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Redressing an Imbalance

Kunal Chakrabarti

By Johanan Grinshpon
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 146, Rs. 395.00


This scholarly and imaginative study of the Upanishads makes a significant point: It argues that the Upanishadic texts have been traditionally viewed as consisting of two distinct and separable parts—“metaphysics” and “story”. This has resulted in “abstraction” and over-valuation of the metaphysical message and, more importantly, neglect and consequent “under-reading” of the stories. The book attempts to redress this imbalance by exploring the narrative potential of the stories (the author has identified a recurring psychological pattern: feeling of inferiority in the protagonist that leads to a crisis and culminates in acquisition of knowledge) so that the essential exegetical integrity of narrative form and content can be maintained.   However, I have some rather serious reservations about the manner in which the stories have been interpreted, the contextual frame of reference has been defined, and the broader implications of his ‘re-readings’ have been left unspecified. Let me begin with the method of interpretation. To choose an example at random, the author reads the Satyakama-Jabala story as a narrative of “bitter mother-son conflict” on the ground that Satyakama asked his mother Jabala about his lineage and she answered that she did not know. It is assumed that the mother was a sudra because “this is—most probably—what the Upanishad says” (p. 48), even though the author later contradicts himself: “She was a Sudra woman, says the Upanishad” (p. 49). The latter statement is in fact not correct. Moreover, it seems to follow automatically from the son’s wish to live as a brahmacarin in the guru’s house that “[H]e must have known that he was a brahmin” (p. 47). The author justifiably describes Sankaracharya’s speculation that Jabala was married to a husband whose social identity she did not care to remember as “amazing” (p. 48), and yet he himself indulges in speculations which are equally far-fetched: “Jabala is abandoned by a man of caste, whom she does know as Satyakama’s father, and whom she does know as a man of higher caste, most probably a brahmin, who does not marry her” (p. 51).   There is nothing in the original text to support any of these conjectures except that Satyakama was probably born out of wedlock. Indeed some circumstantial evidence does suggest that it might not have been an unambiguous story celebrating “the great virtue of truthfulness” and a “harmonious mother-son relationship” as it is traditionally understood, and the author’s ability to ...

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