Belief in brief: The Hindu Upanishads

Friday, February 8, 2008 | 6:28 p.m. CST; updated 7:40 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 9, 2008

For Hindus, the Upanishads explain the basic tenets of human existence.

Literally meaning “sitting near a teacher,” the Upanishads are collections of parables and scholarly discussions between teachers and students about the basic questions of human existence and life: Who are we? Why do we suffer? How are we connected?




The ancient texts are the last components of each of the four Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas. The Vedas are compilations of teachings and knowledge that are said to have been revealed by a divine figure and were recorded in Sanskrit by seers in India between 700 B.C. and 500 B.C..

The Upanishads “contain the heart of Hindu philosophy,” said Beata Grant, a religious studies professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

“They use a lot of metaphors,” Grant said. “It’s an exchange between a student and a teacher. It’s not a lecture.”




The main Hindu philosophic tenets of the Upanishads are the ideas of rebirth and the interconnection of life via Brahman, a supreme divine force, Grant said. She added that samsara, literally “wandering,” is the Hindu term for rebirth, which references the continual nature of birth and death in the Hindu belief of reincarnation. To Hindus, this cycle is tiring because it requires continually experiencing human suffering on earth, Grant said.




Hindu philosophy is built on the idea that each human has a divine identity, or atman, that is the Hindu equivalent of the Western notion of the Christian soul, Grant said.

According to the Upanishads, human suffering is the result of ignorance of an individual’s divine identity. In Hindu teaching, experiential and meditative learning are the keys to recognizing that one’s soul is in essence an extension of Brahman. This spiritual recognition breaks the cycle of reincarnated wandering and frees oneself of suffering.




Grant said she usually explains the concept of Brahman in her introductory Hindu classes by using a famous parable from the Chandogya Upanishad. In the parable, a father explains the nature of the divine force to his son by pouring salt into a bowl of water. He then tells his son that though the boy can no longer see the salt, it remains throughout the whole of the solution.

Grant summarized the son’s renowned conclusion: “Brahman pervades everything. You can’t see it. You have to taste it to know it.”

Sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica; Prof. Beata Grant, director of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis;

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