The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, June 22, 2003

The stories in Upanishads
Vijay Tankha

Crisis and Knowledge: The Upanishadic Experience and Storytelling
by Yohanan Grinshpon. Oxford University Press, New Delhi. Pages 146. Rs 395.

Crisis and Knowledge: The Upanishadic Experience and StorytellingDEPARTING from the traditional readings of Upanishadic texts as primarily concerned with the articulation of an abstract and esoteric doctrine of Brahman, Yohanan Grinshpon, a scholar from the Hebrew University, Israel, focuses on some of the many stories that are embedded in the Upanishads. These are stories that are usually regarded as, at best, bearers of the core truth of the atman Brahman identity or, at worst, as ancillary and even unnecessary embellishment or obfuscation of such ‘truth’.

There are many such stories and conversations between life-like characters: sons, wives, students, teachers, gods, asuras. Some of these stories are well known. Janasruti, Raikva, Svetaketu, Uddalaka Aruni’s discourse with his son, Indra’s quest, Satyakama and his teacher (all of these in the Chandogya Upanishad), Maitreyi and Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka, Nachiketas in the Katha. Others, like that of Usasti Chakrayana and his ‘child-woman’ less so, but in all of these, Grinshpon finds a moment of personal crisis and its subsequent solution, that contextualises the metaphysics of the Upanishads.

Grinshpon brings to bear on his interpretation a fresh insight and a broad humanistic outlook that sees these stories as articulating a crisis in the traditional knowledge system while looking forward to a new set of concerns. The crises are particularised in the stories of individuals: great men and women whose hot experience takes place in the Upanishadic crucible. Those who look scientifically (coldly) from the margins of these texts into their incandescent centre often miss the whole point of what is happening. The relationship between these stories and the more abstract doctrines of the Upanishads is not simply one of a carrier (story) to what is carried (content, doctrine). But the experiential dimension of the stories is crucial to an adequate understanding of them, while attention to detail may throw up surprising facets in the accounts themselves.


While most scholarship, he tells us, looks at these texts from the margins, rather than from their narrative centre, it imposes on the text many of its own assumptions while giving up a sensitive reading of what is being said. Now there are many such viewpoints, historical, anthropological, philosophical, philological, that view the Upanishads and their doctrines. Some, but not all of these, are committed to the truth that the Upanishads expound, or at least to some version of such a truth. The most prominent of these ‘readings’ is the traditional reading, the best example of which is Sankara’s. "Traditional reading seeks understanding of the literal meaning of the text. Such reading avoids research into the Upanishadic heroes’ lives and experiences."

Related to this kind of reading is what the author calls an existentialist reading, such as that of Tagore, which also assumes that there is an original Vedic intention, but which replaces a scholarly understanding with an empathic and experiential response. "The existential reader attends to his own needs, identifications, hopes and experiences, and in accordance with these he interprets the Upanishads." Schopenhauer’s is another example of such a reading. While Grinshpon does not reject these readings outright, he would add to them another way of looking at the texts, particularly at the stories therein, and the contexts in which they occur, taking seriously (and with scholarship) what is being said and who is saying it.

Grinshpon, however, also imposes his own interpretative framework, rudimentary as it is, on the stories as a whole. He sees them as moving from a recognition of inferiority, brought about by some personal crisis such as death, rejection by one’s teacher, uncertainty about a father’s identity, separation, etc, which provide the ground for healing Upanishadic knowledge. It is less clear what he thinks is the content of such therapeutic knowledge, whether it is in any way fixed (as Vedanta in its various formulations would seek to fix it), or whether the fluidity and contextuality of its occurrences as both text and tradition make it permanently elusive, and so perennially meaningful.

Grinshpon does not present the reader with an exhaustive enumeration and classification of all or even a large number of these stories (such quantification of the textual data would be the very opposite of what a sensitive, inclusive reading of these stories demands). He concentrates on the principal Upanishads, and among these on two or three stories, around which he divides his chapters. The retelling is always informative and surprising. Maitreyi’s quest of (Vedic) immortality makes sense in the context of the new Upanishadic claim of liberation through knowledge. Nachiketa’s rejection of his father’s sacrifice is not, as most commentators have seen it, a rejection of his father’s miserly attitude towards sacrifice (which is here the gift rather than the slaughter of cows), but of sacrifice itself, understandable only within a new context of Upanishadic knowledge. Satyakama’s honesty (ignorance of the identity of his father) is not, Grinshpon tells us, a straightforward expression of ignorance but an untruth that points to the truth. The possibility that Satyakama’s mother is a Sudra is not even touched upon by Sankara, for instance, in whose version Jabala is made to say that she does not remember her husband’s social status as she was too busy looking after house guests, during which time Satyakama was born! Sankara’s deliberate avoidance of the whole question of Satyakama’s identity is at odds with the emphasis that the text itself gives to it.

These stories have, the author repeatedly asserts, been under-read or misread from the margins, where a variety of different approaches have peered into the texts of the Upanishads. There are two ways in which such under-reading takes place, by ignoring the subtext and details of the stories, or by discarding them as irrelevant to the teachings of the Upanishads. By offering an inclusive rather than an exclusive reading, Grinshpon enriches our understanding of the Upanishads, revealing at the same time their more humane and, therefore, complex approach to the issue of self-transformation.