What is the history of the Upanishads?

By Sunil Kumar

According to traditional Indian religious understanding, the Upanishads are part of the knowledge portion, or Jnana Kanda of the Vedas. They are eternal, and came out of the mouth of Hiranyagarbha, or Brahman. So no date can be ascribed; they existed even before the creation of this world.

The ‘16 Great Nations’; Anga is the easternmos...

Visit sunil-kumar.co.in The ‘16 Great Nations’; Anga is the easternmost, south of Vrijji and east of Magadha (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now; on a historical note, people like S. Radhakrishnan; philosopher mentioned that almost all of ancient Indian religious literature was anonymous; so we do not know the names of the authors. Philosophical theories in the Upanishads are credited to Shvetaketu, Shandilya, Aitareya, Sanatkumara etc. Except for the Shevetashvatara Upanishad; attributed to the sage Shvetashvatara.

According to an Indologist, Patrick Olivelle this is the chronology for the early Upanishads, also called the Principal Upanishads:

The Brhadaranyaka and the Chandogya are the two earliest Upanishads. They are edited texts, some of whose sources are much older than others. The two texts are pre-Buddhist; they may be placed in the 7th to 6th centuries BCE, give or take a century or so.

English: Photograph of Radhakrishnan taken at ...

Visit sunil-kumar.co.in English: Photograph of Radhakrishnan taken at a reception in Stockholm, 1949. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The three other early prose Upanisads—Taittiriya, Aitareya, and Kausitaki come next; all are probably pre-Buddhist and can be assigned to the 6th to 5th centuries BCE.

The Kena is the oldest of the verse Upanisads followed by probably the Katha, Isa, Svetasvatara, and Mundaka. All these Upanisads were composed probably in the last few centuries BCE.

The two late prose Upanisads, the Prasna and the Mandukya, cannot be much older than the beginning of the common era.

A Sanskritist, Stephen Phillips summarizes the current Indological opinion to be that the Brhadaranyaka, Chandogya, Isha, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Kena, Katha, Mundaka, and Prasna Upanishads are all pre-Buddhist and pre-Jain, while Svetasvatara and Mandukya overlap with the earliest Buddhist and Jain literature.

Another Upanishad, a conversation between Sri Rama and Hanuman, Muktika refers to the entire list of Upanishads; which are generally regarded to be around 108.

In this canon,

10 upaniṣads are associated with the Rigveda and have the śānti(shanti-mantra in the starting) beginning vaṇme-manasi.

16 upaniṣads are associated with the Samaveda and have the śānti beginning āpyāyantu.

19 upaniṣads are associated with the Shukla Yajurveda and have the śānti beginning pūrṇamada.

32 upaniṣads are associated with the Krishna Yajurveda and have the śānti beginning sahanāvavatu.

31 upaniṣads are associated with the Atharvaveda and have the śānti beginning bhadram-karṇebhiḥ.

The first 13 are grouped as mukhya (“principal”). 21 are grouped as Sāmānya Vedānta (“common Vedanta”), The remainder are associated with five different schools or sects within Hinduism, 20 with Sannyāsa (asceticism), 8 with Shaktism, 14 with Vaishnavism, 12 with Shaivism and 20 with Yoga.

Some historians believe that the Upanishads were constructed over a considerable period of time; even as late the 15th Century CE.

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