Friday, May 11, 2012


The Upanishads: Happy Hunting Ground of the ONE god-ists


Dr. Vijaya Rajiva
11 May 2012

In previous articles, the writer pointed out that monotheist appropriators of Vedic Hinduism lift a few lines or verses from the Rig Veda to emphasise the similarity between their beliefs and those of the Vedas and Upanishads. They do not go anywhere near the other three Vedas (Yajur, Sama and Atharva) and stay as far as they can from the Brahmanas (the prose commentaries on the Vedic rituals) and the Aranyakas, which are basically a continuation of the same. On the other hand, the Upanishads are mined frequently.

The authentic Hindu tradition is the Vedic-Agamic tradition which was transmitted down the millennia and is currently what constitutes Hinduism as practised by millions of Hindus. This means the entire Vedic corpus including the Upanishads.

The attention paid to certain select passages from the Rig Veda and more especially the Upanishads is both a strategy and a lack of understanding of the sacred texts. The strategy clearly is to detach the Upanishads from the Vedic tradition, mangle them somewhat by forcing a monotheistic interpretation of them, after which the Vedas can be dealt with, or so they hope. In other words, they treat the Vedas as simply an early immature, undeveloped version of their monotheist faith.

The common theme is that the Vedic ‘Aryans’ in the Asian homeland had abandoned / forgotten the pre-Vedic monotheism and ‘fallen’ into polytheism. Subsequently, as they progressed into the age of the Upanishads, the search started for a single Creator, and they hit upon the idea of Brahman. Here too, according to the monotheists, the Vedic ‘Aryans’ were deficient because Brahman, who should be standing outside of his creation, is being identified with it. The moral of the story is: Brahman is not yet the Abrahamic god.

Why the mere words of prophets should be privileged over the vision of the Vedic seers is not explained. It is simply taken for granted. From a Hindu perspective, this approach, namely the worship of the Word of prophets, is the worst form of idolatory, as Sita Ram Goel once observed.

The ONE god-ist views are based both on their political agenda and on their misperception of the Upanishadic Self and Brahman and the presence of innumerable deities. The Self and Brahman are not the same as the monotheist soul and god. The Self (Atman) is not a soul. It is a spiritual part of Brahman in its entirety. And neither are the deities of the Vedas left behind in the Upanishads, as the ONE god-ists try to make out.

A recent statement from them illustrates their incomplete understanding of the Hindu world view. They ‘admit’ that Hindus are not mere idol worshippers, nor are they polytheists (worshipping many gods and goddesses). They too worship the ONE Supreme Being and the deities are simply manifestations of this Being. This latter part is grudgingly and belatedly admitted. But, from the Hindu perspective, they have downgraded both the Vedas and the Agama tradition of Hinduism. They have, in a sense, squeezed the life blood out of Hinduism and Hindu religious practice.

Hindus are in fact polytheists (like it or not!) and they worship murtis in temples; this is a reality the monotheists either profess not to understand or misinterpret for political purposes. The Supreme Being envisaged by monotheists is an extension of their historical adherence to the words of a prophet and therefore brings with it an entire baggage. For both Christians and Muslims this means accepting their theology, or else!

The Infinite of the Upanishads is Satchidananda, that which Exists, is Conscious and is Blissful (Sat, Chit, Ananda). It manifests in the entire universe, both animate and inanimate. It manifests in the gods and goddesses that Hindus worship on a regular basis. Satchidananda automatically precludes any coercion or submission to itself and historically Hindus have not engaged in proselytising or coercion of other religionists.

Some Hindus themselves contribute to monotheist misperception in an eagerness to endorse the ONE god of the monotheists, in order to receive compliments, especially from the West, for being part of a privileged club. In this manner, such Hindus help to further the cause of bigotry and the imposition of false views on a gullible world. Sita Ram Goel was quite right when he said that it is a choice between the Vedic world view and the limited imperial world view of the dogmatic monotheist faiths (ONE god-ism).

This fact should be kept in mind by Hindus. It is essential that Hindus clear up this misunderstanding since for monotheists the Supreme Being is their ONE god, not the Infinite Divine of Hinduism. This god is then pitted against the many deities of Hinduism, starting with the Vedas.

The writer has written about the contradiction involved in using the number ONE in describing the existence of god. One is no closer to Infinity than any of the other numbers (an important argument proffered by noted scholar Alain Danielou in Hindu Polytheism, 1964).

A dual process is going on with the ONE god-ist strategy. On the one hand they elevate their ONE god as the Supreme Being (as per the prophets) while rejecting the many gods of Hindu polytheism and while blatantly claiming that their position is that of the Upanishads also.

It was not always this way. The early European scholars were professionals and worked hard to understand what they vaguely called the ‘Hindu mind.’ They took their academic role seriously and did not deviate from a systematic and scrupulous translation of whatever texts they could find. There was also intra-competition amongst them as to who were the best translators. The well known names include Max Mueller, A. Weber, Julius Eggeling, Monier Williams. But none of them, with some honourable exceptions (Griffiths, Wilson) ever considered the Vedas or the as anything but literary, eloquent ‘pagan’ outpourings, sometimes profound, but more often childish gibberish ! We are not talking here about philosophers such as Schopenhauer, who found the Upanishads a source of great wisdom and profound thoughts.

Hence, the contemporary interest in mining the Vedas as a source of similarity with monotheist faiths can be traced back to the process known as Inculturation, whereby a native culture is slowly infiltrated until it is finally defeated. This process resulted in the loss of Greece and Rome, and subsequently other native cultures in the Americas and Africa.

The Vedic-Agamic tradition alone has remained unshaken by Inculturation, not to mention the barbarian invasions and the resultant destruction of temples and murtis. Today, the creeping conversion campaigns launched by the Church must be taken into account.

A revisiting of the Upanishads by Hindu intellectuals is called for. Some preliminary points are suggested. The Mahavakyas of the Upanishads cannot be bent to the monotheist agenda. And they do not try to.

Tat tvam asi (That thou art) and Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman) are prime examples. Whichever school of thought, whether the Advaita Vedanta of Adi Sankara or the Vedanta of Ramanuja, the notion that the Self and Brahman are intimately related to the point of identity is something Abrahamic monotheists could never accept. No need to labour this point.

Hindus have to stress that the worship of deities of the Rig Veda is in a continuum with the Self-Brahman equation. What is dismissed by monotheists as pagan worship of the elements (personified) is in fact part of the Upanishads, which refer to the Vedic deities as the world of Devas. This can be seen in each of the 108 Upanishads.

Even the famous Isa Upanishad which has been bent to a variety of monotheistic interpretations recognises the world of Devas as manifestations of Brahman. This is quietly ignored by the Abrahamics. They cannot accept this because it entails that their own version of divinity is only one among many versions. They want to emphasise the uniqueness of their version and the theology that goes with it.

Each of the 108 Upanishads shows the line of continuity with the Vedas. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the longest and densest, is a good way to see how and why the Upanishads and the Rig Veda are integrally related. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is the concluding section of the Satapatha Brahmana, the prose commentary of the Yajur Veda. The prose Brahmanas are elaborations of the Vedic ritual and do not state any philosophical/ontological position different from the Vedas. The Upanishad itself weaves the rituals and worship of deities into a consistent and remarkable whole by spelling out the relationship of all this to the Self and Brahman. The latter is often also described with names taken from the Rig Veda: Prajapati, Hiranyagarbha, Viswakarman.

Contrary to misconceptions promoted by monotheists, the Upanishad does not in any way downgrade or dismiss Vedic ritual. In fact, it explicitly states that the rituals and religious practices of the Vedas are necessary for the individual to simultaneously relate to the reality of Self and Brahman.

It is customary to place the famous lines “OM! That Brahman is Infinite, and this universe is infinite, this infinite proceeds from the Infinite…” at the beginning of the Upanishad proper. This is rightly so since it is the fullness of Being that characterises the Infinite Divine. These lines have been placed by Vedantins at a later date, but they represent the content of the Upanishad very well. Of course, Adi Sankara and Ramanuja are the best known interpreters of this Upanishad. Sri Aurobindo has also written a partially finished commentary.

At first glance Aurobindo seems to be contradicting Sankara by calling him a Mayavadin (the world is an illusion). On closer inspection of the commentary along with a deep study of the Sankara commentaries, it becomes clear that both philosophers are celebrating the richness and diversity of Satchidananda.

Each of the Upanishads can be so interpreted. Failure to do so will entail accepting the theological baggage of the ONE god-ists who seek to impose their narrow world view on the world. It is the urgent task of contemporary Hindu intellectuals to pre-empt that agenda.

The writer is a political philosopher who taught at a Canadian university

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