Commentary on the Isavasya Upanishad (Part 2) by Swami Krishnananda

Created on Wednesday 26 February 2014 16:52

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Part 2

The Isavasya Upanishad announced at its very commencement what we may call the doctrine of being, the philosophy of God. Now it has something to say about the doctrine of work, or the philosophy of action. Normally, from the point of view of human thinking, the characteristics of God do not seem to be compatible with the impulsion to action. Precisely to remove this misconception, the Upanishad immediately takes up the question of the necessity to work – necessity arisen merely because of the existence of a God, of the type described earlier.

One may wonder what is the logic behind the assumption that the impulsion to work automatically follows from the nature of the Supreme Being. On a cursory glance at the super-abundance of the might of the omnipresent God, it may appear that any kind of work, or action, is a contradiction of God’s being. But the point made out here is, that it is not only not a contradiction, but an obligatory consequence that follows from the nature of God. “Īśāvāsyam idaṁ sarvam” has been said earlier. Now the Upanishad mentions, “kurvann eveha karmāṇi jijīviṣet.” Life is identified with action, while God is identified with omnipresence. Can we see a connection between omnipresence and action?

The reason why there is a propulsion to act, a motivation to do anything whatsoever, is to be recognised in the nature of God’s existence itself. Nothing of value can survive, except on the basis of the characteristic of God. If God is the only reality, all value that is real also has to have some relevance to God’s existence. If work or action has any value at all, if we can recognise any meaning in the work that people do in the world, then it must be in consonance with the nature of God, which is all value and all reality. In fact, as the Upanishad would tell us briefly, and the Bhagavadgita would explain in greater elaboration, the impulsion to act arises not from any psychological centre. It is not my mind or your mind that is just thinking in terms of a project or an action. Its basis is somewhere else. The philosophy behind it, the foundation of the very impulsion to act, is not in the instrument of action. It transcends the instrument. The mind and the body of the human individual, for instance, may be said to be the instruments of action. But instruments themselves cannot be causes. The causes are interior, precedent to the agent of action as well as the instrument.

It has been reiterated in the Bhagavadgita that inactive, no one can exist. But its meaning is not easy to understand. Why is it difficult to be inactive? Its answer has to be found in the first verse of the Isavasya Upanishad. The impulsion to act arises through the instrumentality of a human individuality, which, again, has a remote aim in front of it, namely, a furtherance of the evolutionary process. There is an incessant transformation taking place in the constitution of every little being, inanimate matter included. All things are constituted of minute parts, which tend towards the formation of a new constitution altogether, indicating, thereby, that the constitution of the present form of the individuality is inadequate and would not suffice for the fulfilment of the purpose of evolution.

Birth and death are also processes included, involved, in the evolutionary process. The sudden coming and the sudden going of forms look like births and deaths of individuals. But, in fact, nothing suddenly comes and nothing suddenly goes, even as a fruit does not suddenly ripen. Though, suddenly, one morning we see a mango ripened in the tree, it has not ripened on that morning. It was working for that purpose from several days earlier. The ripening was made visible to our eyes only on the outer surface on a particular day, but the process of ripening was going on from the inside of the fruit. In a similar manner is anything and everything in this world.

Events do not suddenly arise like upstarts. We sometimes say that an unexpected event has taken place, an accident has occurred. Actually, unexpected events are really to be expected events. That they are not contents of our awareness at the present moment, cannot make them unexpected. The fructification of a particular cause brings about an effect, which we call an event that takes place in the world. But, as in the analogy of the ripening of the fruit, we see only the ripened colour of the fruit at a particular moment of the day, not being cognizant of the processes that preceded the vision of this ripened fruit. The occurrence of a particular event is a sudden occurrence for all practical purposes from the point of view of our vision. But it has been propelled into the form of this event or occurrence by the forces that were preparing themselves gradually days before, months before, years before, or even ages before. Any event, any occurrence, any activity, anything that happens anywhere, at any time, is a visualisation in concrete form, through space and time, of what is actually not in space and time.

The occurrences in space and time are caused by factors which are themselves not in space and time. Causes of illnesses are supposed to be far beyond and beneath the outer surface of their appearance; not only illnesses, every occurrence, for the matter of that. The birth of things and the death of individuals, which we generally call sudden comings and sudden goings, are actually gradual processes. Right from the time of our birth, we have been preparing to die. There is a maturation, a ripening of the fruit of this physical body for the dropping of it after some years. But the mind is so much attached to this particular form of the body that it cannot visualise the antecedent causes that are the reason behind the coming of the body at one time and the going of it at another time.

We look at things purely from an empirical point of view. We see things with our eyes. Very rarely do we think with our minds. Even thinking with the mind is not always sufficient, because with any amount of thinking we cannot know why we are born at all and why we should die, because the mind is tethered to this body. Even when it thinks, even when the ratiocinating process takes place, logically speaking, it is physiologically conditioned thought, socially conditioned mentation, economically conditioned volition, and bound by various factors like family attachment, etc., so that a wholly impersonal thinking is far from the reach of ordinary human individuality.

The little fruit that we see slowly emerging from the tip of a little branch of a mango tree has not suddenly appeared there. The entire sap that fills the whole tree through all the branches and twigs has been getting mature slowly through the process of time in the direction of the formation of this condensation, which is called the fruit. A little bit of it is visible one day, and we say, “Oh, the season has come. Mangoes are appearing on the tree.” They have prepared themselves to appear in that manner long, long before they actually become visible to the eyes. The fruit is actually in the very sap of the tree. It is not hanging somewhere on the top, though it appears to be somewhere, practically disconnected from the vital function of the tree. The entire tree is filled with the fruit, and therefore it is that we find the manifestation of the fruit and the flower everywhere in the tree.

In a similar manner, the whole circumstance into which one is born is conditioned by every kind of experience. All the processes of our life, all the joys and sorrows, everything that has happened, everything that is yet to happen, including the length of our life in the world, all of these have to be seen in a seed form in that particular causative factor that has been the reason behind our coming into this world. When a child is born and an old man dies, it does not mean that something suddenly has taken place. A vast sea of causes has been pushing the waves of these conditions that gradually concretised themselves into the birth of an individual and matured into the further action of the decay of that formation and the death of the individual.

Similar is the case with every kind of action, every work, every event, every occurrence. The omnipresence of the Ultimate Reality, about which the first verse of the Upanishad told us so much, and on which we dilated a little bit earlier, implies that everything has to move towards it. We noticed that every part that belongs to a whole is not only conditioned by the nature of the whole to which the parts belong, but the whole also determines the very function and the manner of the working of the parts. I mentioned last time the analogy of the working of the physiological organs. The characteristic of our physical body as a whole will decide how each limb of the body will work. The parts of the body are conditioned by the intentions of the whole.

Likewise is the activity that takes place in all creation. It is not that only human beings work. There is activity taking place in all levels, subhuman as well as superhuman. In the Bhagavadgita, again, we have this statement, that neither on earth nor in heaven can we find anything that is free from the operation of the properties of prakriti, known as gunas. “Na tad asti pṛithivyāṁ vā divi deveṣu va punaḥ, sattvaṁ prakṛiti-jair muktaṁ yad ebhiḥ syat tribir guṇaiḥ (Gita 18.40). The propulsion to work, is the cause originating from the rajasic quality of prakriti. The stability that we sometimes experience in our life, is the work of the tamas of prakriti. The balancing of forces between rajas and tamas, is sattva. All that is born, gods in heaven, human beings on earth, whatever be the created being, everything is composed of these three gunas.

Sattva, rajas and tamas are not merely abstract qualities, like the colour of a rose or the whiteness of a flower. These three gunas, as they are called, are properties of the very substance of the world. They constitute the brick and mortar of all things, living as well as non-living. The weight of the body, its substantiality, is the tamas thereof. The agitation, causing impulsion to movement of any kind, is the rajas there. And any kind of satisfaction that we feel in our mind, is the sattva prevalent in the mind. If we are always agitated and there is no satisfaction of any kind, we are never happy at any moment of the day, it will mean that there is no sattva working; only rajas is active. But if we feel sleepy and lethargic and very heavy in our personality, it would mean that tamas is predominant.

Sattva, rajas and tamas being the constituents of the human individuality, they propel the individual to work and act in a particular direction. It is impossible for the rajas element to keep quiet without some movement; the element of rajas in our personality will compel us to act. Na hi kaścit kṣanam api jātu tiṣṭaty akarmakṛt, kāryate hy avaśaḥ karma sarvaḥ prakṛti-jair guṇiaḥ (Gita 3.5). Everyone shall move. The atom shall move, the sand particle shall move, the solar system shall move, the planets shall move, every cell of the body shall move. Why shall they move? The reason is the constitution of the universe itself. The centre of the universe is like a magnet, which pulls everything towards itself.

We have estranged ourselves from God. The fall of the individual from the ‘Garden of Eden’, the headlong sinking into empirical existence, samsara, mortality, is the upside-down vision of the individual, opposed to the vision of the Universal. The separation of man from God is the cause behind every kind of work. The necessity to work, the need for action, arises on account of the restlessness of the psychophysical individuality, caused by the isolation of it, the finitude of it, and its aspiration for breaking through the fortress of this finite individuality.

“Which is better, meditation on the Universal Absolute or devotion to a personal God?” was a question raised by Arjuna at the commencement of the Twelfth Chapter of the Bhagavadgita. One would have certainly expected the Lord to say that contemplation on the Absolute is the best. He, of course, did not cease from saying that. But He added that this is a difficult type of meditation, impossible for those who are conscious of the body. Those who are immersed in the consciousness of the body cannot have, at the same time, a consciousness of Universality. The personality-consciousness with which we are infected will also compel us to visualise the Universal in the form of a personality. If we are impersonals, our contemplation also will be impersonal. But who are we to think in an impersonal matter, when we think only through this body and all the conditions associated with it?

Hence work, or action, becomes a natural characteristic of finite formations of every kind, whether they are organic or inorganic. Thus, the second mantra of the Isavasya Upanishad says that one should wish to live in this world by the performance of work that is designated in the light of what was mentioned in the earlier verse concerning the omnipresence of God. Work becomes obligatory, not because we are going to acquire any ulterior fruit out of it, though some fruit may accrue in a different way. The intention of the work is not reaping the harvest in the form of the fruit, but the participation of individuality in the structure of the universe.

Part 2 (Continued)

Work is actually a longing for the Infinite. We are asking for God, even when we are propelled to work. Only if we are conscious of this fact can we convert work into yoga. We say many a time that work is worship. How does work become a worship of God, unless it is a love for God? The whole personality is crying for God. It is a yelling out for the Almighty in this sorrow-stricken world, where bodies and minds of people are sunk deep in the nether regions of sorrow. We are stretching our arms as high as possible, to reach out to that from where we have come, from where we have fallen. Our desires and our actions are both indications of our longing for That which is above us. Every desire – however binding it may appear on the surface, however meaningless it may sometimes be – is nevertheless caused by some power at the back of the desires, which originates from our dissatisfaction with this personality, and from our inward longing for the Universal being, from which the finite parts have been severed.

Our thoughts, our desires, our feelings, and our actions are different forms of the manifestation of this inward anguish that arises due to our separation from God. Hence, there is no such thing as mere work in a secular sense of the term. Work is a spiritual longing that originates in the deepest recesses of being, even in the form of an unhappy service. As long as this finite existence continues due to the prarabdha karma (causative propulsion) behind it, the impulsion to act also will persist. The body moves in a given direction, and we call it work. The mind moves in a given direction, and we call it thought. The feelings move in a given direction, and we call it desire. But all these movements, whether of the body, the feeling, the mind or the will, are ramifications of a single impulsion to move towards a wholeness of experience, God-Being. The jiva is crying for Isvara. Therefore, says the Upanishad, by work alone can you attain salvation, so long as you are bound to this body, because the means of contacting God is conditioned by the type of embodiment in which one is lodged. If it is purely a mental existence, it is one kind of action. If it is a physical embodiment, it is another kind of action.

As long as we want to live in this world – it is said to be ‘a hundred years’, a word used in the Upanishad indicating a very long life – we have to work. Nothing can be more valuable than life. One should not cut off life. The Manu Smriti says, “You should not extol, you should not condemn, but you should get on with the conditions that prevail according to the circumstances into which you are born.” In the light of the all-pervading nature of Isvara, God, do your duty.

The word ‘duty’ is a specialisation of the Bhagavadgita. In the Isavasya Upanishad there is just a mention of action or work. By doing alone should you wish to live in this world. “Kurvann eveha karmāṇi jijīviṣet śataṁ samāḥ,
evaṁ tvayi nānyatheto’sti na karma lipyate nare.
Evaṁ tvayi: there is nothing else that you can expect in this world. That is to say, we cannot expect complete cessation from action in this world. But we may be afraid that action may bind. Karma is supposed to react in the form of a nemesis. Are we not acquainted with an old saying that every action produces reaction? Yes, it is true that when a finite action is propelled in the direction of a finite fruit thereof, a reaction is set up in the direction of that agent of action from the fruit that is expected. But it is not so in the case of every action, because it need not necessarily proceed from a finite source. Finitude is a limitation of consciousness itself, and so consciousness bound to the finitude of existence can contemplate only a finite fruit that can accrue to it. And anything that is finite, is binding. So the cause, the ideation behind the performance of any work, should not be motivated by the finitude of consciousness, but by an infinitude of consciousness. Because of the fact that God is all-pervading, īśāvāsyam idaṁ sarvam, it is necessary for us to work, not because we have to expect anything in the form of a remote result that is to follow, but because action is a necessary characteristic, an automatic reaction produced by the finite mind and body, as long as consciousness continues to be in the mind and the body.

When work gets exhausted by the withering away of the momentum that caused the work, and the desire that was at the back of the work also ceases, the transmigratory life also will cease. Birth and death will be no more. The coming into being and the going, as we call birth and death, are caused by the desires that arise in terms of finite existence, finite fruits. So we are disciplined by means of this work, or action, in two ways. On the one hand we have not the freedom to sit quiet without doing anything. This kind of freedom is not there, because it is the nature of the body and the mind to work. The mind and the body form part of a cosmic whole, and therefore they always move in the direction of that whole. So everyone is impelled to work.

We cannot ask for freedom from work. But at the same time, we cannot work in the manner we would like. It is a prescribed form of attitude that has to be maintained during work. That is to say, the work that we perform is not a means to an end. It is an end in itself! Our work will be unsatisfactory, if we consider it as a means to an end. Suppose we work only for salary’s sake, our mind will be only in the salary, and not in the work. Also, if there is anything ulterior beyond the actual performance, the performance will be poor. The discipline of action is not a means to some other goal that is to be attained. The very essence of karma yoga is that action is an end, and not a means.

It is difficult to conceive this objective in our mind, because we are not accustomed to think in this manner. How can work be an end in itself? It always brings something. If we sow a seed, a fruit comes up. If we do some work, we will get wages. We know all this that happens in this world. But have we ever seen somebody working for nothing? Here is a novelty of the philosophy of work, it being the principle that all life is a studious participation in the purpose of the creation of God. It is a participation in the work of God. It is a cooperation in the structure of the universe. It is not an agent individually working for his own or her own purpose. It is a movement towards the Self-realisation of the cosmos.

The cause that is at the back of any kind of action is multifold in its nature. That is, when we think we have done the work, or we shall be doing the work, we may be under the impression that only we are responsible for the kind of work we are contemplating to do. We are not the only ones responsible for the work. The motivation comes from various other sources, also. Not knowing this fact is the reason for the bondage of the soul. If we impute everything to ourselves, naturally we have to become bound by the very fact of that imputation that we have ignorantly done. If we have done the work, we reap the fruit thereof. But actually we have not done the work. It has been forced upon us by certain circumstances which condition the whole creation.

Adhiṣṭhānaṁ tathā kartā karaṇaṁ ca pṛthag-vidham, vividhāś ca pṛthak ceṣṭa daivam caivātra pañcamam (Gita 18.14). Five causes are there behind every occurrence. Not merely the action that you do or I do, but every occurrence, every event, everything that happens everywhere has a fivefold cause behind it. So we cannot say that some particular thing alone is the cause. “I went out in the rain; I caught a cold.” That is only a manner of speaking. We have not caught a cold merely because we went out in the rain. Though going out in the rain and drenching ourselves is one of the causes, there were also susceptibilities of various other kinds, which were the causes of catching cold.

The fivefold causative factor mentioned in the Bhagavadgita shows that no particular individual can be regarded as the sole agent of any particular action. The whole world is at the back of every action. The physical body conditions action to some extent. An elephant can do one kind of work. The ant does another kind of work. The human being does a third type, because of the limitation of the physical conditions.

There is also the intention behind the performance of an action. The nature of the intention will decide to some extent the nature of the performance also. The instruments that are used in the performance of an action will also decide upon both the quantum and the quality of the action that is performed. There are various other distracting factors, which are associated with the main intention. They also condition the action in several ways. But above all these things, daivam caivātra pañcamam, the will of the Universal Being, is the final deciding factor. If the ruling power does not wish, no other lieutenant can execute an action. Even the success of the projection of a particular intention, the working of the body, the manipulation of the instruments, etc., should be considered as permitted processes by the central organisation. God’s Will is supreme. The real worker, the real agent is God Himself.

If God is the only agent of action, all work automatically becomes the nature of a worship. There is no need of any commentary on this point. If there is only one agent in the whole world, only one action takes place; there are not many activities taking place. We say that many things are taking place. History is a chronology of many activities. But they are not many activities; they are many ramifications of a single thing that is taking place. There is only one work performed by one person in the world. If this is so, work cannot bind. Who will bind? The individual agent has gone off. He has evaporated into the Supreme Agent. All these declarations suggest and indicate that inasmuch as all performance of every kind is engendered by the centrality of the universe, God willing, no individual karma can be permitted in creation. Nobody individually does anything. There is no individual agent. Therefore, karma cannot bind, action cannot bind.

This is a theoretical foundation behind the practical suggestions given to us in greater detail in the Bhagavadgita, which gives a large scripture, as it were, on the method of working in the world. It is something like a vast commentary on the Isavasya Upanishad.

We are likely to go to extremes in our thoughts. We either think of God independent of creation, or of creation independent of God. This will be mentioned in the context of our study of those verses which say that vidya and avidya should be combined. Vidya and avidya should not be considered as two different factors. Knowledge and action are supposed to be contradictory to each other. This is a mistake in thinking. They have to be blended. It is necessary that knowledge should blend all action. An action should be guided by knowledge. They are the obverse and reverse of the same coin, as it were. Knowledge and action are not two different things, or processes, taking place. They are one and the same thing that is moving. On one side it looks like illumination, knowledge; on the other side it looks like action.

Here is the sum and substance of the Isavasva Upanishad, as far as the first two verses go. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is supposed to be a large exposition of the intentions of the Isavasya Upanishad. The Purusha Sukta of the Vedas and the Isavasya Upanishad sum up the intentions of a disciplined living, the philosophy of living, and transmuting every work into not only a worship of God, but also a meditation proper. Contemplation and action have to go together. Not only have they to go together, contemplation itself has to become action, and action itself has to become contemplation. The work of God is the same as the existence of God, and the existence of God is itself the work of God. God does not work with hands and feet. The very existence of the sun is the activity of the sun, and the activity of the sun is identical with the existence of the sun. So in a higher sense, action becomes knowledge, and knowledge becomes action. Existence is becoming, and becoming is the same as existence.

A very lofty thought is adumbrated in the Isavasya Upanishad through its few verses that sum up the intentions of all the Upanishads, practically: how we can conduct ourselves as instruments of God in the work of this world. We are not merely instruments in the sense of some independent entities guided by something else, but are actual fingers of God operating. We are the fingers of God working. We are not just fountain pens with which He writes the book of life. We are more than ordinary instruments. We are vitally connected parts of that stupendous whole.

Sarvataḥ pāṇipādaṁ tat sarvato’kṣi-śiro-mukham, sarvataḥ śrutimal loke sarvam āvṛtya tiṣṭhati (Gita 13.14). Its hands work everywhere, Its feet are moving everywhere, Its eyes see everywhere, It hears through all the ears. Whether it is the Bhagavadgita or the Upanishad, or our logical conclusion, they all converge at the same point of it being necessary for everyone to be perpetually in a state of contemplation and action, meditation and work, which will be for our blessedness, both here and hereafter.

[Extracted from Swami Krishnananda Maharaj's discourses Divine Life Society ]



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