The Character of the Self in Ancient India

Priests, Kings, and Women in the Early Upaniṣads

By Brian Black

Subjects: Asian Studies
Series: SUNY series in Hindu Studies
Paperback : 9780791470145, 238 pages, January 2008
Hardcover : 9780791470138, 238 pages, July 2007

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Table of contents

      Opening statement
      What are the Upanisads?
      The self, life, death, and immortality
      The historical and social context
      Characterizing the self
      Literary characters
      The social conditions of knowledge
      Mystery or mystique: The character of knowledge
1. Teachers and students: The emergence of teaching as an object of discourse
      Sandilya and the teaching of atman and brahman
      Sandilya: From ritualist to teacher
      Uddalaka Aruni and the teaching of tat tvam asi
      Uddalaka and Svetaketu: Acting out the upanayana
      Indra as the persistent student
      Narada and Sanatkumara: Knowledge of atman as more important than the Vedas
      Naciketas and the initiation of an Upanishadic brahmin
      The graduation of a brahmin student in the Taittiriya Upanisad
      Satyakama and the beginnings of a brahmin hagiography
2. Debates between brahmins: The competitive dynamics of the brahmodya
      The brahmodya and the sacrifice
      Uddalaka Aruni and the brahmodya in the Satapatha Brahmana
      Yajnavalkya and the philosophical tournament
      Yajnavalkya’s interlocutors: The social and political implications of debate
      Yajnavalkya and the tactics of debate
      Losing face or losing one’s head? The motif of head shattering
      Upanishadic teachings and material wealth
      Yajnavalkya and renunciation
      The life story of Yajnavalkya
3. Kings and brahmins: The political dimensions of the Upanisads
      The myth of ksatriya authorship
      Janaka and Yajnavalkya: Negotiating the brahmin’s position in the court
      Janaka and Yajnavalkya in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad
      Kings as teachers: Asvapati teaches a group of brahmin householders
      Uddalaka Aruni and Svetaketu: Instructions for how to seek patronage
      Conflicting agendas for how kings should teach brahmins
      Upanishadic knowledge as a political discourse
      The battle of the pranas as a political metaphor
      Pravahana and the teaching of the five fires
4. Brahmins and women: Subjectivity and gender construction in the Upanisads
      The gender of the self: Atman and the male body
      The self, virility, and immortality
      Yajnavalkya and Satyakama: Competing ideals of male subjectivity
      The myth of recovering an authentic female voice
      Gargi: The debating tactics of a female philosopher
      Women and gandharvas: The lack of authority for female speakers
      The ambiguities of Satyakama’s mother and wife
      Maitreyi and Katyayani: Knowledge of atman versus striprajna

Explores the narratives and dialogues of the Upanisads and shows that these literary elements are central to an understanding of Upanishadic philosophy.


This groundbreaking book is an elegant exploration of the Upanisads, often considered the fountainhead of the rich, varied philosophical tradition in India. The Upaniṣads, in addition to their philosophical content, have a number of sections that contain narratives and dialogues—a literary dimension largely ignored by the Indian philosophical tradition, as well as by modern scholars. Brian Black draws attention to these literary elements and demonstrates that they are fundamental to understanding the philosophical claims of the text.

Focusing on the Upanisadic notion of the self (ātman), the book is organized into four main sections that feature a lesson taught by a brahmin teacher to a brahmin student, debates between brahmins, discussions between brahmins and kings, and conversations between brahmins and women. These dialogical situations feature dramatic elements that bring attention to both the participants and the social contexts of Upanisadic philosophy, characterizing philosophy as something achieved through discussion and debate. In addition to making a number of innovative arguments, the author also guides the reader through these profound and engaging texts, offering ways of reading the Upaniṣads that make them more understandable and accessible.

Brian Black is Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.


"Black's book is well researched and intelligent … Most impressive is his ability to bring out the concrete and the social in these narratives, including issues of wealth, prestige, regional rivalry, and gender relations." — Journal of the American Oriental Society

"…[an] innovative and stimulating account of early Indian thought." — History of Religions

"…among the first to analyze the Upanisadic texts as literature as well as foundational philosophical texts … Black's effortless writing style does not over-simplify, but draws together a vast amount of background information in order to enrich the characterisations of the leading teachers in the Upanisads." — Culture and Religion

"This is an outstanding book." — Patrick Olivelle, editor of Between the Empires: Society in India 300 BCE to 400 C

"This is the finest, most insightful, and most theoretically sophisticated book on the Upanisads I have ever read. For years I have had students come up to me after class and ask me to recommend a book on the Upanisads and I never could. Now, at last, we have a long critical read of these texts from a multitheoretical perspective: sociological, historical, rhetorical, and gendered." — Jeffrey J. Kripal, author of The Serpent's Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion