The Upanishads

On reading the Upanishads: they have a certain prestige in the modern world because on their face they are philosophical speculations and not divine revelation. There is no irrationality in them, just profound thought about the most basic issues. The prestige and apparent rationality come at a price, however. As the most sacred scriptures of Hinduism the Upanishads must be viewed as adequate to the world. If philosophical speculations are adequate, then the world is comprehensible by man using his own powers. The world must therefore be such as to allow full human comprehension.

What sort of world is that? The one presented by the Upanishads: an extremely simple world, not even one-dimensional, in which God, man, and everything else are all the same. Each of us can understand God and the world because each of us is God and the world, and salvation consists simply in recognizing the identity.

You make things rational by making them simple, and unless we are given access to a rationality greater than our own the world will be for us either like the world of the Upanishads, much simpler and less real than the world we actually live in, or it will be irrational, which would make our own reason an incomprehensible anomaly. The moral is that revelation is necessary for self-consistent thought that is adequate to our situation.

11 thoughts on “The Upanishads”

  1. “You make things rational by
    “You make things rational by making them simple.”
    Is modern science (say, quantum mechanics) really that simple? Or maybe it’s irrational? I doubt. I would rather say that _religions_ propose simple solutions to complex problems (moral or existential, for example). Simple solutions for simple people ;o)

  2. As part of modern physics
    As part of modern physics quantum mechanics attempts to reduce all phenomena to a very few principles that can be expressed extremely clearly and their consequences set forth deductively. So yes, I’d say it simplifies things enormously and is intended to do just that.

    It has limits, of course, for example its inability to make sense of any actual event (it only knows about probabilities). What would lead to irrationality therefore is to say that it or physics generally can adequately state all that is, that there is or can be a complete theory of everything.

    Religion is recognition that it matters that there can’t be a complete theory of everything, that we depend on things we can’t fully grasp. The point of my comment on the Upanishads is that a religion based on revelation makes sense of that situation better than one based on meditation and speculation. The latter leads either to an understanding of the world that is simple to the point of uselessness – for example, that All is One – or to irrationalism.

  3. For people brought up in a
    For people brought up in a society whose culture is based on a materialistic world view, the eastern religions, with their emphasis on the personal experience of what is spiritual in reality, can be a breakthrough. I do agree, though, that this experience can only be taken so far, and that much of what makes up a religious world view can only be apprehended “through a glass darkly.”
    Note too, that a mystic and monastic tradition was once also part of the Western churches – there is an overlap with the Eastern religions here.

  4. Except our liberal
    Except our liberal materialists seem to love Eastern religion, at least more than Christainity? Both deny that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead.

    The East treats reality as an illusion that can be escaped through meditation. Liberals treat human nature as an illusion that be can be escaped through social control and therapy.

  5. Eastern religions are often
    Eastern religions are often inclusive to the point of being considered simply philosophies and health techniques. Mahayana Buddhists, for example, would treat Jesus as a Buddha who spoke to a certain people at a certaint time to help them achieve enlightenment. And of course, certain branches of Zen and Yoga are “normal” elements of some health regimes.

    “All is one” simply echoes what liberals want to achieve for society. And Eastern thought has, with certain twists, the same ideals that liberals have without the “taint” of Christianity that Jim Carver noted. Secular humanism grew out of Christian humanism but to make it more inclusive to one civilization seeking out the thought of other civilizations that seems to mirror their own conclusions makes it possible to imagine that their thought is truly universal.

  6. I suppose in part the
    I suppose in part the interest in Eastern religions has to do with the ability to pick what you like when you are at a distance. You can take the doctrine that denies all distinctions without submitting yourself to a master or discipline.

  7. The key passage in Mr.
    The key passage in Mr. Kalb’s post on the Upanishads is: “Unless we are given access to a rationality greater than our own the world will be for us either … much simpler and less real than the world we actually live in, or it will be irrational…”

    This brings to mind the various forms of Eastern religion and meditation, such as Buddhism or the teachings of Krishnamurti, that emphasize the pure observation or “experiencing” of experience without adding any concepts of our own on top of the experience. The way of Christianity, by contrast, involves adding something on to our experience that is not already there. For example, to “abide in” Christ means that one is imagining or projecting the presence of Christ. The trick, of course, is that Christ really exists, and therefore this act of “faith” is really an act of participation in that which transcends us and provides an active meaning that the purely experiential or phenomenological world cannot provide.

    This may be the explanation for something that I first noticed in the ’70s when living among people pursuing a variety of Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism. The Buddhists did not just not believe in the personal God of Christianity; they also did not seem to believe in transcendent moral truth. There was this definite tendency among them to dismiss intellectual thought, to mock distinctions, to say platitudinously that “it’s all one.”

    Which brings us back to Mr. Kalb’s point: we need access to a rationality greater than our own, not just to find God, but even in order to think logically and coherently about the world.

  8. I recently discovered this
    I recently discovered this journalist who once wrote a pop Zen handbook and later converted to Christianity. I have no idea what his politics are, but he writes about his dillusionment with Buddhism:

    “According to my teachers, the world was a crummy place and people could not expect much real happiness; the best we could hope for was to find a way to adjust to all this misery and suffering. Hence the intense hours of meditation, designed to help us cast off all feelings of attachment to worldly constraints.

    “Yet, despite all the attractions, I slowly became disillusioned with Buddhism, and drifted away. I can recall several minor experiences that helped spark this feeling. Once I was talking to an American Buddhist friend in the city of Kyoto, one of the centres of Japanese Buddhism. He had just spent a considerable time living in a distant mountain temple that was so remote that in winter the priests had to ski for several hours to the nearest shops for supplies. My friend told me how, on one of these shopping expeditions, an avalanche had swept away two of the priests and killed them.

    “There was something that startled me about the matter-of-fact way in which he told me of this accident, and I questioned him more. He explained the deaths as if he were recounting the fact that the sun rises every morning, as if they were on the level of importance of, say, dead leaves falling from a tree. I had been taught that Buddhism regarded human existence in general as meaningless. But I still regarded individual human beings as precious, and was startled at what seemed to me a lack of love in the religion.

    “Another incident came one morning in Kyoto when I was researching my book. I visited the 600-year-old Golden Temple, one of Japan’s most beautiful religious buildings and a famous tourist sight. I was privileged to be able to enter parts of the gold-leafed temple that are normally off-limits to visitors. I sat with one of the priests beside a delicately manicured garden and a small lake, and we drank green tea together, ate traditional Kyoto cake delicacies and discussed Buddhism. It seemed to me at that time to be a small taste of paradise.

    “But that evening, in nearby Osaka, walking to catch a train, I passed through a park littered with rubbish. The park was apparently home to at least a dozen alcoholic, derelict tramps. They were lying around in tattered clothing, some sleeping, others singing and drinking from “one-cup” containers of cheap liquor. (This was a very rare sight in Japan, which is, of course, a prosperous country. In fact, in my 17 years there it was the only time I ever witnessed such a scene.)

    “But I could not help making a connection with my visit, just a few hours earlier, to the utopia of the Golden Temple, and I wondered what the priests there could offer the men in the park. It seemed to me they could only tell them that the world was a miserable place and that their lives were meaningless. But the men knew this already; perhaps that helped explain why they were alcoholics.”

  9. Well, you cannot expect much
    Well, you cannot expect much from _a journalist_. The guy was looking for “attractions” and wanted a religion/philosophy/worldview that would have many nice things to say. Christianity is much better at this than Buddhism, no doubt about that. But so what?

  10. Buddhism is a technique of
    Buddhism is a technique of salvation, so if what it offers doesn’t look like salvation that’s a reason to look elsewhere.

    The question as to truth is naturally what way of understanding things most does justice to the world as we find it to be.

  11. I find the original post to
    I find the original post to be misleading. The Upanishads are revealed texts. They are sruti, not smrti.

    Furthermore, while the Upanisads say that Atman is Brahman, this does not mean that everything is God on a conventional level.

    Lastly, to classify the Upanishads as rationalist texts is just wrong…


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