The dominant theme in Upanisadic philosophy

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The dominant theme in Upanisadic philosophy

Post  Guest on Tue Feb 24, 2015 3:55 pm

In the Rig Veda we come across poets and seers who are inspired only by the vision of the fulfilment of elemental desires. Their consciousness is engrossed with the problem of the struggle with nature and they do not have the leisure to philosophise. In the vast Brahmana literature we have a glimpse of the emerging leisured class; but it is engrossed with the problem of the stabilization of the political power of kings and their ideological apologists.

The kind of intellectual atmosphere indicated by the Brahmana texts is not the one in which the philosopher is encouraged to come to the fore; in the Brahmanas we see priests rambling in the graveyard of primitive rituals, but we do not yet see the philosopher.

The picture of the philosopher first emerges in the Upanisads when the leisured class fully stablises its own power and can afford to have the serenity and tranquility of unruffled contemplation. The first philosophers of the Upanisads raise questions of immense theoretical significance and they earnestly seek answers to them.

At the same time this progress--great though it is--also creates a very great danger for thought, particularly in view of those who visualize an ideal society in which the manual workers are shorn of all prestige and privilige.

The tools and techniques by which nature is interrogated belong to these direct producers (farmers, butchers, and anyone doing any kind of manual labour); but these recede to the background and along with them the growing stock of their experience and understanding.

Philosophical activity, in so far as it is cut off from all these, easily tends to loose the spirit of interrogating nature. The result is much worse than contempt for natural science.

It is the creation of an illusion, resulting from the coercion of consciousness to a peculiar process of introversion. Knowledge is no longer intended to be a knowledge of objects. It wants to be a knowledge of the subject itself--of the bare ego or of the pure self. As the Upanisadic idealists put it, the ideal of the philosopher is atmaratiratmakrda--'the libido fixed on the self, sporting with the self.'

Extreme introversion, we are told, brings into operation a delusion of grandeur. It is the delusion of omnipotence of the bare ego. This ego, this self, wants to dictate terms to reality and demands to be recognized as the only reality. 'I am that ultimate reality'--declares the Upanisadic idealist. The result is lofty contempt for the material world in which the philosopher has his being.

All this is no doubt putting the point in the terminology of the psychologist. But that does not mean that we are trying to understand here the psychology of the Upanisadic idealists. If we are interested in their mental history, it is because it enables us to understand how the new world in which they live accounts for the fundamentals of their new world-outlook. The philosopher takes pride in disowning the spirit of interrogating nature and is hence under no obligaton to admit its reality.

Thus cut off from active interraction with nature, the Upanisadic philosopher's consciousness runs the risk of imagining that it can rise to ever higher and ever more remote conditons where only thought remains and the things thought of fade out. This is the cult of pure reason i.e. of reason only as a faculty of illusion. Consciousness, estranged from concrete living, becomes a form of sick consciousness. It is no longer consciousness of something but something like consciousness-in-itself--just consciousness, sheer consciousness--not the consciousness of real mena and women engaged in active interraction with nature and getting progressively enriched by this interraction. Consciousness is now viewed as a 'deified absolute'--too mysterious to be grasped by mundane thought and too awesome to be described in ordinary language.

It should be noted here that even in Upanisadic India there are thinkers who do not share this line of thinking (of the emancipation of consciousness). There are even those who instead of taking a deified view of consciousness, want to understand it in the sober scientific sense. They are the pioneers of the scientific tradition in Indian philosophy. The possible causes that save their consciousness from developing into the morbid consciousness of their idealist colleagues makes for a separate discussion. (The most outstanding Upanisadic philosopher representing this line of thought is Uddalaka Aruni).

In Upanisadic India, however, the prestige of these science oriented philosophers is already in decline and there is a growing contempt for what may be considered as positive science of the age. In the new intellectual atmosphere, those whose glory is specially boosted are philosophers for whom consciousness, fully alienated from practical life, wants to oppose and undermine life.

Such a philosopher is the great Yajnavalkya who declares that reality is just a mass of consciousness (vijnanaghana). It can neither be grasped by the normal organs of knowledge nor described in normal language. The only way of talking about it is to say 'It is not this, It is not this'. While dreaming and further falling into the state of dreamless sleep, one gets progressively emancipated from the fetters of the material world and thus has a taste of this reality according to Yajnavalkya (and also other Upanisadic idealists).

It should be noted though that the idealist outlook in the Upanisads could hardly have made any sense to the early poets and thinkers of the Rig Veda because they are much too committed to the active interraction with nature to afford such gambols of pure consciousness.


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