Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IV: THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CONCEPTION OF BRAHMA - The Thirteen Principal Upanishads
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CHAPTER IV: THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CONCEPTION OF BRAHMA - Misc (Upanishads), The Thirteen Principal Upanishads 
The Thirteen Principal Upanishads, translated from the Sanskrit with an outline of the philosophy of the Upanishads and an annotated bibliography, by Robert Ernest Hume (Oxford University Press, 1921).
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THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CONCEPTION OF BRAHMA
As the early cosmologies started with one thing and another, but always one particular thing, posited as the primal entity, so in Bṛih. 1. 4. 10-11 and again in Maitri 6. 17 we find the statement: ‘Verily, in the beginning this world was Brahma.’ And as in the old cosmologies, especially in the Rig-Veda and in the Brāhmaṇas, so also in the Upanishads procreation was adopted as the specific analogy for world-production. Thus: ‘He desired: “Would that I were many! Let me procreate myself!” He performed austerity. Having performed austerity, he created this whole world, whatever there is here’ (Tait. 2. 6). It should be noticed that consciousness, which was absent in the water- and space-cosmologies, is here posited for the production of the world; also that the creation of the world, as in the Purusha Hymn, RV. 10. 90, and all through the Brāhmaṇas, is an act of religious significance accompanied by ceremonial rites.
This last fact is not unnatural when the situation is considered. Every undertaking of importance had to be preceded by sacrifices and austerities in order to render it auspicious. The greater the importance of the affair, such as beginning a war or going on a journey, the greater was the need of abundant sacrifice. And if sacrifice was so essential and efficacious for human affairs, would it not be equally necessary and efficacious for so enormous an undertaking as the creation of the world?
These considerations probably had the greater weight in view of the meaning and historical importance of the word brahma, which now and henceforth was to be employed as the designation of the world-ground.
In the Rig-Veda brahma seems to have meant first ‘hymn,’ ‘prayer,’ ‘sacred knowledge,’ ‘magic formula.’ In this very sense it is used in the Upanishads, e. g. Tait. 3. 10. 4, as well as in compounds such as brahmavat, ‘possessed of magic formulas,’ and brahma-varcasa, ‘superiority in sacred knowledge.’ It also signified the power that was inherent in the hymns, prayers, sacred formulas, and sacred knowledge. This latter meaning it was that induced the application of the word to the world-ground—a power that created and pervaded and upheld the totality of the universe.
Yet how difficult it was to preserve the penetrating philosophical insight which discerned that efficiency, that power, that brahma underlying the world—an insight which dared to take the word from its religious connection and to infuse into it a philosophical connotation—will be shown in the recorded attempts to grasp that stupendous idea, all of which fell back, because of figurative thinking, into the old cosmologies which this very Brahma-theory itself was intended to transcend.
The unknown character of this newly discovered Being and the idea that only by its will do even the gods perform their functions, is indicated in a legend contained in the Kena Upanishad. Brahma appeared to the gods, but they did not understand who it was. They deputed Agni, the god of fire, to ascertain its identity. He, vaunting of his power to burn, was challenged to burn a straw, but was baffled. Upon his unsuccessful return to the gods, Vāyu, the god of wind, was sent on the same mission. He, boasting of his power to blow anything away, was likewise challenged to blow a straw away and was likewise baffled. To Indra, the next delegate, a beautiful woman, allegorized by the commentator as Wisdom, explained that the incognito was Brahma, through whose power the gods were exalted and enjoyed greatness.
In Bṛih. 3. 9. 1-9 Yājñavalkya was pressed and further pressed by Śākalya to state the real number of the gods. Unwillingly he reduced, in seven steps, the popular number of 3306 gods to one, and that one was Brahma, the only God.
But apart from legend and apart from religion it was difficult for the ordinary person to understand who or what this Brahma was.
Gārgī, one of the two women in the Upanishads who philosophize, takes up the old water-cosmology and asks Yājñavalkya, the most prominent philosopher of the Upanishads (Bṛih. 3. 6): ‘On what, pray, is the water woven, warp and woof?’ He replies, ‘The atmosphere-worlds.’ On being asked again, ‘On what then, pray, are the atmosphere-worlds woven, warp and woof?’ he says, ‘The Gandharva-world [or world of spirits].’ The regressus has been entered, and Yājñavalkya plays somewhat the part of Locke’s ‘poor Indian [i. e. American Indian] philosopher’ with his tortoise, and elephant, and so forth, as the world’s last standing-ground. Here he takes Gārgī back to the worlds of the sun upon which the Gandharva-worlds are woven, and then in turn to the worlds of the moon, the worlds of the stars, the worlds of the gods, the worlds of Indra, the worlds of Prajāpati, the worlds of Brahma. ‘On what then, pray, are the worlds of Brahma woven, warp and woof?’ ‘Gārgī, do not question too much, lest your head fall off. In truth you are questioning too much about a divinity about which further questions cannot be asked. Gārgī, do not over-question.’ Thereupon Gārgī ceased to question.
It is a remnant of the old space-cosmology joined with the Brahma-theory when in Bṛih. 5. 1 it is stated that ‘Brahma is ether—the ether primeval, the ether that blows.’ A little more is added when it is said that ‘Brahma is life. Brahma is joy. Brahma is the void’ (Chānd. 4. 10. 5). The abundance and variousness of being in that world-ground which must also be the ground of the physical and of the mental life of persons is approached in Tait. 3, where the instruction is successively given that Brahma is food, breath, mind, understanding, and bliss, since out of each of those, as from the world-ground, things are born, by those they live, unto those they enter on departing hence.
There are four other passages where attempts are expressly made to define Brahma.
In Bṛih. 2. 1 the renowned Brahman Gārgya Bālāki came to Ajātaśatru, king of Benares, and volunteered to tell him of Brahma. The wealthy king, in emulation of the lavish Janaka, offered a thousand cows for such an exposition. Gārgya explained that he venerated the person in the sun as Brahma. ‘Talk not to me about such a Brahma,’ Ajātaśatru protested. He venerated as Brahma the Supreme Head and King of all beings. Then Gārgya said that he also venerated the person in the moon as Brahma. Ajātaśatru again protested against the inadequacy of such a conception of Brahma. He venerated It as the great white-robed king Soma (i.e. the person vivifying the moon). Again Gārgya gave another definition of Brahma, namely, as the person in the lightning; and again Ajātaśatru condemned his statement as inadequate by declaring that he venerated as Brahma the Brilliant One, the principle of brilliancy, not only in the lightning but in all brilliant things. So the two converse back and forth, Gārgya successfully giving new definitions and Ajātaśatru declaring their inadequacy with a broader conception which included and went beyond Gārgya’s, and at the same time deducing a practical benefit to any who held such a conception. Gārgya’s conception of Brahma as the person in space was supplemented by the conception of Brahma as the Full, the non-active; the person in the wind, by Indra, the terrible, and the unconquered army; the person in the fire, by the Vanquisher; the person in water, by the Counterpart (of all phenomenal objects); the person in the mirror, by the Shining One; the sound which follows after one, by Life; the person in the quarters of heaven, by the Inseparable Companion; the person consisting of shadow, by Death; the person in the body, by the Embodied One—in all, twelve1 conceptions of Brahma, which exhaust Gārgya Bālāki’s speculation on the subject. He, the challenger, the professional philosopher, then requests instruction from his vanquisher, who, it may be noticed again, was not a Brahman, but a Kshatriya (i.e. a man belonging to the second caste). Ajātaśatru called attention to the anomaly of a Brahman’s coming to a Kshatriya for instruction, but consented to make him know clearly this comparatively new and not fully comprehended conception of Brahma. ‘He, verily, O Bālāki, who is the maker of all these persons [whom you have mentioned in succession], of whom, verily, this is the work—he, verily, should be known’ (Kaụsh. 4.19). With the illustration at hand of a man awaking from sleep, Ajātaśatru shows that finally Brahma is to be conceived of as that into which one goes to sleep and from which one wakes again. The conclusion is: ‘As a spider might come out with his thread, as small sparks come forth from the fire, even so from this Soul come forth all vital energies, all worlds, all gods, all beings. The mystic meaning (upaniṣad) thereof is “the Real of the real” ’ (Bṛih. 2. 1. 20).
This is the most important passage, for it is the first in the Upanishads where the conception of Brahma is subjected to a regressive analysis leading to a conclusion which obtains throughout the remainder of the Upanishads, except as it is further supplemented. In it the following points are to be noticed. The old cosmologies, according to which the world-ground was to be discovered in some particular phenomenal object or substance, are still clung to in so far as Brahma, the newly postulated world-ground, is to be found in one and another individual object, such as the sun, the moon, lightning, space, fire, water, and so forth; they are transcended, however, in so far as those objects are not regarded as themselves of the stuff out of which the world was fashioned, but are looked upon only as a habitation of the world-ground, which is also a person, locally lodged. Such a conception of the first disputant is corrected by the second’s pointing out that the world-ground cannot be the substrate of only certain particular phenomena; that the several principles must be referred back to a single one, ‘who is the maker of these persons, of whom this [universe] is the work’ (Kaush. 4. 19), and (more important still) that if one would come close to the apprehension of this world-ground, it is chiefly to be known as the upholder of his own psychical existence through the period of sleep; that it is a Soul (Ātman) and that this Soul is the source of all existing things, vital energies, worlds, gods, all beings, which are actual, to be sure, but actual only because It is their Real.
A very great advance in the conception of the world-ground is here made, and a doctrine is reached of which most of the later dialogues are further explications. There are two other dialogues however, which by a similar succession of definitions and corrections arrive at the same fundamental conception of Brahma.
In Bṛih. 4. 1-2 Janaka, at Yājñavalkya’s request, states the various philosophical theories that have been propounded to him. Six different conceptions of Brahma, taught by different teachers, are thus elicited. First, that Brahma is speech. This was self-evident, replied Yājñavalkya, but it was saying no more than that one had a mother, or a father, or a teacher; without explaining the seat and support of speech, such a Brahma was one-legged. Yājñavalkya then supplied the deficiency by explaining that its seat was speech, its support space, and it should be reverenced as intelligence, for by speech all things were known. Similarly, the theory that Brahma was breath was approved as true, but condemned as inadequate, and supplemented by the explanation that breath was its seat, space its support, and it should be reverenced as dear, since the breath of life is dear. So Brahma is sight, the eye its seat, space its support; and it should be reverenced as truthfulness, since the eyes see truly. Brahma is hearing, the ear its seat, space its support; and it should be reverenced as the endless, for the quarters of heaven from which one hears are endless. Brahma is mind, its seat is mind, its support is space; and it should be reverenced as the blissful, for with the mind one experiences bliss. Brahma is the heart, its seat is the heart, its support is space; and it should be reverenced as the steadfast, for the heart is a steadfast support. The conclusion is not clearly connected with the dialogue; at 4. 2. 4 there seems to be a break in the text. But it ends with the description of the Ātman (Soul, or Spirit), which is without describable limits.
Here it is to be noticed that Brahma is postulated as manifest in a person’s psychical activities; that It has its seat in the sense-organs and in the mental organs; that It has various qualities, such as the quality of intelligence, truthfulness, endlessness, blissfulness, steadfastness; and that It turns out to be a Self, without any limiting qualities. All these statements are of importance, both as indicating the development of the conception of Brahma and as contrasted with later modifications.
The only other dialogue where an extended attempt is made to arrive at a conception of Brahma, exhibits in philosophy the henotheistic religious tendency of the Indian mind, which elevates the god or the concept immediately concerned to the highest position and accepts it as supreme and complete, only to turn to another and repeat the process. In Chānd. 7. 1 Nārada, in search of saving knowledge, comes to Sanatkumāra with the request ‘Teach me, Sir! (adhīhi bhagavo). [It is probable that this should be ‘Sir, declare Brahma!’ (adhīhi bhagavo brahma), the same request that Bhṛigu Vāruṇi put to his father in a similar progressive definition of Brahma (Tait. 3. 1, referred to on page 16).] The latter, being bidden to declare his learning, enumerates seventeen books and sciences, but is informed that they all teach such knowledge as is only a name—not however worthless, since a name is part of Brahma and should be revered as Brahma. Indeed, he who does so venerate names as Brahma has free sway so far as a name covers the nature of Brahma, which, however, is only to a slight extent. But there is more than a name, viz. speech. That, too, is a manifestation of Brahma, because it makes everything manifest—all the sciences, all objects, all distinctions. But there is more than speech, viz. the mental organ, or mind (manas), for that embraces both speech and name. The self is mind. The world is mind. Brahma is mind. But there is something more than mind or ideation. There is will (saṁkalpa, the constructive faculty). It is through will that everything comes into existence. Again, though will defines a phase of Brahma, there is something greater, viz. thought. Verily, when one thinks, then he wills and performs all the previously named processes. So there is given a successive advance over each previous conception of Brahma, and usually some reason for the dependence of the preceding upon the succeeding. After thought follows meditation, understanding, strength, food, water, heat, space, memory, hope, and breath, or life; everything is breath. Further, by a circuitous route, the author leads to the immortal, unrestricted, undifferenced, self-supported plenum which is below, above, before, behind, to the right, to the left, which is the whole world itself. The next thought seems to be that since it is a spirit for whom there is a below and above, a before and behind, a right and a left, a spirit for whom a whole world exists, therefore all these are themselves spirit, or the Spirit (Ātman). So Spirit alone is below, above, before, behind, to the right, to the left. This whole world is Spirit. Out of Spirit arise hope, memory, space, heat, water, appearance and disappearance, food, strength, understanding, meditation, thought, will, mind, speech, name, sacred verses, religious work—which previously were defined as parts of Brahma. Indeed, this whole world arises out of Spirit (Ātman).
One more reference will show the manner of progress in the development of the conception of Brahma which has now been reached, namely that It is the one great reality, present both in objective phenomena and in the self’s activities (Chānd. 3. 18. 1-2). ‘One should reverence the mind as Brahma. Thus with reference to the self (ātman). Now with reference to the divinities [who operate the different departments of nature]. One should reverence space as Brahma. . . . That Brahma has four quarters. One quarter is speech. One quarter is breath. One quarter is the eye. One quarter is the ear. Thus with reference to the self. Now with reference to the divinities. One quarter is Agni (Fire). One quarter is Vāyu (Wind). One quarter is Aditya (the Sun). One quarter is the quarters of heaven. This is the twofold instruction with reference to the self and with reference to the divinities.’
Two stages are analyzable in the progress thus far: (1) the necessity for a universal, instead of a particular, world-ground led to a theory which postulated a world-ground that embraced all phenomena as parts of it, and so which gradually identified everything with the world-ground; (2) it was felt that this world-ground was in some sense a Soul, co-related with the finite ego. These two tendencies will now be further traced.
According to the earlier theory of Brahma, in which It was the primal entity which procreated the world, the world was somehow apart from Brahma. Thus, ‘having created it, into it he entered’ (Tait. 2. 6). Or, as Chānd. 6. 3 speaks of the originally Existent, after it had procreated heat, water, and food: ‘That divinity thought to itself: “Come! Let me enter these three divinities [i.e. heat, water, and food] with this living Soul, and separate out name and form.” ’
With the development of the concept of Brahma away from its earliest form (i.e. from the influence of the early cosmogonies), the thought of pervading-all, mentioned in the previous paragraph, and the general enlargement and universalizing of the concept, led to the thought of being-all. So the world was identified with Brahma, in a different sense from what is implied in ‘Verily, in the beginning this world was Brahma’ (Bṛih. 1. 4. 10). The world, according to this developed conception, is not the emanation of the original Being that was called Brahma, nor is it strictly the past construct of an artificer Brahma (Kaush. 4. 19). Nor yet is it to be regarded as pervaded by Brahma as by something not itself, as in: ‘He entered in here, even to the fingernail-tips, as a razor would be hidden in a razor-case, or fire in a fire-holder [i.e. the fire-wood]’ (Bṛih. 1. 4. 7). But here and now ‘verily, this whole world is Brahma’ (Chānd. 3.14). The section of the Chāndogya just quoted is the first clear statement of the pantheism which had been latent in the previous conception of Brahma and of the relation of the world to It. Later that pantheism is made explicit and remains so through the rest of the Upanishads, where the thought recurs that Brahma actually is everything.1 Thus:—
‘For truly, everything here is Brahma’ (Māṇḍ. 2).
Thus far, in the exposition of the development of the pantheistic conception of the world, the merging of all objective phenomena into a unitary world-ground has been the process emphasized; for this seems to have been its first stage. Objective phenomena are the ones which first arrest the attention and demand explanation. But, as the Śvetāśvatara, at its beginning (1. 2), in recounting the various speculative theories, states explicitly, there is another important factor, namely ‘the existence of the soul (ātman),’ which cannot be lumped in with material objects, but presents another and more difficult fact for the philosopher who would find a unitary ground that shall include the diverse objective and subjective.
This leads over to what was stated on page 21 as the second stage in the development of the conception of Brahma as the world-ground, namely, that It is in some sense a Soul co-related with the finite ego.
[1 ]In Kaush. 4, which is evidently another version of the same dialogue, there are sixteen conceptions, ‘the person in the quarters of heaven’ being omitted from the Bṛihad-Āraṇyaka list and there being added the person in thunder, in the echo, the conscious self by whom a sleeping person moves about in dreams, the person in the right eye, and the person in the left eye—conceptions which are supplemented respectively by the soul of sound, the inseparable companion, Yama (king of the dead), the soul of name, of fire, of light, and the soul of truth, of lightning, of splendor.
[1 ]Bṛihad-Āranyaka, Chāndogya, Taittirīya, Aitareya, Kaushītaki, and Kena 14-34 (the prose portion) are regarded as forming the group representative of the earlier Upanishadic philosophy. The others are later and dogmatic, presupposing a considerable development of thought and not infrequently quoting the earlier ones.