A BRIEF HISTORY AND DESCRIPTION OF THE UPANISHADS
An Upanishad is a body of mystical writing that comes as an attachment to the ancient and sacred hymn collections or Samhitâs of the Indo-Aryans who settled in India around 3,000 B.C. These Indo-Aryan settlers practiced a polytheistic, sacrificial religion that revolved primarily around making offerings to the gods or to deified aspects of nature in order to gain such benefits as prosperity, vitality, longevity or fertility. The Samhitâs provided the scriptural basis of and ritual accompaniment to these offerings, and for hundreds of years they were composed and transmitted orally before finally being committed to writing around 2,000 B.C. Given that centuries elapsed between the creation of the Samhitâs and their recording, their actual origins are now shrouded in much obscurity. Fortunately, however, since their written rescension their preservation has been carried out, more or less faithfully, by branches or S’âkhâs of certain families of the original Vedic priestly or brahmin caste. The four Samhitâs that have come down to us today are the Rig, the Yajur, the Sâma, and the Atharva—each focusing respectively on the gods, ritual formulas, chants and magic spells.
Over the course of centuries, the Vedic sacrificial rites to which the Samhitâs were both support and accompaniment became increasingly complex. At first, the only consequence of this development was that a second body of texts called the Brâhmanas was appended to the Samhitâs. These Brâhmanas were written as manuals for the priests or brahmins in order to aid them in understanding and performing the increasingly more elaborate rituals. In time, however, the more fateful consequence of the eventually excessive ritualism of Vedism was the development of a more symbolic and speculative spirituality. This inner rather than outer-directed spirituality found its first manifestation in the Âranyakas, a third body of texts that was appended to the Brâhmanas after the Samhitâs. In the Âranyakas, for the first time, an emphasis was placed on providing spiritual interpretations of the Vedic rituals rather than on giving technical guidelines. It was the Âranyakas that ultimately paved the way for the Upanishads—the fourth and last body of texts that constitute the Vedic canon—where Vedic ritualism is finally superseded by Hindu mysticism. By looking at these four classes of texts in their chronological succession, one can discern a movement of religious interiorization wherein the locus of divine power shifts gradually from the gods to the human being herself. As Michael Nagler, an Upanishadic scholar, puts it:
[T]he religion of the Samhitâs centers on the gods, and the direct, enthusiastic invocation and worship of them at the sacrifice. In the Brahmanas, however, the intense power of the sacrifice itself . . . becomes the focus, and the sacrifice which moves the gods is several times said to be more powerful than they are. Then, finally, in the Aranyakas, power is seen to rest in man himself. . . 
The shift is finally completed in the Upanishads, where the divine power does not merely rest in the human being but is identified with the human being.
These four bodies of texts then—the Samhitâs, the Brâhmanas, the Âranyakas, and the Upanishads—collectively constitute the Vedas, which in turn serves as the textual basis of what is recognized as the Hindu religion of today. In fact, given the almost unique status of Hinduism amongst the major religious traditions as a decentralized system with no formal institutional controls, adherence to the Vedas serves as the sole criterion for what it means to be a Hindu. That being said, a distinction is often made between the Samhitâs and the Brâhmanas, on the one hand, and the Âranyakas and the Upanishads on the other. The former are referred to as karmakanda or that division of the Vedas that deals primarily with ritual action, while the latter are referred to as jnanakanda or that division of the Vedas that deals primarily with spiritual knowledge.
(All these divisions having been made, it is important to point out that they are not always strictly followed. As the famous German Orientalist Paul Deussen once pointed out, occasional “digressions” into ritual, allegory or philosophy are present throughout the Brâhmanas, Âranyakas and Upanishads. In the Upanishads themselves, these digressions sometimes appear as outright contradictions, as was mentioned earlier in the introduction.)
As the last of the attachments to the Samhitâs, the Upanishads are also alternatively known as the Vedānta, or, that which comes at “the end of the Vedas.” It is speculated that the earliest Upanishads were written no earlier than 600 B.C., though just like the Samhitâs, it is also held that the Upanishadic tradition long predates its written rescension. Thousands of Upanishads are said to have once existed, though today only about 100 to 200 texts go by the name Upanishad–and they vary drastically in age, content and spiritual maturity.
The dissonances amongst and within the Upanishads are so great, in fact, that Deussen has said that if we understand the word “system” to refer to “an association of thoughts which collectively belong to and are dependent on a single center”—whether that center is a single author or a consistent whole—then a “’system of the Upanishads,’ strictly speaking, does not exist.” In the same passage, he adds that one finds, in the Upanishads, “a great variety of conceptions . . . which not seldom stand to one another in irreconcilable contradiction.” The key to understanding the underlying harmony of the Upanishads, Deussen insists, lies not in seeing it as a systematic elaboration of a single doctrine, but rather as diverse attempts to reconcile humanity’s differing experiences of reality with an ultimate doctrine. This ultimate doctrine is what was stated earlier in the introduction to this essay, namely, that the ultimate reality is none other than God, and that God is none other than the Self.
Now, if one were to recall that Hinduism—in its entire history—has never had a single central authority, one immediately realizes that even this nominal source of unity amongst the Upanishads is cause for far greater marvel than the overwhelmingly abundant diversity. Across the vast reaches of time and space, through the interval of an entire epoch and the distance of an entire continent, Hindus have spiritually intuited or accepted—at varying degrees—the ultimately mystical identity between the Brahman and the Âtman. How this could have come about in a civilization so decentralized that Rabindranath Tagore once called it a “forest civilization” (in contrast to the centralized city civilizations of Greece and Rome) is so profoundly mysterious, that Michael Nagler has been forced to concede that a form of mysticism had always been part of the subcontinent’s culture long before the Indo-Aryans even arrived.
Whatever its sources or its origins, the fact remains that once the people of India began to turn their spiritual gaze from the exteriority of Vedic ritual to the interiority of Hindu mysticism, the dominant form of that mysticism—with which all subsequent forms of Hindu spirituality would have to wrestle—would be expressed by the identity between the Brahman and the Âtman. Keeping this in mind, one can interpret the various Upanishads as different ways of not merely extolling this identity, but of reconciling it with concrete human experience with its very “real” encounters with change and multiplicity. With this view in place, let us now turn our attentions to the S’vetâs’vatara Upanishad.
 Peter Johanns, SJ, “The Vedic Religion,” in Religious Hinduism, ed. Richard De Smet, SJ and Joseph Neuner, SJ (Mumbai: St. Paul Press, 1997), 31.
 Francis Rasiah, SJ, “Introduction to Indian Philosophy” (lecture notes presented in the course on the “History of Ancient Hindu Thought,” Quezon City, Ateneo de Manila University, 2008), 1.
 Michael Nagler, “Reading the Upanishads,” afterword to The Upanishads, trans. Eknath Easwaran (Tomales: Nilgiri Press, 2003), 251.
 Nagler, “Reading the Upanishads,” 253.
 Nagler, “Reading the Upanishads,” 261, quoting Rabindranath Tagore, Sadhana (Tucson: Omen, 1972), 3-5; ibid, 260.