By Shahid Mishra
Some religious groups raise objections toward the reading of scriptures outside of their religion. The reasons are often rooted in controlling the thinking of all members within the group. An open-minded person could be a dangerous ingredient within a controlled extremist setting. Most Yoga and meditation teachers tend to be rational thinkers, who like to read everything. Regardless of religious background there is much to be learned within the Upanishads.
The Upanishads are a collection of wisdom or philosophical writings, which were passed down orally until they were written down. Over 200 are known, but what are considered the principal Upanishads were the first 12 or so that were written down in the pre-Buddhist period, around 500 B.C. The Upanishads were written by a variety of authors over the course of several centuries.
The Wisdom of the Upanishads
Considered to be the crowning tradition of the Hindu religion, the Upanishads emphasize meditation and Yoga to achieve a higher spiritual state. The word Upanishad is derived from the Sanskrit and literally means: “to sit down near,” conveying the image of a student sitting at the feet of a master to obtain wisdom.
The Upanishads are primarily concerned with the universal soul, or Brahman, and the individual soul, the Atman, and how the two interact. Other well-known ideas that the Upanishads espouse include karma, nirvana and reincarnation. In short, the Upanishads exhort the Atman to deep meditation that results in greater awareness of the self, which transcends the individual and can be one with the Brahman.
The Upanishads themselves are divided into multiple categories according to various schools of philosophic thought. Additionally, there are numerous texts, which comment on the Upanishads and their spiritual disciplines. The principal Upanishads and some of the important minor ones are often integrated into yoga as a way to focus meditation and enhance spiritual awareness.
The Upanishads and Yoga
Yoga originated as a physical manifestation of spiritual disciplines and as a way for practitioners to achieve higher spiritual and self-awareness. The idea was that by holding certain physical poses that build on each other in physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual discipline, one would be able to explore the inner self and, ultimately, transcend that self to unite with the universal plane of existence, the Brahman.
Today, Yoga is most often taught in the West as a purely physical discipline, one that offers stretching, breathing, and mental exercises as a way to calm the body and relieve stress. For many of these practitioners, Yoga is not a religious practice but a fitness activity.
There are still some schools of Yoga, however, which emphasize the use of Upanishads within Yoga practice. These schools hold the practice of Yoga up as the primary spiritual discipline toward self-enlightenment.
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