"Eastern" perspective: three ancient Indian ideas
(continued) The last essay of this series,
in the Bimonthly of May-June 2015 (Ulrich, 2015b), analyzed
three selected Upanishadic ideas – the concepts of brahman,
atman, and jagat – from a mainly etymological
and methodological perspective, as distinguished from a traditional,
predominantly spiritual and metaphysical reading of the Upanishads.
Of these three ideas it was the third, jagat, which we
found to be of particular methodological interest. While brahman
and atman embody ideal conceptions of the cosmic universe and
of the individual self (or what Kant designates the "cosmological
idea" and the "psychological idea"), I take jagat (literally
= world, universe) to stand for a critically reflected, realist conception of the
world we live in. In the terms of our envisaged framework of
critical contextualism, realist notions depend on contextual
assumptions (What is the proper context to be considered
for this argument of action?), whereas ideal notions have a universalizing (i.e.,
decontextualizing) thrust (How does this argument or action
look if we take it to be adequate beyond the originally assumed
context?). A critically tenable handling of
contextual assumptions has to maintain the tension between universalizing
and contextualizing movements of thought, so as to be able to
see the deficiencies of either in the light of the other.
question that must interest us, then, is whether the three ideas
can be understood to support such a double movement of critical
thought. To put it differently, can we bring them into a systematic
relationship so that they would illustrate and enrich our understanding
of the cycle of critically-contextualist thinking as proposed
earlier in this series (see Ulrich, 2014b, Fig. 4)?
Seventh intermediate reflection:
of the Isha Upanishad
In the two concluding essays of the series, beginning with the present Part 6, I propose we focus on the Upanishadic concept of jagat
and discuss it from a critically-contextualist perspective.
Is there an understanding of jagat that would be conducive
to critically contextualist practice, whether of research and
professional practice or of everyday practice? To examine this
question, let us turn to what may be the term's most famous
occurrence in all ancient Indian scriptures, namely, in the
first verse of the Isha Upanishad (also
called Ishopanihsad, Ishavasya Upanishad, or Vagasaneyi-Samhita
Upanishad, the latter name being the one used in Müller's
translation of 1879). It is, to my knowledge, the only
occurrence where it plays a major role in the Upanishads. But
this one occurrence is considered so important that Mahatma
Gandhi once famously remarked about it: "If all
the Upanishads and all the other scriptures happened all of
a sudden to be reduced to ashes, and if only the first verse
in the Ishopanishad were left in the memory of the Hindus, Hinduism
would live for ever." (Gandhi, 1937, p.
As I see it, the Isha is also one of the Upanishads that perhaps best embody
the "dawn of philosophical reflection" to which I
referred in the introductory part of this excursion into ancient
India (see the section "The dawn of philosophical reflection:
the discovery of the knowing subject" in Part 4, Ulrich, 2014c, pp. 6-11; rev.
version, 2015a, pp. 7-13). It stands
for the idea, probably first emerging in human history with
the Upanishads, that "the power to control and change man's
destiny resides in man himself, in the ability to improve one's
individual consciousness and understanding" and hence,
that man can be the author of his own destiny, rather than just
being at the mercy of cosmic powers (gods and demons) that he cannot
control or understand. Accordingly important it became, as we
noted, "to know and discover one's inner reality, so as
to expand one's self-awareness and ultimately, to achieve spiritual
autonomy rather than devotion to cosmic forces and gods"
(Ulrich, 2014c, p. 6, and 2015a, p. 8). But of course,
this is how today we can understand the history and importance of
Upanishadic thought with hindsight, in the light of the history
of ideas that has occurred since. At that time, such revolutionary
ideas could emerge only slowly and had to be formulated in the
language and imagery of the Veda, which due to their age we must expect to cause
us considerable difficulties of translation and understanding
today. But let us see.
The first verse of the Isha
Upanishad: transliteration and translation
Transliteration This is how the famous first verse of the
Isha Upanishad reads in Sanskrit language, first written
in Devanagari script and then transliterated to Roman script:
The transliteration to Roman script reads:
om isa vasyamidam
sarvam yatkincha jagatyam jagat
tena tyaktena bhunjitha
ma grdhah kasyasviddhanam
or, in phonetic script as also used in this essay:
om isha vasyam idam sarvam, yat kim ca jagatyaam jagat.
gridha kasya svid dhanam.
(adapted from: http://sanskrit-texts.blogspot.ch/2006/05/isha-upanishad.html
we rely on any of the traditioned translations of
the Isha's first verse without a proper notion of conceivable
options that the benefit of historical distance offers us today,
let us first gain an overview
of the rather wide range of meanings of most of the Sanskrit terms involved.
Here is a list compiled from the Sanskrit dictionaries mentioned
at the outset of this exploration of ancient Indian ideas (see
the "Sources" box in Part 4 of the series, Ulrich,
2014c or 2015a, p. 2f); the list uses short references
to these dictionaries as explained in the subsequent Legend.
om = mystical
utterance during meditation; holy word that signifies brahman
isha (or isa, isah)
= originally: possessing
strength, completely mastering, acting like a master, being
master or lord of; being capable, powerful, supreme, owning;
a master, speaker, author; speech, utterance, words; later also:
supreme being, supreme spirit, personified as the Lord, the
highest self (A393; MW169,2); able to dispose of, entitled to;
capable of; owner, lord, ruler, chief of (Mac 47)
vasya[m] = to be covered, clothed
or enveloped in, pervaded by, dwelling in (A1421, cf. 141)
ida[m] = known, present; this earthly
world, this universe; this, here (MW165,3; A383)
sarva[m] = all, every, any; whole,
entire; complete; [with negation] not any, none (A1655; B7-084;
B/addenda 360.1; also see Olivelle, 1996, p. 297 note 4.9-10);
hence the Upanishadic formula: sarvam idam brahma = "this
whole world is brahman" = all [this world] is ultimately
yat kim ca = what further, whatsoever,
whatever aligns itself or joins; composed of kim= what?
how? whether? etc. (indicating a question mode), ca=
further, and also, as well as, moreover (B2-065 and 2-202f,
MW282,3), and yat= to join, unite, bring into order,
align oneself (in Vedic use; otherwise also = to endeavor, strive
after, be eager or anxious for) (B5-119; A1299)
jagatya[am] = in the jagats, [moving]
in this world, on earth (A408,1; B2-246f)
jagat = world, moving, movable,
locomotive, living; that which moves or is alive, is in everybody's
sight, air, wind, earth; this world; heaven and the lower world,
the worlds, the universe; people, mankind; a field [of plants],
site [of a house], etc.; (MW408,1; A720; B2-246; cf. Table 2)
tena = so, therefore; thus, in that manner, in that direction;
on that account, for that reason (B3-042; Mac112, MW454,3 and
tyaktena = renouncing this, it, composed of tyakt
= to derelict, abandon, leave, and ena, in Vedic use
= [a course, way] to be obtained (A5, Mac112)
bhunjitha = to enjoy, indulge,
from bhuji = embrace [cf. English "hug"], granting
of enjoyment, favor; one who grants favors, a protector, patron
(Mac203; MW203,1 and 759,2), also bhuj =
o enjoy, embrace, use , possess, consume; to make use of , utilize,
exploit, govern (MW
759,2), and jita = won , acquired,
conquered, subdued; overcome or enslaved by; occurring often
in compounds such as jitakopa = one who has subdued anger;
jitakshara = one who has mastered his letters, [is] writing
well; or jitamitra = one who has conquered his enemies,
[is] triumphant (MW420,3)
ma = a particle of prohibition or
negation: "no," "not," "don't,""be
not," "let there not be"; that not, lest, may
it not be; "and not," "nor" (MW 804,1f);
also 1st person pron. basis (cf. "me"); time; poison;
a magic formula (MW 771,1f); moon, measure, authority, light,
knowledge, binding, fettering, tying, death (Wil630); disturbing
gridha = desirous of , eagerly
longing for (MW361,2; cf. English "greed"); whence
ma gridha = "let there be no greediness"
kasya = whose? composed of ka-
= interrogative particle (cf. kim, under yat kim
ca), often in connection with svid) and sya = 3rd
person pron. basis (MW240,2f; MW1273,1)
svid = (a particle of interrogation
or inquiry, often implying doubt or surprise, and translatable
by "[what/who] do you think?," "can it be?"
or simply "indeed?"; also rendering a preceding interrogative
indefinite, e.g. "whoever," "whatever,"
"any [one]," "anywhere" (A1743; MW1284,3)
dhana[m] = prize [of a context, or contest itself, a thing
raced for, etc.]; wealth, riches, movable property, treasure,
capital (MW508,2; B3-140; property of any description, thing,
substance, wealth (Wil436)
Legend: The sources of translation are indicated for each
word by the following short references: A =Apte (1965/2008);
B = Böthlingk and Schmidt (1879/1928); Mac =
Macdonell (1929); MW = Monier-Williams (1899), often usefully
searched via Monier-Williams et al. (2008); and Wil = Wilson
(1819/2011). The short references are followed by page numbers
and, in the case of MW, with column numbers added after a comma.
Page numbers are useful for searching the scanned, original
layout editions that are now in the public domain and available
online of most dictionaries, as listed in the References section
of this essay.
Müller's early translation
Still influential and often cited is Müller's (1879) early
translation, which accordingly may still count as a standard
translation. It comes in two version, the original version of
1879 and a later, revised version of 2000. The original versions reads:
whatsoever that moves on earth
to be hidden in the Lord (Self).
When thou hast surrendered
thou mayest enjoy.
not covet the wealth of any man.
1.1, as transl. by Müller, 1879, p. 311; line-breaks
and indents added)
In the revised version by Müller and Navlakha (2000), we find:
this, whatsoever that moves in this moving universe
is encompassed by the Self.
When thou hast surrendered
all that [i.e., the material wealth],
wilt seek not what others [continue to] possess,
thou mayest truly enjoy.
(Isha, 1.1, as transl. by Müller and Navlakha, 2000, p. 17;
the brackets are Navlakha's, the indents are mine. Note that
the phrase "surrendered all that"
stands for what in our terms should
read "surrendered all
this [material world]";
compare our earlier discussion of the metaphysics of "this"
and "that" in Part 4 of the series, Ulrich, 2014c,
pp. 11-14, rev. version Ulrich, 2015a, pp. 13-19)
While Müller originally translated jagat as "whatsoever that
moves on earth" and wavered in his translation of isha
between "the Lord" and "Self," the revision
replaces “earth” by “universe” and drops reference to “the Lord.”
This is precisely how I suggest we should understand
the two terms. “Universe” and “Self" are more general and
neutral terms than references to the Earth and to the Lord.
They do not preclude a traditional metaphysical and religious
understanding, but they also do not impose it. They thus avoid
an unnecessary narrowing down of the meaning of the two terms,
along with an equally unnecessary reification and a tendency
to religious effusiveness that all stand in the way of careful
philosophical analysis. Narrowness of interpretation, hasty
reification, and religious effusiveness: none of these three
prevalent tendencies in the Isha’s reception is warranted as
measured by the etymological root meanings we listed.
The historical reception of the Isha, though, has taken a different road. Exemplary
for it is Nikhilananda's (1949) translation, the second oldest
that I have consulted, which is remarkable for its attempt to
draw on Shankaras's commentary of the early 9th century CE,
one of the oldest testimony we have of the Isha’s history of
reception. Nikhilananda's translation is of particular interest,
as it makes the influence of Shankara clear by offering a
literal extract from relevant portions of Shankara’s commentary
and, based on it, brief explanations of all the key phrases
– whatever exists in this changing universe –
be covered by the Lord.
Protect the Self by renunciation.
Lust not after
any man's wealth.
1.1, as transl. by Nikhilananda, 1949, p. 201)
The explanations given are
That is to say, the universe consisting of ever changing names
and forms, held together by the law of causation.
ETC: This universe, from the standpoint of Absolute Reality,
is nothing but the Lord. That it is perceived as a material
entity is due to ignorance. One should view the universe, through
the knowledge of non-duality, as Atman alone.
who is the Supreme Lord and the inmost Self of all. He is Brahman
and identical with Atman.
That is to say, liberate the Self from the grief, delusion,
and other evil traits of samsara in which It has been entangled
on account of ignorance. To be attached to matter amounts to
killing the Self.
The scripture describes the discipline of renunciation of the
longing for offspring, wealth, and the heavenly worlds for him
alone who devotes himself entirely to contemplation of the Self
as the Lord. Such an aspirant has no further need of worldly
duties. It is renunciation that leads to the Knowledge of the
Self and protects Its immutability, eternity, and immortality.
ETC: That is to say, a sannyasin [holy man who has vowed renunciation],
who has renounced all desires, should not be attached to what
he has or long for the property of someone else. Or the sentence
may mean that a sannyasisn should not covet wealth at all. For
where is the real wealth in the transitory world that he should
desire? The illuminated person renounces the illusory names
and forms because he regards the whole universe as Atman alone.
He does not long for what is unreal.
comments on the Isha, as quoted in Nikhilananda, 1949, p. 201)
Shankara’s comments have been influential – and Nikhilananda’s translation may
have contributed to this influence – in that most of the subsequent
translations of which I am aware appear to follow Shankara's
understanding as conveyed by Nikhilananda's reading, with the
partial exception of the revised Müller/Navlakha translation.
Three examples must suffice:
All this is for habitation by the Lord, whatsoever is individual
movement in the universal motion.
By that renounced though
not after any man's possession.
(Isha, 1.1, as transl. by Aurobindo, 1996, pp. 19 and 29, PDF
version p. 5; my indents)
This whole world is to be dwelt in by the Lord
living being there is in the world.
So you should eat what
has been abandoned;
do not covet anyone’s wealth.
(Isha, 1.1., as transl. by Olivelle, 1996, p. 249)
The Lord is enshrined in the hearts of all.
Lord is supreme Reality.
Rejoice in him through renunciation.
All belongs to the Lord..
(Isha, 1.1., as transl. by Easwaran, 2007, p. 57, my indents)
Critical discussion: three key considerations
It is time to move on, from questions of translation
to a discussion of the Isha's message to a contemporary audience
of researchers and professionals, along with philosophically
interested lay people. I propose to focus on three main issues,
concerning (1) the legitimacy of a non-religious reading of
the Isha; (2) the meaning and value of a more philosophical
reading; and (3) an outline of the specific discourse-theoretical
interpretation that I propose and wherein I see its relevance
for reflective practice. All three discussions, especially the
first two, will be rather brief.
(1): The religious bent of most translations The above translations, which may be said to be fairly representative
of the literature, share a strikingly
theistic bent and a tendency to establish religious demands
and restrictions. One must wonder to what extent such a reading is warranted by the relevant history of ideas
(which unfortunately is poorly documented) and to what extent
it must be called arbitrary, a possibility that can be seen
positive inasmuch as it leaves the door open for a more philosophical
It seems to me that a predominantly religious reading of the Isha Upanishad
may be called authentic in two main respects. The first characterizes
all Upanishads, the second is specific to the Isha and to a
very few other Upanishads. First, and basically, a religious
reading of the Upanishads may be called authentic inasmuch as
the Hindu tradition of thought has never distinguished as sharply
between philosophy and religion as does "Western"
thought. In the West, at latest since Kant's powerful critique
of metaphysics, we are accustomed to the idea that expressions
of religious faith and mystic experience have their legitimate
place in the human individual's search for meaning and orientation but not
in rational discourse and philosophical reasoning. Accordingly,
their proper place is seen in the private rather than public
domain of argumentation and decision-making. In
India's tradition of thought, today as in the past, there is
no such strict separation between religion and philosophy. Both
are equally involved in the quest for understanding the meaning
of life and its proper conduct, perhaps because such understanding is expected to translate
into corresponding religious and worldly practices, which
then together determine one's karma and prospect for
salvation from continuous rebirth (moksha). Given the
enormous importance of these ideas for the individual's fate,
the propensity for a religious reading of the Upanishads, especially but
not only in their popular reception, becomes understandable. However
one-sided one may find it, it is so deeply ingrained in India's
cultural heritage that it has become an indispensable part of
proper understanding. Still, such an understanding need not preclude a more philosophical
reading. We can acknowledge the authentic nature of the Isha's
religious reception without ignoring its further-reaching, philosophical
and indeed, emancipatory significance.
Second, and more specifically, while an exact dating of the Isha remains difficult,
its traditional Vedic writing style, along with the observation
that unlike most other Upanishads it is part of the Samhitas
(i.e., the early Mantra portion of the Vedas) rather than of
the later Aranyakas (see, e.g., Nikhilananda, 1949, p. 195),25) suggest
that its roots reach back far into the history of the Upanishads.
If this is so, we should not be surprised that its language
and imagery are those of the early Veda, even if its content points
beyond them. Alternatively, it might have received the written
form in which we know it today later in the history of the Upanishads
but its authors might none the less have chosen to attach it
to the Samhitas and to adopt a conforming writing style, as
the best way to reach its intended audience. In either case
it seems plausible to assume that it could hardly have dared
to hint at its epoch's subjugation of individual thought and
spirituality under the control of religious doctrine and brahmanic
authority, except in the rather concealed and indirect form
of traditional religious imagery. How else could it have encouraged
people to start freeing themselves from such subjugation and
to dare thinking (asking questions) rather than just
believing (practicing worship)? Thinking, that is, about those
fundamental metaphysical and existential-practical questions
that the Upanishads, to all our knowledge, were first to raise
in the history of mankind and for which the religious concepts
of brahman and atman – and likewise, I would argue,
the concept of jagat – were and remain important:
What are adequate ways to understand the universe (brahman)?
Who are we, or might have the potential to be, as human
individuals (atman)? How should we conceive of our place
in this overwhelming world of ours (jagat)?
To be sure, the Isha merely hints at these questions. For the reasons just considered,
it may not have been able at its time to articulate them more explicitly. The historical
development of Vedic consciousness and spirituality, which led
from the mantras of the Samhitas, via the doctrines and rules
of the Brahmanas and the meditations of the Aranyakas, to the
philosophical awakening of the Upanishads, did not happen overnight.
But it happened. The Isha stands at the turning point of this
awakening. It embodies an early expression of the Upanishadic
"rebellion" against the older focus on religious doctrines
and rules of which we have spoken. With this rebellion, the
rise of spiritual autonomy emerged as a new theme on
the Vedic agenda. Its sibling: the courage to ask philosophical
questions, and thus the rise of philosophical reflection.
We have, then, reasons to explore the Isha's philosophical significance along
with its popular religious reception. We can recognize the former without denying or "renouncing" the latter.
We can appreciate the Isha’s richness without taking sides.
Short discussion (2): Towards a philosophical reading Unlike
so many of its translators, the Isha's itself does not take sides.
Its Sanskrit wording
leaves room for interpretation. It eschews the religious effusiveness that characterizes a
majority of its interpreters and commentators. It speaks of "this"
and "that" world (an analytical distinction of two
basic types of references to the world, and of two conforming
modes of talking about it) in the neutral terms of a subject
(atman) that grapples with the tension between one's self-constructed,
individual universe (jagat), limited and unstable as
it inevitably is, and the larger, total universe that lies before
and beyond any individual grasp (brahman). Remarkably
it does so with no explicit use of the terms "atman"
and "brahman," as if to avoid their religious connotations.
Its references to atman and brahman remain implicit in the talk
of "this" and "that" world. By contrast,
it does use the term "jagat," a term that has no predominantly
religious connotations. So both its theme and its language remain
neutral and are as relevant to ordinary life practice and professional
practice (including research practice) as they are to religious
practice. What a philosophical exclamation mark!
wording of the Isha’s first verse is indeed like a philosophical
door opener. It opens the door for us and invites us to enter
and marvel at the philosophical depth of Upanishadic thought.
It lends itself to systematic thought about this world of ours
and ways to understand it, no less than to spiritual reflection
about that other world beyond it. Once again we can only admire such careful choice of language, in the Isha no
less than in the other Upanishadic texts that we considered when
we first encountered their language of "this"
and "that" – the Brihadaranyaka,
the Chandogya, and the Mundaka, along with the invocations to
all those Upanishads which are associated with the Yajur Veda (among them
notably the Brihadaranyaka, the Isha, and the Shvetashvatara
What makes the Isha stand out is
its explicit use of the concept of jagat and, more specifically,
in the first line, to jagatyam jagat, which literally
means "jagat [moving] in the jagats." Since the word
jagat as such already refers to a universe of moving phenomena
or, in Nikhilananda's (1949, p. 201) above-cited words, to
changing universe … consisting of ever changing names
we have to understand the phrase "moving
in a universe of moving phenomena" as intended to bring in an additional, higher level
of cognition. This is the reflective level of a subject that realizes
(in the double sense of recognizing and bringing to life) its role
as the author of the jagat it is facing. As the author
of its jagat, this subject carefully selects and questions the context of phenomena
or circumstances that it takes to be relevant for dealing
with a specific situation or issue at hand, and within which
its thoughts and actions will consequently move. An element of choice
is involved since no conceivable notion of jagat is complete,
definitive, and objective beyond questioning. There are always
options for defining or redefining the universe
of thought and action within which an agent or speaker moves at a time. Or, as
we might now say: we always have a choice about the jagat within which we (are
to) move. Any such choice represents but one of an indefinite number of other conceivable jagats
for identifying aspects one considers to be relevant – aspects
of that larger, all-encompassing reality
that ideally could indeed count as a complete, definitive, and objective
universe of thought and action,
but which as such lies beyond human grasp.
In simpler but hardly
less thought-provoking terms: whatever
description of reality we rely on, it is bound to be false. False,
that is, to the extent we claim it to be a sufficient account
for deciding the question at issue. It is part of the human condition as we understand it today
that all our views of the world, all attempts to understand
it and to act properly in it, are very limited and fragmentary, inevitably
by the particular universes (sic) of which we ourselves,
whether as individuals or as collectives, are the authors.
Only at first
glance is this notion of "particular universes"
an impossible one. At a closer look, it rather accurately captures the paradox we
face: in thinking and doing something about
an issue, we cannot help but to presuppose some universe of
thought and action within we move – a personal jagat
that will limit the scope of validity and application of our
conclusions but of which we nevertheless have to assume that
it is adequately universal so as to have us consider everything
that is relevant for judging the issue. However reasonably
we try to deal with the situation: reason
(i.e., reliance on shareable reasons) and reliance on particular assumptions (which others need not
share) do not go together easily. Accordingly, whatever universe we choose to move in, we
have to keep in view that it amounts to a particular selection rather than the total universe of all conceivably
relevant considerations and concerns; and hence, that we are
well advised to limit our claims accordingly.
follows that accounts of what is "really"
the case tell us as much about
those who advance them as about the section of the real world
in question. What are the assumptions underlying the selection
of "facts" and "values" that this person
claims to be particularly relevant? Is she aware of these assumptions?
Is she prepared to accept that other assumptions may be just
as reasonable? Does she limit her claims accordingly? In short,
how does this person handle the inevitable particularity of
her views and validity claims?
basic implication of all this should be clear by now:
As soon as we assert that
some specific account represents a true and relevant description of reality, and/or amounts to correct and necessary proposals for changing
it, we almost inevitably claim more than what we can safely claim to know
or to get right. In discourse-theoretical terms, we should not
that there is any method or form of discourse that could redeem
the claims people raise, even in methodologically disciplined
forms of theoretical or moral discourse. Accordingly difficult
it is for everyone to distinguish between adequately and not
so adequately justified claims, whether they are one's own claims
or those of others. This in turn makes claiming too much
a widespread tendency, a habit that often enough goes unnoticed
In Upanishadic terms, when
it comes to identifying and mastering the jagat(s) we
move in, we are for ever caught
in a quest for better knowing and understanding ourselves
– our inmost, individual Self, the author or creative principle (i.e.,
inexhaustable source of options) within us (atman) that shapes our perceived reality – just
as we are for ever on the way towards understanding the larger, ultimate universe
of which we are a part and which shapes all perceivable reality
– the creative principle and source of options beyond this world of ours that permeates
everything alive and conscious in this world (brahman).
Accordingly difficult – far from being trivial – it is also
for everyone to see and understand the jagats within
which other speakers and agents or entire groups of people move.
Short discussion (3): Towards a discourse-theoretical view The question that
interests me, but about which I have found close to nothing
in the literature, concerns the methodological significance
of the Isha’s reference to jagat. What does it mean for
our conceptions and methods of rational inquiry and practice?
The answer I have in mind is an indirect one: it might
change the ways in which we think and speak about the validity
involved, for example, claims to knowledge, rationality, right
action, and resulting improvement. We may need to question some
of the usual ways we formulate such claims and justify their validity,
typically by referring to established methods of inquiry, reliance
on scientific conventions, consultation of individual expertise,
and division of tasks and responsibilities along organizational
and disciplinary boundaries. We might want to cultivate a
new kind of discourses about claims to relevant knowledge
and right action.
The basic idea in
support of this conclusion is simple: our notion of jagat, or what
we have thus far rather vaguely called the universe of thought and
action, is usefully understood in the terms of a universe
of discourse. The jagat we are to move in then becomes a question of the
specific universe(s) of discourse
that we consider relevant for identifying, assessing, justifying or questioning
the validity claims we raise or face in different situations
or contexts of action. To these claims belong basically all
suggestions about what the situation is and what ought
to be done about it, but also a number of related claims such
as who is or should have a say in answering these questions,
what notion of improvement should inform the analysis, and so
is, however, a complication that we need to consider, lest we
oversimplify. It is that all these mentioned claims come up
not only at the object-level of reflection and discourse about
a situation of concern, that is, about what is "the problem"
and how it might be "solved," but also at the meta-level
of reflecting and discussing about how the relevant situation
should be delimited in the first place so as to be sufficiently
comprehensive, yet still manageable. The validity claims just
mentioned then amount to boundary judgments (Ulrich,
1983) as to what the universe of discourse is to include and
what it is to leave out. Discourse universes are thus defined
by a set of boundary judgments, the exact nature of which we
need not worry about at this place.
everyday language, we may think of our jagats – or now, universes
of discourse – simply as the sum-total of "that which we choose to talk about"
in formulating or discussing a problem; likewise, we might speak
of the "scope
of an argument" or the "system-in-focus" assumed
in a claim (D.P. Dash, 2013d) or simply of the contexts
of thought and action we care about. Obviously this contextual
choice embodies itself a claim, but it is a meta-level claim
that we cannot question at the same time at which we are discussing
the mentioned object-level claims as to what are the "facts"
(circumstances) and "values" (concerns) that are to
be considered relevant in dealing with a chosen "situation"
discourse-theoretical approach offers additional ways in which
one may conceive of such meta-level claims, whereby the emphasis
shifts from their descriptive or normative content (as in the
case of the boundary judgments at which I just hinted) to the
kind of discursive (and sometimes also non-discursive) obligations
they entail, that is, to the ways in which they can and need
to be redeemed. To this end I basically propose to rely
on the model of speech-act immanent obligations advanced by Habermas (1979, 1984; see my account
in Ulrich, 2009c,d).
In this model, we can distinguish a basic non-discursive or
pre-discursive claim – that an utterance be phonetically and
grammatically, perhaps also semantically, clear and understandable
– and three equally basic, genuinely discursive claims
– to the empirical truth and descriptive accuracy of what a
speaker says; to the normative rightness and legitimacy of its
value assumptions and implications; and to the authenticity
and sincerity of the speaker's intention. Habermas focuses on
the latter three validity claims, as in his view only they demand,
and allow of, discursive justification – the claims to truth, rightness, and
truthfulness. Implicit is the speaker's additional claim
that he is prepared to substantiate these claims
by advancing relevant evidence or reasons, if challenged to
do so, and thus to demonstrate what Habermas calls "rational
motivation," that is, the will to rely on no other force
than that of convincing arguments. Claims to truth accordingly
imply an obligation to
provide evidence of relevant facts; claims to rightness, an obligation
to justify underlying norms or principles of action; and claims
to truthfulness, an obligation to prove trustworthy. All three
claims need to be redeemed argumentatively, that is, by entering
into discourse and offering reasons for one's claims, as well
as by taking up and responding to the counterarguments of others;
addition, calls for consistency of the speaker's previous and
much for a basic outline of a discourse-theoretical perspective.
This is not the place to provide a more detailed introduction
to Habermas' discourse theory or, more specifically, to the Toulmin-Habermas
model of rational discourse that I have adopted as argumentation-
and discourse-theoretical framework for my work; suffice it
to refer the reader to my detailed earlier accounts (see Ulrich,
2009c, d; 2010a, b; and 2013a). Instead, I would like to suggest
four more specific, though still fairly elementary observations
as to how the proposed discourse-theoretical perspective might
enhance our understanding of the Upanishadic concept of jagat;
and conversely, how a philosophical rather than religious reading
of the Upanishads could enhance our understanding of the discourse-theoretical
as a discourse-theoretical interpretation can shed new light
on the Upanishadic concept of jagat, the latter can help
us better understand the implications of a discourse-theoretical
concept of rationality. We have here two different but complementary
accounts of what it takes to gain valid knowledge of reality:
the Upanishadic account tells us that in the first place we
need to get our jagats right, whereas discourse theory
lets us understand how we can think and speak rationally
about them, namely, by uncovering and substantiating the specific
validity claims involved.
explains the difficulties involved as a problem of achieving
rationally secured (or "rationally motivated")
consensus, which in today's pluralistic world is obviously
a scarce resource. As my regular readers know, I do not follow
Habermas in this respect. I prefer to base my account of (and
hopes for) rational discursive practice on a discourse theory
of critique rather than a discourse theory of consensus
(see, e.g., Ulrich, 2003, p. 326). The Upanishadic account
is superior in this respect, as it does not risk passing over
the essential methodological difficulty, namely, that all our
universes of discourse are self-constructed and therefore also
changeable and open to challenge, however "rational"
we are. We should never take them to be more than preliminary
agreements or conventions. It would seem, therefore, that no
amount of discourse and no kind of rationally motivated consensus
can overcome this limit to human knowledge and rationality.
is where a second limitation of Habermas' model of rational
discourse becomes important to me: it does not offer
a systematic account of the ways in which our jagats or universes
of discourse are informed by contextual boundary judgments,
so that we could examine them in a methodologically clear and
disciplined manner. To this end, my work on critical systems
heuristics (CSH) proposes a typology of boundary categories
and questions, along with a model of cogent critical discourse
to which I refer as boundary critique or boundary discourse.
Like in the case of Habermas' work, this is not the place to
introduce the CSH framework of boundary discourse in any detail
(see, e.g., Ulrich, e.g., 1983, 1987, 1993, 2000; Ulrich and
Reynolds, 2010); suffice it to mention that I see in it a discourse-theoretical
response to the Upanishadic challenge of the jagatyam jagat,
the notion that all our knowledge and reasoning moves within
moving (i.e., unstable) jagats (real-world contexts).
observation: In a combined Upanishadic-discursive
perspective, rational practice and rational discourse become
inseparable in a deeper sense than is usually asserted. How
we act is always an expression of how we think, and how we think
has a lot to do with the universe (jagat) within we move. It
is to be expected that the empirical circumstances and normative
concerns we see as relevant "facts" and "values"
will differ with the assumed universes of discourse. People's
validity claims conflict with those of others not just
because the ones get their facts and value judgments right and
the others don't but rather, because the parties move in different
universes and thus risk talking past each other.
arguable practice thus becomes a fundamentally discursive
quality of how we deal with divergent discourse universes
and with the conflicting validity claims they entail. The etymological
root meaning of "discursive" is quite relevant here:
the Latin verb discurrere means as much as to "run
off in different directions," "diverge," or "run
back and forth." Such a focus contrasts with the conventional
understanding of applied science, professional competence, and
expertise (henceforth just "expertise"), where reference
to (supposedly) superior knowledge and competence is usually
taken to be sufficient for justifying claims, at least with
respect to relevant facts (but in effect often also to relevant
value judgments, as factual and normative judgments are not
independent). Nor does this conventional understanding recognize
that when it comes to boundary judgments, experts have no natural
advantage of competence over lay people but depend on the discursive
engagement of concerned citizens (see, e.g., Ulrich, 1983, 1993,
and 2000 for detailed and illustrated theoretical accounts).
An Upanishadic concept of discourse thus takes on a methodologically
more fundamental and further-reaching role than in the currently
prevailing concept of expertise. It is more fundamental
in that in addition to object-level discourse on the issues
or situations of interest, it brings into focus the role of
considered universes of discourses and suggests a discursive
approach to unfolding related contextual assumptions and implications.
It is further reaching in that it extends the concept
of expertise discursively so as to give concerned citizens a
meaningful role to play. These two extensions of the currently
dominating model of discourse move at different conceptual levels
inasmuch as the first requires a meta-level discourse and the
second, an object-level discourse; what they have in common
is that boundary discourse will be a crucial tool for driving
critical reflection and debate at both levels.
thus-extended, discursive concept of expertise coincides remarkably
with an Upanishadic view of inquiry. The Upanishadic ideal of
an inquiring and self-reflecting mind cannot content
itself to move within a given jagat; rather, it will
always aim for that higher level of consciousness (or
now, of discourse) which it associates with the search for brahman,
and at which alone right thought and conduct can be achieved.
We are reminded here of the Vedic distinction introduced earlier,
according to which knowledge is twofold: para
(lit. = higher, i.e., postulational or suppositional, second-order)
and apara (lit. = lower, i.e., observational or practical,
first-order). In such a perspective, boundary discourse represents
a higher level of discourse aimed at para vidya, whereas
ordinary discourse about factual and normative claims moves
at the lower level of apara vidya (compare Ulrich, 2015a,
pp. 6 and 8f).
observation: Continuing the line of argumentation
of the previous observation, a combined Upanishadic-discursive
perspective not only leads us to recognize that our discourses,
as rational as they may be in the terms of the Toulmin-Habermas
model of discourse, are conditioned by the jagat(s) within we
move; it also suggests that the jagats at work can and should
themselves be subjects of discourse (the mentioned "higher"
or meta-level). We have here a core consideration of what we
might indeed call an Upanishadic concept of discursive rationality,
and consequently also of discursive expertise. In addition
to the Toulmin-Habermas logic of discourse, it takes up the
Isha's point, according to which we have to conceive of all
human knowledge and thought in terms of jagatyam jagat,
"jagat moving in the jagats."
essential methodological consequence consists in the importance
of securing reflective and discursive chances for unfolding
contextual boundary assumptions, so that conflicting views and
claims can be seen in their light. How do relevant facts and
values change when the considered universe of discourse changes?
And conversely, may we need to adapt our universe of discourse
in the light of new facts or value considerations that have
come up in the discourse? What options are there to see relevant
contexts, so that previously divergent judgments of fact and
value might become partly shareable or at least the parties'
differences become mutually understandable, according to the
motto "we can agree that (and why) we don't agree"?
Such questioning can open up chances for learning and cooperation.
It can promote a new sense of appreciation and tolerance for
the value and validity of conflicting claims and perspectives.
Rationally motivated discourse and contextual self-reflection
can thus mutually support one another.
important point is that implementing such an Upanishadic concept
of rationality and expertise requires its own form of "higher"
to which I have referred above as boundary discourse. The
basic underlying idea is the critical turn of our concepts
of rationality and expertise, which means that discourse and
expertise are properly understood as means for questioning,
rather than justifying, validity claims. In the face of divergent
universes of discourse, claims to sufficient justification
are relatively (sic) meaningless, but sufficient critique
in the form of surfacing the influence of diverging contextual
assumptions is not. This idea corresponds to the stance of humility
and tolerance which we have encountered in the Upanishads, for
example, in the Mundaka's admonishment that inquiry should be a practice "free from self-will" (Mundaka, 3.1.6, as transl.
by Easwaran, 2007, p. 193, quoted in more detail in Part 4,
Ulrich, 2015a, p. 10). We also recognize this same
stance in the Isha's call for "renouncing." The point,
to be sure, is not that we should throw the ideal of sufficient justification over
board but only, that we should understand it precisely as such:
as an ideal that embodies a critical
standard or principle only, a demand for systematic efforts of uncovering the unavoidable
lack of complete justification in all our claims. The
quality of discourse is then to be understood in terms of a
new ethos of justification:
rationality of applied inquiry and design is to be measured
not by the (impossible) avoidance of justification deficits
but by the degree to which it deals with such deficits in a
transparent, self-critical, and self-limiting way. (Ulrich,
1993, p. 587)
observation: With the spotlight it throws on
contextual choices, an Upanishadic concept of expertise leaves
us with no illusion about the conditioned nature of even the
most thoroughly argued claims to knowledge and rationality.
Except perhaps in the case of purely analytic (deductive) reasoning,
with which we are not concerned here, they all depend to some
extent on suppositional reasoning. Suppositional reasoning
involves the drawing of conclusions from assumptions rather
than from complete evidence; in this case, assumptions concerning
the jagat(s) we take to represent the proper universe(s) of
discourse. But of course, once we recognize this role of suppositional
reasoning, the charge of a bottomless relativism is bound
to come up sooner or later.
is not much we can say from an Upanishadic perspective to counter
this charge, I fear; for no human quest for knowledge and rationality
can entirely escape the need for suppositional reasoning (insofar
the charge may be said to be a trivial, if not somewhat cheap
accusation). This is of course precisely why the Vedic sages
found it necessary for human thought to work with a counterconcept
to jagat such as brahman in the first place – the notion
of an all-encompassing, absolute universe of thought that would
be self-contained and thus independent of anything not included
in or controlled by it, not unlike Kant's (1787, B364, 367,
379f, 382f, 444, 445n) notion of a totality of conditions that
would itself be unconditioned (as discussed in Part 2 of this
series, Ulrich, 2014a, see esp. pp. 2f and 6-8).
a view to our present interest in a discursive understanding
of the Isha's reference to jagat, I suspect my main line
of argumentation would be that yes, relativism is part of the
human condition. It is inevitable in all human practice (including
discursive practice) and that is precisely why it matters that
we strive for that higher level of consciousness that Upanishadic
discourse embodies, understood as the search for brahman
or, as we might now say in the light of the preceding conjectures,
as a confluence of Upanishadic reflection and discursive critique
of validity claims in terms of underlying boundary judgments. To be
sure, that higher level of awareness and argumentation will
still not free us altogether from relativism; but at last, it
will make us aware of the sources of error and mutual misunderstanding
involved and thus can help us avoid or minimize them.
is, then, fair to say, I think, that I am
not singing the gospel of relativism here. Quite the contrary,
I am concerned with ways to handle it properly.
Precisely because we cannot avoid relativism, we need
to handle it in critically self-reflective and discursive
ways such as Upanishadic discourse supported by systematic processes
of boundary critique offers them. The underlying rationale is
that the trap we need to avoid is not relativism as such but only
relativism that remains unreflected and undisclosed with regard
to how it conditions our claims.
Only to that extent – we might
say, inasmuch as we are not aware of a speaker's or agent's actually "considered world"
– the claims concerned risk becoming sources of error
and lack of mutual understanding.
conclusions: Towards Upanishadic discourse
We have reached a point where the Upanishads are
beginning to enhance, perhaps even to change, not only our understanding
of the role of general ideas in human thought and action but
also, linked to it, our understanding of "rational"
discourse. A new notion of "Upanishadic" discourse
is emerging. Before we complete our discussion of the Isha's
message, let us briefly pause and, at the risk of repeating
things we have already understood, briefly sum up some of the
basic lessons that we have learned thus far, so as to realize
where we stand.
Upanishadic notions, discourse-theoretically understood
Perhaps most basically, the Upanishadic language
of "this" and "that," together with the
related distinction of "lower" (first-order) and "higher"
(second-order) knowledge, have helped us understand
that whatever particular
universe of discourse we move in, we should not confuse it with that other universe
"without a second" which alone would represent
a true and sufficient universe of discourse and which consequently
would be basically the same for everyone ("one only"). This
would be a universe of discourse that in principle everyone
would be able to share, although in practice no-one of this world
(no discourse participant) can ever credibly claim to know
and master it entirely. And yet, to the extent we aim to achieve
genuine mutual understanding, we must find ways to share our
individual worlds, lest we end up talking past one another.
the world of the "this" rather than the "that,"
it is clear that there will always be options for defining some
shareable universe of discourse. Accordingly some basic, shareable
standards and procedures for achieving mutual understanding
on such options will also be needed. The general ideas
we have been considering in the different parts of this series,
along with the related series of Reflections on Reflective Practice,
embody such standards: the systems idea, the moral idea,
and the idea of discursive rationality. We have characterized
them, inter alia, as the indispensable quest for (or
criterion of) comprehensiveness; as the principle (or criterion)
of moral universalization; and as the demand for (or criterion
of) rational motivation, respectively. The Upanishadic ideas
of atman, jagat, and brahman have made us see
these standards in a complementary perspective. As we begin
to appreciate, they point to a need for searching even deeper,
by reflecting on the role of suppositional reasoning and of
our inmost sources of subjectivity, of selectivity, and of aspiration
might, then, understand these three core ideas of Upanishadic
thought as embodying three different, but not independent, frames
of reference for defining and reflecting upon one's universes of discourse, whereby:
would refer to a speaker's private, often at
least partly unrevealed
and partly also unconscious, universe of discourse, one
rooted in one's innermost feelings and thoughts, values
and wishes with respect to the situation or issue in
question, as well as in one's personal biography and conforming
sense of identity;
would refer to a speaker's considered universe
of discourse, the real-world context one considers relevant
for assessing a situation or issue of concern and which
is never "given" in any definitive way
but always again needs to be identified by judgments that remain
open to question and challenge; and finally,
would refer to the ideal notion of a total universe
of discourse, an all-encompassing notion of the context
in question that no individual speaker can ever hope
or claim to master but which theoretically would include everything
potentially relevant for, and everybody potentially concerned
by, the issue or situation at hand, so that it could
serve as a universally shareable and in this sense "objective"
basis for agreeing on claims to proper knowledge and action.
a discourse-theoretical view of the Upanishads to an Upanishadic
view of discourse One might object that such a
discourse-theoretical use of Upanishadic core ideas amounts
to an instrumentalization, or at least to a one-sided perspective,
in that it merely asks how useful or relevant Upanishadic core
ideas look from a discourse-theoretical perspective, with a
view to employing them for a basically "Western" approach.
Indeed, one may with equal right reverse the perspective and ask
how Western ideas look in the light of an Upanishadic framework.
A basic example
might be the conventional Western opposition of theory and practice
or, within a discourse-theoretical framework, the distinction
between theoretical and practical discourse. In
Upanishadic terms we might speak of the path of knowledge (cultivating
careful contemplation and reflection) as distinguished from
the path of action
(cultivating good practice and change). Unlike the Western theory-practice
which often is (mis-) taken to imply that theory and practice are fundamentally different
categories and therefore allow of separate treatment, the Upanishadic
view emphasizes that both are legitimate paths of learning.
The quest for practical excellence is worth no less than the
search for theoretical mastery. To be sure, it is often advisable
to concentrate on one of the two paths of learning, so as to
achieve proper results and get far enough on the chosen path.
Accordingly the man of knowledge is often expected in Upanishadic
texts (including the Isha) to "renounce" the path
of action and worldly endeavors just as the man of action is
expected to focus on practice. Even so, it is quite clear that
both paths represent
legitimate and effective paths of learning, if chosen in accordance
with one's talents and circumstances of life. Likewise, both
paths involve learning and practicing with a teacher
or a person of superior achievement, through interaction that
is based on careful listening, observation, and dialogue. The discursive
element, then, is not a newcomer, much less a stranger, to Upanishadic
thought. Rather, I think it is fair to say that it is deeply intrinsic
to the Upanishadic conceptions of proper knowledge and proper action.
Both require learning; but learning is always a fundamentally
discursive endeavor, for it involves moving consciously and
carefully within and across one's considered (or accustomed)
This insight in
turn makes it understandable why for an Upanishadic thinker,
both the path of knowledge
and the path of action amount to a continuous search
for clarifying and developing one's conceptions of atman,
jagat, and brahman – a quest for coming to terms with fundamentally
divergent universes of discourse, that is. They are fundamentally
divergent – rather than just different – in that they represent
discursive universes of different nature or type; yet the pursuit
of excellence has no choice but to try and reconcile them in
thought and action, even if it will never succeed completely
in this endeavor.
earlier-introduced notion of a "double movement of thought"
is relevant here; we may understand it to be part of all learning,
which also means it is part of both the path of knowledge and
the path of action. (We might also speak of a double reflective
or discursive movement rather than a movement of "thought,"
lest we fall into the trap of associating it with the path of
knowledge only but not also with that of action, of which thought
is an inherent element as well.) In systems-theoretical language,
we might describe the basic reflective movement that Upanishadic
thought calls for – the search for brahman – as an expansive movement;
in Kantian language, as an enlarging movement of thought
and engagement. It
begins with one's "private" perceptions and concerns
and then works towards an increasingly richer and objective notion
of the issue or situation at hand. But, as the Upanishadic perspective further
suggests, that is not the end
of it. Learning never boils down to a unidirectional search
(systems expansion striving for comprehensiveness). The aim of this expansive
movement of reflection and discourse – the quest for knowing and becoming one with brahman
– is obviously an ideal. Both an Upanishadic and a discursive
perspective (the latter in the full sense of the Latin discurrere)
suggest to me that a reverse,
critical movement is of equal importance, one that moves
from supposedly comprehensive notions of situations or issues towards the innermost, unrevealed sources of perception
and engagement (or in the terms of critical systems heuristics,
the sources of selectivity and motivation) that are at work
in all human thought and action – the Upanishadic quest for knowing, and
becoming one with, one's atman. Thus combined, these
two "Upanishadic" movements of thought not only show
a deeply discursive orientation, they indeed yield a basic heuristic
for operationalizing the basic aim
that has emerged from this series of essays (at latest in Part
3), the search for a practicable framework
of critical contextualism.27)
much for a brief summary of where we stand. Back now to the
Isha's first verse, the text around which we have organized
our discussion in this present third essay on the Upanishads.
Continuing in the vein of the previous reflections, I propose
to conclude this discussion in a somewhat personal way. I will
first articulate my individual reading experience with the Isha's
first verse, and will then try to sum up this experience in
a free and unconventional rendering of the verse in English. In this way
I hope to help readers appreciate the Isha's message to the
contemporary researcher and professional as it results from
our exploration thus far – a message that is informed through
a discourse-theoretical reading but still tries to remain faithful
to the spirit and basic ideas of Upanishadic thought.
Some final thoughts on the Isha and my experience of reading it
Through an idea history that unfortunately is poorly documented,
the Isha's Upanishadic core theme of striking a balance between
"this" and "that" world, so as to allow
them to "become one" in our minds as a source of right thought
and action, has historically been turned
into a call for renunciation that was misunderstood as
intending deprivation rather than reconciliation.
As far as I can see and judge from countless hours of working
with Sanskrit dictionaries and studying different translations
of the Isha, along with learned commentaries on the Upanishads,
an adequate modern (i.e., secular) translation and discussion
of these sources of ancient wisdom is sadly missing today. It
seems to me that the presently available, religiously oriented
translations and commentaries obscure the Isha's message and relevance to
us today, rather than clarifying it and making it widely accessible.
Specifically regarding the Isha's first verse, my impression is that neither
its specific wording nor the larger Upanishadic context to which
it belongs require a narrowly religious reading as I have
encountered it throughout, with relatively minor variations.
Even Müller and Navlakha (2000) do not entirely avoid the
trap in their revised translation of the Isha's first verse
(as quoted at the outset above). Still, theirs remains the most
neutral translation in this regard. For the reader's convience,
I here reproduce the selection of translations that we have
considered earlier in this essay:
All this is for habitation by the Lord, whatsoever is
of movement in the universal motion.
renounced though shouldst enjoy;
lust not after any man's
Isha, 1.1, as transl. by Aurobindo, 1996, pp. 19 and
29, PDF version p. 5; my indents)
This whole world is to be dwelt in by the
whatever living being there is in the world.
So you should
eat what has been abandoned;
and do not covet anyone’s
Isha, 1.1., as transl. by Olivelle, 1996,
The Lord is enshrined in the hearts of
The Lord is supreme Reality.
Rejoice in him through
Covet nothing. All belongs to the Lord..
Isha, 1.1., as transl. by Easwaran, 2007, p. 57, my
this – whatever exists in this changing universe –
should be covered
by the Lord.
Protect the Self by renunciation.
Lust not after any
(Isha, 1.1, as transl. by Nikhilananda, 1949,
this, whatsoever that moves on earth
is to be hidden in the Lord
When thou hast surrendered all this,
then thou mayest
Do not covet the wealth of any man.
(Isha, 1.1, as transl. by Müller, 1879, p. 311; line-breaks and
All this, whatsoever that moves in this
is encompassed by the Self.
When thou hast
surrendered all that [i.e., the material wealth],
and wilt seek not
what others [continue to] possess,
then thou mayest truly
(Isha, 1.1, as transl. by Müller and Navlakha, 2000, p. 17;
my indents; read "that" as "this")
All translations agree
that the key phrase jagatyam jagat is to be read as a
predicate of idam sarvam (this entire world of
ours). All translations except Easwaran's then also offer a
rather neutral and accurate translation of this key phrase as
conveying the idea of something "moving
in this moving universe." However, only Müller and Navlakha subsequently
avoid a one-sidedly theist rendering of the further predicate
isha vasyam as referring to a supreme, almost biblical
God ("the Lord") who is assumed to be inhabiting (or
dwelling in, vasyam) the whole world. The less narrow
root meanings of isha as a source of authorship, ownership,
and mastery in the widest sense of these terms (ranging from
control of a piece of land to mastery of a subject and to self-control),
are lost. Müller and Navlakha's alternative
translation by means of the formula "is encompassed by
the Self" is not particularly clear and helpful either, and
it is certainly not the most adequate translation
imagine from a discourse-theoretical perspective; but at least it leaves the door
open for a secular and philosophical reading. The Isha's first line, isha vasyam idam sarvam, yatkincha jagatyam jagat,
then yields a truly fundamental epistemological reflection that
we might formulate in the following way (or similarly):
world of ours, whatever it includes (or what we take it to be),
is always shaped
by its author, the Self. (Isha 1.1, my approximate transl. of
the first line)
a consistently secular reading along such lines reveals this
timeless relevance of the Isha. Whether and to what
extent the author-Self to which it refers is to be identified with atman or with brahman
or even with a personified God, or else simply with a human
speaker or agent, remains in such a reading left to the interpreter
and can be
decided depending on the context, and this is good so.
might object that my reading is obviously biased by an epistemological
rather than theological interest, and I would not deny that.
Even so, in view of the etymological root meaning of isha as "possessing
strength" or "mastering" and "owning"
something, or being a "master, speaker, author," and
so on – meanings that still come to the fore in the word's contemporary
use; compare, for instance, the Spoken Sanskrit Dictionary, entry
– it is difficult to see why such a translation should be called
arbitrary. Its wording lends itself to both a secular or a religious reading
insofar is certainly not arbitrary. Quite the contrary, it seems
to me less arbitrary and rather more accurate than
any predefined reference to a personal God along the lines of the
Judeo-Christian tradition ("the Lord"), a reference
one might just as well suspect to have been imposed on the Sanskrit texts
by their early,
Western translators rather than amounting to a compelling translation.
that as it may, more important to me is that the overall
result of the suggested secular, open-minded approach makes perfect sense
and is apt to relate the Isha's message to our present epoch.
The Isha's message can then be understood to admonish us of
the omnipresent, because all too human, lack of thought and
awareness that characterizes our epoch no less than any previous
epoch of humanity:
All we may perceive
to make up this world of ours, and all we can say about it,
amounts to the expression of an unstable
and fragmentary universe of discourse (or jagat) that
we construct for ourselves, but which we should never confuse
with that other reality behind and beyond it that would amount
to the proper universe of discourse. (Isha 1.1, personal, discourse-theoretical
reading of the entire verse)
From a discourse-theoretical
perspective, such a translation hits the nail on its head, I
think. Moreover, unlike its religiously oriented siblings, it
may be said to be undogmatic in that
it leaves the door open for a more religious or spiritual reading to
those who prefer.
So far, so good. Let us now turn to the second line of the Isha's first verse.
Up to this point I feel that Müller and Navlakha's revised translation
is clearly the most openly worded and accurate, and thus supports
the above reading adequately, especially if one considers that Müller
did not have available at his time the option of
a discourse-theoretical understanding. But then, Müller and Navlakha go on and (I
cannot say it otherwise) mistranslate the
next crucial term of this first verse, tyaktena (a
composite term consisting of the etymological root terms tyakt
= "to derelict, abandon, leave" and ena = "[a
course, way] to be obtained") as a mere call to "surrender all
[material wealth]" (the brackets are theirs). While they are careful enough to point
out, by using brackets, that the reference to "material
wealth" is added by them rather than being original, they
apparently found no better English term than "surrender"
for expressing the Isha's demand for self-restraint and, as
we formulated it above, for not
claiming too much, tyaktena.
and Aurobindo's earlier-cited translations call for "renouncement"
and Olivelle's for "abandonment" of others' "wealth"
or "possessions." Such translations indeed
obscure the Isha's profound and multi-faceted wisdom, instead
of formulating it in a way that would provide room and impetus
for different strands of thought, as well as for relating it
to the pursuit of rationality, competence, and excellence in
multiple domains of our present world. The Isha thus appears to boil down (or
at least risks being misunderstood thus) to a mere call for
religious devotion and yes, for "surrender," rather
than for autonomous (i.e., responsible) and critical (i.e.,
self-reflecting) thought and action – the very contrary of spiritual
autonomy and enlightenment as the Upanishads seek to encourage
it. Genuine thinking
never surrenders to any demands other than those of self-reflecting
and responsible thought and action. Nor must it ever surrender to any
external authority, not even a brahmanic authority. It has no
choice but insisting on its autonomy, which includes its right
to rebel and say "no," perhaps even to provoke rather
than to surrender – an insight that earlier we found to stand at the beginning
of the Upanishads' history of ideas.
Looking back and reflecting on my reading experience with the Upanishadic
texts, I cannot help thinking of Martin Heidegger's thought-provoking
account of what thinking has the potential to be:
Thinking is thinking when it answers to what is most thought-provoking.
In our thought-provoking time, what is most thought-provoking
shows itself in the fact that we are still not thinking. (Heidegger,
1968, p. 28).
It may be time for a new reception of that ancient first verse of the Isha,
one that would be more thought-provoking and thereby also more faithful
to the spirit of the Upanishads. Such a translation would need
to leave room for multiple, richer and less one-sided readings
and translations than those prevailing today. And for interpretations
that would surely also be more immediately relevant to our contemporary
human condition, and thereby more accessible to contemporary
readers. All this and more stands to be gained; it should be
To be sure, it should be clear that my sketch of a discourse-theoretical reading hints at just one of
many conceivable options to be pursued by a renewed contemporary reception
of the Upanishads.
I am thinking, for example, of the huge diversity of contemporary philosophical
strands that might serve as sources of interpretation and discussion.
Discourse theory is merely one of them, one that I find useful
for a contemporary approach to quite a number of thought traditions,
among them practical philosophy, American pragmatism, and (critical)
systems theory – three strands of thinking that inform my work
on critical systems heuristics but which many of my readers
may want to replace by other strands of importance to them.28)
Further, it might be stimulating to analyze the Upanishads
in the light of different practical and cultural or institutional
contexts, ranging from professional to organizational, managerial
and political contexts in different cultural environments, all of which might benefit from engaging
in "Upanishadic discourse."
The potential for a more contemporary reception looks huge indeed. If I have
not been able to do more than hinting at it, it is that
I am all too well aware of the limitations of my preparation
for the job. They make it clear to me that I need to leave such
work to the specialists, in particular, to linguists and discourse
theorists steeped in Sanskrit, together with scholars of Indian
history and philosophy and of Upanishadic
thought in particular. Or is such self-restraint perhaps entirely mistaken, not
only because it may run against the inquiring and rebellious
spirit of the Upanishads but perhaps also because the Upanishads are too important to be left to the specialists?
Or conversely, are possibly even the few conjectures that I
have been able to offer already too much and imprudent, in that
the only way to be faithful to the Upanishadic spirit (and in
any case to be on the safe side) would have been to remain silent,
if not withdrawing to the forest? (But that would represent
a Vedic – and Buddhist – rather than Upanishadic spirit, I suppose.)
As a final reflection, I suspect that as an author coming from the worlds of Kant and of contemporary
practical philosophy, along with social science and systems
methodology, and having moreover only just begun to discover
and explore a new and bewildering land of thought, I may have
tended to be somewhat quick and effusive in writing home about
my first impressions. Perhaps I am moving on firmer
ground, however, when I express my belief that from a Western
perspective, it is truly regrettable that the contemporary,
secular relevance of Upanishadic thought (or at least its potential
for having such relevance) has remained and risks remaining
largely unrecognized and underestimated in the West, due to
a reception that seems to presuppose that years
of religious devotion, meditation, and renouncement of secular
concerns are a condition for adequate understanding. To speak
with Aristotle (1985) and Santayana (1905/06), I can see no
reason why Upanishadic thought should not be considered compatible
with, and indeed conducive to, leading a secular life of
reason and engaging practically with the world as it is
(not just as seen from the silence of the forests, that is).
That is what "The Professional's Isha" that I am going
to propose now is all about.
professional's Isha We have arrived
at the end of our discussion of the Isha. In the spirit of the
preceding comments and interpretations, I would like to propose a
reading of the Isha Upanishad that is accessible and meaningful
for practical researchers and professionals, as well as for
other practically engaged people. It attempts to understand
the Isha's first verse along the lines of the following five
short summary points to remember with the Professional's Isha:
(1) From a secular perspective, that which the Isha invites us
to "renounce" or avoid is not living life to the full
but rather, the presumption of knowledge and understanding that
results from lacking awareness of the particular universe of
thought and action within which each of us moves at any time,
and of the way it conditions and limits the meaning and validity
of our claims.
(2) A basic and frequent form that the presumption of knowledge
takes is that of claiming too much. Claiming more than we can
justify is wide-spread among professionals. Its characteristic
form is that of overgeneralizing, that is, arguing (and apparently
justifying) claims in terms of general ideas without declaring
their precise, limited range of application in the situation
at hand. Such overgeneralizing is particularly easy when one's
professional status of authority or expertise lets such claims
go unchallenged. It happens whenever professionals either
are unaware of the limited contexts to which their claims apply or else,
as is often the case, if they deliberately conceal them behind a facade
of expertise and routine.
(3) Since any such presumption of knowledge or expertise is inimical
to sound professional inquiry and responsible action – and to
reflective practice quite generally – it is important that professionals,
in every specific situation to which they bring their expertise,
be careful and reflective about the universe of discourse for
which their claims are meaningful and valid. In Upanishadic
terms, it is vital that they carefully reflect on and lay open
to those concerned the specific jagat
that in any situation shapes their professional "findings"
and "conclusions," that is, their "facts" and "values,"
and their notions of the "larger systems" of concern
and of the total universe of options for defining the reference
systems of their "rationality."
(4) It is by recognizing the particular rather than general nature
of any assumed universe of discourse, along with the ways their
and "values" depend on it and in turn condition
their claims, that professionals will get closer to grasping
the universe of people's multiple realities (the total universe
(5) Although comprehensive knowledge and understanding is beyond
human achievement, recognizing the limited nature of one's universe
of discourse and action is not. This provides the rationale
and starting point for developing a contemporary Upanishadic discipline
of self-limiting reflection and discourse on and in professional practice,
or what in my work on critical systems heuristics I call the
"critical turn" of our notions of competence and rationality.
The Professional's Isha
Here, then, is my proposed "professional" reading of the Isha's first
verse, as seen through the lens of the "five points to
remember" just summed up above.
A PROFESSIONAL'S UPANISHADIC WISDOM
All this moving universe of my thoughts and efforts
just one of many such universes, all bounded differently,
moving within that other one without a second.
When first I renounce the claim to owning or mastering any of them
be free to limit my claims and let others own theirs,
to enjoy owning and mastering mine.
(The Isha's first verse, interpreted as a call to Upanishadic reflection
and discourse; my tentative wording from a professional's
point of view)
For a hyperlinked overview of all issues
of "Ulrich's Bimonthly" and the previous "Picture of the
see the site map
In this continuation of our
current exploration of
the world of ideas of Ancient India, the example of the famous
first verse of the Isha Upanishad is discussed with a view to
what it might mean for contemporary professionals. The previous
essays of the series appeared in the Bimonthlies of
September-October 2013, January-February
2014, July-August 2014, September-October 2014, November-December
2014, March-April 2015, and May-June 2015.
The series continues with the Bimonthly of November-December
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