Sunday, July 13, 2014
The Upanishads – the problematic context
The Upanishads – the problematic context
By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
Though 19th century Western Indologists were fascinated by the Sanskrit language which was used in the Vedic texts, and by the ritual and symbolism of the Vedic religion because of the perceived affinity between Sanskrit and the other Indo-European languages of Greek, Latin, and German, modern Indian historians have not showed much interest in the historical development of the Veda. It seemed a natural proposition to the Indian scholars of the 20th century, who were determined to prove their rationalist credentials, to ignore the historical validity of the Vedas because mere religious texts do not constitute history. And there are no independent texts of the period, which could tell us more about the people who had composed the Vedas. And there are no archaeological remnants either, as in the case of the Indus Valley Civilisation, which would have made the rational and skeptical modern historian a little more comfortable in the presence of the authors of the Vedas. It is quite probable that there were non-religious texts, but they have not survived. A reference is made in the Chchandogya, one of the principal and early Upanishads, about the existence of the various branches of knowledge.
Apart from the fact that Vedic Aryans worshipped gods like Agni, Soma, Indira, Varuna, Mitra and others, and that they rode horses and used iron, nothing more seems to be known about them. The history of the ancient period seems to acquire certain reliability only with the rise of Jainism and Buddhism in the 6th century BC. The historical record as such emerges only in the fourth century BC with the founding of the Mauryan Empire. Curiously, the arrival of Alexander, the Macedon, and his phalanxes in Punjab is not mentioned in any of the Indian texts. But the Greek connection survives in the fragments of Megasthenes, the ambassador of Seleucus Nikator, one of Alexander’s generals who had set up a kingdom in Syria, in the court of Chandragupta Maurya, that we get to know a little about Pataliputra, the capital of the Mauryans, and about the first Mauryan emperor. But it is the inscriptions of Chandragupta’s grandson, Asoka, the grief-stricken emperor who had become a Buddhist after the bloody battle of Kalinga, that marks the beginning of a reliable historical record in the modern sense.
It is due to the inherent scepticism.of modern historians towards religious texts that no serious attempt has been made to reconstruct the history of the Vedic people from the time they were believed to have entered India around 1500 BC to the time when the Upanishad period ends, and the Jain-Buddhist era begins, some time in the sixth century BC. The historian of Indian philosophy is at a complete loss because there just seems to be no way of accounting for the emergence of the philosophical ideas of the Upanishads.
The neglect of the Vedic and Upanishadic period can only be explained in the context of the intellectual politics of the 20th century. It seems that both the nationalist and the latter-day liberal-Marxist historians in India were too keen on establishing the materialistic aspects of Indian history like archaeological remains, epigraphic and numismatic evidence, patterns of social and economic life and political institutions. There was no room for an interest in the development of ideas, and in intellectual history as such.
The tacit hostility to the history of ideas in the ancient period is also due to the perception that one of the reasons that India did not become modern was because of the burden of the religious traditions. The now familiar battle between the moderns and ancients in India was fought around religion and secularism. Whatever carried traces of religion and belief was politely, and sometimes not-so-politely, ignored. Something similar had happened in Europe too. From the time of the so-called Renaissance in the 15th century Europe, Europe’s intelligentsia for a long time viewed the Middle Ages as centuries of faith and ignorance, and therefore all energies were directed towards rediscovering the Graeco-Roman heritage, or making a fresh start. It was only in the 19th century that modern European historians began to look at the European Middle Ages with the seriousness they deserved, and discovered that the Middle Ages preserved much of the ancient knowledge which was learnt through the Arabic translation of Aristotle in the universities which were set up in Italy, France and England in the 12 and the 13th centuries AD. Modern India’s intellectuals partly played out the same drama, and made a strong bid to construct a materialist history of India.
That is why, there is a detailed discussion of the urban civilisation of Indus Valley, whose script has not yet been deciphered and there is no clear indication as yet of either the structure of political institutions or the economic trends. And except for the weak inferences to be drawn from the interesting and vivid seals, we do not know much about the beliefs and ideas of the people of the Indus Valley civilisation. There is then this strange silence about the Vedas and the Upanishads among Indian historians. The people who had paid attention to this issue were the Western Indologists.
It is generally agreed that the Rigveda is the earliest of the Vedic texts, and that the earliest hymns can be dated to around 1500 BC. The Aryans – the word used to identify the people who had composed the Vedas – are supposed to have come from an area near the Black Sea, and wended their way into India through ancient Iran and Afghanistan. It has also been found that the language of Rigvedic Sanskrit and that of the Avesta, the religious text of the ancient followers of Zarathushtra in Iran, bear close linguistic resemblance.
Though it is certain that the Aryans have come into India from the west and the north, no one seems to assert that the Rigveda was composed elsewhere and brought to India. The Rigveda has been composed after the Aryans had settled in the Punjab. The geographical demarcation of the text is important because we are arguing that certain philosophical ideas developed in India at a very early period, and that the development of some of these ideas took place centuries before they made their appearance elsewhere. There is no great virtue in historical precedence in itself, but it helps the historian in following the development of an idea or ideas with greater clarity once the chronology is clear.
Though fire is the divine principle in the Avesta, as it is in the Veda, the subsequent development of the Zarathustran religion and philosophy was quite different from that of the Veda. Similarly, there is a family resemblance between the pantheon of the Greeks and the Romans with that of the Vedas. But the Greek and the Roman religions did not develop in the same way that the Vedic religion did. This is an important aspect because it will be seen that an umbilical cord connects the Upanishadic texts to the Vedas.
The historians neglected the study of the Veda and overlooked the philosophical importance of the Upanishads. There was, however, a class of modern Hindus which turned to the Upanishads. Liberal Hindu reformers of the 19th century, who were ashamed of the many superstitions and cruelties that tainted traditional Hinduism, found in the Upanishads something of which they could be extremely proud. The great 19th century Bengali reformer, Raja Ram Mohun Roy, pleaded with Lord Bentinck, the then liberal and Benthamite governor-general of the East India Company, to introduce Western education in place of the traditional Sanskrit and Persian schools. But he found in the Upanishads the intellectual answer to the criticisms of the Christian missionaries in Bengal at the time. The independent reformist church, the Brahmo Samaj, Roy had established took the Upanishads as its principal text.
Roy and many other rationalists after him felt that the Upanishads formed the quintessence of Hinduism, and that the ritualism that had grown over the centuries like a banyan tree with hundreds of branches and a thick undergrowth was to be abandoned as so much excrescence of the religion. This perception of the Upanishads being the raison d’etre of Hinduism was an idea that dominated the worldview of generations of western-educated Indians into the 20th century.
It was, however, an untenable position. The Upanishads in the hands of the rationalists had become a collection of abstract and abstruse texts which pointed to a distant philosophical peak, but which did not seem to indicate the path that needed to be traversed to reach the high point. While affirming the intellectual glories of the Upanishads, the rationalist dismissed the rest of the Veda as so much of primitivism, which was a blend of the partly poetic hymns of the Rigveda and magical notions about the powerful elements which shaped the lives of the people in that period.
The crucial question that had to be faced was: how could the abstractions of the Upanishads rise from the mushy tropical soil of the Vedic religion? It was argued that the thinkers of the Upanishads were sick with the ritualism of the Veda, that they were looking for rational explanations, and that the Upanishads constitute the rejection of ritualism and religion as generally understood. It was a plausible argument because in the post-Vedic period there emerged the two schools of philosophy, one of which explained the rationale of rituals, while the other schematized and explained the ideas of the Upanishads. The first school was known as the Purva Mimamsa, and the other was the Uttara Mimamsa. Followers of each of these schools argued that their own view was superior. This battle was brought into play once again in the modern period, but in a completely different cultural and intellectual context. It will be seen when we consider these two schools in the chapter on the six systems of philosophy, that the intentions of the founders of the two schools was quite different from the way it was interpreted by the followers.
The Upanishads helped the modern Hindu to get out of an uncomfortable intellectual corner. It seemed that the modern Hindu could have the best of both worlds. He or she did not have to disown the ancient heritage because the Upanishads provided the perfect reason for being a Hindu without appearing to be a credulous traditionalist. It was indeed an intellectual sleight of hand, which could not be hidden for too long. Most of the modern Hindu rationalists settled for a sectarianism with its own set of tenuous rituals, while continuing to affirm the high principles of the Upanishads.
There was also an attempt, especially since Swami Vivekananda, to find parallels between the Upanishads and its ideal of unity and that of modern physics with its desire for a grand unified theory (GUT) or a Theory of Everything (TOE). It was argued that both the Upanishads and the modern physicists pursued the ideal of unity. But there are some vital differences. Modern physicists are only looking for a set of laws and equations which could explain many of the forces at work in the universe. The Upanishads, on the other hand, are looking a little beyond the existing universe. The Upanishadic thinkers are not really examining the mechanism of the universe and how it works. They are trying to answer the more elusive question about the principle or force that brings the universe into existence.
The 19th and 20th Indian thinkers did not look at the Upanishads with an open mind. They did not show the intellectual curiosity to understand the development of Upanishadic ideas all those centuries ago. These ancient texts were used as a shield to defend themselves against the relentless onslaught of the imperial culture of the colonial West. It was inevitable that the Upanishads should have become a potent weapon in the modern culture wars between civilisations.
The reinterpretation of the Upanishads to meet the intellectual challenges of the modern age turned out to be a misinterpretation, though it could be argued that it was a creative misinterpretation. The Vedic origins of the Upanishadic ideas were largely ignored, and not much attempt was made to trace the evolution of ideas in the Upanishadic corpus. The Upanishads were reduced to almost one-dimensional texts, which affirmed the unity of the world spirit and the individual soul. Stated as a soulless equation, the idea loses both charm and power unless it takes into account the complexity of the world as well as the individual. A reading of the Upanishads shows that the ancient thinkers grappled with the many problems that a multitudinous universe presents. The Upanishads reveal the difficult and tortuous path that lies between experience and truth.
One of the challenges and attractions of a history of philosophy is that it is an attempt to look at thinkers, ideas and texts in their social and intellectual context. This does not mean that philosophical ideas do not make sense beyond their times. Ideas escape the gravitational pull of the time and place of their birth. But even as they travel across centuries and countries, they carry traces of the soil where they originated.
The Upanishads are not separate texts. They are fragments of dialogue, discussion and enunciation which are scattered in the Veda. The 19th century Western Indologists, with help from traditional Indian scholars – the role played by the traditional Indian scholars in reconstructing the old texts remains an unwritten chapter – have discovered that the Veda comprises of four sections. The first is known as the samhita, which is that of hymns addressed to the pantheon. The oldest samhita is that of the Rigveda. The second is the brahmana – not to be confused with the latter-day priestly class of Brahmins – which comprises rules about the performance of Vedic rituals. The third is the aranyaka, which is literally translated as forest books, and which seem to contain meditation practices or interior exercises which are familiar to Catholic mystics. The last assigned section of the Veda is the upanishad. It has been inferred that as the upanishads form the end-section of the Veda, they are known as the Vedanta, or the end of the Veda. It has also been taken to mean the essence of the Veda. Another popular meaning based on the literal meaning of the word, upanishad, is that of sitting near the teacher, and it is implied, therefore, that what is included in the upanishadic text is a secret, mystic doctrine, which the teacher imparts to the student or disciple.
This division of the Veda into the four sections has led to the general conclusion that the Vedic religion followed a certain developmental pattern. The earliest portion, the samhita or the hymns, showed that the early Aryans composed prayers praising elements like Agni or fire, Varuna or sky, Maruts or the winds, Indra, the lord of the gods who wielded the thunderbolt, and Soma, the intoxicating juice. It was a clear reflection of the simple imagination of a pastoral people. The brahmana section showed that religion became complicated with the rules of rituals. It was also seen as the ploy of the priests to wield power by setting themselves as the rule-makers. The aranyakas showed that the religion could not for ever stay at the level of the physical ritual, and that a form of internal prayer and meditation was a logical development. The upanishads, with their speculations, seemed to mark the ideal culmination of the Vedic religion. It begins with simple hymns, goes through a ritual phase, marks a retreat into the forest and into the inner recesses of the mind, and finally attains a transcendental insight.
It is almost an idealised progress of religion and, if you will, of philosophy. But the pattern is a little too schematised, and it does not seem to be the way that things had happened. An actual reading the Vedic texts shows that there are hints of philosophical insights in some of the hymns, that the ritual has been invested with quite a bit of symbolism, that the forest books are not always about meditational practices, and that not all the upanishads are grappling with philosophical problems. It has also been found that some of the upanishads occur in the samhita section, some in the brahmana, and others in the aranyaka portions.
Then there is the question of the number of upanishads. The number varies from around 235 to 108. Not all of them are of equal importance because not all of them are centred around philosophical ideas and debates, nor do they all belong to the same period. It then becomes necessary to look at the few upanishads which deal with philosophical issues, however unsatisfactory they may appear to the modern sceptic. And something of the sort seems to have taken place quite early. The Uttara Mimamsa is a summing up of the major philosophical ideas contained in the Upanishad.
Shankara, the great system-builder of 8th century AD, seems to have identified the major upanishads based on his reading of the Uttara Mimamsa and the Bhagavadgita, which reiterate some of the major ideas of the upamishads. We know that he has identified 10 of them because he has written commentaries on each of them. Apart from the 10, there are a couple of other upanishads which carry Shankara’s commentaries.
Our view of the upanishads is determined by the choices made by the author of the Uttara Mimamsa, also known as the Brahma Sutras – who is identified as Badarayana, and according to tradition he is none other than Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata, which includes the Bhagavadgita, and the compiler of the Veda – and that of Shankara. What a modern reader of the upanishads needs to do is to go past the framework set by these two great thinkers, and look at the texts for himself or herself.
Is it necessary to look beyond the selected upanishads to get a true picture of what they have to say? We can depend on Badarayana and Shankara for their choice of the upanishads because they have picked out those texts which deal with philosophical questions, though we have to verify for ourselves whether the interpretation of the upanishads proffered by them is accurate enough. An advantage of these selected upanishads is that they belong to the early as well as the later Vedic period, and we get a fairly good idea of the range of ideas and arguments which have been dealt there. The other upanishads, many of them minor ones, do not always deal with philosophical questions.
It is daunting for any one to walk past Badarayana and Shankara, and get back to these early philosophical texts. But the effort is rewarding because we will come to an open space in the middle of a thick forest as it were, and we will find some profound and simple ideas there. It is also futile to blame either of these two systematisers – Badarayana and Shankara – because it was a necessary intellectual task of explaining the upanishadic ideas. One of the problems of dealing with a long and continuous history like that of India is that fresh growth spanning centuries is inevitable, and there is a need to clear it as well. The historian of philosophy has to clear the overgrowth, but his own attempt to show the upanishads as they are will be treated as a new scaffolding, which a future historian will be compelled to dismantle.
When we turn to the upanishads, we find problematic texts. Large portions of them seem to be gibberish, replete with references to gods, other worlds and rituals. The overwrought and repetitive symbolism is sufficient cause for even the most sympathetic reader to turn away from them. For a moment, the derisive attitude of the modern historians and modern philosophers appears justified. To give in to despair and to indulge in derision is the easy way out when faced with intractable texts like that of the upanishads. The intellectual challenge lies in reading these baffling texts --- interspersed as they are with impressive poetic passages – in their proper context.
Though it is inevitable that we cannot but help read the upanishads from a standpoint which is peculiar to the place and time we belong to, and the intellectual biases and cultural prejudices which we unconsciously bring to the reading of texts, it is necessary to brace ourselves to the task of understanding them, to the extent it is possible to do so, in the context of the time and place they were written.
The upanishads are embedded texts. They are to be found as part of the samhita, brahmana or the aranyaka sections. It is rarely that we find them as complete and self-enclosed texts. Strictly speaking, they are portions of sections of other larger sections. There is enough reason here then to abandon the task of treating the upanishads as proper philosophical texts. The historian of philosophy cannot turn away because much of the subsequent philosophical development in India is derived from the ideas and arguments mooted in the upanishads.
There is as yet no way of placing the principal upanishads, the ones which find reference in the Uttara Mimamsa and which have been commented on by Shankara, in any certain chronological order, though it is possible to place them in a certain sequence through internal evidence. That is, we find a passage from an upanishad being cited by another. But that does not really offer much in tracing the evolution of upanishadic ideas.
(This has been written in early 2001 when I was working with tehelka.com. Tarun Tejpal was of the view that I should do something on Indian philosphy, and it goes back to our Indian Today days in 1990-91.)
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