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The Theory of ‘Soul’ in the Upanishads, Term Paper Example

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Term Paper

Scholars consider the Upanishads as the beating heart of Hinduism, and they are sacrosanct texts that philosophers assert impact a deep mystery beyond the core teachings of Hinduism. The Katha Upanishad is a compendium of poems that detail the philosophical dialogue between Yama, the god of death, and the young sage Naciketas about the nature of ritual in connection to Moksha, Atman, and Brahman. Naciketas’s father Vajasrava becomes angry when his son interrogates his motivations behind sacrificing all of his worldly possessions how effective doing so really was. Naciketas calls his father’s possessions worthless and tired, asserting that his charity is all a farce, which prompted his father to command death on his son. It is after this exchange that Yama and Naciketas engage in a deep philosophical conversation that is quite reminiscent of the dialogue that took place between Arjuna and Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita because the philosophical teachings are transmitted through the conversation itself. The heated dialogue between Naciketas and Yama creates a discourse that turns into a discussion about human nature, knowledge, the Soul/Self, and liberation. Shankara proffers commentary that focuses on “Advaita Vendanta,” which translates to non-dualism in western epistemologies as a way to critique the ethical philosophy articulated by Yama. More specifically, he provides a compelling interpretation of the parable of the chariot to articulate his own ethical philosophy on the nature of the self. As the spokesman of the Katha Upanishads, Yama articulates and conveys an Aristotelian ethical philosophy that eschews pursuing a path of hedonism because doing so would lead one to misery because leading a life of complete bliss and pleasure would never lead one to enlightenment. Such an ethical philosophy is an admirable one that should be embraced because it will lead people—especially the youth today who often believe worldly possessions will bring them success and happiness—to a more virtuous and contemplative live.

Yama and Naciketas rigorously discuss desire, which is a topic that Shankara takes great interest as discerned through the consolidated thought of Advaita Vendanta. At the outset of the dialogue, Yama tests Naciketas, who, despite his youth, evinces an unusual degree of self-discipline when he eschews Yama’s offer of going down a path of pleasure and hedonism. Rather, Nachiketas asserts his desire to reach enlightenment and asks Yama what path he will need to take to secure his spot in heaven. Nachiketas declares, “in the heavenly world is no fear. Over both having crossed—hunger, and thirst too—Gone beyond sorrow, one rejoices in the heaven world” (Katha Upanishads). It is unequivocal that Nachiketas yearns to truly comprehend the mystery of death, by Yama doubts that the young boy possesses a mindset that is reader for such an endeavor and thus is reluctant to act. He responds to him that “even the god had doubt, indeed as to this, and though oh Death, sayest that it is not easily to be understood and another declarer of it the lie to thee is not to be obtained” (Katha Upanishads). While Nachiketas clearly retains a bountiful source of boldness and is a devoted seeker, he continues to pester Yama while Yama continues misdirecting him by offering to give him wealth in the terms of worldly goods, telling him to choose to have a long life and wealth to enjoy his desires. Yama fails to entice the young boy with all of the worldly goods and bliss—indeed, Nachiketas views pompous wealth as ephemeral and vain—as he stays discipline and remains steadfast in getting answers to the deeper questions he has about knowing the nature of Atman.

In the discussion of the theory of good versus dear, Yama presents a universal, ethical approach rooted in Aristotelian thought when counseling Nachiketas about what pursuits he must take on that are considered of a higher order. He asserts that the sagacious man must be able to discern which to choose between the “pleasanter” and the “better”, and only the wise will know to emphasize the good over the dear, or knowledge (vidya) over ignorance (avidya). The philosopher Aristotle penned several discourses and treatises that examined ethical questions about what it means to be self-wise what endeavors and pursuits are deemed worthy. Both the Katha Upanishad and Aristotle would concur that the pursuit of the “good” and the “right” remain equivocal and difficult to discern. Indeed, to better comprehend the ethical philosophy promoted by Yama in Katha Upanishads, a better understanding of the ethics propagated by Aristotle and the foundations upon which he espoused his ethical precepts is necessary. The Greek concept of eudemonia, which translates to happiness and well-being manifested through exercising rationality, moral virtue, and pragmatic sagacity and can best be conceptualized as human flourishing—is at the fulcrum of Aristotelian thought (Pakaluk, 2005). Aristotle developed his philosophy of what makes a prosperous, successful human by devising action steps predicated on one’s virtue and character. In his mind, the “chief and final good” means that a person will be successful if he or she cultivates a set of virtues of intellect and set of character virtues rather than following moral laws or proscribed rules (Pakaluk, 2005). Intellectual virtue relies considerably on that precept, which can also be discerned in the Katha Upanishad when Yama espouses that wisdom and knowledge are critical components in a person’s ability to distinguish between the “dear” and the “good.” He thus ties in the mechanics of wisdon and knowledge when a person endeavors to pursue “the good.”

Aristotle’s concept of the “chief and final good” further mirrors the concept of karma yoga from the Bhagavad Gita, which further juxtaposes western and eastern religious philosophies. As cited by Pakaluk (2006), Aristotle believes that what people want is “something desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else…we never pursue the chief and final good as a means to some other good.” It is only through action and performing one’s proscribed duty that he or she can lead a flourishing life. Karma yoga, in practice, means that one must humble his or her ego, serving the community, and becoming a part of something that is bigger than the self when doing one’s duty while remaining unattached. It is through altruism and selflessness that a person can lead a contemplative life, one in which the mind and the body are separate. Such dualism is at the core of Aristotelian thought and the nature of the self that both he and the Katha Upanishads both explore.

It is this dualist ethical philosophy that Shankara provides commentary on, drawing a connection between this ethical position and the nature of the self in the way he interprets the chariot analogy. The Chariot Analogy originates from Plato’s Phaedrus who, through the mouth of Socrates, discusses Plato’s vision of ternate nature of the human psyche or soul: reason, the “thumos” (white horse), and the appetites (dark horse). Reason is supposed to work together with the white horse to pinpoint man’s “true path” and train the other horses to work synchronously in pursuit of that path (Plato, 1952). As such, it is imperative that Reason, the charioteer, have a vision and a purpose to follow. Reason must also invest ample time to thoroughly comprehend the desires and nature of the two horses if He desired to get them to fully work in concert (Plato, 1952). Symbolized by the dark horse, the appetites refer to man’s powerful, primal urges for sex, money, food, drink, and power. Plato (1952) asserts that if a man fully dedicates his life to satisfy his appetites, then his life will result in “the ruthless enslavement of the divinest part of himself to the most despicable and godless part.” However, if the dark horse and is properly reigned in and trained, the dark horse can furnish an enormous amount of energy to “drive the chariot” (Plato, 1952). Finally, Thumos is man’s primal and spirited energy and has a panoply of functions in man, including, ambition, bravery, the drive to fight, the incubator or emotion, and the drive for honor and recognition. Similar to the appetites, however, can be used for good and evil. If thumos and the appetites synced up, destruction will ensue; when harnessed and trained properly, however, they can be man’s greatest accomplices (Plato, 1952). Both western philosophy and the Katha Upanishads focus on figuring out what the best type of life in one’s current life or how man can take certain actions to create a better life in the next. As such, the parable of the Chariot is extremely powerful by evincing how complex the interplay between the mind, body, soul, intellect, and the sense is in addition to how human desire threatens to interfere with each of them.

The ideas Shankara shares in his commentary on the parable of the chariot evinces those that crystallized to form the Advaita Vedanta philosophy, as he believes in the unity of the human soul, which means that the individual people do not have a unique soul because Atman and Brahman are one. The Chariot represents Atman, according to Shankara, and so he makes the argument that both Atman and Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, are one and the same, thereby embracing the non-duality of the Ultimate Reality. The nature of the Self is Absolute, according to Sankara, and the Upanishads’ main subject matter is this very conception of the Self which starkly contrasts from how western philosophers interpret it. There are three states of the Self, something that Shankara identifies in the parable of the Chariot. As such, Shankara is seeming criticizing the Katha Upanishads by arguing against a dualistic perception of the world. In his formulation, Brahman and the individual are identical. Atman does not form just some small facet of Brahman that eventually merges back into the ultimate metaphysical reality. Rather, the entirety of Brahman is the soul. As such, man does not have an individual or unique soul that later merges back into Brahman upon death or enlightenment. The individual soul does not actual exist because there is just one Atman that is identical to Brahman. Individuals are born into a state of ignorance to a physical body with senses, which is why people are deluded into thinking that they have an individual soul.

All of these different ethical philosophies espoused in eastern philosophies differ in the conception of the self but nonetheless teach valuable lessons to people today, underscoring how certain Hindu concepts are timeless. The Katha Upanishads, part and parcel with the Bhagavad Gita, teaches us ultimately to lead virtuous lives because life is short, so we should engage in actions that will determine a positive fate not only for ourselves but for the ones we love. People are often given opportunities or changes to improve their lives, to make amends for past mistakes, and/or to redirect our lives to pursue a path on which we can achieve our dreams and desires in an ethical manner. Naciketas was fortunate enough to get such an opportunity, although it was under quite unfortunate circumstances. Lord Yama had committed a mistake, so the Naciketas was offered three chances and he took advantage of them to not only lead a contemplative life through the acquisition of knowledge but also aid his father despite being wronged by him. As a result, he was able to enjoy a peaceful life with a tranquil mind. It is important for people to be forgiving while also remaining steadfast and dogged in what we want to achieve. Katha Upanishad shows how people overcome death by understanding it and ultimately learning from it, meaning that death teaches us invaluable lessons, the most important being that we cannot take life for granted. Moreover, we should not become so attached to material objects; rather, our purpose is to fully comprehend our existence and take advantage of opportunities to gain more knowledge. It is important to make peace with the reality that we all die.

References

Davids, R.T.W. (1899). “The Theory of ‘Soul’ in the Upanishads.” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. January, 71-87.

Fowler, J. (2002). Perspectives of Reality. Brighton.

Friedrichs, K. (1989). The encyclopedia of eastern philosophy and religion. Boston: Shambala.

Katha Upanishads. Retrieved from https://arshabodha.org/wp-content/uploads/abc/teachings/Kathopanishad/kathaTrans1.pdf

Pakaluk, M. (2005). Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics: An introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univsity Press.

Plato. (1952). Plato’s Phaedrus. Cambridge :University Press,

Sargeant, W. (2009). The Bhagavad Gītā. Albany. State University of New York Press.

Schiltz, E. (2006). Two chariots: The justification of the best life in the Katha Upanishad and Plato’s Phaedrus. Philosophy East & West, 56(3), 451-468.

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