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The Upanishads: A New Translation

Image of The Upanishads: A New Translation by Vernon Katz and Thomas Egenes (Tarcher Cornerstone Editions)
Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
May 2016
Fred's Rating: 
Vernon Katz
Thomas Egenes
Total Pages: 
Tarcher Cornerstone

Both authors have studied and taught Sanskrit and Hindu religions. Vernon Katz is a trustee emeritus and visiting professor at Maharishi University in Fairfield, IA, where Thomas Egenes is an associate professor. Thomas Egenes' guides for learning Sanskrit are used at universities in the US, Europe, and Australia.

The Amazon website for the paperback edition of this book is

The home page has a summary (click on ‘Read more’), three brief reviews, and more about the authors.

Using the ‘Look inside’ option, I recommend scrolling down to the Contents page that names the nine Upanishads covered in this book. Amazon’s preview omits the first page of the 3-pp Preface by Vernon Katz, so I give it here: “I first met the Upanishads in an upstairs room in All Soluls College, Oxford. There were about eight of us seated around Dr. Radhakrishnan, who was then Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford University. Here was this great man speaking to just a few people in his sitting room. His audience was equally divided between a few students and a few elderly ladies, mostly from North Oxford. This was the late nineteen forties, and widespread interest in Eastern religions and philosophy had to wait till the sixties. Dr. Radhakrishnan had founded the Group for the Study of Religions. I was its secretary, and we invited speakers from different religions. We were always on the point of folding.” [End of the 1st Preview page (p vii – a half page)]

As I expected, there are a few pages missing in Amazon’s preview of the 28-pp Introduction. But I still think what is in the preview for the introduction is worth looking at. The first missing page in the preview is page 1, which defines upanishad, so I give it here: “The word upanishad means ‘sit down near’ : upa (near), ni (down) and shad (sit). Traditionally, the student sat down near the teacher to receive secret instruction, and in this way knowledge was passed down from teacher to student, limking each new generation back to the ancient tradition of the Upanishads. Many of the Upanishads consist of a dialogue between teacher and student in the deep quietude of a forest hermitage (ashrama) or in the home of the teacher (where the students lived as part of a system called guru-kula).

“The great teacher Shankara explained the word upanishad as ‘the knowledge of Brahman by which ignorance is destroyed.’ In other accounts, ‘sit down near (upanishad) refers “ [End of page 1] Since you can read in Amazon’s preview the next several pages before you come to another missing page, it is worthwhile to do so to see the poetic style of this new translation, followed by the authors' explanation of the meaning of the allegorical poetry. Please read the section entitled “Influence of the Upanishads on pages 3-6. I chose these pages because they name philosophers, scholars, and American mystics who studied the Upanishads.

The reason I bought this new translation is because two famous physicists are mentioned – Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger (see book 649) and Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Their interest in the Upanishads did not deal with their physics work in birthing quantum physics but instead with the hard questions of a philosophical nature. Here I take the liberty of giving here quotes from these two men. Schrodinger: “There is no framework within which we can find consciousness in the plural; this is simply something we construct because of the temporal plurality of individuals, but it is a false construction . . . The only solution to this conflict insofar as any is available to us lies in the ancient wisdom of the Upanishads.” … “Niels Bohr said, ‘I go to the Upanishads to ask questions.’ The questions they ask and the answers they seek are not about science, not about the new quantum physics and Einstein’s relativity. What they are seeking is where and how to find knowledge about that which lies not within the ability of any science to answer – the hard questions that humans have sought even before writing was developed by any ancient culture, such as ancient Egypt, ancient India, ancient China, and (the somewhat less) ancient Greeks. Questions that have occurred in all times since ancient ones are still occurring in today’s world, among any culture, perhaps even down to the level of the most primitive hunter-gathering groups.

It seems that answers, or beginnings of answers, require the ability to obtain a deep meditative state, with the open mind and open heart in which one waits, patiently and humbly, for a new insight to reach one’s awareness or consciousness, which may be quite vague at first. On page 6 of the Introduction begins the section entitled Principled Themes in the Upanishads, which begins with “The Upanishads are a celebration of the awakening of the Self (Atman), a state of unbounded pure being, pure bliss.” We think usually as an individual self; the universal Self of a Hindu is comparable to that of the universal God. The Hindus also regard the Self as Brahman, their highest God (to be compared to our God as the Father or the Creator God). Sometimes we also hear similar ideas about our soul as an individual entity and the Soul as the universal entity.

In my current thinking about the transcendent world and our physical world, they are not a duality but are parts of a universal Mind or Soul or God (and with God’s many other names). They are two parts of a holistic being – a unity or Oneness that includes all. This is somewhat different than the views expressed in the Upanishads, for they can be interpreted as reality is the transcendent and the physical world is but an illusion. Materialists (or determinists) reverse this, saying the transcendent is an illusion, for the only reality is the physical world. I know in my heart that they are wrong; they haven’t yet had an experience of the transcendent. But their thinking is that determinism means no free will, which means open all jails and prisons, for nobody has responsibility for their actions, therefore nobody can be guilty. I think of reality as consisting of both the physical and the transcendent forming two aspects of the Universal Unity. A friend who shares this thought once said the two are like two ropes being intertwined like a braid. My response is the each rope consists of side-by-side threads, so physical reality and transcendent reality are too closely intertwined to be separated - they can't be 'unbraided.' I will still continue to read, contemplate, study and try to meditate on different thoughts such as those found in most Eastern philosophies. But I will not argue with them but instead I will listen to those who are inspired by the Upanishads or other Eastern thoughts about the transcendent.

There are many verses in the Upanishads that can be interpreted in many ways. The short (just 5 pp) Isha Upanishad has ‘verses’ numbered from 1 to 18, each verse has four lines. At both the beginning and the end there’s an identical, indented, and unnumbered verse that led me to insightful thoughts:

“That is full; this is full.
From fullness, fullness comes out.
Taking fullness from fullness,
what remains is fullness.

For a mathematician, the ‘that’ or ‘this’ reminds him/her of infinity – true but of no spiritual value, so I ruled it out. For one seeking spiritual insight, I thought of several things of great value. What came first to my mind was love, for when you give love, love is returned to you, so in this case ’what remains is more love.’ What also came to my mind was trust, for when trust is given to another, that causes the other to trust you. There can be many (but not an infinity of) other positive concepts which, when given out to another, lead to the same concept being given back to you, thus increasing fullness - but a fullness that always has room for more. Thus what remains is a greater fullness.

Verses from the Upanishads can offer valuable insights, which is why I rate this book at five stars.

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