Saturday, November 7, 2009

Notes on the Upanishads

The Upanishads

These are excerpts from the 51 page endnote of the book, "Reading The Upanishads".

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To be Hindu in means in some sense to accept their authority, and since Hinduism, uniquely among the major religions of the world, is a decentralized system with no formal institutional controls, there is almost no other criterion. [page 251]

A second meaning of Vedic includes three classes of texts which are soon attached to, and preserved with, their respective Samhitas. The first are the Brahamanas, lengthy descriptions of the Vedic rituals in a prose which is nearly that of classical Sanskrit .... Second is a smaller and more intriguing group of texts known as Aryanakas or "forest manuals," continuations of the Brahamanas but "dealing with the speculations and spirituality of forest dwellers ... those who have renounced the world." And third are the earliest Upanishads or "confidential sessions." [page 252]

... because they are handed down at the end of the Vedic collections and are meant to be learned and recited last by Vedic students, the Upanishads are classified as vedanta, "the end of the Vedas." [page 253]

At a period when Hinduism was losing its bearings, the great mystic and philosopher Shankara(A.D. ca. 788-820), knowing that only mystical experience could re-invigorate the tradition, composed remarkable commentaries on ten of the Upanishads, giving them as it were a secondary canonization by his authority, labor, and vast intellectual achievement - and renewing Hinduism in the process. These ten Upanishads are listed by Indian tradition in the following order: Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka. [page 255]

... that the Vedas (inclusively defined) were created eons before mankind. ... They mean the truths embodied in these forms lies so deep they constitute templates of reality; they are, as it were, evolution's plan. Therefore these four Vedas were "given at the dawn of time"; in the Gita and other texts they are identified with Brahma (the Lord of Creation) and throughout the tradition they are classified as shruti, "heard" - as we would say, a directly revealed literature, contrasting with a more indirect but still not secular which was not revealed but smriti or "recollected" by human beings (smriti also means tradition). The Upanishads are revered as shruti along with the Samhitas. [page 256]

Besides, the Samhitas and especially the oldest, the Rig Veda Samhita, contain impressive profundity in speculation about the nature of being, time, and the universe, as in the famous Nasadiya Sukta (X.129.1.4), sometimes called a "basis of the Upanishads":
At first there was neither Being nor Nonbeing.
There was not air nor sky beyond.
What was its wrapping? Where? In whose protection?
Was water there, unfathomable and deep?
In the beginning Love arose,
Which was the primal germ cell of the mind.
The seers, searching in their hearts with wisdom,
Discovered the connection of Being in Nonbeing.
Who really knows? Who can presume to tell it?
When was it born? Whence issued this creation?
Even gods came after its emergence.
Then who can tell from whence it came to be?
[page 256, 257]

At an early period, one great commentary on the Upanishads emerged as authoritative: the Brahma Sutras (also called Vedanta Sutras) of Badarayana. Indian tradition identified Badarayana with none other than Vyasa, traditional compiler of the Vedas and the Mahabharata, which is by way of acknowledging his immense importance for the cultural tradition; for the Brahma Sutras and its commentaries, serving as a kind of intellectual access to the vision of the Upanishads... [pages 278, 279]

Book Details:
  • Paperback: 311 pages
  • Publisher: Nilgiri Press; 1 edition (June 1987)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0915132397
  • ISBN-13: 978-0915132393
  • Product Dimensions: 7.5 x 4.5 x 1 inches

© 2009, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.