The Upanishads, or Oupanishad (devanagari: उपनिषद्), is a term derived from the Sanskrit upa, moving near, ni, movement down, and shad, to sit down; in other words, the attitude of sitting at the feet of an instructor to study his teaching. They are a set of texts organizing the theoretical base of both mysticism and religion of India. They are part of the set of texts called Shruti (श्रुति (Śruti)) meaning in Sanskrit audition, ear, revealed knowledge, or a directly perceived teaching without passing through a book or a human. Their philosophical but also technical speculations most of the time enlighten and comment on the text to which they refer, generally a part of the Vedas.

Traditionally, what is called the Muktika or Canon in which the Upanishads should be studied according to a well-established order, lists 108:

  • 10 Major Upanishads
  • 98 Minor Upanishads, enumerated precisely below

* 27 General Upanidhads (Samanayayuvedanta) where Supreme reality is called Brahma

* 13 Upanishads of Shakti (Shakta Upaniṣad) where the Supreme reality is called Shakti

* 9 Upanishads de Shakti (Shakta Upaniṣad) où la réalité Suprême est appelée Shakti

* 14 Upanishads of Vishnu (Vaishnana Upaniṣad) where the Supreme reality is called Vishnu

* 19 Upanishads of Yoga (Yog Upaniṣad) describing the way to achieve the realization of Unity

* 16 Upanishads of Renunciation (Samnyasa Upaniṣad) where the state of the samnyasin, the one who renounced the worldly, is described.

Following a poetic mode that some scholars have named the Upanishadic style, the date of their writing is approximate, spreading according to various sources over nearly 3 millennia, between 2000 before and 1000 years after our era.

It is only very recently that the Upanishads have been taken into account in the West, mainly in the 19th century, thanks first and foremost to the philosopher Schopenhauer. A little later, in his book Ma conception du monde published in 1961, the famous physicist Erwin Schrödinger presents a metaphysics inspired by the Upanishads!

In a general way, the Upanishads express a truth beyond understanding, insisting loud and clear, and according to the repetitive formula of each verse of Nirvana Satakam written by the great Shankaracharya, Chidananda rupah, shivoham, shivoham. I am pure consciousness and supreme bliss, I am Shiva, I am Shiva.

What is amazing in these statements is the constant rejection of any idea or assertion that we are this or that, like Ramana Maharishi who often told his disciples that all Knowledge could be summed up as: “I am not the body; who am I? I am He.” (deham naham, koham, soham).

What about today’s trainee yogis finding a growing interest in physical practice and cherishing any new contributions of postures, variants, series, and many modifications to the asana classics that are quite few in number as described in traditional texts?

There are, however, among the 19 Upanishads of Yoga and the 16 Upanishads of Renunciation, a very complete teaching on the practice of what has been called by Patanjali Raja Yoga or Asthanga Yoga (not to be confused with a recent fashion using the same term for intense postural series, sometimes acrobatic).

Patanjali, author of the famous Yoga Sutras, to which many contemporary yoga teachers and trainers still refer, counts 8 areas (Asthanga) of life where the ultimate reality can be perceived and realized in a sustainable way. He calls them Yama , Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Prathyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi (Abstentions to the outside world, Observances to oneself, Bodily discipline, Control of vital forces, Sensory retraction, Concentration, Continuous contemplation, Unity).

This famous treatise containing 196 short aphorisms also has the distinction of being able to be commented indefinitely. Its structure and grammatical organization allow all kinds of translations, some very technical, others more philosophical, or metaphysical or poetic, which in itself, is a true prodigy of the author, also author of a treatise on general politics, Sanskrit grammar, and poetry. It is generally believed that he was born in the village of Gondarmau in present-day Madhya Pradesh and wrote this treatise about 400 BCE to 200 AD, his date of birth remaining approximate.

This text, considered as an absolute reference in the world of Yoga today, however, poses some questions to exegetical researchers as to its source and inspiration.

Thus, there are among the Upanishads writings that could be older than the Patanjali treatise and from which he would have inspired himself! The peculiarity of these Texts is to not only define Asthanga Yoga, but also to give practices and exercises that Patanjali never mentioned in his Yoga Sutra. Subsequently also appeared other writings referring to Asthanga Yoga and giving concise practices and detailed explanations as to the succession of the exercises, duration of the practice, and the effects serving as a reference for the good establishment of the said exercises.

We find in particular:

  • YogaYagnavalkyam, from the region of Trivandrum (Malabar Coast) bringing a reconciliation between the point of view of Brahmanic meditation and the Tantric doctrine of salvation.
  • Yogavashistham, considered by some scholars as the oldest treatise of yoga
  • The Sandilya Upanishad gives with precision the various traces of energy in the body and the associated respiratory techniques
  • The Jabala Darshan Upanishad giving many details about the eight different areas of Asthanga Yoga.

It is this last one, the Jabala Darshan Upanishad, after 14 years of diligent study and putting into practice the detailed instructions of a teacher in this Teaching, which finally allowed a real dive into the meanders and secrets of life to the most intimate of being. Subsequently, the attendance of other yogis inspired by Patanjali Yoga Sutra and the study of multiple translations of this reference text (there are no less than 27 currently in French and a multitude in English!) have slowly allowed for an emerging methodology to retransmit today this knowledge considered quasi-secret.

In the secular tradition, Jabala is one of those great rishis (clairvoyants) of ancient times, who would have received the teachings directly from Ishvara – the Lord of the Worlds, whom culture sometimes equates to Krishna. Jabala is sometimes presented as the king of one of the planets of the Big Dipper. Here we find ourselves in front of one of these Indian cultural phenomena which stages the entire universe as an experimentation field of the Living, and we contemplate this astonishing situation where the Lord of the Worlds instructs a king leading a region of the galaxy!

This rishi king later re-transcribes the Teachings received, in the form of a dialogue between two other huge personalities of the yogic culture. First of all the instructor Dattatreya, who is presented as the one who has realized all the traditional yoga teachings belonging to the Shivite, Vishnu and Brahmanic corpora. A kind of super Instructor revered today throughout India and especially among the line of Puris whose neuralgic centers are located in the northern provinces of Hardwar and the center of Ujjain. According to the views of this lineage, Dattatreya is also the discoverer and the first instructor of Shri Yantra, the most elaborate geometric form representing all the energies organizing the global movement of life!

In the Jabala Darshan Upanishad, the dialogue presented by the sage rishi takes place between the yoga teacher Dattatreya and one of his disciples Sankriti, where it is said in the introduction that he is “the best of the sages”!

We are therefore dealing here with a text of the highest value that can be imagined: transmitted directly by the Lord of the Worlds to a Jabala, one of the great Rishis who himself transcribes it in the form of a dialogue between the greatest expert master of traditional yoga and his disciple, presented as the best of sages!

The question that could be posed: for what reason are today’s Western yogis not interested in this text, and how has it been forgotten?

The answer obviously does not belong to us, but it might seem useful to ask the question.

But what does this founding text tell us? It enumerates with a watchmaker’s precision the list and order of the practices leading to the realization of the Supreme Being, that are:

  • the 10 yamas and 10 niyamas / ethical principles
  • the 9 asana/postures,
  • the “prana pilgrimage” or the description of energy circuits,
  • the “refinement of the soul” by the pranayamas related to the syllable OM,
  • the sensory retraction of prathyahara,
  • the 5 concentrations de dharana,
  • the 5 types of dhyana meditation,
  • unitive absorption

A first element concerns the study of Yamas and Niyamas, numbering 10 according to Patanjali (5 + 5), but numbering 20 (10 +10) according to the Jabala Darshan Upanishad. Their detailed description reveals only two levels of understanding, the first material, the second psychological. In reality, the Oral Teaching contains 4 levels of application of each of the 20 yamas and niyamas, giving rise to a true ethical life concerning 80 behaviors necessary to protect the mind from relational as well as personal troubles; to find enough of availability to lead this true inquiry is the search for the Supreme Being!

The second element concerns the study of Asanas, of which there are only 9. It should be noted here that the notion of asana is essentially understood as a foundation seat, postural certainly, but also psychological. The description of the postures itself still leaves a preponderant place for oral transmission, the text being limited to simple instructions without specifying the multiple concentrations and reference images at the various levels of consciousness that are associated with each of the bodily positions.

The third element concerns the Pilgrimage of Prana, a very detailed description of the different patterns of energy in the body, again with a large space left for oral transmission. The text reveals only a few introductory exercises of the practices to be implemented for the realization and perception of the energy network.

The fourth element, Refinement of the Soul, describes the practices associated with the respiratory control associated with the classic mantra that most of the Upanishads refer to, but without giving details of how to use the vibration or the places from which they are emitted, transmission and direct relation of the instructor / student being constantly preserved according to the classical mode of the study of yoga.

The fifth element, that of sensory retraction, is also detailed in order to gradually reduce the interest that is generally focused on external objects which favor mental distraction, towards a fine perception of the forces / energies that are at the origin of the sensory faculties, the very nature of perception.

The sixth area concerns Dharana, where the 5 modes of concentration are explained, slowly leading the student to an ability of stable concentration to approach the last stages of the quest. It is a true “technology” of concentration that is developed here. It makes it possible to gradually discover the tools to firmly hold the mind in a state where it is no longer constantly diverting its attention, but on the contrary a force which is kept stable for exceeding its inherent limits!

The seventh is a true art of Meditation, announcing 5 meditative practices where stabilized thought has become a playful and loving servant! While today, this new Buddhist approach known as “Mindfulness” is spreading, the Jabala Darshan Upanishad deals with what might be called “Heartfulness” or the Overflowing Heart!!!

The meditative approach contains not only a sustained evolution of attention without effort, but also a quality of affection gradually developing towards the known world and the lesser known, of the phenomena that organize and govern it.

Finally, and this is the great surprise of the text, the eighth and last chapter of the Upanishads simply announces a practice of samadhi (!!!) or unitive absorption, in which there is no longer any perception of separation and where the constitutive energy of all life is lived in all its intimacy.

For most Teachings, this state cannot depend on any exercise, no matter how elaborate or simple it may be. And of course, we cannot take sides in this debate which although may have existed for several millennia, has still not found its resolution. It is up to everyone to verify whether this statement has any real meaning or is only an invitation to keep courage and patience in the journey and questioning of our lives.

This teaching made available today is waiting to spread freely. It has been waiting for centuries. Its silence is matched only by the universe; its patience too.

But the fact remains that this forgotten Upanishad in weekly yoga classes, and also in seminars, is a reference in the forest of ancestral knowledge. It is high time to rehabilitate it for the greater happiness of every truth seeker, but also to maintain the living tradition in the face of the surge of modern yoga born in India in the last century, which today is being dismembered into an abundance of new proposals, sometimes under surprising appellations.

As each forest becomes thick and dense, it slowly induces darkness. Needless to say, the ancestral knowledge will remain immaculate despite the surge of modern yoga, but it is important to make known their existence, just as sometimes you have to raise your head above the crowd to see clearly and see far. Then and only then, we realize that we are part of this immense humanity and this immense lineage of ancestral knowledge. That we are the recipient of this light of the Upanishads and that our life is a service rendered with happiness, like a link in a chain whose weakest is the one that determines the strength of its entirety.

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