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Philosophy of Sandilya Upanishad

Philosophy of Śāṇḍilyopaniṣad

Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom,” said Aristotle. Indian philosophy deals with this quest for the Ultimate Truth – a truth not with objective certainty, but as one to develop our personality to attain wisdom and supreme bliss. The quest for knowledge beyond the ken of mundane existence led to the rise of different schools of philosophy, and Yoga is one among them. (The word ‘Yoga’, has many meanings, varying from literal to philosophical. It is derived from the root ‘yuj’ which cognates with the English words ‘yoke’, ‘unite’ or ‘harness’ in its most familiar sense.) Pāṇini in his Aṣṭādhyāyī has three connotations for the word ‘Yoga’ – ‘yuj’samādhau’, ‘yuj’samyamane’ and ‘yujir’yoge’.

As per Yogic texts, jīvātmā the individual soul is a facet of Paramātman, the substratum of the manifested universe. Yoga is the discipline by which one can clear the intellect, free the mind of its illusions so that the jīva can get united with the supreme soul, paramātman, jīva paramātmā aikyam. Śāṇḍilyopaniad details this concept.

Śāṇḍilyopaniad is known as one of the minor Upaniads among the 108 Upaniads listed under Muktikopaniad and belongs to Atharva Veda. It deals with Yoga and its achievements, mainly with the aim of attaining the state of Brahman, the final goal of human life.

Śāṇḍilyopaniad lays down two paths for the pursuit of unknown. Haṭha Yogic practices for those who have not attained internal development to adopt the exalted way and the study of Brahmavidyā namely reflection and contemplation on the real nature of Brahman for the exclusive adherents of supreme knowledge.

The Upaniad begins with sage Śāṇḍilya asking Atharvan to disclose the means to attain ātmalābha.

शाण्डिल्यो ह वा अथर्वाणं पप्रच्छात्मलाभोपायभूतमष्टाङ्गयोगमनुब्रवीति॥

Atharvan then details a step by step process leading to the attainment of the Ultimate Truth; leading the jīva towards the paramātman and finally merging into it.

Sage Śāṇḍilya

Sage Śāṇḍilya

To begin with, one must practice the yamas, niyamas, and āsanas. For example, Śauca (cleanliness), expounded as one of the ten restraints (yama), includes both external and internal. The purity of mind is considered as the internal cleanliness, for attaining ātmavidyā.

मनःशुद्धिरान्तरं। तदध्यात्मविद्यया लभ्यम्॥

While enunciating the niyamas, the emphasis is laid on the observances embedded in Veda and Vedānta as below:

  • Mortification of the body through kṛcchra and cāndrāyaa austerities is defined as ‘tapaतत्र तपो नाम विध्युक्तकृच्छ्रचान्द्रायणादिभिः शरीरशोषणम्.

  • Belief in dharma and adharma as āstikyam

  • Siddhāntaśravaam is an inquiry into the significance of Vedānta

  • Hrī is disinclination from inimical actions and mati is faith in the path laid down by Vedas.

  • Vrata is an observation of injunctions and prohibitions, stipulated in the Vedas.

  • Japa is elucidated as the practice of mantra-s either mentally or orally. This reminds us of similar thoughts in philosophical texts.

The practice of āsanas or postures is prescribed for getting rid of all the toxins and diseases in the body. The Upaniṣad says that one who conquers the āsanas, conquers the three worlds. येनासनं विजितं जगत्त्रयं तेन विजितं भवति।



The next step after the practice of yama, niyama and āsana is Prānāyāma. This, Atharvan says purifies the nāīs. The importance of the nā is highlighted when the suṣum nāī is connoted as mokṣamārga; mokṣa being the highest goal wherein the soul is liberated from all the bondages. Another Vedantic concept of centering one’s mind on an inward object while one’s eyes are looking outside without shutting antarlakṣyam bahirdṛṣtih, is revealed in the description of Vaiṣavī mudrā. Another mudrā called the Khecarī mudrā is attained when the Yogin turns his vision towards the interior with mind and prāṇa at repose. This brings about the state of unmanī, which causes the destruction of the mind. Prānāyāma is described as the union of prāṇa and apāna vāyus and its three varieties (recaka, pūraka and kumbhaka) correspond to the three characters of praṇava (akāra, ukāra, and makāra). Praṇava represents the sacred syllable Aum. Thus, the text assigns praṇava as prāāyāma. प्राणापानसमायोगः प्राणायामो भवति। Meditation on praṇava causes all beings to get merged in the Paramātman.



According to Vedānta jīva dwells in the heart. Śāṇḍilyopaniad says that jīva resides in the nābhi, revolving in the middle of a cakra with twelve spokes according to one’s merits and sins –

तन्मध्ये नाभिः। तत्र द्वादशारयुतं चक्रम्। तच्चक्रमध्ये पुण्यपापप्रचोदितो जीवो भ्रमति॥

Same idea is found in Yogayājñavalkya and Gorakasamhita. The Bhagavad gītā describes jīva to be beyond puṇya and pāpa, and as eternal, all-pervading, stable, etc.

The mind plays an important role in the realization of the highest truth to the knowledge of mundane objects. When the mind loses its frivolity, it is dissolved. Śāṇḍilyopaniṣad states that dissolution of mind leads to kaivalya. ŚU(1.7.23)

ज्ञेयवस्तु परित्यागाद्विलयं याति मानसम्। मानसे विलयं याते कैवल्यमवशिष्यते॥

Eulogizing the worship of Rudra, Viṣṇu, and other deities under Iśvarapūjana, the text, refers to other gods like Vināyaka, Sarasvatī, and Hanumān at different contexts. Sun, Moon, and pole-star are also termed important for the acquisition of various siddhis. While the worship of Rudra, Viṣṇu, and Vināyaka give a comprehensive account of religious practice, the terms Brahman and Paramātman are used to refer to the Ultimate God principle. This is akin to the Advaita school of philosophy. The text embodies both the saguṇa and nirguṇa aspects of Brahman. The terms anirdeśyatvam and the avāṅgmanasagocaratvam of non-qualified Brahman are described in the second chapter. The three forms of the formless Brahman are explained in the final chapter.

Brahman is treated as both goal and essence in the text. Brahman is described by Atharvan as the true Existence, Consciousness, and Infinite. सत्यं विज्ञानमनन्तं ब्रह्म. This Brahman which is the form of warp and woof; contraction or expansion is the only one to be known, by knowing which everything else is known. यस्मिन्निदमोतं च प्रोतं च यस्मिन्निदं सं च विचैति सर्वं यस्मिन् विज्ञाते सर्वमिदं विज्ञातं भवति। Brahman is beyond the reach of speech and mind and can be attained only through knowledge. It is non-dual, all-pervading like ākāśa, intensely subtle, devoid of attachment, inactive, existence alone, essence of consciousness and eternal bliss, auspicious, immensely poised, immortal and transcendental. Realization of Ātman is true knowledge. Thus, the essence of all Vedic and Vedantic philosophy is summarised in a nutshell. यतो वाचो निवर्तन्ते अप्राप्य मनसा सह। यत्केवलं ज्ञानगम्यम्। यदेकमद्वितीयम्। आकाशवत् सर्वगतं सुसूक्ष्मं निरञ्जनं निष्क्रियं सन्मात्रं चिदानन्दैकरसं शिवं प्रशान्तममृतं तत्परं च ब्रह्म।

This Paramātman is the only God, wielding the principle power of Ātmaśakti. He knows all, he is the supreme lord, inner Ātman of all beings, abides in all beings, concealed in all beings, the origin of everything and can be reached by the practice of Yoga. He is also the one, who creates the universe, sustains it, and wherein the universe is dissolved into. ŚU (II.5)

Every being understands its respective world through its individual soul. One who understands this is bereft of grief and sorrow.

मा शोचीरात्मविज्ञानी शोकस्यान्तं गमिष्यसि।

Sage Śāṇḍilya raises the doubt of how the universe is created, sustained, and resolved, when substratum, the Brahman is non-dual, imperishable, actionless, and auspicious existence. To this, Atharvan clarifies that the formless Brahman, without a counterpart has three aspects namely niṣkalam (part-less), sakalam (with parts), and sakalaniṣkalam (with parts and part-less). ŚU (III.1.3)

अथाप्यस्य रूपस्य ब्रह्मणस्त्रीणि रूपाणि भवन्ति निष्कलं सकलं सकलनिष्कलं चेति॥

The unmanifested Brahman is truth, wisdom, blissful, actionless, all-pervasive, intensely subtle, non-demonstrable and immortal. ŚU (III.1.4)

That which is actionless, without any impurity, omnipresent, extremely subtle, having faces in every direction, undefinable and immortal—that is His niṣkala aspect. The manifested Brahman exists with mūlaprakṛti, knowledge, and māyā  the illusion and partaking the colors of the triguṇas —red, black, and white. It co-exists with Maheśvara of black and brown color. ŚU (III.1.5)

Maheśvara, with avidyāmūlaprakṛti or māyā that is red, white, and black, and that is co-existent with Him. This is his sakalaniṣkala aspect. The divisible Brahman who had outgrown His form due to penance replete with wisdom desired to multiply and bring forth progeny. The three letters, three vyāhṛtis, the three-footed Gāyatrī, the three Vedas, the trinity Gods, the three castes, sacrificial rites were all born out of him.

योऽसौ देवो भगवान् सर्वैश्वर्यसंपन्नः सर्वव्यापी सर्वभूतानां हृदये सन्निविष्टो मायावी माययाकृतिः स ब्रह्मा स विष्णुः स रुद्रः स इन्द्रः स सर्वे देवाः सर्वाणि भूतानि स एव पुरस्तात् स एव पश्चात् स एव उत्तरतःस एव दक्षिणतः स एवाधस्तात् स एवोपरिष्टात् स एव सर्वम्।

That Supreme Lord who is endowed with all kinds of wealth, who is all-pervading, who is situated in the hearts of all beings, who is the Lord of māyā and whose form is māyā—He is Brahma. He is Viṣṇu: He is Rudra: He is Indra: He is all the devas: He is all the bhūtas (elements or beings): He only is before: He only is behind: He only is on our left: He only is on our right: He only is below: He only is above: He only is the all. That form of him as Dattātreya, is His sakala form. Dattātreya is the compassionate and fearless form and is described as having a beautiful body with four arms resembling the lotus petals. SU (III.1.6)



In the final section, Śāṇḍilya asks, if ‘that’ which is Sat only and the essence of the bliss of consciousness—why is He called Parabrahman? The Upaniṣad then gives various definitions for the absolute existence, the sanmatra (Paramātvatvam, atmatvam, maheśvaratvam, and dattatreyatvam) and the benefits of attaining this knowledge. It is known as Parabrahman because it grows and causes all other things to grow. It is known as atman for the reason that it consumes everything that is attained and begotten. SU (III.2.2)

The name Maheśvara is obtained due to its nature of growing enormously big. SU (III.2.6). He is called Maheśvara (the great Lord) since by the sound of the words MahatĪśa (the great Lord) and by His own power, the great Lord governs everything. Pleased with the penance of sage Atri, for wanting a son, the absolute gave himself (datta) and was born as the son of Atri and Anasūyā. Hence, He came to be known as Dattātreya. SU (III.2.8). Brahman is realized when one meditates on this with the attitude “I am He”. SU (III.2.10)

After the description of different attributes of absolute consciousness, the Upaniṣad concludes with a verse on the Paramātman, here identified with Dattātreya whose nature and physique are portrayed. SU (III.2.11). One who meditates always on this Lord of Lords, as Dattātreya, will get released from all sins and attain beatific bliss.

Thus, we have seen that Śāṇḍilyopaniṣad is a text on practices of aṣtāṅga yoga, interwoven with tenets of philosophy thereby paving an exalted way of realization of the Absolute Truth for the ardent adherents.


  1. Śāṇḍilyopaniad from 112 Upaniads edited by K.L. Joshi, O.N.Bimali and Bindiya Trivedi. Parimala Publications, Delhi, 2004
  2. Bhagavad Gitā, Gita Press, Gorakhpur,2011
  3. Yoga Upanisads, T.R. Srinivasa Ayyangar, The Adyar Library, and Research Centre, Chennai 2008

(This paper was presented by Rabi Ranjan Sen at the International Conference on Philosophy and Praxis of Yoga conducted by Indic Academy and Indica Yoga on February 15th and 16th 2020) 

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