Book of Wisdom - Isha Upanishad

  • By Swami Rama
  • August 2003

Third Pada       

1. Andham tamah pravishanti ye’vidyam-upasate,
Tato bhuya iva te tamo ya u vidyayam ratah.

Those devoted to illusion enter blind darkness.
Into greater darkness enter those who are solely attached to knowledge.

2. Anyad-evahur vidyayanyad-ahur-avidyaya,
Iti shushruma dhiranam ye nas tad vicacakshire.

One thing is obtained from knowledge, another from illusion.
Thus we have heard from the wise who have taught us.

3. Vidyam cavidyam ca yas tad vedobhayam sa ha,
Avidyaya mrtyum tirtva vidyaya mrtam-ashnute.

Knowledge and illusion, he who knows both overcomes death through illusion and through knowledge enjoys immortality.

4. Andham tamah pravishanti ye’sambhutim-upasate,
Tato bhuya iva te tamo ya u sambhutyam ratah.

Those devoted to manifest nature enter blind darkness.
Into greater darkness enter those attached to unmanifest nature (prakrti).

5. Anyad-evahuh sambhavad-anyad-ahur-asambhavat,
Iti shushruma dhiranam ye nas tad vicacakshire.

One thing is obtained from manifest nature, another from unmanifest nature.
Thus we have heard from the wise who have taught us.

6. Sambhutim ca vinasham ca yas vedohhayam sa ha,
Vinashena mrtyum tirtva sambhutyamrtam-ashnute.

Nature manifest and unmanifest, he who knows both overcomes death through unmanifest nature and through manifest nature and through manifest nature enjoys immortality.

7. Hiranmayena patrena satyasyapihitam mukham,
Tattvam pushann-apavrnu satya-dharmaya drshtaye.

The face of truth is covered with a golden veil.
Uncover that reality, Pushan, to the glance of one devoted to Truth.

8. Pushann-ekarshe yama surya prajapatya vyuha rashmint samuha tejo yat te rupam kalyanatamam tat te pashyami, Yo’ sav-asau purushah so ‘ham-asmi.

O Nourisher, One Rishi, Controller, Sun, Progenitor, gather your rays, restrain your splendor, so that I may see that aspect of yours which is most holy. The person who is called “That,” “That” he I am.

The third pada of the Ishopanishad consists of mantras nine through sixteen. For now, let us consider nine through fourteen, as listed above. These six mantras deal with the secrets of spiritual knowledge (vidya) and spiritual ignorance (avidya), knowledge of truth (vidya) and illusion (maya), as well as Brahman and nature (prakrti).

Though the attributes of soul or the real Self are beyond description or thought, our scriptures and philosophies have a way of giving an understanding of its nature. It is by arundhatinyaya, or proceeding from the gross to the subtle, then to the still more subtle, and so on. It is like the Indian custom of showing the star Arundhati to a young bride. They first show her the Saptarshi (Big Dipper) stars and the pole star because only then she gets accustomed to see Arundhati, a very, very small star. Similarly, the scriptures lead the sadhaka from the gross to the subtle, and then to the subtlest self. This is how the sages show the way to Self-realization. First the sadhaka is to recognize avidya, or all that which does not lead to Self-realization. Then he must know the lower vidya, or spiritual knowledge comprehensible by mind and speech. Then finally he finds Self-realization, the supreme vidya, which is beyond mind and speech.

Avidya is spiritual ignorance. It includes that knowledge that does not lead to Self-realization. The ninth mantra compares avidya to darkness, and says that those who pursue knowledge and do not understand avidya go to greater darkness. Avidya means considering the perishable body and objects of the world to be the Self. The power of the body is also known as deep darkness. One who knows does not regard the body as his real Self, but an ignorant man considers the material body to be his true nature.

From avidya, the sadhaka is led to knowledge, which is of two kinds. First he is led to apara knowledge. This means knowledge which is not supreme and which is communicable by speech, and thus includes an intellectual knowledge of the shrutis, or scriptures. Next the sadhaka is led to para knowledge. This means the supreme knowledge as experienced, which cannot be expressed or communicated. Para knowledge is the underlying essence of the scriptures, and must be experienced to be understood. Thus from avidya, the sadhaka is advised to go first to the lower vidya and then to the supreme vidya.

Some sadhakas waste life’s valuable time in conflict over whether karma (the path of action) or bhakti (the path of devotion) or jnana (the path of knowledge) is superior. Knowledge, action and devotion are all compulsory for sadhana.

Higher knowledge is an achievement which depends on direct experience, and this experience is possible by the sadhana of ridding the mind of illusion, indolence, etc. thus the mantras of this part of the Ishopanishad contain the excellent counsel that the sadhaka should keep himself aloof from the misconceptions caused by sectarian controversies of dvaitya and advaitya, or dualism and monism. In reality, these views describe different stages of sadhana.

Through an understanding of avidya the sadhaka will surely be attracted to knowledge. He can then learn the path better, and embark upon it. By endurance, self-study and worship of God, knowledge can be gained. Going along the path is somewhat like climbing a ladder to the sky, where no matter how long the ladder and how energetic the climber, he can never reach the sky. Yet this only means that God is not finite, his infinity is in the grossest of the gross and in the subtlest of the subtle. God can be found in the inmost heart of the sadhaka’s own body, when the depth of understanding is fully developed and definite practices presented by the sages are followed.

According to the eleventh mantra, he who knows avidya and vidya both at once overcomes death by his knowledge of avidya and gains immortality through his knowledge of vidya. In this mantra, knowledge of both avidya and vidya is considered necessary.

One thing worthy of particular attention in the former mantras is that those who have only partial knowledge, who forget the aim of life and mind only their worldly activity do remain in darkness, but those who want to gain merely knowledge and are not willing to know the secret of action go to even greater darkness. Neither knowledge nor action is perfect in itself. Understanding of both is necessary.

Mantras twelve, thirteen and fourteen of the third part of the Ishopanishad concern manifest Brahman (Sambhuti) and the unmanifest Brahman (Asambhuti, called Vinasha in the fourteen mantra). So that we my ourselves experience the mysteries of manifest ad unmanifest Brahman, let us now search for the way to enter out temple of sadhana.

We gain knowledge of manifest and unmanifest Brahman through our gross, subtle and causal bodies. The gross physical body is a tool in the hands of the subtle body, which is also called by the name of antahkarana, or inner being. This antahkarana, or subtle body, comprises four functions, namely manas (mind), citta (consciousness, including the storehouse of impressions from past experiences), ahamkara (ego) and buddhi (the faculty of discrimination). The gross body, acting under the direction of the subtle body, establishes contact with the physical sense world of sensual pleasures. Those who are lost only in the development of the gross body are certainly in darkness because they can enjoy that gross body and its pleasures only for a brief period. All the pleasures have a momentary attraction and are dear only in the beginning. But they do not tend to the good of man and cannot make a man realize the aim of life. At best, the development of the gross body can give us physical strength and physical progress. Other progress and awareness comes through the development of the subtle body.

A further analysis of the subtle body excluding the causal, reveals seventeen constituents. There are the five organs of sense perception; then the five tanmatras, namely hearing, touch, sight, taste and smell, which are subtle qualities of the five elements; also the five vital energies (pranas) namely prana, apana, vyana, samana and udana related respectively to respiration excretion, digestion, circulation and coughing; plus the mind (manas) and intellect (buddhi). The antahkarana is purified by meditation and worship, and thus the subtle body progresses. The sadhaka who has a clean, pure and developed antahkarana and whose mind is pure and concentrated, turns inward to his heart for experience of Brahman.

The causal body is a body of acquired tendencies. It contains the record of actions previously performed, including those of other lifetimes. Only when the causal body is developed and purified can love for god blossom in the heart. Only he who develops and makes exalted all three bodies, the gross, subtle and causal, becomes a successful yogi. If a sadhaka wants to develop only the causal body and fails to develop the gross and subtle bodies, his attempt will not be successful. He will be like a blind and lamp person who staggers here and there in darkness. Without the development of gross and subtle bodies, no development of the causal body is possible.

Thus man has three “bodies” relevant to his sadhana. This same fact is sometimes described somewhat differently as the five “sheaths” which we will return to later. These are just two ways of talking about what is fundamentally the same thing.

What is important is that the gross, subtle and causal bodies are related to different states of consciousness described in the Upanishads. Jagrati is the wakeful state. Svapna is the dream state. Sushupti is the states of deep dreamless sleep. During the wakeful state, the relation with gross, subtle and causal bodies is maintained. During the dreamless state of deep sleep the relation with the subtle and causal bodies too is dropped. Who does not like the state of very, very deep sleep?

If we cross over all three states, wakeful, dreaming and dreamless sleep, we reach the fourth state, called turiya. This state of liberation is the state of everlasting joy. In it we are absolutely free of life’s most painful fear-the fear of death, for our consciousness is beyond the bodies subject to death. The state is Self-realization, the same as knowledge of Brahman.

These various states are described very beautifully in the Mandukya Upanishad. The common man experiences only the wakeful, dreaming and dreamless sleep states. But the fourth state is realized through sadhana.

One way of sadhana is realization through the five sheaths. Sheath here means covering. As a sword is covered by a sheath, so the atman or true Self is covered by five sheaths that envelop it. The absolute, pure consciousness that is the Self is also the unmanifest Brahman, while its first thin covering, called the causal body or the sheath of bliss, is part of the manifest Brahman. We are discussing how, in sadhana, to experience for ourselves the mysteries of the manifest and unmanifest Brahman.

The first thin curtain or sheath around the pure Self is anandamaya kosha the sheath of bliss. It is citta, or consciousness as the subtlest possible manifestation. Even in its bliss, it is an impurity covering the true Self, yet it expresses the unenveloped and infinite even though enveloped and finite. It is this sheath which is called the causal body. Over the thin covering called the sheath of bliss is the second covering called vijnanamaya kosha. This is the sheath of discriminatory knowledge and experience (buddhi) as well as ego-consciousness (ahamkara). In its obscuring rather than discriminating function, it makes the soul, which is neither the doer or the sufferer of actions, appear as performing action and suffering the fruits of actions.

The third covering is manomaya kosha, the mental sheath colored with the vitiations of mind (manas) and  organs of sense perception. It creates doubts and illusions. It is a thick covering on top of the other possibilities for misidentifying the real Self.

The fourth covering is pranamaya kosha, the vital sheath “made of prana.” It produces the vibrations of vital force (related to breath) and the senses. Because this vital sheath has the power of activity and motion, it enables the invisible and motionless soul to be misidentified as something visible and moving.

The fifth and grossest covering is annamaya kosha, the physical sheath which is made of food, blood, semen, etc. when this sheath is mistaken for the Self, the indivisible ageless, and immortal Self is thought to be divided and subject to birth, old age and death.

Another way of sadhana concerns the control of the vital forces which connect the gross and subtle bodies. This connection is maintained by the thread of breath. Through the sadhana of pranayama the connection between the gross and subtle body may be easily severed. But it should be learned and followed only under the guidance of an adept master. Yet as stated earlier, the ordinary deep breathing of pranayama should be adopted by all.

The third way of sadhana may be stated thus: if one finds oneself unworthy of any of these two ways of sadhana, one should minimize one’s desires so much as to eliminate them. If there are no desires, there would be nothing to feel sorry for. But this sadhana also requires a high degree of non-attachment.

Devotion is the fourth method of sadhana. The control of the senses through regulated life and filling the heart and mind with divine love purifies and restrains the mind. Love of God is a feeling and the mind should be absorbed in that feeling which is contained in the mantras. By japa, repetition of mantra, the mind also becomes one pointed and is lost in the experience of God. The longings and the separations of the world grow faint for the meditator. Attachment is, of itself, thrown off. The sadhana of love is a peculiar sadhana. If the sadhaka succeeds in securing even a drop of divine love, he becomes immortal soul, grants him sayuju-mukti, salvation by the merger of individual soul into God.

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