Chapter 7: Renunciation in the Upanishads

By Burton


Doniger begins with some background on social history in the era before these scriptures were compiled.  She notes that circa 800 to 500 BCE, the eastern Ganges Valley was home to a number of states, some of them oligarchical republics governed by coalitions of Kshatriya clans (165).  Doniger speculates that the weakening of the relative social power of the Brahmins meant that at least some of the philosophical ideas incorporated into the Upanishads reflect the preoccupations of people outside the Brahmin caste (166-167).  Doniger notes that, in comparison with the written language of the Brahmanas, the Sanskrit used to compose the Upanishads constituted a more “conversational” form of this classical language (166; my phrasing here).  This observation seems to support Doniger’s theme in the preface that certain Hindu religious discourses have alternatively been “Sanskritized” or “vernacularized” in order to earn them the desired audience (5-6).

Doniger relates that the Upanishads are often referred to as Vedanta (meaning “the end of the Veda”), for these were the last of the Hindu scriptures to be considered divine inspiration rather than outright human composition.  Doniger notes that Vedanta later became the name for a school of philosophy based upon Upanishadic commentaries by the likes of the ninth-century sage Shankara (166).  The Upanishads appear concerned with explicating matters of ultimate reality more than the hymns of the Vedas anticipate, and this shift toward philosophy may support Doniger’s hunch that the Upanishads reflect ideas and interests from people other than professional priests.


“What is Shankara?”

“Fortune and glory, kid.  Fortune and glory.”

As for the thematic content of the Upanishads, Doniger notes that the texts imparted a subtle change in meaning upon the Sanskrit terms karma and moksha.  The term karma originally connoted “ritual action” within the vocabulary of the Rig Veda, but in the Upanishads it acquired the new sense of “morally charged action,” particularly with reference to deeds which badly affect one’s trajectory after death.  With regard to moksha, in the Vedas this term denoted “freedom” from death or misfortune, but in the Upanishads the same word connoted liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth known as samsara (168-170).  The central revelatory argument throughout the Upanishads holds that the individual self is no different from Brahman, the conception of Divinity of which all things in nature are but emanations.  One who achieves an understanding that individuality is but an illusion may leave behind the troubles of rebirth upon his next and final death (cf. KU 4.11).  Doniger notes that, significantly, achieving this salvation through philosophy does not depend upon whether one is a Brahmin (179).


The thought world of the Upanishads suggests that belief in reincarnation was acquiring a new significance in Indian society, and that religious thinkers were pondering the implications of reincarnation for how people ought to live their lives.  With the newly expanded concepts of karma and moksha, we see an attempt to systematize a model explaining the origin of the evils found in the lives of humans and animals; the Upanishads furthermore posit a doctrine concerning how to minimize or escape future misfortunes.  In comparison with the Vedas and the Brahmanas, Doniger holds that the Upanishads are novel in their concern over attaining individual salvation in a world containing suffering, given that it was unimaginable to ancient Indians that human society could ever be different (172-173).  I consider the focus on individual salvation to mark a great historical shift in the life of any religious community; many religions (including Judaism) originally offered little emphasis on an afterlife compared to concern for the flourishing of the community in this world.

One surprising theme in this chapter is an intimation that the modern Hindu values of vegetarianism or nonviolence toward animals may owe their very existence to ideas first elaborated within the Upanishads (191-193).  In Vedic India, it was fairly common for people even of high caste to eat meat (including beef), provided this was properly consecrated to the gods through sacrifice.  However, the new emphasis on karma and the cycle of rebirth during the Upanishadic age suggested that abstaining from meat was a way of avoiding the fate of being eaten by one of those animals in the next world.  Only by extension does the notion of karma suggest an ethic of mindful compassion toward other souls in a relative state of helplessness (such as animals), as well as an incentive to avoid behaviors that lead to an undesirable form of rebirth for oneself.  I find this interesting because it entails that the motif of the sacred cow did not always exist in “Hindu” India in its familiar form; furthermore, the chapter hints that concern for animals developed in tandem with an emerging position concerning the wheel of rebirth as the central problem of earthly existence.

Another curious analysis to be made from this chapter is that while the renunciant discipline propagated by the Upanishads (that of salvation through philosophy) lent itself to seeking some seclusion from public life, this particular path for avoiding rebirth did not yet approach the level of renunciation later associated with Buddhists.  The Upanishads suggest a see-sawing between worldliness and unworldliness: note that while the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad claims that a man who realizes that the universal self (or atman) alone exists will abandon desire for sons or wealth (BU 3.5.1), the same text elsewhere prescribes ritual actions toward achieving a healthy son (BU 6.4.13-16) or cursing a wife’s illicit lover (BU 6.4.12).  These hardly constitute a whole-hearted rejection of desire or craving as prerequisites for escaping samsara.

Most intriguing of all seems to be the fact that (again, as compared to Buddhism) the wheel of samsara or rebirth suggests a *double significance* for Hindus of this era, leading to two different attitudes regarding what to do about samsara as a fact of life.  One attitude was that a person ought to do what it took to attain final moksha in this life, while another perspective was that a person could just minimize his balance of bad karma out of a wish to further enjoy all the pleasures life can offer, after a future rebirth as a king or a god (176).  I am baffled that the latter minds did not seem to imagine that cultivating pleasure could just lead to increased capacity for pain.


“The Oupnekhat [i.e., Upanishad] is the most graceful and elevating reading that is possible to have on this earth; the book has been the comfort of my life, and will also be that of my death.”  – German idealist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who argued it would be better never to have been born


1) Does it make sense to think of “Hinduism” in this era as a single religion if its canon allows for two incommensurable models of piety?  (These rival models are the Vedic ceremonial life versus the Upanishadic individual salvation through philosophy.)

2) Consider the two salvific models suggested by the understanding of karma in this era: one of them focused on gaining good things in a future life, and the other aiming to escape rebirth altogether.  Is it coherent for “the same religion” to promote both ends?

3) Can you think of another example where a given world religion promotes both a worldly focus and a renunciatory ideal?


4 thoughts on “Chapter 7: Renunciation in the Upanishads

Add yours

  1. In response to your second question, I would agree it is quite confusing that these two very different paths seem to be promoted in some of the texts. For example, the BU directly addresses this with the story of “The Paths of Smoke and Flame,” describing a path of people who know the Upanishadic doctrine of the identity of the soul and the brahman, versus a path of people who win heavenly worlds by offering sacrifices. A third path would be for people who follow neither of these paths, in which they would become worms, insects or snakes. Doniger goes on to say that both the Chandogya and the Brihadaranyaka are implicit that “one does not want to end up in the company of the worms and other tiny creatures in the third state, the place from which no traveler returns.”–making it appear that it is wise to choose from one of the first two paths. A factor that complicates things even more being the slew of various labels that one could use to describe Hinduism’s structure: monism, monotheism, pantheism, panentheism, and polytheistic–all of which, obviously, have different meanings. Even more confusing is the explanation involving the moon: the BU stating that people who reach the moon are eaten by the gods, while the CU says that the gods “merely eat the moon, a more direct way to account for its waning.” It still seems unclear as to what lines and boundaries there are, and where. If the Upanishads are all related to the belief system of renunciation, why do they each have their own twists and ways of explaining things?


  2. Thank you for your post. For your questions:

    1. It would depend how you define “religion”. If you define religion as a set of shared or common actions or practices, than it would not make sense to consider Hinduism as a unified religion, at least historically. However, what religion really is unified by those definitions? If, on the other hand, you think of Hinduism as a system or set of beliefs for understanding cosmic truth, it is a religion indeed. To be clear, I am not saying that there are not or have not been serious disagreements among Hindus on the nature of reality, or that what Hindus believe about reality has not changed over time. What I AM saying is that different people can agree upon the nature of reality while taking different courses of action within that reality. Consider the tension you mentioned between Vedic ritual and Upanishadic “individual salvation through philosophy”. Doniger uses the metaphor of smoke and flame, an idea taken from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, to illustrate this tension throughout the chapter. There is no real tension in relation to the truth of cosmic reality in the smoke and flame metaphor– the ideas of samsara and transmigration are stipulated without question–the tension lies in what path individuals choose to take: the path of rebirth (or redeath) vs. the path of escape. Keeping this in mind however, it may be more helpful to think of some aspects of Hindu practice not as religion but as maintenance of social order. As Doniger hypothesizes, many of the Upanishads (and ideas of renunciation associated with them) arose correspondent with greater urbanization, rice farming, and the rise of the Kshatriya caste in the Eastern Ganges region. With changing social conditions, belief in ultimate reality did not necessarily change within Hinduism (although there are some examples of this and within Buddhism, Jainism), but the necessity for different types of religious practice did change along with the shift in social order. This is evidenced again in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad where Kshatriya Pravahana is the teacher of Brahmin Shvetaketu (an inversion of Vedic expectations). The shifting attitude towards caste structure is also evidenced in the story of Satyakama Jabala, who is recognized as a Brahmana only by virtue of knowing truth rather than by virtue of his birth. This again is not a major shift in belief (still spiritual knowledge was limited to Brahmanas) but what changed was WHO could become a Brahmana. This is perhaps due to a greater access to literacy or to the ancient stories to to a more commerical culture, who knows. But many of the shifts that the Upanishads highlight are social and not belief based.

    3. Catholicism deviates in this regard: there are the monastic orders which promote renunciation, along with the stress on doing good works, and even more radical strains such as liberation theology, and organizations like Catholic Worker.


  3. Good post! Here’s my take on your questions:

    1. Labelling any ancient belief system as a religion involves the use of a point of reference. If we want to call the beliefs in the Upanishads part of a religion named Hinduism, the first thing we’d need to do is make clear to ourselves what the definition of “religion” is. In this case, it seems okay to assume that you’re speaking of the western definitions of the word (which is also adopted by Indians today). Doing this would lead us to conclude that what the Upanishads represent is not religion since it is barely as coherent as other texts we consider to be part of a certain religion. However, if we try to situate ourselves in India at the time of the composition of the Upanishads and then pose this question, we’d probably be forced to conclude that the question does not make sense since there is hardly any point of reference other than whatever kind of “Hinduism” was being practiced. The people living in India during the time period we’re concerned with probably didn’t have points of reference other than maybe Buddhism and Jainism, which they would still only consider different schools of thought within the larger philosophical culture of what we now call Hinduism. In that context, the question doesn’t make a lot of sense and looking back, it’s only fair to label it as “not religion” since it doesn’t fit our assumed western definition of the word (I can’t recall any word for religion in Hinduism other than “dharma”, which is still not equivalent to “religion” in my opinion).

    2. It seems coherent enough to me for this “religion” to provide a materialistic aim along with a renunciatory aim. In the caste system, it would make sense for the lower castes to aspire to be born in the upper castes since they didn’t get to enjoy the privileges in that part of society. It seems like the Brahmins would probably encourage those aims too since any sacrifice would need the help of a Brahmin and so in the process of aiming for a better life in the next birth, the lower castes allow the Brahmin to maintain his position by giving him the regard he looks for and at the same time, allow the Brahmin to generate the tapas he needs to attain moksha. For the upper castes, it would make sense that they aspire to attain moksha since they’ve probably had enough of the pains associated with a material life. In this way, the two methods give the two divided sections what they look for while maintaining the tradition in the long run (people still practice both methods).


  4. To answer the second question, omitting the definition of “religion” since it will make the case more complicated, I think it is important to know what causes the inconsistency first. According to Doniger, at least one of the reason that causes the inconsistency is the development of the society. Doniger states that “as the lower classes gained more money, time, and education, some of them had the resources to act on ideas […] and break them away from the Vedic world entirely (Doniger 180)”, and in order to response to the change in the society, the Brahmins “absorbed a great deal of the reuniciant ideal and came to epitomize one sort of renouncer (Doniger 186)”; that is to say that one of the possible reason for the occurrence of the inconsistency between the ideas of ritualistic life and renouncing life is that the credibility of religious texts used by Brahmins to rule their states was threatened by the development of other religious and philosophical ideas so that the Brahmins themselves adopt some of those ideas to reform and restore the texts’ credibility. If we approach from this perspective, then it seems that the inconsistency is indeed a problem. However, if we approach from another perspective, the inconsistency can be dealt. I think the question you proposed is similar to the question that Doniger attempts to deal with at the end of the eighth chapter, which is the conflict between mundane duties and renunciation. Among the five solutions given by her (Doniger 207-209), I think the first, fourth, and fifth ones can be helpful to answer your question. The first and the fourth ones can be used together that focusing on gaining good things in a future life is identical with aiming to escape rebirth since escaping from samsara can be deemed as the highest form of good things. In the meantime, since there is various forms of rebirth (Doniger 175), for a person who rebiths as an insect, it seems impossible for such a person to gain moksha at once so that gaining good things for a future life becomes foundation to acquire moksha. On the other hand, the five method also offers a solution that the relationship between gaining good things for a future life and acquiring moksha is hierarchical, and as long as most Hinduisms agree that people have free will, it is the practitioners’ own decision to choose which path they want according to their personal valuation. Hence, it seems that it is not incoherent.


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