I had always heard about Vedas and Upanishads but knew very little about their contents. We read everywhere that these books are sacred to Hinduism but very less percentage of Hindus probably read any of those. At least that was my perception.
S. Radhakrishnan’s Principal Upanishads is considered as one of the best translations of chosen few Upanishads out there. I purchased my self a copy and promised myself that I will read at least half of its total 900 pages. Out of those 900 pages first 150 pages are of introduction by Radhakrishanji himself. Honestly I found those 150 pages much more useful than rest of the 750 pages.
Even though an ordinary person does not read Upanishads I am pretty sure many people are familiar with the topics discussed into them. If you know the story of Nachiketas, you probably know the theme of Kathaupanishad. If you know the story of Revaka and Janasruti you probably know a very large portion of Chandayoga Upanishad.
There is one annoying thing about the style in which the shlokas are formed, however when we consider that most of this knowledge was passed through oral (think clean guys) tradition, it becomes clear why a same pattern is again in the next shloka with little change, notice these two paras and notice the only difference. 😛
Raivaka, here are six hundred cows, a gold necklace and a chariot with mules. Now Sir, please teach me the deity whom you worship.
And in next shloka
And to him, then, the other replied, ‘Oh, necklace and carriage along with the cows be yours, O Sudra. And then again, Janasruti, the great-grandson (of Janasruta) taking thousand cows, a gold necklace and a chariot with mules, and his daughter too went up to him.
So the Janasruti the great grandson of Janasrut gives him a lot of wealth, but that does not do the trick. It is the daughter that does the trick. See what Raivaka says
Then lifting her face towards himself, he said, ‘He has brought these cows along, Sudra, merely by this face you would make me speak.’ These are the villages called Raivaka-parna, among the people of Mahavarsa where he lived. Then he said to him:
Gift of wealth, intelligence, knowledge of the veda, love and knowledge are the six ways to attainment of knowledge.
The last verse is quoted by Raivaka. It is a bit inconsistent, what lead Janasruti to gain confidence of Raivaka is not any of these but offering his daughter as wife. Also the sentence is like a recursive definition, to have knowledge one should already have knowledge. Oops.
Most of the Upanishads are full of such arguments and stories. It is not in my capacity to study them, I would rather rely on people like S. Radhakrishnan to explain to me what they are trying to say and his arguments resonate with me.
Upanishads belong to the sruti category of Hindu scriptures. Sruti are not written by anyone but it is a revealed knowledge or rather knowledge without end of beginning. Many of the Upanishads are like dialogs between a sage and his pupil but the knowledge itself is not under that sage’s attribution. It is believed to be independent.
For a student of history what all this would mean is that this literature is really old and held sacred and important by later authors. However one can easily relate them with the time when they were written. As Radhakrishanji points out
“Even the most inspired writers are products of their environment. They give voice to the deepest thoughts of their own epoch. A complete abandonment of the existing modes of thought is psychologically impossible. …[some text is truncated]…..When there is awakening of mind the old symbols are interpreted in a new way.”
The Vedas were first. It is believed that what we have today as Vedas took a very long time to be formed a lot of it was lost and little of it survived to reach us. Rig Veda is mostly the book of praise for gods which are mostly the powers of nature like sun and fire, Yajur Veda is mostly the book of sacrificial formulas and the sama veda is the book of melodies and the Atharva Veda is the book of magic formulas ( of course don’t expect them to work).
After vedas you have something called Brahmanas and Aranyakas. A student learns the veda. If he marries he continues with Brahmanas which are again about rituals and Aranyakas are mostly contemplative philosophies carried forward by those who do not marry. Sometimes Aranyakas are believed to be the later part of brahmanas because after a happy married life the sage would turn an Aranyamanas. Upanishads happen to be the last part of the Brahmanas.
[All this is what I learn from reading the related books. Computer programmers are not good at philosophies. So beware.]
One noticeable trend in most of the scriptures is the skepticism. Most of the arguments start with questioning which digs deep into the sages explanation and involves finding logical fallacies. In the end the sage will end the argument be threatening that the student would lose his head if he asks more questions. Nevertheless one could at least ask a few questions.
If we put upanishads in the context of their chronology they make a lot of sense. The philosophers probably understood the futility of rituals and magic formulas. Since the Vedas were considered to be absolute truth it was difficult to just dump them calling them mumbo jumbo and starting with blank slate. So the Upanishads tried to search symbolism in the rituals and then started promoting the mere symbolism instead of the ritual.
As one would see the previous example love, donation of wealth etc. was cited as the way to gain knowledge and not offering food to the Agni.
Both the Vedas and Upanishads are dry philosophies. It needs patience to read them, finding meaning in them is even more difficult and the tone of conversation simply gets on your nerves. In Brahadaranyaka a same verse is repeated around 15 times with very little change in the end part.
Some of my personal observation from reading of Brahadaranyaka upanishad was that, it speaks about creation of universe, barring a few things here and there there is a striking difference between it’s account and the book of genesis from old testament (the christian and islamic holy book). First there was nothing, then the god said let there be light and there was light says the book of genesi. In Brahadaranyaka upanishad, first there was a sound (can be of the God saying something 😛 ) and then there was a splendor which leads to the creation of world.
However the fundamental difference between Indian philosophies and monotheist books is that former are open to change and questioning and mostly opinions of the individual over a matter rather than the words of God himself to be interpreted literally. Thus the book of genesis is simply against the theory of evolution but Hinduism remains open to it.
You need not wait for Darwin, but the Subala Upanishad which is the dialog between Sage Subala and the brahma himself, comes again on the topic of creation of the universe. The creator himself than explain that there was nothing existing or everything existing, or complete darkness which then lead to creation of various subtle elements which then created earth fire etc. Th egg or life came from water. But itsel split into many things which I dont I can elaborate here.
By no means I intended to do any kind of scholarly analysis of the scriptures but there are some observations I will enumerate.
1. Most of the Upanishads show a change or evolution in the thought of their authors when placed in chronological order.
2. They also turn from boring to interesting mostly because the later Upanishads are more in the form of stories.
3. I wonder if the sages too realized this and hence the next knowledge they created was mostly in the form of interesting and long stories.
4. We are familiar with many core concepts of these scriptures through various stories we read as kids.
5. Many of the babas and gurus give Pravachans where they often quote Upanishads, I feel the babas are simply taking advantage of our ignorance and talk nonsense.
6. For scholars there is much to take from this for ordinary folks like us very little. Are their any maxims in these books that we can use to inspire ourselves or use for our own behavioral modification as we are generally preaches by religious figures ? Yes, there are a few things and most of the things are already known to us. I would recommend you watch master Yoda or watch batman and you will find many of the things out there as well. The meaning of virtuousness, importance of discipline and so on.
7. Is it an recommended reading to an ordinary individual ? I would say reading Panchatantra and Calvin and Hobbes would be more fruitful.
8. Out of all the books that Indian culture has produced, I find Panchatantra the most valuable one. It should be made a compulsory reading in schools and not really Bhagvad gita.
9. An evangelist once argued to me that the Hindu scriptures are full of sex stories. Upanishads, at least the ones that I have read so far do not seem to contain anything of that nature. Yes, there are a lot of references like the one I cited where the bond of marriage is used to gain advantage but I don think there is anything objectionable in it.