This article is primarily about Uddalaka Aruni, a classic student, teacher and a philosopher of the Upanishad times. To me, he represents the true spirit of rational enquiry of the Upanishads. Before meeting him, let’s talk of a few other things of his times.
The age of the Samhitas and the age of the Upanishads
1.1. The Vedic cannon are generally classified into the scheme of the Samhitas followed by the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and ending with the Upanishads. The Upanishads are therefore usually described as the fourth and the last phase of the Vedic texts.
The Brahmanas are compendiums concerned mainly with the conduct of the Yajnas. They were composes over many centuries; but, their origin lies in distant antiquity.
Midway between the Brahmanas and the Upanishads are the transitional texts – Aranyakas. Its texts are named after the ascetics (Arana) who retired to the seclusion of the forests (Aranya) to lead a life of contemplation. These Forest-treatises (Aranyakas) are more speculative than the Brahmanas, exploring the inner , spiritual significance of the Vedic rituals.
The Upanishads bring up the end (Anta) portions of the Vedic texts; and , are accordingly called Vedanta. They contain the teachings, discussions and debates of the ancient seers on the questions of identity of the Self (Atman) and the ultimate reality (Brahman), as also on the means of liberation (Moksha) through knowledge.
That scheme might be valid for classifying the texts according to the nature of the subjects they discuss. But, it would be rather incorrect to treat such classification as the strict chronological sequence of the texts. Because, the distinctions between each class are not always clear; there are several throwbacks and overlapping among the Brahmanas and the Upanishads; and, many of the early Upanishads are closely associated with or incorporated into the Brahmanas. For instance; The Brahadaranyaka Upanishad which contains the discussions and teachings of the Sage Yajnavalkhya form the final section of the Satha-patha-brahmana.
The texts cannot, therefore, be arranged in a chronological order. They are classified more by their nature than the order of their composition
[ Vedas are generally concerned with the primacy of ritual-action (Karman) the Upanishads that follow as their latter portion (Vedanta) are about philosophical speculations that are deep and intuitive. While both the Vedas and Upanishads are classified under Sruti –revealed knowledge which is authoritative – the Vedas are regarded as Karma-kanda (ritual-action segment) and the Upanishads that is the Vedanta are regarded as Jana-kanda (knowledge segment). The transition from the Vedas to Vedanta is not abrupt but is a smooth progression integrating the two with many overlaps.]
These make it difficult to say that the Upanishad period always followed that of the Brahmanas. The chronology in Vedic texts as in Indian History is still a major problem.
1.2. About ten of the Upanishads are considered very ancient. But, all these do not belong to the same period. Among the Ten, it can be said , without much doubt, that apart from the five ancient Upanishads (Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka, Aitareya, Kausitaki and Taittareya) the rest belong to a much later period than the Brahmanas.
Of these five, the Chandogya and Brahadaranyaka which quote from earlier sources, texts, discussions and events drawn from older stock are considered ancient and authoritative.
The other early Upanishads, such as the Taittiriya, Aitareya, Isa and kaushitiki are also closely connected with the older Vedic texts.
The Upanishads of the middle period, Kena , Katha, Svetasvatara and Mundaka Upanishads , share many common features; and , anticipate the thoughts that figured in the later schools of Indian philosophy.
The latest among the principal Upanishads are the Prasna and Mandukya.
Further, the Rig Veda Samhita and the earliest of these principal Upanishads are separated by several centuries. And quite clearly the two sets of texts differ very substantially in terms of their thought, their concerns and their language as also their style of depiction. The prose of the Upanishads is distinct from the archaic language of the Rig Veda hymns. The charming prose style of the Upanishads is highly elliptical, speaking through symbolic metaphors and allegories.
1.3. It also true, Upanishads are in harmony with the Vedic setting; and, they inherit the inspired poetry, lyrical voice and complex layers of symbolisms of the Vedas. Their philosophical discussions too reflect an unbroken tradition of the Samhitas, especially the Rig Veda. Many of the philosophical Hymns of the Rig Veda are incorporated into some of the Upanishads. It also needs to be said; that such philosophical hymns in the Veda are not many in number; and, their philosophic ideas are scattered or not systematized. The significance of the Upanishads is that they attempt to understand the philosophy of the Rig-Veda, to develop those germ ideas, and to carry them forward.
The one significant trait that the Upanishads inherited from the Rig-Veda was the of daring to ask questions. Unlike other religious or philosophical texts, the Rig-Veda asks questions, in awe and wonder of the phenomena; and, the beauty of nature. It does not make any excuses for not providing answers to the questions it poses. In fact, it opens up the whole arena; and, invites everyone to come forth and express their interpretation of the world, its relation to god and man.
[Shri MP Pandit, a disciple of Sri Aurobondo writes: the Upanishads frequently invoke the authority of the Vedic seers in confirmation of what they say e.g. tad-etad-rikbhyuktam, (this is said by the Rik) or tad-uktam rsina bhuktyam (that is said by the Rishi) etc. or quote a whole Rik in clinching their pronouncement. Many of the ideas expounded by the Upanishads can be found present in germ form in the Vedas.]
Whatever might be these literary classifications, the ancient philosophers of India looked upon the Upanishads as of an entirely different type from the rest of the Vedic literature. By all accounts; the Upanishads stand on their own authority.
1.4. We also, at times, speak of Upanishads as a consistent body of knowledge as if they were chapters of a well edited book. But, in fact, each Upanishad is complete in itself; and is distinct from other Upanishads in content as also in spirit of enquiry. They are also separated in time and space.
1. 5. The cultures represented in two sets of texts – Samhitas and Upanishads – are far too diversified to be treated summarily as belonging to a single cultural unit. There are too many geographical, socio-economical, political, religious and philosophical variations to be ignored. Even the gods, the religious practices and the questions raised by the Samhitas differ from those of the Upanishads. It would therefore quite in order to treat the Samhitas and the Upanishads as representing distinct eras of Vedic culture.
Let’s briefly look at some of the dissimilar features of the two eras.
A. the world of the Upanishads
2.1. The geography of the Rig Veda is generally the land of seven-waters (saptha sindhavaha) which perhaps stretched from eastern Punjab to the present day Afghan-Pakistan regions. But, the geographical horizon of the Upanishads was much wider, stretching from the Gandharas in the west to the Videhas in the east and to the Vidharbha country to the south.
2.2. Apart from the Kuru – Panchala country which formed the hub of Vedic and Upanishad culture, several other new centres had sprung up during the times of Upanishads, such as: Madra, Kaikeya, Kasi, Kosala and the Videha which in particular had gained fame as a centre for performing the Yajnas as also for sponsoring philosophical debates.
2.3. The expanded geographical area and the increased number of centres of learning led to greater numbers of scholars, teachers and students participating in more debates. And with that, the range and the varieties of the subjects and the ideas discussed were also widened. With the heightened level of discussions, the concepts and concerns tended to get less hazy and a bit more focused. Uncertainty and vagueness were gradually giving place to clearer understanding.
3.1. As compared to the Vedic era, the period of the Upanishads enjoyed a more peaceful and settled pastoral life. The process of urbanization had brought in leisure and relative comfort. The people as also the kings could afford to set apart their time for contemplation and reflections. The kings of the Upanishad-age spent more time in performing Yajnas and in hosting philosophical debates than in waging wars. A king’s court or his Parishad was the meeting ground for the iterant philosophers, teachers and students. The King presided over and guided the debates concerning the nature of life, of time and of the substratum of all existence. The Kings such as Asvapathi Kaikeya, Ajatasatru Kashya, Janaka Videha, and Pravahana Jaivali of Panchala were regarded highly for their learning. Many philosophers and learned Brahmins went to them seeking instructions and explanations on spiritual matters.
[ It appears from the Chandogya-Upanishad (8-14-1; 5-11, 24; 1-8, 9; 1-9-3, 7-1-3, and 5-11); Brhadaranyaka-Upanishad (2-1-20, 2-3 -6); and Kausitiki Brahmana (2-1, 2; 10, 4.) that during the early Upanishad-period the Kshatriyas were adepts in Adhyatma-Vidya. For instance; king Ajatasatru of Kasi , in an assembly of the Kuru-Panchalas , consoles the Brahmin lad Svetaketu, son of Uddalaka Aruui of the Gautama Gotra that he need not be sorry for his inability to explain certain principles of Adhyatma-Vidya , because that has , so far, been the preserve of the Kshatriyas – (Chandogya-Upanishad: 5-3).]
4.1. The kings too seemed to have benefitted from the discussions held in their Parishads as also by their own study and contemplation. The kings such as Ajatashatru Kasya, Pravahana Jaivali, Citra Gangyayani and Asvapathi Kaikeya were remarkably learned; and, each had developed his own theories on the nature of the individual and of the Universe.
4.2. For instance, the king Ajatasatru of Kasi put forward a theory that consciousness as prajnatma pervades the body and makes the senses alert; but during sleep, it absorbs the functions of the organs, and withdraws into the space within the heart: “As the spider moves along the thread, or as tiny sparks fly in all directions from a fire, just so come forth from this Atman all organs, all worlds, all gods, all beings…” (Br. Up. 2.1; kaush. Up. 4).
These discussions here display a great interest in the states of consciousness in its various levels. They discuss the state of dreams and the state of dreamless – sleep as different layers of awareness. In the latter state, both body and mind are at rest; but the individual is not aware of that. In either case, there must be someone who is in know of things. Then, they ask: what is “known” in each and who is the knower? In the constantly changing stream of thought, they question: is there an observer who remains the same? Is there a thread of continuity? Another aspect of the discussion is the relative significance of each state. The trend of this argument is: All experience is real. When we wake up from a dream, we do not pass from unreality to reality; but, we pass from a lower level of reality to a higher one. It might, therefore, logically, be possible to move on to a higher level of reality, the one above this world of constantly changing sensory impressions.
4.3. Pratardana son of Divodasa the king of Kasi asserted that Prajnana, the right understanding, is the prime faculty which controls other faculties and senses (speech, breath, sight, limbs, mind etc). He spoke by employing the symbolisms of the Yajna; and explained self-control (samyama) as an inner sacrifice (antaram agnihotram). In that process, a person can withdraw from the senses as also the sensuous, exercise control over passions and emotions; and pour all that into Prana (vital breath) the nave of his being. Pratardana believed this to be a superior form of Yajna, as it did not aim at material or sensuous gains. This was an idea that Pratardana carried forward from Kausitaki Upanishad, but enlarged it further. He argued; breathing is an essential activity of a living body; but, breathing is a symbol or an outward active manifestation of Life (prana). One can hold breath for some time, and still be alive; but one cannot be alive, even for an instant, without prana. ‘Death occurs when prana departs; and when it resumes life arises’. The proof of one’s existence and living is, in fact, Prana which is the first principle. It is the first cause as also the final cause of all things (yo vai pranah sa prajna; ya va prajna sa pranah). Pratardana also made an interesting observation that one cannot breathe and speak at the same time (‘when a man speaks he cannot breathe; and when he breaths he cannot speak’- kau.Up.2.5).
yavadvai purusho bhasate na tavat-pranitum shaknoti pranam …. yavadvai purushah praniti na tavat-bhashitum shaknoti vacam-kau.Up.2.5
Clearly, a man is unable to breathe while he is speaking. So, during that time his breath merges into his speech. A man is, likewise, unable to speak while he is breathing. So, during that time his speech merges into his breath. One offers these two endless and deathless offerings , into self, without interruption, whether one is awake or asleep.
4.4. And, King Asvapathi Kaikeya had developed his own theory of vaisvanara-vidya, of Super-Soul which pervades all existence as Atma – vaisvanara (Ch. Up .5.11.18).Many Brahman scholars learnt this doctrine from Asvapathi. Vaisvanara is explained as ‘He who is the ruler of all human beings’ (visvesam naranam netara); and as’ He who is the soul of all’ (visvesam ayam narah). The Vaisvanara-vidya that king Asvapathi taught is a highly mystical form of meditation in which one contemplates on the Universe as one’s body. It is a process that is centred on the identity of the individual with the Universal. According to its doctrine, there is nothing in the Cosmos which is outside the body of individual. As Sri Swami Krishnananda explains “When you see the vast world before you, you behold a part of your own body. When you look at the sun, you behold your own eye. When you look above into the heavens, you are seeing your own head. When you see all people moving about, you behold the various parts of your own personality. The vast wind is your breath. All your actions are cosmic movements. Anything that moves does so, on account of your movement. Your breath is the Cosmic Vital Force. Your consciousness is the cosmic consciousness. Your existence is Cosmic Existence. Your happiness is Cosmic Bliss”.
4.5. Another king, Pravahana Jaivali of Panchala (who was also well versed in Udgitha, recital of Sama) taught his theory concerning the path taken by the dead; and, how the departed soul fares on its way to rebirth, according to merits of its deeds (S’patha. Brh .126.96.36.199; Ait. Brh. 8.36.2; 40.4). This was a departure from the faith of the earlier Brahmanas which did not specifically speculate on life after death, but generally believed that those who performed Yajnas were granted material gains in the present life and proximity to gods in the afterlife. Pravahana effectively negated the old beliefs; and introduced his theories of karma-phala, rebirth etc. He said only those who diligently practiced contemplation and meditation travel by the deva-yana and attain bliss, while the others travel the way of the manes (pitri – Yana) taking rebirth according to ones’ merits. It underlines the importance of moral conduct in life.
4.6. Jaiminiya Brahmana (1.22-25) mentions that Uddalaka Aruni along with four other Brahmins (Yajnavalkya Vajasaneya , Barku Varsna, Priya Anasruteya, and Budila Asvatarsvi Vaiyaghrapadya) approached King Janaka of Videha with a request to teach them about Agnihotra.
4.7. These scholarly kings were respected for their learning. And, often the Brahmans, the scholars and other seekers of knowledge came to them seeking guidance and instructions on their specialized subjects.
As a caterpillar, having come to the end of one blade of grass, draws itself together and reaches out for the next, so the Self, having come to the end of one life and shed all ignorance, gathers in its faculties and reaches out from the old body to a new. (Brihadaranyaka III.4.3)
5.1. Vedic literature is full of references to gods, invoked individually and also collectively. In the early Rig Veda, most of the gods correspond to the phenomenon in nature; such as, the sky and earth (Dyava-Prithvi), the dawn (Ushas), the Sun at its various positions in the sky (Savitar, Surya, Pushan, Ravi and Vivasvan), the rain clouds (Parjanya), the fire ( Agni ) and so on. Some of the major gods – say, Indra, Varuna or Aswin – who acquired individual traits and distinct personalities evolved into other beings, over a period of time. Some other minor gods (Vishnu and Rudra) developed and enlarged into super-gods.
In the Brahmanas, most of the Rig Vedic gods were continued to be worshipped, but the Yajnas took precedence; and greater importance was accorded to Yajna than to gods.
5.2. As regards the Upanishads, they contain enough references to the religious life of people, their gods and their rituals. But by then; the concept of Devas, the gods, seemed to have changed significantly. While the Vedic hymns look outward in reverence and awe at the phenomena in nature, the Upanishads tend to look inward attempting to interpret the powers of nature as varied expressions human consciousness. The gods of the Upanishads are therefore rather ethereal; and, lack the human-like personalities as in the Rig Veda. It suggests; gods prefer indirect references or symbolisms (paroksha priyaya vahi devah – Bhru. Up 4.2.2).Their personal attributes, powers, their likes / dislikes are not talked about in the Upanishads. The Devas of the Upanishads are also not shown performing astonishing feats.
5.3. Just as in the Samhitas, in the Upanishads too the gods did not evoke fear. They were approached with awe and reverence for gaining an understanding of the secrets of the Universe. The Rig Vedic gods that appear in the Upanishads play special roles. They become the sage- like counsellors or repositories of higher knowledge. They act as great teachers imparting instructions on the nature of Man and his Universe. For instance, Yama the god of death, initiated the boy Nachiketas into mysteries of life after death, and about the knowledge of the Soul (Katha Up.); the ancient god Varuna taught sage Bhrigu about the oneness of all life (Taiitt. Up.); and, the king of gods Indra preached Pratardana ‘the only knowledge that is worth knowing’. And, in a similar manner, Agni, Pushan and Uma were all respected as wise teachers; and, were invoked for True knowledge.
5.4. A peculiar trait of the Rig Veda hymns was that whichever god was being praised he was depicted as the highest, because he was seen as a representation or an aspect of the Supreme Being. These notions were to become the seeds of mono theistic tendencies which gradually led to the concept of a God of gods. Most of the Upanishad thinkers seemed to be involved in long, curved and roundabout processes of enquiry in arriving at the concept of a Supreme Being who was not merely the chief of the gods like Indra, not merely a creator like Prajapathi but was verily the very essence and the guiding principle behind all existence. He was not the creator from outside, but in the Self. The attention shifted from the objective to the subjective. Eventually, after long centuries of speculation and introspection, Brahman emerged as the highest principle, the Supreme Being. The concept of Brahman is the original contribution of the Upanishads; the term Brahman in that sense did not appear in the hymns of Rig Veda.
6.1. The Upanishads continued to believe in the efficacy of the Yajnas; in many passages you find the glorification of the Yajna. The two streams of ritual and knowledge progressed without coming into conflict. But, evidently there was a shift away from rituals; the emphasis shifted from routine performance to the understanding of its significance with knowledge and faith. The Upanishads sages came to be regarded highly more for their learning and their authority in debates, discussions and teaching, than for their ritual-skills.
The idea of the Yajna underwent a sea change. Even the need to offer oblations was debated. Many asserted that there is a Reality which the Yajnas cannot reach. The questions such as ‘To which god shall we offer the oblation’ (kasmaey devaya havisha vidhema) were no longer asked. The Yajnas were no longer performed merely to attain a certain human – desire (ishti); nor was Yajna deemed the best of deeds. Yet, the Upanishad thinkers were not totally against either the concept of Yajna or performing Yajnas. A quiet transformation was gradually taking place.
6.2. Instead of the ritual-details, the Upanishads talk in symbolisms. And, Instead of describing the offering of oblations into fire, they speak of speech or breathe offered as oblations into ones inner self. For instance, the objects of smell, taste, sound, colour and touch as also that which is to be thought and that which is to be understood were symbolized as the seven kinds of fuel (offerings). These seven offerings (the perceived information) were poured into seven fires (organs of perception). It was said, the act of restraining ones senses and the mind, and pouring (offering) the objects of those senses and the mind (as libations) into the fire of the Soul within the body, was itself a Yajna.
6.3. Every aspect of life, even sex, was viewed through the symbolism of Yajna (as per sage Kumara Harita: Brh.Up.6.4.4: which suggests that sex-desire, like everything else, is partly physical; it is a powerful personal energy. It needs neither to be suppressed nor repressed, but to reconnect to its power-source. There is another elaborate symbolism at 6.4.3 of Brhu.Up drawing a comparison between sex organ of woman with Yajna – altar). Similarly, the issues relating to outward worship, rituals, oblations etc all came to be discussed. Philosophical doctrines were projected to explain the symbolisms associated with the Yajna.
6.4. Many times, the gatherings at a Yajna served as a forum for debates or discussions on philosophical issues. The king as the Yajamana, the performing priests, the invited scholars and iterant seekers, all participated in the debates that followed.
The Upanishads record in details the proceedings at such discussions.
Debates and discussions
7.1. The bulk of the Upanishad teachings have come down to us in the form of discussions or debates, which took place in verities of contexts. Apart from intimate sessions where an illumined teacher imparts instructions to an aspirant , there are instances of varied kind, say, as when : a wife is curious to learn from her husband the secrets of immortality; a teenage boy approaches Death itself to learn the truth of life and death; a king seeks instruction from an recluse sage who speaks from his experience ; Brahmans advanced in age and wisdom sit at the feet of a Kshatriya prince seeking instructions as also inspiration ; and , when sometimes the sages are women who are approached by kings .There are other sorts of dialogues , say, when Jabala is taught by bulls and birds (Ch. Up 4.4-9) , Upakosala by the sacred fires (Ch.Up. 4.10-15), and Baka is by a dog (Ch.Up 1.12).
7.2. Most of the participants are just names, as very little or nothing is known about them. Some of them come alive because of their thoughts or the schools they represent. The more human and tangible persons among them include Janaka Videha, Yajnavalkya Vajasaneya, Uddalaka Aruni with his son Svetaketu, Satyakama Jabala, Ushasthi Chakrayana, Gargi Vachaknavi and a few others.
7.3. Many times , the debates came up spontaneously , say, when an aggressive questioner stormed into a Yajna and pelted questions at all those present there; as when Ushasthi Chakrayana walked into a Yajna being performed for the King of Kuru and demanded answers to his most perplexing questions on the divinities associated with each phase of the Yajna.
7.4. Some other times, certain topics arose in informal discussions as in the case of Prahavana Jaivali, Silaka Salavatya and Caikitayana Dalbhya (Ch.Up.1.8-9; Br.Up.4.1); and also as when the much travelled scholar Gargya Balaki offered to teach King Ajatashatru of Kasi the knowledge of Brahman, the latter negated all of Gargya’s theories and, instead, put forward his own views glorifying Prana as the highest principle (Brh.Up.2.1.1; Kaush.Up.4.1). The scholarly Yajnavalkya often talked to King Janaka Videha on the nature of Brahman (Brhu. Up).
7.5. Many times, a king would go up to a sage and seek instructions. For instance, the king Janasruti Putrayana approached the famed recluse Raikva Sayugvan for true knowledge; and the latter preached his doctrine of Samvarga-Vidya ‘absorbing’ (Chan. Up. 4.2.5). It speaks of air (Vayu) in the Universe and the vital breath (prana) in the individual as two fundamental elements. It believes that everything in the Universe emerges from these two and eventually dissolves back into them. Raikva said: “There are two ultimate elements which absorb everything; inwardly, it is prana into which all senses and mind merge; and outwardly it is Vayu the sutratman, the controller which absorbs all. Everything rises from it; and everything goes back into it“. The two are said to be identical. His doctrine elaborately narrates how fire, the sun, the moon and water each successively subsides into the next; and finally into air. And, similarly, when a person sleeps, the speech, sight, hearing and mind – all these – are absorbed into his vital breath.
[This process perhaps could be understood as interiorization, as Mr. MN Nagler explains: reaching back to the centre of one’s core.]
7.6. There are also instances where a group of earnest scholars went to a well informed person and sought from him, explanations on certain specific issues. For instance, a group of six Brahmans travelled from Madhya-Desha in the Ganga –Yamuna doab to the far off Kaikeya country in the west to learn about the concept of Atma-Vaisvanara as evolved by King Asvapathi (Ch.Up.5.3-10; Brh.Up.6.2; Katha Up.1.1).
Similarly, on another occasion, another set of six scholars – Sukesa Bharadvaja, Saivya Satyakama, Sauryayani Gargya, Kausalya Asvalayana, Bhargava Vaidarbhi and Kabandhi Katyayana- went to sage Pippalada and stayed with him for over a year in order to learn his doctrine. He then answered their six questions concerning the nature of Reality and a range of other subjects- such as the origin of the world, its sustenance; and similar questions about the human being , how does Prana –life breath enter the body etc .
Pippalada names Prana and Rayi (equivalent to consciousness and matter) as the cause of all life on earth. Prana is the highest principle, that which fuels evolution and powers all forms of life. It gives rise to nama-rupa, to all conditioned reality. At the same time, Prana is understood here both as the vital breath – the life of the Man and also as the life of the Universe. Prana is the abiding element –the core faculty – that which gathers up all other faculties when they become dormant (Prashna Up.1.4.8). Just as senses and mind are withdrawn progressively into prana when a man sleeps, similarly all existence is eventually drawn into the ultimate source. In answer to the sixth question, Pippalada taught the seekers that Prana is the first and the foremost of the sixteen successive phases or sixteen parts that comprise Man (sodasha kalaa purusha)-: the sixteen parts are Prana (life) , desire, space, air, fire, water, earth, senses, mind, food, virility, discipline, mantra (scriptures),yajna (karma), world, and nama-rupa (conditioned existence). ‘The Purusha is the hub of the wheel of life; and the sixteen forms are only the spokes. Purusha is the paramount goal of life. Attain this goal and go beyond death ‘- (Prashna.Up.6.6)
[This set of sixteen mentioned by Pippalada varies from the sixteen enumerated in Samkhya: manas (mind); five buddhindriyas (organs of sense); five karmendriyas (organs of action) and five maha-bhutas (gross elements)]
7.7. At other times, formal debates were held in stately halls; as in the court of King Janaka of Videha where the winner was awarded a very substantial prize. In one of those debates, it was Yajnavalkya who impressed the King Janaka with his erudite scholarship and sharp intellect. And, Yajnavalkya, walked away with the prize of thousand cows even before the debate was formally concluded. When those assembled protested furiously, shouting “how presumptuous of you…!” Yajnavalkya, with a wry smile said “I salute to the wisest among you; but, I just want those cows”. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad dwells on these debates in as many as nine chapters covering almost the entire span of Upanishad learning.
7.8. There was also a practice of holding ‘Brahmodya’ – a competition of solving riddles or a sort of quiz contest – in the intervals during an Asvamedha or the Dasaratra- Brahma-vadya ( a ten-day long Satra) , in which the the eager , the needy as also the learned scholars participated enthusiastically. The winners were hounoured with the titles such as Kavi or Vipra (the learned sage) and such others. The most famous of such Brahmodya was that which was held at the court of Janaka of Videha, as detailed in the Brhadlranyaka Upanishad
Such bouts which carried prize money, as expected, tended to be aggressive. But, an unsavoury feature of such debates was the trading of challenges and threats. Quite often, one would threaten the opponent that his head would fall off or his limbs would be harmed or his bones would be carried away by robbers if he did not answer (rightly) – (Ch.Up.1.8.6-8; 1.10.9-11; 5.12-17; Brh.Up.3.9.26)
Dialogues between students and teachers
8.1. Nothing in the Upanishads is more vital than the relationship between a student and his guide. The Chandogya Upanishad has more dialogues between teachers and pupils than any other Upanishad, including the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The teacher talks, out his experience, about his ideas of the nature of the world, of truth etc or about particular array of phenomena visualized through mental images that stay etched in memory; and the student questions him further, in earnestness. The teacher finally encourages and urges the student to think, to contemplate and to find out for himself the answers to his questions. A student needs humility, persistence, and honesty of purpose to go further.
8.2. An Upanishad-teacher does not teach everything that his student needs to know. But, he ignites in the heart of the boy a spark that sets ablaze his desire to learn and to know the central principles which make sense of the world we live in. The guide inflames the sense of challenge, the urge to reach beyond the boy’s grasp and to know the unknown.The Brihadaranyaka calls upon:
‘You are what your deep, driving desire is; as your desire is, so is your will (sa yathā-kāmo bhavati tat-kratur-bhavati); As your will is; So is your deed (yat-kratur-bhavati tat-karma kurute) ; As your deed is, so is your destiny (yat-karma kurute tad-abhi-saṃpadyate”- (Brhu. Up. 4.4.5).
As the Katha Upanishad says, ‘only a few hear the truth; of those who hear, only a few understand; and of those only a handful attain the goal’. In the end, all achievement is fuelled by burning desire.
śravaṇā̍yāpi ba̱hubhi̍r yo na labhyaḥ śṛ̱ṇvanto̍’pi ba̱havo̍ yaṁ na vidyuḥ | āśca̍ryo vaktā ku̱śalo’sya labdhā āśca̍ryo jñātā ku̱śalā̍nu-śiṣṭaḥ || 7 ||
9.1. As mentioned, the core of the Upanishad teachings is recorded in the discussions or dialogues between a learned teacher and his ardent student who approached respectfully. Those were not formal bouts; but were intimate sessions where the teacher guided, in confidence, the student seated close to him. The Upanishads abound in such student – teacher dialogues.
Let me just mention a couple of the more famous ones that took place between:
:- Varuna and Bhrigu [Varuna teaches Bhrigu said to be his son about Brahman as being food / matter (anna), life (prana), mind (mana), intelligence (vijnana) and bliss (ananda)- (Taitt.Up.3.1-6)].
: – Sanath kumara and Narada [Sanath kumara teaches Narada about the various theories about Brahman that were prevalent at the time; and then leads Narada to the Understanding of Brahman, through progressive stages of name, speech, mind , will etc leading up to infinite and Self (Ch.up.7.1-26)].
:- Ghora Angirasa and Devaki-putra Krishna [ Ghora Angirasa teaches that all of a person’s life is indeed a Yajna; his every act constitutes a ritual and death is the final offering; and, at the time of death one should believe he is indestructible and is the very essence of life (Ch.Up. 3.17.6)]
: – Yama and Nachiketas [Yama teaches the truth about life and death]. The Katha Upanishad is held up as a lesson in asking the right question to the right person. The boy Nachiketas puts a simple-worded question to none-other -than Death: “When a person dies there arises this doubt: ‘He still exists’ some say; ‘No, he does not’ say some others. I want you to teach me the truth” – (katha Up. 1.1.20). The dialogue also covers the steep choices one has to make in life between what is implicitly good (shreya) and what is merely pleasant (preya). The message of the Katha Upanishad, which echoes throughout the Upanishads, is to dare like a teenager: to reach for the highest you can conceive with everything you have, and never be distracted.
: – And, another is the series of discussions between Uddalaka Aruni and his son/disciple Svetaketu. It covers almost the entire range of Upanishad learning (we shall talk more about this dialogue in the next part).
9.2. The discussion between Maitreyi and her husband Yajnavalkya could also be treated as of similar class. When Maitreyi desired to share her husband’s wisdom, Yajnavalkya imparts her instructions about the true nature of the soul, the world and the Brahman (Brh.Up.2.4; 4.5).He presents the Self as the pure subject, the knower, which cannot be described through any known array of terms or attributes. He explains to her “Know that, whenever we love we are responding to the Self within that person. Therefore if we can discover that Self there would be no parting and no sorrow between us. … As long as there is separateness one sees the other as separate. But, when Self is realized as the indivisible unity of life, there is no more sorrow”.
The spirit of enquiry
10.1. A remarkable feature of these discussions is the spirit of enquiry. Here, no teacher claims that he has discovered the ultimate truth, nor does he declare that his views are beyond dispute and should be obeyed implicitly, by all. None of the teachers or scholars is fully satisfied with the knowledge he has attained. All, the teachers and students alike, are eager to probe further and uncover more of the unknown. Even the aged wise teachers travel long distances and sit at the feet of the learned, who might be younger to them in age, and seek instructions on subjects they are not well versed.
Philosophy in Upanishads
11.1. The discussions featured in the Upanishads record the opinions or views on various philosophical issues of that era. The participants came from all walks of life; there were sages, priests, women, teachers, kings, charioteers and common folk. The answers to the questions discussed in the texts varied from teacher to teacher and from region to region. All the doctrines presented in them do not stand out equally prominent. Some are merely flashes of thought, others are only slightly developed and still others are but survivals from the older period. Many ideas are put forward, discussed or even withdrawn according to their strengths and weaknesses.
11.2. As regards the Upanishads’ philosophy, although the Upanishads are often called philosophical treaties, they do not propound a single system of thought or philosophy. They do not explain or develop a line of argument. Instead, entire range or shades and hues of philosophical opinions are scattered across the texts.
For instance, The Upanishads have no permanent point of view in regard to such questions as how the One Principle or Thing was conceived, or what its relations are to the visible Universe. They are tentative and experimental, not fixed and final. They appear to be philosophy in the making. They never assert that they have found the ultimate truth.
Even the doctrine of transmigration, which is said to have found its full form in the Upanishads, leaves several questions unanswered. It was stated that the departed Soul proceeds along a certain path into the other world before it returns to earth for its next life. At the same time, it was also mentioned that at the moment of death the departed Soul instantly takes another body. The Upanishads do not specify the nature of the being that transmigrates. The question of transmigration was left open-ended. Similarly, on the subject to the law of Karma there is not much discussion on the scope for free-will which gives man some sort of control over his actions or whether God’s grace and such other factors also come in deciding human fate. These problems were are left unanswered; and if some answer were given, they are merely hinted at.
Speaking of the Upanishads, Bloomfield says that they captivate, not because they are finished products, but because they show the human mind engaged in the most plucky and earnest search after truth. And the, Upanishads represent the earnest efforts of the profound thinkers of early India to solve the problems of the origin, the nature, and the destiny of man and of the universe; the meaning and value of knowing and being.
In other words, the Upanishads provided a platform for displaying various shades of thoughts and opinions that were actively churned in those times. Thus the widely divergent philosophers and varied Schools of thought coexist in the Upanishads without contradiction. And that is the reason why anyone is now able to quote some Upanishad passage or the other and claim authenticity for his interpretation or for his train of thought.
11.3. For instance, the Upanishads speak of Brahman as the substratum of all existence from which everything emerges and into which everything merges. These speculations gave rise to the Advaita philosophy of the later ages. At the same time the other notions which assert that the individual soul (Atman) and the Brahman are parted but unite into one, gave the Dvaita philosophy its authenticity. Thirdly, there is also a current of theism which looks upon Brahman as the Lord controlling the Universe. All such views find place in the Upanishads without a sense of contradiction. But, it was the later commentaries, glosses etc that created further discrepancies and contradictions.
The Questions that arose
12.1. The Vedic line of thoughts found its culmination in the Upanishads. The Samhitas and the Brahmanas did raise many doubts and questions; but, these were merely hinted. The ‘doubt’ in this context, it is explained, is not suspicion (smashaya); it is neither a doubt as of a sceptic, nor it is suspended-belief as of an agnostic. The doubt here is indeed with wisdom and faith. For instance, Nasadiya Sukta (the creation hymn) in the tenth Book of the Rig Veda ends with the classic doubt: “Whether this creation has arisen by itself or whether it did not , only He knows ; or perhaps He also does not know.”
Those speculations were further developed in the Upanishads, which attempted to answer all those questions in a rational way. A great variety of views were expounded in the Upanishads more systematically, and providing starting points for various schools of philosophies.
12.2. The elaborate discussions spread out in the Upanishads address and debate on various philosophical questions; and, much of that is subtle, sophisticated and intellectually challenging, such as: “What happens at death? What makes my hand move, my eyes see, my mind think? Does life has a purpose, or is it governed by chance?”. Yet, no single opinion or theory was held up as the undisputable truth; and, everything was left in a flux. It is because of its creative thinking and its open-mindedness that Upanishads continue to be an ever-fresh source of inspiration for people of all times and regions delving into it seeking answers to their questions.
12.3. But, the main concern of the Upanishads was the search for the central essence of Man; as also the essence of the Universe. The two independent streams of thought – one driven by the desire to realize the true nature of man and the other, to understand the objective world – became fused. It represented an effort to express the world in terms of the individual; an attempt at rising from the known particular to the knowledge of the unknown universal. The blending of the two apparently dissimilar concerns led to the discovery of their essential unity.
12.4. The basic questions posed by the Upanishads in that regard were: ’Who am I?’ and ‘Who is He?’ Centuries later, the Buddha, commenting on the Upanishads, remarked that the main concern of that period was: ’How shall I unite with Him?’ (Te-Vijja sutta – Dhiga Nikaya 1.13)
Brahman and Atman
13.1 The Rig-Veda is not a philosophical work. Questions which came up much later , such as – the nature of Atman, the whence, how and whither of the Atman; the Supreme Self and its relation to the external world; and the mutual relations of Atmans and Isvara – were not dealt with in the text of the Rig-Veda. But, there was awareness of a permanent factor in man’s life and its continuity even after the body perishes. There were also speculations about some essential unity among the individuals through some Supreme Being that is not conditioned by the limitations of a body and of worldly existence.
These and similar other questions were carried forward by the Upanishads.
13.2. The Upanishads are truly the continued saga of a prolonged search for understanding Man and his Universe. Its sages keep on pursuing their exploration, looking for a theory that would explain everything. Each of its philosophers identifies and argues about a particular aspect of life and existence as ‘the highest principle’ – as could be seen from the instances cited earlier in this article. Although all these teachers, as well as others, have varied understandings of Atman, they all present knowledge of self as a new way of thinking.
As many as about forty concepts such as prana, vayu, aph, purusha, aditya, agni , atma, akasha, manas, skamba, vac etc are alluded as the ‘highest principle’ and as ‘the primary cause of the Universe which bursts forth spontaneously as nature’ If we collect all the terms employed in the Upanishads to describe ‘the basis and the cause for the universe ‘, it would read like a glossary of philosophical terms.
Eventually, all those terms, principles or powers that the Upanishad scholars believed to be the basis of the world and make the world explicable merged into the meaning of Brahman. And yet, it would be incorrect to assume that apart from Brahman and Atman all other terms in the Upanishads meant to signify the ‘highest principle’ fade into negligence.
13.3. Thus, the notion of Brahman in the Upanishads was arrived neither easily nor at once. It took centuries of thorough introspection, discussions and debates to reach at an acceptable concept. In the process, several notions, ideas and explanations were put forth, each more satisfying the previous one, to account for the relation between the individual and the universe. At some stage in the evolution of its thought, the Upanishads named Brahman as the primal source of the universe; and Atman as the individual’s inmost essence. The two terms- Brahman and Atman- are now ‘the two pillars on which rest nearly the whole edifice of Indian philosophy’. But, the concept and explanations of Brahman and Atman was not in the context of any religion or sect. The Upanishads, therefore, belong not just to Hinduism but to all mankind. They are India’s most precious gift to humanity.
13.4. The essential oneness of the individual and the universal was hinted at even before the Upanishads. But, the concept of Brahman – understood as that from which everything emerged and into which everything merged or like the web of the spider or a spark of fire (vispu lingaha) – was for the first time stated clearly in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Yajnavalkya came closest by describing it as ‘ the imperishable is the unseen seer, Gargi, though unseen; the hearer though unheard; the thinker, though un-thought; the known though unknown. Other than this there is no seer; other than this there is no hearer; other than this there is no thinker; other than this there is no hearer; other than this there is no thinker; other than this there is no knower. It is on this imperishable (akshara), Gargi, that space (akasha) is woven, as warp and woof (ota – prota)’ (Brhu.Up.3.8.11)
It was expanded upon in the Katha and the Manduka Upanishads. Brahman was referred to as the universal soul; and, Atman as a spark of the bigger fire, framed within the individual (Katha Up. 1.3.1). Here, the terms Brahman and Atman refer to the same principle. The later Upanishads lent it an another imagery through an allegory of a pair of birds perched upon the branch of a tree: Two bright-feathered bosom friends; Flit around one and the same tree; One of them tastes the sweet berries, the other without eating merely gazes down (Sveta.Up.4.6; Mun.Up.3.1.1). In a way, Brahman was an open concept in the Upanishads.
[In the Brahma Sutra of Sri Badarayana and the commentaries of Sri Shankara, the concept of Brahman crystallized as the only unconditioned reality existing eternally beyond our relative, conventional understanding.]
13.5. Brahman was thus the last in the series of the solutions that the sages were seeking; and it became a symbol for ‘the ultimate essence of being, the final basis of reality’. The term was meant to assert the truth that the individual and the Universe are verily the manifestation of the same reality. The individual, the nature or God are in essence not distinct. The realization of the identity of Self and Brahman became the objective of the Upanishad seekers. It was valued as the true knowledge that liberates; by knowing which everything becomes known (Para vidya).
13.6. The ideal of the Upanishads is to live in the world in full awareness of life’s unity; giving and enjoying, participating in others’ sorrows and joys, but never unaware even for a moment that the world comes from That and returns to That.
As a tethered bird flies this way and that, And comes to rest at last on its own perch, so the mind, tired of wandering about…settles down in Self. (Chandogya Up.6.8.2)
The Rishi of the Rig-Veda and philosopher of the Upanishads
14.1. There is a marked difference between the Rishi of the Rig-Veda and the philosopher of the Upanishads. In the early Rig Veda, the Rishi is referred to as Kavi. A Kavi in Rig Veda is an inspired Rishi who can see the unseen. He is the sublime poet who envisioned the mantras (mantra drastaraha); and who conceived the self-evident knowledge (svatah pramana) by intuition. A Kavi is also ‘the hearer of the Truth’ (kavayah satya- srurtah).That is the reason the Vedas are regarded as Srutis, revealed scriptures; and thus Apaurusheya, not authored by any agency.
14.2. By the time of the later Vedic age the Kavis and Rishis had become mythical figures; and, their deeds were narrated along with the deeds of the gods. Those seers include the sapta-rishis enumerated in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: Gautama, Bharadwaja, Vashista, Vishwamitra, Jamadagni, Kashyapa and Atri. And the Rishis like Vamadeva and Narayana indeed merged with the gods of their mantra; and are now regarded as Gods.
14.3. As regards philosophy, scholars like Dr. Benimadhab Barua opine that the Rig Veda in its early stages did not seem to have a specific term to denote what we now call ‘philosophy’, though its Kavis and Rishis were sublime philosophers. The hymns of the Rig Veda (uktha) and its recitation (udgitha) itself meant philosophizing. That was perhaps because they did not regard ‘knowing’ (vid) as separate from other aspects of’ ‘being’. These terms continued to stand for ’philosophy’ until other epithets such as Darshana or Brahma-vidya etc came into use.
14.4. But, by the time of the Upanishads, ‘philosophy’ was a well recognized branch of study. Most of philosophers and thinkers of the Upanishads were scholars in the traditional mould; and, a majority had to work and earn a living. Many were scholars, teachers of great repute, advisers to kings, and priests under the patronage of a king; but, most were householders with families, tending cows and the lands. Those keen on pursuing the path of knowledge, studied for long years under the guidance of a teacher. Thereafter, each followed his individual pursuit; some followed the way of Brahmacharins devoted to studies and later settled down as householders; some left the comfort of home and wandered about in forests or led a life of contemplation. Some of them became iterant seekers and recluse. Many of them were teachers of great repute.
14.5. It is estimated that the five oldest Upanishads feature about one hundred of such philosophers, spread over five generations. A good many of those philosophers appear in the Brahmanas also .This supports the view that there was overlapping; and the two trends of thought coexisted for a considerable time.
14.6. The earliest of the teachers who appear in the Upanishads were mystics or interpreters of the symbolism of rituals and esoteric meaning of the hymns. For instance, the colourful-hero Yajnavalkya bursts forth into sparkling series of poetic intuitions, picturesque analogies, and mystical imageries bewildering the questioner. His brilliant exposition is expansive, highly impressive and breathtaking; but is neither systematic nor very logical. He carried away the debate by the sheer power and dazzle of his intellect.
14.7. In contrast, Uddalaka son of Aruna of Gautama gotra was systematic and cogent in his approach. He put forward rational explanations on the nature of Man and nature of Universe without employing the terms Brahman or God. And, without bluntly rejecting the earlier mythological beliefs and religious injunctions, Uddalaka Aruni tacitly set aside all those in favour of a rational explanation for the ultimate cause of everything in nature. Uddalaka is therefore regarded the greatest of thinkers and perhaps the first real philosopher. He retained till the end, an open mind and a keen desire to learn. He remained a student all his life; yet, he was the best of the teachers. Uddalaka’s power of exposition shines forth in the Chandogya Upanishad.
For these reasons; Uddalaka Aruni is recognized among all the Upanishad sages and teachers as the true representative of the Upanishad age and its spirit of enquiry.
Let’s talk a bit more of Uddalaka Aruni and his teachings in the next part.
[ The search for Ultimate Reality and essence that underlies all existence is the specific quest of the Upanishadic thoughts … Some of the most ancient Upanishads represent earliest attempts of mankind to provide philosophical explanation of the Universe , of the Ultimate Reality , of the nature of Self and the purpose of the human kind….
The importance of Upanishads in the development of ‘Hinduism’ is enormous; for, it contains most of the developing concepts that we associate with ‘Hinduism’ today, such as: Brahman the Absolute principle, Atman (true self), Moksha (liberation) , Dharma ( what indeed is right), Samsara (re-birth) etc. These are some of the fundamental concepts that are accepted by all the Indian traditions. Bhagavad-Gita the sacred text of ‘Hinduism’ relies heavily on the teachings of the Upanishads… author of the Bhagavad-Gita included the words of a number of Upanishads very frequently.
Jeaneane D. Fowler (The Bhagavad Gita: A Text and Commentary for Students – Introduction) ]
Continued in Part Two
Sources and References
Life in the Upanishads by Dr. Shubhra Sharma; Abhinav Publications, 1985
The History of Pre-Bhuddhistic Indian Philosophy by Dr .Benimadhab Barua; Motilal Banarsidass, 1921
A Course in Indian Philosophy by AK Warder, Motilal Banarsidass, 2009
Indian Philosophy before the Greeks by David J Melling
Atman in pre-upanisadic Vedic literature By H G. Narahari; published by Adyar Library 1944.
What the Upanishads teach
The Chandogya Upanishad by Swami Krishnananada
All images are from Internet