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.
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