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Dialogue II: Teacher-pupil exchanges in the Upanisads

“Just as the plot or story of my own life is created by other people – the heroes of my life, so aesthetic vision of the world, its image, is created only by consummated or consummatable lives of other people who are the heroes of this world. The first and foremost condition for an aesthetic approach to this world is to understand it as the world of other people who have accomplished their lives in it…”
Mikhail Bakhtin, Art and Answerability p111

Tantric texts often present subjects in the form of a dialogue between two parties – the Virupaksapancasika for example, is framed as a dialogue between Siva and Indra – or the BrhatNila Tantra which is written as a dialogue between Mahakalabhairava and Mahakali. Texts such as these can be thought of as an instance of what Amartya Sen (The Argumentative Indian) has referred to as India’s “argumentative tradition” of heterodox debate, and one of the earliest textual sources for the dialogic form of knowledge in India is the Upanisads.

The earliest of the Upanisads – texts such as the Chandogya Upanisad, the Taittiriya Upanisad and the Kausitaki Upanisad are thought to have been composed between the 8th-6th centuries, BCE (there are of course, hundreds of texts known as Upanisads composed long after the Vedic period). The early Upanisads are generally seen as marking the beginning of enquiry into a number of “philosophical” questions concerning the nature of self, what happens at death, and how one should approach life. The term Upanisad is often translated as “to sit down near” (upa – “near” + ni “down” + sad “to sit”) – evoking the image of the pupil sitting at the teacher’s feet. However, some scholars have argued that an etymological breakdown of the term is not sufficient, and, pointing to the contextual use of the term, point out that Upanisad relates to the wider idea of a connection or relationship between objects – presented in a hierarchical arrangement. Patrick Olivelle, for example, points to the Upanisad as a foundational or connecting power in a hierarchy, and that it came to refer to secret or esoteric teachings that passed between pupil and teacher.

Historically, scholars have tended to focus their attention on the “content” of the Upanisadic texts – on the “knowledge” rather than the dialogic context in which they are framed. Yohanan Grinshpon’s Crisis and Knowledge: The Upanishadic Experience and Storytelling (Oxford University Press, 2003) provides a useful corrective to this tendency, as Grinshpon argues that the ““reality and otherness of the Upanishadic universe is transmitted, above all, by the storytelling and narrative of the Upanishads” – that the speakers of the texts are not so much discussing abstract knowledge and timeless truths impersonally, but attempting to resolve or alleviate real-life issues. The Upanisads draw attention not only to particular forms of knowledge, but the very process of how and to and by whom that knowledge is transmitted. As Brian Black (2007) points out:

“When we pay attention to these details, we see that the narratives not only contextualize the teachings, but also characterize the knowledge, and outline how and by whom these teachings should be practiced in the social world. While the teachings emphasize the Atman, the dialogues reinforce this focus on the individual by presenting us with specific selves, the literary characters. In this way, the distinct characters and how they achieve selfhood are an integral part of the Upanishadic discourses about the self. As such, the Upanishadic notion of self is not merely a philosophical insight, but a way of being in the world.”
The Character of the Self in Ancient India: Priests, Kings and Women in the Early Upanisads (State University of New York 2007, p2-3)

Black also points out that the characters in the early Upanisads are human – their actions taking place in the human world – discussing and debating, offering hospitality, and exchanging greetings, in real locations in ancient India (a contrast to the later tantric texts, where the dialogue tends to be between deities). Not only are the Upanisadic exchanges rooted in everyday life, but they also draw on and develop the characters of established well-known authoratitive figures in Vedic life. As much as the Upanisads relate their teachings to specific individuals, they also highlight the social aspect of the transmission of knowledge – philosophy/knowledge is something which is gained through debate, negotiation, and argument. Although – as Black notes, many Upanisadic teachings address the concern for knowledge of self – this is achieved through dialogue with others. The Upanisads, Black contends, are as much concerned with teaching etiquette and the proper behaviour for the transmission of knowledge as they are with the “knowledge” itself – knowledge which is often explicitly represented as “secret” – something which cannot be learned in isolation, but only from a proper teacher within very specific social situations – an injunction which is commonly found in later tantric texts. Again, as is found in tantric narratives, in the Upanisads, teachers often display a reluctance to teach, whilst students display the proper ideals of eagerness and honesty. A common strand in Upanisadic dialogues is that teachers are critical of both the rote performance of ritual, and of the condition of being a brahmin entirely by virtue of birth, rather than attaining brahminhood via knowledge and learning.

One of the features of the Upanisads which distinguishes them from earlier texts is the emphasis on the relationship between the establishment of authority through teaching & debating rather than ritual expertise alone.

“The teacher is the first form. The student is the latter form. Knowledge is their junction. Instruction is the connection.”
Taittiriya Upanisad

The Upanisads also mark a new emphasis on genealogies of teachers and students – even though, as Black points out, many of the teaching episodes present themselves as new forms of knowledge – and on the discursive activity of teaching itself, the genealogical lists of teachers grants an authority to the teachings. Moreover, these teaching lineages become as important – if not more so, than family lineages. Such lineage claims had the effect of legitimising a teacher’s knowledge by inferring that it was not merely their individual opinion, but supported by tradition and historical process. The Chandogya Upanisad for example, asserts that “the honey doctrine” originated with Brahma, who transmitted it to Prajapati, who instructed Manu in it, who in turn gave it to Uddalaka Aruni – and as with other Upanisadic texts, there is the caveat that this teaching should only be passed to a son or a worthy student, and no one else. Again, this is a theme often encountered in tantric texts.

The idea that identity or status as a knowledgeable brahmin is conferred by relationship to a teacher, rather than birth status alone is illustrated by the story of Satyakama in the Chandogya Upanisad. Here, Satyakama, desirous of studying with a teacher, asks his mother Jabala about his birth lineage (gotra). She replies that she does not know because in her youth she moved around a lot, and consequently did not know who his father was (in some versions of this story there is the implication that Jabala had to “sell her body to survive”). She instructs Satyakama to present himself as Satyakama Jabala. Satyakama, when presenting himself to his teacher Haridrumata and – on being asked his lineage – recounts what his mother told him, and is thereby accepted. One common explanation for this is that by telling the truth in this fashion, Satyakama effectively reveals himself to be a brahmin by parentage – because only a brahmin would act in such a truthful way, which is why Haridrumata agrees to initiate him. Another explanation is that one who speaks truthfully is considered a Brahmana, irrespective of birth status. Satyakama in turn becomes a great sage, and during the course of a lengthy task performed at the behest of his teacher – looking after four hundred sickly emaciated cows (Satyakama promises he will not return until the herd has become a thousand) he is given a number of teachings about Brahman-nature by fire, a bull, a cormorant, and a goose. Upon his return to his teacher, Haridrumata welcomes Satyakama and remarks that he shines “like a man who knows Brahma” – and asks who has taught him. Satyakama replies that he was taught by “other beings” but adds that he still wishes to be taught by Haridrumata, because it is knowledge from one’s teacher which gives the best results:

“Son, you have the glow of a man who knows brahman! Tell me–who taught you?
Other than human beings,’ he acknowledged. ‘But, if it pleases you, sir, you should teach it to me yourself, for I have heard from people of your eminence that knowledge leads one most securely to the goal only when it is learnt from a teacher.’ So he explained it to him, and, indeed, he did so without leaving anything out.” (translation, Patrick Olivelle, 1996)

One comment

  1. Nath Yogi
    Posted October 24th 2010 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    Nice presentation of Guru-disciple relationship!