Posted in Books, Hinduism, Philosophy, Spirituality, Upanishads

The 108 Upanishads

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The deep and extraordinary philosophy of Hinduism is often ignored and among the great philosophical texts are the Upanishads. This article was written in response to a question on why I wrote the book.

The main concept in the Upanishads is that of Brahman, which is both the ultimate goal of all existence, and the common aspect of all life forms. Brahman can be defined as the substratum of the world. The Upanishads agree that everything originates from Brahman, which is uncreated and always existed. It is eternal, infinite, and has no form or shape. It is beyond time and space. Its nature is sat-chit-ananda, that is ‘truth or true being, consciousness and bliss’. Even though  Brahman is responsible for the creation of the world, and is identical with or part of the soul in every living being, Brahman retains its original, unchangeable, eternal, nature. Brahman is beyond thought and words, which is why no description can ever reveal it. Only  through a knowledge of it, would one know its reality. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad the rishi Yajnavalkya explains Brahman in many ways. He says that just as different types of smoke come from  fire, in the same way everything including the Vedas comes from a limitless reality  which can be equated with Brahman. And everything merges with it, just as all sorts of water merge in the sea, as all sounds merge in the ear, all thoughts in the mind,  and as salt in water pervades all of it. He also explained  that when everything is Brahman, there can be no duality. Brahman is best explained in the Upanishads, though this idea is also known in other religions where different terms are used. A true understanding of this concept would remove all divisions and inequalities in society and would lead to respect and compassion, for if every person is of the same essence, there could be no awareness of differences based on religion, caste or even on economic status. Further, this same essence exists in every living being, which would lead to the protection of trees, plants, insects and animals.

India is a vast storehouse of sacred texts, belonging to many different religions, and ranging in date from the ancient to the modern and contemporary, and the Upanishads can be considered among the most interesting and valuable of these. This group of Sanskrit texts form part of Vedic literature, the most sacred texts of Hinduism. Veda comes from the Sanskrit root ‘vid’ to know, and the word Veda implies ‘divine knowledge’.  The main texts of Vedic literature are the four Vedic Samhitas,  that is,  the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda, along with the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. All these texts are said to be ‘shruti’ or ‘ heard’, and are believed to be directly revealed from a divine source. The Upanishads, attached to one or the other  of the Vedic Samhitas are the definitive texts expounding the wisdom of the Vedas.

Though a number of people are aware of the Upanishads, there are many more who are not. Even those who know about them are familiar with one or two, while there are actually almost 300 Upanishads, some very ancient, and others more recent. Out of these, a group of 108 Upanishads, listed in the 17th century Muktika Upanishad, are considered  the most important. These  Upanishads are of different types, including early and late Upanishads, Upanishads focusing on a deity, or on the paths of sannyasa or yoga. These Upanishads include  numerous topics, such as  the source of all creation, the atman or soul, the jiva, or individual soul, the nature of consciousness, the different worlds, reincarnation, the body, the chakras and inner power centres, as well as meditations on deities, and a lot more, but the concept of Brahman can be said to be the most important aspect of these texts, and the main theme, that of ultimate realization and transcendence. Long ago, this common and main aspect was recognised and compressed into a single text, the Brahma Sutra, composed before the first century CE.

There are very few books dealing with all 108 Upanishads. Signe Cohen’s recent book looks at several of them, but is meant for academicians. T.M.P. Mahadevan’s book on the 108 Upanishads, does list them all, and provides a brief introduction and a translation of one or two verses of each, but my aim in this book is to go beyond this and  present a comprehensive overview of all 108 and of the Brahma Sutra, while at the same time  situating these texts in the context of Indian philosophy. As all 108 are described, each person can focus on the one that suits them. It is not necessary to alter one’s way of worship or of devotion to a particular deity, but only to recognise, that at the highest level, every deity is Brahman.

The 108 Upanishads, thus provides an introduction to the texts, a starting point to delve deeper into the profound philosophy contained in them. It is an attempt to make the Upanishads along with the concept of Brahman, better known. The book is also a sequel to my book on the Vedic Samhitas (The Vedas, An Introduction to Hinduism’s Sacred Texts), which places the Vedas in a historical context, and examines questions regarding their date and origin..

 

 

 

 

Posted in book review., Books, India, J Krishnamurti, Sri Aurobindo, Theosophy

Letters of Wisdom by B. Sanjiva Rao

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While writing one book, one comes across a thousand others. This is one of the books only peripherally related to J Krishnamurti. B Sanjiva Rao  was employed in the Indian Education Service [retired 1938] and was married to Padma, who shared his world view of working for others rather than oneself. A close associate of Annie Besant, he was entrusted with the task of buying 400 acres of land around the Ganga river near Varanasi. Krishnamurti asked him to do this, but provided neither funds nor support. Having promised Mrs Besant to help, support and follow Krishnamurti, Sanjiva Rao set out to do this, not matter how daunting the task. But this book only touches on the problems he faced, and how Rabindranath Tagore helped out, providing his own architect, Surendranath Kar, and coming himself for the inauguration of the Montessori section of the Rajghat Besant School in 1934.

The book actually is a series of letters written to a young friend and relative, Vasanti Rao, who at the age of 17 settled in Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry [Puducherry], having renounced the world. On a visit there Sanjiva met her and found in her a spiritual friend. His letters to her, from 1958 to the time of his death in 1965, are part spiritual musings and part autobiography. They reveal the endless conflicts among Theosophists, and also among Krishnamurti supporters. How does one reach and understand the true Self?  Sanjiva Rao continuously tried to understand himself and the world around him, while working incessantly on the tasks given to him.

We don’t have Vasanti’s replies to him, so the book is one-sided. Nevertheless, it makes interesting reading, with some beautiful passages.

 

 

 

Posted in Books, Hermann Hesse, Knulp

Knulp- writers of the past are still relevant today

Herman Hesse has always been one of my favourite writers, if not the most favourite. But most people, if they have read him at all, are only familiar with Siddhartha, that was made into a movie. Recently I read a blog written by a young Facebook friend. The ideas in it had some similarity to one of the works of Knut Hamsun, and to Knulp by Herman Hesse. On my recommendation, the young friend read Knulp and loved it. I hope that after reading the summary below, some more people will read and appreciate Knulp, written over a hundred years ago.

Knulp by Hermann Hesse was first published in German in 1915 during the first World War.
Knulp has three integrated stories. The first is narrated by Knulp himself. He is a wanderer, with no steady job or income, no wife, though he reveals that he does have a child, one whom he can never meet. He has no fixed abode, and walks or travels from one place to another. Yet he likes to dress well, to look neat and presentable, is a good dancer and singer, and can whistle a good tune. He writes poems, has his own ethics, and a soft corner in his heart, specially for women. But above all he values his freedom and space.
Knulp has been ill, and now on a cold and windy night, he reaches the house of his friend Emil Rothfuss, who welcomes him, and offers him food and shelter. Rothfuss has recently married, and after a few days rest there, Knulp moves on. He is unhappy as Rothfuss’s wife desires him, and once again rejoices in his own freedom from the pretences of family life. Before leaving he befriends a lonely young maid, who has recently been employed in a house next door, takes her dancing one night, and through the brief friendship, makes her forget her loneliness for a while.
The second story is by a fellow wanderer, who reveals some other aspects of Knulp, who was always fastidious in his habits, and did not like to drink much, or be in the company of those who did. After a brief period of travelling together, Knulp quietly left his travelling companion, after the latter drank too much one night.
In the third story, Knulp, though only forty years old, has consumption and is dying. Still travelling on the road, he meets a doctor friend, who takes him to his house, gives him food and shelter, and finds him a place in a hospital, with the hope that he could possibly be cured there. Knulp knows that he cannot be cured, but agrees to everything. He only requests that he be sent to a hospital in his hometown of Gerbersau, a place he longs to see again before he dies.
After reaching Gerbersau he does not go to the hospital, instead visiting the places familiar to him, recreating the ‘mysterious days of his boyhood’, when life was full of potential. His illness is consuming him, and he climbs a hill knowing his end is near. The winter sets in, and he thinks of going to the hospital, but finally does not do so. A snowstorm begins, and as he begins to lose consciousness his past flows before him, and he feels he is having a conversation with God. ‘He was not afraid; he knew that God can do us no harm.’ But, he wonders, couldn’t he have lived differently? Was there a certain point in time when he could have chosen a less futile direction? But God assured him that everything he had done, the way his whole life had been, was fine.
‘ “Look”, said God. “I wanted you the way you are and no different. You were a wanderer in my name and wherever you went you brought the settled folk a little homesickness for freedom.” ’
And soon, life was over for Knulp. ‘He felt the snow lying heavily on his hands, and wanted to shake it off, but the desire to sleep had grown stronger than any other desire.’