Book of Wisdom - Isha Upanishad

  • By Swami Rama
  • August 2003

First Pada       

1. Ishavasyan-idam sarvam yat kinca jagatyam jagat,
Tena tyaktena bhunjitha ma gradhah kasya svid-dhanam.

Whatever moves in this world is enveloped by Isha. Enjoy it with renunciation; do not covet any man’s wealth.

2. Kurvann-eveha karmani jijivishec-chatam samah,
Evan tvayi nanyatheto’sti na karma lipyate nare.

Only through doing actions here, and in this way, one should desire to live a hundred years. There is no other way karma will not taint a man.

3. A surya nama te loka and hena tamasavrtah,
Tams-te pretyahhigacchanti ye ke catmahano janah.

Asurya is the name of worlds covered over with blind darkness; to them pass those who slay the Self.

The first mantra of Ishavasyopanishad begins with the word Isha, thus it is also called Ishopanishad (Isa Upanishad). One who regulates and governs is called Isha, the instrumental form of which is Isha. Being the regulator and governor of all, that Supreme Power inherent in all the creatures is called Ishvara (God). The same Supreme Power resides in the heart of all living creatures and controls us. In order words, there is something in which we live, in which we are moved, in which we are. This something is as rarefied as space, and all-pervasive, and is called God. We all have our existence in this one God.

Careful reflection on the first mantra of Ishavasyopanishad gives an understanding of the aims as well as the duties of man’s life. For example, since the same God is inherent in all, we should love every being. Yet the highest aim of a seeker is to see God, to realize Him. In this quest of God, man, first of all, needs certain important ideals in his practical life. The foremost ideal of a seeker should be to bring about the fullest development of the powers within him. The purpose of all the teaching is, for man, to develop his inner power to purify his antah karana (inner states) and practical life. Purity means freedom from all temptations or evils.

The first mantra of Ishopanishad gives an indication of certain human ideals and duties which, when accepted as principles and translated into action, bring man to the achievement of his purpose. The meaning of this mantra becomes clearer when we divide it into four parts.

The first part of the mantra, the expression “Ishavasyam idam sarvam jagatyam jagat,” conveys the idea that this whole universe is immersed is God. Although the justice of God is equally distributed everywhere, we consider the human world to be better than that of minerals, vegetables, and animals, due to man’s higher intelligence and power of discrimination. Yet in the world of human beings we find everywhere the feeling of attachment which seems to bring us sometimes pain, sometimes pleasure. Do we not thus create a world of our own, over and above the world of God? We forget that God is omnipresent, that everything belongs to God, that we have nothing of our own. Ignoring this truth, we are so much attached to the world of our creation that in the flux of inevitable changes we consequently suffer intense pain and anxiety at the thought of separation from our imagined possessions. Nothing remains as it is today. The ever-blowing wing of change quickly transforms everything of this world. This is a law. The world is transient yet there is underlying the whole creation a power which is changeless.

We have seen that the first part of the first mantra of the Ishopanishad tells of this world, human life, and its ultimate end. The second part of the first mantra, the expression, “tena tyaktena bhunjitha,” suggests a life of renunciation. This means to enjoy pleasure while giving up all attachment to them, and to face bravely every situation in life, whether pleasant or unpleasant, in the spirit of detachment. God is everywhere, and therefore there should be no room for fear in life.

The practice recommended in this mantra is to use and enjoy every object only as a means for higher achievement.

If pleasures remain something to be enjoyed merely for their own sake, we become selfishly attached to them. This not only demeans our character, but also sets us up for future suffering. This is the way of the bhogi, or hedonist. A yogi, on the other hand, will not allow pleasure to remain merely ends in themselves. Instead, with the detached feeling that nothing belongs to him but is offered only for use toward a higher end, he finds a way to use them for Yoga, realization of truth, or union with higher reality.

Nishkama karma, or action without desire for in itself, is made possible by selflessness and the feeling of oneness with all. Duties in the Indian way of life are based on the precept of atmava sarvabhuteshu, of treating all living beings as one’s own self. The essence of this teaching is that we should neither be lost in worldly activity nor run away from the world. If we perform actions with vairagya, or dispassion, thus avoiding both attached pleasure seeking and running away, our purpose is served and life will be successful. Generally people think that vairagya consists in running away from the trouble of the world to live in caves and forests. This is only superficial. True vairagya consists in being the master of the senses, in remaining uninvolved in the midst of pleasures, and emerging victorious and unsubdued in all the conditions of life. Without detachment no one can enjoy a life of true happiness. He alone is happy who remains unattached from within, and is moving on the path of desireless actions in the spirit of oneness with all. Sadhana is concerned not only with the inner being, but also with control of the senses, and purity of conduct. With purification of conduct there comes purification in every other way.

The third part of the first mantra is the expression, “Ma grdhah,” which means do not covet. Covetousness is a form of attachment. Attachment is deluded affection that takes us far away from our purpose. Attachment can be overcome by constant practice of desireless action. This is a must for the yoga practitioner.

Our aim is freedom from sorrow and gaining the unchanging bliss. In order to achieve these ends we should keep in mind the following four things:

1. Remembrance of god (this gives power and strength).
2. Remembrance of duty (this makes for progress of our practical life).
3. Remembrance of the perishability of body (this reminds us of the fleeting nature of enjoyments and thus restrains attachment). 
4. Remembrance of death (this maintains the attitude of detachment).

The fourth part of the Ishopanishad’s first mantra is the expression “Kasya svidhanam,” which means do not rob anyone of his wife, property or rights. If everyone follows these instructions, society will benefit materially, ethically, and spiritually.

The first mantra of the Ishopanishad throws light on all three angles of the triangle of life and serves as a guide to man’s all-around development. Its ideals are worthy of our thoughtful consideration and practice: to see God in our own heart, to become pure in our actions, and always to feel that God is one and all pervading.

We have seen that the essentials of the first mantra are: see the same God in all and everywhere, perform actions and enjoy pleasures without attachment for the sake of sadhana, and do not deprive others of their rights through your own selfishness.

The second mantra is closely related to the first. It further elaborates the ideals of the first mantra, telling how a man should pass his life. The second mantra teaches, “Desire to live for a hundred years, but the usefulness of life does not lie in indolence and carelessness.” By living a life of unattached action and performance of duties, a man can attain that end of mental calm and great peace for which his life is intended. By such a life, which is a life of sadhana, man is never blemished or shackled by his actions. Thus the second mantra concerns nishkama karma, or non-attached action.

No man can live without performing action. Consider the case of the sannyasi who has left his family for the ascetic life. He still has to perform duties necessary for his quest of moksha, or liberation. Self-study, Self-realization and religious discourse, too, are duties. Does any monk give up these actions? Thus everyone, whether a householder or a monk, has to perform duties. Without a knowledge of our duties and how to perform them, we cannot acquire the self-control necessary for the sake of social service and for gaining a knowledge of the spirit ( atna tattva).

Therefore nishkama karma means performing out duties wisely by doing them gladly for others or the universal Self, without desire for personal reward. We should practice this sadhana for our whole life.

The third mantra teaches that those who indulge in immoral acts antagonistic to the true aim of their life, behaving as wicked, selfish and conceited persons, and those who are entirely given to physical and sensuous enjoyments are even now enveloped in or reborn into a dark known as that of asuras (demons). One who knows the spirit to be all-pervading, loves all without selfish interest, lives in this world like the sage king Janaka, transcends this world and becomes a jivanmukta, free from the bondage of life and death. But he who considers the infinite God to be finite and thinks the body to be his real self, can neither be a devotee of God, nor can perform action without hope for reward. Perfect knowledge is still far from his grasp.
There are two kinds of instructions in our Vedas and Upanishads, prescriptions and prohibitions. The pre-scriptions should be made our ideals. We should conduct our practical lives in observance of the prohibitions. When we infuse our lives with ideals by practice, we can understand and appreciate both types of instructions. We find both recommendations and prohibitions in the three mantras of the first part of the Ishopanishad. Let us now review them.

1. See God as all pervasive throughout the universe.
2. Do not develop attachment to the objects of pleasure in the world. Treat these objects only as a means for higher use.
3. Do not covet. Let there be no greed.
4. See wife, wealth and property as all belonging to God. Use them as means for realization God.
5. Always perform your duties, ever doing so with an attitude of disinterestedness, that is, without desire for personal reward. If a man wise to live a hundred years, he should live thus performing duties and going toward the supreme goal.
6. Always think, speak and act according to the dictates of conscience and the call of the higher Self.
7. Do not slay your higher Self by selfishness, sensuality and lack of sadhana, otherwise you will descend to lower states here and hereafter.

The second teaching of the first three mantras is “Do not develop attachment to the objects or pleasures in the world. Treat these objects only as a means for higher use.” Noteworthy here for the path of sadhana is that the Ishopanishad defines “piety” on the basis of love and desirelessness, and “sin” on the basis of jealously and selfishness. Upanishadic scriptures say that man may perform all lawful actions, but only in the spirit of detachment.

The so-called pangs of death are what one suffers who runs after worldly enjoyments and who, deeply attached to the objects of the world, does not want to relinquish “his” possessions. Death, in fact, is a pleasant thing; but those who are ignorant of its secret and of the true art of life have to suffer acute pain on account of attachment. It is not death, but attachment that causes pain. Thus the thought of death is more painful that death itself.

Why shouldn’t death be as natural as birth? In fact there are known to Yoga science, symptoms of approaching death that appear on the body months beforehand, just as there are indications of the hour of birth by movements of the fetus in the womb.

Death is inevitable and in it self-pleasant; that is why it occurs. Birth and death are necessary for every life.

The third teaching is “Do not covet; let there be no greed.” Often seen on the path of sadhana as in ordinary life, is the tendency, when something obstructs our path, to start blaming fate, providence and god. When a trifle makes us grieved, we may turn our face against the right path. We do not try to understand that the cause of restlessness is most frequently our own greedy nature. That is why the sadhaka should remain aloof from greed and acquisitiveness.

The fourth teaching of the first three mantras of the Ishopanishad is “She wife, wealth and property as all belonging to God. Use them as means for realization of God.” Great unhappiness flows from the attempt to protect our own wealth, rights and property and to seize that of others. The sadhaka should keep only so much in his possession as is needed for this life’s journey toward the Supreme Goal.

The fifth teaching is “Always perform your duties, ever doing so with an attitude of disinterestedness, that is, without desire for personal reward. If a man wishes to live a hundred years, he should live thus performing duties and going toward the supreme goal.” This mantra throws a challenge to seekers on all the ways, for it asserts that disinterested action is a pure, easy, and permitted path which may be, and ought to be, followed by all.

The sixth teaching of the first part of the Ishopanishad is “Always think, speak and act according to the dictates of conscience and the call of the higher Self. The voice of conscience is the voice of the higher Self. Action performed against conscience amount to self-murder. Such murder of the Self, or actions against conscience are forbidden. The soul in its very nature is pure, holy and untainted by any flaw or impurity. Though he knows it to be wrong, man acts against conscience due to his lack of self-discipline. Such behavior is self-delusion, for in this manner no one can improve his moral and spiritual character and attain the goal of life. Spiritual progress is only possible through self-discipline and sadhana. Conscience is the mainspring of character formation. Without character, man cannot get entry into the spiritual world.

The seventh teaching is “Do no slay your higher Self by selfishness, sensuality and lack of sadhana, otherwise you will descend to lower states here and hereafter. According to the third mantra of the first part of the Ishopanishad, they are demons who perform actions in an immoral, selfish and egotistical manner and have deep attachment to the enjoyment of the senses. By subduing their soul and suppressing the voice of conscience, they bring about their own downfall and find peace neither here in this world nor hereafter in other worlds.

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