The Upanishads: the Self and the Absolute
The Upanishads are a set of classical Sanskrit texts that became a fountainhead of later rich and varied South Asian traditions like Buddhism, Jainism, and the multiple traditions known today as “Hindu.” Initially oral commentaries on respective sections of the Vedas, the Upanishads stretch from meditations on the meanings of rituals to the first full exposition of now common concepts like karma, understood as a moral and material process inextricably linking human with non-human life and action. The Principal Upanishads (the Mukhya Upanishads) present a pluralistic exploration of ideas about the “self” (atman) and its relations to the body, the mind, and consciousness, as well as to the world, the cosmos, and a transcendent “absolute” reality (brahman). Combining natural philosophical inquiry into life and death and the workings of the body with questions about how we acquire knowledge—from deduction to comparison, introspection, and debate—the Upanishads unfold through a variety of literary forms, in both poetry and prose: dialogues with sages, myths, polemics, riddles, parables, prayers, debates, and disquisitions. How does this fertile philosophical vocabulary, its discursive and poetic language, help or hinder contemporary notions of material life, as well as common ethical and epistemological frameworks?
In this course, we will read and discuss the Principal Upanishads in all their variety of form and content. We will ask: What makes and increases a self, and what wounds and diminishes a self? What are the powers, claims, and limits of the body? What are the senses of dreams? What happens at death? How is the sun like honey? Does the heart contain all that is real? What can it mean to proclaim that the essence of the individual “I” (atman) is at the same time an expression of the absolute (brahman)? Throughout our conversations, we will consider the social background of the Upanishads, as well as their relation to the larger Vedas, and, looking across traditions often theorized to have influenced each other, we will ask: how does the thought of the Upanishads compare with relatively contemporaneous Greek pre-Socratic philosophy and Platonic thought? What can we learn from such comparisons, and what can these texts mean today?
Course ScheduleWednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
July 13 — August 03, 2022