SOAS University of London

Department of Religions & Philosophies, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Graham Burns

BA Law (Dunelm), MA Religions (SOAS)
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Graham Burns
Department of Religions and Philosophies, School of History, Religions and Philosophies

Graduate Teaching Assistant

Mr Graham Burns
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Thesis title:
Neti neti - the Search for the Ultimate Principle in the Vedic Upanisads
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PhD Research

Neti, neti: the Search for the Ultimate Principle in the Vedic Upanisads
Graham Burns

‘It will be better that a modern interpreter should not agree to the claims of the ancients that all the Upanisads represent a connected system, but take the texts independently and separately and determine their meanings,… keeping an eye on the context in which they appear.’ (Dasgupta 1949 (vol.1):42)

The Vedic Upanisads are a series of 12 to 14 texts compiled in northern India, probably in the period between around 600BCE and the very early years of the Common Era, which form the final part of the wider Vedic corpus of sacred texts. Although diverse in length, form and content, taken as a whole the Vedic Upanisads have been considered by some to represent the earliest attempts at serious philosophical speculation in ancient India.

Chief among their speculations is an attempt to identify and explain the ‘ultimate principle’ of existence, in other words the single entity or principle which underlies, supports and sustains all of existence. Difficult, if not impossible, to describe, this principle has been variously referred to in scholarly circles as the ‘unitary world-ground’ (Robert Hume 1921), the ‘principle or power… [which] lie[s] behind the world and… make[s] the world explicable’ (Joel Brereton 1990), and ‘the ultimate and basic essence of the cosmos’ (Patrick Olivelle 1998).

Later influential religio-philosophical interpretations of the Vedic Upanisads presented them as teaching a consistent fundamental doctrine that the ultimate principle of existence on the cosmic level is a form of undifferentiated absolute reality called brahman; that there is an individual inner reality (or ‘Self’) known as atman,and that brahman and atman share an intrinsic ontological unity. Yet teachings of the Vedic Upanisads were adopted as authoritative not just by proponents of this strict non-dualist school, but also by proponents of other philosophical schools which analysed the relationship between individual and universal reality in different ways. A close analysis of the texts themselves reveals a more complex picture, in which different theories of ultimate reality, and of the relationship between the Self and universal reality, are presented, tested and either discarded or developed.

My thesis contains a systematic exploration of the Upanisadic speculations about the ultimate principle of existence. My hypothesis is that it is unrealistic to expect the Upanisads to present consistency of teaching, and I will show how some of their first speculations about the ultimate principle drew on earlier Vedic cosmogonic ideas, particularly those related to the natural world; how certain of those speculations were explored, modified, developed, and, in many cases, rejected; and how the commonly accepted notions of brahman and atman developed. I will argue that the representation of atman /brahman identity as a universal Upanisadic teaching fails to take account of (a) the alternative and developing presentations of ultimate reality within the texts, (b) differing meanings of the terms atman and brahman, and (c) different theories about the relationship between the two.

The Vedic Upanisads have been the subject of extensive western academic study since the late 19th century.  As well as often being influenced by later religious and philosophical interpretations of the texts’ teachings, and/or by western orientalist prejudice, most early studies sought to analyse the philosophical content of the Upanisads with no more than a cursory nod to their method of presenting their teachings or to their social and historical context. More recent scholarship has tended to turn away from detailed philosophical analysis, and has looked at the Upanisads as literature, focussing on how their teachings are presented, including some of the common literary devices which they use. There have been few, if any, recent studies which have systematically analysed the development of the texts’ presentations of the ultimate principle, and none which have anchored that analysis in the contemporary scholarship regarding the social, historical and narrative contexts of those presentations. My intention is that my thesis will bridge that gap, by presenting a systematic overview of the texts’ speculations about the ultimate principle in the context of how the content and method of presentation of teachings relate both to each other and to the wider society in which they were being developed. Adopting such an approach will, I hope, cast new light on how and why some of the Upanisads’ theories of the ultimate principle developed and were ultimately either rejected or adopted in later religio-philosophical circles.   My final aim will be to assess whether the Upanisads’ speculations can usefully be organised coherently by reference to time, place, literary presentation, or religious affiliation of the original teachings.


Ancient Indian religious history and philosophy.