The Concealed Art of the Soul: Theories of the Self and Practices of Truth in Indian Ethics and Epistemology by Jonardon Ganeri (Oxford University Press) presents a variety of perspectives on the nature of the self as seen by major schools of classical Indian philosophy. For Indian thinkers, a philosophical treatise about the self should not only reveal the truth about the nature of the soul, but should also engage the reader in a process of study and contemplation that will eventually lead to self-transformation. By combining careful attention to philosophical content and sensitivity to literary form, Ganeri deepens our understanding of some of the greatest works in Indian literary history. His magisterial survey includes the Upanisads, the Buddha's discourses, the epic Mahabharata, and the writings of Candrakirti, whose work was later to provide the foundation for Tibetan Buddhism. Ganeri argues that many Western theories of selfhood are not only present in, but are developed to high degree of sophistication in these writings, and that there are other ideas about the self found in the work of classical Indian thinkers which present-day analytic philosophers have not yet begun to explore. Scholars and students of philosophy and religious studies, particularly those with an interest in Indian and Western conceptions of the self, will find this book fascinating reading.
Among the philosophers of classical India, some speak of a possibility we should not and indeed cannot ignore. It is the possibility that we have got it wrong about the relationship between ourselves and the world; it is the possibility that we are massively, colossally, in error about the world we inhabit and the nature of that inhabitation, about our station in the world of things, about our lives, hopes and destinies. These Indians are not prophets of doom: they do not say that the mistake we have made is a catastrophic one. Indeed, it is barely noticeable—things go on, things work out, more or less, by and large. The mistake we have made is not catastrophic but tragic. Its tragedy lies in the fact that there are lives to be led that are so much better, so much more to the point, than the ones we do in fact lead, lives not inaccessible but merely hidden, lying just out of view. We are like Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen, exhausting ourselves in the effort to shove our home-made boat along the meandering gullies, made blind by that very effort to the great ocean just over the bank. We inhabit a world we do not know. We sleepwalk, now here, now there, alongside a silent and forgotten destiny.
Hidden: metaphors of concealment suffuse the Indian debate. The truth is covered, clothed, wrapped up, enveloped, concealed; Sanskrit verbs of concealment include nihnu (`to hide, conceal; to deny, dissimulate'), avr (`to cover, hide, conceal'), guh (`to cover, hide, conceal, keep secret'), pracchad (`to cover, wrap up, veil, envelop; to hide, conceal, disguise, keep secret'), and many more. Sometimes myths embody abstract ideas, and for the Indians a myth of concealment is primal: `India is the invincible power of breaking through, shattering obstacles, overcoming concealment. With him is associated the primal myth of the Indian tradition, the killing of the dragon Vrtra, which names literally the force that covers and hides, blocks and thwarts." Killing the dragon Vrtra, overcoming concealment, is the function of what I will call a 'practice of truth'.
Above all else, it is the self that is concealed, or the truth about the self Heidegger's thought is that Being conceals itself, indeed that: `vacillating self-concealment' is a name for Being itself... Being is not merely hidden; it withdraws and conceals itself. From this we derive an essential insight: the clearing, in which beings are, is not simply bounded and delimited by something hidden but by something self-concealing.’
For the Indians, the Being for which this is true is the self (for the Greeks, as Pierre Hadot notes, it is Nature). We are in self-imposed error, the Buddha said, when we think that our everyday pleasures are not in reality pains, concealing from us the universality of suffering—the fact of concealment underwrites the first of the Four Great Truths. We are in error too about the cause of that suffering, the attachment to a self that's not there to be found. The Upanisads likewise suggest to us that we have got it wrong about something very important:
Take, for example, a hidden treasure of gold. People, who do not know the terrain, even when they pass right over it time and again, would not discover it. In exactly the same way, all these creatures, even though they go there every day, do not discover this world of Brahman, for they are led astray by the false. (CU 8.3.1-2)
Mistakes about the place that an idea of self should hold in our mental lives run deep, however, and the 'cure' for our misconceptions is never simply to announce the right view. The early texts, therefore, resort to other means. They do not simply announce; they find subtle strategies and indirect methods to help the reader undercut their false sense of self techniques of graded instruction, embedded and contextualized description, literary devices of disguise and deceit, the use of figures and characterizations. As Martha Nussbaum has said, a philosophy that aims at therapy for the soul 'will often need to search for techniques that are more complicated and indirect, more psychologically engaging, than those of conventional deductive and dialectical argument. It must find ways to delve into the pupil's inner world'. In particular, the tropes of reluctance and secrecy in the Upanisads, and likewise the use of metaphors and parables in the
Nikaya, encourage the reader to rework their understanding of self, a reworking that takes the form of an uncovering of what is already there rather than the creation of something altogether new. One theorist will claim, perhaps ambitiously, that this is even the hidden purpose of the epic Mahabharata, whose author, Vyasa, 'shows that the primary aim of his work has been to produce a disenchantment with the world and that he has intended his primary subject to be liberation and the rasa of peace'.' How texts like these can guide their readers to such a goal—not least through their depictions of the figures of the Buddha, the Upaniadic sage, and the epic hero—is my topic in Part I, and Ganeri doesn’t forget Nietzsche's warning about soul doctors of every sort: 'All preachers of morality, as also all theologians, have a bad habit in common: all of them try to persuade man that he is very ill, and that a severe, final, radical cure is necessary.'
If their pedagogic ambitions prevent the early texts from simply announcing it, can we nevertheless extract from them what is, in fact, the truth about the self? In Part II, Ganeri looks for solutions to this exegetical puzzle among the Madhyamika Buddhists and the Advaita Vedanta Hindus who flourished in India in the middle centuries of the first millennium. The Madhyamikas remind us that the Buddha may not always have talked plainly but he always spoke with compassion. That can serve as a principle of charity in interpretation, allowing the philosopher to work back from what he said to what he thought. If the Buddha's words are medicinal, we might hope not only for a cure, but also for a diagnosis, and a description of the healthy condition towards which we strive. For a doctor's selection of medicine is guided by their knowledge of anatomy, and we want to infer the anatomy of self from the Buddha's choice of treatments (what must a healthy self be, if these are the medicines one needs to swallow?). Madhyamika philosophers argue that there is a frightening truth concealed by the Buddha's skilfully uttered everyday words, the truth that all things, we included, are empty of substantial nature.
The startling idea of the Hindu Vedantins, again, is that the way out of colossal error is to embed within the illusion the catalyst of its own destruction. The Upanisad is a 'Trojan text', a false gift that will blow up in the mind of its recipient, destroying the error of which it too is a part. It is a false vehicle with a true content. Here I will introduce the idea of a 'procedural use of reason', that application of reason and argument that levers one out of error, itself a practice of truth. It will seem that what one needs is to be able to appreciate a text, as one does a painting; if the text or the painting then turns out to be a fake, and can be seen to be so as a result of one's appreciation of it having done its inner work, does that really matter so much?6
The chapters in Part II both deal with philosophical implications of the performative and transformative aspects of an interaction with the written or spoken word, and an appropriate subtitle might have been How To Do Things with Texts. It emerges that, although the philosophical doctrines of these two schools are in sharp contrast, their philosophical methods share common ground. Both agree above all that philosophical inquiry and the practices of truth are also arts of the soul, ways of cultivating impartiality, self-control, steadiness of mind, toleration, and non-violence.
What, then, can be said about self, if it is indeed possible to discover the truth? In Part III Ganeri distinguishes four views. Two are realist: non-reductive realism and reductionism. Two are irrealist: the error-theoretic view and the non-factualist view. The first of these views appears in various guises, of which the Cartesian View is one and the Nyaya-Vaisesika View is another. Reductionism will be taken very seriously, and we will have occasion to ask not only if the Buddha was the first reductionist but also if any later Buddhists have a defensible version to offer. Of the two irrealist views about the self; one will have been encountered already, for I claim in the first chapter that the Upanisads present to us a sophisticated non-factualist theory about the self Here Ganeri disagrees, controversially, with the school of Advaita Vedanta, which unravels from those same texts an error-theoretic view. Finally, in the last chapter Ganeri considers the merits of a second non-factualist proposal, one put to us in the school of Buddhist Madhyamaka. They claim that there is nothing more to the self than what it does: the self is an activity. Borrowing a distinction from William James and David Velleman, Ganeri suggesst that as a theory of perspectival selfhood, this view is compatible with reductionism in the account of metaphysical personal identity.
Errors that involve the self run deep, and one of the deepest, all our authors seem to tell us, has to do with the way we draw boundaries around minds. That seems to be the hardest problem, the point where we most frequently go wrong, either by thinking it is too easy or else suspecting that it is too hard. An early modern Indian author said that in the end it all comes down to this: some of the ancients thought there is just one self, others that there are none. The kernel of truth in this remark lies in the fact that these ancients agreed that achieving a less involved, less embedded, sense of self was proper work for philosophy. What this consists in, and how it is to be achieved, depends on what one takes a self to be. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed a re-emergence of realism and a new interest in the problem of the individuation of distinct selves. Ganeri is able to comment only very briefly here on this tremendously exciting period of innovation.
This book is the story of an extended philosophical inquiry, one that had as its end an acknowledgement of the truth about the self; and took for its means a creative investigation through canonical texts. Ganeri’s own 'point of view' as an author is different in each of the three Parts. In Part I his standpoint is that of a participant located 'inside' the texts. Ganeri tries to be engaged, open, receptive to the distinct understanding of self and world each of these texts instills. In Part II Ganeri views the texts from a point of view that lies 'outside' them. He looks upon the texts as well-crafted vehicles, examples of a complex philosophical genre that aims at self-transformation in the reader. In Part III, still 'outside' the text, Ganeri moves from a view of them as vehicles to a perspective in which he consides them as the bearers of content, a content consisting in fascinating philosophical theory about the nature of self. Ganeri has arranged the three Parts in sequence, but not because he thinks there is a progression from one perspective to the next. Indeed, just the opposite: Ganeri believe that each of the three perspectives (reader, critic, philosopher) needs constantly to be borne in mind. In the course of studying the materials upon which this book is based Ganeri has come to the firm conclusion that we cannot fully understand our subject if we adopt any one of these three points of view to the exclusion of the other two, or give it more weight, or less, than it is due. To do that would be a pity, because then the sheer sophistication of the Indian philosophical texts, the deliberate shifting interplay between vehicle and content, between literary form and conceptual matter, would go unnoticed.
Ganeri places the Madhyamika view last because it requires that much more than the others to set it up. What is involved in 'setting up' a view? He has found it worthwhile to attempt in this book to create a proper philosophical context for the views examined. In particular, I think it is important that we have in mind the Indian context of the Indian Buddhist philosophers of the self; and that means, in part, the intellectual context that the great Indian epics, not to mention the Upanisads and other philosophical works, sustain. These would have been extremely familiar to the Buddhist philosophers of our period: they properly contextualize the discussion of Indian Buddhism.' I say this and at the same time have enormous respect for the tradition of Tibetan hermeneutics, and for the intellectual culture that these self-same Buddhists helped to create when they later were to become philosopher-refugees. Candrakirti, whose view Ganeri discusses at some length, was to become a pivotal figure in Tibet.
It seems to me that it is a sign of the enormous philosophical strength of the earliest texts that they are able to sustain such a range of philosophical speculation about the self. They are a constant resource to which the later tradition could continually return when in need of inspiration. Their role in a dynamic tradition is to provide stimulation, not justification, in philosophical inquiry and in the development of new conceptual and normative paradigms. That is to say, they are better understood as `source' texts rather as 'proof' texts, the back-reference within the tradition having a function similar to that of a ressourcement. One way they fulfill this role is to be, as Aloka Parasher-Sen has put it, 'texts within which were left deliberate, open spaces for interpretation'. Another is to have many chronological strata, many authorial voices, many recensions. When the later tradition does cite an early text in order to justify an innovation, it still does not take the form of an argument from authority. Dynamic traditions of thought are governed by a principle of proleptic unity, a later innovation being judged a proper development of the tradition, and not a corruption, if it is in agreement with the underlying principles of the tradition. Often, tacit agreement between the innovation and the underlying principle will be confirmed by the appearance of that innovation much earlier on in the tradition, albeit in an inchoate and undeveloped form. This earlier `anticipation' may not stand in any causal relationship with the later innovation; indeed the source of the innovation might be entirely external to the tradition. The reference back to the early texts serves to confirm that the innovation, whatever its origins, counts as a consistent development of the tradition itself The early texts do exactly what they themselves say they are doing, that is, nourishing a profound investigation into the self and the deep errors about it we are prone to fall into. But by their own admission, it is not their job to perform the investigation for us; nor could they succeed even if they tried. These concepts of ressourcement, anticipation and intratextual 'open spaces', along with an acknowledgement of the importance of intellectual context and authorial perspective, create a methodological framework within which Ganeri interprets the Indian tradition of philosophical thought about truth, concealment and self.
Some of the Indian ideas Ganeri discusses in this book had more of a taste for adventure than others. Of the ones that did, a few chose to travel along often tortuous paths, sometimes reaching Europe. The Upanisadic idea that the self is not an object was transmitted to Schopenhauer, who read the Latin rendering of a Persian translation, and from him via Wittgenstein to Sidney Shoemaker. The Buddha's ideas about selflessness and emptiness, as well as stories about his teaching methods, found their way to China, from where, with the help of the Jesuit missionaries, they entered that 'arsenal' of the Enlightenment, the Dictionaire historique et critique of Pierre Bayle, a book plundered by many Enlightenment thinkers including, notably, David Hume. An idea that is, perhaps, a little too well-travelled, the doctrine of karma, is one whose obscure origins lie in the question of self-constitution through action. In the appendices, Ganeri has included brief discussions of some of the ideas encountered in the body of the book that have more stamps in their passports than others.
The Character of the Self in Ancient India: Priests, Kings, and Women in the Early Upanisads by Brian Black (SUNY Series in Hindu Studies: State University of New York Press) Explores the narratives and dialogues of the Upanisads and shows that these literary elements are central to an understanding of Upanishadic philosophy.
This groundbreaking book is an elegant exploration of the
Upanisads, often considered the fountainhead of the rich, varied
philosophical tradition in India. The Upanisads, in addition to
their philosophical content, have a number of sections that contain
narratives and dialogues--a literary dimension largely ignored by
the Indian philosophical tradition, as well as by modern scholars.
Brian Black draws attention to these literary elements and
demonstrates that they are fundamental to understanding the
philosophical claims of the text.
Focusing on the Upanishadic notion of the self (atman), the book is organized into four main sections that feature a lesson taught by a brahmin teacher to a brahmin student, debates between brahmins, discussions between brahmins and kings, and conversations between brahmins and women. These dialogical situations feature dramatic elements that bring attention to both the participants and the social contexts of Upanishadic philosophy, characterizing philosophy as something achieved through discussion and debate. In addition to making a number of innovative arguments, the author also guides the reader through these profound and engaging texts, offering ways of reading the Upanisads that make them more understandable and accessible.
"This is an outstanding book." -- Patrick Olivelle, editor of Between the Empires: Society in India 300 BCE to 400 CE
"This is the finest, most insightful, and most theoretically sophisticated book on the Upanisads I have ever read. For years I have had students come up to me after class and ask me to recommend a book on the Upanisads and I never could. Now, at last, we have a long critical read of these texts from a multitheoretical perspective: sociological, historical, rhetorical, and gendered." -- Jeffrey J. Kripal, author of The Serpent's Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion
Excerpt: This book focuses primarily on the teachings that are highlighted by the dialogues in the Upanisads, and those that are generally characterized as new in relation to Vedic ritualism. Among these teachings there are a number of interrelated ideas that concentrate on the self, the processes of life and death, and how to achieve immortality.
Atman, the religio-philosophical idea that is discussed most in the dialogues, has a number of different meanings and usages in Vedic literature. Originally, in the earliest Vedic material, atman was a reflexive pronoun meaning 'self.' The word continued to be used as a pronoun, but by the time of the late Brahmanas and early Upanisads, atman also became a philosophical term that could be associated with a wide range of meanings including body and soul, and could sometimes refer to the ontological principle underlying all reality. Although there are a number of distinct and contradictory definitions of atman, throughout the Upaniads, teachings about atman indicate a general interest in the human body and the processes of life and death.
Discussions about the human body in ancient Indian literature, however, are by no means new to the Upanisads. One of the most prevailing myths in the Vedic ritual texts is that the universe began with the sacrifice and dismemberment of the primordial male body. In the Puruasukta hymn of the Rigveda (10.90), the body of Purusa is dissected and the elements of his body are reassembled to create an ordered universe. Thus, the initial body of Purusa is considered imperfect or incomplete, and only when his body is reassembled does creation really begin. In the Brahmanas, the mythology of Purusa becomes extended to the creator god Prajapati. Prajapati creates the world from his own corporality and his creation is considered incomplete, as his creatures are without breath, suffering from hunger or lack of food, without firm foundation, or without name or form. As in the Purwsukta, creation is imagined in terms of restoring and reordering rather than making something from nothing (SB 10.4.2.3).
One of the functions of the Vedic sacrifice was to complete the creation process begun by Prajapati. Throughout this mythology the universe not only is made from a primordial male body, but also shares with both Purusa and Prajapati the same fundamental structure, thus pointing to a correspondence between microcosm and macrocosm.
In some passages in the Upanisads, atman assumes the character of the cosmic bodies of Purusa and Prajapati. The Aitareya Upanisad (1.1), for example, begins with a creation myth in which atman creates the universe from the body of Purusa. As with Purusa and Prajapati, atman's creation is incomplete without a sacrifice. The gods reject both a cow and a horse as inadequate sacrificial victims. Finally atman offers a purusa (a man) and the gods are pleased. The result of this sacrifice is that the original creation folds back on itself. Originally, atman created fire from speech and speech from the mouth of Purusa. Now, after the sacrifice, fire returns to speech and enters the mouth. Like Purusa and Prajapati, atman is cast as a creator god who creates the universe by means of sacrificing, dismembering, and reconstructing a body.
Although in this passage atman assumes the mythological status of Purusa and Prajapati, most of the teachings concerning atman represent a different set of concerns from those found in the ritual discourse. Rather than assume a correspondence between the human body and the universe, many teachings in the Upanisads show an interest in the fundamental essence of life. As Brereton explains. "While the Bramanas sought . . . correlations within the domains of the ritual and outside world, the Upanisads search primarily for those that exist within and among the human and natural domains" (1990, 119). Several sections describe atman as a life force or something that keeps the body alive. For example, the Aitareya Aranyaka (2.3.2) describes atman as taking different forms in different living beings. In plants and trees atman is equated with sap, while in animals atman is consciousness. In humans, however, atman is said to be clearer than in other beings. In the Chandogya Upanisad (6.1-16) Uddalaka Aruni teaches that atman is the finest essence in all living beings.
In chapter 1 Black looks at how different Upanishadic teachers have different teachings about atman. Here, however, it is important to point out that despite the differences, there are some general tendencies. Most of these teachings assume that atman is immortal, that atman dwells within the body when it is alive, and in one way or another that atman is responsible for the body being alive. Atman does not die when the body dies, but rather finds a dwelling place in another body.
As Yajnavalkya, one of the most prominent figures in the Upanisads, explains, "Just as a caterpillar, having reached the end of a blade of grass, as it takes another step, draws itself together. So the self (atman), having thrown down the body and having dispelled ignorance, in taking another step, draws itself together" (BU 4A.3)." As the atman is immortal, it is also characterized as permanent and unchanging.
Closely related to these discussions about atman are discourses about prana. The Taittiriya Upanisad (2.2.1), for example, describes the atman as consisting of prana, while in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad (2.1.20) King Ajatasatru teaches that the atman and the prangs have an interdependent relationship. Indeed, these teachings explain that the atman, as a living organism, cannot exist without prana. As H. W. Bodewitz suggests, generally prana refers to breath and can mean both exhalation and life-breath (1973, 22).
It is difficult to define prana because it means different things in different contexts. In its plural form, the prangs refer to either the bodily winds or to the five vital functions (breath, sight, hearing, speech, and mind)." Although these distinctly different categories are both called prangs, in its singular form, prana appears in both groups, retaining its connection to breath. The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad (1.5.21) explains that because the prana is superior, the other vital functions take on the name collectively. Importantly, the composers of the Upanisads did not associate the life breaths of the human body with the lungs, but rather the breaths are usually described in terms of how they move and where they operate within the body. For example, the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad (1.3.19) describes the prangs as the essence (rasa) of the bodily parts (anga), articulating the close connection between the breaths and the material body. In another passage, the Kausitaki Upanisad (3.2) associates life with prana, stating that as long as prana remains within the body, the body remains alive.
In the Aitareya Aranyaka (2.1.4) we see one of the earliest appearances of a recurring myth about the competition between pram and the other vital functions. There are a number of variations of this myth. Whatever the variations, however, the events in the story are always the same: all the vital functions agree to leave the body to discover which one of them is most central to keeping the body alive. As they leave one by one, the body continues to have life. Only when prana departs does the body die. Then, when prana returns the body is restored to life.
The various versions of the prana myth assume that knowledge of how the body works and what is responsible for life can contribute to keeping the body alive and to averting death. Accordingly, atman and prana are often discussed in relation to sleep and death. The Satapatha Brahmana describes how the pranas, during sleep, take possession of the atman and descend into the cavity of the heart (10.5.2.14).17 In the Chandogya Upanisad (4.3.3), Raikva teaches that during sleep, all the vital functions pass into the prana. The union of the pranas in the interior of the body explains why someone who is asleep is unaware of what goes on. The Satapatha Brahmana (10.5.2.14) warns that someone who is in this state of deep sleep should not be woken. In this passage, as well as others, the process of sleeping is likened to the process of dying.
Death is generally described as the departure of pranas from the body. In the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad (4.3.38; 4.4.1), Yajnavalkya teaches King Janaka that death occurs when prana leaves the body. The similarity between sleeping and dying is that when the atman or prana retreats into the cavity of the heart, the person loses all consciousness of the outside world. The difference is that after sleep, the atman/ prana leaves the cavity of the heart and returns to the rest of the body, whereas in death the atman/prana leaves the body altogether. The Chandogya Upanisad (8.6.3) describes these two processes together: in the state of sleep a man slips into his veins and "no evil thing touches him." Similarly, in the following passage (8.6.4), a dying man is described as slipping into unconsciousness and unable to recognize his relatives. This passage ends by stating that knowledge of these processes affects what happens after death, and that the door to the world beyond is an entrance for those who know, but an obstacle for those who do not know (8.6.5). Thus, when a man knows the connection between the pranas, he is joined with death and becomes immortal. In an example from the Satapatha Brahmana (10.6.3.11), Sandilya teaches that a person obtains atman during death, indicating that people's knowledge is connected to what happens to them when they die.
These discussions of atman and prana are not merely indicative of a general interest in bodily functions, but are closely connected with the Upanishadic goal of immortality (amrta). As Dermot Killingley points out, the Vedic literature considers life after death in a much different way than later texts that emphasize ideas about samsara and moksa: "The main way in which Vedic thought on the subject differs from later Hindu thought is that it usually regards life after death as something to be achieved, rather than as something to be escaped from.” In the Vedic period immortality is understood in a number of different ways, including being preserved in the social memory, becoming one with the essential being of the universe, and surviving death in the heavenly world. As Killingley describes, different understandings of immortality assume different ways for achieving the deathless state: "Firstly, one can become immortal through one's offspring ... A second idea is survival through dispersal of the person into the corresponding parts of the universe . . . Thirdly, there is the idea of survival in one's deeds (istapurta), particularly ritual deeds, which prepare a place for the deceased in the next world". Another common understanding of amrta, which literally means "not dying," is a long life. For example, in the Chandogya Upanisad (3.16.7), Mahidasa Aitareya claims that he will overcome death because of his knowledge. The text then states that he lived to be 116 and that anyone who knows this teaching will also be able to live to the same advanced age.
Despite sharing with the ritual texts similar ideas about avoiding death and securing immortality, the Upanisads offer different methods as to how to achieve these goals. In the ritual context, immortality is gained through ritual action, as the sacrifice feeds the gods and ancestors, providing for their nourishment and continued survival in the heavenly world. In the Upanishadic discussions about atman and prana, however, immortality is often gained through manipulation of the life process. To know atman is to understand how the pranas work and how atman leaves the body at the time of death.
As we will see, Yajnavalkya teaches that immortality can be secured through knowledge alone. However most Upanishadic teachers assume the earlier Vedic notion that achieving immortality requires having male children. The difference is that in the ritual texts, male children are important because they inherit ritual knowledge and continue to feed and keep alive their deceased ancestors. In the early Upanisads, however, the desire for male offspring is linked to more naturalistic views of the self and the human body, as a man can avert death by being reborn in his son. As Olivelle explains, "A man's sperm is viewed as his rasa or essence. In other words, a man replicates himself, creates a second self for himself, in his sperm.”
This point is illustrated in the Aitareya Upanisad (2.1-6), where Vamadeva teaches that atman has three births: conception, birth, and death/rebirth. As Milan is understood as generating life, these passages explain how atman is passed from one body to give life to another body. This passage, as well as others, considers atman in terms of a specifically male body and describes sexual activity as the male passing the atman to the female. In Vamadeva's teaching the female body is basically a receptacle for the atman to be reborn in another male body: In a man, indeed, one first becomes an embryo (garbha). That which is semen (retas) is the energy (tejas) proceeding from all the limbs (anga). In the self (atman) one bears a self (atman). When he emits this in a woman he begets it. That is his first birth. It becomes one with the woman, just as her own limbs, so it does not harm her. She nourishes this self (atman) of his that has come to her. (AU 2.1-2)21
Both commentators within the Indian tradition and modern scholars have treated the Upanisads primarily as a collection of abstract philosophical doctrines, analyzing the transcendental claims without taking into consideration how philosophy is rooted within a social and historical context. It has been the intention of this book to look at the social dimensions of Upanishadic philosophy. Through highlighting and examining the dialogues, Black has demonstrated that the narrative episodes are not merely superfluous information or literary ornamentation, but fundamental aspects of the philosophical claims of the texts.
Black has focused on the social context that is provided by the texts themselves. Throughout this study, the social world of the Upanisads is not the realm of myth or fantasy, but rather represents the real, at least in an idealized representation, social world of ancient Indian brahmins. This is not to claim that the concrete scenes depicted in the stories and dialogues are historically true: Black has not claimed that the brahmodya in King Janaka's court actually happened, or that Pravahana really taught the doctrine of the five fires to Uddalaka Arunti. Rather, this book maintains that these scenes represent the kinds of episodes that were part of the social world of brahmins. As a way of exploring the social dimensions of the Upanisads, Black has discussed the dialogues in terms of four groups: (1) instructions passed from teachers to students, (2) debates between rival brahmins, (3) discussions between brahmins and kings, and (4) conversations between brahmins and women.
Throughout all four kinds of dialogues, atman is the idea that is discussed most, although it is defined and explained in a number of ways by different literary characters. Despite the differences, however, knowledge of atman consistently represents the new Upanishadic knowledge that is defined in contradistinction to the traditional Vedic knowledge about the sacrifice. The dialogues not only serve to highlight teachings about atman, but also connect this knowledge to specific people and particular situations, indicating that knowledge of the self is particularly important to brahmins and to a number of specific situations in a brahmin's life. Thus, by means of looking at the dialogues, we have seen that the Upanishadic notion of the self is not merely a philosophical insight, but a way of living one's life.
Black began by examining dialogues between teachers and students. These dialogues show an interest in the moment of instruction and record how knowledge is transmitted. By means of describing the interactions of specific characters, the dialogues outline modes of address and modes of behavior that accompany the transmission of knowledge. Different teachers employ different means of instruction, but in all cases they follow the script of the upanayana, and they all impart discourses about the self.
One of the central activities for brahmins is participating in the brahmodya. There are two main types of brahmodya that feature in the Upanisads: the private debates that establish a relative hierarchy among brahmins, and the public tournaments, which are depicted as competitive, and where the reputations of brahmins, and sometimes political power, is at stake. The brahmodya is especially emphasized in the Brhadaranyaka Upaniad, where Yajnavalkya uses the public debate as a forum for establishing authority for both himself and his patron, King Janaka of Videha. Yajnavalkya proves his superiority not only by displaying his knowledge of the discourse, but also by how he advances his arguments and marshals debating tactics. In addition to establishing himself as superior to a number of Kuru-Pancala brahmins, Yajnavalkya also emerges quite wealthy. As performing sacrifices is no longer the primary occupation of brahmins, Yajnavalkya is an example of how brahmins make a living in a changing world.
In addition to his success in winning philosophical debates, Yajnavalkya is also known for his friendly relationship with King Janaka. Indeed, the conversations between Yajnavalkya and Janaka are among several dialogues between brahmins and kings throughout the Upanisads. These dialogues often depict the king teaching the brahmin and in some cases even claim that particular doctrines originated among kings. As we have seen, however, many of these same doctrines are recorded in earlier Brahmanical literature and thus these claims cannot be taken as historically accurate. Nevertheless, this literary strategy taken by brahmin composers indicates that forging relationships with kings was an important aspect of establishing oneself as a successful brahmin. By linking philosophical doctrines to political power and describing the ideal king as one who hosts philosophical debates and gives generously to brahmins, the dialogues present both brahmins and their teachings as indispensable to a king's political and military success. As such, the dialogues between brahmins and kings outline the proper modes of address and behavior for brahmins to seek patronage from kings and for kings to secure the presence of brahmins in their court.
Besides kings, the other essential dialogical partners for brahmins are women. Many of the teachings in the Upanisads are concerned with securing immortality and connect immortality with having male children. Accordingly, a crucial aspect of Upanishadic teachings is about how to control sexual relations and the process of birth. Furthermore, these discourses establish idealized gender roles for men and women. Brahmin men are depicted as confrontational and aggressive, both in their interactions with other brahmin men and in their relations with their wives. Women are defined primarily as procreative bodies and supportive wives, helping their husbands maintain the household fires and helping to prepare mixtures in procreation rites. Nevertheless, Gargi and Maitreyi have a more active participation in Upanishadic philosophy, as Gargi in particular not only shows her knowledge of the discourse, but also demonstrates her understanding of the practice of philosophy by debating both tactically and aggressively.
Through focusing on the social situations provided by the dialogues, Black has also explored a number of related issues regarding the historical context of ancient India. The most fundamental matter is a shift in attitude concerning the sacrifice. As discussed in the introduction, it seems unlikely that economic or political pressures contributed to an actual decline in the practice of sacrifice. However, the early Upanisads strongly criticize the sacrifice and focus on other activities as the practices which most give knowledge authority. This movement away from sacrifice at a textual level indicates that the composers and editors of the Upanisads were attempting to define their roles as brahmins in different ways to audiences who no longer found the sacrifice favorable. In fact, not only do brahmins define themselves as teachers and court priests rather than as ritualists, but also the ideal king is one who learns philosophy and hosts philosophical debates rather than one who is the patron of the sacrifice. In this way, the early Upanisads not only replace sacrifice with a number of different practices for brahmins, but promote discursive knowledge as the new political currency for brahmins that promises political and military success to kings.
Inextricably related to changing attitudes about the sacrifice are new means of establishing the status of brahmins. As we have seen, the Upanisads, on several occasions, criticize those who are merely brahmins based on their family lineage, and offer new ways to consider individuals as brahmins. The new ideal was not someone born as a brahmin, but one who becomes a brahmin by learning about the self. However, these changes do not suggest that the status of brahmin was open to everyone, but rather these new means for defining brahmins was mostly an attempt to establish a hierarchy within the brahmin community. In most of the dialogues that make a point of distinguishing those who are brahmins by birth from those who are brahmins because of their knowledge, the individual in question is already a brahmin. For example, Svetaketu is encouraged to go receive a proper education, and Naciketas rejects the ritualism of his father. Both students are already brahmins by birth before they are initiated into the Upanishadic teachings of the self. In these cases the point is not that knowledge about the self is enough to make one a brahmin, but rather for those who are already brahmins, it is better to learn and teach about the self than to perform rituals. Defining a brahmin is fundamental because, as we have seen, one of the central aspects of knowledge about the self is not merely the content of the discourse, but also who is teaching the discourse. The dialogues illustrate that knowledge of the self is not an insight that can be achieved through solitary introspection, but rather has to be received from the proper teacher by means of the accepted method of transmission; one can only understand the meaning of the self through someone else who knows.
The changing attitude about sacrifice and the new ways of defining brahmins are prominent themes in both the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad and the Chandogya Upanisad; however, the two texts differ in how they respond to these social changes. The Chandogya Upanisad is more traditional, offering up the ideal brahmin as both teacher and householder. Like the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, the Chandogya Upanisad presents knowledge of the self as more beneficial than performing sacrifices, yet the Chandogya Upanisad is more conservative in who can have access to this new knowledge by insisting that the teacher is more valuable than the knowledge itself and refusing to depict brahmins being initiated by kings.
The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, however, pushes the critique of ritualism much further. Yajnavalkya for example, establishes his knowledge, not by means of learning from the proper teacher, but through directly defeating more orthodox brahmins. Additionally, the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad does not refrain from showing brahmins being initiated by kings. The most radical change in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, however, is its critique of the brahmin household. Both through the teachings of Yajnavalkya and his interaction with female characters, the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad challenges the assumption that only married brahmin men with sons can achieve selfhood and immortality. Significantly, this anticipates the Buddhist critique of Brahmanism, which also attempts to forge relationships with kings based on philosophy but which takes the critique of the householder even further.
Despite the competing agendas of the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad and Chandogya Upanisad, both Upanisads employ the dialogue form to present their teachings. In both texts, the dialogue form is used to critique the Vedic sacrificial paradigm, to set up new ideals for brahmins, and to connect these new ideals to specific doctrines and practices. Indeed, as much as any particular doctrine, the use of the dialogue is one of the most consequential legacies of the Upanisads in relation to subsequent Indian literature. Most generally, the dialogue form itself characterizes philosophy as a social practice. Although the Upanisads are sometimes represented as the abstract insights of renunciates, the texts depict philosophy as an interactive process: philosophy is something that is achieved through discussion and debate, confrontation and negotiation. Despite emphasizing knowledge about individual selves, this knowledge can only be achieved through dialogue with others.
Furthermore, the dialogue form focuses attention on a number of specific individuals, many of whom were already authoritative figures in Vedic literature. Characters such as Sandilya, Uddâlaka and Yajnavalkya were already known as famous priests and textual composers, but the Upanishadic dialogues further develop their personalities, creating legends of ideal teachers and court priests. The stories not only use the names of these individuals to authorize specific teachings, but also use the narratives to portray these individuals as leading a specific kind of life. In this way, the Upanishadic portrayals of its literary characters are similar to hagiographies, as they anchor religio-philosophical claims to specific ways of leading one's life. Whereas Satyakama lives the life of a teacher and married householder, Yajnavalkya represents a challenge to this ideal as the priest who debates in the court and leaves his household without any male heirs. Both Satyakama and Yajnavalkya embody their teachings, their different stories offering two distinct models of how to be a brahmin.
These features of the dialogues not only help us understand doctrines about the self, but they also can be instrumental in exploring how the Upanisads have influenced subsequent Indian texts. Many scholars note that the Upanisads have influenced early Buddhism. Yet similar to how Upanishadic philosophy is characterized in general, the influence of the Upanisads on early Buddhism is described as taking place in the hermetically sealed realm of ideas. The early Buddhist texts, however, like the Upanisads, use both narrative and dialogue to present the message of the Buddha's teachings. Furthermore, there are a number of specific literary tropes and narrative situations that are quite similar. Both Yajnavalkya and the Buddha leave a life of riches that is associated with the court and the household for a life of renunciation. Also, the Buddha, like Yajnavalkya, debates against several opponents in the presence of the king. Whereas all of Yajnavalkya's opponents represent different Vedic schools, the Buddha's opponents represent rival religio-philosophical movements. These similarities suggest that one of the major influences of the Upanisads on the early Buddhist texts is the mode of presentation. Both textual traditions present philosophical ideas in the form of a dialogue, as well as attach teachings to specific individuals in particular moments in space and time.
Similarly, the Upanisads have had a crucial influence on subsequent Brahmanical literature. Knowledge continues to be portrayed as both elusive and dangerous, and the reluctant teacher and eager student remain as standard tropes. In particular, the dialogue form continues to be the most common mode of presentation for religio-philosophical ideas in the Brahmanical tradition. Not only is the Bhagavad Gita presented as a conversation between Krsna and Arjuna, but even texts such as the Mahabharata and the Puranas are framed within a dialogue. In this way, in addition to representing the birth of philosophy in ancient India, the Upanisads mark the beginning of the dialogical presentation of philosophical ideas. By means of this particular literary device, philosophical ideas are presented in the form of discussions and debates, formal instruction and secret teachings; and in the context of public tournaments and courtly assemblies, financial exchanges and intimate relations. By means of the dialogue form, philosophy is connected with a number of specific social practices, and is characterized as entrenched within the affairs of everyday life.
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