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In Our Time: The Upanishads

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 17:40, Thursday, 8 November 2012

Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed The Upanishads. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - AI

The Upanishads


I think that's the first time I've ever mentioned the newsletter on air and I made a promise that I would talk about the horse. So bang goes a description of the autumn/winter cusp in London, with golden carpets turning to brown slush and then recaptivating a windblown freshness when the sun comes out and fakes us into early autumn again. A band setting up in Trafalgar Square. Still teeming streets of London and amateur photographers with their families monopolising the two scarlet horsemen outside their boxes on Whitehall. At the British Museum the other night to see the Shakespeare exhibition - a combination of museum and RSC and Oxford - an extraordinary, exhilarating exhibition with a great number of Tudor portraits and views I'd never seen before and so many rare objects. I think it's one of the most original exhibitions I've ever seen. It also proves that in the year 1600 London was already a global city. And much else but Ingrid only has a certain amount of patience and we return to the matter of the horse.

Simon Brodbeck, in his notes, talked about the Upanishads being focused on the meaning of the sacrificial ritual, and he admitted it could be quite hard for a modern-day listener or reader to understand. He gave an example of their obscurity. This is the first line of the oldest Upanishad, and it begins by talking about the different parts of the sacrificial horse. Why does the Upanishad begin with these lines about the horse? Simon Brodbeck explains that all the different parts of the horse relate to different aspects of the world that we know. The translation (Valerie Roebuck's for Penguin) - which I think is magnificent and poetic and unlike anything else I've read - is as follows: "Dawn is the head of the sacrificial horse. The sun is the eye of the sacrificial horse, the wind his breath, the fire that is in all men his open mouth, the year his body. The sky is his back, middle-air his belly, earth his flanks, the directions his two sides, the intermediate directions his ribs, the seasons his limbs, the months and half-months his joints, the days and nights his feet, the constellations his bones, the clouds his flesh. The food in his stomach is the sands; the rivers are his bowels, liver and lungs; the mountains, plants and trees are his hairs; the rising sun is his front half, the setting sun his rear half; when he yawns, it lightens; when he shakes himself, it thunders; when he urinates, it rains; speech is his voice."

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg



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