The Upanishads and Indian Philosophical Heritage

  January 28, 2024   Read time 6 min
The Upanishads and Indian Philosophical Heritage
The sacred Upanishads, texts dating from about 700 BC , mark the next important evolution towards a more philosophical religion. They are a mixed bag of about 250devotional utterances, hymns, aphorisms and reflections of holy men pointing to the inner meaning of the traditional religious truths.
They give much less emphasis to personal gods and goddesses than earlier texts and also include some of the earliest ascetic teachings which were to be so visible and striking a feature of Indian religion, even if only practised by a small minority. The Upanishads met the need felt by some men to look outside the traditional structure for religious satisfaction. Doubt appears to have been felt about the sacrifi cial principle. New patterns of thought had begun to appear at the beginning of the historical period and uncertainty about traditional beliefs is already expressed in the later hymns of the Rig Veda. It is convenient to mention such developments here because they cannot be understood apart from the Aryan and preAryan past. Classical Hinduism was to embody a synthesis of ideas like those in the Upanishads (pointing to a monotheistic conception of the universe) with the more polytheistic popular tradition represented by the brahmans.
Abstract speculation and asceticism were often favoured by the existence of monasticism, a stepping-aside from material concerns to practise devotion and contemplation. The practice appeared in Vedic times. Some monks threw themselves into ascetic experiment, others pressed speculation very far and we have records of intellectual systems which rested on outright determinism and materialism. One very successful cult which did not require belief in gods and expressed a reaction against the formalism of the brahmanical religion was Jainism, a creation of a sixth-century BCteacher who, among other things, preached a respect for animal life which made agriculture or animal husbandry impossible. Jains therefore tended to become merchants, with the result that in modern times the Jain community is one of the wealthiest in India. But much the most important of the innovating systems was the teaching of the Buddha, the ‘enlightened one’ or ‘aware one’ as his name may be translated.
It has been thought signifi cant that the Buddha, like some other religious innovators, was born in one of the states to the northern edge of the Ganges plain where the orthodox, monarchical pattern emerging elsewhere did not establish itself. This was early in the sixth century BC . Siddhartha Gautama was not a brahman, but a prince of the warrior class. After a comfortable and gentlemanly upbringing he found his life unsatisfying and left home. His fi rst recourse was asceticism. Seven years of this proved to him that he was on the wrong road. He began instead to preach and teach. His refl ections led him to propound an austere and ethical doctrine, whose aim was liberation from suffering by achieving higher states of consciousness. This was not without parallels in the teaching of the Upanishads.
An important part in this was to be played by yoga, which was to become one of what were termed the ‘Six Systems’ of Hindu philosophy. The word has many meanings but in this context is roughly translatable as ‘method’ or ‘technique’. It sought to achieve truth through meditation after a complete and perfect control of the body had been attained. Such control was supposed to reveal the illusion of personality which, like all else in the created world, is mere fl ux, the passage of events, not identity. This system, too, had already been sketched in the Upanishads and was to become one of the aspects of Indian religion which struck visitors from Europe most forcibly. The Buddha taught his disciples so to discipline and shed the demands of the fl esh that no obstacle should prevent the soul from attaining the blessed state of nirvana or self-annihilation, freedom from the endless cycle of rebirth and transmigration, a doctrine urging men not to do something, but to be something – in order not to be anything. The way to achieve this was to follow an eightfold path of moral and spiritual improvement. All this amounts to a great ethical and humanitarian revolution.
The Buddha apparently had great practical and organizing ability. Together with his unquestionable personal quality, it must have helped to make him a popular and successful teacher. He sidestepped, rather than opposed, the brahmanical religion and this must have smoothed his path. The appearance of communities of Buddhist monks gave his work an institutional form which would outlive him. He also offered a role to those not satisfi ed by traditional practice, in particular to women and to low-caste followers, for caste was irrelevant in his eyes. Finally, Buddhism was nonritualistic, simple and atheistic. It soon underwent elaboration and, some would say, speculative contamination, and like all great religions it assimilated much pre-existing belief and practice, but by doing so it retained great popularity.
Yet Buddhism did not supplant brahmanical religion and for two centuries or so was confi ned to a relatively small part of the Ganges valley. In the end, too – though not until well into the Christian era – Hinduism was to be the victor and Buddhism would dwindle to a minority belief in India. But it was to become the most widespread religion in Asia and a potent force in world history. It is the fi rst world religion to spread beyond the society in which it was born, for the older tradition of Israel had to wait for the Christian era before it could assume a world role. In its native India, Buddhism was to be important until the coming of Islam. The teaching of the Buddha marks, therefore, a recognizable epoch in Indian history; it justifi es a break in its exposition. By his day, an Indian civilization still living today and still capable of enormous assimilative feats stood complete in its essentials. This was a huge fact; it would separate India from the rest of the world.
Much of the achievement of early civilization in India remains in tangible. There is a famous fi gure of a beautiful dancing-girl from Mohenjo-Daro, but ancient India before the Buddha’s time did not produce great art on the scale of Mesopotamia, Egypt or Minoan Crete, far less their great monuments. Marginal in its technology, India came late – though how much later than other great civilizations cannot be exactly said – to literacy, too. Yet the uncertainties of much of India’s early history cannot obscure the fact that its social system and religions have lasted longer than any other great creations of the human mind. Even to guess at what infl uence they exercised through the attitudes they encouraged, diffused through centuries in pure or impure forms, is rash. Only a negative dogmatism is safe; so comprehending a set of world views, institutions so careless of the individual, philosophy so assertive of the relentless cycles of being, so lacking in any easy ascription of responsibility for good and evil, cannot but have made a history very different from that of men reared in the great Semitic traditions. And these attitudes were formed and settled for the most part a thousand years before Christ.

Write your comment