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- The Upanishads as a collection of stories about recognizable people

Crisis and Knowledge: The Upanishadic Experience and Storytelling By Yohanan Grinshpon, Oxford, Rs 395

How should one read the enigmatic corpus of texts known as the Upanishads' These texts have been described variously as expressions of the highest form of self-knowledge mankind is capable of on the one hand, and a tissue of obscure metaphysical contortions on the other hand. Even the Indian tradition of commentary on the Upanishads, from Sankara to Kapali Sastry, from Tagore to Radhakrishnan mines these texts largely for their metaphysical truths, as it were: the coming to self-knowledge of the atman, the ringing declaration of tat tvam asi and so forth. Piety apart, most mortals who read the Upanishads are left bewildered by these claims. While their monumental status is acknowledged and they are often trotted out as some kind of ultimate wisdom, most of us are unsure what these claims have to do with our existential predicament. They hover above us, as disembodied, mysterious and exalted as the Brahaman they claim to represent.

Yohanan Grinshpon’s slim volume provides an altogether novel way of reading the Upanishads. Most commentators, he argues, completely ignore the characters in the Upanishads. The characters, the plot lines, the narrative structure are seen as largely instrumental or irrelevant to the metaphysical truths these texts express. Grinshpon argues that the ambiguities, hesitations, conflicts of the various characters in the Upanishads are not merely external devices to provide the occasion for deep philosophical pronouncements. Rather, their stories are themselves, in some sense, the truths that the Upanishads are meant to express. The flash of insight into truth, the sense of self-awareness, is unintelligible without the narrative context which frames it. Enlightenment is an event within the biographies of the characters presented. The force of a proposition like tat tvam asi, cannot be understood if it is presented as a timeless truth, detached from any biography or person, detached from the evolving self-awareness of a subject. After all, the text is addressed to particular characters. It says tat tvam asi, Shvetaketu. The reader cannot, on this view, follow the meaning of the grand eternal truths, without the biographical context. Grinshpon is not denying that these texts can be read purely philosophically; nor is he, explicitly at any rate, challenging the claim that these texts might express eternal truths. What he is suggesting is that these truths bear an intimate relationship to the existential predicament of characters; and without unpacking the relationship the truths will appear bloodless, dry and distant.

Grinshpon then reads the Upanishads much as one would read a novel. Characters have crisis, they have sentiments and dispositions and in coming to terms with them, they acquire a form of self-knowledge. The only difference is that the form of self-knowledge that is an event in the character’s life in the Upanishads is intimately connected to the highest truth. Grinshpon is also unusual in suggesting that the realization of the Self, or the sense that “Thou art that” does not, even within the texts themselves, rest to doubt all existential discomforts and perplexities, and he is particularly severe on the tradition of commentary, both Indian and Western that irons out all the doubts and hesitations of the characters to whom this knowledge is addressed.

In Grinshpon’s reading, the Upanishads come alive with memorable and multi-dimensional human characters. Jabala, Shvetaketu, Nachiketa, Maitreyi, Yajnavalka, Satyakama, Jansruti become more than the single-minded and somewhat ponderous characters of traditional readings whose individuality is of no import to understanding the message of the text. It is, indeed, the specificity of their predicament that gives the Upanishads and the truths they reveal their pathos. There is, for instance, a wonderfully sensitive reading of the story of Jabala and Satyakama in which Jabala’s conflicts, that lead her to not reveal to her son his true lineage, become indispensable to the final truths the story reveal. In Grinshpon’s reading, it is the small facts in these stories that monumental commentators like Sankara and Radhakrishnan often gloss over that reveal the complicated process of self-discovery. Much like David Shulman, whose influence on this work seems profound, Grinshpon successfully argues that a literary approach to such texts is not incompatible with an understanding of their profound moral and philosophical truths, indeed it might be indispensable to them.

The book is also a very useful and fair minded survey of all the alternative approaches to the Upanishads taken as a whole or in parts. The Upanishads emerge also as texts more profoundly about recognizable people, not just a collection of mahakavyas whose authority is ritually invoked. And although Grinshpon is harsh on the philosophers for effacing the literary suppleness of these texts, his attempts to suggest that we cannot understand the message of the Upanishads without understanding the men and women in crisis to whom these truths are expressed is surely right. After all, is it an accident that one of the great modern Hindi novels, Hazariprasad Dwivedi’s Anamdas Ka Potha, could have an Upanishadic character as its central figure' To recognize the self does not require erasing the “selves” whose crises produce a quest for knowledge in the first place.

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