The Ramayana itself is, of course, one of the great works of world literature. It is the story of a prince, Rama, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, who has been unjustly exiled from his kingdom just as he was to be crowned king. During his exile in the wilderness, his beautiful wife Sita is kidnapped by a powerful demon. With the assistance of Hanuman and other members of an intelligent race of monkeys, Rama is able to defeat the demons, rescue his wife, and is restored to his kingdom.
The overarching storyline itself is a great field from which to extract allegories for the spiritual life. Rama, to unite himself with beauty (of which Sita is the embodiment), must overcome evil, with its weapons of delusion, ignorance, and temptation. Once the soul is able to unite itself with beauty, it is restored to the Kingdom from which it fell and was exiled.
The mini-stories within the Ramayana also each present such possibilities for extracting ethical and spiritual allegories. Sprinkled throughout the Ramayana are jewels of wisdom and always present is the remarkable example of Rama, a man of perfect virtue.
From the perspective of a Christian, the Ramayana can be seen as one of those many pre-Christian foreshadowings of the Incarnation of Christ. Rama, as an incarnation of a god who suffers to restore justice in the world and defeat the forces of evil, and whose deeds are often mysterious and occasionally even apparently morally questionable but which are always done with great wisdom and the knowledge that good will be the final result, can be seen in these senses as a type of Christ-figure. He can also be seen as a symbol of the human soul, exiled from the Garden and seeking its way back through overcoming of self and of the external evils of the demons, to be finally united with the eternal beauty in the Kingdom of God.
This particular telling of the story, a shortened prose version by the acclaimed author R. K. Narayan, is a wonderful introduction to the Ramayana as it provides an engaging outline of the story while weaving some insightful commentary about the epic and its reception in Indian culture throughout. I also recommend viewing the opera Ayodhya by S. P. Somtow, an operatic version of the Ramayana composed in 2006 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the coronation of the king of Thailand.
The Rig Veda is one of the great classics of world religious thought. A collection of disparate hymns to various deities, foremost among whom are Indra, Agni, and Soma, it has come a long way from its roots in the syncretism of Aryan and pre-Aryan Indian religious systems. While the culture it reflects is a semi-nomadic warrior society that has recently conquered and subdued a settled agrarian (and ostensibly peaceful) culture of the Indus Valley, by the Upanishadic era (beginning in earnest circa 500 BCE) the hymns it contains were being reinterpreted along more mystical, spiritual, and even incipiently monotheistic lines.
Doniger does a fair job in capturing all of this in her selections and commentary in this book. The sample size is fair, as this contains about 10% of the actual Rig Veda. It is, alas, not always entirely representative of the source material, however. This is due to an unfortunate disposition toward those minute and stupid things modern academics are interested in. The table of contents, for example, in which the various hymns featured in this sampling are listed by theme, reveals an interesting predilection toward the obsessions of liberal academics. Indra, the primary god of the Aryan religious system, has 21 pages total of this book, for example, and Soma, both a god and a hallucinogenic plant whose use was widespread in the Vedic religious system, has 18 pages of hymns dedicated to him. The theme of “women,” however, which, outside of natural sexual desire and the need to perpetuate society and species through procreation, was not an especially intense concern of the Vedic authors, receive a whopping 32 pages, more pages than any other subject! The result is that, rather than presenting a sample representative of the content of the Rig Veda and the concerns of the society from which it emerged, Doniger instead provides a sample that entirely reflects the concerns of her academic colleagues.
All of this is unfortunate, but it does not make the book entirely worthless, as such academic idiocies so often do. The positive aspect of this concern with academic fetishes over all else is that Doniger does not, as Eknath Easwaran and other translators of and commentators upon Indian religious texts so often do, allow the superstitions and predispositions of modern Hinduism to determine the content or commentary. Modern Hindus, under the influence of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, among other later works, read back their monism and its accompanying mysticism into the Vedic texts and many academics, in their grovelling before foreignness, one symptom of the rampant Western self-hatred of the academic, are all too happy to oblige them in this ahistorical outlook. This is, of course, entirely unhelpful for the honest interested party who really seeks to understand a text within its historical and cultural origins rather than within the mythology and ex post facto justifications that have grown up around it.
To summarize, I applaud Doniger for her willingness to be honest about the polytheistic warrior culture of the Rig Veda. I only wish she were as honest about her own atheistic sex-fetish culture in academia. If she were, this sample translation of the foremost Veda would have been of more value. As it is, I recommend it as a decent introduction insofar as the reader is aware of the biases of Doniger and her compatriots.
I move with the Rudras, with the Vasus, with the Adityas and all the gods. I carry both Mitra and Varuna, both Indra and Agni, and both of the Asvins.
I carry the swelling Soma, and Tvastr, and Pusan and Bhaga. I bestow wealth on the pious sacrificer who presses the Soma and offers the oblation.
I am the queen, the confluence of riches, the skilful one who is first among those worthy of sacrifice. The gods divided me up into various parts, for I dwell in many places and enter into many forms.
The one who eats food, who truly sees, who breathes, who hears what is said, does so through me. Though they do not realize it, they dwell in me. Listen, you whom they have heard: what I tell you should be heeded.
I am the one who says, by myself, what gives joy to gods and men. Whom I love I make awesome; I make him a sage, a wise man, a Brahmin.
I stretch the bow for Rudra so that his arrow will strike down the hater of prayer. I incite the content among the people. I have pervaded sky and earth.
I gave birth to the father on the head of this world. My womb is in the waters, within the ocean. From there I spread out over all creatures and touch the very sky with the crown of my head.
I am the one who blows like the wind, embracing all creatures. Beyond the sky, beyond this earth, so much have I become my greatness.
Rig Veda 10.125
The Upanishads are some of the most fascinating writings in world literature. They are a record of several hundred years of experience and wisdom in one of the world’s great mystical traditions. As such, they act as a powerful witness to the universality of the desire for eternity and transcendence, for the innate humanity of the longing for God.
This translation is an interesting one and may be useful for someone who is new to the Upanishads. Nearly all of the technical language is trimmed out and the universal aspects are emphasized, rather than those elements that are unique to the Hindu tradition. The great fault of this book, however, is that it seems to try too hard in many places to emphasis that universality. Rather than allowing the universality of the Upanishads to shine through on their own, the translation often seeks to imitate biblical language, more familiar to Western readers, and the commentaries focus more on making the Upanishads acceptable to a Judeo-Christian audience than on actually explaining the historical and cultural milieu of the Upanishads themselves. If it were not for this flaw, or if I were rating just the Upanishads alone and not the translation and commentary, I would rate this volume much higher.
The Upanishads are, of course, among the great classics of mankind. The vast wealth of literature classed under this heading emerged from the spiritual golden age of India, a period during which the polytheistic and overly ritualistic religion of the Vedas was emerging into something simultaneously more spiritual and more philosophical. As with similar literature of a similar period from other places, such as Greece, the Upanishads often deal with the older literature in some novel ways, sometimes allegorizing upon it, often claiming to divulge a deeper meaning that has existed all along, and occasionally contradicting it.
When we zoom out a bit from the merely historical level, the Upanishads remain a fascinating example of the perennial nature of much mystical and philosophical thought. In this, they act as a demonstration of the universal accessibility of the truth at the heart of human life and existence. They are a reflection of the universal human condition and a testimony to the means by which man becomes master of that condition and, in a sense, transcends it. While their origins are in India, the Upanishads are part of the heritage of all mankind.
With this in mind, it must be admitted that it is a shame that the Upanishads have still not been fully explored by Christians in the discovery and appreciation of the “seeds of the Word” (as St. Justin Martyr termed the truths discovered and discussed by the pre-Christian philosophers). In this, the Upanishads contain a whole world of wisdom yet to be brought to its full fruition by exposure to and incorporation with the self-revelation of God in the Incarnation. I await the wonderful day this task will finally be taken up with the requisite erudition and sensitivity.
Juan Mascaro’s introduction is a bit too syncretistic to be realistic, but he certainly provides some decent pointers in the right direction toward understanding the Upanishads both on their own terms and in relation to Christendom. I think, however, that his style tries just a bit too hard to make the Upanishads as they are understood by modern Hindus fit in with Christianity in a way that is not possible if one is to allow both religious traditions to remain true to themselves. I recommend reading it nonetheless and extracting from it whatever is of worth to the reader. The Upanishads themselves I recommend for all readers interested in reading several of the great classics of spirituality.