Upanishads 1:
The Conditions of Human Existence


I.  The Upanishads


1.    From external to Internal Sacrifice:

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

b.    In early Vedic religion, 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


2.    Jnanamarga = the way of mystical 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.

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

a.    100s of Upanishads, 13 principle Upanishads = shruti (revealed).

b.    Reaction against tradition, criticism of priestly trads.

c.    Notions of karma and samsara are assumed in the Upanishads, along with a cyclical notion of time (kala)..  They are not developed and introduced in them.

d.    The ideas of karma and samsara support the stratified caste system.

4.    Upanishands as Vedanta

a.    The Upanishads within the structure of the Vedas [see link]

b.    Vedanta means literally “the end of the Veda”  - The word is used to refer to:

                                     i.      The final texts of the Vedic corpus and is understood as the culmination of all Vedic knowledge.

                                    ii.     All subsequent traditions of thought and practice that are based on the Upanishads.

II.  The Conditions of Human Existence assumed in the Upanishads: Re-Death, Karma, and Cyclical Time

1.    Samsara: as the cycle of rebirth / as the flux and flow of creation

a.    The cycle of birth and rebirth

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

III.         Life characterized by ongoing suffering

c.    Hierarchical order of all species in existence, such as caste

d.    Samsara as the fluid and changing universe


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

a.    karma” means “works,” “deeds”

b.    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

c.    One’s present conditions, character, circumstances are all the result of past actions

d.    Textual and popular understandings of karma

3.    Kala: Time.  Understood as cyclical and destabilizing

                                              i.     Hindu notion of time as cyclical

                                             ii.     Yugas and the decline in virtue (cf. the mythical cow)

1.    Krita: 1,728,000; Treta: 1,296,000; Dvapara: 864,000; Kali: 432,000

2.    1 cycle = 4,320,000 years = 1 mahayuga (then minor dissolution of the world for 1 mahayuga)

3.    1000 mahayugas = 4,320,000,000 years = 1 kalpa = one day in the life of Brahma, followed by return to cosmic nondifferentiation for 1 kalpa of time

                                           iii.     Vishnu and the Lotus Stem [cf. link: The Reclining Vishnu]

1.    Brahma lives for 100 Brahma years of Brahma days and Brahma nights 315 trillion, 360 billion years (315,360,000,000,000 years), after which nothing exists, including Brahma, but primal substance.  Then the cycle begins again and continues endlessly.

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