Monday, May 11, 2020

600-300 BCE : Principal Upanishads composed

Important note : I'll use the term Hinduism/Hindu from now on instead of the technically correct terms like Dharma, Sanatana Dharma etc. As long as we remember that there was nothing called Hinduism/Hindu during these times and that it is a much later manifestation, it helps in avoiding being too pedantic. Funnily enough even if Krishna, a key character in Mahabharata (who would later become a storied Godhead in Hindu pantheon), were to be asked if he were a Hindu, he would not even have understood the question. 

Historical context

Vedic people move east and further south. Magadha emerges as the largest Mahajanapada few hundred years after the Mahabharata war. Despite the apocalyptic war (TBC, will explore the real breadth of war and deaths later in 300 BCE when we discuss about the literature), Indian population by 600 BCE had become the largest in the world (According to Greek historian Herodotus). The substantial surplus created by rice cultivation in the fertile alluvial plains of Gangetic plains produced many "urban" societies. People, relatively wealthy due to surplus, also moved far and wide - intermixing of various thoughts and cultures all across South Asia. It is in this milieu that Upanishads were composed.

This society in which Upanishads were composed could not have been more different from the Old vedic times in which first vedas were composed up in Punjab plains - open spaces, people living in forests, sleeping under stars, temporary shelters, no fixed housing, horses galore.

One could almost see a nostalgia of the Vedic past (from Punjab and prior to that the open steppe spaces beyond Hindu Kush) in much of Aranyaks and Upanishads - students and teachers living in forests, sleeping under stars, temporary hutments discussing about meaning of life and such other topics pretty cut off from every day city life that most Vedic people by now had accustomed into around the gangetic plains.

Upanishads are typically regarded as the last bit of Shruti scriptures of Hindu philosophy. The usage comes from the assumption that this was the last bit of knowledge that were "seen" by mantra drashtas - enlightened Rishis. Everything that comes after the last of  Upanishads are counted as Smriti, that which is remembered and put to text by humans, and hence not derived directly from the god. A practical difference of Shruti and Smriti was that, in ancient times at least, the Shrutis were never written down (passed on from generation to generation through only oral rendition) where as Smritis were not so (you could write it down, though epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata were sung over generations before being put to text)

Upanishads are also known as Vedanta, the end of Vedas. On one front, it is the end of Shruti scriptures and on the other it is regarded as the last append of Veda samhitas (after Brahmanas and Aranyakas)

It is, however, not quite easy to date Upanishads. It is even more difficult than dating Mahabharata. This is primarily because there is no one understanding among all scholars as to what all constitutes Upanishads. Since it denotes the end of Vedas and Shruti, there is a constant pressure to add something new to it - many composers would love their own composition to be added to the Upanishadic body of works so as it give it the sanctity of "words from the very mouth of god". Everyone wanted to board the last train !

But if you take most of the largest and well known works of Upanishads, one can approximately say they were composed sometime after Mahabharata war and before AD. Generally, scholars give a wide range of 800-300 or 600-300 BCE when they were written.

Structure of Principal Upanishads

Depending on which Veda it is appended to, we can broadly bucket Upanishads also into 4 or 5, if one were to split Yajurveda into the Black - Krishna and White (Shukla) ones.

10 Upanishads from the Rigveda
19 Upanishads from the Shukla-Yajurveda
32 Upanishads from the Krishna-Yajurveda
16 Upanishads from the Samaveda and
31 Upanishads from the Atharvaveda.

13 of them are regarded as core to Hinduism by vedic scholars (Called Mukhya or Principal Upanishads)

(A) Upanishads of the Rigveda :
(1) Aitareya Upanishad,
(2) Kaushitaki Upanishad

(B) Upanishads of the Shukla-Yajurveda:
(3) Brihadaranyaka Upanishad,
(4) Isha Upanishad

(C) Upanishads of the Krishna-Yajurveda:
(5) Taittiriya Upanishad,
(6) Katha Upanishad,
(7) Shvetashvatara Upanishad,
(8) Maitrayaniya Upanishad

(D) Upanishads of the Samaveda:
(9) Chandogya Upanishad,
(10) Kena Upanishad

(E) Upanishads of the Atharvaveda:
(11) MundakaUpanishad,
(12) MandukyaUpanishad,
(13) Prashna Upanishad.

Content of Upanishads

Unlike Samhitas (and most other early Vedic literature), Upanishad speak more about knowledge and less about rituals (move from karma kanda to jnana kanda, sphere of action to sphere of knowledge). Already in Aranyaks (literally meaning, pertaining to forest), we can see a shift in focus from material livelihood based rituals to much more philosophical discussions fit for forest dwelling monks /sadhus. While ancient Vedas pertained more to humans living in villages and going about their everyday life, the Aranyaks and subsequently Upanishads are more philosophical in nature - delinked from questions of every day material life. For this reason, many believe Upanishads are the real throbbing heart of Hinduism.

It is also worth noting the historical context under which Vedantic philosophies started finding favors. On one side, Vedic rituals were losing meaning for spiritual seekers among the vedic people and on the other side these times witnessed birth of Gautama Budha and Mahavira. They established Budhism and Jainism - two religions seeking answers to deep spiritual questions like meaning of life, obtaining nirvana etc- through creation of monastic orders. While vedic teachings thus far were meant for everyday village life, it lacked probing spiritual questions. Budhism and Jainism helped meet some of these needs and this in turn likely led to Vedantic thoughts getting prominence within the Hindu fold.  Hence one could say this was in many ways the golden time of Indian philosophy - which would go on to inspire millions of adherents across Asia and rest of the world.

Unfortunately, very few present day Hindus ever read the beautiful Upanishads given the complex philosophy involved and lack of easy to understand translations in regional languages. Also one must accept that there is no way to over simplify the philosophy and at some point one needs to accept that it is not for everyone.

No comments: