Shvetashvatara Upanishad

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The Shvetashvatara Upanishad (Sanskrit in Devanagari: श्वेताश्वतरोपनिषद्; IAST: Śvetāśvataropaniṣad) is an ancient Sanskrit text embedded in Yajurveda. It is listed as number 14 in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads.[1] The Upanishad contains 113 mantras or verses in six chapters.[2]

The Upanishad is one of the 33 Upanishads from Taittiriyas, and associated with the Shvetashvatara tradition within Karakas sakha of the Yajurveda.[3][4] It is a part of the "black" Yajurveda, with the term "black" implying "the un-arranged, motley collection" of content in Yajurveda, in contrast to the "white" (well arranged) Yajurveda where Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and Isha Upanishad are embedded.[5]

The chronology of Maitrayaniya Upanishad is contested, but generally accepted to be a late period Upanishadic composition.[4][6] The text includes a colophon attributing the text to sage Shvetashvatara. However, scholars believe that while sections of the text shows an individual stamp by its style, verses and other sections were interpolated and expanded over time; the Upanishad as it exists now is the work of more than one author.[3]

The Shvetashvatara Upanishad opens with metaphysical questions about the primal cause of all existence, its origin, its end, and what role if any did time, nature, necessity, chance, the spirit had as primal cause?[7] It then develops its answer, concluding that "the Universal Soul exists in every individual, it expresses itself in every creature, everything in the world is a projection of it, and that there is Oneness, a unity of souls in one and only Self".[4] The text is notable for its discussion of the concept of personal god – Ishvara, and suggesting it to be a path to one's own Highest Self.[3][4] The text is also notable for its multiple mentions of both Rudra and Shiva, along with other Vedic deities, and of crystallization of Shiva as a central theme.[3]

The Shvetashvatara Upanishad is a Principal Upanishad of Hinduism, commented by many of its ancient and medieval scholars.[4] It is a foundational text of the philosophy of Shaivism,[8] as well as the Yoga and Vedanta schools of Hinduism.[3] Some 19th century scholars initially suggested that Shvetashvatara Upanishad is sectarian or possibly influenced by Christianity, hypotheses that were disputed, later discarded by scholars.[4]


Shvetashvatara means "carried on a white horse"

The name "Shvetashvatara" has the compound Sanskrit root Shvetashva (श्वेताश्व, Shvet + ashva), which literally means "white horse" and "drawn by white steeds".[9] Shvetashvatara is a bahuvrihi compound of (Śvetaśva + tara), where tara means "crossing", "carrying beyond".[10] The word Shvetashvatara translates to "the one carrying beyond on white horse" or simply "white mule that carries".[3][4]

The text is sometimes spelled as Svetasvatara Upanishad. It is also known as Shvetashvataropanishad or Svetasvataropanishad, and as Shvetashvataranam Mantropanishad.[4]

In ancient and medieval literature, the text is frequently referred to in the plural, that is as Svetasvataropanishadah.[4] Some metric poetic verses, such as Vakaspatyam simply refer to the text as Shvetashva.


It was probably composed in the Maurya period (4th or 3rd century BCE).[11]

The chronology of Shvetashvatara Upanishad, like other Upanishads, is uncertain and contested.[6] The chronology is difficult to resolve because all opinions rest on scanty evidence, an analysis of archaism, style and repetitions across texts, driven by assumptions about likely evolution of ideas, and on presumptions about which philosophy might have influenced which other Indian philosophies.[6][12]

Phillips chronologically lists Shvetashvatara Upanishad after Mandukya Upanishad, but before and about the time the Maitri Upanishad, the first Buddhist Pali and Jaina canonical texts were composed.[6] Ranade[13] places Shvetashvatara Upanishad's chronological composition in the fourth group of ancient Upanishads, after Katha and Mundaka Upanishads. Deussen states that Shvetashvatara Upanishad refers to and incorporates phrases from the Katha Upanishad, and chronologically followed it.[3]


The text has six Adhyaya (chapters), each with varying number of verses.[2] The first chapter includes 16 verses, the second has 17, the third chapter contains 21 verses, the fourth is composed of 22, the fifth has 14, while the sixth chapter has 23 verses. The last three verses of the sixth chapter are considered as epilogue. Thus, the Upanishad has 110 main verses and 3 epilogue verses.[14]

Poetic style[edit]

The Shvetashvatara Upanishad has a poetic style and structure.[15] However, unlike other ancient poetic Upanishads, the meter structure of the Shvetashvatara Upanishad varies significantly, is arbitrary and inconsistent within many verses in later chapters, suggesting that the text congealed from the work of several authors over a period of time, or was interpolated and expanded over time.[3] The first chapter is the consistent one, with characteristics that makes it likely to be the work of one author, probably sage Shvetashvatara.[3]


The Shvetashvatara Upanishad opens with the metaphysical questions about first causes.[2] Scholars have differed somewhat in their translations, with Max Muller translating the questions thus,

The Brahma-students say: Is Brahman the cause? Whence are we born?
Whereby do we live, and whither do we go?
O ye who know Brahman, tell us at whose command we abide, whether in pain or in pleasure.

Should time, or nature, or necessity, or chance,
or the elements be considered as the cause, or he who is called the Purusha?
It cannot be their union either, because that is not self-dependent,[16] and the self also is powerless,
because there is, independent of him, a cause of good and evil.

—Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1.1-1.2, Translated by Max Muller[17]

Paul Deussen translates the opening metaphysical questions of the Upanishad thus,

The teachers of Brahman say: What is the primal cause? What is Brahman?
Wherefrom have we been born? By what do we subsist? and on what are we founded?
By whom regulated, do we have our being, ye wise men? in the changing conditions of joy and sorrow?

Are Time, Nature, Necessity, Chance, Basic matter, the Spirit, the primal cause?
Can the union of these be thought of as the primal cause?
It is not that, however, because the Self exists.
Still the Self also is not powerful enough to create joy and sorrow!

—Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1.1-1.2, Translated by Paul Deussen[7]

The primal cause is within each individual, a power innate – First Adhyāya[edit]

God, non-God, the Eternal is within self – First Adhyāya[edit]

Self knowledge, self discipline and Atman as the final goal of Upanishad – First Adhyāya[edit]

Yoga as means for self knowledge, self discipline – Second Adhyāya[edit]

Atman as personal God (Isa or Rudra) – Third Adhyāya[edit]

Brahman as the individual and the highest soul – Fourth Adhyāya[edit]

Rudra and Shiva – Fourth Adhyāya[edit]

Brahman is everywhere, knowledge liberates – Fifth Adhyāya[edit]

One Deva (God), the self within all beings – Sixth Adhyāya[edit]

End of misery and sorrow, the joyful Deva, seeking His refuge for freedom – Sixth Adhyāya[edit]


There is a commentary on Shvetashvatara Upanishad attributed to Adi Shankara, but there is some doubt[by whom?] whether he indeed was the author.[citation needed] There are three other commentators, namely Vijnanatma, Shankarananda and Narayana Tirtha.[citation needed]

Chakravarti calls the Shvetashvatara Upanishad as the earliest textual exposition of a systematic philosophy of Shaivism.[18] Flood states that it elevated Rudra to the status of Īśa ("Lord"), a god with cosmological functions such as those later attributed to Shiva.[19]


  1. ^ Paul Deussen, Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, Volume 2, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120814691, pages 556-557
  2. ^ a b c Robert Hume (1921), Shvetashvatara Upanishad, The Thirteen Principal Upanishads, Oxford University Press, pages 394–411
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Paul Deussen, Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, Volume 1, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120814684, pages 301-304
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Max Muller, The Shvetashvatara Upanishad, Oxford University Press, pages xxxii - xlii
  5. ^ Paul Deussen, Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, Volume 1, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120814684, pages 217-219
  6. ^ a b c d Stephen Phillips (2009), Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy, Columbia University Press, ISBN 978-0231144858, Chapter 1
  7. ^ a b Paul Deussen, Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, Volume 1, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120814684, pages 305 with footnote 2
  8. ^ Chakravarti, p. 9.
  9. ^ zvetAzva Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Cologne Sanskrit Digital Lexicon, Germany
  10. ^ tara Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Cologne Sanskrit Digital Lexicon, Germany
  11. ^ Flood (1996), p. 86 places it in the 4th or 3rd century BCE; E. F. Gorski, Theology of Religions (2008), p. 97 places it "probably in the late 4th century BCE".
  12. ^ Patrick Olivelle (1996), The Early Upanishads: Annotated Text & Translation, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195124354, Introduction Chapter
  13. ^ RD Ranade, A Constructive Survey of Upanishadic Philosophy, Chapter 1, pages 13-18
  14. ^ Paul Deussen, Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, Volume 1, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120814684, pages 305-326
  15. ^ "Shvetashvatara Upanishad". Retrieved 2013-10-14. 
  16. ^ Max Muller clarifies the meaning to be, "union presupposes uniter", see footnote 2, page 232
  17. ^ Max Muller, Shvetashvatara Upanishad, The Upanishads, Part II, Oxford University Press, pages 231-232
  18. ^ For Śvetāśvatara Upanishad as a systematic philosophy of Shaivism see: Chakravarti, p. 9
  19. ^ "... 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." 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.

External links[edit]