ON THE S’VETÂS’VATARA UPANISHAD: Celebrating the Faces of God (Part 3)


The S’vetâs’vatara Upanishad is generally held to be among the principal Upanishads, with the great German Orientalist Friedrich Max Müller himself including it amongst the “eleven classical Upanishads, or the fundamental Upanishads of the Vedânta philosophy.”[1] Examples of revered figures that have either referred to it or commented on it include Bâdarâyana, Vidyâranya, and the towering Hindu mystic and philosopher, Shankara.[2] Deussen classifies it as belonging to the Yajur Samhitâ and judges its age to be somewhere between the ancient prose Upanishads and the later prose ones. The important point here is that the S’vetâs’vatara was formed during an intermediate period during which Upanishadic thought had achieved enough of a maturity for a stock phraseology to have already developed.[3]

What has always set the S’vetâs’vatara apart is what both Müller and Nagler have referred to as its unique emphasis on the personal idea of God, over and against the largely impersonal character of the other great Upanishads.[4] This emphasis on the personal has contributed much to the view that it was the S’vetâs’vatara Upanishad that initiated the development of bhakti or the Hindu form of devotional worship (a view that Müller nevertheless insists is mistaken).[5]  But whether or not bhakti originated from the S’vetâs’vatara, it is a much more widely accepted fact that the Upanishad is distinctly theistic: Deussen cites it as the “leading example of the theistic teaching of the Upanishads” and Richard De Smet considers it as the “founding charter” of the later Saivite religion.[6] (As Nagler points out, it was the S’vetâs’vatara that first introduced the adjective, and then the actual name Shiva, as a personal honorific for the Supreme Being.)[7] It is this personal, devotional theism that makes the S’vetâs’vatara such an interesting case study, for these characteristics logically contradict the impersonal, mystical monism of the central Upanishadic doctrine. For this reason, Deussen has described the S’vetâs’vatara as “a work brimful of contradictions”—though he himself has provided a plausible explanation for its contradictory nature and the contradictory quality of most of the Upanishads in general.[8]

As has been mentioned before, the view that God is the sole, ultimate reality and that God is identical to the Self is the central tenet of the Upanishads.  Another way of putting it is that “the absolute reality underlying the universe” is identified with “the innermost being within the human person.”[9] The implications of this view, which Deussen has likened to the Parmenidean view of all reality as One, is that the universe we encounter with its multiplicity and diversity is nothing more than mere appearance, mere apparition, and mere phenomenon.[10] Nothing else besides God, the Brahman qua Âtman, is real; all else is deceit and illusion.

But in the same way that Parmenides’ monism and his philosophical heir Plato’s idealism eventually effect Aristotle’s own counter realism, the pure non-dualism of the Upanishadic doctrine often gives way to a subtle and nuanced dualism. For Deussen, this is nothing but the inevitable outcome of the impossibility of consistently denying what our own sense experience tells us, which is that the universe with its multiplicity and diversity is real. Whenever the standpoint of pure non-dualism appears to be obscured in the Upanishads, Deussen asserts that we will have to find its source in “that realistic tendency of the mental constitution of man which can never be entirely suppressed” and “whose origin and gradual accession of strength” can be observed “within the sphere of the Upanishad doctrine.”[11]  For as long as in the background “the conviction remain[ed] unmoved of the sole reality of the âtman,” the Upanishads were generally able to accommodate all sorts pseudo-dualistic positions.[12] Deussen describes five such positions: pantheism, cosmogonism, theism, atheism and deism.[13] For our purposes, however, it will suffice to only consider the first three.

If Upanishadic monism begins with the standpoint that God alone is real and that God is identical to the Self, a first concession to the reality of our sense experience is made when the reality of the universe is also admitted. For this admission to remain somewhat reconciled with the original monism, however, the universe has to be then identified with God (and transitively with the Self). This is the position of pantheism as Deussen describes it, where the “universe is real, and yet the âtman is the sole reality, for the âtman is the entire universe;” it is the position of pantheism that, interestingly enough, prevails most dominantly in the Upanishads.[14]

The next position, the position of cosmogonism, is an attempt to render the identity between God and the universe more intelligible by perceiving God as the cause producing the universe from himself as effect. After the universe is produced, God then enters into it as its soul, and in this manner, one obtains a very satisfying reconciliation with the original Upanishadic doctrine where the outermost reality of the university is identical with the innermost soul in things.[15]

The final position we shall consider here, the position of theism, is an even greater concession to the realistic tendencies of our intellects than the two previous positions of pantheism and cosmogonism. In the latter two positions, the reality of the universe is partially rehabilitated. In theism, it is the reality of the individual self that undergoes rehabilitation. The position of theism is achieved when, starting from cosmogonism, “a distinction is drawn between the âtman as creator of the universe and the âtman entering into the creation”—or, in other words, when a distinction obtains between the Supreme Self and the individual soul.[16]

In the S’vetâs’vatara Upanishad, we find all four positions described above well-represented—in a juxtaposition whose overall philosophical unintelligibility is finally only offset by a radical religious luminosity. In the next section, we will proceed to examine the Upanishad and the many faces it presents of the ultimate reality.

[1] Friedrich Max Müller, The Upanishads (New York: Dover Publications, 1962), ix.

[2] Ibid., xxxi-ii.

[3] Deussen, 25.

[4] Müller, xxxiv; Nagler, “Faces of God,” 215.

[5] Müller, xxxiv.

[6] Deussen, 177; Richard De Smet, SJ, ”Saivism,” Religious Hinduism, ed. Richard De Smet, SJ and Joseph Neuner, SJ (Mumbai: St. Paul Press, 1997), 316.

[7] Nagler, “Faces of God,” 215.

[8] Deussen, 178.

[9] Rasiah, 5.

[10] Deussen, 41.

[11] Ibid., 158-9.

[12] Ibid., 158.

[13] Ibid., 237-9.

[14] Ibid., 160-2.

[15] Ibid., 237-8. 

[16] Ibid.

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