Today we start a new series, short but very important in the study of Vedanta. Isavasya Upanishad is a small 18-verse text but one which, in the wise words of the commentator, “….within these 18 verses it spans the entire spectrum of Hindu philosophy, religion, ritualism, mythology and metaphysics so precisely and so succinctly that it is probably the most often quoted upaniShad.” For this series we are grateful to Advaita Academy http://advaita-academy.org
A brief introduction of the commentator. Prof. V. Krishnamurthy is an ex-Director of K.K. Birla Academy, New Delhi. Formerly he was Dy. Director and Prof. of Mathematics at Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani for more than two decades. Trained systematically in the traditional Hindu scriptures by his father Sri R. Viswanatha Sastrigal, a scholarly exponent who was himself a living example of the ideal Hindu way of life. Over the years Prof. Krishnamurthy has given several successful lectures on Hinduism, the Ramayana, the Gita, the Upanishads, and Srimad Bhagavatam to Indian and American audiences. His expositions have been acclaimed for their precision, clarity and an irresistible appeal to the modern mind. Known to his students as Prof VK, this great Vedantin is a storehouse of deep knowledge on every aspect of Vedanta. He is always ready to help anyone who approaches him for clarifications on Scriptural teachings. Prof VK has several of his lectures on YouTube. Each is worth listening to and learning from. He still continues to record lessons even at age 90+
OK so lets begin our Isavasya study.
As Mahatma Gandhi used to say,
even if every other scripture of Hinduism
vanished and this alone (Isavasya) survived,
Hinduism will survive!
The First and Last Word
Almost everything in Hindu philosophy and metaphysics goes back to the veda-s, which are unwritten records of sayings of the age-old RRiShi-s, handed down to us by oral transmission all through the several millennia they have been current. The end parts of the veda-s contain the upaniShad-s. Though we have only four veda-s, each veda is said to have had several branches – most of them are non-extant now – and it appears each such branch or shAkhA had an upaniShad of its own. Thus we have in our current stock of ancient scriptural literature 120 or so upaniShad-s. Of these about eleven are considered most important and most ancient. Almost every great religious teacher has commented on most of these eleven upaniShad-s.
The IshAvAsyopaniShad, or, shortly IshopaniShad, belongs to the Shukla (white) branch of the yajurveda. It is actually a very small upaniShad, containing just 18 two-line verses. But within these 18 verses it spans the entire spectrum of Hindu philosophy, religion, ritualism, mythology and metaphysics so precisely and so succinctly that it is probably the most often quoted upaniShad.
It is the first word because it is one of the earliest upaniShad-s. It is also the last word because it says everything that has to be said in vedAnta and, in addition, it occurs as the very last concluding part of Shukla Yajurveda.
The one upaniShad which may replace every other
The upaniShad-s, in general, are not just a catalogue of dogmas. Instead they are records of dialogues or conversations held by the ancient seers about their spiritual experiences, not only the final ones but intermediate experiences also. In that sense we see the evolution of spiritual wisdom step by step and also the presence of differing points of view. But the upaniShad differs from this general pattern of upaniShad. There is no discussion or conversation here. We are presented with a set of conclusions almost in final form. So when this short upaniShad is commented upon by the Masters it naturally gives rise to varied interpretations to the thought processes embedded in it.
In that sense it is one of the difficult upaniShad-s – scholarly, profound and fundamental. The fact that this most ancient scripture is studied avidly even today, shows that the truths presented therein are satisfying even to the most modern mind. As Mahatma Gandhi used to say, even if every other scripture of Hinduism vanished and this alone survived, Hinduism will survive!
The very first principle
IshA-vAsyam-idam sarvam – thus begins the upaniShad. Incidentally, the name of the upaniShad derives from these beginning words. This entire visible universe is to be considered as clothed, covered or inhabited by the Lord (Isha, in Sanskrit), the Ruler, the Creator. It is the Lord, that is, brahman, in this context, that lies as the transcendental substratum for everything that we see, inspite of the flux and variations that present themselves and totally hide the more permanent thing underneath.
This transcendental unity underlying everything in the phenomenal world is the one stable Spirit inhabiting and governing a universe of movement and all forms of movement. The word ‘jagat’ which means universe, has inbuilt into it the meaning of mutability. The indwelling immutable Spirit is Vasu-deva, the Lord that permanently resides within, according to His own promise in the 61st shloka of the 18th chapter of the gItA.
The universe is nothing but a conglomeration of names and forms. Look at it from a distance, as you would look at a painting in order to appreciate it better. When we see a movie on the screen, we know fully well that what goes on in the screen is really not there. So also the universe which is visible to us is a superimposition on the reality that is behind, and that is Isha, the Lord.
What we see is relatively unreal – mark the adjective, relatively – compared to the Absolute Reality which is the Truth. Whatever we see in this phenomenal world only comes and goes. They are all changeable, mutable. We do not realise that the only immutable thing is the indweller, VAsu-deva, who is the One that dwells everywhere. Our non-realisation is because our minds are overloaded with things other than the Lord, with all things mundane and profane.
Prescription for daily life
ॐ ईशा वास्यमिद सर्वं यत्किञ्च जगत्यां जगत् । तेन त्यक्तेन भुञ्जीथा मा गृधः कस्यस्विद्धनम् ॥ १॥
IshA-vAsyam-idaM sarvaM yat kimca jagatyAM jagat /
tena tyaktena bhunjItAH mA gRRidhah kasyasvid dhanam // 1 //
All this is inhabited, enveloped, by the Lord whatever that moves in this moving world. Enjoy by renouncing it. Lust not after any one’s possession.
To see this Imperishable (because it is unconditioned by Time), Indivisible (because it is unconditioned by Space) and Immutable (because it is unconditioned by Causality) Lord everywhere is the first maxim. It is not an academic injunction, however, because in the very second line of the verse we are given the rule for a daily divine life: Enjoy by renouncing it – here the ‘it’ refers to the ‘jagat’ (universe) in the first line. The enjoyment is in the establishing oneself in the bliss of the Atman. Incidentally the word ‘jagat’ comes from the root verb ‘to move’ or ‘to change’. The universe is nothing but a series of changeful states.
How can renunciation be enjoyment?
Only in vedAnta does renunciation reach such a powerful consummation, comments Swami Vivekananda. This renunciation is not an alibi for indifference or negligence of duties. Renunciation is of desires and not necessarily a physical renunciation of one’s possessions or obligations. Possessions by themselves are not wrong; only attachment to them is wrong.
The sense of possession is wrong; ‘I possess this; it is mine’ – such attitudes have to be won over. This subtle point about enjoyment through renunciation is what is generally missed by the uninformed reader. The world in which we live or the things of the world in the midst of which we carry on our life – none of it is ours. Once we have that conviction we can enjoy our life.
So it is the attachment that is to be renounced. The word ‘bhunjIthAh’ stands for the experiencing and enjoying whatever is the visible universe. This enjoyment comes after renunciation of attachment to the desires. How is this so? This is so because everything is His. There is nothing that we can call or covet as ours. So the very idea of possession by us insignificant mortals is ludicrous. IshA-vAsyam-idam sarvam. In fact even saying that it is His is wrong. It is He. Everything is the Lord. sarvam-khalvidam brahma.
Indeed all this is brahman. This oft-quoted truism from the mass of upaniShadic literature is to be felt in the bones and perceived as a way of life. It is for this purpose the three steps of shravaNa (hearing and listening), manana (mental analysis and synthesis of what was heard) and nididhyAsana (introspective contemplation of Being instead of Becoming) have been recommended so that theoretical knowledge can result in application.
What this application is, is what is said in the second line of the verse. The two cornerstones of such application are: renunciation of attachment and non-covetousness of any possession.
Injunction to do one’s duties
Right in the next verse it says one should wish to live a full life of one hundred years. By doing what? Not by renouncing but by doing one’s duties and being involved in action. There is no other way to live, we are told. We think we have to live our secular life by our own standards and norms. We think the religious-philosophical-spiritual way of living is something different. Not so, say all the upaniShad-s. Here the IshopaniShad links the two sides of man’s living by giving a prescription:
kurvan-neveha karmANi – doing here all duties and actions – and na karma lipyate nare – actions do not bind the man. Do your actions in such a way that they don’t bind you. What is that way? Enjoyment by renunciation of attachment. So even secular actions have to be done with an attitude — an attitude motivated and prescribed by a philosophical understanding of things – an attitude of non-attachment.
Such actions will not bind the real YOU within. This YOU, being nothing but brahman, cannot be contaminated by any of the actions which the body or mind does.
To be continued ……
Pranaam from Kamal Kothari