The Upanishads and the Brahmans
The Open Court, October, 1896
Re-printed in Theosophical Forum, August, 1902
“Thinking sacrifices and offerings are best,
these fools know not the better way.”
It has always been accepted as one of the established truths of Oriental studies, that the Upanishads contain the wisdom of the Brahmans; the teaching of the Upanishads, the system of the Vedanta, and Brahmanism are constantly regarded as synonymous terms. This assumption is exactly the contrary of the truth, as I hope to show; yet the error which led to it was a very natural one.
When the Western world first came into contact with the spiritual life of India, at the end of last century, the foreground of the Indian world was held by the Brahman caste; the sacred books were in the hands of the Brahmans; Sanskrit, the key to the sacred books, could only be learned from the Brahmans; and, finally, the Brahmans themselves confidently asserted that the wisdom of the sacred books was peculiarly their own, and without doubt were profoundly convinced of the truth of their assertion. It was very natural, therefore, that everything we received from the Brahmans, amongst other things, the Upanishads, should be regarded as having originated among the Brahmans; and it was not less natural that this opinion should continue to be held. It is true that, in the Upanishads themselves, there is a series of passages of quite unmistakable import, which point to quite another origin, to quite another relation between the real authors of the teaching of the Upanishads and the Brahman caste; yet these passages have been consistently overlooked, or rather their real bearing has not been grasped, for the very sufficient reason that an insight into this real bearing can only be reached along a line which students of Sanskrit were very unlikely to follow, and, as a matter of fact, failed to follow.
This line of study is the examination of the ethnical character of the Indian races to-day; and, more especially, the ethnical character of two races, the pure Brahmans and the pure Rajputs. This study has only been entered upon, in a strict and scientific way, quite recently, and to discuss it in any fulness would be out of place here; but its results, as far as they touch on the question of the origin of the Upanishads, can easily be summarised.
I think I may say that it is conclusively proved that there are at least four clearly distinguished races in India, whose character is primarily marked by difference of color. We are not particularly concerned with two of these races, the black race and the yellow race; but, as regards the others, it has been quite clearly shown that the pure nucleus of the Brahman caste is a white race, while the true Rajputs belong to a red race, quite distinct in every ethnical character from the race of the white Brahmans. It has never been doubted that the Brahmans of to-day, as far as their pure nucleus is concerned, are identical in race with the Brahmans of ancient India, who first consolidated into a hereditary caste at the close of the Vedic age. But it has only quite recently been shown that the Rajputs of to-day are identical in race, color, character, and even name, with the Rajaputras, Rajanyas, or Kshattriyas of Ancient India. We must therefor fix our regard on two races in Ancient India: the red Rajputs or Rajanyas, and the white Brahmans. What I hope to demonstrate, with regard to the Upanishads, is, that all that is most characteristic in their teaching, the heart and soul of Indian philosophy, originated with the red Rajputs; and that this teaching was adopted by the white Brahmans from the Rajputs, the record of this adoption being contained, quite clearly, in the Upanishads themselves. The ancient spiritual dignity of the Rajanyas, or Kshattriyas, has long been recognized by scholars. I need only mention what has been written on the subject by Goldstücker, Muir, Max Müller, and Cowell.1 It is universally recognised that many of the hymns of the Rig-Veda were composed by Rajanya seers, and the thrice-holy Gayatri, the most secred verse in all the Vedas, claims as its author Vishvamitra, prince of Kanouj, whom the Brahmans speak of as a Rajaputra, that is, a Rajput.
And the peculiar relation of the Upanishads to the Rajanyas or Kshattriyas has also been recognized. Thus Cowell writes:
“The great teachers of this higher knowledge are not Brahmans, but Kshattriyas, and Brahmans are continually represented as going to the great Kshattriya kings to become their pupils.”2
And Deussen points out that the original possessors of the wisdom of the Upanishads
“were not the priestly caste devoted to ceremonial but far rather the caste of the Kshattriyas: again and again we find in the Upanishads the position that the Brahman begs the Kshattriya for teaching.”3
All this becomes enormously important, when we know that we have to deal, not with a difference of caste or social status only, but with a difference of race.
But we may best illustrate the matter by translating certain passages in the Upanishads themselves. Perhaps the most remarkable is one in the sixth chapter of Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad. The actors in the drama are King Pravahana, who is expressly called a Rajanya or Rajput, and the two Brahmans Uddalaka and his son Shvetaketu. These two Brahmans are learned in the Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, and the Sama-Veda, and fully initiated in the mysteries of the Brahmanical caste; yet they are compelled to confess their entire ignorance of the answers of five questions put to them by the Rajput king. It has hardly been sufficiently noted hitherto that these questions imply the whole doctrine of reincarnation or rebirth, and the continuity of moral energies, or “works”: and the complementary doctrine of liberation from re-birth, and finally realised oneness with the eternal; two doctrines rightly held to be the head and heart of Indian wisdom. These two doctrines the Brahmans were entirely ignorant of, though learned in the three Vedas, and they are imparted to the Brahman Uddalaka by the Rajput king, with the following very remarkable words:
“This wisdom never hitherto dwelt in any Brahman, yet I will declare it to thee.”
The Commentary of Shankaracharya explains the sentence thus:
“This teaching asked for by thee, before being given to thee, never dwelt in any Brahman, and thou also knowest that this teaching was always handed down in succession among the Kshattriyas,” that is, the Rajputs.
The word used is one which, specially refers to the transmission of an esoteric doctrine from teacher to pupil in an uninterrupted line, in the manner of an apostolic succession, and thus shows that Shankaracharya, the greatest of all the Brahmans, believed that the teaching of rebirth through conservation of moral energy, and the teaching of liberation, were hereditary with the Kshattriyas, and were imparted by them to the Brahmans on a definite historic occasion.
The parallel passage in the fifth chapter of the Chhandogya Upanishad puts the matter even more strongly:
“Never before thee does this teaching go to the Brahmans, but an1ong all peoples it was the doctrine of the Kshattriya alone.”
Shankaracharya comments thus:
“Before thee, this teaching went not to the Brahmans, nor were the Brahmans initiated in this wisdom; formerly among all peoples this was the teaching at the initiation of pupils of the Kshattriya race. For so long a time this teaching was handed down in succession among the Kshattriyas.”
The word used again implies the analogue of apostolic succession. It is a remarkable confirmation of the truth of this narrative that the teaching of rebirth through conservation of moral energy, and the teaching of liberation are not, as a matter of fact, found anywhere in the hymns of the Rig-Veda, and it is well known that on the hymns of this Veda, the Yajur and the Sama-Veda are based; so that we can still verify the fact that Uddalaka, the Brahman, though learned in all the hymns, was yet ignorant of the teaching of rebirth and the teaching of liberation. We now know that this wisdom really belonged to another race, the race of the Red Rajputs, who imparted it to the White Brahmans, after the three Vedas were complete.
These passages are enough to prove that what is best in Indian wisdom does not belong to the Brahmans at all; but we may point to further passages in the Upanishads to show how widely they recognise this. Thus, in the fourth chapter of Kaushitaki Brahmana Upanishad, the Kshattriya or Rajput king Ajatashatru imparts divine knowledge to the Brahman Gargya, son of Balaka; the same story is found in the fourteenth chapter of the Shatapatha Brahmana, or the second chapter of Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad; and all versions of this narrative incidentally recognise the fame of another Rajanya, King Janaka, as a teacher of divine things. There are a number of shorter references to the same fact scattered through the Upanishads, but it would hardly be in place to collect and translate them all here; what we have given is more than enough to prove our position conclusively.
The spiritual ascendancy of the Rajanyas, Kshattriyas, or Rajputs does not end with the Upanishads. Rama, the Rajanya of the Solar line, is esteemed a divine incarnation; and it is noteworthy that Krishna, another divine incarnation, traces his teaching through the Rajanya or Rajput Sages, with special reference to the teaching of rebirth and liberation, as the fourth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita shows. The earlier chapters of this summary of Krishna’s teaching repeat and develop the best ideals of the Upanishads, and in recognising this, it is important to remember that Krishna himself and his disciple Arjuna are both Kshattriyas, and that Krishna lays special stress on the futility of the priestly system, that is, the peculiar teaching of the Brahmans.
Once more, long after Krishna’s days,—if we are to accept the universal tradition of ancient India,—a great Rajanya or Rajput sage raised the standard of the same ideals, and preached the doctrine of life as a manifestation of moral energies, where well-being depends on the inward rightness of the will and heart, and not on the purchased favor of the gods. This teacher was Prince Siddhartha of Kapilavastu, most universally known as Gautama Buddha, “The Awakened,” or Shakya Muni, “The Sage of the Shakyas.” There has been endless dispute as to the real nature of the Buddha’s doctrine; but this much, I think, is universally agreed upon: that the Buddha taught rebirth, or continuity of life, through the conservation of moral energies and liberation through renunciation of the selfish personality. I hope to have something to say, at a future date, as to the relation of this doctrine of the renunciation of personality to the docrine of the Self, in the Upanishads; but it is more in place here to point out that we find the Buddha in constant conflict with the peculiar ideals of the Brahmans, more especially their sacrificial system of bartering with the gods. This conflict with the Brahmans and their characteristic ideals comes out very clearly in the Tevijja Sutta, which is of high value as a historical landmark, showing, as it does, that in the Buddha’s days, two thousand five hundred years ago, the Brahman caste had reached an advanced stage of exclusiveness and degeneration, very different from the time of the Upanishads, when the best Brahmans sat as humble pupils at the feet of the Rajput sages, and considerably more advanced than in the days of Krishna, the Kshattriya teacher, when, as many references in the Mahabharata show, the Brahman caste felt its position as yet insecure.
But the main fact we have to deal with, is this: three times in the history of ancient India, at three widely separated epochs, the latest of which was two thousand five hundred years ago, we find teachers of the Red Rajput race asserting the ideal of continuity and rebirth through the conservation of moral energies, and the ideal of liberation through rightness of heart and will, as against the characteristic teaching of the White Brahmans, with their mercenary huckstering with the gods, for the good things of this life and paradise, and their ceremonial system with its exclusiveness, narrowness, and priestly privilege, and its sacrificial shedding of blood.
At the earliest of these three epochs, the Brahmans, conscious of their own ignorance and the futility of their system of selfish superstition, humbly and gladly accepted the truer spiritual ideals of the Rajputs, as the Upanishads show.
The second epoch shows us the Brahman caste again sunk in ceremonial and ritualism, while the teacher Krishna, though clearly pointing out the futility of the priestly system, yet counsels toleration and compromise.
In the third epoch, the Brahman caste had gone too far in crystallisation to be able to receive the healing teachings of the Buddha, and consequently we find him denounced by the Brahmans, because he “being a Kshattriya; had assumed the Brahman’s privilege of teaching and receiving gifts;” and we find his followers ultimately driven from India by the consistent hostility of the Brahman priests. It is noteworthy that the chief missionaries of Buddhism to Tibet were Rajputs, men of the Buddha’s own race, the race to whom we owe the wisdom of the Upanishads, as well as the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, the race to whom the three historic divine incarnations in India belong, finally, the race from whom came even the holiest parts of the Rig-Veda hymns, the race of the Red Rajputs, the spiritual masters of India.
From all this we may draw two deductions: First, the propriety, even the necessity, of considering the highest outcome of the race-genius of the Rajputs the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and Buddhism as a continuous whole; and secondly, the fact that, in describing any part of this continuous teaching as Brahmanism, we shall be losing sight of one of the most important truths in the spiritual history of India. Strictly speaking, we should mean by Brahmansim the system of priestcraft and ceremonial bartering with the gods, “milking the gods,” to use a chaste expression from the Vedic hymns, which was denounced in the Upanishads, treated as futile by Krishna, and finally rejected by Buddha, the system of priestcraft, with its promises of material success in this life, and sensual reward in heaven, which finally triumphed in the expulsion of Buddha’s religion, and which is the very antithesis of the spiritual ideal of the Rajputs. Or we may mean by Brahmanism the system of compromise inaugurated in the Bhagavad Gita, accepted by the Brahma Sutras, and perfected by Shankaracharya, in which the true spiritual and esoteric doctrine comes from the Upanishads, that is, from the Rajputs, while the outer and lower teaching, the exoteric doctrine, is the undisputed property of the Brahman priests, the thrice-blest “eaters of the leavings of the sacrifice.” But in no case can the name Brahmanism be fitly given to the Upanishads, in which all that is most characteristic of the Brahmans is unsparingly denounced.
1. Goldstücker, Literary Remains, I., p. 311. Muir, Original Sanskrit Texts, I., p. 266 ff. Max Müller, Ancient Sanskrit Literature, p. 79 ff. Max Müller, Chips from a German Workshop, II., 388 ff. Cowell, Elphinstone’s History of India, Bk. IV., App. vii.
2. Op. Cit. p. 282
3. Duessen, Das System des Vedanta, p. 18.