Transcript: 7. Brian Black on the Upanisads

An interview with Brian Black about the philosophical and social aspects of the Upaniṣads.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

PA: We're going to be talking about the Upanishads, which we've been discussing over the last few episodes. These are routinely described as a kind of commentary on earlier Vedic texts, but when you start reading them, they don't actually read like commentaries. In fact, they're really heterogeneous in terms of the material that they include. So could you start by saying something more detailed about how exactly the Upanishads relate to the earlier Vedic literature? 

BB: Okay. I mean, I think you've raised two points here. I mean, first of all, I think that you're right that technically speaking, the Upanishads are not commentaries. They do say a lot of things about the earlier Vedic texts. But I think that the two points that you picked up on here are one is that their heterogeneous nature and two their relation to the Vedas more generally. In terms of their heterogeneous nature, I think we should remember that the Upanishads were composed over a long period of time. None of our dates for any text in ancient India are anything close to being exact. But the scholarly consensus seems to be that the Upanishads were composed between about 700 BCE and about 200 BCE. And so like any text that would be composed over that long of a period of time, they're not going to have one systematic position. The other thing I think that we should remember about the Upanishads is that they were composed by members of different Vedic schools. And often those Vedic schools were in direct competition with one another. So for example, a lot of the Upanishads talk about ideas about the self or ultimate reality. They certainly share some of the same basic concerns. But it's not surprising that some individual Upanishads or even different sections of the same Upanishads might have a slightly different interpretation of these ideas or certainly a different emphasis on these ideas. Because oftentimes they were actually competing against each other of who had the best teaching of the self or the best teaching of ultimate reality, etc. In terms of the relationship to the Vedas, the Upanishads are part of the Vedas. So in that sense, they're not commentaries on the Vedas because they themselves are part of the Vedas. They're the fourth and final section of the Vedas. However, their relationship to earlier sections of the Vedas is quite complex. I mean, on the one hand, by claiming the status of Veda, they're claiming that authoritative status for themselves. And like the Vedas, they privilege the Brahmin caste, they privilege the Vedic ritual, they privilege the Vedas themselves. But on the other hand, we see in the Upanishads, despite claiming Vedic status for themselves, at the same time critiquing a lot of issues or a lot of emphases of earlier Vedic material. So for example, we see sections in the Upanishads that critique Brahmin ritualists, suggesting that they're paying too much attention to the ritual and not enough attention on these sort of new philosophical ideas about the self and ultimate reality and the breath, etc. Or they'll criticize Brahmins for being only Brahmin in name without really understanding the teachings properly. So in that sense, they're both part of the Vedas, but also critical of earlier Vedic material. 

PA: It's an interesting combination that on the one hand, they present themselves as being also sacred literature. But on the other hand, they're reflecting on an earlier text. I mean, this maybe does happen in other religious traditions, but it seems to be a kind of unusual structure within Vedic literature more generally that you have this layered series of texts, one of which is reflecting upon the other. And as you say, there's four layers in all of which the Upanishads are the last. What do we know about the authors and the intended audience? So apparently the authors are claiming to have this religious insight and to be capable of delivering a sort of revealed or sacred discourse. Who were they? Who were they talking to? Or actually, is that a bad question? Because the Upanishads were written over a longer period of time? And so we need to suppose that maybe the authors are different in different cases? 

BB: Well, I think it's a very good question, whether or not we can really know the answer. That's another story. 

PA: Yeah, that's a common phenomenon. 

BB: But I think that, first of all, we don't really know who wrote the text, but from the evidence within the text themselves, it certainly suggests the text were composed by male Brahmins. And it also, a number of especially the earlier Upanishads, claim to be secret or esoteric. So there's a lot of emphasis on you can only learn the Upanishads if you learn them in a proper way, from the proper teacher, if you've been initiated correctly. So I think that that tells us something very important about the Upanishads is they're not claiming to have universal status. Later texts in the Hindu tradition, like the Bhagavad Gita, for example, claim to be teachings available for everybody. The Upanishads, even though I would argue that they are about things that are relevant to everybody, and so therefore we should certainly read them now and get as much out of them as we can, they don't claim that status for themselves. I think, so primarily, if we're thinking of who's authoring the text, it's Brahmins, and I think the primary audience would be Brahmins as well. On the other hand, though we also see, especially with some of the earlier Upanishads, like the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the Chandogya Upanishad, the Kaushitaki Upanishad, these Upanishads also seem to have an attempt to address a royal community as well. And I say this for a number of reasons. One is that there are a number of individual passages that claim that the knowledge contained in them originally came from outside of Brahmin circles. So they claim to be the original teachings of kings, the kingly class, or even a god or a goddess. Now, I think some of these claims we should see as mostly rhetorical, because, for example, there's one passage in the Chandogya Upanishad where we see a king claiming to deliver teaching that he claims has never been known by Brahmins before, but then what he goes on to teach is almost verbatim material that we have in older Brahmanical texts. So that certainly seems like much more of a rhetorical device than a statement of historical fact. But on the other hand, I do think it tells us something about the Upanishads, that it's wanting to address this kingly audience, to bring this kingly audience into the conversation, and even on some cases claim that the knowledge is theirs, even if it seems like it really isn't. 

PA: Yeah, there are a few passages where the kingly character will say to the Brahmana character, actually, I'll explain to you the teaching rather than letting you explain it to me. And I think there's even a passage at one point, maybe it's in the Great Forest Upanishad, where it's remarked upon that this is unusual, but that it's going to be allowed to happen anyway. 

BB: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, these are really interesting passages, and a lot of our interpretation of them is quite speculative. But the way I read these passages is that it's a way of reinforcing the Brahmanical knowledge to make the king the mouthpiece of the knowledge that the Brahmins are promoting to promote their own status. But another way in which we see kings sort of invoked as an audience is that after a number of passages, sometimes dialogical ones, but other times that aren't dialogical ones, we'll see a statement. The Upanishads often have a statement after their teaching saying what this knowledge will allow one to do. So, for example, the benefits of the knowledge. It might say, you know, if somebody who learns this teaching properly will gain immortality or will live a long life, something like that. But we also get a number of teachings that claim rewards that seem most relevant to a royal audience. So, for example, a teaching might say, if you know this teaching properly, you will be able to defeat all your enemies, or you will be able to expand your territory. Or in one case it says you will be able to smash all your enemies to bits. And, you know, these sorts of claims about the knowledge certainly make it seem like these teachings were not just for Brahman, that they were really looking outward towards the royal class of who they wanted to direct their teachings towards. 

PA: Yeah, that's something you wouldn't find a Buddhist saying you could get from their teachings. Will help you smash your enemies. 

BB: They don't make those claims exactly. But on the other hand, we do see in Buddhist sources claims that suggest that at least in some cases that they also had a royal audience in mind. 

PA: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I'm actually going to later come on to Ashoka the Great, so this king whose inscriptions seem to be influenced by Buddhism. Going back to this issue about the Vedas in general and the Upanishads in particular being sacred texts, I suppose that some listeners might wonder whether the thought that the Upanishads are religious texts and also foundational texts for a religion, namely Hinduism, is consistent with the thought that they're philosophical texts. Do you see those two roles as being in competition with one another? Or how should we think about that? 

BB: Well, I mean, I think that when we're when we have those sorts of issues in mind, we should remember that words like sacred and religious and philosophical are all our words with our very sort of modern ways of thinking about them. The Upanishads don't draw such lines between the kind of material they're talking about. So in that sense, I think that there are a lot of things that that we might see as sort of contradictory between what we might expect out of religious or philosophical texts that wouldn't have been a contradiction at all from the point of view of the composers and early listening communities of the Upanishads or perhaps most other ancient texts for that matter. So for example, we tend to learn about Plato in philosophy departments. But it's I think that one could argue that Plato was also a deeply religious thinker and religion plays an important role in his work as well. It's interesting that we don't tend to read him in that way. But again, it's like I think if we go back in the ancient world, whether we're in Greece or India or somewhere else, often when we try to bring our own distinctions, they don't quite work. I do often approach the Upanishads as philosophy. And that's not the only way I approach them. But it's often an approach that I take. But when I do that, that's very much a hermeneutical or interpretive choice on my part. And I feel that that's an important choice to make for me as a modern reader and teacher about the Upanishads, because I feel that if we if we treated the Upanishads as merely religious texts, if we labelled them that way, and then made the next assumption that they're therefore Hindu texts and somehow specific to Hinduism, that we would a lot of us who might not be from India or not have a Hindu background would miss out on all of these insights and, questions that the Upanishads bring up for us that are relevant to our lives, but might be closed off if we sort of chose to see them overly in a religious way. So in that sense, I don't think any of these words sacred, philosophical, religious completely work. But I think that they certainly have their place in a podcast series on world philosophy. And I think that that if we read them as philosophy, we can see all sorts of interesting overlaps in terms of questions in terms of themes, in terms of methods of inquiry, that not only are similar to other philosophical texts from the ancient world, but also are relevant to our philosophical inquiries today. 

PA: Yes, I always think that by approaching the Upanishads, just to take one example of the texts that we're dealing with in this series, on the one hand, you're saying something about the Upanishads, namely that there's philosophy there. But on the other hand, you're saying something about philosophy, namely that a text like the Upanishad or an Upanishad could in some sense be a philosophical text.

BB: Exactly, exactly. And I think in that sense, by reading them as philosophy, we really have something to gain in terms of noticing things in the Upanishads that we might not notice if we were only looking at them through a sort of religious hermeneutic. But then on top of that, as you're suggesting, we're also sort of reflecting upon our own category of philosophy and perhaps even expanding it out a bit as well.

PA: One feature of the Upanishads that I think one might stress if one was trying to argue that they're philosophical is the fact that they're so dialogical. There's lots of exchanges between a teacher and a student or between two sages or even between sages who are competing with each other, between sages and kings and so on. And this inevitably reminds people of Plato. You just mentioned Plato a little bit ago, because in a way, it looks like we've got this other body of philosophical dialogues from antiquity. And in fact, you've edited a book about this, the dialogical material in the Upanishads and ancient Indian traditions more generally. Can you say more specifically what you mean by dialogue in this context? And why this makes such a difference to the way we should read the Upanishads? 

BB: I mean, first I think you've raised a number of very interesting issues there. My primary use of the word dialogue is merely in a descriptive and literary sense that there are portions of the Upanishads that are presented as a conversation between named speakers and sometimes unnamed speakers. And that oftentimes in that conversation, there's also an emphasis on their interaction with one another. I think that dialogue is a really important, we might even say literary mechanism in ancient Indian religious and philosophical texts, because it's used a lot to frame entire bodies of work. So for example, some Upanishads start with a dialogue and the whole content of the Upanishad is presented as a dialogue. So for example, we might think of the Prashna Upanishad, the Maitri Upanishad, the Katha Upanishad as literally being organized as a dialogue. Now, these are thought to be later Upanishads. It's interesting that in the earlier Upanishads, ones like the Brihadaranyaka and the Chandogya, where we get some of the most lively and engaging dialogues, the Upanishad as a whole doesn't necessarily have as many dialogues as some of the later ones. So I think that we might see that dialogue as a sort of technique for structuring an entire text seems to have developed as the Upanishads developed over time. That's not there from the very beginning. But then in texts that come after the Upanishads, like the Mahābhārata or the Rāmāyaṇa, certainly throughout the Puranas, they are also organized as a dialogue. The whole text will be framed as a conversation. So our starting point for this recent book on dialogue is just to notice how important and recurring dialogue is in organizing textual material. But having said that, when we look at these texts alongside each other, we can also see that the dialogue is not always doing the same thing. I think that dialogue has a number of different types of usages in these texts. And on any given occasion, it might be doing some things and not others. In the Upanishads, I think one of the main important aspects of dialogue is as a sort of mimic or demonstration of the text's orality. There's a lot of emphasis in the Upanishads about the lineage of different teachings. And almost every Upanishad has a lineage where you have a long list of teachers and students going over several generations. And I think that we could see any given dialogue as sort of a snapshot of a particular point in a lineage. And so all the Vedas were originally composed orally, and these dialogues sort of re-emphasize that orality. Another thing it does is it gives authority to teachings by letting us know who the teacher is. And I think that one of the things we see in the Upanishads is the emergence of a number of quite important philosophical personalities, people like Yajnavalkya or Uddālaka Āruṇi or Shandilya, all of whom make a number of appearances, maybe not just in the Upanishads themselves, but also in earlier texts like the Brahmanas. And so in a sense, when we're reading the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and we get some of the most well-known teachings about the self or karma or rebirth, the teaching is not only claimed to be authoritative because of the content of the teaching itself, but there's also a sense that it's important because Yajnavalkya said that in the same way that in the Buddhist tradition a lot of teachings are given authority because they are considered to be the words of the Buddha. I think another thing we see with dialogue is that it puts philosophy or religious teachings in a social context. It's interesting, and this is something that I was very interested in when I was writing my book on the Upanishads, is that I think Indian philosophy has a reputation for being conducted by people living a rather isolated existence. When you think of Indian philosophy, what might come to mind is somebody going off into the forest by themselves practicing yoga or something like that. But it's interesting in some of our oldest philosophical texts, we really don't see that. We see that all the main kind of philosophical content goes on in social situations when people are interacting with each other. And even though not all the dialogues are presented in a form where people are necessarily debating with one another, some of the scenes are very much a teacher kind of just telling a student how it is and the student just listening attentively. There's also a sense that these ideas are depicted in a situation in which they can be contested. 

PA: That brings up a question I was just going to ask you anyway, which is that although there are certainly dialogues in the Upanishads, I think any reader of the Upanishads will have to admit that it's not so clear whether the dialogues are philosophical, because it's not like in Plato, to use this analogy again, where you have Socrates or another character taking someone through a sequence of argument, often you get riddling or mysterious remarks, and the interlocutor will just say yes or no, or say try again. And so in other words, you don't have two partners in a in a philosophical argument, maybe. Is that a reason to deny? So I'm sort of playing devil's advocate here. Is that a reason to deny that the Upanishads are genuinely philosophical? Or is maybe the idea that our job as readers is to figure out what the underlying arguments are behind these riddling pronouncements? 

BB: Well, I think that that's definitely a good point. First of all, the Upanishads don't care whether we call them philosophy or not. So I think though that in some of the some of the dialogues are more philosophical than others. But I definitely think that yes, it is our job to be looking very closely at not just the dialogues, but all the material to see what sort of philosophical methods that we can uncover. So first of all, I think that that although the Upanishads might get attention for possibly being philosophical in the first place because of the dialogue, I would argue that that the dialogues are only one of several sections within the text that could be considered philosophical. So in other words, there are other things that the Upanishads do in terms of talking about things like introspection, observation, experimentation, that can also be considered philosophical that's not necessarily a dialogue. And then back to what I was saying earlier about diallogues, I think that that dialogues do a number of things. I think that we could probably say quite frankly that there are some dialogues that are not very philosophical at all. But I think that some very much are and what one of the things that that I've looked at in a paper that I've written recently is how some of the dialogues actually have a dialectical structure to them. And so we see the same sort of dialectical structure that we might see later in Indian philosophy. So I do think that that sometimes even in a dialogue where it doesn't seem like there's a lot of say, contested interaction between the speakers, sometimes it still sets up the structure of an argument, even if it doesn't seem like the characters themselves are arguing. You know, so for example, we often see a sort of structure where you'll see one character basically present a thesis, the next character have a counter argument, and then a third section that in one way or another tries to bring things together, or accepts a sort of lingering tension between the two positions. So I think there are a number of ways in which the Upanishads aren't explicit in the same way that a platonic dialogue might be about how it's being philosophical, where if we look at it closely enough, we might be able to make a good argument that it could be seen that way. 

PA: Something else you mentioned just before is that there are recurring characters in the Upanishads. And on the subject of the characters, we not only get these male sages whose names you pronounce a lot better than I do, incidentally, but we also get occasionally women characters. And I was wondering if you could say something about that. And we're actually going to do a whole episode about the role of women in classical Indian texts later on. But since you've actually written about this in your book, I thought I'd ask you what you thought about the presence of these female characters in the Unpanishad dialogues. 

BB: Well, I mean, first and foremost, I think it's really refreshing to see the female characters that we see. And so it's interesting that, I mean, it's still primarily men represented in the text, but female characters are not only in the text, but presented in rather positive ways and in ways that suggest that it's no big deal, that even though we might not expect them to see them in these sorts of philosophical debate, the text doesn't seem to make a big deal about them even being there, as if the people who are writing these texts would expect to see women, at least on some occasions, be included in public philosophy. I also think, though, that a number of other things are going on. We probably could see the existence of some female characters as possibly reflecting a reality in which there were some women who participated in philosophy in ancient India. We'll never know that for sure, but I don't see any reason not to think of it that way. But I also think that a lot of the female characters have a symbolic function within the text. So, for example, as I've said, the Unpanishads are often quite critical of earlier Vedic material. And one of the ways in which they're critical of Vedic material, especially the practice of the Vedic ritual, is this necessity that in order to be a full ritual participant, you needed to not only be a Brahmin man, but then you needed to have sons. And the idea was that the sons would carry on your ritual responsibilities after you die. And Yajnavalkya, who is one of the main characters in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, is also one of the Upanishadic characters who's most critical of former Vedic practices. And so it's interesting to me that not only do we see him critical of the Vedas and Vedic practice, but then also he claims that you don't need to have sons in order to be enlightened and to deliver teachings about the self. And so Yajnavalkya, it turns out, is the character most likely to have conversations with female characters. He has a long conversation about the self with his wife in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. And he also is involved in a debate where Gargi, a female character, participate. So I think that not only do we see women appear in the Upanishads and we can read into that, perhaps the historical reality of women participating in philosophy, but I also think that tells us something about Yajnavalkya and that's consistent with his character portrait. And him engaging with women in philosophical discussion is, I think, part of his larger critique on early Vedic ritual practice. 

PA: Before we wrap up, I just wanted to ask you, we're going to be moving on pretty soon in the podcast to look at Buddhism. And so I wanted to ask you to maybe situate the Upanishads relative to these other developments that we get at around the same time in classical India. So first of all, to what extent do we see influence, maybe even mutual influence between some of the Upanishads and Buddhist texts from that period? 

BB: That's a very good question and one that is hotly contested at the moment by a number of scholars. I think that there are two main positions in the scholarship. One is to see the Upanishads as being composed before the development of Buddhism and having the Upanishads really have a rather large influence on Buddhism as well as other religions that developed at that time, such as Jainism, Ājīvikaism, and other groups. We also see arguments on the other side, people contesting that Buddhism and Jainism and Ājīvikaism emerged in an area of ancient India that was further to the east of where the Upanishads were composed. So the Upanishads being composed in, say, what's now the areas around Delhi and Varanasi, whereas the Buddhism emerging in basically what is now Bihar. And some people contest that therefore in the area where Buddhism and Jainism and Ājīvikaism emerged, that the Upanishads weren't really that well known in the first place and so we shouldn't see these new developments as sort of reactionary teachings. I sort of place myself and my own interpretation more in the middle of these two arguments. On the one hand, I certainly think that if we really want to understand the teachings and practices of early Buddhism, we can't think that everything is reaction to the Vedas. And I think that the old sort of analogy that Buddhism is to the Vedic religion as, say, Protestantism is to Catholicism just doesn't work at all. That is not a good analogy for understanding Buddhism and Jainism, etc. But on the other hand, it's hard for me not to think that the Upanishads didn't have some influence on some, not all, but at least some of the early teachings of Buddhism and Jainism and these other traditions. So for example, even though some Buddhist scholars try to claim that the doctrine of not-self was really not in response to the Upanishadic ideal of self, it's hard for me not to see a relationship between the two. And one of the reasons I see it that way is that I think that in other places in the Buddhist material, we really do see some sort of, if not influence, at least a shared, say, philosophical and literary world that both of these traditions were emerging from. So one of the examples that I often point to is that some of the dialogues in Buddhism in our earliest Buddhist texts are really the same dialogues that we find in the Upanishads. It's just the characters are given different names and then the teaching at the end of them is a little bit different. And also, like for example, there's the well-known motif of one's head shattering apart if one loses a philosophical debate. And the oldest references to that are actually an earlier Vedic material in the Brahmanas. We also see that quite prominently in the Upanishads. And again, there's a motif that we also see in some of the early Buddhist literature. So I definitely think that some contact is going on. I think that my own hunch is that the Upanishads probably do predate the earliest Buddhist material by at least a generation or two. But even if that's not the case, I definitely see the Upanishads and early Buddhism and early Jainism emerging from a world where these people knew about each other's teachings and were constantly articulating their own teachings in response to their rivals. 


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