Introduction to the Prashna Upanishad

The Prashna Upanishad is known as the Upanishad of the Six Questions.  It is organized as a meeting between six seekers from notable lineages and the sage Pippalada.  The six seekers were interested to learn about the Universal, the Most High of Existence.  They came before the sage with faith, devotion and awakened intelligence.

The method of the Upanishadic sages differs from our modern ways of teaching.  Today we believe that we can simply answer questions that arise without looking at the preparedness or receptivity of the students to not only hear or memorize the answers, but to reflect deeply on them and grow inwardly based on them.  Pippalada proposed to answer the questions of these seekers, but only after they fulfilled the condition:  “Another year do ye dwell in holiness and faith and askesis: then ask what ye will, and if I know, surely I will conceal nothing.”

The request for a year of quiet study with faith, desire kept under control and a concentration of thought prepared the seekers for deeper reflection and understanding.  At the end of the year, each of the seekers asked a question, starting with larger questions about the origin of the worlds and the nature of existence, to finer points that get into the details of achieving spiritual realisation.

It is useful to understand the importance of the various factors involved in the spiritual realisation.  There must be a seeker who has the background and readiness for spiritual development; there must be a teacher capable of imparting spiritual truth, not just intellectual understanding; there must be essential qualities of faith, quiet focus and perseverance, and there must be time for the inner aspiration to grow and the inner development to form.  In The Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo expands on the basic requirements in the chapter titled “The Four Aids”.

The Upanishad’s first two verses touch on these preliminary requirements and bring forward the suitable seekers with the right background to appreciate the teachings, the teacher himself, the call for development of the right qualities, and the investment of Time through a persevering action.

As we find with many of the Upanishads, there is clearly much that was intended to be communicated outside the outline of the questions and answers, and much that expresses various occult knowledge, symbolic statements and esoteric practices that are virtually impossible to nail down with precision.  We must rely somewhat heavily, then on traditional interpretations of some of the symbolic references described herein, to gain insight to what was intended.  For the rest, consistent contemplation and perseverance will have to be the key to understanding.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315