Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Discussion on Advaita Vedanta — the Upanishads

P.J.Mazumdar


Since ancient times, the Upanishads have given rise to a lot of controversy. Different commentators have been able to interprete the Upanishads to support their own beliefs. Thus Upanishads are used to support the three broad categories of dualistic, qualified monoisitic and advaitic thought. Each of these categories again have many substreams and the same sutras have been used by different commentatotrs to support their own theories.

This is possible because the collection of Upanishads is not a harmonious whole. There are many different philosophies within the Upanishads and each commentator has used some of the sutras while disregarding the others or twisting them to wring out his own particular theory. Thus many parts of the Upanishads are in direct conflict with each other. This has been recognized since time immemorial.

The Upanishads also have several sections which are unpalatable for the modern mind. There are sections which define the caste system for example, and disallow the Vedas for women and lower castes. There are also several different tales about the origin of the universe which are highly fanciful and seemingly purposeless. Some other teachings, like the mind is in the heart, must necessarily be discarded in any contemporary reading of the Upanishads. There are many other teachings which serve no purpose in a philosophical work and must simply be accepted in their historical and cultural context (for example, there is a mantra for those who seek to injure their wife’s lover, you can follow this link if you are interested in this).

All this means that by necessity, we must do a selective reading of the Upanishads. No matter what philosophy we seek to derive from it, there will be some passages which are contrary to that teaching. Sankaracharya also had to face several problems with sutras which undoubtedly taught a dualistic or qualified monoistic teaching. Sankaracharya as a traditional commentator, was constrained by the fact that the Vedas were considered the word of god and so he could not disregard a single sutra, and had to twist them to bring them into conformity.

In a contemporary reading, we are under no such constraints. We well recognize that the Upanishads were written by humans and thus have the quirks and weaknesses that are normal in such endeavors. Yet it adds to the purity of our philosophical quest if we can find adequate support for contemporary Advaita within the Upanishads. In this context, when we find some sutras which seek to establish an independent jiva, we can well disregard them and instead look at the much larger sections which do not support such a theory, and instead repeatedly emphasize the two level existence. We can deal with the sutras in all their strength and weaknesses in a modern spirit.

With this goal in view, we can now try to examine the sutras.

In the following pages, I will place the relevant Upanishadic sutras along with my interpretations and explanations to show how my ideas are well supported by the Upanishads also. My explanations, my own commentary in a way, are placed in the following four sections:



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