Written with extraordinaryt1arity and elegance, this book is an excellent exposi1TWof the complex philosophy of Advaita. A special feature of the book is that it inspires the readers to inquire deeply into their own traditions and undertake the mystical quest. The author’s emphasis on “first-hand truth” is indeed heartening, for, as he says quite rightly,” ultimate questions are too important to be left for others to determine the answers.” Professor Puligandla approaches Vedanta as a free and independent thinker with a desire to modernize its format and shows the key to search and reach the highest form of living truth by tracing the single theme of non-dualism.
Born in India and educated in India and the USA, Ramakrishnan Puligandila is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, at University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio. He holds graduated degrees in electrical engineering and theoretical physics and a Ph.D. in philosophy. His specialities are logic, philosophy of science, and comparative philosophy and religion, with emphasis on the Indian and Western traditions. He is the author of more than a hundred scholarly papers and reviews and ten books, including Interpretation of Quantum Theory, Fundamentals of Indian Philosophy, Jnana-Yoga The way of Knowledge, and Reality and Mysticism. Twice recipient of Fulbright Lecturing Fellowship, he has widely lectured in India, China, Europe, and the USA.
THIS book is for all people who are interested in and committed to serious quest for liberating knowledge and hence for true freedom, wisdom, peace, and joy, irrespective of ethnic, religious, national, and political identifications. There has been for some time now in the West increasing interest in the religious quest, and more than a few Westerners have been led in their quest to study and practise the traditions of India and China — Vedanta, Buddhism, Taoism, Ch’an Buddhism (“Zen Buddhism” in Japan), and so on. There has been an enhanced interest in the mystical pursuit, and there are Westerners who study and practise Yoga, recognized and recommended by even Western doctors and health-care specialists and providers. There are Westerners who systematically practise some form or other of meditation, including the well-known Transcendental Meditation.
This book fills a timely need on behalf of anyone who is earnestly yearning to discover her or his true being and hence ultimate reality, and clearly understand the status and nature of the being of the world. In this connection, it is important to note that the mystical pursuit is not confined to the Indian and Chinese traditions; on the contrary, it was, is, and will be in all civilizations, including the non-literate and pre-literate. There have always been mystics in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. However, mysticism always occupied a marginal and peripheral position in these traditions, unlike the Indian and Chinese, characterized by the centrality of the mystical quest. This book is to inspire people to discover and practise the mystical quest as formulated in their own traditions; for all mystical pursuits lead to the same realization. The Upaniads are mystical works par excellence and hence have the power to awaken everyone to the mystical quest. This is the ultimate justification for my writing this book.
There are innumerable works, ancient, modern, and contemporary, on the Upaniads. If so, why another book? Almost all the books on the Upaniads are too voluminous and academic and therefore do not command the attention of the intelligent and inquiring segment of the general public. Accordingly, the sole reason for my writing this book is to make available and accessible a book to the sector of the general public I alluded to above. Thus anyone who is not an academic specialist but genuinely and seriously interested in inquiring into the self, the world, God, and the ultimate reality and thereby the meaning and purpose of life will find this book a clear response in her or his quest for reality and wisdom.
This does not, however, mean that the book lacks rigour, precision, and textual exactitude; rather, it means that there is nothing in it that an academician can find fault with and that the essence of the Upanisadic teaching and wisdom is conveyed without the scholarly jargon, which, while it certainly has its place — the academia — will only serve to confuse, bewilder, discourage, and dishearten the inquiring, searching, and questing lay reader. In short, the book is clean and fight from the scholarly standpoint and at the same time it is informative, easily readable, and yet one unfailingly gets the meaning and message (of the Upanisadic seers and sages, nis in Sanskrit). I have deliberately avoided burdening the reader with footnotes, the typical scholarly embellishments, since my prime concern here is to get the reader to clearly grasp and examine the Upanisadic teaching and arrive at her or his own verdict. Even if the reader does not agree with me, she is now more informed and better educated than when she began reading the book. I wish to stimulate, provoke, and inspire the reader to inquire and never to settle for second-hand truth. Only truth, certifiable through one’s own, direct, existential, and authentic experience, is worthy of the title “first-hand truth.” All else is a product of concepts, images, and projections — in short, of conditioning — lacking the power to radically transform the human being. If I am even moderately successful in realizing this goal — inspiring the reader to inquire — I will have been more than rewarded.
It is not my purpose in this book to discuss and comment on each of the Upaniads; rather, my purpose is to provide the essence — the heart — of the Upanisadic teaching, as can be gathered from all the principal Upaniads and elaborate upon the meaning and significance of the central teaching. If I were to discuss each of the Upaniads in detail, this book would be a work for the academics and not for the readership I intend it for. I should be most gratified, if readers of the book feel sufficiently inspired to read the Upaniads themselves.
There can be no greater reward for an author. However, that I shall not discuss each of the Upaniads does not, at all, mean that the reader will be missing something essential, crucial, and most significant and valuable of the Upanisadic teaching and wisdom; let me assure the reader that such is not the case, for what I propose to offer here is the very heart-beat of the Upanisadic teaching. Everything at the core of this teaching is presented in an easily readable, understandable, and hence enjoyable manner and style. The reader will only miss the burden and unpleasant task of going through a plethora of footnotes, references, and other academic decorations, not at all necessary or indispensable for clearly and authentically communicating the grand vision and fundamental message of the Upaniads. I shall quote the Upanisadic texts only when necessary, in documenting the central concepts and propositions. I also shall provide a relevant bibliography — a list of references, for purposes of further study and reflection.
Sanskrit words will be used, and once the reader understands a concept, she will more or less automatically (spontaneously!) remember the Sanskrit word or phrase corresponding to the concept. In any case, I shall employ the minimum possible number of Sanskrit words and phrases; and even when I provide the Sanskrit terms in parentheses, it is not important for the reader to remember them; rather, what is of paramount importance is that the reader clearly and full grasp the concept and the message under discussion. I shall now move on to address myself to the task at hand.
WHAT exactly are the Upaniads? In order to clearly answer this question, we need to understand what is known as “the Vedic background” and therewith the evolution of ideas from this background into the central Upanisadic insights.
The Vedas, by scholarly consensus, are the oldest (1500—800 BCE) among the sacred writings and scriptures of the world. Before we go on, an important clarification is to be made concerning the word “scripture.” “Scripture” is a Western concept, belonging to the Semitic-based traditions — the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic — meaning the word of God. The Vedas are not the word of God; that is, they are not to be thought of as revealed by God to the human being. Nevertheless, they can be understood as revelation, in the sense of Truth revealing itself to itself; simply put, Truth which reveals itself and to whom It is revealed are one and the same. In the light of these considerations, the Vedas are most correctly referred to as Sruti, meaning that which is directly heard, as different from Smrti, that which is remembered as the teachings of the ancient seers and sages. “Sacred writings of Hinduism” is thus the most appropriate way of referring to the Vedas. They are the source of the sacred knowledge and wisdom of orthodox Hinduism in its various forms. The term “Veda” is etymologically related to the English “wit,” meaning knowledge. (It surely is of interest to note here that the English words “witch” and “wicca” originally referred to a person of knowledge and wisdom, long before witches and witchcraft fell into disrepute and it became customary and matter-of-fact to bum at the stake persons accused of witch-crafting.
These observations are not meant to suggest that the Vedas have something to do with witchcraft; rather, the intent of these remarks is to call attention to the linguistic fact of meanings; in particular, the meaning of “Veda,” knowledge. Such coincidence of meaning should not be surprising, for Sanskrit is an ancient Indo-European tongue and no wonder there is overlap of vocabularies between Sanskrit and English). The Vedas are regarded by Hindus as divine in origin and not the work of human authors (apaur4eya); accordingly, they are looked upon as timeless and eternal.. This is not to deny that at a certain time in human history the Vedas acquired a specific verbal form, oral or written; it only means that the truths proclaimed by the Vedas are eternal truths and in no way dependent upon the manner, time, and place of their recording.
The Vedas are four in number: the g, the Santa, the Yajur, and the Atharva. Each of these may be regarded as consisting of four parts, the first three pertaining to rituals and sanctions, and the last to knowledge, philosophic and transcendental. For this reason, the first three parts together are known as karmakanda (the part pertaining to practical matters, including ethics and codes of conduct), and the last as jnana-kanda (the part pertaining to knowledge). The four parts of each Veda are as follows:
1. the Samhitas,
2. the Brahmanas,
3. the Aranyakas, and
4. the Upaniads.
We may note here that the term “Upanisad” has many meanings, three of which are as follows:
(a) sitting close to the teacher and listening to him as he expounds the teachings,
(b) that which destroys ignorance and illusion and brings one knowledge of liberating truth and hence of ultimate reality, and
(c) secret teaching, for in the ancient Vedic tradition the teachings of the Upaniads were very closely guarded and given only to those whom the teacher judged worthy of receiving them.
The Samhitas are hymns and chants in praise of various nature- gods, such as air (Vayu), fire (Agni), rain (Parjanya), thunder (Indra), sun (Mitra), and so on. The hymns are sung in order to please the gods and thereby receive from them the blessings of worldly goods such as health, wealth, power, and fame. The Brahmanas are manuals for performing various kinds of rituals and ceremonies as well as guides for the conduct of everyday life. They describe in detail the procedures for performing different rituals for pleasing different gods, as well as the kinds of sacrifices to be offered to them; they also lay down the rules of conduct and duties and obligations of human beings towards each other. It is worth pointing out that the undue emphasis on the performance of rites, ceremonies, and duties has in course of time resulted in the degradation of religious consciousness:
The mere chanting of certain words, the performance of certain rites, and conducting oneself in certain ways have replaced genuine religious consciousness. Thus empty utterances and mechanical gestures have themselves come to be regarded as constituting the core of religious life. From such degeneration it is but a short step to the emergence of an all-powerful priestly class and therewith the rigid institutionalization of religion. However, these remarks are not to be construed as implying that the Brahmanas are wholly devoid of anything valuable. Indeed, they emphasize self-control and exhort people to cultivate love, kindness, and charity towards all living beings, including non-human animals. Further, the Brahmanas forbid murder, theft, greed, and jealousy. The Brahmanas therefore surely deserve to be commended for their lofty ethical teachings. Nevertheless, their excessive emphasis on rituals and ceremonies did result in the gradual eclipse of genuine and sublime religious consciousness.
Like the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas (literally “forest treatises”) deal with rites and ceremonies. But, unlike the Brahmanas, they go beyond rites and ceremonies to remind the human being that true and liberating knowledge and wisdom does not consist in the mere performance of rituals and ceremonies but in spiritual insight into ultimate reality. The Aranyakas call upon us to inquire into and grasp the spiritual significance behind the Vedic sanctions, rituals, and ceremonies. In other words, the Aranyakas are the transition from the outward symbols to the inner reality. In this manner, the Aranyakas pave the path to the Upaniads, the flower of Vedic wisdom.
Before proceeding to a discussion of the central insights of the Upaniads, let us briefly present the evolution of the concepts of nature, man, God, and ultimate reality in the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, and the Aranyakas. The idea permeating the 1gveda is that nature in all of its diversity and multiplicity is not a chaos but is governed by a basic cosmic law (Pa). To this law are subject not only all natural phenomena, such as the movements of the planets and the generation, growth, decay, and death of organisms, but also truth and justice, the latter being ineluctably dependent upon the former (for how can justice be served if truth is not known?). At this stage of the Vedic thought, many gods are said to exist; that is, the Vedas seem to subscribe to polytheism, belief in many gods. Hymns are sung in praise of each god in order to receive his favours; but on closer examination it turns out that each god is praised in the respective hymns as the highest and supreme lord and creator and ruler of the universe. How does one make sense of this paradoxical and contradictory belief and attitude? Max Muller, the great Indologist of the nineteenth century, distinguished this kind of belief and attitude from polytheism and referred to it as “henotheism.” Thus, while belief in many gods is common to polytheism and henotheism, only the latter holds that each god is the highest and supreme. One might argue that the elevation of each god to the highest status is either romantic hyperbole or an act of opportunistic exaggeration and sycophancy motivated by selfish ends and, consequently, that the henotheism of the Vedas is really no different from polytheism. Such a view is not tenable, however; for we have good reasons to believe that the Vedic exaltation of each god to the supreme status is governed by the belief and conviction that the different gods are manfestations of one single underlying reality: “To what is one, sages give many a title: they call it, Agni, Yama, Matarisvan” (Rgveda, 1.164.46, from R.T.H. Griffith, The Hymns of the Rgveda, Banaras: E.J. Lazarus & Company, 3rd edn., 1920-26). In the light of this utterance, it is neither absurd nor paradoxical to think of each god as the most high and supreme. This interpretation is firmly grounded in and substantiated by the explicit declaration of the unity of all existence. Thus, according to the celebrated hymn known as the Purusa-Sukta,
Thousand-headed was the purusa (person or the human being personified), thousand-eyed, thousand-footed. He embraced the earth on all sides, and stood beyond the breadth of ten fingers.
The purusa is this all, that which was and which shall be. He is Lord of immortality, which he grows beyond through (sacrificial) food.
Such is his greatness, and still) greater than that is the purusa. One-fourth of him is all beings. The three-fourths of him is the immortal in Heaven.
Three-fourths on high rose the purusa. One fourth of him arose here (on the earth). Thence in all directions he spread abroad, as that which eats and that which eats not.
— Rgveda X.90.1-4, from Edward J. Thomas, Vedic Hymns, Wisdom of the East, Oxford University Press, 1923
It is clear that the theme of this hymn is the unity of all existence, inorganic as well as organic. Such unity is expressed by the Vedic seers in their grand visual imagery, in the form of what they call “the Purusa.” According to this hymn, “the Purusa” is not to be equated with the universe, for not only does he pervade the universe but he is also beyond it. In philosophical terms, the supreme reality is both immanent and transcendent — immanent, because it pervades all existence, thereby rendering it a unity; transcendent, because it is not exhausted by existence but goes beyond it. In religious terms, God, while pervading the universe, is also more than the universe. In other words, the Vedic conception of God is not pantheistic but panentheistic (pantheism is the view that God and the universe are identical, whereas panentheism is the view that God is not exhausted by the universe but is greater than it and transcends it). It is in this manner, then, that the Vedic vision of the unity of existence leads to panentheism, which may be alternatively expressed by saying that the totality of existence is in God but not equal to God.
We have seen that the Rgveda refers to the supreme reality underlying and unifying all existence by the term purusa (person or the human being personified). The question now arises, Is this conception of ultimate reality anthropomorphic? The Vedic answer to this question is a clear “No,” for the famous hymn of creation, also known as Nasadiya-Sukta, Hymn of Negation, unequivocally declares that ultimate reality (the Purusa) is not only impersonal but beyond all names and forms, and hence is inexpressible and indescribable:
Non-being then existed not nor being there was no air, nor sky that is beyond it what was concealed? Wherein? In whose protection? And was there deep unfathomable water?
Who knows for certain? Who shall here declare it? Whence was it born, and whence came this creation? The gods were born after this world’s creation; then who can know from whence it has arisen?
None knoweth whence creation has arisen; and whether he has or has not produced it; He who surveys it in the highest heaven, He only knows, or haply he may know not — Rgveda X.129.1, 6, 7, from A.A. Macdonell, Hymns from the Rgveda, OUP, 1922
It is clear that according to this hymn all existence is the manifestation of a single ultimate reality, which, being beyond thoughts and words is indescribable, indeterminate, and absolute. To be sure, this grand and profound conception of ultimate reality is not grounded in discursive, philosophical speculation but in the loftiest of poetic, mystical, intuitive insights. It is also worth noting that this vision of reality also goes beyond all gods to the primordial ground of all existence. It goes beyond polytheism and monotheism to pure non-dualism. Such a vision is the inspiration of all the Upaniads as well as all the subsequent philosophical speculations of the Vedantic schools. To sum up, then, even the extra-Upanisadic Vedic literature contains the highest non-dualistic vision of reality. In the light of this, it would be a grave error to think, as many do, that the religious consciousness informing the Vedic hymns is at best polytheism and at worst animism and nature worship. Through their sublime and lofty vision of ultimate reality, the Vedic hymns reveal a profound mystical consciousness.
IN one of the greatest of the ancient Hindu Upanisads, the Katha, the story is told of a father who is giving away all of his personal possessions as sacrificial gifts. His son, a brahmana youth named Naciketa, disturbed by his father's action, asks, "Father, to whom will you give me?" Twice he asks his father the same question and twice he receives no answer. He then asks a third time, "Father, to whom will you give me?" In anger the father cries out, "I will give you to Death!" In sorrow but ever-obedient to his father's wrathful order the youth now journeys, alone and fearful, to the dark and foreboding underworld of the dead. Upon arrival he discovers that the Lord of the dead, the dreaded Yama, is absent. And Yama remains absent for three days. And for three days the reluctant and anxious guest remains without food, comfort and his host.
Finally, Lord Yama returns and is upset at finding a guest in his house, a brahmana guest who has been waiting for three days. The ancient laws of hospitality decree that since the host, Lord Yama, has erred in keeping his guest, Naciketa, waiting, he now owes that guest a boon, an apologetic gift, because of his tardiness. To make amends Death grants the young brahmana three wishes and it is those that form the substance of this most appealing and insightful liberation myth of all of the Upanisads.
Naciketa accepts Lord Yama's apology and, though initially reluctant, begins with his three requests. First, he wishes to be returned to life and to his father with the latter's anger now dispelled. Second, he wishes to understand the laying of the brick altar steps for a fire sacrifice, a ritual that leads the sacrificer to heaven. While Yama quickly grants both of these boons, the next and last wish is not so readily bestowed. Third, Naciketa wishes to know what happens to a man after death. Yama at first refuses outright to answer; he then demurs and hems and haws trying to put the boy off. He has, in a sense, already answered the third request by the responses that he gave to the first two requests: The first stated that after death a man may be reborn to life, and the second said that after death a man may be reborn to heaven. But neither of these answers is the one that Naciketa now seeks, and Lord Yama knows it. That third answer lies at a deeper level of understanding and insight, and the answer to that third question in the myth of the Katha is what the Upanisads are really all about.
But now a new issue has arisen. Is Naciketa fully qualified as a student of sacred knowledge to receive an answer to this third query? Seeking to test his worthiness to receive that knowledge, Lord Yama tempts the youth with promises of wealth, a long life, sons, grandsons, cattle, horses, gold, lovely maidens, chariots and lutes. Naciketa responds by refusing these pleasures saying that all of these belong ultimately to decay and death and to Lord Yama. Satisfied that his young pupil is indeed qualified to hear the secret teachings, to understand the higher knowledge and to grasp its sacred wisdom, Death at last relents and offers to give the real answer to Naciketa's third question. That question was:
Some say a man exists when dead, others that he exists not.
This I would know, when a man dies what then?
The remainder of the Katha then explores and analyzes and ultimately answers this most fundamental of all human questions by a lengthy discourse on this "supreme secret" (Katha Upanisad III.17).
The Katha Upanisad was composed some time in the seventh or sixth century BCE. and is probably the most poetic, the most mysterious, the most lyrical and beautiful, the most religious and philosophical, of some 200 of these great compositions to which we give the name "Upanisad." Having satisfied himself that Naciketa is worthy to become his cela, pupil, Lord Yama takes on the role of guru, master, and begins the sacred instruction by teaching Naciketa what it is that survives the death of the body. That Survivor, he states, is the atman, the true Self, and that Self is Brahman, the Holy Power of the Universe, the om, the sacred sonant symbol of ultimate reality. In one of the most moving Sanskrit passages in the Upanisads, Lord Yama tells Naciketa about this ultimately real Self:
That which is hard to see,
That which is hidden, set in the secret place of the heart,
That which dwells in the depths of you,
That which is really God, your true teacher,
That which through yoga-study one comes to see,
That you finally come to by leaving behind both joy and sorrow, good and evil, the best and the pleasant, opinion and ignorance.
Three of the central themes of the Upanisads have been presented in this passage: The true Self is God; the true Self is hidden deep within the heart of all; and this Self can be known by abandoning, or by transcending, ordinary and common emotions and feelings.
Naciketa questions further his guru, and Lord Yama responds by identifying two remaining themes: There is an identity between om, Brahman and that indwelling Self or atman; and fifth, and finally, there is a liberating power that comes to him who truly knows that identity:
That om is Brahman, the spiritual power, the holy power of the universe.
Knowing om whatever one desires is his.
om is the chief and only support of the universe.
Knowing that support one becomes great in the world of Brahman.
Lord Yama returns then to his cela'e third boon, his third question, and answers it clearly, succinctly and finally. You are that holy sound, you are that sacred Power, you are the supreme Self:
That om dwells in you Naciketa,
It is not born. It does not die.
It has not come from anywhere. It has not become anyone.
Unborn, constant, eternal, the first and the last.
It dies not when the body dies.
That is what you searched for.
These five themes, that the Self is real, that It lies within each of us, that It can be known through discipline and instruction, that It is identical with Brahman and om, and that knowing that transcendent Brahman is identical to immanent atman, liberates oneself forever and leads to ultimate happiness. These are the essential and central themes of all the Upanisads.
The Katha Upanisad concludes with a passage tying all these themes together, a passage that has become all-too-familiar in the world's great sacred literature. Lord Yama says to his "beloved" disciple:
If the slayer thinks that he slays,
If the slain thinks himself slain,
Both of these understand not.
This One, this Self, neither slays nor is It slain.
Smaller than the smallest, greater than the greatest
Is this Brahman, this om, this atman that is set in the heart of every creature here.
The three syllables of the word upanisad together mean "to sit down near," to sit so close that these secret teachings could be whispered by the guru into the cela's ear. R. Puligandla now becomes the guru for the reader in his magnificent introduction to the philosophy and religion of these sacred compositions. I know the reader will find Puligandla’s instruction as liberating as it was for this reader. But let this classic entreaty from the oldest Upanisad close this foreword to Puligandla’s wonderful introduction to the Upanisads:
From the unreal lead me to the real,
From darkness lead me to light,
From death lead me to immortality.
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