World Religions - "In Holy Array" - March 1975 - by Prof. Heinrich M. Ohmann



'Prof. Heinrich M. Ohmann, Th.Drs. (1928-2006) was a Professor of Old Testament at the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches, Hamilton, Ont. He has writtten a similar series of articles in Calvinistisch Jongelings­blad, entitled "De Godsdiensten van India".

Part 7

IV THE UPANISHADS

The third stage in the Religions of Ancient India is that of the Upanishads. In the word we recognize the element "sad", a verbal root meaning: "to sit" (the English verb as well as the Dutch "zitten" are derived from the same root), and the two prefixes "upa" and "ni" meaning "close by" and "down". It can be explained as a "sitting down with (a teacher)", or a seance, and, secondly, the esoteric teaching won by such instruction, and, thirdly, a group of writings, generaly not so voluminous, when compared with one of the Vedas or the Brahmanas.

The Upanishads are well known in the western world. When a prince of the Mogul dynasty, a son of the emperor Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal, was in Kashmir in 1640, he heard about the Up. and he had fifty of them translated into Persian. The translation was finished in 1657, and it was much later put into Latin by Anquetil Duperron and published in Paris in 1802. It was read by the well known philosopher Schopenhauer, who said of the Up.: "their reading has been the consolation of my life, and will be of my death". Whether he understood and interpreted them in the right way is quite another thing.

In fact we often have to be very critical of the interpretations given by Indian philosophers, like the famous Shankara, who read things into the Up. which are not really in them; and so does Swami Nikhilananda who, in his book The Upanishads (Harper and Row), immediately follows in Shankara's track. Another book is The Upanishads (translations from the Sanskrit with an introduction by Juan Mascaroa Penguin book), which is also to be used with all proper reservation since, in the introduction, concepts of Hinduism and Christian faith are linked together in a confusing way.

The same holds true of all that is published on India today. As for the texts, by means of these editions you can get an idea of what an Up. is all about. We can distinguish older Up., like the Chandogya-Up. and the Brhadaranyaka-Up., from the later ones, like the Mundaka-Up. and the Shvetashvatara-Up.

Why have these very works drawn so much attention in Europe and America, far more than the Vedas and Brahmanas? Do they appeal to the western mentality more than the latter? And if so, for what reason? May we say that where there is a difference the Up. have the advantage?

The first question is, are the Up. in the line of the older literature, the Vedas and Brahmanas?
I can answer in the affirmative in so far as the Up. form part of the canonical literature, just as the San-hitas, the Brahmanas and the Arany-akas, literally "books of the forest", represent the transitional stage between Brahmans and Up. The oldest of these texts are simply parts of the Brahmanas, and the others are attached to the Brahmanas so that the starting point for understanding them must be the trend of thought prevailing in those ritual texts.

Certain elements of the Vedas and Brahmanas receive special emphasis. The correspondence between Microcosmos and Macrocosmos, which is greatly utilized in the Brahmanas, is one of the motives deepened and explained in the Up. By Macrocosmos, literally "Great World", we mean the Universe outside man and Microcosmos, literally "Small World", we mean Man who is himself a miniature image of the world.

Lines of the Brahmanas are extended, yet there is a decisive difference, namely that, what was then a link in ritual speculations and must be considered from the viewpoint of the cult, has here, in the Up., become a link in the spiritualizing of the old cult, wherewith the whole is drawn inwards, into the individual, into his soul.

Furthermore, we may say that in some respects, Vedas and Brahamanas prepared the way for what was to be said in the Up. Already in the Rig Veda, the oldest of the four, a certain scepticism comes to light regarding the value set to life on earth and the earthly goals up to and including the care and knowledge of the gods. We have already seen that the gods did not rank first in the esteem of Vedic man. They were just part of the Universe, mighty supporters of it, to be worshipped, but yet themselves in need of support, being dependent on man's sacrifices and endeavours. That which the majority took for granted though, was Vedic society with its various classes and the respective duties of its members.

Evidently everyone was not satisfied in the harmonic nature-bound society which the bulk of Vedic songs presupposes. At an early date we find traces of outsiders, who, without directly revolting against the common cult and culture, go their own ways. Here we also have indications which point in the direction of the later practice of the Up. and of the trend of thought of the Yogin. The hymn Rig Veda X 136, the so-called hymn of the long-haired one, seems to give an indication of such a holy man. His profusion of hair is mentioned; he carries fire and poison; he carries heaven and earth.

These holy men either have only the wind for a belt, or wear dirty yellow clothes; they follow the wind's track, when the gods have entered into them; "in holy ecstacy we have ascended the winds; you mortal beings only see our bodies." The ascetic soars through space seeing all forms; he moves on the paths of Apsarases (heavenly girls), Gandharvas (a kind of legendary he-man) and wild animals. He knows your thoughts, and is a sweet fascinating friend; together with Rudra, he has drunk the poison cup.

I cannot help being reminded here of the modern hippy movement. In olden times there was a class of people, called Vratyas, who in suspect company went from place to place. The Atharva Veda gives a picturesque description of such a man, who goes about in an ox carriage, accompanied by some girl companion, a musician, and so on, to proclaim his beliefs and carry on his religious practices.

To account for such phenomena, scholars refer to the influence of the aborigenes, the tribes of Munda language speaking peoples, so different from the Aryans. The former must have been acquainted with some sort of Shamanism, or ecstacy, and have had some belief in the transmigration of souls. The farther the Aryans penetrated in an eastern and southern direction the more they exposed themselves to such influences. It frequently occurs that victors are apprenticed to the vanquished.

To a certain extent, the old society of India was in a state of dissolution. The unity in kinship was not felt as strongly as before. The individual comes to the fore. A pessimism, which we rarely meet in the many literary works of the Vedic times, finds expression time after time. With this transformation of the old society, there also followed a recasting of the structure of the society. Besides the old classes, brahmans, ksjatriyas, etc., the division of man's life into four stages becomes more and more important.

The first stage is that of the "Brahmacarin", the time of apprenticeship of a young man with a brahman who took care of his religious instruction. Thereafter follows his position as house-father or "grhastha". In this span of time the birth of a son is looked upon as a supreme event. In the third stage the father, with his wife, can retreat to the jungle, to spend time there in holy contemplation. He is then called "Vanaprastha".

Often several of these jungle dwellers live together in an âsjrama. A still further possibility constitutes a fourth stage, that of a "samnyasin", who has left his fixed abode in the jungle to go out into the world as a wandering beggar, who does not belong to society anymore.

Some people have held that the starting point of the thinking of the Up. should be sought in a revolution of the Ksjatriyas, the warrior class, against the supremacy of the Brahmans. It cannot be denied that princes play a great and noble role in the discussions in which the Up. abound, and even women join in the discussion; evidently their ways of thinking have their origin in the Brahman class. It was they who had a kind of prerogative in the occupation with the deeper penetration into these matters. The famous Yajnavalkya, leader of many discussions, plays an important part in the brahmanas as well.

In this stage of the history of India's religion, the ascetics in particular sought what lay behind the whole existence we know. It was denoted practice of the Up. and of the trend of thought of the Yogin. The hymn Rig Veda X 136, the so-called hymn of the long-haired one, seems to give an indication of such a holy man. His profusion of hair is mentioned; he carries fire and poison; he carries heaven and earth. These holy men either have only the wind for a belt, or wear dirty yellow clothes; they follow the wind's track, when the gods have entered into them; "in holy ecstacy we have ascended the winds; you mortal beings only see our bodies." The ascetic soars through space seeing all forms; he moves on the paths of Apsarases (heavenly girls), Gandharvas (a kind of legendary he-man) and wild ani-mals. He knows your thoughts, and is a sweet fascinating friend; together with Rudra, he has drunk the poison cup. I cannot help being reminded here of the modern hippy movement. In olden times there was a class of people, called Vratyas, who in suspect company went from place to place. The Atharva Veda gives a picturesque description of such a man, who goes about in an ox carriage, accompanied by some girl companion, a musician, and so on, to proclaim his beliefs and carry on his religious practices.
To account for such phenomena, scholars refer to the influence of the aborigenes, the tribes of Munda language speaking peoples, so different from the Aryans. The former must have been acquainted with some sort of Shamanism, or ecstacy, and have had some belief in the transmigration of souls. The farther the Aryans penetrated in an eastern and southern direction the more they exposed themselves to such influences. It frequently occurs that victors are apprenticed to the vanquished.
To a certain extent, the old society of India was in a state of dissolution. The unity in kinship was not felt as strongly as before. The individual comes to the fore. A pessimism, which

we rarely meet in the many literary works of the Vedic times, finds ex-pression time after time. With this transformation of the old society, there also followed a recasting of the structure of the society. Besides the old classes, brahmans, ksjatriyas, etc., the division of man's life into four stages becomes more and more important. The first stage is that of the "Brahmacarin", the time of apprenticeship of a young man with a brahman who took care of his religious instruction. Thereafter follows his position as house-father or "grhastha". In this span of time the birth of a son is looked upon as a supreme event. In the third stage the father, with his wife, can retreat to the jungle, to spend time there in holy contemplation. He is then called "Vanaprastha". Often several of these jungle dwellers live together in an âsjrama. A still further possibility constitutes a fourth stage, that of a "samnyasin", who has left his fixed abode in the jungle to go out into the world as a wandering beggar, who does not belong to society anymore.
Some people have held that the starting point of the thinking of the Up. should be sought in a revolution of the Ksjatriyas, the warrior class, against the supremacy of the Brahmans. It cannot be denied that princes play a great and noble role in the discussions in which the Up. abound, and even women join in the discussion; evidently their ways of thinking have their origin in the Brahman class. It was they who had a kind of prerogative in the occupation with the deeper penetration into these matters. The famous Yajnavalkya, leader of many discussions, plays an important part in the brahmanas as well.
In this stage of the history of India's religion, the ascetics in particu-lar sought what lay behind the whole existence we know. It was denoted

with the word "brahman". We already meet the brahman in the Rig-Veda in the sense of the holy word, the the powerful formula, a force that lies hidden in the word of the priest. It was brahman that gave life and force to the word; it was also what gave the parts and the totality of the sacrificial act the power to work in the desired direction. As the sustaining principle in word and sacrificial act, Brahman was, in the nature of things, the sustaining force in the whole order of the world—something like "Rita".
It is only possible to clear up this relation between the world and brahman by means of images. Illustrations given are that of salt dissolving in water (Mascaro's book, page 117). Elsewhere it is said that Brahman is at the same time the greatest of all and the smallest, most subtle of all, (Chand. Up. 3, 14; Máscaro, page 114). When the one expression seems to contradict the other, we should not forget that at the stage of the history of thought dealt with here, they were in no way felt as irreconcilable, as I have pointed out before. The doctrine that Brahman is something so absolutely different from our world, that it is impossible to attempt even the weakest indication of a positive char-acterization, is logically consistent. They think that its mystic character is brought out best by the mysterious syllable "OM". The Chandogya Up. leads off with a meditation on this

syllable.
In the period of the Brahmanas the brahman displayed its power in word and sacrificial acts; in the period of the Up. knowledge mattered most of all. They wondered how the priest managed to handle the Universe in the proper way. By his acts? By the formula he uttered? No, rather it was because of his insight in the mysterious coherence. The exalted spiritualism of the Up. went over the heads of the common people. The adequate comprehension of the idealistic teachings of the Up. and more particularly the mystic realization of the ultimate reality called for a high intellectual capacity and an austere spiritual discipline.
The main current of India's populace accepts this esoteric knowledge and austere ascetism. We westerners often consider ascetism to be only negative—a contempt for the world and its pleasures. In India, however, the positive aspect is stressed. The word "tapas", which we render by "ascetism", in Sanskrit is the word for "rutting", the creating glow resulting in multiplication as well as the glow that is the result of a violent ascetism. This is due to the origin of both from the exaltation, the ecstacy which is common to rut and ascetism. He who in the brahmanas took recourse to sacrifice, turned inwards in the Up., so that the world is formed in the mystic's own soul. They meditated on what was to be found inside,

on sensation and the organs of sense. One enumerated eye, ear, mind, voice, breath. We are told that these functions fought for the leadership. It was Prâna (breath) that won the pageant. As soon as Prâna leaves the body man dies. This conception goes together with the efforts to find a principle behind all sensation which is Atman, the active principle that works in and within the functions but remains after death when all the functions have stopped. Whatever is done is done in the last resort by Atman. Man becomes aware of this Atman by reflecting on what happens during the dream, when the body is tied down to a certain spot and the Atman moves everywhere.
Since man is a "microcosmos", a world on a small scale, the Universe is also supposed to have its Atman, since to the Indian the world was all but dead. According to Indian logic things which have the same name are identical. Man's Atman is identical with the world's Atman, and consequently to that which is the essence of the Universe—Brahman. How the knowledge of the relation to Brahman, from which the soul illusively thinks itself different, is won, can perhaps be illustrated most easily by indicating the motives in the teaching which Yajnavalkya gives one of his wives, who wants to follow him to his third stage of life in the jungle, renouncing what he will leave her, as riches cannot help her to immortality. He begins (in the Brhadara-nyaka Up.) by explaining to her that, when one loves one's partner, one's children, goods, cattle, all the beings, it is not for the sake of all these things themselves, but for the sake of one's own self, for one's Atman's sake, that one loves all this, because they are in fact identical with one's own I. It is through one's own I, Atman, that one must see in all, and through it one knows all (Brhad Ar. Up. IV, 5; cp. Mascaro, page 130).


What is the aim of this new approach of the Up.? The answer is Deliverance, "Moksha". As Christians we are to ask: Deliverance from what? Our Catechism (Lord's Day 1) speaks about "how I am to be delivered from all my sins and misery and the necesity of knowing, first of all, how great my sins and misery are. To the Indian, however, misery is something quite different. It is not sin, but rather the continued series of existences which is at the root of all evil. This doctrine of transmigration is not met in the Vedic hymns, nor in the Brahmana literature, where there is sometimes mention of a "repeated dying" after one's death. Perhaps the Aryans borrowed it from the aborigines, the native tribes they met in the jungle. What kind of existence man is reborn to is dependent upon his acts. "As a man acts, thus he becomes; he who performs good acts, becomes good; he who performs bad acts, becomes bad." The acts condition the form of the coming existence. We must not forget that all this is only valid on a lower stage in the development which the continued existences make possible. For the one, who has realized that the whole world is Brahman, and that every single soul is wholly and fully identical with the "soul of the Universe", is a delivered man. He is delivered by his mysterious knowledge and insight. He knows that nothing is real but Brahman, and Brahman is he himself.
This teaching is revolutionary; it makes worship of gods and sacrificial cult worthless; but it became an all-encompassing influence on the Indian's thinking and feeling in life. As an explanation of all "injustice" in this world one now had the consciousness that life for the individual was shaped in accordance with what he, in previous existences had stored of good and bad acts. The whole circle of existences, "samsâra", rolling round since eternity acquired a power
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over the minds which made the single life strangely valueless, seen in the great continuity. Only one existence becomes decisive, that existence in which one wins deliverance from this apparently endless round, that existence in which one obtains, through instruction and self-concentration, the realization of the identity of the I and Brahman which is phrased in the well-known Sanskrit words: "Tat tvam asi", "That art thou".


Recommended Reading
For further study of this subject and especially the texts I can recommend Louis Renou's Hinduism from the series Great Religions of Modern Man. Louis Renou is an outstanding scholar in the field.