Saturday, April 30, 2011

Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad in The Thirteen Principle Upanishads -- London: Oxford University Press, 1954

The Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad is among the oldest of all the Upanishads and at 105 pages in translation, it is the longest. Anyone not familiar with its philosophical and religious tradition will find it rather curious, though a number of passages will stand out for their profound expression of a clear theological or cosmological concept. Its deeper value is in its expression of a metaphysical monism that characterizes Hinduism to this day.

The monism is the Upanishad’s answer to a deep philosophical question sometimes known as "the problem of the one and the many" which asks what is the fundamental nature of being – a multiplicity of ephemeral individual things or a permanent and unchanging single thing. The Upanishad describes the world metaphorically as the body of a person and by this metaphor, alludes to the idea that each component of the world exists primarily as a dependent element of the whole. As the heart would have no existence were it not developed as a part of a body, similarly, each component of the world exists only in its interdependence with all other parts of the world.

One is tempted to think of this as an early expression of the Gaia thesis which asserts that the world is a single living being; however, the Gaia thesis tends to describe the world in materialist terms. In contrast, a second strand of thought in the Upanishad clearly comes down on the side of a non-material reality. This is presented by describing objects in connection with, and as dependent upon, our senses. Bringing these strands together, the Upanishad understands the world as a whole that is a manifestation of a perceiver.

Finally, the interconnectedness of being and its origin in the perceiver leads to the conclusion that what appears to us as our individuate soul is in fact an illusion and that the basis of reality is a single universal soul or Brahma.
With a basic understanding of these concepts, a reader can experience the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad is an exhilarating piece of poetry, laced with beautiful imagery, and drawing inspiring conclusions about such things as the fate of the soul after death and the working out of karmic relations.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

An Outline of the Philosophy of the Upanishads / Robert E. Hume in The Thirteen Principle Upanishads -- London: Oxford University Press, 1954

The subject of this review is a 72 page introduction to a translation of thirteen Upanishads by Robert Ernest Hume. Hume's introduction is itself divided into eleven short chapters dealing with a number of important aspects of the Upanishads. Its main focus is the peculiar monism expressed in the Upanishads, particularly in the Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad.

Hume briefly discusses the place of the Upanishads in philosophy and particularly in Indian philosophy, but he quickly turns his attention to the concept of Brahma which he characterizes as "the world-ground" and "the Real of the real." This most fundamental idea is the conceptual starting point out of which all else flows. It is, however, posited as a speculative, but objective fact. In contrast to this, Hume describes the Atman or the the cosmic soul. Its character can be best understood by beginning with the multifarious, illusory world of experience. Recognizing that it comes with no guarantee of facticity, the phenomenal world is understood to be the creation of mind. Furthermore, the atman (or individual mind) also is recognized as an illusion. Through deep reflection, or the practice of yoga, one can come to understand that one's sense of self and the world are fragments of the all-embracing Atman, which in turn is no different from Brahma. Identifying the Atman with Brahma overcomes the duality of subject and object and brings one to understand the monism at the heart of reality.

It is notable that a Hume asserts that a true understanding of Brahma is not really possible and that the nearest experiences we have of it are deep sleep and death, essentially non-experience; however, by accepting this metaphysical monism, one is placed in a position to more nearly understand the fundamental truth. According to some portions of the Upanishads, simply holding this metaphysical view will cause one to live morally.

Hume points out that the views expressed in the early Upanishads are sometimes different from those of the later Upanishads and that even within a single Upanishad, important differences can be identified. The dating of the Upanishads relies to great extent on these differences and the reliability of these dates depend in turn on a theory about the progress of religious insight. It assumes that the Upanishads that are characterized by a closer affinity to the nature worship of the earlier Vedic period were written first and that those describing an abstract monism were written later. The moral components of Hinduism also are suggested to make a later appearance. These may be a very reasonable assumptions; however, they do need to be recognized as assumptions. In The Origin and Growth of Religion Max Muller makes a strong case against religion generally progressing from animism to monotheism.

In any case, monotheism certainly has become the dominant and lasting form of the Indian religious vision and its roots are in the Upanishads.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Early Zoroastrianism / James Hope Moulton -- London: Williams and Norgate, 1913

In 1912, James Hope Moulton presented a series of lectures in Oxford which were later published in the Hibbert Lectures (1913). His topic was "early" Zoroastrianism by which he means Zoroastrianism, its immediate predecessor beliefs, and its descendant beliefs up to the time of Alexander. The work is quite valuable, but uneven. Moulton's first two chapters, "The Sources" and "Before Zarathustra" are somewhat unclear and confusing. His frequent name dropping and brief allusions, indicates that he was addressing an audience that was well-informed about the prevailing issues in Zoroastrian scholarship. After almost 100 years, it's all a bit baffling to the casual reader.

In the first chapter, Moulton presents numerous arguments for various theories about when Zarathustra lived. His evidence does not provide a clear and simple conclusion, but in general it tends toward an earlier date than what is often suggested. The clearest evidence for Zoroastrianism is the Behistan bas relief and inscription depicting Darius around 500 B.C. It is often thought the Zarathustra must have lived about a century or two before this; however, the arguments Moulton relates could place Zarathustra three or four hundred years early at the start of the first millennium.

Moulton's third chapter, "The Prophet and the Reform" is clearer. Here, Moulton argues that Zarathustra flourished in Bactria and traces the development of his thought -- portrayed as a great reformation of early Aryan nature worship -- though its transmission west by the Magi. In the hands of the Magi, Zarathustra's religious insights were transformed and -- in many of their essentials -- lost. The course of this transformation is described in two chapters, "The Magi" and "The Magi (continued)." Moulton argues that many of the more popular (and sometimes disturbing) notions of Zoroastrianism are actually alien to Zarathustra's teaching and were grafted onto the religion by Magi who, having failed to maintain political power in the Achaemenian period, established themselves as religious leaders.

The rest of the work addresses more specific features of Zoroastrianism and happily is clearer and more direct. The polytheistic doctrine of the divine beings (amesha spenta) is presented as a departure from Zarathustra's monotheism. Similarly, the moral dualism setting the good god Ahura Mazda against the evil Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman) is presented as a Magian perversion. This has come to be known as the Zurvanian heresy and now widely accepted.

Zarathustra made, however, a number of very important theological contributions that are prominent in many religions today, including monotheism, the immortality of the individual soul, a future day of judgement when our moral conduct will determine our eternal fate, and the existence of fravashis, or guardian spirits associated with each person. This notion, however, was not so exclusively Zarathustra's, but it was an important component of his thinking and may have been the origin of contemporary Western angelology.

In the final chapter, "Zarathustra and Israel," Moulton takes up a question that occupied the scholars of his time: what was the relationship between the theology of Zarathustra and the theology of the Bible, which have a number of striking similarities. Moulton's chapter is an interesting, though brief argument that while there might have been some cross-fertilization, the two theologies arose independently. For a more thorough treatment of this question, I recommend Lawrence Mills's series of lectures Our Own Religion in Ancient Persia. Mills's lectures also were published in 1913, though their publication was based on work done in past years. It is likely that Moulton had access to at least some of these before writing his own lectures.

Mills outlines three possibilities: (1) Zoroastrianism and Yahwehism arose largely independently, (2) Yahwehism impressed upon Zoroastrianism its monotheistic tendencies when the Jews were held captive in Babylon, and (3) the converse: Zoroastrianism impressed upon Yahwehism its monotheism during the captivity. Mills, like Moulton, opts for the first possibility, but it seems as though both are motivated by a desire either to glorify monotheism by claiming that its truth was independently evident or by the desire to defend the independence of Yahwehism.

If Moulton is correct, that Zarathustra's monotheism along with his other theological insights arose around the tenth century B.C., and if recent archeology and scholarship is correct, placing the origins of the Bible at or around the time of the exile, then it would seem natural that Zoroastrianism was the progenitor of monotheistic Yahwehism. While not absolutely certain, it seems more likely that a relatively minor ethic group (the Jews) might, while in captivity, adopt the elements of the theology of their surrounding culture. This is particularly likely in that prior to the rise of monotheistic Yahwehism in the post-exilic period, the Jews were at most henotheistic and so open to a variety of theologies. Second, their Babylonian captors were far and away the most powerful state in the region. Finally, their Achaemenian liberators (again the most advanced state of the region) were unquestionably monotheistic. It would have been a very easy step to adopt the monotheism of Ahura Mazda under the old, familiar name "Yahweh."

Moulton's Early Zoroastrianism, while somewhat frustrating at the start, develops into an extremely interesting examination of major theological ideas, whose origins are not well known today. It is no wonder that it remains in print today.