Sunday, July 31, 2011

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

Besides the Brihadaranyaka and the Chandogya Upanishads the Maitri Upanishad is the longest of the principle Upanishads. Consequently, it is able to cover a great number of philosophical and religious topics common to the Upanishads. Of course, central to the work is a discussion of the soul in which the individual soul is described as an extension or manifestation of the universal soul.

A significant amount of text is devoted to describing the relationship of the soul to the body. The soul is characterized as the "driver" of the otherwise unintelligent body and the body is further described in most unpleasant terms, "It comes forth through the urinary opening. It is built up with bones; smeared over with flesh; covered with skin; filled full with feces, urine, bile, phlegm, marrow, fat, grease, and also with many diseases, like a treasure-house with wealth." The point, of course, is to frame one's perception of the body (or the material world in general) in a way that invites escape into a purified world of the unembodied, undifferentiated universal soul. This escape is described in the fate of the soul after death, specifically not reincarnation, but release from the cycle of rebirth and repeated death.

A large section of the Maitri Upanishad is devoted to yoga -- the practice of austerity and meditation, including breath control, but it also highlights other topics within the Upanishadic tradition: the significance of the word "Om," the place of sacrifices in efforts toward liberation, and the symbolism of the sun as Brahma. Among the more intriguing topics is food. Much is said here and in other Upanishads about food that is sometimes puzzling. Sometimes it is discussed metaphorically and sometimes literally. In the Chandogya Upanishad it is used to mean earth, one of three divinities: fire, water, and earth. Elsewhere, it appears to mean whatever is necessary to support or nourish something; hence fuel for fire is food. Food is also used to connect all things in the material and non-material world, creating a kind of ecosystem:

From food, verily, creatures are produced,
Whatsoever [creatures] dwell on the earth.
Moreover by food, in truth, they live.
Moreover into it also they finally pass.

The Upanishad ends with several sections warning against false teachers, ignorance, perverted doctrines, and devilish, false, non-Vedic doctrines.

In all, the Maitri Upanishad offers a fairly comprehensive presentation of many of the central doctrines of the Upanishads and should be one's short reading list to understand the Upanishads.

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

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Svetasvatara Upanishad is a relatively brief theological section describing the god Rudra. As with other Upanishads, the Svetasvatara Upanishad focuses on Braama and the Atman as the fundamental cosmic reality. Its fundamental nature is underlined by stating that it is higher than the supreme god, Rudra, who is described in nearly Yahwehistic terms.

To start, however, the Svetasvatara Upanishad describes Brahma as the first cause of everything in the universe and assures the reader that knowledge of Brahma is the path to liberation. This is accomplished through performing sacrifices and by abiding by the rules of yoga. The discussion of Rudra then appears abruptly and dramatically. He is "The One spreader of the net...Who rules all the worlds....Rudra (the Terrible) is the One....He, the Protector, after creating all beings, merges them together at the end of time." He is the creator of heaven and earth and all the gods.

But having exalted Rudra, the Svetasvatara Upanishad goes on to say that Brahma is higher than this. While using some terminology that appears to personify Brahma, Brahma is described as immanent in all things. The distinction is critical in comparing Hinduism with the monotheistic religions of the West. Through Zoroastrianism and then Judaism, Western religions have more or less discarded polytheism and establish monotheism as the core of their dogma. Of course, there are strands within Western religions which conceive of God as a personal god and other strands which do not; however locating creation and gods within a cosmos where the divine ground is supremely venerated has little parallel in Western religions. In contrast, the Svetasvatara Upanishad would suggest that the while the world might be composed of many gods (with Rudra their ruler), the fundamental point of religion is not the veneration of a god or gods, but the recognition of the supreme reality. Liberation for us is no different than liberation for the gods; that is, we all must seek understanding of the world that lies behind (or beyond) the apparent world of our thoughts and senses.

Friday, July 29, 2011

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

The Mandukya Upanishad is the shortest of all the principle Upanishads. It is a prose work composed of less than 500 words. It begins by defining the word Om as "this whole world...the past, the present, the future...and whatever else that transcends threefold time." It goes on to explain that this self (atman) is Brahma and is exists in four states: waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and a mysterious fourth state that is without any distinctive description, but is the state of being one with the Self (the atman.) The word Om (Aum) is then described as representing these four states: A is the waking state, U is the dream state, M is the state of deep sleep, and the silence which follows the utterance of the word is the final state of being one with the Self.

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

I count the Prasna Upanishad among the most puzzling of all the principle Upanishads. It is a mixture of prose and verse, structured as a set of questions and answers. The questions are posed by six Brahmans to the "honorable Pippalada" and are typically staight-forward and interesting; however, the answers are often couched in obscure metaphors. One might make very little of this Upanishad without a significant background in the philosophy expressed in the broadeer Upanishadic tradition. Much of the language seems to harken back to earlier Upanishads.

There is a mildly comical passage in the third section, when one of the questioners asks six questions at once. Pippalada replies, "You are asking question excessively. But you are pre-eminently a Brahman -- methinks. Therefore I tell you."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

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

Like the Katha Upanishad, the Mundaka Upanishad is a short, clear presentation of some the central ideas of the Upanishads. It contains some of the most beautiful poetry of the Upanishads.

The first section describes the ritual preparations for understanding Brahma and the effects of ceremonial observances. The second section appears to owe much to the earliest Upanishads, metaphorically describing Brahma as the body of the universe. Many of its passages suggest a pantheistic understanding of the world; however, it also beautifully describes the origin of particulars:

As, from a well-blazing fire, sparks
By the thousand issue forth of like form,
So from the Imperishable, my friend, beings manifold
Are produced, and thither also go.

The final section describes the method by which salvation is achieved, expressing views and practices that are consonant with Buddhism. There is a recognition that desire is the cause of rebirth and that this can be avoided through practicing austerity. Certainly there is an element of self-denial, sacrifice and asceticism here; however, this should not be over emphasized. More certainly exercising discipline is more to the point, such that one does not become distracted and so lost in the pursuit of the ephemeral events and pleasures of the illusory world.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Flanders Panel / Arturo Perez-Reverte -- NY: Bantam Books, 1996

I read a novel about once every six months. There's usually no real rationale behind which novel. Instead, someone recommends one to me, usually putting it physically in my hand, and for reasons I don't quite understand, I end up reading it. It's not that I have anything against novels. I actually quite like reading them, it's just that I'm so addicted to non-fiction that it is nearly impossible to set aside the long list of non-fiction works that I'm so eager to read.

Recently, I was given Arturo Perez-Reverte's novel, The Flanders Panel. It was recommended to me due to the facts that I enjoy playing Chess and that a Chess problem is central to the plot of the novel. Years earlier, the novel had been recommended to me by a Chess-playing friend, who enjoyed the idea of making a Chess problem central to the plot, but found an error in the story's analysis of the problem. My friend is rated an "expert" which is out of my league, so I was unable to confirm his conclusion, about the problem, but I can certainly agree with his appreciation for the novel's conceit.

The main character in the novel is a highly skilled art conservator living in Madrid. Most all the rest of the characters are art dealers or auction house managers. Perez-Reverte portrays them (with the exception of the main character) more or less unsympathetically. They are generally arrogant, selfish, and self-absorbed. At the same time, Perez-Reverte exhibits an appreciation for their high culture arrogance by strewing his prose with a dizzying array of references to art and music (always classical and jazz). While it does help to establish the sensibilities of his characters, it often simply comes off as stilted.

The story itself turns on the main character's work restoring a painting by a fifteenth century Dutch painter, entitled "The Chess Game." Using UV and x-ray photography, she discovers that the painter included the question, "Who killed the Knight?" in his original work, but shortly after, painted over it. To increase the value of the painting, she and her mentor enlist a Chess master to answer the question by solving a reverse Chess problem appearing in the painting.

The plot thickens as her ex-lover and art historian is murder and it becomes clear that someone is playing out the painting's Chess game, killing people as pieces are taken. Perez-Reverte does an admirable job setting out clues (and false clues) to the murder mystery, but in the end the crimes are feebly motivated and need far too much new information to make sense when they are explained at the end of the novel.

There are a few very good portraits of three of the supporting characters, but the main character is rather flat and uninteresting. Were it not for the Chess problem, it would be a fairly unremarkable book. The real mystery is how it became an "international bestseller," at least according to the publisher's copy.

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

The Isa Upanishad is a short verse exposition of some of the central ideas of the Upanishads. The nature and the incomprehensibility of Brahma in particular are described. The following two verses exemplify these ideas.

It moves. It moves not.
It is far, and it is near.
It is within all this,
And it is outside of all this.

And later:

Into blind darkness enter they
That worship ignorance;
Into darkness greater than that, as it were, they
That delight in knowledge.

Monday, July 25, 2011

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

The Katha Upanishad is among the most popular of all Upanishads. It records an encounter between Naciketas and Yama (death) in which Yama reveals to Naciketas the mysteries of life after death. The conversation begins with Yama agreeing to grant Naciketas three wishes: (1) to see his dead father again, (2) to understand the ritual fire that leads one to immortality in the heavenly world, and finally, (3) knowldege of whether there is life after death. Yama resists granting this last wish, encouraging Naciketas to choose a host of worldly things: cattle, elephants, gold, horses, a magnificent house, etc. Naciketas turns it all down, choosing the preferable over the pleasurable.

Yama's answer is a clear outline of the doctrine of reincarnation and ultimate liberation, based on the identity of the universal and the individual soul. As long as the individual soul is bound to the world by desires and attachments, the soul is doomed to suffer an unending cycle of death and rebirth, leading only to death again and again; however, by employing the method of yoga one can suppress one's desires and attachments and walk the path to liberation. This is described in one of the Upanishads' most famous passages:

Arise ye! Awake ye!
Obtain your boons and understand them!
A sharpened edge of a razor, hard to traverse,
A difficult path is this -- poets declare!

By walking this path -- this razor's edge -- one can finally set aside the distraction of mortal life and understand the mystical doctrine that the individual soul is nothing other than the unborn and undying universal soul. Understanding this, one becomes free of the cycle of rebirth.

While not presenting the deep cosmological and theological insight of the Brihadaranyaka and the Chandogya Upanishads, the Katha Upanishad present perhaps the clearest eschatology of all the principle Upanishads. It is also noteworthy for its introduction of the method of yoga for achieving final liberation. Its brevity and depth recommend to the beginning student above all other Upanishads.

Monday, July 11, 2011

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

The Kena Upanishad is among the shortest of the principle Upanishads. It asserts that the highest knowledge is the mystical knowledge of Brahma. The first section describes the nature of Brahma as that which is not of the empirical world, but instead "that which is the hearing of the ear, the thought of the mind, the voice of speech, as also the breathing of the breath, and the sight of the eye." From this, one understands the Brahma is inscrutable which is made clear in the second section of the Upanishad.

In the third section, Brahma is described as greater than all the gods through a charming account of challenges set before the gods. Agni (fire) is unable to burn straw, while Vayu (wind) is unable to carry it away. Finally, Indra, attempts to approach Brahma, but it eludes him; however, the beautiful woman, Uma (knowledge), informs him of Brahma's nature. The final section reveals that knowledge of Brahma is a mystical doctrine that comes to one as a flash of lightening.

In this Upanishad the three central ideas of the Upanishads are presented: (1) Brahma (or the Atman) is the knowing subject within us, (2) Brahma (or the Atman) is unknowable, and (3) Brahma (or the Atman) is the sole and supreme reality.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Philosophy of the Upanishads / Paul Deussen -- A.S. Geden, Trans. -- NY: Dover Publications, 1966

The Upanishads are second to none among the world's most important sacred scriptures. Most were written during the first millennium B.C.E., but some are as recent as the Modern period. They are the culmination of the Vedic tradition and serve as ritual text-books. The oldest Upanishads are associated with three of the four main classifications of the Vedas: the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, and the Sama Veda. More recent Upanishads are associated with the Arthavada Veda.

It is out of the ritualistic and allegorical earlier writings of the Vedic tradition that the more philosophical writings of the Upanishads emerged. The oldest Upanishads are the Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya, Aitareya, Kaushitaka, and Kena Upanishads with the Kena standing on the border with later Upanishads. These later ones are the Kathaka, Is'a, S'vetas'vatara, Mundaka, and Mahanarayana Upanishads. Later still are the Pras'na, Maitrayaniya, and Mandukya Upanishads. Two or three more are sometimes included in this list of the "principle" Upanishads. As with any large collection of sacred writings that were composed over centuries, the Upanishads include numerous philosophical views, many of which are contradictory; but in general, they present a broad and roughly coherent current of thinking regarding the fundamental nature of reality, the soul, and right action leading to salvation or emancipation from delusion and suffering.

To the neophyte, the Upanishads present a thicket of confusing, but thoroughly engaging prose and verse. One needs a guide to make good sense of them and Paul Deussen's landmark work The Philosophy of the Upanishads offers excellent guidance. First published in 1906, Deussen's work remains valuable today. By reading it in conjunction with the principle Upanishads, one can better grasp both the substance of the Upanishads and the basis upon which Deussen makes his arguments regarding the philosophical thrust of the Upanishads. A convenient anthology of the principle Upanishads is The Thirteen Principle Upanishads, translated from Sanskrit by Robert Ernest Hume.

Deussen's The Philosophy of the Upanishads is divided into five main sections, beginning with a general introduction followed by expositions of the theology, cosmology, psychology, and eschatology of the Upanishads. The central doctrine that lies behind all of these topics can be reduced to three propositions. (1) The atman is the knowing subject within us, (2) The atman, as the knowing subject, is unknowable, and (3) The atman is the sole reality. From these three proposition, the Upanishads spin out sublime doctrines regarding, life, death, illusion, knowledge, consciousness, right action, and numerous other metaphysical and epistemological questions.

Many of these doctrines express ideas similar to those of Western philosophy, particularly -- according to Deussen -- Plato and Kant, but on the whole the philosophic approach is at odds with the empirical realism that dominates Western scientific thinking. Furthermore, the Upanishad's general approach to religion is starkly different from the main currents of Islam, Judaism, and especially Christianity, where right action, or right intention, is central to salvation. Instead, the Upanishads call us to see beyond the delusions that are natural to human experience and intuit the empirically unknowable reality that is embedded in our consciousness. The salvation that this offers is akin to the relief that one might feel after waking from a nightmare and repeating the assurance, "it was only a dream, only a dream."

Deussen's book is dense and expansive, but it is worth all the attention one might give it, including repeated readings.

Alzheimer's Disease: Advances in Prevention and Treatment, 2011 Report / Lynne Christensen -- Norwalk, CT: Belvoir Media Group, 2011

The mean age in the United States is rapidly increasing. This is due largely to the lengthening of the average life span. With more and more people living well into their eighties, the diseases of the aged are becoming increasingly common. Alzheimer's disease is, of course, significant among these. Unfortunately, research into Alzheimer's disease has not uncovered much in the way of prevention and treatment. Mostly, we have a description of the normal progression of the disease's symptoms and the results of autopsies. The etiology of the disease remains a mystery.

Christensen's brief summary of the disease provides a fairly technical introduction to what is known about Alzheimer's disease and outlines a few of the current theories about its origin and progress. It is often comforting for those suffering from an ailment and those whose loved ones are suffering from an ailment to learn what is known about the disease; however, Christensen's treatment is not likely to provide much comfort here. To begin with, the technical descriptions of the disease are not always adequately explained for the lay reader and most every assertion about potential treatments is prefaced with the caveat that nothing has been shown to prevent or effectively treat the disease. The best we have are specific clinical studies that seem to have helped retard the progress of the disease.

Christensen does offer, however, some advice about how to cope with the disease, but even here the techniques for living with Alzheimer's are of limited value and are certainly unreliable. The most valuable aspect of the report is the descriptions of the behavior of Alzheimer patients. Being aware of common behaviors allows those coping with the disease, especially caregivers, to understand what they can expect as the disease progresses and to prepare themselves for how this will affect the lives of the patient and the caregivers.