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Shvetashvatara Upanishad

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Yoga Vasistha

The Shvetashvatara Upanishad (Sanskrit: Śvetāśvatara) (400 - 200 BCE)[1] is one of the older, "primary" Upanishads. It is associated with the Black Yajurveda. It figures as number 14 in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads. Adi Shankara has called it the "Mantra Upanishad" of the Vedic Shvetashvatara school in his commentary on Brahma sutras.

This Upanishad contains 113 mantras or verses in six chapters. In the last chapter we find the following verse.

"The Sage Shvetashvatara got this knowledge of Brahman, which is very sacred and revered by many great sages, through his penance and through God's grace, and he taught it very well to his disciples."

By this verse we learn that this Upanishad was attributed to a sage called "Shvetashvatara" or to his line of ancient spiritual teachers. The name "Shvetashvatara" is not uncommon in vedic literature. It means "White Mule". The Mule was a prized animal in ancient vedic India. A person who owns a white horse is called "Shvetashva" and one who owns a white mule can be called "Shvetashvatara". One of Arjuna's names in the epic Mahabharata is "Shvetashva." In the Rigveda, too, we find a sage's name as "Shyavashva," meaning "One who owns a black horse."

The Shvetashvatara Upanishad is the earliest textual exposition of a systematic philosophy of Shaivism.[2] As explained by Gavin Flood, the text proposes:

... a theology which elevates Rudra to the status of supreme being, the Lord (Sanskrit: Īśa) who is transcendent yet also has cosmological functions, as does Śiva in later traditions.[3]


There is one commentary available on this Upanishad that is attributed to Adi Shankara, but on comparison with his other commentaries, there is some doubt that is indeed composed by him. There are three other commentators, namely Vijnanatma, Shankarananda and Narayana Tirtha.

Special Features

This Upanishad is as difficult to understand as it is wonderful. It has some special qualities which arouse curiosity in the reader of vedic literature.

1] The Supreme God or Brahman is called by various names such as Shiva, Rudra, etc. From this feature one might assume it was a Shaiva Upanishad, but such an assumption would be incorrect because, at the time of this Upanishad, Shaiva Agamas weren't there. Also, at that time the supreme Godhead or personal Brahman used to be called by different names, each indicating a particular manifestation of Brahman. Just as the names Shiva or Rudra are used to refer to Brahman, names such as Vayu, Aditya or Agni are also used for same purpose in this Upanishad, rather than referring to the demigods of those names. Moreover, if this Upanishad is indeed a Shaiva Upanishad, other sects of Hinduism such as Vaishnavas wouldn't have quoted its verses/mantras as authority in their respective treatises.

2] A second special feature is the prominent conception of Devotion or Bhakti. In other Upanishads, the concept of Bhakti is indirectly voiced in the form of Upasana, but here, leaving no room for guesswork, it is explicitly mentioned. The word para-bhakti is explicitly used at the end of the sixth chapter. There are many words which voice submission to God or Brahman (words such as Sharanam, Prapadye, etc.). This concept of devotion later found profound expression in the Bhakti Sutras and other treatises on Bhakti.

3] A third specialty of this Upanishad lies in its giving importance to the form (fullness or murtitva) of God, where Brahman is often described as formless in other important upanishads. Since it is difficult to concentrate the mind on and/or show devotion to a formless Brahman, the Shvetashvatara Upanshad ascribes various forms to God. While expounding on devotion, it also describes various characteristics or manifestations of God, such as mentioning that he has knowledge and power. This Upanishad also presents God as the creator and sustainer of the universe and, while describing various powers of God, drives home the point with similes such as God having thousands of heads Sahasra-sheersha - to denote God's endless knowledge, thousands of eyes - to denote God as the universal witness for everything going on in the universe and God's having thousands of feet - to indicate his omnipresence. This Upanishad mentions that God or Parama Purusha is shining in his (or "its", since the Upanishads do not ascribe gender to Brahman) glory beyond the darkness of ignorance or Tamas. God controls the material energies of the universe through his characteristic Maya or illusion of the world, but God is not bound by his Maya as humans are, because he is its controller and is capable of giving salvation to human beings.

4] A fourth specialty is the use of words such as Samkhya, Kapila, yoga and Prakriti. Some scholars suggest that this indicates an assimilation of the Sankhya-Yoga-Darshana school of thought into Vedanta. If this view is right, it means that the Vedantic Upanishads originated later than the Sankhya-Yoga-Darshana school of thought. This view is unjustifiable for the following reasons:

i] Just because certain definitive words are similar, it doesn't imply that Upanishads are of later origin than Darshana schools. The definitive words like Samkhya, prakriti, etc. are also used in Vedas earlier than Darshana schools. So these specific words are taken from Vedanta and later used by proponents of Darshana schools.
ii] The proponents of Darshanas like the sage kapila describe in their treatises that they are interpreting the Vedanta, so it means Vedantic Upanishads are of earlier origin than these schools of thought.
iii] In this Upanishad we don't see an assimilation of the principles of those schools, but to the contrary, the thoughts that are rejected by those schools are expounded and accepted using the same words and definitions of those schools.

The philosophical jargon of Samkhya school of thought originated in the vedas well before the birth of Samkhya. Originally, the word "samkhya" means counting or understanding. There are many verses in this Upanishad that have some counting of things in them; that is why the word "samkhya" was extended to mean knowledge. While Yoga is practical, Sammkhya is intellectual. While samkhya is purely dualistic, Upanishads have a marked preference for non-dualism. In Samkhya the "Purusha" or self is different from "Prakriti" or Nature, but in Upanishadic thought Nature is a God-derived or God-dependent force. Specifically, this Upanishad refers to Prakriti as Devatma Shakti, which can be roughly translated as "God's inner force that manifests itself as nature (Prakriti)".

One hymn of this Upanishad says,

"Sages engaged in deep meditation realized the secret 'Atma Shakti' of God."

It says this Atma Shakti of God is hidden secretly in the meditator's own inner nature.

Regarding the usage of the word "Kapila", from the context of nearby hymns to the hymn which uses the word kapila, it is clear that it does not denote the sage Kapila who is a proponent of Samkhya. The hymn 5.2 which uses word "kapila" should be seen in the context of other hymns.

The 4th hymn of the 3rd chapter says,

"The all knower Rudra gave birth to Hiranyagarbha"

The 12th hymn of 4th chapter says

"Rudra saw the birth of Hiranyagarbha"

Later, 18th hymn of 6th chapter says,

"Parameshvara created Brahma "

When seen in context of these hymns, the verse 5.2, which uses the word kapila, says,

"God saw birth of all-knowing Kapila"

In Sanskrit, the word kapila means "golden-coloured". Hiranyagarbha means "one embodying a golden core". In the Upanishads, Hiranyagarbha also has other names such as Prajapati, Brahma, etc. Based on this context relation, we can conclude that when this Upanishad uses the word kapila it means Hiranyagarbha, rather than Samkhya school proponent.

Poetic Style

Normally, Upanishads are sources of serious philosophical thought, but this Upanishad differs from other Upanishads by explaining the same principles in a simple, easy-going and poetic way. Wherever the sage Shvetashvatara has his independent hymns, he sees them in a beautiful, heart-catching, poetic way. He is not only a seer of Mantras, but also a poet from his heart. Here are few examples.

While trying to describe the omnipresence of Brahman, hymn 4.2 says,

"You are woman; you are man; you are boy and you are girl; you are the shivering old man helped by a stick; you are born in the form of this world."

Hymn 4.4 says

"You are the blue butterfly, the green-eyed parrot and the lightning cloud. You are the seasons and the seas. You are the one without any beginning; you are omnipresent; all the worlds are born out of you."


  1. For dating to 400-200 BCE see: Flood (1996), p. 86.
  2. For Śvetāśvatara Upanishad as a systematic philosophy of Shaivism see: Chakravarti, p. 9.
  3. Flood (1996), p. 153.


  • Chakravati, Mahadev (1994). The Concept of Rudra-Śiva Through The Ages. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 81-208-0053-2.  (Second Revised Edition; Reprint, Delhi, 2002).
  • Flood, Gavin (1996). An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43878-0. 
  • Kannada Translation of Shvetashvatara Upanishad by Swami Adidevananda - Ramakrishna Mission Publishers.

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