This scholarly and imaginative study of the Upanishads makes a significant point: It argues that the Upanishadic texts have been traditionally viewed as consisting of two distinct and separable parts—“metaphysics” and “story”. This has resulted in “abstraction” and over-valuation of the metaphysical message and, more importantly, neglect and consequent “under-reading” of the stories. The book attempts to redress this imbalance by exploring the narrative potential of the stories (the author has identified a recurring psychological pattern: feeling of inferiority in the protagonist that leads to a crisis and culminates in acquisition of knowledge) so that the essential exegetical integrity of narrative form and content can be maintained. However, I have some rather serious reservations about the manner in which the stories have been interpreted, the contextual frame of reference has been defined, and the broader implications of his ‘re-readings’ have been left unspecified. Let me begin with the method of interpretation. To choose an example at random, the author reads the Satyakama-Jabala story as a narrative of “bitter mother-son conflict” on the ground that Satyakama asked his mother Jabala about his lineage and she answered that she did not know.
It is assumed that the mother was a sudra because “this is—most probably—what the Upanishad says” (p. 48), even though the author later contradicts himself: “She was a Sudra woman, says the Upanishad” (p. 49). The latter statement is in fact not correct. Moreover, it seems to follow automatically from the son’s wish to live as a brahmacarin in the guru’s house that “[H]e must have known that he was a brahmin” (p. 47). The author justifiably describes Sankaracharya’s speculation that Jabala was married to a husband whose social identity she did not care to remember as “amazing” (p. 48), and yet he himself indulges in speculations which are equally far-fetched: “Jabala is abandoned by a man of caste, whom she does know as Satyakama’s father, and whom she does know as a man of higher caste, most probably a brahmin, who does not marry her” (p. 51).
There is nothing in the original text to support any of these conjectures except that Satyakama was probably born out of wedlock. Indeed some circumstantial evidence does suggest that it might not have been an unambiguous story celebrating “the great virtue of truthfulness” and a “harmonious mother-son relationship” as it is traditionally understood, and the author’s ability to construct an alternative narrative on the basis of such slender evidence is commendable, but there is very little to conclude that it is a story of deception (“his mother tells him untruth”, p. 46) and vengeance either (“She is going to be left alone, rejected by her own son. The poor mother!” p. 46).
Similarly, in the Maitreyi-Yajnavalkya story, contrary to popular perception, the author sees a “fight” (p. 76) between a “frustrated wife” and a “spiritual husband” (p. 104) over the issue of non-duality and immortality. The author’s reading hinges on the assumption that the couple had no son and therefore, when Yajnavalkya declared his intention to renounce the household in favour of the forest, Maitreyi demanded that he give her his knowledge of immortality which, in the ordinary course, would have been ensured by the continuity of the line through the birth of a son. The author has gathered enough supportive evidence to suggest that it was violation of norm to renounce the household before begetting a son, even though one wonders whether the injunction of Manu would apply to the “Vedic man” (p. 70). Therefore some tension between the couple seems plausible. But in the absence of even one definitive statement in the Chandogya Upanishad that Maitreyi and Yajnavalkya did not have a son, the author has to rely entirely on textual silence for his radically different reading. This makes his interpretation somewhat vulnerable.
In other words, if in the previous studies the Uapnishadic stories have suffered from simplistic under-reading, here these have been subjected to rather extravagant over-interpretation. This is not to suggest that his relocation of the stories is unacceptable. The author is innovative and persuasive, and this is the strength of the book. However, having made the point that the stories need to be taken seriously, it should have been made clear that his interpretation is only one (even if it appears to the author as the obvious one) among several possible readings and not necessarily the correct one—an impression the reader tends to receive from his excessive polemic.
The context is equally problematic. The author criticizes most Upanishadic scholars of ignoring the narrative and thus focussing on a “(context-free) metaphysics received on the margin” (p. 118). He himself claims to have adopted “a consistent text-in-context” (p. 21) approach which consists of recognizing the importance of the stories within which Upani-shadic knowledge is supposedly grounded. The frame-stories are certainly the immediate context of the message that follows, just as the whole text provides context to its parts. But there exists a larger historical context in which the text itself, in fact the entire Upanishadic genre, needs to be located, and if contextual reading is meaningful, sensitivity to this larger context is likely to yield even better results. The author is aware of this. He accuses the philosopher Hiriyanna of “not even refer[ring] to the ‘meta-context’ of the Upanishads in general (historical background, cultural milieu etc.)” (p. 59) and praises the Sanskritist Olivelle for being “right about the potential contribution of the meta-context (social, religious, economic, etc.) to our understanding of the –often obscure—Upanishadic ‘documents’” (p. 87). Yet the author invokes this ‘meta-context’ perfunctorily only twice: “Such inferiorities [of the protagonists of the Upanishadic stories] have their universal flavour. Yet they belong to Upani-shadic time, circumstances, and meaning. The householder’s infirmity, the disenchantment with desire, wealth, familial immortality…, with the sacrificial fire and maintenance of universal connectedness, are all nourished by sensitivities grounded in ancient India of eighty century BC. [C]oncomitant with disintegration of old Vedic values, there emerges the attraction of Brahman, the subjective ground of reality and experience” (p. 57), and “Naciketas’ voice—nourished by sraddha—expresses lucid realization of the collapse of an entire culture” (p. 95). He evidently realizes the epochal significance of the rise of a new system of knowledge in the wake of the collapse of the existing material and intellectual culture, but he makes no attempt to connect the two. This is a glaring lacuna in the book. Besides, apart from the Upanishads, the only other original text he refers to is Manusmriti (pp. 12, 52, 69-70, 121), which is problematic in view of the fact that it cannot be assigned to a period earlier than the 2nd century BC.
The implications of the author’s insight into the Upanishadic stories are also somewhat baffling. It is a major argument of the book that the Upanishadic message should not be taken out of its narrative context and generalized. The author found one of Radhakrishnan’s conclusions from his reading of the Maitreyi story that women’s exclusion from Vedic studies did not have the support of the Upanishads “too general, too inattentive to the story in its more to generalize” (p. 72). He claims, at least implicitly, that Maitreyi’s thirst for knowledge will have to be understood in terms of her personal crisis alone. This attempt to particularize a possible social practice is significant in itself, but there is more to it. He questions the philosopher J.N. Mohanty’s view that in order that knowledge be valid for everyone the subject of knowledge must transcend one’s personal interests and prejudices on the ground that this “striking distinction between ‘person’ and ‘subject’ deprives the story-telling which deals primarily with mere ‘person’, of its power and meaning” (p. 117).
If so, it is reasonable to ask whether he considers the Upanishadic knowledge to be generalizable at all? The author does not directly confront this question. On the contrary, he tends to emphasize the specificity of knowledge that is generated at the conclusion of every story of interpersonal conflict. Even the paradigmatic statement ‘you are that’, which Uddalaka Aruni made to his son Svetaketu, is not necessarily or even primarily supposed to signify unity of atman and Brahman, but is an admonition of a wise father to chasten the pride of his errant son for possessing Vedic knowledge. What the father meant, according to the author is: “You are not what you think, but you are that, what I am already”(p. 125, emphasis added).
Is it then a question of being or not being, or not fully being, or not yet being a Vedic scholar only? In other words, this narrative may enact a father-son conflict which has not been observed before, but can the ‘knowledge’ transmitted by the father to his son to resolve the crisis be then read as an universal message of much wider philosophical import? (One does not necessarily negate the other.) And if so, how does the story alter the philosophical message? Even though the author claims to have adopted “a reading-orientation which integrates narrative significance with ‘philosophical contents’” (p. 128), there is very little evidence of this integration in the book. The author should have unequivocally addressed these questions, for these concern some of the fundamental premises of Indian philosophy. The contribution of the book will be ultimately judged by the extent to which his re-reading of the Upanishadic stories alters the existing understanding of the Upanishads as a whole.
These criticisms, however, do not undermine the fact that the book represents a dense and scholarly reading of the Upanishadic texts by an innovative mind. All students of ancient Indian history will profit from reading the book, but with caution.
Kunal Chakrabarti is Professor of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.