One popular genre of scriptural texts is the Upanishad. It is also known as Vedanta or the end of Vedas. Another term used for the Upanishads is Uttara Mimamsa. In other words, the profound thoughts at the rear part (of the Vedas).

Interestingly, as it is today, the study of Vedic literature runs in the reverse order! Initially, we learn the end part known as Upanishad. Then we work our way towards the actual Vedic texts.

Textbook Meaning

The word Upanishad is a blend of two words Upa and NishadUpa means down, near, or together. Nishad is to sit. So, Upanishad means to sit down or sit near. It denotes a student sitting at the feet or by the side of a teacher to learn. Though, that’s just the textbook meaning of that word.

Each day, many school teachers impart knowledge to thousands of students. By the above definition, everything they teach would become Upanishad! Still, that’s not the case. We refer to the current day school subjects as curriculum, not Upanishad. So, what’s the insightful meaning of this term?

Insightful Meaning

We can consider a scenario to understand this. Let’s say a student approaches a Guru seeking self-transformation. That Guru’s wisdom is so remarkable that it triggers hope in the student. Due to that, the student walks the path sincerely and discovers their truth.

Such a student makes the Guru’s cause successful. Hence, the student becomes the Guru’s spiritual friendSahadharmin or Sahadharmini. If noted down, that Guru’s wisdom is an Upanishad! It elevated their student to “sit together” in spiritual status with them.

For instance, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa had two such students. One was Sri Maa Sharada Devi, who became his Sahadharmini. Then, Swami Vivekananda matured into his Sahadharmin. So, both of their pictures sit together with their Guru.

Text Counts in this Genre

There is a prioritized list of 108 Upanishads. Found in the Muktika Upanishad, that list places the Mandukya Upanishad at the top. Further, it declares that if we internalize just the Mandukya Upanishad’s essence, we can attain Moksha or liberation!

In general, we can think of Upanishad as a genre. The texts in that genre have grown from the time of Muktika Upanishad. Obviously, many Gurus have helped their students to discover their truth after that! Presently, scholars aren’t sure about the exact count of Upanishads. It is estimated to be between 250 to 350.

Most texts in the Upanishad genre are a dialog between a Guru and a student. Now, the Bhagavad Gita is listed as an Upanishad as well. Through Lord Krishna’s epic teaching, Arjuna became his Sahadharmin. Due to that, we find Nara (Arjuna) as the name of Vishnu in the Vishnu Sahasranamam!

Categorization of Upanishads

The Upanishads are categorized and tagged in a couple of ways. As follows:

1. Veda of Affiliation

Based on its topic, each Upanishad is attached to one of the five Vedic scriptures. Those are the Rig, Sama, Shukla or White Yajur, Krishna or Black Yajur, and Atharva.

Taking the traditional 108 Upanishads, below is their count by their Vedic affiliation:

  • Rig Veda: 10 Texts
  • Sama Veda: 16 Texts
  • Shukla Yajur Veda: 19 Texts
  • Krishna Yajur Veda: 32 Texts
  • Atharva Veda: 31 Texts

2. Weightage and Sub-traditions

Each Upanishad is also tagged based on their topics’ weightage or subtradition. Some texts cover many ideas. So, their tagging may vary depending on the classifier. Hence, the below-presented counts are a rough estimate.

Taking the traditional 108 Upanishads, here’s the typical categorization and counts:

  • Mukhya or Principal/Major Upanishads: A count of 10 texts that cover the essential topics.
  • Samaanya or General/Minor Upanishads: A count of 24 texts that contain general ideas. These don’t focus on any particular subtradition. Sometimes, 3 of these texts get listed as Mukhya Upanishad.
  • Sanyasa Upanishads: These focus on Sanyasa or the life of a renunciate. It roughly includes about 17 texts.
  • Shakta Upanishads: A count of 9 Upanishads contain topics related to Devi worship.
  • Vaishnava Upanishads: A count of 14 texts that speak about Vishnu worship.
  • Shaiva Upanishads: A count of 14 texts that talk about the subtradition of Shiva worship.
  • Yoga Upanishads: These texts contain information about Yogic practices. These aim at leading us towards union with the Divine. There are 20 Upanishads tagged as Yoga.

Three Notable Ideologies

In short, we can grasp the Upanishads’ teachings in three ideologies. These are found in the Brihadaranyaka (BU) and Chandogya (CU) Upanishads.

Like many scriptures of Sanatana Dharma, the Upanishads date to 800-400 BCE. Though, that date is disputable. The Brihadaranyaka and the Chandogya are two of the earliest Upanishads.

The ideologies:

  • Aham Brahmasmi: I am Divine. [BU 1.4.10]
  • Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma: Everything that exists is Divine. [CU 3.14.1]
  • Poornasya Poornamadaya Poornam Eva Vashishyate: If we negate completeness (me) from completeness (Nature), completeness (Nature) still remains. [BU 5.1.1]

Their implication:

If we operate with the attitude of I am Divine, there’s no question of feeling inferior. In other words, we will never feel a lack of self-esteem. Despite the intensity of my issue, I can handle it with confidence because I’m Divine.

On the flip side, the thought of myself being Divine can cause our ego to bloat! So, to prevent that from happening, it helps to know that I’m not the only one who’s Divine. Everyone is equal, and everything that exists is Divine. Hence, respecting others and being inclusive of their viewpoints becomes essential. Also, every living being has an equal right to thrive in this universe. That includes everything from trees to insects and animals.

Finally, even though I’m Divine, I’m not irreplaceable! I am complete and beautiful, but Nature can function without me. Nature remains complete without any manifested form, including me. And, I’m still a speck of dust as compared to the forces of Nature. So, it helps to be humble and surrendered to the Divine Mother Nature.