ON THE S’VETÂS’VATARA UPANISHAD: Celebrating the Faces of God (Part 8)


Conclusion

In this essay, we examined the Hindu Upanishads with a particular focus on the S’vetâs’vatara with a view toward determining whether the apparent disunity of Hindu religious thought has something positive to contribute to the contemporary religious experience. In tracing the development of the Vedas, starting from the Samhitâs and ending with the Upanishads, we noted the paradoxical harmony of a religious thought that began with outer-directed forms of pagan worship and ended with inner-directed practices of mystical union. We identified this underlying harmony as the gradual movement of interiorization that occurred in the shift from the Vedic to the Hindu religion.

Later on, when we examined the Upanishads themselves, we noted yet another source of disunity: the appearance of contradictory conceptions of the ultimate reality that seemed irreconcilable with the originary Upanishadic doctrine of monism. Yet again, we discovered the key to understanding this disharmony: namely, the refusal of sense experience to bow down to merely intellectual prerogatives. Ultimately, the Upanishads found ways to reconcile the perceptions of the senses with the speculations of the intellect—reconciliations that may not necessarily be the slightest bit satisfactory to a Western reader accustomed to the rigid dogmatism of logic. A Western reader may understandably say: Yes, I can understand how different solutions may be called for with regard to this problem of the one and the many, but why must these different solutions be placed side by side in the same text in seemingly random fashion with no attempt made whatsoever to explain the transitions? Why does the S’vetâs’vatara Upanishad, for instance, put the different positions of monism, pantheism, cosmogonism and theism side by side in irreconcilable fashion, rather than merely selecting one position and explicating it consistently throughout?

But I would assert, on the other hand, that to insist on such a consistency would be to destroy the very contribution that the Upanishads make to the human religious experience. Nagler pinpoints the source of this contribution when he observes that Hinduism’s strategy is not to be consistent, but to be cumulative. Throughout the entire history of the evolution of India’s religious consciousness, “outworn forms of religious worship were virtually never discarded,” and as D.S. Sarma once observed, the sages of India worked towards moving people beyond their “rather low type of sacrificial religion . . . without in any explicit manner breaking away from the traditions of the past.”[1] The outcome of this cumulative strategy has been as practical as it has been profound:

Thanks to its paradigm of diversity and its cumulative strategy for preserving culture, those individuals and communities who respond to outward forms of worship have kept their place and dignity in the system, while at the other extreme individuals who have really had mystical experience have been unusually free to transcend all religious forms and not only follow their own path but become beacons for the cultures as a whole.[2]

In short, through their ardent pursuit and devout expression of spiritual truth—regardless of the many logical contradictions that their religious quest has yielded—the Upanishads exemplify not merely a tolerance for but a celebration of the many faces of God. As Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, “By whatever path human beings follow, they are working their way to Me.”[1] Ultimately, it is an outlook that has much to contribute to a world that has far too many religions—and far too little faith.


[1] Nagler, “Reading the Upanishads,” 268; D. S. Sarma, The Upanishads: An Anthology (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1970), 2, quoted in Nagler, “Reading the Upanishads,” 269.

[2] Nagler, “Reading the Upanishads,” 269-70.

[3] Bhagavad Gita 4.11, quoted in Nagler, “Reading the Upanishads,” 270.

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