What Is The Teaching Of The Upanishads?

The Upanishads are either a scattered collection of esoteric writings, filled with conflicting messages, or they contain a coherent Vedanta teaching, as demonstrated by later dogmatists. Though they are the collected writings concluding many of the Vedas (the Sanskrit word for either “knowledge” or “wisdom”), the Upanishads are often recognized for the most relevant 10-14 scriptures, and they were developed as explanations for the ancient Vedic rituals by the Brahmin, or priestly caste.

In order to examine this conflict, we acknowledge several common points.

As with much of ancient literature, the content of the Upanishads is the result of intergenerational oral recitations, and thus there is no single authority. That is to say, the Upanishads cannot be considered a whole or a part of a whole. The texts are frequently mystical and inconsistent. Later factions were formed within Vedanta by identifying particular texts and ways of reading them. For example, much of the Vedic literature is devoted to detailing proper rituals, while the Upanishads are the portions devoted to discussing theology. However, is there a cogent piece that unifies the seemingly disparate Upanishad texts? Is there a teaching that can be gleaned from the Upanishads?

Because there is nothing comprehensive in the Upanishads we must limit our speech. First, we survey the gods of the ancient Upanishads. Agni is the god of fire who is sorely embarrassed by his lack of power over Brahman (the Supreme Spirit) when failing to ignite straw in the Kena Upanishad, Indra is the god war and thunder who leads the other gods into battle, Vayu is the wind god, Ratri is the god of night, Usha is the god of dawn, Surya is the sun god who rides his chariot across the sky Phoebos to the Greeks, Satiri is the god the sky and giver of life, and Yama is the first creature to die and is thus the god of the underworld.

Second, a common theme that is ubiquitous throughout the Upanishads is the desire to either discover the Atman (innermost self) or to release the Atman from the transience of ordinary life, through Moksha or liberation. Here we make mention of an early Buddhist seed -a great longing to draw inward, seek redemption from the burdens of daily life, and also we recognize the fruits of later religious dogmas, such as Christianity, that offer redemption from the problem of human suffering.

Third, the sacred word OM is a vague term that is described in the Mandukya Upanishad as “eternal” and “what was, what is and what shall be, and what is beyond eternity. All is OM.” The first sound is a, meaning waking consciousness that is common to all men, the second is meaning dreaming, and the third sound is meaning sleeping consciousness. The full word OM is the fourth state of supreme consciousness. Eternally, this sacred word is said to bring the human being beyond the senses and the end of evolution.

Fourth, key ideas introduced include: yoga meaning the act of meditation and contemplation allowing the wise to “see the power of a god.” As in Greek philosophy and Confucianism, there is an obsession with ritual and “right actions” undertaken in the Upanishads, as in the case of Dharma (meaning “right action”), Karma (“action”), and Moksha.

The Upanishads shares common themes to other theological texts. The Upanishads predicate their teachings on “revelation,” they are darshana, or “something seen.” Revealed truths were to be studied and memorized by classical students for twelve years before students could be examined on their learning. It is unclear to what extent the Upanishads advise humans to pursue knowledge, or, instead, to resist the transience of thought and otherwise seek “eternity.” Perhaps the most significant transformation come to us from the Upanishads, as a scattered collection of ontological teachings from the East, is the idea of eternity -later adopted by all monotheistic religions, as well as others not typically considered ‘theistic’, such as Buddhism. The notion of the eternal is a significant shift away from the transient world, for example the gods of the Greeks were very much present in the everyday. However eternity stultifies the human mind that is naturally prone to understanding causes, first and final.

For this reading I used the Penguin Classics Edition translated by Juan Mascaro.

Two Myths in Hesiod’s Works and Days

In his poem, Works and Days, Hesiod writes a letter addressed to his brother, Perses, encouraging him to embrace the practical attitude and let Discord spur him to plow his fields and yield abundant crops. His purpose is to encourage strong values in Perses, ones that combat the impetus for laziness. However, he tells Perses that “the gods keep secret from humankind the means of survival” (42), thereby challenging Perses to discover the means of survival; to uncover the secrets. Similarly, Sir Francis Bacon will make a claim about the processes of nature being hidden by God for humans to discover in his anti-Aristotelian “New Organon” thousands of years later.

Hesiod and the Muse by Gustave Moreau in 1891

Why do the gods hide these secrets from humans? Hesiod responds, appropriately, with a myth. Zeus was angry that Prometheus so carelessly gave away the gift of fire to humans by deceiving the mind of Zeus. Laughing, in repayment to mankind, Zeus employs the lame Hephaestus to fashion a woman, with the help of the other Olympians, and he calls this “bane to industrious mankind” Pandora. Before Epimetheus accepts the gift of Pandora and forgets Prometheus’s command to deny any gifts from Zeus, mankind lives peacefully and with little strife. However, Pandora opens her great jar releasing miseries upon humankind, only Hope stays behind to hide in Pandora’s jar.

Hesiod then gives an “alternate story” if it is preferable, recalled later by Plato in the Republic. First, the immortals fashioned a race of articulate men, Golden, living when Cronus ruled (Zeus’s father). They lived well and peacefully, with many banquets and easy crop yields, until they were buried. Second, the Olympians fashioned a Silver race, which was inferior. They lived like children and committed violence on one another, never worshipping Zeus and making him angry. Third, Zeus fashioned a Bronze race, the offspring of ash trees. Their tools and armor were bronze, and they killed each other with them, sending them down to the cold underworld. Fourth, Zeus created a “new” generation who superior and lovers of “justice” (152). they were Demigods, the last prior to our own generation.

Hesiod laments this “iron” generation and all their suffering, though “there will always be good mixed in with the evil” (177). Zeus will destroy this race when children rise up against their fathers, and when the gods are not followed. Hesiod beckons Perses to pay attention to Justice, for whole cities can be lost with the actions of one evil man, and Hesiod also commands Princes to practice just deeds. In the first account the existence of strife and discord is justified, but hope is given space, as well, for Perses. In the second account, Justice is deemed a worthwhile pursuit, for the fate of mankind.

Following the myths at the outset, the remaining poem is composed of a series of instructions and advice to Perses who is to become a farmer. We are led to believe that he is somewhat feeble minded, contrasted with Hesiod’s great victories as a poet.

For this reading I used the Daryl Hine translation.