And interview with Swami Chidananda, a monastic and longtime disciple of Sri Swami Satchidananda, who leads study groups at the Integral Yoga Institute on the Upanishads. 

Swami Chidananda

You’ve devoted many years of study to these sacred texts. Why do you find the Upanishads so compelling?

The early Upanishads date back to about 800 BCE. They are the oldest religious, spiritual, philosophical writings of Hinduism and are some of the oldest such spiritual texts known in any tradition. They are fun to read — interesting, uplifting, inspiring, and informative — especially for anyone familiar with Eastern thought or yoga philosophy, such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita. The Upanishads are part of a much bigger canon of writings called The Vedas with the Rig Veda (which says: “Truth is one, sages call it by many names”), which are the oldest, circa 1400 BCE.

These are wonderful stories, insightful teachings, and ancient prayers that we even use today, such as “Asatoma” (Lead us from unreal to real…).  The concepts of karma, reincarnation, meditation, non-attachment, non-violence, truthfulness, contentment, and much more are presented. 

Approximately 108 Upanishads are known to exist, dating from the oldest (800 BCE) to the newest (1500 CE). There are short ones and long ones. Some say there are eight main ones; others say thirteen or eleven. One of the most popular Upanishads is the Katha Upanishad with the story of Nachiketa. It begins with his father making offerings to god for religious merit, as is still very typical in India, Nepal, and Southeast Asia. Natchiketa notices that the offerings are not of the best quality. Actually the offerings are of old animals, fruits and vegetables that are a bit past their prime. Natchiketa feels that the offerings are not adequate. Only things of value should be offered to god. He even questions his father by repeatedly asking: “To whom will you offer me?” Of course his father gets upset and angry, and finally says: “To death (Lord Yama) I will give you!”  Being a very curious and precocious boy, Nachiketa leaves home to look for Yama and ask him some questions. 

What can we learn today from these texts?

The story turns into a discourse by Lord Yama on the purpose of life and how to lead a good one. I encourage you to continue reading this story and am sure, if you have read this far, that you will greatly enjoy it and gain some true insight and spiritual wisdom.

In it a student asks: 

  • Who makes my mind think?
  • Who fills my body with vitality?
  • Who causes my tongue to speak?
  • Who is the invisible one who sees through my eyes?
  • And hears through my ears?” 

And so the discourse between teacher and student begins in the fairly short Kena Upanishad, which is a great conversation that explores jnana yoga. Again the exposition here is a treasure trove of spiritual insight and understanding.

There are many other stories of interest, especially in the Chandogya Upanishad. These are wonderful and entertaining tools for gaining deeper insight into the human mind and heart. And they give direct advice on how to think, behave and act in order to have a peaceful, easeful life full of contentment (santosha).

Which translation do you recommend to beginning students?

There are many translations of the Upanishads available. I would recommend Eknath Easwaran’s version, which is available in IYINY Shop. This translation is modern and very easy to read. And another wonderful benefit is the substantial introduction in the beginning, and the short introductions before each Upanishad. They will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the text especially if you are new to it.

I hope that this article has piqued your interest in reading the Upanishads and will enhance your enjoyment and understanding of this major spiritual text. May it bring you much joy and happiness. Om Shanthi, Shanthi, Shanthi.

A list of the principal Upanishads with the oldest first:

  • Brihad Aranyaka 
  • Chandogya 
  • Taittiriya 
  • Aitareya 
  • Kaushitaki 
  • Kena 
  • Katha
  • Isa
  • Mundaka 
  • Prasna 
  • Mandukya 
  • Svetasvatara 

About the Author

Sarah McElwain

Sarah McElwain



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