1. IN the Upanishads, we have a scripture, which, among all the Holy Scriptures of the world, displays the most scientific spirit in connection with spiritual enquiry. The sages, whose thoughts and teachings we read in the Upanishads, seem to be as much inspired by constructive doubt as the most modem men of science.
Their questions and answers indicate that they lived in an age when, alongside of conformism and the rigid maintenance of old practices, men thirsted for Truth and the atmosphere was charged with the boldest free thought: Satyamevajayate naanrtam satyenapantha vitato devayanah.
2. The conformism that prevails in our own midst today, in spite of so much science and free thought, does not confuse us. We are familiar with it and we find no difficulty in appraising and evaluating in their true measure the conflicting elements, orthodox practice as well as the prevailing skepticism. But the conformism of some thousands of years ago is a very different thing. We understand it much less, if at all, and it, therefore, blurs the picture.
We may fail for this reason rightly to appreciate the spirit of enquiry which dominated the mind and lives of the sages whose teachings are recorded in the Upanishads, and which is reflected in every line of this great scripture of India.
3.If we learn to make due allowance for the time, interval, and have enlightenment and elasticity of mind enough to be able to use and profit by a holy book with invaluable hoary associations, without having to get the text actually expurgated and revised in order to exclude the irrelevancies and the mere background of a bygone age, we can not have a better book of religion for modern times than the Upanishads.
The ‘spacious imagination, the majestic sweep of thought and the almost reckless spirit of exploration with which, urged by the compelling thirst for Truth, the Upanishad teachers and pupils dig into the Open Secret of the Universe, make this most ancient among the world’s holy books still the most modem and most satisfying.
4.It is probable that the Upanishads were originally composed somewhat as notes of lectures, intended to assist the pupil's memory in subsequent reflection. They were not composed as textbooks of philosophy to serve, by themselves, as books are now written. Notes in our days would be short indicative phrases written to dictation or taken down by the students themselves.
But, in the old days, they took the shape of verses to be memorized, as writing played a lesser part in learning than it does now. Placed before us today in the shape of printed matter, with title-page, contents and index all complete, the Upanishads perplex us in many places with their seeming simplicity of language, covering thoughts that are far from clear.
5. Isolated from teacher and without personal expansion and explanation, these compositions confuse us with antithesis and epigram and the use of the same word in varying senses, a style, which we should have particularly avoided when discussing difficult problems. All this is, however, understand able if we remember that they were not books to displace teacher but were notes to standardize teaching and to help memory.
Apart from the difficulty arising out of the form, and the difference of purpose of the composition from that of modem books, the distance that divides us from the day when these thoughts were propounded makes the greatest difficulty. The reflections were necessarily hung on to the life, beliefs and manners of those ancient times. To understand the meaning and the point of what was said by men of a long past age, we have to get back to the circumstances of that age, a task of great difficulty even for the most imaginative among us.
6. Beliefs and practices that are to us obviously childish formed the large and main background of life in those days, and the reflections of the best and wisest men of those days, which necessarily refer red to and were set on the background, of their own daily life, have to be interpreted by us, eliminating that background.
What was very real and serious to them is to us childish, untenable and of no consequence, so that even the reflections there on become un-understandable. He process of seeing a picture apart from the background is not easy. We are apt to lose ourselves in the reactions produced in our modern minds by the beliefs and practices referred to, and fail to grasp the essential amidst the distractions of the incidental.
7. In studying the Upanishads, we come against repeated references to ceremonials, sacrifices and the worship of gods and discussions as to their efficacy, which confuse the deeper and predominant enquiry. The position becomes to the Hindu readers worse still on account of ‘the formal persistence in Hinduism even now of the shell of those beliefs and practices.
To interpret and evaluate the substance of the Upanishads, we need a powerful imagination and an intellectual elasticity that can jump over the tremendous space that divides the beliefs, aspirations and psychologies of modem life from those of a long-past age. A study of the full text of the longer Upanishads would be the best means of comprehending the mind of the fathers of Hinduism.
But at the same time, the difficulties pointed out above reach the greatest dimensions in these longer Upanishads. In making the selections for the following chapters, an attempt has been made to reduce these difficulties to the minimum without prejudice to the main purpose of presenting an adequate idea of the Upanishad-content.