The Upanishads


The Upanishads, dating from about 800 B.C., take us a step further in the development of Indo-Aryan thought, and it is a big step. The Aryans have long been settled down and a stable, prosperous civilization has grown up, a mixture of the old and the new, dominated by Aryan thought and ideals, but with a background of more primitive forms of worship. The Vedas are referred to with respect, but also in a spirit of gentle irony. The Vedic gods no longer satisfy and the ritual of the priests is made fun of. But there is no attempt to break with the past; the past is taken as a starting point for further progress.

The Upanishads are instinct with a spirit of inquiry, of mental adventure, of a passion for finding out the truth about things. The search for this truth is, of course, not by the objective methods of modern science, yet there is an element of the scientific method in the approach. No dogma is allowed to come in the way. There is much that is trivial and without any meaning or relevance for us today. The emphasis is essentially on self-realization, on knowledge of the individual self and the absolute self, both of which are said to be the same in essence. The objective external world is not considered unreal but real in a relative sense, an aspect of the inner reality.

There are many ambiguities in the Upanishads and different interpretations have been made. But that is a matter for the philosopher or scholar. The general tendency is towards monism and the whole approach is evidently intended to lessen the differences that must have existed then, leading to fierce debate. It is the way of synthesis. Interest in magic and such like supernatural knowledge is sternly discouraged, and ritual and ceremonies without enlightenment are said to be in vain—’those engaged in them, considering themselves men of understanding and learned, stagger along aimlessly like blind men led by the blind, and fail to reach the goal.’ Even the Vedas are treated as the lower knowledge; the higher one being that of the inner mind. There is a warning given against philosophical learning without discipline of conduct. And there is a continuous attempt to harmonize social activity with spiritual adventure. The duties and obligations imposed by life were to be carried out, but in a spirit of detachment.

Probably the ethic of individual perfection was over-emphasized and hence the social outlook suffered. ‘There is nothing higher than the person,’ say the Upanishads. Society must have been considered as stabilized and hence the mind of man was continually thinking of individual perfection, and in quest of this it wandered about in the heavens and in the innermost recesses of the heart. This old Indian approach was not a narrow nationalistic one, though there must have been a feeling that India was the hub of the world, just as China and Greece and Rome have felt at various times. ‘The whole world of mortals is an interdependent organism,’ says the Mahabharata.

The metaphysical aspects of the questions considered in the Upanishads are difficult for me to grasp, but I am impressed by this approach to a problem which has so often been shrouded by dogma and blind belief. It was the philosophical approach and not the religious one. I like the vigour of the thought, the questioning, the rationalistic background. The form is terse, often of question and answer between pupil and teacher, and it has been suggested that the Upanishads were some kind of lecture notes made by the teacher or taken down by his disciples. Professor F. W. Thomas in ‘The Legacy of India’ says: ‘What gives to the Upanishads their unique quality and unfailing human appeal is an earnest sincerity of tone, as of friends conferring upon matters of deep concern.’ And C. Rajagopalachari thus eloquently speaks of them: ‘The spacious imagination, the majestic sweep of thought, and the almost reckless spirit of exploration with which, urged by the compelling thirst for truth, the Upanishad teachers and pupils dig into the “open secret” of the universe, make this most ancient of the world’s holy books still the most modern and most satisfying.’

The dominating characteristic of the Upanishads is the dependence on truth. ‘Truth wins ever, not falsehood. With truth is paved the road to the Divine.’ And the famous invocation is for light and understanding: ‘Lead me from the unreal to the real! Lead me from darkness to light! Lead me from death to immortality.’

Again and again the restless mind peeps out, ever seeking, ever questioning: ‘At whose behest doth mind light on its perch? At whose command doth life, the first, proceed? At whose behest do men send forth this speech? What god, indeed, directed eye and ear?’ And again: ‘Why cannot the wind remain still? Why has the human mind no rest? Why, and in search of what, does the water run out and cannot stop its flow even for a moment?’ It is the adventure of man that is continually calling and there is no resting on the way and no end of the journey. In the Aitereya Brahmana there is a hymn about this long endless journey which we must undertake, and every verse ends with the refrain: Charaiveti, charaiveti—’Hence, O traveler, march along, march along!’

There is no humility about all this quest, the humility before an all-powerful deity, so often associated with religion. It is the triumph of mind over the environment. ‘My body will be reduced to ashes and my breath will join the restless and deathless air, but not I and my deeds. O mind, remember this always, remember this.’ In a morning prayer the sun is addressed thus: ‘O sun of refulgent glory, I am the same person as makes thee what thou art!’ What superb confidence!

What is the soul? It cannot be described or defined except negatively: ‘It is not this, not this.’ Or, in a way, positively: ‘That thou art!’ The individual soul is like a spark thrown out and reabsorbed by the blazing fire of the absolute soul. ‘As fire, though one, entering the world, takes a separate form according to whatever it burns, so does the inner Self within all things become different, according to whatever it enters, yet itself is without form.’ This realization that all things have that same essence removes the barriers which separate us from them and produces a sense of unity with humanity and nature, a unity which underlies the diversity and manifoldness of the external world. ‘Who knoweth all things are Self; for him what grief exist-eth, what delusion, when (once) he gaze-th on the oneness?’ ‘Aye, whoso see-th all things in that Self, and Self in everything; from That he’ll no more hide.’

It is interesting to compare and contrast the intense individualism and exclusiveness of the Indo-Aryans with this all-embracing approach, which overrides all barriers of caste and class and every other external and internal difference. This latter is a kind of metaphysical democracy. ‘He who sees the one spirit in all, and all in the one spirit, henceforth can look with contempt on no creature.’ Though this was theory only, there can be no doubt that it must have affected life and produced that atmosphere of tolerance and reasonableness, that acceptance of free thought in matters of faith, that desire and capacity to live and let live, which are dominant features of Indian culture, as they are of the Chinese. There was no totalitarianism in religion or culture, and they indicate an old and wise civilization with inexhaustible mental reserves.

There is a question in the Upanishads to which a very curious and yet significant answer is given. ‘The question is: “What is this universe? From what does it arise? Into what does it go?” And the answer is: “In freedom it rises, in freedom it rests, and into freedom it melts away.” ‘ What exactly this means I am unable to understand, except that the authors of the Upanishads were passionately attached to the idea of freedom and wanted to see everything in terms of it. Swami Vivekananda was always emphasizing this aspect.

It is not easy for us, even imaginatively, to transplant ourselves to this distant period and enter the mental climate of that day. The form of writing itself is something that we are unused to, odd-looking, difficult to translate, and the background of life is utterly different. We take for granted so many things today because we are used to them, although they are curious and unreasonable enough. But what we are not used to at all is much more difficult to appreciate or understand. In spite of all these difficulties and almost insuperable barriers, the message of the Upanishads has found willing and eager listeners throughout Indian history and has powerfully moulded the national mind and character. ‘There is no important form of Hindu thought, heterodox Buddhism included, which is not rooted in the Upanishads,’ says Bloomfield.

Early Indian thought penetrated to Greece, through Iran, and influenced some thinkers and philosophers there. Much later, Plotinus came to the east to study Iranian and Indian philosophy and was especially influenced by the mystic element in the Upanishads. From Plotinus many of these ideas are said to have gone to St. Augustine, and through him influenced the Christianity of the day.

The rediscovery by Europe, during the past century and a half, of Indian philosophy created a powerful impression on European philosophers and thinkers. Schopenhauer, the pessimist, is often quoted in this connection. ‘From every sentence (of the Upanishads) deep, original and sublime thoughts arise, and the whole is pervaded by a high and holy and earnest spirit…. In the whole world there is no study… so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads…. (They) are products of the highest wisdom…. It is destined sooner or later to become the faith of the people.’ And again: ‘The study of the Upanishads has been the solace of my life, it will be the solace of my death.’ Writing on this, Max Muller says: ‘Schopenhauer was the last man to write at random, or to allow himself to go into ecstasies over so-called mystic and inarticulate thought. And I am neither afraid nor ashamed to say that I share his enthusiasm for the Vedanta, and feel indebted to it for much that has been helpful to me in my passage through life.’ In another place Max Muller says: ‘The Upanishads are the … sources of … the Vedanta philosophy, a system in which human speculation seems to me to have reached its very acme.’ ‘I spend my happiest hours in reading Vedantic books. They are to me like the light of the morning, like the pure air of the mountains—so simple, so true, if once understood.’

But perhaps the most eloquent tribute to the Upanishads and to the later book, the Bhagavad Gita, was paid by A.E. (G. W. Russell) the Irish poet:

‘Goethe, Wordsworth, Emerson and Thoreau among moderns have something of this vitality and wisdom, but we can find all they have said and much more in the grand sacred books of the East. The Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads contain such godlike fullness of wisdom on all things that I feel the authors must have looked with calm remembrance back through a thousand passionate lives, full of feverish strife for and with shadows, ere they could have written with such certainty of things which the soul feels to be sure.’ *

* There is an odd and interesting passage in one of the Upanishads (the Chhandogya): ‘The sun never sets nor rises. When people think to themselves the sun is setting lie only changes about after reaching the end of the day, and makes night below and day to what is on the other side. Then when people think he rises in the morning, he only shifts himself about after reaching the end of the night, and makes day below and night to what is on the other side. In fact he never does set at all.’

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The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru

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