The Upanishads and the Three Essences

As the Hindu tradition evolved, the original hymns of the Veda attracted a large body of commentary and explanation. The final level of commentary in the classical corpus is found in the Upanishads, a body of texts later known sometimes as the Vedanta, a word that perhaps may be familiar to many of you, a word that simply means the end of the Veda, the end of the Vedic collection.

The First Essence: Being

The Upanishads tell stories of priests who try to find unity in the fragmented world of the Vedic tradition. They focus their speculation on three areas of life. They identify first the essence of the external world, they look out beyond themselves into the forces of nature, to the wind, to the sun, to the power that make the plants grow.

They attempted to touch the essence that gave that its reality or its life. They word they used to name it, we translate sometimes as Being, sometimes as reality, the word itself is simply “sat”. It is actually the present participle of the Sanskrit word to be, that is the same as our word is. This may not seem entirely recognizable to you, but the “s” in the word sat is the same “s” as in our word “is”. So sat is “issing”. It is being, it is existence. It is reality.

The Second Essence: Atman

Then, they looked inside, in our own personalities. They tried to put the finger somehow in what it was that made themselves what they were. What was the essence of their own personality. And they spoke, as people often do in India, about the power breath. Breath is important in the practice of a lot of different forms of Indian meditation. To focus on your breath, to focus in the source of your life.

A lot of the speculation in the Upanishads spoke about breath as the source of energy and personality. But as they worked with the concept and worked with their own awareness of themselves, they came to speak of something that went even a little deeper that the mere movement of the air, of the energy in and out of the body. They spoke about their own Atman. Their own self. The essence of the personality in the classical Upanishads is called Atman or Self.

The Third Essence: Brahman

These were priests who engaged in sacrificial rituals. That was important for them. They were concerned with the essence of the prayers they spoke and the ritual gestures and actions that they performed. Again there were many possibilities. One was a particular secret syllable. The secret syllable “OM”, that often appears and often is used in Vedic ritual. But again, they focused on something that was even more fundamental. That was the word “Brahman”, a word that originally referred to the prayer itself and then came to name the power that laid behind the prayer.

So, they had worked on three separate areas. The external world, that you might call the macrocosmos, the cosmos in the largest sense. The personality or the microcosmos, our own microworld, microworld of our sense. And then this world of ritual that mediates in some way between the personality and the larger world. The world of ritual, the world of sacrifice, the world that lies in the middle between the personality and this larger, structured cosmos.

In the next article, we will talk about another important concept in the Upanishads that influenced the Buddhist tradition.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha’s Religious Background.

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