Hindu Scriptures

Methodology of Upanishads

The Upanishads have their own unique style. Their exposition is in four different ways:

  1. Dialogue with questions and answers.

  2. Narration and episodes.

  3. Similes, metaphors and illustrations.

  4. Symbolism.

Normally, it is not difficult to ascertain the purport of the texts in the first two types. In some cases, the questions and answers are of the reductio-ad-absurdum type and the correct conclusion has to be drawn. In the cases 3 and 4, it is more difficult to ascertain the purport, as which aspect or shade of meaning of the simile or illustration is being used to illustrate the meaning. However, clues are available in the wording of similes etc and also in the following passages. These have been exploited effectively by Sri Madhva in his interpretations. Symbolisms employed by the Upanishads are essentially of 3 types -- Nature symbolism, sacrifices and sacrificial items used as symbols, and mystic sound syllables such as Aum being used as symbols. These need careful study. Many symbols, similies, illustrations, and episodes are repeated in different Upanishads, sometimes with slight changes. A good many verses are also repeated. The correct meaning can be derived by applying the supreme test of consistency to the different occurences, in addition to the other criteria mentioned earlier.

The Brahma Sutra indicates three main guidelines to understand the purport of the Upanishads:

  1. tattu samanvayaat.h -- The total material available on the point of study in the entire Shruti literature has to be taken into account and interpreted correctly by applying the canons of interpretation.

  2. gati samaanyaat.h -- All the Shruti literature have the same purport and apparent contradictions are resolved by proper study and interpretation.

  3. sarvavedaantapratyayam.h -- The underlying purport of the Upanishads is found to be one consistent truth, which when understood fully will lead to God-realization.

It is only the lack of utilisation of the guidelines fully and properly that has led many commentators to derive Monism and Absolutism out of Vedanta. Traditional monistic commentators had a committed approach towards "proving" their school irrespective of the actual correct meanings derived from Vedanta texts. Modern neo-Vedantic scholars have very limited equipment in terms of knowledge and intelligence with which to exhaustively use the critical apparatus, and have hence made a thorough mess in their interpretations, which often conflict with or misinterpret the positions adopted by the senior scholars whose lead they are supposed to be following.

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