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September-October 2015
The Rational, the Moral, and the General: An Exploration
Part 6: Ideas in Ancient Indian Thought / Discussion

   Ulrich's Bimonthly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An "Eastern" perspective: three ancient Indian ideas (continued) The last essay of this series, in the Bimonthly of May-June 2015 (Ulrich, 2015b), analyzed three selected Upanishadic ideas – the concepts of brahman, atman, and jagat – from a mainly etymological and methodological perspective, as distinguished from a traditional, predominantly spiritual and metaphysical reading of the Upanishads. Of these three ideas it was the third, jagat, which we found to be of particular methodological interest. While brahman and atman embody ideal conceptions of the cosmic universe and of the individual self (or what Kant designates the "cosmological idea" and the "psychological idea"), I take jagat (literally = world, universe) to stand for a critically reflected, realist conception of the world we live in. In the terms of our envisaged framework of critical contextualism, realist notions depend on contextual assumptions (What is the proper context to be considered for this argument of action?), whereas ideal notions have a universalizing (i.e., decontextualizing) thrust (How does this argument or action look if we take it to be adequate beyond the originally assumed context?). A critically tenable handling of contextual assumptions has to maintain the tension between universalizing and contextualizing movements of thought, so as to be able to see the deficiencies of either in the light of the other.

The question that must interest us, then, is whether the three ideas can be understood to support such a double movement of critical thought. To put it differently, can we bring them into a systematic relationship so that they would illustrate and enrich our understanding of the cycle of critically-contextualist thinking as proposed earlier in this series (see Ulrich, 2014b, Fig. 4)?

Seventh intermediate reflection:
The example of the Isha Upanishad

In the two concluding essays of the series, beginning with the present Part 6, I propose we focus on the Upanishadic concept of jagat and discuss it from a critically-contextualist perspective. Is there an understanding of jagat that would be conducive to critically contextualist practice, whether of research and professional practice or of everyday practice? To examine this question, let us turn to what may be the term's most famous occurrence in all ancient Indian scriptures, namely, in the first verse of the Isha Upanishad (also called Ishopanihsad, Ishavasya Upanishad, or Vagasaneyi-Samhita Upanishad, the latter name being the one used in Müller's translation of 1879). It is, to my knowledge, the only occurrence where it plays a major role in the Upanishads. But this one occurrence is considered so important that Mahatma Gandhi once famously remarked about it: "If all the Upanishads and all the other scriptures happened all of a sudden to be reduced to ashes, and if only the first verse in the Ishopanishad were left in the memory of the Hindus, Hinduism would live for ever." (Gandhi, 1937, p 405)

As I see it, the Isha is also one of the Upanishads that perhaps best embody the "dawn of philosophical reflection" to which I referred in the introductory part of this excursion into ancient India (see the section "The dawn of philosophical reflection: the discovery of the knowing subject" in Part 4, Ulrich, 2014c, pp. 6-11; rev. version, 2015a, pp. 7-13). It stands for the idea, probably first emerging in human history with the Upanishads, that "the power to control and change man's destiny resides in man himself, in the ability to improve one's individual consciousness and understanding" and hence, that man can be the author of his own destiny, rather than just being at the mercy of cosmic powers (gods and demons) that he cannot control or understand. Accordingly important it became, as we noted, "to know and discover one's inner reality, so as to expand one's self-awareness and ultimately, to achieve spiritual autonomy rather than devotion to cosmic forces and gods" (Ulrich, 2014c, p. 6, and 2015a, p. 8). But of course, this is how today we can understand the history and importance of Upanishadic thought with hindsight, in the light of the history of ideas that has occurred since. At that time, such revolutionary ideas could emerge only slowly and had to be formulated in the language and imagery of the Veda, which due to their age we must expect to cause us considerable difficulties of translation and understanding today. But let us see.

The first verse of the Isha Upanishad: transliteration and translation

Transliteration  This is how the famous first verse of the Isha Upanishad reads in Sanskrit language, first written in Devanagari script and then transliterated to Roman script:

Isha Upanishad, Verse 1, in Sanskrit language and Devanagari script

(Source: Wikisource.org )

The transliteration to Roman script reads:

om isa vasyamidam sarvam yatkincha jagatyam jagat
tena tyaktena bhunjitha ma grdhah kasyasviddhanam

Source: http://www.swargarohan.org/isavasya/01 (cf. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isha_Upanishad)

or, in phonetic script as also used in this essay:

om isha vasyam idam sarvam, yat kim ca jagatyaam jagat.
tena tyaktena bhunjithaa, maa gridha kasya svid dhanam.

(adapted from: http://sanskrit-texts.blogspot.ch/2006/05/isha-upanishad.html )

Translation  Lest we rely on any of the traditioned translations of the Isha's first verse without a proper notion of conceivable options that the benefit of historical distance offers us today, let us first gain an overview of the rather wide range of meanings of most of the Sanskrit terms involved. Here is a list compiled from the Sanskrit dictionaries mentioned at the outset of this exploration of ancient Indian ideas (see the "Sources" box in Part 4 of the series, Ulrich, 2014c or 2015a, p. 2f); the list uses short references to these dictionaries as explained in the subsequent Legend.

om = mystical utterance during meditation; holy word that signifies brahman

isha (or isa, isah) = originally: possessing strength, completely mastering, acting like a master, being master or lord of; being capable, powerful, supreme, owning; a master, speaker, author; speech, utterance, words; later also: supreme being, supreme spirit, personified as the Lord, the highest self (A393; MW169,2); able to dispose of, entitled to; capable of; owner, lord, ruler, chief of (Mac 47)

vasya[m] = to be covered, clothed or enveloped in, pervaded by, dwelling in (A1421, cf. 141)

ida[m] = known, present; this earthly world, this universe; this, here (MW165,3; A383)

sarva[m] = all, every, any; whole, entire; complete; [with negation] not any, none (A1655; B7-084; B/addenda 360.1; also see Olivelle, 1996, p. 297 note 4.9-10); hence the Upanishadic formula: sarvam idam brahma = "this whole world is brahman" = all [this world] is ultimately one

yat kim ca = what further, whatsoever, whatever aligns itself or joins; composed of kim= what? how? whether? etc. (indicating a question mode), ca= further, and also, as well as, moreover (B2-065 and 2-202f, MW282,3), and yat= to join, unite, bring into order, align oneself (in Vedic use; otherwise also = to endeavor, strive after, be eager or anxious for) (B5-119; A1299)

jagatya[am] = in the jagats, [moving] in this world, on earth (A408,1; B2-246f)

jagat = world, moving, movable, locomotive, living; that which moves or is alive, is in everybody's sight, air, wind, earth; this world; heaven and the lower world, the worlds, the universe; people, mankind; a field [of plants], site [of a house], etc.; (MW408,1; A720; B2-246; cf. Table 2)

tena = so, therefore; thus, in that manner, in that direction; on that account, for that reason (B3-042; Mac112, MW454,3 and 455,1)

tyaktena = renouncing this, it, composed of tyakt = to derelict, abandon, leave, and ena, in Vedic use = [a course, way] to be obtained (A5, Mac112)

bhunjitha = to enjoy, indulge, from bhuji = embrace [cf. English "hug"], granting of enjoyment, favor; one who grants favors, a protector, patron (Mac203; MW203,1 and 759,2), also bhuj = t o enjoy, embrace, use , possess, consume; to make use of , utilize, exploit, govern (MW 759,2), and jita = won , acquired, conquered, subdued; overcome or enslaved by; occurring often in compounds such as jitakopa = one who has subdued anger; jitakshara = one who has mastered his letters, [is] writing well; or jitamitra = one who has conquered his enemies, [is] triumphant (MW420,3)

ma = a particle of prohibition or negation: "no," "not," "don't,""be not," "let there not be"; that not, lest, may it not be; "and not," "nor" (MW 804,1f); also 1st person pron. basis (cf. "me"); time; poison; a magic formula (MW 771,1f); moon, measure, authority, light, knowledge, binding, fettering, tying, death (Wil630); disturbing (B/addenda 287.3)

gridha = desirous of , eagerly longing for (MW361,2; cf. English "greed"); whence ma gridha = "let there be no greediness"

kasya = whose? composed of ka- = interrogative particle (cf. kim, under yat kim ca), often in connection with svid) and sya = 3rd person pron. basis (MW240,2f; MW1273,1)

svid = (a particle of interrogation or inquiry, often implying doubt or surprise, and translatable by "[what/who] do you think?," "can it be?" or simply "indeed?"; also rendering a preceding interrogative indefinite, e.g. "whoever," "whatever," "any [one]," "anywhere" (A1743; MW1284,3)

dhana[m] = prize [of a context, or contest itself, a thing raced for, etc.]; wealth, riches, movable property, treasure, capital (MW508,2; B3-140; property of any description, thing, substance, wealth (Wil436)

Legend: The sources of translation are indicated for each word by the following short references: A =Apte (1965/2008); B = Böthlingk and Schmidt (1879/1928); Mac = Macdonell (1929); MW = Monier-Williams (1899), often usefully searched via Monier-Williams et al. (2008); and Wil = Wilson (1819/2011). The short references are followed by page numbers and, in the case of MW, with column numbers added after a comma. Page numbers are useful for searching the scanned, original layout editions that are now in the public domain and available online of most dictionaries, as listed in the References section of this essay.

Müller's early translation  Still influential and often cited is Müller's (1879) early translation, which accordingly may still count as a standard translation. It comes in two version, the original version of 1879 and a later, revised version of 2000. The original versions reads:

All this, whatsoever that moves on earth
        is to be hidden in the Lord (Self).
When thou hast surrendered all this,
        then thou mayest enjoy.
        Do not covet the wealth of any man.

        (Isha, 1.1, as transl. by Müller, 1879, p. 311; line-breaks and indents added)

In the revised version by Müller and Navlakha (2000), we find:

All this, whatsoever that moves in this moving universe
         is encompassed by the Self.
When thou hast surrendered all that [i.e., the material wealth],
         and wilt seek not what others [continue to] possess,
         then thou mayest truly enjoy.

         (Isha, 1.1, as transl. by Müller and Navlakha, 2000, p. 17; the brackets are Navlakha's, the indents are mine. Note that the phrase "surrendered all that" stands for what in our terms should read "surrendered all this [material world]"; compare our earlier discussion of the metaphysics of "this" and "that" in Part 4 of the series, Ulrich, 2014c, pp. 11-14, rev. version Ulrich, 2015a, pp. 13-19)

While Müller originally translated jagat as "whatsoever that moves on earth" and wavered in his translation of isha between "the Lord" and "Self," the revision replaces “earth” by “universe” and drops reference to “the Lord.” This is precisely how I suggest we should understand the two terms. “Universe” and “Self" are more general and neutral terms than references to the Earth and to the Lord. They do not preclude a traditional metaphysical and religious understanding, but they also do not impose it. They thus avoid an unnecessary narrowing down of the meaning of the two terms, along with an equally unnecessary reification and a tendency to religious effusiveness that all stand in the way of careful philosophical analysis. Narrowness of interpretation, hasty reification, and religious effusiveness: none of these three prevalent tendencies in the Isha’s reception is warranted as measured by the etymological root meanings we listed.

The historical reception of the Isha, though, has taken a different road. Exemplary for it is Nikhilananda's (1949) translation, the second oldest that I have consulted, which is remarkable for its attempt to draw on Shankaras's commentary of the early 9th century CE, one of the oldest testimony we have of the Isha’s history of reception. Nikhilananda's translation is of particular interest, as it makes the influence of Shankara clear by offering a literal extract from relevant portions of Shankara’s commentary and, based on it, brief explanations of all the key phrases it uses:

All this – whatever exists in this changing universe –
        should be covered by the Lord.
Protect the Self by renunciation.
        Lust not after any man's wealth.

        (Isha, 1.1, as transl. by Nikhilananda, 1949, p. 201)

The explanations given are these:

ALL THIS: That is to say, the universe consisting of ever changing names and forms, held together by the law of causation.

SHOULD BE ETC: This universe, from the standpoint of Absolute Reality, is nothing but the Lord. That it is perceived as a material entity is due to ignorance. One should view the universe, through the knowledge of non-duality, as Atman alone.

LORD: He who is the Supreme Lord and the inmost Self of all. He is Brahman and identical with Atman.

PROTECT: That is to say, liberate the Self from the grief, delusion, and other evil traits of samsara in which It has been entangled on account of ignorance. To be attached to matter amounts to killing the Self.

RENUNCIATION: The scripture describes the discipline of renunciation of the longing for offspring, wealth, and the heavenly worlds for him alone who devotes himself entirely to contemplation of the Self as the Lord. Such an aspirant has no further need of worldly duties. It is renunciation that leads to the Knowledge of the Self and protects Its immutability, eternity, and immortality.

LUST NOT ETC: That is to say, a sannyasin [holy man who has vowed renunciation], who has renounced all desires, should not be attached to what he has or long for the property of someone else. Or the sentence may mean that a sannyasisn should not covet wealth at all. For where is the real wealth in the transitory world that he should desire? The illuminated person renounces the illusory names and forms because he regards the whole universe as Atman alone. He does not long for what is unreal.

(Shankara's comments on the Isha, as quoted in Nikhilananda, 1949, p. 201)

Shankara’s comments have been influential – and Nikhilananda’s translation may have contributed to this influence – in that most of the subsequent translations of which I am aware appear to follow Shankara's understanding as conveyed by Nikhilananda's reading, with the partial exception of the revised Müller/Navlakha translation. Three examples must suffice:

All this is for habitation by the Lord, whatsoever is individual universe
        of movement in the universal motion.
By that renounced though shouldst enjoy;
        lust not after any man's possession.

(Isha, 1.1, as transl. by Aurobindo, 1996, pp. 19 and 29, PDF version p. 5; my indents)

This whole world is to be dwelt in by the Lord
        whatever living being there is in the world.
So you should eat what has been abandoned;
        and do not covet anyone’s wealth.

(Isha, 1.1., as transl. by Olivelle, 1996, p. 249)

The Lord is enshrined in the hearts of all.
        The Lord is supreme Reality.
Rejoice in him through renunciation.
        Covet nothing. All belongs to the Lord..

(Isha, 1.1., as transl. by Easwaran, 2007, p. 57, my indents)

Critical discussion: three key considerations  It is time to move on, from questions of translation to a discussion of the Isha's message to a contemporary audience of researchers and professionals, along with philosophically interested lay people. I propose to focus on three main issues, concerning (1) the legitimacy of a non-religious reading of the Isha; (2) the meaning and value of a more philosophical reading; and (3) an outline of the specific discourse-theoretical interpretation that I propose and wherein I see its relevance for reflective practice. All three discussions, especially the first two, will be rather brief.

Short discussion (1): The religious bent of most translations  The above translations, which may be said to be fairly representative of the literature, share a strikingly theistic bent and a tendency to establish religious demands and restrictions. One must wonder to what extent such a reading is warranted by the relevant history of ideas (which unfortunately is poorly documented) and to what extent it must be called arbitrary, a possibility that can be seen positive inasmuch as it leaves the door open for a more philosophical reading.

It seems to me that a predominantly religious reading of the Isha Upanishad may be called authentic in two main respects. The first characterizes all Upanishads, the second is specific to the Isha and to a very few other Upanishads. First, and basically, a religious reading of the Upanishads may be called authentic inasmuch as the Hindu tradition of thought has never distinguished as sharply between philosophy and religion as does "Western" thought. In the West, at latest since Kant's powerful critique of metaphysics, we are accustomed to the idea that expressions of religious faith and mystic experience have their legitimate place in the human individual's search for meaning and orientation but not in rational discourse and philosophical reasoning. Accordingly, their proper place is seen in the private rather than public domain of argumentation and decision-making. In India's tradition of thought, today as in the past, there is no such strict separation between religion and philosophy. Both are equally involved in the quest for understanding the meaning of life and its proper conduct, perhaps because such understanding is expected to translate into corresponding religious and worldly practices, which then together determine one's karma and prospect for salvation from continuous rebirth (moksha). Given the enormous importance of these ideas for the individual's fate, the propensity for a religious reading of the Upanishads, especially but not only in their popular reception, becomes understandable. However one-sided one may find it, it is so deeply ingrained in India's cultural heritage that it has become an indispensable part of proper understanding. Still, such an understanding need not preclude a more philosophical reading. We can acknowledge the authentic nature of the Isha's religious reception without ignoring its further-reaching, philosophical and indeed, emancipatory significance.

Second, and more specifically, while an exact dating of the Isha remains difficult, its traditional Vedic writing style, along with the observation that unlike most other Upanishads it is part of the Samhitas (i.e., the early Mantra portion of the Vedas) rather than of the later Aranyakas (see, e.g., Nikhilananda, 1949, p. 195),25) suggest that its roots reach back far into the history of the Upanishads. If this is so, we should not be surprised that its language and imagery are those of the early Veda, even if its content points beyond them. Alternatively, it might have received the written form in which we know it today later in the history of the Upanishads but its authors might none the less have chosen to attach it to the Samhitas and to adopt a conforming writing style, as the best way to reach its intended audience. In either case it seems plausible to assume that it could hardly have dared to hint at its epoch's subjugation of individual thought and spirituality under the control of religious doctrine and brahmanic authority, except in the rather concealed and indirect form of traditional religious imagery. How else could it have encouraged people to start freeing themselves from such subjugation and to dare thinking (asking questions) rather than just believing (practicing worship)? Thinking, that is, about those fundamental metaphysical and existential-practical questions that the Upanishads, to all our knowledge, were first to raise in the history of mankind and for which the religious concepts of brahman and atman – and likewise, I would argue, the concept of jagat – were and remain important: What are adequate ways to understand the universe (brahman)? "Who are we, or might have the potential to be, as human individuals (atman)? How should we conceive of our place in this overwhelming world of ours (jagat)?

To be sure, the Isha merely hints at these questions. For the reasons just considered, it may not have been able at its time to articulate them more explicitly. The historical development of Vedic consciousness and spirituality, which led from the mantras of the Samhitas, via the doctrines and rules of the Brahmanas and the meditations of the Aranyakas, to the philosophical awakening of the Upanishads, did not happen overnight. But it happened. The Isha stands at the turning point of this awakening. It embodies an early expression of the Upanishadic "rebellion" against the older focus on religious doctrines and rules of which we have spoken. With this rebellion, the rise of spiritual autonomy emerged as a new theme on the Vedic agenda. Its sibling: the courage to ask philosophical questions, and thus the rise of philosophical reflection.

We have, then, reasons to explore the Isha's philosophical significance along with its popular religious reception. We can recognize the former without denying or "renouncing" the latter. We can appreciate the Isha’s richness without taking sides.

Short discussion (2): Towards a philosophical reading Unlike so many of its translators, the Isha's itself does not take sides. Its Sanskrit wording leaves room for interpretation. It eschews the religious effusiveness that characterizes a majority of its interpreters and commentators. It speaks of "this" and "that" world (an analytical distinction of two basic types of references to the world, and of two conforming modes of talking about it) in the neutral terms of a subject (atman) that grapples with the tension between one's self-constructed, individual universe (jagat), limited and unstable as it inevitably is, and the larger, total universe that lies before and beyond any individual grasp (brahman). Remarkably it does so with no explicit use of the terms "atman" and "brahman," as if to avoid their religious connotations. Its references to atman and brahman remain implicit in the talk of "this" and "that" world. By contrast, it does use the term "jagat," a term that has no predominantly religious connotations. So both its theme and its language remain neutral and are as relevant to ordinary life practice and professional practice (including research practice) as they are to religious practice. What a philosophical exclamation mark!

The wording of the Isha’s first verse is indeed like a philosophical door opener. It opens the door for us and invites us to enter and marvel at the philosophical depth of Upanishadic thought. It lends itself to systematic thought about this world of ours and ways to understand it, no less than to spiritual reflection about that other world beyond it. Once again we can only admire such careful choice of language, in the Isha no less than in the other Upanishadic texts that we considered when we first encountered their language of "this" and "that" – the Brihadaranyaka, the Chandogya, and the Mundaka, along with the invocations to all those Upanishads which are associated with the Yajur Veda (among them notably the Brihadaranyaka, the Isha, and the Shvetashvatara Upanishads).

What makes the Isha stand out is its explicit use of the concept of jagat and, more specifically, its reference, in the first line, to jagatyam jagat, which literally means "jagat [moving] in the jagats." Since the word jagat as such already refers to a universe of moving phenomena or, in Nikhilananda's (1949, p. 201) above-cited words, to "this changing universe … consisting of ever changing names and forms," we have to understand the phrase "moving in a universe of moving phenomena" as intended to bring in an additional, higher level of cognition. This is the reflective level of a subject that realizes (in the double sense of recognizing and bringing to life) its role as the author of the jagat it is facing. As the author of its jagat, this subject carefully selects and questions the context of phenomena or circumstances that it takes to be relevant for dealing with a specific situation or issue at hand, and within which its thoughts and actions will consequently move. An element of choice is involved since no conceivable notion of jagat is complete, definitive, and objective beyond questioning. There are always options for defining or redefining the universe of thought and action within which an agent or speaker moves at a time. Or, as we might now say: we always have a choice about the jagat within which we (are to) move. Any such choice represents but one of an indefinite number of other conceivable jagats for identifying aspects one considers to be relevant – aspects of that larger, all-encompassing reality that ideally could indeed count as a complete, definitive, and objective universe of thought and action, but which as such lies beyond human grasp.

In simpler but hardly less thought-provoking terms: whatever description of reality we rely on, it is bound to be false. False, that is, to the extent we claim it to be a sufficient account for deciding the question at issue. It is part of the human condition as we understand it today that all our views of the world, all attempts to understand it and to act properly in it, are very limited and fragmentary, inevitably conditioned by the particular universes (sic) of which we ourselves, whether as individuals or as collectives, are the authors.

Only at first glance is this notion of "particular universes" an impossible one. At a closer look, it rather accurately captures the paradox we face: in thinking and doing something about an issue, we cannot help but to presuppose some universe of thought and action within we move – a personal jagat that will limit the scope of validity and application of our conclusions but of which we nevertheless have to assume that it is adequately universal so as to have us consider everything that is relevant for judging the issue. However reasonably we try to deal with the situation: reason (i.e., reliance on shareable reasons) and reliance on particular assumptions (which others need not share) do not go together easily. Accordingly, whatever universe we choose to move in, we have to keep in view that it amounts to a particular selection rather than the total universe of all conceivably relevant considerations and concerns; and hence, that we are well advised to limit our claims accordingly.

It also follows that accounts of what is "really" the case tell us as much about those who advance them as about the section of the real world in question. What are the assumptions underlying the selection of "facts" and "values" that this person claims to be particularly relevant? Is she aware of these assumptions? Is she prepared to accept that other assumptions may be just as reasonable? Does she limit her claims accordingly? In short, how does this person handle the inevitable particularity of her views and validity claims?

The basic implication of all this should be clear by now: As soon as we assert that some specific account represents a true and relevant description of reality, and/or amounts to correct and necessary proposals for changing it, we almost inevitably claim more than what we can safely claim to know or to get right. In discourse-theoretical terms, we should not expect that there is any method or form of discourse that could redeem the claims people raise, even in methodologically disciplined forms of theoretical or moral discourse. Accordingly difficult it is for everyone to distinguish between adequately and not so adequately justified claims, whether they are one's own claims or those of others. This in turn makes claiming too much a widespread tendency, a habit that often enough goes unnoticed and unchallenged.

In Upanishadic terms, when it comes to identifying and mastering the jagat(s) we move in, we are for ever caught in a quest for better knowing and understanding ourselves – our inmost, individual Self, the author or creative principle (i.e., inexhaustable source of options) within us (atman) that shapes our perceived reality – just as we are for ever on the way towards understanding the larger, ultimate universe of which we are a part and which shapes all perceivable reality – the creative principle and source of options beyond this world of ours that permeates everything alive and conscious in this world (brahman). Accordingly difficult – far from being trivial – it is also for everyone to see and understand the jagats within which other speakers and agents or entire groups of people move.

Short discussion (3): Towards a discourse-theoretical view  The question that interests me, but about which I have found close to nothing in the literature, concerns the methodological significance of the Isha’s reference to jagat. What does it mean for our conceptions and methods of rational inquiry and practice? The answer I have in mind is an indirect one: it might change the ways in which we think and speak about the validity claims involved, for example, claims to knowledge, rationality, right action, and resulting improvement. We may need to question some of the usual ways we formulate such claims and justify their validity, typically by referring to established methods of inquiry, reliance on scientific conventions, consultation of individual expertise, and division of tasks and responsibilities along organizational and disciplinary boundaries. We might want to cultivate a new kind of discourses about claims to relevant knowledge and right action.

The basic idea in support of this conclusion is simple: our notion of jagat, or what we have thus far rather vaguely called the universe of thought and action, is usefully understood in the terms of a universe of discourse. The jagat we are to move in then becomes a question of the specific universe(s) of discourse that we consider relevant for identifying, assessing, justifying or questioning the validity claims we raise or face in different situations or contexts of action. To these claims belong basically all suggestions about what the situation is and what ought to be done about it, but also a number of related claims such as who is or should have a say in answering these questions, what notion of improvement should inform the analysis, and so on.

There is, however, a complication that we need to consider, lest we oversimplify. It is that all these mentioned claims come up not only at the object-level of reflection and discourse about a situation of concern, that is, about what is "the problem" and how it might be "solved," but also at the meta-level of reflecting and discussing about how the relevant situation should be delimited in the first place so as to be sufficiently comprehensive, yet still manageable. The validity claims just mentioned then amount to boundary judgments (Ulrich, 1983) as to what the universe of discourse is to include and what it is to leave out. Discourse universes are thus defined by a set of boundary judgments, the exact nature of which we need not worry about at this place.

In everyday language, we may think of our jagats – or now, universes of discourse – simply as the sum-total of "that which we choose to talk about" in formulating or discussing a problem; likewise, we might speak of the "scope of an argument" or the "system-in-focus" assumed in a claim (D.P. Dash, 2013d) or simply of the contexts of thought and action we care about. Obviously this contextual choice embodies itself a claim, but it is a meta-level claim that we cannot question at the same time at which we are discussing the mentioned object-level claims as to what are the "facts" (circumstances) and "values" (concerns) that are to be considered relevant in dealing with a chosen "situation" (context).

A discourse-theoretical approach offers additional ways in which one may conceive of such meta-level claims, whereby the emphasis shifts from their descriptive or normative content (as in the case of the boundary judgments at which I just hinted) to the kind of discursive (and sometimes also non-discursive) obligations they entail, that is, to the ways in which they can and need to be redeemed. To this end I basically propose to rely on the model of speech-act immanent obligations advanced by Habermas (1979, 1984; see my account in Ulrich, 2009c,d). In this model, we can distinguish a basic non-discursive or pre-discursive claim – that an utterance be phonetically and grammatically, perhaps also semantically, clear and understandable – and three equally basic, genuinely discursive claims – to the empirical truth and descriptive accuracy of what a speaker says; to the normative rightness and legitimacy of its value assumptions and implications; and to the authenticity and sincerity of the speaker's intention. Habermas focuses on the latter three validity claims, as in his view only they demand, and allow of, discursive justification – the claims to truth, rightness, and truthfulness. Implicit is the speaker's additional claim that he is prepared to substantiate these claims by advancing relevant evidence or reasons, if challenged to do so, and thus to demonstrate what Habermas calls "rational motivation," that is, the will to rely on no other force than that of convincing arguments. Claims to truth accordingly imply an obligation to provide evidence of relevant facts; claims to rightness, an obligation to justify underlying norms or principles of action; and claims to truthfulness, an obligation to prove trustworthy. All three claims need to be redeemed argumentatively, that is, by entering into discourse and offering reasons for one's claims, as well as by taking up and responding to the counterarguments of others; truthfulness, in addition, calls for consistency of the speaker's previous and subsequent behavior.26)

So much for a basic outline of a discourse-theoretical perspective. This is not the place to provide a more detailed introduction to Habermas' discourse theory or, more specifically, to the Toulmin-Habermas model of rational discourse that I have adopted as argumentation- and discourse-theoretical framework for my work; suffice it to refer the reader to my detailed earlier accounts (see Ulrich, 2009c, d; 2010a, b; and 2013a). Instead, I would like to suggest four more specific, though still fairly elementary observations as to how the proposed discourse-theoretical perspective might enhance our understanding of the Upanishadic concept of jagat; and conversely, how a philosophical rather than religious reading of the Upanishads could enhance our understanding of the discourse-theoretical approach.

First observation: Just as a discourse-theoretical interpretation can shed new light on the Upanishadic concept of jagat, the latter can help us better understand the implications of a discourse-theoretical concept of rationality. We have here two different but complementary accounts of what it takes to gain valid knowledge of reality: the Upanishadic account tells us that in the first place we need to get our jagats right, whereas discourse theory lets us understand how we can think and speak rationally about them, namely, by uncovering and substantiating the specific validity claims involved.

Habermas explains the difficulties involved as a problem of achieving rationally secured (or "rationally motivated") consensus, which in today's pluralistic world is obviously a scarce resource. As my regular readers know, I do not follow Habermas in this respect. I prefer to base my account of (and hopes for) rational discursive practice on a discourse theory of critique rather than a discourse theory of consensus (see, e.g., Ulrich, 2003, p. 326). The Upanishadic account is superior in this respect, as it does not risk passing over the essential methodological difficulty, namely, that all our universes of discourse are self-constructed and therefore also changeable and open to challenge, however "rational" we are. We should never take them to be more than preliminary agreements or conventions. It would seem, therefore, that no amount of discourse and no kind of rationally motivated consensus can overcome this limit to human knowledge and rationality.

This is where a second limitation of Habermas' model of rational discourse becomes important to me: it does not offer a systematic account of the ways in which our jagats or universes of discourse are informed by contextual boundary judgments, so that we could examine them in a methodologically clear and disciplined manner. To this end, my work on critical systems heuristics (CSH) proposes a typology of boundary categories and questions, along with a model of cogent critical discourse to which I refer as boundary critique or boundary discourse. Like in the case of Habermas' work, this is not the place to introduce the CSH framework of boundary discourse in any detail (see, e.g., Ulrich, e.g., 1983, 1987, 1993, 2000; Ulrich and Reynolds, 2010); suffice it to mention that I see in it a discourse-theoretical response to the Upanishadic challenge of the jagatyam jagat, the notion that all our knowledge and reasoning moves within moving (i.e., unstable) jagats (real-world contexts).

Second observation: In a combined Upanishadic-discursive perspective, rational practice and rational discourse become inseparable in a deeper sense than is usually asserted. How we act is always an expression of how we think, and how we think has a lot to do with the universe (jagat) within we move. It is to be expected that the empirical circumstances and normative concerns we see as relevant "facts" and "values" will differ with the assumed universes of discourse. People's validity claims conflict with those of others not just because the ones get their facts and value judgments right and the others don't but rather, because the parties move in different universes and thus risk talking past each other.

Rationally arguable practice thus becomes a fundamentally discursive quality of how we deal with divergent discourse universes and with the conflicting validity claims they entail. The etymological root meaning of "discursive" is quite relevant here: the Latin verb discurrere means as much as to "run off in different directions," "diverge," or "run back and forth." Such a focus contrasts with the conventional understanding of applied science, professional competence, and expertise (henceforth just "expertise"), where reference to (supposedly) superior knowledge and competence is usually taken to be sufficient for justifying claims, at least with respect to relevant facts (but in effect often also to relevant value judgments, as factual and normative judgments are not independent). Nor does this conventional understanding recognize that when it comes to boundary judgments, experts have no natural advantage of competence over lay people but depend on the discursive engagement of concerned citizens (see, e.g., Ulrich, 1983, 1993, and 2000 for detailed and illustrated theoretical accounts). An Upanishadic concept of discourse thus takes on a methodologically more fundamental and further-reaching role than in the currently prevailing concept of expertise. It is more fundamental in that in addition to object-level discourse on the issues or situations of interest, it brings into focus the role of considered universes of discourses and suggests a discursive approach to unfolding related contextual assumptions and implications. It is further reaching in that it extends the concept of expertise discursively so as to give concerned citizens a meaningful role to play. These two extensions of the currently dominating model of discourse move at different conceptual levels inasmuch as the first requires a meta-level discourse and the second, an object-level discourse; what they have in common is that boundary discourse will be a crucial tool for driving critical reflection and debate at both levels.

A thus-extended, discursive concept of expertise coincides remarkably with an Upanishadic view of inquiry. The Upanishadic ideal of an inquiring and self-reflecting mind cannot content itself to move within a given jagat; rather, it will always aim for that higher level of consciousness (or now, of discourse) which it associates with the search for brahman, and at which alone right thought and conduct can be achieved. We are reminded here of the Vedic distinction introduced earlier, according to which knowledge is twofold: para (lit. = higher, i.e., postulational or suppositional, second-order) and apara (lit. = lower, i.e., observational or practical, first-order). In such a perspective, boundary discourse represents a higher level of discourse aimed at para vidya, whereas ordinary discourse about factual and normative claims moves at the lower level of apara vidya (compare Ulrich, 2015a, pp. 6 and 8f).

Third observation: Continuing the line of argumentation of the previous observation, a combined Upanishadic-discursive perspective not only leads us to recognize that our discourses, as rational as they may be in the terms of the Toulmin-Habermas model of discourse, are conditioned by the jagat(s) within we move; it also suggests that the jagats at work can and should themselves be subjects of discourse (the mentioned "higher" or meta-level). We have here a core consideration of what we might indeed call an Upanishadic concept of discursive rationality, and consequently also of discursive expertise. In addition to the Toulmin-Habermas logic of discourse, it takes up the Isha's point, according to which we have to conceive of all human knowledge and thought in terms of jagatyam jagat, "jagat moving in the jagats."

The essential methodological consequence consists in the importance of securing reflective and discursive chances for unfolding contextual boundary assumptions, so that conflicting views and claims can be seen in their light. How do relevant facts and values change when the considered universe of discourse changes? And conversely, may we need to adapt our universe of discourse in the light of new facts or value considerations that have come up in the discourse? What options are there to see relevant contexts, so that previously divergent judgments of fact and value might become partly shareable or at least the parties' differences become mutually understandable, according to the motto "we can agree that (and why) we don't agree"? Such questioning can open up chances for learning and cooperation. It can promote a new sense of appreciation and tolerance for the value and validity of conflicting claims and perspectives. Rationally motivated discourse and contextual self-reflection can thus mutually support one another.

The important point is that implementing such an Upanishadic concept of rationality and expertise requires its own form of "higher" discourse, to which I have referred above as boundary discourse. The basic underlying idea is the critical turn of our concepts of rationality and expertise, which means that discourse and expertise are properly understood as means for questioning, rather than justifying, validity claims. In the face of divergent universes of discourse, claims to sufficient justification are relatively (sic) meaningless, but sufficient critique in the form of surfacing the influence of diverging contextual assumptions is not. This idea corresponds to the stance of humility and tolerance which we have encountered in the Upanishads, for example, in the Mundaka's admonishment that inquiry should be a practice "free from self-will" (Mundaka, 3.1.6, as transl. by Easwaran, 2007, p. 193, quoted in more detail in Part 4, Ulrich, 2015a, p. 10). We also recognize this same stance in the Isha's call for "renouncing." The point, to be sure, is not that we should throw the ideal of sufficient justification over board but only, that we should understand it precisely as such: as an ideal that embodies a critical standard or principle only, a demand for systematic efforts of uncovering the unavoidable lack of complete justification in all our claims. The quality of discourse is then to be understood in terms of a new ethos of justification:

The rationality of applied inquiry and design is to be measured not by the (impossible) avoidance of justification deficits but by the degree to which it deals with such deficits in a transparent, self-critical, and self-limiting way. (Ulrich, 1993, p. 587)

Fourth observation: With the spotlight it throws on contextual choices, an Upanishadic concept of expertise leaves us with no illusion about the conditioned nature of even the most thoroughly argued claims to knowledge and rationality. Except perhaps in the case of purely analytic (deductive) reasoning, with which we are not concerned here, they all depend to some extent on suppositional reasoning. Suppositional reasoning involves the drawing of conclusions from assumptions rather than from complete evidence; in this case, assumptions concerning the jagat(s) we take to represent the proper universe(s) of discourse. But of course, once we recognize this role of suppositional reasoning, the charge of a bottomless relativism is bound to come up sooner or later.

There is not much we can say from an Upanishadic perspective to counter this charge, I fear; for no human quest for knowledge and rationality can entirely escape the need for suppositional reasoning (insofar the charge may be said to be a trivial, if not somewhat cheap accusation). This is of course precisely why the Vedic sages found it necessary for human thought to work with a counterconcept to jagat such as brahman in the first place – the notion of an all-encompassing, absolute universe of thought that would be self-contained and thus independent of anything not included in or controlled by it, not unlike Kant's (1787, B364, 367, 379f, 382f, 444, 445n) notion of a totality of conditions that would itself be unconditioned (as discussed in Part 2 of this series, Ulrich, 2014a, see esp. pp. 2f and 6-8).

With a view to our present interest in a discursive understanding of the Isha's reference to jagat, I suspect my main line of argumentation would be that yes, relativism is part of the human condition. It is inevitable in all human practice (including discursive practice) and that is precisely why it matters that we strive for that higher level of consciousness that Upanishadic discourse embodies, understood as the search for brahman or, as we might now say in the light of the preceding conjectures, as a confluence of Upanishadic reflection and discursive critique of validity claims in terms of underlying boundary judgments. To be sure, that higher level of awareness and argumentation will still not free us altogether from relativism; but at last, it will make us aware of the sources of error and mutual misunderstanding involved and thus can help us avoid or minimize them.

It is, then, fair to say, I think, that I am not singing the gospel of relativism here. Quite the contrary, I am concerned with ways to handle it properly. Precisely because we cannot avoid relativism, we need to handle it in critically self-reflective and discursive ways such as Upanishadic discourse supported by systematic processes of boundary critique offers them. The underlying rationale is that the trap we need to avoid is not relativism as such but only a relativism that remains unreflected and undisclosed with regard to how it conditions our claims. Only to that extent – we might say, inasmuch as we are not aware of a speaker's or agent's actually "considered world" – the claims concerned risk becoming sources of error and lack of mutual understanding.

Some conclusions: Towards Upanishadic discourse  We have reached a point where the Upanishads are beginning to enhance, perhaps even to change, not only our understanding of the role of general ideas in human thought and action but also, linked to it, our understanding of "rational" discourse. A new notion of "Upanishadic" discourse is emerging. Before we complete our discussion of the Isha's message, let us briefly pause and, at the risk of repeating things we have already understood, briefly sum up some of the basic lessons that we have learned thus far, so as to realize where we stand.

Basic Upanishadic notions, discourse-theoretically understood  Perhaps most basically, the Upanishadic language of "this" and "that," together with the related distinction of "lower" (first-order) and "higher" (second-order) knowledge, have helped us understand that whatever particular universe of discourse we move in, we should not confuse it with that other universe "without a second" which alone would represent a true and sufficient universe of discourse and which consequently would be basically the same for everyone ("one only"). This would be a universe of discourse that in principle everyone would be able to share, although in practice no-one of this world (no discourse participant) can ever credibly claim to know and master it entirely. And yet, to the extent we aim to achieve genuine mutual understanding, we must find ways to share our individual worlds, lest we end up talking past one another.

In the world of the "this" rather than the "that," it is clear that there will always be options for defining some shareable universe of discourse. Accordingly some basic, shareable standards and procedures for achieving mutual understanding on such options will also be needed. The general ideas we have been considering in the different parts of this series, along with the related series of Reflections on Reflective Practice, embody such standards: the systems idea, the moral idea, and the idea of discursive rationality. We have characterized them, inter alia, as the indispensable quest for (or criterion of) comprehensiveness; as the principle (or criterion) of moral universalization; and as the demand for (or criterion of) rational motivation, respectively. The Upanishadic ideas of atman, jagat, and brahman have made us see these standards in a complementary perspective. As we begin to appreciate, they point to a need for searching even deeper, by reflecting on the role of suppositional reasoning and of our inmost sources of subjectivity, of selectivity, and of aspiration in it.

We might, then, understand these three core ideas of Upanishadic thought as embodying three different, but not independent, frames of reference for defining and reflecting upon one's universes of discourse, whereby:

  • atman would refer to a speaker's private, often at least partly unrevealed and partly also unconscious, universe of discourse, one that is rooted in one's innermost feelings and thoughts, values and wishes with respect to the situation or issue in question, as well as in one's personal biography and conforming sense of identity;
  • jagat would refer to a speaker's considered universe of discourse, the real-world context one considers relevant for assessing a situation or issue of concern and which is never "given" in any definitive way but always again needs to be identified by judgments that remain open to question and challenge; and finally,
  • brahman would refer to the ideal notion of a total universe of discourse, an all-encompassing notion of the context in question that no individual speaker can ever hope or claim to master but which theoretically would include everything potentially relevant for, and everybody potentially concerned by, the issue or situation at hand, so that it could serve as a universally shareable and in this sense "objective" basis for agreeing on claims to proper knowledge and action.

From a discourse-theoretical view of the Upanishads to an Upanishadic view of discourse  One might object that such a discourse-theoretical use of Upanishadic core ideas amounts to an instrumentalization, or at least to a one-sided perspective, in that it merely asks how useful or relevant Upanishadic core ideas look from a discourse-theoretical perspective, with a view to employing them for a basically "Western" approach. Indeed, one may with equal right reverse the perspective and ask how Western ideas look in the light of an Upanishadic framework.

A basic example might be the conventional Western opposition of theory and practice or, within a discourse-theoretical framework, the distinction between theoretical and practical discourse. In Upanishadic terms we might speak of the path of knowledge (cultivating careful contemplation and reflection) as distinguished from the path of action (cultivating good practice and change). Unlike the Western theory-practice dichotomy, which often is (mis-) taken to imply that theory and practice are fundamentally different categories and therefore allow of separate treatment, the Upanishadic view emphasizes that both are legitimate paths of learning. The quest for practical excellence is worth no less than the search for theoretical mastery. To be sure, it is often advisable to concentrate on one of the two paths of learning, so as to achieve proper results and get far enough on the chosen path. Accordingly the man of knowledge is often expected in Upanishadic texts (including the Isha) to "renounce" the path of action and worldly endeavors just as the man of action is expected to focus on practice. Even so, it is quite clear that both paths represent legitimate and effective paths of learning, if chosen in accordance with one's talents and circumstances of life. Likewise, both paths involve learning and practicing with a teacher or a person of superior achievement, through interaction that is based on careful listening, observation, and dialogue. The discursive element, then, is not a newcomer, much less a stranger, to Upanishadic thought. Rather, I think it is fair to say that it is deeply intrinsic to the Upanishadic conceptions of proper knowledge and proper action. Both require learning; but learning is always a fundamentally discursive endeavor, for it involves moving consciously and carefully within and across one's considered (or accustomed) jagat.

This insight in turn makes it understandable why for an Upanishadic thinker, both the path of knowledge and the path of action amount to a continuous search for clarifying and developing one's conceptions of atman, jagat, and brahman – a quest for coming to terms with fundamentally divergent universes of discourse, that is. They are fundamentally divergent – rather than just different – in that they represent discursive universes of different nature or type; yet the pursuit of excellence has no choice but to try and reconcile them in thought and action, even if it will never succeed completely in this endeavor.

The earlier-introduced notion of a "double movement of thought" is relevant here; we may understand it to be part of all learning, which also means it is part of both the path of knowledge and the path of action. (We might also speak of a double reflective or discursive movement rather than a movement of "thought," lest we fall into the trap of associating it with the path of knowledge only but not also with that of action, of which thought is an inherent element as well.) In systems-theoretical language, we might describe the basic reflective movement that Upanishadic thought calls for – the search for brahman – as an expansive movement; in Kantian language, as an enlarging movement of thought and engagement. It begins with one's "private" perceptions and concerns and then works towards an increasingly richer and objective notion of the issue or situation at hand. But, as the Upanishadic perspective further suggests, that is not the end of it. Learning never boils down to a unidirectional search for brahman (systems expansion striving for comprehensiveness). The aim of this expansive movement of reflection and discourse – the quest for knowing and becoming one with brahman – is obviously an ideal. Both an Upanishadic and a discursive perspective (the latter in the full sense of the Latin discurrere) suggest to me that a reverse, critical movement is of equal importance, one that moves from supposedly comprehensive notions of situations or issues towards the innermost, unrevealed sources of perception and engagement (or in the terms of critical systems heuristics, the sources of selectivity and motivation) that are at work in all human thought and action – the Upanishadic quest for knowing, and becoming one with, one's atman. Thus combined, these two "Upanishadic" movements of thought not only show a deeply discursive orientation, they indeed yield a basic heuristic for operationalizing the basic aim that has emerged from this series of essays (at latest in Part 3), the search for a practicable framework of critical contextualism.27)

So much for a brief summary of where we stand. Back now to the Isha's first verse, the text around which we have organized our discussion in this present third essay on the Upanishads. Continuing in the vein of the previous reflections, I propose to conclude this discussion in a somewhat personal way. I will first articulate my individual reading experience with the Isha's first verse, and will then try to sum up this experience in a free and unconventional rendering of the verse in English. In this way I hope to help readers appreciate the Isha's message to the contemporary researcher and professional as it results from our exploration thus far – a message that is informed through a discourse-theoretical reading but still tries to remain faithful to the spirit and basic ideas of Upanishadic thought.

Some final thoughts on the Isha and my experience of reading it Through an idea history that unfortunately is poorly documented, the Isha's Upanishadic core theme of striking a balance between "this" and "that" world, so as to allow them to "become one" in our minds as a source of right thought and action, has historically been turned into a call for renunciation that was misunderstood as intending deprivation rather than reconciliation. As far as I can see and judge from countless hours of working with Sanskrit dictionaries and studying different translations of the Isha, along with learned commentaries on the Upanishads, an adequate modern (i.e., secular) translation and discussion of these sources of ancient wisdom is sadly missing today. It seems to me that the presently available, religiously oriented translations and commentaries obscure the Isha's message and relevance to us today, rather than clarifying it and making it widely accessible.

Specifically regarding the Isha's first verse, my impression is that neither its specific wording nor the larger Upanishadic context to which it belongs require a narrowly religious reading as I have encountered it throughout, with relatively minor variations. Even Müller and Navlakha (2000) do not entirely avoid the trap in their revised translation of the Isha's first verse (as quoted at the outset above). Still, theirs remains the most neutral translation in this regard. For the reader's convience, I here reproduce the selection of translations that we have considered earlier in this essay:

All this is for habitation by the Lord, whatsoever is individual universe
        of movement in the universal motion.
By that renounced though shouldst enjoy;
        lust not after any man's possession.

         Isha, 1.1, as transl. by Aurobindo, 1996, pp. 19 and 29, PDF version p. 5; my indents)

This whole world is to be dwelt in by the Lord
        whatever living being there is in the world.
So you should eat what has been abandoned;
        and do not covet anyone’s wealth.

         Isha, 1.1., as transl. by Olivelle, 1996, p. 249)

The Lord is enshrined in the hearts of all.
        The Lord is supreme Reality.
Rejoice in him through renunciation.
        Covet nothing. All belongs to the Lord..

         Isha, 1.1., as transl. by Easwaran, 2007, p. 57, my indents)

All this – whatever exists in this changing universe –
        should be covered by the Lord.
Protect the Self by renunciation.
        Lust not after any man's wealth.

        (Isha, 1.1, as transl. by Nikhilananda, 1949, p. 201)

All this, whatsoever that moves on earth
        is to be hidden in the Lord (Self).
When thou hast surrendered all this,
        then thou mayest enjoy.
        Do not covet the wealth of any man.

        (Isha, 1.1, as transl. by Müller, 1879, p. 311; line-breaks and indents added)

All this, whatsoever that moves in this moving universe
         is encompassed by the Self.
When thou hast surrendered all that [i.e., the material wealth],
         and wilt seek not what others [continue to] possess,
         then thou mayest truly enjoy.

         (Isha, 1.1, as transl. by Müller and Navlakha, 2000, p. 17; my indents; read "that" as "this")

All translations agree that the key phrase jagatyam jagat is to be read as a predicate of idam sarvam (this entire world of ours). All translations except Easwaran's then also offer a rather neutral and accurate translation of this key phrase as conveying the idea of something "moving in this moving universe." However, only Müller and Navlakha subsequently avoid a one-sidedly theist rendering of the further predicate isha vasyam as referring to a supreme, almost biblical God ("the Lord") who is assumed to be inhabiting (or dwelling in, vasyam) the whole world. The less narrow root meanings of isha as a source of authorship, ownership, and mastery in the widest sense of these terms (ranging from control of a piece of land to mastery of a subject and to self-control), are lost. Müller and Navlakha's alternative translation by means of the formula "is encompassed by the Self" is not particularly clear and helpful either, and it is certainly not the most adequate translation one could imagine from a discourse-theoretical perspective; but at least it leaves the door open for a secular and philosophical reading. The Isha's first line, isha vasyam idam sarvam, yatkincha jagatyam jagat, then yields a truly fundamental epistemological reflection that we might formulate in the following way (or similarly):

This entire world of ours, whatever it includes (or what we take it to be), is always shaped by its author, the Self. (Isha 1.1, my approximate transl. of the first line)

Only a consistently secular reading along such lines reveals this timeless relevance of the Isha. Whether and to what extent the author-Self to which it refers is to be identified with atman or with brahman or even with a personified God, or else simply with a human speaker or agent, remains in such a reading left to the interpreter and can be decided depending on the context, and this is good so.

One might object that my reading is obviously biased by an epistemological rather than theological interest, and I would not deny that. Even so, in view of the etymological root meaning of isha as "possessing strength" or "mastering" and "owning" something, or being a "master, speaker, author," and so on – meanings that still come to the fore in the word's contemporary use; compare, for instance, the Spoken Sanskrit Dictionary, entry "isha" – it is difficult to see why such a translation should be called arbitrary. Its wording lends itself to both a secular or a religious reading and insofar is certainly not arbitrary. Quite the contrary, it seems to me less arbitrary and rather more accurate than any predefined reference to a personal God along the lines of the Judeo-Christian tradition ("the Lord"), a reference one might just as well suspect to have been imposed on the Sanskrit texts by their early, Western translators rather than amounting to a compelling translation.

Be that as it may, more important to me is that the overall result of the suggested secular, open-minded approach makes perfect sense and is apt to relate the Isha's message to our present epoch. The Isha's message can then be understood to admonish us of the omnipresent, because all too human, lack of thought and awareness that characterizes our epoch no less than any previous epoch of humanity:

All we may perceive to make up this world of ours, and all we can say about it, amounts to the expression of an unstable and fragmentary universe of discourse (or jagat) that we construct for ourselves, but which we should never confuse with that other reality behind and beyond it that would amount to the proper universe of discourse. (Isha 1.1, personal, discourse-theoretical reading of the entire verse)

From a discourse-theoretical perspective, such a translation hits the nail on its head, I think. Moreover, unlike its religiously oriented siblings, it may be said to be undogmatic in that it leaves the door open for a more religious or spiritual reading to those who prefer.

So far, so good. Let us now turn to the second line of the Isha's first verse. Up to this point I feel that Müller and Navlakha's revised translation is clearly the most openly worded and accurate, and thus supports the above reading adequately, especially if one considers that Müller did not have available at his time the option of a discourse-theoretical understanding. But then, Müller and Navlakha go on and (I cannot say it otherwise) mistranslate the next crucial term of this first verse, tyaktena (a composite term consisting of the etymological root terms tyakt = "to derelict, abandon, leave" and ena = "[a course, way] to be obtained") as a mere call to "surrender all this [material wealth]" (the brackets are theirs). While they are careful enough to point out, by using brackets, that the reference to "material wealth" is added by them rather than being original, they apparently found no better English term than "surrender" for expressing the Isha's demand for self-restraint and, as we formulated it above, for not claiming too much, tyaktena.

Similarly, Nikhilananda's and Aurobindo's earlier-cited translations call for "renouncement" and Olivelle's for "abandonment" of others' "wealth" or "possessions." Such translations indeed obscure the Isha's profound and multi-faceted wisdom, instead of formulating it in a way that would provide room and impetus for different strands of thought, as well as for relating it to the pursuit of rationality, competence, and excellence in multiple domains of our present world. The Isha thus appears to boil down (or at least risks being misunderstood thus) to a mere call for religious devotion and yes, for "surrender," rather than for autonomous (i.e., responsible) and critical (i.e., self-reflecting) thought and action – the very contrary of spiritual autonomy and enlightenment as the Upanishads seek to encourage it. Genuine thinking never surrenders to any demands other than those of self-reflecting and responsible thought and action. Nor must it ever surrender to any external authority, not even a brahmanic authority. It has no choice but insisting on its autonomy, which includes its right to rebel and say "no," perhaps even to provoke rather than to surrender – an insight that earlier we found to stand at the beginning of the Upanishads' history of ideas.

Looking back and reflecting on my reading experience with the Upanishadic texts, I cannot help thinking of Martin Heidegger's thought-provoking account of what thinking has the potential to be:

Thinking is thinking when it answers to what is most thought-provoking. In our thought-provoking time, what is most thought-provoking shows itself in the fact that we are still not thinking. (Heidegger, 1968, p. 28).

It may be time for a new reception of that ancient first verse of the Isha, one that would be more thought-provoking and thereby also more faithful to the spirit of the Upanishads. Such a translation would need to leave room for multiple, richer and less one-sided readings and translations than those prevailing today. And for interpretations that would surely also be more immediately relevant to our contemporary human condition, and thereby more accessible to contemporary readers. All this and more stands to be gained; it should be done.

To be sure, it should be clear that my sketch of a discourse-theoretical reading hints at just one of many conceivable options to be pursued by a renewed contemporary reception of the Upanishads. I am thinking, for example, of the huge diversity of contemporary philosophical strands that might serve as sources of interpretation and discussion. Discourse theory is merely one of them, one that I find useful for a contemporary approach to quite a number of thought traditions, among them practical philosophy, American pragmatism, and (critical) systems theory – three strands of thinking that inform my work on critical systems heuristics but which many of my readers may want to replace by other strands of importance to them.28) Further, it might be stimulating to analyze the Upanishads in the light of different practical and cultural or institutional contexts, ranging from professional to organizational, managerial and political contexts in different cultural environments, all of which might benefit from engaging in "Upanishadic discourse."

The potential for a more contemporary reception looks huge indeed. If I have not been able to do more than hinting at it, it is that I am all too well aware of the limitations of my preparation for the job. They make it clear to me that I need to leave such work to the specialists, in particular, to linguists and discourse theorists steeped in Sanskrit, together with scholars of Indian history and philosophy and of Upanishadic thought in particular. Or is such self-restraint perhaps entirely mistaken, not only because it may run against the inquiring and rebellious spirit of the Upanishads but perhaps also because the Upanishads are too important to be left to the specialists? Or conversely, are possibly even the few conjectures that I have been able to offer already too much and imprudent, in that the only way to be faithful to the Upanishadic spirit (and in any case to be on the safe side) would have been to remain silent, if not withdrawing to the forest? (But that would represent a Vedic – and Buddhist – rather than Upanishadic spirit, I suppose.)

As a final reflection, I suspect that as an author coming from the worlds of Kant and of contemporary practical philosophy, along with social science and systems methodology, and having moreover only just begun to discover and explore a new and bewildering land of thought, I may have tended to be somewhat quick and effusive in writing home about my first impressions. Perhaps I am moving on firmer ground, however, when I express my belief that from a Western perspective, it is truly regrettable that the contemporary, secular relevance of Upanishadic thought (or at least its potential for having such relevance) has remained and risks remaining largely unrecognized and underestimated in the West, due to a reception that seems to presuppose that years of religious devotion, meditation, and renouncement of secular concerns are a condition for adequate understanding. To speak with Aristotle (1985) and Santayana (1905/06), I can see no reason why Upanishadic thought should not be considered compatible with, and indeed conducive to, leading a secular life of reason and engaging practically with the world as it is (not just as seen from the silence of the forests, that is). That is what "The Professional's Isha" that I am going to propose now is all about.

The professional's Isha  We have arrived at the end of our discussion of the Isha. In the spirit of the preceding comments and interpretations, I would like to propose a reading of the Isha Upanishad that is accessible and meaningful for practical researchers and professionals, as well as for other practically engaged people. It attempts to understand the Isha's first verse along the lines of the following five guidelines.

Five short summary points to remember with the Professional's Isha:

(1) From a secular perspective, that which the Isha invites us to "renounce" or avoid is not living life to the full but rather, the presumption of knowledge and understanding that results from lacking awareness of the particular universe of thought and action within which each of us moves at any time, and of the way it conditions and limits the meaning and validity of our claims.

(2) A basic and frequent form that the presumption of knowledge takes is that of claiming too much. Claiming more than we can justify is wide-spread among professionals. Its characteristic form is that of overgeneralizing, that is, arguing (and apparently justifying) claims in terms of general ideas without declaring their precise, limited range of application in the situation at hand. Such overgeneralizing is particularly easy when one's professional status of authority or expertise lets such claims go unchallenged. It happens whenever professionals either are unaware of the limited contexts to which their claims apply or else, as is often the case, if they deliberately conceal them behind a facade of expertise and routine.

(3) Since any such presumption of knowledge or expertise is inimical to sound professional inquiry and responsible action – and to reflective practice quite generally – it is important that professionals, in every specific situation to which they bring their expertise, be careful and reflective about the universe of discourse for which their claims are meaningful and valid. In Upanishadic terms, it is vital that they carefully reflect on and lay open to those concerned the specific jagat that in any situation shapes their professional "findings" and "conclusions," that is, their "facts" and "values," and their notions of the "larger systems" of concern and of the total universe of options for defining the reference systems of their "rationality."

(4) It is by recognizing the particular rather than general nature of any assumed universe of discourse, along with the ways their "facts" and "values" depend on it and in turn condition their claims, that professionals will get closer to grasping the universe of people's multiple realities (the total universe of discourse).

(5) Although comprehensive knowledge and understanding is beyond human achievement, recognizing the limited nature of one's universe of discourse and action is not. This provides the rationale and starting point for developing a contemporary Upanishadic discipline of self-limiting reflection and discourse on and in professional practice, or what in my work on critical systems heuristics I call the "critical turn" of our notions of competence and rationality.

The Professional's Isha

Here, then, is my proposed "professional" reading of the Isha's first verse, as seen through the lens of the "five points to remember" just summed up above.

A PROFESSIONAL'S UPANISHADIC WISDOM

All this moving universe of my thoughts and efforts
         is just one of many such universes, all bounded differently,
         all moving within that other one without a second.

When first I renounce the claim to owning or mastering any of them
         I'll be free to limit my claims and let others own theirs,
         and to enjoy owning and mastering mine.

(The Isha's first verse, interpreted as a call to Upanishadic reflection and discourse; my tentative wording from a professional's point of view)

(To be continued)

 

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For a hyperlinked overview of all issues of "Ulrich's Bimonthly" and the previous "Picture of the Month" series, see the site map

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Note: In this continuation of our current exploration of the world of ideas of Ancient India, the example of the famous first verse of the Isha Upanishad is discussed with a view to what it might mean for contemporary professionals. The previous essays of the series appeared in the Bimonthlies of September-October 2013, January-February 2014, July-August 2014, September-October 2014, November-December 2014, March-April 2015, and May-June 2015. The series continues with the Bimonthly of November-December 2016.

  

Notes

25) As Nikhilananda explains more accurately: "The Isha Upanishad forms the fortieth chapter of the Vagasaneyi-Samhita of the Shukla Yajur Veda [also called "White" Yajur]. The Upanishads, containing the Vedic philosophy, generally form the concluding section of the Aranyaka, which, in turn, belongs to the Brahmana portion of the Vedas. The Isha Upanishad, however, is an exception, forming a part of the Samhitas, or Mantras. It derives its name from the opening word of the book: isha vasyam. A short treatise consisting of only eighteen mantras, or verses, the Isha Upanishad appears to be a very ancient Upanishad, as is evidenced by its versification and literary style." (Nikhilananda, 1949, p. 195, slightly edited, with the spelling of Sanskrit words adapted to the phonetic spelling used in the present essay)   [BACK]

26) In a way, our additional focus on boundary judgments may be understood to bring in the missing claim to meaning (or meaningfulness), namely, inasmuch as judgments of meaning depend on boundary judgments. The meaning we associate with what a speaker says depends on how we bound the intended context of valid application. Accordingly, when it comes to interpreting the meaning of a speaker's proposition, there are always options; any interpretation, like the boundary judgments it implies, entails a minimal relativism of claims that runs counter to the aim of ultimate justification. This may explain why Habermas does not explicitly consider discourse on meaning, and the related need for boundary discourse, within his model of discourse. I suspect he would argue that introducing the notion of boundary discourse opens the door to a bottomless relativism and thus would undermine the aim of a discourse theory of justification. This may be true; but I would respond that the same difficulty holds equally for all other validity claims – there are always options for judgments of fact, of value, and of sincerity (or intentions). Validity and meaning are always closely interdependent, which is only another way of saying that all types of validity claims depend on boundary judgments. Recognizing this circumstance does not imply, however, that boundary judgments would not lend themselves to discursive scrutiny; precisely because they are implicit in all claims to truth, rightness, and truthfulness, they do. It is always meaningful to challenge claims with regard to the circumstances ("facts") they consider relevant as opposed to those they leave out; and likewise, to question claims with regard to the concerns of interested or affected parties ("values") they prioritize. The discourse model of Habermas here runs into a difficulty that my framework of critical systems heuristics (CSH) avoids by associating with rational discourse merely critical, but not justificatory ends – claims to valid criticism, that is, but not to ultimate justification. This difference does not mean, to be sure, that Habermas got it wrong and I got it right; it simply corresponds to the different aims of the two frameworks. Habermas aims at the ideal of a theory of theoretically sufficient justification; CSH, at supporting critically-reflective practice in dealing with the normal lack of such justification. As I see it, the importance of ideals lies in their use for critical purposes only; it is for this limited purpose that I propose to build on Habermas' discursive approach.   [BACK]

27) Readers might suspect that I must have organized this series of essays all along so as to arrive at this sort of result (which happens to support the aim of the series). I would then have cheated as it were, just mimicking a true exploration with no previous knowledge of what we would find, rather than exposing myself to the risk of not finding anything useful with regard to the aim of our undertaking. This is not so. The genuinely Upanishadic character of this "double movement of thought" is indeed an outcome of our discussion, a result that I find thrilling and encouraging beyond what I could have anticipated. When two years ago I started my exploration into unknown territory and arranged the journey in a series of essays, whereby each of them would be written only after competing the previous one, I did so out of a sense of curiosity, for learning's sake and not as a mere editorial gimmick as it were. Where else should the motivation have come from for the considerable effort involved, if not from a hope for learning something new? Writing has always been my way of learning. It just happened that after writing the first three essays, it became clear to me that if I wanted to learn more about the key idea of a "double movement of thought" (as developed in these first three parts of the series), it might be good to expose it to challenge from without and thereby also to practice what I was preaching, by opening up my basically Kantian universe of discourse and bringing in an entirely different world of ideas, that of ancient India. At that time I knew close to nothing of this foreign world and was in no way influenced by any conception of Upanishadic thought. As my regular readers will know, my reasoning was informed essentially by Kantian and systems-theoretical thinking along with pragmatist and discourse-theoretical considerations, but not by any ancient Indian ideas. Looking back from where we stand now, three essays later, the findings summed up in these last few paragraphs strike me as truly remarkable and encouraging, and as I said above, reaching far beyond what I could have anticipated. At the very least, to put it cautiously, this excursion into Upanishadic thought appears to yield a perspective that is compatible with the previous line of thought; my feeling is that beyond mere compatibility, this new perspective promises to enhance our understanding of the envisaged, discursive approach to critical contextualism and perhaps (ideally) also to challenge it in productive ways.   [BACK]

28) One of these alternative strands is surely the language-analytical approach, which to some extent overlaps with the discourse-theoretical approach considered here. Unlike most other approaches, the language-analytical (or linguistic) approach has actually been gaining ground among Vedanta scholars in recent decades, notably among Indian scholars. See, for example, Misra (1990); Matilal (1991, 1998, 2002, 2005); Mohanty (1992, 2000); and Ganeri (1999b, 2001). With special regard for logical and epistemological issues, also see Phillips (1996, 2011), and with special regard for questions of practical or pragmatic excellence, J. Dash (2011). We will return to the last-mentioned author in the next and final essay of the series.   [BACK]

 

 

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Ulrich, W. (2001). The quest for competence in systemic research and practice. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 18, No. 1, pp. 3-28.

Ulrich, W. (2003). Beyond methodology choice: critical systems thinking as critically systemic discourse. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 54, No. 4,  pp. 325-342.

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Ulrich, W. (2006b). Critical pragmatism: a new approach to professional and business ethics. In L. Zsolnai (ed.), Interdisciplinary Yearbook of Business Ethics, Vol. I, Oxford, UK, and Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang Academic Publishers, 2006, pp. 53-85.

Ulrich, W. (2006c). A plea for critical pragmatism. (Reflections on critical pragmatism, Part 1). Ulrich's Bimonthly, September-October 2006.
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Ulrich, W. (2006d). Rethinking critically reflective research practice: beyond Popper's critical rationalism. Journal of Research Practice, 2, No. 2, article P1.
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Ulrich, W. (2007a). Theory and practice II: the rise and fall of the "primacy of theory." (Reflections on critical pragmatism, Part 3). Ulrich's Bimonthly, January-February 2007.
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Ulrich, W. (2008a). Reflections on reflective practice (1/7): The mainstream concept of reflective practice and its blind spot. Ulrich's Bimonthly, March-April 2008 (1 March 2008).
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Ulrich, W. (2008b). Reflections on reflective practice (3/7): In search of practical reason. Ulrich's Bimonthly, September-October 2008 (8 Sep 2008).
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Ulrich, W. (2008c). Practical reason: "Drawing the future into the present." Ulrich's Bimonthly, November-December 2008.
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Ulrich, W. (2009a). Reflections on reflective practice (4/7): Philosophy of practice and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Ulrich's Bimonthly, January-February 2009.
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Ulrich, W. (2009b). Reflections on reflective practice (5/7): Practical reason and rational ethics: Kant. Ulrich's Bimonthly, March-April 2009.
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Ulrich, W. (2009c). Reflections on reflective practice (6a/7): Communicative rationality and formal pragmatics – Habermas 1. Ulrich's Bimonthly, September-October 2009.
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Ulrich, W. (2009d). Reflections on reflective practice (6b/7): Argumentation theory and practical discourse – Habermas 2. Ulrich's Bimonthly, November-December 2009.
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Ulrich, W. (2010a). Exploring discourse ethics (1/2). Ulrich's Bimonthly, March-April 2010.
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Ulrich, W. (2010b). Exploring discourse ethics (2/2). Ulrich's Bimonthly, May-June 2010.
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Ulrich, W. (2011a). What is good professional practice? (Part 1: Introduction).
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Ulrich, W. (2011b) Kant's rational ethics. Review of I. Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, transl. by H.J. Paton, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964. Amazon Customer Review, 7 July 2011.
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Ulrich, W. (2011c). A note on the convergence of Kant's concepts of rationality, morality, and politics. Ulrich's Bimonthly, September-October 2011.
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Ulrich, W. (2012a). Operational research and critical systems thinking – an integrated perspective. Part 1: OR as applied systems thinking. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 63, No. 9 (September), pp. 1228-1247.

Ulrich, W. (2012b). Operational research and critical systems thinking – an integrated perspective. Part 2: OR as argumentative practice. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 63, No. 9 (September), pp. 1307-1322.

Ulrich, W. (2013a). Reflections on reflective practice (6c/7): Discourse ethics and deliberative democracy, or the difficult path to communicative practice – Habermas 3 (1st half). Ulrich's Bimonthly, May-June 2013.
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Ulrich, W. (2013b). Critical systems thinking. In S. Gass and M. Fu (eds.), Encyclopedia of Operations Research and Management Science, 3rd edn. (2 vols). New York: Springer, Vol. 1, pp. 314-326.

Ulrich, W. (2013c). The rational, the moral, and the general: an exploration. Part 1: Introduction, discourse ethics. Ulrich's Bimonthly, September-October 2013.
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Ulrich, W. (2013d). Reflections on reflective practice (6c/7): Discourse ethics and deliberative democracy, or the difficult path to communicative practice – Habermas 3 (1st half). Ulrich's Bimonthly, May-June 2013 (18 June 2013).
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Ulrich, W. (2014a). The rational, the moral, and the general: an exploration. Part 2: Kant's ideas of reason. Ulrich's Bimonthly, January-February 2014.
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Ulrich, W. (2014b). The rational, the moral, and the general: an exploration. Part 3: Approximating ideas – towards critical contextualism. Ulrich's Bimonthly, July-August 2014.
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Ulrich, W. (2014c). The rational, the moral, and the general: an exploration. Part 4: Ideas in ancient Indian thought / Introduction. Ulrich's Bimonthly, September-October 2014.
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Ulrich, W. (2014d). The rational, the moral, and the general: an exploration. Part 5: Ideas in ancient Indian thought / Analysis. Ulrich's Bimonthly, November-December 2014.
 
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Picture data  Digital photograph taken on 16 October 2006, around 5:15 p.m.; view from Mount Niesen at Lake Thun, Switzerland. ISO 100, exposure mode program shift, aperture f/7.1, exposure time 1/500 seconds, exposure bias 0, metering mode multi-segment, contrast normal, saturation normal, sharpness normal. Focal length 23.41 mm (equivalent to 114 mm with a conventional 35 mm camera). Original resolution 2272 x 1704 pixels; current resolution 700 x 525 pixels, compressed to 184 KB.

September-October, 2015

'This' and 'that': Upanishadic autumn reflections

 'This' and 'that': Upanishadic autumn reflections on discourse and rationality  

Idam sarvam jagatyam jagat
All this moving universe of my thoughts and efforts,
moving within that other universe without a second

(Isha Upanishad, 1.1, free rendering)

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Last updated 5 Mar 2016 (references), 5 Nov 2015 (text, first published 30 Oct 2015)
http://wulrich.com/bimonthly_september2015.html

 

 

  

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