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This and That: The Language of the Upanishads

On the whole, the language of the Upanishads is simple. The main problems of interpretation do not come from any excessive complexity of grammar, nor from overly long and technical words. Since the language used is an early form of classical Sanskrit, there is sometimes a little trouble with the occasional archaic usage whose meaning may not be fully remembered; but this is relatively minor and peripheral.

The more basic problem comes from the philosophical character of the Upanishads. Their essential purpose is to stimulate reflection and enquiry. So they often raise questions about what words and concepts mean. This applies particularly to ordinary, common words like ‘know’ or ‘be’, or ‘true’ or ‘real’, or ‘self’ or ‘world’, or ‘this’ or ‘that’. While the meaning of such words is open to question, so too is the interpretation of the Upanishads, which use these words in a way that puts them up for questioning. In the peace invocation that is often placed at the beginning of the Brihadaranyaka and Isha Upanishads, there is a striking example of simple language thus used to provoke thought. The language is so simple that it is possible to make a somewhat intelligible word for word translation of the relevant passage, with the order of the words unchanged:

purnam adah purnam idam
purnat purnam udacyate
purnasya purnam adayate
purnam evavashishyate


The full, that; the full, this.
From the full, the full arises.
Of the full, the full taken back,
the full alone remains.

Though just about intelligible, the translation is of course awkward. First, there is a problem of idiom. ‘The full, that’ is a common Sanskrit construction whose idiomatic equivalent in English is: ‘That is the full.’ Similarly, ‘the full taken back’ could be translated more idiomatically as ‘when the full is taken back’. Second, by translating the word ‘purnam’ too narrowly, as ‘the full’, the philosophical implications are not quite rightly conveyed. ‘Purnam’ also means ‘complete’. In the context of the Upanishads, this clearly refers to ‘complete reality’, which might be better translated as ‘all’. So to try making the translation less awkward, perhaps it could be modified as follows:

That is all. This is all.
All arises out of all.
Of all, when all is taken in,
what remains is only all.

This is still quite a literal translation, and it is now in fluent English; but it has a problem of tone. At worst, it could be read as silly doggerel, showing up the absurdity of mystical philosophy. At best, it could be construed to have a tone of mocking irony, using a light-hearted facade to say something more profound. In neither case does it convey the philosophical tone of quiet certainty that is found in the original.

The trouble is that cryptic utterances like ‘All arises out of all’ are no longer taken seriously, in modern philosophical discussion. In fact, they are held up as glaring examples of ‘trivial’ or ‘tautological’ or ‘woolly’ or ‘fuzzy’ language, which serves as a cover for half-baked ideas that have not been properly questioned and tested. If anyone makes this kind of cryptic statement today, the immediate response, quite rightly, is that the speaker should explain further and be more specific about what is meant.

How does one try to solve this problem of tone in translating the simple, but sometimes cryptic statements of the Upanishads? There is a temptation to dress up the translation in strange or complicated language, to make it seem that hidden depths are lurking below; but this would be merely pretentious. The only way out is to make a specific interpretation; and to translate accordingly, perhaps adding some further explanation and commentary.

In the above passage from the peace invocation, the words ‘that’ and ‘this’ need more specific interpretation. So does the word ‘purnam’, which is not quite adequately translated as ‘the full’ or as ‘all’. In the retelling reproduced below (from FTU, page 41), the word ‘that’ is interpreted as the known world; the word ‘this’ is interpreted as the knowing self; and ‘purnam’ is interpreted as complete reality, which is both knower and known. Accordingly, the passage is taken to describe reality as non-dual consciousness: underlying all mentally created divisions of experience into ‘this’ which knows and ‘that’ which is known. From underlying consciousness, all appearances of objects arise: as they are perceived by body, senses and mind. And back to this same consciousness, all appearances return: as they are understood and assimilated into knowledge.

That world out there, this self in here,
each is reality, complete:
from which arises everything,
to which all things return again,
in which all seeming things consist;
which stays the same, unchanged, complete.

However, there are other ways of interpreting this passage, as can be seen by comparing a few available translations. Many of them use the traditional concept of ‘brahman’: which can be thought of as all-inclusive reality, underlying the creation and appearance of everything in the universe.

In the Ramakrishna Math’s publication, The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, ‘that’ is interpreted as ‘Brahman’, and ‘this’ is interpreted as the ‘universe’. ‘Purnam’ is translated as ‘infinite’. Accordingly, the passage is taken to describe reality as ‘the infinite (Brahman)’ from which the universe emanates and into which the universe is assimilated. The resulting translation is:

That (Brahman) is infinite, this (universe) too is infinite. The infinite (universe) emanates from the infinite (Brahman). Assimilating the infinitude of the infinite (universe), the infinite (Brahman) alone is left.

Swami Zarvananda, in Izavasyopanisad, translates ‘that’ as ‘the invisible’ and ‘this’ as ‘the visible’. ‘Purnam’ is translated as ‘the Infinite’. Accordingly, the passage is taken to describe reality as ‘the Infinite’: from which the visible universe ‘has come out’, while the underlying ‘Infinite remains the same’. The translation is:

The invisible is the Infinite, the visible too is the Infinite. From the Infinite, the visible universe of infinite extension has come out. The Infinite remains the same, even though the infinite universe has come out of it.

Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester, in The Upanishads, translate ‘that’ as ‘the things we see not’ and ‘this’ as ‘the things we see’. ‘Purnam’ is translated variously: as ‘filled full with Brahman’, as just ‘Brahman’, and as ‘all’ or ‘all that is’. Accordingly, the passage is taken to describe reality as all-filling ‘Brahman’, out of which ‘floweth all that is … yet he is still the same’. The result is a relatively free and stylish translation, as follows:

Filled full with Brahman are the things we see,
Filled full with Brahman are the things we see not,
From out of Brahman floweth all that is:
From Brahman all – yet he is still the same.

R.C. Zaehner, in Hindu Scriptures, translates ‘that’ as ‘beyond’, ‘this’ as ‘here’, and ‘purnam’ as ‘fullness’. The result is a relatively close, yet stylish translation, as follows:

Fullness beyond, fullness here:
Fullness from fullness doth proceed.
From fullness fullness take away:
Fullness yet remains.

S. Radhakrishnan, in The Principal Upanishads, makes a carefully literal translation and adds a short commentary. In the commentary, ‘that’ is interpreted as ‘transcendent’; ‘this’ as ‘immanent’; and ‘purnam’ as ‘Brahman’, whose integrity is unaffected by the created universe.

That is full; this is full. The full comes out of the full. Taking the full from the full the full itself remains.

Brahman is both transcendent and immanent.
The birth or the creation of the universe does not in any manner affect the integrity of Brahman.

Swami Sivananda, in The Principal Upanishads, also makes a fairly literal translation. But he adds the word ‘all’ before ‘that’ and ‘this’. And he translates ‘purnam’ as ‘the Whole’. The result is:

The Whole is all That.
The Whole is all This.
The Whole was born of the Whole.
Taking the Whole from the Whole,
what remains is the Whole.

Shree Purohit Swami and W.B. Yeats, in The Ten Principal Upanishads, make a translation that is both graceful and nearly literal; by leaving ‘that’ and ‘this’ as they are, and by translating ‘purnam’ as ‘perfect’. The translation is:

That is perfect.
This is perfect.
Perfect comes from perfect.
Take perfect from perfect,
the remainder is perfect.

What do these differing interpretations show? They show at least how one short passage of simple language can throw into question the meaning of concepts like ‘this’ and ‘that’, ‘full’ and ‘complete’, ‘creation’ and ‘dissolution’, ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’.

About Sunday morning

Sunday Morning Contemplation is informed by Eastern and Western contemplative traditions. The first, lectio divina has its origins in 6th century Europe. It unfolds in four steps or stages: reading (lectio), reflecting (meditatio), responding (oratio), and silent abiding (contemplatio). Our Eastern inspiration come from the Indian Upanishads (800-200 BCE), where contemplative practice consists of three steps or stages: listening (śravana), reflecting (manana), and meditating (nididhyāsana or dhyāna). Our contemplative practice on Sundays embraces both approaches, and each contemplation will be based on a reading from either tradition.

The texts and teachers I have chosen played a significant role in my life and I believe have much to offer. I will read presellected texts, slowly, with pauses between verses or quotes. The readings will be accompanied by soothing background music. To lessen distraction, I suggest participants close their eyes and listen. However, the screen will display the text so that people can choose to read along or mute the sound and read on their own. If there is time remaining after the contemplative period, participants can choose to either leave or stay for a short discussion.

As a preface to the reading, I will provide a 10-15 minute introduction to the text. When relevant, I’ll review facts about the author/teacher’s life. I will also present a brief explanation of the terms and language encountered in the reading.

Finally, when the contemplation is over, all texts read will be available online to read and/or download at any time on the website.

What I mean by
The Symbolic Life

This website makes liberal use of classical Indian visual art and refers mostly to traditional Indian texts (for example, the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras) in the courses, seminars, and discussions on offer. However, I am not presenting lessons in Hinduism; in fact, teaching mainstream Hinduism is neither my area of interest nor expertise. Rather, my interest in Yoga and Tantra is grounded in the concrete situation in which we find ourselves, in the places where we arrive and from which we depart. Beginning in the here and now, we will explore the underlying meaning of the symbols, stories, images, philosophies, and techniques found in Indian philosophical texts and practice, in light of our world and our current circumstance. We will excavate the meaning of the aphorisms and teaching stories; the symbolic figures of gods, people, and nature; and the sometimes terse, sometimes poetic, philosophy of the texts. Thus, in referring to the Symbolic Life of Yoga and Tantra, I mean not just the symbols themselves, but the rich explication of life that the symbols represent.

Our lived, concrete situation is wonderfully captured in the Sanskrit word loka, whose ancient meaning is “the world.”  The root meaning of both the Sanskrit loka and the English locate (and local, locale, and location) is identical. In the ancient Indian mind, the world is where we are located, in our current circumstance. Thus, the meaning of the symbols of Yoga and Tantra can occur only in the now, in the places where we find ourselves, and not in any imagined ancient and/or foreign world.

To emphasize our place of origin and return, I use the terms “archetypal” and “symbolic” quite frequently. Archetypal meaning is associated with the universal and collective aspects of human experience—what we intimately share with all others regardless of culture or era or epoch—while symbolic language forms a bridge between the realms of the universal with the culturally specific and local. Symbols are the scaffolding upon which human beings build a world and imbue it with meaning.

Think for a moment of pain and pleasure, sorrow and joy, hatred and love, and greed and generosity—universal experiences that ancient Indian thinkers called the dvandva-s. This Sanskrit term is a combination of two words, or rather, one word spoken twice: the word dva (meaning the same as the English “two”) duplicated. Dvandva is commonly translated as “the pair of opposites” or literally “the two-twos” (dvadva). The ancients who coined this compact symbol gave voice to an archetypal human experience that can be further unpacked to reveal deep insights into the human condition. Once we gain an understanding of the various symbols of Yoga and Tantra, we can further excavate their meaning and the archetypes they convey, and thus gain access to, in a practical and meaningful way, the vision of life experienced by the sages. These insights are available to us and are still relevant today, as are the resilient and adaptable techniques and forms of practice that can help us lead richer and more fulfilling lives