Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VII: IDEALISM AND THE CONCEPTION OF PURE UNITY - The Thirteen Principal Upanishads
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
CHAPTER VII: IDEALISM AND THE CONCEPTION OF PURE UNITY - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
IDEALISM AND THE CONCEPTION OF PURE UNITY
The former glimpses of that nearest of known facts, the self, showed the thinkers of the Upanishads that the path they had been following, the path of realism, had logically led them to an unsatisfying conclusion. The unity for which they had been searching as if it were something outside of and apart from the self, could never be reached. For there still remains the stubborn dualism of self and not-self, however deeply the two might be set into a pantheistic unity which should embrace them both in an external grasp. Epistemological idealism must henceforth be the path traveled in order to reach the goal of an absolute unity.
This was a wonderful discovery, intuitions of which had flashed out here and there, but which was forced upon them for adoption by the limit which they had reached along the line of epistemological realism. The final unity could not and would not, then, be found outside of self, but in it. In truth, the self is the unity that they had been looking for all along, ‘for therein all these [things] become one’ (Bṛih. 1. 4. 7), and only in it, i. e. in one’s own consciousness, do things exist. ‘As far, verily, as this world-space extends, so far extends the space within the heart. Within it, indeed, are contained both heaven and earth, both fire and wind, both sun and moon, lightning and stars, both what one possesses here and what one does not possess; everything here is contained within it’ (Chānd. 8. 1. 3).
Realistic pantheism has been changed into epistemological idealism. All existence is for, and in, the self. ‘This whole world is Brahma. . . . This Soul of mine within the heart . . .’ (Chānd. 3. 14. 1, 3). ‘He is the world-protector. He is the world-sovereign. He is the lord of all. He is my self’ (Kaush. 3. 8). ‘I am Brahma!’ (Bṛih. 1. 4. 10). Thus that world-ground, that unity of being which was being searched for realistically outside of the self, and which, as it was being approached, seemed to recede back into the illusory and into the unknowable, is none other than the self, which had eluded cognition for the reason that, as the subject of consciousness, it could not become an object. ‘He is the unseen Seer, the unheard Hearer, the unthought Thinker, the ununderstood Understander’ (Bṛih. 3. 7. 23). ‘You could not see the seer of seeing. You could not hear the hearer of hearing. You could not think the thinker of thinking. You could not understand the understander of understanding’ (Bṛih. 3. 4. 2). ‘Wherewith would one understand him with whom one understands this All? Lo, wherewith would one understand the understander?’ (Bṛih. 2. 4. 14).
The world, which by the simile of birds supported on a tree as their roost had been realistically explained (in Praśna 4. 7) as supported on that which, with unforeseen insight, was called Ātman, a Self, because I, a self, am also a part of It — that world is none other than my self.
‘One should reverence the thought “I am the world-all!” (Chānd. 2. 21. 4). ‘I alone am this whole world’ (Chānd 7. 25. 1). ‘When he imagines . . . “I am this world-all,” that is his highest world. This, verily, is that form of his which is beyond desires, free from evil, without fear’ (Bṛih. 4. 3. 20-21).
Rather, instead of being identified with my consciousness, this world of sense is the product of my constructive imagination, as is evident in sleep, when one ‘himself tears it apart, himself builds it up, and dreams by his own brightness, by his own light. . . . There are no chariots there, no spans, no roads. But he projects from himself chariots, spans, roads. There are no blisses there, no pleasures, no delights. But he projects from himself blisses, pleasures, delights. There are no tanks there, no lotus-pools, no streams. But he projects from himself tanks, lotus-pools, streams. For he is a creator. . . .
Such a theory is distinctly idealistic metaphysics.1
Here, then, is the source of that manifold diversity which has seemed to contradict the pure unity of being. It all is the thought-product of the larger real Self, apart from whom neither it nor I have any existence whatever. ‘He who knows “Let me smell this,” “Let me utter this,” “Let me hear this,” “Let me think this,” is the Self’ (Chānd. 8. 12. 4-5).
The ego does not perform those activities. ‘Assuredly, the Soul (Ātman) of one’s soul is called the Immortal Leader. As perceiver, thinker, goer, evacuator, begetter, doer, speaker, taster, smeller, seer, hearer—and he touches—the All-pervader has entered the body’ (Maitri 6. 7). The real illusion is not strictly the trick of the other, the great magician, but my own persistence in the vain belief that I and the world exist apart from, or are in any sense other than, the pure, undifferenced unity of the Self—or, according to the theory of realistic pantheism, the one world-all Brahma.2
In either case knowledge of the truth banishes the illusion and restores the identity which was only temporarily sundered by ignorance. ‘Whoever thus knows “I am Brahma!” becomes this All; even the gods have not power to prevent his becoming thus, for he becomes their self’ (Bṛih. 1. 4. 10). Knowledge of the real nature of Brahma in general effects an assimilation of the knower of it. ‘Verily, Brahma is fearless. He who knows this becomes the fearless Brahma’ (Bṛih. 4. 4. 25). ‘He, verily, who knows that supreme Brahma, becomes very Brahma’ (Muṇḍ. 3. 2. 9). ‘He who recognizes that shadowless, bodiless, bloodless, pure Imperishable, arrives at the Imperishable itself. He, knowing all, becomes the All’ (Praśna 4. 10). ‘Brahma-knowers become merged in Brahma’ (Śvet. 1. 7).
In the Ātman-theory the great desideratum is union with Ātman, the inner, real, unitary Self—who in truth am I, if I but knew it and could realize it. That is ‘the Self which is free from evil, ageless, deathless, sorrowless, hungerless, thirstless, whose desire is the Real, whose conception is the Real’ (Chānd. 8. 7. 1; Maitri 7. 7). In the Brahma-theory also it is complete unqualified unity that is the ideal. ‘An ocean, a seer alone without duality, becomes he whose world is Brahma. This is a man’s highest path. . . . This is his highest bliss’ (Bṛih. 4. 3. 32). For ‘verily, a Plenum is the same as Pleasure. There is no Pleasure in the small. Only a Plenum is Pleasure.’ (Chānd. 7. 23. 1). This path, however, from the troubled consciousness with its limitations, sorrows and pains, to that state of unalloyed beatitude and unbounded bliss—
‘Verily, there are just two conditions of this person: the condition of being in this world and the condition of being in the other world. There is an intermediate third condition, namely, that of being in sleep’ (Bṛih. 4. 3. 9). Going to it, as a fish goes over to the other side of a river and back, one may have an actual experience of that reality of bliss in contrast with which the waking life is but a bad dream (Bṛih. 4. 3. 18).
It is noteworthy how the dominant realistic pantheism of the Upanishads is frequently overriden by the idealistic tendency which rejects the world of the waking consciousness as the real world and which adopts the state of dreamless sleep or of vacuous meditation as grasping the absolute unity and reality. So Prajāpati described the real Self, after futile attempts to satisfy Indra with the lower conceptions such as the person who is seen in the eye and the reflected image in a vessel of water, as follows: ‘He who moves about happy in dream—he is the Self’ (Chānd. 8. 10. 1). But Indra perceived the failure on Prajāpati’s part to instruct him about a Self which is free from evil and from sorrow, for even in dreams one has most unpleasant experiences, such as being struck and cut to pieces.1
Admitting the inadequacy of the state of dreaming sleep as furnishing a cognition of the supreme blissful Self, Prajāpati gives it as his final instruction that ‘When one is sound asleep, composed, serene, and knows no dream—that is the Self’ (Chānd. 8. 11. 1). But Indra found no satisfaction in such a Self, for in that condition a man does not really know himself so that he can say ‘This is I,’ nor does he know other things. The objection is not fairly met by Prajāpati’s reply that pleasure and pain are due to the self’s connection with the body; that the highest condition is when in sleep the serene one, rising out from this body, no longer thinks of the appendage of the body, but goes around laughing, sporting, taking delight with women or chariots or relatives. For the explanation is a relapse into the state of dreaming sleep, which, however pleasant it may be at times, had nevertheless been condemned by Prajāpati himself as faulty, because it is a conscious condition and therefore liable to all the vicissitudes of waking consciousness.
In contrast with the unsatisfactory conclusion of this dialogue, Yājñavalkya, in Bṛih. 2. 4. 14 and 4. 5. 15, gave to Maitreyī—who, like Indra, had been perplexed by the similar instruction that the highest stage of the one Self is unconscious—a more philosophical explanation of why it can not be conscious. ‘Where there is a duality, as it were, there one sees another; there one smells another; there one tastes another; there one speaks to another. . . . But where everything has become just one’s own self, then whereby and whom would one see? then whereby and whom would one smell? then whereby and to whom would one speak? then whereby and whom would one hear? then whereby and of whom would one think? then whereby and whom would one touch? then whereby and whom would one understand?’1 ‘Knowledge is only of a second.’ Consciousness means consciousness of an object; but in that consciousness where all things become one (Kaush. 3. 4), in that unbounded ocean-like pure unity of the real Self (Bṛih. 4. 3. 32), the duality and limitation of the subject-object relation is obliterated. In it, therefore, consciousness is an impossibility.
The conception of this pure unity of being and of the blissful union with self was not clearly defined and consistently held. Maitri 6. 7 suggests the reason. ‘Now, where knowledge is of a dual nature [i.e. subjective-objective], there, indeed, one hears, sees, smells, tastes, and also touches; the soul knows everything. Where knowledge is not of a dual nature, being devoid of action, cause, or effect, unspeakable, incomparable, indescribable—what is that? It is impossible to say!’ It is strictly inconceivable:—
It may only be affirmed as approximately conceived:—
There was consequently vacillation and indefiniteness in the statements regarding it. Prajāpati, when pressed to justify it as unconsciousness, fell back upon the notion of pleasant dreams. The Taittirīya Upanishad, where by arithmetical computation that perfect bliss is declared equal to octillion blisses of the most favored man on earth, states in closing that the aspirant, having reached the ‘self which consists of bliss,’ goes up and down these worlds, eating what he will and assuming what forms he will, and sits singing the song of universal unity which begins with ‘Oh, wonderful! Oh, wonderful! Oh, wonderful!’ (Tait. 3. 10. 5).
The limitation of the not-self certainly would be absent in that plenary bliss. ‘Where one sees nothing else, hears nothing else, understands nothing else—that is a Plenum. But where one sees something else—that is the small.’ ‘Verily, a Plenum is the same as Pleasure. There is no Pleasure in the small. Only a Plenum is Pleasure’ (Chānd. 7. 23-24). One passage, Bṛih. 4. 3. 23-30 (the only one of its kind in the Upanishads), attempts, contrary to the prevailing conception of the condition of union with the Self, to make qualified provision for sense-activity by a sort of paradox, which is more intelligible in the Madhyaṁdina than in the Kaṇva recension. ‘Verily, while he does not there see, he is verily seeing, though he does not see what is [usually] to be seen; for there is no cessation of the seeing of a seer, because of his imperishability. It is not, however, a second thing, other than himself and separate, that he may see.’ Similarly he continues to smell, taste, speak, hear, think, touch, and know, though not a second thing other than himself and separate.
A sensual conception of that bliss is pictured in Bṛih. 4. 3. 21, according to which the condition of union with the Self is conscious, but void of content either subjectively or objectively referrent, a mere state of bliss. ‘As a man, when in the embrace of a beloved wife, knows nothing within or without, so this person when in the embrace of the intelligent Soul knows nothing within or without.’ In Māṇḍ. 5 that bliss is found in deep sleep as such.
The true conception of the bliss of union with the Self, then, would seem to be that it is strictly an unconscious condition; but with the attempt to conceive of that condition, which indeed was asserted to be inconceivable, recourse is had to sensual experiences and to balmy sleep.
Strictly it is the state of dreamless sleep which is taken as typifying the attainment of the real. ‘Therefore they say of him “he sleeps,” for he has gone to his own’ (Chānd. 6. 8. 1). This is true both in the Brahma theory and in the Ātman theory. ‘So, just as those who do not know the spot might go over a hid treasure of gold again and again, but not find it, even so all creatures here go to that Brahma-world [in deep sleep] day by day, but do not find it’ (Chānd. 8. 3. 2)—a doctrine alluded to in Praśna 4. 4. ‘Now, that serene one [the soul in sleep] who, rising up out of this body, reaches the highest light and appears with his own form—He is the Soul! That is the immortal, the fearless. That is Brahma. The name, verily, of that Brahma is the Real. . . . Day by day, verily, he who knows this goes to the heavenly world’ (Chānd. 8. 3. 4-5).
The pleasant dreams of sleep, rather than the hampered waking consciousness, were, according to some of the passages which have been quoted, tentatively accepted as characteristic of the unlimited Self; but, because of the fact of unpleasant dreams, they were rejected in favor of the bliss of dreamless sleep, where even the duality of subject and object that is foreign to the essential nature of the unitary Self is melted away.
But even that condition of profound sleep from which one wakes refreshed—back, however, into diversity and into the limitation of the waking consciousness—seems too near the unreality of the illusory egohood which is conscious of falsely apparent objects and subjects. In the Māṇḍukya, therefore, there is put, above the waking consciousness and the dreaming sleep and the dreamless sleep, a fourth stage. ‘Not inwardly cognitive, not outwardly cognitive, not bothwise cognitive, not a cognitive mass, not cognitive, not non-cognitive unseen, with which there can be no dealing, ungraspable, having no distinctive mark, non-thinkable, that cannot be designated, the essence of the assurance of which is the state of being one with the Self’ (Māṇḍ. 7). Another later Upanishad, the Maitri, adopts the same fourfold condition of all existence and denominates the fourth and highest condition turīya (7. 11).
Not only in sleep and in a supposititious condition beyond profound slumber does one reach that unity with the Self. He does it also in death, the consummation of unification, for then the diversity and illusoriness of sense-knowledge and separateness are overcome. ‘When this self comes to weakness and to confusedness of mind, as it were, then the breaths gather around him. He takes to himself those particles of energy and descends into the heart. When the person in the eye turns away, back [to the sun], then one becomes non-knowing of forms. “He is becoming one,” they say; “he does not see.” “He is becoming one,” they say; “he does not smell.” “He is becoming one,” they say; “he does not taste.” “He is becoming one,” they say; “he does not speak.” “He is becoming one,” they say; “he does not hear.” “He is becoming one,” they say; “he does not think.” “He is becoming one,” they say; “he does not touch.” “He is becoming one,” they say; “he does not know.” . . . He becomes one with intelligence’ (Bṛih. 4. 4. 1-2). Similarly in Chānd. 6. 8. 6 and 6. 15 death is only the process of absorption into the Real, into the Self. Of a dying person it is said: ‘His voice goes into his mind; his mind into his breath; his breath into heat; the heat into the highest divinity. That which is the finest essence—the whole world has that as its soul. That is Reality. That is Ātman. That art thou, Śvetaketu.’ And, it might be added, only ignorance and persistence in the thought of a separate self keep one from actually being It. Death is truly the loosing of the cords of the heart which bind one to an illusory life and to the thought of a separate self-existence.
It is evident that this pure unity of the self, the really Existent, union with which is effected in sleep and in death, is unconscious, because it is void of all limitations or distinctions whatsoever, being ‘the Person all-pervading and without any mark whatever’ (Kaṭha 6. 8).
And therein even the possible distinction that ‘this is I’ (loss of which represented a condition which seemed so abhorrent to Indra and which Prajāpati did not succeed in justifying) is impossible, just because the duality and limitations of the subject-object relation are impossible in that plenary unity. Thus, from the empirical point of view which regards the waking consciousness as the real, a man does in this way ‘go straight to destruction’; but to the philosopher, who understands the falsity of ordinary standards and the illusoriness of the ego to which men fondly cling, the loss of finite individuality in the real Self that is unlimited is the supreme achievement. This doctrine is set forth in parables from nature in the ‘That-art-thou’ section of the Chāndogya. ‘As the bees, my dear, prepare honey by collecting the essences of different trees and reducing the essence to a unity, as they are not able to discriminate “I am the essence of this tree,” “I am the essence of that tree”—even so, indeed, my dear, all creatures here, though they reach Being, know not “We have reached Being.” . . . These rivers, my dear, flow, the eastern toward the east, the western toward the west. They go just from the ocean to the ocean. They become the ocean itself. As there they know not “I am this one,” “I am that one”—even so, indeed, my dear, all creatures here, though they have come forth from Being, know not “We have come forth from Being” ’ (Chānd. 6. 9-10). It is the very consciousness of ‘this’ and of ‘I’ which is the limitation that separates one from the unlimited. And individuality and self-consciousness must be lost ere one reach that infinite Real. ‘As these flowing rivers that tend toward the ocean, on reaching the ocean, disappear, their name and form [or individuality] are destroyed, and it is called simply “the ocean”—even so of this spectator these sixteen parts that tend toward the Person, on reaching the Person, disappear, their name and form are destroyed, and it is called simply “the Person” ’ (Praśna 6. 5).
Thus the ultimate unity of reality which has been the search throughout the Upanishads is finally reached. On the epistemological basis of the common-sense realism which views all things as really existing just as they are seen to exist, and in continuation of the cosmologies of the Rig-Veda, the Upanishads started by positing various primeval entities, out of which by various processes the manifold world was produced. Then Brahma, a power such as that inherent in the ritual and sacrifice whereby rain and the forces of nature were controlled, was postulated as the one world-producer and controller. This conception of Brahma gradually developed into a monism. Simultaneously speculation regarding the nature of the unity in which the self and objects are joined developed the conception of Ātman, a great Self, after the analogy of the individual self. The Ātman-theory and the Brahma-theory became merged together in an absolute pantheism. An apparent conflict between the many and the One led to the distinction between phenomenon and noumenon. Those two under further speculation turned out to be respectively an illusory world and an unknowable reality. The theory of epistemological idealism which had been intuited previously on occasions and which had been led up to by the failure of realism, was then developed. The manifold world was seen to be the construction of the imagination, and the supreme unity was found in one’s own Self from which the ego is falsely sundered by the life of waking consciousness. That pure unity with the Real which is actually effected in sleep and in death is a blissful state of consciousness in which individuality and all distinctions are overcome.
Thus far chiefly the metaphysical doctrines of the Upanishads have been treated. There remain important ethical and practical corollaries to the main propositions here laid down, and these will be considered in the following chapters.
[1 ]This is an ancient foreshadowing of the modern theory of the ‘project.’
[2 ]‘In this Brahma-wheel the soul (haṁsa) flutters about, thinking that itself and the Actuator are different’ (Śvet. 1. 6).
[1 ]Bṛih. 4. 3. 20 meets the same difficulty—that in a person’s dreaming sleep people seem to be killing him, they seem to be overpowering him, an elephant seems to be tearing him to pieces, he seems to be falling into a hole—with the explanation that ‘he is imagining through ignorance the very fear which he sees when awake’ and which by implication is illusory.
[1 ]There is another almost identical occurrence of a part of this passage in Bṛih. 4. 3. 31.