Dennis Littrell's Reviews > The Upanishads

The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran
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Apr 24, 10

bookshelves: the-gita-and-hinduism

Easwaran, Eknath. The Upanishads (1987) *****
Important volume on one of humanity's greatest religious works

In the Upanishads there are two selves. They are symbolized by two birds sitting on a tree branch. The one bird, the self with a small "s" eats. The other bird, the Self with a capital "S" observes. The first self is the self that is part of this world. The second Self is merely an observer that doesn't take part and is in fact beyond the pairs of opposites such as pleasure and pain that dominate our existence. This Self is formally called the Atman. In an important analogy, it is said that the Atman is the drop of water that glides off of the lotus leaf into the ocean of Brahman, with Brahman being the entirety of all that there is, in other words, God, the God beyond all attribution.

This presentation of the Upanishads--necessarily a selection, of course--by Eknath Easwaran is the best single volume that I have come across for the following reasons:
First, the translation by Easwaran is readable, edifying and congenial to the Sanskrit in so far as that is possible. The poetry in the original language and the word play are lost in translation as is always the case with poetry and highly symbolic language, and especially language that is meant to be taken on more than one level. However Easwaran's notes after each Upanishad help to give us an idea what the original is like and give the reader a feel for the some of the nuances.
Second, the chapter introductions and the concluding essay by Michael N. Nagler lend insight and clarity to the reader's understanding.
Third, the selections themselves and what is included in the selections are efficacious. By that I mean the ideas and the "feel" of the expression, the psychology, and the philosophy of the Upanishads and the larger Vedic tradition are made manifest. Some voluminous translations give us much more of the repetition and ritual than we need, while some volumes give us perhaps not enough.

In this regard I want to call the reader's attention to the slim volume The Ten Principal Upanishads (1937) by the poet W.B. Yeats, and Shree Purohit Swami. Easwaran's book contains more of the Upanishads and offers a more extensive commentary, but Yeats and Purohit are more poetic. I recommend that the reader read both books. Alas Yeats's book is out of print and so you'll have to find it at, probably, a college library.

Here is how Easwaran translates the invocation to the famous Isha Upanishad:

All this is full. All that is full.
From fullness, fullness comes.
When fullness is taken from fullness,
Fullness still remains.
Om shanti shanti, shanti

Now here is how Yeats and Purohit have it:

This is perfect. That is perfect.
Perfect comes from perfect.
Take perfect from perfect; the remainder is perfect.
May peace and peace and peace be everywhere.

I think the former is perhaps truer to the spirit of the philosophy of the Upanishad, but I think the latter is more poetic.

The Upanishads, usually acknowledged to be the culmination of the wisdom of the Vedas, form the basis for Hinduism as well as serving as a wellspring for Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, and yoga. Many ideas central to these ways of life are found in the Upanishads. In particular the Bhagavad Gita finds its inspiration and even some of its expression and even a bit of its form in the most famous and most often read Upanishad, the Katha. Nachiketas of the Katha becomes Arjuna of the Gita, while Death becomes Krishna of the Gita.

In his essay, Nagler writes, "Taken as a whole, the Upanishads contain the raw material of a profound philosophy."

In the tradition of India, philosophy and religion are not separate as they usually are in the West. In truth all religions contain not only religious ideas, but philosophical ones as well; but more than anything, religions are psychologies--guides on how to live life, and how to die. In the Upanishads we do not die. Death happens only to the bird that eats. Our real essence, the Atman is eternal, and therefore death is an illusion, a compelling illusion to be sure, but one that can be tossed off through an understanding that "thou art that" ("tat tvam asi") meaning that you and the universe (or Brahman) are one. Nagler writes, "Indian religious systems hold as a core belief that the individual is not that which dies but is instead the forces which brought the body and personality into existence and will continue shaping its destiny after what we call death…" (p. 287).

--a review by Dennis Littrell
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