How the Upanishads Were Introduced to the World

Wisdom of the Upanishads

by Jayaram V

It may be interesting to know that the Upanishads were introduced to the world by two people who lived in different times, belonged to different cultures, spoke different languages and were unknown to each other. They were able to do so because they were open minded and transcended the intolerance and prejudices of their times appreciate the knowledge and culture that were alien to them and different from theirs. Apart from them, several historical developments also played a significant role in their dissemination. In this essay we will explore how the secret knowledge of the Upanishads became introduced outside India and the people who were responsible for it

For a very long time, the knowledge of the Upanishads remained confined to a few people. The earliest Upanishads were probably meant to teach the hidden symbolism of the Vedic rituals or the secrets associated with them. Hence, you will find some of the Upanishads as a part of the Brahmanas or Aranyakas. However, as time went by, they because more spiritual in nature which coincided with the internalization of Vedic rituals and the emergence of many ascetic movements, schools of philosophies, Shramanic traditions, Buddhism, Jainism, etc.

In Vedic times, the Upanishads were taught mainly to those who wanted to know the hidden significance of the rituals or pursue liberation. Hence, they were taught strictly according to merit or inclination. Since the teachers who possessed the knowledge of them were rare, students had difficulty finding the right ones and obtain the right knowledge. The Upanishads themselves reveal how seekers of knowledge such as Janaka, Ajatashatru, Janasruti, Svetaketu Aruneya, Uddalaka Aruneya, etc., had difficulty finding the right teachers to teach them the secrets of Self and liberation.

By definition as well tradition, the knowledge of the Upanishads was meant to be taught in person, which signifies the importance and secrecy associated with it. At least in the early Vedic period the knowledge was unknown to the householders until they completed their obligatory duties and retired to forests to prepare for renunciation (sannyasa) which constituted the fourth and final phase of their lives. Without a written scrip, the knowledge of the Upanishads could be learned only from qualified teachers who were rare to find and who imposed many conditions upon the students before accepting them. Even those teachers had knowledge of only a few Upanishads.

In spite of these difficulties, the knowledge of the Upanishads survived for centuries although in fragmentary form mainly due to the effort of numerous Vedic scholars, teachers and ascetic traditions. They were studied and commented upon by numerous scholars. Some of their works are still available. However, due to the secrecy associated with them, the Upanishadic knowledge remained obscure and unknown outside the Indian subcontinent. It was only in the later medieval period their knowledge began to spread. The person who played an important role in introducing the Upanishads to the western world was neither Max Mueller nor Sir William Jones, but Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shajahan. A man of varied interests and talents, he was brought up on the ideals of tolerance and open-mindedness as inspired by Akbar, his great grandfather, who was known for his religious catholicity and spiritual bent of mind.

He was introduced to the knowledge of the Upanishads in 1640 when he visited Kashmir. His interest in them remained as is evident from the fact that in 1656 he invited to Delhi several Sanskrit scholars from Varanasi to assist him in the translation of about 50 Upanishads into Persian. The work was completed two years and a few months later in 1657. Unfortunately, no further progress happened as he was brutally killed in a war of succession by his brother Aurangzeb, a religious bigot who wanted to rule the empire according to the established tenets of Islam. In his brief span of life, Dara Shikoh played a significant role in the preservation and transmission of the sacred knowledge of the Upanishads and introduce them to the Persian scholars and the outside world.

About a century later, in 1775 a copy of the Persian manuscript reached the hands of Anquetil Duperron, through an intermediary from M. Gentil, who was a resident at the court of Siraj Ud Daula. Duperron was a French scholar of Oriental studies. He secured another copy of the same translation from another source to establish their authenticity and accuracy. After comparing both the texts, he translated the Upanishads from Persian into French and Latin and published them two volumes. The Latin version of them was published in 1801 and 1802 respectively under the title, "Oupnek'hat." The French edition remained unpublished.

Oupenk’hat was the first foray into the wisdom of the Upanishads by the western scholars. Duperron’s translation was inaccurate and unintelligible in several respects. Yet, it attracted the attention of a few scholars in Europe. The most prominent among them was Schopenhauer. Greatly moved by what he read, he proclaimed to the Western world the greatness of the Upanishads and their importance in the spiritual development of the human consciousness. His own philosophical views were also influenced by them. Moved by their wisdom and spiritual depth, he stated that in the whole world there was no study, except that of the originals, so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Oupnekhat. He admitted that it was the solace of his life and would be the solace of his death! His appreciation of the Upanishads was genuine, considering that he was not particularly drawn to any other aspect of Indian literature, sculpture or architecture, which he found "tasteless and monstrous." He also felt that Christianity would never be able to push aside the wisdom of the Upanishads. “On the contrary, Indian wisdom” would “fall back upon Europe, and produce a thorough change in” their “knowing and thinking.”

From then on, the knowledge of the Upanishads and their popularity grew in the western world due to the work of many scholars and religious teachers. Today, they are regarded as one of the most valuable scriptures of the world. They also form the basis of numerous teacher traditions and religious movements. However, in his lifetime, Schopenhauer himself had fewer admirers in Europe, since his ideas were considered radical and unconventional. Hence, his admiration for the Upanishads went largely unnoticed. In the subsequent centuries, Oupnekhat or the Upanishads received little attention from the European scholars. Most of them were drawn to Christian, Roman or Greek studies and paid little attention to the knowledge that came from other sources. The prejudice still exists in some circles. If you go to any library in the USA or Europe, and look for books on Indian philosophy, religion or history, you will not find many. It is as if that part of history never happened or not worth studying.

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