Upanishads and the Forest Sages


The Crisis of Vedic Civilization 


Vedic civilization spreading south-east along the Ganga.

         Wars between Vedic tribes

6th Century BCE – new political and religious forms emerge in middle Ganga basin.  New directions.

         Eastern kingdoms of Kosala, Kashi, Videha – wealthy kings founding new states, attracted Brahmin philosphers and sponsored philosophical debate.

         Maghada (further east) emerged as the strongest, absorbed them into its empire.  Least Brahmanized.


         Emergence of new anti-vedic religions: Jainism, Buddhism, Ajivikism


Having to do with a crisis in Vedic civilization:

·      Extinction of the Western Kuru Panchala kingdom – challenge to tribal states with warrior elites.  Emphasis on the householder and one’s obligations to the world and society.

·      Rise of Eastern kingdoms with new style – creation of armies that were supported by and so dependent on the king (professional); acquisition of rich land and creation of docil,  tax-paying peasants; keeping peace between tribal groups and so drawing them together into a diverse supratribal state.

·      This produced a heterogeneous population, all in direct relation to the throne through taxation of their produce (and this fed the growth of mercenary armies).

·      Emphasis on stateship (new texts), formation of  criminal and contract law

·      New statecraft was ruthless and dispassionate, gobbled up Vedic tribal states by its superior power.

·      In the east: A crumbling social matrix.   Old heroic ideals fell away.  Tremendous emphasis on vedic custom and the ideal of society and the moral code as an extensions of the cosmic order.


People found themselves isolated, bereft of their customs and sense of  belonging and order in the universe.

         New individuals lamenting their situation, abandoned the glory of the Vedic past


1.    From external to Internal Sacrifice:

a.     Vedic religion – Many gods; humans need to benefit from gods’ powers, right rels b/gods and humans through ritual

b.    No notion of liberation, karma, rebirth. Goals of religion focused on this world, this life; divine-human reciprocity

c.     Sacrifice, by priestly class, for the maintenance of universe

d.    This involved an emphasis on action.  Growing importance of sacrifice leads to increasing importance of priestly knowledge of correspondences, laws of cause and effect known as karman – not the will of the gods

e.     Subsequent changes: kingdoms and cities, trade, mobility, individual initiative, freedom, speculation, criticism of priestly traditions, forest dwellers. This leads to a new form of religious life that doesn’t center on ritual and social duties

f.      Jnanamarga = the way of knowledge.  First appears in the Upanishads. Jnana (like gnosis) implies a religion based on secret wisdom – taught by forest sages, based in mystical experience, esoteric sources.

                                      i.     Dominant metaphor is the “internal sacrifice” = an abstract, mystical reading of the earlier Vedas.

2.    The Nature of the Universe and Time

a.     Cyclical Time and the Yugas (cf. Vishnu and the lotus stem)

                                      i.     Individual, society, history = insignificant.  Even the gods are trapped in the cycle and eventually fall

b.    Moksha: Liberation from the endless round = A new concept of the ultimate

c.     Upanishad = “secret teaching,”  “sitting at the feet of,” “connection or equivalence”

                                      i.     100s of Upanishads but 13 principle Upanishads



1)    Jnanamarga – the way of knowledge.  First appears in the Upanishads

a)    New characters on the scene: Forest Sages

b)    New context of learning: Guru-Chela

c)    Respected throughout Indian society at all levels

d)    A new form of religious life that doesn’t center on ritual and social duties

e)    Jnana implies a religion based on secret wisdom – taught by sages, based in mystical experience, esoteric sources

2)    Karma and Samsara:  two basic concepts that inform the notions of dharma and moksha.

a)    Karma: law of cause and effect by which one reaps what one sows.

i)      “karma” means “works,” “deeds”

ii)    All actions, particularly moral actions, have predictable effects – each person is responsible for every action he or she performs; every action will influence one’s future

iii)   One’s present conditions, character, circumstances are all the result of past actions

iv)  Textual and popular understandings of karma

b)    Samsara: as the cycle of rebirth / as the flux and flow of creation

i)      The cycle of birth and rebirth

ii)    One’s present life = one of a long chain of lives, countless lives in human and non-human forms (including existence as deities)

iii)   Hierarchical order of all species in existence, such as caste

iv)  Samsara as the fluid and changing universe

3)    The Upanishads = “secret teaching,”  “sitting at the feet of,” “connection or equivalence”

a)    100s of Upanishads, 13 principle Upanishads = shruti

b)    Reaction against tradition, criticism of priestly trads.

c)    A stratified caste system in place, supported by notions of karma and rebirth.

4)    Moksha

a)    Heaven is temporary, no permanent refuge

b)    Suffering pervades human existence: the endless cycles of suffering, death, rebirth:  “May the evil of death not get me” (Brh Up), “To hoary and toothless and drooling old age may I not go” (Chan Up)

c)    The Solution = moksha.  Liberation from the endless round. 

d)    A new concept of the ultimate reality

5)    Brahman: A single pervasive power and essence, source of all things

a)    “That from which these beings are born; on which, once born, they live; and into which they pass upon death – seek to perceive that?  That is brahman!”

b)    Totality of sacred words in the Veda; gives unlimited power to sacrifice; Essence of the entire world; the power that reside s in all beings, including the gods

c)    Svetaketu (boy) and Uddalaka (his father): Sve hasn’t heard of world soul

d)    Fleeting names and forms outside, one underlying reality

e)    Brahman is the essence and source of the whole phenomenal world

6)    Atman: the reality that is the lasting and indispensable basis of one’s being

a)    Soul as pure consciousness: four states


Renunciation (Sanyasa)

7)    General features

a)    Action leads to rebirth and suffering

b)    Detachment from action, or even non-action, leads to spiritual emancipation

c)    Complete detachment, and therefore spiritual emancipation can be achieved through asceticism and methods of making consciousness focused and concentrated

d)    World renouncer = sanyasi




1.    Jnanamarga

2.    Karmamarga

3.    Upanishads

4.    Sanyasa/Sanyasi

5.    Karma

6.    Jnana

7.    Samsara

8.    Moksha

9.    Guru

10. Chela

11. Brahman

12. Atman


Any locations on the map exercises and information from the course Timeline (top of syllabus) can appear on a quiz or exam.