A survey of the shelf in the Chandogya Upanisad

The Chāndogya Upanishad is an anthology of texts from different origin. It is difficult to date them but in most of the cases they must be very old. Olivelle in the introduction to his translation says that some of the teachers, whose doctrines are presented in the book, must have lived in the edge of the seventeenth and the sixteenth century[1]. They are then not far from the time of Buddha, but definitely earlier. The action of the stories narrated may be localised somewhere in the western region of the Kur-Păncala country.[2] The title of this book has been translated as the chanter’s teaching by Roebuck. It is a section of the Chăndogya Brăhamaņa belonging to the Thăndya School of the Sămaveda. It is quite difficult to make a decision about what is the core of the book. According to Olivelle, this core could be the speculation about the cosmic and the ritual correspondences of the Săman,[3] which seems to aim at a revision of the brahmanic tradition. This point of view is consistent with the most general interpretations of the whole of the Upanişads. The development of this critical reconsideration of old traditions came together with the emergence of new concepts, which can be described as philosophical. In the following lines we will focus on one of these concepts: the notion of ătman, which is usually translated as self. This word was possibly in its origin a term for breath and in its usual use is a reflexive pronoun
There are many passages in this book which are, directly or indirectly, related to the notion of ătman, but previously to its consideration, it is highly interesting to consider who is speaking about it. In the book there is a surprisingly variety of possibilities doing the role of guru in speeches which bear a relation to the notions of ătman and Brahma, that finally must be identified. It is possible to find personification of natural forces, men and even Gods. Examples of the first case could be found in the book fourth, where some animals and elements teach Satsayakăma Jăbăla about the four quarters of Brahman[4] and the fires introduce later to the young Upakosala into the notions of ka and Kha[5]. Several people are teaching also these concepts. In a quick survey we can find: Raikva the yoke-man[6], Sāņdilya[7] ,Satyakāma Jābāla[8], Jaivali Pravāhana[9], Aśpasavati Kaikeya[10] and Uddālaka Āruni[11]. They tend to be usually kings or people belonging to the ruling classes that at these moments are beginning to appear in India. Some of them are presented as teachers, Sāņdilya or Uddālaka, in spite of the fact that the text uses to be truly ambiguous. I think that we can imagine these teachers as belonging to the class of Brahmans, although their doctrines seems to go beyond the orthodox point of view described in the Vedas. Any of these characters, like Raivka, are quite mysterious. Finally even Gods play the role of teachers confronted to human or supernatural audiences. So, the book VII is an exposition of Sanaktumāra, a son of Brahma, and the doctrine about the true self in the book VIII is introduced by the main God, Prajāpati, to Indra and Virocana, another God and a demon. Obviously, this is a way to emphasize the authority of ideas which could be refused by its novelty. Perhaps there is not a great difference between Gods and natural forces, because there has always been a close relation between both kinds of concepts. Nonetheless, I find difficult to grasp why is used each one of them in every moment[12], although from the book IV on it could be noted a well established progression[13]. Everyone who teaches about self could be considered as a most important being than its predecessor. Consequently, the final discourse on the self belongs to Prajāpati.
Nonetheless there is a feature shared by the almost totality of these speeches. Their views used to differ from the orthodox point of view of the earlier Vedas. Whether they are trying to complement this tradition or directly they are trying to challenge it, it is difficult to avoid thinking that we have found something new. It is a repeated situation that the main role of many histories happens to be a young boy which returns home after being instructed in a way that we must suppose traditional. When he presents his knowledge, it proves always to be defective. That is the case in book V, where is introduced the History of Śvetekayu Āruneya, the son of Uddālaka Āruni. Although it has been educated by his father, who is presented as an important teacher, he is unable to answer any of the five questions asked by the king Jaivali Pravāhana[14]. Even his father has to admit that he has no ideas about these subject, that later will be introduced by the king to the readers and to himself[15]. In the beginning of book VI, we find again the same young boy returning after a long stay with Brahmans without knowing abut the symbolical statement[16], the last reality which being speech it is described like the material cause of everything. Certainly these Brahmans are never shown in a ridiculous way, but their teachings are qualified as incomplete[17]. In fact not only the content of their teaching is criticised but also the way in which it is transmitted[18]. We have two examples of this kind of criticism in book four, when the young students had to look for the truth that they are searching outside their teachers’ home. In the first case, the young attains the same that could have provided by his teacher[19], but in the second, after talking with the fires, is provided to the young an important insight into the self[20]. Possibly is in book VII, where it can be found the most challenging affirmation about the vedic tradition, when Sanaktumāra, a son of Braham, replies to the sage Nārada, who is proud of having studied everything which the tradition allows to study, that his previous knowledge is only names; useless to answer the most important question: what is the self? The knowledge of the self appears here like the boundary between the old tradition and this new way of thinking which has its beginning in the Upanişads.
But before starting to think about ātman it is necessary to clarify the metaphysical bases of the several teachings about the self that could be found in the book. It is a widely shared opinion that there is more than one single doctrine about the notion of self; far from it, there are several teachings from different sources, and sometimes it is difficult to conceive them in a unified way. Notwithstanding that, I would rather say that two metaphysical assumptions remain steady throughout the book. Both assumptions are: a monistic conception of reality, the first and the most important, and the connexion between microcosms and macrocosms, a consequence of the first.
To find some examples of the first these in the Chandogya Upanişad does not entail any kind of difficult. As Brereton says, perhaps the basic aim of the Upanişads is showing the intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction in seeing things as a whole[21]. We will focus on three moments of the book, in which this monist position is clearly reflected. The first of them happens in book two that is focused on the notion of Săman, an important verse to be chanted in ritual sacrifices. According to the development of the book, Săman can be seen in several different places and actions. Finally, the Chapter 21, introduces the notion of everything, in which is woven the Săman. Furthermore, anyone, who is able to know this fact, becomes everything. Understanding of the primordial unity makes possible the fusion with the whole. The Totality is depicted later as original unity. That happens in the beginning of book six, when Uddălaka Ărumi teaches his son about the symbolical statement, saying that in the beginning the world was one only, without a second[22]. Any other thing has evolved from this primeval reality and this is the basic knowledge required to attain the notion of the self, which is introduced by Uddălaka in the second part of this book[23]. The unity between the conception of whole, which is usually meant by Brahma[24], and self is affirmed in the conclusion of book VII. From the beginning Nārada tries to find a way of knowing the self. Since previous knowledge is only name, his teacher introduces him to the things than are greater. It begins with Speech and follows with Mind and several others. Each one of them could be venerated as Brahma. But finally we arrive to the notion of abundance or plenitude, and in order to know it, we need to know that difference and multiplicity must be ignored. We must be able of not perceiving otherness[25]. That makes possible to apply the rule of substitution to I and the self, and then everything has to be identified with self[26]. As Brereton says, there is no difference between the basic principle of everything and the core of each individual[27]. To the enlightened, both, Brahma and self, are the same thing.
The other basic these which deserves to be commented is that referring to the connexion between microcosms and macrocosm[28]. Its roots lie in the oldest vedic traditions, when the sacrifice of the Horse served to maintain the whole and there was an intrinsic connexion among the parts of the animal and different areas of the universe. There are reminiscences of this fact throughout the book. Very often natural elements are identified with parts of Brahman’s body[29]. This relation is a good illustration about the world’s view of the people who wrote the Upanisads. Their central assumption was that the universe is a web of relations and it is the sage’s job to unveil these hidden relations[30]. Possibly it is in book five where this idea is most strongly developed. First, there is the doctrine of the five fires, which king Jaivala exposes to Gautama, that is to say Uddălaka Ărumi. Jaivala depicts world, Parjanya (the rain-god), earth, man (purusa) and young woman as fire, the Gods offered to the world their faith, from them arises King soma, which is given to the second fire. That produces rain, which is again given to the third fire to generate food. By the same process arise later the seed and finally the foetus, from which a new life begins. His passing away means the return to the fire which was the origin. The text is relevant because it is simultaneously a cosmological and a physiological tale. There is no difference between the processes which serve to maintain the universe, which properly is not created, and to arise a human being, and then talking abut the creation of human being is essentially senseless, there has to be an essence in human being as eternal as the universe[31]. The book five offers later another good example of the connexion between macrocosms and microcosms in the chapters where are narrated the meeting of five Brahmans looking for knowledge of the self. They approach to Uddălaka Ărumi, but he does not teach them. He directs them to Aśvapati Kaikeya joining them. After the intervention of every one of them, the teacher exposes his doctrine which does not contradict what has been said previously. Indeed Aśpavati integrates all the previously said into a synoptic vision which unifies self and the whole of the universe, describing every part of the universe as a part of the human being. There is a connexion between head and sky, eye and sun, breath and air, body and space, bladder and waters and earth and feet among others[32]
With the commentary of this last paragraph we have been introduced into the speculation about the notion of ātman. And I think that this word “speculation” is the most convenient in this point, because it is not the case that it could be found an account of Ātman, which we can consider as definitive. Instead, we had several approximations whose meaning could sometimes differ. In fact, the situation of the scholar who is trying to grasp the meaning of this notion in the Upanişads is akin the situation of those who try to understand what is the meaning of soul in the works of Plato. Also in the Greek philosopher it is almost impossible to establish a definite doctrine about this question. There are only myths which do not allow arriving at doctrinal conclusions but that are inviting us to meditate in a certain direction. Anyway, at the end of the book VII, the teaching of Nārada reflects perhaps one of the clearest expressions that makes easier to grasp the cosmological value of the notions of self. There is a connexion between the notion of abundance or plenitude, which has been presented as the most supreme truth and I and the self. All of them are extended over the whole world[33]. To be able of thinking in this way makes the self the true origin of the universe, everything springs from him. This identification between the self and the whole, that is to say, Brahama is usually seen as the Key of the Upanişads. This fact is literally established in some passages of the Ch. Up., for instance in the teaching transmitted to Upakosala by his teacher Satyakāma Jābāla[34] Self is the person who is seen in the eye and that is Brahman too. The expression is not completely clear in its meaning, and in a certain way, it appears almost as a riddle. It is introduced after the teaching of the fires which might be understood as a monist conception, where the I is identified with several cosmological notions and physical elements[35] Afterwards it is said that this person seen in the eye is “unifying the beautiful”, “bringer of the beautiful” and “light bringer”[36] It looks like as if the action of the self should give meaning to the world. The fact of being named “light bringer” could possibly signify that it is the sufficient reason of the being of everything. The whole exists only to be looked by this eye that is the self and depends completely on this activity. Since these considerations it is possible to understand also what is the aim of the famous metaphor in which the self is compared simultaneously to the whole of the earth and a millet of grain or a millet kernel[37] Self is shown there like something that lying within the heart is able to capture the whole world; psychical action is the essence and reality of the world. III, 12 has introduced what I consider the same idea in a poetical mood, when it is said that Brahman is the space outside a person, which is the same that the space within a person that is equal to the space within the heart. Next chapter will define this heart as the core of the universe, with a correspondence among their five openings, their five kinds of breath and the Sun, the Moon, the fire, the rain and space. Once again we find advanced in a vigorous way, the thesis of the connexion between macrocosms and microcosms.
Another important teaching about the self is in the doctrine exposed by Uddālaka Ārumi to his son at the end of book six. In this place are used some famous metaphors to represent ātman. The self is the finest or subtle part of the highest deity[38], the honey that collects the nectar from different kind of trees[39], the sea where the different rivers merge[40], the broken part of a seed[41],and the salt dissolved in water[42] That is to say, self is the essence of the primordial unity which is beyond whatever conceivable difference, as Brereton says, the true self is not the individual self, but the identity that it shares with everything else[43]; a unity which, and perhaps this a paradoxical teaching, is simultaneously the root and the aim of the processes through which reality is developed.
Until now we have considered some of the most quoted images about the self presented in the Chăndogya Upanişads. However, I have not mentioned the one that I consider the most powerful and most revealing about the nature of this notion. It occurs in the fourth chapter of book eight where it is said that self is like a dam, something whose essence is to attain a separation between two worlds, the real world which is comprised within the heart, where Brahma and Atman completely coincide, and the other world, which is by no means real, the world of death, sickness, evil, that is to say, difference and otherness, or, according to the main metaphor, darkness, because in the good side of the dam there is light forever, the light with which true being is associated. Although varying between its degrees of assertiveness in all the texts quoted the identification between Brahma and ātman is steadily established, that is to say, they reflect this monistic conception from which we have talked previously.
I would like to finish this essay considering some consequences of this conception of Ātman that could be related to psychology (not scientific psychology but that which was called by Kant Transcendental) and ethics. In relation to the former field the most important fact is that self is not primarily associated with Consciousness. This is a remarkable point for someone like me who has been educated in the occidental way of thinking that, since Descartes, has been focused on conscience. There are two passages in the Ch. Upanişads whose reading is unavoidable to consider this question. The first is part of the Uddālaka Ārumi’s teaching in book VI, the other one is in the teaching of the God Prajāpati at the end of book eight. Uddālaka teaches to his son that sleeping is merging with the being, that is to say, merging with the own[44]. This statement seems to suggest that consciousness is something akin to a hindrance in the pursuit of true happiness. At the end of the speech of Uddālaka there is again an association between finding the true self and loss of consciousness, in this case the loss which is produced by agony[45].
This doctrine is not essentially contradicted but exposed in a more deeply way in the following book by the God Prajāpati who teaches Virocana and Indra. Whereas Virocana has enough with a first degree of knowing, that identifies self with bodily appearance[46], Indra needs more and returns three times; every return signifies a deeper knowledge of the self. In this way Prajāpati introduces a doctrine which distinguishes between four levels to experience the self: waking conscience, where Virojana stays and remains, dreaming[47], sleeping without dreams[48] and a fourth state where self is finally attained[49]. This teaching seems go beyond the doctrine previously exposed by Ārumi, who seems to have stopped at the third level. Anyway it is by no means easy to provide a good description of this fourth state; obviously it implies a complete separation of the body that can not be completely attained in the previous states and a complete lack of separation with everything that is experienced. This lack of separation is the world of Brahman. Maybe the image of the dam might help us to understand this statement. The fourth state signifies going beyond knowledge, because knowledge it is made possible only by separation[50]. The consequence of monism is that true self although attainable has to be unknowable[51] An analogy might be established with the tradition of negative theology developed in medieval Europe, in a certain way, we can only talk negatively about the self; saying what it is not, but not what it is[52]
A good point to start with the “ethics” of the Chăndogya Upanişad is the same chapter where is introduced the idea of self as a dam[53].The dam has to be crossed to live in the world of Brahma, which is always bright. The way to do this is studentship, which is defined in the next chapter. This way of living is described in a way where the traditional conceptions about ritual, sacrifices and offering merge with the new ones which were beginning to flourish in the time of redaction of these writings; the actions performed by people eager to go to the forest in order to live in an ascetic mood. However, I would not say that both traditions are equally important. The new one plays the most important role whereas the former is only a metaphor to convey the meaning of this ascetic way of life.
This way is, of course, absolutely coherent with the metaphysical assumption which we have defined as the core of the Upanişads. As Hiriyamsa said, evil is easily defined from a monistic viewpoint; it is only the result of the metaphysical error which sees variety alone where there is also the unity of Brahma[54]. Otherness is the root of evil, although not evil in itself. This conception has a close relation with the doctrine of reincarnation, which although absent from the most ancient vedic writings, occurs often in the Chăndogya Upanişad,. The notion of rebirth is a consequence of the eternity of atman. It serves to set up the goal of this life of sacrifice and retirement: escape from the cycle of reincarnations, Moksa, That this is the most desirable aim is suggested for instance at the end of the exposition of the doctrine of the fires, the so called “way of the Gods”[55]. In this passage the highest hope seems to be to enter a pleasant womb. But in other teachings the truly aim is to avoid returning to the human condition, for instance, in the teaching directed to Upakosala[56] These goal contrast with those searched by the old rituals quite concerned with more materials ways of immortality, but although theoretically the opposition between both ways of immortality should be complete, the text is always fluctuating between two possibilities and so the discourse of Prajāpati, one of the most important teachings about the self, terminates with the celebration of a kind of ordinary life which has nothing to do with the ascetic way lived in the solitude of the forest[57].
Of course, if we think about ethics, for instance, in a kantian way, the questions focused in the Upanişad seem really distant. This is a consequence of the fact that conscience was not as important for Indian thinking as it is and used to be for the western philosophers. But there are other traditions, belonging to western culture, with which is convenient to compare; first and foremost with the founder of occidental ethics, Socrates. There is a passage in the Upanişads which makes me remember his Apology. When he is defining his way of living, apologizing himself to the tribunal, Socrates says that the most important is not a life focused on wealth and honours but on truth and the care of the soul[58]. Also Sanatkumāra says that people has usually a wrong conception of greatness, which, as we have already said, is the most important name for the self. People think that is something related to “cows and horses, elephants and gold, slaves and wives, fields and houses” but it is other and rests on something other[59]. The coincidence is powerful, but it will be a mistake to forget that there is also a dramatic difference. Since ātman is Brahma it can not be exactly what Socrates called soul. If there is an Indian way of the care of the soul, it has to be also a care of the cosmos, a care of the whole.

Translated and edited by Valerie J.Roebuck (Penguin classics, 2003)

Translated and edited by P. Olivelle (Oxford U.P. 1998)

Sue Hamilton (Oxford U.P. 2001)

Sue Hamilton (Curzon, 2000)

Article by Joel Brereton (Columbia University Press, 1995)

M. Hiriyama (Motilal Banarsidass Pub. , 1994, 1993)

Mircea Eliade (Arkana, 1989)

DHARMASKANDHĂ AND BRAHMASAMSTHAH: a study of Chandogya Upanisad 2.23.1 (from Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1996)

AMRTĂ: WOMEN AND INDIAN TECHNOLOGIES OF IMMORTALITY (from Journal of Indian Philosophy, 25, 1997)

YOUNG ŚVETAKETU: A LITERARY STUDY OF AN UPANIŞADIC STORY (from Journal of the american Oriental Society, 1999)
[1] The Upanişads (Int., p. xxxvi)
[2] Ib. . xxxix
[3] Introduction, p. 95
[4] Iv,5-8
[5] Iv, 10-13
[6] IV.1
[7] III,14
[8] IV,14
[9] V,3
[10] v,18
[11]Throughout the book VI
[12] According to Olivelle (Young svetaketu.) this variety is trying to show that knowledge might come from unexpected and unlikely places. In this case, Raivka, would be undoubtedly the best example.
[13] This idea of the progression could be reinforced by the fact that according to Olivelle the three first chapters form a unit distinctive from the remaining five. They are focused on the fivefold saman chant, a subject which disappears in the remaining chapters. (P.Olivelle A study of Chandogya Upanisad 2.23.1)
[14] V,3
[15] Uddālaka Ărumi is a bizarre person in this book. The education of this son seems to be a failure and later when five Brahmans come to him asking for enligthment they sent them to the king of the Kekayas (V.12), although that he has been presented as the latest link of the chain through which the most important knowledge has been transmitted (III, 11) In book VI we find again both characters, he and his son, but now Uddālaka is presented in a more assertive way and he will correct the teaching transmitted to his son by the Brahmans.
[16] That is the translation of Roebuck, Olivelle uses a very different expression:” the rule of substitution”
[17] V,11 This is the situation also in I,8 a discussion about the Udgita among two brahmans and a king, where the royal teaching proves to be more consistent and supported
[18] Although for a more experienced reader like Olivelle (Young Svetaketu, 1999) this Upanişad could be considered as conservative if we compare with the Bŗhadāraņyaka Upanişad. The book ends remarking the importance of vedic studentship and there are no initiation of the Brahmans when they have to be taught by kings.
[19] IV,9
[20] IV,15
[21] Brereton, p. 133
[22] Vi 2
[23] VI8-16
[24] This name has several meanings. Originally it referred to the priesthood power, but, according to Roebuck, in the Upanişads it means the sacred power of the whole universe; that is to say, the first cause and the supreme reality (Int. xxviii)
[25] VII 24
[26] VII,26
[27] Brereton, p.118
[28] Possibly this idea has a more direct influence in Western Thinking that the main these. A link could be established with the medieval tradition of Alchemy and Astrology developed by Arabians, which must have had a positive knowledge of Indian thinking. This idea does not constitute a challenge to the orthodox transcendent theism as strong as could be the monism.
[29] So, the doctrine presented about Brahma by some animals and elements to Satyakama is the doctrine of the four foots of Brahman (IV, 5-8)
[30] Introduction Olivelle, lii
[31] Olivelle remarks the polemical character of this account which is directed against the doctrine that considers semen as the condensed self of the father. (p.439 Olivelle 1997), contrasting with a point of view which is still present at the Upanişads , for example at Book II, 11-20
[32] V, 18
[33] VII, 25
[34] IV,15
[35] IV, 11-13
[36] IV, 15 I am following here the translation of Roebuck
[37] III,14
[38] VI,8
[39] VI,9
[40] VI, 10
[41] VI, 11-12
[42] VI, 13
[43] Brereton p. 124
[44] VI, 8
[45] VI,15
[46] VIII,8 It is tempting to think that the occidental way is the way of the demon Virocana. In fact, this identification could be considered as the most dangerous way of thinking: to identify oneself with a self, who has to die
[47] VIII,10
[48] VIII, 11
[49] VIII,12
[50] This is the idea also of Brereton (, p.125) .
[51] The speech about the self only can find its roots in some kind of speculation. This consideration opens the way to the practice of yoga
[52] Brereton,, p. 126
[53] VIII,4
[54] Hiriyama, p. 73
[55] V,10
[56] IV,15
[57] VIII,15. This conflict has been deeply explored by Olivelle in his article about the technologies of immortality in old India (1997)
[58] 29e
[59] VII, 24

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