Upanishads and the Forest Sages


The 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





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