"Eastern" perspective: three ancient Indian ideas
In Part 3 of this exploration we considered the
character of general ideas of reason as ideal limiting concepts
and hence, the need for finding ways to "approximate"
their intent and to unfold their meaning in real-world contexts
of practice. We also considered the eternal tension of the particular (or
contextual) and the general (or universal) in the quest for
such meaning clarification and described two basic "critical
movements of thought" involved,
a contextualizing and a decontextualizing movement. We concluded
that the notion of a cycle of critical contextualization (or
"critically contextualist cycle") might provide an
elementary heuristic for reflective and discursive processes
In view of the
fundamental nature of these two movements of thought, it is to be expected that
they can be found under varying names in many different traditions of human
thought and will be employed in conjunction with many different types of "general ideas." I therefore
we try and complement the "Western," basically Kantian perspective
that we have adopted thus far with an entirely different perspective,
an "Eastern" tradition of thought. I have selected
to this end the Hindu (or Vedic) tradition of ancient Indian philosophy as it
by the Vedanta
scriptures and among these particularly by the Upanishads. My
hope is that they can throw a new or additional spotlight on
the emerging notion of critical contextualism.
many of my readers, the tradition of thought we are about to
explore is likely to represent rather unfamiliar territory,
just as for myself. They may appreciate to have a list of some basic sources that I have found useful.
I can recommend them to those readers who, beyond reading what
follows, would like to see for themselves and to study this
tradition of thought in more detail. The list (see Box) will be followed by an
to the world of the Vedanta as I have come to understand it
based on these sources, along with some additional sources referenced
in the text. Thus prepared, we will then turn to an examination
of three essential ideas of Upanishadic thought that I have selected
RECOMMENDED BASIC SOURCES
texts on ancient Indian thought: As a first introduction to
ancient Indian thought that is available in open-access
mode, I recommend the very substantial and informative
entry on "Hinduism" of the Encyclopaedia Britannica
(2013c, also compare 2013a and b), an encyclopedia entry that includes no less than 59
web pages. Not quite as substantial but still useful for
a first approach are the Wikipedia
entries on "Hinduism," the "Vedas,"
and the "Upanishads,"
along with many more specific entries to which I will
provide links where they are relevant. Short
entries on Hindu philosophy in general and on the teachings
of the Vedas, Vedanta, and
Upanishads in particular can also be found in many standard
A concise introductory text on Indian philosophy
in general, for those interested in the larger picture,
is Hamilton (2001); however, the Upanishads are
not given a central part in this account. For the purpose of the present
essay more useful are the two short but inspiring
introductions by Navlakha (2000) and Easwaran (2007)
to their respective translations of the Upanishads
(cited below). For further
study, the pioneering accounts of Monier-Williams (1877; 1891),
an early outstanding scholar of ancient Indian thought
and also the renowned author of an influential Sanskrit dictionary
(see below), continue to be rich and insightful sources, although
their language is now somewhat outdated and at times
may strike contemporary readers as being
"politically incorrect" (an observation
that should not distract attention from the scholarly
merits of Monier-Williams' work).
English translations of the Upanishads: Probably
still the most authoritative, because scholarly and
faithful, translation is Müller's (1879 and 1884).
It is the translation on which I have
relied primarily for checking my understanding, along with Navlakha's
contemporary revision of that early translation (see Müller
and Navlakha, 2000). Easier and elegant reading
is offered by Easwaran's (2007) translation; it
is the one I have mostly used when I occasionally
quote some literal passages from the Upanishads,
although ocassionaly in slightly edited form (made
transparent as such) as inspired by Müller
On a few occasions where Müller/Navlakha and Easwaran
diverge particularly strongly, I have also consulted
(1949, 1952; 2003) and Olivelle's
(1996) translations as neutral third sources, as
on the Upanishads: Early and still authoritative
sources (now in the public domain) are Müller's
(1879 and 1884) Preface and Introductions to his two-volume
translation of what he calls the eleven "principal"
or "classical" Upanishads (1884, p. ix).
I found them
an excellent place to begin my reading, along with
the translation itself. In addition, Müller's (1904/
three lectures on
the Vedanta are still very readable. Nikhilananda's (1949, 1952,
2003) commentaries are equally a relevant source.
Particularly in the section on the Isha Upanishad,
I have found it informative to consult his (1949,
pp. 194-199) account, as it includes a literal
extract from the famous commentary of Adi Shankara (also
known as Sankara or Shankaracharya), a major early
Vedanta philosopher and mystic who probably lived
from 788 to 820 CE and whose writings were seminal
in reviving interest in the then almost forgotten
Upanishads. Among the many contemporary introductory
I found the introductory essay of Nagler (2007) particularly
well written and informative, and that of Easwaran (2007) particularly
engaging. As already mentioned, Navlakha's
(2000) revision of Müller's translation comes with an
introduction of its own, a source that I equally
readable and useful. Nikhilananda's
(1949, 1952, 2003) and Olivelle's
(1996) translations, too, come with extensive introductions
of their own. Readers
looking for a broader scholarly overview and critical
account of all major traditions of Indian thought,
including the Upanishads, may want to consult Sharma
(2000). Likewise, Ganeri (2001) offers a comprehensive
and demanding scholarly analysis of Indian
philosophy with a focus on its rational rather than
mystic side (a focus it shares with my own interest), which however reaches far beyond the limitations
of the present essay. Some further sources on which I have relied will be indicated
in the contexts where I draw on them.
dictionaries and on-line translation tools:
I have relied mainly on the Sanskrit-English Dictionary of
Monier-Williams (1899 and less frequently 1872; as a searchable online tool,
the HTML version by Monier-Williams et al., 2008, also accessible
via Cologne Project, 1997/2008). Other dictionaries that I have
used are Apte's (1890/2014 and 1965/2008) and Macdonnel's (1929) Practical Sanskrit Dictionaries,
both of which also
come in online versions that allow
direct entering of either Roman or Devanagari script; the latter
option helps avoid frequent transliteration problems. In
addition, the two Böthlink
dictionaries, the Greater and the Smaller Petersburg Sanskrit-German
Dictionaries (Böthlingk and Roth, 1855, and Böthlingk and
Schmidt, 1879/1928), occasionally also proved useful. Finally, on
some occasions I consulted the earliest of all
Sanskrit dictionaries (Wilson, 1819/
2011) as well as the Apte English-Sanskrit
Dictionary (Apte, 1920/2007), the latter allowing me to
check my understanding by means of reverse translation
of terms. As a last hint, searchable, digitized versions
of all these dictionaries are now accessible through Cologne (2013/14).
tools: For occasionally converting Roman letters
Devanagari letters used by Sanskrit texts, or vice-versa, as
well as for looking up contemporary meanings of
Sanskrit words, the SpokenSanskrit site (n.d.)
and the Tamilcube English to Sanskrit Converter
Tool (n.d.) are useful tools; along with the already mentioned
HTML version of the Sanskrit-English Dictionary
et al. (2008), which also offers a transliteration
function (choose "Devanagari Unicode"
as output or input).
Introduction to the Upanishads
"Upanishad" means as much as
"secret teachings," or literally also "sitting
nearby devotedly," suggesting the notion of students listening
to the teachings of a spiritual master. The Upanishads belong
to the Vedas,
the oldest collection of ancient Sanskript
scriptures or shruti
(also written sruti), that is, "revealed" or "heard"
texts that traditionally were not considered
to be of human authorship; they were passed down in oral tradition
already thousands of years ago before being written down. They
count among the oldest known
texts in any Indo-European language and
of humanity in general. They also represent the
main spiritual and theoretical basis of Hindu religion and philosophy.
"Veda" comes from the
Sanskrit verb vid, which means as much as to "know" or
"see" (cf. the German verb wissen and the Latin
verb videre, or also the Middle-English noun wit). The development of the Vedas began
with the Samhitas,
hymns and prayers to the Vedic gods in the form of verses
(or mantras) that offer revelations about the cosmic and divine reality that
lies behind human existence and governs it. There are four collections
of Samhitas – the Rig Samhitas, the Yajur Samhitas, the
Sam Samhitas, and the Atharva Samhitas – and accordingly there
are also four collections of Vedas, the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda,
the Sam Veda, and the Atharva Veda (a distinction that
will not matter to us in the following, so I will mostly refer
to "the Vedas" in general). In addition to the
Samhitas, each of these four Vedas consists of three more categories
of scriptures. The Brahmanas
first developed as a kind of liturgical manuals, written in
prose rather than verses, which were appended
to each of the four Samhitas, discussing their meaning and describing
rigorous rules and rituals for religious practices such as worship, offerings, sacrifice, and purification.
and the Upanishads
were added as commentaries on the Brahmanas, explaining and
inviting contemplation of their mystic and religious contents
(in the Aranyakas) and later also of their metaphysical, spiritual
philosophical contents (in the Upanishads). Thus it comes that
each of the four Vedas is made up of the four mentioned strands
of shruti: the Samhitas (hymns or mantras), the Brahmanas
(rules and rituals), the Aranyakas (religious contemplations), and the Upanishads (metaphysical
In Western terms we might think of the
Samhitas, Brahmanas, and Aranyakas as liturgy, that is, texts
that can be cited in religious service and also provide guidelines
and rituals for it. The underlying world view, briefly summarized,
is that there are two levels of order in the universe, the visible and changing (i.e., phenomenal)
reality in which we live and the cosmic and unchanging (i.e.,
transcendent) reality that
lies beyond what we can perceive. In epistemological rather
than metaphysical terms, we might speak today of first-order knowledge (the cognitive level of each individual’s awareness of the world and of itself)
and second-order knowledge (the cognitive level at which we
conceive of universal and unchanging ideas and principles). A state of perfect dharma
("order, law”) exists when the two levels of order – the individual micro-cosmos
and the cosmic macro-cosmos – are in harmony (cf. Hamilton,
2001, p. 64f). The usual state, however, is a-dharma,
"disorder,” which can only be overcome with the help of
the Vedic gods. The sacrificial rituals of the Veda are to make sure the gods
intervene to this end and reestablish the cosmic order, or maintain it
in the first place. This explains why particularly the Brahmanas focus on
sacrificial rituals and other instructions for living up to one’s individual dharma (svadharma,
”one’s own law"), as the assumed only way to live according to the cosmic order
(sanatana dharma, "the eternal law") and thus to help maintain
from that metaphysical conception, little
philosophical thought (and none in the sense of active philosophical
inquiry and reflection) is to be found in the Brahmanas. They
are, philosophically speaking, dogmatic texts. Only with the Aranyakas (from
aranya = "wilderness" or forest, thus "wilderness
texts" or "forest scriptures"), things begin
to change. They can be
said to mark the transition from a mainly ritualistic to a more
philosophical orientation of Vedic thought. As their name suggests,
they offer mystic interpretations of the brahmanic rituals (especially
that were to
be contemplated in the calm and solitude of the wilderness or forests. This
new reflective stance leads on to the Upanishads, the most intensely spiritual
and philosophical expression of Vedic thought (cf. Sharma, 2000,
the Upanishads, things change indeed. They represent the first
and probably also the most important source of the Vedanta,
the late-Vedic texts that embody the more intellectual and scholarly
part of the Vedic tradition. It is worth mentioning that although
the name "Vedanta" (literally = "Veda-end)
is now commonly taken to refer to the temporal end (i.e., the
concluding parts) of the Veda, it originally referred to the
object or highest purpose rather than just to the last
portions of the Veda (see Müller, 1884, p. lxxxvi,
note 1). The two other major Vedanta texts are
(also simply called the Gita) and the Brahma
Sutras (also called Vedanta Sutras; sutra
= aphorism). Together, these three Vedanta scriptures are now
customarily considered the foundational texts of orthodox ancient
Hindu philosophy, an ill-defined concept that is understood
here to refer to the Vedic tradition (including the Vedantic
tradition) of Indian philosophy rather than to Indian philosophy
as a whole.16)
the first three strands of the Vedas (the Samhitas, Brahmanas,
and Aranyakas) can be dated back to about
1,500 to 1,000 BCE (e.g., Monier-Williams, 1891, p. 7) or perhaps in the
main to 1,500 to 1,200
BCE (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013c, subsection "Veda"), that
is, to the late Bronze
Age and the early Iron
Age of India, the dating of the Upanishads and other Vedanta
texts stretches over a larger period of time and is less certain. Some ten Upanishads are now generally considered to
count as the principal
Upanishads (mukhya upanishads) and
these are also the earliest ones, although a number of authors
count a few texts more. For example, the 8th
/ 9thh century mystic
and philosopher Shankara (cited in Müller,
1884, p. ix) counts
as do Nikhilananda (2003) and
Sharma (2000); Prabhavananda and Manchester (1984) and Olivelle
(1996) count twelve; and Hume (1996) and Müller and Navlakha
count thirteen. These "primary" Upanishads (primary in
terms of both time of origin and importance) can be dated
approximately between 900 and 500 BCE.17)
In subsequent centuries, over 100 more texts were composed
that understood themselves as Upanishads. As newer texts have continued to be discovered, there is no definitive
list and thus also no definitive dating.
As to the other late-Vedic or Vedanta scriptures, the Gita dates between the 5th and 2nd centuries BCE and the
Sutras probably originate in the first few centuries CE.
The dawn of philosophical
reflection: the discovery of the knowing subject The Vedanta and particularly the Upanishads
are considered mankind's
oldest known philosophical texts. Like the earlier Veda scriptures,
they often come in the forms of aphorisms, hymns, and poetry
and use metaphors
along with narratives and dialogues as didactic means; characteristic of the latter
are teacher-student dialogues. Unlike the earlier Veda scriptures, however,
their aim is no longer
mainly to offer liturgy and instruction for religious practice,
so as to win the favor of the cosmic and divine powers that
control the human destiny. The essential
new idea is that the
power to control and change man's destiny resides not
just in the gods, whose favors need to be gained through
sacrifice and worship, but also in man himself,
in the ability to train and expand one's individual consciousness.
Rather than worshipping the gods through rituals and sacrifice,
it now becomes important to know and discover one's inner reality,
so as to expand one's awareness of oneself and ultimately, to
autonomy rather than devotion to gods. Accordingly, the earlier focus on speculation about
what lies beyond the phenomenal reality around us gives way to a new focus on discovering
man's inner self, the spiritual and intellectual reality within. The
Vedanta scriptures can thus be understood as
an inquiry into human capabilities and ways to develop it.
As Ganeri (2007, pp. 117, 125 and passim) puts it,
their aim is both philosophical and protreptic (i.e.,
instructive or educational).18)
Notably in the Upanishads, developing
one's capabilities and self-understanding become all-important demands.
They can be met through both philosophical study (ideally
with a teacher) and spiritual practice (ideally with some mystical
experience leading to a higher state of consciousness). The
major aim now is to encourage
an inquiring mind, along with a dedication to meditation, self-reflection,
and self-discipline as sources of orientation for the right way to live. The
idea is that one can find one's individual path of self-realization
through right thought and conduct according to one's
inner nature and place in the social order (the earlier-mentioned
svadharma). "Right thought" includes awareness of the extent to
which this path often fails to live up to the principles of the all-encompassing
cosmic order (sanatana dharma).
There is a normal tension between these two levels (or
sources) of order in the world, one’s
individual and the cosmic dharma, of which "right thought and conduct"
must not lose sight. In terms more familiar to the readers of
my essays, the tension confronts us with a challenge to reason that is both intellectual (right
thought) and moral (right conduct), whereby the two modes (and
subjects) of reflection are closely interdependent. Such reflective efforts and conforming
conduct are now, for the first time in the history of ancient
Indian thought, understood to replace
at least partly the brahmanic rituals, sacrifices, and other traditional efforts
to improve one's karma, the record and future consequences of one's good deeds, thought
of as causes of one's fate (from the Sanskrit noun karman, for
work, action, performance).
They can lead to eventual liberation (moksha) from the
perpetual cycle of rebirth and transmigration
of souls (samsara). Knowledge, not work, is the true
liberating power. Ignorance, by contrast, is the origin of evil.
"Higher knowledge" Despite their
poetic language and partly mystical character,
the Upanishads thus place a previously unseen emphasis on learning and acquisition
of knowledge (prama), rather
than mere observance of rules and rituals, as the sources of right thought and conduct.
As the Mundaka Upanishad puts it, with explicit reference
to the two levels of order and related knowledge to which we
have referred above in terms of first- and second-order knowledge:
Knowledge is twofold,
higher and lower.
The study of the Vedas, linguistics,
astronomy, and all the arts
can be called lower knowledge.
is that which leads to Self-realization.
rituals and the sacrifices described
in the Vedas deal with
The sages ignored these rituals
in search of higher knowledge.
(Mundaka, 1.1.4-5 and
1.2.1, as transl. by Easwaran, 2007, pp. 185-187)
We may understand “higher knowledge” as referring to the traditional
notion of a universe that lies beyond the visible world and
about which we cannot know through experience, as well as to
the new Upanishadic notion of second-order knowledge in
the sense of knowledge about knowledge,
its sources and nature and limits, which includes knowledge about the knower –
"the higher [knowledge] which leads to Self-realization."
is a tacit criticism here of the older Vedic texts, if not outright rebellion
against them. The Upanishadic mind no longer contents itself with a metaphysical
focus that comes at the expense of epistemological clarity, nor with an
unquestioned reliance on the power of rules and rituals that ignores the power
of systematic inquiry and truth. The new and liberating motto is that spiritual
and religious merit comes from the effort and discipline of studying
the nature of the world and man's relationship
with it, rather than just from ritual practice, by asking question
such as these:
- What can we know about
this world we live in? (first-order knowledge)
- How can we achieve such
knowledge systematically (second-order knowledge, epistemological)?
- What may we hope to learn
about that other realm of reality behind and beyond
the visible world, what principles govern it and also
manifest themselves in this world of ours and in our
lives? (second-order knowledge, metaphysical)
do we live properly? (first-order
- How should we think properly
about practical concerns and needs, and about
adequate ways to handle them? (second-order
- And finally, how may we hope to grow
so as to develop reflective practices of inquiry and action
and gain deeper awareness with regard to all the previous
points? (second-order knowledge, spiritual, intellectual,
(Questions inspired through
D.P. Dash, 2014)
"Active search for truth" In sum, how can we orient ourselves in
this world and think and act properly, if not on the basis of
well-understood, and reflectively practiced, principles of inquiry
and action that would reach beyond the surface of mere appearance
and habit? And hence, how may we hope to acquire
such higher understanding, except by an active search
for truth and by cultivating our skills and attitudes accordingly?
Or, as the Mundaka Upanishad continues the lines cited above
in powerfully simple words:
is victorious, never untruth.
Truth is the way; truth is
the goal of life.
Reached by sages who are free from self-will.
(Mundaka, 3.1.6, as transl.
by Easwaran, 2007, p. 193)
How truly revolutionary these words must have been in their time, comparable
perhaps in our own epoch with the revolutionary force of Mahatma Gandhi's (1957)
quest for active nonviolence (ahimsa)
grounded in the power of truth, to which the title of his autobiography significantly
refers as a succession of Experiments of Truth. As the experiment showed, truth still unfolds
revolutionary and emancipator power in our "modern" epoch. The “attitude
of experimenting, of testing what will and will not bear close scrutiny,
what can and cannot be adapted to new circumstances” (Bok, 1993,
p. xvi) is of timeless merit and virtue; but first in the
history of human thought we find it formulated in the Upanishads.
In recognition of this insight, and surely also in deference to Mahatma
Gandhi, the first line of the Mundaka’s above-quoted verse was chosen as
the Sanskrit motto of the modern Indian
nation-state: satyam eva jayate, nanritam, "truth alone prevails, not untruth or falsehood." Its first part, written in Devanagari
letters, is also inscribed at the base of India's national emblem, as well as on
one side of all Indian currency: satyameva jayate, "truth
Good deeds, good practice The remarkable shift of focus that the Upanishads brought to ancient
Indian spirituality had significant consequences for what could count as good
practice. For the first time, proper practice and adequate knowledge
became closely interdependent, in that the quality of each now
depended on the other. Not only was the search for true knowledge and
understanding now appreciated as the highest source of right thought and action, but
good practice was equally understood to be a valuable source of knowledge
itself. The insight is as relevant today as it was then:
practice is a form of inquiry, just as inquiry is a kind of practice.
The Vedic demand for doing good deeds remained valid, but the nature
of good deeds had changed. Knowledge and understanding are a
better basis for them than just ritual exercise (e.g., a ritual sacrifice).
What is more, not only the search for knowledge matters but
also the inner attitude or "spirit" with which it
is conducted. As the Mundaka Upanishad puts it in the above-quoted
verse 3.1.6, inquiry should be a practice "free from self-will." In today's terms we might think, for example, of a professional practice that
engages with multiple
stakeholders rather than just pursuing its own (possibly even
undisclosed) agenda. So both the quest for knowledge and the
attitude that guide it matter for the value and power of a "good deed."
It is clear, then, that the traditional brahmanic rituals could
no longer meet the standards of
Upanishadic reflection. As we read in the Chandogya
act done with knowledge, with inner awareness and faith, grows
1.1.10, as transl. by Easwaran, 2007, p. 125)
what a powerful and perennially "modern" thought!
And what a modern consequence the Upanishadic sages drew from
it: along with the search for insight into the nature of cosmic
reality and the meaning of human existence in it,
the search for ways to obtain such knowledge had to become
a primary focus of study. Are there reliable modes and methods of
inquiry (pramanas, "sources of knowledge")? Perhaps for the
first time in the history of mankind, the knowing subject
emerges as an object of systematic inquiry and (self-) reflection.
This explains why the Upanishads continue to be of philosophical
interest to date: they combine mankind's age-old metaphysical interest in "ultimate"
reality with a newly emerging epistemological, as well as logical
and psychological, interest in modes
of thought and inquiry that would be conducive to gaining knowledge
and, based on it, to living properly. Upanishadic epistemology
is pramana-sastra, the theory or study of the pramanas
or of how knowledge arises (e.g., Phillips, 2011, p. 1; 2012, p. 17).
We will return to this subject a little later; suffice it here to point out
that pramana-sastra is once again a type of second-order knowledge.
Unity in diversity: the metaphysics
of "this" and "that" There is a second major
shift of focus that the Upanishads brought to ancient Indian thought
and which has been of lasting importance to this date. In the
Upanishads emerges, probably equally for the first time in the
history of human thought, the remarkably modern teaching that the
world is an expression of cosmic forces and principles – and ultimately, a single
principle – that exist independently of a
personified creator or, as in the earlier Vedas, of a multitude of more or less
important and more or less regional deities and demons. Rather, the
cosmic principle embodies an impersonal, pantheistic source
power, of consciousness, and of intelligence. As the early
scholar of ancient Indian philosophy, R.E. Hume,
was writing in 1921:
If there is any one intellectual
tenet which, explicitly or implicitly, is held by the people
of India, furnishing a fundamental presupposition of all their
thinking, it is this doctrine of pantheism. The beginnings of
this all-pervading form of theorizing are recorded in the Upanishads.
In these ancient documents are found the earliest serious attempts
at construing the world of experience as a rational whole. (Hume,
1996, p. 1f)
a contemporary Western perspective one might be inclined to
dismiss such achievements as "just metaphysics"; but
that would mean to miss the point. The point, methodologically
speaking, is not to avoid metaphysical assumptions but to be
aware of them and to handle them carefully. As the English novelist
and poet Aldous Huxley, who thought highly of the Vedanta and
also wrote about them, said quite accurately: "The
choice is not between metaphysic and no metaphysic; it is always
between a good metaphysic and a bad metaphysic.”
(Sharma, 2000, p. 13). Or, perhaps more in line with the
spirit of this series of essays, it is between reflected and
unreflected metaphysics – which is to say, what matters primarily
is not what metaphysics we have but how we handle them epistemologically.
Metaphysical ideas can be a source of valuable orientation,
so long as we are aware of the role they play in our thought
Related to the pantheistic turn of the
Upanishads is another metaphysical idea that was to become an
all-pervading theme of Hindu philosophy and remains of methodological
relevance today, the notion of a fundamental unity in all that
exists. It proposes a monistic rather than dualistic view of all reality, a world view in which
all aspects of reality, whether material or spiritual, mundane or divine, phenomenal
or transcendent, are seen to originate in and to be governed by a
single, all-encompassing cause or principle that inheres and
governs the world. Due to the same underlying forces that shape it,
there is a unity in its infinite diversity that helps us to
understand it and to deal successfully with it for practical
ends. Although the Upanishads differ in the ways they interpret
and often poetically (with artistic license, as it were) describe
this unity, there is a remarkable unanimity in them about its
importance, both in spiritual and philosophical respect:
is an essential unity of purpose in them [the Upanishads]. They
emphasize the same fundamental doctrine which may be called
monistic idealism or idealistic monism. These
poetic-philosophic works are full of grand imagery, extremely
charming and lucid expression abounding in crystal clarity (prasada
guna). To the mind, they bring sound philosophical doctrines
and to the heart, peace and freedom. (Sharma, 2000, p. 18,
As the Upanishads formulate it, this
world of an infinite variety of finite phenomena, and that
infinite world of a cosmic reality of which our world is just
an ever-changing expression, are one and the same. They are
"one without a second" (Chandogya Upanishad, 6.2.1-2),
so that we cannot properly appreciate either without appreciating
the other. I find it striking – and helpful indeed – to see
how carefully the Upanishads, notably in the Chandogya Upanishad
and in some of the so-called "Invocations" (introductory
formulas) that precede most of the principal Upanishads, differentiate
and combine their references to "this" world and "that"
world so as to help the student understand. For example, in
the Chandogya's account of the wisdom of Shandilya, we
read this about the nature of brahman, a central concept that we will discuss in
the next section:
universe comes forth from brahman, exists in brahman, and will
return to brahman. Verily, all [this] is brahman. (sarvam
3.14.1 as transl. by Easwaran, 2007, p. 126, with "[this]"
and the Sanskrit formula added; the concept of brahman
will be introduced in the following)
helps indeed to know that phrases such as "this
universe" and "all this" refer to the
visible world in which we live, or perhaps more precisely, to
our descriptions and narratives about it, as distinguished from "that"
other, invisible world of cosmic principles, a world about which
we cannot say much except that it is brahman, the ultimate,
absolute, infinite reality behind and beyond the world of finite
things and descriptions. Similarly, in the Chandogya's story about Shvetaketu, the son of Uddalaka,
who after studying the Vedas for 12 years asks his father to
tell him more about the nature of the Self, it is again crucial to
understand the just mentioned meaning of "that":
dear one, I will," replied his father.
beginning was only Being.
One without a second.
itself it brought forth the cosmos
and entered into everything
There is nothing that does not come from it.
everything it is the inmost Self.
It is the truth; it is
the Self supreme.
You are that, Shvetaketu; you are that."
(tat twam asi)
6.2.2, with the part that begins with "There is nothing
…" being repeated eight times in verses 6.8.7-6.15.3; transl.
by Easwaran, 2007, pp. 133-138; italics added, slightly edited)19)
the beginning, before brahman manifested itself in this
world of ours (but also after), there was only that "one
without a second." Such all-pervading unity inheres and
expresses itself – its Self – in everything that exists and
consequently also in the human individual and its innermost
sense of self, which prompts Uddalaka to teach his son:
"You are that, Shvetaketu, you are that."
in the Chandogya's story of Shvetaketu, the father also explains
the essential unity of the two worlds – their amounting to "one
only, without a second," as Müller and Navlakha's (2000,
p. 186) put it in their translation of verses 6.2.1 and
2 – with these two famous metaphors (note again the careful
use of "this" and "that"):
me a fruit from the nyagrodha tree." (or banyan tree, a
"Here it is,
"Break it. What do you see?"
seeds, Father, all exceedingly small."
What do you see?"
"Nothing at all."
hidden essence you do not see, dear one,
from that a whole
nyagrodha tree will grow.
There is nothing that does not
come from it.
Of everything it is the inmost Self.
is the truth; it is the Self supreme.
You are that, Shvetaketu;
you are that." (tat twam asi)
6.12.1f, as transl. by Easwaran, 2007, pp. 136, slightly edited)
this salt in water and bring it here tomorrow morning."
boy did [as his father asked him].
"Where is that salt?"
his father asked [on the next morning]. .
"I do not
"Sip here. How does it taste?"
"And here? And there?"
taste salt everywhere."
"It is everywhere,
though we see it not.
Just so, dear one, the Self is everywhere,
within all things, although we see it not.
nothing that does not come from it.
Of everything it is
the inmost Self.
It is the truth; it is the Self supreme.
You are that, Shvetaketu; you are that." (tat
6.13.1-3, as transl. by Easwaran, 2007, pp. 136f, slightly edited)
In all these formulations, "this"
stands for the infinite diversity of this world of ours and
our related descriptions and narratives, which
requires us to make ourselves clear by pointing to the specific
phenomena we mean: "look, this is what I am talking
about." On the other hand, "that" stands for
the infinite cosmic reality that inheres the manifold phenomena
of this world of ours and allows consistent descriptions of
it, descriptions that capture its inherent order and harmony. Note
that it is due to this idea of an intrinsic order that the phenomenal
world, despite its infinite diversity, is at all intelligible
to human inquiry and reflection; science works by finding order
in the diversity of the phenomena it studies. To that underlying
source of order and unity, the Upanishads refer as brahman,
a concept we will analyze in detail. However,
we already begin to understand that since the all-pervading
cosmic order also inheres the human "Self" about which
Shvetaketu was asking his father, it is to be expected that
in Upanishadic thought the self and brahman, too, are "one
[i.e., a unity] without a second."
Monist, but pluralist at heart
Pervasive as it is, this monist world view of the Upanishads
does not ignore or rule out diversity at all, it merely has
us deal with it more attentively and carefully. Thus an Upanishadic
perspective does not deny the observation that everything that
is alive and moves in "this" world tends to be different
from everything else, for example, concerning the shape it assumes
and the state of consciousness it reaches. At the same time,
however, it also emphasizes that there is always unity in such
diversity, inasmuch as the latter only expresses different shapes
and states of the former. This interplay between
and unity and diversity matters because it has important implications,
regarding both the quest for knowledge and the proper conduct
of life. I have already mentioned the example of science, the
success of which depends on the assumption that meaningful unity
can be recognized in diversity.
A second example of important
implications concerns the ways we deal with human affairs. The
Upanishadic message in this respect is: we have reasons
to be tolerant. That is, we are well advised to be aware of
all the differences among human beings, natural, cultural, social,
and spiritual, yet at the same time to respect their intrinsic
unity and sameness. Mahatma Gandhi (1957) made this theme of unity-in-diversity
a guiding principle of his political vision, by advocating what
he called a "heart unity" among all, a sense of toleration
of differences embedded in a deep concern for the dignity and
welfare of others:
means that no matter how different you are from me – in religion,
outlook, caste, level of affluence, culture, race, or sex –
I identify with your well-being; I want you to be happy. Not
to be like me, but to thrive in your own way.… As long as there
is heart unity underneath, even our active disagreement by nonviolent
means will not cause us to feel hostility to one another; on
the contrary, it will bring us closer together in our joint
search for truth." (Mahatma Gandhi, cited in Nagler, 2006, p. 256; cf.
Nagler, 2007, p. 328).
an inspiring, genuinely Upanishadic and yet timeless thought:
we think properly about diversity when in our hearts, thoughts,
and actions we search for a kind of unity that lets others thrive
in their own ways. This same theme of unity-in-diversity appears
to have inspired the national motto of contemporary Indonesia,
which like the earlier cited motto of India is part of Indonesia's
national emblem: bhinneka tunggal ika ("many, yet one").
metaphysics: analytical, second-order considerations Much of the discussion on the Upanishads has
gone into metaphysical direction; but I find it important that the discussion
does not stop there. The two examples of science and politics, briefly hinted
at above, illustrate that the Upanishads' monistic metaphysics of “this” and “that” has implications that
reach further and can be of epistemological (or, a bit more generally speaking,
methodological) as well as ethical (practical-philosophical)
relevance. They concern the nature of second-order knowledge
and reflection in all conceivable domains, for example, in everyday
practice, professional practice, the logic of inquiry and science, the logic of
rational argumentation and discourse, research practice, ethics, and politics. What the Upanishads have to tell us – the kind of reflections
they inspire – will depend on the type of second-order enterprise
(or reflective practice) one is engaged in, as well as on the specific (first-order)
situation at hand; but as a common denominator, the analytical scheme of first
and second-order knowledge appears to be useful. It can remind us that it is
always a relevant idea to ask what the Upanishads have to tell us, beyond (but
inspired by) their monist metaphysics, about the logic and ethics of good research and practice.
Sources of knowledge: inquiry and
ideas Etymologically, philosophy means "love
of knowledge" and thus, of learning.
The Upanishads are among the earliest documents of humanity
that invite us to control our destiny through learning. More
than that, they also explain why it is possible: it is,
as we have just seen, because there is unity in diversity. Since
there is a unity of the forces or principles that shape the cosmic and the human
(social) order, as well
as our individual nature and consciousness, we can learn – with
due effort – to better understand the world we live in and our
fate in it, and thus
can progress on the path to knowledge. In this invitation to study and learning,
than just to worshipping, I see the deeply philosophical orientation
of the Upanishads and their continuing relevance today.
F. Max Müller,
the eminent Western scholar of Hindu philosophy and translator of the Upanishads,
emphasizes the break that the Vedanta's reorientation from ritual
in the history of ancient Indian thought:
The Upanishads are philosophical
treatises, and their fundamental principle might seem with us
to be subversive of all religion. In these Upanishads the whole
ritual and sacrificial system of the Veda is not only ignored,
but directly rejected as useless, nay as mischievous. The ancient
Gods of the Veda are no longer recognized. And yet these Upanishads
are looked upon [today] as perfectly orthodox, nay as the highest
consummation of the Brahmanic religion.
was brought about by the recognition of a very simple fact which
nearly all other religions seem to have ignored. It was recognized
in India from very early times that the religion of a man cannot
be and ought not to be the same as that of a child; and again,
that with the growth of the mind, the religious ideas of an
old man must differ from those of an active man of the world.
(Müller, 1904/2013, p. 16)
To this reorientation conforms the shift
from worship and sacrifice to learning and knowledge as major guides
towards a proper practice of life (including religious
as well as everyday practice), and a corresponding interest
not only in metaphysical but also in epistemological questions. Upanishadic
epistemology, as we have noted, is pramana-sastra, the
theory or study of the pramanas (sources of knowledge or tools
of inquiry). Major sources of knowledge
are seen in the triad of perception, of inference, and of testimony by others (see, e.g., Phillips, 2011):
- Perception, the most important
of the three, is mainly but not exclusively thought
of as sensory perception (there are different views
as to whether "inner" consciousness is also
to be considered as a valid source of perception).
- Testimony, the second
most important, stands for oral evidence offered by a competent speaker (e.g.,
a sage or a brahmin, or a person well educated
or experienced in the subject at hand) or for a statement from the Vedas
or some other source acknowledged as authoritative.
finally, provides derived knowledge in the form of conclusions
gained from certified perception or trustworthy testimony
through careful reflection (e.g., early forms of syllogism,
conclusion from analogy, and "suppositional"
reasoning, the latter being a form of inference not
unlike what Kant later meant with "transcendental"
reasoning or Habermas today with "presuppositional
analysis," e.g., by means of "universal-pragmatic"
or "formal-pragmatic" reasoning), as well
as through dialogue (e.g., characteristically, teacher-student
also logic, understood as the study of valid forms of
argument and inference (tarka-vidya, "science of
argument," e.g., Ganeri, 2001, p. 7, cf. pp. 151-167) rather than of
deductive logic only, becomes a subject of pramana-sastra.
So does the study of language as a means to formulate,
transmit, and preserve knowledge, specifically of course Sanskrit,
the language of the shruti. There are early developments of linguistic
disciplines such as phonetics, syntax, semantics, etymology, and
grammar. Panini's (1977) Ashtadhyayi, a collection of some 4,000
grammatical rules (in the form of sutras) written in
the 6th to 5th century BCE (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013d;
other sources locate it in the 4th century BCE, e.g. Hamilton,
2001, p. 60) stands out as an impressive work that covers
all the just mentioned subdisciplines of a philosophy of language
and employs them to clarify the meaning of Sanskrit words and
the rules of their proper employment; it has been instrumental
in establishing the "classical" form and usage of
Sanskrit as a ceremonial and learned language and has remained
an authoritative source that is still used and cited today (see
Hamilton, 2001, pp. 60-62, for a short but interesting appreciation
of the historical merits of Panini's grammar).
This early interest of the Vedic tradition
in the philosophies of knowledge and language is influential
to this date, in that India has developed a long-standing tradition
of epistemological and language-analytical scholarship, not
only but also as applied to the ancient scriptures. Remarkably,
unlike today's analytical tradition in "Western" philosophy,
the ancient Indian interest in the sources of knowledge and
the role of language did not bring about a diminished appreciation
of metaphysical questions but rather, it lead to a more careful
way of dealing with them. Perhaps this is due in part to the
fact that the Upanishadic metaphysics of "this" and
"that" makes it so clear how limited ordinary human
knowledge (i.e., knowledge as it can be gained by study and
inquiry) is bound to remain in the face of the world of the
"that," which nevertheless shapes this world of ours.
Clearly (at least, for a Hindu thinker), additional sources
of insight are needed, beyond the pramanas already mentioned.
One need not think of
mystic experience and other esoteric sources of insight only in this context.
In addition to the just mentioned study of language and logic,
there is surely also a role, in Eastern no less than in Western
thought, for the study of the nature and role of general
ideas – ideas of reason that lead us beyond
what we can know empirically but which are bound to remain problematic concepts.
Since both the outer, transcendent reality of the cosmos and
the inner, spiritual reality of the human self (the two main
themes of the Upanishads) reach beyond what we can hope to know through inquiry,
it is indeed to be expected that general ideas play no less
an epistemological and methodological role in the Upanishads
than in Western philosophy (e.g., of particular interest to
us, in practical philosophy). Although they are basically metaphysical
ideas, there is no reason why they should not lend themselves
to methodological analysis.
This is the topic to which we must
now return. Are there examples of major concepts in the Upanishads
that do play such a double role as metaphysical and methodological
concepts? And if so, how do the Upanishads conceive of their
proper use and perhaps also of related basic "movements of thought" as
we have sketched them out in the previous essay of the series
with respect to Western ideas of reason? With this sort of questions
in mind, I have selected three concepts that play a particular
role in the Upanishads and which I
also find particularly interesting from a methodological point of view, the
first two well known in Western philosophy, the third less so
atman, and jagat. Their analysis and discussion will be
in the center of the next part of this excursion into the world
of ideas of ancient India.
For a hyperlinked overview of all issues
of "Ulrich's Bimonthly" and the previous "Picture of the
see the site map
This is the forth of the essays
on the role of general ideas in rational thought and action. With it
an excursion into the world of ideas of ancient India, as represented
by the Vedic tradition of thought and esp. the Upanishads.
The present essay offers an introduction, to be continued in the next essay with an
analysis of three
of their essential ideas.
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