Calcutta Notebook


The word 'upanisad' comes from the root 'sad', with two upasargas (prefixes) 'upa' and 'ni'. There are two main meanings of 'sad' : One is 'to sit' and the other is 'to destroy', 'upa' has the general meaning 'towards', 'ni' means 'down'. So one meaning of the word 'upanisad' is 'sitting down towards' i.e. that which brings one near. The other meaning is 'that which destroys (ignorance)'.

There are over two hundred Upanisads, but traditionally there are ten principal upanisads, so-called because the Adi Sankaracharya, first Sankaracarya (700-750 AD) wrote a commentary on them. The ten principal Upanisads are : ISA. KENA, KATHA, PRASNA, MUNDAKA, MANDUKYA, TAITTIRIYA, AITAREYA, CHANDOGYA and the BRHADARANYAKA UPANISADS. Three more Upanisads are also considered to be of prime importance : the KAUSITAKI, SVETASVATARA and the MAITRI UPANISADS.

Each Upanisad is part of a Vedic tradition. Of the thirteen Upanisads listed above, those of the Rgvedic tradition are the Aitareya and Kausitaki Upanisads; those of the Samavedic tradition are the Chandogya and the Kena Upanisads; those of the Yajurvedic tradition are the Katha, Maitri, Taittiriya, Svetasvatara, Brhadaranyaka and the Isa Upanisads; those of the Atharvavedic traiditon are the Kundaka, Mandukya and the Prasna Upanisads.

The Upanishads, dating from 800 BC is a step forward in the significant development in Indo-Aryan thought. The Upnishads are instinct with spirit of inquiry, of mental adventure, of a passion for finding out truth about things and the universe, through reason, logic and rationality. There is no dogma and magic in the Upanisads; super natural known rituals, ceremonies are totally discouraged. There is continual emphasis of the fitness of the body and clarity of mind, on the discipline of both body and mind in order to acheive effective progress. The German philosopher and Orientalist Frederick Max Muller (1823-1900) says : "The Upnishads are the... sources ot the Vedanta philosophy, a system in which human speculation seems to me to have reached its very acme. The most eloquent tribute was paid by the Irish poet and essayist A E (Psuedonym of George Willium Russell (1867-1935); The Bhagvad Gita and the Upnishads contain such godlike fullness of wisdom on all things..."

The Indian politician and philosopher Chakraborty Rajagopalachari (1878-1972) eloquently spoke : "The spacious imagination, the majestic sweep of thought, and the almost reckless spirit of exploration with which, urged by the compelling thirst for truth, the Upnishad teachers and pupils dig into the "open secret" of the universe, make this most ancient of the world’s holy books still the most modern and most satisfying."

The Bhagavad Gita, literally means the song of the Lord. It is a relatively small poem of about 700 verses—‘the most beautiful, perhaps the only true philosophical song existing in any known tounge’, so the eminent German philologist and Orientalist William Von Humboldt (1767-1835) described it. This song celestial was sung by Lord Krishna in the battlefield of Kurukshetra. When the two armies of Kauravas and Pandavas who happened to be Kinsmen were standing face to face to fight against each other. There came a revulsion in the mind of Arjuna, the hero of the Pandavas, against this family feud and being seized with a spirit of deep despair and dejection, he gave up his arms and decided not to fight. This is the background of Bhagavad Gita. In this war Krishna who had taken the role of just a charioter to Arjuna, then started his discourse to him in order to rouse his drooping spirit and make him fight against the forces of evil, even though they happen to be represented by his own kith and kin.

The Bhagavad Gita is not a book of religious discourse as is generally supposed but a gospel of life which is relevant to every man even today, after thousands of years. It is a part of the Mahabharata, the great epic of India and sung and recited as it is read by people all over the world whichever race or religion they may belong to, get a guidance in fighting the battle of life and in facing its many problems, trials and tribulations. It is divided into 18 chapters (Chapters : 25-42 in the sixth book of the Mahabharata–606 couplets–slokas), the Bhismaparvam. It is complete in itself. It was composed and written in the pre-Buddhistic age about more than 2,600 years ago. It was translated into English in 1875 under the editorship of Warren Hastings (1732-1818), Governor General of Bengal (1774-1785).

The Bhagavad Gita in its first six chapters teaches how to act with complete detachment and thereafter in the second six chapters unfolds the secret of true attachment or devotion to the supreme spirit.

In the next 6 concluding chapters he gives the essence of all knowledge about the tree of life that is the world. The Gita is thus most comprehensive in its teaching making full use of the hand, the heart, and the head—the three components of man.

May the spirit of Bhagavad Gita guide and inspire mankind standing at the threshold of new century and millennium to usher in a world of peace, equality, plenty and prosperity!

Vol. 47, No. 47, May 31 - June 6, 2015