In what sense are the Upanishads associated with 'esoteric knowledge'?
by Nandi Virakanath
In approaching the question of the esoteric nature of the Upanishads I intend to give a brief explanation of the meaning of the word Upanishad and to place the Upanishads within their context as part of the Vedas. I will then move on to discuss issues surrounding the authorship of the Upanishads and the social context within which they arose especially with reference to the Srmana or renounciant movements that took place between 800-400BCE a time contemporary with the composition of the Upanishads ( sometime between 600-300BCE.) Then I will be looking at new ideas the Upanishads introduce into the Vedas. I shall briefly discuss the esoteric concept of correspondences and the internalisation of the ritual, followed by an exploration of the central concept of Brahman and atman. I will then focus on the idea of rebirth and karma as they first appear in the Brhadanyaka Upanishad before moving on to my conclusion.
The word Upanishad literally means 'to sit near' and is derived from the Sanskrit roots upa, near ni, down and sad, to sit. The association is of groups of students sitting around a wise teacher in order to here spiritual truths. This in itself implies a certain sense of something esoteric which is passed from teacher to student. An alternative meaning is it is itself a word which means 'connection' or 'equivalence', from the word bandhu which means kin. This idea of correspondences is itself a central plank of esoteric thought as I shall explore below.
The Upanishads are a part of the collection of texts referred to as the Vedas. They appear as the final part of the Vedic collection and are often refered to as Vedanta which literally means coming at the end of the Veda.
Although there are a wide variety and number of texts within the broad Hindu tradition which are refered to as Upanishads, there are fourteen major texts that are more or less closely incorporated into the Veda. This collection of early Upanishads are the texts which I will be referring to as Upanishads throughout this essay.
There are four collections of Vedas: Rgveda, Yajurveda (which itself has two sub divisions the Black and the White), Samaveda and the Atharthaveda. In General each of these collections is divided into four categories: Samitas, which are ritual/ liturgical texts, concerned mainly with the ritual formulas which are to be performed by the priests; Bramanas, explanatory material relating to the Samitas; Aranyakas, ritual texts for forest hermits which also contain commentaries on the Samitas and Bramanas and the Upanishads which are also commentaries upon the Samitas and the Brahmanas. There is not necessarily a clear distinction between the Aranyakas and the Upanishads. In many places they blend into each other. The Upanishads are however later than the Aranyakas and generally place metaphysical and cosmological questions to a more central position.
In general the Vedic rituals and commentaries within the first two divisions are concerned with gaining rewards in this life. Vedic rites in the early period where based around the idea of a ritual sacrifice, as Gombrich has pointed out:
'The early parts of the Rg Veda offer no evidence that at the beginning there was any elaborate theory of the sacrifice: it was a matter of giving things to the gods and getting sons, cattle and long life in return.'
On the other hand the Upanishads, and to a lesser degree the Aranyakas, begin to raise questions of a more 'transcendental' nature. They are concerned primarily with understanding the existential questions relating to life and death, and ultimately with the attainment of spiritual knowledge rather than with ritual action.
In examining the Upanishads however it is I feel important to point out that they do not represent one single unified theory or approach to the religious problems they address. They are texts written over a period of several centuries across a wide variety of regions. Further more even within the collections of the early Upanishads there is a distinct movement from pantheistic monism through monism to monotheism. This is not necessarily a linear progression however. Rather than one set of ideas superseding the next they seem to interact and overlap in a wide variety of ways.
The Upanishads present many new ideas into the Indian religious milieu. The content of the Upanishads and the nature of the ideas they present will be examined below. First however I would like to look at how these texts and the ideas they contain arose.
Issues of the authorship of the Upanishads are difficult to establish as they are anonymous documents. Furthermore the earliest Upanishads are compilations of texts that may have had an earlier independent existence and where compiled by a series of editors. If we look to the internal evidence of the Upanishads for authorship then many references to kings and other members of the Ksatriya (warrior) class appear. Indeed Brockington argues that the passages containing the greatest innovations are those associated with the Ksatriyas. On the surface therefore it is possible to assume that the ideas exposed in the Upanishads are those of the Ksatriyas, however as Olivelle points out the relationship between the Brahmins and the Ksatriyas was extremely complex, with both groups being dependent upon each other and simultaneously in conflict with each other for social influence.
It may well be the case that some Brahmins put forward the ideas contained within the Upanishads but disguised the authorship by putting words into the mouths of Ksatriyas . On this basis then the new ideas which appear within the Upanishads may have arisen from within the Brahmanical tradition. Indeed this idea has been put forward by Heesterman in his 'orthogenetic theory' which suggests a gradual development of thought within Vedic culture.
Another idea which has been put forward is that the 'new' ideas of the Upanishads have non-Vedic origins and in fact represent a totally new development that may have initially challenged Vedic orthodoxy. Indeed Bronkhorst has argued this point and puts great emphasis on the Srmana (renouncer)tradition as having it's roots outside of the Brahmanical Orthodoxy. These Srmana traditions are of two kinds orthodox (astika) and heterodox (nastika). The heterodox movements rejected Brahmanical and Vedic authority completely. These movements include Buddhism, Jainism and the Aryajivikas, it is possible that there where many more similar movements at the time which were not so successful and so have left no mark, indeed the Aryajivikas have not survived into the present time at all. These new religions where closely associated with the Ksatriyas and Romill Tharpa points out that the heterodox and the orthodox movements where mutually hostile. Olivelle however presents a third position,. He argues that the development of these new ideas comes about as a result of changes within the Brahmin community and arises due to a conflict between those who continue to support the sacrifice and those who are moving in the direction of support for the idea of renunciation and the ideas that go along with it. He sees the movement which gave rise to new religious ideas as being '...either non-Aryan or even non-Brahmanical.'
The growing trend towards renunciation, represented by the Srmana movements and the new ideas they where developing happened at a time contemporus with the composition of the early Upanishads. It has been argued that these movements represent a turn within society away from the early Vedic religion of a predominantly agrarian society and arise at a time of increased urbanisation and trade. Developments which themselves inevitably lead to a large increase in the movement of people, allowing more cross fertilisation of ideas, along with an increased sense of individuality and individual freedom.
As Ollivelle says:
'What is important, however, is not whether a particular doctrine originated among the Ksatriyas, but that the new religious climate in northern India, of which the Upanishads were a part, was created through the intellectual interaction among 'new thinkers' within both groups.'
So what are the new ideas presented within the Upanishads? As has already been pointed out above the Upanishads form part of the Vedas, as such they are regarded as orthodox (astika). Whilst Brahminism rejects the Srmana traditions the Upanishads elaborate ideas that are very close to those of the heterodox movements. These ideas as Gombrich points out are ones which today are commonly excepted as part and parcel of Hinduism . They are rebirth, karma and liberation (moksha). There are also two more ideas that are found within the Upanishads which have great bearing on how it is possible to think of the Upanishads as esoteric texts, these are the internalisation of the ritual and the concept of Brahman and Atman.
The Brahmanas and Aranyakas aim to interpret the meaning of the Vedic rituals. These texts become increasingly concerned with the importance of the knowledge of correspondences based on the ritual actions. The knowledge of the correspondences seem to take greater precedence over the ritual actions. The Brahmanas maintained that knowledge of the correspondences between the cosmos and the ritual is a source of power. This knowledge however is hidden and so is not available to ordinary people. Whilst the Brahmanas and the Aranyakas are concerned with the correspondences between the ritual and cosmic spheres, the Upanishads shift the emphasis to the person, the correspondences sought are now interpreted as being between the cosmic reality and the parts of the human organism. It is this search for secret hidden correspondences which is one of the features that make the Upanishads esoteric. Only that which is carried out with this knowledge is powerful:
'Those who know this and those who do not both perform these rites using this syllable. But knowledge and ignorance are two very different things. Only what is performed with knowledge, with faith, and with an awareness of the hidden connections (upanishad) becomes truly potent.'
Furthermore it seems that many of these correspondences are established through a process of phonetic similarities between two words within the Sanskrit language, or two words that have the same number of syllables.
Internalisation of the ritual is the way in which the Upanishads realise this idea of human/cosmic correspondence. By identifying aspects of the ritual practice to both the human being and the cosmos the Upanishads point to an underlying principle that is the essence of the ritual, the cosmos and the self. This essence is called Brahman.
As Olivelle points out the Brahman principle is not easy to pin down and in translation and discussion of the Upanishads the Sanskrit word is often kept as it is difficult to translate, indeed it has a number of meanings. In the earliest Upanishads the Brahman principle is identified variously from a materialistic point of view as either food or breath or both. From this early speculation however Brahman comes to be seen as the inner essence of the world and the world as manifesting from Brahman. Brahman therefore is the ultimate reality.
If the Brahman is the essence in the world then this essence must also appear in man. This essence is the atman. Atman while having many meanings within the Upanishads can broadly be identified with the 'self'. For the early Upanishadic thinkers then the aim is to realise the self (Brahman) in the self (atman), the macrocosm and the microcosm are identified as one:
'In the beginning this world was only brahman, and it knew only itself (atman), thinking: 'I am brahman.' As a result, it became the Whole. Among the gods, likewise, whosoever realized this, only they became the Whole. It was the same also among the seers and among the humans. Upon seeing this very point, the seer Vamadeva proclaimed: 'I was Manu, and I was the sun.' This is true even now. If a man knows 'I am brahman' in this way, he becomes this whole world. Not even the gods are able to prevent it, for he becomes their very self (atman). So when a man venerates another deity, thinking, 'he is one, and I am another', he does not understand.'
This realisation of the self leads to liberation (moksha) one of the central ideas that arises around the same time as the composition of the Upanishads in the Srmana traditions. Whilst these traditions disagreed on points of doctrine and practice they all accepted the basic idea that the world is suffering (duhka) and that the only way out of this suffering is through liberation (moksha). This liberation is a form of gnosis or direct spiritual knowledge (jnana). For the Upanishads this gnosis is the realisation of the unity of atman and Brahman.
The world however is not just suffering, it is the constant repetition of suffering an endless cycle of birth and death (samsara) .Within this cycle our actions determine the type of rewards we will reap in the next life and the actions of our last life are influencing us in this life. This in essence is the doctrine of Karma.
It is unclear if the doctrine of Karma originally comes from within the Srmana traditions, both Buddhism and Jainism have developed sophisticated ideas about karma and the transmigration of the self from one life to another, or emerged from with in the earlier Vedic texts. Gombrich points out that the term karman was used as a term for a religious act. In Brahmanical literature it refers specifically to significant acts, especially rituals. Therefor ethe idea of causality, inherent within the early Brahmanical idea of the sacrifice, may easily have been widened to include certain moral qualities and applied to the new modes of thought within the Upanishads. Another possibility is that the transmigration theory may have it's roots in the tribal religions of the Ganges valley or in the Dravidian culture of south India.
The one thing that does seem fairly certain is that the earliest textual mention of the law of karma appears in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Here is also another point where the Upanishads are esoteric. Artabhaga after questioning the sage Yajnavalkya about the fate of someone after death, is lead away by Yajnavalka and told the secret of karma in a secluded place:
Yajnavalkya replied: 'my friend we cannot talk about this in public. Take my hand , Artabhaga lets go and discuss this in private.'
So they left and talked about it. And what did they talk about?- they talked about nothing but action. And what did they praise? - they praised nothing but action. Yalnavalkya told him: ' a man turns into something good by good action and into something bad through bad action.'Thereupon, Jaratkarava Artabhaga fell silent.'
Here it appears that Yalnavalkya cannot publicly tell Artabhaga about the law of Karma, and when the later finally hears this teaching he is lost for words. This information is clearly secret and only to be shared amongst a few.
In conclusion then it is possible to see that the Upanishads have developed at a time of great cultural upheaval. Within this period it has been necessary to develop ideas that have religious significance and meaning for people finding themselves in a new situation. Within this context there are a variety of movements which are challenging the established order of the Brahmins, and the beginnings of a number of new religious movements. Within this context, a number of Brahmins, perhaps interacting with non-Aryan trends, may have began to question the validity of the ritual sacrifice and in trying to answer the new religious questions they are faced with (and possibly in light of religious experiences) begin to develop a world view sees the sacrifice as symbolic of a greater truth. The truth of Brahman a universal essence which permeates every thing in the world. In trying to return to this original state the emphasis shifts from ritual action to knowledge and indeed gnosis as a path towards the realisation of the truth. The world now seen as a fetter, is a constant source of suffering to be escaped from. This ideas are original kept secret and circulated only amongst a few people until they are formulated into the text that are now known as the Upanishads.