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PRABUDDHA BHARATAJourney of the Upanishads to the West | Review  




               Review Article




               Journey of the Upanishads to the West




     Swami Tathagatananda. The Vedanta Society of New York, 34 West 71st Street, New York, NY 10023. 2002. E-mail: vedantasoc@aol. com. 599 pp. Rs 200. Available at Advaita Ashrama,
     5 Dehi Entally Road, Kolkata 700 014. E-mail: advaita@vsnl.com.


     Swami Tathagatananda, a senior monk of the Ramakrishna Order and spiritual head of the Vedanta Society of New York, who has impressed us with publications such as Meditations on Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda (1993) and The Vedanta Society of New York (2000), has now come up with a gem of a book, very appropriately titled Journey of the Upanishads to the West, detailing Western scholars’ contribution to the dissemination of the Truth that was first discovered by the ancient rishis of India.


     The Upanishads contain the very essence of the Vedas and are also referred to as Vedanta because they constitute the concluding portion of the Vedas. Vedanta is a philosophy and a religion at the same time. In India philosophy is called ‘darshana, that which provides the vision of Truth’. To the extent Vedanta constitutes a search for the supreme Truth, it is a philosophy and to the extent it ordains ways towards the realization of the supreme Truth through intense spiritual practice, it is a religion. Both as a philosophy and as a religion Vedanta holds that the ultimate fulfilment of human life lies in the search for and realization of the supreme Truth that the Atman is Brahman and that man is divine (‘Tattvamasi, Thou art That.’) ‘This declared oneness of the individual and God,’ as Tathagatananda most perceptively observes, ‘is the most inspiring message of Vedanta. … The discovery of Vedanta in the most ancient times of the supreme idea of the in-depth Reality within human beings is not found in any other ancient or modern literature. Knowledge of the impressive spectrum of power hidden within us as the Atman is the singular contribution to the world of the Indian heritage.’ (35)


     Tathagatananda gives a graphic description of how the leading countries of the West - Greece, France, Germany, England, USA and Russia - received the Indian Upanishadic thought. It will be instructive to give a summary of the vastly detailed discussion presented in this regard in as many as six chapters of the book.






     As regards Greece, he refutes the popular notion that with Alexander’s invasion in 326-27 BC, India became open to all sorts of influences from Greece, and shows that long before Alexander’s invasion, Pythagorus had perhaps travelled to India in the sixth century BC and that his theory of the harmony of the spheres reflected the ‘esoteric use of numbers in the Vedas and the Upanishads’. (11)


     Further, Socrates (469-399 BC) had occasion to meet an Indian philosopher in course of roaming on the streets of Athens and was greatly moved by the latter’s Upanishadic observation that humans - the relative - could be properly understood only in the light of an understanding of the Divine - the Absolute.


     The Indian influence is most discernible in the writings of Plato. His ‘myth of the cave’ reflecting the Vedantic doctrine of maya, his concept of nous showing its similarity to the Upanishadic concept of Atman and his idea of omniscience, somewhat similar to jnana yoga, the way of knowledge in the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita - all indicate the influence of Indian Upanishadic and religious thought on Plato. Indeed, Max Muller was startled to note the similarity between Plato’s language and that of the Upanishads. And Urwick went to the length of observing that most of Plato’s Republic was a paraphrasing of Indian ideas.


     In modern times, the Greek mind turned to India in the quest for its spiritual wisdom when Demetrius Galanos of Athens (1760­1833), a self-effacing scholar acclaimed as ‘the Plato of this age’, embraced India as his second motherland, lived a life of penury in his adopted country and breathed his last in his beloved Varanasi, proving himself to be one of the earliest and ablest pioneers of Indology.


     On the whole, the Greek culture, of which the rest of Europe is the inheritor and descendant, was practical rather than contemplative, this-worldly rather than other-worldly. Yet there were points of confluence, as noted above, between Greece and India; and to the extent India, with her spiritual culture of the Upanishads, reminded Greece that liberty of the soul was also to be striven for along with the liberty of the body, India was able to do her bit for the enrichment of Greece and through her for the enrichment of the rest of Europe as well.






     The crucial initial role in bringing about the expansion of India’s spiritual culture to France was played in the year 1671 by a French traveller to India by the name of Francis Bernier, who brought to France in that year the Persian translation of fifty Upani­shads made by Prince Dara Shukoh in 1656. The French interest in India’s spiritual literature, awakened by this event, received a boost when Voltaire received the gift of a copy of the Yajur Veda in 1760, which he regarded as the most precious ‘for which the West was ever indebted to the East’. The distinguished French philosopher Victor Cousin (1792-1867) poured his heart’s reverence for the Vedanta philosophy of India by acknowledging it as the highest philosophy that mankind had ever produced.


     Among the early French scholars none opened the soul of India to the West better than Anquetil-Duperron (1731-1805). After forty years of dedicated struggle he brought out his Latin translation of the Upanishads. The work titled Oupnek’hat, which was a Latin translation of Dara Shukoh’s Persian version of the Upanishads, attracted the minds of the greatest philosophers of Europe including Schopenhauer and Paul Deussen. This Latin magnum opus of Anquetil was published in 1801-02. Anquetil died not long afterwards, exhausted, no doubt, from the extreme penury in which he lived while working on this life’s work of his. Of the same nature as the sages of India to whom he dedicated his work, Anquetil wrote, ‘I live in poverty [one-twelfth of an Indian rupee for his daily food] … bereft of all worldly goods, all alone. … With perfect peace of mind I await the dissolution of the body which is not far off for me.’ That the grinding poverty could not unnerve the sage that Anquetil was could be seen from what he went on to write of himself: ‘With unceasing effort I aspire to God, the highest and most perfect Being.’ (186)


     Like Anquetil-Duperron, Eugene Bernouf too died a martyr to the cause of learning. Among his Indic research are French and Latin translations of extracts from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.


     The French appreciation of India’s spiritual culture, carried on through Sylvain Levi and Louis Renou, found its culmination in modern times in Romain Rolland (1866-1944). Rolland expounded to the West Vedanta’s two greatest exemplars - Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda - by publishing their biographies, namely The Life of Ramakrishna and The Life of Swami Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel, published in 1929 and 1931, respectively. Rolland’s purpose in writing these two inspired biographies was to bring, as Rolland himself said, ‘the good effect of that great thought … into the soul of the West, wounded but still hard and contracted. It is a serious moment for the West, which has learnt nothing from the troubles it has already had. If it doesn’t do something to gain possession of itself, the spell would be cast.’ No Western savant has ever spoken more prophetic words about the eternal value of the message of Vedanta and has ever sounded a more relevant warning to the West.






     Among the German scholars who played the pivotal role in promoting the journey of the Upanishads to the West, Friedrich Von Schelling (1775-1854), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Friedrich Max Muller (1823-1900) and Paul Deussen (1854-1919) deserve special mention. Schelling’s admiration for the Upanishads followed from his study of the Oupnek’hat. He was so charmed by the ideas of the Upanishads that he wanted their widest possible circulation in Germany and to that end he set Max Muller to the task of translating a portion of the Upanishads.


     Schopenhauer, whose The World as Will and Idea was influenced by the Chandogya Upanishad, held that the Upanishads were the most beneficial and elevating study that the world had ever produced and that ‘it has been the solace of my life, it will be the solace of my death’.


     Max Muller devoted nearly 25 years of his life to editing the 51-volume Sacred Books of the East and was known for his voluminous writings on India and Indology, including the 6-volume Rig-Veda with Sayana’s Commentary, Three Lectures on the Vedanta Philosophy and What Can India Teach Us? He became the greatest exponent of Oriental sacred literature and was the most forthcoming among the Western scholars to acknowledge the fact that the Vedanta philosophy contained thoughts unequalled in any language of the West and that India with such philosophy and culture of thought could indeed teach the West to become ‘more perfect, more comprehensive, more universal [and] more truly human’. (53). Extolling the silent forests of India as infinitely better observatories of the soul than the noisy centres of Western civilization, Muller raised a question that has been at the centre of the Upanishadic thought and Vedanta philosophy: ‘What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ (57)


     Max Muller rendered another service to the cause of Vedanta in the West. His meeting with Swami Vivekananda in London on 28 May 1896 set him to the task of writing Ramakrishna, His Life and Sayings, which was published in 1898. The West came to know Sri Ramakrishna, the guru of Swami Vivekananda, as the consummation of Vedanta in our times and this, together with Swami Vivekananda’s brilliant success at the Parliament of Religions at Chicago in September 1893, greatly facilitated Vivekananda’s mission of preaching Vedanta to the West.


     Paul Deussen, acknowledged as his heir and successor by Max Muller himself, immensely enriched Upanishadic studies in the West with publications such as Sixty Upanishads, The Philosophy of the Upanishads and Spirit of the Upanishads. Deussen found the essence of the Upanishads in the doctrine of the identity of Brahman and Atman and held that this Upanishadic idea had ‘a significance reaching far beyond their time and country; nay, we claim for it an inestimable value for the whole race of mankind.’ (291)






     The services that England gave to the cause of Indic studies through scholars such as Sir William Jones (1746-94) and others that followed him were glorious by all means. Jones founded the Asiatic Society in Calcutta in 1784. Under his able guidance, Indic studies in general and Vedic studies in particular received an organized focus and direction. ‘One correct version of any celebrated Hindu book would be of greater value than all the dissertations or essays that could be composed on the same subject,’ stated Jones, who also asserted that ‘without detracting from the “never-fading laurels of Newton” the whole of Newton’s theology and part of his philosophy were to be found in the Vedas and other Indian works.’ Known for his 6-volume Works, Jones’ English translation of the Ishavasya Upanishad was also the first translation of any Upanishad into a European language.


     Sir Charles Wilkins (1750-1836), known for his memorable contributions to the research of the Asiatic Society, was the first to bring out a translation of the Gita into a European language. ‘The essence of the Hindu thought, as elegantly and concisely put forth in the Bhagavad Gita, was disseminated through­out all of Europe thanks to Wilkins’ translation. His Gita was later translated into all major languages and reached a universal audience.’ (341) It carried in its preface the assertion of Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India and a great patron of the Asiatic Society, that ‘the study and the true practice of Gita’s teachings would lead humanity to peace and bliss.’ (339)


     Horace H Wilson (1786-1860) - the founder of the Sanskrit College in Calcutta in 1824 and one of the architects of the Hindu College (renamed Presidency College) in 1817, and the first European to study the Puranas seriously - also made his valuable contribution towards making the Rig Veda known to European scholars by rendering it in English verse in as many as six volumes, covering in them Sayana’s commentary as well.


     Sir Monier-Williams, a noted student of Wilson’s at Oxford, who succeeded Wilson as Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford from 1860 to 1888, distinguished himself in Indological research with books such as Hinduism (1877) in which his proclaimed thesis was that ‘the Hindu faith was universal and accommodated all other religions.’ Tathagatananda brings out succinctly the difference in the approaches of Deussen and Monier-Williams with the following observation: ‘In comparison to Deussen’s thinking that Vedanta’s sages were “equal in rank to Plato and Kant”, Monier-Williams accepted the Vedas as the foundation of Hinduism and as the quintessence of all religious thought. The untrammelled truth-seekers of Vedic times had already journeyed through many schools of philosophy, commonly thought to have originated in the West, namely, atheism, agnosticism, nihilism, materialism. spiritualism, theism, deism, pluralism, dualism, monism and monotheism. Monier-Williams recognized that the sages had actually anticipated Plato, Kant, Hume, Hegel, Schopenhauer and other Western philosophers.’ (353)


     William Blake and other English poets of the Romantic period such as Wordsworth and Shelley, researchers such as Sir Edwin Arnold (The Light of Asia, 1879), E B Havell (The Ideals of Indian Art, 1911) and Arthur B Keith (The Religion and Philosophy of the Vedas and Upanishads, 1925), and others like Annie Besant, Margaret E Noble (Sister Nivedita) and John G Woodroffe are among English people of eminence who played a considerable part in facilitating the Vedantic and cultural journey of India to the West.






     The popular notion is that Vedanta made its journey to America for the first time through Swami Vivekananda in 1893 with the message he broadcast at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in September 1893. But the ground for the reception of such a message was prepared during the nineteenth century by the American transcendentalists such as Ralph W Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. The transcendentalists’ basic message that life was not limited to the five senses and that the individual ego was to be transcended for knowing truth, ultimately went back to the Upanishads. Emerson, the first prominent American to embrace Indian thought, received the gift of a copy of the Bhagavadgita (the English translation of Charles Wilkins) from Carlyle and made this most inspiring book his lifelong companion. Among the Upanishads it was the Katha Upanishad that influenced him most. His comments on the ‘Over-Soul’ showed his awareness of the Upanishadic concept of the Paramatman. His poems ‘The Celestial Love’ and ‘Wood-Notes’ reflected his knowledge of the immanence of the supreme Being. Above all, his poem ‘Brahma’ indicated his profound harmony with the Indian scriptures. Indeed, in this poem ‘American Vedantism’, as Tathagatananda puts it, ‘reached its highest level’. (431)


     Thoreau stood on an equal footing with Emerson as an avatara of Indian wisdom in the United States. By his own acknowledgement, he acquired such wisdom from his study of the Vedas. As he said, ‘What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like a light of a higher and purer luminary.’ (441) Ex Oriente Lux (’light from the East’) was the proclaimed motto of Thoreau’s life.


     Whitman’s compositions, especially his Leaves of Grass, bear such strains of Upanishadic message - transcendence of the ego, immanence of God and intuitability of knowledge - that one could see very clearly that he was very deeply influenced by the Upanishads and that he was thoroughly seized of the oriental spirit.


     Apart from the American transcendentalists, two other agencies - the American Oriental Society, formed in Boston in 1842, and Harvard University through the Harvard Oriental Series, started in 1891 - gave a boost to studies of Indian wisdom in America.


     Such was the state of Vedic and Indian studies in America when Vivekananda came to America to address the Parliament of Religions. As the embodiment of Vedanta, his job was to give life to the dry bones of Vedantic ideas presented by Emerson, Thoreau and others. To describe the mission of Swamiji in the words of Tathagatananda:


     Entering into this glorious history of journey of Vedanta to the West, Vivekananda came to teach Americans for the first time about their divinity, about the inner self, the Atman and its identity with the Brahman. He did this job indefatigably, from his appearance at the Parliament and throughout his life in the United States during his two visits: July 1893 to April 1896 and August1899 to July 1900. By giving America its individual and national soul, Vivekananda helped Americans to understand their true freedom of expression. (496)


     And if in today’s America there is a resurgence of interest in Sri Ramakrishna, ‘Vedanta’s greatest exemplar’, according to Christopher Isherwood (Ramakrishna and His Disciples, 1964), and ‘the prophet of the New Age’, according to Richard Shiffman (Sri Ramakrishna: A Prophet for the New Age, 1989); if the concept of man totally devoid of the divine spark and the concept of a God extra-cosmic and separate from mortal man are being increasingly criticized; if there have been increasing emphases on ‘the physics of consciousness’; (501) and if ‘turning to the East for inspiration has been a repeating pattern in the chronicle of religious life in America’ (457) - it only proves that the Vedantic teachings given by Swami Vivekananda, after all, has had its impact on America. And in keeping up such impact the Vedanta Societies founded by Swamiji himself and those established subsequently by the Ramakrishna Order have certainly played a very positive role.





     The Russian interest in Vedanta began as early as when Anquetil-Duperron was writing his Latin translation of the Upanishads, Oupnek’hat, but became pronounced with Tolstoy’s expressing his keen interest in the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita, the Tirukkural (a Tamil classic) and in the spiritual literature of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. Having read Swamiji’s Raja Yoga and two volumes of his speeches and articles, Tolstoy rated Swamiji as ‘India’s greatest modern philosopher’ and ‘placed him among the world’s greatest thinkers, along with Socrates, Rousseau and Kant‘. (528)


     The Russian interest in Vedanta and Indian thought continued during and after the Communist regime through works of dedicated scholars such as Stcherbatsky, Oldenburg, Vostrikov, Vladimirostov, Roerich, Chelishev and Rybakov. Swami Vivekananda in the Soviet Union, a collective work by Russian scholars, published in 1987, is an evidence of such interest.


     As for the interest of post-Communist Russia in Swamiji and Sri Ramakrishna, it will be in order to quote the observations of two Russian scholars, R B Rybakov and Natalia Tots. Rybakov had the following to observe in a commemorative volume on Swami Vivekananda published in 1994: ‘A preacher of an eternal philosophy, Swamiji is the most suitable person to help our country today. What is required by a tormented land is moral rejuvenation. Swamiji himself has said that even if all the wealth of the world were invested in one village of India, the conditions there would never improve. What is required is the awakening of the sleeping souls.‘ Rybakov believed that such awakening could only come from the philosophy of Swami Vivekananda, ‘a perfect blend of religion and science’ and unlike most ideologies, free from ‘an imposed rigidity’. (533)


     And Natalia Tots, a young lady who sought to capture the essence of the voluminous Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita in an 80-page book titled The Teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, had the following to say in 1997 about the ever-present relevance of Sri Ramakrishna: ‘I was absolutely bowled over by the philosophical message of ‘jata mat tata path, as many minds, so many paths.’ In a world torn apart by religions, I found this to be the only answer to peace. Tots has pithily given expression to the feelings of millions of lovers of humanity today who, no doubt, would also heartily approve of Swami Tathagatananda’s concluding observation that the message of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda ‘was relevant in the past in India and in the world at large, but it is still more relevant in the present Indian context and in the context of the contemporary world.’ (553)






     To cut the long story short, the book under review shows who were the first among scholars to play the pioneering and pivotal role in bringing the Vedanta philosophy as contained in the Upanishads to the shores of the Atlantic and the Pacific; how the eminent Western savants of Indology in the six Western countries of Greece, France, Germany, England, America and Russia made sustained efforts towards translating the message of the Upanishads from the classical Indian language of Sanskrit into classical Latin and modern European languages; how their efforts - in many cases lifelong and selfless in the true, spiritual sense of that word 0- towards translating and interpreting the eternal spiritual thoughts of Vedanta contributed towards the enlightenment of humanity; and how the truth of Vedanta and its leading exemplars in the persons of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda can serve the cause of human happiness and welfare by showing humanity its ultimate identity - its divinity - and thereby helping it transcend its littleness in terms of ethnicity, language, religion, material interest and the like.


     Thus, if this book, spread over 599 pages comprising eight chapters, bibliographic references, index and photographs of the leading lights of Vedanta and Western culture (Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda, Socrates, Plato, Romain Rolland, Sylvain Levi, Max Muller, Paul Deussen, Schopenhauer, Sir William Jones, Sir Edwin Arnold and two associates of Swami Vivekananda, namely Goodwin and Josephine MacLeod) has any extended message, everlasting and relevant as ever, it is this that humanity is one in its essence, that so-called barriers of littleness - the real sources of the current spiritual crisis of humanity - are to be broken down and that humanity is to celebrate not its differences, not its otherness but its oneness. The ancient rishis realized the truth of that message through their sadhana in the forest retreats of India. The scholars of modern times took the pains of disseminating it throughout the world and it is for humanity at large to absorb it in its consciousness, making this world an infinitely better place to live in.


     Swami Tathagatananda’s efforts towards putting across the truth of Vedanta and towards distilling the essence of the Upanishadic message from the writings of scholars of six Western countries are, to say the least, monumental. But for years of dedicated and enormously painstaking research, documented with quotations from the works of distinguished scholars, a work of such magnitude could not have been produced. Swami Tathagatananda has indeed very deservingly earned the gratitude of humanity with this work of lasting value.


     A few words about the get-up of the book. The frontispiece is embellished with beautiful drawings of ships sailing across the seas (symbolizing the journey of the Upanishads from India to the West). The top of the cover page has the picture of a fully risen sun scattering from the Eastern sky its rays of knowledge over the Western hemisphere duly depicted by a map of that part of the world. Besides the get-up, the book is so exquisitely printed and so beautifully cloth­bound that no words are adequate to appreciate the good work that the Vedanta Society of New York has done in this respect; and all this for an unbelievably low price of Rs 200 for a book of 599 pages. May the book, with its quality and affordability, be the proud possession of everybody who cares for the really good things of life. And that the book should be compulsory reading for all students of Indology and the history of civilization needs no saying.



     Dr Anil Baran Ray

     Professor of Political Science
     University of Burdwan

International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015








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