There is the Bhagavad Gita for MBAs, the Mahabharata for diplomats. Can the Upanishads, which occupy the pride of place in the Hindu imagination, be shown to perform a similar good deed? Can they be made relevant for our times? More importantly, can the Upanishads provide solace in these bleak Covid-19 times, in the 2020s? It is a fair question to ask but we must be prepared to accept the unexpected answer. It seems that the Upanishads are not the inspirational texts that many of us would like to believe them to be.
The question remains as to why we should look at the Upanishads if they serve no purpose, especially in the hour of our need. The honest answer is that we should study them out of sheer curiosity and the tremendous intellectual delight they offer. And these texts are of great value because they fulfil no utilitarian need. That is why we do not find the Upanishads being referred to in any serious discussion, not in the epics, not in the Puranas, not even in the vast religious literature of ancient India. They are ensconced at a height, and no one really looks up to them.
Two examples from ancient India, without trying to fix the elusive dates, show what it was like. We have the story of Parikshit, the son of Abhimanyu and the heir of Pandavas. When he is cursed by the son of an ascetic for placing a dead snake around his father’s neck to die of snakebite in seven days, the king wants to know the best way of preparing for death. Vyasa’s son, Shuka, tells him that he should listen to the stories of Vishnu and he narrates the stories starting with the death of Krishna, and this is the Bhagavata Purana. Earlier in the Mahabharata, in the ‘Vana Parva’ where the Pandavas were spending the 12-year exile after Yudhishthira lost his kingdom, brothers and wife in a game of dice, three stories are narrated: one about Nala and Damayanti by Brihadashva; and the other two by sage Markandeya, of Rama and Sita, and of Savitri and Satyavan. The stories are told to Yudhishthira. The first one when he bemoans the fact that he was the accursed one after both Draupadi and Bhima give him a tonguelashing for his follies and his refusal to plot revenge in a Kshatriya way. In the second and the third instances, Yudhishthira agonises over Draupadi, the daughter of the king of Panchala, subjected to hardship and humiliation. We learn from this what stories fill the slot for solace.
Come down to 19th century Germany, many, many centuries later and we get the declaration of the supreme pessimist of modern Western philosophy, Arthur Schopenhauer, about the Upanishads, ‘In the whole world there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. It has been the solace of my life. It will be the solace of my death.’ Modern Indians have been deriving much solace from the German’s—a lonely intellectual giant in the land of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche—paean to the Upanishads. The exhilarating intellectual cosmopolitanism of the era allowed Schopenhauer to reach out across continents, cultures, centuries to appreciate the bracing metaphysics of the Vedas and the Upanishads.
There is no Yama around us to answer the question as he did to Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad, nor is there a Siduri for us as she was there for Gilgamesh. What matters more is how human beings in a far-off time struggled with the question of death and the different answers they got
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Today, in a globalised world that is apparently at the end of its tether, Asia or Europe, recorded history’s prime contestants for power and domination, does not enjoy the freedom that Schopenhauer had of admiring Upanishads without losing caste. Not much attention has been paid to global cultural politics where influences from elsewhere are closed. The only exception is technology. Ideas from beyond the tribal boundaries spell suspicion and hostility. Along with trade barriers, cultural barricades too are getting erected. So, in the global pandemic, people in distress and despair cannot hope to reach out to the common cultural roots of humankind, whether it is the Upanishads, Gilgamesh, the Babylonian epic, Homer and Plato, the Book of Job and the Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Suras, Al-Fateha, Al-Baqara, Al-Yasin in the Quran and Prophet Mohammad’s farewell speech from Mount Arafat, the less familiar Confucian and Taoist traditions. The transcultural linkages would be crucial now, and in the future, to keep the global dialogue alive because there does not seem to be any way of keeping ourselves ignorant of the other.
These texts are all caught in the crossfire of yours-and-mine. British Victorian poet Matthew Arnold’s idea of culture in his polemic against philistinism as ‘the best which has been thought and said’ should have been the ideal, and it was the ideal in some places such as Germany, in times like that of the German Romantics of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This was so in India too when an English-educated Indian intelligentsia emerged, much to the dismay of the British colonial rulers, to lay claim to Shakespeare and Wordsworth, Goethe and Hugo and the humanism that bound them all. But the cosmopolitanism soon degenerated into lazy syncretism where there was a mindless attempt to reduce everything to dead sameness. In the latter part of the 20th century, the cultural and intellectual inheritance was abandoned as dead wood.
Humanism, the triumphant ideology of our times, based on Greek thinker, Protagoras’ “Man is the measure of all things”, had become the battlecry, from the 1500s to the 2000s. Though Nicolaus Copernicus was credited with replacing the geocentric cosmology of Aristotle and the Bible with the heliocentric, an unnoticed fallout of the triumph of human reasoning was that anthropocentrism became the foundation stone of modern thinking and it lay behind the breakthroughs in the sciences and the humanities. The underlying folly of the moderns has been that they believed that human beings are the only intelligent folk in this vast expanse of dark, meaningless universe of eternal stardust. We forgot that human beings are not the sole monarchs of all they survey, that we must contend with other elements such as the viruses, which seem to count in the million and that they precede the humans by more than a few thousands of million years.
Our lot is to wrestle with the universe as Jacob did with the angel in the Old Testament! we read the Upanishads or Gilgamesh though they may not offer any solace as part of our struggle to make sense of life and death, and of the universe as well
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Covid-19 has caused a tear in the veil of humanism, bringing in the blasts of the cold unknown and intimations of death. There have been greater catastrophes than this pandemic. There have been brutal wars which got frozen in the iconic mushroom cloud of atomic bomb explosions over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War, the famines and civil wars of Biafra in the 1960s and Somalia in the 1990s, the war against communism in Vietnam in the 1960s and against Islamic inquisition of the Taliban in Afghanistan at the turn of this century after the terrorist attack in New York and Washington by Islamic kamikaze in 2001. Covid-19 will take its due place in the ranks of the destructive forces which put optimistic and progressive humanity on the backfoot from time to time, even in this last 120 years. The pandemic is sure to recede, but it has for the moment shaken the confidence of people that there are not too many problems which we cannot solve nor too many dangers which we cannot overcome, though, ultimately, we are going to survive. That is why we are looking back, and looking around, for comforting signposts, mostly from the past.
It is not possible to trek back to the ancient beginnings. To use an anthropic metaphor, we have burnt our bridges with the past. But even in terms of the laws of physics that hold up the external world, there is no turning back. The arrow of time is unidirectional. It is not a two-way path. So, the remains of the past, like the religious, philosophical and literary texts, are kind of archaeological remains that we can contemplate, reconstruct in our minds its fullness and speculate as Hamlet did in the Shakespearean play holding the skull.
What is bothering people during this pandemic is the question of death. Though death was on the rampage through the countless wars, we were so engrossed in the passions that drove us to fight, we did not have the time to sit back and think what death is all about. The restrictions that the pandemic has imposed on us, and the deaths occurring around us, have brought us face-to-face with the inexplicable, imminent end.
The exhilarating intellectual cosmopolitanism of his era allowed Arthur Schopenhauer to reach out across continents, cultures, centuries to appreciate the bracing metaphysics of the Vedas and the Upanishads
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In the Katha Upanisad, Nachiketa the boy asks the God of Death, Yama, the truth about death. Nachiketa tells Yama that some people say that death is the end, and that there are others who say that there is life beyond death. Yama confesses that it is a difficult matter, and that even the gods are puzzled by it: ‘On this point, even the gods have doubted formerly.’ And he traces the path back to the origin: ‘Beyond the senses there are the objects, beyond the objects there is the mind, beyond the mind there is the intellect, the Great Self is beyond the intellect. Beyond the Great there is the Undeveloped, beyond the Undeveloped there is the Person [Purusha]. Beyond the Person there is nothing—this is the goal, the highest road’ (translated by Max Müller). This may not be the goal, and this may not be the highest road. Yama expresses a viewpoint. Because there is another one, expressed by Siduri, the woman who makes wine on the seashore. She tells Gilgamesh mourning for his friend Enkidu who dies of sickness because of a curse of the goddess after 12 days of sickness: ‘When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man’ (translated by NK Sanders). The two texts belong to the same era, somewhere between 1000 BCE and 800 BCE.
It is possible to argue that the Katha Upanisad is superior to the Epic of Gilgamesh in philosophical terms. It could very well be, but it is of no use because there is no Yama around us to answer the question as he did to Nachiketa, nor is there a Siduri for us as she was there for Gilgamesh. What matters more is how human beings in a far-off time struggled with the question and the different answers they got. A peep into the world beyond is far more contemplative and gentler in the Katha Upanisad, while the Babylonian epic prefigures the tragic notes that echo in Homer and Aeschylus and Sophocles.
The pandemic has taught us that we are all thrown together, and we belong to each other however different we may be, and however much we may dislike each other. And the broken mirror of humanism has further taught us that we are living in an alien universe. The universe belongs to us in a limited sense, but the universe owns us without a thought for us. Our lot is to wrestle with the universe as Jacob did with the angel in the Old Testament! We read the Upanishads or Gilgamesh though they may not offer any solace as part of our struggle to make sense of life and death, and of the universe as well.