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?