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The Ehtics Of The Upanishads

( Originally Published 1922 )



IT has been said of the Hindu mind that it is like that of Newman, ` subtle when it analyses, simple when it believes, penetrating fearlessly and with relentless logic into the most profound problems of existence, yet in practical religion extraordinarily credulous. We have seen the Hindu mind in its believing mood, believing in the supreme importance of the most trivial steps in unintelligible ritual forms. In the Upanishads we see it in its speculative mood. The two moods are never absolutely independent of each other; one seldom occupies the mind to the complete exclusion of the other ; for we find even in the Brahmanas occasional flashes of philosophical thought, while intermingled with the philosophy of the Upanishads we find mythology, superstition, and ritual teaching. Yet there are these two moods or tendencies characteristic of the Hindu mind, and as the later Vedas and the Brahmanas are the great early texts for the study of the one, so the Upanishads are the great texts for the study of the other.

The problem of the Upanishads is not primarily that of human conduct; it is the widest and most fundamental philosophical problem—that of the nature and meaning of reality. The ethical problem in a certain sense arises only incidentally, but it does arise, and nowhere in Hindu literature, with the possible exception of the Bhagavadgita, have we more important data for its study. Further, the philosophical speculation of the Upanishads has an essentially religious bearing. It was not from sheer delight in intellectual exercise that these thinkers undertook to explore the hidden depths of reality. The Indian mind has no doubt at all times delighted in speculation for its own sake, but the great impulse to it came from practical needs, chiefly perhaps from a sense of the finitude and unsatisfyingness of the phenomenal world and of the failure of a ritual religion to satisfy the demands of the intellect and the heart. Just as in his thinking about the nature of reality Spinoza was actuated by the desire to discover something which would give him `a joy continuous and supreme to eternity, so the writers of the Upanishads were actuated by the desire to find a means of deliverance from the evils of life. With them it was not as with Spinoza and many other thinkers an ethical quest, but it was a practical one. There was the same desire for release from the meshes of the lower and for escape to the highest ; and the quest had the same religious character. Nor does this fact in any way invalidate the inquiry. The tendency in some modern text-books of ethics is to regard ethical experience as something that can be studied by itself without reference to the wider implications of human existence. Some psychological analysis is deemed sufficient as a basis for the whole ethical structure, and the relation of ethics to religion on the one hand and to metaphysics on the other hand is dealt with summarily in concluding chapters, as if the problems of the reality and nature of the human soul, its immortality, and its relation to God were not in the highest degree determinative of the lines which human conduct should follow. Whatever else one may have to say of the ethical thinking contained in the Upanishads, this at least must be adtnitted at the outset that it is conducted in full view of the wider implications of human existence.

We may plunge boldly into the heart of our subject and begin with the statement that the conceptions of karma and samsara are of fundamental importance for the ethical thought of the Upanishads. We found in early writings foreshadowings of the former conception, and in a less marked way of the latter. In the Upanishads they find a place among the conceptions by means of which it is sought to make experience intelligible. Up to the time when the Brahmanas were written it was believed that life continued after the death of the body, not in this world but in worlds that may be designated heaven and hell. Such a belief involved belief in the existence of a soul separable from the body. Only in a vague and tentative way was the suggestion made that the soul might become re-incarnate in this world, though the idea had emerged of successive births and deaths in another world. We do not know through what process the belief was developed that the souls of men and animals and even plants might become embodied in any of the infinite variety of forms that life takes on earth, but in the Upanishads, though not definitely in all of them, such teaching is laid down, not tentatively or controversially but dogmatically. This belief did not drive out the earlier belief in the possibility of rebirth in another world, which persisted alongside of it. Further, it is laid down in the Upanishads that each successive birth is determined by works done in previous lives.

According to his deeds and according to his knowledge he is born again here as a worm, or as an insect, or as a fish, or as a bird, or as a lion, or as a boar, or as a serpent, or as a tiger, or as a man, or as something else in different places.

Those whose conduct has been good, will quickly attain some good birth, the birth of a Brahman, or a Kshatriya, or a Vaisya. But those whose conduct has been evil will quickly attain an evil birth, the birth of a dog, or a hog, or a Chanadala.

The doctrine of work and transmigration in their relation to each other has thus been set forth in its simplest form. The process is far more complex than these quotations taken apart from their context might lead us to imagine. The latter passage concludes a section in which we are told that the path of transmigration is entered upon by those who live in a village practising sacrifices, works of public utility, and alms.

They go to the smoke, from smoke to night, from night to the dark half of the moon, from the dark half of the moon to the six months when the sun goes to the south. But they do not reach the year.

From the months they go to the world of the fathers, from the world of the fathers to the ether, from the ether to the moon. That is Soma, the king. Here they are loved (eaten) by the Devas, yes, the Devas love (eat) them.

Having dwelt there till their (good) works are consumed, they return again that way as they came, to the ether, from the ether to the air. Then the sacrificer, having become air, becomes smoke, having become smoke, he becomes mist.

Having become mist, he becomes a cloud, having become a cloud, he rains down. Then he is born as rice and corn, herbs and trees, sesamum and beans. From thence the escape is beset with most difficulties. For whoever the persons may be that eat the food, and beget offspring, he henceforth becomes like unto them.

Then follows the passage last-quoted. This, with the parallel passage, Brihadaranyaka U. vi, 2, is the most important statement of the doctrine of karma and samsara in the Upanishads.

The interpretation of this passage in all its details is by no means easy, The `path that is described is known as the path of the fathers, as distinct from the path of the Devas. The fathers figure in all the Vedic writings from the Rig Veda downwards. They were human beings, ` seers who made the paths by which the recent dead go to join them, dwelling now in the third heaven. They feast with the gods, and along with them share in the sacrificial offerings of men. Worship and prayer are offered to them, it being in their power to bestow such blessings as the gods themselves bestow. They are believed to be endowed with immortality, and in a variety of ways functions belonging to the gods are attributed to them. In this we have nothing but a description in exaggerated terms of the glory of the blessed dead in heaven. In the time of the Brahmanas a distinction came to be drawn between heaven and the place of the fathers, the door of the one being in the North-East and that of the other in the South-East. In the passage before us certain kinds of deeds are said to lead by way of the world of the fathers, and this way is contrasted with the path of the Devas, which leads to the conditioned Brahman, a path which is entered through knowledge and through the practice of faith and austerities. The truth is that here we have an older conception of retribution crossing the conception of retribution as meted out in a new life lived in this world. They are conceptions that are inconsistent with each other, and yet in a curious way they are here bound together.

It is not necessary to study the passage in all its details. We may ignore the purely mythological elements in it, only remarking that the Pitriyana, or way of the fathers, is involved in darkness, as contrasted with the Devayana, or path of the gods, with which the preceding section deals, which is in light. The point of greatest interest for us lies in the fact that in the account of the way of the fathers a double conception of retribution seems to be involved. It is said that certain persons dwell with the Devas till their works are consumed. At the same time it is the works that they have done that determine the character of their new life on earth. Max Muller, following later Vedantic interpreters of the Upanishads, says that `besides the good sacrificial works, the fruits of which are consumed in the moon, there are other works which have to be enjoyed or expiated, as the case may be, in a new existence. But it is difficult to find any satisfactory ground for this distinction among kinds of works in the context. It is more likely that we have here the combination of two entirely distinct conceptions of retribution. There is the conception of retribution as attained in another sphere of existence, crossed by the conception of retribution in another life on earth. There are further complications still, which for the present we may pass over, as they concern the student of religion rather than the student of ethics. Attention is drawn to this particular complication because it is interesting to see the doctrine of karma and transmigration in this, one of its earlier definite formulations, interwoven with older beliefs.

What is of importance for us here is not the process whereby transmigration takes place, but the fact that it is now definitely believed to take place—that it is believed, in the case of any given individual, that the actions that he performs in this life will determine the form of another birth on earth that he must inevitably undergo. It is impossible to quote largely from passages where the doctrine is expounded. The Self is likened to a caterpillar, which, when it has reached the end of a leaf, draws itself together towards another leaf. So, it is said, the Self, having thrown off this body and dispelled all ignorance, approaches another body and draws itself together towards it. The assumption is that there is an immortal part in the Self. The constitution of this immortal part is dealt with in one important passage :

A person consists of desires. And as is his desire, so is his will ; and as is his will, so is his deed ; and whatever deed he does, that he will reap.

And here there is this verse : `To whatever object a mans own mind is attached, to that he goes strenuously together with his deed ; and having obtained the end of whatever deed he does here on earth, he returns again from that world to the world of action.

Whatever a man desires to that he becomes attached, towards that he goes. There is a saying that what one desires in youth one will have to satiety in old age. The thinkers whose speculations are recorded in the Upanishads have put this idea in far more sharp and definite form.

He who desires the world of the fathers, by his mere will the fathers come to receive him, and having obtained the world of the fathers he is happy, &c. . . . Whatever object he is attached to, whatever object he desires, by his mere will it comes to him, and having obtained it he is happy.,

From all this it is clear that the root of the self that manifests itself in the various forms that an individual being takes in successive births is desire. Also it will be observed that this self is not regarded as in any way involving the existence of a not-self. It is not in opposition to a stubborn material which it can shape or modify only within limits in accordance with its own purposes. As we shall see later the not-self has no independent being ; indeed in a real sense it does not exist. In desiring, the self is shaping its own destiny absolutely. There is an interesting passage in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, where it is said that at death, speech, eye, mind, hearing, the body, the hairs of the body, the hairs of the head, the blood, and the seed—in short all that goes to constitute the self in its phenomenal aspect—are dispersed. What remains ? The answer was given as a great secret to Yajnavalkya :

Take my hand, my friend. We two alone shall know of this ; let this question of ours not be discussed in public. Then these two went out and argued, and what they said was karman, what they praised was karman, viz. that a man becomes good by good work, and bad by bad work.

Nevertheless men are actually bound to the world by desire. At the root of this attachment is ignorance, the ignorance that involves belief in a plurality in the universe that does not exist. The distinctions that we imagine to exist are fictitious. One of the passages in which this is most clearly laid down is in the Brihadaranyaka.

For when there is as it were duality, when one sees the other, one smells the other, one hears the other, one salutes the other, one perceives the other, one knows the other; but when the Self only is all this, how should he smell another, &c.? How should he know him by whom he knows all this? How, O beloved, should he know (himself) the Knower?

It is not merely in the realm of sense experience that this false duality is assumed. It is a distinction equally falsely made between the Self and God. This is the point of the discourses of Uddalaka Aruni with Svetaketu, in which through many similes he teaches him the identity of the Self with ultimate Reality— Thou, O Svetaketu, art it. If one but knows this, if he is freed from the ignorance that sees diversity where there is nothing but unity, if one understands that in all. the variety of existence revealed to us through the senses and through the intelligence there is given nothing distinct from the Self, then ignorance has given place to knowledge, that knowledge which is itself deliverance.

It may seem at first sight that this is to make very high claims for knowledge. Assuming the truth of the doctrine that all diversity is illusory and that Reality is one and undifferentiated, we might seem to be justified in raising the question whether merely knowing this doctrine could be sufficient to deliver one from the bondage of the illusory world. If the evil in which our life is involved is desire or attachment, is it sufficient in order that the attachment may be broken, that ones eyes should merely be opened to the illusoriness of the objects to which the self has been attached? To put it in another way, can ignorance be the root, or at any rate the only root of attachment, so that if it be severed the plant will die ? We are here face to face with a problem that has affinities with that raised by Socrates regarding the identity of virtue and knowledge, for both alike held that at the root of what was essentially evil was ignorance. It may be that the difficulties that beset the problem are to a large extent due to misunderstanding. The experience described in Ovids words :

Video meliora proboque,
deteriora sequor,

is one that is familiar to every one. Is it possible in the face of such an experience to assert that the lapse was simply due to ignorance? It might be replied that, when one sins against the light, there is involved at least momentary self-deception—a momentary forgetting of the truth accepted by our highest self. The fault may be not that knowledge was wanting, but that the knowledge was not so wrought into the web of ones being that it might not on occasion be denied. There is a sense in which moral error, when it is deliberate, involves intellectual error. A lower self rises up and asserts itself, brushing aside the principles by which the higher self would direct its conduct ; it rules them out of court. The rational self is borne down for the time being by a violent, unintelligent, lower self. It will be necessary to return to this subject later, but it may be stated now that in the Upanishads deliverance is the outcome not simply of belief or knowledge of a purely academic kind, but of a knowledge, which is an attitude or activity of the whole self. It is generally taught, further, that there are steps necessary for the attainment of such knowledge ; it is not to be mastered by any chance person who may hear it explained.

All this has been said with a view to making clear the rationale of a doctrine which at first seems so strange as this that deliverance is the outcome of knowledge. Yet we must admit at the same time that there are many passages in the Upanishads where the claims made on behalf of knowledge are of a much more extravagant kind, as when it is taught that knowledge of particular doctrines, for example the doctrine of the five fires, leads to emancipation. Also it should be pointed out that the term knowledge is in a sense a misleading one when applied to the process through which emancipation is mediated. As we ordinarily understand knowledge, there is involved in it a knowing subject and a known object. But the knowledge which is deliverance is a knowledge in which this duality is transcended. It is an experience which can be explained only by imperfect analogies. The most helpful of these is dreamless sleep, a state in which the distinction of subject and object disappears.

When a man, being asleep, reposing, and at perfect rest, sees no dreams, that is the Self, this is the immortal, the fearless, this is Brahman.

The doctrine of emancipation has been stated here in its simplest and barest form ; but throughout the Upanishads there are complications and contradictions in the accounts of the process through which emancipation is attained, as there are in the accounts of the fate of the unemancipated. We may turn again to the passage quoted above from the Chhandogya Upanishad, v. 10, which has been regarded as the great text for the Upanishad doctrine of karma and trans-migration. The passage describing the way of the fathers has been quoted. We now quote the passage dealing with the way of the Devas which precedes it :

Those who know this (even if they still be grihasthas), and those who in the forest follow faith and austerities (the vanaprasthas, and of the parivrajakas those who do not yet know the highest Brahman) go to light, from light to day, from day to the light half of the moon, from the light half of the moon to the six months when the sun goes to the north, from the six months when the sun goes to the north to the year, from the year to the sun, from the sun to the moon, from the moon to the lightning. There is a person not human—He leads them to Brahman.

The Brahman to whom he is led is the conditioned Brahman, and the deliverance found in him is not represented in the definite form which the doctrine later took. But it may be noted that the emancipation here spoken of is the outcome of a process which goes on after death. Elsewhere we meet the same idea in other forms. It may be said that emancipation is regarded as attained broadly in two ways, firstly immediately through an act of intellectual intuition, and secondly through a process dependent chiefly on intellectual intuition, but working itself out gradually.

In this brief account of the doctrines of karma and samsara in their relation to the way of deliverance nothing more has been attempted than a summary of the ideas most generally accepted. But there are many statements relating not only to details but even to fundamentals which would demand attention in ,any fuller treatment. These we must for the present ignore, contenting ourselves with indicating the general tendency of the thought of the Upanishads. Mention should, however, be made of a tendency which becomes more definite. in some of the later Upanishads. The earlier Upanishads represent in the main a strict pantheistic monism ; Brahman is all, and all else is illusion, and deliverance is attained in the recognition of the identity of the self with Brahman. In some of the later Upanishads, on the other hand, for example the Katha, the Prasna, and others, there are traces, though sometimes obscure, of that dualistic conception of the Universe which becomes definite in the Samkhya Philosophy. Nevertheless karma and samsara remain practically untouched, and deliverance is still attained through knowledge, though not knowledge of the sole reality of Brahma.



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