V. The Svetasvatara-Upanishad

Updated February 11, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

V. The Svetasvatara-Upanishad

The Svetsvatara-upanishad has been handed down as one of the thirty-three Upanishads of the Taittiryas, and though this has been doubted, no real argument has ever been brought forward to invalidate the tradition which represents it as belonging to the Taittirya or Black Yagur-veda.

It is sometimes called Svetsvatarnm Mantropanishad (p. 274), and is frequently spoken of in the plural, as Svetsvataropanishadah. At the end of the last Adhyya we read that Svetsvatara told it to the best among the hermits, and that it should be kept secret, and not be taught to any one except to a son or a regular pupil. It is also called Svetsva[138], though, it would seem, for the sake of the metre only. The Svetsvataras are mentioned as a Skha[139], subordinate to the Karakas; but of the literature belonging to them in particular, nothing is ever mentioned beyond this Upanishad.

Svetsvatara means a white mule, and as mules were known and prized in India from the earliest times, Svetsvatara, as the name of a person, is no more startling than Svetsva, white horse, an epithet of Arguna. Now as no one would be likely to conclude from the name of one of the celebrated Vedic Rishis, Syvsva, i.e. black horse, that negro influences might be discovered in his hymns, it is hardly necessary to say that all speculations as to Christian influences, or the teaching of white Syro-Christian missionaries, being indicated by the name of Svetsvatara, are groundless[140].

The Svetsvatara-upanishad holds a very high rank among the Upanishads. Though we cannot say that it is quoted by name by Bdaryana in the Vednta-stras, it is distinctly referred to as sruta or revealed[141]. It is one of the twelve Upanishads chosen by Vidyranya in his Sarvopanishad-arthnabhitipraksa, and it was singled out by Sankara as worthy of a special commentary.

The Svetsvatara-upanishad seems to me one of the most difficult, and at the same time one of the most interesting works of its kind. Whether on that and on other grounds it should be assigned to a more ancient or to a more modern period is what, in the present state of our knowledge, or, to be honest, of our ignorance of minute chronology during the Vedic period, no true scholar would venture to assert. We must be satisfied to know that, as a class, the Upanishads are presupposed by the Kalpa-stras, that some of them, called Mantra-upanishads, form part of the more modern Samhits, and that there are portions even in the Rig-veda-samhits[142] for which the name of Upanishad is claimed by the Anukramans. We find them most frequent, however, during the Brhmana-period, in the Brhmanas themselves, and, more especially, in those portions which are called ranyakas, while a large number of them is referred to the Atharva-veda. That, in imitation of older Upanishads, similar treatises were composed to a comparatively recent time, has, of course, long been known[143].

But when we approach the question whether among the ancient and genuine Upanishads one may be older than the other, we find that, though we may guess much, we can prove nothing. The Upanishads belonged to Parishads or settlements spread all over India. There is a stock of ideas, even of expressions, common to most of them. Yet, the ideas collected in the Upanishads cannot all have grown tip in one and the same place, still less in regular succession. They must have had an independent growth, determined by individual and local influences, and opinions which in one village might seem far advanced, would in another be looked upon as behind the world. We may admire the ingeniousness of those who sometimes in this, sometimes in that peculiarity see a clear indication of the modern date of an Upanishad, but to a conscientious scholar such arguments are really distasteful for the very sake of their ingeniousness. He knows that they will convince many who do not know the real difficulties; he knows they will have to be got out of the way with no small trouble, and he knows that, even if they should prove true in the end, they will require very different support from what they have hitherto received, before they can be admitted to the narrow circle of scientific facts.

While fully admitting therefore that the Svetsvatara-upanishad has its peculiar features and its peculiar difficulties, I must most strongly maintain that no argument that has as yet been brought forward, seems to me to prove, in any sense of the word, its modern character.

It has been said, for instance, that the Svetsvatara-upanishad is a sectarian Upanishad, because, when speaking of the Highest Self or the Highest Brahman, it applies such names to him as Hara (I, 10), Rudra (II, 17; III, 2; 4; IV, 12; 21; 22), Siva (III, 14; IV, 10), Bhagavat (III, 14), Agni, ditya, Vyu, &c. (IV, 2). But here it is simply taken for granted that the idea of the Highest Self was developed first, and, after it had reached its highest purity, was lowered again by an identification with mythological and personal deities. The questions whether the conception of the Highest Self was formed once and once only, whether it was formed after all the personal and mythological deities had first been merged into one Lord (Pragpati), or whether it was discovered behind the veil of any other name in the mythological pantheon of the past, have never been mooted. Why should not an ancient Rishi have said: What we have hitherto called Rudra, and what we worship as Agni, or Siva, is in reality the Highest Self, thus leaving much of the ancient mythological phraseology to be used with a new meaning? Why should we at once conclude that late sectarian worshippers of mythological gods replaced again the Highest Self, after their fathers had discovered it, by their own sectarian names? If we adopt the former view, the Upanishads, which still show these rudera of the ancient temples, would have to be considered as more primitive even than those in which the idea of the Brahman or the Highest Self has reached its utmost purity.

It has been considered a very strong argument in support of the modern and sectarian character of the Svetsvatara-upanishad, that ?it inculcates what is called Bhakti[144], or implicit reliance on the favour of the deity worshipped.? Now it is quite true that this Upanishad possesses a very distinct character of its own, by the stress which it lays on the personal, and sometimes almost mythical character of the Supreme Spirit; but, so far from inculcating bhakti, in the modern sense of the word, it never mentions that word, except in the very last verse, a verse which, if necessary, certain critics would soon dispose of as a palpable addition. But that verse says no more than this: ?If these truths (of the Upanishad) have been told to a high-minded man, who feels the highest devotion for God, and for his Guru as for God, then they will shine forth indeed.? Does that prove the existence of Bhakti as we find it in the Sndilya-stras[145]?

Again, it has been said that the Svetsvatara-upanishad is sectarian in a philosophical sense, that it is in fact an Upanishad of the Snkhya system of philosophy, and not of the Vednta. Now I am quite willing to admit that, in its origin, the Vednta philosophy is nearer to the Vedic literature than any other of the six systems of philosophy, and that if we really found doctrines, peculiar to the Snkhya, and opposed to the Vednta, in the Svetsvatara-upanishad, we might feel inclined to assign to our Upanishad a later date. But where is the proof of this?

No doubt there are expressions in this Upanishad which remind us of technical terms used at a later time in the Snkhya system of philosophy, but of Snkhya doctrines, which I had myself formerly suspected in this Upanishad, I can on closer study find very little. I think it was Mr. Gough who, in his Philosophy of the Upanishads, for the first time made it quite clear that the teaching of our Upanishad is, in the main, the same as that of the other Upanishads. ?The Svetsvatara-upanishad teaches,? as he says, ?the unity of souls in the one and only Self; the unreality of the world as a series of figments of the self-feigning world-fiction; and as the first of the fictitious emanations, the existence of the Demiurgos or universal soul present in every individual soul, the deity that projects the world out of himself, that the migrating souls may find the recompense of their works in former lives.?

I do not quite agree with this view of the svara, whom Mr. Gough calls the Demiurgos, but he seems to me perfectly right when he says that the Svetsvatara-upanishad propounds in Snkhya terms the very principles that the Snkhya philosophers make it their business to subvert. One might doubt as to the propriety of calling certain terms ?Snkhya terms? in a work written at a time when a Snkhya philosophy, such as we know it as a system, had as yet no existence, and when the very name Snkhya meant something quite different from the Snkhya system of Kapila. Snkhya is derived from sankhy, and that meant counting, number, name, corresponding very nearly to the Greek [lgos]. Snkhya, as derived from it, meant originally no more than theoretic philosophy, as opposed to yoga, which meant originally practical religious exercises and penances, to restrain the passions and the senses in general. All other interpretations of these words, when they had become technical names, are of later date.

But even in their later forms, whatever we may think of the coincidences and differences between the Snkhya and Vednta systems of philosophy, there is one point on which they are diametrically opposed. Whatever else the Snkhya may be, it is dualistic; whatever else the Vednta may be, it is monistic. In the Snkhya, nature, or whatever else we may call it, is independent of the purusha; in the Vednta it is not. Now the Svetsvatara-upanishad states distinctly that nature, or what in the Snkhya philosophy is intended by Pradhna, is not an independent power, but a power (sakti) forming the very self of the Deva. ?Sages,? we read, ?devoted to meditation and concentration, have seen the power belonging to God himself, hidden in its own qualities.?

What is really peculiar in the Svetsvatara-upanishad is the strong stress which it lays on the personality of the Lord, the svara, Deva, in the passage quoted, is perhaps the nearest approach to our own idea of a personal God, though without the background which the Vednta always retains for it. It is God as creator and ruler of the world, as svara, lord, but not as Paramtman, or the Highest Self. The Paramtman constitutes, no doubt, his real essence, but creation and creator have a phenomenal character only[146]. The creation is my, in its original sense of work, then of phenomenal work, then of illusion. The creator is myin, in its original sense of worker or maker, but again, in that character, phenomenal only[147]. The Gunas or qualities arise, according to the Vednta, from prakriti or my, within, not beside, the Highest Self, and this is the very idea which is here expressed by ?the Self-power of God, hidden in the gunas or determining qualities.? How easily that sakti or power may become an independent being, as My, we see in such verses as:

Sarvabhteshu sarvtman y saktir aparbbav
Gunsray namas tasyai sasvatyai paresvara[148].

But the important point is this, that in the Svetsvatara-upanishad this change has not taken place. Throughout the whole of it we have one Being only, as the cause of everything, never two. Whatever Snkhya philosophers of a later date may have imagined that they could discover in that Upanishad in support of their theories[149], there is not one passage in it which, if rightly interpreted, not by itself, but in connection with the whole text, could be quoted in support of a dualistic philosophy such as the Snkhya, as a system, decidedly is.

If we want to understand, what seems at first sight contradictory, the existence of a God, a Lord, a Creator, a Ruler, and at the same time the existence of the super-personal Brahman, we must remember that the orthodox view of the Vednta[150] is not what we should call Evolution, but Illusion. Evolution of the Brahman, or Parinma, is heterodox, illusion or Vivarta is orthodox Vednta. Brahman is a concept involving such complete perfection that with it evolution, or a tendency towards higher perfection, is impossible. If therefore there is change, that change can only be illusion, and can never claim the same reality as Brahman. To put it metaphorically, the world, according to the orthodox Vedntin, does not proceed from Brahman as a tree from a germ, but as a mirage from the rays of the sun. The world is, as we express it, phenomenal only, but whatever objective reality there is in it, is Brahman, ?das Ding an sich,? as Kant might call it.

Then what is svara, or Deva, the Lord or God? The answers given to this question are not very explicit. Historically, no doubt, the idea of the svara, the personal God, the creator and ruler, the omniscient and omnipotent, existed before the idea of the absolute Brahman, and after the idea of the Brahman had been elaborated, the difficulty of effecting a compromise between the two ideas, had to be overcome. svara, the Lord, is Brahman, for what else could he be? But he is Brahman under a semblance, the semblance, namely, of a personal creating and governing God. He is not created, but is the creator, an office too low, it was supposed, for Brahman. The power which enabled svara to create, was a power within him, not independent of him, whether we call it Devtmasakti, My, or Prakriti. That power is really inconceivable, and it has assumed such different forms in the mind of different Vedntists, that in the end My herself is represented as the creating power, nay, as having created svara himself.

In our Upanishad, however, svara is the creator, and though, philosophically speaking, we should say that be was conceived as phenomenal, yet we must never forget that the phenomenal is the form of the real, and svara therefore an aspect of Brahman[151]. ?This God,? says Pramda Dsa Mitra[152], ?is the spirit conscious of the universe. Whilst an extremely limited portion, and that only of the material universe, enters into my consciousness, the whole of the conscious universe, together, of course, with the material one that hangs upon it, enters into the consciousness of God.? And again, ?Whilst we (the gvtmans) are subject to My, My is subject to svara. If we truly know svara, we know him as Brahman; if we truly know ourselves, we know ourselves as Brahman. This being so, we must not be surprised if sometimes we find svara sharply distinguished from Brahman, whilst at other times svara, and Brahman are interchanged.?

Another argument in support of the sectarian character of the Svetsvatara-upanishad is brought forward, not by European students only, but by native scholars, namely, that the very name of Kapila, the reputed founder of the Snkhya philosophy, occurs in it. Now it is quite true that if we read the second verse of the fifth Adhyya by itself, the occurrence of the word Kapila may seem startling. But if we read it in connection with what precedes and follows, we shall see hardly anything unusual in it. It says:

?It is he who, being one only, rules over every germ (cause), over all forms, and over all germs; it is he who, in the beginning, bears in his thoughts the wise son, the fiery, whom he wished to look on while he was born.?

Now it is quite clear to me that the subject in this verse is the same as in IV, II, where the same words are used, and where yo yonim yonim adhitishthaty ekah refers clearly to Brahman. It is equally clear that the prasta, the son, the offspring of Brahman, in the Vednta sense, can only be the same person who is elsewhere called Hiranyagarbha,the personified Brahman. Thus we read before, III, 4, ?He the creator and supporter of the gods, Rudra, the great seer (maharshi), the lord of all, formerly gave birth to Hiranyagarbha;? and in IV, 11, we have the very expression which is used here, namely, ?that he saw Hiranyagarbha being born.? Unfortunately, a new adjective is applied in our verse to Hiranyagarbha, namely, kapila, and this has called forth interpretations totally at variance with the general tenor of the Upanishad. If, instead of kapilam, reddish, fiery[153], any other epithet had been used of Hiranyagarbha, no one, I believe, would have hesitated for a moment to recognise the fact that our text simply repeats the description of Hiranyagarbha in his relation to Brahman, for the other epithet rishim, like maharshim, is too often applied to Brahman himself and to Hiranyagarbha to require any explanation.

But it is a well known fact that the Hindus, even as early as the Brhmana-period, were fond of tracing their various branches of knowledge back to Brahman or to Brahman Svayambh and then through Pragpati, who even in the Rig-veda (X, 121, 10) replaces Hiranyagarbha, and sometimes through the Devas, such as Mrityu, Vyu, Indra, Agni[154], &c., to the various ancestors of their ancient families.

In the beginning of the Mundakopanishad we are told that Brahman told it to Atharvan, Atharvan to Angir, Angir to Satyavha Bhradvga, Bhradvga to Angiras, Angiras to Saunaka. Manu, the ancient lawgiver, is called both Hairanyagarbha and Svyambhuva, as descended from Svyambhu or from Hiranyagarbha[155]. Nothing therefore was more natural than that the same tendency should have led some one to assign the authorship of a great philosophical system like the Sankhya to Hiranyagarbha, if not to Brahman Svayambh. And if the name of Hiranyagarbha had been used already for the ancestors of other sages, and the inspirers of other systems, what could be more natural than that another name of the same Hiranyagarbha should be chosen, such as Kapila. If we are told that Kapila handed his knowledge to Asuri, Asuri to Pakasikha, this again is in perfect keeping with the character of literary tradition in India. Asuri occurs in the Vamsas ofthe Satapatha-brhmana (see above, pp. 187, 2-6); Pakasikha[156], having five tufts, might be either a general name or a proper name of an ascetic, Buddhist or otherwise. He is quoted in the Snkhya-stras, V, 32; VI, 68.

But after all this was settled, after Kapila had been accepted, like Hiranyagarbha, as the founder of a great system of philosophy, there came a reaction. People had now learnt to believe in a real Kapila, and when looking out for credentials for him, they found them wherever the word Kapila occurred in old writings. The question whether there ever was a real historical person who took the name of Kapila and taught the Snkhya-stras, does not concern us here. I see no evidence for it. What is instructive is this, that our very passage, which may have suggested at first the name of Kapila, as distinct from Hiranyagarbha, Kapila, was later on appealed to to prove the primordial existence of a Kapila, the founder of the Snkhya philosophy. However, it requires but a very slight acquaintance with Sanskrit literature and very little reflection in order to see that the author of our verse could never have dreamt of elevating a certain Kapila, known to him as a great philosopher, if there ever was such a man, to a divine rank[157]. Hiranyagarbha kapila may have given birth to Kapila, the hero of the Snkhya philosophers, but Kapila, a real human person, was never changed into Hiranyagarbha kapila.

Let us see now what the commentators say. Sankara first explains kapilam by kanakam[158] kapilavarnam ? Hiranyagarbham. Kapilo 'graga iti purnavakant. Kapilo Hiranyagarbho v nirdisyate. But he afterwards quotes some verses in support of the theory that Kapila was a Paramarshi, a portion of Vishnu, intended to destroy error in the Krita Yuga, a teacher of the Snkhya philosophy.

Vigntman explains the verse rightly, and without any reference to Kapila, the Snkhya teacher.

Safikarnanda goes a step further, and being evidently fully aware of the misuse that had been made of this passage, even in certain passages of the Mahbhrata (XII, 13254, 13703), and elsewhere, declares distinctly that kapila cannot be meant for the teacher of the Snkhya (na tu snkhyapranet kapilah, nmamtrasmyena tadgrahane syd atiprasangah). He is fully aware of the true interpretation, viz. avykritasya prathamakryabhtam kapilam vikitravarnam gnakriysaktytmakam Hiranyagarbham ityarthah, but he yields to another temptation, and seems to prefer another view which makes Kapila Vsudevasyvatrabtam Sagaraputrnm dagdhram, an Avatra of Vsudeva, the burner of the sons of Sagara. What vast conclusions may be drawn from no facts, may be seen in Weber's Indische Studien, vol. i, p. 430, and even in his History of Indian Literature, published in 1878.

Far more difficult to explain than these supposed allusions to the authors and to the teaching of the Snkhya philosophy are the frequent references in the Svetsvatara-upanishad to definite numbers, which are supposed to point to certain classes of subjects as arranged in the Snkhya and other systems of philosophy. The Snkhya philosophy is fond of counting and arranging, and its very name is sometimes supposed to have been chosen because it numbers (sankhy) the subjects of which it treats. It is certainly true that if we meet, as we do in the Svetsvatara-upanishad, with classes of things[159], numbered as one, two, three, five, eight, sixteen, twenty, forty-eight, fifty and more, and if some of these numbers agree with those recognised in the later Snkhya and Yoga systems, we feel doubtful as to whether these coincidences are accidental, or whether, if not accidental, they are due to borrowing on the part of those later systems, or on the part it impossible to come to a decision on this point. Even so early as the hymns of the Rig-veda we meet with these numbers assigned to days and months and seasons, rivers and countries, sacrifices and deities. They clearly prove the existence of a considerable amount of intellectual labour which had become fixed and traditional before the composition of certain hymns, and they prove the same in the case of certain Upanishads. But beyond this, for the present, I should not like to go; and I must say that the attempts of most of the Indian commentators at explaining such numbers by a reference to later systems of philosophy or cosmology, are generally very forced and unsatisfactory.

One more point I ought to mention as indicating the age of the Svetsvatara-upanishad, and that is the obscurity of many of its verses, which may be due to a corruption of the text, and the number of various readings, recognised as such, by the commentators. Some of them have been mentioned in the notes to my translation.

The text of this Upanishad was printed by Dr. Roer in the Bibliotheca Indica, with Sankara's commentary. I have consulted besides, the commentary of Vigntman, the pupil of Paramahamsa-parivrgakkrya-srmag-Gnotta-mkrya, MS. I. O. 1133; and a third commentary, by Sahkarnanda, the pupil of Paramahamsa-parivrgakkrynandtman, MS. I. O. 1878. These were kindly lent me by Dr. Rost, the learned and liberal librarian of the India Office.

[138] Vikaspatyam, p. 1222.

[139] Catal. Bodl. p. 271 a; p. 222 a.

[140] See Weber, Ind. Stud. I, pp. 400, 421.

[141] See Deussen, Vednta, p. 24;Ved. Stra I, 1, II; I, 4, 8; II, 3, 22.

[142] See Sacred Books of the East, vol. i, p. 1xvi.

[143] Loc. cit. p. 1xvii.

[144] Weber, Ind. Stud. I, 422; and History of Indian Literature, p. 238.

[145] The Aphorisms of Sndilya, or the Hindu Doctrine of Faith, translated by E. B. Cowell, Calcutta, 1879.

[146] Prathamam svartman myirpenvatishthate brahma; See p. 280, 1. 5.

[147] My srigate sarvam etat.

[148] See p. 279, 1. 5. Srvatman seems a vocative, like paresvara.

[149] See Sarvadarsanasaiigraha, p. 152.

[150] Vedantaparibhsh, in the Pandit, vol. iv, p. 496.

[151] Savisesham Brahma, or sabalam Brahma.

[152] Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1878, p. 40.

[153] Other colours, instead of kapila, are nla, harita, lohitksha; see IV, 1; 4.

[154] See Vamsa-brhmana, ed. Burnell, p. io; Brihadranyaka-up. pp, 185, 224.

[155] See M. M., India, p. 372.]

[156] For fuller information on Pakasikha, Kapila, &c., see F. Hall's Preface to Snkhya-pravakana-bhshya, p. 9 seq.; Weber, Ind. Stud. I, p. 433.

[157] Weber, Hist. of Indian Literature, p. 236.

[158] 3. This ought to be Kanakavarnam, and I hope will not be identified with the name of Buddha in a former existence.]

[159] See I, 4; 5; VI, 3