The Upanishadic Vision of the Human

PHIL 224
The Upanishadic Vision of the Human
THNs: Some Common Features
As we will see, theories of human nature typically include some
common elements. Identifying these elements will help us
appreciate what specific theories have to offer us.
Though not every theory we will consider includes specific
consideration of each element, it is helpful to focus on these four.
Metaphysics and Ontology: All THNs assume and/or argue for some
account of the nature of reality and our specific place in it. It is these
basic ‘truths’ that provide the foundation for the other elements of
the theory.
Crisis: Generally, THNs highlight features of reality and/or our specific
nature that are less than ideal, generating problems or challenges that
we need to address.
Diagnosis: In the recognition of these challenges, THNs will frequently
specify those dimensions of out natures that are the source of the
Prescription: On the basis of the diagnosis, THNs will typically suggest
what we can do to address these difficulties.
The Upanishads
The Upanishads belong to what is called the Brahmanic
tradition. The earliest of them date from around 800
◦ This is far from the earliest of the textual traditions of
Hinduism. Vedic literature significantly predates it.
They too are compilations of earlier, mostly oral
As an aside, it is interesting to note that, though the oral
tradition upon which these texts is based significantly
predates their consolidation in written form, this
consolidation occurred within a few hundred years of
the first stirrings of philosophy in Greece and China.
There must have been something in the air.
Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad
Representing not a single authorial voice, but a disparate (in
both outlook and time) one, this text is the largest (and is
thought to be the oldest) of the Upanishadic texts.
 The text starts with a cosmogony: an account of the nature,
origin, and development of the universe. The particular story
we get shares quite a bit with other cosmogonies from this
 The name given to the original principle is "Atman" which
here is given a material significance by the translation of the
term as "body." It is also gendered (male).
 But this is not mere matter. For, it is immediately selfconscious, the suggestion being that self-consciousness is
primary (first and fundamental).
◦ This perhaps explains why the cosmogony we get here is
focused on living things rather than non-living.
◦ Notice too the role played by etymology.
Atman and Brahman
At the end of the creation story we find this surprising
statement: "I alone am the creation, for I created all this.”
This phrase highlights the ambiguity of the notion of
“Atman.” Atman is both a principle of individuation and a
principle of universality.
◦ Much of the disagreement between the various sects of
Hinduism revolves around how to understand this ambiguity.
Immediately following this, we find the introduction of the
term “Brahman.” It is often used synonymously with Atman.
When they are distinguished, it is usually to connect Atman
to the individuated moments of the whole and Brahman with
the universal.
◦ In this sense, Brahman is reality at it’s most basic, the
fundamental metaphysical category.
◦ The world is at the same time one eternal and unchanging whole
and a constantly changing individuated plurality.
Where do Humans Fit?
As you might expect, the ontology articulated in
the Upanishad exhibits this same unity of unity
and diversity structure.
 Human beings are not individuals first and part
of a large whole second. The ultimate self
(atman) is what it is only as part of the whole
 What we take to be our self (our ego/JivaI) is
just a mask that covers over (even from
ourselves) our ultimate nature as
The Katha Upanishad
The Katha Upanishad was likely composed a some
three hundred years after the Brihad Aranyaka
(early 400s BCE).
It is one of the most well-known of the Upanishadic
texts in the non-Hindu world, perhaps because one
of it’s principle themes is death and immortality.
While the Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad has a
primarily metaphysical and ontological significance.
With the Katha Upanishad, the diagnostic and
prescriptive elements become our focus.
Setting the Stage
Naciketas wants to know the significance of
 Going right to the source, he asks the
personification of death (Yama), who, though
initially reluctant, ultimately agrees to point the
way to Naciketas.
 It’s worth noting that death’s agreement comes
after a test: the temptation of worlds goods (cf.
◦ This test and Naciketas’s response anticipate a
fundamental distinction which becomes the focus of
the second Valli.
Good vs. Gratifying
This distinction is the key to the Brahmanic diagnosis:
the difference between the good and the gratifying.
◦ This is a very common distinction, one that is central to
the diagnosis of many of the THNs that we will consider.
The distinction between the good and the gratifying is
mapped onto a distinction between the wise person
and the fool, which in turn is coordinated to a
distinction between knowledge and ignorance.
 In a move whose commonness is worthy of some
thought, this last distinction is in turn connected to a
distinction between the real self (atman/Brahman)
and the ego/mask self (pp. 6-7) and ultimately to the
distinction between the world of mere appearance
and the 'true' world (Third Valli).
The Prescription
The end of the third Valli, we are given an statement of
Death's lessons for Naciketas (8, 11-15).
The lessons are ones that should be already familiar to
us: understand that the truth of existence is “unity in
diversity, diversity in unity.”
The problem is that few recognize this, and are thus led
The solution is to come to recognize it, not just
intellectually, but with the whole of our being. Failure
means a return to the cycle of life for another go
around and another opportunity to learn the lesson.
Success means freedom from the cycle, achievement of