A History of Sanskrit Literature/Chapter 8
The period in which the poetry of the Vedic Saṃhitās arose was followed by one which produced a totally different literary type—the theological treatises called Brāhmaṇas. It is characteristic of the form of these works that they are composed in prose, and of their matter that they deal with the sacrificial ceremonial. Their main object being to explain the sacred significance of the ritual to those who are already familiar with the sacrifice, the descriptions they give of it are not exhaustive, much being stated only in outline or omitted altogether. They are ritual text-books, which, however, in no way aim at furnishing a complete survey of the sacrificial ceremonial to those who do not know it already. Their contents may be classified under the three heads of practical sacrificial directions (vidhi), explanations (arthavāda), exegetical, mythological, or polemical, and theological or philosophical speculations on the nature of things (upanishad). Even those which have been preserved form quite an extensive literature by themselves; yet many others must have been lost, as appears from the numerous names of and quotations from Brāhmaṇas unknown to us occurring in those which are extant. They reflect the spirit of an age in which all intellectual activity is concentrated on the sacrifice, describing its ceremonies, discussing its value, speculating on its origin and significance. It is only reasonable to suppose that an epoch like this, which produced no other literary monuments, lasted for a considerable time. For though the Brāhmaṇas are on the whole uniform in character, differences of age are traceable in them. Next to the prose portions of the Yajurvedas, the Panchaviṃça and the Taittirīya are proved by their syntax and vocabulary to be the most archaic of the regular Brāhmaṇas. This conclusion is confirmed by the fact that the latter is, and the former is known to have been, accented. A more recent group is formed by the Jaiminīya, the Kaushītaki, and the Aitareya Brāhmaṇas. The first of these is probably the oldest, while the third seems, on linguistic grounds at least, to be the latest of the three. The Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa, again, is posterior to these. For it shows a distinct advance in matter; its use of the narrative tenses is later than that of the Aitareya; and its style is decidedly developed in comparison with all the above-mentioned Brāhmaṇas. It is, indeed, accented, but in a way which differs entirely from the regular Vedic method. Latest of all are the Gopatha Brāhmaṇa of the Atharva and the short Brāhmaṇas of the Sāmaveda.
In language the Brāhmaṇas are considerably more limited in the use of forms than the Rigveda. The subjunctive is, however, still employed, as well as a good many of the old infinitives. Their syntax, indeed, represents the oldest Indian stage even better than the Rigveda, chiefly of course owing to the restrictions imposed by metre on the style of the latter. The Brāhmaṇas contain some metrical pieces (gāthās), which differ from the prose in which they are imbedded by certain peculiarities of their own and by a more archaic character. Allied to these is a remarkable poem of this period, the Suparṇādhyāya, an attempt, after the age of living Vedic poetry had come to an end, to compose in the style of the Vedic hymns. It contains many Vedic forms, and is accented, but it betrays its true character not only by its many modern forms, but by numerous monstrosities due to unsuccessful imitation of the Vedic language.
A further development are the Āraṇyakas or "Forest Treatises," the later age of which is indicated both by the position they occupy at the end of the Brāhmaṇas and by their theosophical character. These works are generally represented as meant for the use of pious men who have retired to the forest and no longer perform sacrifices. According to the view of Professor Oldenberg, they are, however, rather treatises which, owing to the superior mystic sanctity of their contents, were intended to be communicated to the pupil by his teacher in the solitude of the forest instead of in the village.
In tone and content the Āraṇyakas form a transition to the Upanishads, which are either imbedded in them, or more usually form their concluding portion. The word upa-ni-shad (literally "sitting down beside") having first doubtless meant "confidential session," came to signify "secret or esoteric doctrine," because these works were taught to select pupils (probably towards the end of their apprenticeship) in lectures from which the wider circle was excluded. Being entirely devoted to theological and philosophical speculations on the nature of things, the Upanishads mark the last stage of development in the Brāhmaṇa literature. As they generally come at the end of the Brāhmaṇas, they are also called Vedānta ("end of the Veda"), a term later interpreted to mean "final goal of the Veda." "Revelation" (çruti) was regarded as including them, while the Sūtras belonged to the sphere of tradition (smṛiti). The subject-matter of all the old Upanishads is essentially the same—the doctrine of the nature of the Ātman or Brahma (the supreme soul). This fundamental theme was expounded in various ways by the different Vedic schools, of which the Upanishads were originally the dogmatic text-books, just as the Brāhmaṇas were their ritual text-books.
The Āraṇyakas and Upanishads represent a phase of language which on the whole closely approaches to classical Sanskrit, the oldest Upanishads occupying a position linguistically midway between the Brāhmaṇas and the Sūtras.
Of the two Brāhmaṇas attached to the Rigveda, the more important is the Aitareya. The extant text consists of forty chapters (adhyāya) divided into eight books called panchikās or "pentads," because containing five chapters each. That its last ten chapters were a later addition appears likely both from internal evidence and from the fact that the closely related Çānkhāyana Brāhmaṇa contains nothing corresponding to their subject-matter, which is dealt with in the Çānkhāyana Sūtra. The last three books would further appear to have been composed at a later date than the first five, since the perfect in the former is used as a narrative tense, while in the latter it still has its original present force, as in the oldest Brāhmaṇas. The essential part of this Brāhmaṇa deals with the soma sacrifice. It treats first (1-16) of the soma rite called Agnishṭoma, which lasts one day, then (17-18) of that called Gavāmayana, which lasts 360 days, and thirdly (19-24) of the Dvādaçāha or "twelve days' rite." The next part (25-32), which is concerned with the Agnihotra or "fire sacrifice" and other matters, has the character of a supplement. The last portion (33-40), dealing with the ceremonies of the inauguration of the king and with the position of his domestic priest, bears similar signs of lateness.
The other Brāhmaṇa of the Rigveda, which goes by the name of Kaushītaki as well as Çānkhāyana, consists of thirty chapters. Its subject-matter is, on the whole, the same as that of the original part of the Aitareya (i.-v.), but is wider. For in its opening chapters it goes through the setting up of the sacred fire (agni-ādhāna), the daily morning and evening sacrifice (agnihotra), the new and full moon ritual, and the four-monthly sacrifices. The Soma sacrifice, however, occupies the chief position even here. The more definite and methodical treatment of the ritual in the Kaushītaki would seem to indicate that this Brāhmaṇa was composed at a later date than the first five books of the Aitareya. Such a conclusion is, however, not altogether borne out by a comparison of the linguistic data of these two works. Professor Weber argues from the occurrence in one passage of Īçāna and Mahādeva as designations of the god who was later exclusively called Çiva, that the Kaushītaki Brāhmaṇa was composed at about the same time as the latest books of the White Yajur-veda and those parts of the Atharva-veda and of the Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa in which these appellations of the same god are found.
These Brāhmaṇas contain very few geographical data. From the way, however, in which the Aitareya mentions the Indian tribes, it may be safely inferred that this work had its origin in the country of the Kuru-Panchālas, in which, as we have seen, the Vedic ritual must have been developed, and the hymns of the Rigveda were probably collected in the existing Saṃhitā. From the Kaushītaki we learn that the study of language was specially cultivated in the north of India, and that students who returned from there were regarded as authorities on linguistic questions.
The chief human interest of these Brāhmaṇas lies in the numerous myths and legends which they contain. The longest and most remarkable of those found in the Aitareya is the story of Çunaḥçepa (Dog's-Tail), which forms the third chapter of Book VII. The childless King Hariçchandra vowed, if he should have a son, to sacrifice him to Varuṇa. But when his son Rohita was born, he kept putting off the fulfilment of his promise. At length, when the boy was grown up, his father, pressed by Varuṇa, prepared to perform the sacrifice. Rohita, however, escaped to the forest, where he wandered for six years, while his father was afflicted with dropsy by Varuṇa. At last he fell in with a starving Brahman, who consented to sell to him for a hundred cows his son Çunaḥçepa as a substitute. Varuṇa agreed, saying, "A Brahman is worth more than a Kshatriya." Çunaḥçepa was accordingly bound to the stake, and the sacrifice was about to proceed, when the victim prayed to various gods in succession. As he repeated one verse after the other, the fetters of Varuṇa began to fall off and the dropsical swelling of the king to diminish, till finally Çunaḥçepa was released and Hariçchandra was restored to health again.
The style of the prose in which the Aitareya is composed is crude, clumsy, abrupt, and elliptical. The following quotation from the stanzas interspersed in the story of Çunaḥçepa may serve as a specimen of the gāthās found in the Brāhmaṇas. These verses are addressed by a sage named Nārada to King Hariçchandra on the importance of having a son:—
- In him a father pays a debt
- And reaches immortality,
- When he beholds the countenance
- Of a son born to him alive.
- Than all the joy which living things
- In waters feel, in earth and fire,
- The happiness that in his son
- A father feels is greater far.
- At all times fathers by a son
- Much darkness, too, have passed beyond:
- In him the father's self is born,
- He wafts him to the other shore.
- Food is man's life and clothes afford protection,
- Gold gives him beauty, marriages bring cattle;
- His wife's a friend, his daughter causes pity:
- A son is like a light in highest heaven.
To the Aitareya Brāhmaṇa belongs the Aitareya Āraṇyaka. It consists of eighteen chapters, distributed unequally among five books. The last two books are composed in the Sūtra style, and are really to be regarded as belonging to the Sūtra literature. Four parts can be clearly distinguished in the first three books. Book I. deals with various liturgies of the Soma sacrifice from a purely ritual point of view. The first three chapters of Book II., on the other hand, are theosophical in character, containing speculations about the world-soul under the names of Prāṇa and Purusha. It is allied in matter to the Upanishads, some of its more valuable thoughts recurring, occasionally even word for word, in the Kaushītaki Upanishad. The third part consists of the remaining four sections of Book II., which form the regular Aitareya Upanishad. Finally, Book III. deals with the mystic and allegorical meaning of the three principal modes in which the Veda is recited in the Saṃhitā, Pada and Krama Pāṭhas, and of the various letters of the alphabet.
To the Kaushītaki Brāhmaṇa is attached the Kaushītaki Āraṇyaka . It consists of fifteen chapters. The first two of these correspond to Books I. and V. of the Aitareya Āraṇyaka, the seventh and eighth to Book III., while the intervening four chapters (3-6) form the Kaushītaki Upanishad. The latter is a long and very interesting Upanishad. It seems not improbably to have been added as an independent treatise to the completed Āraṇyaka, as it is not always found in the same part of the latter work in the manuscripts.
Brāhmaṇas belonging to two independent schools of the Sāmaveda have been preserved, those of the Tāṇḍins and of the Talavakāras or Jaiminīyas. Though several other works here claim the title of ritual text-books, only three are in reality Brāhmaṇas. The Brāhmaṇa of the Talavakāras, which for the most part is still unpublished, seems to consist of five books. The first three (unpublished) are mainly concerned with various parts of the sacrificial ceremonial. The fourth book, called the Upanishad Brāhmaṇa (probably "the Brāhmaṇa of mystic meanings"), besides all kinds of allegories of the Āraṇyaka order, two lists of teachers, a section about the origin of the vital airs (prāṇa) and about the sāvitrī stanza, contains the brief but important Kena Upanishad. Book V., entitled Ārsheya-Brāhmaṇa, is a short enumeration of the composers of the Sāmaveda. To the school of the Tāṇḍins belongs the Panchaviṃça ("twenty-five fold"), also called Tāṇḍya or Prauḍha, Brāhmaṇa, which, as the first name implies, consists of twenty-five books. It is concerned with the Soma sacrifices in general, ranging from the minor offerings to those which lasted a hundred days, or even several years. Besides many legends, it contains a minute description of sacrifices performed on the Sarasvatī and Dṛishadvatī. Though Kurukshetra is known to it, other geographical data which it contains point to the home of this Brāhmaṇa having lain farther east. Noteworthy among its contents are the so-called Vrātya-Stomas, which are sacrifices meant to enable Aryan but non-Brahmanical Indians to enter the Brahmanical order. A point of interest in this Brāhmaṇa is the bitter hostility which it displays towards the school of the Kaushītakins. The Shaḍviṃça Brāhmaṇa, though nominally an independent work, is in reality a supplement to the Panchaviṃça, of which, as its name implies, it forms the twenty-sixth book. The last of its six chapters is called the Adbhuta Brāhmaṇa, which is intended to obviate the evil effects of various extraordinary events or portents. Among such phenomena are mentioned images of the gods when they laugh, cry, sing, dance, perspire, crack, and so forth.
The other Brāhmaṇa of this school, the Chhāndogya Brāhmaṇa, is only to a slight extent a ritual text-book. It does not deal with the Soma sacrifice at all, but only with ceremonies relating to birth and marriage or prayers addressed to divine beings. These are the contents of only the first two "lessons" of this Brāhmaṇa of the Sāma theologians. The remaining eight lessons constitute the Chhāndogya Upanishad.
There are four other short works which, though bearing the name, are not really Brāhmaṇas. These are the Sāmavidhāna Brāhmaṇa, a treatise on the employment of chants for all kinds of superstitious purposes; the Devatādhyāya Brāhmaṇa, containing some statements about the deities of the various chants of the Sāmaveda; the Vaṃça Brāhmaṇa, which furnishes a genealogy of the teachers of the Sāmaveda; and, finally, the Saṃhitopanishad, which, like the third book of the Aitareya Āraṇyaka, treats of the way in which the Veda should be recited.
The Brāhmaṇas of the Sāmaveda are distinguished by the exaggerated and fantastic character of their mystical speculations. A prominent feature in them is the constant identification of various kinds of Sāmans or chants with all kinds of terrestrial and celestial objects. At the same time they contain much matter that is interesting from a historical point of view.
In the Black Yajurveda the prose portions of the various Saṃhitās form the only Brāhmaṇas in the Kaṭha and the Maitrāyaṇīya schools. In the Taittirīya school they form the oldest and most important Brāhmaṇa. Here we have also the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa as an independent work in three books. This, however, hardly differs in character from the Taittirīya Saṃhitā, being rather a continuation. It forms a supplement concerned with a few sacrifices omitted in the Saṃhitā, or handles, with greater fulness of detail, matters already dealt with. There is also a Taittirīya Āraṇyaka, which in its turn forms a supplement to the Brāhmaṇa. The last four of its ten sections constitute the two Upanishads of this school, vii.-ix. forming the Taittirīya Upanishad, and x. the Mahā-Nārāyaṇa Upanishad, also called the Yājnikī Upanishad. Excepting these four sections, the title of Brāhmaṇa or Āraṇyaka does not indicate a difference of content as compared with the Saṃhitā, but is due to late and artificial imitation of the other Vedas.
The last three sections of Book III. of the Brāhmaṇa, as well as the first two books of the Āraṇyaka, originally belonged to the school of the Kaṭhas, though they have not been preserved as part of the tradition of that school. The different origin of these parts is indicated by the absence of the change of y and v to iy and uv respectively, which otherwise prevails in the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa and Āraṇyaka. In one of these Kāṭhaka sections (Taitt. Br. iii. 11), by way of illustrating the significance of the particular fire called nāchiketa, the story is told of a boy, Nachiketas, who, on visiting the House of Death, was granted the fulfilment of three wishes by the god of the dead. On this story is based the Kāṭhaka Upanishad.
Though the Maitrāyaṇī Saṃhitā has no independent Brāhmaṇa, its fourth book, as consisting of explanations and supplements to the first three, is a kind of special Brāhmaṇa. Connected with this Saṃhitā, and in the manuscripts sometimes forming its second or its fifth book, is the Maitrāyaṇa (also called Maitrāyaṇīya and Maitri) Upanishad.
The ritual explanation of the White Yajurveda is to be found in extraordinary fulness in the Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa, the "Brāhmaṇa of the Hundred Paths," so called because it consists of one hundred lectures (adhyāya). This work is, next to the Rigveda, the most important production in the whole range of Vedic literature. Its text has come down in two recensions, those of the Mādhyaṃdina school, edited by Professor Weber, and of the Kāṇva school, which is in process of being edited by Professor Eggeling. The Mādhyaṃdina recension consists of fourteen books, while the Kāṇva has seventeen. The first nine of the former, corresponding to the original eighteen books of the Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā, doubtless form the oldest part. The fact that Book XII. is called madhyama, or "middle one," shows that the last five books (or possibly only X.-XIII.) were at one time regarded as a separate part of the Brāhmaṇa. Book X. treats of the mystery of the fire-altar (agnirahasya), XI. is a sort of recapitulation of the preceding ritual, while XII. and XIII. deal with various supplementary matters. The last book forms the Āraṇyaka, the six concluding chapters of which are the Bṛihadāraṇyaka Upanishad.
Books VI.-X. of the Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa occupy a peculiar position. Treating of the construction of the fire-altar, they recognise the teaching of Çāṇḍilya as their highest authority, Yājnavalkya not even being mentioned; while the peoples who are named, the Gāndhāras, Salvas, Kekayas, belong to the north-west. In the other books Yājnavalkya is the highest authority, while hardly any but Eastern peoples, or those of the middle of Hindustan, the Kuru-Panchālas, Kosalas, Videhas, Sṛinjayas, are named. That the original authorship of the five Çāṇḍilya books was different from that of the others is indicated by a number of linguistic differences, which the hand of a later editor failed to remove. Thus the use of the perfect as a narrative tense is unknown to the Çāṇḍilya books (as well as to XIII.).
The geographical data of the Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa point to the land of the Kuru-Panchālas being still the centre of Brahmanical culture. Janamejaya is here celebrated as a king of the Kurus, and the most renowned Brahmanical teacher of the age, Āruṇi, is expressly stated to have been a Panchāla. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Brahmanical system had by this time spread to the countries to the east of Madhyadeça, to Kosala, with its capital, Ayodhyā (Oudh), and Videha (Tirhut or Northern Behar), with its capital, Mithilā. The court of King Janaka of Videha was thronged with Brahmans from the Kuru-Panchāla country. The tournaments of argument which were here held form a prominent feature in the later books of the Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa. The hero of these is Yājnavalkya, who, himself a pupil of Āruṇi, is regarded as the chief spiritual authority in the Brāhmaṇa (excepting Books VI.-X.). Certain passages of the Brāhmaṇa render it highly probable that Yājnavalkya was a native of Videha. The fact that its leading authority, who thus appears to have belonged to this Eastern country, is represented as vanquishing the most distinguished teachers of the West in argument, points to the redaction of the White Yajurveda having taken place in this eastern region.
The Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa contains reminiscences of the days when the country of Videha was not as yet Brahmanised. Thus Book I. relates a legend in which three stages in the eastward migration of the Aryans can be clearly distinguished. Māṭhava, the king of Videgha (the older form of Videha), whose family priest was Gotama Rāhūgaṇa, was at one time on the Sarasvatī. Agni Vaiçvānara (here typical of Brahmanical culture) thence went burning along this earth towards the east, followed by Māṭhava and his priest, till he came to the river Sadānīra (probably the modern Gandak, a tributary running into the Ganges near Patna), which flows from the northern mountain, and which he did not burn over. This river Brahmans did not cross in former times, thinking "it has not been burnt over by Agni Vaiçvānara." At that time the land to the eastward was very uncultivated and marshy, but now many Brahmans are there, and it is highly cultivated, for the Brahmans have caused Agni to taste it through sacrifices. Māṭhava the Videgha then said to Agni, "Where am I to abide?" "To the east of this river be thy abode," he replied. Even now, the writer adds, this river forms the boundary between the Kosalas (Oudh) and the Videhas (Tirhut).
The Vājasaneyi school of the White Yajurveda evidently felt a sense of the superiority of their sacrificial lore, which grew up in these eastern countries. Blame is frequently expressed in the Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa of the Adhvaryu priests of the Charaka school. The latter is meant as a comprehensive term embracing the three older schools of the Black Yajurveda, the Kaṭhas, the Kapishṭhalas, and the Maitrāyaṇīyas.
As Buddhism first obtained a firm footing in Kosala and Videha, it is interesting to inquire in what relation the Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa stands to the beginnings of that doctrine. In this connection it is to be noted that the words Arhat, Çramana, and Pratibuddha occur here for the first time, but as yet without the technical sense which they have in Buddhistic literature. Again, in the lists of teachers given in the Brāhmaṇa mention is made with special frequency of the Gautamas, a family name used by the Çākyas of Kapilavastu, among whom Buddha was born. Certain allusions are also suggestive of the beginnings of the Sānkhya doctrine; for mention is several times made of a teacher called Āsuri, and according to tradition Āsuri is the name of a leading authority for the Sānkhya system. If we inquire as to how far the legends of our Brāhmaṇa contain the germs of the later epic tales, we find that there is indeed some slight connection. Janamejaya, the celebrated king of the Kurus in the Mahābhārata, is mentioned here for the first time. The Pāṇḍus, however, who proved victorious in the epic war, are not to be met with in this any more than in the other Brāhmaṇas; and Arjuna, the name of their chief, is still an appellation of Indra. But as the epic Arjuna is a son of Indra, his origin is doubtless to be traced to this epithet of Indra. Janaka, the famous king of Videha, is in all probability identical with the father of Sītā, the heroine of the Rāmāyaṇa.
Of two legends which furnished the classical poet Kālidāsa with the plots of two of his most famous dramas, one is told in detail, and the other is at least alluded to. The story of the love and separation of Purūravas and Urvaçī, already dimly shadowed forth in a hymn of the Rigveda, is here related with much more fulness; while Bharata, son of Duḥshanta and of the nymph Çakuntalā, also appears on the scene in this Brāhmaṇa.
A most interesting legend which reappears in the Mahābhārata, that of the Deluge, is here told for the first time in Indian literature, though it seems to be alluded to in the Atharva-veda, while it is known even to the Avesta. This myth is generally regarded as derived from a Semitic source. It tells how Manu once came into possession of a small fish, which asked him to rear it, and promised to save him from the coming flood. Having built a ship in accordance with the fish's advice, he entered it when the deluge arose, and was finally guided to the Northern Mountain by the fish, to whose horn he had tied his ship. Manu subsequently became the progenitor of mankind through his daughter. The Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa is thus a mine of important data and noteworthy narratives. Internal evidence shows it to belong to a late period of the Brāhmaṇa age. Its style, as compared with the earlier works of the same class, displays some progress towards facility and clearness. Its treatment of the sacrificial ceremonial, which is essentially the same in the Brāhmaṇa portions of the Black Yajurveda, is throughout more lucid and systematic. On the theosophic side, too, we find the idea of the unity in the universe more fully developed than in any other Brāhmaṇa work, while its Upanishad is the finest product of Vedic philosophy.
To the Atharva-veda is attached the Gopatha Brāhmaṇa, though it has no particular connection with that Saṃhitā. This Brāhmaṇa consists of two books, the first containing five chapters, the second six. Both parts are very late, for they were composed after the Vaitāna Sūtra and practically without any Atharvan tradition. The matter of the former half, while not corresponding or following the order of the sacrifice in any ritual text, is to a considerable extent original, the rest being borrowed from Books XI. and XII. of the Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa, besides a few passages from the Aitareya. The main motive of this portion is the glorification of the Atharva-veda and of the fourth or brahman priest. The mention of the god Çiva points to its belonging to the post-Vedic rather than to the Brāhmaṇa period. Its presupposing the Atharva-veda in twenty books, and containing grammatical matters of a very advanced type, are other signs of lateness. The latter half bears more the stamp of a regular Brāhmaṇa, being a fairly connected account of the ritual in the sacrificial order of the Vaitāna Çrauta Sūtra; but it is for the most part a compilation. The ordinary historical relation of Brāhmaṇā and Sūtra is here reversed, the second book of the Gopatha Brāhmaṇa being based on the Vaitāna Sūtra, which stands to it practically in the relation of a Saṃhitā. About two-thirds of its matter have already been shown to be taken from older texts. The Aitareya and Kaushītaki Brāhmaṇas have been chiefly exploited, and to a less extent the Maitrāyaṇī and Taittirīya Saṃhitās. A few passages are derived from the Çatapatha, and even the Panchaviṃça Brāhmaṇa.
Though the Upanishads generally form a part of the Brāhmaṇas, being a continuation of their speculative side (jñāna-kāṇḍa), they really represent a new religion, which is in virtual opposition to the ritual or practical side (karma-kāṇḍa). Their aim is no longer the obtainment of earthly happiness and afterwards bliss in the abode of Yama by sacrificing correctly to the gods, but release from mundane existence by the absorption of the individual soul in the world-soul through correct knowledge. Here, therefore, the sacrificial ceremonial has become useless and speculative knowledge all-important.
The essential theme of the Upanishads is the nature of the world-soul. Their conception of it represents the final stage in the development from the world-man, Purusha, of the Rigveda to the world-soul, Ātman; from the personal creator, Prajāpati, to the impersonal source of all being, Brahma. Ātman in the Rigveda means no more than "breath"; wind, for instance, being spoken of as the ātman of Varuṇa. In the Brāhmaṇas it came to mean "soul" or "self." In one of their speculations the prāṇas or "vital airs," which are supposed to be based on the ātman, are identified with the gods, and so an ātman comes to be attributed to the universe. In one of the later books of the Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa (X. vi. 3) this ātman which has already arrived at a high degree of abstraction, is said to "pervade this universe." Brahma (neuter) in the Rigveda signified nothing more than "prayer" or "devotion." But even in the oldest Brāhmaṇas it has come to have the sense of "universal holiness," as manifested in prayer, priest, and sacrifice. In the Upanishads it is the holy principle which animates nature. Having a long subsequent history, this word is a very epitome of the evolution of religious thought in India. These two conceptions, Ātman and Brahma, are commonly treated as synonymous in the Upanishads. But, strictly speaking, Brahma, the older term, represents the cosmical principle which pervades the universe, Ātman the psychical principle manifested in man; and the latter, as the known, is used to explain the former as the unknown. The Ātman under the name of the Eternal (aksharam) is thus described in the Bṛihadāraṇyaka Upanishad (III. viii. 8, 11):—
"It is not large, and not minute; not short, not long; without blood, without fat; without shadow, without darkness; without wind, without ether; not adhesive, not tangible; without smell, without taste; without eyes, ears, voice, or mind; without heat, breath, or mouth; without personal or family name; unaging, undying, without fear, immortal, dustless, not uncovered or covered; with nothing before, nothing behind, nothing within. It consumes no one and is consumed by no one. It is the unseen seer, the unheard hearer, the unthought thinker, the unknown knower. There is no other seer, no other hearer, no other thinker, no other knower. That is the Eternal in which space (ākāça) is woven and which is interwoven with it." Here, for the first time in the history of human thought, we find the Absolute grasped and proclaimed.
A poetical account of the nature of the Ātman is given by the Kāṭhaka Upanishad in the following stanzas:—
- That whence the sun's orb rises up,
- And that in which it sinks again:
- In it the gods are all contained,
- Beyond it none can ever pass (iv. 9).
- Its form can never be to sight apparent,
- Not any one may with his eye behold it:
- By heart and mind and soul alone they grasp it,
- And those who know it thus become immortal (vi. 9).
- Since not by speech and not by thought,
- Not by the eye can it be reached:
- How else may it be understood
- But only when one says "it is" ? (vi. 12).
The place of the more personal Prajāpati is taken in the Upanishads by the Ātman as a creative power. Thus the Bṛihadāraṇyaka (I. iv.) relates that in the beginning the Ātman or the Brahma was this universe. It was afraid in its loneliness and felt no pleasure. Desiring a second being, it became man and woman, whence the human race was produced. It then proceeded to produce male and female animals in a similar way; finally creating water, fire, the gods, and so forth. The author then proceeds in a more exalted strain:—
"It (the Ātman) is here all-pervading down to the tips of the nails. One does not see it any more than a razor hidden in its case or fire in its receptacle. For it does not appear as a whole. When it breathes, it is called breath; when it speaks, voice; when it hears, ear; when it thinks, mind. These are merely the names of its activities. He who worships the one or the other of these, has not (correct) knowledge. . . . One should worship it as the Self. For in it all these (breath, etc.) become one."
In one of the later Upanishads, the Çvetāçvatara (iv. 10), the notion, so prominent in the later Vedānta system, that the material world is an illusion (māyā), is first met with. The world is here explained as an illusion produced by Brahma as a conjuror (māyin). This notion is, however, inherent even in the oldest Upanishads. It is virtually identical with the teaching of Plato that the things of experience are only the shadow of the real things, and with the teaching of Kant, that they are only phenomena of the thing in itself.
The great fundamental doctrine of the Upanishads is the identity of the individual ātman with the world Ātman. It is most forcibly expressed in a frequently repeated sentence of the Chhāndogya Upanishad (vi. 8-16): "This whole world consists of it: that is the Real, that is the Soul, that art thou, O Çvetaketu." In that famous formula, "That art thou" (tat tvam asi), all the teachings of the Upanishads are summed up. The Bṛihadāraṇyaka (I. iv. 6) expresses the same doctrine thus: "Whoever knows this, 'I am brahma' (aham brahma asmi), becomes the All. Even the gods are not able to prevent him from becoming it. For he becomes their Self (ātman)."
This identity was already recognised in the Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa (X. vi. 3): "Even as the smallest granule of millet, so is this golden Purusha in the heart. . . . That self of the spirit is my self: on passing from hence I shall obtain that Self."
We find everywhere in these treatises a restless striving to grasp the true nature of the pantheistic Self, now through one metaphor, now through another. Thus (Bṛih. Up. II. iv.) the wise Yājnavalkya, about to renounce the world and retire to the forest, replies to the question of his wife, Maitreyī, with the words: "As a lump of salt thrown into the water would dissolve and could not be taken out again, while the water, wherever tasted, would be salt, so is this great being endless, unlimited, simply compacted of cognition. A rising out of these elements, it disappears again in them. After death there is no consciousness;" for, as he further explains, when the duality on which consciousness is based disappears, consciousness must necessarily cease.
In another passage of the same Upanishad (II. i. 20) we read: "Just as the spider goes out of itself by means of its thread, as tiny sparks leap out of the fire, so from the Ātman issue all vital airs, all worlds, all gods, all beings."
Here, again, is a stanza from the Muṇḍaka (III. ii. 8):—
- As rivers flow and disappear at last
- In ocean's waters, name and form renouncing,
- So, too, the sage, released from name and form,
- Is merged in the divine and highest spirit.
In a passage of the Bṛihadāraṇyaka (III. vii.) Yājnavalkya describes the Ātman as the "inner guide" (antaryāmin): "Who is in all beings, different from all beings, who guides all beings within, that is thy Self, the inward guide, immortal."
The same Upanishad contains an interesting conversation, in which King Ajātaçatru of Kāçi (Benares) instructs the Brahman, Bālāki Gārgya, that Brahma is not the spirit (purusha) which is in sun, moon, wind, and other natural phenomena, or even in the (waking) soul (ātman), but is either the dreaming soul, which is creative, assuming any form at pleasure, or, in the highest stage, the soul in dreamless sleep, for here all phenomena have disappeared. This is the first and the last condition of Brahma, in which no world exists, all material existence being only the phantasms of the dreaming world-soul.
Of somewhat similar purport is a passage of the Chhāndogya (viii. 7-12), where Prajāpati is represented as teaching the nature of the Ātman in three stages. The soul in the body as reflected in a mirror or water is first identified with Brahma, then the dreaming soul, and, lastly, the soul in dreamless sleep.
How generally accepted the pantheistic theory must have become by the time the disputations at the court of King Janaka took place, is indicated by the form in which questions are put. Thus two different sages in the Bṛihadāraṇyaka (iii. 4, 5) successively ask Yājnavalkya in the same words: "Explain to us the Brahma which is manifest and not hidden, the Ātman that dwells in everything."
With the doctrine that true knowledge led to supreme bliss by the absorption of the individual soul in Brahma went hand in hand the theory of transmigration (saṃsāra). That theory is developed in the oldest Upanishads; it must have been firmly established by the time Buddhism arose, for Buddha accepted it without question. Its earliest form is found in the Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa, where the notion of being born again after death and dying repeatedly is coupled with that of retribution. Thus it is here said that those who have correct knowledge and perform a certain sacrifice are born again after death for immortality, while those who have not such knowledge and do not perform this sacrifice are reborn again and again, becoming the prey of Death. The notion here expressed does not go beyond repeated births and deaths in the next world. It is transformed to the doctrine of transmigration in the Upanishads by supposing rebirth to take place in this world. In the Bṛihadāraṇyaka we further meet with the beginnings of the doctrine of karma, or "action," which regulates the new birth, and makes it depend on a man's own deeds. When the body returns to the elements, nothing of the individuality is here said to remain but the karma, according to which a man becomes good or bad. This is, perhaps, the germ of the Buddhistic doctrine, which, though denying the existence of soul altogether, allows karma to continue after death and to determine the next birth.
The most important and detailed account of the theory of transmigration which we possess from Vedic times is supplied by the Chhāndogya Upanishad. The forest ascetic possessed of knowledge and faith, it is here said, after death enters the devayāna, the "path of the gods," which leads to absorption in Brahma, while the householder who has performed sacrifice and good works goes by the pitṛiyāṇa or "path of the Fathers" to the moon, where he remains till the consequences of his actions are exhausted. He then returns to earth, being first born again as a plant and afterwards as a man of one of the three highest castes. Here we have a double retribution, first in the next world, then by transmigration in this. The former is a survival of the old Vedic belief about the future life. The wicked are born again as outcasts (chaṇḍālas), dogs or swine.
The account of the Bṛihadāraṇyaka (VI. ii. 15-16) is similar. Those who have true knowledge and faith pass through the world of the gods and the sun to the world of Brahma, whence there is no return. Those who practise sacrifice and good works pass through the world of the Fathers to the moon, whence they return to earth, being born again as men. Others become birds, beasts, and reptiles.
The view of the Kaushītaki Upanishad (i. 2-3) is somewhat different. Here all who die go to the moon, whence some go by the "path of the Fathers" to Brahma, while others return to various forms of earthly existence, ranging from man to worm, according to the quality of their works and the degree of their knowledge.
The Kāṭhaka, one of the most remarkable and beautiful of the Upanishads, treats the question of life after death in the form of a legend. Nachiketas, a young Brahman, visits the realm of Yama, who offers him the choice of three boons. For the third he chooses the answer to the question, whether man exists after death or no. Death replies: "Even the gods have doubted about this; it is a subtle point; choose another boon." After vain efforts to evade the question by offering Nachiketas earthly power and riches, Yama at last yields to his persistence and reveals the secret. Life and death, he explains, are only different phases of development. True knowledge, which consists in recognising the identity of the individual soul with the world soul, raises its possessor beyond the reach of death:—
- When every passion vanishes
- That nestles in the human heart,
- Then man gains immortality,
- Then Brahma is obtained by him (vi. 14).
The story of the temptation of Nachiketas to choose the goods of this world in preference to the highest knowledge is probably the prototype of the legend of the temptation of Buddha by Māra or Death. Both by resisting the temptation obtain enlightenment. It must not of course be supposed that the Upanishads, either as a whole or individually, offer a complete and consistent conception of the world logically developed. They are rather a mixture of half-poetical, half-philosophical fancies, of dialogues and disputations dealing tentatively with metaphysical questions. Their speculations were only later reduced to a system in the Vedānta philosophy. The earliest of them can hardly be dated later than about 600 B.C., since some important doctrines first met with in them are presupposed by Buddhism. They may be divided chronologically, on internal evidence, into four classes. The oldest group, consisting, in chronological order, of the Bṛihadāraṇyaka, Chhāndogya, Taittirīya, Aitareya, Kaushītaki, is written in prose which still suffers from the awkwardness of the Brāhmaṇa style. A transition is formed by the Kena, which is partly in verse and partly in prose, to a decidedly later class, the Kāṭhaka, Īçā, Çvetāçvatara, Muṇḍaka, Mahānārāyaṇa, which are metrical, and in which the Upanishad doctrine is no longer developing, but has become fixed. These are more attractive from the literary point of view. Even those of the older class acquire a peculiar charm from their liveliness, enthusiasm, and freedom from pedantry, while their language often rises to the level of eloquence. The third class, comprising the Praçna, Maitrāyaṇīya, and Māṇḍūkya, reverts to the use of prose, which is, however, of a much less archaic type than that of the first class, and approaches that of classical Sanskrit writers. The fourth class consists of the later Atharvan Upanishads, some of which are composed in prose, others in verse.
The Aitareya, one of the shortest of the Upanishads (extending to only about four octavo pages), consists of three chapters. The first represents the world as a creation of the Ātman (also called Brahma), and man as its highest manifestation. It is based on the Purusha hymn of the Rigveda, but the primeval man is in the Upanishad described as having been produced by the Ātman from the waters which it created. The Ātman is here said to occupy three abodes in man, the senses, mind, and heart, to which respectively correspond the three conditions of waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. The second chapter treats of the threefold birth of the Ātman. The end of transmigration is salvation, which is represented as an immortal existence in heaven. The last chapter dealing with the nature of the Ātman states that "consciousness (prajnā) is Brahma."
The Kaushītaki Upanishad is a treatise of considerable length divided into four chapters. The first deals with the two paths traversed by souls after death in connection with transmigration; the second with Prāṇa or life as a symbol of the Ātman. The last two, while discussing the doctrine of Brahma, contain a disquisition about the dependence of the objects of sense on the organs of sense, and of the latter on unconscious life (prāṇa) and conscious life (prajnātmā). Those who aim at redeeming knowledge are therefore admonished not to seek after objects or subjective faculties, but only the subject of cognition and action, which is described with much power as the highest god, and at the same time as the Ātman within us.
The Upanishads of the Sāmaveda start from the sāman or chant, just as those of the Rigveda from the uktha or hymn recited by the Hotṛi priest, in order, by interpreting it allegorically, to arrive at a knowledge of the Ātman or Brahma. The fact that the Upanishads have the same basis, which is, moreover, largely treated in a similar manner, leads to the conclusion that the various Vedic schools found a common body of oral tradition which they shaped into dogmatic texts-books or Upanishads in their own way.
Thus the Chhāndogya, which is equal in importance, and only slightly inferior in extent, to the Bṛihadāraṇyaka, bears clear traces, like the latter, of being made up of collections of floating materials. Each of its eight chapters forms an independent whole, followed by supplementary pieces often but slightly connected with the main subject-matter.
The first two chapters consist of mystical interpretations of the sāman and its chief part, called Udgītha ("loud song"). A supplement to the second chapter treats, among other subjects, of the origin of the syllable om, and of the three stages of religious life, those of the Brahman pupil, the householder, and the ascetic (to which later the religious mendicant was added as a fourth). The third chapter in the main deals with Brahma as the sun of the universe, the natural sun being its manifestation. The infinite Brahma is further described as dwelling, whole and undivided, in the heart of man. The way in which Brahma is to be attained is then described, and the great fundamental dogma of the identity of Brahma with the Ātman (or, as we might say, of God and Soul) is declared. The chapter concludes with a myth which forms a connecting link between the cosmogonic conceptions of the Rigveda and those of the law-book of Manu. The fourth chapter, containing discussions about wind, breath, and other phenomena connected with Brahma, also teaches how the soul makes its way to Brahma after death. The first half of chapter v. is almost identical with the beginning of chapter vi. of the Bṛihadāraṇyaka. It is chiefly noteworthy for the theory of transmigration which it contains. The second half of the chapter is important as the earliest statement of the doctrine that the manifold world is unreal. The sat by desire produced from itself the three primary elements, heat, water, food (the later number being five—ether, air, fire, water, earth). As individual soul (jīva-ātman) it entered into these, which, by certain partial combinations called "triplication," became various products (vikāra) or phenomena. But the latter are a mere name. Sat is the only reality, it is the Ātman: "Thou art that." Chapter vii. enumerates sixteen forms in which Brahma may be adored, rising by gradation from nāman "name," to bhūman, "infinity," which is the all-in-all and the Ātman within us. The first half of the last chapter discusses the Ātman in the heart and the universe, as well as how to attain it. The concluding portion of the chapter distinguishes the false from the true Ātman, illustrated by the three stages in which it appears—in the material body, in dreaming, and in sound sleep. In the latter stage we have the true Ātman, in which the distinction between subject and object has disappeared.
To the Sāmaveda also belongs a very short treatise which was long called the Talavakāra Upanishad, from the school to which it was attached, but later, when it became separated from that school, received the name of Kena, from its initial word. It consists of two distinct parts. The second, composed in prose and much older, describes the relation of the Vedic gods to Brahma, representing them as deriving their power from and entirely dependent on the latter. The first part, which is metrical and belongs to the period of fully developed Vedānta doctrine, distinguishes from the qualified Brahma, which is an object of worship, the unqualified Brahma, which is unknowable:—
- To it no eye can penetrate,
- Nor speech nor thought can ever reach:
- It rests unknown; we cannot see
- How any one may teach it us.
The various Upanishads of the Black Yajurveda all bear the stamp of lateness. The Maitrāyaṇa is a prose work of considerable extent, in which occasional stanzas are interspersed. It consists of seven chapters, the seventh and the concluding eight sections of the sixth forming a supplement. The fact that it retains the orthographical and euphonic peculiarities of the Maitrāyaṇa school, gives this Upanishad an archaic appearance. But its many quotations from other Upanishads, the occurrence of several late words, the developed Sānkhya doctrine presupposed by it, distinct references to anti-Vedic heretical schools, all combine to render the late character of this work undoubted. It is, in fact, a summing up of the old Upanishad doctrines with an admixture of ideas derived from the Sānkhya system and from Buddhism. The main body of the treatise expounds the nature of the Ātman, communicated to King Bṛihadratha of the race of Ikshvāku (probably identical with the king of that name mentioned in the Rāmāyaṇa), who declaims at some length on the misery and transitoriness of earthly existence. Though pessimism is not unknown to the old Upanishads, it is much more pronounced here, doubtless in consequence of Sānkhya and Buddhistic influence.
The subject is treated in the form of three questions. The answer to the first, how the Ātman enters the body, is that Prajāpati enters in the form of the five vital airs in order to animate the lifeless bodies created by him. The second question is, How does the supreme soul become the individual soul (bhūtātman)? This is answered rather in accordance with the Sānkhya than the Vedānta doctrine. Overcome by the three qualities of matter (prakṛiti), the Ātman, forgetting its real nature, becomes involved in self-consciousness and transmigration. The third question is, How is deliverance from this state of misery possible? This is answered in conformity with neither Vedānta nor Sānkhya doctrine, but in a reactionary spirit. Only those who observe the old requirements of Brahmanism, the rules of caste and the religious orders (āçramas), are declared capable of attaining salvation by knowledge, penance, and meditation on Brahma. The chief gods, that is to say, the triad of the Brāhmaṇa period, Fire, Wind, Sun, the three abstractions, Time, Breath, Food, and the three popular gods, Brahmā, Rudra (i.e. Çiva), and Vishṇu are explained as manifestations of Brahma.
The remainder of this Upanishad is supplementary, but contains several passages of considerable interest. We have here a cosmogonic myth, like those of the Brāhmaṇas, in which the three qualities of matter, Tamas, Rajas, Sattva, are connected with Rudra, Brahmā, and Vishṇu, and which is in other respects very remarkable as a connecting link between the philosophy of the Rigveda and the later Sānkhya system. The sun is further represented as the external, and prāṇa (breath) as the internal, symbol of the Ātman, their worship being recommended by means of the sacred syllable om, the three "utterances" (vyāhṛitis) bhūr, bhuvaḥ, svar, and the famous Sāvitrī stanza. As a means of attaining Brahma we find a recommendation of Yoga or the ascetic practices leading to a state of mental concentration and bordering on trance. The information we here receive of these practices is still undeveloped compared with the later system. In addition to the three conditions of Brahma, waking, dreaming, and deep sleep, mention is made of a fourth (turīya) and highest stage. The Upanishad concludes with the declaration that the Ātman entered the world of duality because it wished to taste both truth and illusion.
The Kāṭhaka deals with the legend of Nachiketas, which is told in the Kāṭhaka portion of the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa, and a knowledge of which it presupposes. This is indicated by the fact that it begins with the same words as the Brāhmaṇa story. The treatise appears to have consisted originally of the first only of its two chapters. For the second, with its more developed notions about Yoga and its much more pronounced view as to the unreality of phenomena, looks like a later addition. The first contains an introductory narrative, an account of the Ātman, of its embodiment and final return by means of Yoga. The second chapter, though less well arranged, on the whole corresponds in matter with the first. Its fourth section, while discussing the nature of the Ātman, identifies both soul (purusha) and matter (prakṛiti) with it. The fifth section deals with the manifestation of the Ātman in the world, and especially in man. The way in which it at the same time remains outside them in its full integrity and is not affected by the suffering of living beings, is strikingly illustrated by the analogy of both light and air, which pervade space and yet embrace every object, and of the sun, the eye of the universe, which remains free from the blemishes of all other eyes outside of it. In the last section Yoga is taught to be the means of attaining the highest goal. The gradation of mental faculties here described is of great interest for the history of the Sānkhya and Yoga system. An unconscious contradiction runs through this discussion, inasmuch as though the Ātman is regarded as the all-in-all, a sharp contrast is drawn between soul and matter. It is the contradiction between the later Vedānta and the Sānkhya-Yoga systems of philosphy.
According to its own statement, the Çvetāçvatara Upanishad derives its name from an individual author, and the tradition which attributes it to one of the schools of the Black Yajurveda hardly seems to have a sufficient foundation. Its confused arrangement, the irregularities and arbitrary changes of its metres, the number of interpolated quotations which it contains, make the assumption likely that the work in its present form is not the work of a single author. In its present form it is certainly later than the Kāṭhaka, since it contains several passages which must be referred to that work, besides many stanzas borrowed from it with or without variation. Its lateness is further indicated by the developed theory of Yoga which it contains, besides the more or less definite form in which it exhibits various Vedānta doctrines either unknown to or only foreshadowed in the earlier Upanishads. Among these may be mentioned the destruction of the world by Brahma at the end of a cosmic age (kalpa), as well as its periodic renewal out of Brahma, and especially the explanation of the world as an illusion (māyā) produced by Brahma. At the same time the author shows a strange predilection for the personified forms of Brahma as Savitṛi, Īçāna, or Rudra. Though Çiva has not yet become the name of Rudra, its frequent use as an adjective connected with the latter shows that it is in course of becoming fixed as the proper name of the highest god. In this Upanishad we meet with a number of the terms and fundamental notions of the Sānkhya, though the point of view is thoroughly Vedāntist; matter (prakṛiti), for instance, being represented as an illusion produced by Brahma.
To the White Yajurveda is attached the longest, and, beside the Chhāndogya, the most important of the Upanishads. It bears even clearer traces than that work of being a conglomerate of what must originally have been separate treatises. It is divided into three parts, each containing two chapters. The last part is designated, even in the tradition of the commentaries, as a supplement (Khila-kāṇḍa), a statement fully borne out by the contents. That the first and second parts were also originally independent of each other is sufficiently proved by both containing the legend of Yājnavalkya and his two wives in almost identical words throughout. To each of these parts (as well as to Book x. of the Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa) a successive list (vaṃça) of teachers is attached. A comparison of these lists seems to justify the conclusion that the first part (called Madhukāṇḍa) and the second (Yājnavalkya-kāṇḍa) existed during nine generations as independent Upanishads within the school of the White Yajurveda, and were then combined by a teacher named Āgniveçya; the third part, which consists of all kinds of supplementary matter, being subsequently added. These lists further make the conclusion probable that the leading teachers of the ritual tradition (Brāhmaṇas) were different from those of the philosophical tradition (Upanishads).
Beginning with an allegorical interpretation of the most important sacrifice, the Açvamedha (horse-sacrifice), as the universe, the first chapter proceeds to deal with prāṇa (breath) as a symbol of soul, and then with the creation of the world out of the Ātman or Brahma, insisting on the dependence of all existence on the Supreme Soul, which appears in every individual as his self. The polemical attitude adopted against the worship of the gods is characteristic, showing that the passage belongs to an early period, in which the doctrine of the superiority of the Ātman to the gods was still asserting itself. The next chapter deals with the nature of the Ātman and its manifestations, purusha and prāṇa.
The second part of the Upanishad consists of four philosophical discussions, in which Yājnavalkya is the chief speaker. The first (iii. 1-9) is a great disputation, in which the sage proves his superiority to nine successive interlocutors. One of the most interesting conclusions here arrived at is that Brahma is theoretically unknowable, but can be comprehended practically. The second discourse is a dialogue between King Janaka and Yājnavalkya, in which the latter shows the untenableness of six definitions set up by other teachers as to the nature of Brahma; for instance, that it is identical with Breath or Mind. He finally declares that the Ātman can only be described negatively, being intangible, indestructible, independent, immovable. The third discourse (iv. 3-4) is another dialogue between Janaka and Yājnavalkya. It presents a picture of the soul in the conditions of waking, dreaming, deep sleep, dying, transmigration, and salvation. For wealth of illustration, fervour of conviction, beauty and elevation of thought, this piece is unequalled in the Upanishads or any other work of Indian literature. Its literary effect is heightened by the numerous stanzas with which it is interspersed. These are, however, doubtless later additions. The dreaming soul is thus described:—
- Leaving its lower nest in breath's protection,
- And upward from that nest, immortal, soaring,
- Where'er it lists it roves about immortal,
- The golden-pinioned only swan of spirit (IV. iii. 13).
- It roves in dream condition up and downward,
- Divinely many shapes and forms assuming (ib. 14).
Then follows an account of the dreamless state of the soul:—
As a falcon or an eagle, having flown about in the air, exhausted folds together its wings and prepares to alight, so the spirit hastes to that condition in which, asleep, it feels no desire and sees no dream (19).
This is its essential form, in which it rises above desire, is free from evil and without fear. For as one embraced by a beloved woman wots not of anything without or within, so also the soul embraced by the cognitional Self wots not of anything without or within (21).
With regard to the souls of those who are not saved, the view of the writer appears to be that after death they enter a new body immediately and without any intervening retribution in the other world, in exact accordance with their intellectual and moral quality. As a caterpillar, when it has reached the point of a leaf, makes a new beginning and draws itself across, so the soul, after casting off the body and letting go ignorance, makes a new beginning and draws itself across (IV. iv. 3).
As a goldsmith takes the material of an image and hammers out of it another newer and more beautiful form, so also the soul after casting off the body and letting go ignorance, creates for itself another newer and more beautiful form, either that of the Fathers or the Gandharvas or the Gods, or Prajāpati or Brahma, or other beings (IV. iv. 4).
But the vital airs of him who is saved, who knows himself to be identical with Brahma, do not depart, for he is absorbed in Brahma and is Brahma.
As a serpent's skin, dead and cast off, lies upon an ant-hill, so his body then lies; but that which is bodiless and immortal, the life, is pure Brahma, is pure light (IV. iv. 7).
The fourth discourse is a dialogue between Yājnavalkya and his wife Maitreyī, before the former, about to renounce the world, retires to the solitude of the forest. There are several indications that it is a secondary recension of the same conversation occurring in a previous chapter (II. iv.).
The first chapter of the third or supplementary part consists of fifteen sections, which are often quite short, are mostly unconnected in matter, and appear to be of very different age. The second chapter, however, forms a long and important treatise (identical with that found in the Chhāndogya) on the doctrine of transmigration. The views here expressed are so much at variance with those of Yājnavalkya that this text must have originated in another Vedic school, and have been loosely attached to this Upanishad owing to the peculiar importance of its contents. The preceding and following section, which are connected with it, and are also found in the Chhāndogya, must have been added at the same time.
Not only is the longest Upanishad attached to the White Yajurveda, but also one of the very shortest, consisting of only eighteen stanzas. This is the Īçā, which is so called from its initial word. Though forming the last chapter of the Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā, it belongs to a rather late period. It is about contemporaneous with the latest parts of the Bṛihadāraṇyaka, is more developed in many points than the Kāṭhaka, but seems to be older than the Çvetāçvatara. Its leading motive is to contrast him who knows himself to be the same as the Ātman with him who does not possess true knowledge. It affords an excellent survey of the fundamental doctrines of the Vedānta philosophy.
A large and indefinite number of Upanishads is attributed to the Atharva-veda, but the most authoritative list recognises twenty-seven altogether. They are for the most part of very late origin, being post-Vedic, and, all but three, contemporaneous with the Purāṇas. One of them is actually a Muhammadan treatise entitled the Alla Upanishad! The older Upanishads which belong to the first three Vedas were, with a few exceptions like the Çvetāçvatara, the dogmatic text-books of actual Vedic schools, and received their names from those schools, being connected with and supplementary to the ritual Brāhmaṇas. The Upanishads of the Atharva-veda, on the other hand, are with few exceptions like the Māṇḍūkya and the Jābāla, no longer connected with Vedic schools, but derive their names from their subject-matter or some other circumstance. They appear for the most part to represent the views of theosophic, mystic, ascetic, or sectarian associations, who wished to have an Upanishad of their own in imitation of the old Vedic schools. They became attached to the Atharva-veda not from any internal connection, but partly because the followers of the Atharva-veda desired to become possessed of dogmatic text-books of their own, and partly because the fourth Veda was not protected from the intrusion of foreign elements by the watchfulness of religious guilds like the old Vedic schools.
The fundamental doctrine common to all the Upanishads of the Atharva-veda is developed by most of them in various special directions. They may accordingly be divided into four categories which run chronologically parallel with one another, each containing relatively old and late productions. The first group, as directly investigating the nature of the Ātman, has a scope similar to that of the Upanishads of the other Vedas, and goes no further than the latter in developing its main thesis. The next group, taking the fundamental doctrine for granted, treats of absorption in the Ātman through ascetic meditation (yoga) based on the component parts of the sacred syllable om. These Upanishads are almost without exception composed in verse and are quite short, consisting on the average of about twenty stanzas. In the third category the life of the religious mendicant (sannyāsin), as a practical consequence of the Upanishad doctrine, is recommended and described. These Upanishads, too, are short, but are written in prose, though with an admixture of verse. The last group is sectarian in character, interpreting the popular gods Çiva (under various names, such as Īçāna, Maheçvara, Mahādeva) and Vishṇu (as Nārāyaṇa and Nṛisiṃha or "Man-lion") as personifications of the Ātman. The different Avatārs of Vishṇu are here regarded as human manifestations of the Ātman.
The oldest and most important of these Atharvan Upanishads, as representing the Vedānta doctrine most faithfully, are the Muṇḍaka, the Praçna, and to a less degree the Māṇḍūkya. The first two come nearest to the Upanishads of the older Vedas, and are much quoted by Bādarāyaṇa and Çankara, the great authorities of the later Vedānta philosophy. They are the only original and legitimate Upanishads of the Atharva. The Muṇḍaka derives its name from being the Upanishad of the tonsured (muṇḍa), an association of ascetics who shaved their heads, as the Buddhist monks did later. It is one of the most popular of the Upanishads, not owing to the originality of its contents, which are for the most part derived from older texts, but owing to the purity with which it reproduces the old Vedānta doctrine, and the beauty of the stanzas in which it is composed. It presupposes, above all, the Chhāndogya Upanishad, and in all probability the Bṛihadāraṇyaka, the Taittirīya, and the Kāṭhaka. Having several important passages in common with the Çvetāçvatara and the Bṛihannārāyaṇa of the Black Yajurveda, it probably belongs to the same epoch, coming between the two in order of time. It consists of three parts, which, speaking generally, deal respectively with the preparations for the knowledge of Brahma, the doctrine of Brahma, and the way to Brahma.
The Praçna Upanishad, written in prose and apparently belonging to the Pippalāda recension of the Atharva-veda, is so called because it treats, in the form of questions (praçna) addressed by six students of Brahma to the sage Pippalāda, six main points of the Vedānta doctrine. These questions concern the origin of matter and life (prāṇa) from Prajāpati; the superiority of life (prāṇa) above the other vital powers; the nature and divisions of the vital powers; dreaming and dreamless sleep; meditation on the syllable om; and the sixteen parts of man.
The Māṇḍūkya is a very short prose Upanishad, which would hardly fill two pages of the present book. Though bearing the name of a half-forgotten school of the Rigveda, it is reckoned among the Upanishads of the Atharva-veda. It must date from a considerably later time than the prose Upanishads of the three older Vedas, with the unmethodical treatment and prolixity of which its precision and conciseness are in marked contrast. It has many points of contact with the Maitrāyaṇa Upanishad, to which it seems to be posterior. It appears, however, to be older than the rest of the treatises which form the fourth class of the Upanishads of the Atharva-veda. Thus it distinguishes only three morae in the syllable om, and not yet three and a half. The fundamental idea of this Upanishad is that the sacred syllable is an expression of the universe. It is somewhat remarkable that this work is not quoted by Çankara; nevertheless, it not only exercised a great influence on several Upanishads of the Atharva-veda, but was used more than any other Upanishad by the author of the well-known later epitome of the Vedānta doctrine, the Vedānta-sāra.
It is, however, chiefly important as having given rise to one of the most remarkable products of Indian philosophy, the Kārikā of Gauḍapāda. This work consists of more than 200 stanzas divided into four parts, the first of which includes the Māṇḍūkya Upanishad. The esteem in which the Kārikā was held is indicated by the fact that its parts are reckoned as four Upanishads. There is much probability in the assumption that its author is identical with Gauḍapāda, the teacher of Govinda, whose pupil was the great Vedāntist commentator, Çankara (800 A.D.). The point of view of the latter is the same essentially as that of the author of the Kārikā, and many of the thoughts and figures which begin to appear in the earlier work are in common use in Çankara's commentaries. Çankara may, in fact, be said to have reduced the doctrines of Gauḍapāda to a system, as did Plato those of Parmenides. Indeed, the two leading ideas which pervade the Indian poem, viz., that there is no duality (advaita) and no becoming (ajāti), are, as Professor Deussen points out, identical with those of the Greek philosopher.
The first part of the Kārikā is practically a metrical paraphrase of the Māṇḍūkya Upanishad. Peculiar to it is the statement that the world is not an illusion or a development in any sense, but the very nature or essence (svabhāva) of Brahma, just as the rays, which are all the same (i.e. light), are not different from the sun. The remainder of the poem is independent of the Upanishad and goes far beyond its doctrines. The second part has the special title of Vaitathya or the "Falseness" of the doctrine of reality. Just as a rope is in the dark mistaken for a snake, so the Ātman in the darkness of ignorance is mistaken for the world. Every attempt to imagine the Ātman under empirical forms is futile, for every one's idea of it is dependent on his experience of the world.
The third part is entitled Advaita, "Non-duality." The identity of the Supreme Soul (Ātman) with the individual soul (jīva) is illustrated by comparison with space, and that part of it which is contained in a jar. Arguing against the theory of genesis and plurality, the poet lays down the axiom that nothing can become different from its own nature. The production of the existent (sato janma) is impossible, for that would be produced which already exists. The production of the non-existent (asato janma) is also impossible, for the non-existent is never produced, any more than the son of a barren woman. The last part is entitled Alātaçānti, or "Extinction of the firebrand (circle)," so called from an ingenious comparison made to explain how plurality and genesis seem to exist in the world. If a stick which is glowing at one end is waved about, fiery lines or circles are produced without anything being added to or issuing from the single burning point. The fiery line or circle exists only in the consciousness (vijnāna). So, too, the many phenomena of the world are merely the vibrations of the consciousness, which is one.