The Way of Wisdom
Although all Hindus take the path of action at least for much of their lives, it doesn’t bring oneself to final liberation from the wheel of Samsara. Karma, even good karma, keeps a person bound to the cycle of transmigration. Ultimately, one needs to transcend karma to realize moksha. One way the Hindu tradition offers for this attainment is the path of wisdom or knowledge.
As an austere and demanding discipline it is not a path that all Hindus wish to follow. Yet, it has been a very influential vision for the whole of the tradition and for those in the Western world that are familiar with Hinduism.
The path of wisdom is rooted in the Axial Age, when classical Hinduism took shape. This mode of spirituality was initially a response to the changing Vedic system and the religious and philosophical issues that affected Indians with a new urgency. These issues included a developing sense of the separate self and anxieties about death and rebirth.
The most important responses to these matters were recorded in a collection of texts called the Upanishads. The authors of these works are not known to us today. The oldest were probably composed between 800 and 400 B.C. but actually written down much later. Today, the Upanishads are regarded as revealed knowledge, which means that they share the same sacred status as the Vedas. In fact, they are considered to be part of the Vedas although they were developed much later.
The perspective they represent is often called Vedanta, which means the “end of the Veda”. One of the six orthodox philosophies of Hinduism takes as its name Vedanta. Although they are seen as continuous with it, the Upanishads are actually much more philosophical and more speculative than the earlier Vedas. This difference may be attributed to the change of emphasis in Indian religion that begins in the middle of the first millennium B.C. Shifting concern from ritual to understanding the self and ultimate reality.
The title of the Upanishads takes its name from the Sanskrit syllables that mean “to sit down beside”. This term suggests that what the Upanishads contain is knowledge that is transmitted from guru to student. The Upanishads were an esoteric form of wisdom, one that could only be gained from someone who knew.
There is not universal agreement about what works are included in the collection of the Upanishads. According to some, there are as many as 200 to 300 Upanishads, some of which were written as recently as a few centuries ago. The more commonly given number is 108, a particular sacred number in Hinduism and Buddhism.
Like the Vedas, the Upanishads are not always systematic or internally coherent. One of the purposes of the philosophy called Vedanta was to make the Upanishads systematically rigorous. As it is not always systematic, my presentation would make the Upanishadic world seem more orderly than it actually was.
The Upanishads focus on two central trajectories of thought. What is the essence of this human self and what is the essence of ultimate reality. We will look at each of these ideas in turn.