Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IX: THE OUTCOME ON PRACTICAL LIFE AND ON MORALS - The Thirteen Principal Upanishads
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CHAPTER IX: THE OUTCOME ON PRACTICAL LIFE AND ON MORALS - 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 OUTCOME ON PRACTICAL LIFE AND ON MORALS
Knowledge—not ‘much learning,’ but the understanding of metaphysical truths—was the impelling motive of the thinkers of the Upanishads. Because of the theoretical importance of knowledge in that period of speculative activity, and also because of the discrediting of the popular polytheistic religion by philosophical reasoning, there took place in India during the times of the Upanishads a movement similar to that which produced the Sophists in Greece, namely, an unsettling of the accepted ethics and a substitution of knowledge for religion and morality. Knowledge was the one object of supreme value, the irresistible means of obtaining one’s ends. This idea of the worth and efficacy of knowledge is expressed again and again throughout the Upanishads not only in connection with philosophical speculation, but also in the practical affairs of life. ‘That Udgātṛi priest who knows this—whatever desire he desires, either for himself or for the sacrificer, that he obtains by singing. This, indeed, is world-conquering’ (Bṛih. 1. 3. 28). ‘This whole world, whatever there is, is fivefold. He obtains this whole world who knows this’ (Bṛih. 1. 4. 17). ‘He [Indra] is without a rival. . . . He who knows this has no rival’ (Bṛih. 1. 5. 12). ‘Whoever strives with one who knows this, dries up and finally dies’ (Bṛih. 1. 5. 21). ‘He who knows this [the etymology of Atri (eater)] becomes the eater of everything; everything becomes his food’ (Bṛih. 2. 2. 4). ‘He who knows that wonderful being as the first-born—namely, that Brahma is the Real—conquers these worlds. Would he be conquered who knows thus that great spirit as the first-born—namely, that Brahma is the Real?’ (Bṛih. 5. 4). ‘As a lump of clay would fall to pieces in striking against a solid stone, so falls to pieces he who wishes evil to one who knows this, and he, too, who injures him. Such a one is a solid stone’ (Chānd. 1. 2. 8).
‘He who knows that food which is established on food, becomes established. He becomes an eater of food, possessing food. He becomes great in offspring, in cattle, in the splendor of sacred knowledge, great in fame’ (Tait. 3. 7). ‘Whatever conquest is Brahma’s, whatever attainment—that conquest he conquers, that attainment he attains who knows this’ (Kaush. 1. 7). ‘Verily, indeed, if upon one who knows this both mountains should roll themselves forth—both the southern and the northern—desiring to lay him low, indeed they would not lay him low. But those who hate him and those whom he himself hates—these all die around him’ (Kaush. 2. 13). ‘He, verily, who knows that supreme Brahma . . . in his family no one ignorant of Brahma arises’ (Muṇḍ. 3. 2. 9). So frequent are the statements describing the invulnerability and omnipotence of him who is possessed of this magic talisman, that ya evaṁ veda, ‘he who knows this,’ becomes the most frequently recurring phrase in all the Upanishads.
Beside this practical value of knowledge and the speculative value, previously described, for attainment of the ideal unity with the Real,1 knowledge also had a marked ethical value. The possessor of knowledge is freed even now from all his evil deeds as well as from the later metempsychosical results of doing any deeds at all. ‘Verily, indeed, even if they lay very much [wood] on a fire, it burns it all. Even so one who knows this, although he commits very much evil, consumes it all and becomes clean and pure, ageless and immortal’ (Bṛih. 5. 14. 8). ‘Brahma is lightning (vidyut), they say, because of unloosing (vidāna). Lightning unlooses him from evil who knows this, that Brahma is lightning’ (Bṛih. 5. 7).
But he who knows these five fires [i.e. the five-fire doctrine, pañcāgnividyā] thus, is not stained with evil, even though consorting with those people. He becomes pure, clean, possessor of a pure world, who knows this—yea, he who knows this’ (Chānd. 5. 10. 9-10). ‘As a rush-reed laid on a fire would be burned up, even so are burned up all the evils of him who offers Agnihotra sacrifice knowing it thus’ (Chānd. 5. 24. 3). ‘He who understands me [Indra is the speaker, representing Ātman]—by no deed whatsoever of his is his world injured, not by stealing, not by killing an embryo, not by the murder of his mother, not by the murder of his father; if he has done any evil, the dark color departs not from his face’ (Kaush. 3. 1). This ethical theory has been compared with the Socratic doctrine of the identity of knowledge and virtue. There is a wide difference, however, between the Upanishadic theory and the theory of the Greek sages that the man who has knowledge should thereby become virtuous in character, or that the result of teaching should be a virtuous life. Here the possession of some metaphysical knowledge actually cancels all past sins and even permits the knower unblushingly to continue in ‘what seems to be much evil,’ with perfect impunity, although such acts are heinous crimes and are disastrous in their effect for others who lack that kind of knowledge.
But this unbridled licentiousness of the earlier Upanishads could not long continue. It probably went to excess, for in the middle of the period it is sternly denounced. Good conduct was declared to be an equal requisite with knowledge.
The earlier conception that the knower was able to continue in evil unharmed was true only so far as it expressed the idea that knowledge exempts from evil.
‘As water adheres not to the leaf of a lotus-flower, so evil action adheres not to him who knows this [that the Self is Brahma]’ (Chānd. 4. 14. 3). This thought recurs at Maitri 3. 2, and, with another simile, at Praśna 5. 5: ‘As a snake is freed from its skin, even so, verily, is he [who knows this] freed from sin.’ Still another simile is used to drive home this same thought:—
The consistent pantheistic conception, however, of the relation of knowledge and moral evil is that knowledge exempts from both good and evil, and elevates the knower altogether from the region of moral distinctions to the higher one where they are not operative. ‘Such a one, verily, the thought does not torment: “Why have I not done the good? Why have I done the evil?” He who knows this, saves himself from these [thoughts]. For truly, from both of these he saves himself—he who knows this!’ (Tait. 2. 9). ‘Him [who knows this] these two do not overcome—neither the thought “Hence I did wrong,” nor the thought “Hence I did right.” Verily he overcomes them both. What he has done and what he has not done do not affect him’ (Bṛih. 4. 4. 22).
For this emancipation, an emancipation from the unreal and an entrance into the real, the reason is that to the knower good and evil are conceptions of partial knowledge which can no longer hold in the light of full knowledge. They are only verbal distinctions. ‘Verily, if there were no speech, neither right nor wrong would be known, neither true nor false, neither good nor bad, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Speech, indeed, makes all this known’ (Chānd. 7. 2. 1).
The world of reality, the Brahma-world to which the true knower is admitted, is devoid of all distinctions, pleasant and unpleasant, which are empirically real, but transcendentally unreal. Accordingly that world is free also from the ethical distinction of good and evil. ‘Over that bridge there cross neither day, nor night, nor old age, nor death, nor sorrow, nor well-doing, nor evil-doing. All evils turn back therefrom, for that Brahma-world is freed from evil’ (Chānd. 8. 4. 1-2). ‘He goes to the world that is without heat, without cold. Therein he dwells eternal years’ (Bṛih. 5. 10).
‘He, . . . a knower of Brahma, unto Brahma goes on. . . . He comes to the river Vijarā (‘Ageless’). This he crosses with his mind alone. There he shakes off his good deeds and his evil deeds. His dear relatives succeed to the good deeds; those not dear, to the evil deeds. Then, just as one driving a chariot looks down upon the two chariot-wheels [which in their revolutions do not touch him], thus he looks down upon day and night; thus upon good deeds and evil deeds, and upon all the pairs of opposites. This one, devoid of good deeds, devoid of evil deeds, a knower of Brahma, unto very Brahma goes on’ (Kaush. 1. 4).
The same ethical position is held in the Ātman-theory. The world-ground, the great Ātman, in itself is—
This idea that the Ātman-world is ‘free from evil or sin, free from impurity, blameless, spotless,’ which is expressed in numerous epithets and detached phrases, also receives an etymological justification. ‘In the beginning this world was Soul (Ātman) alone in the form of a Person (puruṣa). . . . Since before (pūrva) all this world he burned up (√uṣ) all evils, therefore he is a person (pur-uṣ-a)’ (Bṛih. 1. 4. 1).1
The Ātman thus being void of all ethical distinctions, the Ātman-knower who by his knowledge becomes Ātman likewise transcends them in his union with Him. ‘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. Verily, that is his [true] form. . . . There a father becomes not a father; a mother, not a mother; the worlds, not the worlds; the gods, not the gods; the Vedas, not the Vedas; a thief, not a thief. . . . He is not followed by good, he is not followed by evil, for then he has passed beyond all sorrows of the heart’ (Bṛih. 4. 3. 21-22).1
The ethical theory thus far presented, which was based on the epistemological realism of the Upanishads, did not, like the theory of reality, suffer any change by the transition to idealism, but rather was confirmed by it. The illusion of an external world and of an external Soul that needs to be reached by effort of will served only to prove illusory all activity whatever, even the good and evil deeds making up such activity. Sleep is the nearest approach to real existence, an individual in sleep only ‘appearing to think, appearing to move about’ (Bṛih. 4. 3. 7). ‘In this state of sleep, having traveled around and seen good and bad, he hastens again, according to the entrance and place of origin, back to the state of waking. Whatever he sees there [i.e. in dreaming sleep], he is not followed by it, for this person is without attachments’ (Bṛih. 4. 3. 16). He there actually reaches the Real and therefore is not affected by the ethical distinctions which are alien to its nature.2 ‘Now, when one is thus sound asleep, composed, serene, he knows no dream . . . ; so no evil touches him, for then he has reached the Bright Power’ (Chānd. 8. 6. 3).
So the final goal of metaphysical speculation and the practical attainment of supreme and imperishable value was the Soul, the larger Soul which was the ground of the individual soul and of all existence. ‘That self is dearer than a son, is dearer than wealth, is dearer than all else, since this self is nearer’ (Bṛih. 1. 4. 8). ‘He should be searched out, Him one should desire to understand’ (Chānd. 8. 7. 1). However beautiful such a doctrine was in theory, it might very easily be misunderstood and misapplied in practice, as indeed it was by Virocana, who is said to have lived as a pupil with Prajāpati for thirty-two years. After receiving instruction about ‘the Self which is free from evil, ageless, deathless, sorrowless, hungerless, thirstless, whose desire is the Real, whose conception is the Real,’ he went forth and declared the following doctrine: ‘Oneself is to be made happy here on earth. Oneself is to be waited upon. He who makes merely himself happy here on earth, who waits upon himself, obtains both worlds, this world and the yonder.’ Such utter selfishness is forthwith condemned by the author, who comments: ‘Therefore even now here on earth they say of one who is not a giver, who is not a believer, who is not a sacrificer, “Oh! devilish!” for such is the doctrine of the devils.’ And Prajāpati also regretfully declared: ‘Whosoever shall have such a mystic doctrine—be they gods or be they devils—shall perish’ (Chānd. 8. 7-8).
The same mistaken ethical theory might be gathered from Yājñavalkya’s advice to Maitreyī, Bṛih. 2. 4 and 4. 5, if Ātman were translated by ‘self’ or ‘ego.’ ‘Not for love of the wife is a wife dear, but for love of the Soul a wife is dear.’ Similarly not for love of sons, wealth, the Brahman class, the Kshatriya class, the worlds, the gods, things, any thing, are they dear, but for love of the Soul they are dear.
This is not the modern psychological doctrine that we do not desire anything in itself, but only the pleasantness or self-advantage which the possession of that thing yields to us; nor is Yājñavalkya advocating the utilitarian doctrine that all love and apparent altruism are and should be self-love and selfishness. The central idea is rather that all those objects are not separate entities, in themselves of value to us; but that they all are phases of the world-self and that in the common, every-day experience of having affection for others we find illustrated the great doctrine of the individual self finding his selfhood grounded in, and reaching out towards, that larger Self which embraces all individuals and all things.
With this liberal interpretation, Yājñavalkya’s advice to Maitreyī, so far as it contains ethical theory, represents the high-water mark in the Upanishads. The practical ethics are certainly not as high. The general teaching is that already presented, namely, that moral distinctions do not obtain for the man who has metaphysical knowledge. This is the influence effected on the Bhagavad-Gītā, the popular book of religious meditation, in which (at 2. 19) Kṛishna, the divine incarnation, quells the scruples of Arjuna over the murdering of his enemies by this Upanishadic assurance:—
[1 ]It is noteworthy how the extreme valuation put upon both these kinds of knowledge produced a reaction within the period of the Upanishads themselves. The license to override the prescriptive usages of religion and custom which the possessor of knowledge claimed for himself, is distinctly denied in Maitri 4. 3, on the point of the four customary stages in the life of every orthodox Hindu, through disregard of which the revenues of the priests were seriously diminished.
An even more explicit denial of the knowledge-doctrine is found at Katha 2. 23 (= Muṇḍ. 3. 2. 3), where a strict Calvinistic doctrine of election is anticipated.—
[1 ]The similes contained in this and the three preceding passages are excellent illustrations of a method of reasoning characteristic of the Upanishads and of the Hindu mind in general. Analogies from nature that serve to illustrate a proposition are accepted with the force of an argument.
[1 ]In spite of this non-attributability of moral qualities to the world-ground by theoretical reason, the affirmation of the practical reason in postulating a moral order at the heart of the universe is to be observed in two passages in the Upanishads, Chānd. 6. 16 and Śvet. 6. 6.
[1 ]Among the many Kantian ideas which Deussen finds in the Upanishads there is a striking one in this connection, namely, that the final goal and perfect condition of the human soul is autonomy. See svarāj at Chānd. 7. 25. 2 and svārājya at Tait. 1. 6. 2. But the conception of autonomy there held is very different from the idea that an autonomous person is in such full control of self that he never by passion disobeys the moral law. As is indicated in the following sentence, ‘He has unchecked sway in all the worlds,’ the idea of autonomy is that of unhindered liberty to do what one wills, the same as the condition of perfect bliss described at Tait. 3. 10. 5—a condition in which the successful aspirant ‘goes up and down these worlds, eating what he desires, assuming what form he desires.’ Cf. also Chānd. 8. 1. 6.
[2 ]An idea possibly based on the psychological fact that in sleep the moral sense appears greatly weakened.