The early Upanishads: a nice introduction to the pre-Buddhist tradition

I came across Patrick Olivelle’s The Early Upanishads: Annotated Text and Translation on Google Books. While the translated text is mostly unavailable, the full introduction is there. It’s a really nice summary and survey of the religious and historical scene in India before the time of the Buddha. If you want to get a decent and reliable background without investing a lot of time, it’s perfect.


Thank you! :anjal: I had been looking for a good introduction on this subject.

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Currently reading A History of Zoroastrianism by the late Mary Boyce. By far the most interesting part for me was that about the Indo-Iranian and pre-Indo-Iranian religion. Want to know where Varuna and Mithra possibly came from, how the concept of deity evolved in very, very early stages, and what the the sramana tradition may ultimately stem from? Give the book a try and you may get plausible answers to all these questions.


Very cool Ilya, I’ll add that to my list too. :slight_smile:

Thanks for this I have read this introduction but I couldn’t relate to anything there, the central subject being a horse sacrifice, are there any works that rescue the spiritually worthy teachings of The Upanishads under the light of Buddhism?


Good question. I’m not entirely sure. In this field, it is usually the case that the scholars will focus on scholarly questions, while followers of the tradition often fall back on bland assertions, either trumpeting their own tradition or insisting that they’re all the same.

For myself, I find the vitality of the texts can only be appreciated by reading them, at least in translation. The main Upanishads are available in translation at the Sacred Texts Archive. Unfortunately, they are older translations, so if you want to avoid the archaic language you should buy Olivelle’s book. Still, these translations are by Max Muller, one of the true greats of Indology, so they are still worth reading.

For what it’s worth, here are some of my favorite passages from the oldest, largest, and most interesting of the Upanishads, the Brihadarannyaka.


Sujato. Thank you for posting this but I still got a bit lost in the chronology.

When it referred to new doctrines of rebirth as gods & immortality, were these pre-Buddhism or post-Buddhism?

Thank you

I think it means shortly pre-Buddhist, i.e. Upanishadic rather than Vedic.

Yajnavalkya mentions Buddhists in the Yajnavalkya smriti, so it may not be as early as we think.

That’s a different text, likely composed a millenium after Yajnavalkya’s life:

Yajnavalkya’s own teachings are found in the Brihadaranyaka, which most experts agree predates the Buddha by a century or two.

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But sutta never mentioned upanishad bhante they only mentioned the 3 vedas so not even the fourth veda is early let alone the upanishad which is just a commentary

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While it is true that the Upanishads are not mentioned as often or as explicitly as the three Vedas, Jayatilleke in his Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge showed convincingly that certain references in the Tevijja Sutta must be to the earliest Upanishads.

Moreover, prominent Upanishadic doctrines, such as the identity of the self and the cosmos (so attā so loko) or “thou art that” (tat tvam asi, in Pali this is expressed in first person, eso ’ham asmi) are heavily referenced in the suttas. Clearly the Buddha was critiquing the Upanishadic theory of self.

Olivelle, in the book I reference in the original post, follows the conventional wisdom that, while the Upanishads were composed over a period of time (especially the early ones, which are compilations), the main substance of the earliest Upanishads probably stems from a century or two before the Buddha. In my view, crucial aspects of the Buddha’s teachings can only be understood as a response to the Upanishadic teachings.

But while the Upnishadic doctrines and texts in some form already existed, it is difficult and probably impossible to know to whether the texts as we have them today were expanded later, or how much of them he knew.

Usually this is true, but āthabbana is mentioned in Snp 4.14

Apparently the body of work existed, or a precursor for it, but was made canonincal somewhat later.

The Upanishads barely attempt to comment on the Vedas. Yes, occasionally they will quote from them, but most of the Upanishads consist of philosophical or mystical passages that have little to do with the Vedic texts as such. If they are a commentary, they are more like a commentary on the ritual texts (brahmanas), giving mystical interpretations of the sacrifice.

Also bear in mind that the suttas frequently refer to an extensive literature that accompanies the three Vedas.

The doctrines that are distinctively “Upanishadic” don’t appear in the Vedas at all, or if they do, only in allusions rather than explicitly.


I also always have doubts regarding the chronology of early upanisads - not completely convinced that they are pre-Buddhist. The texts easily could have been “finalized” in the current form after the historical Buddha, as Patrick Olivelle’s introduction says (p.12) " … any dating of these documents that attempts a precision closer than a few centuries is as stable as a house of cards."

I always wanted to, but never actually, get into the Brhadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanisads. For those who have studied these: could these be convincingly read as a textual response to the teachings of Buddha?


Scholar dated Brhadaranyaka as late as 700 bce so it may predate buddhism(500 bce)

Similar Upaniṣadic references are mentioned by KR Norman in papers such as “A Note on Attā in the Alagaddūpama Sutta” and “Aspects of Early Buddhism”, and Richard Gombrich in papers such as “Recovering the Buddha’s Message.”


Mostly not. There are few passages in BU or CU that could be read as a commentary. But mostly I feel that they refer to an inner-Brahmin discourse. It’s worth the read!


Another thought - even if there are some EBT suttas that respond to the early Upanisads, those suttas might also be “late” additions to the EBT corpus.

In any case, since the compilation of the early upanisads is a long process, and the period from Buddha’s first teaching to the canonization of EBT are both long processes that span centuries, I think it is better to think about the early Upanisads as a nice introduction to an aspect of the intellectual millieu for reading EBT, as opposed to pre-interpreting them as “before Buddha.”

Of course, unless there are direct evidence BU or CU are already in their current form before the historical Buddha.

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One of the things with the history of ancient Indic texts, it’s always really hard to pin down a chronology on limited basis, but things are much clearer with a longer lens.

Is it possible that some of the early Upanishads were edited after the Buddha? Sure! Do they meaningfully respond to anything the Buddha said? I dunno, maybe if you squint?

But look at, say, the Yoga Sutra, which was definitely composed after the Buddha. It is full of things that just jump out at you as being Buddhist-influenced. The early Upanishads just lack anything like this.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, since the frequently feature kshatriyas as well. Sure, the framework is brahmanical, but it seems there’s a significant element also of reconciling and incorporating non-brahmanical voices. Which is of course a precursor to the more systematic work of Shankara et al.

They might be, but you’d need to establish lateness on multiple independent grounds before drawing a solid conclusion.

No-one’s “pre-interpreting”. We are drawing on over a century of study and historical analysis.


Venerable Bhante Sujato,

How can we say for sure that Yajnavalkya was a real historical person in the first place? I mean, we just have one or two textual references to him, but we have no bone relics, no monuments, or no texts from other religious sects which make reference to him.

In the case of the Buddha, we have the Asokan pillars (monuments), we have the Buddha’s relics, and we also have mentions to the Buddha in the brahmin texts like the ramayana and the kalki purana.

But the same cannot be said for Yajnavalkya, so can’t he very well just be a fabricated person?

Also, how can we say the Brihadaranyaka upanishad is for sure pre-Buddhist when we don’t know for sure when or whether a historical person named Yajnavalkya really existed?

Can’t it be possible that the Yajnavalkya smriti and Brihadaranyaka upanishad were in fact both from the 3rd to 5th century?

Namo Buddhaya.

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The Chandogya Upanishad Sixth Prapathaka: Third Khanda: Verse 1

Tesam khalv esam bhutanam triny eva bijani bhavanti, andajam, jivajam, udbhijjam iti.

Of all living things there are indeed three origins only, that which springs from an egg (oviparous), that which springs from a living being (viviparous), and that which springs from a germ (seed).

MN 12 Mahāsīhanāda Sutta
Sāriputta, there are these four kinds of reproduction.
Catasso kho imā, sāriputta, yoniyo.

What four?
Katamā catasso?

Reproduction for creatures born from an egg, from a womb, from moisture or spontaneously.
Aṇḍajā yoni, jalābujā yoni, saṁsedajā yoni, opapātikā yoni.

aṇḍa (egg) +ja (born)
born from an egg

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