B.E, M.Sc., Ph.D., is a former Director of the Indian Institute
of Technology, Madras. He has travelled widely in India and
abroad. Consistently rated as an inspiring teacher, he had
given his engineering students classes on Indian spiritual
heritage with special focus on Swami Vivekananda's life and
works, Prof. Swamy regularly reviews books for The Vedanta
are two forces at play in the shaping of an individual's personality.
The first one is the external world, which starts impinging
upon his consciousness from the moment of his birth and continues
to do so till his last breath. The second one is life itself
which commences its influence on the individual as soon as
he becomes aware of questions like "Who am I? Why am
I born? What is it that sustains me? What is my relation with
the external world and my place in the world?" It is
questions like these which distinguish the homo-sapiens from
the rest of creation.
interaction between oneself and the external world and the
consciousness within is the foundation of one's individuality
or personality. When a group of people living together experiences
this interaction not only at an individual level but also
at a collective level, a philosophy of life, ethics and values
arises which is called the culture of the people.
needs no special intelligence to realise that culture is an
ever changing aspect of life. Such cultural changes in recent
times are more easily comprehensible, because of accessible
historical records. The same cannot, however, be said of ancient
civilizations. One has to take recourse to means like archaeology,
scriptures, oral and written records etc. for reconstructing
the culture of an ancient people.
this respect, the ancient Aryan culture of India, also called
Vedic or Indie, is remarkable because it has left behind a
tradition whose origins are now being traced almost up to
the seventh millennium of the pre-Christian era. This tradition,
which was originally oral in nature, later came to be written
down in the form of the Vedas whose cultural aspects are being
understood only recently.
Upanishads form a part of the Vedas and as such are a product
of the same culture. However, the time span of this period
is so vast, viz., between 7000 ВСЕ and 1500 ВСЕ that it is
not surprising that one finds many differences between the
cultures of what have come to be known as the Vedic period
and the Upanishadic period. This article confines its scope
to the latter period and is based upon an analysis of the
Upanishadic literature is vast and spans over more than two
millennia. However of the 200 and odd names of Upanishads
now known, only 108 are considered authentic. Even among them
only about 14 are considered as the most reliable and it is
on these that many acharyas down the ages have written
their commentaries. We will also confine our cultural study
only to these Upanishads.
periods during which the individual Upanishads were written
are matters of dispute. However based upon a study of the
cross-referencing of major Upanishads, Deussen(1) has identified
four successive periods of time. These are:(i) The ancient
prose Upanishads viz., the Brihadaranyaka, the Chhandogya,
the Taittiriya, the Aitareya, the Kausitaki
and the Kena, (ii) The metrical Upanishads viz., the
Kathaka, the lsha, the Shvetashvaratara,
the Mundaka and the Mahanarayana. (iii)The later
prose Upanishads viz., the Prashna, the Maitrayaniya
and the Mandukya. (iv) And lastly the later Atharva
which are considered to be more recent.
all the Upanishads mentioned above can be used for extracting
information about the cultural life of that period. Only those
which contain stories or Akhyayikas help us do so, because
they reflect the value system of that age. In this context,
the Brihadaranyaka, the Chandogyu, the Taittiriya, the Prashna
and the Kathaka are rich sources, which have been used in
important aspect of the Vedic way of life was the division
of the life of a human being into four ashramas - Brahmacharya,
Garhasthya, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa.
The Upanishads also reflect this classification. Interestingly
enough, there is hardly any mention about any of the rishis
who had taken sannayasa. This could be because such Vanaprasthins
who would take sannayasa would retreat deep into the forest
and be out of touch with humans. Most of the times, we find
the Gurukula being run by a Vanaprasthin or
a householder. Gurukulas were not the conventional
educational institutions of later times like the Buddhist
universities as described by the reports of the Chinese travellers.
They appeared to be more like small households with individualized
though the admission of a young boy to these Gurukulas
appeared to be automatic, we find in the Upanishads certain
procedures, which were being followed. For example, in the
Prashnopanishad when six disciples appear before Pippalada
and desire instruction, the guru does not immediately start
a discourse. He asks them to stay with him for a year. The
reason probably was to ascertain how sincere the disciples
were and whether they deserved to aquire the highest knowledge,
which was sacred. Only when the guru was assured on these
points did he invite questions. In the Chhandogya(3)
Indra and Virochana have to spend initially a period of thirty-two
years with Prajapathi before the latter begins to ask them
what brought them to him. Virochana like a true impatient
disciple is easily satisfied with the first instruction of
the Guru, but Indra has to come back again and again for further
instruction and each time he has to spend thirty-two years
with the Guru. This may sound to modern ears like an exaggeration,
but it has two lessons for us. The first is that unlike secular
knowledge spjritual knowledge needs a lot of patience. Secondly
the Guru's responsibility did not end with mere instructions,
but consisted in leading the disciple from stage to stage
or a voyage of self-discovery. This can also be seen in the
famous Bhriguvalli of Taittriya(4) where the Guru (who
is this time also the father) gives a hint to the disciple
and encourages him to discover Brahman for himself.
is one very interesting feature of the Upanishads, which has
led to all kinds of speculations about who were the repositories
of Brahmavidya, the Kshatriyas or the Brahmanas. There
are several instances of Kshatriyas advising Brahmanas on
several aspects of Brahmajnana. In the Chhandogya(5)
there is a conversation between three young people, Silaka,
Dalbhya and Pravahana. From the context, one can make out
that the last one was not a Brahmana and by inference he appears
to be a Kshatriya. It is Pravahana who has the last word in
this debate when the other two have to submit to him. There
are people like Janaka, Aswapati and others to whom even Brahmanas
used to go for instructions.
popular interpretation of this is that the Brahmanas were
so completely engrossed in the performance of Vedic yajnas
that their minds could hardly be devoted to higher purposes
and that it was largely left to the Kshatriyas to use their
leisure time to contemplate on the Purusha behind the yajnas.
A faint echo of this can be heard in the beginning of the
fourth chapter of the Gita(6), where Krishna tells
Arjuna that the art
of Yoga had been in the custody of the Kshatriyas and had
been forgotten due to passage of time and that he, a Kshatriya
is now teaching it to
Arjuna, another Kshatriya.
rigid was the caste system at the time of the Upanishads?
It had not yet become the fossilized institution, which it
later became during the age of the Puranas. For example, when
Satyakama goes to Guru Haridrumata Gautama(7) the latter asks
him to which clan (Gotra) he belongs. Satyakama confesses
to the Guru that he does not know and that even his mother
cannot recollect who his father was. Puritans tend to put
constructions on this incidence by interpreting that Satyakama'
s father was no more. But the Upanishad itself indicates what
could have been the reason. Be that as it may, Gautama's reponse
is surprising, judging from modern standards. The Guru accepts
Satyakama as a disciple, because he has unhesitatingly told
the truth, even though it might have brought on his head social
opprobrium! Contrast this with the story in Mahabharata of
Kama and Parasurama. It is obvious that by the time of the
Epic, the caste system had become rigid.
question, which is debated again and again in modem times,
is the place of women in the Vedic society. We can discuss
it here only briefly, but more details can be found in books
like the "Great Women of India"(8). Ruma
Chaudhuri in her article "Women's education in ancient
India" has referred to several passages in the Atharva
Veda, Aswalyana Grihyasutras, Shukla Yajurveda, Katyayana
Shroutasutras, etc., where there is mention of the eligibility
of women to undergo the ceremony of Upanayana, to study the
Vedas, recite Mantras and to perform yajnas independent
of men. Such women were generally called Brahmavadinis.
the Brihadaranyaka(9), we find mention of two such
women - Gargi, the daughter of Vachaknu who had the boldness
to cross swords with a great scholar like Yajnavalkya, and
the latter's own wife Maitreyi who spurned material wealth
in order to acquire Brahmavidya. The Kena(10) talks
of Uma Haimavati discoursing on Brahman with Indra. More details
can be found in the article cited.
the Upanishads essentially deal with Brahmavidya, there
is no scope in them for discussion on polity, economics, warfare
etc., which are found in later texts like the Dharmashastra.
However it is quite obvious that society at that time was
still pastoral, with cattle as an indicator of wealth. Gold
was also in use, but appeared to play a subsidiary role. The
Kathaka(11) talks of the Viswajit sacrifice, where
the sacrificer had to gift away his entire wealth for the
sake of future benefits. There is a mention of only cows being
brought into the sacrificial hall, whose poor quality sets
off the thinking of Naciketa as to how best to help his father.
In the Brihadaranyaka(12) Janaka promises to the winners
of a contest the prize of one thousand of cows, with gilded
horns strung with gold coins. In the Chhandogya(13)
the guru sends Satyakama to the forest with four hundred weak
and emaciated cows. Satyakama vows to return only when their
number has increased to one thousand.
also go by the name of Vedanta. In popural imagination Vedanta
gets equated with Advaita. This has given rise to a
general impression that the Upanishads talk only of Jnana
and nothing else. But is this really so? The Upanishads in
some places, especially in the Isha, Chhandogya,
Taittiriya and Brihadarnyaka mark a transition
from the Vedic Karmakanda to the Vedantic Jnana
through the process of various Upasanas and Vidyas.
These practices were mostly a form of mental worship, which
in later times was to lead to the concept of Bhakti. According
to Swanai Vivekananda(14), "There is not one full-grown
Indian ideal that cannot be traced back to the same source,
the Upanishads." According to Bloomfield(15) "There
is no important form of Hindu thought, heterodox Buddhism
included, which is not rooted in the Upanishads."
What is the picture of Indian society that emerges out of
a study of the Upanishadic literature? It was basically a
pastoral society, the cow was the indicator of wealth and
was sacred because most of the ingredients used in the Yajnas
were dairy products. Even though ritual Yajna was still
being practised, an alternative in the form of Upasana
or mental worship had also been developed. There was freedom
of thought and expression, as witnessed by the questions,
counter questions and the debates. The ultimate aim of human
life was Self-Realization and every activity was supposed
to lead to it. Bhakti in its modern connotation has not yet
developed but its seeds had already been planted. Karma yoga
as a practical philosophy of life as enunciated by Krishna
in the Gita has been briefly referred to in the Chhandogya(16)according
to which Krishna Vasudeva, a disciple of Ghora Angirasa, has
given a new meaning to the concept of Yajna.
was it possible for this tradition to be maintained for such
a long period of time, in spite of several alien influences?
Wherein lies the strength of the Upanishads? It is in its
rational non-dogmatic approach to the problems of life. It
is said in "The Message of the Upanishads"(17),
"To the Upanishads India owes almost all the brighter
sides of her life and culture. To them she owes her impressive
record of active toleration within her borders and the uniformly
peaceful and benevolent nature of her foreign relations in
the field of religion. To them she gives the singular absence
of aggressive political and military policies and programmes
on her part towards other nations. To them she also owes the
absence of the heavy hand of an all-powerful church and the
tentacles of an inescapable dogma on the national life and
in the Modern Age
relevant is the Upanishadic culture to the modern world, especially
to India? This is the age of Science and Rationalism. If there
is one scripture, which is highly rational and challenges
the human being to experiment upon himself, it is the Upanishads!
Throughout its pages, one finds this theme running like a
thread - Tad Vijijnasasva - find out for yourself.
No wonder the rational minds of western philosophers brought
up on the thought processes of the Age of Reason have found
the Upanishads a gold mine of spirituality. When Swami Vivekananda
was once asked why one should study the Vedas and the Upanishads,
he said, "To get rid of superstitions." This is
precisely what appeals to the modern mind. It is not only
philosophers of the East and the West who have experienced
it. Scientists too are discovering in the Upanishads a way
out of the predicament which quantum physics finds itself
in as to the role of Consciousness in natural phenomena. A
trend set off by Erwin Schrodinger in the 1930's and 40's
has now gained momentum and is now engrossing the minds of
scientists, as evidenced by the large number of seminars and
conferences in India and around the world on the comparison
of Scientific and Upanishadic principles. The fearless uncompromising
pursuit of truth is, after all, what binds these two disciplines
together so strongly.
is the message of the Upanishads to the modern mind? One cannot
do better than to quote Swami Vivekananda, "Let me tell
you that we want strength, strength and every time strength.
And the Upanishads are the great mine of strength. Therein
lies strength enough to invigorate the whole world; the whole
world can be vivified, made strong, energised through them.
They will call with trumpet voice upon the weak, the miserable
and the downtrodden of all races, all creeds, and all sects,
to stand on their own feet and be free. Freedom, physical
freedom, mental freedom and spiritual freedom are the watchwords
of the Upanishads."
modern world is in the throes of a cultural crisis. We do
not know whether we are steadily progressing towards a better
tomorrow or tumbling helplessly to an inevitable destruction.
No wonder, many thinkers have started paying attention to
the eternal values of ancient cultures. The Upanishadic culture
and philosophy of life stand out like a beacon light beckoning
us to make a better world for ourselves. The message is there.
All that is needed is the will.
Deussen, Paul. The Philosophy of the Upanishads. Oriental
Books Reprint Corporation. New Delhi, 1079, pp. 23-26.
Cf. The Prashnopanishad, Chapter 1 - Prathama Prashna.
Cf. The Chhandogyapanishad, Chapter 8, section 7 to
Cf. The Taittiryopanishad, Bhriguvalli, Anuvak 1.
Cf. The Chhandogyopanishad, Chapter 1, section 8, and
Cf. The Bhagavadgita, Chapter 4, slokas 1 to 3.
Cf. The Chhandogyopanishad, Chapter4, section 4.
Choudhuri Ruma. 'Women's education in ancient India', Great
Women of India, The Holy Mother Centenary Memorial, Advaita
Ashrama, 1993, pp. 87- 111.
Cf. The Brihadaranyakopanishad, Chapter 2, section
4 and chapter 3, sections 1 to 8.
Cf. The Kenopanisad, Chapter 4.
Cf. The Kathopanishad, Chapter 1, Valli 1.
Cf. The Brihadaranyakapanishad, Chapter 3, Brahmana
Cf. The Chhandogyopanishad, Chapter 4,section 4.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, volume 3,
pp. 31, 1984, Advaita Ashrama.
Ranganathanada, Swami. The Message of the Upanishads,
Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1985, p. 18.
Cf. The Chhandogyopanishad, Chapter 3, section 17,
Ranganathananda, Swami. The Message of the Upanishads,
Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1985, p. 19.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, volume 3,
p. 38, 1984, Advaita Ashrama.