Essay # 1                                                     Mysticism East and West

 

Instructions:  Essays must be a minimum of 1200 words and must include a word count.  Essays that are not 1200 words will not receive credit for this assignment.  Essays must be typewritten and double-spaced.  All papers handed in late will be marked down, unless an extension is granted in advance.

 

Citation of Sources:  You must give a citation to any source that you have used in the preparation of this paper.  This applies whether you use direct quotations from the source or merely are influenced by its ideas.  ALL ESSAYS MUST INCLUDE THE FOLLOWING SIGNED STATEMENT AT THE END:

 

I understand the rules for the citation of sources.  I certify that this paper is my own work, and that to the best of my knowledge I have given citations to all sources I consulted.         [Name]

 

ESSAY TOPICS: Please choose ONE of the following for your essay:

 

1)      It is often claimed that the central teaching of the Upanishads is the formula “Atman is Brahman.”  In your essay, explain the meaning of this doctrine, including giving explanations of both terms (Atman and Brahman), and what it means to identify them.  Use ample citations from the Upanishads in your discussion.  Include a personal response to this doctrine: do you find it has any merit, and what is its significance for the individual?

 

2)      A widespread popular belief is that the Upanishads teach the doctrine of Karma and rebirth: i.e. that after death, the soul enters a new body and is given the appropriate reward or punishment for one’s past deeds.  However, in class we discussed the argument that this is only an exoteric doctrine, not the true or esoteric meaning of the Upanishads.  Demonstrate (using quotations from the texts) how the Upanishads appear to present both an esoteric and an exoteric doctrine.  Why do you think the text has both a surface (exoteric) meaning and a deeper (esoteric) truth?  Is the exoteric meaning simply false, or is it a lower level truth?

 

3)      Compare the Platonic doctrine of anamnesis (recollection) as described in the Meno with the Upanishadic idea that Atman is Brahman, with special attention to the vision of the origin of the soul given in the Meno at 81b-c.  Are there parallels between these two ideas, or are they radically different?  How does Plato provide an argument for his doctrine in the first part of the Meno?  Does his argument succeed?

 

Consider the problem of teaching or transmission of doctrine in both the Meno and the Upanishads.  Why is teaching a problem for mystical doctrines?  Compare the use of the dialogue form in both Plato and the Upanishads: what is the advantage of the use of dialogue?  Why do you think the Meno ends in ‘aporia’ or the lack of a definitive conclusion?  (You may also want to look at the end of the Phaedrus (pp. 87 ff.) where Plato discusses the limits of writing).