The Upanisads are a collection of texts, initially oral, that were written down by one or more editors. Scholars suggest the Chandogya was one of the earliest Upanisads produced, written around the 6th century BCE (Olivelle 1996: xxxii). The Upanisads along with The Vedas, Brahmanas, and Aranyakas constitute what is considered sruti, or divinely revealed texts, by most Hindus. The Samaveda is a collection of texts to be sung by Udgatr priests, while doing soma sacrifices. The Chandogya Upanisad is an attempt to find the, “cosmic and ritual correspondence of the Saman” (Olivelle 1996: 95). The Saman is the Samaveda hymn of the soma ritual. The Chandogya Upanisad has been very influential in establishing Hindu cosmology and represents, according to some Hinduism scholars, “the transition from the archaic ritualism of the Veda into new religious ideas and institutions” (Olivelle 1996: xxiii). In general, what differentiates the Upanisads from other sruti texts are attempts to reveal the hidden truths of the rituals and chants of the Vedas (Olivelle 1996: Lii).
There are many different hidden truths revealed in the Chandogya Upanisad, but no other passage has seemed to be more influential than the story of Uddalaka and his son Svetaketu (Chandogya 6. 1-16). Svetaketu attended school in his youth learning the Vedas but came back seemingly unable to grasp the hidden meanings of the Vedas according to his father Uddalaka (Singh 45). Uddalaka taught Svetaketu that the true self, Atman, is like the water in a river, a river could be polluted, dry up, or flow into the sea. The river is just a form that water takes, and river is simply the name given to that form of water. However, the water is still water no matter what form it takes, even if it is in a cloud, a raindrop, or an ocean. Just like the water in the river, the self transfers to different bodies and can be polluted by worldly distractions, ultimately it is still the inner self (Singh 47). Uddalaka told his son to put a lump of salt into a container full of water (Chandogya 6. 13). The next day Uddalaka asked Svetaketu to retrieve the salt, but it was gone. Uddalaka asked his son to taste the water in many different places, it was salty everywhere. Uddalaka taught his son the salt was like Atman. One cannot see the salt, but it is there, it is everywhere. This helped Svetaketu, who is able to eventually realize his true self and is ultimately able to liberate himself from samsaric existence, attaining what Hindus call moksa.
The other philosophical concept often paired with Atman is Brahman, the ultimate reality of everything material. Atman is essentially Brahman, what this means is that the true self is Brahman. Brahman is the infinitely pervasive true nature of everything. Brahman is everywhere, and constitutes all aspects of the universe. [A clear explanation of Brahman occurs in the Mundaka Upanisad, “Brahman alone here extends to the east; Brahman, to the west; it alone to the south, to the north, it alone extends above and below; it is Brahman alone that extends over the whole universe, up to its widest extent” (Olivelle 1996: 274).]
The fact that Brahman has this pervasive nature has led some scholars to consider the philosophy of the Upanisads to be considered pantheistic because god, “is both the universe as unified totality and something one in the same, appropriately regarded as divine, existing as the inner core of everything. And this whole and shared essence are said to be somehow identical” (Sprigge 192). In contrast, Gods in western religions are seen to be superior to people, separate, and the creators of everything except for themselves (Sprigge 193). In this way western religions are dualistic, gods and humans are separate entities. On the other hand pantheistic theologies, like those contained in the Upanisads, are considered non-dualistic in that god, or Brahman, is all encompassing. While pantheism is an effective concept that can be used to understand the philosophy of the Chandogya, it should be noted that not all Hindu philosophies are considered pantheist.
The story of Uddalaka and Svetaketu is an example of an important feature of the Chandogya. It shows the literary technique often used in the Chandogya to convey messages, where a teacher, or guru, instructs a student, or sisya. However, a guru is not a teacher in the way westerners might think. A guru is: a spiritual instructor, an analyst, a fatherly figure, sometimes even seen as semi-divine (Mlecko 34). Ultimately, the main focus of a guru is to transmit the most fundamental spiritual meanings of Hinduism to their student. Gurus are often considered crucial to the attainment of spiritual goals and realizations for anyone (Mlecko 34). The necessity of a guru in attaining holy information is seen in the Chandogya 4. 7-15, when Indra, a god, and Virochana, a demon, visit Prajapati. Both Indra and Virochana initially spend thirty-two years learning about Atman with Prajapati, a great guru. Both god and demon leave after thirty-two years believing they understood Atman. Upon further reflection Indra realized he needed more time with his guru, and he ended up spending a total of one hundred and one years with his guru. Indra was constantly reworking his understandings of Atman. Ultimately, because Indra spent more time learning the spiritual necessities from Prajapati he received a much fuller understanding of Atman then his demon counterpart Virochana.
In the Chandogya 1.3.6-7, another idea is created that helps set the cosmological foundations of the varna, or class, system. This passage says that all things are made of three essential bits: brilliance, water and food and this relationship can be seen throughout the world. For example fire has these three elements, the brilliance is associated with the flames. The smoke is associated with water, or steam. The food is associated with the firewood. This relationship extends to all things in the cosmos, including the classes. The Brahmins associated with brilliance, heaven and flames; the Ksatriyas associated with water, clouds and steam; the Vaisyas associated with wood, food and agricultural labour (Lincoln 129). People who have had their consciousness altered by the same cosmic understanding are trained to accept this understanding in all of its occurrences (Lincoln 139). In this sense, the cosmology outlined in the Chandogya has agency because to this day the text still has an effect on how Hindu society arranges itself into the varna system.
It is also important to note, along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Badarayana Sutra, the Upanisads were fundamental in establishing what is known as Vedanta philosophy (Hiriyanna 151). Vedanta literally means, “end of the Vedas” (Hiriyanna 151), and refers to the final portion of the Vedas, the Upanisads. However, the meaning of Vedanta has changed over time, now the term is synonymous with the general conclusions of the Vedas (Hiriyana 151). Vedanta has many different interpretations of the same influential texts, consequently 3 major Vedanta philosophies arose: Samkara’s Advaita, Ramanuja’s Visistadvaita, and Madvha’s Dvaita (Hiriyana 152). These philosophies have different cosmological understandings because each of them had a different interpretation of the same foundational texts.
The Chandyoga is a very influential text, partly because of its ability to articulate the nature of Brahman and Atman. Scholars have studied the meanings associated with the Chandogya vigorously. For a long time in western countries, the philosophy contained in the Chandogya has often been over represented essentially as the philosophy of Hinduism. While there is no doubt that the Chandogya is one of the most influential philosophical texts, the Hindu religion is much too vast and variable to be considered having one fundamental philosophy.
References and Further Recommended Reading
Hiriyana, M. (1949) The Essentials of Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen and Unwin.
Kunst, Arnold (1976) “Indeterminism Versus Determinism: The Seventh Prapathaka of the Chandogya Upanisad.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1: 67-72.
Lincoln, Bruce (2006) “How to Read a Religious Text: Reflections of Some Passages of the Chandogya Upanisad.” History of Religions, Vol. 46, No. 2 (November): 127-139.
Mlecko, Joel D. (1982) “The Guru in the Hindu Tradition.” Numen, Vol. 29, No. 1 (July): 33-61.
Olivelle, Patrick (1996) Upanisads. New York: Oxford University Press.
Olivelle, Patrick (1996)“Dharmaskandhaaḥ and Brahmasaṃsthaḥ: A Study of Chandogya Upaniṣad 2.23.1.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 116 No. 2 (April): 205-219.
Olivelle, Patrick (1999) “Young Svetaketu: A Literary Study of an Upanisadic Story.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 119 No. 1 (January): 46-70.
Singh, Balbir (1983) The Philosophy of Upanishads. New Jersey: Humanities Press.
Sprigge, T.L.S. (1997) “Pantheism.” The Monist, Vol. 80 No. 2 (April): 191-217.
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Article written by Brendan Bloomfield (March 2013) who is solely responsible for this content.