The Upanishads, literally teachings received while sitting at
the feet of a master, are a set of writings produced in the first
millennium B.C.E. in India, which had been the most important
in defining the general perspective of that set of religions generally
referred to as Hinduism. Transmitted to the West in the
nineteenth century, they became a major source for contemporary
belief in karma and reincarnation, and through Theosophy
were integrated into the teaching of Western occult
The first era of Indian thought was built around the Vedas,
writings which suggest that India’s ancient culture was built
around the celebration of nature, the activity of the deities in
the world, and the propitiation of the gods in acts of devotion,
temple sacrifice, and the following of rules. The Upanishads
represent a radical shift in perspective that developed around
1000 B.C.E. The authors of the Upanishads launched a search for
the unifying reality behind the visible universe.
There are 13 Principle Upanishads, which summarize the
whole of the teachings, and numerous lesser supportive docuEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Upanishads
ments. They critique the Vedas and are often referred to as the
Vedanta, or ‘‘end of the Vedas.’’ Rather than outward acts of
temple worship, the Upanishads call for an inward search for the
ultimate principle of reality (called Brahman) and a mystical
union with that principle. Brahman is the source of the visible
world that goes through a continuous process of being created,
sustained, and destroyed. Brahman is hidden by maya (illusion),
that aspect of the world that conceals reality from us.
The essential mystical insight offered by the Upanishads is
the identification of Brahman with Atman. Atman is the essential
core of the individual self. The implication is that to reach
the inner essence of oneself is to discover ultimate reality. It is
upon this identification that disciplines of concentration and
meditation and ultimately the practice of yoga are based.
According to the Upanishads, individuals are trapped in
maya. Lost in maya, we face a continuous series of incarnations,
the exact nature of any incarnation being the result of the consequences
of actions in prior lives (karma). To escape maya one
must focus upon reality, the yogic path being the ideal process
for pursuing that focus. It is also recognized that such a focus
can lead to selfishness. To prevent such an error, the Upanishads
recommend the cultivation of virtues such as detachment
and self-control, and call for the performance of one’s social
The Upanishads now exist in several translations in English
and other Western languages, though the 1879 translation by
world religions scholar Max Müller was the important early one
which built support for Indian perspectives in the West. In
1893, Swami Vivekananda brought the teachings of the Vedanta
to the West and established it throughout the Vedanta
Societies that grew out of his work. Through the twentieth century,
numerous commentaries on the Upanishads were published
and circulated by the many Indian religions operating
in the West. Equally important, insights from the Upanishads,
freed from the texts, have permeated Western esoteric and
metaphysical groups through which they have been popularized
among a public unaware of their origin.
Beidler, William. The Vision of the Self in Early Vedanta. Delhi
Motilal Barnarsidass, 1975.
Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli. The Principal Upanishads. New
York Harper and Brothers, 1953.