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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Upaniṣads on Kantian Moral Autonomy

Kant believed that the central moral value for an individual is autonomy—an individual is autonomous if he can give moral law to himself and does not have to make his choices on the basis of the injunctions of others. Something similar to the Kantian idea of autonomy is expressed in several verses in the Upaniṣads. For instance, the verse 7.25.2 in the Chandogya Upaniṣad says: 

“'Hence the symbolic statement on "self": "The self is below, the self is above, the self is in the west, the self is in the east, the self is in the south, the self is in the north. The self is all this." Seeing this, thinking this, knowing this-taking pleasure in the self, playing in the self, making love with the self, delighting in the self-one becomes one's own ruler, and wins freedom to move in all worlds. But those who know it in other ways are ruled by others, live in perishable worlds, and win no freedom to move in all worlds.”

The verse 1.6.2 in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad says: 

“as SUVAH in the sun, as MAHAH in brahman. He wins independence, he wins the lord of the mind: he is lord of speech, lord of the eye, lord of the ear, lord of knowledge. From that comes this: brahman, with space as its body, truth as its self, breath as its dwelling, mind as its joy, pervaded by peace, immortal. Worship it as such, Pracinayogya.”

The verse 3.10.5 in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad notes that when a man with rational mind has unhindered liberty, he can attain perfect bliss:

“And the one who leaves this world knowing this goes up to the self made of food, goes up to the self made of breath, goes up to the self made of mind, goes up to the self made of knowledge, goes up to the self made of joy. He moves about the worlds, with food at his desire, with forms at his desire. He continually sings this saman: ‘Oh, bliss ... ! Oh, bliss . . . ! Oh, bliss . . . ! I am food, I am food, I am food. I am the eater of food. I am the eater of food. I am the eater of food. I am the maker of verse. I am the maker of verse. I am the maker of verse. I am the first-born of law . . ., before the gods, in the navel . . . of immortality. You protect . . . the one who gives to me. I eat . . . food and the one who eats food. I have overcome the whole universe. I am light like the sun.’"

The verse 8.1.6 in the Chandogya Upaniṣad notes that without knowledge of the self, freedom and bliss cannot be achieved:

“Just as here worlds won through action perish, there worlds won through merit perish. While those here who pass on without having known the self and the true desires do not gain freedom to move in all worlds, those here who pass on having known the self and the true desires do gain freedom to move in all worlds.”

(Translations from The Upaniṣads by Valerie Roebuck; Penguin Books)

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