Asian Philosophy 2: The Upanishads & Hindu Epics
Last time, looking at the Vedas, we saw that many different traditions and interpretations flourish in Indian thought and Hinduism. We also briefly discussed that the Vedas were followed by the Upanishads and then by Vedanta, both which extended the interpretations of the Vedas toward philosophical monism beyond any specific deity or dogma.
As the Upanishads continued to gain teachers and followers, there was a new flowering of many schools of thought between 700 and 400 BCE that took much from the Vedas and Upanishads but developed the teachings in new directions. These new schools often rejected the caste system (still in place today in spite of these ancient rebellions) and thus gained massive followings among all classes and castes of India. Jainism was one of the first, but it was quickly developed and transformed itself into a religion that is possibly the most popular system of thought in history, Buddhism.
The Upanishads (beginning in 800 BCE, most having been written by 600 BCE) were philosophical teachings about the soul/self (atman) and how to release the soul from desire and identity to merge with the great One and All (the goal of moksha or nirvana, discussed last time). The Upanishads frequently interpret the stories of the Vedas as metaphoric teachings, instructions for the truly wise on how to develop the mind/soul/self. The self (atman) was to be united with the supreme reality, oneness, and spirit of all, Brahman. ‘Upanishad’ means “sitting down near/beside”, (upa, ‘near’, ni, ‘down’, sad, ‘sit’) as these are the close teachings of the priest, philosopher or master who has taught the Vedas for a long time and knows their secret and hidden ‘inner’ meaning. The students who were talented and advanced would sit down beside the teacher after the normal lecture to get the advanced, inner teaching that the normal students were not ready to hear. Unfortunately, there are no authors to which the texts are ascribed, having been lost to history. Perhaps some of these teachings are as old as the Vedas, and were only written down after 800 BCE. There are over 200 Upanishad texts, though there are 10 central Upanishads.
One of the most famous sayings from the Upanishads is Tat Tvam Asi, “That is you”. No matter what “that” you are looking at, it is in fact your own self because all is one and there are no complete or permanent separations between any two things. This means there is no complete distinction between any ‘this’ or ‘that’, and thus no complete distinction between atman and Brahman, or between any of the gods and Brahman. This is similar to another passage of Zhuangzi the Daoist, one of my favorite skeptical passages of philosophy, which says, “A sage too has a this and a that, but his that has a this, and his this has a that”. Notice the monism that unites all connecting not only the various Hindu gods together but all individuals in the singular One of reality.
In Indian artwork, for all schools of Indian thought including both Hinduism and Buddhism, one of the most common hand gestures or ‘mudras’ is the thumb and index finger touching forming a circle with the rest of the fingers extended, much like the ‘OK’ hand sign. The thumb and index finger are symbolically pinching the seed, grain or essence of a thing. While we may be skeptical of spiritual powers associated with hand gestures, hand and finger positioning has been shown to stimulate the same areas of the brain as counting, numbers and language. This is likely because the development of number and language systems went ‘hand in hand’, so to speak, with the earliest gestures for primitive communication. We naturally begin and often continue counting on our fingers, and use our fingers to point, intend and indicate. The sages instructing students in the Upanishads and the Buddha are often portrayed displaying the essence/grain mudra, as it is associated with not only teaching, and teaching about essences (such as, the self is essentially, at bottom, basically an illusion), but also on a deeper level the supreme One which is the true undifferentiated reality supporting and consisting of all particular things and all individual selves.
Just like the unorthodox systems of Jainism and Buddhism would do later, the Upanishads point beyond particular duties to ritual, sacrifice, caste or class to the supreme goal of self-liberation. This had a great appeal to those who were not Brahmins, the priests who formed the top level of the caste system. While the Upanishads did not say to abandon the caste system, the teachings were applicable to all. As we will see, Mahavira who founded Jainism and the Buddha both had great appeal as they openly said that one did not need to be reborn as a priest to have a shot at nirvana. Rather, one could have it in this very life and not need to reposition oneself for a better life through karma. Both Mahavira and Buddha were warrior’s sons and so were second class themselves. We can see that, as the Upanishads caught on and became one of if not the most influential source in the further developments of Indian thought, people increasingly questioned the Vedas and the caste system even as they continued to retain them as many still do today.
Selections from the Upanishads
In the Isha Upanishad, we find:
Onward, descending, go whoever are slayers of the self. Unmoving, the One is swifter than the mind…It moves. It moves not. It is far, and it is near. It is within all this, and it is outside of all this….What delusion, what sorrow is there, of him who perceives the unity! The bright, the bodiless, the scathe-less, the sinew-less, the pure…Appropriately he distributed objects through the eternal years. Into blind darkness enter they that worship ignorance. Into darkness greater than that they that delight in knowledge. Other, indeed, they say, than knowledge! Other, they say, than non-knowledge!…Knowledge and non-knowledge: He who this pair conjointly knows, with non-knowledge passing over death, with knowledge wins the immortal. Into blind darkness enter they who worship non-becoming. Into darkness greater than that they who delight in becoming. Other, they say, than origin! Other, they say, than non-origin…Becoming and destruction: He who this pair conjointly knows, with destruction passing over death, with becoming wins the immortal.
Notice this passage suggests that the One moves and does not move, is knowledge and the opposite of knowledge, is the permanent and eternal as well as endless transformation, both evolution and decomposition. It warns that you can fall into ignorance by preferring any one of these to its opposite, as you would then be following a part, not the whole. Remember that Vishnu is the great savior and preserver god in the Hindu tradition, and Shiva is the great destroyer and transformer god. This Upanishad is quite compatible with seeking a union of Vishnu, Shiva and all of their incarnations as not only Brahma, the singular One personified as a god, but Brahman, the One as unpersonified, as beyond personifications and anthropomorphism.
In the Katha Upanishad, a dialog between the sage Naciketas and Yama, god of death, the good is praised above the pleasant. As the sourcebook points out, this is very similar to what Socrates argues in dialogues written by Plato. The highest mind is to be pursued, rather than the simple passing pleasures. Naciketas says to Death, after being taught: “Ephemeral things! That which is a mortal’s, O End-maker, even the vigor of all the powers, they wear away. Even a whole life is slight indeed. Yours are the vehicles! Yours is the dance and the song!”. This passage uses ‘vehicles’ as vessels or individual things that convey pleasure or anything else. The vehicle is a popular metaphor for teaching or school in Indian thought, and as we will see the various schools of Buddhism are known as vehicles.
Yama replies that those who teach that reality is some part rather than the whole are blind men led by a blind man. This is, in fact, the origin of the phrase, “blind leading the blind”. Yama says, “Him who is the bodiless among bodies, stable among the unstable, the great, all-pervading self, on recognizing him, the wise man sorrows not”. Yama uses a metaphor used by Plato through the mouth of Socrates, the self as charioteer, the body as a chariot, and the senses and passions as the horses. Yama tells of a complex stack of higher and truer selves:
Higher than the senses are the objects of sense. Higher than the objects of sense is the mind, and higher than the mind is the intellect (buddhi, also ‘consciousness’ or ‘awareness’, just as the Buddha is the ‘awakened one’). Higher than the intellect is the great self. Higher than the great is the unmanifest. Higher than the unmanifest is the great person. Higher than the person is nothing at all. That is the goal. That is the highest course.
There are two knowledges to be known, as indeed the knowers of Brahman are wont to say: a higher (para) and a lower (apara). Of these, the lower is the Rg Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda, and the Atharva Veda (the four principle Vedas, the central canonical and dogmatic texts above which there is no other). Now, the higher is that whereby that Imperishable is apprehended. That which is invisible, ungraspable, without family, without caste, without sight or hearing is It, without hand or foot, eternal, all-pervading, omnipresent, exceedingly subtle, that is the imperishable, which the wise perceive as the source of beings…He who knows that, set in the secret place of the heart, he here on earth, my friend, rends asunder the knot of ignorance…What that is, know as being and non-being, as the object of desire, higher than understanding, as what is the best of creatures!…Taking as a bow the great weapon of the Upanishad, one should put upon it an arrow sharpened by meditation. Stretching it with a thought directed to the essence of that, penetrate that imperishable as the mark, my friend…As the flowing rivers in the ocean disappear, quitting name and form, so the knower, being liberated from name and form, goes unto the heavenly person, higher than the high. He who knows that supreme Brahman, becomes very Brahman.
In the Chanddogya Upanishad, we see Jabala leaving to study sacred knowledge and seek a teacher, so he asks his mother what family he comes from. This is important, as family is caste and ethnicity according to the tradition and purity laws. His mother tells him, and he in turn tells his teacher and sage, that when she was young she was a maid and got pregnant and does not know who his family is. His teacher replies that he will accept him as a student, as only a Brahmin, the top priestly caste, could answer that way. This is an interesting reversal, considering that the Brahmins are supposed to be pure and preserve their purity, while his mother’s story seems anything but top caste or pure. He then begins to be taught:
In the beginning, this world was just being (sat), one only, without a second. To be sure, some people say in the beginning this world was just non-being (asat), one only, without a second, from that non-being, being was produced. But verily, how could this be?…It bethought itself, would that I were many. Let me procreate myself…As the bees prepare honey by collecting the essences of different trees and reducing the essence to a unity, as they are not able to discriminate, ‘I am the essence of this tree’ or ‘I am the essence of that tree’, even so, indeed, all creatures here, though they reach being, know not ‘We have reached being’. Whatever they are in this world, whether tiger or lion, or wolf, or boar, or worm, or fly, or gnat, or mosquito, that they become. That which is the finest essence, this whole world has that as its self. That is reality. That is self. That art thou.
This is the place where this central thought, ‘Tat tvam asi’, is written. The sage asks Jabala to bring him a fig, and then cut it up. He asks what is inside, and Jabala says seeds. He asks Jabala to cut the seeds, and asks what he sees inside, and Jabala replies, ‘Nothing’. The sage responds, “That is the essence that you do not perceive, and it gives rise to the entire fig tree”. Then the sage asks Jabala to put salt in water so it dissolves and asks him to sip from several sides, and each time Jabala replies that he tastes salt. Like the inside of the fig seed, the sage says that the essence of all is hidden yet perceivable in all things equally.
In a hilarious passage of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, a student questions that master about how many gods there are repeatedly, and the master keeps changing his answer. At first, he says that the Vedic hymn to all the gods says there are 303 and 3003, which would be 3306 all together. Then he says there are 33, then 6, then 3 (likely Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma), then 2, then one and a half, and finally one, which is breath and Brahman. The sage goes on to teach the student:
There are two conditions: being in this world and being in the other world. There is a third condition that is being in sleep. By standing in this condition one sees both of the others…When one goes to sleep, one takes along the material of this all containing world , himself tears it apart, himself builds it up, and dreams by his own brightness, by his own light. Then this person becomes self-illuminated. There are no chariots there, no spans, no roads, but he projects from himself chariots, spans, roads. There are no blisses there, no pleasures, no delights, but he projects from himself blisses, pleasures, and delights. There are no tanks there, no lotus pools, no streams, but he projects from himself tanks, lotus pools and streams, for he is a creator. While he does not there know, he is truly knowing, though he does not know, for there is no cessation of the knowing of a knower, because of his imperishability…There is on earth no diversity. As a unity only is it to be looked upon, this indemonstrable, enduring being, spotless, beyond space, the unborn self, great enduring.
In this cycle of existence I am like a frog in a waterless well…In thinking ‘This is I’, and ‘That is mine’, one binds oneself with oneself, as does a bird with a snare…Therefore, by knowledge (vidya), by austerity (tapas), and by meditation (cinta), Brahman is apprehended…For thus has it been said: He who is in the fire, and he who is here in the heart, and he who is yonder in the sun – he is one.
The Hindu Epics: The Ramayana and Mahabharata
As the Upanishads gained prominence and pushed towards philosophical monism, for Brahman beyond even the personification of Brahma, the Hindu tradition simultaneously gathered theistic traditions together in the great epics. These tails tied many gods together along with Hindu traditional law and philosophical teachings of the Upanishads. This is why these texts have such a key role in Hinduism, providing the teachings and morals in a narrative and memorable form.
The Ramayana is a story of Rama, incarnation of Vishnu, and his quest with Hanuman, the monkey god, to rescue his wife Sita from the demon Ravana. In the beginning of the story, Ravana is a demon but also a sage devoted to Shiva who meditates for an impossibly long time and grows nine other heads that give him all the magical powers in the world. Having obtained everything achievable, he decides to end his existence and proceeds to cut off one head at a time and throw them into a fire. Just as he is about to cut his original and final throat, Brahma appears and says that he will grant Ravana whatever he desires, and Ravana asks to never be killed by gods, spirits or demons. Brahma grants this, and from this moment on Ravana is the villain of the story.
The first thing Ravana does is go to Shiva, who is portrayed as stoned on bhang (milk steeped in pot), and demand Shiva, the destroyer, submit to him. Shiva responds by lifting a finger and imprisoning Ravana in stone for thousands of years. When Ravana finally breaks free he is quite pissed. Vishnu decides to be incarnated as Rama so that Ravana can be killed by a mortal human. After Ravana’s sister tries to seduce Rama and Ravana’s brother leads an army of demons against Rama and is slain, Ravana decides to kidnap Sita, Rama’s wife.
There is an underlying theme of woman as desire and the instigator of conflict. Ravana is drawn against Rama by his sister, and Rama is drawn against Ravana by his wife. Later in the story, when Rama is following Brahma and his consort goddess Gayatri through the jungle, and as the goddess sways as she walks Rama (who is, of course, identical with Brahma not only as an individual but an incarnation of a central god himself) catches glimpses of Brahma. This is clearly symbolizing desire as in motion (as the hips of a goddess), and even though it too is one with all you can see glimpses of the All amidst and beyond the motions of desire which get in the way. This does, unfortunately, fit with the ancient cosmological view that women are of the earth, and of the body, emotion and desire, and men are of the sky, on top of woman, and of the mind, reason and putting desire in check. This does place men above women, as well as suggest that women are not rational because they are emotional, which is not so egalitarian. Philosophers such as Hume and Nietzsche argue that thought is always driven by emotion and desire, for both men and women, and psychologists tell us that men are just as emotional as women, but women tend to be more expressive of emotion and men tend to conceal emotion, particularly in conflict.
On his way to free Sita, Rama and his brother Lakshmana meet Hanuman, the monkey god. Monkeys, like women, are often symbolic of desire and attachment, the lower part of human nature. One exception to this are the baboons of Thoth, ancient Egyptian god of knowledge, who symbolize intelligence and inquiry. Monkeys, like people, are full of desire and tend to get into everything. We will soon cover the Buddhist concept of the monkey mind, leaping from thing to thing searching for satisfaction. The idea is not to eliminate desire, but to put it in check by reason, as mentioned, and so Hanuman serves Rama through the course of the story and helps him to rescue Sita after Rama helps Hanuman reconquer his monkey kingdom. Note that without Hanuman, without desire, Rama could not put things right again. Hanuman sends out search parties as king of the monkeys, and the team he sends to the south discovers that Sita has been taken to Sri Lanka, the large island south of India, where Ravana rules as king. After the armies of Rama and Ravana clash, and Ravana is slain, Rama returns home with Sita.
The Mahabharata is incredibly long. It is almost two million words, ten times the length of the Odyssey and the Iliad, the two Greek Epics of Homer, combined. The central and most celebrated part of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavadgita, the story of crown prince Arjuna hesitating before fighting a civil war against his family and former friends and teachers, and then being counseled by Krishna as an incarnation of Vishnu that as a warrior it is Arjuna’s duty to fight the just fight even if is against everyone else. Along the way, Krishna explains Hindu doctrines of past lives, karma, liberation, the caste system, and duty. In the peak moment of the story, Krishna reveals his true self to Arjuna, which is so dazzling, complex and monstrous that Arjuna trembles with fright. Krishna teaches Arjuna that if you do your duty not for yourself but for the cosmos, you are free of doubt and death, and that the cosmos is far beyond human understanding.