The main doctrines of the Upanishads, by a careful Christian student of them
The Hindu Scriptures are called the Veda or, as they are divided into four sections, the Vedas, the word Veda meaning knowledge. Each of these four sections, namely the Rig-Veda, the Tajur-Veda, the Sama- Veda and the Arthava-Veda, consists of Mantras (hymns), Brahmanas (liturgical treatises), Aranyakas (meditations for forest dwellers) and Upanishads (philosophical works). According to Jacobi, the earliest hymns may be eight thousand years old and, according to Ruben, the Upanishads were produced between 700 and 550 b.c.
The word Upanishad means to sit (sad) close by (upa) devotedly (nt) and later came to mean secret. Therefore these works comprise, it seems, secret instruction given by a teacher to competent pupils sitting near him. It must be explained that in the ancient world it was considered inexpedient to broadcast wisdom too openly, lest the ignorant should misunderstand it, misinterpret it, quarrel about it and make fun of it. Presumably that is why Jesus said :
“ Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you ”.
Presumably that is why He also said ; “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, but to them it is not given.”
The Upanishads are often referred to as the Vedanta, the word anta, like the English word end, meaning both terminus and aim. Not only are these books the concluding portion of the Veda, but also its goal and crown.
Although more than two hundred works have been called Upanishads, only the following thirteen can be regarded as canonical:—Isavasya, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka, Kaushitaki, Maitrayaniya and Svetasvatara. We do not know the chronological order of these.
On the whole their teaching is opposed to the ritualism and sacerdotalism of the Brahmanas. Here is a religion not of ceremonial but of the spirit. To find the best example of this protestant attitude turn to the Mundaka, where sacrifices are likened to unsafe boats and the worshippers to fools who are continually overcome by old age and death. In other passages, however, the ritual is allegorized and, to a certain extent recommended. In the Svetas- vatara we are exhorted to worship such gods as Agni and Soma, for it is maintained, when sacrifice is offered inspiration is born.
The polytheism of the Vedic hymns is likewise condemned. One ineffable, pervasive, spiritual Reality, Brahman, is said to exist, whose powers the gods are. In other words, the gods become what the orthodox Christian would describe as angels.
The most important doctrine put forward in the Vedanta is that the true Self, the Atman, of every living being, that which persists behind all mental states, the common factor in waking, dreaming, deep sleep, death, rebirth and final deliverance, is identical with Brahman, the ground of the universe, the absolute Self. Hence the well-known formulae
“ That Thou Art ” (Tat Twam Asi) and “ I am Brahman ” (Aham Brahmasmi). This is an extremely difficult conception for the western mind to grasp, but Jesus, so the modern hindu would maintain, was referring to this very truth when He said : “ I and my Father are one ”.
Nor should we forget Eckhart, the fourteenth century Dominican preacher of the Rhineland, who could write : “ If I am to know God directly, I must become completely He and He I, so that this * He ’ and this ‘ I ’ become and are one.”
Here is a description of Reality from the Brihadaranyaka. “ He who, dwelling in all things, yet is other than all things, whom all things do not know, whose body all things are, who controls all things from within, He is yourself, the inner Ruler, immortal ”.
And these words, uttered by Uddalaka to his son, Svetaketu, from the Chandogya— “ You cannot see the spirit, but in truth He is here. An invisible and subtle essence is the spirit of the whole universe. That is Reality. That is Truth. That Thou Art.” The term Brahman is derived from the root Brih meaning to burst forth or grow. It appears that the term originally meant prayer, speech, the urge to express oneself, but later came to signify that which has burst forth or grown into the universe. The other term, Atman, seems at first to have meant breath.
As the Upanishads are neither from a single author nor systematic treatises on philosophy, their teaching is in many particulars hardly consistent, a fact which eventually gave rise to the different Vedantic schools. There are, for instance, two distinct, but not necessarily exclusive ways in which the non-dual Brahman-atman is conceived, called respectively the cosmic and acosmic view. According to the former, Brahman-atman is regarded as the all-inclusive ground of the universe, that which gives reality to the universe, while, according to the latter, it is the sole Reality and the universe a mere appearance.
The cosmic view can be seen in the following passage’ from the Chandogya : “ The Self is indeed below ; the Self is above. The Self is to the west, the Self is to the east; the Self is to the south, the Self is to the north; the Self is indeed this whole world.”
And here is an example from the Brihadaranyaka of the acosmic view. “ This is imperishable, O Gargi, which the wise men adore—not gross, not subtle, not short, not long, not red, not adhesive, without shadow, without darkness, without air, without space, without attachment, without taste, without smell, without eyes, without ears, without speech, without mind, without light, without breath, without mouth, without measure and without inside or outside. Not That does anything eat, nor That does eat anything ”.
In later Vedantic literature Brahman is referred to as Satchitananda, Sat meaning existence, chit meaning consciousness, and ananda meaning bliss or peace. Perhaps ananda could be translated as the peace of God which passeth all understanding.
According to most of the creation texts to be found in the Upanishads, the universe is the manifestation of an aspect of Brahman, or, in other words, , as the later Vedanta has it, Brahman is not only the efficient, but also the material cause of the universe. In spite of this, it is contended that Brahman is in no way affected by the creation’s blemishes.
At the beginning of things, so we read, there evolved from the absolute Self one after another the five elements, namely space, air, fire, water and earth, each of these elements having a distinctive feature to be detected by one of the human senses. Space is said to be characterised by sound, air by touch, fire by colour, water by taste and earth by smell. From the five elements the whole universe is supposed to be derived.
In the earlier Upanishads no mention is made of repeated alternations of creation and dissolution, but, according to the Svetasvatara, Rudra, after creating all things, merges them together at the end of time, a process which is performed by Him periodically.
If you accept the acosmic view of Brahman, you will of course acknowledge that, as the universe is only an appearance, there can be no real creation, and, although the later Fedantic doctrine of may a, illusion, is not fully worked out in the Upanishads, it is definitely implied in some passages of these works that phenomena are illusory.
The word maya can be met with both in the Bri- hadaranyaka and the Svetasvatara. In the latter the Lotd of all beings is described as Mayavin. According to the Taittiriya, the individual soul has five sheaths, those of food, breath, mind, intellect and bliss, which form its earthly home. In the later Vedanta these are reduced to three, the gross body, the subtle body and the causal body. The gross body is the first sheath and the subtle body the next three. The causal body is the name given to one’s ignorance, avidya, of one’s identity with Brahman, an ignorance causing one’s wearisome series of births and deaths.
The soul, because consubstantial with God, is eternal and death is merely a shuffling off of a gross body. When death occurs, the average ignorant soul, oblivious of its divinity and still inhabiting its subtle body, automatically finds a new gross body to suit its spiritual condition. If it is good, it will inherent a gross body which is noble, and, if bad, then a gross body which is low. “Verily one becomes good by good works ”, says Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka, “ and evil by evil ”. And this from the Chandogya. “ Those who are of praiseworthy conduct here —the prospect is, indeed, that they will enter a noble Womb, either the womb of a. Brahmin, or the womb of a Kshatriya, or the womb of a Faishya.
But those who are of hateful conduct here—the prospect is, indeed, that they will enter an ignoble womb, either the womb of a dog, or the womb of a swine, or the womb of an outcaste.” The view is also expressed in the Upanishads that, when they cast off the gross body, some souls before returning to earth, spend a period in heaven or hell.
This belief that one’s present life is the direct result of one’s previous lives is known as the karma doctrine, the word karma meaning deed. The law of karma is regarded as not only inexorable, but also just. It is a spur to spiritual progress, for, as every soul has the urge, however feeble and however unconscious, to realise its divinity, it can slowly but surely extricate itself from the workings of this law. Man is thus the architect of his fate.
In fact the whole purpose of human life is, according to the Upanishads, to gain freedom, salvation, moksha, from the series of births and deaths. In these works there are two views of moksha, which do not however seem to be irreconcilable, one that it is attainable in this present life, the other that it is to be gradually reached after death by those who, having, as it were, caught the first clear glimpse of their godhead here, are no longer earth-bound. The latter sort of freedom is described as krama-mukti, gradual release, and in the later Vedanta the former sort, which appears to accord with the acosmic view of Reality, came to be called sadyo-mukti, instantaneous release, and jivan-mukti, release while yet alive. Jivan-mukti is presumably what Catholic mystical theology calls the unitive life and deification.
Although the doctrine of rebirth seems strange to western thinkers, it was held by Pythagoras, Plato, Empedocles, Plotinus, Basilides and Origen. Dean Inge thought that it might still have a future and Dr. W. F. Cobb, another Church of England divine, adopted it.
Western thinkers have also been much troubled by the conception of moksha, for, if some Vedantic passages are to be taken literally, it appears to be not eternal life, but annihilation, unconsciousness. There is, for example, this from the Mundaka. “As the flowing rivers disappear in the sea, losing their name and form, thus a wise man, freed from name and form, goes to the divine Person, who is beyond all.” And, according to the Prasna, on attaining moksha the individual soul “ becomes merged in the supreme undecaying Atman.”
However, Swami Akhilananda assures us in his book “ Hindu Psychology ”, that salvation is not unconsciousness, but super-consciousness, an ineffable state far exceeding anything which the individual consciousness can imagine. “ Moksha ”, writes Dr. T. M. P. Mahadevan, “ is release from bondage, freedom from sansara. It is not a mere negative state of absence of sorrow, it is absolute bliss, undisturbed peace.” From the Prasna we learn that it is omniscience.
Although little mention is made in the Upanishads of morality, it is most certainly assumed that, unless a man disciplines himself, he cannot be saved. In the Brihada- ranyaka we are exhorted to cultivate self-control, to be generous and to have compassion, while in the Kena both ethical conduct and serenity are recommended. “ Not he who has not ceased from bad conduct, not he who is not tranquil, not he who is not composed, not he whose mind is turbulent can obtain Him by intelligence.”
Some modern scholars have been shocked because, according to the Upanishads, the man who has realised God in this life is said to be above rule, free to do what he likes, but this only means that he is good not through commandment, but spontaneously. Did not one of our western mystics, St. Augustine of Hippo, say: Love and do what you like ?
In the Vedanta we are told that there are two kinds of knowledge. There is lower knowledge, which includes the empirical sciences, the arts and even the Veda itself, and there is the higher, esoteric knowledge, which is identical with salvation. In order to acquire this latter knowledge, we must, according to the Brihadaranyaka, study wisdom under a proper guide, carefully reflect upon what we have studied and finally meditate. Many systems of meditation are given in these books.
The spirit of the Upanishads is well summed up in the following oft-quoted prayer from the Brihadaranyaka:—
“ From the unreal lead me to the Real, From darkness lead me to Light, From death to Immortality.”
by the Rev. Thomas Hyslop, Rector of Salford and Little Rollright, Oxon.