Are the Upanishads a Consistent & Error Free Means of Knowledge?

S: In a nutshell what is your take on the “traditional” position that the Upanishads are a valid means of knowledge?  The usual justification goes something like this:

1) They aren’t authored by any one person, therefore they are free from human error.

V:  If, as the tradition claims, the truths in the Upanishads were ‘revealed’ to people—and therefore free of error—it doesn’t mean that the people who received the revelation were perfect.  So on one hand, I think the Upanishads are absolutely correct (free from error) about the true nature of reality.  And that is what ultimately matters. But on the other hand, regarding relative issues such as cosmology and human conduct, I think the Upanishads are subject to the errors of the people who wrote them, specifically scientific error, religious speculation and sociological biases.   

For instance, at one place in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (BU 5.1), the non-dual nature of the universe is explained.  At another place, how a man can get his wife to ‘talk’ with him—meaning how to convince her to have sex with him—is discussed.  It is advised that if she does not consent the man should bribe her.  If she still does not consent he is to beat her barehanded or with a stick (BU 6:4:6-7).  The first example is an undeniable truth.  The second example is a sociological bias.  But, does this deplorable sociological bias negate the truth given at another part of the Upanishad?  Not at all.  Does it negate Vedanta as a whole?  No.  But it goes to show that any time people are involved, there is going to be error.  I think those errors should be acknowledged and recognized as byproducts of a time long since passed and then discarded so the timeless truth can become the focus.        

S: 2) They are consistent in their teachings. 

V:  It depends on what you mean by “consistent.”  If you mean systematic, then no, the Upanishads are plainly not systematic.  If by “consistent” you mean that they point to one and the same truth, then yes, I more or less agree.  I say “more or less” because there are supposedly hundreds of Upanishads, many of which have been lost.  Without being able to compare them all, how could we really say they all point to the same truth?  However, among the Upanishads usually studied by Vedanta—the ten ‘primary’ Upanishads commented upon by Shankara, along with others such as Kaivalya and Svetasvatara—there is a consistent underlying view of the ultimate reality. 

Yes, there may be discrepancies from text to text, or even within a single text, but these discrepancies are primarily superficial and relate to the relative or ‘lower’ teachings of Vedanta (see Mundaka Upanishad 1.1.4-5).  Vedanta is a smart teaching, so it will assume various positions on relative issues in order to meet people where they are at, with the aim of eventually negating and transcending all relative issues by revealing the ultimate truth.  When you understand this basic methodology of the teaching—temporary superimposition of relative views that will be negated by absolute truth—the relative inconsistencies of the texts become unimportant and it is easy to see the Upanishads as being consistent.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that not all of the Upanishads point to the truth.  This doesn’t change the fact that some of them definitely do.  I would personally have no problem simply focusing on the ones that do point to the truth and disregarding the others.  No harm done.                

S: 3) The teachings when properly understood stand outside the scope of other pramanas and reveal unique information (i.e., on Brahman)

V:  On this point I completely agree.  Brahman can’t be an object of thought or reasoning.  It can’t be experienced by your senses.  It can’t be inferred either, since inference depends on sense experience.  Since those are your only means of knowledge, the only way to know that you are brahman is for someone or something to tell you.  Scripture is what tells you.  Think about it.  How did you first come to know that you were brahman?  Did you simply realize it sitting under a tree somewhere?  Or did someone tell you?  Even if you did realize it under a tree somewhere, did you fully understand the experience?  Or once again, did someone have to explain the full implications to you?   

S:  What I find interesting about this is that a traditional teacher like Swami Dayananda places an enormous emphasis on this.  While the Neo/Direct Path teachers place far less emphasis on scripture or avoid the topic completely.  Does this all come down to a difference in teaching methodology in your view?  Or is it just a bi-product of some teachers being experience focused vs. those like Swami Dayananda understanding that Vedanta is a Pramana.

V:  I don’t like assuming that I know what another teaching is thinking or why they do certain things but as I’ve pointed out, what other means of knowledge, other than the scripture, is available for knowing brahman?  Because of that, why wouldn’t Swami Dayananda put enormous emphasis on the teaching?

Regarding Neo-Advaita and Direct path, again, I don’t want to assume too much but based on what I’ve seen I think they put less emphasis on scripture or avoid it because, for the most part, teachers from those groups don’t have in-depth exposure to it.  I’ve never personally come across a Neo-Advaita or Direct Path teacher with extensive scriptural training or knowledge.  So perhaps they focus on experience because that’s all they have to work with?  But this is a problem since brahman is not an object of experience.  Therefore another means of knowledge is required.  Hence, Dayananda’s emphasis on scripture.  This is an absolutely practical stance, not simply one of orthodoxy as some may argue. 

I want you to understand that my responses here are not me simply toeing the party line. I wrestled with the question of whether the scripture is a necessary means of knowledge for years and I went back and forth on my position many times.   But after careful consideration and a tremendous amount of inquiry I couldn’t help but conclude that knowledge, specifically knowledge of brahman, is the key to freedom—not experience—and the only source of that knowledge is the scripture.  Experience plays a role yes, but knowledge is needed to explain the implications of experience and seal the deal.    

Does this mean that I am against Neo-Advaita and Direct Path?  No.  I don’t personally care for their approach to teaching but it seems to work for a lot of people.  And more importantly, what they have to say has a lot in common with Vedanta.  I think this is because there’s not a single original figurehead of the Neo-Advaita or Direct Path (at least one I know of) that wasn’t influenced by scripture either directly through the tutelage of their own teacher or indirectly, through osmosis, owing to the influence of the Vedic culture and religion they were surrounded by.  This means Vedanta, Neo-Advaita and Direct Path all share commons roots, whether anyone wants to admit it or not.   

All my best – Vishnudeva