--> Skip to main content

What does Upanishad mean? – Meaning of the term Upanishads

This article explores what does Upanishad mean? and meaning of the term Upanishads

Upanishads are Holy Scriptures in Hinduism and are part of the Holy Vedas. The subject matter of Upanishad is self knowledge and contains the attempts made by various saints of ancient world to know Brahman – the Supreme Truth – and their attempts to share their findings and methods. Scholars have given numerous definitions to the term Upanishad but two schools of thought have gained prominence and is widely accepted.

First school of thought suggests that the word Upanishad is derived from the root ‘sad’, to sit, to which ‘Upa’ and ‘ni’ prefixes have been added. The word is taken to mean ‘to approach someone and sit down next to him’ – a student approaching a Guru to learn the self knowledge.

The second school of thought is developed from Adi Shankaracharya’s definition of Upanishads. The word ‘Upanishad’ is derived by adding the prefixes ‘upa’ (near) and ‘ni’ (with certainty) to the root ‘sad’ meaning ‘to destroy, to go to and to loosen’. According to this derivation, Upanishad means the knowledge with which ignorance is destroyed.

The Upanishads are sometimes called secret teachings and no doubt the word Upanishad has some such implication – not secret in the sense of mysterious, but in the sense that these truths are not found on the surface by the average mind; they are buried deep down and have to be discovered by everyone in his inmost being. Further when these teachings were given to a pupil, the pupil approached the teacher and sat near him, and the teacher gave this teaching to him alone, not in the presence of others.

As you read the Upanishads you feel an atmosphere of sunlight, of open spaces, of the frankness, the innocence, and the purity of childhood. You feel that the people who dwelt upon these thoughts and experiences and gave expression to them were sturdy minds, strong minds, but not violent. (Swami Atmashraddhananda)

Adi Shankaracharya On The Meaning Of The Term Upanishads

Explaining the derivation of the term in the introduction to his commentary on the Katha Upanishad, Shankara says

By what etymological process does the term Upanishad denote knowledge? This is now explained. Those who seek liberation, being endowed with the spirit of dispassion towards all sense objects, seen or heard of, and approaching this  knowledge indicated by the term Upanishad presently to be explained, devote themselves to it with on-pointed determination – of such people, this knowledge removes, shatters, or destroys the avidya (ignorance or spiritual blindness), which is the seed of all relative existence or worldliness. By these etymological connections Upanishad is said to mean knowledge.

Education involving the student ‘sitting close to’ the teacher means the most intimate student-teacher communion. The higher the knowledge sought, greater is this communion and greater the silence accompanying the knowledge communication. These values reach their maximum when the knowledge that is sought and imparted is of the highest kind, namely, atmajnana or brahmajnana knowledge of the Atman or Brahman. (Swami Atmashraddhananda)