THAT THOU ART: The Wisdom of the Upanishads

R. Puligandla

Asian Humanities Press, Freemont , California , 2002.


The Upanishads embody the essence of the doctrinal visions of the Hindu world. Its authors - now lost in the mist of unrecorded antiquity - were not arm-chair philosophers, but great rishis: practitioners of the spiritual path. Their utterances are not like interesting scientific hypotheses, but rather like the Archimedean eureka!: a loud proclamation of experienced truths.

Over the centuries, countless scholars and commentators have written on the spiritual truths implicit in the various Upanishads which, both in their format and terseness are not accessible to all and sundry. Stanzas from the Upanishads are recited in religious and sacramental contexts in the Hindu world, while the metaphysical framework of the Upanishads is implicit in much of later Hindu philosophy and religious perspectives. In translation, the Upanishads have touched the heart and mind of reflective thinkers beyond the Hindu fold.

In this slender volume, Ramakrishnan Puligandla has done the marvelous job of explaining to the average intelligent and educated reader what the Upanishads are all about. Trained in physics and in Philosophy, deeply versed in Sanskrit and fluent in English, Puligandla has given a lucid and masterly exposition of the insights of the Upanishads as only a gifted professor can.

After a brief introduction in which he presents the broad Vedic canvass on which Upanidhadic revelations are painted, he goes on to expound on the key notions of brahman, atman, and moksha. This is followed by a discussion on Hindu epistemology which emerges from Upanishadic theses. Then there are two brief chapters on the philosophical dimensions of the Upanishads. One of these contains the clearest exposition of the notion of the (often misconstrued) maya I am aware of. Finally, and not the least importantly, there is a discussion on the religious aspects of the Upanishads. For in traditional Hinduism, mere philosophy is meaningless if it is not linked to religious life.

The deepest spiritual insight of the Upanishads is in the very title of the book: "That Thou Art." There is no loftier thought in all of human reflections than the assertion that each one of us is nothing less than a flicker of the Cosmic Effulgence that undergirds the world. The very idea elevates us in our introspection, and when it is sufficiently internalized, we truly make a cosmic connection.

The book concludes with some personal reflections which will resonate with other enlightened Hindu thinkers, but which may be an overstatement of how things really are in the Hindu world. For, sad to say, in the current phase of its history,  that world has lost much of its ancient luster, and some of its religious spokespersons continue to proclaim caste exclusivity and denial of scriptural rights, spiritual initiation, even temple entry to people of "lower birth." Thus, while thinkers of the caliber of Professor Puligandla may feel at home in science and in spirituality, this is not as universal as one would like to see everywhere in the Hindu world.

This is not to say that the ideal enlightened state that is implicit in Upanishadic wisdom which Professor Puligandla so beautifully explicates is not there. What we need is for the Hindu world to recognize and live up the spiritual and humanistic ideals contained in its rich heritage, and for others to be enriched by it. This book will serve to further that cause. It belong to every library and deserved to be read by all Hindus who wish to know about the fountainhead of their culture.