Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VIII: THE OUTCOME ON RELIGION AND ON THE DOCTRINE OF KARMA - The Thirteen Principal Upanishads
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
CHAPTER VIII: THE OUTCOME ON RELIGION AND ON THE DOCTRINE OF KARMA - 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.
THE OUTCOME ON RELIGION AND ON THE DOCTRINE OF KARMA
In the Vedic period punctilious performance of the ritual was the one means of satisfying the gods and of obtaining salvation. In the Brahmanic period a change took place similar to that in the Greek religion. That very efficacy of the sacrifice for the appeasement of the gods whereby men had been kept in subjection, turned out to be an instrument in their hands for controlling the gods, who now became the dependents and received their sustenance from such sacrifice as men might give. In the Upanishads a still further change occurred. The development of a monistic philosophy removed altogether the necessity of believing in the various Vedic or Brahmanic gods to superintend and operate the different departments of nature or to be coerced into man’s service. The beginning of this subordination to the one world-all and of the later displacement of the gods as philosophic conceptions (although in popular religion the gods have continued to hold sway) is evidenced in the latter part of the Kena Upanishad. The first half of this Upanishad, by reason of its advanced position on the unknowability of Brahma, must belong to a late period in the Upanishadic philosophy, while the last part of it, which represents Brahma as a new and unknown Being, must belong to the period of the first speculations about that conception. There Agni (Fire) and Vāyu (Wind) discover that their power is not independent, but is subject to the will of the world-ruler Brahma. However, by their knowledge of Brahma they attained a pre-eminence over the other gods; and ‘he, verily, who knows it thus, striking off evil becomes established in the most excellent, endless, heavenly world—yea, he becomes established’ (Kena 34).
That last paragraph of the Kena states the radically new standard of religion and of ethics. No longer is worship or sacrifice or good conduct the requisite of religion in this life, or of salvation in the next. Knowledge secures the latter and disapproves of the former. The whole religious doctrine of different gods and of the necessity of sacrificing to the gods is seen to be a stupendous fraud by the man who has acquired metaphysical knowledge of the pantheistic unity of self and of the world in Brahma or Ātman. ‘This that people say, “Worship this god! Worship that god!”—one god after another—this is his creation indeed! And he himself is all the gods’ (Bṛih. 1. 4. 6). ‘So whoever worships another divinity [than his Self], thinking “He is one and I another,” he knows not. He is like a sacrificial animal for the gods. Verily, indeed, as many animals would be of service to a man, even so each single person is of service to the gods. If even one animal is taken away, it is not pleasant. What, then, if many? Therefore it is not pleasing to those [gods] that men should know this [i. e. that the gods are only a phase of Brahma and that an individual man may himself become Brahma by knowing himself to be such]’ (Bṛih. 1. 4. 10). Sacrifice and works of merit towards hypostatized divinities are, in the light of metaphysical knowledge, seen to be futile. On the other hand, the very same knowledge conserves all the efforts of the knower who may care to worship and to do religious acts. ‘Verily, even if one performs a great and holy work, but without knowing this [i. e. that the whole world is Brahma or the Self, and that I am Brahma or the Self], that work of his merely perishes in the end. One should worship the Self alone as his [true] world. The work of him who worships the Self alone as his [true] world does not perish’ (Bṛih. 1. 4. 15).
Thus religious piety is renounced as unnecessary, and knowledge of that fact, or metaphysical knowledge in general, replaces religiosity in worth and alone renders efficacious any religious or meritorious act which any one, for the sake of conformity to popular custom, may choose to perform. ‘If one offers the Agnihotra sacrifice without knowing this [i. e. that the cosmic process itself is a continuous Agnihotra]—that would be just as if he were to remove the live coals and pour the offering on ashes. But if one offers the Agnihotra sacrifice knowing it thus, his offering is made in all worlds, in all beings, in all selves’ (Chānd. 5. 24. 1-2). ‘This that people say, “By offering with milk for a year one escapes the second death”—one should know that this is not so, since on the very day that he makes the offering he who knows escapes the second death’ (Bṛih. 1. 5. 2).
This last quotation leads to a topic which holds an important place in the practical religion of India today, namely, the doctrine of karma (literally ‘action’), the theory that according to one’s good or bad actions in this life one passes at death into the body of a higher or a lower animal. It is noteworthy that in the Rig-Veda there is no trace of metempsychosis.1 This fact is interestingly confirmed in the Upanishads at Chānd. 5. 3, where neither Śvetaketu (who, according to Chānd. 6. 1. 2, had spent twelve years in studying the Vedas) nor his father and instructor, Gautama, had heard of the doctrine; and when they are instructed in it, it is expressly stated that the doctrine had always belonged to the Kshatriyas, the military class, and was then for the first time divulged to one of the Brahman class. In the Rig-Veda the eschatology consisted of a belief in a personal immortality in the paradise of the gods. After ‘a preliminary sign of the doctrine of metempsychosis in the Atharva-Veda,’2 the notion first makes its definite appearance in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa. In the Upanishads it had not yet become what it became in later times, a belief which Monier Williams has aptly characterized in the following severe statement: ‘Transmigration, or metempsychosis, is the great bugbear—the terrible nightmare and daymare—of Indian philosophers and metaphysicians. All their efforts are directed to the getting rid of this oppressive scare. The question is not, What is the truth? The one engrossing problem is, How is the man to break this iron chain of repeated existences?’1
How his doctrine of karma and reincarnation came to be so thoroughly accepted in India, is uncertain: whether from the Indigenes whom the invading Aryans found in India (as Gough conjectures2 ) or whether as the most plausible philosophic explanation of the phenomena of instinctive knowledge (as in Bṛih. 4. 4. 2) and of dreaming and remembrance of things not experienced in this life, as well as of sin (according to Śaṅkara on Bṛih. 4. 3. 9). (In passing be it noted that these are exactly the considerations which led philosophers like Plato, and Christian theologians like Origen and Julius Müller to the belief in an existence prior to the present life.) At any rate, the belief in a person’s renewed existence in another body after death, is present in the Upanishads, but not as a burden of despair. It is only the belief in the retributive reward of character operating with a continued existence in the locality of this world instead of in the locality of heaven or hell. ‘Accordingly, those who are of pleasant conduct here—the prospect is, indeed, that they will enter a pleasant womb, either the womb of a Brahman, or the womb of a Kshatriya, or the womb of a Vaiśya. But those who are of stinking conduct here—the prospect is, indeed, that they will enter a stinking womb, either the womb of a dog, or the womb of a swine, or the womb of an outcast’ (Chānd. 5. 10. 7).
The character which is thus determinative of one’s position in the next life is formed not only by action but also by knowledge. ‘Either as a worm, or as a moth, or as a fish, or as a bird, or as a snake, or as a tiger, or as a person, or as some other in this or that condition, he is born again here according to his deeds, according to his knowledge’ (Kaush. 1. 2).
As in the matter of religion, so as regards this theological tenet, the Upanishads offer the philosophical knowledge which was the result of their own speculations and which was assessed at a very high value as the means of escape. ‘Now, whether they perform the cremation obsequies in the case of such a person [i.e. a person who knows] or not, they [i.e. the dead] pass over into a flame; from a flame, into the day; from the day, into the half-month of the waxing moon; from the half-month of the waxing moon, into the six months during which the sun moves northwards; from the months, into the year; from the year, into the sun; from the sun, into the moon; from the moon, into lightning. There there is a person who is non-human. He leads them on to Brahma. This is the way to the gods, the way to Brahma. They who proceed by it return not to the human condition here!’ (Chānd. 4. 15. 5-6). In Bṛih. 6. 2, where the same transmigration theory is discussed, the conclusion is that ‘those who know this [namely, the stages of transmigration]’ go to the Brahma-worlds. ‘Of these there is no return’ (Bṛih. 6. 2. 15).
There are several other passages which emphasize the efficaciousness over karma and rebirth of that knowledge, the bringing forth of which formed the travails of the Upanishads and the laborious attainment of which induced an exceeding high estimate of its value:—
Slightly different from the theory of saṁsāra, which conceives of the round of existence as bounded within the confines of this world, there is another variety in which persons may by the good deeds of religion earn a limited amount of merit, to be enjoyed for a time in heaven, after which the inexorable law of rebirth returns them to the world:—
‘But they who seek the Ātman by austerity, chastity, faith, and knowledge . . . they do not return’ (Praśna 1. 10).
[1 ]The native commentator of later times thought he discovered a reference to it in RV. 1. 164. 32, bahu-prajaḥ, interpreting the word as ‘subject to many births.’ For a refutation see Monier Williams, Brahmanism and Hinduism, p. 18, note 2.
[2 ]Hopkins, Religions of India, p. 175.
[1 ]Monier Williams, Brahmanism and Hinduism, p. 41.
[2 ]In the first chapter of his Philosophy of the Upanishads, where he cites the prevalence of the belief among semi-savage peoples, connected with animism.