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Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Self in the Upaniṣad

How far does the narrative structure influence the philosophical content of a text? And can they contradict each other?

The first paper discussed at the conference "Self: Hindu Responses to Buddhist Critiques" was Brian Black's "The rhetoric of Self in the Upaniṣads and Majjhima Nikāya". Notwithstanding the generic title, Black focused on two among the most ancient Upaniṣads, that is the BĀUp and the ChUp.
One of his main points was the stress on the plurality of voices in the Upaniṣads. Sometimes the ātman is described as passive, others as dynamic and these diverse theories cannot be reduced to one.
Hence, in order to make sense of them it is better to take into account their literary and social dimension. In this connection, Black frequently mentioned Bronkhorst's theory as exposed in his Greater Māgadha. Bronkhorst maintains that there were two distinct cultures at the time of the Upaniṣad/Pāli Canon, a brahmanical one in the North West and a "śramaṇic" one around Māgadha, with the first bearing no influence on the latter. Black suggests that this theory make help us to make sense of seeming exceptions, such as the Sāṅkhya system (which, according to Bronkhorst, belongs to the Greater Māgadha culture and not to the brahmanic one, hence its stress on duḥkha).
However, I am not sure whether Black's own paper supports Bronkhorst's view, since Black acutely showed how the contents of the theory of the self in the Upaniṣads and in the Majjhima Nikāya are utterly different, although their narrative frames are often quite similar. Moreover, in the Nikāya theories about non-self are debated in "rehearsals" for verbal encounters with opposers ("if someone should ask you this, you should answer that"). The main audience is made of monks and nuns, often anticipating such possible confrontations. Although Black stated that there are no examples of direct confrontations with Brahmans, the dialectic context seems to me to point to deeper interactions than envisaged by Bronkhorst. Moreover, Black showed how the Buddhist discours on the non-self shares many points in common with the Upaniṣadic rhetoric of the self (Upaniṣadic metaphors, for instance, are reversed; and dialectic stategies are repeated –although with a different purpose).
Last, Black's respondant, Kate Wharton, asked whether it is not that the Buddhist emphasis on the charismatic Buddha implicitly contradicts the rhetoric of non-self, whereas the Upaniṣadic plurality contradicts the rhetoric of a single self. In fact, maintains K.Wharton, both Buddhists and Brahmans agree that the self is not the body, nor is it sensations, etc. What, hence, really distinguishes the two sorts of texts is the cohesive narrative of the Nikāyas, which are built around the Buddha as philosophical hero. He is the real "glue" of the Nikāyas, more and over the non-self doctrine.

10 comments:

Jayarava said...

Interesting. I have come to similar conclusions recently, i.e that the conception of self in the Buddhist texts bares no discernible relationship to the Upaniṣadic ātman. This is quite a problem because that is we are lead by tradition to believe that the Buddha was responding to the Brahmins in his teachings on ātman. I don't think he can have been.

The Buddhist texts completely fail to get the main point of the Upaniṣads, which is that ātman is identical with brahman and that it is this knowledge which can liberate from the cycles of redeath (as BU calls it). Brahmins in the Buddhist Canon seem unaware of the Upaniṣads (no Brahmin mentions ātman for instance), and are concerned with sacrifice, sun worship and caste differences. They are old Vedic Brahmins.

Clearly there are echoes of Upaniṣadic themes in the Pāli texts, but I think we need to reassess the evidence to see how much of a connection there was.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks for this interesting comment, Jayarava, and most of all thanks for sharing it.
You seem to agree with Bronkhorst's thesis –and your arguments are intriguing (especially the one about the kind of Brahmans one meets in the Pāli Canon). However, I think that B.Black's analysis of the rhetoric strategies might also be interesting. And this shows that old Upaniṣads and Nikāyas share often similar structures –interestingly enough, exactly while dealing with the ātman/anatta.
For instance (again, I'm here just repeating Black's arguments), both list all the elements which the ātman is not (it is not earth, not water, nor air…. Or: it is not the body, it is not sensation, …). Further, they share a similar pattern of repetition (Uddālaka's neti neti or Yājñavalkya's tat tvam asi which, according to R. Gethin, is addressed to by the Buddha in Mahārāhulovāda Sutta MN 62 by saying "it is not that" repeatedly).

Perhaps it might be illuminating to check whether these rhetoric devices where common among "old Vedic Brahmnis" too. What do you think?

sujanasi said...

Very interesting. Isn't it possible, that the plurality of the Upanishad follows the plurality of the Vedas (the so-called kathenotheism)?
In fact this plurality doesn't contradict the concept of the unique self, because different concepts can be considered as different attitudes towards this self. On the other hand Buddha's harismatic image certainly appeared as a result of some social processes in Buddhist community, not as a logical consequence of his teaching.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Evgenija,
thanks for these interesting comments. Still, I *wonder* (I am not sure, and I am not an expert, hence I would be glad to read others' opinions) whether as for the kathenotheism we are not doing some sort of backwards-interpretation. That is, knowing the Advaita Vedānta's stance and the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, we reinterpret Upaniṣadic statements which were meant to be mutually exclusive.
As for the Buddha, you are probably right, although I woudl be happy to read the opinion of a Theravāda Buddhist. Still, the narratological point Wharton was making holds: are Buddhists the ones who follow the Buddha, or the ones who uphold anatta? The two claims seem somehow in contrast. And shifting the contrast from the individual (Buddha) to the community does not entirely solve it, in my opinion.

Jayarava said...

Does B. Black have a website, or any published work I could consult? A contact email? You could email me at [my name in lowercase]@yahoo.com.

I wonder whether structural similarities aren't simply features of Indian literature. We know for instance that certain Dhammapada verse are shared by the Jains, and the Mahābharata - which K.R. Norman suggests means that they were all drawing on a pan-Indian pool of wisdom verses, rather than borrowing from each other. Part of our problem is that we don't know much about the period before the Buddhist texts, and their dates are not very certain.

I'm interested to follow up Black's ideas more directly.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Jayarava,
you can find much interesting info on B.Black on his university's page:
http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/faculty/profiles/Brian-Black/
(by the way, you can find my email address on my page on academia).
As for the content of your comment, you are right, in order to better evaluate structural (or "narratological" similarities) one should be able to rule out the chance that they were even at such an early time just pan-Indian features. I might guess that B.Black does not endorse this view because he seems rather appreciative in regard to Bronkhorst's theory of two separate cultural areas ("Greater Māgadha" standing relatively on its own).

sujanasi said...

Dear Elisa, probably I have used the term 'kathenotheism' in my own way)), as I did not intend to interpret the Upanishads, following the Advaita-vedanta and similar later concepts. I just meant there were different heuristic attitudes towards the self and ways of upasana, expounded by different sages in shramanic community. And this plurality was in some way similar to the plurality of the Vedas, where in the context of every single hymn the deity of that hymn is considered to be the most important one.
As far as I know, the texts of the older Upanishads have never been systemized, whereas Pali texts were edited and interpreted, in order to make a single non-controversial teaching. In this process Buddha's authority must have been a forcible argument to prove one or another point of view in a controversy. Though, you are certainly right, that social dimension of Buddhism must be taken into account on par with philosophical.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Evgenija,
you are certainly right, successive edition is a significant step. I am not sure that the Upaniṣad have not been edited, but they have probably not been edited as the Canon of a certain Religion (by the way, it would be interesting to understand how "single" Buddhism has ever been). My point is: did the authors of a certain Vedic hymn believe that, e.g., Agni was the supreme Deity only while composing the hymn? Or does the plurality of "supreme Gods" rather represent the plurality of views held by various composers? Similarly, the various Upaniṣadic teachings might be diverse since they have been held by different thinkers. Do you think they explicitly took into account the possibility of different views being held on the same theme, due to the intrinsic complexity of it?

sujanasi said...

Dear Elisa, as for the first question, it seems to me, appeal to every single deity was considered to be effective in certain cases. E.g. if you want to get rid of fever, you must appeal to Varuna, not to Agni. The idea of the correspondance between the plurality of gods and plurality of views does not seem appropriate, as, if I am not mistaken, there were hymns to different deities, ascribed to one and the same rishi.
As for the Upanishadic teachings, I think, they were really held by different thinkers, often being rival to each other. Still they operated in one and the same problematic area, dealing with similar questions. But Upanishadic community seems to be more heterogenios, than the Vedic.

elisa freschi said...

yes, you are right as for the Saṃhitā milieu. I am just sorry I am not conversant enough with the Vedic literature (including the Upaniṣads). I'ld be happy to read/discuss it more.

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