The World as seen by Upanishadic Seers
We have already seen that the universe has come out of Brahman, has its essence in Brahman, and will also return back to it. But in spite of its existence as Brahman its character as represented to experience could not be denied.
Śankara held that the Upaniṣads referred to the external world and accorded a reality to it consciously with the purpose of treating it as merely relatively real, which will eventually appear as unreal as soon as the ultimate truth, the Brahman, is known.
This however remains to be modified to this extent that the sages had not probably any conscious purpose of according a relative reality to the phenomenal world,
but in spite of regarding Brahman as the highest reality they could not ignore the claims of the exterior world, and had to accord a reality to it.
The inconsistency of this reality of the phenomenal world with the ultimate and only reality of Brahman was attempted to be reconciled by holding that this world is not beside him but it has come out of him, it is maintained in him and it will return back to him.
The world is sometimes spoken of in its twofold aspect, the organic and the inorganic:
All organic things, whether plants, animals or men, have souls. Brahman desiring to be many created fire (tejas), water (ap) and earth (kṣiti).
Then the self-existent Brahman entered into these three, and it is by their combination that all other bodies are formed. So all other things are produced as a result of an alloying or compounding of the parts of these three together.
In this theory of the threefold division of the primitive elements lies the earliest germ of the later distinction (especially in the Sānkhya school) of pure infinitesimal substances (tanmātra) and gross elements, and the theory that each gross substance is composed of the atoms of the primary elements.
And in Praśna IV. 8 we find the gross elements distinguished from their subtler natures, e.g. earth (pṛthivī), and the subtler state of earth (pṛthivīmātra).
In the Taittirīya, II. 1, however, ether (ākāśa) is also described as proceeding from Brahman, and the other elements, air, fire, water, and earth, are described as each proceeding directly from the one which directly preceded it.
The conception of a world-soul related to the universe as the soul of man to his body is found for the first time in Ṛig-Veda X. 121.1, where he is said to have sprung forth as the firstborn of creation from the primeval waters.
This being has twice been referred to in the Śvetāśvatara, in III.4 and IV.12. It is indeed very strange that this being is not referred to in any of the earlier Upaniṣads.
In the two passages in which he has been spoken of, his mythical character is apparent:
He is regarded as one of the earlier products in the process of cosmic creation, but his importance from the point of view of the development of the theory of Brahman or Ātman is almost nothing.
The fact that neither the Puruṣa, nor the Viśvakarma, nor the Hiraṇyagarbha played an important part in the earlier development of the Upaniṣads leads to think that the Upaniṣad doctrines were not directly developed from the monotheistic tendencies of the later Ṛig-Veda speculations.
The passages in Śvetāśvatara clearly show how from the supreme eminence that he had in Ṛig-Veda X. 121, Hiraṇyagarbha had been brought to the level of one of the created beings.
Deussen in explaining the philosophical significance of the Hiraṇyagarbha doctrine of the Upaniṣads says that the “entire objective universe is possible only in so far as it is sustained by a knowing subject.
This subject as a sustainer of the objective universe is manifested in all individual objects but is by no means identical with them.
For the individual objects pass away but the objective universe continues to exist without them; there exists therefore the eternal knowing subject also (Hiraṇyagarbha) by whom it is sustained.
Space and time are derived from this subject. It is itself accordingly not in space and does not belong to time, and therefore from an empirical point of view it is in general non-existent; it has no empirical but only a metaphysical reality.”
This however seems to be wholly irrelevant, since the Hiraṇyagarbha doctrine cannot be supposed to have any philosophical importance in the Upaniṣads.
There was practically no systematic theory of causation in the Upaniṣads.
Śankara, the later exponent of Vedanta philosophy, always tried to show that the Upaniṣads looked upon the cause as mere ground of change which though unchanged in itself in reality had only an appearance of suffering change.
This he did on the strength of a series of examples in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (VI. 1) in which the material cause, e.g. the clay, is spoken of as the only reality in all its transformations as the pot, the jug or the plate.
It is said that though there are so many diversities of appearance that one is called the plate, the other the pot, and the other the jug, yet these are only empty distinctions of name and form,
for the only thing real in them is the earth which in its essence remains ever the same whether you call it the pot, plate, or jug.
So it is that the ultimate cause, the unchangeable Brahman, remains ever constant, though it may appear to suffer change as the manifold world outside. This world is thus only an unsubstantial appearance, a mirage imposed upon Brahman, the real par excellence.
It seems however that though such a view may be regarded as having been expounded in the Upaniṣads in an imperfect manner,
there is also side by side the other view which looks upon the effect as the product of a real change wrought in the cause itself through the action and combination of the elements of diversity in it.
Thus when the different objects of nature have been spoken of in one place as the product of the combination of the three elements fire, water and earth, the effect signifies a real change produced by their compounding. This is in germ (as we shall see hereafter) the Pariṇāma theory of causation advocated by the Sānkhya school.