UPANISHADS – A Series Begins

Medha Editor’s Note:

We are pleased to offer to Medhavis a new series on Upanishads, the creme-de-la-creme of Indic Philosophy, which has influenced the thought & living in India & other influenced cultures for millennia. This series is authored by Dr S K Balasubramanian. The editor stumbled on some of his writings at an e-group and was struck by the calibre of both knowledge & ability to explain the intricacies & details.

Medhavis will, it is hoped, read with interest & comment & interact with the author, who has indicated willingness to be engaged. Over to the author-  


Apologia: I am not a conventional scholar or a spiritualist. I would rather fit the description: “scholar among rakes and a rake among scholars.” I belong to nowhere.

I welcome critical comments on the facts but please keep abuses out of the way. The latter do not settle any question.

I am giving only the highlights. I have no illusion that my comments are enlightening. The idea is to arouse the interest of busy lay persons so that they may pursue the matter more deeply at leisure.

This is the introductory part of, hopefully, a long series.



Preamble: I have not studied the Upanishads under any guru. This has two effects. My views are free from conventional cliché and jargon. Most of the readers might belong to my category and are as likely to be ignorant of the fine print. Their interest would be focused on what the scriptures have to say on daily life rather than on the after-life.

The second effect is that my interpretations do not have ideological loci. By this I mean there is no preconceived notion into which explanations have to be fitted. I have no constraints nor am I confined to any shell. My views are free ranging. There is nothing ‘procrustean’ in my approach. Procrustes was a character in Greek mythology. He had a cot into which he would fit a visitor. Protruding parts would be chopped off and parts falling short would be stretched till they fit the cot.

 “Nothing is sacrosanct and nothing is taboo or inconvenient”, is my way. In spite of this “no-holds-barred” approach, the Upanishads have retained my respect. That is the measure of their timelessness.

Life is a process with only one full stop. Life does not follow any formula.

I would illustrate my approach by its singularly successful example: the Ganga syndrome. The Ganga episode occurs in Mahabharata. Ganga bore several children to the king Shantanu. She killed every infant she gave birth to. The king stopped her when she was about to kill the last one who became Bhishma.

Mahabharata gives its own explanation to exonerate the river goddess Ganga. I took it differently. It might indicate an irregular streak in human behavior. Confirmation of my view came when several women were found to have killed their offspring, infant and grown up. In fact what was once considered inexplicable ‘sudden infant death syndrome’ or ‘crib death’ is now regarded as engineered death, brought about by mentally unstable mothers. Ganga typified that behavior.

I go a step further and postulate that Mahabharata is not about didactical morality but about existential reality. That is why it is said that there is nothing that is not covered by Mahabharata. This does not relate to modern inventions like a supersonic-plane. It relates to human behavior.

The relevance of Mahabharata in our current affairs means that human behavior had not changed over the ages. The motivations, the tactics and the consequences are unchanged. We behave in the same manner as our ancestors of long ago. This is understandable.

So when I quote the Gita it may look like the devil quoting the scriptures. I quote because the problems had not changed over the ages. Krishna’s solutions may still have validity and may be applicable. This is not to say that one should follow the scriptures verbatim. Words have no importance as the Gita admits (II, 42) but their sense or spirit is still valid.

Sophistry solves nothing. It serves to freeze or fossilize attitudes. Humanity deserves better. That is what makes Hindu scriptures relevant today.

Vedanta: The Upanishads are collectively known as Vedanta.

A relevant question is “who should study Vedanta” that literally means beyond the “Veda”. “Veda” might refer to the scriptures held in reverence and also to secular knowledge.

The inclusion of secular knowledge means that some ‘knowledge’ is necessary to understand and tackle Vedanta. I would add that some real-life experience is necessary to understand the Upanishads. Child ‘prodigies’ are excluded.

Shankara was an exception. Even with Shankara one finds a streak of pessimism in two of his works, Bhajagovindam and Vivekachudamani, as a result of overexposure. Shankara was in fact adjudged “inadequately experienced” in life during his debate with Mandana Mishra. 

To avoid cynicism arising from sophistry, only those who have had some experience in life should study Vedanta. 

A certain degree of objectivity is also essential. I would say, “Objectivity is the operative word of Vedanta.”

Dogmas and resultant single-track assertions are not acceptable in the study of Upanishads.

We have a phrase in Tamil that I find impossible to render as pithily in English. A vegetable has to spend time on the plant to become ripe. It is no good if it ripens too early in its life cycle. ‘Immaturely ripened’ individuals are not advised for the study of Vedanta.

Recently a respected journal rejected an article of mine saying it was not ‘nuanced’ enough after the editor accepted that I had raised “interesting” points. I took it to mean that I had stepped on some sensitive toes. I might be doing it here too

Facts alone are important.  Sensitive toes are not.

As an Upanishad says, Satyameva jayate na anrtam or “reality prevails over delusions”.

The Sources: Sri Ramakrishna mission had published all the important Upanishads in Sanskrit original with English translation. Shankara’s commentaries are also included in the mission’s publications.

I have depended upon these publications.

I do not depend upon Shankara. He was a towering genius but I do not like to be subsumed by his imposing personality. Any blame in interpretation devolves only on me.

Besides, the process of thinking in English is different from thinking in Sanskrit. Right English idiom is necessary to convey the proper sense. I have been subjected to several modern day influences that I hold dear. I try to synthesize these with the scriptural message.

It is for this reason I do not restrain myself to be literal. I try to convey the correct spirit.

Anant Pai had done a great service by giving episodes from the Upanishads in his Amar Chitra Katha series. I do not consider it below my dignity to recommend these ‘comics’ published by India Book House. They are as accurate as the original and more easily understood. The comics should not be dismissed as “childish”.

A wide-bodied friend used to say that his words carry his weight and mine will carry only my weight. Ultimately one’s own “weight” is the determining factor. So be it. The reader has to acquire his own weight.

The Upanishads: The Upanishads proceed stepwise in their inquiry into the nature of the Ultimate Reality. They have to be, and are, strictly logical. All viewpoints are considered and addressed before reaching any conclusion.

The Gita is considered as the summation of all the Upanishads. The latter are regarded as the milch cow and the Gita the milk from the cow. Gita deals with existential reality and the Upanishads with the ultimate. Often the two intermix. 

The Upanishads come in different sizes ranging from Mandukya with only 12 shlokas to the massive treatises like the Brihadaaranyaka and Chaandogya. Some are direct like the Ishopanishad and some are argumentative like the Kena and Prasna. Kathopanishad is lively with a story. Swami Vivekananda was said to have liked it.

The Mahaavakya: Each Upanishad has at least one mahaavaakya that may be called the theme statement. The Mahaavaakya sets the tone of the Upanishad.

Taittiriya Upanishad may be recited like the Veda. I had learnt the recitation from a cassette put out by the Chinmaya mission.

Shanti patha or peace invocation is the prayer for blessing before the start of the study. Peace is a precondition for meditation and the prayer is often for that purpose. Shanti patha is more an invocation than a petition. Every Upanishad has a shanti patha. They also share a shanti patha with others. The invocation shows what we might expect.

The plan would to present the shanti patha followed by a discussion of the mahaavaakya, if any, followed by translation of all or main shlokas. The choice is mine. There is no particular prescription or guideline.

We shall start with Ishopanishad in the next instalment.


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