Regarding the Upanishads.

Madhav Deshpande mmdesh at UMICH.EDU
Fri Feb 11 12:02:22 UTC 2000

While I sympathize with those seeking spiritual enlightenment from the
Upanizads and other similar texts such as the Bhagavadgita, the assumption
on the part of the advocates of spirituality that some spiritual master
knows the one and the only true spiritual meaning of the Upanizads is not
justified by the historical experience of the Indian philosophical
tradition.  Just look at the various traditional interpretations of the
Upanizads and the BG.  They all vehemently differ from each other not only
in their spiritual understanding, but in their philological understanding
of these texts.  Whether the text was to be read as sa aatmaa, tat tvam
asi (Zankara), or sa aatmaa atat tvam asi (as done by Madhva), involves
not only spiritual issues, but also philological issues.  The traditional
authors are not "historically" oriented as modern scholars are, and yet
they are not just spiritually oriented.  They are skilled philologists.
In contrast with modern advocates of undifferentiated spirituality where
anything goes, the Indian tradition itself had a healthy dose of
scepticism about all these traditional authorities:

        vedaa.h pramaa.nam zrutayo vibhinnaa.h
                naiko munir yasya vaca.h pramaa.nam /
        dharmasya tattvam nihitam guhaayaam
                mahaajano yena gata.h sa panthaa.h //

Given that the tradition itself says things like "naiko munir yasya vaca.h
pramaa.nam", and

        kapilo yadi sarvajn~a.h ka.naado neti kaa pramaa /
        ubhau tau yadi sarvajn~au matabhedas tayo.h katham //

any hope that some claimant to spirituality knows the true meaning of
these texts is utterly in vain.  A more realistic approach to the
tradition would be to look at the interpreters as each one trying his best
at a justifiable interpretation, and there is no reason to eliminate the
modern interpreters from that class.


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