1.2 The 10 Main Upanishads

This sub-module is based on the teachings of Swami Paramarthananda.
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In the previous sub-module we saw that each Veda was divided into 4 sections, and each Veda contains one or many Upanishads.

It is the Upanishads that constitute the foundation of Vedanta so it’s important to have a little more information on the main Upanishads.

So in this sub-module we’ll provide a basic background for the 10 Main Upanishads. We’ll see how the Upanishad names were derived, which Rishis gave out the Upanishads, and the content and structure of the Upanishads.

However if you feel you’re not interested in reading about the background of the Upanishads at this point in time then you can skip this chapter and move to the next chapter. This chapter is not mandatory reading.

Now let’s take a brief look at the background and composition of each of the 10 Main Upanishads.

Vedas and Upanishads

1. Isavasya Upanishad

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Isavasya Upanishad is a small Upanishad consisting of 18 mantras and it belongs to Shukla Yajur Veda.

There are 4 Vedas, of which one is Yajur Veda. And Yajur Veda itself has 2 divisions. One is known as Krishna Yajur Veda and the other as Shukla Yajur Veda.

If you translate them then Krishna Yajur Veda means “black school” of Yajur Veda and Shukla Yajur Veda means “white school” of Yajur Veda.

Isavasya Upanishad is one of the few Upanishads like Taittiriya Upanishad for which the Svara is still maintained and available for chanting. Svara means the intonation for chanting.

This Upanishad is a Mantra Upanishad because it occurs in the mantra or the Samhita portion of the Vedas. So Isavasya can also be called a Samhitopanishad.

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad which also belongs to Shukla Yajur Veda is a Brahmanopanishad, and is considered to be an elaboration of Isavasya Upanishad since generally a Brahmanopanishad is considered to be a commentary on the Samhitopanishad.

So the 18 mantras of Isavasya Upanishad are elaborated in more than 400 mantras of Brihadaranyaka. From that we know that Isavasya is a very condensed Upanishad.

Apart from Adi Shankara many other Acharyas (Teachers) have written commentaries on this Upanishad. It is one of the most popular and well known Upanishads.

Even in the Dasopanishads verse where we enumerate the 10 main Upanishads we start with Isavasya. Because of the enumeration many people believe that Isavasya has to be studied first. But in fact this is a complicated Upanishad and has to be studied after some of the other Upanishads.

This Upanishad gets it name because of the first portion of the beginning verse “Isavasyam Idam Sarvam”. The first two words are “Isa” and “Avasyam” and hence its called Isavasya. The first word is “Isa” so it can also be called Isa Upanishad or Isopanishad.

All Upanishads begin with a Shanti Pathah (a mantra) invoking the grace of the Lord. And the convention is that all the Upanishads belonging to one particular Veda will have the same Shanti Pathah.

So all Atharva Veda Upanishads will have the same Shanti Pathah and all Sama Veda Upanishads will have the same Shanti Pathah and so on.

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2. Kena Upanishad

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This Upanishad is also called Kenopanishad. This is a small Upanishad in Sama Veda, and it has 4 chapters, each chapter known as a Kanda or Adhyaya.

There are in total 35 mantras and therefore it’s a relatively small but a very important Upanishad.

And this Upanishad also begins with a Shanti Pathah which is a common Shanti Pathah to all Sama Veda Upanishads.

This Upanishad begins with the word “Kena” hence the name for the Upanishad.

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3. Katha Upanishad

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This Upanishad is also known as Kathopanishad and belongs to Krishna Yajur Veda.

This is a fairly big Upanishad consisting of 119 mantras spread over 2 chapters. Each chapter is called an Adhyaya, and in each chapter there are 3 sections known as Vallis.

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4. Prasna Upanishad

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This Upanishad belongs to Atharva Veda like the Mundaka and Mandukya Upanishads.

While Mundaka Upanishad is considered to be a Samhitopanishad, Prasna Upanishad is considered to be a Brahmanopanishad.

And generally a Brahmanopanishad is considered to be a commentary on the Samhitopanishad. So in this case Prasna Upanishad is a commentary or elaboration on Mundaka Upanishad.

This Upanishad can also be called by the name Prasnopanishad, and it is given in the form of a dialogue between a Guru named Pippalada and 6 disciples.

There are 6 chapters with 67 mantras in this Upanishad and each chapter is a dialogue with one of the six disciples.

Therefore it is a reasonably big Upanishad. And since in each chapter the teacher Pippalada is answering questions raised by the students, this Upanishad got the name Prasna Upanishad, the word “Prasna” meaning a “question”.

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5. Mundaka Upanishad

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This Upanishad can also be called as Mundakopanishad.

This Upanishad belongs to Atharva Veda and it is known by the name Mundaka Upanishad because of several reasons.

We’ll look at one of the simpler reasons as to why this Upanishad is named so.

“Mundaka” means “head”, and the word “head” generally indicates importance. For e.g. the head of an organization.

Mundaka Upanishad is known by this name because it is one of the most important Upanishads. Therefore it being a primary Upanishad it’s called Mundaka Upanishad.

This Upanishad has got 3 chapters and 6 sections; each chapter having 2 sections each. Each chapter is known as Mundaka and each section as a Kanda. There are in total 65 mantras in the entire Upanishad.

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6. Mandukya Upanishad

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This Upanishad belongs to Atharva Veda like Mundaka Upanishad. In fact many people get confused between Mundaka and Mandukya Upanishad.

It is not exactly known how this Upanishad got its name. There are several possibilities given. One possibility is that this Upanishad is associated with a Rishi named Manduka and hence the name Mandukya Upanishad.

Another reason is that the word “Manduka” in Sanskrit means a frog. Some people suggest that since in Mandukya Upanishad the teaching is given in stages, the Upanishad leaps from one stage to another, just like a frog leaps from one place to another. Hence the name “Frog Upanishad”.

This is the smallest Upanishad among the 10 main Upanishads, containing only 12 mantras.

We know that it’s impossible to cover entire Vedanta in just 12 mantras, so it’s important to know that this Upanishad is not primarily meant to teach Vedanta but to remember the teachings which have been elaborately dealt with in the other Upanishads.

Another Upanishad called the Muktika Upanishad praises the Mandukya Upanishad saying “One Mandukya Upanishad is enough because it contains the whole of Vedanta”.

So Mandukya Upanishad is a summarization of the elaborate teachings contained in the other Upanishads. So you can understand this Upanishad only if you’ve studied the other Upanishads.

However so that this Upanishad can be studied on its own, Gaudapada who was Adi Shankara’s Guru’s Guru wrote an elaborate commentary on it called Mandukya Karika.

Adi Shankara’s Guru was Govinda Bhagavatpada and his Guru was Gaudapada.

So in Mandukya Karika Gaudapada has done an analysis of these 12 mantras and presented it in verse form. It is not exactly a commentary because Gaudapada does not go word by word. In a commentary every word of the mantra is commented upon. That type of commentary is called Bhasyam.

In Mandukya Karika Gaudapada writes an analysis of the entire Upanishad. And this analysis is in the form of verses. “Karika” means a verse analysis.

And since the author is Gaudapada, the text is also known as Gaudapada Karika.

And there are 215 verses (Karikas) on the 12 Upanishad mantras. And since Mandukya Upanishad can be understood only with the help of these Karikas, the Upanishad and Mandukya Karika are generally studied together.

Even in Adi Shankara’s commentary, he comments upon both the Upanishad as well as the Karikas. And when you combine the 12 mantras with the 215 Karikas, the Upanishad suddenly becomes a big study.

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7. Taittiriya Upanishad

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This Upanishad belongs to Yajur Veda and as we saw earlier Yajur Veda has 2 branches: Krishna Yajur Veda (Black school branch) and Shukla Yajur Veda (White school branch), and Taittiriya Upanishad belongs to Krishna Yajur Veda.

This is a very significant Upanishad, both in the Karma Kanda or ritualistic circles and also in Vedantic circles.

This Upanishad is important from a ritualistic viewpoint because this Upanishad is chanted in temples. And from a Vedantic viewpoint also this is an important Upanishad, and Adi Shankara also gives prominence to this Upanishad.

This Upanishad is called Taittiriya Upanishad because of various reasons. One of the reasons is that in the succession of Acharyas (teachers) who have preserved and propagated this Upanishad, one of Acharyas was known as Tittiri Acharya and hence the name of the Upanishad.

This Upanishad is in prose form and has 3 chapters, each chapter being known as a “Valli”. The three chapters are called Shiksha Valli, Brahma Valli and Bhrigu Valli.

The chapters are named so because each chapter begins with that word. So Shiksha Valli begins with the word “Shiksha”, Brahma Valli with the word “Brahma” and Bhrigu Valli with the word “Bhrigu”.

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8. Aitareya Upanishad

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This Upanishad belongs to Rig Veda and among the 10 Upanishads the only one from Rig Veda.

This Upanishad was given out by a Rishi named Aitareya and hence the name of the Upanishad. Aitareya Rishi is also known as Mahidasa. So some people call him Aitareya Mahidasa Rishi.

And this Rishi got the name of Aitareya because his mother’s name was Itara. “Aitareya” means he who’s mother is Itara.

According to a traditional story Aitareya was once very depressed because he felt his father did not love him. So he went to his mother and told her of his sorrow.

So to remove her son’s unhappiness, Itara prayed to their family deity (Kuladevata) who was Prithvi Devata (Earth deity). And that is why Aitareya is also called Mahidasa because “Mahi” means Prithvi and “Dasa” means devotee. So Mahidasa means a devotee of Prithvi.

And when the mother and son prayed together to Prithvi Devata, the deity appeared in front of them and blessed Aitareya with all knowledge.

And because of this blessing Aitareya became a Rishi (a wise person) and what knowledge he got by the grace of Prithvi Devata, he brought out in the form of Aitareya Brahmanam, which is a very big portion of Rig Veda.

And Aitareya Brahmanam has in total 40 chapters, and towards the end of it comes Aitareya Aranyakam, and a portion of that is Aitareya Upanishad.

And this Upanishad has in total 3 chapters divided into 5 sections. The first chapter has 3 sections and the last 2 chapters have 1 section each. This is a relatively small Upanishad consisting of 33 mantras.

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9. Chandogya Upanishad

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Now we come to the last 2 Upanishads; Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, both of which are voluminous Upanishads.

This Upanishad belongs to Sama Veda like Kena Upanishad, and it’s a big Upanishad consisting of 8 chapters and 627 mantras. In fact among the 10 Upanishads, Chandogya has the highest number of mantras.

Chandogya Upanishad is also said to be chanted with Svara (intonation) like Isavasya and Taittiriya Upanishads. Even Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is available with Svara.

Svara for Mundaka and Katha Upanishads are not available. Even though Kena Upanishad is also from Sama Veda, Svara for it is not available.

Chandogya is considered to be an important Upanishad because Vyasa selects many mantras from Chandogya for his analysis in Brahma Sutra. In fact among the Dasopanishads, Chandogya has the most number of mantras in Brahma Sutra.

And this Upanishad is called Chandogya because of a particular derivation. The Sanskrit word “Chand” has 2 meanings. One meaning is “to give happiness”, and the second meaning is “to protect” or “to guard”. And the word “Chanda” is derived from the root “Chand”.

Vedas in general are called Chanda because they protect a human being from Samsara. They not only protect but also give happiness.

Another derivative of the word “Chand” is “Chandas” which means a Vedic metre. So Sama Veda in particular is called Chanda because firstly it’s a Veda (it protects and gives happiness) and it can also be sung unlike the other Vedas which can only be chanted.

In fact Indian music is supposed to be derived from Sama Veda. So the conclusion is that Sama Veda can also be alternatively called Chandas.

And the word “Chandoga” means a person who sings Sama Veda (Chandas). And the Upanishad which belongs to Sama Veda chanters (Chandoga) is called “Chandogyam”. That is how the name of the Upanishad was derived.

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10. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

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Like Isavasya Upanishad this Upanishad also belongs to Shukla Yajur Veda.

As we read earlier, since Isavasya is a Mantra Upanishad and Brihadaranyaka a Brahmana Upanishad, Brihadaranyaka is considered to be a commentary or an elaboration of Isavasya.

Shukla Yajur Veda has 2 branches: Kanva Shakha and Madhyandina Shakha. “Shakha” means a “branch”. And Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is found in both the branches.

Even though this Upanishad occurs in two places, the Upanishad reads almost the same with only minor differences.

Adi Shankara has commented upon Kanva Shakha Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, and later Swami Vidyaranya, who wrote the famous Vedantic text Panchadasi, commented upon Madhyandina Shakha Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

The Upanishad name is a compound of two words “Brihad” and “Aranyakam”. In ancient times, the Sannyasis after renouncing the world would go and live in the forests and study the Upanishads. So “Aranyakam” means “what is studied in the forests”.

And “Brihad” means “great” or “big”. Brihadaranyaka is a great Upanishad not only in terms of its volume, it’s great in terms of the depth of its insight. So it’s a great Upanishad in terms of both quantity as well as quality.

Thus the name Brihadaranyaka can mean either “a great Upanishad studied in the forests” or “an Upanishad as great or big as a forest”.

This Upanishad has got 434 mantras which makes it a very big Upanishad. Based on mantra count Chandogya seems to be bigger with 627 mantras, but the size of each mantra in Brihadaranyaka is bigger. So ultimately volume-wise Brihadaranyaka is as big as Chandogya.

But if we look at Adi Shankara’s commentaries on Brihadaranyaka, it’s twice that of his commentary on Chandogya. This is because the philosophical portion in Chandogya is relatively lesser; there are more Upasanas (meditative practices) and hence Shankara’s commentary is brief.

Whereas in Brihadaranyaka, the philosophical portions are more and therefore Shankara’s commentary is much larger. In fact among all his commentaries on Dasopanishads, Brihadaranyaka Bhashyam (commentary) is supposed to be the best and considered as great as his Brahma Sutra Bhashyam.

There is a difference in the text layout in both Upanishads. In Chandogya, the Vedanta and Upasana portions are clearly segregated whereas in Brihadaranyaka both portions are intermixed.

The 434 mantras of Brihadaranyaka are spread out over 6 chapters. Each chapter is called an Adhyaya. And traditionally these 6 chapters are divided into 3 pairs, each pair being called a “Kandam”.

First 2 chapters make the first Kandam called Upadesha Kandam or Madhu Kandam. It is called Upadesha Kandam because it is in the form of teaching the truths. And it’s called Madhu Kandam because there is topic called “Madhu” in this Kandam.

The 2nd Kandam consisting of the 3rd & 4th chapter is called Upapatti Kandam or Muni Kandam. Upapatti Kandam means predominantly logical in nature. In this Kandam logical support is given to the teaching.

And Muni means a “Sage”. So it’s also called Muni Kandam because in this Kandam, Muni Yajnavalkya (a Sage) plays an important role.

The 3rd Kandam consisting of 5th and 6th chapters is called Khila Kandam or Upasana Kandam. It’s known as Khila Kandam because it consists of a variety of miscellaneous topics. And it’s also called Upasana Kandam because these 2 chapters contain a variety of Upasanas.

So this is the basic background behind the 10 Main Upanishads.

The Upanishads represent a great chapter in history, they are respected not only because of the unique and beautiful way in which they are presented, but because they inspired generations of people from different cultures by the wisdom of their ideas and spiritual power. “The fire still burns bright on their altars”. Their light is for the seeing eye, and their message is for the seeker of truth.

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