H. P. BLAVATSKY ON THE UPANISHADS
“Translated as “esoteric doctrine”, or interpretation of the Vedas by the Vedânta methods. The third division of the Vedas appended to the Brâhmanas and regarded as a portion of Sruti or “revealed” word. They are, however, as records, far older than the Brâhmanas . . . It is from these treatises of the Upanishads – themselves the echo of the primeval Wisdom-Religion – that the Vedânta system of philosophy has been developed. . . . Yet old as the Upanishads may be, the Orientalists will not assign to the oldest of them more than an antiquity of 600 years B.C. . . . They treat of very abstruse, metaphysical questions, such as the origin of the Universe; the nature and the essence of the Unmanifested Deity and the manifested gods; the connection, primal and ultimate, of spirit and matter; the universality of mind and the nature of the human Soul and Ego. The Upanishads must be far more ancient than the days of Buddhism, as they show no preference for, nor do they uphold, the superiority of the Brahmans as a caste. On the contrary, it is the (now) second caste, the Kshatriya, or warrior class, who are exalted in the oldest of them. . . . The “Kshatriya Kings” were in the olden times, like the King-Hierophants of Egypt, the receptacles of the highest divine knowledge and wisdom, the Elect and the incarnations of the primordial divine Instructors – the Dhyâni Buddhas or Kumâras. There was a time, æons before the Brahmans became a caste, or even the Upanishads were written, when there was on earth but one “lip”, one religion and one science, namely, the speech of the gods, the Wisdom-Religion and Truth. This was before the fair fields of the latter, overrun by nations of many languages, became overgrown with the weeds of intentional deception, and national creeds invented by ambition, cruelty and selfishness, broke the one sacred Truth into thousands of fragments.” (“The Theosophical Glossary” p. 353-354, Entry for “Upanishad”)
“Human intellect in conceiving the Absolute must put It as the highest term in an indefinite series. If this be borne in mind a great deal of misconception will be avoided. . . . the highest [truth] . . . Those who search for that must go to the right source of study, the teachings of the Upanishads, and must go in the right spirit.” (“The Doctrine of Avataras” article)
“It is in the Upanishads and the Vedanta though, that we have to look for the best corroborations of the occult teachings. In the mystical doctrine, the Rahasya, or the Upanishads, “the only Veda of all thoughtful Hindus in the present day,” as Monier Williams is made to confess, every word, as its very name implies, has a secret meaning underlying it.” (“The Septenary Principle in Esotericism” article)
“Nowhere is the metaphysical truth more clear, when explained esoterically, or more hidden from the average comprehension of those who instead of appreciating the sublimity of the idea can only degrade, than in the Upanishads, the esoteric glossaries of the Vedas. . . . The Vedas are, and will remain for ever, in the esotericism of the Vedanta and the Upanishads, “the mirror of the eternal Wisdom.”” (“The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 2, p. 484)
“You must study the Oriental religions before you can fully understand what I say. Remember that in the Old Testament there is absolutely no teaching of the immortality of the soul, while in the New Testament it is inextricably confused with the resurrection of the body. But the Upanishads have the real occult and spiritual doctrine.” (HPB, interview with Charles Johnston, Spring 1887)
H. P. Blavatsky said much more about the Upanishads than the above quotes but this will provide us with a good idea of the Theosophical view and opinion of them.
H. P. BLAVATSKY ON VEDANTA
“The Vedanta philosophy means literally “the end or Synthesis of all knowledge.”” (“Transactions of The Blavatsky Lodge” p. 5)
“The Vedanta philosophy – the most metaphysical of the Indian systems, and the crown of the pantheistic teaching.” (“From The Caves and Jungles of Hindostan” p. 23)
“Take the Vedanta. I don’t know of any philosophy in the world higher than that philosophy.” (“The Secret Doctrine Dialogues” p. 74)
“The Vedanta is divided in India into three aspects or sects, namely: Adwaita, founded by Shankaracharya and the only absolutely pantheistical, Dwaita, the sect of Madhvacharya, which teaches pure Deism; and Vishishtadwaita, [i.e. founded by Ramanujacharya] which is something between these two. All the three sects belong to the system of the Vedanta.” (“Neo-Buddhism” article)
“. . . the Esoteric philosophy . . . the nearest exponent of which is the Vedanta as expounded by the Advaita Vedantists.” (“The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 1, p. 55)
“The followers of one of the greatest minds that ever appeared on Earth [i.e. Adi Shankaracharya], the Adwaita Vedantins . . . the wisest Initiates came from their ranks, as also the greatest Yogis.” (“The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 1, p. 522)
“It depends on what you call Vedanta – whether the Dwaita, the Adwaita, or the Visishtadwaita. That we differ from all these, is no news, and I have spoken of it repeatedly. Yet in the esotericism of the Upanishads, when correctly understood, and our esotericism, there will not be found much difference.” (“What Shall We Do for our Fellow-Men?” article)
NON-DUALISM, SEMI-DUALISM, OR DUALISM?
Although Theosophy is not the same as the Advaita Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism, it is apparent that its view of Deity or the Divine is essentially the same as the Advaita position, though expressed (in “The Secret Doctrine” at least) with greater detail, complexity, and esoteric information. Vedanta is the main and most popular and widespread form of Hinduism and it proposes that there are only three possible ways, for anyone who believes or accepts that there is a Deity, to view It or Him (or Her). These are expressed in the three systems of Vedanta:
(1) Advaita – non-duality, non-dualism, oneness – The Advaita view: As the Divine is absolute and infinite, It must be attributeless, impersonal, and entirely unconditioned, otherwise It would not truly be absolute or infinite. It must be an IT, not a He or She. And everyone and everything must literally be that Absolute Ultimate Reality at their innermost core, their essential nature, the highermost part of their being. The higher Self (Atman) of the human being is the Supreme Self (Brahman, also called Parabrahm or Parabrahman, not to be confused with Brahmā), i.e. Atman = Brahman. Yoga, the goal of union or rather conscious re-union, is achieved primarily through knowledge, meditation, and the continual reflection and increasing awareness that “I am That, all is That, there is nothing but That.” The Advaita approach was systematised or codified by Adi Shankaracharya (510 – c. 478 BCE according to Theosophy and many of Shankara’s Hindu followers, 788-820 CE or even later in the view of many modern scholars; he is held in extremely high regard by HPB and the Masters of Wisdom) but its basis is in the Upanishad scriptures, many of which pre-date him.
(2) Vishishtadvaita – semi-dualism, sometimes called “qualified non-dualism” but “semi-dualism” is more accurate – The Vishishtadvaita view: Everything is a part of the Divine and therefore everything is divine but there is still an ultimate separation and differentiation between ourselves and Him (not “It” or “That”). The Divine is a He, a predominantly male Being or Entity, who is a personal God. It is heretical and blasphemous to think or say “I am God” or “I am Brahman” or “I am That.” Yoga or union is achieved primarily through devotion, worship, prayers, and repetition of mantras in praise of God, who is held to be Vishnu and usually worshipped as Krishna. The Upanishads are almost entirely ignored and the Bhagavad Gita and Shrimad Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana) are often the texts of authority. In this philosophy, we belong to God but we are not one and the same as God, not even in the highermost part of our nature. The Vishishtadvaita approach was systematised or codified by Ramanujacharya (1017-1137 CE) and its most popular form today is in the Hare Krishna movement, also known as ISKCON.
(3) Dvaita – dualism, duality – The Dvaita view: We are not divine but are the servants of a personal God, a male Being or Entity, who is Vishnu. He has eternally predestined some souls to hell and others to His heavenly paradise. All should worship and praise Him, as He is the only true God, but even many of His worshippers will end up in hell, due to it having been foreordained that way. There is complete essential separation between man and the Divine. The Upanishadic teaching of “Thou (the human being) art That (the Absolute)” should be interpreted as “Thou art not That.” The Dvaita approach was systematised or codified by Madhvacharya (1238-1317 CE) and thus pre-dates John Calvin’s Christian version of predestination.
Unless we happen to deny all spiritual realities, each person – whether a Theosophist or an adherent of any religion or form of spirituality – will find when thinking about it that their own views of Deity are either non-dualist, semi-dualist, or dualist. A strong natural inclination towards one or another of these approaches towards the Divine is probably largely the result of the paths followed most ardently in previous lifetimes. Although no student of Theosophy is ever likely to be a complete dualist, there are some who recoil from the full ramifications and meaning of the Upanishadic statements and Advaita approach to Brahman and prefer a semi-dualist or Vishishtadvaita-style approach.
THE PRASTHANA TRAYA OR “TRIPLE CANON” OF VEDANTA
The Prasthana Traya or Prasthana Trayi, literally “Three Sources,” are classed as the three most authoritative scriptures of Hindu Vedanta. Since almost all Hindus nowadays are Vedantins of one kind or another – i.e. whether non-dualists (Advaita), semi-dualists (Vishishtadvaita), or dualists (Dvaita) – it is often said that these are the three major scriptural authorities for Hinduism itself:
The Upanishads – upadesha prasthana (injunctive texts), shruti prasthana (texts/sources of revelation)
The Bhagavad Gita – sadhana prasthana (practical text), shmriti prasthana (text/source of remembered tradition)
The Brahma Sutras (Brahman Sutras, also known as the Vedanta Sutra) – sutra prasthana (formulative text), nyaya/yukti prasthana (text/source of philosophical logic or logical axioms)
Although some Vedantins also respect and study the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the latter is not a Vedanta text, since Patanjali belonged to an entirely distinct school (darshana) of Hindu philosophy, namely the Yoga school or Yoga darshana, which differs from the above texts on numerous important points but is still similar enough to be able to be blended with them.
THE MAHAVAKYAS: AFFIRMATIONS OF ADVAITA (NON-DUALITY)
Advaita Vedanta (the non-dualistic Vedanta) has identified four key statements from the Upanishads as summarising the entire essence of the Upanishadic message and as being particularly important to remember, affirm, and meditate upon as part of the practice of Jnana Yoga, the Yoga of spiritual knowledge. They are called the Mahavakyas, literally Great Sayings, Great Statements, or Supreme Utterances:
Prajnanam Brahman = Consciousness itself is Brahman; Brahman is Consciousness
(from Aitareya Upanishad of the Rig Veda)
Ayam Atman Brahman = The Self is Brahman; our Atman is literally Brahman
(from Mandukya Upanishad of the Atharva Veda)
Aham Brahmasmi = I am Brahman
(from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad of the Yajur Veda)
Tat Tvam Asi = That thou art; Thou art That; You are That (i.e. each person is in reality Brahman, the Absolute)
(from Chandogya Upanishad of the Sama Veda)
There are four other Upanishadic statements sometimes added to the list of Mahavakyas:
Sarvam Khalvidam Brahman = All that we see is Brahman; all “this” is Brahman
(from Chandogya Upanishad), Ekam Evadvityam Brahman = Brahman is One, without a second (from Chandogya Upanishad), So’Ham = I am He (or She, or That) (from Isha Upanishad), Etad Vai Tat = This, verily, is That (from Katha Upanishad).
ATMAN (THE SELF) AND BRAHMAN: THE KEY WORDS OF THE UPANISHADS
“The Parabrahm of the Vedantins is the Deity we accept and believe in.” (H. P. Blavatsky, “The Key to Theosophy” p. 222)
“For Atman or the “Higher Self” is really Brahman, the ABSOLUTE, and indistinguishable from it.” (HPB, “The Key to Theosophy” p. 174)
“We are not Adwaitees, but our teaching respecting the One Life is identical with that of the Adwaitee with regard to Parabrahm. And no true philosophically brained Adwaitee will ever call himself an agnostic, for he knows that he is Parabrahm and identical in every respect with the universal life and soul – the macrocosm is the microcosm and he knows that there is no God apart from himself, no creator as no being. Having found Gnosis we cannot turn our backs on it and become agnostics.” (Mahatma K.H.)
The original Theosophical literature uses such terms as Parabrahm, Parabrahman, Brahman, Brahma (without an accent, i.e. distinct from Brahmā), and “Brahma neuter.” These are all synonyms for the ONE absolute, infinite, impersonal, omnipresent Divine Principle or “Deity.” The term “Brahman” (literally “expansion,” “the expanse,” or “the immensity”) is the one most frequently used in Vedanta, followed by “Parabrahman” or “Para Brahman.”
While “Para” in Sanskrit can sometimes mean “beyond,” that is not the case here. It instead means “Supreme Brahman,” a way of emphasising that Brahman is the Supreme. Paramatma(n) is another synonym, “Supreme Self.” Neither in Vedanta nor Theosophy is anything considered to be beyond Brahman, for It is held to be the causeless cause, the rootless root, the sourceless source of all, as well as the higher or highest Self or Essence of all. Certain later Theosophical writers claimed that Parabrahman actually means “Beyond Brahman” and this notion has become quite widely accepted among Theosophists but it is not so. It can, however, be interpreted as “Beyond Brahmā,” i.e. beyond the Logos, as HPB and William Judge pointed out many times. For more on this point, please see the article Parabrahm, Brahman, and Brahma – Why The Confusion? The view held by some Theosophists that there are many Brahmans and hence many Absolutes is contrary to the original Theosophical teachings, as also of course to the Upanishads, as well as being remarkably philosophically unsound. This has been addressed in the article Purucker Says The Absolute Was Once a Man. As HPB said in a quote at the start of the present article, “Human intellect in conceiving the Absolute must put It as the highest term in an indefinite series. If this be borne in mind a great deal of misconception will be avoided.”
No-one has their own individual Atman, seeing as Atman is Brahman. Atma or Atman is therefore the ONE Universal Self of All. As the highermost aspect and essence of every being – and even of every atom in the Universe – it is designated as the “seventh principle” of the human constitution in Theosophical metaphysics.
However, referring to “Spirit (in the sense of the Absolute, and therefore, indivisible ALL), or Atma,” H. P. Blavatsky commented, “As this can neither be located nor limited in philosophy, being simply that which IS in Eternity, and which cannot be absent from even the tiniest geometrical or mathematical point of the universe of matter or substance, it ought not to be called, in truth, a “human” principle at all.” (“The Key to Theosophy” p. 119)
More Theosophical quotes and explanations about the Atman can be found in our articles Atman – The Higher Self and Understanding Our Seven Principles.
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There are over 100 known Upanishads but those that are widely considered the most important are from around 10 to 14 in number and classed as the Mukhya (principal or main) Upanishads.
The translation we most recommend is “The Principal Upanishads” by S. Radhakrishnan, first published in 1953, 37th impression 2022. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) was the President of India between 1962-1967 and a noted philosopher, mystic, and scholar. His book is one of only a very small number of entirely literal translations of the Upanishads and possibly the only one to include English translations of the complete version (though not complete in the full esoteric sense; see “The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 1, p. 269-271) of certain Upanishads.
Radhakrishnan’s edition may prove too scholarly or overwhelming for the average reader, however, and so we can also recommend the popular modern translation by Eknath Easwaran, provided one bears in mind that – although Easwaran unfortunately does not specify this – it is not a literal translation, nor entirely textually faithful to the original Sanskrit. In some parts the original meaning is obscured or totally omitted. Nonetheless, it is a clear and simple rendition which for many will serve as an ideal first introduction to the main Upanishads. Although we are associated with the United Lodge of Theosophists, we cannot recommend the ULT’s edition of the Upanishads (published by Theosophy Company) and which provides excerpts from Charles Johnston’s translations of them. Although often beautifully rendered, Johnston’s version includes major errors, such as frequently translating “Atman” as “the soul” and implying that the reincarnating soul is the main subject of the Upanishads, which is absolutely not the case. The reincarnating soul in the Upanishads and Vedanta is called the Jiva, not to be confused with the way in which this latter term is often used in Theosophy. There are also other issues with Johnston’s translation which prevent us being able to recommend it.
As not only H. P. Blavatsky but also William Q. Judge, Bhavani Shankar, T. Subba Row, B. P. Wadia, and Damodar K. Mavalankar have also all commented on or referred to the Upanishads at various times, we recommend those who are interested in studying them further to also see what they have to say about them.
This article may have raised more questions about various things. Please make use of the site search function (the magnifying glass symbol at the top of the page) and visit the Articles page to see the complete list of over 300 articles covering all aspects of Theosophy and the Theosophical Movement.
We saw above that the Masters of the Trans-Himalayan Brotherhood or Esoteric School say that They are not Advaitis but that Their doctrine regarding the Absolute is identical with that of Advaita Vedanta. For those who may wish to better understand what the Masters’ system of philosophy actually is, we suggest the careful reading of The REAL Esoteric Buddhism.
~ BlavatskyTheosophy.com ~