The Upanisads are the latest of four groups of classical sacred texts of India collectively known as the Veda. Its core is the Samhitas or "collections" of hymns and their liturgical application. These are chronologically followed by the Brahmanas, the voluminous prose literature whose task it was to explain ritual and its implements by discovering their real nature and establishing their internal relations. Some of the esoteric sections of the Brahmanas were gathered separately under the name of Aranyakas, texts that were to be recited in the wilderness. Finally, we find the Upanisads, sometimes embedded within their respective Aranyakas, but in the end somewhat detached from the rest of the Vedic corpus, dealing as they do with metaphysical and cosmological issues. For the traditions that derive their authority from the Veda these texts are not considered the product of humans but direct revelation (sruti). Together with a body of later texts that claim to be Veda-based and as such are considered indirect revelation (smrti), they form a corpus of sacred scripture which prescribes the rites, duties and beliefs that constitute the basic or orthodox order and soteriology of Brahmanical society.
A new translation of the Upanisads into English is an event in itself. Even the more so if it is good, and this one is excellent. It is lucid and reliable and has taken into account the significant mass of research carried out by a number of Sanskrit scholars over the last decades. Patrick Olivelle has selected 12 Upanisads, arguably the most important ones. The selection ranges from the Brhadaranyaka and the Chandogya, the two earliest Upanisads which date from maybe the seventh or sixth centuries bc, to the verse Upanisads which show strong theistic tendencies reflected in later texts such as the Bhagavadgita and the Puranas.
In 1656 the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh had, with some scholarly assistance, prepared a Persian translation of the Upanisads. This provided the basis for the first translation of the Upanisads into a European language, by the Frenchman Abraham-Hyacinth Anquetil-Duperron. His Latin translation of 50 Upanisads, which appeared in two huge volumes in Strasbourg in 1801-02 under the name Oupnek'hat, made a considerable impact on the romantic movement. Since then several translations of varying quality and insight have seen the light of day. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Olivelle's translation makes all of them completely outdated.
The Upanisads are a crucial point of transition between the Vedic world of ritual and an increasing quest for knowledge which saw the emergence and refinement of ideas that were carried forward into classical Brahmanism and laid the foundations for trends from the gnostic Vedanta to the neo-Hindu movements of the last century.
The earliest usage of the term upanisad does not, as has been commonly maintained, derive from a meaning "sitting near", implying a situation where someone receives esoteric knowledge at the feet of a teacher. Rather it seems to have carried the meaning "connection" or "equivalence", and because of the hidden nature of these connections its semantic range came to cover such meanings as secret knowledge or doctrine. This notion of "connection" takes us straight into the essence of what these texts are about.
Already in the Brahmanas such connections or equations are numerous, equations of the type "the fire is the year" or "the bricks are the earth" where "the fire" or "the bricks" are ritual elements which replace cosmological entities. The equation or bandhu ("tie, nexus") seeks to establish a relation between macrocosm, microcosm and ritual, and ritual action in the form of the Vedic sacrifice was considered a necessary condition for the maintenance of the cosmos.
With the Upanisads we find a shift taking place. An important element is the relationship between king and Brahman priest. The king depended on the ritual order of the Vedic sacrifice for his power to be transformed into authority. To receive the benefits of the sacrifice he depended on the services of the specialist Brahman priests, who retained the impurities of the sacrifice, particularly by receiving the sacrificial fee, the daksina. This produced an inherent conflict between king and Brahman priest which resulted in a shift from action to knowledge on the part of the Brahman. With this interiorisation of ritual and weight on knowledge that followed we find that the equations take on a more metaphysical form.
Several of the Upanisads present their teachings in the form of dialogues conducted by named teachers which create a vision that brings together the various elements of the universe. The equations are hierarchically arranged in that they move towards a final, underlying principle. The ultimate upanisad or equation is between the individual self, atman, and a transcendental superself, paramatman or brahman, an undifferentiated being-and-consciousness which is the single source of all cognitions and actions. As the Brhadaranyaka states: "And this is the immense and unborn self, unageing, undying, immortal, free from fear - the brahman. Brahman, surely, is free from fear, and a man who knows this undoubtedly becomes brahman that is free from fear." But the Upanisads are also about more immediate human concerns, such as food, fortune and fame, or how to secure the love of a woman.
Olivelle has written a very readable and informative introduction and furnished his translations with copious notes. The volume also contains a useful bibliography. This excellent book should attract not only those interested in Indian religion and philosophy but anyone interested in the history of human thought.
Eivind Kahrs is lecturer in Sanskrit, University of Cambridge.
ISBN - 0 19 282292 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £5.00
Pages - 446
Translator - Patrick Olivelle