Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Wisdom of the Forest: Selections from the Hindu Upanishads

Book Review: The Wisdom of the Forest: Selections from the Hindu Upanishads – translated by Geoffrey Parrinder (New Directions Books, 1975)

This is a short tour of the Upanishads conducted by a London professor of Comparative Religions. He translates the Sanskrit atman, as Soul, while a more common term would be Self, referring more to the authentic “higher” self as distinguished from the ego-self. In some dialogues it is revealed that the human soul and the cosmic Soul are fundamentally identical. Most scholars date the earliest Upanishads to around 600 B.C. though some Indian scholars date them much earlier. However, some were no doubt added much later. The Upanishads are considered the earliest Indian philosophical writings as the older Vedas dealt mostly with ritual and hymns. The Vedas, however, did seem to contain the seeds of many ideas that flowered in the Upanishads. The metaphysics of the Upanishads form the foundation of both Buddhism and Hinduism.
The time of the Upanishads was a time of forest-dwelling ascetics sharing metaphysical knowledge as they understood it. Upanishad means ‘to sit down near” and they are referred to as “sessions” by the author. The sessions are often in the form of questions to a sage, sometimes from another sage, that are answered. Many are basic philosophical questions, still mysterious today.  

The translator notes that the Upanishads can be difficult to understand at times and so also difficult to translate. Easily followed narratives offset the cryptic passages. He also thinks it may be possible that some ideas in the Upanishads may have come from other groups than Vedic Aryans, such as the transmigration of souls, even though many of the sages are of the Brahmin class and some from the king and warrior classes. In actuality, the forest-dwellers likely belonged to mixed societies.
Another key term in the Upanishads that is a synonym of atman (human soul) is Brahman (cosmic soul) which means “to grow, to increase, to roar.” Atman and Brahman may merge at enlightenment, and/or at death. The author suggests the word “Being” as a translation for Brahman, although if one is familiar enough with the term itself, no translation is necessary. Another term common to the Upanishads (some say later Upanishads) is Purusha, the Supreme Person. The author also prefers the term “Being” for Purusha, although it may confound the text if one wants to distinguish from the two Sanskrit terms. I think he should have indicated which word when translating “Being”, even though he points out that at least one sage equated Purusha to Brahman. 
The author notes that although the teachings of the Upanishads have been equated with pantheism, in reality they are philosophical rather than religious. 

Most of the sages are from the Brahmin and warrior classes so that Brahminic customs are part of the narratives, such as offering the teacher sticks as fuel for his sacrificial fire before knowledge is imparted. In that sense, there is reciprocity, so that knowledge may flow from teacher to student as generosity flows from student to teacher. Making ceremonial offerings to teachers is still very common in eastern traditions.  The author notes that some Upanishad teachers seemed monotheistic, in that they portray attributes of the Supreme Being. However, the Upanishads are more in line with intuition about the nature of things than any dogma. The spirit of inquiry and contemplation is apparent. 
Typical subjects are contemplation of death, reincarnation, how things come and go, the nature of the soul, and karma (as deeds). 

Another subject is the power of the mantra Om. The forest ascetics also practiced yoga and development of psychic powers. Indeed, a part-legendary visionary class, as the rishis, or seers, with god-like powers, was present from the beginning as the originators of the Vedic hymns, which were said to be “revealed” teachings (shruti).

One of the most prominent sages in the Upanishads is Yajnya-Valkya. He has sometimes been called the Indian Plato. Another sage is Uddalaka, and also his son, Shveta-ketu, and another son of Uddalaka, Nachiketas. Another sage is Pippalada. There were also female sages and Gargyi, daughter of Vachaknu.
Yajnya-Valkya first teaches one of his wives that understanding the Soul (atman) is understanding the whole universe. In another tale a king retired to the forest late in life and became an ascetic. Then after 1000 days a learned sage appeared to him and bid him to ask questions he would answer. This reminds of the boons granted to ascetics in Indian myth. Another story has a king asking questions to a sage then refuting him and then the king ends up instructing the sage.
In one story King Janaka wants to find the wisest sage so he and his sages encounter Yajnya-Valkya, who instructs them. In response to a taunt by Ushasta about his explanation of the Soul (atman), Yajnya Valkya replied:
“You cannot see the seer of seeing! You cannot think the thinker of thinking! You cannot understand the understander of understanding! That is your Soul which is in everything.”
Yajna-Valkya also says that it is names and forms that make distinctions in the world. He also taught of the imperishable and indestructible nature of the Soul. The Soul (atman) is the Knower.

Another revealer in the Upanishads is the ‘Lord of Creatures’. In one odd passage three children ask the Lord of Creatures to speak to them. He utters three syllables: “Da, Da, Da” which they understand to mean: “restrain yourselves, give, be compassionate.”

The sacred mantra OM is a subject of several Upanishads. It is said to hold all speech together and to be equivalent to the whole universe. Going progressively deeper it is said to be sound, breath, food, water, and heaven. The essence and support of this world is said to be Space. From Space we come and to Space we go. Sage Ushasti says: “… all things come into life with Breath and leave it with Breath.” Identification of the individual soul with the cosmic Being was taught by sage Shandilya.
Sage Ghora taught his enlightened student Krishna (the black) who had ‘passed beyond desire’ to meditate at death on three ideas: you are indestructible. You are unshakable. You are the Breath of Life.
The story of young Satya-Kama being taught by the Four Elements about the Nature of Being is an interesting one of elemental cosmology. Each quarter of the Nature of Being is further divided into four components. The four parts of the Nature of Being are: the Shining, the Infinite, the Luminous, and the Abode. The story, where Satya-Kama goes forth for a number of years to grow a cow herd for his new teacher Gautama, seems a bit like a long vision quest in that he is taught first by nature. After this he learned from Gautama before becoming a famous teacher himself.
Tending fires, probably both sacrificial ones and domestic ones, was an honored discipline as fire was the deity Agni, who carried offerings to the gods. Indeed, Fire, is one of the elemental teachers. A group of Fires teaches Upa-kosala, a disciplined fire tender: 
“Being is the Breath of Life. Being is Joy. Being is Space.” “Joy is the same as Space. Space is the same as Joy (one is Ka, the other is Kha).”
Another sage notes the dual nature or two styles of cosmic Being: “formed and formless, mortal and immortal, still and moving, actual and ultimate.” The last category is similar to what Buddhists call the “two truth” as relative and ultimate reality. The same idea frames many cosmologies and reality models such as the explicate and implicate orders of David Bohm’s Holographic Universe Theory. Earlier notions of it might possibly be seen in astrological macrocosm/microcosm ideas of ancient Mesopotamia, ideas which culminated in the later Alexandrian Hermeticism that likely birthed the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus. It seems though that in the Upanishads there are several different but often complementary origin cosmologies given by different sages.
It is said that the cosmic powers were first fed and sheltered by the Soul. Fire became speech, and entered the mouth. Wind became breath and entered the nose. The sun became sight and entered the eyes. The regions of heaven became hearing and entered the ears. Plants and trees became hairs and entered the skin. The moon became mind and entered the heart. The soul also sheltered Hunger and Thirst, thus thereafter a sacrifice to any cosmic power involved cultivating hunger and thirst.
Uddalaka instructs his son Shveta-ketu that all things originate and emanate from Being rather than Being arising from Non-being as many teachers apparently proclaimed. Then the elements form. He taught that Being entered nature and thereby emitted heat, then water, then food. Uddalaka teaches about sleep and death. In teaching about hidden Being in reality, Uddalaka ends each section ends with the words:
“That subtle essence is the Soul of the whole universe. That is Reality. That is the Soul. You are That.”
He states that one’s individuality is forgotten once one merges into Being like rivers cease to be rivers when they enter the sea.
The Lord of Creatures taught that to understand the Soul was to be able to attain all states and desires. Thus, Indra among the gods and Virochana among the demons sought to understand the Soul. In the story only Indra remains for long years as a student of the Lord of Creatures and comes to understand. Virochana’s knowledge is said to be incomplete and thus are the demons limited in their outlook. In another story it is Indra that recognizes the Supreme Being (Brahman) and so Indra is considered above other gods as he was the first to know the Supreme Being.

There is the story of the sage Uddalaka whose son Nachiketas asked to be an offering. In anger or what seems to be annoyance, he offers Nachketas to Death (Yama). In the Vedas, Yama is the first man and thus the first man to die who then becomes the lord of death. Nachiketas meets Death and as he dwelled in the Otherworld for three days without food, Death offers him three wishes. The first is that Uddalaka’s anger will fade (and likely his guilt for sending him away). Nachiketa’s second wish is for knowledge of the sacrificial fire. His third wish is for the knowledge of the destiny of the soul after death. Death first tells him that even the gods have doubts about this so he should choose another wish. He insists noting that only Death could know and teach this and that all other desires are temporary. Death finally agrees, first saying: “A wise man puts joy and sorrow behind him, and engages in the Yoga exercise which concerns the soul.” He also gives this explanation of the soul’s immortality and indestructibility in verse form:

“The soul never dies and never born is he,
came not into being and never comes to be,
primeval, in the body’s death unslain,
unborn, eternal, everlastingly.

Both he who thinks this soul can kill
and he who thinks that it is killed
have neither truly understood,
it does not kill and is never killed”

Attainment of peace and concentration are given as prerequisites for attaining knowledge of the Soul (atman). The next description is quite a famous one in Indian metaphysics. Death says:

“The Soul is a rider in a chariot. The body is the car, the intellect is the driver, the mind is the reins. The senses are the horses, and their objects are the road, while the Soul experiences everything combined with the senses and the mind.”

Death further taught that some souls after death are reborn in other bodies while others go to a lifeless state. All happens according to one’s actions and knowledge.

“When all desires that lurk in the heart are expelled, then a mortal becomes immortal, then he reaches Being.”

The young man Bhrigu asked his father, Varuna, to explain Being. Varuna also said that Being could be understood through austerity. After practicing austerities Bhrigu understood that Being is food, breath, mind, understanding, and bliss. Being as food was especially so since “… all beings are born from food, they live by food, and when they die they enter into food.”

The sage Angiras declared:

“As rivers flow down into the sea and lose their names and forms, so the man who knows he truth is freed from name and form ….”

The Lord of Creatures taught that while the Cosmic Soul is untainted by deeds the Individual or Elemental Soul is affected by deeds and often comes to not recognize the Cosmic Soul that imbues it. He taught that both death and the consequences of our actions are inevitable. Attention to duty and spiritual practice are the antidotes to the tendency of the Individual or Elemental Soul to become afflicted by desires. Concerning gods the Lord of Creatures noted:

“All these gods are the principal forms of the formless and immortal Supreme Being. A man will enjoy the world of whichever god he follows, for the Supreme Being contains the whole universe. One should meditate on the great forms and praise them, but then one should discard them! With these gods one may rise higher in different worlds. But when the universe is all dissolved one attains to the unity of Being, yes of Being indeed.”

Sage Shveta-shvatara gave instructions for practicing yoga and meditation:

“Hold the body still and upright, draw the mind and senses into the heart, and so a wise man will cross over the rivers of fear on the Boat of Being. Restrain the breath and control all movements, breathe quietly through the nose and hold the mind in check like a chariot harnessed to vicious horses.”

He also warned not to be influenced by visions that may appear, that the first stage of Yoga brings light, heat, and steadiness, and that the yogi perceives the true nature of Being by using his soul as a lamp.

This book is a nice selection of the Upanishads and a good introduction to this fascinating and important collection of teachings that had widespread influence over later Indian traditions.  

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