Stoic Echoes in the Upanishads by Eric O. Scott

What is the cause of the cosmos? Is it Brahman?
From where do we come? By what live?
Where shall we find peace at last?
What power governs the duality
Of pleasure and pain by which we are driven?
—The Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 1.1

When you subscribe to a tradition as rich and universally relatable as Stoicism, it’s almost impossible not to see parallels to Stoic doctrines in other philosophies, books, movies, and poems.  If we were keeping score, I would probably nominate Rudyard Kipling’s “If—” to take top points for the most “Stoic-non-Stoic” writing ever to impact a culture, and whole books could be (and have been) written on the intersection between Stoic and Christian ethics.  We all like to compare and contrast new ideas against what we know and understand, and—as any moderator of a modern Stoic social media group knows—the list of objects we could substitute into the formula “How is Stoicism like X?” is effectively endless.

When it comes to Eastern traditions, Buddhism certainly takes the cake as far as being the most-discussed philosophy in the modern Stoic community (I count at least eight articles on Buddhist links in the Stoicism Today blog alone, and our Western Buddhist brothers and sisters, for their part, have also noticed the common ground).  Taoism is a close second, thanks to the (at least superficial) similarity between Laozi’s ziran/wuwei and Zeno’s injunction to “follow nature.”  Confucianism gets mentioned occasionally (though not often enough, in my opinion) for the close common ground it shares with Greco-Roman virtue ethics.

Amidst all this bustling conversation in today’s “Fifth Stoa,” Hindu philosophy often goes under-appreciated, I think.  A few months ago, inspired in no small part by Peter Adamson’s spectacular History of Philosophy without Any Gaps podcast and book series, I undertook to read the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita (which is sometimes known as the “Upanishad of the Upanishads”)—the famously beautiful texts that form the cornerstone of Indian philosophy—and what I found there pretty much knocked my socks off.

Reading the Upanishads is an amazing and sublime experience for anyone, whether you are an expert or a novice on Indian thought, and whether you are a theist, are sympathetic to mysticism, or are a secular atheist like myself.  As a practicing Stoic, moreover, I can’t help but notice substantial similarities in the questions, solutions, arguments, and metaphors that both traditions share in common.

Granted, traditions as distant divergent as Hinduism and Roman Stoicism no doubt have more differences than similarities, and it is extremely difficult (some say impossible) to really compare two lived traditions of life practice in a remotely comprehensive way.  It’s not that I put a very great or profound weight on the similarities between these two different traditions, or that I believe they are more similar than any other pair of philosophies.  We must always be cautious, I hasten to add, about the misconceptions we might get by trying to fit distant square pegs into familiar round holes.  But I do find it exhilarating to point out the shared problems and values that humans come to emphasize, even across vast geographical and cultural distances.   Collecting the “seeds of virtue,” as the ancients would say, that humans exhibit all across the world is an excellent way to go about learning about new cultures—and, I would add, to learn about ourselves in the process.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let me share a number of significant (if arbitrary and unsystematic) correspondences to the Upanishads that struck me—a practicing modern Stoic born and raised in the American Midwest—as eerily familiar, even profound during my amateur tour of the Indian classics.  As I read, the sheer number of connections grew at a much faster rate than I anticipated, and when I started to haphazardly jot them down, I realized that the common ground between the Stoic and Hindu classics is much weightier than I anticipated.

Summary

Overall, I’ve noticed correspondences in three broad areas: resilience and happiness, ethical action, and theory versus practice.

Under resilience and happiness, I noticed that both traditions recognize right out the door that their value system will need to be defended against skeptical readers who ask challenging questions.  Like Stoicism, the Upanishads deny that externals have genuine value, and they insist that happiness comes from some unassailable place within ourselves.  They even invent some of the same metaphors that the Stoics used later to drive home this point: where the Stoics have an “inner citadel,” the Upanishads give us the “city of Brahman,” and where Stoic determinism gives us a “dog tied to a cart,” the Upanishadic view of the body gives us an “ox tied to a cart.”

When it comes to ethical action, both traditions position themselves as a “middle way” that balances unhealthy (and amoral) detachment from the world against irrational and destructive passions.  The Upanishads present an idea of socially-engaged, “detached action” that inspired no less than the likes of Ghandi.  Like the Stoics, moreover, they suggest that our natural human emotions and senses—while not ultimate goods in themselves—are meant to help inform and motivate our actions toward moral excellence.  The Upanishadic of view of Karma also turns out (unexpectedly, in my perhaps naïve view) to have a strong parallel to the role that moral habituation plays in the Greek view of ethical development.  And the Stoic ethic of cosmopolitan love, with its basis in the universal Logos shared by all humankind, turns out to have a startling similarity to the Hindu-Buddhist-Jain notion of ahimsa, which the Upanishads attribute to humankind’s universal share in the Self (Atman).

Finally, the famous Stoic emphasis on the primacy of practice over theory is strongly mirrored in the Upanishads.  And while their metaphysics and epistemology appear very different on the surface—with the Stoics emphasizing reason, argument, and materialism, in contrast to the Upanishads‘ meditation, non-cognition, and universal Self—I found that the mystic emphasis on consciousness as the fundamental property of the universe feels quite similar, on some level, to the Stoic fascination with the Logos that structures the cosmos and underlies our human capacity for thought.

That summarizes the story I want to tell.  The rest of this essay will go through and explain each of these purported correspondences in more detail.

Resilience and Happiness

Preempting Skeptics

Both the Upanishadic and Stoic traditions advocate for the extirpation of emotions and values that many people normally associate with happiness and flourishing.  This means that, at their core, texts in both traditions tend to be aware that readers may very well be skeptical of the values they present.

For instance, in one of the longest and most famous of the Upanishads—the Chandogya Upanishad—no less than the god Indra himself gives voice to such skeptical concerns. Each time Indra repeatedly approaches the god Prajapati to become enlightened, he comes away dissatisfied by Prajapati’s answers.  Finally, when Prajapati tries to tell him that realizing Brahman is like “sleeping soundly, free from dreams, with a still mind,” Indra has had enough (8.11.1):

The state of dreamless sleep is very close to extinction.  In this knowledge I see no value.

This exchange struck me as closely related to the initial objections that people often have (starting with Crantor’s famous objection to Stoicism in the 3rd century B.C.E.)  to the Greek doctrine of apatheia.  If pursuing philosophy means suppressing our natural human emotions and instincts, then that sounds like the opposite of healthy flourishing!   Both traditions handle this objection in part by agreeing with it:  suppression of human nature is indeed unhealthy, but that is not what we advocate.  Whatever you may need to sacrifice to follow our path, great, genuine happiness and flourishing is nonetheless to be found without the attachments and passions that we have rejected (via, say, the eupatheia, or the lasting joy found in moksha).

Externals Aren’t the Point

Both traditions share a de-emphasis on the inherent value of pleasure and external things.  Both see externals as natural and worth enjoying, but teach that there is something more important and deeply joyful than pleasure.  See especially the remarks that Yama (the god of death) makes after testing Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad:

Perennial joy or passing pleasure?
This is the choice one is to make always.
Those who are wise recognize this, but not
The ignorant.  The first welcome what leads
To abiding joy, though painful at the time.
The latter run, goaded by their senses,
After what seems immediate pleasure.
Well have you renounced these passing pleasures
So dear to the senses, Nachiketa,
And turned your back on the way of the world
That makes mankind forget the goal of life.

We can easily see connections here to the way the Greeks discuss joy, flourishing, and the human telos.  Both traditions also emphasize the control of the passions, and the existence of a form of consciousness that can rise above sense impressions.  Both teach that this higher part of our existence is part of our fundamental nature.

Happiness is Invulnerable

Along a similar vein, both teach that we can find true happiness by seeking something that we carry within us already.  “Seek and realize the Self!” says the Chandogya Upanishad  (8.7.1):

Those who seek and realize the Self fulfill all their desires and attain the goal supreme.

Moreover, in the ensuing interaction between the gods Indra and Prajapati, we see the same insistence as in the Greeks that the answer to our life’s fulfillment ought to be something that is preserved in the face of any misfortune.  Much like in Stoic syllogisms, Indra rejects the body as the ultimate Self, because it can be injured and become blind or lame; he rejects dreams, because we can experience pain and injury even in dreams, etc.  At each step, he repeats “in such knowledge, I can see no value.”  Like the philosophers of ancient Greece, he is looking for a source of consolation that is utterly invulnerable to misfortune.

Citadels, Dogs, and Carts

Interestingly, I noticed two key metaphors that the two traditions seem to have independently invented: the citadel and the cart.

The Stoic image of the inner citadel is comparable to the comforting role that the “city of Brahman” plays in the Chandogya Upanishad (8.1.5).  Just like the Stoics use the ultimate value and invulnerability of virtue as the basis of their consolations, the Upanishads emphasize the permanence and supreme value of the Self (Atman):

Never fear that old age will invade that city; never fear that this inner treasure of all reality will wither and decay.  This knows no age when the body ages; this know no dying when the body dies.  This is the real city of Brahman; this is the Self, free from old age, free from death and grief, hunger and thirst.

Something very similar to the Stoic “dog and cart” metaphor appears in the Chandogya Upanishad (8.12.2):

In that state, free from attachment, they move at will, laughing, playing, and rejoicing.  They know the Self is not this body, but only tied to it for a time as an ox is tied to its cart.

The Katha Upanishad also uses a vivid depiction of a chariot and horses to describe the parts of the Self.  This is awfully similar to Plato’s famous chariot allegory, though used to different effect.  Granted, the Stoic and Platonic views of human nature differ substantially, but it’s an interesting parallel nonetheless.

Death

Finally, both traditions share an interest in death meditation.  Notably in the Katha Upanishad (1.6):

like corn mortals ripen and fall; like corn they come up again .

Ethical Action

The Middle Way

A second critical objection that both traditions must fend off is the question of how, once we accept the claim that what is really valuable comes from within, can we motivate a life of action and ethical engagement with the external world?

The Upanishads and the Baghavad Gita respond to this challenge by emphasizing the need for a combination of detachment and action.  The basic argument is that we are wretched if we neglect either one.

An especially stirring statement of this principle is found in the Isha Upanishad.  Mahatma Gandhi famously considered the Isha, which is one of the shortest of the Upanishads, to be the most important summary of Hindu philosophy.  Here is what it has to say about action:

In the dark live those for whom
The world without alone is real; in night
Darker still, for whom the world within
Alone is real.  The first leads to a life
Of action, the second to a life of meditation.
But those who combine action with meditation
Cross the sea of death through action
And enter into immortality
Through the practice of meditation.
So we have heard from the wise.

This suggests that the life of an enlightened Sage assumes the form of a middle way between total detachment and totally attached action.  For me, this passage in the Isha evokes Epictetus’ remarks about the similar balance Stoicism aims to strike (Discourses, 2.5.9):

It is difficult, to be sure, to unite and combine these two states of mind, the vigilance of one who feels attracted by outside objects, and the composure of one who feels indifferent to them; but all the same it is not impossible.  For otherwise it would be impossible for us to be happy.

Stoicism too, of course, positioned itself as a middle way between Cynicism (which they considered overly detached, sometimes to the point of amorality) and the Aristotelians, Epicureans, and Cyrenaics, who they viewed as falling into the opposite extreme.

Detached Action

The notion of “detached action” also plays a key role at the beginning of the Gita.  This component of Indian tradition established very early on that we should do good for its own sake, not out of concern for external reward or even Karma.  The parallel here to Greco-Roman virtue ethics is strong and obvious.

On that note, the god Yama briefly mentions that our emotions toward external things help “prompt us to action” (Kata Upanishad, 2.1).   This is also a popular interpretation of Stoic proto-passions—the idea being that our natural human emotions serve as information processors or warning signals that may help focus our attention and prompt us toward our duty.

Moral Habituation and Karma

The concept of moral habituation, which is absolutely fundamental to much of Greek ethics (from Socrates and Aristotle to the Stoics), makes an appearance in the Upanishads as part of the explanation for how the law of Karma operates (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.5):

As a person acts, so he becomes in life.  Those who do good become good; those who do harm become bad.

This argument did a great deal to demystify Karma for me.  Rather than a cosmic “scorekeeper” that somehow tracks our actions and pays out rewards, the Upanishads describe Karma as the natural results of a process of moral habituation:

We live in accordance with our deep, driving desire.  It is this desire at the time of death that determines what our next life will be.  We will come back to earth to work out the satisfaction of that desire.

While the Stoics weren’t generally sympathetic to the Pythagorean theory of a cycle of rebirths, this view of Karma nonetheless resonates with the Stoic focus on training our desires and aversions to be directed at what is truly valuable in life.

Cosmopolitanism and Ahimsa

The Upanishadic case for universal love is based on the idea that we love others because the universal Self (Atman) lives in all of us (the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 2.4.5):

Everything is loved not for its own sake, but because the Self lives in it.

And again in the Chandogya Upanishad (8.7.4):

When you look into another’s eyes, what you see is the self, fearless and deathless.  That is Brahman, the supreme.

This tradition is what gave rise to the famous concept of ahimsa (nonviolence), so prevalent across Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

Both ahimsa and the rationale behind it strike me as remarkably similar to the Stoic notion that humanity belongs to one family because of our mutual share in the Divine Reason (Logos).  The analog to ahimsa, then, is the cosmopolis.

Unlike ahimsa, however, classical Stoic cosmopolitanism (like Western tradition more broadly) excludes concern for animals (since animals do not share in Reason).  Most contemporary Stoics, I think, consider this a clear shortcoming of our tradition: we are very much interested in expanding the sphere of Stoic Justice to explicitly include concern for animals (see for instance Leonidas Konstantakos’ essay, “Would a Stoic Save the Elephants?“).  Whether we can do that by appealing to a more general notion of the Logos that includes animals, or whether we need to rely on additional moral arguments, is a question I hope today’s Stoics will work on and flesh out.

Theory versus Practice

Going Beyond Books

Wisdom is found in practice and self-understanding, not in book smarts.  Epictetus’ remarks about the inadequacy of simply mastering Chrysippus’ logic (as impressive a feat as that may be) find a parallel in the incomplete education of Shvetaketu in the Chandogya Upanishad (chapter 6), and to the impressive resumé of Narada, who has, it seems, learned absolutely everything except how to live a good life (7.1.2–3):

I know the four Vedas—Rig, Yajur, Sama, Atharva—and the epics, called the fifth.  I have studied grammar, rituals, mathematics, astronomy, logic, economics, physics, psychology, the fine arts, and even snake-charming.  But all this knowledge has not helped me to know the Self.  I have heard from spiritual teachers like you that one who realizes the Self goes beyond sorrow.  I am lost in sorrow.  Please teach me how to go beyond.

Along these lines, the Mundaka Upanishad also draws an interesting distinction between “higher” and “lower” knowledge (1.4–5).

The illumined sages say
Knowledge is twofold, higher and lower.
The study of the Vedas, linguistics,
Rituals, astronomy, and all the arts
Can be called lower knowledge.  The higher
Is that which leads to Self-realization.

Consciousness and Logos

The tradition of Stoic physics is one that brings us right up to the edge of mystic territory, even if it stops short of entering into the same sorts of meditations or conclusions that we associate with mystic tradition proper.  As such, Stoicism shares with the Upanishads (and other mystic traditions) a fascination with consciousness, and a belief that consciousness (or something closely related to it) is a fundamental aspect of the universe.

“All reality is consciousness,” says the Aitareya Upanishad, in one of the four great utterances that are considered to sum up Upanishadic philosophy.

Conclusion

The ecumenical view I have presented here notwithstanding, in the last analysis it may very well be that the differences between Stoic and Hindu traditions dramatically outweigh their similarities.  The cultural context, metaphysical assumptions, and matrix of background models and questions that each of these literatures arose in were entirely different.  Here I haven’t attempted anything resembling a proper introduction to the traditions inspired by the Upanishads and how their special characteristics differentiate them from Greek and Western thought.  But to highlight one fundamental difference, the Upanishadic approach to knowledge and to ultimate human flourishing places heavy emphasis on using meditation to look into ourselves to discover the essence of both our nature and cosmic reality.  Take for instance, the Shvetashvatara Upanishad (1.2,11):

In the depths of meditation, sages
Saw within themselves the Lord of Love,
Who dwells in the heart of every creature…

In deep meditation aspirants may
See forms like snow or smoke.  They feel
A strong wind blowing or a wave of heat.
They may see within them more and more light:
Fireflies, lightning, sun, or moon.  These are signs
That they are well on their way to Brahman.

This idea is of meditation and self-realization is a (if not the) major unifying theme of the Upanishads, and it does not strike me as at all equivalent to the Stoic aspiration toward virtue, or toward using scientific inquiry to understand the cosmic Logos.  It thus seems to represent a fundamental difference between the two traditions’ methods and aim.

Nevertheless, by taking the time to think about the common ground between a few of these foundational books from human history, I’d like to think that I’ve learned more, not just about Indian philosophy and what it considers important for human life, but about Stoicism too, and what makes the path of the prokopton valuable and meaningful.  If resilience and happiness, ethical action, and a practical approach to theory are what jump out to me as salient when I compare the Stoics to the Upanishads, it suggests that those three kinds of activity are the pillars of what really matters in Stoic practice.  All the other details—whether it is the logic of Chrysippus, or the “Vedas and linguistics,” or “even snake-charming”—is secondary.

 

Eric “Siggy” Scott manages the Stoics for Justice group on Facebook and writes the blog Euthyphroria. He is especially interested in the interactions among Stoic practice, personal social engagement, and social justice advocacy. In real life, he is a PhD student in computer science at George Mason University, where he does research on machine learning and evolutionary algorithms.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

5 thoughts on “Stoic Echoes in the Upanishads by Eric O. Scott”

  1. Nice exposition of Hindu philosophy and its affinities to Stoicism. I still believe the differences far outweigh the similarities. Most importantly Stocism, like much of Western thought, is rational and materialist, while Hindu philosophy, like Buddism, tends to be much more mystical and spiritualist.

  2. Well done, Mr. Scott (Eric)! I think the key to Hindu ontology/cosmology is the famous statement, “Tat tvam asi”, usually translated as, “Thou art that,” or “That you are.” The idea is that atman [self] is Brahman [underlying reality]. I think the Stoic counterpart is not quite so definitive in identifying “self” with the Logos, but rather, emphasizes that we share in (partake of) the rational/ethical aspect of Logos. This, as it turns out, is quite similar to the Judaic idea, emphasized by Maimonides, that “we are made in God’s image” in so far as we partake of reason.

    Regards,
    Ron Pies

    1. Thanks you, Dr. Pies! I suppose your “JuBuSto” is just the beginning of these cross-cultural similarities, isn’t it?

      I like your point about “made in God’s image.” That same parallel came up in a conversation I had with a friend last week about ethical naturalism: I was looking for ways that I could use the the Stoic notion of the λόγος to establish some common ground with Judeo-Christian tradition. I don’t think I convinced him that the Stoic process of οἰκειόσις is equivalent to being made in God’s image—but it made for an interesting argument!

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