Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VI: THE REALISTIC CONCEPTION OF THE ULTIMATE UNITY, AND THE DOCTRINE OF ILLUSION - The Thirteen Principal Upanishads
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CHAPTER VI: THE REALISTIC CONCEPTION OF THE ULTIMATE UNITY, AND THE DOCTRINE OF ILLUSION - 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 REALISTIC CONCEPTION OF THE ULTIMATE UNITY, AND THE DOCTRINE OF ILLUSION
What, now, is the nature of that single all-encompassing pantheistic Being that has been discovered? It must possess as many qualities as there are in the whole of the real world which it constitutes. This attribution of all possible qualities to the Being of the world is made in the famous Śāṇḍilya section of the Chāndogya (3. 14). ‘Verily, this whole world is Brahma. . . . He who consists of mind, whose body is life, whose form is light, whose conception is truth, whose soul (ātman) is space, containing all works, containing all desires, containing all odors, containing all tastes, encompassing this whole world, the unspeaking, the unconcerned, . . . smaller than a grain of rice, or a barley-corn, or a mustard-seed, or a grain of millet, or the kernel of a grain of millet, . . . [yet] greater than the earth, greater than the atmosphere, greater than the sky, greater than these worlds.’ It must also be capable of all contraries:—
The diverse identification and constitution of this pantheistic Being are further expressed in the verses:—
This necessity of postulating in the substrate itself of the world the whole store of materials and qualities which exist in the world, led to the summary contained in Bṛih. 4. 4. 5, where Brahma is described as ‘made of knowledge, of mind, of breath, of seeing, of hearing, of earth, of water, of wind, of space, of energy and of non-energy, of desire and of non-desire, of anger and of non-anger, of virtuousness and of non-virtuousness. It is made of everything. This is what is meant by the saying “made of this, made of that.” ’
But such a realistic conception of Brahma as a conglomerate was subversive of the very idea of unity which the concept of Brahma fundamentally signified. All those diverse material objects, psychical functions, and mental states as such could not be regarded as the materials composing the structure of a unitary world-ground. Yet there is diversity and manifoldness in the being of the world which cannot be regarded as existing apart from the world-ground. How account for them?
In one of the old cosmologies (Tait. 2. 6), where Brahma wished that he were many, performed austerities, procreated himself, and ejected this whole world from himself, it is stated that he entered into it with a double nature. ‘He became both the actual and the yon, both the defined and the undefined, both the based and the non-based, both the conscious and the unconscious, both the real and the false.’ Here is perhaps the first emergence of the thought which is the solution to the question put above. It is the distinction made between the so-called phenomenal and noumental, between the sensuously perceived and that which cannot be thus brought into consciousness, but can only be thought. This notion that there is much of reality which is not within the sphere of the senses, or within the world of what is called common-sense experiences, expresses itself here and there in the early part of the Upanishads, as in Chānd. 3. 12. 6.—
Also in Bṛih. 1. 4. 7: ‘Him they see not, for [as seen] he is incomplete.’ And later also, more like the modern conceptions of immanence and transcendence, as in Bṛih. 3. 7. 3: ‘He who, dwelling in the earth, yet is other than the earth, . . . whose body the earth is, who controls the earth from within,’ and similarly of twenty other objects.
But it is by the distinction between the noumental and the phenomenal that the apparent conflict between the One and the many is solved. In a noteworthy passage, Bṛih. 1. 6. 3, it is declared that ‘Life (prāṇa, ‘breath’) [a designation of the Ātman], verily, is the Immortal. Name and form [the usual phrase signifying individuality] are the actual. By them this Life is veiled.’ Similarly in Bṛih. 2. 1. 20: ‘The mystic meaning (upaniṣad) thereof is the “Real of the real.” Breathing creatures, verily, are the real. He is their Real.’ Bṛih. 2. 3. 1 makes the distinction explicit by affirming that ‘there are, assuredly, two forms of Brahma.’ It is the same thought, for the section closes with the words of Bṛih. 2. 1. 20, just cited; but the effort to express the great truth finds itself halting and falling back directly upon the early sensuous conceptions which it endeavored to rise above.
These two forms of Brahma are the formed and the unformed, the mortal and the immortal, the stationary and the moving, the actual and the yon. As regards the Vedic naturegods, the unformed, immortal, moving, yonder Brahma is the wind and the atmosphere. The essence of that is the person in the sun-disk. The formed, the mortal, the stationary, the actual Brahma is what is different from the wind and the atmosphere. Its essence is the sun which gives forth heat. As regards the self, the unformed, immortal, moving, yonder Brahma is the breath and the space in the heart. Its essence is the person in the right eye. The formed, mortal, stationary, and actual Brahma is what is different from the breath and the intercardiac space. Its essence is the eye (this being typical of the senses by which the phenomenal is perceived). The glorious, brilliant nature of the higher Brahma is then represented by similes of the bright and shining—a saffron-colored robe, white wool, the purple beetle, a flame of fire, a white lotus flower, a sudden flash of lightning. But immediately there follows the warning that the noumental Brahma cannot be represented to the senses, indeed cannot be defined by any positive characteristics. ‘Neti, neti: Not thus! Not so!’ (Bṛih. 2. 3. 6: 3. 9. 26). Nevertheless it is the reality of the individual phenomenal actualities. Though starting with and making use of sense data and accepting a strange pair of differentia, namely the stationary and the moving, for the actual and the yon, or for the phenomenal and the noumental Brahmas, this section nevertheless advances toward the final idealistic conception of reality, to which the pantheism of the Upanishads led.
The two Brahmas are described again in Maitri 6. 15. ‘There are, assuredly, two forms of Brahma: Time and the Timeless. That which is prior to the sun is the Timeless (a-kāla) without parts (a-kala). But that which begins with the sun is Time, which has parts.’
The thought begins to appear that if all is One, the manifold differences that seem so real in experience are not constitutive of the inner being of that One; they must be only an appearance, a phenomenon. So again the two Brahmas are described in Maitri 6. 22: ‘Verily there are two Brahmas to be meditated upon: sound and non-sound. Now non-sound is revealed only by sound. . . . Of it there is this sevenfold comparison: like rivers, a bell, a brazen vessel, a wheel, the croaking of frogs, rain, as when one speaks in a sheltered place. Passing beyond this variously characterized [sound-Brahma], men disappear in the supreme, the non-sound, the unmanifest Brahma.’
These two Brahmas, the one manifold with sense qualities, and the other a superphenomenal unity, were accepted as both real, though in different ways. They were ‘both the higher and the lower’ of Muṇḍ. 2. 2. 8 and Praśna 5. 2; the two forms of Śvet. 1. 13. They formed the subject-matter of the ‘two knowledges to be known—as indeed the knowers of Brahma are wont to say: a higher and a lower.’ The lower knowledge is of various sciences, but ‘the higher is that whereby that Imperishable is apprehended’ (Muṇḍ. 1. 1. 4-5). Their importance in a complete knowledge of Brahma is affirmed by Kaṭha 6. 13, for
But this dualizing of the world-ground, this postulating of two Brahmas when the fundamental and repeated axiom of the whole Upanishadic speculation was that ‘there is only one Brahma, without a second,’ induced by way of correction the further development of the previous conception of phenomenality.1 Reality is One. Diversity and manifoldness are only an appearance.
That is the real Brahma, the undifferenced unity. The lower Brahma of sense-manifoldness, in which everything appears as a self-subsistent entity, is merely an appearance due to a person’s ignorance that all is essentially one; that is, it is an illusion. So Maitri 6. 3 says plainly of the two Brahmas: ‘There are, assuredly, two forms of Brahma: the formed and the formless. Now, that which is the formed is unreal; that which is the formless is real.’
The distinction between the phenomenal and the superphenomenal was, as has been described, made quite early in the Upanishadic thought. First, the phenomenal, though admittedly a part of the reality of the world, is only a fragment of its totality. ‘Him they see not, for [as seen] he is incomplete. . . .Whoever worships one or another of these [individual manifestations]—he knows not; for he is incomplete with one or another of these’ (Bṛih. 1. 4. 7). It is mere ignorance (avidyā) on one’s own part, then, that allows him to rest in the things of sense as the ultimate being of the world; but this ignorance, or non-knowledge, is remediable under instruction concerning the underlying unity.
But soon the conception arose that the error is attributable not so much to oneself, as to that Other which hides its unitary nature. ‘There is nothing by which he is not covered, nothing by which he is not hid’ (Bṛih. 2. 5. 18). Poetically expressed, ‘Life, verily, is the Immortal. Name and form are the real. By them that Life is veiled’ (Bṛih. 1. 6. 3). He who is essentially one,
is performing a piece of supernatural magic in appearing as many.
This is the first occurrence in the Upanishads of the word māyā—in the plural, be it noticed, and as a quotation from Rig-Veda 6. 47. 18, where it occurs many times in the meaning of ‘supernatural powers’ or ‘artifices.’ It is this thought which is developed into the theory of cosmic illusion and which is expressed in Śvet. 4. 9-10, the favorite proof-text in the Upanishads of the later Māyā doctrine.
Such was the beginning of that which became a prominent doctrine of the later Vedānta, the doctrine of Māyā or the inevitable illusoriness of all human cognition. In its early development it did not base itself in any way upon what was a chief source of the early Greek scepticism, namely illusions of sense. The sole reference to them in the Upanishads, Kaṭha 5. 11—
is not used as an argument for illusion, though Śaṅkara in his Commentary in loco explains it by the stock simile of the later Vedānta in which the piece of rope lying by the wayside appears in the twilight as a snake to the belated traveler.1 On the contrary, sight is to the philosophers of the Upanishads the symbol of truth. ‘Sight is truthfulness, for when they say to a man who sees with his eyes “Have you seen?” and he says “I have seen,” that is the truth’ (Bṛih. 4. 1. 4; similarly also in Bṛih. 5. 14. 4).
The doctrine of illusion, then, was the speculative outcome of the conflict between the phenomenal and the super-phenomenal, between the lower and the higher Brahma. It was the logical conclusion of the abstract presupposition as to the nature and possibilities of the pure unity which these thinkers conceived of as the essence of reality and to which they pressed on as the great goal of all their speculations. The manifold world of sense furnished no such unity and therefore had to be abandoned as illusory and unreal, in favor of that undifferenced unity to which they were driven as the basis underlying the illusory and which, just because it is beyond all sense-qualities, distinctions, or limitations of any kind, is the real Brahma.
The attempts to describe this pure unity of being are numerous. ‘This Brahma is without an earlier and without a later, without an inside and without an outside’ (Bṛih. 2. 5. 19). ‘For him east and the other directions exist not, nor across, nor below, nor above. . . . [He is] unlimited’ (Maitri 6. 17). ‘It is not coarse, not fine, not short, not long, not glowing, not adhesive, without shadow and without darkness, without air and without space, without stickiness [intangible], odorless, tasteless, without eye, without ear, without voice, without mind, without energy, without breath, without mouth, [without personal or family name, unageing, undying, without fear, immortal, stainless, not uncovered, not covered], without measure, without inside and without outside. It consumes nothing soever. No one soever consumes it’ (Bṛih. 3. 8. 8).
‘That which is invisible, ungraspable, without family, without caste—without sight or hearing is It, without hand or foot, eternal’ (Muṇḍ. 1. 1. 6). He is apart from all moral, causal, or temporal relations. One must put Him aside as possessed of qualities and take Him as the subtile only (Kaṭha 2. 13-14). The ultimate is void of any mark (a-liṅga) whatever (Kaṭha 6. 8; Śvet. 6. 9); without qualities (nir-guṇa) (Śvet. 6. 11). About this higher Brahma ‘there is the teaching “Not thus! Not so!” (neti, neti), for there is nothing higher than this [negative definition]’ (Bṛih. 2. 3. 6; 3. 9. 26; 4. 2. 4). ‘Indefinable,’ ‘inconceivable,’ mere negative statements are all that can be asserted of this pure being, which ex hypothesi is incapable of the qualification, determination, and diversity implied in descriptive attribution. This is exactly the conclusion which Spinoza reached with his in many respects similar pantheism—the famous dictum ‘Omnis determinatio negatio est.’1
How now is this kind of real Brahma to be known? The practical method, stated in Kaṭha 2. 8-9 and frequently elsewhere, that if one were taught by a competent guru, or teacher, he might find Brahma, is of course superseded. The progress of speculation had taken Brahma to that far-off, transcendent realm where it is a question whether it may be reached or known at all. Certainly—
But no! that higher Brahma is not accessible to knowledge by sense or by thought or by instruction:—
No more than its bare existence can be postulated.
But even here the real point is dodged.
‘He who rules the ignorance and the knowledge is another.’
(Śvet. 5. 1.)
Utterly inconceivable is this supreme Brahma. The very attempt to conceive of it indicates that one does not know the essential fact about it. There follows the paradox:
Such is the outcome of a long circuitous journey to reach that ultimate unity of reality which was dimly foreseen long before in the Rig-Veda and which had been the goal of all the succeeding speculations. What is it—we pause and ask—that has now been reached? On the one hand an illusory world and on the other hand an unknowable reality. Honestly and earnestly had the thinkers of the Upanishads sought to find the true nature of this world of experience and of a beyond which constantly lured them on, but it had proved to be an ignis fatuus. Yet they did not give up in the despair of agnosticism or in the disappointment of failure. The glimpses which they had had of that final unity had frequently suggested that the self must be accounted for in the unity of being. They had found an underlying basis for the subjective and objective in the great Ātman, the world-soul, like unto the self-known soul and inclusive of that, but in itself external to it. And they had found that the great Ātman was identical with the great Brahma, the power or efficacy that actuates the world. But in the explanation of the phenomenal and the noumental that Brahma had fallen apart and vanished, one part into the illusory and the other into the unknowable.
[1 ]Thus Śaṅkara reconciled the opposition between the two Brahmas and the one Brahma, at the end of his commentary on the Vedānta-Sūtras, 4. 3. 14.
[1 ]Gough, in his Philosophy of the Upanishads, maintains, in my judgment, an erroneous position, viz. that the Upanishads teach the pure Vedāntism of Śaṅkara, who flourished at least a thousand years after their date. Gough’s book is filled with explanations bringing in the similes of the rope and snake, the distant post seeming to be a man, the mirage on the sand, the reflection of the sun on the water, etc., all of which are drawn from Śaṅkara and even later Hindu philosophers, and not from the Upanishads.
[1 ]‘All determining (describing or qualifying) is a negating.’