By Prasad Sundararajan
The Upanishads are philosophical dialogues that contain the core of Vedic philosophy. It is in the Upanishads that focus on the jnana-kanda, on the knowledge of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, which is often compared with the knowledge of the Atman, the true self. The Upanishads are full of variety of examples, metaphors and illustration to make the deep spiritual knowledge comprehensible. The Upanishads are discourses that lead one to liberation from the cycle of life and death (Moksha).
The Isha Upanishad is among the ten Upanishads that are considered by the great acharyas and scholars of the Hindu sampradayas as important (mukhya”) and authoritative. As such, Isha Upanishad plays a central role on establishing the metaphysical doctrines of Hindu Dharma. It is the only Upanishad to be found in the Samhita portion of the Vedas, appearing as the final chapter of the Shukla Yajur Veda Samhita.
Isha Upanishad is short with only 18 verses. The title “Isha” and the opening words of the Upanishad, ‘Isha vasyam idam sarvam…’ – ‘Everything is pervaded by a governor, controller or ruler’, can be considered as indicating the notion of a personal deity (“Ishvara”) and hence a tendency towards theistic theology.
Modern contemporary Hinduism is based on the worship of a personal deity and hence Isha Upanishad perhaps is one of the first to be a foundational theistic text for this development with obvious links to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. Mahatma Gandhi was greatly influenced by Isha Upanishad and considered it to contain the summit of human wisdom.
The Santi Sloka (Invocation) of the Isha Upanishad states that “That is whole and this is whole. The perfect has come out of the perfect. Yet the perfect remains, as before, perfect” tersely shows the relation of the Individual soul (‘Atman’) to the Supreme Spirit (’Brahman’).
The Isha Upanishad of 18 mantras (verses) explains the sovereignty and pervasiveness of Brahman. It also gives guidance on the life-oriented approach of karma-yoga, the balance of knowledge and karma (action) in life and the benefits of imbibing these principles. Thus, Ishavasya Upanishad brings out the coexistence of Jnana (knowledge) and Karma (action) in one’s quest for liberation.
The first verse of the Isha Upanishad states that this whole world is pervaded or enveloped by the Lord – isha –and that includes everything that moves – yat kiñca jagat – in this world of transformation and movement. This stands in contrast to the changeless Lord (Ishvara), who is all pervading and ‘sarvam’ including everything. This is best illustrated by the Vishva Rupa of Lord Krishna shown to Arjuna as in the 11th chapter of the Gita.
The great acharya of Advaitic philosophy, Shankaracharya explains isha as meaning the inner self, in accordance with his Gita commentary in which Lord Krishna is understood as the atman. The self is Isha, the controller, because it ‘is the self of all beings and as such rules all’. He further explains that Ishavasyam is the reality of the presence of the Lord, whilst jagatyam jagati, the things that move in the world, is the illusion that we actually perceive.
The Vaishnavite Swami Prabhupadha translates Isha as ‘controlled and owned by the Lord’ and he further states that all the living beings in this world are completely subject to the power of God who ‘has the complete and perfect intelligence to adjust everything by his different potencies’.
The second verse calls on one to perform karma or action with a state of renunciation similar to the teachings of Gita in which Lord Krishna states that if one performs one’s duty without desire for personal gain, then there is no future result or reaction arising from that desire-less action – nishkama karma. Here the same idea seems to be implied by the words na karma lipyate. The Isha Upanishad is recommending two paths (karma yoga and dhayana yoga) based on the understanding of the universal presence of God.
The third verse states that those who are slayers of the self (atma-hano) go to the blinding darkness enveloped worlds of the demons (asuyra lokah). Yearning and sincere effort for gaining a higher spiritual knowledge is the best path to avoid this fate.
The fourth verse states that Isha is unmoving yet is swifter than the mind. It is the all-pervading one that supports the activities of beings. Here, Isha can be taken as a personal deity such as Vishnu, Krishna or Siva according to theistic interpretation. Even in the oldest Rig-Veda samhita, it is Vishnu who is regarded as the ‘all-pervading’ One by taking His famous three-steps to measure the Earth, Heaven and beyond.
The fifth verse states that ‘it moves and it moves not; it is far and it is near; it is within all this and it is also outside all this.’ The Vaishnava interpretation is that Vishnu is beyond the worlds yet he is present in every individual soul as the paramatma. He can be far away in his eternal abode Vaikunta yet can be present here due to call of intense devotion (bhakthi) as exemplified by his avatars such as the Narasimha emerging from a pillar to save the child devotee Prahlada from the demon Hiranyakashipu.
The sixth verse states that ‘he who sees all beings in his own self and his own self in all beings, he does not feel any revulsion towards anyone’. This interpretation has important social implication for Hindu society as a Vedantic doctrine that calls for equality towards all persons without regard for caste or gender. Further, Vaishnava acharyas suggest that this verse describes the maha bhagavata, the most elevated devotee, who sees the presence of the Lord in all beings.
The seventh verse states that ‘when a man understands through wisdom (vijanatha) that all beings (sarva bhutani) are, indeed, the all-pervading Spirit, then he realizes the oneness (ekatvam) of all things and illusion and grief vanish’. According to the Upanishad, the realization that all beings are the same atman can take us beyond this state of existence of moha (illusion) and shoka (grief). In interpreting ‘ekatvam’, Vaishnava acharyas distinguish between the oneness of all beings (individual atmans) and the absolute Supreme Lord.
The eighth verse states that ‘He has filled all; He is radiant, bodiless, invulnerable, devoid of sinews, pure, untouched by evil. He, the seer, thinker, all-pervading, self-existent has duly distributed through endless years the objects according to their natures’. The final line clearly tends towards the understanding of an all-pervading deity who blesses living beings and bestows gifts on living beings and hence strengthens the theistic interpretation. In this verse, the Lord is described as ‘paribhuh’ (the greatest of all), ‘suddham’ (very pure), ‘apapa-viddham’ (untouched by sin) and from the Vaishnava perspective, Swami Prabhupada asserts that the description given here is of the transcendental and eternal Form of the Absolute Personality of Godhead’. Also, this verse is very similar to the Shvetashvatara Upanishad mantra: “It is the eternal of eternals, the consciousness of conscious beings. It is the one who fulfils the desires of the many”. (6.13).
The ninth verse states that ‘Into the blinding darkness enter those who worship ignorance. And those who delight in knowledge enter into still greater darkness’. The first line of the verse is common to all Indian philosophical thought (Hindu, Buddhist and Jain) where an ignorant (avidya) person immersed in sensual and material world is mired in bondage and rebirth, whilst knowledge of one’s true identity is the key to liberation from rebirth. The line two refers to refers both to people who are well-educated (vidya) in material knowledge but have no faith in God and also to those noted by the Gita as veda-vada-ratah, who follow the Vedic rituals but have no interest in spiritual realization beyond the ritual, as these people go into even darker region.
The tenth verse states that ‘Distinct, indeed, they say is the result of knowledge (vidya) and the result of ignorance (avidya). Thus we have heard them from the wise.’ For Sankaracharya, both vidya and avidya do not lead to moksa (liberation) but vidya of Vedic rituals open the way to devas and a-vidya (meditation) lead to the realm of ancestors. The Vaishnavite Swami Prabhupada insists that one should acquire vidya from a dhira, one who is not disturbed by material illusion to avoid the darkness of mere knowledge.
The eleventh verse states, ‘One in whose life knowledge and karma co-exist, such a person overcomes death, that is, attains immortality (amritam ashnute) and liberation (mrityum tirtva).’ In his short commentary on the Upanishads, Rajaji states that here the Ishavasya Upanishad emphasizes the need for balance.
The twelfth verse states, ‘In the blinding darkness enter those who worship the un-manifest (asambhutim) and into still greater darkness, those who delight in the manifest (sambhutyam).’
The thirteenth verse states, ‘Distinct, indeed, they say, is what results from the manifest, and distinct, is what results from un-manifest.’ Those who worship sambhuta (‘independent’), the Supreme Lord, attain one result (‘moksha’) while those who worship asambhuta (‘non-independent’), demi-gods, attain another result (rebirth).
The fourteenth verse states, ‘He who understands both the manifest and the un-manifest together, crosses death through the un-manifest and attains immortality through the manifest’. The verse can be interpreted as ‘a yogin who has the knowledge (Jnana yoga) of Brahman and the works (Karma yoga) performed by the perishable body attains immortality’.
The following verses of the Isha Upanisahd (verses 15 to 18) are also found as the Chapter 15 of Book 5 of Brihand Arankaya Upanishad and show close affinity with the Veda Samhitas.
The fifteenth verse states, ‘O Pushan (Sun), Your real face of truth (satyasya mukham) is covered by a golden disc (hiranmaya patra). Unveil it, so that I who love the truth may see it.’ The prayer is by a ‘satya-dharma’, a faithful follower of dharma, for higher realization to perceive the spiritual reality that lies behind and beyond the manifested reality.
The sixteenth verse states, ‘O Sun, who art our Nourisher, Giver of Knowledge, Dispenser of Justice, Giver of Light, Son of the Creator, disperse thy rays, draw in thy light, so that I may be enabled to behold thy most beautiful form. I am that same Person as makes thee who thou art’. Here, the Upanishad verse petitions the Lord to remove the effulgent rays of the brahmajyoti so that the seeker of truth can see the ‘All-blissful’ transcendental form. This verse requests for the favor of the Lord (‘Divine Grace’), a key theistic attribute found in contemporary Hinduism based on bhakthi (devotion to the Deity).
The seventeenth verse states, ‘My body will be reduced to ashes and my breath will join the deathless moving winds. Oh Mind, remember thy acts, remember this always’. In a theistic sense, the word kratu means ‘the Deity’ the ultimate beneficiary of all acts, and this prayer verse is a plea for the Lord to recall the devotee’s offerings and acts of devotion.
The eighteenth verse states, ‘O Agni, lead us, along the auspicious path to prosperity. O God, who knowest all our deeds. Take away from us deceitful sins. We shall offer many prayers of praise unto Thee’. The closing message of the Upanishad is to develop humility and humble prayers on a path to Self-realization. This verse is similar to verses 6 and 7 of Chapter 12 of the Bhagavad Gita, where Lord Krishna proclaims that he lifts the devotee up from ocean of death and rebirth by burning the sins of the surrendered soul.
In summary, Isha Upanishad establishes that Atman, which is wholly transcendent and beyond this world and incomprehensible, is the all-pervading God. It also teaches that one who realizes this profound truth gets in a disposition of renunciation even when continuing to perform the worldly duties. In this way, we realize the sovereignty and pervasiveness of Atman as Brahman. We understand the glory of renunciation and learn about the secrets of karma-yoga. Especially, Isha Upanishad teaches us the importance of synthesizing knowledge with practice and also we learn about the glories of humble prayers – all essential elements of Sanatana Dharma.
- Notes on “HS109-Three Short Upanishads”, Oxford Center for Hindu Studies, 2016.
- Swami Prabhupada, “Sri Isopanishad”, The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2010.
- Sadhu Bhadreshdas (translated by Sadhu Paramvivekdas), “Essence of the Upanishads”, Swaminarayan Aksharpith, 2012.
- C. Rajagopalachari, “UPANISHADS”, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 2001.
- Warren Matthews, “World Religions”, Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012.
- Eknath Easwaran, “The Upanishads: The Classics of Indian Spirituality”, The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, 2007.
- Sri Aurobindo, “Isa Upanishad”, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 2003.