The teachings of the Upanishads: Exploring the nature of the Self and Brahman.

Dr. Dinesh Bist DProf, SFHEA

Introduction: In this article, I aim to explore the nature of Brahman (God) and the Self (Soul) through analysing several (5000 plus year old) ancient Indian Upanishadic texts. After a brief introduction of Upanishads, I will explore how different Upanishadic texts provide teachings around the main concepts Brahman (God) and Atman (Soul), and how both the concepts are identical to each other. The article will further analyse why we human beings are not been able to realise our true nature that is Atman and then explores the teachings provided in the several Upanishads for knowing our true nature. The last section will provide conclusion based on the understanding of the texts in the main section of the article.

Upanishad:  Eshwaran (2007) states that etymologically, the name Upanishad is composed of the terms upa (near), ni (down) and shad (to sit), meaning something like “sitting down near”. The name is inspired by the action of sitting at the feet of an illuminated teacher to engage in a session of spiritual instructions, as aspirants still do in India today.

The Upanishads are collection of texts of philosophical nature, written in India probably between c. 800 BC and c. 500 BC, that means 3000 years old approximately. However Indian scholars firmly believe that Upanishads are 5000 years old texts. Paniker (2010) states that there are over 108 surviving Upanishads, only 14 are considered to be the important, 10 of which (The Brihad Aranyaka, The Chandogya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Kena, Mundaka, Mandukya, Katha, Prasna and Isha Upanishad) became prominent since Shankracharya around 1400 years back provided commentary on them and later several other scholars have also presented their commentary on these texts.

The central theme of all Upanishads is to understand the nature of Brahman. The source material of Upanishad texts consist of dialogues, debate and formal teaching by famous teachers of the time. The prominent among these are Yanjavalya in Brihad Aranyaka Upanisahds, Uddalaka Aruni in the Candoyga Upanishands, Shvetashvatara, Janala, Pravahna Jaivali, Ajatasatru, Sandilya and Satyakama Jabala (Ollivelle, 1996).

Brahman: its Nature and attributes Brahman is a Vedic Sanskrit word that is understood as eternal or absolute principal. All Upanishads states that Brahman is indescribable, inexhaustible, omniscient, omnipresent, original, first and eternal. All Upanishads states that Brahman is without a beginning, without an end, who is hidden in all and who is the cause, source, material and effect of all creation known, unknown and yet to happen in the entire universe.

Upanishads further describe that that Brahman is the incomprehensible, unapproachable radiant being that cannot be known through ordinary senses and intellect but can be only be experienced through different path of Yoga {Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana (realised or wisdom knowledge) Yoga or Raja Yoga}. Brahman is the mysterious “Being” totally out of the reach of all sensory activity, rationale effort and mere intellectual, decorative and pompous endeavour (Madhavananda, 1950).

All Upanishads aim to provide teachings around the Brahman, identity of Atman, the Soul or Self, and its link with the Supreme Reality. However each Upanishad has its own particular perspective and specific concept it seek to convey (Ollivelle, 1996). The word Atman, Satyam, Akshara, Brahman and Purusha are used interchangeably in several Upanishads. Some of the Maha-Vakyas – “The Great Sayings” explained within the Upanishads are: aham brahmasmi (BAU 1.4.10) “I am Brahman”, ayam atma brahman (MU1.2) “this inner self is Brahman”, tat tuam asi (CU 6.8.7) “that is what you are”, sarvam khav idam brahman (CU 3.14.1) “this whole world is nothing but Brahman”.

Brihad Arankya Upanishad (BAU -1.4.10) states that in the beginning the world was only Brahman and it knew only itself, thinking I am Brahman, which made it whole. Also whoever else be it god, seers or human being realised this became the Whole or Brahman. Probably based on this realisation seer Vamadeva proclaimed “I was Manu and I was the Sun. This is true even now”. It is understood that anyone can attain identity with “that which is all thing”, by realised knowledge and can become Brahman. Even gods are not able to prevent us becoming Brahman. Also if we venerates another deity than it means we have not realised that we are Brahman. Worshiping another deity brings duality and is considered as lower level of spirituality (Olivelle, 1998).

Chandogya Upanishad (CU 3.19.1-4) states that before the creation of the world everything was “asat” means non-existing and what was existing was “that”. It is understood that what existed before and after is Brahman. Yajnavalkya in CU describe to Gargi, Brahman as “Akshara that is imperishable” at whose command Sun and Moon stand apart, in other word universe is standing or holding. He illustrates that it’s that Imperishable which see’s but cannot be seen; which hears but cannot be heard; which thinks but cannot be thought of; which perceive but can’t be perceived. Apart from this Imperishable there is no one that thinks and no one that perceive. On this Imperishable, space is woven back and forth.

It is illustrated that anything which is not Brahman is just illusion (Aparokshanubhuti v.50) and when one gains this realisation “aham brahmasmi” then the illusory existence ceases, moksha (release from the cycle of birth) is gained and one becomes what one truly is, Brahman which is Imperishable (BAU 3.8.9-11). Upon realising that we are Brahman we no longer remain small or powerless and are outside the control of God, who seem to control every being in this world.

Katha Upanishad (KU) and Shvetashvatara Upanishad (SU) takes a different position as oppose to BAU and CU. KU (3.10-11 & 6.10-11) states that beyond our sense are our material objects, beyond objects is our mind, beyond mind is our intellect, and beyond intellect is our great self (mahan atma), beyond the great self is the un-manifest, beyond the un-manifest is the Purusha, and beyond Purusha there is nothing; he is the limit (Brockington, 1986). While SU states that God is a personal being who is greater than Atman and God as being principal expression of human spirituality.

Nature of Self - the Atman : (The Soul) To know Brahman, it seems utmost important for us to know our self or our own true nature i.e. Atman and Upanishadic texts aim to provide that knowledge. Shankracharya through his commentaries on several Upanishads illustrates how human beings are not body and mind but the Atman who is identical to Brahman - that absolute. Isha Upanishad (IU) explains true meaning of soul and states that it is free, unlimited and beyond the constrains of material and logic of God (IU.4). Through the discourse and debate of Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi (BAU 2.4.14) we understand that atman is identical to Brahman. Yajnavalkya states that when one attain this position, then who is there to smell, hear, see, greet or even to think of because one have become whole or Brahman.

In CU priest Uddalaka, using the Banyan tree and salt & water example teaches his son Shvetaketu that the Atman that resides in our heart is Brahman; “tat tuam asi” means “you are that” (CU 6.10.1-4). KU (5.15) states the nature of Atman as “etad vai tat” and explains it using the example of chariot, in which Atman is the rider of a chariot, body is the chariot, the horse being the senses, the sense objects as pathways, the intellect the charioteer, the mind the reins and self as the passenger.

Both BAU and CU identify that Atman and Brahman are similar phenomena (means Atman is Brahman) however KU separate the identity of Atman from Brahman but illustrates that Atman is an eternally individual spiritual identity that retains its individuality and even after moksha does not merge into the absolute identity. On the other hand SU provides a different dimension of Prakriti (nature), Atman and Supreme Deity that is notably different to other Upanishads mentioned above.


Dinesh Bist was the Vice Principal at St Patrick’s College London. He is a senior fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He has more than 15 years’experience in the Hospitality industry and over 14 years’ experience in Education. He has studied at inter alia the Hotel School at Cornell University, USA, the Hotel School in Lausanne, Switzerland, the University of Delhi - India, Sunderland University and Oxford Centre of Hindu Study at Oxford University.

He completed his professional doctorate (Learning, Teaching and Assessments) at the University of Sunderland in the UK. He has industry experience in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Dinesh’ research interests are in the fields of Hotel, Hospitality and Tourism Management, and Education. He was Head of the School of Tourism and Hospitality at St Patrick’s College for over a decade, and subsequently became lead academic at the College for teaching, learning, retention and assessment strategy. He is currently reading and developing his understanding in the area of neuroscience and meditation to understand how it may help inform or improve learning and teaching practices in Education. Some of his current available publication are:

Paper Presentation & Publications:

Paper Presentation at British Educational Research Association Annual Conference (BERA). Presentation entitled “A Critical Reflection on Low Academic Achievement with in a Private Education Institution in UK” (4 th September 2012).

Bist, D., Smith, P. and Davies, M. (2014) A quantitative investigation into the reasons of Low Academic Achievement by international Students at a private higher education college in the UK. The Patriarch. The Journal of Research and Scholarly activity of St Patrick’s International College. Vol. (1) Number (1).

Vana, S and Bist, D. (2015) Widening participation and the impact of St Patrick’s College Learning Centre on adult learners. The Patriarch. The Journal of Research and Scholarly activity of St Patrick’s International College. Vol. (1) Number (2).

A qualitative investigation into the reasons of Low Academic Achievement by International Students at a private higher education college in the UK. Submitted to Journal of Further and Higher Education on 6th June 2018 for publication.

Spiritual Articles:

Bist, D. (2018) Philosophy of Yoga: Its origin and basis of today’s yoga practices and varying goals of Practitioners (Renunciation, Bodily Transformation, Relaxation or Therapeutic benefits). Available at

Bist, D. (2018) The teachings of the Upanishads: Exploring the nature of Self and Brahman. Available at:

Why we do not realise our “True Self”: Since our birth we use our sense organs all the time to experience the world and we are always thinking our self as body or mind. For example this is my body, my house, I am hungry, this is my title, I am sad or happy etc. due to that we conceive our self in terms of our body and mind. This is the reason we get mixed with them and forget our true nature that is Atman or Soul. We get accustomed to body and mind and this seems to be the main case of our ignorance. IU (IU.3) states that those who do not understand true nature of Atman and only experience or understand the world through senses are the killer of Atman or Soul.

Swami Vimuktanana (1938) in his commentary on Sri Shankracharya’s Aparokshanubhuti (A) explains (A.13) that we are not the body – this body has its origin in insentient matter and as such it is devoid of consciousness. If we are the body, then we should be unconscious; but by no mean we are so. Therefore we cannot be the body. He further explains that physical body has many parts and it always change but Atman (Soul) is unchanging. It is further elaborated in (A.39) that even our subtle body consists of many parts and is unstable. It is also an object of perception, is changeable, limited and non-existence by nature. So how can this be the Purusha. It is the Purusha/Atman that is “we” who uses the body and mind and other sense organs.

Hence our true nature is Brahman but this is obscured by the vailing power of maya (mind). We do not realise that we are infinite consciousness but we keep linking our self to body and mind. This bondage that we have imposed upon our self can only be negated by removing obscureness caused by body and mind phenomena (the power of maya). Knowledge of oneness is knowledge and knowledge of many is ignorance (BAU2.4.14).

It is the ignorance - Avidya (IU.9) which has withheld the light of knowledge from us. To get that knowledge, therefore, we have to remove this Avidya. But so long as we are engage in Kama and Upasana, we remain under its sway. It is only when we make an enquiry into the real nature of this Avidya than it gradually withdraws and at last vanishes; then alone the knowledge shines (A.11).

However KU provides a different dimension, in this text Yama, the “Lord of Death” explains to Nachiketa, “The Self cannot be known through the study of scriptures, nor thorough intellect nor through hearing learned discourses (KU6.9-10). It can be attained only by those whom the Self chooses (KU.2.23 & IU.10). It further explains that "The ignorant one thinks that the Self can be known by the intellect, but the enlightened one knows that “He” is beyond the duality of the “knower and the known." Thus, intelligence may give you wisdom and discernment and pave the way, but it cannot give you the experience of pure Self.

How to get that knowledge of Atman?  Atman is the highest principal and one must strive to realise it (CU 3.10 &11). It is noted the earlier Upanishads such as BAU & CU do not make any reference to the process of gaining the knowledge of Atman. A brief reference to Yoga is made in (KU2.12) but there is a paucity of detail however SU provide a process (SU2.8-17) to obtain that knowledge. It is stated that one cannot perceive Atman through the process of perception or via senses and hence one need to acquire keen (or subtle) Sukshma vision through the practice of yoga (KU 3.12). The first stage in yoga system is gaining mastery over one’s speech, mind and intellect making use of the great self. Only those who possess the subtle vision can only perceive Atman and become immortal. Furthermore one must transcend diversity and perceive the self alone (SU.2.13).

KU (3.3-4) suggests that we need to learn to control our senses that run on the path of material world/objects and through yoga processes we can still our mind and sense organ. Once we have control over these we may be able to get the knowledge of Atman. One who gain the knowledge of Atman or Purusha is no longer subject to fear, joy or death. Attaining this knowledge is like achieving Amrit (KU. 8-9) which means deathless or immortal and this person attain Brahman here in the world and achieve moksha that means attaining a state of realised consciousness.

Conclusion: It is clear that a great wealth of wisdom can be learned from Upanishads. Upanishads are able to provide inquiry into the ultimate and absolute principal that sustain the existence that we live in but do not really understand because we are caught up in our day to day life and only experience this world through our senses.

It is concluded that Aham Brahmasmi, or I am Brahman is a process of becoming as oppose to just knowing. Our Atman is held in bondage in worldly things and this bondage can only be ended through acquisition on realised knowledge of our true spiritual identity as Atman and ultimately Brahman. Therefore as stated in (BAU 2.4.5) to break the bondage one need to practice the Yoga (meditation) through which Atman can be realised, be heard of, and profoundly meditate upon.

References: Aurobindo, S. (2003) Isha Upanishad, Vol. 17, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India, Isha Upanishad, available at:

Brockington, J.L. (1986) The Secret Thread: Hinduism in its Continuity and Diversity, 2nd edition, Edinburgh University Press, UK. Easwaran, E. (2007) The Upanishads, Nilgiri Press, Blue mountain centre of meditation, Canada.

Giri, N. S. (2006) Commentary on the Katha Upanishad, Atma Jyoti Ashram, Canada, available at:

Krishnananda, S. (1984) The Chhandogya Upnishad, Shivanandanagar, India, available at:

Madhavananda, S. (1950) The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, 3rd edition, Advaita Ashram, Mayavati, Almora, Himalayas, India, available at:

Olivelle, P. (1996) Oxford world classic Upnisad, Cox & Wyman Ltd. Reading, Berkshire. GB.

Panikar, A. (2010) Jainism: History, Society, Philosophy and Practice, Motilal, Banarsidass, India.

Tyagisananda, S. (1949) Svetasvatara Upanishad, 3rd Edition, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Malapore, Madras, India, available at: %20Swami%20Tyagisananda%20%281949%29%20[Sanskrit-English].pdf

Vimuktananda, S. (1938) Aparokshanubhuti or Self-realization of Sri Sankaracharya, Advaita Ashram, Mayavati, Almora, Himalayas, India, available at: