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Vedas And Upanishads

Questions That Inspire INDIA
By Ram Lingam, April 2011 [[email protected]]

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The ultimate questions that inspire India are in India’s wisdom traditions. The  wisdom traditions spring from the ‘Upanishads’ which are found in the end  portion of the Vedas. The ‘Upanishads’ have such fascinating and stimulating questions  that they have inspired the East for more than 5000 years. What were those intriguing  questions of the ancient Indian minds that make India a land of perennial  philosophy?

In the sphere of religion and spirituality,  the ‘Upanishads’ collectively called as Vedānta is unique. The Upanishads were  not just the source of India’s  ancient knowledge traditions but produced a system of practical philosophy that  encouraged questioning, inquiry and reasoning leading to a discovery of the  truth. Upanishads being the oldest and the most authoritative scriptures of India are  interestingly presented in an inquiry based ‘Question-and-Answer’ conversation  format. This style of the Upanishads, in fact, even coincides with the modern ‘critical  thinking’ approach which is key to any scientific study. The key approach used  in the ‘Upanishads’ is based on scientific reasoning and not dogma.

About this scientific temper in Hindu  religion, the world renowned Vedānta teacher Swāmi Chinmayānanda remarks ‘…it  has been an immortal tradition among the Hindus to have open discussions  between the teacher and the taught, called Satsanga. This privilege is not  available in all religions of the world. In fact, Vedānta alone thus dares to  proclaim a perfect freedom for the intellect. It never trades upon the blind  faith of the seekers. In all other religions, faith is a great power and force,  and therefore, many of the intellectual imperfections in their Scriptures  cannot be completely answered; and the priests therein must necessarily check  the full freedom of the seekers to question their sacred texts.’

Upanishads form the very  core of Hindu philosophy. Traditionally, the number of Upanishads given is 108  of which 11 are classified as ‘principal’ Upanishads as they have been  commented through centuries by philosophers, especially by Ācharya Shankara.

The 11 major  Upanishads are ‘Isha Upanishad, Kena Upanishad, Katha Upanishad, Prashna  Upanishad, Mundaka Upanishad, Māndukya Upanishad, Taittiriya Upanishad,  Aitareya Upanishad, Chāndogya Upanishad, Svetāsvatara Upanishad and  Brhadāranyaka Upanishad’.

The Upanishads  are the very fuel to Hindu spiritual thought. In fact the national motto of  'Satyameva Jayate' (Truth alone prevails), accepted by both the government and  the people of India  constitutionally, is taken from the Mundaka Upanishad belonging to the Atharva  Veda.

The philosophical questioning in the  Upanishads were simply not the standard 5W’s and 1H (Who, What, When, Where,  Why and How). In fact they came out of much reflection. Thus questions were permitted  and presented logically in the knowledge tradition universally termed as the  path of knowledge - Gyān mārg. This path of inquiry (vichār) gets tread mostly  by those who have a natural intellectual inclination to think and analyse their  way, in their seeking. There is no question of blind faith or dogma in this  path as the teacher of the Upanishad points out the way in the most logical  manner that appeals to a rational intellect.

About this approach, the great Indian  philosopher Dr.S.Radhakrishnan observes “The Upanishads, though remote in time  from us, are not remote in thought. The Upanishads deal with questions which  arise when men begin to reflect seriously and attempt answers to them which are  not very different, except in their approach and emphasis from what we are now  inclined to accept… When we read them we cannot help being impressed by the exceptional  ability, earnestness and ripeness of mind of those who wrestled with these  ultimate questions”.

The questions in the Upanishads are not  the shallow curiosity type. The questions are far deeper – dealing with the  purpose of life, ways to get ever lasting joy, source of creation, God etc that  is churned out only after some serious reflection. Quite often in the  Upanishads, one finds directed questions asked by seekers of truth to the enlightened  teacher, initiating an illuminating dialogue about the higher truths as  experienced by the teacher.

Here is a sample of questions asked by  the intellectual seekers of ancient India.

In the Mundaka Upanishad Shaunaka, a householder asks sage Angirasa: "What is that knowing which all  others are known? Can we know the most fundamental knowledge for knowing  everything?”

In the Brhadāranyaka Upanishad, Maitreyi  asks her Sage husband Yagnavalkya: "Tell me, venerable Sir, of that  alone which you know to be the only means of  attaining Immortality."

The Kena Upanishad starts with the question: “What  activates our mind?  What is the mind of the mind? What is behind the  mind? What is behind our senses activating them?”

The young Nachiketa in the Katha  Upanishad asks Lord Yama: “What happens to a person after death? Some  say that he exists; some say that a person does not exist.”

Of the 6 questions in the Prashna Upanishad,  the first is asked by Kabandhi to Sage Pippalada, "Sir, from where are all  the creatures born?"

Unsurprisingly the  Holy Bhagavad Gita, which is considered as the essence of the Upanishads, also follows  the typical Upanishadic dialogue style wherein Arjuna asks some 12 questions to  Lord Krishna on topics of practical philosophy. Rooted in the tradition, Lord  Krishna too advises to Arjuna (in ch 4, v34) that the seeker of truth should  ask proper questions (pariprashnena) to the Guru.

Such is the tradition of philosophical questioning  in the highest of Hindu scriptures. The answers to the many questions on life abound  in the Upanishads, but are recommended to be best learnt under the feet of a  Guru.

Interestingly, this heritage of  questioning continues till today making Hindu philosophy a democratic system of  inquiry. Often we see our Indian Gurus, the world over, answering all sorts of  questions bombarded at them. Just check out You Tube for a range of questions to  contemporary Gurus like a Juggi Vasudev, HWL Poonja (Papaji), Osho Rajneesh, Nisargadatta  Maharaj, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or a Jiddu Krishnamurti.  The Upanishadic style still continues to  inspire.

Rām is from Mumbai,  India and has made New Zealand his home for more than a decade. He contributes  as a 'Heritage Columnist' for 'Indian Weekender' - a popular weekend  publication in New    Zealand. He is a keen Indology enthusiast  and has specific interest in the wisdom traditions and perennial philosophy of India.

Also read articles on Upanishads - http://www.esamskriti.com/essay-cloudtag/Upanishad.aspx

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