The Quest for Knowledge in Hinduism

In my last post I talked about the unity of reality. The Upanishads say that whatever that reality is that is out there outside yourself, out of which the whole world comes, whatever reality is, that is you. This is a positive assertion of the Upanishadic monism in a way as it is putting together the pieces of the world in a positive way.

There are no Distinctions

It is also possible to speak about this monistic concept in a negative way, by denying distinctions. By saying: if you see distinction in the world, you should know that is not the way to speak about the unity of Brahman.

An important expression of Upanishadic monism, equally important as the one I mentioned in the previous article, is found in the Upanishad called the Brihadaranyaka. This is one of the Upanishadic sages speaking: "About this self one can only say that it is no this, it is not that. If you identify it as being anything in particular, you’ve mistaken the unity this text is attempting to convey."

We Must Know Reality

The goal of the Upanishads is to know this reality. To know it. Not to trust it, to have faith in it, not to be emotionally connected to it, not to love it. Not to do any of those other things that sometimes are spoken as being important in religion. What you need to do in this tradition is to know that reality, and to embody it somehow in yourself, to know that connection to ultimate reality.

The Buddha inherited this traditional Indian quest for knowledge. This is what he was trying to do when he renounced his life in the palace and set out on the road in Northern India to achieve his awakening.

The Characteristics of This Quest

This quest for knowledge has three basic characteristics that are as important in Buddhism as they are in classic tradition of the Upanishads:

First: Bring Unity
The first is the desire to bring unity to all the different areas of life. The Upanishads talked about external reality, the self, and the world of ritual that mediates between these two. That quest for unity is present in Buddhism as well.

Second: Change Your Identity
Another characteristic of this quest for knowledge is that is not merely intellectual, it is not really the kind of knowledge that you convey by writing something down in a blackboard, no matter how energetic or how imaginative you are making all the connections between all these different things.

It doesn’t just change the way of pursuing things or pursuing acts, it changes the kind of person they are. It changes their very identity. As it says in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: "If a person knows I am Brahman, you know you are Brahman, in this way you can become the whole world, change the way you live in this world."

Third: Overcome Death
The last of the three characteristics is that this knowledge has to do with overcoming the power of death. That’s not obvious from the passages that I just have spoken of, but it is clear in other passages in the Upanishads that we could explore together. Particularly in the Upanishad known as the Kaṭha Upanishad, where a young scholar known by the name of Naciketas is consigned to the lord of death.

It goes to visit death, and death isn’t home. Exactly why is unclear, but he isn’t home and Naciketas has to wait three days for Yama, the lord of death, to come and greet him. Yama is embarrassed by this. This boy has been waiting, so he gives him three gifts. Three choices that Naciketas can be granted. One is to be greeted by death when he arrives at his own death. Another is to live among the gods. The third and the most difficult is to know the secret of himself. To know what he is.

Yama, at first tries to avoid having to speak this to him. Finally he tells him the nature of himself. This knowledge about the nature of the self gives Naciketas power over death. And it is this power that the Buddha himself was seeking when he renounced to his palace and went out on the roads of Northern India.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha’s Religious Background.

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