Book Reviews

A Study of Eternal Sparks

Swami Paramananda’s Upanishads: A Study of Eternal Sparks
by P.V. Laxmiprasad,
HSRA Publications, Bangalore, India, 2021 ISBN: 978-93-5506-052-5

Swami Paramananmda’s Upanishads: A Study of Eternal Sparks is a scholarly contribution by Dr.P.V. Laxmiprasad. He begins with a quote by Sri Aurobindo as: “OM is this syllable. This syllable is the Brahman, this syllable is the Supreme. He who knoweth the imperishable OM, what so he willeth, it is his. This support is the best, this support is the highest; and when a man knoweth it, he is greatened in the world of Brahman. The omniscient is not born, nor dies, nor has he come into being from anywhere, nor is he anyone”

Laxmiprasad divides the book into two components namely 1) Hindu Philosophy 2) Eternal Sparks in the Upanishads. It is recalled that Swami Paramananda (1884-1940) was the youngest disciple of Swami Vivekananda. He joined the Rama Krishna Mission at a very at a very young age of 16 and got his initial training under Swami Vivekananda. In 1906, he accompanied Swami Abhedananda to New York to assist the latter in managing the activities of the Vedanta Centre of New York.

According to Swami Paramananda, “Upanishad, also spelled Upanisad, Sanskrit Upaniá¹£ad (“Connection”), one of four of texts that together each of the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of most Hindu traditions. Each of the four Vedas—the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, and Atharvaveda—consists of a Samhita (a “collection” of hymns or sacred formulas); a liturgical prose exposition called a Brahmana; and two appendices to the Brahmana—an Aranyaka (“Book of the Wilderness”), which contains esoteric doctrines meant to be studied by the initiated in the forest or some other remote place, and an Upanishad, which speculates about the ontological connection between humanity and the cosmos. Because the Upanishads constitute the concluding portions of the Vedas, they are called vedanta (“the conclusion of the Vedas”), and they serve as the foundational texts in the theological discourses of many Hindu traditions that are also known as Vedanta. The Upanishads’ impact on later theological and religious expression and the abiding interest they have attracted are greater than that of any of the other Vedic texts.

The Upanishadsbecame the subject of many commentaries and sub-commentaries, and texts modelled after them and bearing the name “Upanishad” were composed through the centuries up to about 1400 CE to support a variety of theological positions. The earliest extant Upanishads date roughly from the middle of the 1st millennium BCE. Western scholars have called them the first “philosophical treatises” of India, though they neither contain any systematic philosophical reflections nor present a unified doctrine. Indeed, the material they contain would not be considered philosophical in the modern, academic sense. For example, the Upanishads describe rites or performances designed to grant power or to obtain a particular kind of son or daughter.

The Upanishadsare the philosophical-religious texts of Hinduism (also known as Sanatan Dharma meaning “Eternal Order” or “Eternal Path”) which develop and explain the fundamental tenets of the religion. The name is translated as to “sit down closely” as one would to listen attentively to instruction by a teacher or other authority figure. At the same time, Upanishad has also been interpreted to mean “secret teaching” or “revealing underlying truth”. The truths addressed are the concepts expressed in the religious texts known as the Vedas which orthodox Hindus consider the revealed knowledge of creation and the operation of the universe.

The word veda means “knowledge” and the four Vedas are thought to express the fundamental knowledge of human existence. These works are considered Shruti in Hinduism meaning “what is heard” as they are thought to have emanated from the vibrations of the universe and heard by the sages who composed them orally before they were written down between c. 1500 - c. 500 BCE. The Upanishads are considered the “end of the Vedas” (Vedanta) in that they expand upon, explain, and develop the Vedic concepts through narrative dialogues and, in so doing, encourage one to engage with said concepts on a personal, spiritual level.

There are between 180-200 Upanishads but the best known are the 13 which are embedded in the four Vedas known as:

•  Rig Veda
•  Sama Veda
•  Yajur Veda
•  Atharva Veda

The Rig Veda is the oldest and the Sama Veda and Yajur Veda draw from it directly while the Atharva Veda takes a different course. All four, however, maintain the same vision, and the Upanishads for each of these address the themes and concepts expressed. The 13 Upanishads are:

•  Brhadaranyaka Upanishad
•  Chandogya Upanishad
•  Taittiriya Upanishad
•  Aitereya Upanishad
•  Kausitaki Upanishad
•  Kena Upanishad
•  Katha Upanishad
•  Isha Upanishad
•  Svetasvatara Upanishad
•  Mundaka Upanishad
•  Prashna Upanishad
•  Maitri Upanishad
•  Mandukya Upanishad

Their origin and dating are considered unknown by some schools of thought but, generally, their composition is dated to between c. 800 - c. 500 BCE for the first six (Brhadaranyaka to Kena) with later dates for the last seven (Katha to Mandukya). Some are attributed to a given sage while others are anonymous. Many orthodox Hindus, however, regard the Upanishads, like the Vedas, as Shruti and believe they have always existed. In this view, the works were not so much composed as received and recorded.

The Upanishads deal with ritual observance and the individual's place in the universe and, in doing so, develop the fundamental concepts of the Supreme over Soul (God) known as Brahman (who both created and is the universe) and that of the Atman, the individual's higher self, whose goal in life is union with Brahman. These works defined, and continue to define, the essential tenets of Hinduism but the earliest of them would also influence the development of Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and, after their translation to European languages in the 19th century CE, philosophical thought around the world.

There are two differing claims regarding the origin of Vedic thought. One claims that it was developed in the Indus Valleyby the people of the Harappan Civilization (c. 7000-600 BCE). Their religious concepts were then exported to Central Asia and returned later (c. 3000 BCE) during the so-called Indo-Aryan Migration. The second school of thought, more commonly accepted, is that the religious concepts were developed in Central Asia by the People who referred to themselves as Aryans (meaning “noble” or “free” and having nothing to do with race) who then migrated to the Indus Valley, merged their beliefs and culture with the indigenous people, and developed the religion which would become Sanatan Dharma. The term 'Hinduism' is an exonym (a name given by others to a concept, practice, people, or place) from the Persians who referred to the peoples living across the Indus River as Sindus.

The second claim has wider scholarly support because proponents are able to cite similarities between the early religious beliefs of the Indo-Iranians (who settled in the region of modern-day Iran) and the Indo-Aryans who migrated to the Indus Valley. These two groups are thought to have initially been part of a larger nomadic group which then separated toward different destinations. Whichever claim one supports, the religious concepts expressed by the Vedas were maintained by oral tradition until they were written down during the so-called Vedic Period of c. 1500 - c. 500 BCE in the Indo-Aryan language of Sanskrit.

The central texts of the Vedas themselves, as noted, are understood to be the received messages of the Universe, but embedded in them are practical measures for living a life in harmony with the order the Universe revealed. The texts which deal with this aspect, which are also considered Shruti by orthodox Hindus, are:

•  Aranyakas – rituals and observances
•  Brahmanas – commentaries on the rituals
•  Samhitas – benedictions, mantras, prayers
•  Upanishads – philosophical dialogues in narrative form

Taken together, the Vedas present a unified vision of the Eternal Order revealed by the Universe and how one is supposed to live in it. This vision was developed through the school of thought known as Brahmanism which recognized the many gods of the Hindu pantheon as aspects of a single God – Brahman – who both caused and was the Universe. Brahmanism would eventually develop into what is known as Classical Hinduism, and the Upanishads are the written record of the development of Hindu philosophical thought.

Central Concepts of Upanishads

Brahman was recognized as incomprehensible to a human being, which is why It could only be apprehended even somewhat through the avatars of the Hindu gods, but was also understood as the Source of Life which had given birth to humanity (essentially each person's father and mother). It was recognized as impossible for a mere human to come close to the enormity which was Brahman but seemed equally impossible for Brahman to have created people to suffer this kind of separation from the Divine.

The Vedic sages solved the problem by shifting their focus from Brahman to an individual human being. People obviously moved and ate food and felt emotions and saw sights but, the sages asked, what was it that enabled them to do these things? People had minds, which caused them to think, and souls, which caused them to feel, but this did not seem to explain what made a human being a human being.

The sages' solution was the recognition of a higher self within the self – the Atman – which was a part of Brahman each individual carried within. The mind and soul of an individual could not grasp Brahman intellectually or emotionally but the Atman could do both because the Atman was Brahman; everyone carried a spark of the Divine within them and one's goal in life was to reunite that spark with the source from which it had come.

The realization of the Atman led to the obvious conclusion that duality was an illusion. There was no separation between human beings and God – there was only the illusion of separation – and, in this same way, there was no separation between individuals. Everyone had this same divine essence within them, and everyone was on the same path, in the same ordered universe, toward the same destination.

There is, therefore, no need to look for God because God is already dwelling within. This concept is best expressed in the Chandogya Upanishad by the phrase Tat Tvam Asi –“Thou Art That”– one is already what one wants to become; one only has to realize it.

The goal of life, then, is self-actualization – to become completely aware of and in touch with one's higher self – so that one could live as closely as possible in accordance with the Eternal Order of the Universe and, after death, return home to complete union with Brahman. Each individual was thought to have been placed on earth for a specific purpose which was their duty (dharma) which they needed to perform with the right action (karma) in order to achieve self-actualization. Evil was caused by ignorance of the good and the resulting failure to perform one's dharma through the proper karma.

Karma, if not discharged correctly, resulted in suffering – whether in this life or one's next – and so suffering was ultimately the individual's own fault. The concept of karma was never intended as a universal deterministic rule which fated an individual to a set course; it always meant that one's actions had consequences which led to certain predictable results. The individual's management of his or her own karma led one to success or failure, satisfaction or sorrow, not any divine decree.

The transmigration of souls (reincarnation) was considered a given in that, if a person failed to perform their dharma in one life, their karma (past actions) would require them to return to try again. This cycle of rebirth and death was known as samsara and one found liberation (moksha) from samsara through the self-actualization which united the Atman with Brahman.

The author presents that the Upanishads are religious and philosophical treatises. They constitute the last phase of the Vedic revelation. They represent the knowledge of Brahman (Brahma-Vidya). What is this world? Who am I? What becomes of me after death? – Such questions are asked and answered in these Upanishads.

The essential theme of the Upanshads is the nature of the world and God. Already in the hymns of the Rigveda, we notice here and there a shift of emphasis from the innumerable gods to the one Infinite as in the famous passage. ‘Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti ‘. This becomes more pronounced in the Upanishads and is very well illustrated here. The doctrine of true knowledge and salvation are major subjects of the Upanishadic philosophy. These treatises mark the culmination of the earlier line of investigation into the nature of ultimate reality.

The Upanishadswere later translated into Latin by the great French philologist and Orientalist Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (l. 1731-1805 CE) who first brought them to the attention of European scholars in 1804 CE. The first translation into English was done by the British Sanskrit scholar and Orientalist Henry Thomas Colebrooke (l. 1765-1837 CE) who translated the Aitereya Upanishad in 1805 CE. At about this same time, the Indian reformer Ram Mohan Roy (l. 1772-1833 CE) was translating the works from Sanskrit into Bengali as part of his initiative to demystify Hinduism and return it to the people in what he considered its proper form.

Through these efforts, the Upanishads drew considerable attention throughout the early part of the 19th century CE until they were championed by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (l. 1788-1860 CE) who declared them the equal of any philosophical text in the world. Eastern philosophy and religion had already been introduced to the West through the Transcendentalist Movement of the early 19th century CE but Schopenhauer's admiration for the Upanishads encouraged a revival of interest which became more pronounced when 20th-century CE writers began drawing on the Upanishads in their work.

The American poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965 CE) used the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad in his masterpiece The Wasteland (1922 CE), introducing the work to an entirely new generation. The Upanishads would become more popular, however, after the 1944 CE publication of the novel The Razor's Edge by the British author Somerset Maugham (l. 1874-1965 CE) who used a line from the Katha Upanishad as the epigraph to the book and the Upanishads as a whole as central to the plot and development of the main character.

The Upanishads, originally written during 5th century BC and first translated into English in early 19th century, are early philosophical texts of the Hindu religion and contain within them the tenets upon which the central philosophical concepts of the religion are based. A doctrine on Hindu thought and culture and perhaps the most important literature from ancient India, The Upanishads expound on principles, like Samsara, Brahman, atman, Karma, dharma and moksha and form the core of Indian philosophy.

Along with the Bhagavadgita and the Brahmasutra, the Upanishads provide a foundation for the several schools of Vedanta. This version is an English translation by Swami Paramananda as part of his mission to spread the eastern teachings of Hinduism to the Western world. Paramananda was a Swami and one of the early Indian teachers who went to the US to spread the Vedanta philosophy and religion. He was a mystic, poet and an innovator in spiritual community living. Using his experience as a religious scholar, Paramananda sensitively and successfully translated the wisdom into the foremost of Western languages. The purpose of Upanishads is to “know thyself and follow the wisdom within the text to lead a wholesome and spiritually centered life”.

The Upanishads are, according to Sri Aurobindo, the supreme work of the Indian mind and should be so, that the highest self-expression of its genius, its sublimest poetry, its greatest creation of the thought and word should be not a literary or poetical masterpiece of the ordinary kind, but a large flood of spiritual revelation of this direct and profound character, is a significant fact, evidence of a unique mentality and unusual turn of spirit. The Upanishads are at once profound religious scriptures, — for they are a record of the deepest spiritual experiences, — documents of revelatory and intuitive philosophy of an inexhaustible light, power and largeness and, whether written in verse or cadenced prose, spiritual poems of an absolute, an unfailing inspiration inevitable in phrase, wonderful in rhythm and expression.

In the work that Laxmiprasad studied for this critical write-up, he finds the introduction by Swami Paramananda really interesting. He cites the various sources, resources and reasons for sustaining the interest of the Upanishads for ages. He writes that the Upanishads represent the loftiest heights of ancient Indo-Aryan thought and culture (Introduction, 11). They are according to him, form the wisdom portion or Gnana-Kanda of the Vedas, as contrasted with the karma- Kanda or sacrificial portion. In each of the four great Vedas, --known as Rik, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva – there is a large portion which deals predominantly with rituals and ceremonials, and which has for its aim to show man how by the path of right action he may prepare himself for higher attainment.

There is in each Veda another portion called the Upanishad which deals wholly with the essentials of philosophic discrimination and ultimate spiritual vision. “For this reason, the Upanishads are known as the Vedanta, that is the end of or final goal of wisdom (Veda, wisdom: anta, end)” (Introduction, 12). The term Upanishad has been variously interpreted. Many people claim that it is a compound Sanskrit word Upa-ni-shad, signifying “sitting at the feet or in the presence of a teacher”; while according to other authorities it means “to shatter” or “to destroy” the fetters of ignorance. There are technical reasons for selecting this name, it was chosen undoubtedly to give a picture of aspiring seekers “approaching” some wise seer in the seclusion of an Himalayan forest, in order to learn of him the profoundest truths regarding the cosmic universe and God.

According to Swami Paramananda, “Because these teachings were usually given in the stillness of some distant retreat, where the noises of the world could not disturb the tranquility of the contemplative life, they are known also as Aranyakas, Forest Books. Another reason for this name may be found in the fact that they were intended especially for the Vanaprasthas (those whose, having fulfilled all their duties in the world, had retired to the forest to devote themselves to spiritual study)” (13).

As for the form, Swami Paramananda writes that the teaching naturally assumed was that of dialogue, a form later adopted by Plato and other Greek Philosophers. He goes to write that “as nothing was written and all illustration was transmitted orally, the Upanishads are called ‘Srutis’, “what is heard”. The term was also used in the sense of revealed, the Upanishads being regarded as direct revelations of God; while the Smritis, minor Scriptures “recorded through memory, ” became traditional works of purely human origin” (13). It is a significant fact that nowhere in the Upanishads is mention made of any author or recorder. There is no date for the origin of the Upanishads to be quoted in the books. Neither date could be fixed because the written text does not limit their antiquity.

The word ‘Sruti’ makes that clear to us. The teaching probably existed ages before it was set down in any written form. The text itself bears evidence of this, because not infrequently in a dialogue between teacher and disciple the teacher quotes from earlier Scriptures now unknown to us. Further, Swami Parammananda observes that the value of the Upanishads, however, does not rest upon their antiquity, but upon the vital message they contain for all times and all peoples. It is interesting to note that there is nothing peculiarly racial or local in them. “The ennobling lessons are as practical for the modern world as they were for the Indo-Aryans of the earliest Vedic age.

Their teachings have been summed up in two Maha-Vakyam or ‘great sayings’ --- Tat twamasi (That thou art) and Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman). This oneness of Soul and God lies at the very root of all Vedic thought, and it is this dominant ideal of the unity of all life and the oneness of truth which makes the study of the Upanishads especially beneficial at the current times. God is Sachchidananda.

He manifests Himself as infinite existence of which the essentiality is consciousness, of which again the essentiality is bliss, is self-delight. The following verse is quoted: In the IX verse, Swami distinguished between Avidya and Vidya. He writes that People get into darker world of ignorance and soon they fall down. Those who really worship knowledge would get into a world of Vidya. They enter into blind darkness who worships Avidya (ignorance and delusion); they fall, as it were, into greater darkness who worships Vidya (knowledge) (35). Laxmiprasad aptly sums up the sparks of wisdom from what MK Gandhi felt about Upanishads.

He observes that Mahatma Gandhi found the first verse of the Upanishad profoundly appealing as he felt that it contained the message of universal brotherhood- not only brotherhood of human beings but of all living things. “The Upanishad begins with the majestic and triumphant declaration that the whole universe is divine and sacred because it is inside Brahman and enveloped by Him.

Swami Paramananda’s Upanishads contain Vedic wisdom and eternal sparks that light ancient knowledge for ages and generations. A prominent text to the core of Hinduism, Swami Paramananda rightly presented those verses which are perennial sources of contribution. Laxmiprasad touched upon those eternal sparks from Swami Paramananda’s Upanishads. It will be a significant contribution in the annals of ancient literature. Swami Paramananda deserves accolades for a brilliant rendering of English version. The interpretations of the text and the selection of verses go together. It must be read by everyone. Indeed, Laxmiprasad has shown his mettle as a scholar through this work of extraordinary merit.



More by :  Dr. Sr. Candy D' Cunha

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Views: 711      Comments: 2

Comment Good effort. Keep it up

07-May-2023 01:12 AM

Comment An interesting review of a well-studied book. Congratulations to the author and the reviewer.

Purushotham, k. Professor
06-May-2023 09:08 AM

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