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Upanishads: The Fountain of Universal Wisdom
|by Dr. R. K. Lahri|
Once the wisdom of mankind, the Upanishads remained unknown to the west until 17th century. No one could understand the philosophical reality of oriental thought that the Upanishads are deep-rooted in realisation of nature of the Absolute and His relationship with the Self, as realized by the ancient seers, reaching the same destination. It is surprising that the extended family of Aryans which united different ideas, views, perceptions, and expressions into one homogenous entity, thousands of years ago, and interacted with different people, races, cultures was later on lost to mankind.
Vincent Smith in History of India observes, 'India beyond all doubt posses a deep underlying fundamental unity far more profound than produced by geographical isolation or political superiority.’
The Aryan thought flourished as a dynamic force into the 6th century to all corners of the world and left great impact on the cultures of Sumer, Babylonia and even Greek. Walt Whitman declared that the thoughts contained in the Upanishads are universal and belong to all ages. They are not for me alone, they are so much mine as yours.”
The English translation of A History of Indian Literature part 1 Eastern Religions and western Thought, quotes, "For the historians interested in the study of anthropology, Upanishads are most important. The mysticism expressed in Upanishads finds its clear impact visible in Sufi mystics, new Platonism, mysticism of Sikandria Christians and mystic philosophy of Eckhart, and Teller and after all in the 20th century philosopher Schopenhauer - all seem to be greatly influenced by the upanishadic thoughts."
Y.B. Yeats said that there is no such subject uncovered on relationship with Eternity which has not been undiscovered in Upanishads. The key concepts of Upanishads include the soul, reincarnation, and karma, Brahma and Liberation or the basic Hindu concept of Moksha.
Upanishads Enter the Islamic Domain
Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Emperor Shah Jahan, was the first Moghal to be exposed to the Upanishads while in Kashmir in summer of 1640. He was surprised to notice such a wonderful treasure on monism. So he became eager to expound the wisdom of Hindu monism especially for the consumption of the Muslims He invited pundits from Banaras to Delhi which was then ruled by Moghals and got fifty Upanishads translated into Persian. Dara Shikoha had already written a book entitled Majina-Ul –Baharain, meaning mingling of two seas. It was an attempt at reconciliation between the two communities of Hindus and Muslims in 1640.
The Islamic concept is the concept of Towhead which resembles the Vedic concept of Monism. It is like a seed to the Islamic tree that explains the multifaceted aspects of single basic conception. Quran says, "God there is no God but He is living, the Eternal one."
The Muslim rulers found in the utterance of Upanishads much similarity of the very spirit of monism they believed in. Vedas declare that there is nothing that is not God and God pervades in everything. In Swami Ramtirth's Dialogue with Muslim Clergy (Part 1) refer to book Bharatiya Musalman by Shahnaz Afzal and Mohd Afzal and others; Swamiji says that the kalma of Islam is La-Ilah-Illilah which means that there is nothing but God. Vedanta says Eko Brahma dwatiyo naasti. The real meaning of Kalma is differently interpreted. It only means that there is one God and He is Wahduhoo-ul- sharik, the one without a second.
Two years later, it was in 1659, that Dara, the rightful heir to the throne of Shahjehan was captured by Aurangzeb, paraded in chains on the streets of Delhi, accused of being an infidel and danger to Islam, and his body was cut into pieces. His unmarked grave lies in the open sun in the outer courtyard of Humayun tomb in Delhi. Dara remains immortal for his Persian translation of Upanishads. This translation survived as the Upanishads reached the European scholars proficient in Persian. Once it reached Europe, they were safe and secure and survived with recognition.
The Persian translation made by Dara was entitled Sirr-e-Akbar. It meant the greatest mystery. In its introduction, it was stated, The Quran Kitab-al- maknun or the hidden book. It is none other than the Upanishad in this context. It is worth noting that in the very beginning of Quran, on the top is three letters - Alif (A) Lam (L) and Mim (M). It has been considered as sacred. The expertise on Quran has to decipher its meaning. In Arabic, we write Shansaldin and read it as Shamsuddin. Nizamaldin is read as Nizamuddin. When L comes before a vowel and a consonant, it becomes silent and produces the sound of Arabic Pesh (O or U). This is with A, L and M here. It gives the sound of Alif (A) Wao (o or u) and Mim (m). It comes to AUM or Om. (Ibid page 201). The Om of Sanatana Dharma is universal and belongs to all mankind like the treasure of Upanishads.
Upanishads as Oupnekhat
About a hundred years later, Le Gentil, The French resident of Faizabad employed in the court of Shujauddaulah presented a copy of Dara's Persian translation of Upanishad to his friend Anquitel Duperron. The translation was sub-standard yet it attracted scholar’s attention. The Frenchman Anqueitel Translated the Persian translation of Sanskrit Upanishads into Latin and French. The Latin translation was published entitled, 'Oupnekhat' in 1801-02. The French translation was never published.
Henceforth the Upanishads became the subject of study of the western world. In the 18th and 19thb century European scholars were enamoured by Upanishads and their interest was evident in their poetic compositions of poems, dramas and other works. A study into Hindu culture and Upanishads was the first step towards understanding the deep rooted thoughts on Aryan philosophy of Supreme Reality.
Schopenhauer hoped that India is destined sooner or later to become the faith of the people. He predicted that Christianity will never take root in India in a substantial way. The primitive wisdom of human race will never be pushed aside. Indian wisdom is bound to flow back upon European people. He spoke about Upanishad as, “It is the most rewarding and most elevating reading which there can be in this world. From every sentence deep original and sublime thoughts arise and the whole is pervaded by a high and holy earnest spirit. In the whole world there is no study, except that of the originals, so beneficial and elevating as that of the Oupanikhat. It has been the solace of my life and will be of my death.”
It was Schopenhauer who introduced the word, palin genesis (new birth) in place of metempsychosis in accordance to the Vedic way that the whole psyche is reborn while the former view was that only the will and not the intellect part is reborn.
Impact of Upanishads on the Arab world
Aurel Steinem says, “Ancient India was the radiating centre of a civilization which by its religious thoughts, its art and literature influenced the culture of the region extending from central Asia in the North and Tropical Indonesia in the South and from borderland of Persia to China and Japan.” Aryans had pretty good relations with Sumer and Babylonia cultures. Aryans were living in Mesopotamia too. The Iranian kings Mitanni and Hittites prayed Vedic Gods. Hittites are mentioned in the Old Testament. These people destroyed Cappadocia, Central Turkey in 1950B.C. History reveals their Indo–European identity. One of their gods was pronounced as, “Inar”. It is Indra of Rig. Veda. Kassites invaded and conquered Babylon (Iraq) in 1760B.C. and ruled the land till 1170 B.C. Their names recall Rig Vedic deities as Surya (su-ri-ya-as), Indra (indas), Himalaya (shimalliya). It is believed that they came from Kshatriya clan and Banaras (India) Prof. Parpola proves that Mitanni Aryan is related to Indo Aryan on the basis of treaties they made while mentioning Vedic gods as witness. His book, “Deciphering the Indus Valley” contains sufficient proof.
Even today the Muslims of Java place flowers on idols and protect them. History reveals that there existed an Indian settlement in Syria. From India to Egypt and Syria, the three countries dominated the whole area of population and even influenced Christian thoughts. We find that in those days even the Persian names were of Indo-Aryan origin. Indo-Aryan language was spoken and Vedic gods were held in high esteem.
Syrian writer Zenob says, “The worship of the Hindu deity Krishna was prevalent in Armenia at least in the 2nd and 3rd century B.C. Temples of Krishna were set up near Lake Van.” The Syrian centres were exposed to Upanishads influence.
Zoroastrianism of Iran was said to be Indian in origin. It is along with Judaism, one of the first monotheistic religions. It, in accordance to Upanishad philosophy, explains duties in life and in the higher destiny, one can achieve by establishing one’s conduct in accordance to the Eternal and immutable Law of nature. The religion is known for its symbol of Sun and Fire, similar to the Aryans. Offering of fire and water formed the very basis of daily priestly act of worship. Number 3 of the Aryans was their favourite number. Their scripture Avesta was equivalent to Vedas It was Turanians who destroyed the culture of Iran and Parsi people of S.W. Iran set sail for India.
A.C. Bouquet in “Comparative Religion” says, “It must be strictly maintained that mysticism is not the natural growth in Islam, but is a foreign element which has worked its way into it and is really inconsistent with the original dogmas. It is perhaps a revolt of some Muslim souls against the extremity of Islamic transcendence. The Muslims only express faith in one God and nothing else. A poet says, infinite God cannot be understood through finite intellect and that there is one and only one and none else. In the Absolute Self, There is no affix or duality.”
The great Sufi saint Mansur Al Hallj believed in the immortality of soul. The faith in soul finds powerful expression in the verse of Hazarat Jallaluddin Rumi, when he says,
The influence of Upanishad is evident when he writes,
In the main stream Islam, there seems to be a word for rebirth and that is Tansukha. The Bakiya (57-61) and Baquar mention that God gives life to the dead again and again. Quran also says that God gives birth for the first time and then repeatedly.
Influence on the Christian world
In fact early Christians were linked with India through the trade link between India and Alexandria during the reign of Commodes. Asoka’s pillar- inscription at Girinar Mentions that Buddhism had reached Syria and the people were in touch with Aryans teachings. Roman historian Pliny (1st century A.D.) describes a sect called Essences in Palestine influenced by the oriental thoughts. Renon in Life of Jesus admits that there was a sect called Therapeuts which was influenced by the Buddhist thoughts. John, the Baptist accepted the idea of immortality of soul.
Father Origen (185-254 B.C.), a Christian scholar and a theologian believed that the ascend and descend of souls go on continued even after death so that at the end even the devil is saved. He says, 'every man receives a body for himself according to his deserts in the former lives.' He professed, 'every one, therefore, of those who descend to the earth is, according to his deserts or the position he had there, ordained to be born in this world either in different places or in a different nation or in different occupation or with different infirmities.'
MacDonnell in his book, A History of Sanskrit Literature page 360 writes, “the influence of Indian philosophy on Christian Gnosticism in the second and third centuries seems at any rate undoubted. The Gnostic doctrine of the opposition between soul and matter, of the personal existence of intellect, will and so forth, the identification of soul and Light are derived from Sankhya system.” Not only this, the theory of three gunas of the Sankhya has influenced them in their division of men in three classes of Pneumatikoi, Psychikoi, and Hylikoi.
It will not be out of place to mention that all religions have their own mysticism. Judaism has Kaballah, Islam Sufism; Christians Gnosticism and rose Crucians. and Parsi-Zorthoshli religion has Jim-e-Khshnoom.
Judaism asserted that the soul of man is immortal .The resurrection of body is the necessary condition for any continuity of life after death. Many Jews preferred the theory of immortality of soul to resurrection and thought that life is eternal. Soul is guest of body in earthly life of body. This belief found expression in the teachings of Philo, Solomon, Ibn, and Gabriel who all believed in the immortality of soul. The Jews doctrine of transmigration of soul is called “Gilgul.” Solomon Book of Wisdom quotes, “to be born in sound body with sound limb is a reward of virtue of past lives.” The Vedic effect is clearly visible.
Dr. Ram Bilas Sharma, an authority on Rig Veda, says that the similarity between Vedic thoughts and Greek mythology is not accidental. If we study the source of Marxism, for the knowledge, we have to study the philosophy of France and England first and then of the Greek and still before it, we have to study philosophy of Rig Veda, - it has to be the route of our study.
Gonda in ‘Vedic Literature’ writes about influence of Aryan monism. He says, “Succinct and carefully worded, yet bold and poetical, it heralds highly important, systematically elaborated ideas tracing all things as day and night ,death and continuance of life , to be self-enfoldment of this one , it expresses the quintessence of monism.”
The Greek people believed in immortality of soul, in pre-existence of soul and in survival after death. It was the influence of Plato and Pythagoras and the neo-Platonists that carried the Upanishads thoughts to the general people.
Pythagoras in 580-572 B.C. E. had contacted Indian saints and Vedantists. His Pythagoras theorem was already known to Indians and his theory of harmony of spheres reflected the esoteric use of Vedic numbers. It is evident that he was greatly influenced by the Aryan thoughts.
Plotlines, (204-269 A.D.), a teacher in a Christian Rome for 25 years, speaks of repeated births of soul in, ‘The descend of soul.’ He says, “One soul is the source of all souls. It is at once divided and undivided –the one soul so exists as to include all souls.”
Pythagoras was well acquainted with India and Indian philosophy of Upanishads. He believed that the human soul is sometimes born in animal body. Another Greek philosopher Empedocles held similar views. Plato in Phaedrus writes, “The soul which has seen most of the truth shall come to the birth as a philosopher or artist, or musician or lover, that which has seen truth in the second degree shall be a righteous King or a warrior, or Lord . He takes to the ninth degree which claims a tyrant's birth.”
The German philosophers, Goethe, Fichte, Schilling and Lessing also agreed with Plato” ideas. Plato (429-347 B.C.) described Maya of Vedanta in his allegories and believed in immortality of soul and reincarnation. Aristotle (384-322B.C.) was student of Plato and had similar views. Even Plato’ predecessor and mentor, Socrates (469-399 B.C) was also influenced by Upanishads. His meeting with Indian seer on streets of Athens is history. The relationship between Absolute and Reality; between Divine and Human was something, he could understand only from seers of Upanishad thoughts He said, “I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again and the living springs from the dead.”
Paul Daussen (1854-1919 A.D.)Said, “Vedanta is now as in ancient time, living in the mind and the heart of every thoughtful system ,equal in rank to Plato and Kant, is one of the most valuable product of genius of mankind in search of Eternity.”
The German philosophers, Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854), Max Muller (1823-1900) used Upanishads for their own interest. Max Muller studied Sanskrit and interacted with East India Company to write Sacred Books of the East and the Vedas on payment in a prejudiced way so as to destroy the values of Aryan religion for conversion of people into Christian fold. Paul Deussen saw the greatness of Upanishads. He said, “On the tree of wisdom, there is no fairer flower than the Upanishads and no finer fruit than Vedanta philosophy.”
The Christian poets echo their faith in rebirth in their poems. John Masefield in A Creed writes - “I held that when a person dies/His soul again returns to earth.” He sees his rebirth thus - “These eyes of mine have blinked and shared/in Thebes, In Troy, and in Babylon.”
Wordsworth’s famous lines are –
The American transcendentalists were influenced by the German Schelling’ ideas. Kant’s transcendental idealism and mysticism of Upanishads is reflected in Thoreau and Ralph Emerson.
Walt Whitman deeply under influence of Upanishad writes,
H.W Longfellow says in “Psalm of Life”:
Anne Sexton believes in the all pervading power of spirit and says,
In the race of religious superiority , there are doubts that the most accepted concepts of life exposed by Upanishads were removed from the Bible by the Fathers including the Council of Trent in 300 A.D. and by the council of Constantinople in 533 A. D. The physicist Raynor says that some Christians feel antagonistic as they think rebirth to be something of a strange pagan faith.
Upanishads are the core concept of Indian philosophical thoughts and inner mystical revelations. They are powerful enough to guide us in all walks of life with proper direction on every sort of activity. They represent the heights to which our awareness and knowledge can grow given right circumstances and proper discipline.
Bloomfield in “Religion of the Vedas” (1908) writes that from every word of Upanishad gushes out original, solemn and liberal thoughts to fill up the whole with a superb, sublime and one-pointed thoughtful feeling of ecstasy. There is no work other than the Upanishads in the whole world so beneficial and soul-elevating. They are the landmark of the highest wisdom. R. Gordon Millburn was so much impressed by the monism as expressed and revealed in the Upanishads that he found it lacking in his Christian religion and wished the Christian religion accept and assimilate it in its religion The Upanishads say that in reality, neither the objective universe nor the perceiving Self, nor perception as such, nor void nor inertness exists, only one is, Cosmic Consciousness. Universe is the eternal effulgent Infinite Consciousness.
He says that we fail in our comprehensive understanding of the Omnipresent Spirit as realised in the Upanishads. We should accept and assimilate the teachings of Upanishads even if we term them as Non-Christian religion of Old Testament.
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