Kalupahanas' contentious statements (Was Re: question)
Jaldhar H. Vyas
jaldhar at BRAINCELLS.COM
Fri Jan 14 10:38:43 CST 2000
For the sake of people who may be searching through the archives, I
request people use more descriptive subject lines than "question"
On Wed, 12 Jan 2000, Sankaran Panchapagesan wrote:
> I am presently reading the book "Nagarjuna, The philosophy of the middle
> way" by David Kalupahana. He makes some contentious statements
> Vedanta and other Astika philosophies, which I would like to be clarified.
> (I am not making any statements on Buddhism-Vedanta relationship with a
> half-baked understanding, as I did before :-)). I do think the question is
> relevant to the list since Kalupahana seems to be misrepresenting the
> "opponent's" case and I would like to be clarified on that.
> 1. On page 9, when discussing the context in which the Buddha came up with
> his philosophy, Kalupahana says that in general there were two schools of
> philosophy in India, the substantialists who claimed existence of Atman,
> and the nihilists, mainly materialists who presented non-existence.
> In this context, he says:
> At a very early stage, they (the brahminical philosophers)
> asserted that this self (aatman) was created by a god or gods who
> determined that it belongs to one or the other of the four social classes:
> priestly(braahmaNa)...servant(shuudra). Thus each individual's status was
> predetermined and unchangeable. It was this particular idea of creation
> that elicited the most vehement criticism both from the Materialists as
> well as the Buddha."
> For this statement he gives the references, Rg-veda x.90; also
> Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.11-13.
> This seems to be a misinterpretation since the Brihadaranyaka upanishad
> talks about the creation of the brahmin *class*, *not* of aatmans. Is the
> Rig Vedic reference that of the purusha suktam? Even there, there is no
> talk of aatmans being created according to varNa, only the creation of the
> varNas, right?
Yes it is the Purusha sukta. And all it says about the varnas is
"from His mouth arose the Brahmans, from His arms the Kshatriyas were
made, From his thighs the Vaishyas and from His two feet the Shudras."
1. Now the Purush Himself is identified with Brahman and the Self (but not
in the sukta itself) isn't it obvious that it is "selves"-with-a small-s
which are being refered to here?
2. From the point of view of those darshans that use Atman
(Self-with-a-capital-S) as a concept, the idea of a Brahman Self or a
Kshatriya Self is downright silly. This is true of Advaita Vedanta
despite it's "orthodoxy". While Shankaracharya and his successors support
Vedic orthodoxy and orthopraxy it is for completely different reasons than
the nature of the self.
3. It maybe that the word atman originally only meant small-s-self and
later also got the philosophical connotation of capital-S-Self. then
Kalupahanas contention would make more sense. If he believes that Vedic
thought was consistent from the Purush Sukta to the Buddha, how can he
fail to notice the nuances in the use of the word atman? If he believes
there was a progression of ideas, why does he conflate an earlier meaning
with a later one?
4. Why would the Buddha or anyone of that time care about equality of
status? Certainly no Buddhist culture since has. To give one
answer Slavery in Tibet ended because of the Chinese Communists not
because of any compassionate teachings of the Buddha. I'm not singling
out Buddhism here but just noting that the general equality of Man is a
Western notion. (And only after the 18th century at that.) A Historian
should try to describe the past without injecting his personal biases and
agendas into it.
5. I don't know how old this book is but I thought the scholarly
consensus nowadays had gone beyond this idea of the Buddha as a radical
reformer who made a sharp break with current practice. There was debate
in the astika camp too as to the nature of the atman, it's relationship
to Brahman and status, the efficacy of ritual vs knowledge etc. Those
darshans called nastika are just the ones at the extremes of the spectrum,
the ones who went too far in asking these questions.
> Is there any aastika school of philosophy which subscribes to the views
> ascribed by Kalupahana, especially during the time of the Buddha?
Not that I know of.
> 2. On page 37, Kalupahana says when discussing Nagarjuna's
> Muulamadhyamakaarikaa, Chapter III:
> "However, in verse 2, Nagarjuna criticizes a particular definition
> of "seeing" (darshana) and that definition involves "the perception of
> itself" (svaatmaanam darshanam). This undoubtedly is the Indian verstion
> of the Cartesian "cogito" which led to the belief in a permanent and
> eternal self during the period of the Upanishds (ref.1) and continued to
> flourish in the speculations of the later Indian philosophical schools
> For reference 1, Kalupahana gives Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.11-14 and
> for ref.2, Swami Satprakashananda, "Methods of Knowledge, according to
> Advaita Vedanta".
> Though he may be right about Advaita Vedanta and "cogito", Is he right in
> claiming that the particular verses of the Br.Up. do really talk about the
> "cogito"? Is that the way Sankaracharya interprets it in his commentary?
Are you sure you didn't omit something from his argument? Because as it
stands now, I am completely puzzled as to what Kalupahana is getting at.
That section of the Upanishad states
"In the beginning This was just Brahmana alone. Being alone He did not
flourish. He specially put forth an excellent form--The Kshatriya. Those
who are Kshatriyas amongst the Devas are Indra, Varuna, Chandra, Rudra,
Parjanya, Yama, Mrtyu, and Ishana. Therefore none is higher than the
Kshatriya. Therefore the Brahmana worships the Kshatriya from the lower
seat in the Rajasuya Yajna. He gives up his power to the Kshatriya.
The Brahmana is the source of the Kshatriya. Therefore although the King
[Kshatriya] is supreme in the Yajna, at the end he takes refuge in the
Brahmana who is his source. He who insuts the Brahmana cuts off his own
source. He becomes more wicked by injuring his superior.(11)
Yet He did not flourish. so he put forth the Vaishya--The kinds of Devas
who are addressed as groups[ganas]. The Vasus, Rudras, Adityas,
Vishvadevas, and Maruts.(12)
He still did not flourish. He put forth the Shudra-Pushan. This 
is Pushan because it nourishes  all this that exists.(13)
Yet he did not flourish. He specially put forth the excellent form of
Dharma. Dharma is the master of the Kshatriya. Therefore nothing is
higher than that. even a weak man may hope to conquer a strong man with
Dharma as through the power of the king. That Dharma is
Truth. Therefore it is said of someone who speaks Truth, "He speaks
Truth" or of someone who speaks Dharma, "He speaks Dharma." because both
of these are just Dharma.(14)
Thus these Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. He became a
Brahmana amongst the Devas as Agni and amongst men as the Brahmanas, a
Kshatriya through the Kshatriyas, a Vaishya through the Vaishyas, and a
Shudra through the Shudra. Therefore people desire success with the
gods through Agni and success with men through the Brahmans. For
Brahman was in those two. If however one leaves this world without
knowing his own world, it does not protect him just as the Vedas left
unstudied or any other work left undone does not. Even if a man who does
not know it performs many virtuous acts in this world, those acts are
ultimately exhausted. From this Self he puts forth what he wishes.(15)
Now this self is the world of all beings. That he offers in the fire
and makes sacrifice is how he become the world of the Devas. That he
recites the Vedas is how he becomes the world of the Rshis. That he
offers to the Pitrs and has children is how he becomes the world of the
Pitrs. That he gives food and shelter to men is how he becomes the world
of Man. That he gives food and water to the domestic animals is how he
becomes their world. Even animals, birds and insects feed in his house so
he becomes their world. Just as one tries to keep his body safe, so do
all beings wish safety and peace to he who knows it as this. This indeed
has been known and discussed.(16)
 "This" is Viraj or Prajapati which Shankaracharya explains
is the saguna Brahman.
 Shankaracharya explains that Kshatriyas are already wicked because of
their violence and warfare.
 The Earth.
 The meaning is that just as a weak person can defend against the
depredations of a stronger one by appealing to the king or his officers,
he can appeal to Dharma.
 For each of the castes He baceme the divine and mortal forms.
 To become a wise and virtuous Brahman is the height of success in this
world. Interestingly Shankaracharya says that also it is only Brahmanas
who can take sannyasa.
 Based on Shankaracharyas interpretation, this use of the word self
should refer to small-s-self.
 "known" is viditam and "discussed" is mimamsitam. This is a very
important point to note. The Upanishad is Shruti it is just "known" but
it is also *discussed*. This ought to silence those foolish people who
think that the intellect should not be applied to enquiry into Brahman.
It is obvious from the above passage that our sages consider it a
The first part of the quoted text describes a particular account of
creation in which Viraj the Purush of the Purushasukta (*Saguna* brahman
according to later commentators) projects the various castes from His own
body. The difference is that while in the Purushsukta they are apparently
all created at once, here they come one after the other. While it teaches
Brahmana supremacy, it also says Dharma is a counterweight to the powerful
and Truth is the highest Dharma. Shankaracharyas comments on 11-15 mostly
deal with the literal meaning of the text. In the commentary on 15,
Shankaracharya mentions other views about the meaning of this text,
1. It is praising the performance of karma because by karma through
offerings to Agni and Brahmans (i.e. Yagnas), Gods and Men are
maintained. Thus performing karma is not just for personal benefit but a
universal social good.
Shankaracharya notes the last part of 15 if... The world of Viraj is
maintained through karma but it is perishable. The world of the self is
superior. One should realise performing karma is futile and resort only
to the Self.
2. Another view tries to combine jnana and karma. Yes, the world of the
self should be known, but that doesn't mean one should give up
karma. Because Shruti says that work left undone will not bear fruit. It
refers to the meditation on the world of the Self as "work". So if that
"work" is ok what is wrong with the work of yagna which is also considered
obligatory by Shruti?
Shankaracharya observes that Shruti says that all works in this world are
ultimately exhausted. So if meditation is a work like yagna (i.e. of this
world), it will also ultimately be exhausted. As the world of the Self is
imperishable if it is to be known, it must be as something other than this
So much for the individual but this text is also clearly concerned with
society as well as the individual. 16 clearly emphasizes that karma
benefits all not just the sacrificer. Shankaracharya turns this
around. The sacrificer rather than being the benevolent protector of all
beings is just their beast of burden, exploited by Brahmans and Shudras,
Devas and even ants. Of course they wish for his safety! The same way
you wouldn't wish your car to get dented. It is only the world of the
Self where one can "let ones hair down" so to speak.
Rather than establish the notion of a permanent self, this text is
describing the socio-political obligations of an individual. The
philosophical part of it is the notion that the self is an agent. In
other words, I *do* therefore I am. Evidently some (like the Mimamsakas)
interpreted this in a positive way while others (like both the Buddha
*and* Shankaracharya) considered it negative. However there is nothing in
this text itself which need imply that the agent-self is anything
To smmarize I believe Kalupahana
1. has some personal political agenda biasing his interpretation.
2. assumes the Advaita interpretation of Shruti is is the correct one
which is flattering to us but at the same time he disregards the full
extent of our interpretations and completely neglects the diversity of
opinions amongst "Brahmanical philosophers" which even Advaita authors
3. is mixing up ideas from widely different historical periods.
I know Nanda has studied the relationship between Madhyamaka and Advaita
Vedanta. Perhaps he can recommend a book which is a little better
Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at braincells.com>
bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam
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