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Burns, Graham Gordon (2018) Neti, neti : the Search for the Ultimate Principle in the Vedic Upaniṣads. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

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This thesis explores the teachings of the ancient Indian texts known as the Vedic Upaniṣads in relation to ultimate reality. Compiled into their quasi-canonical forms between approximately 700 BCE and the early years of the Common Era, the Vedic Upaniṣads were interpreted by a number of later Indian philosophical schools as promoting a single, consistent worldview with regard to the entity, power, or principle which creates, animates, supports and sustains all of existence (which I refer to in this thesis as the ‘ultimate principle’). However, those schools offer competing theories about what that worldview might be, what that ultimate principle might be called, and the nature of its relationship (if any) with the material world, on the one hand, and the divine, on the other. As has been widely acknowledged in more recent exegesis, the Vedic Upaniṣads in fact present a variety of teachings about this ultimate principle - in Signe Cohen’s words a ‘rich tapestry of complex and occasionally contradictory ideas’. The question which this presents, and which I address in this thesis, is whether, rather than either seeking an elusive and illusory consistency, or dismissing the teachings of the Vedic Upaniṣads as simply an inconsistent anthology, we can detect any patterns in the presentation of these complex and contradictory ideas. In this thesis, I will explore certain specific themes in the development of the Vedic Upaniṣads’ teachings about the ultimate principle, and will argue that, if we read the Vedic Upaniṣads closely with an eye to how teachings about the ultimate principle progress, both within individual Upaniṣads and by reading the Vedic Upaniṣads inter- textually, it is possible to identify certain important trends and directions of enquiry into the nature and identity of the ultimate principle. In many cases, these trends highlight the questions which the Vedic Upaniṣads ask about the ultimate principle more than the answers which they provide. In addition, I will suggest that, in places, the editorial processes which brought the Vedic Upaniṣads into their quasi-canonical forms may have been, at least in part, a deliberate attempt to highlight their strands of enquiry into the ultimate principle, so that, as a result, we can fairly say that, while the Vedic Upaniṣads undoubtedly do not present uniform dogma, they nevertheless show a degree of structure in their search for the ultimate principle.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses
Supervisors Name: Ted Proferes
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 30 Jan 2020 08:58

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