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English fortnightly, devoted to life, literature and culture.

Vol: 18  No: 01


08 August 1971

Vedanta - A Living Philosophy of Life

C. Rajagopalachari

Absolute happiness can result only from liberation and it follows therefore that spiritual enlightenment alone, which frees the soul from all illusion, can liberate the soul by breaking the bond of karma, the unending chain of work and results, and unite it again to the Supreme Being, which is moksha (liberation). All culture in India has been rooted in Vedanta. Whatever courage, heroism, self-sacrifice or greatness is to be found in our history or seen in our people, has sprung from Vedanta which is in our blood and tradition. Vedanta is ndoubtedly a living philosophy of life in India, a part of the mental structure of our people.
The people of India get it not from a study of books but from tradition. It is in the air, so to say, of India and Asia. The foreigner has to get it from books and he necessarily sees so much subtlety in it that he may well swear that it is impossible that such a doctrine could ever be the actual cultural basis or living spiritual principle of the daily life of any people of modern times. Yet this is the fact in India. The greatness of Gandhiji and the strength of his movement were entirely derived from and rooted in Vedanta. However much foreign civilization and new aspirations might have affected the people of India, this spiritual nutriment has not dried up or decayed or changed. The lives of the rich as well as of the poor, of the leisured classes as of the peasants and labourers, of the illiterate and not only of the learned, are in varying measure sweetened by the pervasive fragrance of this Indian philosophy.
Paradoxical as it may seem, even communities born to avocations deemed dishonest and disreputable have evolved a code of honour of their own, and are Vedantins to the extent of sincerely respecting it. This curious moral enclave in sinful lives touches the heart, and makes a great pity of what is doubtless just a matter for sheer reprobation.
The Upanishads are quite large in number, but about twelve may be called the principal Upanishads and they are now available in collected book form with fairly accurate translations. It would be a mistake to expect ancient works to be like the books of our times.

The principal Upanishads were written thousands of years ago—scholars are not certain about the exact time. In India, as in the rest of the world, the environment and the lives and habits of men were all very different then from what they are today. We may not forget or overlook this difference in attempting to understand and interpret the Upanishads or for that matter any book of ancient times. To interpret and judge things written more than three thousand years ago in the light of today and bring to bear on them modern doubts, discoveries and controversies would be utterly stupid.
We should remember that what is now doubted or disputed was not then a subject of question or controversy. Any literature, sacred or secular, must be juxtaposed with the real life of the place and period before it can be rightly understood. We should throw our minds back thousands of years, and try to recreate by an effort of imagination the world of the Upanishadic period—the way in which men lived and thought, and the way they disciplined themselves—so that we may understand and appreciate what was said by the rishis or seers.
The principal teaching of the Upanishads is this: Man cannot achieve happiness through mere physical enjoyment obtained through wealth or the goods of the world or even through the pleasures attainable by elevation to the happy realms above through the performance of the sacrifices prescribed in the Vedas. The potency of these sacrifices was a matter of implicit belief in those times. Yet, the attainment of these worlds of pleasures through Vedic sacrifice is not the object of the Upanishad teaching. In fact, pleasures in super-terrestrial worlds were regarded as hardly higher in real value than sensual enjoyment on earth. The Mundakopanishad, after a glowing description of the welcome accorded in swarga to the performer of sacrifices—how he is borne there on the rays of the sun and told in loving terms that he has earned the pleasures he is going to enjoy—goes on to say:

Bhavan's Journal

08 August 1971

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