The Theosophist, July, 1899
Re-Printed from the Madras Mail
For a long time there has been no event in the study of Oriental religions and philosophies equal in importance to the publication of Professor Paul Deussen’s translation of the Upanishads of the Veda. It is only to be regretted that, for the land which gave the Upanishads birth, some of the advantage of this splendid piece of work will be lost, owing to the fact that Professor Deussen’s version is in German. But, on the other hand, there is a corresponding advantage; for it is universally recognized in Europe and America that the work of German scholars possesses the highest excellence, thoroughness, and sincerity, while only a German, a native of the most metaphysical and philosophical people in the modern world, a fellow-countryman of Kant and Schopenhauer, of Fitche and Hegel, could adequately understand the value of the Upanishads, and, what is more important, could show in what relation they stand to the best thought of the western world, from Pythagoras and Plato to the present day. Whenever Professor Deussen speaks, we feel that into his judgment enters a thorough and mature knowledge of the whole world of ideas; we are never surprised by outbreaks of ignorance or narrow prejudice, such as, for example, mar the work of a scholar so sound as Whitney. We are never in danger of finding the element of thought, idealism, and inspiration subordinated to some mere philosophical quibble. Nor are we liable to find our advance barred by the preconceptions of a dogmatic theology. Deussen is already well known by his popular work, “The Elements of Metaphysics” which puts into clear and lucid form the leading thought of Kant and Schopenhauer, showing how these two stand at the crown of Western thought; and many scholars have further learnt to appreciate Deussen’s masterpiece, “The System of Vedanta,” for its unrivaled qualities of thoroughness, penetration, and sympathy. This is supplemented by the complete translation of the Vedanta Sutras, as the more general outline of Metaphysics is by Deussen’s “History of Philosophy.” But it is undoubtedly as an interpreter of the best Indian thought that Deussen will take permanent rank. There is something so thoroughly Indian in the spirit of all his work that we are tempted to apply to him the doctrine of rebirth, which is the heart of Indian philosophy, and say that, in him, one of the old Vedantin sages is reborn, and has returned once more to the study of those splendid Scriptures which are India’s best inheritance.
And this Indian spirit comes out even in the dedication, “To the Manes of Arthur Schopenhauer”—the Manes being the equivalence of the disembodied soul after death, to which is offered the Shradda sacrifice. As Deussen’s work is in a language not understood by readers in India, I think my best plan will be to translate several passages from his preface, which will best show the idea with which he sat about the work, and the estimation in which he holds the Upanishads themselves. Of the greatest value is the comparison between the most valued Scripture of the East and the most valued Scripture of the West:—
“The Upanishads are for the Vedas what the New Testament is for the Bible; and this analogy is not merely external and fortuitous, but is deeply rooted, and founded on a universal law of religious development. In the childhood of nations, Religion sets up commandments and prohibitions, and lends them emphasis by promising rewards and threatening punishments. In dong this, it appeals to the self-seeking personality, the egotism, which it supposes to be the real kernel of the natural man, and beyond which it does not go. A higher stage of religious consciousness is reached with the knowledge that all works which rest on fear and hope as their motive-power are of no value whatever for the external end of man; and that the highest problem of being consists, not in a gratification of egotism, but in its complete destruction, and that our true and godlike being first breaks through the personality, as through a shell, when egotism is destroyed. The childish standpoint of justification through works appears in the Old Testament in the Bible; and similarly, in the Vedas, in what Indian theologians call the Karma-kanda, the division of Works. Both the Old Testament and the Karma-kanda proclaim a law, and promise rewards for its fulfillment and punishments for its transgression; and if the Indian theory of Works has the advantage of knowing how to refer the repayment in part to the future, to the other world—by this means avoiding the conflict with the experience, which brings so many perplexities for the Old Testament teaching of retribution limited to this life—it is, on the other hand, the distinguishing character of the Biblical law of life, that it is less identified with ritual prescriptions than the Indian, and, therefore, lays greater emphasis on an irreproachable moral life. For the interest of human society this advantage is a very great one; but in itself, and for the moral value of conduct, it makes no difference whether a man exerts himself in the service of imaginary gods, or in that of his fellow-men; both, so long as his own well-being hovers before him as the final goal, are, morally considered, worthless and faulty.”
This one passage shows how perfectly Deussen has mastered the thought which lies at the heart of the Indian wisdom: the ideal of liberation, or regeneration from the bonds of personal isolation, of the new birth into our proper and universal being. “When all desires that dwell in the heart cease, the mortal becomes immortal, and enters the eternal.” But, for my own part, I think there is great reason to doubt the idea of the development of religion, which he has enounced. I have always believed that religions may degenerate, but never develop. What seems to be a development is really a new revelation, a new inspiration. This new light bursts forth among the wreckage of some older system, and takes colour from that system, borrowing phraseology and symbols, and is, therefore, considered a new development, while it is rather a new incarnation of the universal spirit. Thus, to take a case near to us in time, the Reformation of Martin Luther was not at all a “development” of Catholic Christianity, but a new outburst of the human spirit, which, taking place on the field of Catholicism, naturally took its colour and expressions therefrom, since it was not of sufficient power to create a new symbolism. In the same way, Christianity was not a development of Judaism. The Talmud was such a development, or rather, I should be inclined to say, a further degeneration. Christianity was rather a new outburst of the soul, a new revelation, which, taking place on the field of Judaism, was colored by it, and adopted many of its phrases—all the sentences of the Lord’s prayer, for example, being found in older Jewish scriptures. In a still less degree, I believe, are the Upanishads a development of the Vedas. Or, to speak more clearly, I am convinced that the twin-teachings of Rebirth and Liberation, which is the heart of the Upanishad teaching, never came from the Vedic hymns, but had a quite different origin.
The story of the true origin of this twin mystery doctrine is given in the Upanishads themselves, appearing in a slightly different version in the two greatest—Chhandogya and Brhad Aranyaka Upanishads. It is in the celebrated and dramatic scene between King Pravahana, son of Jivala, lord of the Panchala nation, and the two Brahmins, Shvetaketu and his father. In that story we are most clearly told that Brahmins, fully initiated into the whole Brahmanical lore and knowing the Hymns of the Rig, Yajur, and Sama Vedas by heart, were yet absolutely ignorant of the teaching of Rebirth, of the paradise of peace between death and birth, or the return of the soul to a new life on earth, under the law of Karma, and of the teaching of Liberation from this cycle of rebirth by the possession of the powers of pure spiritually “faith, fervour, service of the Eternal.” And then we are told that this twin teaching was first communicated to the Brahmins by King Pravahana, who explicitly declares that heretofore “this teaching went to none of the Brahmins, but was among all the people the hereditary doctrine (Anushasana) of the Kshatriya, alone.” I have shown at some length that, throughout the whole cycle of Indian writings, we have the tradition that the Kshatriyas, or Rajputs, as they were first called, were separated in race from the Brahmins, and that this separation remains clearly marked to this day. Therefore I am convinced that the twin-doctrines of Rebirth and Liberation, which form the heart of the mystery-teaching of the Upanishads, is the ancient and hereditary teaching of the Rajput race, of the “Red Rajputs,” as the Mahâbhârata calls them; while the Vedic ritual is the heritage of the “white Brahmins.” So that we have, not a development, but the work of another race. In defence of this view, I have pointed out that Visvamitra, the seer of the Gayatri, King Pravahana, King Janaka, Rama, Krishna, and Gautama Buddha were all of the race of the Rajputs, which thus gave to India all its chiefest spiritual leaders and inspirers. Therefore, I think it is misleading to consider the Upanishads as in any sense a development of the Vedic Hymns and Brahmanas,—as misleading as it would be to believe that the Jumna flows out of the Ganges, because their waters enter the sea together.
But as far as the moral relation between the Vedas and Upanishads is concerned, Deussen is undoubtedly right. It is a question of the inspiration of the Higher Self, as against the righteousness of the lower self. Or, to quote Deussen again:—
“The consciousness of this breaks a way for itself in the New Testament when it teaches the worthlessness of works, and in the Upanishads, when they teach even the faultiness of good works. Bot make salvation dependent, not on earthly deeds and omissions, but in a complete change of the whole natural man; both view this transformation as a liberation from the bonds of this whole empirical reality which has its root in egotism. But why do we need liberation from this existence? Because it is the kingdom of sin, answers the Bible; because it is the kingdom of error, answers the Veda. The former sees the fault in the part of man which wills; the latter, in the part of man which knows; the former commands transformation of the will, the latter, a transformation of knowledge. On which side does truth lie? If man were either altogether will, or altogether understanding, we should have to decide for one or the other view, in correspondence with this. But man both wills and knows. Therefore this great change in which both Bible and Veda find salvation, belongs to both regions; it is firstly, according to the Biblical view, the softening of the heart which was hardened to stone in natural egotism, and its change to fitness for deeds of righteousness, love, and self-abnegation; and, secondly, hand in hand with this, the wisdom of the Upanishads will begin to dawn in us; the knowledge, anticipating Kant’s great discovery, that this whole world-order, resting in space, and consequently manifold, and therefore egotistical, is founded only in an illusion (mâyâ), innate in us through the nature of our intellects, and that there is an Eternal being, raised above space and time, above manifoldness and existence, which is manifested in all the forms of Nature, and which I feel and find, complete and undivided, in my inner-nature, as my own self, as the Atman.”
This gives us a fair insight into Deussen’s view of the Upanishads in their relation with the Veda, the New Testament, and Kant’s philosophy. All three, we see at the outset, thoroughly disbelieve in the empirical realism of modern scientific teaching.