Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
The word "Upanishad"derives from a Sanskrit term that means "to sit near." Specifically, it refers to a student sitting near a teacher and learning directly through questions and answers. The bulk of the Upanishads record such discourses, and the single most pressing question posed by the students to the teachers is: "What is the nature of Brahman?" This is a deceptively simple question. On a basic level, the answer is equally simple: "Everything is Brahman." But behind this simple answer is tremendous theological complexity.
The Upanishads hold that since everything is Brahman, the individual is also Brahman. What separates the individual from the absolute Brahman, and thus from salvation, or moksha (release), is ignorance of this fundamental reality. Individuals think that the things that make them who they are, such as one's relationships, or appearance, or even thoughts, are real. The Upanishad holds that these are merely elaborate illusions. We hold on to these illusions, and it is this holding that keeps us from realizing the ultimate truth, Brahman. Thus the Upanishads advocate an ascetic path. If one wishes to realize the ultimate, then one must detach oneself from all of these unreal things. One must go off and meditate on the reality of Brahman, which begins with meditation on the self, the atman, which is in essence the same as Brahman.
The category of scripture known as smrti is vast, encompassing the classic epic texts—the Mahabharata and the Ramayana—as well as a group of texts known as Puranas, and all manner of local myths and legends. The Mahabharata, the "Great story of India," is a huge text of over 75,000 verses, or nearly two million words, composed over a long period, probably between the 5th century B.C.E. and the 4th century C.E. It is a difficult text to classify, since it contains mythology, philosophy, theology, historical events (it is often classified in Hinduism as "ithihasa," or history), ritual, and social commentary. Early on, the text states: "What is found here, may be found elsewhere. What is not found here, will not be found elsewhere."
The central story of the Mahabharata is the dynastic conflict between two sets of paternal cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, each of whom claim the rightful rule of Bharata (India). Their conflict culminates in an epic battle that is eventually won by the Pandavas. Over the course of the narrative, issues of kinship and kingship, familial loyalty and duty, and ultimately good and evil are complexly debated.