How & Why We Study The Upanishads

Students in the School of Economic Science study the Upanishads because they are the heart of Advaita Vedānta. Vedānta literally translates as ‘the end of the Veda’, ‘end’ not necessarily in the sense of time, but in the sense of essence. Veda is that body of knowledge which was first recorded some time in BCE, dates being regarded as unimportant then, as the knowledge was seen as valid for all time.

The main Upanishads have names such as Īshā, Māndūkya, Kena, and Katha, and two much longer Upanishads, the Brihadāranyaka and the Chāndogya. These works address fundamental questions such as the nature and origin of the universe, who am I, how can the truth about these questions be realised, what is natural law, how to live and what happens after death. The questions are presented through discussions, stories, reasoning, and short mantras containing the essence of the philosophy propounded.

The four most famous mantras are ‘tat tvam asi’, ‘you are That’; ‘ayam ātmā brahma’ ‘this Self is Absolute’; ‘aham brahmāsmi’ ‘I am Absolute’; and ‘prajnānam brahma’ ‘Consciousness is Absolute’. The English translations are pale reflections of their import. These mantras lead to a reality beyond words.

In the School students reflect on a number of these mantras from the Upanishads by repeating them, both aloud and mentally, investigating and reasoning about them, and then seeking to appreciate the essence of the statement so that it becomes a living reality. This process is based on a long tradition spoken of in the Upanishads themselves and elaborated by a line of teachers down the centuries. It does require a basic knowledge of Sanskrit, the language of the Upanishads, and how to pronounce it.

The Upanishads are studied in translation (and Sanskrit where possible); we are greatly assisted in this by the commentaries of Adi Shankara, the great teacher of Advaita Vedānta. He wrote extensive commentaries on the ten principal Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gītā. These use reasoning and often discussion with objectors, who put the kind of objections which would be posed by readers nowadays. The age in which he lived had some similarity with the current age, as many common ideas of the time were totally opposed to Advaita Vedānta. He addressed their arguments very directly, reasonably and fully, bringing the import of the Upanishads right into the present.

Adi Shankara established four seats of wisdom in India to pass on this teaching, and the head of each seat is called Shankarāchārya. These seats continue to this day and the School looks for guidance to the head of the northern seat who was Shrī Shāntānanda Sarasvatī and is currently Shrī Vāsudevānanda Sarasvatī. The senior tutor of the School has regular meetings with the current Shankarāchārya just as his predecessor had meetings with Shri Shāntānanda Sarasvatī starting from 1965.