Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Upanishads – the way through the woods

The Upanishads – the way through the woods

By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

The historical context of the Upanishads remains an unexplored realm despite the fact that these texts are part of the later portions of the Vedas, and by the time these came into existence the Aryans had spent about 600 to 800 years in the country, and they had moved from the Punjab, where the Rgvedic geography lies, to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to the east. Quite a lot is known about the Vedas, its pantheon of gods and its system of hymns and fire sacrifices, and historians have tried to explain it all as the religion of a pastoral people, who had settled in the Punjab region after the decline of the cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation, which are now described as Harappan Culture.

The upanishads are not separate texts. They are fragments of dialogue, discussion and enunciation which are scattered in the four Vedas – the Rg, the Yajur, the Sama and the Atharva . The Rg Veda is the oldest, and the earliest portions of this veda are dated to around 1500 BC.

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 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 Vedas 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 revealed 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, marked 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 of 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. The majority of upanishads belong either to the brahmana or the aranyaka portions, and only a few to the samhita portion.

Each of the vedas has a single samhita collection, a couple of brahmanas and aranyakas. On the other hand, the number of upanishads is quite large, the count ranging from 235 to 108. The portions marked out as upanishad enunciated ideas, through dialogue or through declamation. And these dialogues and declamations varied in length as well, some of them quite terse and short, and the others long and winding.

Whenever an idea was formulated through dialogue, anecdote or enunciation, it was called an upanishad. The idea could deal with philosophy or with the meaning of ritual. And all such meditative portions have been called upanishads. It became necessary then to identify the upanishads which dealt with some of the important philosophical ideas.

The earliest identification of the principal upanishads has been carried out in a philosophical treatise called Uttara Mimamsa, an exegetical text in the form of terse aphorisms on the upanishads. Uttara Mimamsa is dated to around 400 BC, and it is attributed to Badarayana. It is known as Badarayana Sutras after the author, or as Brahma Sutras because it dealt with the issue of Brahman, the main philosophical idea mooted in the upanishads.

The eighth century AD systematiser and propounder of an uncompromising monism, Shankara, had made the principal upanishads canonical for subsequent generations of philosophers and interpreters by writing commentaries on them. There has been a slight variation in the number of the principal upanishads. It ranges from 10 to 12.

Not all of them dealt with philosophical ideas, and most of them were not complete texts. What determined the selection of the principal upanishads is the attempt, first made in the Brahma Sutras, to see a thread of philosophical argument around the idea of Brahman. It can be seen, however, that the idea of Brahman as discussed in the different upanishads is neither simple nor uniform.


Two of the principal upanishads belong to the Rg Veda. The first is the Aitareya Upanishad, a part of the Aitareya Brahmana, and the other is the Kaushitaki Upanishad from the Kaushitaki Brahmana.

We discover in these two Rig Vedic upanishads that ritual and symbolism, belief in life after death and the worlds of gods dominates the thinking of people who were engaged in trying to understand the universe. The texts are necessarily fragmentary in nature. They are snatches of philosophical conversations and insights. It would require a closer study of the Rig Veda samhita, brahmana and upanishad to make sense of the worldview.

In their existing form, what is evident is that there is a struggle to go behind scenes as it were, and look at the play of forces that keeps this world of human beings – their bodies while alive, and their possible states of existence after death. There is a lurking sadness about the passing away of things, but it is overcome by the determination to know the ground plan of human life. The picture is hazy, but the attempt to see through the haze shines brightly.

In the Aitareya Upanishad, the key idea is that prana or breath is the animating force that makes the human being the living person that he or she becomes. And this is illustrated through the little episode of the fives senses -- sight, hearing, mind, speech and breath -- fighting with each other as to which of them is more vital for the survival of the body. They decide to abandon the body, and watch the effect of their absence.

When speech left the body, it was found that the body, though it could not speak, survived through eating and drinking. When sight left the body, it could not see but survived through eating and drinking. When hearing went out, the body could not hear but survived. When the mind went out, the body survived. But when breath went out, the body fell. It became clear that what keeps the body alive is breath.

The other important idea in this upanishad is the identification of the five elements, and their relation to the human body. The elements are shown as emerging from different parts of the body.

At first appeared the mouth. And from the mouth came speech. And from speech came the element of fire or Agni. The nostrils appeared, and from the nostrils came the sense of smell or scent. From this came the element of air or Vayu. The eyes appeared, and from the eyes came sight, and it gave rise to the Sun. From the ears came hearing, and from hearing the quarters in the space. From the skin came the sense of touch, and also the herbs, shrubs and trees. Then came the heart, and from the heart the mind, and from the mind the moon. From the navel came what is called the down-breath or the Apana, and from it the death. The generative organ brought forth seed, and from seed came water.

At first glance, this is bowdlerized mythology, and gives strength to the exasperation felt by the modern scholars about the intractability of the upanishads as philosophical texts. But if one were to pause and ask, and try to discern the pattern of thinking, we shall see that there is an attempt to link the body with the elements and the universe. Man, the philosopher, has to relate to the world around him. And this is achieved through the links between the senses and the elements.

There is an apparent confusion here. Speech is identified with Agni, and the sense of sight with the Sun, and the heart is connected to the mind, and the mind to the Moon. We can only guess at this point of time that the universe of the Vedic thinkers living around 800 BC was dominated by fire, the sun and the moon, the three forms of light, and they have identified speech, sight and thought with these three. It cannot be dismissed as a mere poetic thought. What we witness in this is the determined attempt to sort out the distinctive faculties which marks out a man, and find the corresponding figures out there in the world.

It is usually the case in philosophical ruminations to pare away the little facts and details, and there is a desire to identify what is considered the essential aspect of things. The upanishadic thinkers here are not willing to escape into abstract generalisations, something which happens at a later point of Indian philosophy.

Here the details remain an important part of the discussion. Death and birth remain closely linked to bodily functions. What we are witnessing here is the philosophical imagination at the physiological level. It is a scientific approach in the best sense of the term. The general perception that the beginnings of Indian philosophy are marked by a denial of the body and the world is found to be totally wrong. The philosophical journey of the upanishadic thinkers begins in this world, and with the body.

The other Rg Vedic upanishad is the Kaushitaki Upanishad. Here too the focus remains on the Prana or breath as the force that marks out life. The first section of this upanishad deals with eschatology – the knowledge which the ancients sought about the soul’s journey after death. This is a question that has completely ceased to matter in the last 200 years or so.

It is a question that is relegated to the little noticed accounts of funeral ceremonies. In the upanishads, the journey of a person after death remains an important phase, and it is also linked up to cosmology. It shows that unlike other ancient people, especially the Greeks, the Vedic people were not earthbound. They saw the universe as infinitely vast, and realised that in the cycle of birth and death – the idea of rebirth is stated clearly in this upanishad – the soul has to traverse the many worlds that make up the universe. The description given in the Kaushitaki recurs in some of the other upanishads, and later in the Bhagavadgita.

The dialogue here is between Chitra Gangayani and Uddalaka Aruni. Chitra Gangayani tells Uddalaka Aruni that after death a soul goes to the world of the moon. There are some who will return to the earth and will be born as worms or animals or human beings, according to their deeds. Then there are those who go to the world of Brahman, where they step into a city of pleasure and bliss. The upanishad says that this world of bliss can be attained only by a man of Prajna or knowledge. But nothing more is explained.

Kaushitaki declares - this is the only time that we hear the first person voice of Kaushitaki - that Prana or the breath is Brahman, and that the other faculties like mind, speech, sight and hearing are subordinate to it. Mind is described as the messenger of Prana, “speech the housekeeper, the eye the guard, the ear the informant.”

In the next section, Pratardana, son of Divodasa, the king of Kasi, goes to heaven, fighting his way up through sheer valour. Indra, the king of heaven, tells Pratardana to ask for a boon. Pratardana declines, saying a boon granted when asked is no boon. Indra offers to tell him the truth. He says Prana or breath is Prajna or self-consciousness, and Indra describes himself as both Prana and Prajnatman (self-conscious self).

The idea that Prana which is the force that keeps the body alive is extended to another aspect: the self-conscious self. Though the word Brahman is used, it has to be noted that it does not always mean the highest, indefinable idea or principle that it had become at a later point of time. The word is almost a portmanteau word, which includes in it many ideas, aspects and forces that constituted the world.


We now turn to the upanishads of the Yajur Veda, the second of the Vedic corpus. This veda is important in the context of the sacrificial system. The man who knows the Yajur Veda is the key person in the performance of the sacrifice There is, however, an interesting anomaly concerning the Yajur Veda. There are two sections of this veda: the Krishna Yajur Veda, which is the older of the two, and the Shukla Yajur Veda. Yajnavalkya had rebelled against his teacher, and discarded all that he had learnt from him, and created in its stead the Shukla Yajur Veda, drawing inspiration from the Sun. Whatever the veracity of the story, it shows that there is dissension within the Vedic framework, and the Shukla Yajur Veda is to been seen as a dissenter’s tract.

The Shukla Yajur Veda does not reject Vedic ideas, but greater emphasis is laid on symbolism, which is reflected in the Satapatha Brahmana, an important text of this Veda. Though this detail is a crucial point in a historical study of Vedic religion, it does not have a great bearing on the philosophical development of the upanishads. The argument here has been that the upanishads are not independent philosophical texts, and that they are part of the Vedic system of religion. It is for this reason that we have to keep in mind the two branches of the Yajur Veda.

The Taittiriyaka Upanishad is the first of the Krishna Yajur Veda upanishads. Here too we find the familiar veils of religious invocations through the text. The major idea that is enunciated here is that of the five elements of the universe, and their corresponding aspects in the human body. This has been hinted at in the Aitareya Upanishad, but here it is stated in very clear language.

Brahman is mentioned as the First Principle, from which everything else is derived. We learn that from Brahman emerges ether or akasha, and from akasha comes air or vayu, and from air is born fire or agni, and from fire arises water or apah, and from water surfaces earth or prithvi.

The five elements correspond to the five senses of the body. Through ether we hear, through air we smell, through fire we see, through water we taste, and through earth we touch. There is also the fact that the element that comes after is a compound of the earlier ones. Thus air is a compound of ether and air, and fire which follows is a compound of ether, air and fire. The earth, which is the last of the five elements, is a compound of all the five. That is, it is a combination of ether, air, fire, water, and earth.

There is an evolutionary pattern here, and though it might appear a little too simplistic from the present-day point of view, there is an undeniable simplicity and elegance to the argument. When the Pre-Socratic philosophers identified one or the other element – for example, Thales identified water, and Heraclitus marked out fire as the prime force -- there was no consistent attempt to connect them, and to take the further logical step of bringing in the human being into the big picture.

The argument in the Taittiriyaka is extended. Earth nurtures herbs, and food is derived from herbs. Then comes the vital connection: the seed comes from herbs, and man is born of seed. The upanishad thinkers have made the logical and natural connection that the semen, like other things in the body, is built of food. That is why, we find the declaration: “Man thus consists of the essence of food.”

This is followed by the lucid, eloquent passage: “From food are produced all creatures which dwell on earth. Then they live by food, and in the end they return to food. For food is the oldest of beings, and therefore it is called panacea (sarvaushadha, i.e. consisting of all herbs, or quieting the heat of the body of all beings).”

At that very early state in human thinking, the simple facts of life loomed large in the intellectual framework. The upanishadic thinkers knew that they have to look at the universe through the body, and understand the forces and elements that keep the body alive and sustain it, before they can reach out to the outer world and what lies beyond it.

There is now an inner progression. Food and breath are called the outer forms, while mind, understanding and bliss are described as the inner. Bliss is identified with the Brahman, and there is no explication here. It is stated that Brahman is the “non-existent” which gives rise to the “existent”, and that the “existent” consists of bliss, understanding, mind, breath and food, placed in a concentric circle, where food is the outermost ring, and bliss is the innermost.

In a strange and beautiful verse, we find one of the early expressions which points to Brahman: “From terror of it (Brahman) the wind blows, from terror the sun rises: from terror of it Agni and Indra, yea Death runs the fifth.”

Passages like these in different upanishads.show that it is difficult and even impossible to describe the Brahman itself, which is the source of all things in the universe. Some of the most beautiful and poetic passages are those which declare the inability of the mind and intellect and language to talk about Brahman, which lies beyond all.

What becomes important is the argument adopted to describe the path that leads up to Brahman or the First Principle, and the description of the world and of the man who understands the world and tries to grasp Brahman. The philosophical importance of these texts lies in the intellectual map that they construct to make sense of the universe. The upanishads, we find, do not ever fully cross over into mysticism. They use the intellectual tools provided by language and argumentation to understand the world.

The other upnaishad of the Krishna Yajur Veda is the Katha. It is the simplest, and one of the most beautiful, upanishads, It is a dialogue between Nachiketas and Yama, the god of death.

Nachiketas’ father, Vajasravasa, gave away all his possessions as part of a Vedic sacrificial rite. Nachiketas, a young boy, wanted to know to whom did his father give him away. He asked the question thrice, “Dear father, to who will thou give me.” Vajasravasa replied in irritation, “I shall give thee unto Death.”

The two verses that follow are beautiful, which show the thoughtful Nachiketas contemplating the passage to the death-world. “I go as the first, at the head of many; I go in the midst of many; What will be the work of Yama which today has to do unto me?

Look back how it was with those who came before, look forward how it will be with those who come hereafter. A mortal ripens like corn, like corn he springs up again.”

He reaches the world of Yama, and waits for the return of the god. Yama comes back after three nights, and tells Nachiketas: “O, Brahmana, as thou, a venerable guest, hast dwelt in my house three nights without eating, therefore choose now three boons.”

The first boon that Nachiketas chooses is that his father should not be angry with him when he returns home, and that he would recognise him. This makes it clear that Vajasravasa did not intend to give his son way to death, and that a person who returns from the world of death is not recognised by people in this world.

The second boon that Nachiketas asks is “fire-sacrifice which leads us to heaven…” Yama tells him about the fire-scarifice, “what bricks are required for the altar, and how many, and how they are to be placed.” As Nachiketa had understood what Yama had told him about the sacrifice, the god says that the fire-sacrifice will be known as the “Nachiketa rite.”

Nachiketa then asks for the third boon: “There is that doubt, when a man is dead, -- some saying, he is, others, he is not. This I should like to know, taught by thee; this is the third of my boons.”
Yama answers: “On this point even the gods have doubted formerly; it is not easy to understand. That subject is subtle. Choose another boon, O Nachiketas, do not press me, and let me off that boon.”

Instead, Yama is willing grant those desires which are difficult for mortals – wealth, long life, “fair maidens with their chariots and musical instruments.” Nachiketas refuses them all, and tells Yama: “These things last till tomorrow, O Death, for they wear out the vigour of all the senses. Even the whole of life is short. Keep thou thy horses, keep dance and song for thyself.
No man can be made happy by wealth. Shall we see wealth, when we see thee? Shall we live as long as thou rulest?”

The poetry of the encounter is unmistakable. What lends it beauty is the lucid and laconic exchange between Nachiketas and Yama. Not too many words are wasted on the ephemerality of life. Nachiketas recognises as a simple fact that death rules over life, and that there is a need to understand it. Western philosophy has not been too comfortable dealing with the question of death. Socrates and Plato never touch upon it. In later centuries, contemplation of death became one of the key elements of religion. In the upanishads, death makes its appearance as an existential question, but it never goes into the religious mode, where a god, who is deemed the creator of death, is worshipped as a means of escaping the clutches of mortality. The upanishads in general, and the Katha in particular, deal with the question of death as a way of understanding life, and of how it is to be lived. It never becomes a morbid contemplation that it becomes in some religions, and in some forms of existentialism in modern times. Death in the upanishads is one of the landmarks in the world we live, but it is not the only one, neither is it a predominant issue.

Nachiketas is not really seeking an escape from death. He is curious to know whether there is something in the human being that survives death. Yama’s answer implies that it the action of men that leads to death, or away from it. The choice, Yama says, is between what is pleasurable and what is good. Those who travel the path of pleasure are caught up in death.

Yama points to what lies behind the changing world, and in words that will become familiar to latter-day readers through the Bhagavadgita, proclaims the unchanging principle: ”The Ancient is unborn, eternal, everlasting; he is not killed, though the body is killed.
If the killer thinks that he kills, if the killed thinks that he is killed, they do not understand; for this one does not kill, nor is that one killed.”

There is an apparent confusion here. It appears as though that Yama is referring to the soul and not to the Brahman principle. According to ancient belief, the soul does not die when the body is killed. Yama is, however, not referring to the soul, but to the Self. The connection between soul and Self remains a point of contention. It is argued by some of the interpreters of the upanishads that soul becomes Self through knowledge and good work. From the reading of the upanishadic texts itself, it is difficult to make that connection in a conclusive manner.

Yama draws a picture of the Self and the body: “Know the Self to be sitting in the chariot, the body to be the chariot, the intellect (Buddhi) the charioteer, and the mind the reins.
The senses they call the horses, the objects of the senses their roads. When he (the Highest Self) is in union with the body, the senses, and the mind, then wise people call him the Enjoyer.”

The “Enjoyer” would ordinarily be understood as more than the senses, the mind and the intellect. It is not so. Yama makes it clear that the soul and the Self are not the same, and the “Enjoyer” is the Self and not the soul. He says: “But he who has understanding of his charioteer, and who holds the reins of the mind, he reaches the end of his journey, and that is the highest place of Vishnu.”

And he makes the inner connection back to the Self: “Beyond the senses there are the objects, beyond the objects there is the mind, beyond the mind there is the intellect, the Great Self is beyond the intellect.”

The Great Self is not, however, the origin. There are other things beyond that. “Beyond the Great there is the Undeveloped, beyond the Undeveloped there is the Person (purusha). Beyond the Person there is nothing – this is the goal, the highest road.”

The modern reader is most likely to be bewildered by descriptions of endless patterns of things within things, worlds within worlds. Whether these descriptions are right and accurate or no, it can be seen that the upanishadic thinkers saw that the world within man and outside is an intermeshed universe, and that to make sense of it all, there is a clear need to make the connections. The upanishadic picture reflects that complexity.

The Katha proposes two ideas. First, the philosophical-ethical division between the principle of pleasure and the principle of good. Though ethical living has been an underlying principle in the other upanishads, the clear demarcation between a life based on worldly or sensual pleasures and a life lived with a desire to know and reach the “purusha (person)” lying beyond the visible and invisible worlds is quite emphatic in the Katha Upanishad.

Second, it shows the internal structure of the human faculties leading up from the senses and their objects – the horses and the road - at one end to the Self – the charioteer – at the other. The Self is not the Brahman or the First Principle, but it is the soul, which lies behind the mind and the intellect. The Katha also makes explicit one of the important insights of the upanishads that the mind is a “sensorium”, which controls the senses. The intellect or “buddhi” is the faculty which helps in making decisions. But again, it is not the decision-maker. The intellect is a mere function, and it is the “Self” or the charioteer which decides, using the powers of the intellect. In Western philosophy, mind, reason, intellect and soul have been indistinct. And the modern distinction between mind and brain is as an unclear one because some of the important arguments regarding memory, consciousness and reason are yet not settled.

The Svetasvatara Upanishad, which is the other major upanishad of the Krishna Yajur Veda, poses problems of a different kind. It does not conform to the accepted notion of an upanishad. Unlike in any other upanishad, we find here references to god, and this god does not come in the impersonal garb of Brahman. And most importantly, we find in the Svetasvatara, clear and insistent reminders of the Bhagavadgita, which is still a few centuries away. These early echoes of the Bhagavadgita in this upanishad has given rise to the suspicion that this is one of the later texts. But the question cannot be really decided either way. The linguistic evidence points to the antiquity of the text.

What makes Svetasvatara Upanishad a problematic text is also due to the fact that it seems to point to a creator-god, and there is a touch of theism, which is anathema to most students of philosophy. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that the presence of god destroys the intellectual elegance of a purely logical argument. Most scholars associate the upanishads with the impersonal First Principle, which has been referred to as the Brahman, and they take pride in the upanishads because it does not fall back on the idea of god.

A close reading of the Svetasvatara shows that there is no need to feel disappointed with this upanishad, and that there is no god here as popularly understood. The upanishad is attempting to make that difficult connection between cause and effect. We have learnt that Brahman is the ultimate First Principle, but how the First Principle makes it possible for the emergence of the multitudinous world we see around us is left unexplained. It is generally assumed that Brahman is the cause, and the world is the effect. But Brahman is not a cause in the familiar sense of a creator-god.

The Svetasvatara moots an answer to the issue. But it does so in a curious fashion: “There are two, one knowing (Isvara), the other not-knowing (jiva), both unborn, one strong, the other weak; there is she, the unborn, through whom each man receives the recompense of his works; and there is the infinite Self (appearing) under all forms, but himself inactive. When a man finds out these three, that is Brahma.”

Isvara is the Lord God, but he does nor create. He is seen as the presiding over the world. It is implied that Isvara is an independent and evolved soul in contrast to the jiva, the dependent soul. What separates the two is knowledge. Isvara knows the working of the world, the jiva does not. The moment he understands the mechanism and meaning of creation, then he is free, and becomes like Isvara.
The phenomenon is explained in the famous simile of two birds: “Two birds, inseparable friends, cling to the same tree. One of them eats the sweet fruit, the other looks on.” The simile recurs in another upanishad, where the bird which keeps aloof is the one knows about the changing world, and the other one is still in the process of exploring the contradictory nature of the world. And in due time, the bird which is apparently busy experiencing the world reaches a position where it can survey it all from a vantage point. It is one of the brilliant similes that we find in the upanishads.

The other half of the passage – “there is she, the unborn, through whom each man receives the recompense of his work” – refers to Prakriti or Nature. This world – the visible world, the physical world, the created world – is prakriti, and it works according to its own laws.

There is also the formulation, which assumes great importance in later philosophical arguments: “Know then Prakriti (nature) is Maya (art), and the great Lord the Mayin (maker); the whole world is filled with what are his members.”

What we find here is a greater level of generalisation, because in many of the other upanishads there was a focus on the specific elements that comprise the world and the human being.
We come across here the key idea that the understanding of the world, or gaining knowledge about it, leads to freedom, and the converse is that ignorance is bondage.

This is a constant undercurrent in most Indian philosophical systems, including Buddhism. But knowledge is not a simple question of knowing as the term is generally understood. We have seen in the Brihadaranyaka that Yajnavalkya knew about the Brahman, but that did not really make him a free soul.

In the Svetasvatara, as later in Buddhism and in the Bhagavadgita, knowledge has a particular connotation. It is not enough to know. There is need for a certain transformation of the person at the spiritual level. The implication that knowledge should transform a person might appear in the modern philosophical context, where knowing is restricted to the familiar and formal mode of taking a philosophical course in a university, as quite a weak-kneed idea. But philosophy at the best of times has not claimed anything less than changing the lives of those who live by it. And the author of the Svetasvatara proclaims it in words borrowed from the purely religious section called the Samhita: “I know that great person (purusha) of sunlike lustre beyond the darkness. A man who knows him truly, passes over death; there is no other path to go.” There is an unconscious religious dimension to it, which is not conceded by the modern scholars.

The other intriguing upanishad in the Svetasvatara mould is the short and obscure Isavasya Upanishad, also known as the Isa Upanishad. It is also a part of Krishna Yajur Veda.

The upanishad introduces the idea that you have to give up this world to gain the truth. It says: “All this, whatsoever moves on earth, is to be hidden in the Lord (the Self). When thou hast surrendered all this, then thou mayest enjoy.” There is again a religious connotation to it, because in all major, higher religions, there is this idea of giving up what you have to gain what you do not have.

There is a catch here. Here the bargaining counters are two kinds of knowledge – the one about the world, and the other about what lies behind the world. The upanishadic author says: “One thing, they say, is obtained from real knowledge: another, they say, from what is not knowledge. Thus we have heard from the wise who taught us this.”

The real knowledge refers to the knowledge of what lies behind and beyond the world. Knowledge of this world is sometimes referred to as even “ignorance”. This does not mean that the knowledge of the visible world is of no value at all, but in comparison to the other, more important kind of knowledge what we know of this world pales in comparison. There has been a general misinterpretation that the upanishadic thinkers negated knowledge of this world, and that by implication, they had negated this world, which is quite off the mark. We have seen in the other upanishads that they did explore the physical world as they knew it – their own bodies and the elemental environment in which they lived – and based most of their philosophical ideas based on it. When they discovered that the source of the known world is the unknown, and that the visible world arises from the invisible, they declared that insight in unflinching language.

The next major, and the longest, text is the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which belongs to the Shukla Yajur Veda. It is different from the other upanishads because for the first time a single voice looms larger than the others. Yajnavalkya is the hero of this upanishad, and unlike speakers in the other texts, he declares that Brahman is the source and end of the universe. Brahman is the base and the pinnacle of life, of the gods and the elements.

He speaks as one who knows, displays authority and there is even a trace of arrogance. While in the other upanishads the teacher and the pupil explore together the connections and complexity of the universe, Yajnavalkya here takes on his interlocutors and shows them that he can point to the ultimate answer to all the questions that can be ever asked.

But it is clear that what Yajnavalkya knows is only the argument, and this is not something that is valued highly in the upanishadic context. And even he seems to be aware of it. This becomes evident when we are told that he decides to retire to the forest, or the next stage of life. It would not be accurate to attribute to the upanishadic age the four stages of life – student, family man, recluse and wanderer – that had characterised the life of a man in post-Buddhist Hinduism.

When he decides to retire to the forest, he wants to distribute his wealth among his two wives, Maitreyi and Katyayani. That an upanishadic sage should have two wives, or that he should be cocksure of what he knows might appear a little too strange because it is assumed by the modern reader that the thinkers of the period were meek spiritualists. People at the time were living like people at any other point of time, with homes, wives and husbands, wealth and friends. But they were also interested in the philosophical questions, and they pursued them with vigour, and at times a fleeting note of arrogance, even cantankerousness, slipped into the argument, especially in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and its hero, Yajnavalkya.

When Maitreyi asks him whether wealth would help her attain immortality, he says: “No, like the life of rich people will be thy life. But there is no hope of immortality in wealth.” This is the first time in the upanishads a clear note is struck that the things of the world pass away. But there is neither pessimism nor despair here. Maitreyi is not satisfied with wealth. She wants to know about the immortal life. And Yajnavalkya explains: “Verily, a husband is not dear, that you may love the husband; but that you may love the Self, therefore a husband is dear.” And so it is with the wife, sons, wealth, and even the gods. They are all dear not because they can be loved, but they are dear because the Self may be loved.

What does it really mean? What is this “Self” which provides the rationale for our love and attachment to the people around us? The Sanskrit word used is “Atman”, and it is synonymous with “Brahman”. It will be seen in the other upanishads that a steady progress has been made in identifying the underlying principle in the universe and in the heart of things – living and non-living – as Brahman. At times, the word “Atman” has been used to describe this First Principle within beings.

The implication of Yajnavalkya’s statement is deep and significant. Translated into the familiar religious idiom, it means that we love each other and should love each other because of the Indwelling Spirit in all of us. It is a celebration of the sacredness of every being around us. It is an important and valuable insight in itself, but does not flow from strictly philosophical principles. Yajnavalkya is making a pietist, rather than a philosophical statement when he talks of the “Self” or “Atman” being the reason for any one loving any one, or why any one ought to love any one else

There is quite a bit of linguistic quibbling about the words “Brahman” and “Atman” and how they came to be used as synonymous terms. The familiar explanation has been through the etymological route, where “Brahman” is explained as deriving from “Brih” or that which spurts forth. The word “Atman” is a linguistic term used in the ordinary sense to refer to the grammatical subject, which then takes on the ontological meaning of “being” as such.

The problem, however, is not so much about the words, “Atman” and “Brahman”, as much as it is about the philosophical method used to arrive at this observation or insight. We find in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad that the exploratory mode of the other upanishads is absent, and that Yajnavalkya is laying down the axiom that “Brahman” or “Atman” is indeed the First Principle in the universe. And all that he is willing to do is to stand up to the questioners in a defiant attitude and refute objections and doubts that have arisen.

Yajnavalkya wraps up his short disquisition on Brahman saying, “As a lump of salt, when thrown into water, becomes dissolved into water, and could not be taken out again, but wherever we taste (the water) it is salt – thus verily, O Maitreyi, does this Great Being, endless, unlimited, consisting of nothing but knowledge, rise from out these elements and vanish again in them. When he has departed, there is no more knowledge (name), I say, O Maitreyi.”

But Maitreyi is at a loss to understand the point. She says, “Here thou has bewildered me, Sir, when thou sayest that having departed, there is no more knowledge.”

Yajnavalkya replies quite condescendingly, “O Maitreyi, I say nothing that is bewildering. This is enough, O beloved, for wisdom.” But he goes on to explain what he meant. The implication is that when there is no external world, there is no knowledge either: “For when it is as it were duality, then one sees the other, one smells the other, one hears the other, one salutes the other, one perceives the other, one knows the other; but when the Self only is all this, how should he smell another, how should he see another, how should he hear another, how should he salute another, how should he perceive another, how should he know another? How should he know Him by whom he knows all this? How, O beloved, should he know (himself), the Knower?”

Yajnavalkya is pointing out the logical impasse an argument reaches when we identify the ultimate source of other things and the knowledge that flows from it. Like a good mathematician, Yajnavalkya has worked out the theorem in his own mind, and he finds himself in a position to explain to others that a logical argument cannot go beyond its own premise. The premise of Brahman is not an arbitrary one either. It is what emerges after the elements and their compounds have been identified.

That is why, when King Janaka of Videha says that to the wisest among the Brahmins present at the sacrificial ceremony he would offer a thousand cows with ten pieces of gold fastened to each of the horns, Yajnvalkya asks his disciple to drive away the cows When challenged about he being the wisest man, Yajnavalkya replies: “I bow before the wisest (the best knower of Brahman) but I wish indeed to have these cows.”

And he stands up to his questioners. The questions and the answers span both the ritualistic as well as the philosophical aspect. This is to be seen clearly in the questions posed by Gargi, one of the few women we come across in the upanishads. She asks two pertinent questions. And she uses a perky metaphor to make her point.

“She said: “O Yajnavalkya, as the son of a warrior from the Kasis or Videhas might string his loosened bow, take two pointed foe-piercing arrows in his hand and rise to do battle, I have risen to fight thee with two questions. Answer me these questions.

Yajnavalkya said: ‘Ask, O Gargi.’

She said: ‘O Yajnavalkya, that of which they say it is above the heavens, beneath the earth, embracing heaven and earth, past, present and future, tell me in what is it woven, like warp and woof?’

Yajnavalkya said: ‘That of which they say that it is above the heavens, beneath the earth, embracing heaven and earth, past, present, and future, that is woven, like warp and woof, in the ether (akasa).’

She said: ‘I bow to thee, O Yajnavalkya, who has solved me that question. Get thee ready for the second.’

Yajnavalkya said: ‘Ask, O Gargi.’

Gargi said: ‘In what then is the ether woven, like warp and woof?

He said: ‘O Gargi, the Brahmanas call this the Akshara (the imperishable). It is neither coarse nor fine, neither short nor long, neither red (like fire), nor fluid (like water); it is without shadow, without darkness, without air, without ether, without attachment, without taste, without smell, without eyes, without ears, without speech, without mind, without light (vigour), without breath, without a mouth (or door), without measure, having no within and no without, it devours nothing, and no one devours it.’

Then said Gargi: ‘Venerable Brahmans, you may consider it a great thing, if you get off by bowing before him. No one, I believe, will defeat him in any argument concerning Brahman.’

It is difficult to find anything as beautiful as this encounter between Yajnavalkya and Gargi anywhere in Plato’s dialogues. The comparison is inevitable because nearly two hundred years before Plato wrote, we find in this upanishad more than in others a sense of drama in the intellectual setting, where tempers rise and the exchanges between the disputants are sharp. But as Yajnavalkya explains the theory of Brahman, the sharp edges are softened, and we are just taken in by the idea of the ultimate principle itself.

Has Yajnavalkya established the concept of Brahman on an irrefutable basis? Does he himself know the Brahman? It is clear that Yajnavalkya speaks with the supreme confidence of a disputant, of an intellectual who has an upper hand, and who does not hesitate to assert it. But when he describes the Brahman, it can be seen that he is lost in the admiration of the idea itself. Yajnavalkya is humble before the idea of Brahman, but he asserts his superiority over the others, armed as he is with this supreme idea.

The concept of Brahman is not a discovery of Yajnavalkya. He knows it. He is the scholar who has grasped the idea, and is confident of arguing about it convincingly with the others. When he refers to the Akshara or Brahman, he is quick to point that it is not his discovery. “O Gargi, the Brahmanas call this the Akshara (imperishable)” he says.

It is not quite clear as to where Yajnavalkya has learnt about the Brahman. But he remains an able scholar, who can explain the subtle and difficult idea. But now he has to go and understand Brahman for himself, as it were. It is for this reason that we find him preparing to leave for the forest. And he decides to distribute his wealth between his two wives, Maitreyi and Katyayani. We know that Maitreyi was interested in knowing about Brahman rather than in inheriting his wealth.

Through the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and the other upanishads, we get a clear picture that the people were involved in the discussions were serious and sincere about the philosophical investigation. It was also more than intellectual curiosity. They also felt a certain urgency and anxiety to know the truth about the universe because it seemed that without true knowledge, life became a meaningless adventure. And the intellectual pursuit was part of their religious and moral life. Yajnavalakya tells Gargi: “Whosoever, O Gargi, without knowing this Akshara, departs this world, he is miserable (like a slave). But he, O Gargi, who departs this world, knowing this Akshara, he is a Brahmana.”

But the mystery of Brahman remains. We do not know how this Brahman is to be known. The philosophical task ends with knowing that there is a supreme principle that sustains the universe. But the upanishads refuse to accept philosophy – in the sense of mere intellectual inquiry -- as an end in itself. Critics might point out that this is the very reason that upanishads do not count as philosophical texts. But in the upanishads we find evidence of philosophical inquiry, which was as yet unclouded by mere logic. They asked the big question about the world and life around them, and they had arrived at a philosophical description, which revealed the simplicity and the mystery of what can be known.

The Sama Veda, the third in the vedic corpus, has two major upanishads – the Chchandogya Upanishad and the Kena Upanishad, which is also known as the Talavakara Upanishad. It is difficult to determine whether the Sama Veda is prior or later to the Yajur Veda. The question becomes critical when we have to trace the unfolding of the upanishadic ideas. The Sama Veda’s place in the vedic system is in the nature of a choir during service in a Christian church. It is the musical part of the ritual. But this does not in any manner take away the importance of either the Sama Veda or of its upanishads. Though it is convenient to look at the four Vedas as separate, it has to be seen as different components of a single religious system. However, the exploration of ideas, the intellectual inquiry among the different little traditions was an open one, and there was a free flow of ideas. That is why, we find echoes of one upanishad in another, and even the same episodes are narrated differently in separate upanishadic texts.

This does give rise to the impression that all the upanishads belong to a single school of thought or the same philosophical system. This was indeed the perception of the early Indian systematisers, right from the author of the Uttara Mimamsa, where all the upanishadic ideas have been sought to be tied into a neat knot of a single philosophy. Though there is some justification on the part of the latter-day thinkers in ancient and medieval India to have looked at the upanishads in the four vedas as preaching the single doctrine of Brahman, the upanishadic texts themselves reveal that though they have crossed each other’s path and sometimes spoke of the same ideas, each one of the texts carries an independent stamp of its own, and each upanishadic thinker was a lone intellectual explorer.

The Chchandogya Upanishad is considered one of the earliest upanishads, more for reasons of language than that of ideas. It contains some of the interesting episodes, and the ideas are more than interesting. It touches upon the whole range of ideas, from those connected to the physical world to more complex generalisations about knowledge and the human faculties which grasp it. It is also one of the longer of the upanishads, and like them it is really fragmentary. There is no theme that unifies the text. This is a problem we constantly face with the upanishads, and the critics who refuse them the status of philosophical texts would seem to be vindicated.

But the danger of rejecting the upanishads on grounds of textual fragmentariness would be quite churlish because too many important ideas are scattered across them. It would also lead us to the more difficult question of the authenticity of the texts in the modern critical sense of the term. Max Mueller, who is one of the conscientious textual editors, had struggled with these texts bravely, and found an interpolation here and there. But he had rarely rejected any of the upanishads on the ground that they had large sections of interpolations. It is because the antiquity of the texts is authentic, it would make sense to accept their fragmentariness and look to the essential aspect of the ideas they have contain.

As the Chchandogya belongs to the Sama Veda, we find the emphasis on the “saman” in the earlier part of the text. It is narrated the Ushasti Chakrayana lived as a beggar with his “virgin wife” after the Kurus were destroyed in Ilbhyagrama. It is not certain that the destruction of the Kurus refers to the great Mahabharata war. Quite possibly, it could be a reference to a local community, which was decimated in a climate disaster because the text says, “When the Kurus had been destroyed by (hail) stones…”

Ushasti Chakrayana eats leftover food taken from a chief, but refuses to drink water which the chef offers him. He says, “If I drank of it, I should have drunk what was left by another, and is therefore unclean.”

The chief counters: “Were not those beans also left over and therefore unclean?”

Ushasti Chakrayana retorts: “No, for I should not have lived if I had not eaten them, but the drinking of water would be mere pleasure.”

The incident typifies in many ways the attitude of the wise man in India, which is a combination of high morality and earthy pragmatism. There is a sense of irony because rules of purity are not inflexible, and at the same time one cannot live without a system of rules. That is, there are rules, customs, rituals and laws. But none of them becomes a fetish. Rules are to be observed, customs are to be followed and laws are to be adhered to. But there is always the sense that there is something beyond the rules, customs and laws, something which gives them their meaning.

Ushasti Chakrayana goes to officiate at a sacrifice, where he is welcomed. And then the text shows that he goes and sits where those who chant the Sama Veda sit. Then he asks the Saman singers whether they understand what they chant. And he tells each of them that if they sing without knowing the deity which belongs to the hymn, their heads will fall off. As we have seen earlier in the case of Yajanvalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the warning that the head will fall off is a way of expressing disapproval of doing things without understanding.

There are three types of Saman singers – Prastotri, Udgatri and Pratihartri. When each one of them expresses a desire to know the deity which presides over their respective hymns, Ushasti Chakrayana tells them. To the Prastotri, he says, “Breath (prana). For all these beings merge into breath alone, and from breath they arise. This is the deity belonging to the prastava.” To the Udgatri, he says, “The sun (aditya). For all these beings praise the sun when it stands on high. This is the deity belonging to the udgitha.” And to the Pratihartri, he says, “Food (anna). For all these beings live when they partake of food. This is the deity belonging to the pratihara.”

As we have noticed earlier, the upanishadic ideas are quite often woven into the vedic sacrificial ritual. It would not be accurate to ignore the religious aspect and focus on the ideas themselves. The ideas arose from the sacrificial system, and here we can see that Ushasti Chakrayana points to three of the elemental forces which the upanishadic thinkers had so uncannily identified – breath, sun and food.

Is it plain religious symbolism, or does it have a philosophical connotation? It can be seen that it is both religious and philosophical, and that they did not make a distinction between the two. The sacrifice was the warp of their life, and philosophical ideas formed the woof. We cannot look at only one or the other.

Janasruti Pautrayana, a wealthy and generous man, overhears the flamingoes talking about Raikwa, the cartwright as the one who knows the essential truths, and he is compared, through a difficult metaphor, as the one wise man. One of the flamingoes says, “As (in a game of dice) all the lower casts belong to him who has conquered with the Krita cast, so whatever good deeds other people perform, belong to that of Raikwa. He who knows what he knows, he is thus spoken of by me.”

The contrast between Janasruti Pautrayana and Raikwa is rather stark. Janasruti “was a pious giver, bestowing much wealth upon the people, and always keeping open house. He built places of refuge everywhere, wishing that people should everywhere eat of his food.
Raikwa, on the other hand, was “lying beneath a car and scratching his sores.”

The poor and afflicted Raikwa is superior to the pious and prosperous Janasruti because of his knowledge. There is an ironical twist to the story. Janasruti approaches Raikwa with “six hundred cows, a necklace and a carriage with mules.” Raikwa rejects them without much ado. He tells Janasruti: “Fie, necklace and carriage be thine, O Sudra, together with the cows.”

Next time round, Janasruti approached Raikwa with “a thousand cows, a necklace, a carriage with mules and his daughter.” And he told Raikwa, “Raikwa, there are a thousand cows, a necklace, a carriage with mules, this wife, and this village in which thou dwellest. Sir, teach me.”

Raikwa’s response is baffling. “He, opening her mouth, said: ‘You have brought these (cows and other presents). O Sudra, but only by that mouth did you make me speak.”
He is certainly referring to the bride that Janasruti brought, and it is because of her that Raikwa is willing to impart knowledge to Janasruti! What does Raikwa have to say? It is brief and surprisingly simple. He refers to “vayu (air)” and “prana (breath)”. Of “vayu he says, “Air (vayu) is indeed the end of all. For when fire goes out, it goes into air. When the sun goes down, it goes into air. When the moon goes down, it goes into air.
When water dries up, it goes into air. Air indeed consumes them all. So much with reference to Devas.

Now with reference to the body. Breath (prana) is indeed the end of all. When a man sleeps, speech goes into breath, so do sight, hearing, and mind. Breath indeed consumes them all.

These are the two ends, air among the Devas, breath among the senses (pranah).”
It is crucial to note here that the word “Devas” refers to the elements. And Raikwa is identifying the world without and the world within, and the subtle connection between the two. Air and breath are the facets of the same element, one of which pervades the external world and inside the human body marks the vital difference between life and death.

It also tackles the problem, which is explained in another part of this upanishad, about the evolutionary relationship between the elements, how the lower is dissolved in the higher. Air is higher than earth, water and fire. And breath, the upanishads discovered, is the root of human life.
One of the famous stories from the upanishads is about Satyakama Jabala, which forms part of the Chandogya. When Satyakama decides to be a student, he asks his mother about his father, and she tells him: “I do not know, my child, of what family thou art. In my youth when I had to move about much as a servant (waiting on the guests in my father’s house), I conceived thee. I do not know of what family thou art. I am Jabala by name, thou art Satyakama. Say that thou art Satyakama Jabala.”

It is one of the beautiful episodes, which embodies the ideal of speaking the truth in the sense of being totally honest. But the story does not end there. Gautama Haridrumata accepts Satyakama Jabala as a student, and asks him to tend four hundred lean and weak cows. Satyakama drives away the cattle, determined to multiply the four hundred into a thousand. During this period, Satyakama is away in the forest. And it is to be clearly inferred that this was his learning period as well.

On his way home, Satyakama is taught by the bull of the herd, agni (fire), a flamingo and a diver bird. It can be seen as a poetic way of expressing what he had learnt. Of greater importance is the truth that Satyakama has been taught. The bull tells him about the four quarters – east, west, south and north – and it is called the region of “Prakasavat (endowed with splendour).” The bull says that this is one foot of Brahman.

Then Agni teaches Satyakama about the second foot of Brahman, which comprises earth, sky, heaven and the ocean. It is called “Anantavat (endless).” The “Hamsa (flamingo)” teaches Satyakama the third foot of Brahman, known as “Jyotishmat (full of light): fire, sun, moon and lightning. The fourth of foot of Brahman, known as “Ayatanavat (having a home), as taught by the diver bird, consists of breath, eye, ear and mind.
What emerges is a map of the universe for Satyakama. It is an elementary description of the world and of man’s faculties. What the Satyakama story indicates is the method followed during the vedic period – a contemplation of the world around you, and a discovery of its different aspects. It is a process of creating descriptive categories of the world. We realise that the word Brahman is used to refer to the world, and the First Principle is seen as a totality of these categories. Brahman is seen in other upanishads and by other upanishadic thinkers as something or someone beyond the world. Satyakama’s categories are not precise, but they indicate a sense of plenitude that confronts the human mind when it looks at the world. The terms used for the different aspects indicate this – endowed with splendour (prakasavat), endless (anantavat), full of light (jyotishmat) and having a home (ayatanavat). The last one is more than interesting because it shows that the body and its faculties is the base from where we look out at the world.

Uddalaka Aruni sends off his son, Svetaketu, to study with the exhortation which is at once familiar and ancient, “Svetaketu, go to school: for there is none belonging to our race, darling, who, not having studied (the Veda), is, as it were, a Brahmana by birth only.” And we are told, “Having begun his apprenticeship (with a teacher) when he was tewelve years of age, Svetaketu returned to his father, when he was twenty-four, having then studied all the Vedas – conceited, considering himself well-read, and stern.”
Uddalaka says, “Svetaketu, as you are so conceited, considering yourself so well-read and so stern, my dear, have you ever asked for that instruction by which we hear what cannot be heard, by which we cannot perceive what cannot be perceived, by which we know what cannot be known?”
Uddalaka goes on to state the classic principle of knowing the underlying substance, which enables one to know all that is made of it. He tells his son, “My dear, as by one clod of clay, all that is made of clay is known, the difference being only a name, arising from speech, but the truth being that all is clay.” A rigorous empiricist would object to this reductionist thesis, but Uddalaka does not tie himself down to it. He traces the evolution of the one into many. “It thought , may I be many, may I grow forth. It sent forth fire.” Then fire sends forth water, and water sends forth earth or food.

There is second phase of this evolution: ‘That Being (i.e. that which had produced fire. Water, and earth) thought let me now enter those three beings (fire, water, earth) with this living Self (jiva atma), and let me then reveal (develop) names and forms.”

These three elements also play a key role in the making of the human being. Food gives rise to the mind, water produces the breath, and it is fire that creates speech in man. There is a detailed description of how these elements are transformed into these living attributes. It is quite easy to fault the description of the process as fanciful. The key point, however, is the process of logical thinking at work here.

And the most important part of the argument is when Uddalaka tells Svetaketu that man is made of sixteen parts, and to explain the point he asks him to drink water because breath arises from it. Svetaketu drinks water but does not eat food for 15 days. When Uddalaka asks him to repeat the verses of Rig Veda, Yajur Veda and Sama Veda, but Svetaketu cannot remember them. Uddalaka tells him: “As of a great lighted fire one coal only of the size of a firefly may be left, which would not burn much more than this (i.e. very little), thus, my dear son, one part only of the sixteen parts (of you) is left, and therefore with that one part you do not remember the Vedas. Go and eat.”

The final lesson that Uddalaka offers Svetaketu is breathtakingly simple. “Fetch me from thence a fruit of the Nyagrodha tree.
‘Here is one, Sir.’
‘Break it.’
‘It is broken. Sir.’
What do you see there.’
‘These seeds, almost infinitesimal.’
‘Break one of them.’
‘It is broken. Sir.’
‘What do you see there.’
“Not anything, Sir.’
The father said: ‘My son, that subtile essence which you do not perceive there, of that very essence this great Nyagrodha tree exists.”

Though exploring the abstruse questions of the origins of the universe, the upnaishadic thinkers never for once abandon their common sense, and they do not lose themselves in their dialectics or in the maze of symbolism, which they frequently employ in their arguments. There is both the desire and the tenacity to know the root of things. Surprisingly, this inquisitiveness arises from within the traditional study of the Veda itself. They did not feel the need to reject the familiar knowledge of Vedic rituals to seek out the reasons for the existence of the world.

Towards the end of the Chandogya Upanishad, Prajapati – in the Vedic pantheon Prajapati stands above the chief of gods, Indra – states: “The Self which is free from sin, free from old age, from death and grief, from hunger and thirst, which desires nothing but what it ought to desire, and imagines nothing but what it ought to imagine, that it is which we must try to understand. He who has searched out that Self and understands it, obtains all worlds and all desires.”

We find here that a strong awareness has set in about the imperfections of human life – sin, old age, death and grief, hunger and thirst – that the Buddha would cite a century or two later. But this does not lead to the refrain of sadness, and even psessimism, that is the dominant note of early Buddhism. There is a determination to inquire for what lies beyond the present, imperfect conditions.

Virochana, the leader of the Asura or demons, and Indra, the lord of the Devas or gods, approach Prajapati to get to know this Self. They stayed with him for thirty-two years, and asked about the Self.. He asks them to look at themselves – the Self – in a pan of water, “and whatever you do not understand of your Self, come and tell me.”

They come back and tell him that it is their bodies they see there in the reflection, and that it is a faithful “picture even to the very hairs and nails.” And he tells them to clean themselves, adorn themselves, wear good clothes and look at the reflection in the pan of water again. They do so and report back that the reflection shows them to be clean, adorned He tells them that it is what they see of themselves in the reflection which is the Self.

Both of them go away, quite happy that they have understood the Self. Virochana tells the Asuras that the body is indeed the highest Self. And the text reads: “Therefore they call even now a man who does not give alms here, who has no faith, and offers no sacrifices, an Asura, for this is the doctrine (upanishad) of the Asuras. They deck out the body of the dead with perfumes, flowers, and fine raiment by way of ornament, and think they will thus conquer the world.”

There is enough political distraction in this passage because there is a temptation to read in this a quarrel between the indigenous people, Asuras, and the conquering Aryans. It would a simplistic reading. Every culture has its polarized opposite, and it is not always the outsider who occupies the role of the opponent. What this passage points to is the existence of a school of thought which does not look beyond the body.

Indra goes back to Prajapati, and tells him that if the body were to be lame, blind, crippled or dead, then the reflection would be the same. Prajapati concedes the limitations, but asks him to stay on for another 32 years before he would tell the truth. At the end of it, Indra is told , “He who moves about happy in dreams, he is the Self, this is the immortal, the fearless, this is Brahman.” Indra soon realises that in dreams too we experience sorrow and pain, though it is a vicarious form of sorrow and pain: “ … yet it is as if they struck him (the self) in dreams, as if they chased him. He even becomes conscious, as it were, of pain, and sheds tears.”

The dissatisfied Indra goes back again, and Prajapatu asks him to stay on for another 32 years to know the truth. Then Prajapati tells him: “When a man being asleep, reposing, and at perfect rest, sees no dreams, that is the Self, this is the immortal, the fearless, this is Brahman.”

Indra finds that there are difficulties in this proposition. He realises that in deep sleep, the self is not aware that it is the self, nor is the self aware of anything else. And this could not be an ideal state of affairs. He is asked to stay on for five more years to know the truth. Indra lived for 101 years with Prajapati.

Prajapati delivers the final sermon. He says: “Maghavat, this body is mortal and always held by death. It is the abode of that Self which is immortal, without body. When in the body the Self is held by pleasure and pain. So long as he is in the body, it cannot get free from pleasure and pain. But when he is free of the body, then neither pleasure nor pain touches him.”

The Self’s real form is the natural one like that of the wind, or the cloud or the lightning, which will appear as it approaches the “highest light.” The “highest light” is the knowledge of the Self. “Thus does that serene being, arising from this body, appear in its own form, as soon as it has approached the highest light (the knowledge of Self.”

This is the first time that the body is identified with sorrow and pain, hunger and thirst, death and grief. And it is also shown that dream and deep sleep are closely connected with the body. We do not escape the experience of the physical body in dream and deep sleep. It is a clear indication that truth and the Self lies beyond the limits of human consciousness.

The Kena Upanishad is a short lyrical upanishad, which establishes that Brahman is above the gods, Agni (fire), Vayu and Indra (the lord of gods). But it becomes clear that Brahman is slowly being transformed into a mystery. The Brahman is above gods, and it is above understanding. That is why, the student says, “I do not think I know it well, nor do I know that I do not know it. He among us who knows this, he knows it, nor does he know that he does not know it.”

Is Brahman being transformed from philosophy’s First Principle into a high god above other gods, a mystery beyond knowledge? The upanishadic thinkers after having boldly posited Brahman do treat it as a mystery, but they do not give up the task of arguing about it, of making efforts to know it and understand it. There is a sense of wonderment surrounding discussion about Brahman, but what saves it from being a mere mystic cult is the insight that Brahman is knowledge, and it can only be known though the intellect is too frail to grasp it.


The Atharva Veda, the last of the four vedas, poses quite a few problems. In many ways, it seems to stand apart from the other three. Western scholars are of the view that its hymns deal more with magic, spells against evil forces, and it seems to be an assmilation of beliefs and practices of non-Vedic religions that the early Aryans came across in northern India. There are not too many hymns in common between the other three vedas and that of the Atharva. It is not an easy to question to solve. Though it comes in the later part of the Vedic period, the antiquity of the fourth veda is indisputable.

Even latter-day traditionalists seem to be quite uncertain as to the place of Atharva Veda in the sacrificial ritual. There is a place in it for the Rig Veda priest known as the “hotri”, the Yajur Veda representative is “adhvaryu” and the Sama Veda singer is the “udgatri”. What does the Atharva Veda priest do? As a matter of fact, the Atharva Veda representative is the priest who performs the actual fire oblations. This view of the function of the Atharvana priest is not acceptable to the traditionalists.

In the eyes of both the Western scholars and the traditionalists, the Atharva Veda remains an unassimilated veda.

The Atharva Veda contains three of the major upanishads – the Prasna, the Mundaka and the Mandukya. The ideas expressed in these upanishads form an essential part of the cluster of what we call the upanishadic philosophy.

Whatever may be the difficulties in placing the Atharva Veda in the vedic religion and the sacrificial ritual, there is no doubt about the importance of the upanishads that form part of the Atharva Veda.

The Prasna Upanishad, the other key upanishadic text of the Atharvana Veda, deals with cosmogony, the emergence of the world, and the force or spirit that moves it all. There are six questions, and they are answered by Pippalada. The “prana” is recognised as the moving spirit, a theme which recurs in some of the other upanishads.

Kausalya Asvalayana, one of the six questioners, asks, “Sir, whence is that Prana (spirit) born? And how does it come into this body? And how does it abide, after it has divided itself? How does it go out? How does it support what is without, and what is within?”

Pippalada says, “You ask questions more difficult, but you are very fond of Brahman, therefore I shall tell you.

This Prana (spirit) is born of the Self. Like the shadow thrown on a man, this (the prana) is spread out over it (the Brahman). By the work of the mind does it come into this body.

As a king commands officials, saying to them: Rule these villages or those, so that Prana (spirit) dispose the other pranas, each for their separate work.”

Pippalada’s answer clearly implies that the prana is the life-force that moves the world. The reference to the mind is to the human being, and that it is the existence of the mind that channelises the prana in the body. There are five pranas or breaths: apana is connected with the act of excretion and generation; the prana itself is said to dwell “in eye and ear, passing through mouth and nose”; the samana helps in the conversion of food into body energy; the vyana passes through the body; udana is the death passage, leading either to the upper or nether world, depending on the good or bad deeds.

There is an interesting physiological detail with regard to the vyana: “There are the 101 arteries, and in each of them there are a hundred (smaller veins), and for each of these veins there are 72,000. In these, the Vyana (the back-breathing moves).”

This lesson in physiology is bound to sound as mumbo-jumbo to the modern readers, but again we have to look at the whole approach. The attempt is to know how the world is a living system, and how human beings are connected to this world. The objective of these thinkers is quite clear. They want to know about the world, and the human beings in it. They have this instinctive desire to see the connection between the two, and they proceed on the rationalist assumption that what is out there must be inside the human being too because that is the only way to explain the fundamental existential issue of ‘human being-in-the-universe.’ It can be said that the answer given to the question is simplistic and unsatisfactory, but it cannot be dismissed as of no consequence. The importance of the upanishadic exercise lies in the fact that they had raised some of the exciting and basic philosophical questions.

The Mundaka Upanishad, the last of the major upanishads we shall be looking at, states once again the philosophical quest: “Saunaka, the great householder, approached Angiras respectfully and asked: ‘Sir, what is that through which, if it is known, everything else becomes known?’

Angiras replies: “Two kinds of knowledge must be known, this is what all who know Brahman tell us, the higher and the lower knowledge.

The lower knowledge is the RigVeda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, Atharva Veda, Siksha (phonetics), Kalpa (ceremonial), Vyakarana (grammar), Nirukta (etymology), Chandas (metre), Jyotisha (astronomy); but the higher knowledge is that by which the Indestructible (Brahman) is apprehended.”

This is a bold division of knowledge. All that they have known and worked upon – the vedic system and the all the ancillary subjects like grammar and astronomy – is relegated to a lower form of knowledge. This does not mean that the upanishadic thinkers, who were immersed in the vedic lore did not any more care for the religion and the knowledge that they have gathered. But when they had glimpsed the origin, they did not hesitate to concede that knowledge of the world flows from the reality of that beginning.

At one point, the sacrificial system is decried: “But frail, in truth, are those boats, the sacrifices, the eighteen, in which this lower ceremonial has been told. Fools who praise this as the highest good, are subject again and again to old age and death.

Fools dwelling in darkness, wise in their own conceit, and puffed up with vain knowledge, go round and round staggering to and fro, like blind men led by the blind.”

Then follow two verses, which point to ways of knowing the Brahman. The first says: “But those who practise penance and faith in the forest, tranquil, wise, and living on alms, depart from passion through the sun to where that immortal Person dwells whose nature is imperishable.” This is a passage which is a precursor to both Buddhism and the Bhagavadgita.

Then follows the other route to Brahman in the very next verse: “Let a Brahmana, after he has examined all these worlds which are gained by works, acquire freedom from all desires. Nothing that is eternal can be gained by what is not eternal. Let him in order to understand this, take fuel in his hand and approach a Guru who is learned and dwells entirely in Brahman.”

It is evident that these two verses do not have any bearing on philosophical inquiry, and that they are, in fact, positing an alternative religious mode of attaining Brahman. It will be argued by the modern scholar of philosophy that a philosophical quest ends when we know the truth. But the vedic and upanishadic thinkers are certain that knowing the truth in the sense of reading about it is not the end. And that it is something to be experienced. It is this point of view, which is deeply ingrained in all the upanishads, that make them problematic philosophic texts for the modern reader.


The world of the upanishads that emerges is still a hazy one. We know very little about the background of the texts, their dates. Little or nothing is known about some of the key upanishadic interlocutors like Yajanvalkya, Uddalaka Aruni, Raikwa and Pippalada. The appearance of Prajapati and Yama, the gods as teachers, shows that the texts were quite closely linked to the religious ceremonies and the gods. But the arguments remain quite clear.

There are, however, quite a few other things that stand out. One of them is the spirit of philosophical inquiry. Contrary to latter-day Hindu view that philosophical inquiry or the quest for the Highest Truth is for people who give up family life and retire into forests, the upanishads show that it is an inquiry open to people of all ages. Satyakama Jabala in the Chandogya Upanishad, Nachiketas in the Katha Upanishad are boys who are determined to know the truth. Svetaketu in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is a young man of 24 when his father, Uddalaka Aruni, questions him sharply about philosophical truths.

Though they make their appearance only in the Brihadaranyaka, Maitreyi, the wife of Yajanvalkya, and Gargi, the scholar-disputant, prove that women participated in philosophical debates. Yajnavalkya treats both as intellectual equals, and it will be hard to find a similar example from the history of ancient philosophy anywhere. It would be difficult to dismiss this as an example of tokenism because the compilers of the upanishads had no political compulsion to include women in the philosophical texts if they were not really part of the picture.

While Raikwa in the Chandogya Upanishad is a cartwright, who knows the highest truth, Janaka is the scholar-king in the Brihadaranyaka. The upanishadic society was fairly open, and pleasantly enough people from all walks of life took part in the philosophical discussions. The rich man, Janasruti, goes to Raikwa with gifts and his daughter to learn the philosophical truth. The social divisions were in place, but they were not rigidly hierarchical.

The upanishadic society was pastoral, which is in contrast to the origins of philosophy in the Western world. The first philosophers in Greece lived in cities though they must have been small towns compared to the modern-day metropolises, and it has been assumed ever since that the conviviality of a city square is needed to stimulate philosophical discussions. The upanishadic thinkers either met at the religious ceremony of the fire-sacrifice, at the house of the master or at the court of a king. It was a small society, and the interaction must have been quite intimate.

(This piece was also written in early 2001)

All the quotes from Friedrich Maxmueller's translation of the Upanishads in the Sacred Books of the East series.


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