Gopala-tapani Upanisad: Introduction

In the following months the Harmonist will be publishing Swami Tripurari‘s Gopala-tapani Upanisad. The following sets the stage for the commentary to follow.

If our mentor were to call us with the words, “Sit near and listen carefully,” implying that he or she had a secret to share with us, our excitement and anticipation would no doubt focus our attention. Pay attention! For this is the spirit behind this secret doctrine. The word Upanisad means, “To sit near and listen.” Monier Williams also defines Upanisad as an esoteric treatise that “sets to rest ignorance by revealing knowledge of God.” It speaks of the mystery that lies beneath our sensual, mental, and intellectual experience and describes that which animates the world—the self and ultimately the Supreme Self.

“Gopala” means one who protects (pala) cows (go), in other words, a cowherd. “Tapani” means to shed light. Thus Gopala-tapani Upanisad is that esoteric doctrine that sheds light on the cowherd Krishna. As we know from Srimad-Bhagavatam, the cowherd Krishna is Brahman, replete with inconceivable sakti. Knowing him requires knowing oneself to be other than what one can understand by the sensual, mental, and intellectual faculties.

Upanisads are many and vary in their importance from sect to sect. The famous list of 108 Upanisads, found in the Mundaka, includes Gopala-tapani, and thus this Upanisad is among the most well known. By its own definition, it is a Vaishnava Upanisad, and among Vaishnava sects it is most at home with Gaudiya Vaishnavas, the followers of Sri Caitanya.

Several of Sri Caitanya’s followers have commented on Gopala-tapani. The first to have done so was Prabodhananda Saraswati, whose commentary is by far the most important. Indeed, the later commentaries attributed to Sri Jiva Goswami and Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura follow the lead of Sri Prabodhananda and only nuance his work. Although Sri Baladeva Vidyabhusana’s commentary does not follow the lead of Prabodhananda Saraswati, it adds little to what has been written before him.

Prabodhananda Saraswati’s commentary was clearly influenced by the preceding commentary of Visvesvara Tirtha, although his doctrine, a mix of monism and theism, is not that of the Gaudiya Vaishnavas. Visvesvara Tirtha’s lineage is unknown, but it is possible that he followed a lineage much like that of the famed Sridhara Swami, whose Bhagavata commentary was greatly revered by Sri Caitanya.

All of these commentaries were written long ago, and with all the interest in the Gaudiya tradition in the world today, a contemporary commentary is long overdue. Swami Tripurari’s work, like his predecessors’, follows the lead of Prabodhananda Saraswati. It is lucid and insightful in its own right and will likely be considered an important commentary on this Upanisad for some time to come.

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