By Swami Harshananda
Sometimes transliterated as: Isavasya Upanisad, IZAvAsya Upanisad, IIshaavaasya Upanisad
Works of Vedānta Philosophy
Out of the six systems of philosophies, the Vedānta system is the most popular. Its canonical works are:
- The Upaniṣads
- The Brahmasutras
- The Bhagavadgītā
Recognition of Upaniṣads
Though the total number of Upaniṣads available in print today exceeds 250, only ten out of them have been universally accepted as basic and authoritative. These works were accounted to be authoritative because Śaṅkara (A. D. 788- 820), the earliest commentator, choose to write commentaries only on these ten works. He also had quoted from another three or four more Upaniṣads, which resulted into their recognition. The īśāvāsya Upanisad is the first in the list of ten.
The īśāvāsya Upaniṣad, which is also spelt as īśopanisad, is the first in this list. It gets this appellation since it begins with the word ‘īśāvāsyam.’ It is sometimes christened as Samhitopaniṣad exceptionally, since it appears in the Samhitā portion of the Śukla Yajurveda as its 40th chapter. It is also called the Vājasaneyi Samhitā.
Though īśāvāsya Upaniṣad is a short work of only 18 verses, it has attracted the attention of many scholars resulting in the maximum number of Sanskrit commentaries on any Upaniṣad. In spite of the strenuous efforts of the intellectual giants, the Upaniṣad continues to baffle the reader even today.
Verse 1 - 3
The first verse declares that the whole world is permeated by God called īśa. It advises the human beings to enjoy it in a spirit of detachment since it belongs to God and not them. Consequently greed for other's wealth and possessions is forbidden.
The second verse advises all the human beings to aspire to live for hundred years and spend the life in working for the welfare of the world both temporal and spiritual. If life is spent in this way, karma or action can never taint and cause sufferings. If this advice is not heeded, such transgressors suffer in dark hellish worlds is declared in third verse.
Verses 4 - 8
The next two verses in an enigmatic language describe the nature of the ātman, the inner and the true Self of all. Verses 6 and 7 portray the state attained by a person who has realized this ātman. Since he perceives the same universal Spirit in all beings, he loves all equally. He transcends the feeling of hatred, delusion and sorrow which are always caused by the sense of duality. 8th verse gives a highly poetical description of the ātman in its universal dimension. It exhibits it to be all pervading, effulgent, absolutely pure and as the Supreme Ruler.
Verses 9 - 14
Verses 9 to 14 have proved to be obscure. The traditional commentators have differed widely in their interpretations in this section. The wise scholars declare that the end results of vidyā and avidyā are entirely different. However, a balanced combination of these two can lead to immortality.
‘Avidyā’ has been interpreted as Vedic ritual. Savants signify ‘vidyā’ as the upāsanā on the Vedic deities preceded by a jñāna about them. Performing only vedic rituals will lead to pitṛloka and upāsanās on the Vedic gods lead to devaloka (heaven). One has to return to this world from both after exhausting the religious merits. Since the pleasures of the world creates a strong tendency in one’s psyche to try for them again, the person takes recourse to the Vedic rituals for getting to pitṛloka or Vedic meditations to attain devaloka. He usually misses the royal path that leads to mukti or freedom from trans migratory existence. This spiritual tragedy has been described by the Upaniṣad as ‘entering into blinding darkness’ (andharn tamah).
When a balanced combination of these two is practiced in the right spirit, the results are entirely different. Performance of Vedic rituals and ordained duties of one’s life will lead to the purification of the mind. Meditation on God (īśa) practiced by a pure mind will ultimately lead his realization, resulting in mokṣa. Opinions of the commentators seem to be even more sharply divided with regard to the words sambhuti, asambhuti and vināśa used in the verses 12 to 14.
Śankara means sambhuti and asambhuti which means the Kāryabrahma and the Kāraṇa-brahma respectively. Meditation on the former leads to the acquisition of the supernatural psychic powers. Meditation on the latter leads to a state called ‘prakṛtilaya,’ a state in which the soul merges with Prakṛti, in a state of apparent stupor free from all the experiences of joy or sorrow. The former leads to one astray from the spiritual path whereas the latter resembles to inertness.
Since both these paths result from the standpoint of mokṣa or ultimate liberation lead one away from the spiritual goal, they have been termed ‘andharii tamah’ or blinding darkness. An interesting interpretation which appears to be more convincing or reasonable has been offered by Uvaṭācārva, the commentator on the Mādhyandina recension of the Śukla Yajurveda. According to him, sambhuti is Parabrahman and vināśa is the body. Since continual hunger and thirst result in the death of the physical body which is an invaluable instrument of sādhanā (spiritual effort), they have to be transcended by suitable secular activities. Then through contemplation on Brahman one can attain immortality. That is why a balanced combination of both is needed.
Verses 15 - 18
The verses 15 to 18 describe the prayers addressed to God in and through the orb of the sun by the earnest spiritual seeker. These are the verses pronounced to the person who is on his deathbed. In the verse 15, he requests God to remove the obstacle to his vision. The obstacle referred here is the attractions of the material world which have hidden God’s glorious face. In the next verse the same prayer is continued with a description of God’s attributes and a hint of the experience of identity of the aspirant with him.
In the verse 17, the aspirant, becomes aware of the imminent death of the body and prays to Agni, the presiding deity of his sacrificial fire. The usage of the word ‘kratu’ may mean God. It signifies to remember his good deeds and save him. In the last verse, he urges Agni to take him to Brahmaloka or Satyaloka from which there is no return to mundane existence by the arcirādimārga or devayāna, the path of light. It is believed that the spiritually mature souls are led to that world.
During the times, when there was a conflict between the concepts of work and worship and some sages were laying a greater emphasis on renunciation and monastic ways of life, the teachings of this Upaniṣad must have come as a refreshing contrast for the ordinary but earnest sādhakas. The overview of the message conveyed by this Upaniṣad is:
- Giving up selfish and desire-motivated actions
- Performing acts of charity and service
- Devotion to God
- Considering human life more as a blessing than as a curse
- Upāsanā means meditation.
- Jñāna means knowledge.
- Pitṛloka of the world of manes.
- Mokṣa means liberation or immortality.
- Hiraṇyagarbha, the totality of creation, the First in evolution.
- Prakṛti or Avyākṛta, the subtle causal state before creation.
- Yogasutras 1.19 of Patañjali.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore