Oxford University Press, New Delhi

CRISIS AND KNOWLEDGE (The Upanishadic Experience and Storytelling)

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From the Jacket

This book is a landmark in the study of early Indian religious literature, and offers a fresh reading of several central Upanishadic texts. Most studies of the Upanisads have perceived the two distinct components of the texts-the stories and the metaphysical analysis - as being distinct and unrelated. This book, however, argue that storytelling and philosophy in the Upanisads is related and explores the links between them.

According to the author, the lives and experiences of Upanishadic heroes offer significant clues for understanding the more abstract messages of these spiritual texts. Crisis breeds openness to the spiritual message, and is conducive to spiritual growth. The men and women of Upanishadic tales - teachers, fathers and sons, wives, disciples-experience various crises and emerge from these to realize the ultimate truth. This unity of one's innermost self and the absolute is a move towards excellence and confidence.

Thus, these Upanishadic tales can be read as narratives of crisis, where the characters make a transition to excellence by virtue of therapeutic knowledge.

The book will appeal to students and scholars of Classical Hinduism and Indian Mysticism, as well as readers interested in Indian philosophy and literature.


Upanishadic tales are about men and women in crisis, awakened to their inferiority, the painful consciousness of a gap between (their own) lesser selves and an elusive better self. These men and women are described by the early Upanisads as suffering metaphysical (or ontological) weakness (analytically distinct from other sorts of inferiority). Emerging from crisis, they close the gap between lesser and better selves, moving towards excellence and confidence. This, occasions for experiencing 'ontological inferiority' and its transcendence are the crux of Upanishadic storytelling.

The presence of a higher self is healthy as well as tormenting for Upanishadic characters; without such a presence there would be no 'Upanishadic pain' or consequent motion to alleviation through insight. Alert and attentive to their crisis, Upanishadic recipients of knowledge seek' immortality' through understanding the better self (atman). Indeed, the Upanisads suggest that identification of the great, absolute atman as one's self is the most significant moment in life. This moment or event of self is the most significant moment in life. This moment or event of self-identification is one of great joy, making an end of suffering; under certain circumstances, the metaphysics of the atman heals. Upanishadic storytelling is, thus, about the transition from inferiority to excellence by virtue of therapeutic knowledge.

The attention of the world has focused on the great and abstract philosophy expounded in the Upanisads, while the stories themselves have been under-read. Scant attention has been paid to the context of transmission of knowledge, culminating in dialogues between teachers and others. The stories' references to characters in need of knowledge are usually viewed as mere background to the exposition of liberating, abstract knowledge. Yet the recipients of knowledge-ordinary yet sensitive men and women in crisis-are, in my view, also of hermeneutic interest and import. Indeed, the essential Upanishadic narrative is about them. The complacent householder awakened to an ascetic's superiority (and his 'won' inferiority); the childless wife (bereft thereby of immortality); the young student afflicted by desire of many kinds (also for his teacher's wife); the boy insecure because of his unknown father's identity; the vain son perplexed by his father's riddles; the scholar full of scholarly yet impotent 'knowledge'; the boy insistent on his perception of mortality-these are some of the characters who life in the stories. All benefit from knowledge of the better self, and the Upanishadic teaching of the atman is transmitted to them, and for their sake.

The healing potency of 'knowledge of the better self' is the theme underlying this essay. One should not, however, ignore the circumstances. Under certain circumstances, metaphysics heals; under others, it may not. Common readers like ourselves (whom I have termed twenty-first-century 'dweller') may not benefit as much as a Svetaketu of Janasruti from teachings of the self expounded by sages such as Uddalaka, Raikva, or Yajnavalkya. One may not be sufficiently educated or open to absorb the Upanishadic message of the self, or one may lack the right teachers. It is a fact, then, that reading the Upanisads does not heal. A sense of helpful disease is, however, available, as readers of the Upanisads experience the vague yet real attraction of an underground, better self.

The Upanishadic tales and philosophy have not evolved in a vacuum; these texts reach us from the Indian subcontinent of 2,700 years ago. Although a link between historians' accounts and the momentous awakening of individuals is far from obvious or clear, scholars of Indian history do tell of major changes, which occurred and accumulated in the Indian subcontinent at that time. It was a period of changes in technology (extensive use of iron), commerce and economy (surplus of food and other commodities), mobility, transportation, and urbanization. It was also a time of prosperity, growing leisure, and the rise of individualism in the wilderness, beyond the boundaries of family and village. Such changes affected family, village, culture, and values. This, available scholarly descriptions provide some background of reading the Upanishadic tales as narratives of crisis. The transition from an Old Vedic, offspring-based notion of immortality to the new Upanishadic teaching of the atman is reflected in the biographies of the characters of the Upanishadic stories.

It is, thus, in correspondence with historians' descriptions of old India that an overwhelming sense of inferiority emerges in the lives depicted. In the early Upanisads. Expressing this emergence of inferiority are tales of a seemingly successful householder (Janasruti), a childless woman (Maitreyi), a rejected student (Upakosala), a boy awakened to the mortality permeating health and the body (Naciketas), a great scholar (Narada) painfully conscious of the futility of 'mere accumulation of information', and others at similarly critical junctures. Vaguely aware of a different horizon or mode of being or self, these characters-whose names and modes of inferiority are recorded in the early Upanisads-seek to know the better self by means of others, the teachers, gurus, Upanishadic therapists, as it were. Since knowledge of a better self in the Upanisads means becoming the better self, the transmission of knowledge implied in these documents must be assumed to be an arduous process (hence my characterization of their 'therapeutic' aspects).

The essential structure of the early Upanishadic text is two parts: a tale of individual crisis and the exposition of knowledge (philosophy), capable of its alleviation. Consider, for example, the familial crisis instigated by a husband's decision to end his life as a householder and become a sannyasin. Upon Yajnavalkya's decision to leave home (and village and his tow wives), his learned wife, Maitreyi, asks him whether property will make her immortal (amrta). It will not make you immortal, says her husband. She then asks him to tell her what he knows, and he does (telling her of the one atman which is everything). This is simple enough, yet the story invites further questions. What is the connection between Maitreyi's preoccupation with 'immortality' (amrtatva) and her husband's departure? In my disposition to look for crisis, I add something here, namely, Maitreyi's (and Yajnavalkya's) childlessness. The story itself as well as the well-known importance of offspring in defining Vedic immortality, strongly points to Yajnavalkya's childlessness. Had she had sons, Maitreyi would not be as vulnerable to her inner promptings on immortality. Her husband leaving her without sons in eighth-century BC India is her opportunity to become personally and metaphysically inferior with regard to immortality, and this makes her a proper Upanishadic heroine.

As this book is about re-reading the Upanishadic tales of crisis, it naturally focuses on men and women of the 'lesser self.' (Indeed, readers may often share lesser-self-existence with the Upanishadic heroes). I see now that I had not well estimated the magnitude of the project I had in mind. Explication of connection of crisis and knowledge requires not only thinking in depth on both (the condition of the afflicted Upanishadic hero or heroine and the knowledge of atman), but also describing the transition from one kind of existence to another (higher, as it were). Tracing the connections of personal Vedic crisis with the emergence of the better-self-existence (or metaphysics) seems to me a worthwhile enterprise, but the present essay does not actually meet this challenge.

As this book evolved, it's true theme became the importance of the storytelling as 'tales of crisis', significant in themselves, revealing of Upanishadic predicament, worthy of attention. Yet I have been told that this book, while endowed with imagination and insight, is somewhat frustrating, not fulfilling its promise. The idea, they say, is good: to read the Upanishadic stories as closely as possible and to re-read the familiar yet 'ineffective' messages (of the pure self-atman-or the absolute Brahman) as significantly and strictly embedded within the storytelling. The Upanishadic message do not reach our souls forceful enough; indeed, we are hardly an engaging audience for Uddalaka's tat tvam asi. He is addressing his eighth-century BC son-in-crisis and us (twenty-first century readers). But the contextual metaphysics I am seeking is elusive, and the connection of story and overt philosophical message remains more obscure that I had hoped. The resonance of the deeper-than-life self is not audible enough within the story. The tales of Janasruti's eruption of inferiority-consciousness, Maitreyi's childlessness (non-eternity), Svetaketu's inflated ego and consequent crisis, Narada's sorrows, Satyakama's doubt, etc., do not tangibly-organically-contain the Upanishadic teaching of the atman. Yet, I believe that the pursuit does make sense, and is at least forcefully expressed. I hope I have created an opening for further though and investigation of the connection of crisis to knowledge-and storytelling to healing.


Preface vii
Acknowledgements xi
List of Abbreviations xii
Chapter 1: On Good-Enough Reading of the Upanisad 1
Chapter 2: Personal Crisis and Contextual Metaphysics: Reading the Under-Read Stories of Upakosala K. and Satyakama J. 25
Chapter 3: Marginality and Great Moments: Contextual Metaphysics in the Story of Maitreyi 57
Chapter 4: Under-Reading Multiple Vocality: The Case of the Good Boy and the Angry Father 80
Chapter 5: Colourless Words or Contextual Hermeneutics: the Visible and Invisible Narratives of Chandogya 6 101
Epilogue: Storytelling and Fearful Self-Understanding 130
Bibliography 138
Index 140


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CRISIS AND KNOWLEDGE (The Upanishadic Experience and Storytelling)

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