‘The Upanishads’ book review: Understanding the Brahman


Express News Service

Here is an introduction to The Upanishads by Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr for the discerning reader. It was Alfred North Whitehead who said: ‘The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.’

Similarly, you cannot be straying too far from the truth to say that the whole of Indian philosophy is a footnote to the Upanishads. And that is why scholars of these ancient texts see our Upanishads remaining intellectually alive 3,000 years. Though they have not remained static, and may be seen as an anvil for philosophical developments down the centuries.


Basing his book on the scholarship of Indologists such as S Radhakrishnan, Surendranath Dasgupta, Chandradhar Sharma, Daya Krishna, Max Mueller, Heinrich Zimmer, Karl Harrington Potter and Patrick Olivelle, this ready-reckoner introduces the reader to the basic tenets of Indian philosophy and its core ideas, without diluting the ancient text with dialogue and stories.

Take the four Vedas for instance—Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva—it’s hard putting a bead on which Upanishad came first and which later. The author does not fall into this trap; he reveals the different views expressed in them.

His brilliant introduction provides an esoteric spread with snatches of meditative conversations. Along the way are revealed glimpses and insights into the tenets set out in these hoary texts in an attempt to balance the self vis-a-vis the universe. In a subject as vast and intricate, it requires especial attentiveness to keep up with the philosophical exchanges underlining the connection between the “atman” (self) and the “Brahman” (source of all things), and other central themes such as liberation from re-birth. 


One at a time, the author dips into the Vedas to match the Upanishad and the idea it embodies. Take the Aitareya Upanishad for instance, it highlights “prana” or breath as the animated force that makes us the person we are. Later there is the Taittiriyaka Upanishad (in Yajur Veda) which deals with the five elements of the universe, and their relation to the five senses of the human body. Large chunks of the Upanishads deal with understanding the Brahman or the Absolute. And so its most beautiful and poetic passages are those that deal with the inability of the mind to comprehend It.

A brick at a time, Parsa sets forth his proposition that Indian philosophy is but a footnote to the Upanishads. He pieces together a broad framework of the fragmented texts. To the discerning reader, the questions remain, as do many unknowns, only egging one on to dive deeper in the hope of unravelling the mystique surrounding Brahman.

Go ahead. It’s a special read.


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