"Eastern" perspective: three ancient Indian ideas
In the previous essay, we familiarized
ourselves with the world of ideas of the Vedic tradition of
ancient Indian philosophy and particularly with the Upanishads.
The present second essay focuses on three concepts that play an
important role in the Upanishads and also appear particularly
interesting from a methodological point of view:
atman, and jagat. Like earlier essays in this series,
this one and its sequels are again structured into "Intermediate Reflections,"
to emphasize the exploratory character of the considerations
in question. The first
of these (and sixth overall), which makes up the present essay, analyzes the
meaning of the three concepts as they are employed in the Upanishads. A
subsequent reflection, which will be offered in the next Bimonthly, will
discuss a specific example in the form of one of the most famous verses of the
Upanishads. Two later reflections, planned for the final part of the series,
will be dedicated to a complementary, language-analytical view of the
Upanishads and to the question of what we can learn from Upanishadic thought, and
particularly from the three core ideas we analyzed, about the proper use of
general ideas today.
Three essential ideas of ancient
A caveat Before we
consider the etymology and meaning of the three concepts of
brahman, atman, and jagat, a word of caution is in order. Being
thoroughly grounded in a Western, Kantian tradition of thought,
I do not assume that with some fragmentary (though careful) reading of
English translations of ancient Indian texts, combined with
some introductory accounts and commentaries, it is possible to gain a
of the entirely different tradition of thought in which they originate,
the Vedic tradition. I accept
the cautionary words of Müller (1879), who in the Preface
to his translation of the Upanishads notes that there are three basic obstacles
to understanding these ancient "sacred texts of the East,"
as he calls them, from a modern Western perspective:
must begin this series of translations of the Sacred Books of the East
with three cautions:--the first, referring to the character of the
original texts here translated; the second, with regard to the
difficulties in making a proper use of translations; the third, showing
what is possible and what is impossible in rendering ancient thought
into modern speech.
(Müller, 1879, p. ix)
short, we must never forget that deep-seated differences of
culture, language, and epoch create a distance to these ancient
texts that is difficult to overcome, certainly for a Western
mind. As a result of all three difficulties, particularly the
first, Müller notes that the Upanishads,
along with their bright and illuminating
sides, also have their "dark"
(1879, p. xi)
and at times "almost unintelligible"
(1879, p. xiv)
sides. They can tell us much about "the dawn of religious
man," something that "must always remain one of the most inspiring and hallowing sights
in the whole history of the world" (1879, p. xi); but there is also
"much that is strange and startling, … tedious … or repulsive, or, lastly, …
difficult to construe and to understand." (1879, p. xii)
If an eminent scholar like Müller feels compelled to avow of
such difficulties and limitations in studying the Upanishads,
it should be clear from the outset (and I want to leave no doubts)
that my reading of some of these texts can only provide
a very limited understanding; limited, that is, by my current
interest in the role of general ideas within the Western tradition
of rational ethics. My interest is a methodological rather than
a metaphysical one, much less a religious one. The aim is to
develop the notion of a "critically contextualist"
handling of general ideas, and it is
within this context that what I'll say about the three Upanishadic
concepts of "brahman," "atman," and "jagat"
understood and used. For once, the (limited) end of my
undertaking hopefully justifies the (equally limited) means.
With this cautionary
remark in mind, let us now turn to the three selected concepts.
essential Upanishadic ideas: brahman,
"Brahman" The major theme of all Vedanta texts
and particularly of the Upanishads is the human
endeavor of seeking knowledge of brahman, the ultimate, unchanging,
reality that lies beyond all limitations of the phenomenal world,
although it also manifests itself in it as well as in the human
individual's innermost consciousness and spirituality, the "self."
thus embodies the notion of both a transcendent and
an immanent reality. As a transcendent reality, its essence
is prior to and "beyond all distinctions or forms" (Easwaran, 2007,
p. 339); accordingly we cannot grasp it in our perceptions and
descriptions of the world. As an immanent
reality, it nevertheless permeates or, as the Upanishads
put it, “dwells in” these perceptions and descriptions; accordingly we cannot properly understand what they
mean unless we understand them as imperfect and fragmentary expressions of that other, larger or higher reality that is not
accessible to us in any direct and objective way.
In the more analytical terms
used earlier, we might also understand brahman to embody the universe
of second-order knowledge, the conceptual tools and efforts without
which we cannot adequately understand our first-order knowledge,
that is, more accurately, the manifold particular universes within which the individual’s perceptions,
thoughts, and actions move at any time. Among such second-order devices I would count the main subject
of this series of essays, general ideas and principles of reason,
with categories of knowable things, modalities of meaningful statements, forms of valid inferences or arguments, and other
concepts that enable us to think and talk clearly about our
first-order knowledge and its limitations.
meanings The word “brahman” (from the Sanskrit root brh-, "to swell, expand, grow, increase") is basically
a neuter noun that stands for an abstract concept of the universe – the ground of all being – rather than for a
personification of its divine originator. However, the latter interpretation
can also be found (e.g., in the Isha Upanishad) and the word can then, as in a few
other specific meanings, take the masculine gender. In between an entirely
impersonal and a personified notion lies a third frequent understanding of
brahman, as the one universal spirit or soul that is thought to inhere the
entire universe and thus also the human spirit. Forth and finally, since there
is no sharp distinction between the knowledge that an enlightened person is
seeking to acquire and the sources of such knowledge, the term brahman can also
be found historically to stand for the sacred texts or, in the previous oral
tradition, the sacred words that reveal the knowledge in question. If there is
a common denominator of these various, partly metaphysical and partly religious
meanings, we might see it in the notion that brahman is always that which needs
to be studied on the path to enlightenment – yet another
reference to second-order
knowledge, in the analytical terms adopted in the previous essay.
This is obviously
a highly simplified account of the etymology of the brahman
concept, given that the major Sanskrit-English
dictionary of Monier-Williams (1899, p. 737f, and 1872, pp.
689 and 692f; cf. Cologne Project, 1997/2008
and 2013/14, also
Monier-Williams et al., 2008) lists no less than some 27 meanings of brahman.
Table 1 offers a selection and also highlights some of the
meanings of most interest here.
Table 1: Selected meanings of
Source: Monier-Williams, 1899, 737f
and 741, and 1872, pp.
689, 692f, abridged and simplified
brahman, bráhman, n[euter
(lit. "growth," "expansion,"
"evolution," "development," "swelling of
the spirit or soul"), from brih, pious effusion or utterance, outpouring of the heart in
worshipping the gods, prayer.
the sacred word
(as opp. to vac, the word of man), the veda, a sacred text, a text or
mantra used as a spell [read: magic formula]; the sacred syllable Om.
the brAhmaNa portion of the veda.
religious or spiritual
knowledge (opp. to religious observances and bodily mortification such as
holy life (esp. continence, chastity; cf.
(exceptionally treated as m.) the brahma or [the]
universal Soul (or one divine essence and source from which all created things
emanate or with which they are identified and to which they return), the
Self-existent, the Absolute, the Eternal (not generally an object of worship,
but rather of meditation and knowledge).
n[euter gender]. the class of men who are the
repositories and communicators of sacred knowledge, the Brahmanical caste as a
body (rarely an individual Brahman).
one who prays, a devout or
religious man, a Bráhman who is a knower of Vedic texts or spells, one versed in
one of the four principal priests or ritvijas; the brahman was the
most learned of them and was required to know the three vedas, to supervise the
sacrifice and to set right mistakes; at a later period his functions were based
especially on the atharva-veda).
gender]. the one impersonal universal Spirit manifested as a personal Creator and as the first of the triad of personal gods
(he never appears to have become an object of general worship, though he has two temples in India).
gender]. the one self-existent Spirit, the Absolute.
study, the study
of the Vedas.
gender]. a priest.
[masculine or feminine gender]. relating to sacred
knowledge, prescribed by the Vedas, scriptural;
sacred to the Vedas; relating or belonging to the brahmans or the sacerdotal class.
[masculine, feminine or neutral gender]. belonging or relating to brahman or brahmA;
possessing sacred knowledge.
Copyleft 2014 W.
meanings The neuter noun brahman should not be confused with its masculine versions,
which are also written "brahmin" and "Brahmana."
brahmin or a brahmán (as a masculine noun) is
knower of Vedic texts" (Monier-Williams, 1899, p. 738;
Macdonnell, 1929, p. 193); a devout man, priest or spiritual teacher
(guru) "versed in sacred texts" (1872, p. 689);
a seeker on the
path to knowledge of brahman (brahmavidya) who usually is also a member of the brahmanic
caste. The term can also stand for
the caste itself, as "the class of men who are the
repositories and communicators of sacred knowledge" (1899, p. 738),
in which case it is used in the neuter gender.
the noun brahma (except as part of compounds) should be distinguished from brahman; in the neuter
gender it stands for a personification of brahman that is conceived in a rather abstract
way, as a universal consciousness or "universal spirit" that manifests
itself in the world and in the human individual. There are also
a number of derivative meanings (partly used in composite terms
such as bramavidya or bramacarya, the study and
practice of brahmanic knowledge) in which the term often takes
the masculine or (rarely) the feminine gender and designates
either the "sacred knowledge" of the Vedas or the
person who possesses it. In contemporary, post-Vedic (and thus also
post-Vedantic) Hindu religion, finally, brahma is now often also understood
as referring to a personal creator-God and as such is worshipped
as the main god in the divine trinity (or trimurti) of
Vishnu, and Shiva, an understanding that is not, however,
characteristic of Upanishadic thought.
Personal reading The concept of primary interest to
us is the abstract, impersonal
notion of brahman as an invisible reality that lies
beyond, yet informs, all we can perceive and say about the world, a "source from which all created things emanate"
(Monier-Williams, 1899, p.
737, similarly 1872, p. 689) and which accordingly we would need to understand so as to ensure
knowledge and proper action. Navlakha (2000) nicely summarizes this non-religious,
as the absolute reality is purely impersonal, and is not to
be confused with a personal God. The significance of brahman
is metaphysical, not theological. Brahman is the featureless
absolute, which unless a contextual necessity otherwise demands,
is most appropriately referred to as 'It'. [Which is to say,
the] brahman of the Upanishads is also not to be seen
as the Creator God, as in Judaeo-Christian tradition. There
is no creation as such in Vedanta. The universe is evolved out
of brahman. [… ] Thus brahman is the one and only
cause of the coming into existence of the universe. Brahman
is whole and unfolds itself out in the form of the universe,
out of its own substance, and as a means of knowing itself.
Thus there is nothing, not even the minutest part of the material
world, that is not wholly brahman. Within and without,
it is all brahman. (Navlakha, 2000, p. xviiif)
our present purpose, I take it indeed that "the significance
of brahman is metaphysical, not theological." As a metaphysical
concept, brahman designates a realm of reality that lies both
"within and without" our awareness of the world. We cannot grasp it in any direct way, but it informs our personal world
and at the same time can take us beyond it. It is described as a "whole"
(all-encompassing) universe in that no-one can claim
to stand outside of it, and as "featureless" (unfathomable, beyond description)
in that whatever ideas we make ourselves
of it, they reflect our own projections rather than objective
reality. But why, readers will wonder, should we be interested
at all in such an ancient piece of metaphysics?
As we said
earlier, what matters from a methodological point of view is not that we avoid metaphysics (an impossible
feat) but rather, how we handle it; that is, what kind of questions
it makes us ask. If metaphysical assumptions are unavoidable,
we can as well try to rely on a metaphysical framework that
makes us ask relevant questions. It's not that today we would
want to adopt this ancient piece of metaphysics but rather,
it allows us to appreciate the more critical side of Upanishadic
thought. Seen in this way, the Upanishadic metaphysics of "this" and
"that" reality (compare the earlier characterization
in the introductory essay, see Ulrich, 2014c, pp. 11-15 and
18) is not a bad starting point. It reminds us of the second-order
knowledge that is implicit in all first-order knowledge, and
thus of the need for questioning the ways in which our knowledge
– or what we take for it – depends on such second-order assumptions.
The Upanishadic difference between "this" and "that"
creates distance, and thus a basis for such reflection.
It makes it clear that we don't really (sic) understand
this world of ours, or what we believe to know about it, unless
we reflect on that larger universe – that fuller reality – of
which it (and our supposed knowledge of it) is part.
invites critique. This becomes obvious as soon as, in the quote
above, we understand
the phrase "all created things" to include
our individual and social constructions of reality, as well
as our propositions about, and actions in, this world of ours,
along with the ideational universe that informs them. The
critique required then clearly includes methodological reflection about the
ways we construct our notions of reality. By what kinds of conceptual
constructs do we try to make the reality we perceive intelligible
and meaningful and to turn it into "our" reality?
And if people rely on different constructs to frame their
realities, which views or conceptions of reality should "really" count
as true knowledge and might then also inform rational action?
We begin to see the methodological point: without the
conception of some ultimate, universal reality behind and beyond
our individual realities, we face a bottomless pluralism and
relativism of what is to count as true and rational. Brahman
tells us how inadequate our individual realities are and how
much we consequently depend on questioning them and trying to
find some mutual understanding about them with others.
In this respect, parallels
may well be drawn between Upanishadic and Kantian thought. Both
rely on metaphysical assumptions; in both cases these are conducive
to epistemological and methodological
considerations that are far from being irrelevant to our epoch, in
that they are apt to question prevailing conceptions of knowledge and
will discuss two examples in a moment, concerning the unsatisfactory ways in
which these conceptions deal with the issues of holism and of subjectivity;
but first we need to deepen our understanding a little
further of how metaphysical
assumptions can give rise to methodological reflection.
and methodology Returning for a moment to the
concepts of pure reason and a non-religious
concept of brahman, we face in both cases ideas
that exceed the reach
of ordinary human knowledge and insofar are bound to remain problematic;
at the same time, again in both cases, we recognize that reasonable thought cannot
do without some ideas of this kind. Both can therefore
also provide impetus for a more than merely superficial
critique of knowledge. For example, as we found in our earlier discussion of Kant's
understanding of general ideas (see Ulrich, 2014a, "Third
intermediate reflection"), we cannot think of a series
of conditions that would explain any specific phenomenon of
interest, without also thinking
of an ultimate, unconditioned condition. As Kant (1787, B444)
it, "for a given
conditioned, the whole series of conditions subordinated to
each other is likewise given"; but that "whole series"
(i.e., totality) of conditions is itself unconditioned, as otherwise
it would depend on some further condition and thus could not
furnish a complete explanation (cf. 1787, B379, B383f, B444 and B445n). In
short, explanations that really explain anything will always
reach beyond the experiential world of conditioned phenomena.
Of necessity they include general ideas that refer us to some
unconditioned whole of conditions, which is what Kant means
by pure concepts of reason. "Concepts of reason contain the unconditioned."
(1787, B367). Likewise, in the Upanishads, when brahman is
said to stand for the "ground of all being" or "source from which all created things
emanate" (Monier-Williams, 1899, p. 738), or is described as the "one,"
"ultimate" and "absolute" (i.e., unconditioned)
reality that lies behind people's multiple realities, such a
notion amounts no less to an unavoidable
idea of reason than does Kant's notion of a totality of conditions
that is itself unconditioned.
and methodology are close siblings here. The methodological significance
of brahman for the practice of reason shines through in many metaphysical
characterizations, both in the Upanishads themselves and in
the secondary literature. As an illustration from the Upanishads,
there is this famous prayer in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
in which the devotee seeks guidance on the search for reality
me from the unreal to the real!
Lead me from darkness to
Lead me from death to immortality!
Upanishad, 1.3.28, as transl. by Müller and Navlakha, 2000,
p. 76, similarly Olivelle, 1996, p. 12f)
is to say, truth is not of this world; reality is not to be
found in the phenomenal world. Our human "real world"
is deceptive, a source of darkness rather than light. It obscures
rather than illuminates that basic source of insight that is
called brahman and which is the only reliable source of orientation
for proper thought and action.
Upanishadic explanation of the real world's deceptiveness is
metaphysical, but not therefore methodologically irrelevant.
In fact, its methodological implications are largely equivalent
to those of Kant's similar conception of a noumenal (i.e.,
intelligible, ideational) world as distinguished from the phenomenal
(observable, experiential) world. Both pairs of concepts are
about our notion of reality, that is, they rely on metaphysical
assumptions that obviously remain open to challenge. Both frameworks
also handle their assumptions in a critically self-reflective
fashion; they do not claim that the metaphysical is knowable.
Nor do they fall into the trap of metaphysical dualism, which
would mean to treat "this" and "that" (or
the phenomenal and the noumenal) as substantially separate
the metaphysical assumptions in question function as calls to
a discipline of critical self-reflection on the part of the
knowing subject. They represent critical reminders, not presumptions
of knowledge. Interestingly, the two frameworks share this critical
orientation although they differ in the ways they understand
and handle their metaphysical underpinnings: while for
the Upanishadic thinkers, brahman is a symbol of the objective
world that is ineffable but real, as opposed to the phenomenal
deceptiveness, Kant's Critique does not of course permit
any reification of the noumenal world; he understands it as
a transcendental (i.e., methodological) rather than transcendent
(i.e., metaphysical) concept. Kant thus puts the relationship
of the noumenal (metaphysical) and the phenomenal (experiential)
– of "that" and "this" world – on its head:
it is not the absolute and universal (and for some, the esoteric)
but the empirical and particular (the exoteric) which for Kant
constitutes "reality." Still, the methodological challenge
remains: for Kant, too, there is no such thing as a direct
access to reality, for the empirical is always already informed
by our cognitive apparatus or, in Kant's more precise terms,
by reason's a priori categories and ideas. Both
frameworks, then, live up to the demand of reason that we formulated
above: "well-understood metaphysics
another illustration, this time from the secondary literature,
let us consider one of those many descriptions of brahman that
are reminiscent of Kant's recognition of the unavoidability
of the idea of a totality of conditions that is itself unconditioned
(the basic principle of reason). In his Fundamentals of Indian
Philosophy, Puligandla (1977, p. 222) describes brahman as an "unchanging reality amidst and beyond the world"
(my italics). The "amidst" is apt to remind us that whenever we try to explain some
real-world phenomena, we have always already presupposed
that there is a complete series of conditions – perhaps also
some fundamental, unifying force
or principle – that would indeed allow
us to explain the conditioned
nature of things the ways we customarily do it and rely upon, whether in science
or philosophy, in everyday argumentation or practical action. Whether such a
reliable, sufficient ground of explanation exists indeed and how it would
be defined and proven (i.e., explained, an impossibility by
definition), we ultimately have no way to tell. But then again,
methodology, unlike metaphysics, can do without pretending such metaphysical
knowledge. It is quite sufficient for methodological purposes
to recognize that what we can know empirically (the phenomenal
world) is not identical with reality and conversely, that the
real lies at least partly beyond the phenomenal and therefore
also beyond knowledge. Recognizing a lack of knowledge can be a basis
for compelling methodological reflections and conclusions.
Neither in Upanishadic nor in Kantian thought
we depend on an ontological proof of some last conditions
to deal appropriately with the conditioned nature of all we
can observe, think, and claim to know. What matters is to recognize that without assuming
(which is not the same as proving) a whole series of conditions
that is complete, we cannot think
and talk clearly about our knowledge of the world and its limitations.
At the same time, as we can never demonstrate the reality
of a sufficient set of conditions, our practices of inquiry
and argumentation need to handle the situation accordingly. The Upanishadic way of envisioning such
an assumed, sufficient set of conditions is brahman,
and its way of handling the situation is by "seeking to
know brahman" – or, to put it more carefully, by seeking
to get closer to knowing brahman – for instance, through
meditative and mystical means; through a discipline of self-reflection
and self-limitation; and ultimately through one's entire practice
is to be expected in view of brahman's ineffable
nature, the Upanishads and their commentators suggest many different descriptions of it.
Still, if we are to believe the Encyclopaedia Britannica,
"they concur in the definition of brahman as eternal, conscious, irreducible, infinite, omnipresent, spiritual source of the universe of finiteness and change."
(Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013b) In the light of what we just
said, such a definition must look excessively metaphysical. To
do justice to the Encyclopaedia, it mirrors the language of the Upanishads and
of most commentators. No faithful account of the Upanishads can entirely avoid explaining them
in their own terms, so readers will also find some metaphysical language
in my continuing account. As the discussion thus far should
have illustrated, this circumstance need not stop us from focusing on methodological considerations.
While metaphysical considerations are about the nature
of reality (i.e., ontology), methodological
questioning as I understand it is about the proper use of reason (i.e.,
rationality) in pursuing theoretical or practical ends. Instead of complaining about the metaphysical character
of the Upanishads, we can make a difference by analyzing what
they have to tell us about the proper use of reason. Why not
try to do this from a critical, contemporary perspective, while still trying to remain
faithful to the language, spirit and wisdom of these ancient texts?
The proper use of reason and the quest for practical excellence
proposed methodological interest
in the Upanishads is quite compatible, I think, with their
essential orientation towards the practical: in Upanishadic thought, the study of brahman
matters as much for mastering our lives as for purely speculative reasons. Remember
what we said in the introductory essay about the importance
such as svadharma (one's individual
dharma or "law) and karma (from karman = work, action, performance;
one's record of good deeds which is effective as cause
of one's future fate). Their essential, practical concern is
to guide us in developing right thought and conduct
on the path to individual self-realization. Similar observations
could be made about the implications of such concepts for professional
self-realization, for example, by cultivating high standards
of excellence in one's practices of inquiry, consultancy, and
other uses of professional expertise. The quest for practical excellence
requires no less an effort of self-reflection and self-limitation, along with
clear and consistent reasoning, than does the search
for theoretical understanding.
As always, such demands
are more easily formulated than put into practice. In practice, they
face us with considerable difficulties. Specifically, as we
have emphasized with reference to Kant, the proper use of reason
depends on considering all the circumstances
that might be relevant, not just those that present themselves immediately
and/or conform to our private interests. Whether for practical or theoretical ends –
that the Upanishads do not draw as sharply as we tend to do
it nowadays – the need for maintaining the integrity of reason
entails a need for comprehensiveness with respect to the conditions
or circumstances we take into account. Any
other kind of account of situations and what might be done about
them is not only potentially deceptive but also arbitrary, in
that it relies on selections of relevant circumstances that
remain unconsidered, if not undeclared and unsubstantiated.
On the other hand, complete rationality
is obviously beyond our capabilities, both in thought and in action. We are well advised to strive for it,
but not to claim it. This is the basic philosophical dilemma with which the Upanishadic demand
of "seeking to know brahman" confronts us: the simultaneous need for,
and unavailability of, an objective and comprehensive grasp
of reality beyond the ways it manifests itself to us or interests
us privately, whether in everyday life or in situations of professional
intervention. In Upanishadic terms, to understand this world of ours we must also strive
to comprehend that other world which lies beyond it but is part of the total
The better one understands this dilemma involved in the proper use of reason,
and thus also in the search for practical excellence, the more one will appreciate the often
mystic and poetic (rather than strictly philosophical) approach of the Upanishads. To understand our daily world of experience and action, they tell us, we need to
develop a discipline
of seeking distance (the discipline involved in seeking
to know brahman). Distance, that is, from our usual ways of being
situated in the world, which prevent us from seeing "situations" (i.e.,
individual or collective situatedness) as
clearly and objectively as proper thought and action would require. What at
first glance may look like an escape – a mere way of avoiding a philosophical
difficulty – then becomes understandable as a methodically pertinent response: its point is practicing detachment from the world as it is apparently given, or
from situations as they present themselves to us and raise in us egocentric and short-sighted
concerns about them. Thus understood, the mystic and poetic-metaphysical language of the Upanishads carries a deeply philosophical message
indeed. In essence, though perhaps not always in formulation and elaboration, this
message is akin to that of Kant: knowledge, unless it is subject to the
proper use of reason, is as much a source of error as it is a source of
problem of holism One
of the traditional ways of framing the dilemma in Western philosophy
is in terms of the problem of holism. Whatever we know,
think, and say about the world, it is insufficient as measured
by the latter's holistic nature. This methodological implication comes to the fore in
the beautiful, at first rather mystical Invocation (i.e.,
an incantation, the chanting of magical words or formulas at
the outset of a prayer or meditation) that introduces
several of the Upanishads that belong to the Yajur
Veda, among them the Brihadaranyaka, Isha, and Shvetashvatara
Upanishads. I cite their identical invocation first in
Sanskrit (in Devanagari script above and in Roman transliteration
below) and then in three
slightly different translations, all of which are customary in the literature.
purnamadah purnamidam purnaat purnamudachyate
purnasya purnaamadaya purnameva vashishyate
om shanti shanti shanti
Swami J. [n.d.], http://www.swamij.com/upanishad-isha-purna.htm)
key word purna is the perfect participle of the verb
pur, which appears to be related to the English verb
"to pour." It means as much as "poured out,"
"filled" or "full," and hence "complete,"
"whole," "entire," and more figuratively
also "accomplished," "contented," "powerful,"
and so on (see Apte,
1890/2014, p. 715, and 1965/2008, pp. 14 and 139). In the
following translations of the invocation, the initial and final
magical words 'om' and 'shanti' are not repeated; note again the previously discussed, careful use of the terms
"this" and "that" in all three versions.
this is full. All that is full.
From fullness, fullness comes.
is taken from fullness, fullness still remains.”
to the Isha, Brihadaranyaka and Shvetashvatara Upanishads, as transl. by Easwaran, 2007, pp. 56, 93,
and 158; similarly transl. by Nikhilananda, 1949, p. 200,
and 2003, pp. 86 and 254; note that in the Sanskrit text, "all
that" comes before "all this," as is the case
in the following translations)
That is whole,
this is whole.
This whole proceeds from that whole.
away this whole from that whole, it remains whole.
to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, as transl. by Müller/Navlakha,
2000, p. xix)
That is infinite, this is infinite;
From that infinite this infinite comes.
From that infinite, this infinite removed or added,
infinite remains infinite.
(Invocation to the Isha Upanishad,
as cited, along with a selection of other customary translations,
in the Yoga site of Swami J [n.d.].)
in view of the infinite and transcendent nature of "that"
world of brahman, which nevertheless inheres and conditions
"this" finite but infinitely variable world of ours,
need we not wonder how we may claim to understand
anything without understanding the ways in which it relates
to that larger, full reality of which it is a part?
As both the Upanishads and Kant's ideas of reason make us understand,
human reason needs
this holistic notion of an all-inclusive whole as a reference point in relation to which it can situate
its own perennially conditioned nature, its amounting to so
much less than a comprehensive and objective grasp of things.
the same time, any such notion is bound to remain
a problematic idea of reason. Holistic
knowledge and understanding is a claim that cannot be redeemed argumentatively,
whether based on logic or empirical inquiry or both. Logic tells us that we need it, but not
what it is; and inquiry fails as the whole
reaches beyond the empirical.
Upanishadic thinkers understood this dilemma very clearly, some
two and a half thousand years ago, before the disciplines of
logic and epistemology were available to them. Their way
of putting it was metaphysical and metaphorical, by means of
two great Upanishadic symbols (or metaphors) of human striving, atman, as
the embodiment of individual self-knowledge and self-realization
(a concept to which we will
turn a little later), and brahman as the embodiment of proper
universal knowledge, that is, understanding of the
unity and perfection of the universe. Expressed in these terms,
the problem of holism consists in the difficulty that atman cannot find brahman empirically in
"this" world, through
the means of inquiry, nor logically, through the means of inference. For
the whole is not only beyond the empirical, it is also, as the
Upanishads teach us, "one
without a second," that is, unique
6.2.1-2) and therefore beyond logic. There is no logic
of uniqueness, no stringent inference
from what we know empirically (i.e., particulars) to what is unique
(i.e., universals). Both epistemologically
and analytically, the universal lies beyond human knowledge.
Still, reason cannot do without the notion of universal qualities
and principles. It cannot renounce the quest for a full understanding
of reality in such terms. Human striving for knowledge of brahman
is therefore a meaningful and indispensable quest, although
never assume that we have actually achieved it.
then, is the Upanishadic way of describing the methodological
dilemma with which the problem of holism confronts us. To this
day it has remained a classical dilemma
in many fields of philosophy such as language analysis and semiotics,
hermeneutics, epistemology, and practical philosophy, and also in
my work on critical systems
heuristics (CSH). In the terms of the Upanishads: atman needs to seek knowledge
of brahman and yet must avoid any presumption of knowledge.
Or, as I like to put it in the terms of CSH:
"Holistic thinking – the quest
for comprehensiveness – is a meaningful effort but not
a meaningful claim." (Ulrich, 2012a, p. 1236;
similarly in 2012b, p. 1314 and, as applied to the moral
idea, in 2013a, p. 38) This situation has motivated my call for a “critical turn” of the
contemporary understanding of competent inquiry and rational practice.
The essential aim then becomes ensuring sufficient critique
rather than sufficient justification of theoretical or practical
claims. This is feasible because, as we said above, recognizing a lack of knowledge can be a basis
for compelling methodological provisions. The methodological consequence is a need for what I call a “critical systems approach” to research and
professional practice, that is, a framework that would provide methodological
support to critically comprehensive thinking or, as I originally
defined it in CSH, an approach that aims to "secure at least a critical
solution to the problem of practical reason" (Ulrich, 1983, pp. 25, 34-37, 177, and passim).
problem (and richness) of subjectivity A second methodological implication of the metaphysical
concept of brahman concerns the importance of subjectivity. Once we have
understood that human thought cannot do without assuming some
unconditional ground of all that exits – a totality of conditions
that exists in an unconditional,
absolute, perhaps objective way – we also begin to understand
how limited and subjective all our perceptions of this world
of ours are bound to be, amounting at best to glimpses of that
underlying larger, infinite reality. It follows that whatever knowledge of things we can aspire to
possess, it will be
so much less than objective, as it can just grasp aspects of
that which is "really" the case. The objective is elusive, for it would be all-inclusive.
Ganeri (2001, p. 1) succinctly
speaks of brahman as "the Upanishadic symbol for objectivity itself,"
as opposed to "the subjectivity that goes along with being situated
in the world." As the Mundaka
Upanishad puts it, brahman stands for that all-encompassing,
infinite reality in which everything else is rooted and "through which,
if it is known, everything else becomes known" (Mundaka
Upanishad, 1.1.3, as transl: by Müller, 1897/2000, p. 47,
and Müller/Navlakha, 2000, p. xi; note that the latter
source wrongly refers to Mundaka 1.1.4). As I would
put it, the Upanishads can inspire in us the humility of accepting
that there are limits to what we can hope to know and understand,
due to our being situated in this world. Such awareness
can encourage mutual tolerance, as well as reflective practice
in the sense of paying attention to the ways in which people's
individual situatedness may shape their views and values. Multiple, subjective
views embody a richness of views that would not
be attainable otherwise. They thus have intrinsic value in the
quest for comprehensiveness, for seeking to better know brahman.
then, the situation is not quite as bad as it looks
metaphysically. Although there are always limits to what as
individuals we can claim to know,
no specific limits are beyond questioning and expansion;
and to this end, we can always listen and talk to others.
the Upanishadic conception of inquiry, brahman furnishes the
standard for such questioning. As the Upanishads admonish us time and
again, we can "really" know and
understand things only inasmuch as we know and understand them
in their relation to brahman. Brahman, in the metaphysical terms
of the Upanishads,
is the conception of a reality that, because it is "self-existent"
(Monier-Williams, 1899, p. 737f),
is independent of any condition external to it. It thus mirrors, in
our own discourse-theoretical terms,
the ideal of a self-contained account of reality that could
do without any reference to conditions
outside its own universe of discourse and thus would be entirely
true and reliable. As an ideal, it does not lend itself to realization;
but it certainly provides impetus for critical thought – about
the ways our accounts of reality fail to be self-contained
and, worse, about our usual failure to limit our claims accordingly.
This is a conception of knowledge that is important indeed for our understanding of general ideas of reason. The
parallels we encountered earlier between the Upanishadic concept of brahman as an absolute,
all-inclusive, and infinite reality on the one hand, and Kant's concept of a totality of
conditions (or an infinite series of conditions) that reason cannot help but
presuppose on the other hand, are relevant here. Both concepts
confront us with unavoidable limitations of human knowledge.
Both therefore also imply the need for a discipline of self-reflection and self-limitation. But
of course, there is also an important difference, in that the two traditions of
thought have developed this discipline in entirely different directions – meditative
spirituality and ascetism in the one tradition, critique of reason in the other.
The deeper, underlying difference is that Kant makes us understand the totality
of conditions as a methodological rather than metaphysical concept or, in his
terms, as a transcendental rather than transcendent idea. Although a
conventional, metaphysical and spiritual reading may well remain
of primary importance to most people in studying the Upanishads, the mentioned
parallels nevertheless suggest to
me that a metaphysical reading can and should lead on to a critical
study of what these ancient texts have to tell us about present-day
notions of knowledge, science, and rationality, as well as about
the roles we give these notions in modern societies. For example,
such a reading might encourage a critique of science
that reaches deeper than current notions of reflective practice
in science and professional practice. Such critique in turn
might provide new impetus for the necessary discourse on how contemporary
conceptions of science-theory, research philosophy, theory of knowledge, and practical
philosophy could be developed so as to overcome the crisis of rationality to which I briefly
at the outset (Ulrich, 2013c, p. 1).
With a view to such a methodological reading and study of the Upanishads, I would argue – drawing on our previous examinations
of the nature and use of ideas of reason in Parts 2 and 3 –
that brahman is properly understood as a limiting concept, that is, as a projected endpoint towards
which we can direct reflection on what we take to represent
valid knowledge and rational practice. We have discussed the
notion of ideas as limiting concepts or projected endpoints
of thought earlier (see Ulrich,
2014a, p. 7 and note 5, and 2014b, pp. 23-28); suffice
it to recall that reason needs such notions as reference points
for its critical business, however problematic they are bound
to remain due to their exceeding the reach of possible knowledge.
They thus pose a double challenge to reason. Reason needs to
employ them for critical ends while at the same time learning
to handle them critically, that is, to keep a critical stance
towards any claims based on their use. Again, as with the striking
parallels we observed before, I see no essential methodological
difference in this regard between the Upanishads' brahman and
Kant's ideas of reason. Consequently, a further conjecture
offers itself: we might try to embed Upanishadic reflection
on knowledge as inspired by the notion of brahman – "brahmanic
reflection" as it were – in the same kind of double or
cyclical movement of critical thought with which we earlier
associated the pragmatic use or "approximation" of
Kant's ideas of reason, equally understood as limiting concepts.
The idea is that in this way we might gain a deeper understanding
of both, the movement of critical thought in question as well
as the methodological implications of the "brahmanic reflection"
just suggested. So much for a brief outlook. At present we are
not yet prepared for such a discussion, as we first need to
familiarize ourselves with the two other Upanishadid ideas that
we selected for examination, atman and jagat.
"Atman" A second
major theme is atman, a counter-concept to brahman inasmuch as it
focuses on the individual that seeks to know or experience brahman, rather than
on brahman itself. Atman stands for the subjective side of the quest for knowing
brahman. If brahman is the Upanishadic symbol for objectivity,
atman is the symbol for subjectivity. Or, in the terms we used
in the introductory essay, atman embodies the emerging knowing
subject of the Upanishads, whose search for understanding
what is real and reliable in this ever-changing world – where
to find that basic, unchanging reality called brahman – leads
it to discover its own consciousness and self-reflection. "Atman,
or the Self, is the consciousness, the knowing subject, within
us." (Nikhilananda, 1949, p. 52). As the Upanishadic thinkers
understood centuries before the early thinkers of the Occident
(e.g., the pre-Socratic philosophers of nature, such as Anaxagoras
and Democritus, and later Plato and Aristotle), the key to understanding
our (for ever imperfect) grasp of the objective world lies in ourselves, in our consciousness
and, as a contemporary Western perspective might want to add, in our individual
and collective unconscious or subconscious (see Jung, 1966,
1968a). Early on the ancient Indian sages understood that both
brahman and atman – the objective
and the subjective principle – are indispensable notions for
reflecting on the sources and nature of human knowledge or error, even
if both notions are ultimately beyond human grasp. Likewise,
they recognized that neither notion is independent
of the other; each manifests itself in the other but cannot be reduced to it. "The
Absolute of the Upanishads manifests itself as the subject as
well as the object and transcends them both." (Sharma,
2000, p. 25).
meanings The word
atman quite obviously contains the Sanskrit root of the
contemporary German verb atmen = to breathe; compare the German
masculine noun der Atem = breath, a word that in contemporary German
is still also used in metaphoric or spiritual expressions such as der Atem
Gottes, meaning the creative presence of God's spirit. The Sanskrit atman
in turn appears to be derived not only from the root "at" (= to
move, go constantly, walk, run, as in Atem; cf. Monier-Williams, 1899,
p. 24) but also from the second root "an" (= to breathe, live, as in the
Latin noun animus for spirit or soul; cf. Monier-Williams, 1899,
p. 12). The two root meanings come together in the act of breathing in and out. Note that for phonological or declensional reasons, the initial "a" in
atman is suppressed in some uses, yielding 'tman.
This happens frequently when the term appears in
compound words following a vowel. Employing the phonetically reduced form along
with the complete form may help in consulting the Sanskrit
dictionaries, but otherwise need not concern us here.
lists the entries of Monier-Williams
(1899) for both forms. Readers wishing to verify these entries may like to know
that the on-line search tools of the Cologne
Project (1997/2008 and 2013/14) and Monier-Williams et al. (2008) currently
only list tman
and under this entry do not include all the meanings given in the original
dictionary for atman; the latter are accessible through the online facsimile
edition listed in the reference section under Monier-Williams
(1899). Easier to use and more complete in this respect are some
of the other Sanskrit dictionaries, particularly Apte (1965/2008)
and, with some reservations regarding completeness, Böhtlingk and Roth (1855, p. 3-3f) and Böthlingk
and Schmidt (1879/1928, p. 3-045). For reasons of consistency,
Table 2, like the previous Table 1 (for "brahman")
and the later Table 3 (for "jagat"), relies on
Monier-Williams and focuses on the root meanings of "atman";
some of Apte's additional translations will be mentioned in
the subsequent text. As in the case of Table 1, I have again highlighted some of the meanings of
special interest to us.
Table 2: Selected meanings of
Source: Monier-Williams, 1899,
pp. 12 (at), 24 (an); 135 (atman) and 456 (tman),
abridged and simplified
atman, atmán, m[asculine
(variously derived from an, to breathe,
live; at, to move,
vA, to blow; cf. tmán),
essence, nature, character, peculiarity (often at the end of
a compound, e.g. karmA^tman).(variously derived from an, to breathe; at, to move; vA, to blow;
cf. tmán) the breath.
the soul, principle of
life and sensation.
soul, self, abstract individual.
the person or whole body considered as one and opposed to the separate
members of the body.
(at the end of a compound) "the understanding, intellect, mind" (cf.
naSTA^tman, deprived of mind or
sense, p. 532).
the highest personal
principle of life, Brahma ( cf. paramA^tman) .
effort, (= dhRti), firmness.
(= atmán) the vital
one's own person , self; 'tman after e, or o
Copyleft 2014 W.
meanings In addition, Apte's (1965/2008) Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary lists
the following (among other) uses of the term “atman,” all of
which relate to both cognitive and emotional qualities,
to the mind and the soul: "thinking faculty,
the faculty of thought and reason" (p. 323); "spirit,
vitality, courage" (p. 323); "mental quality"
(p. 323); further, in derived and compound phrases, atman
also stands for qualities or efforts
such as "striving to get knowledge (as an ascetic), seeking spiritual knowledge"
(p. 324); "dependent on oneself or on his own mind,
self-dependence" (p. 324); "self-control, self-government"
(p. 325); "knowing one's own self (family etc.), knowledge of the soul, spiritual knowledge"
(p. 325); "practicing one's own duties or occupation,
one's own power or ability, to the best of one's power"
(p. 325); and, apparently accompanying such qualities,
forms of personal
conduct such as "self-purification" (p. 325),
but also "self-praise" and "self-restraint" (p. 325).
Personal reading The etymological
of atman, so much is clear, refers to the activity of breathing – the
vital breath – as a source of vitality that keeps us alive and moving
and also allows us to grow and develop as individuals, to unfold our nature and essential character (compare the compound
word jivatman, also spelled givatman, from jivá
= "living, existing, alive" and tman, thus yielding "the
living or personal or individual soul," cf.
Monier-Williams, 1899, p. 422f, facsimile
Atman is thus also the source of our becoming what we have the potential to be
spiritually and intellectually, if only we undertake
the required effort of learning,
by seeking to know brahman and thereby also to better know ourselves, that
is, the individual self
of which both our soul and our intellect are constitutive.
Müller's (1879, e.g., pp. xxx-xxxii) preferred translation of atman is indeed the
or simply the "self," meaning the essential core of
a human subject that lies behind the empirical individual as
it manifests itself in the phenomenal world, the aham
(cf. the German ich or the Latin ego, "I"):
the aham or ego, with all its accidents and limitations, such as sex, sense,
language, country, and religion, the Indian sages perceived,
from a very early time, the atman or the self, independent
of all such accidents. (Müller, 1879, p. xxx, added
Atman, the individual
self, thus distinguishes itself from both the empirical ego
(aham) on the one hand and the universal
or highest self (brahman) on the other hand. Atman is neither
aham nor brahman; rather, it is on the way from aham
to brahman, developing its contingent, empirical self towards
its essential, divine self. With respect to the latter, Müller
emphasizes that atman is always
"a merely temporary reflex of the Eternal Self"
(1879, p. xxxii; cf. his full discussion on pp. xxviii-xxxii). Atman's fundamental
task is to realize itself
– its individual self – in the double sense of achieving awareness
(recognizing it) and growth (developing it), so that this individual
self can become a fuller reflex of that higher, universal Self
of which it is only an imperfect reflection.
The core topic of the Upanishads,
as I understand it, is accordingly "to explain the true relation between brahman,
the supreme being, and [atman,] the soul of man"
(Müller, 1904/2013, p. 20). Atman's
self-realization, in the double sense just explained, is gained through the effort
to get to know brahman. The Upanishads therefore also
refer to brahman as paramatman (or parama-atman, from
paramá = most distant, highest, best, most excellent,
superior, with all the heart, and tman, yielding "the supreme spirit,"
Monier-Williams, 1899, p. 588):
paramatman is the ideal towards which jivatman, the living
self, is to strive, a process of realizing one's individual
nature and potential that has as its endpoint the convergence
of atman with brahman, or atman's becoming atman-brahman.
When this happens (in the ideal, that is), atman has found "its
very self," "that [self] which should
be perceived" or realized (Olivelle's apt translation of
"atman" in the Mandukya Upanishad, see 1996,
p. 289f, see verses 7, 8 and 12; italics added).
distinction, and ideal convergence, of atman and brahman is also related to the fundamental
in Hindu thought of a perpetual cycle of rebirth and transmigration
of souls (samsara): atman can only free itself
from samsara by moving closer to brahman, that is, by realizing its own
self. In connection with the notion of samsara,
atman's self is "the eternal core
of the personality that after death either transmigrates to
a new life or attains release (moksha) from the bonds
of existence" (Encyclopaedia
Britannica, 2013a). Which one of the two options will come true
depends on the degree to which atman realizes its individual
self in terms of both awareness and growth.
or the search for personal growth
We are, then, talking about the individual self
as-it-has-the-potential-to-be rather than as-it-actually-is;
about a person's vital self; about the ultimate source of
its being spiritually, emotionally and intellectually alive and growing.
Hamilton (2001, p. 28 and passim) similarly speaks of atman
as embodying "the nature of one's essential self or soul," and
(2007, p. 3) of a "healthy self" towards which
atman is to strive. Partly similar notions of personal growth are quite familiar to the
Western tradition of thought. I am thinking of Carl Rogers'
(1961) process of becoming and particularly of
C.G. Jung's (1968b) process of individuation, a process through which
a person's unconscious and conscious become one in the Self,
whereby the latter concept (the Self) is understood as the archetype of psychic
wholeness or totality. The difference is that in the Hindu tradition, this process
reaches beyond all the limitations and contingencies of a person's life
and takes on a truly cosmic dimension: the
individual soul or consciousness is expected to become one with the whole
universe as if individual awareness could ever include the whole of reality
or, in Vedanta terms, as if atman could ever be one with
brahman so as indeed to become atman-brahman.
or the quest for realizing the ideal in the real
striving to become one with brahman: what
a great image for the eternal tension between realism and idealism
in the human quest for coming to terms with the world and, inseparable from it,
for becoming (or realizing) oneself! Remarkably, in this Upanishadic image the tension can be resolved
in favor of a meaningful convergence – of the human condition
as it is and human development as it might be. Such convergence is conceivable in the Upanishadic
framework as it sees the ultimate ground of the person (one's
self-concept) in close interaction
with the cosmic principles (brahman) that pervade the universe and thus also shape
our awareness of the world and of ourselves. The tension between the real and the ideal is thus
reconciled in the notion of a fundamental union of individual (or
subjective) and universal
(or objective) principles.
Kant's later attempt, in the first
Critique, to explain
how the human mind can grasp and understand the world at all, or in
his terms, how the
mind's a priori categories can be constitutive of empirical knowledge, lead him to a similar solution: the answer must be that there exists
ultimate convergence of the human mind's internal structure and principles with those
of the universe (see Kant's highly differentiated analysis in
the "Analytic of Principles," 1787, B169-315,
esp. B193-197). The principles governing the world
must be the same as those governing the human mind! For purely methodological
reasons, Kant is thus compelled to postulate an ultimate unity of the cognitive
conditions that account for the intelligibility of the world with the
ontological conditions that account for its reality, a postulate he calls
the "highest principle of all synthetic judgments" (1787, B197):
assert that the conditions of the possibility of experience
in general are likewise conditions of the possibility of
the objects of experience, and that for this reason they
have objective validity in a synthetic a priori
judgment. (Kant, 1787, B197)
humans we can grasp reality at all, infinite as it is and reaching beyond our
experience, it is because it is already in us, as an intrinsic part of our
cognitive apparatus. In the language of the Vedanta: atman can hope at
least partly to grasp the universal reality that is called "brahman"
because brahman is already in atman's soul, is part of its essential
nature. "The real behind empirical nature is the universal spirit within."
(Mohanty, 2000, p. 2). Atmavidya (the search for
understanding oneself) and brahmavidya (the search for
understanding universal reality) go hand in hand.
cultivated understanding to cultivated practice Shifting
the focus from the realm of theoretical (speculative) reason
of practical (moral) reason, I find a similar parallelism between
the deepest ideas of the traditions of Western
rational ethics and ancient Indian thought. Just as Kant's "enlarged thought," the rational
effort of taking into account
the implications of one's subjective maxim of action for all
others and thus to cultivate a sensus communis (see the
earlier discussion in Ulrich, 2009b, p. 10f, and 2009d,
p. 38), converges with the
quest for cultivating one's moral self, so
cultivated understanding of the world and individual self-cultivation
also converge in the ancient Indian tradition. In Vedanta
terms as well as in Buddhist terms, which in this regard do
not differ, "philosophical inquiry and the practices of
truth are also arts of the soul, ways of cultivating impartiality,
self-control, steadiness of mind, toleration, and non-violence."
(Ganeri, 2007, p. 4, added italics).
of course, effort and achievement are not the same thing. We are talking here about an ongoing process of cultivating one's
knowledge, character, and practice, rather than about
an accomplishment. Despite the promise of brahman's residing
in the individual, atman is only and for ever on the
way to self-knowledge and self-realization. The situation
resembles that of a student challenged by the teacher to never
stop learning; or, in the previously quoted terms of Müller,
of a pupil
who is called upon to learn to know his Self rather than
just himself, that is, to understand
his individual self as "a
merely temporary reflex of the Eternal Self" (Müller, 1879, p. xxxii).
Once we realize that self-knowledge (atmavidya) is quite
impossible without knowledge of that highest expression of Self
called brahman (brahmavidya), and vice-versa,
the challenge is unavoidable:
highest aim of all thought and study with the Brahman of the
Upanishads was to recognize his own self as a mere limited reflection
of the Highest Self, to know his self in the Highest Self, and
through that knowledge to return to it, and regain his identity
with it. Here to know was to be, to know the Atman was to be
the Atman, and the reward of that highest knowledge after death was freedom from new births, or immortality.
Highest Self which had become to the ancient Brahmans the goal
of all their mental efforts, was looked upon at the same time
as the starting-point of all phenomenal existence, the root
of the world, the only thing that could truly be said to be,
to be real and true. As the root of all that exists, the Atman
was identified with the Brahman. (Müller, 1879, p. xxx)
as Müller sums up the gist of the Upanishads, the question
that may guide us in reading these bewildering, mythical, partly
dark and almost unintelligible, yet partly also bright and illuminating
texts is this:
question is, whether there is or whether there is not, hidden
in every one of the sacred books, something that could lift
up the human heart from this earth to a higher world, something
that could make man feel the omnipresence of a higher Power,
something that could make him shrink from evil and incline to
good, something to sustain him in the short journey through
life, with its bright moments of happiness, and its long hours
of terrible distress. (Müller, 1879, p. xxxviii)
The human being's
beyond the fragmentary universe within which
it moves in everyday thought and practice, towards something deeper or higher, towards something that
could "lift the heart up"; that's what well-understood self-knowledge (atmavidya)
is all about from a Vedantic perspective. It leads us directly
to the third
selected idea that I find so interesting in the Upanishads' account
of the general (or universal) in all human cognition and practice,
the concept of
"Jagat" At first glance, it may look as if this one were
the easiest of the three ideas to grasp, as the term is still
used today in many regional Indian languages for referring to
the experiential world in which we live. On closer inspection
though, it is perhaps the most complex and interesting of the
three concepts, at least from a methodological (rather than
spiritual) point of view. The reason is, I believe it can make
a significant difference to our competence of "enlarged
thinking," or more specifically, to our understanding of
the general in the particular and vice-versa and accordingly,
to our skills in dealing constructively and critically with
the eternal tension (or dialectic) in human thought and practice
mentioned above, between the real and the ideal – the
idealist and the realist sides of our grasp of reality. But
let us see.
Sanskrit root term contained in the second syllable of "jagat" is ga, which refers
to moving, going, not too different from the English go; whence comes
verb gam, = to go, move, or approach; to arrive at,
to accomplish or attain (see Wilson, 1819/
2011, p. 282). The prefix ja in the first
syllable means as much as "born or descended from, produced
or caused by, born or produced in or at or upon, growing in, living at";
hence also "son of" or "father of,"
or "belonging to, connected with, peculiar to" (Monier-Williams,
1899, p. 407).
Further, it can also mean "speedy, swift" (the only meaning
given by Wilson, 1819/2011, p. 336, whereas Monier-Williams
lists it almost last of the many meanings he gives) or "victorious,
1899, p. 407), two meanings that point to the term's connotation
of chase or hunt (Jagd in German). The prefix may also be related to the similar term ya, which among
other meanings refers to that which moves or to "who goes, a
goer, a mover" or also "air, wind" (Wilson, 1819/2011,
p. 677, similarly Monier-Williams, 1899, p. 838). So jagat
is everything that is moving or movable, undergoing variation, in flux, "especially in the sense
that no fixed description of it will ever be correct" (D.P. Dash, 2013a). Here
is, once again, a
representative selection of meanings from the Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary
Table 3: Selected meanings of
Source: Monier-Williams, 1899,
pp. 108 and 408, abridged and simplified
jagat, jágat m[asculine]
f[eminine] n[euter] gender.
( from gam, moving, movable,
jagat, jágat m[asculine
pl[ural use]. people , mankind.
jagat, jágat n[euter]
that which moves or is
alive, men and animals, animals as opposed to men,
the world, esp. this
the plants (or flour [ground
grain] as coming from plants)
of a house
the world, universe
du[al number]. heaven and
the lower world
pl[ural use]. the
worlds (= [ja]gat-traya ["three jagats"])
jagadAtman m[asculine gender].
Apte (1890/2014, p. 503)]
the Supreme Spirit
[lit. = world spirit].
Copyleft 2014 W.
Against the background
of the discussion thus far, it is interesting to
note that jagat refers
not only to the "world," "earth" or "universe"
in general but can also take the specific meaning of "this
world [of ours]" (Monier-Williams, 1899, p. 408).
Jagat is the world as it manifests itself to the individual
(atman) as a perceived or imagined reality, a perception that
is in constant flux and does not usually capture the full, objective
reality (brahman). Further, in addition
to the manifest physical world, jagat may also refer specifically
to "the world of the soul, [or of an individual's] body" (Apte,
1965/2008, p. 722; cf. 1890/2014, p. 503). Jagat can thus
refer to different realms of the universe, such as
heaven and earth. The compound nouns trijagat and jagat-traya
designate the Vedantic conception of three worlds, either as "(1) the heaven, the atmosphere and the earth" or as
"(2) the heaven, the earth, and the lower world" (Apte,
1965/2008. p. 789;
similarly Böthlingk and Roth, 1855,
p. 3-428, and Böthlingk and Schmidt, 1879/1928, p. 3-49).
As a last hint, Apte also lists jagat as a grammatical
the verbal noun nisam (lit. = not speaking, silent, observing),
which refers to the act of "seeing, beholding, [having]
sight [of]"; accordingly the phrase nisam jagat stands
[visible] world" and, as a result, having a certain
"sight" of the world (p. 924, cf. 1890//2014,
rich etymology of "jagat" While the Sanskrit-English dictionaries on which I have drawn have their
strength in a scholarly documentation of actual occurrences
of Sanskrit terms in the ancient literature, they are less strong
when it comes to explaining how old Sanskrit terms have found their way into the
vocabulary of Indo-European and other languages. "Jagat"
is such a term. It continues to be used in several Asian
languages, including Modern Standard Hindi, in meanings related to land,
earth, world, or universe, with a number of different derived
in the European languages (esp.
in Dutch and German) one can find numerous contemporary words and entire word families that appear
to be related to the ancient Sanskrit jagat. They often
go back to the Old-Germanic root jag, which apparently contains
the Sanskrit root terms ja and gam (as explained
above) and means
as much as "moving fast, chasing." Here are three examples
of such word families, all of which are of particular interest to our present
The German noun Jagd (= the hunt) derives directly from
the Middle High German noun jaget or jagat.
This etymological connection makes the combination of the two above-listed,
at first glance unrelated, root
meanings of the prefix ja understandable, of "speedy, swift"
along with "victorious, eaten." Interestingly, the German noun originally referred not only to the activity of hunting but
also to the parties involved or admitted (a meaning it still
has today, although it is now rarely used in this sense), as well as to the
area in which hunting was permitted. The corresponding German
verb is jagen (= to hunt, figuratively also to move fast
or to chase something or somebody). Similar forms exist in
other North-European languages (e.g. the Dutch verb jagen,
from Middle Dutch jaghen, Old Dutch jagon; likewise
Swedish jaga or Swiss-German jage).
The Dutch noun for Jagd is jacht (from Middle Dutch jaght),
which is obviously related to the German and Dutch term for
a sailing yacht, Jacht (= yacht, originally a fast moving
boat or "hunting boat").
The Swiss-German noun Hag (= fence, originally meaning
as much as a thorn hedge that encloses a piece
of land or forest) goes back to the Old High German hac
and further to the Old Germanic (Proto-Germanic) hagatusjon,
with many derivatives such as hagaz
(= able, skilled), hag or haga (= to beat,
and häkse (= a witch or hag, cf. Middle English hagge, from
Old English haegtes;
Dutch heks, German Hexe). Although the link is not definitively
both the form and the meaning of these and other words
with the root term hag are strikingly close to jag[at]; they
all connote some aspects of fast movement or hunting (e.g.,
chasing, stinging, hitting, capturing, fencing in). These
connotations are still very apparent, for example, in the contemporary
German verbs hacken (= to chop, hack; also
abhacken = to chop off) and einhagen (= to hedge,
to fence in), as well as in the German nouns Hecke (=
a hedge, related to the Old English haga = an enclosure,
a fenced-in area, and to the Middle English hawe as in
hawthorn) and Gehege (= an enclosure, preserve, a
fenced area of natural preservation or also an artificial habitat
for animals as in the zoo).
In other derivatives, the root meanings of chasing, capturing,
enclosing, and delimiting take on a strong connotation of protection,
the German verb hegen
(orig. = to hedge), which now means as much as to care for, look after, cultivate,
or foster (as in the phrase hegen und pflegen, to lavish
care and attention on somebody or something). Figuratively used
it means, for example, to nurture a hope (eine Hoffnung hegen), to
entertain an expectation or a doubt (eine Erwartung hegen,
einen Zweifel hegen),
or to pursue an intention or plan (eine Absicht hegen, einen
Plan hegen). Another derivation appears to be
Hain, an old-fashioned German noun that is now chiefly
used in poetic
language for a grove but which originally just meant a piece of land surrounded by trees or bushes, yielding a natural delimitation for an orchard or
garden, a resting place, or a small farm or other kind of dwelling.
This explains why the root hag is also still frequently found today
as a component in
the names of plants that are characteristic of such places (e.g.
Hagedorn = hawthorn, from Old English hagathorn), or Hagebutte = rose hip), as well as in
many old place names (e.g., Hagen and Im
obern Hag in Germany, Den Haag in the Netherlands, or Hagnau
judge from the numerous etymological sources that I have consulted, ranging
from the Oxford English Dictionary to Wiktionary for
English and from the Duden to the Kluge and the
Wahrig dictionaries for German, it appears that the
link between jagat and the first-mentioned word family
around Jagd is firmly established,
whereas the precise history of the modern words mentioned under points (2) and
(3) lies partly in the dark. Even so, the extent to which the
root meanings of these terms agree with those of the ancient
Sanskrit word jagat is striking. We may sum up these
root meanings as follows:
(1) the activity of movement or
chase; an object that moves or undergoes change;
(2) a piece of land or
site of a dwelling, or that which delimits it;
(3) an element of care, attention, interest or cultivation;
this world of ours or a delimited part of it about which we care.22)
second observation that I find striking is this. As a common
denominator, all three root meanings have to do with the core notion
of something bounded or limited that changes and can be changed but which is also being cared for – a
core notion that I associate with my methodological interest,
in my work on critical systems heuristics (CSH), in the role
of boundary judgments and hence, of boundary discourse and boundary critique
as tools for cultivated understanding (for an introduction see, e.g., Ulrich 1996,
2006a, 2001, and 2005). However, for the time being, let us stick to the etymology of jagat.
Personal reading Considering the
various meanings of jagat, I conclude that it may stand for virtually any object-realm of experience or awareness (and,
in the case of humans, also of
thought, discourse, and action) that constitutes the "world"
or "universe" within which an individual's attention
moves at any specific time. Characteristic of this world is that
it is "moving" or changing, in the double sense that it takes on variable
forms or states and thus may also be seen from multiple perspectives, so that there is no definitive
description of it. Equally characteristic is that it represents
a particular, partial set of the total universe of
phenomena that in principle could come into sight or might be
the focus of attention, and that (to use Müller's
earlier-cited description of the atman's self as distinguished
from the universal or higher Self) it is only a "temporary
reflex" of the full reality behind the considered phenomena.
Moreover, as we just observed, an active element of bounding
(or boundary judgments) on the part of a human observer plays
a role in each of the three word families that we have considered.
The basic cognitive (logical, observational, linguistic) act
involved is that of making a distinction between "within"
active element suggests that one of the associations that go
with "jagat" concerns a subject's authorship
and/or ownership of it. Whatever jagat we are talking
about, it is always some subject's
jagat; it is the world as an individual perceives and experiences
it in its current situation. In a sense, even animals – all living
beings, not only humans – are authors of their jagat; we
call it "habitat" (or living space) in the case of
animals and "daily life world" (or realm of experience,
universe of discourse, world view, etc.) in the case of people.
The subject, whether an animal or a person, can to a certain
extent choose, change or modify its habitat. Humans, as subjects
endowed with reason, cannot avoid thinking about and questioning
their perception of and situation in the world.
a consequence of that individual authorship, but also of the
infinite variety of things and aspects that make up "the
world" – the total universe of things we might want to
consider as parts of our individual worlds – there is an element
of selection involved. We cannot usually do justice to
all and every circumstance that might potentially be of interest.
By implication, in talking to others we have to make it clear
what parts or aspects of "the world" we are concerned
or talking about; as a result of exchange with others, we may
revise our individual jagat. Atman's view or conception of the
world, like that of its inmost self, is always only a "temporary
reflex" of the full reality. Further, due to this moving
and changing character, the concept of jagat also connotes
the idea of an ongoing process
of change in which a subject's jagat can take on different
states or stages
of development and appreciation.
I suggest to understand the term jagat, it connotes all
these mentioned aspects of its being a variable object-domain;
its being authored and owned by an individual; its having the
selected and temporary nature of a subject's world; its being
a possible object of reflection and learning, revision and development.
As knowing subjects, we find ourselves in the situation of atman:
we are challenged to develop not only our awareness of self
– "the knowing subject within us" (Nikhilananda, 1949, p. 52)
– but also that of the world around us, the world within we
live, our individual jagat. We can "realize"
the jagat-like nature of our world in the sense of both making
ourselves aware of it and, consequently, developing it.
an epistemological and methodological point of view, we
may structure these various connotations of "jagat" a bit more systematically into three basic types
of reference to the world involved in observing the world,
in thinking and talking about it, and in acting in it:
(i) Jagat refers
to some object(s) of cognition (the perceived)
– "the world within which a subject moves," understood
as a variable object-realm of perception and awareness.
Characteristically, there is no definitive description of the
object-domain or, to put it differently, there are no stable
objects of cognition, due to the fluent and perspectival character
of what can be known and said about this world of ours.
Also characteristically, that which can be known or said,
despite its unstable character, is of concern to
some individual(s) in some context of ordinary existence and practice. Another
way to describe the nature of this first type of reference to
the world is by pointing to its contextual character:
we perceive and talk of objects depending on the contexts in
which we find ourselves or about which we care.
In the case of an animal,
the jagat in question will be its natural habitat, perhaps
also the larger ecosystem of which this habitat is a part. In
the case of humans, a typical object domain referred to as "jagat"
may originally (i.e., in the history of the term) have been a dwelling or the site of a house where people lived,
fenced area of land where cattle was kept or crops were grown.
Later on larger object domains may have moved into focus, say,
a larger geographical region or a social context shared by a
group of individuals or, in a more religious context, the three
jagats of earth, heaven, and the lower world, and thus ultimately
also the whole cosmos
or any section of the real-world of interest at a specific moment.
Common to any human jagat is that it is always someone's jagat
and is closely related to the concerned subjects' sense
of identity or "self."
(ii) Jagat refers to
some subject(s) of cognition
(the perceiver) – "that which moves and changes" (e.g.,
its location, appearance, or view), understood
as a bearer of knowledge and awareness, perhaps also
as a source of ideas, insights and errors, as well as an agent,
in its moving within
the object-domain in question.23) Characteristically this subject,
through its changing states of awareness as well as its changing
and interests, is the
author and owner (Sanskrit = natha or naatha, meaning
"protector, patron, possessor, owner, lord,"
cf. Monier-Williams, 1899, p. 534, as well as "author," cf. Sanskrit and Tamil
Dictionaries, 2005) of its world, the specific universe within which its
perceptions, thoughts, and actions move. The object of cognition referred to
under (i) above thus becomes the subject's self-created universe of
discourse (or universe of thought and action), an ever-changing, self-delimited context of interest
or concern within which people move as observers, speakers,
subject, thus conceived as observer, narrator,
or agent, becomes jagannath (from jagat and natha), "the author of the considered
or narrated world" – a concept that we still encounter
in India today, for example, in the form of the masculine first
name Jagannath as well as, in the Indian state of Odisha
(formerly Orissa) and in other Indian states, as the name of a
Hindu deity (a title of Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu),
then meaning as much as "the lord (or protector) of the
term "jagannath" is also at the origin of the English loanword juggernaut,
which according to my constant companion, the Complete English
Oxford Dictionary, refers to an "idol of this deity
at Puri, Orissa, annually dragged in procession on an enormous
car, under the wheels of which many devotees are said to have
formerly thrown themselves to be crushed" (see the picture
on the right hand; source: in the public domain, made
available by the Project
Gutenberg). In contemporary language it now also denotes any particularly large vehicle or machine and
is synonymous with "behemoth" or "Moloch."
The double association of jagat with jagannath
and juggernaut is not without its dangers. While it is apt to remind us of jagat's
belonging to some author, and thus of its subjective and creative, self-authored and dynamic nature as "the moving
universe within which we move," it also abets a one-sidedly religious reading (especially in popular reception). Its
use in the ancient scriptures is then easily misunderstood to
refer to the divine author of "that" world only (i.e.,
to God or some ancient Hindu deity), rather than also (and perhaps primarily) to the human authors of "this"
world. Such an understanding of jagat risks obscuring its
philosophical and methodological relevance, which I see in its
drawing our attention to the inevitably contextual character
of the world as an object of human cognition. An example is provided by the Isha Upanishad,
one of the principal Upanishads associated with the Yajur Veda,
which customarily is translated in such a one-sidedly religious
way that the significance of its central, emphatic reference
to "jagat" gets all but lost (we
will discuss this example in the next essay).
(iii) Finally, by
implication, jagat also refers to a state of cognition
(the perception) – "the state of awareness of the world, which an unreflective
subject wrongly considers as the world." Characteristically, again,
there is no stable state of awareness; for awareness is always
an intermediate state in an ongoing process of transformation.
Jagat thus stands for a current state of consciousness and understanding in terms of which a
human subject perceives and describes its world provisionally
but which, as soon as we take it for granted,
risks being false or
arbitrary or in any case fails to capture the possible development
of both the subject
and the object of cognition. It is, to use Müller's (1879, p. xxxii) phrase
once more, but a "temporary
reflex" of the full reality that as such cannot be an object
of human cognition. Which is to say, whatever we choose to say
about the world is bound to be insufficient and unreliable,
as is any one perspective or universe of discourse we rely
upon for defining situations and acting in them. A devastating
but compelling insight that is also captured in a famous Vedantic
aphorism, ascribed to Adi
Shankara, the major 8th/9th century commentator of the Upanishads
and founder of the Advaita
Vedanta school of Vedanta thought (a school of thought that
emphasizes the unity of all reality and the ultimate convergence
of atman and brahman):
satyam, jagat mithya.
is the real reality, the world is deceptive."
2000, p. 96)
methodological rather than metaphysical terms, we might put
it this way: "One
perceives the reality of one's own world," and "one
thinks the thoughts of one's own universe of thought." The
good news is that we can choose to heed this admonishment ¬
the Upanishadic way of developing our skills as knowing and
comment We are reaching the end of this introductory
of the three selected Upanishadic ideas, brahman, atman,
and jagat. Is there any concise way to sum it up? If
so, perhaps the most noteworthy finding consists in the rather
striking parallels that we have encountered between these Upanisadic
ideas and the "Western" ideas of reason that Kant
examined most profoundly in his critique of reason, ideas that
remain indispensable today with a view to ensuring to reason what
may be its three most basic virtues: unity of thought, morality of action,
and rationality of argumentation.24)
parallels in question include:
the general character of these ideas: they guide
us beyond the limits of the apparently given, empirical world;
due to their decontextualizing thrust, they compel us to recognize
and question the self-constructed limitations of our perceptions
of the world and of our related universes of discourse and action;
their unavoidable but simultaneously problematic
character: reason cannot do without them, but at the
same time it cannot demonstrate that they have any objective
validity and thus it also cannot rely on them for validating
the generalizations they suggest to us;
their unconditional character: they
refer us to the notion of an unconditioned totality (or a complete
series) of conditions, a notion that is implied in all sufficient
explanation or understanding of things yet exceeds the limits
of possible knowledge; which is to say, all these ideas
confront us with the limitations of human knowledge and reason;
their character as limiting concepts: they embody
projected endpoints of thought that we need for systematic thinking,
although we can only approximate but never reach these endpoints;
their confronting us with a fundamental tension between
the demands of reason and what it can achieve in reality:
they remind us of the perennial clash of idealism and realism
in human thought and practice;
their anticipated convergence of the real (empirical)
and the ideal (universal) in the constitution of human
knowledge: inquiry into the nature of the world cannot
avoid postulating that the
ontological conditions that account for its reality and the
conditions that account for its intelligibility coincide;
and finally, their doubly challenging character with
a view to critical inquiry and practice: reason needs to
learn to employ them for critical purposes while at the same time handling
them critically, that is, refraining from any positive validity
claims based on their use.
In view of these shared characteristics, I
propose that from a methodological point of view, both the Upanishadic
and the Kantian ideas are probably best understood as ideas that
lend themselves to merely critical employment. They do not warrant
any kinds of generalizing claims about the world. Borrowing
an apt phrase of Ryle (1949, pp. 117 and 122; 2009, pp. 105
and 110f), we might say that ideas of reason
represent no inference-tickets (or licences) for claiming knowledge
and rationality beyond the limits of contextual assumptions.
Rather, they challenge us to deal carefully with such assumptions.
This is possible inasmuch as contextual assumptions, although
unavoidable, are variable. We can try to change them so as
to do justice to a situation; we can share and discuss them
with others; and we can carefully qualify and limit the claims
that depend on them.
ideas of reason, meaning both Upanishadic and Kantian ideas,
are in this respect similar to ideals: although human inquiry
and practice will never completely "realize" their
intent, that is, understand it and make it real, we can
at least try to approximate it and to do justice to it
partly, in some well-reasoned ways. Their counter-factual nature
then does not make ideas of reason useless, no more than ideals.
Quite the contrary, it creates a healthy distance to "normal"
knowledge and practice and in this way provides impetus for
approximating their intent in ways that are critically reflected,
systematic, and arguable. This is precisely the kind of use
that we had in mind in a previous essay of this series
(see Ulrich, 2014b), where we explored the "approximation"
of general ideas by means of what we initially described as a "double
movement of critical thought" and then came to understand
"cycle of critical contextualization," that is, a
process of systematic clarification of contextual assumptions
by means of iterative decontextualization (or universalization)
and (re-)contextualization (or specification) of the
assumptions and implications of claims.
the end of this examination of the notions of brahman, atman,
and jagat, we can thus note that we have encountered
similar intentions as well as similar limitations among Upanishadic
and Kantian ideas. From a methodological rather than metaphysical
or religious perspective, none of these ideas is adequately
understood if we take them to guide us towards secure knowledge and
rational practice. Neither certainty of knowledge nor a guarantee
of rational practice is within their reach. They nevertheless retain
an indispensable role for reason, in that they offer us a deeper
understanding of the limitations of human knowledge, thought,
and practice and thus can also guide us in dealing systematically
with these limitations. There is a deep affinity between Upanishadic
and Kantian ideas in this respect: they touch upon ultimate
limitations and challenges of the human quest for understanding
the world we live in and for improving our lives. Therein I
locate their shared, lasting relevance for our epoch, and therein
I also see the
reason why they continue to fascinate so many people world-wide.
the continuation of this exploration, in two subsequent Bimonthlies,
we will first illustrate the analysis made thus far by applying
it to a major Upanishadic text, and subsequently will situate
the understanding gained of the three core concepts of brahman,
atman and jagat within our developing framework
of critical pragmatism. As this is the last Bimonthly essay
of the year, I take the opportunity to thank you for visiting
my site and to wish you
and your families a happy end of the year.
For a hyperlinked overview of all issues
of "Ulrich's Bimonthly" and the previous "Picture of the
see the site map
This is the fifth essay on the role of general ideas in rational thought
and action. It continuous the exploration of the world of ideas of the ancient
Indian Upanishads with an analysis of three essential
concepts selected from them, brahman, atman, and jagat.
The previous essays of the series appeared in the Bimonthlies
of September-October 2013,
January-February 2014, July-August 2014, and .September-October
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