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Upanisads: Knowledge and Interpretation

by Dr. Haramohan Mishra
Saturday 25th January 2014

If something confounds us, we call it a mystery. Mixed with a sense of admiration, we call it wonderful. Endowed with awe and veneration, we call it sublime. At times, human mind confronts an object or a situation, it finds mysterious. Mysteries are ambient, but they are encountered only by a curious mind which is eager to find the meaning behind the phenomena. It is the manifold expression of the basic question “Why the things are what they are but not otherwise.”Small questions relate to a thing or a fact; great questions are rooted in mystery. In the Upanisads, we come across the greatest questions concerning life and its experiences, the most enigmatic statements which perplex us and violate the norms of understanding 1.

We are shown the path and the answer is to be worked out by our own knowledge and practice. To know is to be. The knower of Brahman becomes Brahman, “Brahmaveda brahmaiva bhavati.”The mystery being solved, the sublime is revealed. When the mystery is solved it is no longer a mystery, but when the sublime is revealed it never loses its sublimity. It is not a philosophical speculation, nor a poetic imagination, but a real accomplishment in actual life. As the immediate experience of the absolute, it shares the character of other sorts of immediate knowledge, independent of any other consideration, what Sankara intends to express by characterizing it as vastu tantra in contrast to purusa vyapara-tantra. But as related to a great tradition of knowledge, it stands in need of right interpretation. In one sense, the wisdom of the Upanisads is a-historical, but in the other sense, it is to be interpreted and understood in due consideration of the past which supplied the world view and the paradigm for its expression.

The Upanisadic Quest

Oftentimes it is alleged that Indian philosophy is otherworldly, so it neglects the pragmatic values which renders one incapable to meet the exigencies of life. But such an allegation betrays ignorance in part of a person who upholds such a view. Indian philosophy is neither worldly nor otherworldly. It is a quest for the eternal verities, the meaning of life and its experiences, may it be in the domain of the known or the unknown. It is particularly true in the case of Vedanta. Life is not exhausted by the empirical or the phenomenal; it extends enormously beyond the two punctuations that we call birth and death.

It is the Upanisads where mankind first woke up to discover the glory of the self; it is here only that it initially came across the solution of the mysteries of life and its experiences. Questions regarding the ultimate status of the things are raised. The questioner himself is brought to the ambit of questioning. The objective and the subjective, both these aspects are scrutinized to reach the ultimate ground of all existence and knowledge. The conclusion which the seers of the Upanisads reached is summed up in the lines “neha nanasti kincana” and “aham brahmasmi”, negating the diversity and understanding one’s divinity. It is neither a mere philosophical speculation nor only a poetic imagination devoid of any factual truth-value. It is a truth realized in a higher order of experience, not inconsistent with logic, though, in essence, it is a-logical since it stands independent of the support of the logic of the empirical.

A Critique of Knowledge: Objective and Subjective

At every moment of life we confront the world. Intent upon the things of the world, we perceive them and are allured by them. Being engrossed in them, we become possessive of them and lose the awareness of our own reality. Finding them the sole purpose of our existence, we fail to question their reality. This is the foundational ignorance that sustains our knowledge-framework. Knowledge reveals the object and sublates ignorance. The serpent superimposed on a rope is sublated when the rope is revealed by knowledge. But such knowledge, i.e., the knowledge of rope, cannot destroy the ignorance that causes the rope to be perceived. It is the foundational ignorance of the very rope and its perception. In a higher order of experience, which becomes possible with a reality-shift, the ground of the rope is revealed where the earlier perception is falsified. This is not only a cognitive error but also an emotive error since we are emotionally tied to it. So, it can only be cured by the correction of our entire perspectives. This is what the Kathopanisad describes as the extroversion of the senses2. In a later time, the illustrious commentator on the Upanisads, Sankaracarya made it clear by philosophically postulating his famous concept of adhyasa.

Philosophical inquiry begins with questioning the ultimate status of the things that we perceive. It requires a dispassionate awareness of one’s own reality. But such an awareness which requires a sense of transcendence is not possible so far as we are involved in and within the objects. An animal perceives, unaware of its own perception; but a man perceives and reflects upon his own perception. That is why so much question is raised regarding what the self, atman is. In the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, the question is put forth “which is the self “katama atmeti”3. In the Kena Upanisad, an inquiry is made regarding the underlying impeller who makes the senses, the vital energy and the mind work.4 What is important is to push the question further and further in both the levels, till it reaches its possible limit. However, the seers of the Upanisads came to realize that the mystery of the entire universe is hidden in the very self for which they put emphasis on self-knowledge, atma-vidya, and showed the methods through which they realized the truth enshrined in them. The crux of knowing the world consists in understanding its ephemeral nature which was natural to the seers of the Upanisads. However, for others, it is to be logically demonstrated, which the great commemtator Sankara and his follower Advaitins have done. Self-knowledge is spontaneous and independent of logic, but the misconception regarding the self is to be eradicated by logic. It is what Vidyaranya says, “By negating what is not this and by affirming what is this, the Vedantas have operated in a twofold manner” 5.

Interpreting the Upanisads

A person who understands can only interpret. That is why the Acaryas have interpreted the Upanisads and paved the path of our understanding. The illuminating commentaries of Sankara and glosses and vartikas written by Suresvara and others give us a coherent system of knowledge of the Upanisads, which is the highest achievement of the Vedic wisdom. For this, Suresvara , in the introduction to his Br. Upanisad Bhasya Vartika, says that by writing the commentary on the Br.Upanisad Sankara has really clarified the entire Vedic wisdom 6. It is not that the Upanisads give us the highest wisdom of the Vedic tradition; they also represent the highest knowledge of the human mind irrespective of any place or time. Therefore, in interpreting the mysteries of the Upanisads, for example, the enigmatic lines of sandilya vidya or the perplexing statement of the asvamedha brahmana or the penetrating lines of the jyotir brahmana, we have to be very careful and to follow the Acaryas 7. However, the Upanisads have a freshness of their own and can be pursued independent of the commentaries by a mind compassionate to the truths of spiritual life.

Knowledge can never be value-neutral. The Upanisads awaken us to the truth of our own reality and show us the path of enlightenment and emancipation. They help us cross the ocean of samsara replete with sorrows and sufferings. Like a loving mother pacifying the crying child with alluring sweet fruits, Sankara writes, the Upanisad enlightens the deluded mind through various methods and awakens it to self-knowledge 8. This is the perspective from which we can know, live and interpret the Upanisads.

Dr. Haramohan Mishra
Head, P.G. Dept. of Sanskrit
S.B.Women’s College, Cuttack

1. Katha Upanisad, 1.2.2o
2. Ibid, 2.1.1
3. Br. Upanisad, 4.3.7
4. Kena Upanisad, 1.1.1
5. Pancadasi, 7.87
6. Suresvara’s intr. to Br.Up.Bhasya Vartika
7. Satasloki, Sl. 8

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