Sunday, June 26, 2011

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

The significance of the Kaushitaki Upanishad is not easy to understand. There are at least two important themes: the transmigration of souls and an attempted determination of Brahma. The first theme is interlaced with passages remarking on consequences of moral (usually sacrificial) actions. It is in these passages that one can find expressions of the famous doctrine of karma. Interestingly, the transmigration of souls from one life to the next includes passage of the soul to the sun and then to the moon before returning to its next incarnation.

One is reminded of Plato's description of reincarnation in the Myth of Er where souls are allowed to choose their next existence, but their choices are usually determined by what they did or experienced in their previous existence. Furthermore, if one had been dedicated to sound philosophy in one's previous life, one had a better chance at making an auspicious choice. The parallel with the transmigration of souls as expressed in the Kaushitaki Upanishad lies in the karmic consequences of one's actions and the soul's ability to escape these consequences through a proper understanding of Brahman.

The determination of Brahma is expressed in a dialog between a brahman named Balaki and a kshatriya named Ajatasatru. Balaki begins by attempting to explain the nature of Brahma, but after each attempt, Ajatasatru refutes him. Humbled, Balaki presents himself to Ajatastru as a pupil; whereupon Ajatastru reveals the truth to Balaki, explaining that Brahma is the Atman (or the soul with us) that is "minute as a hair subdivided a thousandfold" and which when awakened is like a blazing fire sending sparks in all directions. The force of this metaphor is that the Atman is Brahman, but that the individual soul is to Brahman as sparks are to a blazing inferno.

While not the most fascinating of the Upanishads, the Kaushitaki Upanishad's themes are unquestionably among the most important in the canon.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

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

The Aitareya Upanishad is one of the shortest of the thirteen principle Upanishads. It is a concise mythological account of the creation of the world. "In the beginning, Atman (Self, Soul), verily, one only, was here -- no other winking thing whatever. He bethouhght himself: 'Let me now create worlds,'" and out of Atman, the elements of the world separate. Thus it begins as a theistic treatise.

From the creation of the worlds, Atman creates world-guardians and to nourish them, food; however, the food he offers them is not sufficient until he offers them a person. At least this is how section 1.2 describes it. Section 1.3 describes the food of the guardians as fleeing from him, until "this one living food," the wind, is consumed. The centrality of food is a bit puzzling; however, understood as that which is consumed and which is necessary for a thing's existence, makes it critical to understanding creation and being while indicating the ephemeral, constantly changing nature of creation.

Having created the worlds and all that is in them, Atman enters the body of the world as the self; hence, the distinction between the creator and the creation is blurred. The final section expands the return of the Atman into its creation to all things "born from an egg,..."born from a womb,...born from sweat, and...born from a sprout."

While the Aitareya Upanishad is almost exclusively cosmological in subject, it does makes brief mention of righteous actions as a final "birth" of the self, suggesting a naturalistic basis for morality and indicating the expansiveness of the what is born of and returns to the Atman.

War Dance: a film directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix (2007)

In the early 1980s, a rebel group known as the Holy Spirit Movement formed in Northern Uganda with the aim of overthrowing the Ugandan government. The movement was largely fighting for the interests of the Acholi tribe; however, when the movement's leader fled to Kenya, Joseph Kony gained control of the movement and renamed it the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA quickly became one of the most notorious militias in Africa, murdering, raping, looting, and kidnapping adults and children in order to force them to fight against the Ugandan army. It is in the context of this conflict that the documentary "War Dance" was conceived.

Sean Fine and Andrea Nix take their film crew to a refugee camp in Northern Uganda where they chronicle the efforts of a group of primary school children to compete in Uganda's national music and dance festival. The film focuses on three of the children. The father of one was killed by the LRA and her mother is forced to live in a separate refugee camp to make a living. Another child lost both her parents and is now responsible for her siblings. The third is a boy who was captured by the LRA and made to serve as a child soldier. He escapes the LRA, but not before they force him to kill innocent people.

The first hour of the film is dedicated to telling these tragic stories. The brutalization and suffering of the children is heart breaking, especially as one understands that they are not at all unique among the children affected by the conflict.

The second hour of the film is dedicated to following the children's trip to Kampala and their participation in the national competition. Upon arriving at the festival, the children discover that the other children at the festival distrusted them and believe them to be rebels. The mistaken belief is likely due to the fact that the children themselves are Acholi. Their "outsider" status fuels an already vigorous tribal pride among the children and seems to motivate them to perform well.

"War Dance" is in essence two films: the first tells three brutal stories, while the second is an exuberant celebration of music and dance. Brought together, these two films effectively communicate the horror that so many suffer in Africa's conflicts, while insisting that Africans are not merely two dimensional monsters and victims as they are sometimes portrayed. The pride and excitement of young teenagers participating in a national music and dance competition is deeply endearing and their performances are exhilarating.

As a piece of cinematography, "War Dance" is first rate. The beauty of the land and the people are never lost, the film's pacing is excellent, and the testimony of the children is captured with thoughtful respect. If there is a weakness, it is that the camera does not steadily track the whole of the dance and music performances. The build up to the festival is so effective that one would prefer to simple see a record of the performances and not a montage of dramatic angles and audience reactions.

"War Dance" is both heart breaking and life affirming. It's a real triumph.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

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

Compared to the Brihad-Aranyaka and Chandogya Upanishads, the Taittiriya Upanishad is a succinct little meditation on a few moral and metaphysical concepts. The first section primarily valorizes the relationship between a teacher and student, praising the wisdom that can be acquired in such a relationship. This conforms to a common interpretation of the word "upanishad," thought to mean to sit at the feet of, which also has led some to understand the upanishads as teaching an esoteric doctrine. Such an understanding is easy to accept today, when so much learning takes place through texts and other audio and video media; however, when the Taittiriy Upanishad was written, word of mouth teaching was the norm and did not necessarily imply an esoteric teaching.

At the same time, the teaching of the upanishads might very rightly be thought of as esoteric and necessarily requiring instruction from a "seer." The doctrines of the Upanishads themselves would suggest that not everyone is able to grasp their truth without the aid of a seer. Without initiation into the doctrines, most people would not question the reality of their perceptions. It is the rare person who will see beyond the empirical world and into the truth that lies behind it without the guidance of someone who has tread the path before.

The second section explains how knowledge of Brahman (or the divine reality) is bliss. Based first of all on a metaphysical idealism, the section asserts that the contents of the consciousness that constitutes reality is bliss. Here, one is reminded of Meister Eckhart's concept of god as love. Instead, reality is bliss.

The third section describes the Brahman as food. The overall impression is one of the ecological interrelated of nature and ultimately all of being.