Commentary on the Isavasya Upanishad (Part 3) by Swami Krishnananda

Created on Friday 28 February 2014 15:33

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Part 3

andhaṁ tamaḥ praviśanti yo’vidyām upasate |
tato bhūya iva te tamo ya u vidyāyāṁ ratāḥ ||9||
anyad evāhur vidyayā anyad āhur avidyayā |
iti śuśruma dhīrāṇām ye nas tad vicacakṣire ||10||
vidyāṁ cāvidyāṁ ca yas tad vedobhayam saha |
avidyayā mṛtyuṁ tīrtvā vidyayāmṛtam aśnute ||11||
andhaṁ tamaḥ praviśanti ye’sambhūtim upāsate |
tato bhuya iva te tamo ya u sambhutyāṁ ratāḥ ||12||
anyad evahūḥ sambhavād anyad āhur asambhavāt |
iti śuśruma dhīrāṇām ye nas tad vicacakṣire ||13||
sambhūtiṁ ca vināśaṁ ca yas tad vedobhayaṁ saha |
vināśena mṛtyuṁ tīrtvā sambhūtyā amṛtam aśnute ||14||

These are very knotty statements in the famous Isavasya Upanishad, with which the Shukla Yajurveda Samhita concludes. This is the only Upanishad which forms part of a Samhita of the Veda. All the other Upanishads belong either to a Brahmana or an Aranyaka portion of the Veda.

Having pronounced the omnipresence of God in all creation at the very commencement of the Upanishad, it is said, “They go to darkness, who entangle themselves in activity born of ignorance. They go to greater darkness, who satisfy themselves with mere learning, with knowledge in the ordinary sense. The aim of activity is one thing; the aim of learning is another thing. There is no connection between the two. But those who are in a position to blend activity and knowledge in the requisite proportion, they cross over the clutches of death through action and attain immortality through knowledge.”

They go to darkness who involve themselves in this world. They go to greater darkness who think that reality is above this world, as if it is outside. Clinging to the world has one aim, and clinging to that which is otherworldly has another aim. They are two different things altogether. Those who are in a position to blend the externality of the world with the transcendence of reality overcome death by living in this world, and attain the Immortal by communing themselves with the transcendent Reality.

This is an almost literally translated meaning of these verses. Commentaries after commentaries have been written on these verses, and everyone finds a great problem in understanding what all this means. Everyone has to say something new about them; and everyone can say something new about them, because they are so enigmatic in their meaning and their intention is not very clear from a mere surface reading. Having considered the importance of these verses, whatever they may be signifying, Acharyas have left no stone unturned in ransacking their mystery, and have come to some sort of conclusion which seems to be rationally founded and perhaps even scientifically acceptable. The Upanishad wants to free us from any kind of extreme in approach.

We live in a world that has a peculiar characteristic of its own. The characteristic of the world is that it obliges us to do something, compels us to be active every day, to engage ourselves in some work or the other. There is no one who does not do something. Activity is the essential character of earthly existence, empirical life. We would have never seen a person who does not do something. The impulsion to act is generated by the very relation that seems to obtain between ourselves and the world outside. When we are thus compelled to engage ourselves in activity of some kind or the other, we have, at the same time, an idea of the motive behind our performances. It is true that we do not act deliberately of our own accord. We feel pulled and pushed by some force in the direction of activity, making it impossible for us to be inactive, whether or not this activity is going to bring any fruit as a result of its performance.

Our concept of activity involves a result that has to follow from what we do. We become habituated to this vehement impulsion. It becomes part and parcel of our very life itself, and then we never feel that we are impelled to work. We begin to feel that ‘we’  work. ‘I’ do the work. No one says, “I am forced to work. I am compelled.” Though originally it is a sort of compulsion consequent upon the empirical relationship between ourselves and the world of externality, our habituation to this continuous activity, day in and day out throughout our life, creates a peculiar psychological circumstance which makes us wrongly feel that we do the work, even though we are forced to work. And inasmuch as ‘we’ do the work, we do it with a purpose. We expect a result to follow from the work that we do in this world.

This is the kind of attitude that we generally have towards life, and we have no other opinion about ourselves except that we work and some fruit is reaped out of this work. We start our day with work, and end our day with work. We are born with an impulse to work, and we die with work. If this is the only meaning that we can see in this world, then to darkness we go after death, because that is not the meaning of life. Merely because there is an impulsion to work and we are helplessly driven, as it were, in the direction of this work, and we do the work, it does not follow that there is a proper comprehension of the meaning of what this work is. Why should we be impelled so? Taking for granted that there is an impulsion to act, from where does this impulsion come? This question is rarely raised by anybody.

We have to work. We have this duty to perform. We have this family. We have these obligations. “I am involved in it. I am very busy. I am helpless. I do, and I must do.” This is all we hear from anyone in the world, as if this explains the whole mystery of life. It is an explanation of a particular phenomenon through which life presents itself as an aspect. But the impulsion to work is not the whole meaning of life. And, worse still, we feel that it is good to subject oneself to the pressure of some force that is impelling us to work, and then get on with this drudgery of action. To darkness we go after we leave this body, if we live a life of this kind, which is pure slavery, involvement without any kind of freedom attached to it. Avidya, ignorance is the name of this kind of living.

But if this kind of extreme attitude that we adopt, due to sheer subjection to outer activity, will take us to darkness after death, what else are we expected to do? There are people who withdraw themselves from all activity in a theoretical concept of the structure of things, and rational investigation is conducted into the motivation to work. They come to the conclusion that the life that we live in this world has a transcendent meaning. Reality is transcendent. The knowledge of the transcendent is to be the main occupation of our life, because the meaning of life cannot be discovered in empirical activity. Activity is an outer expression of another impulse that originates from a transcendent significance, so let us resort to the transcendent only and do nothing, because the transcendent does not compel us to work. Work is an arrangement between the human individuality and the outer world of space and time. The transcendent is not in space and time and, therefore, there is no question of work. These are people who try to contemplate an ethereal transcendence that is totally divested of any kind of connection with this world. For instance, to put it in a more concrete form, as it is bad to get attached to the body, we ignore the body totally and go on contemplating on a self that we imagine in our mind: “I am contemplating on my Atman; I am not interested in this stupid body.”

If one is totally ignorant of the existence of the Atman inside, and is wholly engaged in bodily comforts and works through the body for the sake of physical satisfaction, it is bad because the physical body is not the reality. So, one kind of extreme in the attitude of people makes them bend down to the needs and clamours of the bodily satisfactions and work for the body only, whether one’s own body or family body. This is sheer ignorance, as we know very well. And contemplation on the Atman by imagining it to be a light transcendent to the physical world and this body would take another course, whereby we are likely to ignore the body completely. On the one hand, we ignore the Atman and cling to this world and the body for its own satisfaction; and on the other hand, we ignore the body and the world, and cling to a concept of the Atman as a transcendent element. To greater darkness we go if we think that the Atman is outside the body or inside the body, and we are totally oblivious – deliberately, as it were – to the existence of the body and its connections with the world, and we engage ourselves in a contemplation that is pure ethereal engagement and pure theory.

The effect of this kind of involvement in physical activity and bodily comfort is one thing. That is unadulterated bondage, as can be very well imagined by everyone. We will be born into the same condition in which we lived because of such attachment to the physical body and the actions of the body in relation to the physical world. There is no Atman, no God, no spirituality; no such idea occurs to the minds of people who are totally physical, material, economic, bound to human society, family, money, name, fame and power. All these come under worldly comforts, connected with human activity of various kinds. There is no talk of Atman, Self, Light, etc. To darkness they go, because of the sheer ignorance in which they are living.

Now, what is the step that we have to take to free ourselves from this possibility of entering into darkness? If we ignore the world, ignore the body, and contemplate the Atman, to greater darkness we go. This is how the Upanishad tries to catch us from both sides. We will not be permitted to be wholly interested in the bodily requirements and the world of activity, because we will be condemned to go to darkness. Killers of the Self are those who think only of the body and all its relations in the form of activity in the physical world, says the Upanishad. But what about those who have awakened to this consciousness of the bondage of this body and the world, and abstain from all work, ignore the body, punish it, and do tapas to such an extent that it starves and kills the body for the sake of the Atman? To greater darkness they go. It is worse than the darkness into which others enter.

The nature of Ultimate Reality is neither externality not internality. God is not outside. God is also not inside. There are people who have no idea of the Selfhood of the Supreme Being, which dominates all life as the Atman Supreme, and consider themselves satisfied with world relations. There are others who think that God is not connected with the world. He is extra-cosmic. There is absolutely no relation between God and world, because God is uncontaminated by space, time and objectivity. This is what we hear in the scriptures. There is neither space nor time, nor individual objects in God. And this world is nothing but that. It is just space, time and objectivity. How can there be any connection between darkness and light? This world is like darkness, and it is perpetually changing. God is unchanging. Everyone in this world is grief-stricken; everyone has some sorrow or the other. God is free from all grief and sorrow; He is all bliss. This is the world of death, where everyone has to die one day or the other. God is immortal. What connection can there be between this world and God, if this is the state of affairs? Therefore, it is futile to have any kind of relation with this world. We shall retire from all relationship to the body and the world, and contemplate that which is not of this world, not in this world and which has no connection with this world.

This is a mistake, says the Upanishad. It is a mistake to think that this world is everything, that bodily comfort is all-in-all, and to live and die only for work. It is a mistake not to have any cognisance of a reality that is above the world. But it is also a mistake to imagine that reality is totally outside the world and has no connection with this body, the prana, the senses, the mind, and any kind of relation in this world. Mostly religious practices go to extremes of this type or that type. Transcendence is mostly the attitude of religion. We have to blend avidya and vidya together for the sake of freedom and immortality, says the Upanishad. The bondage to which we are subjected by action, day in and day out, will make us disgusted with everything, and we will be automatically freed from the impulse to act. The world itself will liberate us from its clutches when we have paid our debts to it.

We owe a debt to this world, and we owe a debt to this body. It is the debt that we owe to this body and the world that compels us to live in this body and to work in this world. Sometimes this debt is designated as prarabdha karma – a kind of nemesis, a reaction produced by certain actions that we did in the past, accumulated for the purpose of experience in this world, forcing us to reap the fruit of those actions, whether pleasurable or miserable, whatever the case may be. This is that impulse to act. It is this impulse that keeps us alive in this body. As long as the reaction of those actions, called prarabdha, continues, as long as the momentum of those actions continues, as long as we have not exhausted by experience the results of those actions which are called prarabdha, the body will continue to live. The body cannot live even for a moment after the exhaustion of this prarabdha karma. Like the flame of a lamp gets extinguished when there is no more oil, death of the body will take place instantaneously when the momentum of those actions which have produced this body ceases to act. Similarly will the impulse to act in this world cease automatically.

Therefore, it is futile to try to cut off connection with the world. No one can ignore this body. No one can deliberately disconnect oneself from this body and the world as long as this impulse with which we are born, and which itself is the reason for our birth, is alive. Hence, the warning is discharged in this Upanishadic Mantra: do not attach yourself to this body or the work of this world under the impression that there is nothing more; and also, do not ignore the body or the world, because you cannot do that. No one can peel one’s own skin. Work has to be carried on in this world through this body, though not for the pleasure that the work brings or the delicious fruit that the work may yield. That would again be further attachment to the work, and would increase the desire to perpetuate life in this body. Work should not be done for the pleasurable fruit that it brings, not for name, fame, authority, not for any kind of compensation that we expect through this action, but merely because it has to be done as a debt that we owe to the body and the world through this working of the prarabdha karma.

In that manner, live in this world. Thus the world will free you from its clutches. Mrityu, death, will not any more harass you because death, which goes together with birth, is a consequence of the karmas of the past. As long as the karmas of the past germinate into action, life in this world and the body will continue to exist, with all its involvements in life. Knowing this, one has to discharge the debt through the body in respect of the world – but be not attached.

The knowledge which is referred to here as the counterpart of action, resorting to which entirely, unconnected with action, is supposed to lead one to greater darkness, is theoretical knowledge. It is imagining in the mind, like building castles in the air: I am not this body, I have no connection with this world, I have no connection with anybody, I have no relation to any person in the world, this body is not me. There are people who chant mantra-like statements of this kind, which cut no ice because what is the use of merely saying “I am not this body”, when we know we are the body? That knowledge, which is mere adumbration of a false notion entertained conceptually – not actually a freedom from the body that is realised, but a mere thought in the mind together with the entanglement in the body – such a knowledge will take us to greater darkness because it is hypocrisy. It is hypocritical contemplation to imagine theoretically “I am the Atman”, while we know that the body pinches with every kind of pain in this world. We have hunger and thirst, and terror of every kind in this world. The body experiences them. As long as this consciousness of the existence of the body is with us, we cannot say that we are not the body. Merely saying, or chanting a mantra-like type of conceptualisation that is theoretical, scriptural, will make a person go to greater darkness, because the bondage will not cease. They will take birth once again, and because of the egoism with which they started this kind of theoretic contemplation – a hypocrisy, as it were – they will entangle themselves once again in rebirth, and continue to do the same work to which they were subjected earlier.

What is the solution? The solution is also mentioned in the Upanishad. We have to work with knowledge, and not simply work without knowledge. We should not only have knowledge, minus work. Both should be known together as a blend.

Here, in these mantras of the Isavasya Upanishad, we seem to have a seed of the gospel of the Bhagavadgita, where Sri Krishna hammers into the mind of the student Arjuna that karma should be based on buddhi, or sankhya. Yoga is an expression of sankhya. Yoga is action, sankhya is knowledge. Arjuna knew what action was, but he did not know what knowledge was. He was considering the pros and cons of activity. The gains and losses, the loves and the hatreds involved in action, were before his mind’s eye. But he did not know; he had no sankhya. He had no knowledge as to why he had this sentiment of love and hatred inside, and the idea of gain and loss outside. Sri Krishna reprimanded Arjuna, “You are lacking sankhya.” Sankhya buddhi was not there. Here in a little passage, in a two-line instruction of the Isavasya Upanishad, we have a premonition, as it were, of the great gospel of the Bhagavadgita.

In the Bhagavadgita, as well as in this mantra of the Isavasya Upanishad, we are told how we have to live in this world. We should not go to extremes, either empirically or transcendentally. Neither can we deny what consciousness accepts as reality, nor can we cling to it as the only reality. In this condition of our physical existence, what consciousness accepts as reality has to be accepted as reality – to the extent it is accepted by consciousness. But in this acceptance, we cannot be attached to that perception, because it is not the whole of truth. Our consciousness clings to this body and clings to the world of values, though this clinging is unwarranted. It is a mistake. It is ignorance, avidya. It is death. As long as we persist in the acceptance of a mistake, it is a reality for us. We accept a mistake deliberately and affirm that it is right because our consciousness has taken a stand that it is right. As long as we are not disillusioned of this fact, the acceptance of reality of the otherwise mistaken notion will continue.

A gradual disentanglement of consciousness from the involvement in the physical world is advised. That gradual system is yoga. That is knowledge; that is sankhya. The sankhya says that purusha is involved in prakriti. If the purusha does not know that it exists independent of prakriti, and gets totally involved in prakriti and does whatever the prakriti does, it is earthly bondage, avidya, which takes us to darkness. But if, having involved itself, the purusha imagines, “I am not involved. I am totally independent” – that would also not be freedom. A person in a prison can say that he is a free man and nobody can bind him. He may have a conceptual freedom in his mind, but he is actually in bondage in a prison.

What is reality? Whatever we accept as reality is reality for us, whether or not it is the Ultimate Reality. The acceptance of the reality of this body and the world is a temporal concession given to the working of prarabdha karma. This vehement action of prarabdha on this body and the world cannot be avoided as long as it is working in the direction of its own self-exhaustion. Fire will burn as long as there is fuel. When the fuel is not there, the fire subsides. This fire of longing for this body and the world will subside only when the fuel of prarabdha subsides. As long as the prarabdha karma continues, the body will not die even if we starve it. It will live somehow or the other. And when the prarabdha is exhausted, we will certainly die, even if we are eating the best food. We do not live and die because of eating or not eating, as we may imagine. Unprotected but God-protected, one can live. But protected by the whole world and not protected by God, one will perish. Unknown, unbefriended, but under the care of providence, a person can live even in a forest. But he can die even when perfectly taken care of in the midst of family and friends, when providence is against it.

The idea is that we should neither attach ourselves to our body and the work that it does in respect of the world, nor should we shun it. Do not say, “I will only work; I don’t know anything else but work.” That is attachment. Do not say, “I don’t want work,” because it is attachment. That will not work, because it is attachment to non-action. The concept of not-doing is also a kind of doing because all action is actually only the mind working. Action, so-called, is mental. What the mind thinks is action, and not so much what the body does. If the mind is absent, physical action is no action. But if physical action is absent, although the mind is acting, the real action is going on.

Thus, the Isavasya Upanishad goes together with the teaching of the Bhagavadgita, the great teaching that action and knowledge have to be combined. That is to say, work we must. But how would we combine them? No one can be here without any action. We must perform action because, as already mentioned, as long as we are in this body and this world, action is the law of this body in its relation to this world. We must participate in this action of this impulse to live through the body and the world, but not get attached to it. The idea of non-attachment cannot arise in the mind of a person unless he has knowledge, sankhya buddhi, vidya.

That action actually is a bondage, and that it is somehow to be carried on to discharge one’s debts is the knowledge that is to be at the back of this action. We have to do the drudgery. We cannot free ourselves from that as long as it is necessary for us to live in the body and the world. But we need not be attached to it. This freedom from attachment can be possible only if we know why we have come into this body. That is called sankhya. So, knowledge and action should go together. This is one teaching of the three verses connected with avidya and vidya.

The other three verses tell us another aspect of the matter, relating us to the world and God. There are people who believe that the world exists, but God does not exist. There are those who think that God exists, but the world does not exist. These are two types of people in the world, and neither type is totally correct in their feelings. Those who feel that only the world exists, and God, or the Ultimate, does not exist, will go to darkness. Those who deny the world entirely, and think that God is extra-cosmic, go to greater darkness.

What is the relationship between God and the world? The teaching of this mantra is that we have to blend the concept of God and the world. Here in this context, the Purusha Sukta of the Veda is a great admonition to us that the Supreme Being became the cosmos. He envelopes the whole Cosmos, and is immanent in every little particle of sand. Every atom in creation is indwelt by God. That is the immanent aspect of God. If that is the case, and that is the only thing that we know – we know nothing more about God except that He is indwelling, that He is enveloping the cosmos – then it would mean that He has exhausted Himself in this world. He does not exist anymore as an independent reality. Just as milk has become curd, God has become the world. If God has become the world as milk has become curd, then as there is no chance of curd becoming milk again, as we know very well, no one can attain God. The idea of God-realisation would be a futile attempt, as God has exhausted Himself in this curd of the world. Is it so? It is not true. God has not become curd, though one doctrine of philosophy, called parinama vada, adumbrates and tells us that God has transformed Himself into the world. This idea of transformation should be taken with a pinch of salt. What do we mean by ‘transformed Himself’? Has He become something else? To say that God has transformed Himself into the world would be to say that God has become another thing.

God has not become another thing. Logically, ‘A’ cannot become ‘B’. ‘A’ is ‘A’, and once ‘A’ becomes ‘B’, ‘A’ ceases to be. God would cease to be, if He has transformed Himself into the world. And what is God-realisation? The question does not arise.

God also transcends the world, says the Purusha Sukta, and is not merely present in the world. Very metaphorically, we may say, the sutra tells us that a little fraction – one-fourth, as it were – has become the world. Three-fourths is still there as the transcendent, uncontaminated Eternity. It does not mean that God can be divided like that into one-fourth and three-fourths, etc. The idea is just to instruct that this vast creation that is unthinkably and unimaginably astounding in its extensiveness is, after all, a little fraction. This is one Brahmanda, and God is supposed to be the Lord of endless crores of universes, which are regulated, controlled and ruled by Him. Every little particle of creation is indwelt by Him, and yet He is transcendent.

If we soak cloth in a bucket full of water, every fibre of the cloth will be indwelt by water. I am giving a small example of daily life to illustrate how a thing that is immanent can also be transcendent. God is immanent. But He is not simply immanent; He is transcendent, also. The whole of the cloth is saturated with water. There is water everywhere, in every fibre of the cloth. Water is indwelling the cloth. It is immanent. But water is not the cloth. It is very well known that cloth cannot be water; water cannot be cloth. Water is transcendent to cloth, though it is immanent in the cloth. This is a homely example just to show how a thing that is immanent and indwelling can also be totally transcendent.

Therefore, the Upanishad tells us that the Ultimate Reality is not merely transcendent in the sense of complete disconnection from the world. So we need not shun the world as the creation of Satan, or utter evil, nor can we cling to the world as a final reality. The world is not evil, because it is indwelt by God. It is not the final reality, because God is also transcendent. So this clinging to the externality of the world as the only reality is a mistake which will take us to darkness. And imagining God as a totally transcendent Being above the world will take us to greater darkness. We have to combine in our meditations the blending of these two concepts. God is present everywhere in all creation, and yet stands above the world. We will not be attached to this world, and yet, at the same time, we will not ignore this world.

These verses of the Isavasya Upanishad warn us in two different ways. On the one hand, we are expected to bring together knowledge and action in our daily life, and not separate action from knowledge or knowledge from action. On the other hand, it does not want us to separate God from the world and the world from God. They have to be brought together. There is a synthesis in our personal life in the world, and a synthesis in our meditation on cosmic existence, which is the creation of God. There is inward synthesis and also outward synthesis. When this inward synthesis and outward synthesis are effected, these two syntheses have again to be synthesised into a total Infinitude, which is what the Bhagavadgita explains in its chapters from seven to eleven.

So goes the Isavasya Upanishad, a wonderful scripture. In pithy, precise statements it gives us the whole philosophy of life, which is given to us in a more detailed form in the scripture of the Bhagavadgita. How have we to live in this world? By neither shunning action and the world, nor attaching ourselves to action and the world; by blending action with knowledge, and blending the whole cosmos with the Supreme Creator.

This is to live a totally integrated spiritual life, which is the only way to final salvation of the Spirit, moksha prapti.

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



The Gospel of the Bhagavadgita