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Upanishads and Philosophy

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Source: Misc (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). Chapter: AN OUTLINE OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE UPANISHADS




Almost contemporaneous with that remarkable period of active philosophic and religious thought the world over, about the sixth century bc, when Pythagoras, Confucius, Buddha, and Zoroaster were thinking out new philosophies and inaugurating great religions, there was taking place, in the land of India, a quiet movement which has exercised a continuous influence upon the entire subsequent philosophic thought of that country and which has also been making itself felt in the West.

The Aryan invaders of Hindustan, after having conquered the territory and gained an undisputed foothold, betook themselves to the consideration of those mighty problems which thrust themselves upon every serious, thoughtful person—the problems of the meaning of life and the world and the great unseen powers. They cast about on this side and on that for explanation. Thus we find, for example, in the Śvetāśvatara Upanishad (1. 1):—

  • ‘What is the cause? Brahma? Whence are we born?
  • Whereby do we live? And on what are we established?
  • Overruled by whom, in pains and pleasures,
  • Do we live our various conditions, O ye theologians?’

In childlike manner, like the early Greek cosmologists, they accepted now one thing and now another as the primary material out of which the whole world is made. Yet, again like the early Greek philosophers and also with the subtlety and directness of childlike insight, they discerned the underlying unity of all being. Out of this penetrating intuition those early Indian thinkers elaborated a system of pantheism which has proved most fascinating to their descendants. If there is any one intellectual tenet which, explicitly or implicitly, is held by the people of India, furnishing a fundamental presupposition of all their thinking, it is this doctrine of pantheism.

The beginnings of this all-pervading form of theorizing are recorded in the Upanishads. In these ancient documents are found the earliest serious attempts at construing the world of experience as a rational whole. Furthermore, they have continued to be the generally accepted authoritative statements with which every subsequent orthodox philosophic formulation has had to show itself in accord, or at least not in discord. Even the materialistic Cārvākas, who denied the Vedas, a future life, and almost every sacred doctrine of the orthodox Brahmans, avowed respect for these Upanishads. That interesting later epitome of the Vedānta, the Vedānta-sāra,1 shows how these Cārvākas and the adherents of the Buddhistic theory and also of the ritualistic Pūrva-mīmāṁsā and of the logical Nyāya appealed to the Upanishads in support of their varying theories. Even the dualistic Sāṅkhya philosophers claimed to find scripture authority in the Upanishads.2 For the orthodox Vedānta, of course, the Upanishads, with Bādarāyana’s Vedānta-Sūtras and Śaṅkara’s Commentary on them, have been the very text-books.

Not only have they been thus of historical importance in the past development of philosophy in India, but they are of present-day influence. ‘To every Indian Brahman today the Upanishads are what the New Testament is to the Christian.’3 Max Muller calls attention to the fact that there are more new editions published of the Upanishads and Śaṅkara in India than of Descartes and Spinoza in Europe.4 Especially now, in the admitted inadequacy of the existing degraded form of popular Hinduism, the educated Hindus are turning to their old Scriptures and are finding there much which they confidently stake against the claims of superiority of any foreign religion or philosophy. It is noteworthy that the significant movement indicated by the reforming and theistic Samājas of modern times was inaugurated by one who was the first to prepare an English translation of the Upanishads. Rammohun Roy expected to restore Hinduism to its pristine purity and superiority through a resuscitation of Upanishadic philosophy with an infusion of certain eclectic elements.

They are also being taken up and exploited by a certain class who have found a rich reward and an attractive field of operation in the mysticism and credulity of India. Having hopes for ‘the Upanishads as a world-scripture, that is to say, a scripture appealing to the lovers of religion and truth in all races and at all times, without distinction,’ theosophists have been endeavoring to make them available for their converts.1

Not only have the Upanishads thus furnished the regnant philosophy for India from their date up to the present time and proved fascinating to mystics outside of India, but their philosophy presents many interesting parallels and contrasts to the elaborate philosophizings of Western lands. And Western professional students of philosophy, as well as literary historians, have felt and expressed the importance of the Upanishads. In the case of Arthur Schopenhauer, the chief of modern pantheists of the West, his philosophy is unmistakably transfused with the doctrines expounded in the Upanishads, a fact that might be surmised from his oft-quoted eulogy: ‘It [i. e. Anquetil du Perron’s Latin translation of a Persian rendering of the Upanishads] is the most rewarding and the most elevating reading which (with the exception of the original text) there can possibly be in the world. It has been the solace of my life and will be of my death.’2

Professor Deussen, the Professor of Philosophy in the University of Kiel (Germany), has always regarded his thorough study of the Vedānta philosophy as a reward in itself, apart from the satisfaction of contributing so largely to our understanding of its teachings. For in the Upanishads he has found Parmenides, Plato, and Kant in a nutshell, and on leaving India in 1893, in an address before the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society,1 he gave it as his parting advice that ‘the Vedānta, in its unfalsified form is the strongest support of pure morality, is the greatest consolation in the sufferings of life and death. Indians, keep to it!’

Professor Royce of Harvard University deemed the philosophy of the Upanishads sufficiently important to expound it in his Gifford Lectures,2 before the University of Aberdeen, and to introduce some original translations especially made by his colleague Professor Lanman.

So, in East and West, the Upanishads have made and will make their influence felt. A broad survey of the facts will hardly sustain the final opinion expressed by Regnaud: ‘Arbitrary or legendary doctrines, that is to say, those which have sprung from individual or popular imagination, such as the Upanishads, resemble a gallery of portraits whose originals have long since been dead. They have no more than a historical and comparative value, the principal interest of which is for supplying important elements for the study of the human mind.’3

Historical and comparative value the Upanishads undoubtedly have, but they are also of great present-day importance. No one can thoroughly understand the workings and conclusions of the mind of an educated Hindu of today who does not know something of the fountain from which his ancestors for centuries past have drunk, and from which he too has been deriving his intellectual life. The imagery under which his philosophy is conceived, the phraseology in which it is couched, and the analogies by which it is supported are largely the same in the discussions of today as are found in the Upanishads and in Śaṅkara’s commentaries on them and on the Sūtras. Furthermore, although some elements are evidently of local interest and of past value, it is evident that the pantheism of the Upanishads has exerted and will continue to exert an influence on the pantheism of the West, for it contains certain elements which penetrate deeply into the truths which every philosopher must reach in a thoroughly grounded explanation of experience.

The intelligent and sympathetic discrimination of these elements will constitute a philosophic work of the first importance. As a preliminary step to that end, the mass of unorganized material contained in the Upanishads has been culled and the salient ideas here arranged in the following outline.



The Upanishads are religious and philosophical treatises, forming part of the early Indian Vedas.1 The preceding portions are the Mantras, or Hymns to the Vedic gods, and the Brāhmaṇas, or directories on and explanations of the sacrificial ritual. Accordingly these three divisions of the Śruti, or ‘Revelation,’ may be roughly characterized as the utterances successively of poet, priest, and philosopher. The distinction, of course, is not strictly exclusive; for the Upanishads, being integral parts of the Brāhmaṇas,2 are continuations of the sacrificial rules and discussions, but they pass over into philosophical considerations. Much that is in the Upanishads, particularly in the Bṛihad-Āraṇyaka and in the Chāndogya, might more properly be included in the Brāhmaṇa portion, and some that is in the Brāhmaṇas is Upanishadic in character. The two groups are closely interwoven.

This fact, along with the general lack of data in Sanskrit literature for chronological orientation, makes it impossible to fix any definite dates for the Upanishads. The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, of which the Bṛihad-Āraṇyaka Upanishad forms the conclusion, is believed to contain material that comes down to 300 bc The Upanishads themselves contain several references to writings which undoubtedly are much later than the beginnings of the Upanishads. The best that can be done is to base conjectures upon the general aspect of the contents compared with what may be supposed to precede and to succeed. The usual date that is thus assigned to the Upanishads is about 600 or 500 bc, just prior to the Buddhist revival.

Yet evidences of Buddhist influences are not wanting in them. In Bṛih. 3. 2. 13 it is stated that after death the different parts of a person return to the different parts of Nature from whence they came, that even his soul (ātman) goes into space and that only his karma, or effect of work, remains over. This is out and out the Buddhist doctrine. Connections in the point of dialect may also be shown. Sarvāvat is ‘a word which as yet has not been discovered in the whole range of Sanskrit literature, except in Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 14. 7. 1. 10 [= Bṛih. 4. 3. 9] and in Northern Buddhist writings.’1 Its Pāli equivalent is sabbāvā. In Bṛih. 4. 3. 2-6 r is changed to l, i. e. paly-ayate for pary-ayate—a change which is regularly made in the Pāli dialect in which the books of Southern Buddhism are written. It may be that this is not a direct influence of the Pāli upon the Sanskrit, but at least it is the same tendency which exhibits itself in Pāli, and here the two languages are close enough together to warrant the assumption of contact and mutual influence. Somewhat surer evidence, however, is the use of the second person plural ending tha for ta. Müller pointed out in connection with the word ācaratha (Muṇḍ. 1. 2. 1) that this irregularity looks suspiciously Buddhistic. There are however, four other similar instances. The word samvatsyatha (Praśna 1. 2) might be explained as a future indicative (not an imperative), serving as a mild future imperative. But pṛcchatha (Praśna 1. 2), āpadyatha (Praśna 2. 3), and jānatha and vimuñcatha (Muṇḍ. 2. 2. 5) are evidently meant as imperatives, and as such are formed with the Pāli instead of with the regular Sanskrit ending. It has long been suspected that the later Śiva sects, which recognized the Atharva-Veda as their chief scripture, were closely connected with the Buddhistic sects. Perhaps in this way the Buddhistic influence1 was transmitted to the Praśna and Muṇḍaka Upanishads of the Atharva-Veda.

This shows that the Upanishads are not unaffected by outside influences. Even irrespective of these, their inner structure reveals that they are heterogeneous in their material and compound in their composition. The Bṛihad-Āraṇyaka, for instance, is composed of three divisions, each of which is concluded, as if it were a complete whole, by a vaṁśa, or genealogy of the doctrine (that is, a list of teachers through whom the doctrine there taught had originally been received from Brahma and handed down to the time of writing). The first section, entitled ‘The Honey Section,’ contains a dialogue between Yājñavalkya and Maitreyī which is almost verbally repeated in the second section, called ‘The Yājñavalkya Section.’ It seems quite evident that these two pieces could not have been parts of one continuous writing, but that they were parts of two separate works which were mechanically united and then connected with the third section, whose title, ‘Supplementary Section,’ is in accord with the heterogeneous nature of its contents.

Both the Bṛihad-Āraṇyaka and the Chāndogya are very composite in character. Disconnected explanations of the sacrificial ritual, legends, dialogues, etymologizings (which now appear absurd, but which originally were regarded as important explanations),2 sayings, philosophical disquisitions, and so forth are, in the main, merely mechanically juxtaposed. In the shorter and later Upanishads there is not room for such a collection; but in them, more and more, quotations from the earlier Upanishads and from the Vedas are inserted. Many of these can be recognized as such. There are also certain passages, especially in the Kaṭha and Śvetāśvatara, which, though not referable, are evidently quotations, since they are not grammatically construable in the sentence, but contain a thought which seems to be commented upon in the words immediately following.

Not only are the Upanishads thus heterogeneous in point of structure, but they also contain passages which set forth the dualistic Sāṅkhya philosophy, which has been the chief antagonist of the monistic Vedānta. Of the earlier Upanishads the Chāndogya, in 6. 4, explains all existing objects as a composition of three elements, a reduction which has an analogue in the Sānkhya with its three qualities. In Kaṭha 4. 7, the prakṛti or ‘Nature’ of the Sāṅkhya is described. In Kaṭha 3. 10-13, and similarly in 6. 7-8, there is a gradation of psychical principles in the order of their emanation from the Unmanifest (avyakta) which agrees closely with the Sāṅkhya order; but a difference is added when that Unmanifest instead of being left as the ultimate, is subordinated to the Person of the world-ground. Somewhat similar are the genealogies of Muṇḍ. 1. 1. 8; 2. 1. 3; and Praśna 6. 4. In Praśna 4. 8 is a combined Sāṅkhya and Vedānta list, the major part of which, up to citta, ‘thought and what can be thought,’ is Sāṅkhyan. The term buddhi, ‘intellect,’ is an important Sāṅkhyan word. It is noticeable that it does not occur until the Kaṭha, where other Sāṅkhyan similarities are first prominent and where this word is found four times.

In the Śvetāśvatara the Sāṅkhya is mentioned by name in the last chapter, and the statement is made that it reasons in search of the same object as is there being expounded. The references in this Upanishad to the Sāṅkhya are unmistakable. The enumerations of 1. 4-5 are distinctly non-Vedāntic and quite Sāṅkhyan. The passage at 6. 1, where svabhāva, ‘the nature of things,’ evidently means prakṛti, the ‘Nature’ of the Sāṅkhya, denounces that theory as the utterance of deluded men. Similarly 1. 3 contradicts the Sāṅkhyan doctrine in placing the guṇas, or ‘qualities,’ in God and in attributing to him ‘self-power.’ But more numerous are the instances where the Vedānta theory is interpreted in Sāṅkhyan terms, as in 4. 10, where the prakṛti of the Sāṅkhya is identified with the māyā of the Vedānta. The passage 4. 5, where the explanation of experience is sensually analogized, is thoroughly Sāṅkhyan. The relation of the Vedānta to the Sāṅkhya has not yet been satisfactorily made out. Perhaps, as Professor Cowell maintained,1 ‘the Śvetāśvatara Upanishad is the most direct attempt to reconcile the Sāṅkhya and the Vedānta.’ The Maitri is even more evidently pervaded by Sāṅkhyan influences, especially the explicit references to the guṇas, or ‘qualities,’ with the enumeration of their effects (3. 5) and the explanation of their origin (5. 2).

Even with due allowance made for a supposititious period when the terms of philosophy may have existed without distinction of systems, such as are known afterwards as Vedānta and Sāṅkhya, it is nevertheless improbable that so complete a Sāṅkhyan vocabulary as meets us in the Śvetāśvatara and the Maitri Upanishads could belong to such a period. They seem rather to belong to a period when systems were not only recognized as such, but as antagonistic.

These remarks have made it clear that the Upanishads are no homogeneous products, cogently presenting a philosophic theory, but that they are compilations from different sources recording the ‘guesses at truth’ of the early Indians. A single, well articulated system cannot be deduced from them; but underlying all their expatiations, contradictions, and unordered matter there is a general basis of a developing pantheism which will now be placed in exposition.



Among the early Indians, as among the early Greeks, an explanation of the beginnings of the world, its original substance, and its construction, formed the first and most interesting subject of philosophical speculation. In the Vedas such speculation had gone on to some extent and had produced the famous Creation Hymn, RV. 10. 129, as well as others (such as RV. 10. 121; 10. 81; 10. 72; 10. 90) in which the origin of the world was conjectured under architectural, generative, and sacrificial analogies. In the Brāhmaṇas speculation continued further along the same lines. When the period of the Upanishads arrived, the same theme had not grown old—and when will it? The quotation from Śvet. 1. 1 already cited (page 1) shows how this theme was still discussed and indicates the alternatives that were offered late in the period. But among the early Upanishads these first crude cosmogonic theories had not yet been displaced.

Prominent among these is one which was advanced among the early Greeks by Thales and which was also a widely prevailing Semitic idea, namely, that the original stuff of the world was Water. Thus in Bṛih. 5. 5 we find it stated that ‘in the beginning this world was just Water.’ ‘It is just Water solidified that is this earth, that is the atmosphere, that is the sky, that is gods and men, that is animals and birds, grass and trees, beasts, together with worms, flies, and ants; all these are just Water solidified’ (Chānd. 7. 10. 1). Gārgī in Bṛih. 3. 6. 1 opens a discussion with the philosopher Yājñavalkya by asking for an explanation of the popular theory that ‘all this world is woven, warp and woof, on water.’

In the later Kaṭha a more philosophic theory of the worldground was added on to this older theory that water was the primal entity: ‘[Ātman], who was born of old from the waters’ (4. 6). Somewhat similar combinations of the earlier and later theories are made in Ait. 1. 1. 3, where Ātman, after creating the waters, ‘from the waters drew forth and shaped a person,’ from whose members the different parts of the world and of man emanated; and in Kaush. 1. 7, where Brahma declares ‘the waters, verily, indeed, are my world.’

In a little more philosophic fashion Space also was posited as the ultimate ground of the world. At Chānd. 1. 8-9 three men are represented as having a discussion over the origin (or ‘what it goes to,’ gati) of the Sāman, ‘Chant,’ of the sacrificial ritual. One of the group traced it back to sound, to breath, to food, to water, to yonder world. When pressed as to what ‘yonder world goes back to,’ he replied: ‘One should not lead beyond the heavenly world. We establish the Sāman upon the heavenly world, for the Sāman is praised as heaven.’ The second member of the group taunted the first that his Sāman had no foundation, and when challenged himself to declare the origin of that world, replied ‘this world’; but he was immediately brought to the limit of his knowledge as regards the origin of this world. ‘One should not lead beyond the world-support. We establish the Sāman upon the world as a support, for the Sāman is praised as a support.’ Then the third member put in his taunt: ‘Your Sāman comes to an end,’ said he. It is noticeable that he, who was the only one of the three not a Brahman, or professional philosopher, was able to explain: ‘Verily, all things here arise out of space. They disappear back into space, for space alone is greater than these; space is the final goal.’

With still greater abstraction the origin of the world is traced back, as in the early Greek speculations and as in RV. 10. 72. 2-3 and AV. 17. 1. 19, to Non-being (a-sad).

  • ‘In the beginning, verily, this [world] was non-existent.
  • Therefrom, verily, Being was produced.’
  • (Tait. 2. 7.)

In Chānd. 3. 19 the same theory is combined with another theory, which is found among the Greeks and which was popular among the Indians, continuing even after the time of Manu, namely, that of the cosmic egg. ‘In the beginning this world was merely non-being (a-sad). It was existent. It developed. It turned into an egg. It lay for the period of a year. It was split asunder. One of the two eggshell-parts became silver, one gold. That which was of silver is this earth. That which was of gold is the sky. What was the outer membrane is the mountains. What was the inner membrane is cloud and mist. What were the veins are the rivers. What was the fluid within is the ocean.’

This theory of the Rig-Veda, of the Atharva-Veda, of the Taittirīya, and of the early part of the Chāndogya is expressly referred to and combated at Chānd. 6. 2. ‘In the beginning, my dear, this world was just Being, one only, without a second. To be sure, some people say: “In the beginning this world was just Non-being, one only, without a second; from that Non-being Being was produced.” But verily, my dear, whence could this be? How from Non-being could Being be produced? On the contrary, my dear, in the beginning this world was Being, one only, without a second. It bethought itself: “Would that I were many! Let me procreate myself!” It emitted heat.’ Similarly the heat procreated water, and the water food. Out of these three elements, after they had been infused by the original existent with name and form (i. e. a principle of individuation), all physical objects and also the organic and psychical nature of man were composed.

Still more abstract than the space-theory, but connected with it, is the cosmological speculation offered by Yājñavalkya to Gārgī, who confronted him with two supposedly unanswerable questions. ‘That which is above the sky, that which is beneath the earth, that which is between these two, sky and earth, that which people call the past and the present and the future—across what is that woven, warp and woof?’ ‘Across space,’ was Yājñavalkya’s reply. ‘Across what then, pray, is space woven?’ ‘That, O Gārgī, Brahmans call the Imperishable,’ answers Yājñavalkya, but he does not attempt to describe this, since it is beyond all earthly distinctions. However, with a directness and a grand simplicity that call to mind the Hebrew account of the creation by the mandatory word of the Divine Being, there follows an account of the governances of the world by that world-ground. ‘Verily, O Gārgī, at the command of that Imperishable the sun and moon stand apart. Verily, O Gārgī, at the command of that Imperishable the earth and the sky stand apart. Verily, O Gārgī, at the command of that Imperishable the moments, the hours, the days, the nights, the fortnights, the months, the seasons, and the years stand apart. Verily, O Gārgī, at the command of that Imperishable some rivers flow from the snowy mountains to the east, others to the west, in whatever direction each flows’ (Bṛih. 3. 8. 3-9).

These searchings for the origin and explanation of the world of phenomena, first in a phenomenal entity like water and space, and then in a super-phenomenal entity like non-being, being, or the Imperishable, had even in the Rig- and Atharva-Vedas reached the conception of a necessarily unitary basis of the world and even the beginnings of monism. Thus:—

  • ‘Brahmaṇaspati like a smith
  • Did forge together all things here.’
  • (RV. 10. 72. 2.)

Viśvakarman (literally, the ‘All-maker’), the one God, established all things (RV. 10. 81). From the sacrificial dismemberment of Purusha, the World-Person, all things were formed (RV. 10. 90). Again, in RV. 10. 121. 1:—

  • ‘In the beginning arose Hiraṇyagarbha,
  • The earth’s begetter, who created heaven.’

So also in RV. 10. 129. 1, 2, the Creation Hymn:—

  • ‘There was then neither being nor non-being. . . .
  • Without breath breathed by its own power That One.’

So also RV. 1. 164. 6:—

  • ‘I, unknowing, ignorant, here
  • Ask the wise sages for the sake of knowledge:
  • What was That One, in the form of the unborn,
  • Who established these six worlds?’

A glimpse into monism is seen in RV. 1. 164. 46:—

‘Him who is the One existent, sages name variously.’

Various, indeed, were the conjectures regarding the world-ground. Four—Brahmaṇaspati, Viśvakarman, Purusha, and Hiraṇyagarbha—besides the indefinite That One, have just been cited from the Rig-Veda. Another, Prajāpati (literally ‘Lord of creatures’) began to rise towards the end of the Vedic period, increased in prominence through the Brahmanic, and continued on into the Upanishadic. But the conception which is the ground-work of the Vedānta, which overthrew or absorbed into itself all other conceptions of the world-ground, was that of Brahma. Emerging in the Brāhmaṇas, it obtained in the Upanishads a fundamental position which it never lost. Indeed, the philosophy of the Upanishads is sometimes called Brahma-ism from its central concept.



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:—

    • ‘The swan [i.e. the sun] in the clear, the Vasu in the atmosphere,
    • The priest by the altar, the guest in the house,
    • In man, in broad space, in the right (ṛta), in the sky,
    • Born in water, born in cattle, born in the right, born in rock, is the Right, the Great.’
    • (Kaṭha 5. 2.)

    • ‘Brahma, indeed, is this immortal. Brahma before,
    • Brahma behind, to right and to left.
    • Stretched forth below and above,
    • Brahma, indeed, is this whole world, this widest extent.’
    • (Muṇḍ. 2. 2. 11.)

‘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.



In the dialogue in Bṛih. 2. 1 (and its longer recension, Kaush. 4), where a progressive attempt was made to conceive of Brahma, it was admitted that Brahma was to be found not only in the not-self, but also in the self; that It was not only the essence of cosmical phenomena, but also of the organic and mental functions of the human person.

This probably was an outgrowth of the primitive anthropomorphic notion that the world-ground is an enormous human person, graphically portrayed in the ‘Hymn of the Cosmic Person,’ RV. 10. 90. The sun came out of his eye, the moon from his mind, Indra and Agni (fire) from his mouth, Vāyu (the wind) from his breath, the air from his navel, the sky from his head, the earth from his feet, and so forth.

In the Atharva-Veda (10. 7. 32-34) the earth is the base of the highest Brahma, the air his belly, the sky his head, the sun and moon his eyes, fire his mouth, the wind his breaths.

In the cosmology in Bṛih. 1. 2 fire is the semen of the demiurge Death, the east is his head, the south-east and north-east his arms, the west his hinder part, the south-west and the north-west his thighs, the south and north his sides, the sky his back, the atmosphere his belly, the earth his chest.

According to Aitareya 1, there proceeded from the mouth of the world-person fire, from his nostrils the wind, from his eyes the sun, from his ears the quarters of heaven, from his skin plants and trees, from his heart the moon, from his navel death, from his male generative organ water. But here the important thought is added that not only are the bodily parts of this cosmic person to be observed in the external world, but they are also correlated with the functions of the individual person. So, in the sequel of the Aitareya account, fire became speech and entered in the mouth of the individual; wind became breath and entered in his nose; the sun, sight in his eyes; the quarters of heaven, hearing in his ears; plants and trees, hairs in his skin; the moon, mind in the heart; Death, semen in the generative organ.

This is perhaps the first detailed mention of a correspondence between the microcosm and the macrocosm. Glimpses of it there have been before, as in Chānd. 3. 18. 2, where Brahma, selfwise, is fourfold: speech, breath, eye, ear; and with regard to nature, is implicitly corresponding, also fourfold: fire, wind, sun, quarters. A correspondence between four parts of the bodily self and of the world is as old as the Cremation Hymn of the Rig-Veda (10. 16. 3), where the deceased is addressed: ‘Let thine eye go to the sun, thy breath to wind,’ a notion of dissolution at death which recurs in Īśā 17, ‘My breath to the immortal wind,’ and more fully in Bṛih. 3. 2. 13: ‘The voice of a dead man goes into fire, his breath into wind, his eye into the sun, his mind into the moon, his hearing into the quarters of heaven, his body into the earth, his soul (ātman) into space, the hairs of his head into plants, the hairs of his body into trees, and his blood and semen into water.’

After the correspondence between the parts of the bodily self and the cosmic phenomena was firmly in mind, the next step with the development of abstract thought was probably to conceive of the world as really a Soul (Ātman), a universal Soul of which the individual self or soul is a miniature. This was a great step in advance. A sign of the dawning of the philosophical self-consciousness and of a deeper insight into the nature and meaning of the self is given in Bṛih. 1. 4. 7: ‘One’s self (ātman), for therein all these become one. That same thing, namely, this self, is the trace of this All; for by it one knows this All. Just as, verily, one might find by a footprint.’ This thought recurs in Śvet. 2. 15:—

  • ‘When with the nature of the self, as with a lamp,
  • A practiser of Yoga beholds here the nature of Brahma.’

Still crude and figurative, it is nevertheless of deep philosophical significance, yielding a concept which is of equal importance to that of Brahma. Its development may in the same way be traced now, remembering that this Ātman theory was not in all probability a development subsequent to that of Brahma, which has already been traced, though its beginnings certainly were posterior to the beginnings of the Brahma theory. The two, it would seem, progressed simultaneously and influenced each other until their final union. For the sake of clearness in exposition, however, they are here analyzed and followed separately.

In the second movement, Ātman being postulated as the world-ground, attempts were made to conceive of him as was the case with Brahma. Thus there was an early theory of procreation, Bṛih. 1. 4. 1-5, but much coarser than the similar theory with Brahma. Although by a recognized mistake he was stricken by fear at first and overcame it, Ātman was possessed by a feeling of loneliness in his primeval solitariness and wished: ‘Would that I had a wife, then I would procreate’ (Bṛih. 1. 4. 17). By an act of self-bifurcation which, etymologically interpreted, explains the existence and complementary nature of husband and wife, he produced a female principle by union with which, the pair continually converting themselves into different species, all the different kinds of animals were born. Then, by the usual method of attrition and blowing, he made fire. This crude myth, near the beginning of the earliest Upanishad, is based on the primitive idea that the same empirical methods which man uses for productive purposes, especially the one which is the most mysterious and which accounts for his own production, may be held accountable analogously for the production of the world. It is in the old Brahmanic style and is somewhat misplaced in an Upanishad. The idea does not recur again.

A more serious attempt to conceive of Ātman is the dialogue in Chānd. 5. 11-18, which again resembles similar attempts with Brahma. Five learned householders came together and discussed: ‘Who is our Ātman? What is Brahma?’ (a collocation which shows that the two theories of the world-ground were being connected; in this passage they are not, however, identified, as they are to be later). These five decided to resort to another who had the reputation of understanding that universal Ātman, but even he dared not expound him and answer all questions concerning him. The six then repair to the famed Aśvapati for instruction. He, in genuine Socratic manner, first elicits from each of them his present conception of the universal Ātman. One says that he venerates the sky as the universal Ātman. Aśvapati commends the conception and gives assurance that he is shining like the sky, but a great deal more. The sky would be only his head. The others in turn contribute their conceptions, all of which are accepted as true, but as only partially true, and in essence false. The universal Ātman is indeed the sun, and like it all-formed; but the sun is only his eye. He is indeed the wind, and like it moving in various paths; but the wind is only his breath. The universal Ātman is indeed space, and like it expanded; but space is only his body. He is indeed water, and like it abundant; but water is only his bladder. The universal Ātman is indeed the earth, and like it a support; but the earth is only his feet. The six Brahmans, as they learned from Aśvapati, in spite of having thus grasped partial truth, had made a most serious error in conceiving of Ātman as something apart from themselves. This universal Ātman, or Soul, is best referred to as in oneself.

Important steps in the development of the Ātman doctrine are here taken. In the figurative manner of speculation, from which Indian philosophy as well as all philosophy proceeded, Ātman, like Brahma, is first conceived under the form of particular objects of nature. The truth there contained is appreciated and, better than in the Brahma-dialogues, commended by being immediately universalized. All the great nature-gods, mentioned as henotheistically venerated for the philosophical world-ground, are indeed the Ātman, but only parts of him. They may, by an accommodation to the learner’s standpoint of sense-thought, be regarded as his bodily parts. But by transcending this lower plane of attention directed to objectively observed facts, Aśvapati directed them, in their search for ultimate reality, to an inclusive cosmic Self, which must be conceived of after the analogy of a human self and with which the human self must be identified.

A new line of thought is here entered upon, namely introspection, which always follows after extrospection, but which marks the beginnings of a deeper philosophic thought. What it finally led on to will be described after an exposition of certain developments and conjunctions of the concept of Ātman.

The world-ground being Ātman, an objective Soul, which was known by the analogy of the soul, but which externally included the soul, certain closer relations were drawn between the not-self and the self, of both of which that Ātman was the ground. On pages 23-24 citations were made illustrating the notion of correspondences between parts of the world as a cosmic corporeal person and of the individual’s bodily self. That notion occurs also in the first chapter of the Chāndogya. ‘This [breath in the mouth] and that [sun] are alike. This is warm. That is warm. People designate this as sound (svara), that as sound (svara) [an approximation to svar, light] and as the reflecting (pratyasvara)’ (Chānd. 1. 3. 2). ‘The form of this one is the same as that [Person seen in the sun]’ (Chānd. 1. 7. 5). But now with the doctrine of a universal Ātman immanent both in the subjective and in the objective, it is no longer similarities, but parts of a unity or identities. ‘Both he who is here in a person and he who is yonder in the sun—he is one’ (Tait. 2. 8; 3. 10. 4). ‘He who is in the fire, and he who is here in the heart, and he who is yonder in the sun—he is one’ (Maitri 6. 17; 7. 7). ‘He who is yonder, yonder Person (puruṣa)—I myself am he!’ (Bṛih. 5. 15; Īśā 16). ‘Verily, what the space outside of a person is—that is the same as what the space within a person is. Verily, what the space within a person is—that is the same as what the space here within the heart is. That is the Full, the Non-moving’ (Chānd. 3. 12. 7-9).

Longer descriptions of Ātman as the basis of the unity implied in the usual correlations of the not-self and the self, are the two following: Ātman is the person in the earth and the person in the body; in the waters and in the semen; in fire and in speech; in wind and in breath; in the sun and in the eye; in the quarters and in the ear and in the echo; in the moon and in the mind; in lightning and in heat; in thunder and in sound; in space and in the space of the heart; in law and in virtuousness; in truth and in truthfulness; in humanity and in a human; in the Self and in the self. All these are just Ātman (Bṛih. 2. 5). Bṛih. 3. 9. 10-17 similarly presents this idea of the one Person immanent in and including the self and the not-self: the person in the earth and in fire is also the person in the body; the person in the sun is also the person in appearances and in the eye; the person in space is also the person in the ear and in hearing; the person in darkness and in the shadow is also the person in the heart; the person in the waters is also the person in semen and in the heart. And finally he is Ātman, the Self, the Soul.

So, as Yājñavalkya explained to Ushastas: ‘He who breathes in with your breathing in is the Soul (Ātman) of yours which is in all things. He who breathes out with your breathing out is the Soul of yours which is in all things. He who breathes about with your breathing about is the Soul of yours which is in all things. He who breathes up with your breathing up is the Soul of yours which is in all things’ (Bṛih. 3. 4. 1). The inner essence, then, of the objective and the subjective is one Being, and that, too, of the nature of a Self, by reason of the reality of the directly known self which necessarily constitutes a part of that ground of all being.

But by a different course of speculation and (as was natural with the earlier) one which had regard more especially to the objective, the conception of a single world-ground and then of the actual being of the world itself had been that of Brahma. An objective entity though this Brahma was, the unity of being which it was intended to signify could not disregard the existence and activities of the self, which surely were as real as the sun, moon, waters, space, and so forth that had been the prominent facts to be grounded in the unitary being of the world of Brahma. An approachment to Brahma as underlying the self also was being made, as was shown in the exposition of the development of the conception of Brahma. But, differently from the realistic procedure with Brahma, a more personal and self-like ground was necessary for effecting the union of the psychologically viewed subjective and objective. For this purpose the old conception of a cosmic Person was more serviceable; and it was developed away from its first materialistic and corporeal connections to that of a more spiritual Ātman, who is immanent in self and not-self and who constitutes the unity expressed in their correlation.

Yet finally these two world-grounds, Brahma and Ātman, are not different and separate. Their essential oneness, as aspects of the same great Being, was at first only hinted at, but was later explicitly stated. The suspicion that these two theories, which were becoming current and which people desired to understand more fully, were both of the same Being, was manifested by the form in which learners who came to recognized philosophers for instruction put their questions. Thus, Ushastas came to Yājñavalkya and said: ‘Explain to me him who is the Brahma, present and not beyond our ken, him who is the Soul (Ātman) in all things’ (Bṛih. 3. 4. 1). Likewise the five householders who came to Aśvapati were first discussing among themselves ‘Who is our Ātman (Soul)? What is Brahma?’ (Chānd. 5. 11. 1).

Then we find it directly stated: ‘Verily, that great unborn Soul, undecaying, undying, immortal, fearless, is Brahma’ (Bṛih. 4. 4. 25). ‘He [i. e. Ātman] is Brahma’ (Ait. 5. 3). ‘Him [i. e. Brahma] alone know as the one Soul (Ātman). Other words dismiss’ (Muṇḍ. 2. 2. 5). ‘The Soul (Ātman), which pervades all things . . . , this is Brahma’ (Śvet. 1. 16). Before the identification of Brahma and Ātman was formally made, the two terms were hovering near each other as designations of the ultimate world-ground, as in Bṛih. 2. 5. 1, where to emphasize a point the phrases are used in succession: ‘This Soul (Ātman), this Immortal, this Brahma, this All.’ After the identification was made the two became interchangeable terms, as in Chānd. 8. 14. 1: ‘. . . Brahma, that is the immortal, that is the Soul (Ātman),’ and Muṇḍ. 2.2.9: ‘Brahma, that which knowers of the Soul (Ātman) do know’ (through the whole of this section, where the Imperishable is being described, the terms Brahma and Ātman are used indifferently). So the two great conceptions—Brahma, reached first realistically, the unitary cosmic ground, with outreachings towards a cosmo-anthropic ground; and Ātman, the inner being of the self and the not-self, the great world-spirit—were joined, the former taking over to itself the latter conception and the two being henceforth to a considerable degree synonymous. Here the quest for the real,1 for the unity of the diversified world, for the key to the universe, reached a goal. That which Śvetaketu did not know, though he had been away from home studying twelve years and had studied all the Vedas and thought himself learned, even that ‘whereby what has not been heard of becomes heard of, what has not been thought of becomes thought of, what has not been understood becomes understood’ (Chānd. 6. 1. 1-3); that for instruction in which Śaunaka, the great householder, came to Aṅgiras (Muṇḍ. 1. 1. 3); that which Nārada knew not, though he knew eighteen books and sciences, and for lack of the knowledge of which he was sorrowing (Chānd. 7. 1. 1-2); that for complete instruction in which Indra remained with Prajāpati as a pupil for one hundred and one years—that supreme object is just this Brahma, this Ātman, who is in the world, who is the great Self, the ground of oneself. He is the highest object of knowledge, whom one should desire to know.

  • ‘By knowing Him only, a wise
  • Brahman should get for himself intelligence.’
  • (Bṛih. 4. 4. 21.)

He is the key to all knowledge. ‘Verily, with the seeing of, with the hearkening to, with the thinking of, and with the understanding standing of the Soul, this world-all is known’ (Bṛih. 2. 4. 5). ‘Verily, he who knows that thread and the so-called Inner Controller knows Brahma, he knows the worlds, he knows the gods, he knows the Vedas, he knows created things, he knows the Soul, he knows everything’ (Bṛih. 3. 7. 1). ‘This is the knowledge the Brahmans know. Thereby I know what is to be known’ (Bṛih. 5. 1. 1). ‘As, when a drum is being beaten, one would not be able to grasp the external sounds, but by grasping the drum or the beater of the drum the sound is grasped; as, when a conch-shell is being blown, one would not be able to grasp the external sounds, but by grasping the conch-shell or the blower of the conch-shell the sound is grasped; as, when a lute is being played, one would not be able to grasp the external sounds, but by grasping the lute or the player of the lute the sound is grasped’—so by comprehending Ātman or Brahma everything is comprehended (Bṛih. 2. 4. 7-9).

So the unity which has been searched for from the beginning of Indian speculation was reached. ‘As all the spokes are held together in the hub and felly of a wheel, just so in this Soul all things, all gods, all worlds, all breathing things, all selves are held together’ (Bṛih. 2. 5. 15). Pantheism now is the ruling conception of the world, for the world is identical with Ātman. ‘Ātman alone is the whole world’ (Chānd. 7. 25. 2). ‘This Brahmanhood, this Kshatrahood, these worlds, these gods, these beings, everything here is what this Soul is’ (Bṛih. 2. 4. 6; 4. 5. 7). ‘Who is this one?’ is asked in Ait. 5. 1, and the reply is: ‘He is Brahma; he is Indra; he is Prajāpati; [he is] all the gods here; and these five gross elements, namely earth, wind, space, water, light; these things and those which are mingled of the fine, as it were; origins of one sort or another: those born from an egg, and those born from a womb, and those born from sweat, and those born from a sprout; horses, cows, persons, elephants; whatever breathing thing there is here—whether moving or flying, and what is stationary.’ As the later metrical Śvetāśvatara expresses the thought:—

  • ‘That God faces all the quarters of heaven.
  • Aforetime was he born, and he it is within the womb.
  • He has been born forth. He will be born.’
  • (Śvet. 2. 16.)

And again, with more indefiniteness, concerning the pantheistic ‘That’:—

  • ‘That surely is Agni (fire). That is Āditya (the sun).
  • That is Vāyu (the wind), and That is the moon.
  • That surely is the pure. That is Brahma.
  • That is the waters. That is Prajāpati (Lord of Creation).
  • Thou art woman. Thou art man.
  • Thou art the youth and the maiden too.
  • Thou as an old man totterest with a staff.
  • Being born, thou becomest facing in every direction.
  • Thou art the dark-blue bird and the green [parrot] with red eyes.
  • Thou hast the lightning as thy child. Thou art the seasons and the seas.
  • Having no beginning, thou dost abide with all-pervadingness,
  • Wherefrom all beings are born.’
  • (Śvet. 4. 2-4.)

And most important of all, as Uddālaka nine times repeated to Śvetaketu (Chānd. 6. 8-16): ‘That art thou.’



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:—

    • ‘Unmoving, the One is swifter than the mind.
    • The sense-powers reached not It, speeding on before.
    • Past others running, This goes standing.
    • In It Mātariśvan places action.
    • It moves. It moves not.
    • It is far, and It is near.
    • It is within all this,
    • And It is outside of all this.’
    • (Īśā 4-5.)

    • ‘Sitting, he proceeds afar.
    • Lying, he goes everywhere.’
    • (Kaṭha 2. 21.)

The diverse identification and constitution of this pantheistic Being are further expressed in the verses:—

    • ‘As fire (Agni), he warms. He is the sun (Sūrya).
    • He is the bountiful rain (Parjanya). He is the wind (Vāyu).
    • He is the earth, matter, God,
    • Being and Non-being, and what is immortal.’
    • (Praśna 2. 5.)

    • ‘What that is, know as Being and Non-being.’
    • (Muṇḍ. 2. 2. 1.)

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.—

  • ‘All beings are one fourth of him;
  • Three fourths, the immortal in the sky.’

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.

  • ‘As the one wind has entered the world
  • And becomes corresponding in form to every form,
  • So the one Inner Soul of all things
  • Is corresponding in form to every form, and yet is outside.’
  • (Katha 5. 10.)

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

  • ‘He can indeed be comprehended by the thought “He is”
  • And by [admitting] the real nature of both [his comprehensibility and his incomprehensibility].’

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.

  • ‘There is on earth no diversity.
  • He gets death after death,
  • Who perceives here seeming diversity.
  • As a unity only is It to be looked upon—
  • This indemonstrable, enduring Being.’
  • (Bṛih. 4. 4. 19-20.)

  • ‘The seer sees not death,
  • Nor sickness, nor any distress.
  • The seer sees only the All,
  • Obtains the All entirely.’
  • (Chānd. 7. 26. 2.)

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,

  • ‘The Inner Soul (antarātman) of all things . . . ,
  • Who makes his one form manifold’
  • (Kaṭha 5. 12),

is performing a piece of supernatural magic in appearing as many.

  • ‘He became corresponding in form to every form.
  • This is to be looked upon as a form of him.
  • Indra by his magic powers (māyā) goes about in many forms;
  • Yoked are his ten-hundred steeds.’
  • (Bṛih. 2. 5. 19.)

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.

  • ‘This whole world the illusion-maker projects out of this [Brahma].
  • And in it by illusion the other is confined.
  • Now, one should know that Nature is illusion,
  • And that the Mighty Lord is the illusion-maker.’

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—

  • ‘As the sun, the eye of the whole world,
  • Is not sullied by the external faults of the eyes’—

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.

  • ‘As a unity only is It to be looked upon—
  • This indemonstrable, enduring Being.’
  • (Bṛih. 4. 4. 20.)

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).

  • ‘What is soundless, touchless, formless, imperishable,
  • Likewise tasteless, constant, odorless,
  • Without beginning, without end, higher than the great.’
  • (Kaṭha 3. 15.)

‘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—

  • ‘Not above, not across,
  • Not in the middle has one grasped Him.
  • There is no likeness of Him
  • Whose name is Great Glory.
  • His form is not to be beheld.
  • No one soever sees Him with the eye.
  • They who know Him with heart and mind
  • As abiding in the heart, become immortal.’
  • (Śvet. 4. 19-20.)

But no! that higher Brahma is not accessible to knowledge by sense or by thought or by instruction:—

  • ‘There the eye goes not;
  • Speech goes not, nor the mind.
  • We know not, we understand not
  • How one would teach it.’ (Kena 3.)
  • ‘Wherefrom words turn back,
  • Together with the mind, not having attained.’
  • (Tait. 2. 4, 9.)

No more than its bare existence can be postulated.

  • ‘Not by speech, not by mind,
  • Not by sight can He be apprehended.
  • How can He be comprehended
  • Otherwise than by one’s saying “He is!”?
  • (Kaṭha 6. 12.)

But even here the real point is dodged.

‘He who rules the ignorance and the knowledge is another.’

(Śvet. 5. 1.)

  • ‘[Brahma is] higher than understanding.’ (Muṇd. 2. 2. 1.)
  • ‘Other indeed is It than the known,
  • And moreover above the unknown.’ (Kena 3.)
  • ‘Into blind darkness enter they
  • That worship ignorance;
  • Into darkness greater than that, as it were,
  • That delight in knowledge.
  • Other indeed, they say, than knowledge!
  • Other, they say, than non-knowledge!
  • —Thus have we heard from the wise
  • Who to us have explained It.’
  • (Īśā 9-10.)

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:

  • ‘It is conceived of by him by whom It is not conceived of.
  • He by whom It is conceived of, knows It not.
  • It is not understood by those who [say they] understand It.
  • It is understood by those who [say they] understand It not.’
  • (Kena 11.)

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.



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.

  • ‘He who has found and has awakened to the Soul (Self) . . .
  • The world is his; indeed, he is the world itself.’
  • (Bṛih. 4. 4. 13.)

‘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. . . .

  • In the state of sleep going aloft and alow,
  • A god, he makes many forms for himself.’
  • (Bṛih. 4. 3. 9, 10, 13.)

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—

  • ‘A sharpened edge of a razor, hard to traverse,
  • A difficult path is this—poets declare!’
  • (Kaṭha 3. 14.)

‘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:—

  • ‘Wherefrom words turn back,
  • Together with the mind, not having attained—
  • The bliss of Brahma.’
  • (Tait. 2. 4.)

It may only be affirmed as approximately conceived:—

  • ‘ “This is it”—thus they recognize
  • The highest, indescribable happiness.’
  • (Kaṭha 5. 14.)

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.

  • ‘Gone are the fifteen parts according to their station,
  • Even all the sense-organs in their corresponding divinities!
  • One’s work and the soul that consists of understanding—
  • All become unified in the supreme Imperishable.’
  • (Muṇḍ. 3. 2. 7.)

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.



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).

  • ‘According unto his deeds the embodied one successively
  • Assumes forms in various conditions.
  • Coarse and fine, many in number,
  • The embodied one chooses forms according to his own qualities.
  • [Each] subsequent cause of his union with them is seen to be
  • Because of the quality of his acts and of himself.’
  • (Śvet. 5. 11-12.)

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).

  • ‘Some go into a womb
  • For the embodiment of a corporeal being.
  • Others go into a stationary thing
  • According to their deeds, according to their knowledge.’
  • (Kaṭha 5. 7.)

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:—

    • ‘What is soundless, touchless, formless, imperishable,
    • Likewise tasteless, constant, odorless,
    • Without beginning, without end, higher than the great, stable—
    • By discerning That, one is liberated from the mouth of death.’
    • (Kaṭha 3. 15.)

    • ‘And one’s deeds (karma) cease
    • When He is seen—both the higher and the lower.’
    • (Muṇḍ. 2. 2. 8.)

    • ‘By knowing what is therein, Brahma-knowers
    • Become merged in Brahma, intent thereon, liberated from the womb [i.e. from rebirth].’
    • (Śvet. 1. 7.)

    • ‘By knowing God there is a falling off of all fetters;
    • With distresses destroyed, there is cessation of birth and death.’
    • (Śvet. 1. 11.)

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:—

  • ‘Unsafe boats, however, are these sacrificial forms,
  • The eighteen, in which is expressed the lower work [i.e. the Vedas and the sciences of subsidiary rules].
  • Since doers of deeds do not understand, because of passion,
  • Therefore, when their worlds are exhausted, they sink down wretched.
  • Thinking sacrifice and merit is the chiefest thing,
  • Naught better do they know—deluded!
  • Having had enjoyment on the top of the heaven won by good works,
  • They re-enter this world, or a lower.’
  • (Muṇḍ. 1. 2. 7, 9, 10.)

‘But they who seek the Ātman by austerity, chastity, faith, and knowledge . . . they do not return’ (Praśna 1. 10).



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 Brahma as the real, as knowledge, as the infinite . . . ,
  • He obtains all desires.’
  • (Tait. 2. 1.)

‘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).

  • ‘The plunderer of gold, the liquor-drinker,
  • The invader of a teacher’s bed, the Brahman-killer—
  • These four sink downward in the scale,
  • And, fifth, he who consorts with them.

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.

    • ‘He who has not understanding,
    • Who is unmindful and ever impure,
    • Reaches not the goal,
    • But goes on to transmigration.
    • He, however, who has understanding,
    • Who is mindful and ever pure,
    • Reaches the goal
    • From which he is born no more.’
    • (Kaṭha 3. 7-8.)

    • ‘Not he who has not ceased from bad conduct . . .
    • Can obtain Him by intelligence.’
    • (Kaṭha 2. 24.)

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.

  • ‘One should be familiar with it. By knowing it,
  • One is not stained by evil action.’
  • (Bṛih. 4. 4. 23.)

‘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:—

  • ‘As to a mountain that’s enflamed
  • Deer and birds do not resort—
  • So, with the Brahma-knowers, faults
  • Do never any shelter find.’
  • (Maitri 6. 18.)1

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).

  • ‘When a seer sees the brilliant
  • Maker, Potentate, Person, the Brahma-source,
  • Then, being a knower, shaking off good and evil,
  • Stainless, he attains supreme identity [with Him].’
  • (Muṇḍ. 3. 1. 3.)

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).

  • ‘When there is no darkness, then there is no day or night,
  • Nor being, nor non-being, only the Kindly One alone.’
  • (Śvet. 4. 18.)

‘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—

    • ‘Apart from the right and apart from the unright,
    • Apart from both what has been done and what has not been done here,
    • Apart from what has been and what is to be.’
    • (Kaṭha 2. 14.)

    • ‘As the sun, the eye of the whole world,
    • Is not sullied by the external faults of the eyes,
    • So the one Inner Soul of all things
    • Is not sullied by the evil in the world, being external to it.’
    • (Kaṭha 5. 11.)

    • ‘The bright, the bodiless, the scatheless,
    • The sinewless, the pure, unpierced by evil.’
    • (Īśā 8.)

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:—

  • ‘If the slayer think to slay,
  • If the slain think himself slain,
  • Both these understand not.
  • This one slays not, nor is slain.’
  • (Kaṭha 2. 19.)



As the absolute unity of the Ātman was the final goal of speculative thought, so absolute unity with the Ātman was regarded as the supreme actual attainment. Though this is theoretically accomplishable by mere metaphysical knowledge, it is as a matter of fact accomplished only after death or during sleep. Therefore for the period while one is still alive and not sleeping some other method than knowledge must be provided.

That was found to be what in Muṇḍ. 3. 2. 1 was joined with knowledge as the means of escaping transmigration:—

  • ‘They who, being without desire, worship the Person
  • And are wise, pass beyond the seed [of rebirth] here.’

After knowledge has informed a person that he is Brahma or Ātman, he should strictly have no more desires, for ‘he who has found and has awakened to the Soul . . . the world is his’ (Bṛih. 4. 4. 13).

  • ‘If a person knew the Soul
  • With the thought “I am He!”
  • With what desire, for love of what
  • Would he cling unto the body?’
  • (Bṛih. 4. 4. 12.)

‘Verily, because they knew this, the ancients desired not offspring, saying: “What shall we do with offspring, we whose is this Soul, this home?” They, verily, rising above the desire for sons and the desire for wealth and the desire for worlds, lived the life of a mendicant’ (Bṛih. 4. 4. 22; cf. 3. 5. 1).

In actual experience, however, desires do still continue and harass one. But by harboring desires and resorting to activity to satisfy them, one is only admitting and emphasizing to the mind a lack or limitation, and thereby preventing assimilation to and union with the desireless, blissful plenum of the Soul. The entertaining of any desires whatsoever, and the resulting activity, are conditions which from the point of view of knowledge are sheer ignorance; these react in dulling the understanding (cf. Muṇḍ. 1. 2. 9), blind one to the limitation of existence in the world and to the series of rebirths, and maintain the person’s false separation from the real Brahma or Ātman:—

  • ‘He who in fancy forms desires,
  • Because of his desires is born [again] here and there.’
  • (Muṇḍ. 3. 2. 2.)

The psychology and praxis of this doctrine are set forth in a notable passage, Bṛih. 4. 4. 5-7. ‘A person is made of desires only. As is his desire, such is his resolve; as is his resolve, such the action he performs; what action (karma) he performs, that he procures for himself. On this point there is this verse:—

  • Where one’s mind is attached—the inner self
  • Goes thereto with action, being attached to it alone.
  • Obtaining the end of his action,
  • Whatever he does in this world,
  • He comes again from that world
  • To this world of action.

So the man who desires. Now the man who does not desire. He who is without desire, who is freed from desire, whose desire is satisfied, whose desire is the Soul—his breaths do not depart. Being very Brahma, he goes to Brahma. On this point there is this verse:—

  • When are liberated all
  • The desires that lodge in one’s heart,
  • Then a mortal becomes immortal!
  • Therein he reaches Brahma!’1

But if the metaphysical knowledge of the essential oneness of the individual soul (ātman) and the universal Soul (Ātman) did not procure the blissful union with that Soul, neither does this theory of the avoidance of limiting desires; for they inevitably rise up in the ordinary life of activity. The final solution of the practical problem which the Upanishads offer, namely Yoga, is the outcome of that conception of strict unity which started the speculations of the Upanishads and which urged them on from cosmology to monism, from monism to pantheism, and from an external to an internal unity. That unity—under which it is the aim of every philosophy which has ever existed rationally to bring experience—the early Indian thinkers found in Brahma, and then in the objective Soul (Ātman), and then in one’s own soul, wherein the manifoldness of thought itself and the limitation of the distinctions of object and subject and all sorrows of the heart are merged into an undifferentiated unitary blissful plenum. ‘To the unity of the One goes he who knows this [i. e. that all is one]. The precept for effecting this [unity] is this: restraint of the breath, withdrawal of the senses [from objects], meditation, concentration, contemplation, absorption’ (Maitri 6. 17, 18). This is Yoga (from the root yuj, meaning to ‘join,’ ‘yoke,’ ‘harness’), a harnessing of the senses and mind from the falsely manifold objects and thoughts, and at the same time a union with the unitary blissful Self.

  • ‘When cease the five
  • [Sense-]knowledges, together with the mind,
  • And the intellect stirs not—
  • That, they say, is the highest course.’
  • (Kaṭha 6. 10; Maitri 6. 30.)

The practical application, the ethics, and the offers of this theory of the union with the Self are set forth in Maitri 6. 20. According to that—

  • ‘By tranquillity of thought
  • Deeds, good and evil, one destroys!
  • With soul serene, stayed on the Soul,
  • Delight eternal one enjoys!’

The final exhortation of the Upanishads is well expressed in the following words connected with the Brahma-theory:—

  • ‘Taking as a bow the great weapon of the Upanishad,
  • One should put upon it an arrow sharpened by meditation.
  • Stretching it with a thought directed to the essence of That,
  • Penetrate that Imperishable as the mark, my friend.
  • The mystic syllable Om1 is the bow. The arrow is the soul.
  • Brahma is said to be the mark.
  • By the undistracted man is It to be penetrated.
  • One should come to be in It, as the arrow [in the mark].’
  • (Muṇḍ. 2. 2. 3-4.)



Such is the philosophy of the Upanishads in what may very probably have been its order of development. Many tendencies made up the process; and perhaps centuries elapsed between the first and last of the speculations recorded, from the Bṛihad-Āraṇyaka and the Chāndogya to the Maitri. The thinkers were earnest in their search for truth, and they unhesitatingly abandoned conclusions which had been reached, when in the light of further reasonings and new considerations they were proved inadequate. The changes from the first realistic materialism to the final speculative idealism form an interesting chapter in the history of philosophy. Their intuitions of deep truths are subtile with the directness and subtlety of new seekers after truth. In a few passages the Upanishads are sublime in their conception of the Infinite and of God, but more often they are puerile and groveling in trivialities and superstitions. As Hegel, a keen appreciator and thorough student of the history of philosophy, estimated it, ‘If we wish to get the so-called pantheism in its poetic, most elevated, and, if one will, its coarsest form, we must look for it in the Eastern poets; and the largest expositions of it are found among the Indians.’

As it was suggested before, so it must be emphasized again that, although at first the order of exposition here followed was in all probability the historical order in the progress of thought in the early Hindu philosophy, yet there are not the chronological data in the Upanishads upon which an unquestioned order can be maintained throughout. The Bṛihad-Āraṇyaka, Chāndogya, Taittirīya, Aitareya, Kaushītaki and Kena 14-34, from their structure and literary characteristics, as well as from their contents, are quite certainly assigned to the earlier group of the Upanishads. But even in them there is a variety of philosophical doctrines which are not in the same stage of development. The heterogeneity and unordered arrangement and even contradictions of the material make it difficult, indeed impossible, to set forth in systematic exposition a single system of philosophy. The purpose has been, therefore, to discern the different tendencies that are undoubtedly present in the philosophy of the Upanishads and to present them in what seems to be the most probable order of development. For the purposes of exposition there have been followed out and connected with each other certain lines of thought which in the actual development of the philosophy could hardly have been as independent as they are here set forth.

The thought of any people and of any generation is exceedingly complex, consciously or unconsciously containing certain elements from the past, which are being gradually discarded, and also certain presentiments of truth which are only later fully recognized. Yet in it all there is a dominant tendency which may readily be discerned. So in the Upanishadic period there were mythical cosmologies inherited and accepted, whose influence continued long after they had logically been superseded by more philosophical theories. In the main, however, there was an appreciation of idealism. This, having seen in the psychic self the essence of the whole world, and having identified it with Brahma, reacted against the realistic philosophy which had produced the concept of Brahma; and then it carried the Ātman, or the purely psychical, element over into the extreme of philosophical idealism.

Pantheism it may, in general, be called; for, although very different types of philosophy have been shown to be represented in the Upanishads, pantheism is their most prevalent type and the one which has constituted their chief heritage. Still, even as pantheism, it is hardly the pantheism of the West, nor is it the monism that is based upon science. It is like the simple intuition of the early Greek philosopher Xenophanes, who (after a prior course of cosmological theorizings similar to those in the Upanishads) ‘looked up into the expanse of heaven and declared, “The One is God.” ’ (Aristotle’s Metaphysics, 1. 5.) Can such faith in such form, although it has laid hold of the profound truths of ultimate unity and spirituality, be expected to furnish the highly inspiring religion of progress and the elaborately articulated philosophy, correlated with science, which modern India demands?

Before that question can be answered, it will be necessary to find out exactly what the revered Upanishads do actually say. Sanskritists, historians, philosophers, religionists—all who are interested in India’s past and concerned about India’s future may find here something of what each is already seeking in his separate line. In particular, there will be found by the sympathetic reader throughout these thirteen principal Upanishads the records of that eager quest which India has been pursuing through the centuries, which is tersely expressed in the Bṛihad-Āraṇyaka Upanishad in its first division (at 1. 3. 28):—

  • ‘From the unreal lead me to the real.
  • From darkness lead me to light.
  • From death lead me to immortality.’

The Upanishads have indubitably exercised, and in the revival of Sanskrit learning and of the Indian national consciousness will continue to exercise, a considerable influence1 on the religion and philosophy of India. To present their actual contents by a faithful philological translation, and to furnish a clue to their unsystematic expositions by a brief outline of the development of their philosophical concepts, is one of the needs of the time and has been the aim in the preparation of this volume.

[1 ]Translated by Col. Jacob in his Manual of Hindu Pantheism, London, 1891, pp. 76-78. Text published by him in Bombay, 1894, and by Bohtlingk in his Sanskrit-Chrestomathie.

[2 ]See the Sarva-darśana-saṁgraha, a later summary of the various philosophers, translated by Cowell and Gough, p. 227 (2nd ed., London, 1894).

[3 ]Deussen, The Philosophy of the Upanishads, tr. by Geden, p. viii, Edinburgh, 1906.

[4 ]Max Muller, Lectures on the Vedānta Philosophy, p. 39.

[1 ]The Upanishads, by Mead and Chaṭṭopādhyāya, p. 5, London, Theosophical Publishing Society, 1896. See also The Theosophy of the Upanishads (anonymous), London, Theosophical Publishing Society, 1896, and The Upanishads with Śankara’s Commentary, a translation made by several Hindus, published by V. C. Seshacharri, Madras, 1898 (dedicated to Mrs. Annie Besant).

[2 ]Parerga, 2, § 185 (Werke, 6. 427).

[1 ]Printed as a pamphlet, Bombay, 1893, and also contained in his Elements of Metaphysics, English translation, p. 337, London, 1894.

[2 ]Royce, The World and the Individual, 1. 156-175, New York, 1900.

[3 ]Regnaud, Matériaux pour servir à l’histoire de la philosophie de l’Inde, 2. 204, Paris, 1878.

[1 ]‘That which is hidden in the secret of the Vedas, even the Upanishads.’—Śvetāśvatara Upanishad 5. 6.

[2 ]Technically, the older Upanishads (with the exception of the Īśā, which is the last chapter of the Saṁhitā of the White Yajur-Veda) form part of the Aranyakas, ‘Forest Books,’ which in turn are part of the Brāhmaṇas, the second part of the Vedas.

Later a distinct class of independent Upanishads arose, but even of several of the classical Upanishads the connection with the Brāhmaṇas has been lost. Only the thirteen oldest Upanishads, which might be called classical and which are translated in this volume, are here discussed.

[1 ]Kern, SBE. 21, p. xvii.

[1 ]See on this point the interesting testimony adduced by Foucher, Étude sur l’iconographie bouddhique de l’Inde, Paris, 1900.

[2 ]Such as Bṛih. 1. 2. 7; 1. 3. 22; 1. 4. 1; 3. 9. S-9; Chānd. 1. 2. 10-12; 6. 8. 1.

[1 ]In his notes to Colebrooke’s Miscellaneous Essays, 1. 257, London, 1873. But see more especially Professor Hopkins, JAOS. 22. 380-387.

[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.

[1 ]Beautifully expressed, in a different connection, by the three verses of Bṛih. 1. 3. 28:—

  • ‘From the unreal lead me to the real.
  • From darkness lead me to light.
  • From death lead me to immortality.’

The earnestness of the search for truth is one of the delightful and commendable features of the Upanishads.


[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.’

[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.

[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.

[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.

As regards speculative knowledge of Ātman, its apprehension by means of human knowledge is opposed by the doctrine of prasāda, or ‘Grace’, in Katha 2. 20 (and, with a slight verbal change, in Śvet. 3. 20): ‘Through the grace of the Creator he beholds the greatness of Ātman.’ It is by means of this grace, according to Śvet. 1. 6, that an individual obtains release from illusion and reaches immortality:—

  • ‘In this Brahma-wheel the soul flutters about,
  • Thinking that itself and the Actuator are different.
  • When favored by Him, it attains immortality.’

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.—

  • ‘This Soul is not to be obtained by instruction,
  • Nor by intellect, nor by much learning.
  • He is to be obtained only by the one whom He chooses.
  • To such a one that Soul reveals his own person.’


[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.

[1 ]It is interesting to note the opposition between this theory that desires are limitations, and the earlier theory in which one of the strongest practical inducements to knowledge was the sure means of obtaining all desires. Cf. Chānd. 1. 1. 7; 5. 1. 4; 7. 10. 2; 8. 2. 10; Bṛih. 1. 3. 28; 6. 1. 4; Tait. 2. 1; Kaṭha 2. 16. Similarly the former method of obtaining Brahma was to know Brahma; now it is to quench all desires. The change on this point is another instance of that transition from epistemological realism to idealism which has been previously traced.

[1 ]The sacred syllable to be repeated until one passes into an unconscious stupor or ecstasy.

[1 ]Evidenced, for example, in the recent establishment by a Hindu of Bombay of a valuable annual prize for the best exposition and defence of some doctrine of the Upanishads or of Śaṅkara.

Last modified April 10, 2014