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Early Yoga, the Upanishads & Buddhism...

Many aspects of yoga are described in the Upanishads, as well as early Buddhism. There exist both similarities and differences. This article reviews the foundational teachings of the various Upanishads and how these relate to early Buddhism and yoga. There are many similarities between the Upanishads, early Buddhism, and yoga, including the focus on meditations, steadying the mind, controlling the thoughts, and reaching higher states of awareness and self-realization. For example, in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the states of mind or stages of meditation are explored. It states that “You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As you deed is, so is your destiny” (Brihadaranyaka IV.4.5). According to Easwaran, this passion is a “one pointed, self-transcending passion called tapas, which the Vedas revere as an unsurpassable creative force” (2007, p. 35). In yoga, we stoke the fire or tapas within in order to purify the body and burn impurities.

In the Katha Upanishad, the importance of one pointed focus and controlling the mind and senses is emphasized. “Those who have discrimination, with a still mind and a pure heart, reach journey’s end. Never again to fall into the jaws of death. With discriminating intellect as charioteer and a trained mind as reins, they attain the supreme goal of life, to be united with the Lord of Love.”

The realization of the truth of suffering and how our thoughts, minds, and action can inflict suffering is common in Buddhism. Meditation thus plays a critical role in focusing within and stilling one’s mind in order to tap into a higher source. The Katha Upanishad also mentions meditation. One learns that “the wise, realizing through meditation the timeless Self, beyond all perception, hidden in the cave of the heart, leave pain and pleasure far behind. Those who know they are neither body nor mind but the immemorial Self, the divine principle of existence, find the source of all joy and live in joy abiding.” Meditation isn’t just unique the Upanishads. In Buddhism, the Buddha or Siddhartha finally gained enlightenment while meditating under a bodhi tree next to a river.

In the Taittiriya Upanishad the layers of consciousness are discussed and, according to Easwaran, sages discovered that the powers of the mind have no life of their own – that we are neither our mind nor our physical body (2007). This sacred divine spark within is our inherent nature. In the Mundaka Upanishad it states that “the Lord of Love shines in the hearts of all. Seeing him in all creatures, the wise forget themselves in the service of all. The Lord is their joy, the Lord is their rest.” The Isha Upanishad states that “Those who see all creatures in themselves and themselves in all creatures know no fear. Those who see all creatures in themselves and themselves in all creatures know no grief. How can the multiplicity of life Delude the one who sees its unity? The Self is everywhere. Bright is the Self, Indivisible, untouched by sin, wise, immanent and transcendent. He it is who holds the cosmos together.”

In the Chandogya Upanishad, we learn about the secret dwelling, the lotus of the heart, and that we should “never fear that this inner treasure of all reality will wither and decay as it knows no aging when the body ages or knows no dying when the body dies” (Chandogya VIII.1.1.5). In this Upanishad, we learn more about the universal, big letter “S” Self, dwelling in our heart. “Smaller than a grain of rice, smaller than a grain of barley, smaller than a mustard seed, smaller than a grain of millet is the Self. This is the Self dwelling in my heart, greater than the earth, greater than the sky, greater than all the worlds.”

The Shvetashvatara Upanishad also talks about the importance of meditation in stilling the mind and recognizing the Divine within. It states that “in the depths of meditation, sages saw within themselves the Lord of Love, who dwells in the heart of every creature. Deep in the hearts of all he dwells, hidden behind the gunas of law, energy, and inertia. He is One.” Here we see that God is Love, similar to the emphasis on karuna or compassion in Buddhism.

The Upanishad goes on to state that “on this ever-revolving wheel of life, the individual self goes round and round, through life after life, believing itself to be a separate creature.” Again, in this Upanishad is mention of the wheel of life, of change, similar to samsara in Buddhism. Life is a cycle of life and death, with the ultimate goal being to reach enlightenment and be free from this cycle of rebirth. In the life of the Buddha, we learn about how he came to realize the truth of suffering and inherent change. The Four Noble Truths, fundamental teachings of the Buddha, include: (1) the truth of suffering; (2) the cause of the suffering related to attachment and negative states; (3) that the suffering can be stopped; and (4) the Middle Way is the path to end suffering.

In the Isha Upanishad, similar to the Buddha who as a prince renounces all worldly possessions, Vajasravasa gives away his possessions to gain religious merit. According to his son, Nachiketa, “These pleasures last but until tomorrow, and they wear out the vital powers of life. How fleeting is all life on earth! Therefore keep your horses and chariots, dancing And music, for yourself. Never can mortals be made happy by wealth.” Also in the Katha Upanishad, it states that “the immature run after sense pleasures and fall into the widespread net of death. But the wise, knowing the Self as deathless, seek not the changeless in the world of change.” In Buddhism, change is life’s only constant. In fact, all things are constantly changing.


Easwaran, Eknath. (2007). The Upanishads. Nilgiri Press.

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