Riding the Horse with Seven Reins

May 19, 2009 § Leave a comment

The Principal Upanishads (Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan)

Let me preface this piece by testifying that you would have to stretch the meaning of the word ‘religious’ a mile in order to fit me with that description. That may be the reason why it took me over four months to plough through this book – and it is with some trepidation that I begin to write about it.

Dr. Radhakrishnan in 1949 (Courtesy Wikipedia)

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that my distance from the material makes me a more appropriate commentator than someone more devout – my objectivity is not obscured by blind faith, though admittedly it is somewhat clouded by a certain love of tradition, a tendency, from early childhood, to develop goosebumps in response to the strangely familiar singsong cadence of Vedic chants.

 The Upanishads are Hindu scriptures, possibly as many as 170 in number (opinions vary), and composed over two millennia by several anonymous authors. Typical of a theological pursuasion that is said to boast of three hundred and thirty million Gods, the authors of the Upanishads say many different things, and to a modern reader brought up on a relentless diet of logic, they often appear to contradict each other. However, I found it more a chorus than a cacophony – the voices merge and diverge, patterns emerge and disappear, but the over-arching themes never change, and familiar refrains appear dutifully at periodic intervals. Strict non-contradiction is clearly not something that mattered a whole lot to the people who wrote the Upanishads – Parmenides was still a twinkle in the eye of civilization, and besides, he was several oceans away to the west.

In this volume, Radhakrishnan, scholar extraordinaire and the 2nd President of India, has translated and commented on 15 of the Upanishads, in over a thousand pages of smallish print. The format is straightforward: he lays out a few lines of the original Sanskrit, translates it into English, and if he finds them interesting enough, spends a paragraph commenting – expanding on the origins of certain words, or comparing the thought with Sufi, Catholic or other Hindu philosophical works.

 In my opinion, the Upanishads can be conceptually broken down into three parts (a) the mystical and theological bits; (b) some breath-taking speculative philosophy, and (c) pure poetry.

Given the somewhat unfairly modern vantage point from which I judge the book, I found myself profoundly unimpressed with the mystical, theological, ritualistic and unscientific bits – but I must hasten to add that I was more than sufficiently compensated by the frequent nuggets of pure poetry and fascinating flashes of a speculative philosophy as incisive and insightful, arguably, as any in the history of human thought. Why, some of the philosophy was almost subversive. Already, in the first (and possibly oldest) Upanishad covered (Brhad-aranyaka), I stumble across this.

This is the highest creation of Brahma, namely that he created the Gods who are superior to him. He although mortal himself, created the immortals…

Or this one:

Whoever knows thus, “I am Brahman“, becomes [God].
Even the Gods cannot prevent his becoming thus

Therefore it is not pleasing to those Gods that men should know this.

And while I could go on and on, let me stop with this fascinating excerpt:

Vidagdha sakalya asked him: “How many Gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”
He answered… “As many as are mentioned in the nivid of the hymn of praise to the Viswe-devas, namely, three hundred and three and three thousand and three.”
“Yes,” he said, “but how many Gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”
“Yes,” he said, “but how many Gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”
“Yes,” he said, “but how many Gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”
“Yes,” he said, “but how many Gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”
“One and a half.”
“Yes,” he said, “but how many Gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”
“Yes, said he, “but which of those three hundred and three and three thousand and three?”

When – and why –  did Hinduism branch away from monotheism? The book doesn’t answer this question, unfortunately – but I found a good hypothesis in KM Sen’s ‘Hinduism’ (reviewed here).

Beyond all measure, the joy of reading the Upanishads is the joy of reading pure poetry, metaphors that reached out across 2,500 years and left me gasping, drowning out the drone of Manhattan traffic and making me utterly oblivious to the ambient wails of a Wall Street sinking steadily under the weight of its woes, a momentary oblivion that only literature manages to create in its readers, like magic, with effortless ease, whenever it wants to. “Time is a horse with seven reins,” said the authors of the Atharva Veda, “Him the knowing poets ride…all the world are his wheels.” With consummate mastery over the poet’s art of transcending time, the authors of the Upanishads grab the reader’s attention from the depths of time (“Time the Invisible, who eats all beings as his food“, Maitree Upanishad). And then this one, presumably also about Time or Death, though it could also (tantalizingly) be referring to Speech:

I am food! I am food! I am food!
I am the eater of food! I am the eater of food! I am the eater of food!
I am the poet! I am the poet! I am the poet!
I am the first born of the cosmic order,
Earlier than the gods, in the center of immortality!

I, who am food, eat the eater of food!

I wasn’t sure, when I started the book, whether I would progress beyond the first few pages. I am happy to note that I finished it and live to tell the tale. I am no more religious than I was when I started off – but I suspect the authors of the Upanishads wouldn’t have minded that. I can’t even pretend that I understood all that I read – and here, I am very certain the authors of the Upanishads wouldn’t have minded. For here it is, right here, in the Kausitaki-Brahmana Upanishad: na vaacam vijignasita, vaktaaram vidyaat (Do not desire to understand speech. Strive to understand the Speaker)

By the end of the book, I think I got to know them reasonably well.



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