Over the past few weeks, I have been studying an eclectic mixture of philosophical, ritualistic, mythological and religious works called the Upanishads (also written as Upanisads). The name Upanishad can be translated either as ‘sitting down near,’ referring to a student sitting next to their teacher, or ‘esoteric doctrine’ referring to the secretive treatment of these texts throughout most of their history. Although there are over 200 Upanishads in existence, I have focused my effort on the Mukhya (main) Upanishads – thirteen of the oldest and most influential texts within early Brahmanism. I now intend to reflect on these texts as a whole, provide some overarching context and comment on the diverse ideas they cover and attempt to close with some key points.
Historically speaking, the Early Upanishads develop in the Vedic and Post-Vedic period following the collapse of the Indus Valley civilisation. This culture had been the main centre of urban development in the subcontinent, focused in what is now Pakistan, but also in parts of Afghanistan and Northern India. Although the script of this civilisation remains undeciphered, many scholars favour the interpretation that this culture spoke a Dravidian language, related to the languages now spoken in Southern India – such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam.
Although the reason for the collapse of this complex society is unknown, it does coincide with the migration of an Indo-European speaking people from the north who referred to themselves as the Ayrans (noble). The language that these newcomers spoke, Sanskrit, would become the dominant medium for the conduct of politics and religion in the north – eventually giving birth to the northern Indian languages of Hindustani (Hindi/Urdu), Bengali and Punjabi. It was in Sanskrit that the Upanishads would be written.
There is significant scholarly consternation as to whether the movement of the Ayrans was one of violent conquest or peaceful migration, but the impact on the culture of the subcontinent was significant. The newcomers brought with them war chariots, new language and customs which would come to dominate previous cultures. This included a mythological structure of gods and goddesses which some have noted as having distinct similarities to other Indo-European cultures, for instance, the god of lightning Indra and the Greek Zeus and Nordic Thor.
It is during this period that the ritualist works of Brahmanism – the religion of the Ayrans and the precursor to what would eventually become Hinduism – were formed, known as the Vedas (knowledge). These texts were passed down by oral tradition – reflected in their other name: Shruti (that which is heard) – through a priestly caste known as Brahmins. These texts include numerous rituals for the propitiation of the gods, the culture, customs and traditions of the Ayran people and magical rituals. It is also within these documents we see conflicting creation and etiological myths which provide the basis for both Brahminism, and for Varna (type, or what westerners would call caste).
Within the Vedas, the etiological myth of Purusha – a cosmic giant who is sacrificed by the gods to create the world – serves as the justification of Varna. Each of the four main groupings in Varna are created from differing aspects of his body depending on their role. The Brahmin – priests – were made from his mouth, the Kshatriya – warriors and kings – were made from his arms, the Vaishyas – merchants and artisans – were made from his thighs and the Shudras – farmers and labourers – were made from his feet. Those who fulfilled traditionally polluting roles or existed outside of this framework were considered Dalits (broken/scattered), or what is commonly known in English as ‘untouchables.’
The modern concept of ‘caste’ (derived from the Portuguese word for race or stock) has much more to do with the complex concept of Jati (birth) which includes religion, occupation, language, ethnicity and geography and includes thousands of potential layers – most of which do not neatly align throughout India. However, if one accepts the Ayran invasion hypothesis the Varna system can be seen as evidence of subjugation of the original inhabitants – now reduced to Shudras – by the victorious newcomers. As can be seen, there is considerable disagreement as to the social environment in which the Vedas were developed. Nevertheless, it is in this soil that the seed of the Vedas germinated, and it is within these ancient texts that we also find embedded the Upanishads. These texts were composed as the Vedanta (last chapters of the Vedas) and represented discussions of a more philosophical nature. I will now turn to examining the corpus of texts as a whole and attempt to demonstrate their diversity of opinion.
Due to the oral composition and transmission of the Vedas and Upanishads, the authorship of these documents is difficult to determine. Tradition holds that they were constructed by inspired Rishis (Sages). However, the importance of Kingly figures within the texts has lead other scholars to suggest that the texts were actually written by Kshatriya in response to the overly ritualistic Brahmin priests who dominated the sphere of ritual and religion – although others have contended that this could be Brahmin authors wooing Kshatriya patronage. It also must be noted that in both the Vedas and the Upanishads women are afforded a lesser position in this Brahminic society, with their voices often marginalised and their bodies primarily seen as means of progeny and pleasure. Although there are exceptions to this rule, such as Gargi Vachaknavi participating in a philosophical debate in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, female voices are mostly absent from early of Indian philosophy – much the same as in the later Greco-Roman and Chinese Philosophic traditions. Regardless of who composed these texts, we must now ask: what is the ‘truth’ that the Upanishads seeks to reveal?
Two of the most important concepts that repeat throughout several of the Upanishads is the concepts of Atman (breath, soul or self) and Brahman (ultimate reality). There is a focus on attempting to demonstrate the similarity between the Atman and the Brahman, perhaps best illustrated through the phrase “Tat Tvam Asi” (you are that) which found in the Chandogya Upanishad. This represents a strong idealist streak within the Upanishads – resting on a rejection of the body and an embrace of asceticism – but it is not the only vein of thought in these texts.
A question from the Svetasvatara Upanishad demonstrates a differing strain of thinking:
“when a man dies, and his speech goes into the fire, and his breath into the wind, and his sight into the sun, his mind into the moon, his hearing into the directions of the sky, his body into the earth, his ātman into space, his body hair into the plants, the hair on his head into the trees, and his blood and semen into water – then what becomes of that man?”
Such a question appears to be pointing towards a monistic interpretation of reality, suggesting that the universe is all fundamentally created from one substance. However, in the Katha Upanishad we see the allegory of the chariot used to define humanity:
“Know the Self as the rider in a chariot, and the body as the chariot. Know the intellect as the charioteer, and the mind as the reins. The senses are the horses, and the sense objects are the paths.”
The focus on the self and a metaphysical beyond – along with the chariot analogy seen again in Phaedrus – has obvious parallels to the thought of Plato, leading some to hypothesise a link between Brahminic and Greek thought – although no verifiable evidence exists for such influence. In contrast to the above monistic dialogue, this separation of the intelligible and sensible appears to lend itself to a dualistic understanding of the cosmos, separating the world of the self and the material.
Another tension in the text exists between the rejection and acceptance of ritual and reward. In the Chandogya Upaniṣad a group of dogs appear to be aping the manners and rituals of the Brahmin priests, chanting:
“Oṃ, let’s eat. Oṃ, let’s drink. Oṃ, may the gods Varuṇa, Prajāpati and Savitṛ bring food here.”
This would appear to be a biting satire of the materialistic rituals of the priestly class. However, at the same time rituals abound throughout the Upanishads, and in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the king Janaka of Videha offers a prize of a thousand cows to the most learned priest – clearly a demonstration of the material benefits that come with philosophical competence. Does this reflect a streak of more crass materialism or a rejection of worldly concerns? I hope that I have conveyed to the reader the diffuse and contradictory nature of the Upanishadic texts, but now I wish to finish by touching on some of the key concepts which are developed throughout the texts and would go on to influence later Indian and world philosophy greatly.
One of the focuses of the Upanishads is the relationship between teachers and students – the main method for the transfer of knowledge – and the search for a suitable teacher. One of the best examples of this is the Katha Upanishad, where the young boy Nachiketa descends into the realm of Yama (death) in response to a curse made in anger by his father. The Upanishads show that the knowledge of the teacher is far more important than their position – with teacher archetypes including Brahmins, Kings, talking animals and even in the Chandogya Upaniṣhad a character named “Raikva, the gatherer” who lived under a cart, scratching his sores (a decidedly non-Brahminical position). Furthermore, there is a focus on the secrecy in the transmission of knowledge, with a prime example found in the same Upanishad with the story of the god and a demon, Indra and Virocana, seeking knowledge from the divine teacher Prajapati. The teacher deliberately misleads the pair and awaits Indra’s return where the god challenges his faulty instruction before receiving the truth about the Atman.
I have already mentioned the Atman and Brahman above, but it is worth dwelling on these two concepts as they are of supreme importance throughout the rest of dharmic philosophy. The Upanishads are at pains to demonstrate the unity between the individual self and the greater cosmic whole. One of the better examples is again in the Chandogya Upanishad when the sage Uddalaka tells his son Shvetaketu to take the fruit of a banyan tree, cut it open and find the seed, and then to cut open the seed. Shvetaketu finds nothing there, but Uddalaka tells him that within the seed is the finest essence on account of which the banyan tree stands here now, the essence “that constitutes the self of this whole world; that is the truth; that is the self”.
As part of this cosmic whole, the concept of Samsara (reincarnation) is discussed through the debate of Yajnavalkya and his eight interlocutors in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. The discussion includes the first discussion of karma theory:
“And here they say that a person consists of desires, and as is his desire, so is his will; and as is his will, so is his deed; and whatever deed he does, that he will reap.”
Furthermore, the same Upanishad alludes to the use of knowledge to achieve Moksha (liberation) of the self from the cycle of Samsara:
“Now as a man, when embraced by a beloved wife, knows nothing that is without, nothing that is within, thus this person, when embraced by the Prajna (conscious, aware) Self, knows nothing that is without, nothing that is within. This indeed is his (true) form, in which his wishes are fulfilled, in which the Self only is his wish, in which no other wish is left, he is free from any sorrow.”
The Upanishadic Legacy
Having now examined the key points of the Upanishads, I want to focus on three aspects of the legacy of these texts: marginalisation and universality, the originality of their thought and the diversity of ideas present.
Firstly, I will discuss the issue of universality in the Upanishads. As embedded texts within the Vedas, the Upanishads share many of the same issues of Varna which privileges the role of Brahmins and Kshatriya at the expense of other members of Brahminic society. Furthermore, as discussed, the position of women remained relatively sidelined within these texts – focusing primarily on the considerations of the primarily elite male audience. However, the sidelining of these marginalised groups is not homogenous throughout the corpus, exemplified with interlocutors such as Gargi Vachaknavi. Overall, I posit that despite these shortcomings, the focus on the Atman and Brahman demonstrates an attempt at universality that is less evident in the more ritualistic aspects of the Vedas, although still seated firmly within the worldview of the Brahminic order.
Secondly, I want to highlight the originality and importance of the notions of Samsara, Karma and Moksha for later dharmic thought. These ideas, which first appear in the Upanishads, provide the root for all later dharmic philosophy and religion – be that Hinduism, Jainism or Buddhism. Most thinkers in South, South-East and East Asia will eventually either incorporate or criticise the metaphysical worldview within these texts, homage to their lasting importance.
Finally, I want to highlight once again the diversity of ideas that exist within the Upanishads. Although I have attempted to focus on some of the key points within these texts, I have also attempted to convey the competing and sometimes contradictory nature of the Upanishadic thought. With this in mind, I see the position of the Upanishads as somewhat akin to the role of the Pre-Socratics in Western thought – a heterodox collection of thinkers and ideas, providing the base and context within which later great minds would define themselves.
- Great minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition
- Great World Religions: Hinduism
- Brian Black,The Upanisads
- Brian Black, The Character of the Self in Ancient India: Priests, Kings, and Women in the Early Upanisads
- Signe Cohen, The Upanisads: A Complete Guide
S.H. Raza, Tam Soonya, 1994