Why the Upanishads are Considered Secret Knowledge?

Wisdom of the Upanishads

by Jayaram V

Summary: The Upanishads played an important role in the development of Hinduism. This essay explores why the knowledge of the Upanishads was kept secret in the Vedic period and until recent times.

The Upanishads elevate Hinduism as a liberation theology and impart to it an unmistakable, transcendental, mystical and philosophical quality, acknowledging human beings as immortal spiritual entities caught in the play of God. They stretch the minds of those who study them or contemplate upon them and prepare them internally for the exalted vision of the infinite, eternal and indestructible reality as their very essence. One can find in them truths of existence which are beyond the comprehension of sense-driven, materialistic minds.

The wisdom of the Upanishads is proven to be transformative and uplifting, especially for those who are tired of materialism and the oppressive and stressful demands it imposes upon them to excel in their lives. It frees the human mind from the shackles of habitual thoughts and perceptual knowledge and pushes the aspirants to explore the unknown, surrendering their minds, egos and intellect. Seekers of truth and those who are driven by inquisitiveness find in them possibilities and opportunities which ordinary minds cannot even comprehend.

The Upanishads facilitate this liberating process by suggesting the means by which one may find the pure being or pure awareness within oneself and experience that supreme reality as an inseparable part of one’s own consciousness. Through the eternal knowledge of the Upanishads, Hinduism offers you the choices to connect to your own spiritual Self and experience peace here and now, without being corrupted by the vulnerabilities to which we are susceptible and without being distracted by the alluring phenomena of the material world and our natural and compelling urge for sense-gratification.

The Upanishads helped Hinduism survive competition from renunciant and monastic traditions such as Buddhism and Jainism for over two thousand years. They also provided guidance and inspiration to those who wanted to give up householder duties and ritual practices and focus solely upon their liberation, without having to look to other religions for solutions. The Upanishads still constitute the knowledge portion (jnana kanda) of the Vedas, and serve as the foundation for the spiritual wisdom of Hinduism

There was a time when the Upanishads were relatively unknown to a majority of the faithful since their knowledge was confined to select groups of people on caste grounds. Today, the knowledge is available to anyone who wants to explore them and learn from them. However, it was not the case until the beginning of the last century. Even in the Vedic times, students had access to only a few Upanishads or a few verses from them since even the gurus did not possess the knowledge of all the important Upanishads. The following are a few important reasons why the knowledge of the Upanishads was not to be taught to everyone.

1. Competition between different sects and traditions

The knowledge of the Upanishads originated from different sources. Their early teachers originated from both Vedic and non-Vedic backgrounds, and belonged to diverse teacher traditions and ascetic movements which competed against others for followers and patronage. Therefore, each tried to guard their teachings and keep it among themselves to preserve their purity.

2. The knowledge was meant to be taught in person

The very meaning of the word Upanishad is sitting near, which means it is meant to be taught in person only or whispered in the ear. The teachers need to know the merit and the conduct of their students before they initiate them into the teaching. In the Upanishads themselves one can find references to early conversations about karma, individual Self, Brahman, liberation, etc., which were conducted in person and in secrecy.

3. Knowledge of the Vedas was a prerequisite

The Upanishads are considered the end part of the Vedas. Each major Upanishad is associated with a particular Veda. Hence, it becomes imperative that the teachers and students must be proficient in the other parts of the Vedas to understand the true meaning and purport of the Upanishads and their ritual symbolism. Since the teaching of the Vedas was limited to upper castes, the knowledge of the Upanishads also remained confined to them for a long time.

4. Caste system precluded many people from Vedic teaching

Vedic traditions and the law books prohibited the teachings of the Vedas and Upanishads to lower castes although it is a historical fact that much of the Upanishadic knowledge in the earlier days of Vedic religion came from non-Brahmanical sources. As the caste system became rigid, and as the original Kshatriya clans lost their power and Brahmanas became the official guardians of the Vedic religion, restrictions upon imparting the knowledge became even stricter.

5. Absence of written texts

Without a written script, for a long time the Vedas were orally transmitted by the teachers to their students. The students had to memorize by heart every word and hymn in the text which took a long time and considerable effort. The same was true with regard to the teaching of the Upanishads also. Hence, it became the duty and responsibility of the teachers to choose their students carefully so that they would faithfully memorize the texts and preserve their purity.

6. Readiness of the students was a prime criterion

The knowledge of the Upanishads is considered the higher knowledge. It is meant for those who have fulfilled their obligatory duties and family responsibilities and ready to take up sannyasa and pursue liberation or for those who developed a genuine distaste for worldly life and wanted to escape from the cycle of births and deaths. The students and teachers had to focus not only upon the teaching but also upon practice. Hence, the teachers had to make sure that their students were ready for the knowledge and fit to pursue the austere path of liberation.

7. The tradition explicitly prohibits teaching sacred knowledge to everyone

The scriptures and the teacher traditions explicitly prohibit the teaching of the sacred knowledge to those who are not qualified, who are not inclined to learn, who do not have faith in God, who do not adhere to the core principle of Dharma and who are not mentally prepared to pursue liberation. For example, in the Bhagavadgita Lord Krishna explicitly instructs Arjuna to reveal his teachings to anyone who does not practice austerities, who is not a devotee, who does not want to render service and who acts enviously towards God. Similar instructions can be found in many other scriptures.

Apart from these, other considerations might have also played an important role in restricting the teaching of religious knowledge. Control over the teaching and dissemination of religious knowledge probably helped a few groups to survive and proliferate in difficult times, earning the patronage of influential people and secure social and economic benefits. In that, rigid caste system played an important role. However, there were exceptions where personal merit or character rather than birth was the main consideration. A notable example was Satyakama Jabala, who was born to a servant maid and an unknown father. Raikva, who imparted the knowledge of the Self to Janasruti was a cart puller and probably hailed from a lower caste.

Present conditions

The secrecy associated with the Upanishads is now a matter of the past. The knowledge of the Vedas is no more confined to higher castes, although the profession of priesthood is still largely practiced by Brahmanas only. The laws laid down in the Dharma Shastras are no more applicable to Hindus, although some conservative sections may still repose faith in them. It is no more a taboo to study the Vedas or any other scripture by other castes for personal, intellectual, academic or spiritual reasons. Hindus from all wakes of life are eligible to pursue religious studies and acquire the knowledge of the scriptures including the Upanishads. The gurus and teacher traditions may still look for qualified students to impart knowledge, but they cannot explicitly use caste as a criterion since there are laws against discrimination. Many Hindus may not know or be conversant with Sanskrit or pursue spiritual goals. Yet, most of them know the importance of our scriptures and the knowledge and the wisdom they contain.

The Upanishads currently form the core of Hindu literature, philosophy and spiritual knowledge. From a philosophical or spiritual perspective, they are considered more important than the Samhitas or the ritual component of the Vedas themselves. The same was the case in the past also. They also serve as the principal sources of knowledge and wisdom for many teacher traditions and sectarian movements, who rely upon them to formulate their teachings and prepare their followers. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine contemporary Hinduism without Upanishads. Without the knowledge of the Upanishads, Hinduism would have perhaps remained a dry religion of mechanical rites and rituals and superstitious beliefs.

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