanishads are too abstract and their basic terms like atman, brahman, vidya too sophisticated to play a decisive role for the religious belief of the majority.

In addition, I assume that the theistic myths from the Puranas, the bhakti way, and murti puja are much more relevant in daily life than the study of the Upanishads.

But because I do not live within any Hindu community I cannot check my assumptions.

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    You are right in that people are most influenced by the Puranas and Bhakti Marga (Path) more than the philosophy of the Upanishads. Regardless, most Hindus know at least the basic concepts of Atma and Brahman - though the interpretation of these varies between each school of thought. – Surya Aug 2 '16 at 3:12
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    In the Upanishads there are also verses on the importance of bhakti. Those verses on bhakti in the Upanishads serve as a basis to the teachings on the topic of bhakti in the Puranas and other scriptures such as Mahabharata and Pancaratras. Thus Upanishads also have a great relevance for the majority of Hindus who are greatly influenced with the teachings on bhakti in their daily lives. – brahma jijnasa Aug 2 '16 at 4:27
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    Jo, their are no 'non-theistic' passages in the Vedas. This is a wrong interpretation of atman, brahman, etc. to say they are non-theistic. whether or not the puranas or upanishads are more relevant depends upon the particular sect a person/family identifies with. Most Hindus identify themselves with the dualistic sects and the puranas. – Swami Vishwananda Aug 2 '16 at 5:54
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    Vivekananda writes: There is a text in the Vedas which says, "Existence (Sat) alone existed, O beloved, nothing else existed in the beginning". Many different meanings are given to the word Sat in this text. The Atomists say the word meant "atoms"...The Naturalists say it meant "nature", and out of nature everything has come. The Shunyavâdins (maintainers of the Void) say it meant "nothing", "zero", and out of nothing everything has been produced. The Theists say it meant "God", and the Advaitists say it was "Absolute Existence", and all refer to the same text as their authority. – Swami Vishwananda Aug 2 '16 at 9:17
  • @Vishwananda I assume, you and I, we will not find agreement whether the Upanishads comprise non-theistic passages or not. So let's close this particular topic :-) – Jo Wehler Aug 4 '16 at 17:07

Swami Vivekananda writes (Complete Works, Vol 4, pp 334-6 and available here under the heading Writings: Prose, sub-heading Reply to the Madras Address - http://cwsv.belurmath.org/volume_4/vol_4_frame.htm):

If one be asked to point out the system of thought towards which as a centre all the ancient and modern Indian thoughts have converged, if one wants to see the real backbone of Hinduism in all its various manifestations, the Sutras of Vyasa [i.e. the Brahma Sutras] will unquestionably be pointed out as constituting all that.

Either one hears the Advaita-Keshari roaring in peals of thunder — the Asti, Bhâti, and Priya — (Exists (Sat), Shines (Chit), Is beloved (Ânanda) — the three indicatives of Brahman.) amidst the heart-stopping solemnities of the Himalayan forests, mixing with the solemn cadence of the river of heaven, or listens to the cooing of the Piyâ, Pitam in the beautiful bowers of the grove of Vrindâ: whether one mingles with the sedate meditations of the monasteries of Varanasi or the ecstatic dances of the followers of the Prophet of Nadia; whether one sits at the feet of the teacher of the Vishishtâdvaita system with its Vadakale, Tenkale, (The two divisions of the Ramanuja sect.) and all the other subdivisions, or listens with reverence to the Acharyas of the Mâdhva school; whether one hears the martial "Wâ Guruki Fateh" (Victory to the Guru) of the secular Sikhs or the sermons on the Grantha Sâhib of the Udâsis and Nirmalâs; whether he salutes the Sannyâsin disciples of Kabir with "Sat Sâhib" and listens with joy to the Sâkhis (Bhajans); whether he pores upon the wonderful lore of that reformer of Rajputana, Dâdu, or the works of his royal disciple, Sundaradâsa, down to the great Nishchaladâsa, the celebrated author of Vichâra sâgara, which book has more influence in India than any that has been written in any language within the last three centuries; if even one asks the Bhangi Mehtar of Northern India to sit down and give an account of the teachings of his Lâlguru — one will find that all these various teachers and schools have as their basis that system whose authority is the Shruti, Gitâ its divine commentary, the Shâriraka-Sutras its organised system, and all the different sects in India, from the Paramahamsa Parivrâjakâchâryas to the poor despised Mehtar disciples of Lâlguru, are different manifestations.

The three Prasthânas, ("Courses", viz, the Upanishad (Shruti), the Gita, and the Shariraka-Sutras [i.e. the Brahma Sutras].) then, in their different explanations as Dvaita, Vishishtadvaita, or Advaita, with a few minor recensions, form the "authorities" of the Hindu religion. The Purânas, the modern representations of the ancient Nârâsamsi (anecdote portion of the Vedas), supply the mythology, and the Tantras, the modern representations of the Brâhmanas (ritual and explanatory portion of the Vedas), supply the ritual. Thus the three Prasthanas, as authorities, are common to all the sects; but as to the Puranas and Tantras, each sect has its own.

The Tantras, as we have said, represent the Vedic rituals in a modified form; and before any one jumps into the most absurd conclusions about them, I will advise him to read the Tantras in conjunction with the Brahmanas, especially the Adhvaryu portion. And most of the Mantras, used in the Tantras, will be found taken verbatim from their Brahmanas. As to their influence, apart from the Shrauta and Smârta rituals, all the forms of the rituals in vogue from the Himalayas to the Comorin have been taken from the Tantras, and they direct the worship of the Shâkta, or Shaiva, or Vaishnava, and all the others alike.

Of course, I do not pretend that all the Hindus are thoroughly acquainted with these sources of their religion. Many, especially in lower Bengal, have not heard of the names of these sects and these great systems; but consciously or unconsciously, it is the plan laid down in the three Prasthanas that they are all working out.

Wherever, on the other hand, the Hindi language is spoken, even the lowest classes have more knowledge of the Vedantic religion than many of the highest in lower Bengal.

There are regional differences and there are sect differences. As Vivekananda points out, within Hindi speaking regions there is a great penetration of the advaitic school. Also as he points out, purana can mean different books to different sects.

  • @Vishwananda Which answer to my original question shall I read off from Vivekananda's statement? On one hand, he emphasizes that the Upanishads belong to the "authorities" of the Hindu religion. This was my point of departure. On the other hand, he does "not pretend that all Hindus are thoroughly acquainted with theses sources of their religion". This was just my question: To which degree the Upanishads are relevant for the maiority of contemporary Hindus? – Jo Wehler Aug 4 '16 at 17:02
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    As Vivekananda points out, the Upanishads influence and permeate all the puranas and tantras. You mention murti puja; as Vivekananda states above these are from the tantras and not the puranas and the differences from one sect to the other are very minor. The two biggest concepts to understand are not Upanishads as opposed to bhakti, but rather the central role of a teacher, guru, and individual private worship as opposed to any types of public worship. – Swami Vishwananda Aug 6 '16 at 5:21
  • @Swami Vishwananda,your answer throws a lot of light on a very valuable question viz -" If one be asked to point out the system of thought towards which as a centre all the ancient and modern Indian thoughts have converged, if one wants to see the real backbone of Hinduism in all its various manifestations, the Sutras of Vyasa [i.e. the Brahma Sutras] will unquestionably be pointed out as constituting all that."- as elucidated by the great Yogi Swami Vivekananda.Thank you. If it is possible, please provide a link to some key Sutras of Vyasa [i.e. the Brahma Sutras}.Thank you. – Uday Krishna Aug 7 '16 at 8:52
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It is a western academic view that the classical Upanishads do not support Bhakti marga and thus these Upanishads do not play any role in the life of most Hindus who live according to the Puranas. The Vedanta tradition does not accept this view.

Mental activities relating to the Saguna Brahman - such as are described in the Shandilya Vidya are upasanas or devotions.

Vedantasara of Sadananda Yogindra 12 translated by Swami Nikhilananda

Here Sadananda Yogindra links the Shandilya Vidya of the Chandogya Upanishad with Bhakti.

The famous Shandilya Vidya of Chandogya Upanishad starts with the following shloka:

Verily, all this universe is Brahman. From Him do all things originate, into Him do they dissolve and by Him are they sustained. On Him should one meditate in tranquility. For as is one's faith, such indeed one is; and as is one's faith in this world, such one becomes on departing hence. Let one therefore cultivate faith.

Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1 translated by Swami Swahananda

The key sentence is the bolded line 'santa upashita' (On Him should one meditate in tranquility). Since it is not possible to meditate on the Infinite Nirguna Brahman (since no bottle can contain the whole of the Infinite sea, i.e. it is impossible for the human mind to think of the entire Nirguna Brahman) it is possible to meditate only on Saguna Brahman and thus the Chandogya Upanishad is here supporting Bhakti marga. Thus according to Vedanta tradition the popular Bhakti marga described in the Puranas is derived from the classical Upanishads which do play a role in the life of ordinary Hindus.

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