Join Dr. Varun Khanna and a global cohort of students for a journey into early Upaniṣadic philosophy.
Who am I? Why am I here? What is my goal in life? Is there a way to transcend death, and achieve immortality? In this course, we will explore these fundamental questions and more by reading selections from the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, Kaṭha Upaniṣad, and Kena Upaniṣad.
The Upaniṣads form the core primary texts for the Indian philosophical school of Vedānta. As Sadānanda Yogīndra describes it in his text Vedāntasāra (Essence of Vedānta), “Vedānta is that which takes the Upaniṣads to be its primary source of knowledge, along with all ancillary texts that help to ascertain what the Upaniṣads say, such as the Brahma Sūtras, etc.” As such, every Vedānta tradition, whether it is dualist or non-dualist, traces its ideas back to the Upaniṣads. Since “Vedānta” literally means “end of the Vedas”, many understand the Upaniṣads to occur at the linear end of the Veda texts. However, this is observably not the case — instead, “end of the Vedas” can also mean the philosophical “end” or culmination of Vedic thought. We will look deeply into the Upaniṣadic corpus to understand what exactly this philosophical culmination looks like.
In this course, we will attempt to read the aforementioned Upaniṣads on their own terms. We will read the stories as they are and discuss their historical implications, development, transmission, and philosophical import. We will read line by line, based on the original Sanskrit and Patrick Olivelle’s English translation. Students will leave the course with a better understanding of the structure and content of the Upaniṣads and a deeper appreciation for Upaniṣadic philosophy.
In this module, we will introduce the concept of an Upaniṣad, and begin reading from chapter 6 of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad. The story follows Śvetaketu, Uddālaka’s son, who has returned from learning with his guru. His father asks, have you learned that knowledge by which everything becomes known? Śvetaketu is at a loss. We will discover the nature of that knowledge from Uddālaka.
In this module, we will discover the nature of that knowledge by which, according to Uddālaka, everything else becomes known. We will encounter and try to unpack the famous mahāvākya (great statement) “tat tvam asi,” which means “you are that.” This will conclude the Chāndogya Upaniṣad.
We will begin reading the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, which follows a dialogue between the precocious child Naciketas and the Lord of Death, King Yama himself. Yama begins to explain the nature of death and what happens after death to young Naciketas.
King Yama explains the relationship between the self and the outside world, as well as the relationship between the self and brahman, the supreme immortal self. He explains how one should see oneself and the world if one wishes for immortality and eternal happiness.
In this module we will begin reading the Kena Upaniṣad, which follows a dialogue between a teacher and a student seeking to learn about the inner power by which all of our faculties are enlivened. By what power does my mind alight on its objects? By what power do I take my first breath? By what will do I speak words? What power unites my senses with their objects? These difficult questions begin the Upaniṣad, followed by an equally enigmatic response by the teacher.
In this module we will conclude the Kena Upaniṣad, as well as the course. We will discuss Upaniṣadic perspectives on the meaning of life, as well as their role in delivering that meaning.
As a pre-med undergrad student, Varun Khanna accidentally stumbled into Sanskrit when he tried to learn Ayurveda during a study abroad program in India. After learning to speak and becoming fluent in the language, he changed direction and became a full-time student of Sanskrit and Indian philosophy. He then traveled through various jungles and cities in India to learn from different Sanskrit gurus, specializing in Pāṇinian Sanskrit grammar. Varun later earned both his master’s degree in Sanskrit and his PhD in Hinduism (studying consciousness in the Upaniṣads) at the University of Cambridge. He has been teaching spoken Sanskrit, Pāṇinian Sanskrit grammar, and topics in Indian philosophy since 2008, and is now a Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics teaching Sanskrit at Swarthmore College.
Varun’s research interests lie in the intersection of Sanskrit grammar, Vedānta philosophy, and social justice. His latest work centers on the perspectives that ancient Sanskrit literature offers for thinking about equality, freedom, and justice. He is also working on a new Sanskrit primer that incorporates Pāṇinian grammar in order to help students learn the exact boundaries of the rules of Sanskrit.
"This course opened up the mysterious Upaniṣads like a box of jewels, with Dr. Khanna's wonderfully clear explanations and elegantly light touch, what before seemed intimidating now feels accessible, inspiring, and relevant to daily life. "
"A mesmerizing, enthusiastic, humble teacher, with such deep knowledge and admirable teaching skills. He brings light on any subject touched, a true source of inspiration! I am very grateful to have had the luck to attend this course, very accessible even if English is not my mother tongue."
"While Dr. Varun Khanna makes reading the Upaniṣads fun and lighthearted, the depth of his insight is self-evident. He unlocks the all-important nuances that would have been impossible to glean on one’s own. His passion and enthusiasm is infectious. I find myself meditating on the readings and class discussions long afterwards. These ancient texts offer, dare I say, a fresh ‘new’ perspective on life. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in this experience!"