Is Correlation of Upanishads with the Vedas Justified?

When we speak of the Vedas it is implied that it comprises of the four Vedas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads. But even a casual reader can find the diverse nature of the contents and objectives of the said parts of the Vedas.

Father H.Heras in his historical introduction to the origin of Indian philosophy and asceticism in the book Mystic Teachings of the Haridasas of Karnatak writes –“while studying Indian philosophy and asceticism, the first book that is always cited as the basis of all Indian philosophy and ascetic talk is the Rig-Veda. And yet there is no book in India so anti-philosophic and so devoid of any ascetical ideals as the Rig-Veda is”.1

The Rig-Veda consists mainly of hymns dedicated to nature-gods, such as the fire, the sun, the dawn, Indra, the god of rains, etc., and there is sometimes much poetry in them; but the prayers that are contained therein are very simple and often refer to the material needs and comforts of the adorers.2 With regards to the Brahmanas, its chief topic is sacrifice. The Brahmanas foist a superstructure of meaningless ceremonialism upon the hymnology of the Veda, and press into their service passages and texts from the Vedas which they utilize in such a way as to support the not-very-glorious life of the sacrificer. Curious indeed are the ways in which the Brahmana passages mingle together legends, exegeses, dogmas, philological and philosophical speculations so as to exhibit the efficacy of the Mantras for the practical life of the sacrificer. It is a pitiful phenomenon to notice how at the time of the Brahmanas so much intellect should have been wasted on the formulation of the details of the various sacrificial rites: it only reminds one of the wheels within wheels of the scholastic interpretations of Christian dogma in the middle ages.3 On the other hand the spirit of the Upanishads barring a few exceptions here and there is entirely antagonistic to the sacrificial doctrine of the Brahmanas.4

Vedas vis-à-vis Upanishads

According to R.D.Ranade Rig-Veda is a great hymnology to the personified forces of nature, and thus represents the earliest phase in the evolution of religious consciousness, namely, the objective phase of religion. The Upanishads, on the other hand, mark the subjective phase of religion. There are no hymns to gods or goddesses of nature in the Upanishads, but on the contrary, they contain a scientific search for the Substratum underlying the phenomenal forces of nature. There are neither any offering of prayers to gods in the Upanishads, nor is there visible, throughout the Upanishadic period, any inordinate fear of the wrath of these natural forces personified as gods. In other words, we may say that as we go from the Vedic period to the Upanishadic period, there is visible at every stage the process of transference of interest from God to Self. When the individual Self has become the universal Self, when, in short, the Atman has been realized, whom and what may anybody fear? For whom and what may any offerings be made? For whom and what may anybody pray to divinity? In a word, we may say, that as we pass from the Vedas to the Upanishads, we pass from prayer to philosophy, from hymnology to reflection, from henotheistic polytheism to monotheistic mysticism.5

How Vedas acquired a Scriptural status

The period in which the Vedas were composed was the childhood of mankind, to whom everything- fire, air, cloud, thunder and storm appeared as veritable gods. Whenever they felt any fear or awe, it soon occupied the whole of their inner being and it was immediately expressed in words. The Veda is nothing but an anthology of some poems, songs, etc. composed by various gifted poets. But many without ever bothering to read the Veda consider it to be composed by God Brahma. The reason why Vedas has acquired a scriptural status and worshipped by millions of people is due to the belief of the authors of the Vedas that their composition was possible only due to the divine aid. This was also believed by their fellowmen. Being the work of God, the Veda can contain no error; it is all truth, all holy and all illumination. Thus a collection of songs acquired the scriptural status.6 According to Osho the Vedas are full of prayers. It was written by somebody and addressed to God. But it cannot be written by God himself because to whom will God pray? “And prayers for such stupid things that it is simply ridiculous to say that they are written by God”, he adds.7

Difference between Vedas and Upanishads

According to Sri Adi Shankaracharya, the propounder of Advaita philosophy, the Vedas inculcates two independent lines of conduct- one of karma or activity and the other of jnana or withdrawal from the world. The first forms the subject matter of the liturgical portion or the karma kanda and the second, of the Upanishads or the jnana kanda, of the Vedas. The teaching of the jnana kanda is whole in itself, and should not be considered as subsidiary, in any way, to the teaching of the karma kanda. Nor should it be imagined that both these teachings can be concurrently followed by anybody, for there is a fundamental antithesis between them. The latter (karma kanda) presupposes a belief in variety, as ordinarily experienced, while the former (jnana kanda) denying all this variety insists on the truth of only the unity underlying it. Thus the two paths of karma and jnana are opposed to each other.8

Explaining the difference between the Vedas9 and Upanishads Swami Vivekananda said – The Vedas are divided into two portions — the work portion (Karma Kanda) and the knowledge portion (Jnana Kanda). The work portion contains ceremonials, rules as to eating, living, doing charitable work, etc. The knowledge came afterwards and was enunciated by kings. The work portion was exclusively in the hands of the priests and pertained entirely to the sense life. It taught to do good works that one might go to heaven and enjoy eternal happiness. Anything, in fact, that one might want could be provided for him by the work or ceremonials. It provided for all classes of people good and bad. Nothing could be obtained through the ceremonials except by the intercession of the priests. So if one wanted anything, even if it was to have an enemy killed, all he had to do was to pay the priest; and the priest through these ceremonials would procure the desired results. It was therefore in the interests of the priests that the ceremonial portion of the Vedas should be preserved. By it they had their living. They consequently did all in their power to preserve that portion intact. Many of these ceremonials were very complicated, and it took years to perform some of them.10

The knowledge portion (Upanishads) came afterwards and was promulgated exclusively by kings. It was called the Knowledge of Kings and consisted of knowledge of the God, the soul, the universe, etc. The great kings had no use for the work portion with all its frauds and superstitions and did all in their power to destroy it. They pronounced the ceremonials of the priests, their magical works, etc., as humbug. When the priests came to them for gifts, they questioned the priests about God, the soul, etc., and as the priests could not answer such questions they were sent away. The priests went back to their fathers to enquire about the things the kings asked them, but could learn nothing from them, so they came back again to the kings and became their disciples.11

Vedas- Concepts of Spiritual Childhood stage

As in our physical body there are different stages of growth like childhood, youth and maturity, so in the spiritual life there is spiritual childhood, spiritual youth and spiritual maturity. The first stage of spiritual childhood begins with the worship of ancestors or departed spirits and moves to the second stage where we find the worship of phenomena of nature. (For instance worshipping gods like Indra, Agni, Vayu, Varuna, etc). In the third stage the belief in the existence of a powerful God (Brahma/Vishnu/Shiva) having control over these nature gods is conceptualized. In the spiritual youth stage we begin to realize that God is not outside of nature but He is in nature. He is the soul of the Universe and creates the Universe by pouring His spiritual influx in nature and starts the evolution of that cosmic energy which is called prakriti or nature. The individual souls come out of His own being like sparks coming out of a huge Divine bonfire. This stage gradually leads to the next stage, that of spiritual maturity stage where we do not think of the world or creation but rising above all phenomena, we realize the indivisible oneness- that we are not merely sparks but are something closer to divinity- we are one with God.12 From the above analysis it is clear that the spiritual concepts of the Vedas are of the spiritual childhood level whereas the spiritual concepts of the Vedanta (Upanishads) are of the spiritual maturity level.

Importance of Upanishads in Indian history

  • All Indian philosophies are rooted in the teaching of the Upanishad. The three Acharyas, Sri Shankaracharya, Sri Ramanujacharya and Sri Madhvacharya used the Upanishads as the source to formulate their respective philosophies.
  • Buddha and Mahavira openly rejected the authority of the Vedas but they did not spoke a word against the Upanishads.
  • Basaveshwara the founder of Lingayatism, a religion based on reason and egalitarianism vehemently protested against the rituals prescribed in the Vedas and the priest-craft responsible for it; but he accepted the truth revealed in the Upanishads.13
  • The appeal of Upanishad philosophy is universal as it considers Reality as one from which all matter and spirit emanate. People of all races, religions and regions can adhere to this philosophy without giving up their theological beliefs.

Why Vedas are still continued to be revered?

With the realization of the ultimate Truth/Reality the mantras of the Vedas and the ceremonies/rituals of the Brahmanas should have had become obsolete and superfluous. But that has not happened and even in the present times we find traditional schools allotting more time for teaching Vedas (mantras and rituals) in contrast to the study of Upanishads. This was because-

  • The Acharyas who formulated their philosophies allowed the continuation of the ritualistic practices of the Vedas as they felt the common masses will find it difficult to comprehend the Vedanta philosophy at the first instance itself. They felt that worship, austerities and rituals would help in purifying their mind and make them fit for the comprehension of truth. But their followers instead of moving to the next step of contemplation and meditation as suggested by the Upanishad for the realization of Truth, continued to follow the Vedic injunctions as to follow the steps prescribed by the Upanishad required strenuous mental discipline and personal efforts.
  • The strong presence of the priestly class which could not easily give up its income which used to come through performance of ceremonies was another reason.
  • The Upanishad prescribed contemplation and meditation for the realization of truth. But the majority of people did not possess such high ideals in life or eagerness for realization of Truth nor ready to put personal effort for the same. They looked forward for simple practices which could fulfill their materialistic desires. The Vedas prescribed ritualistic worship as a means to fulfill mundane desires with the assistance of the priest and hence appealed to the commoners.
  • A false notion that only by studying the Vedas one can understand the Upanishads was another reason for the continuation of Vedic tradition. As a result in traditional schools Upanishad is taught after teaching the Vedas and Brahmanas. To aid in the study of Vedas the learning of Vedangas comprising of Shiksha (phonetics), Vyakarna (grammar), Nirukta (etymology), Chhandas (metrics), Kalpa (rituals) and Jyothishya (astrology) is also prescribed. For learning the Vedas memorization and faith plays a dominant role. Hence by the time a student has completed his Vedic studies he would have lost his reasoning power and would chant mantras and performs rituals in a mechanical way. When he begins to study the Upanishads he adopts the same methodology which he had used to study Vedas and therefore his knowledge of the Upanishads means how to parrot the contents when required. This is a fact because if a person really grasps the essence of the Upanishads, he will find the Vedas obsolete.
  • In Chandogya Upanishad (VII.1.2) it is mentioned that when Narada told Sanat Kumara that he had mastered the three Vedas, the latter told Narada that it was just ‘names’ and nothing else.14
  • According to Swami Abhedananda, a disciple of Swami Vivekananda, the Vedanta (Upanishads) stands upon the eternal, spiritual laws discovered by various sages and seers and in order to understand them it is not necessary to study the Vedas.15

Its impact on Hindu society

  • The continuation of Vedic rites and rituals resulted in the orthodoxy and conservatism to gain an upper hand in Hindu society and religion.
  • As Vedic rituals required the services of Brahmins and was a costly affair only the rich and powerful could afford. This led to the exodus of the commoners to religions like Buddhism and Jainism.
  • To fulfill their mundane desires, Hindus started worshiping demi-gods and spirits and whatnot. This resulted in the Hindu society to become highly superstitious.
  • As Vedic ceremonies were meant for fulfilling personal desires, Hindus became self-centered and materialistic.
  • According to Swami Vivekananda, the idea of God in heaven, sitting upon a cloud is downright materialism. When babies think this way it may be all right. But when grown-up men try to teach such things, it is downright disgusting.16

Today majority of Hindus don’t know the difference between Vedas and Upanishads and their contents and their objectives. Even followers of Sri Shankaracharya, Sri Ramanujacharya and Sri Madhvacharya who had propounded their philosophy based on Upanishads involve themselves in Vedic rites and rituals. The only change we find is that new gods have replaced Indra, Varuna, Vayu, etc., the demi gods of Vedas. They are also ignorant of the fact that Upanishad is antagonistic against these meaningless rituals and ceremonies.17 The main reason for this blunder is due to the appending of Upanishads with the Vedas.

Upanishads for a rejuvenated Bharath

Eminent German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) had said that the Upanishads are the products of the highest wisdom and sooner or later it is destined to become the faith of the people of the world. But by correlating the Upanishads with the Vedas, Hindus have failed to showcase the wisdom of Vedanta philosophy to the outside world. For most people Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) means polytheism, caste system, superstitions and silly rites and beliefs; all baggage of the Vedas.

In a prepared speech to be delivered at the 1936 Annual Conference of the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal of Lahore, Babasaheb Ambedkar had said that the Hindu religion, as contained in the Vedas and the Smritisis nothing but a mass of sacrificial, social, political and sanitary rules and regulations, all mixed up. What is called religion by the Hindus is nothing but a multitude of commands and prohibitions. If Hinduism has to become a true  religion, in the sense of spiritual principles, truly universal, applicable to all races, to all countries, to all times, it should have a new doctrinal basis —a basis that will be in consonance with Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, in short, with Democracy. But I am told that for such religious principles as will be in consonance with Liberty, Equality and Fraternity it may not be necessary for you to borrow from foreign sources and that you could draw for such principles on the Upanishads.

If Bharath (India) has to regain its lost glory and become the leader of the world in the spiritual field, Sanatanis (Hindus) has to adopt the ideals of Upanishads. In the words of Swami Vivekananda for the last thousand years Hindus have been weakened so much that they have become real earthworms crawling at the feet of everyone who dares to put his feet on them. The tonic to cure this weakness according to Swami Vivekananda is Upanishads with its watchwords like physical freedom, mental freedom and spiritual freedom. Vedanta teaches us that we can do anything and everything as we are the sparks of the infinite, divine fire. In Upanishads lies strength enough to invigorate the whole world, he adds.


  1. A.P.Karmarkar and N.B.Kalamdani- Mystic Teachings of the Haridasas of Karnatak, Government of Bombay, Kannada Research Grant Publication, 1939, p.IX.
  2. Surendranath Dasgupta- Indian Idealism, Cambridge University Press, 1933, p.1
  3. R.D.Ranade- A Constructive Survey of Upanishadic Philosophy, Oriental Book Agency, Poona, 1926, p.6
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid, pp:2,3
  6. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya’s English rendering of Haraprasad Sastri’s Bengali essay on Rig-Veda in Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya- Indian Philosophy- A Popular Introduction, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, pp:206-209
  7. Osho- Freedom- The Courage to be Yourself (online version)
  8. M. Hiriyanna – Isavasyopanishad With the commentary of Sri Sankaracharya translated into English, Sri Vani Vilas Press, 1911, p.iv
  9. Veda is defined by the Mimamsakaras as the collection of Mantras and Brahmanas. Surendranath Dasgupta- History of Indian Philosophy, vol- I, Cambridge University Press, 1922, p.404
  10. A lecture delivered by Swami Vivekananda in San Francisco (U.S.A.) on 24th May, 1900 (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol 9.)
  11. Ibid
  12. Swami Abhedananda- Vedanta towards all religions, in Aspects of the Vedanta, 4th edition, G.A.Natesan & Co, Madras, pp: 38-40.
  13. Thipperudraswamy- Basaveshwara, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 1991, p.30
  14. Chandogya Upanishad- With the commentary of Shankaracharya. Translated by Swami Gambhirananda, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkota, p.505
  15. Swami Abhedananda- Op.cit, p.32
  16. Is Vedanta the future religion? A lecture delivered by Swami Vivekananda in San Francisco on April 8, 1900 (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol 8)
  17. Take for instance the performance of Shraddha in which rice balls is offered to paternal ancestors to gratify their souls. The offering of rice balls to the spirit of the departed souls was probably in vogue in the times of the Vedas or could have been even a pre-Vedic belief. (P.V.Kane- History of Dharmashastra, vol-5, part II, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, 1962, p.1598) The belief in Shraddha requires the spirit of the ancestors to live in an ethereal body for a long period to enjoy the rice balls offered by their descendants. This belief is in contradiction to the doctrines of punarjanma enunciated in the Upanishads (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad-IV:4:4) and Bhagavad Gita (2:22) which tells us that the spirit leaving one body enters into another and a new one after death. Moreover Matsya Purana (19:11:12) and Agni Purana (163:41:42) says that being gratified by the offerings of rice balls, the ancestors bless their descendants with health, wealth, heaven and moksha. (P.V.Kane- History of Dharmashastra, vol-4, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, 1953, p.335) This belief is also in contradictory with the theory of karma which says that one reaps what one sows and it is said that even God do not interfere in the working of karma except in very rare cases. One cannot get moksha through blessings but have to strive for it.
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