Human nature is not altogether unchanging but it does remain sufficiently constant to justify the study of ancient classics. The problems of human life and destiny have not been superseded by the striking achievements of science and technology. The solutions offered, though conditioned in their modes of expression by their time and environment, have not been seriously affected by the march of scientific knowledge and criticism. The responsibility laid on man as a rational being, to integrate himself, to relate the present to the past and the future, to live in time as well as in eternity, has become acute and urgent. The upaniShads, though remote in time from us, are not remote in thought. They disclose the working of the primal impulses of the human soul which rise above the differences of race and of geographical position. At the core of all historical religions there are fundamental types of spiritual experience though they are expressed with different degrees of clarity. The upaniShads illustrate and illuminate these primary experiences.
‘These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands; they are not original with me. If they are not yours as much as mine, they are nothing or next to nothing’, said Walt Whitman. 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. This does not mean that the message of upaniShads which is as true today as ever, commits us to the different hypotheses about the structure of the world and the physiology of man. We must make a distinction between the message of the upaniShads and their mythology. The latter is liable to correction by advances in science. Even this mythology becomes intelligible if we place ourselves as far as possible at the viewpoint of those who conceived it. Those parts of the upaniShads which seem to us today to be trivial, tedious and almost unmeaning, should have had value and significance at the time they were composed.
Anyone who reads the upaniShads in the original Sanskrit will be caught up and carried away by the elevation, the poetry, the compelling fascination of the many utterances through which they lay bare the secret and sacred relations of the human soul and the Ultimate Reality. 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. These souls who tackled these problems remain still and will remain for all time in essential harmony with the highest ideals of civilization.
The upaniShads are the foundations on which the beliefs of millions of human beings, who were not much inferior to ourselves, are based. Nothing is more sacred to man than his own history. At least as memorials of the past, the upaniShads are worth our attention.
A proper knowledge of the texts is an indispensable aid to the understanding of the upaniShads. There are parts of the upaniShads which repel us by their repetitiveness and irrelevance to our needs, philosophical and religious. But if we are to understand their ideas, we must know the atmosphere in which they worked. We must not judge ancient writings from our standards. We need not condemn our fathers for having been what they were or ourselves for being somewhat different from them. It is our task to relate them to their environment, to bridge distances of time and space and separate the transitory from the permanent.
There is a danger in giving only carefully chosen extracts. We are likely to give what is easy to read and omit what is difficult, or give what is agreeable to our views and omit what is disagreeable. It is wise to study the upaniShads as a whole, their striking insights as well as their commonplace assumptions. Only such a study will be historically valuable. I have therefore given in full the classical upaniShads, those commented on or mentioned by shankara. The other upaniShads are of a later date and are sectarian in character. They represent the popular gods, Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, as manifestations of the Supreme Reality. They are not parts of the original Veda, are of much later origin and are not therefore as authoritative as the classical upaniShads. If they are all to be included, it would be difficult to find a Publisher for so immense a work. I have therefore selected a few other upaniShads, some of those to which references are made by the great teachers, shankara and rAmAnuja.
In the matter of translation and interpretation, I owe a heavy debt, directly and indirectly, not only to the classical commentators but also to the modern writers who have worked on the subject. I have profited by their tireless labours. The careful reader will find, I hope, that a small advance in a few places at least has been made in this translation towards a better understanding of the texts.
Passages in verse are not translated into rhyme as the padding and inversion necessary for observing a metrical pattern take away a great deal from the dignity and conciseness of the original.
It is not easy to render Sanskrit religious and philosophical classics into English for each language has its own characteristic genius. Language conveys thought as well as feeling. It falls short of its full power and purpose, if it fails to communicate the emotion as fully as it conveys the idea. Words convey ideas but they do not always express moods. In the upaniShads we find harmonies of speech which excite the emotions and stir the soul. I am afraid that it has not been possible for me to produce in the English translation the richness of melody, the warmth of spirit, the power of enchantment that appeals to the ear, heart and mind. I have tried to be faithful to the originals, sometimes even at the cost of elegance. I have given the texts with all their nobility of sound and the feeling of the numinous.
For the classical upaniShads the text followed is that commented on by shankara. A multitude of variant readings of the texts exist, some of them to be found in the famous commentaries, others in more out of the way versions. The chief variant readings are mentioned in the notes. As my interest is philosophical rather than linguistic, I have not discussed them. In the translation, words which are omitted or understood in Sanskrit or are essential to complete the grammatical structure are inserted in brackets.
We cannot bring to the study of the upaniShads virgin minds which are untouched by the views of the many generations of scholars who have gone before us. Their influence may work either directly or indirectly. To be aware of this limitation, to estimate it correctly is of great importance in the study of ancient texts. The classical commentators represent in their works the great oral traditions of interpretation which have been current in their time. Centuries of careful thought lie behind the exegetical traditions as they finally took shape. It would be futile to neglect the work of the commentators as there are words and passages in the upaniShads of which we could make little sense without the help of the commentators.
We do not have in the upaniShads a single well-articulated system of thought. We find in them a number of different strands which could be woven together in a single whole by sympathetic interpretation. Such an account involves the expression of opinions which can always be questioned. Impartiality does not consist in a refusal to form opinions or in a futile attempt to conceal them. It consists in rethinking the thoughts of the past, in understanding their environment, and in relating them to the intellectual and spiritual needs of our own time. While we should avoid the attempt to read into the terms of the past the meanings of the present, we cannot overlook the fact that certain problems are the same in all ages. We must keep in mind the Buddhist saying: ‘Whatever is not adapted to such and such persons as are to be taught cannot be called a teaching’. We must remain sensitive to the prevailing currents of thought and be prepared, as far as we are able, to translate the universal truth into terms intelligible to our audience, without distorting their meaning. It would scarcely be possible to exaggerate the difficulty of such a task, but it has to be undertaken. If we are able to make the seeming abstractions of the upaniShads flame anew with their ancient colour and depth, if we can make them pulsate with their old meaning, they will not appear to be altogether irrelevant to our needs, intellectual and spiritual. The notes are framed in this spirit.
The upaniShads which base their affirmations on spiritual experience are invaluable for us, as the traditional props of faith, the infallible scripture, miracle and prophecy are no longer available. The irreligion of our times is largely the product of the supremacy of religious technique over spiritual life. The study of the upaniShads may help to restore to fundamental things of religion that reality without which they seem to be meaningless.
Besides, at a time when moral aggression is compelling people to capitulate to queer ways of life, when vast experiments in social structure and political organisation are being made at enormous cost of life and suffering, when we stand perplexed and confused before the future with no clear light to guide our way, the power of the human soul is the only refuge. If we resolve to be governed by it, our civilisation may enter upon its most glorious epoch. There are many ‘dissatisfied children of the spirit of the west’, to use Romain Rolland’s phrase, who are oppressed that the universality of her great thoughts has been defamed for ends of violent action, that they are trapped in a blind alley and are savagely crushing each other out of existence. When an old binding culture is being broken, when ethical standards are dissolving, when we are being aroused out of apathy or awakened out of unconsciousness, when there is in the air general fermant, inward stirring, cultural crisis, then a high tide of spiritual agitation sweeps over peoples and we sense in the horizon something novel, something unprecedented, the beginnings of a spiritual renaissance. We are living in a world of freer cultural intercourse and wider world sympathies. No one can ignore his neighbour who is also groping in this world of sense for the world unseen. The task set to our generation is to reconcile the varying ideals of the converging cultural patterns and help them to sustain and support rather than combat and destroy one another. By this process they are transformed from within and the forms that separate them will lose their exclusivist meaning and signify only that unity with their own origins and inspirations.
The study of the sacred books of religions other than one’s own is essential for speeding up this process. Students of Christian religion and theology, especially those who wish to make Indian Christian thought not merely ‘geographically’ but ‘organically’ Indian, should understand their great heritage which is contained in the upaniShads.
For us Indians, a study of the upaniShads is essential, if we are to preserve our national being and character. To discover the main lines of our traditional life, we must turn to our classics, the Vedas and the upaniShads, the Bhagavad-gItA and the Dhamma-pada. They have done more to colour our minds than we generally acknowledge. They not only thought many of our thoughts but coined hundreds of the words that we use in daily life. There is much in our past that is degrading and deficient but there is also much that is life-giving and elevating. If the past is to serve as an inspiration for the future, we have to study it with discrimination and sympathy. Again, the highest achievements of the human mind and spirit are not limited to the past. The gates of the future are wide open. While the fundamental motives, the governing ideas which constitute the essential spirit of our culture are a part of our very being, they should receive changing expression according to the needs and conditions of our time.
There is no more inspiring task for the student of Indian thought than to set forth some phases of its spiritual wisdom and bring them to bear on our own life. Let us, in the words of Socrates, ‘turn over together the treasures that wise men have left us, glad if in so doing we make friends with one another.’
The two essays written for the Philosophy of the upaniShads (1924), which is a reprint of chapter IV from my Indian Philosophy, Volume I, by Rabindranath Tagore and Edmond Holmes, are to be found in the Appendices A and B respectively.
I am greatly indebted to my distinguished and generous friends Professors Suniti Kumar Chatterji, and Siddesvar Bhattacharya for their great kindness in reading the proofs and making many valuable suggestions.