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Although the Vedas and the Upanishads express common themes of the Aryan world view, they differ greatly in genre and emphasis. Underlying both texts are the core ideas of the religion: the ubiquitousness of atman, Brahman’s origins of non-being, the non-existence of physical reality, and the subtle, intangible existence of ultimate reality. But while the Vedas is mythical and ritualistic, the Upanishads is theological and devalues ritual.

The major reoccurring theme of the Upanishads is understanding the inner Real Self, the attainment of atman. Through parable and narrative, the Upanishads repeatedly teaches of the atman and the path to atman. The favored type of parable is that of the teacher and student, such as in the case of Uddalaka Aruni and his son Shvetaketu. The father patiently details example after example of the nature of ultimate reality: the lump of clay, and the ingot of iron, the fig seed, the salt in water.(Embree, 36-37) He uses these examples to illustrate an esoteric point, the key to attaining enlightenment. “Believe me, my dear, that which is the subtle essence—this whole world has that essence for its Self; that is that Real; that is the Self; that art thou, Shvetaketu.”(Embree, 37) Here, the author uses simple examples to cater to the mind of the general audience, a technique not used in the Vedas. The author also touches upon the nature of man—“that art thou”(Embree, 37)—and his connection with the Real Self.

In every passage of the Upanishads man and his place in the universe is the subject. The five Sheaths metaphorizes the different stages of being, from Unreal to Real.(Embree, 33) Brahman holds the same significance as he does in the Vedas, but is presented out of the supernatural realm. “Nonexistent, verily, does one become if he knows that Brahman is non-existent. If one knows that Brahman exists, such a one people thereby know as existent.”(Embree, 33) Brahman is apart of every man as every man is in Brahman; one cannot be without the other. Unlike that which is purported in the Vedas, ritual and sacrifice is superfluous. The Gods are rarely mentioned and tales of their greatness are untold. Those who “delight in the sacrificial ritual” are fools, like “blind men led by one who is blind himself.”(Embree, 31) Most important are understanding and the desire for understanding, of the nature of the universe, the nature of man.

The Vedas and Upanishads have distinctively different approaches to the same goal. The Vedas’ focus on the Gods and elaborate sacrifice and ritual makes Brahman seem supernatural. The Upanishads emphasizes the relationship between Brahman and man, making the religion and reaching enlightenment more tangible to all.


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