Skip to content →

The Svetasvatara Upanishad and Typology

By Lee Morgan

I recently read Valerie J. Roebuck’s translation of the Upanishads and was struck by her translation of the Svetasvatara Upanishad. Unlike the majority of the Upanishads, the Svetasvatara Upanishad was written in an increasingly theistic culture, and accordingly, it raises an interesting philosophical question, and one not unfamiliar to western theists: if a benevolent God exists, why would He create a world of illusions and people it with souls whose salvation and only real chance of happiness requires that they transcend it? In a roundabout way, it’s the same question Stephen Fry asks Christian’s when he sees children suffering from terminal illnesses. How and why would a benevolent God permit childhood cancer?

The theistic premise of the Sventasvatara Upanishad is especially bizarre to those who’ve already read the nontheistic Upanishads, the likes of which Schopenhauer, the pessimistic atheist, called ‘the consolation of my life.’ Indeed, the rest of the Upanishads, and to a large extent even the Sventasvatara Upanishad itself, decry the world of phenomena, idea, and perpetual becoming (see rebirth) as being intrinsically illusory and therefore the source of all suffering. So how did the author(s) of the Sventasvatara Upanishad get around this difficulty? By letting the fly out of the fly bottle so to speak, that is to say by rejecting the premise.

Without delving too deep into the text, I believe a brief remark on Mrs. Roebuck’s brilliant translation will suffice to explain what I mean. Rather than translating Maya, i.e. the phenomenal world, as illusion, as she translates it in the nontheistic Upanishads, she instead renders it as artifice, thus shifting the normative value of the concept from its essence to our perception of it. But what do I mean? Well, instead being intrinsically evil, or illusory, Maya, or the world of representation, etc., is what it is, so to speak, by which I mean that it cannot be predicated of anything other than itself and that, consequently, its moral status, i.e. whether it’s good, bad, or ugly, depends entirely on the judgment we, its inhabitants and participants, form of it. And for my money, for what little I care to stake in the issue, I suspect that this rendering is more in keeping with the underlying spirit of the Upanishads.

Think of it this way, where the earlier Upanishads celebrate death and dreamless sleep for their capacity to eliminate phenomena such that nothing can obscure the Self, the Sventasvatara Upanishad reminds us that it’s okay to be alive, because alive or dead, the Self cannot be destroyed. Nothing too much, as the oracle said. This too shall pass, wrote the king’s men. But either way, whatever it is we’re talking about, and indeed to talk about anything is to talk about something, it’s present to our consciousness, so while it’s here, why not enjoy it for what it is, namely the Self. And this is exactly how an Orthodox Christian would answer Mr. Fry’s question: the tragedy of human suffering lies in its ability to isolate us from (the Self, God and his uncreated energy, etc.), but whatever suffering we’re given, we must remember that it’s a) impermanent a priori, because we’re impermanent, and  b) nothing new, as there’s nothing (new under the sun, that wasn’t felt at Calvary, that’s foreign to the Self, etc.), and so we don’t need to feel isolated, but can sanctify our suffering to something greater and mold something beautiful from it. ‘For it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.

Really, when we think about it, the Sventasvatara Upanishad’s genius applies equally well to theists and nontheists alike, because it’s genius has nothing to do with God, at least not immediately. Rather it’s a repudiation of the bad faith of quietism, and its profundity recalls three of the most profound meditations I’ve ever experience. The first occurred while listening to Pete Holmes interview Josh Radner, when one of them mentioned a spiritualist whose first recommendation was that any serious soul-searcher leave the city, on account of it’s various and sundry distractions. To me that felt like the spiritual equivalent of a cop out. If you can only participate in the Universal and Absolute under very specific conditions, you’re philosophy isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, much less the breath it takes to talk about. My second meditation was much to the same effect, and occurred while listening to an episode of Loveline in which Psycho Mike brings up self-help and Dr. Drew Pinsky responded by repudiating quietists, because, to paraphrase, it’s hard to find time to meditate when you’ve got a full-time job and a three kids. And that’s not bad faith talking. Remember, all things are the unchanging Self. Now, the last mediation I’ll mention is along the same lines, and regards Hartmann’s critique of Schopenhauer. Eduard Hartmann, a theist in the same dubious sense that the Meister Eckhart and the author of the Sventasvatara Upanishad were, rejected Schopenhauer’s quietism as being, quite ironically, selfish. After all, unlike Hartmann’s idealism, which Tolstoy adopted and, through his religious writings, inspired Gandhi and his peaceful revolution, Schopenhauer was preoccupied with his own personal salvation and the cessation of his own pain, rather than those of the world. All of this is in no way a repudiation of Schopenhauer or the pessimistic Upanishads that inspired him, for indeed without them there would be no Hartmann, or Sventasvatara Upanishad for that matter. It’s only to say that the easiest and most apparent path is not the only one, much less the least painful. After all, can you imagine the joy of a life without suffering. Everyone wants to die a good death, but I want to live! And that’s coming from a pessimistic quietist.

So what does any of this have to do with typology? Well, not to bring things down to academics after that little reverie, but I think the central point of the Sventasvatara Upanishad, as I understand it, has real value to the typologist, specifically with regard to the assumptions we make about perception. As has been pointed out elsewhere, there is a clear prejudice against sensing types. I believe this bias has to layers. The first is the more widely discussed, i.e. that sensing types are in someway, and a priori at that, intellectually inferior to intuitives. The second, which is equally arbitrary, and because of its relative anonymity far more insidious, is the notion that we must prove the intelligence of sensors by searching out sensing types in more or less intuitive fields and disciplines. Again, it’s the second which I find more troublesome, because much like the pessimistic Upanishads, it assumes that the ordinary perceptions of sensors are illusionary, and that therefore, the only way to redeem sensors is to make them intuitives. It’s the same sort of prejudice which thinks that a strong woman is a woman in drag. It’s ridiculous and stinks of intuitive guilt. There’s a Franz Fanon quote about how the black man’s destiny is to become white – but the Sventasvatara Upanishad rejects your premise! Sensation is in and of itself, no better or worse than intuition, and any claim otherwise is as arrogantly arbitrary as the sort of Gnostic pessimism we discussed above.

My heart bleeds for the introverted sensor who, unlike the extroverted sensor, who bigoted intuitives tend to prefer for one reason or another, seem to always get shafted. Sure Heidegger and Scruton are brilliant, but so what? Stop question-begging and assuming they’re automatically more intelligent than Custard and Stonewall Jackson, because the former are philosophers and the latter are generals. They all belong on their respective pages because that’s where they belong, not because Celebrity Types is buying into your apologetic bigotry – which I can assure you they aren’t. Remember, if you have to apologize, you’re premise was probably wrong to begin with. And how do I know that? Because I’ve been the bigot, and to this day I still struggle to exorcise the prejudice from my heart. And believe me, I’ll keep fighting the good fight until it’s won, and I implore everyone who reads this to do a little mental inventory and join me regardless of what you find. Believe me, the quietist in me is a holy fool and I’ve got a hundred reasons not to write this. But it’s not about me. It’s about the community. If the world isn’t evil, then neither is sensation.

Published in Lee Morgan