Isha Upanishad

by Swami Nirvikarananda | 45,666 words

This is the English translation of the Isha Upanishad: a key scripture of the Vedanta sub-schools, and an influential Śruti to diverse schools of Hinduism. The text discusses the Atman (Soul, Self) theory of Hinduism, and is referenced by both Dvaita (dualism) and Advaita (non-dualism) sub-schools of Vedanta. The name of the text derives from the ...

The Technique of Enjoyment

With our minds thus prepared, the Isha Upanishad, in its first verse, takes us at once to the secret of this Truth:

ईशावास्यमिदं सर्वं यत्किञ्च जगत्यां जगत् ।
तेन त्यक्तेन भुञ्जीथा मा गृधः कस्यस्विद्धनम् ॥

īśāvāsyamidaṃ sarvaṃ yatkiñca jagatyāṃ jagat |
tena tyaktena bhuñjīthā mā gṛdhaḥ kasyasviddhanam ||

(1st Mantra, Isha-Upanishad)

‘Whatever there is changeful in this ephemeral world, all that must be enveloped by the Lord. By this renunciation, support yourself. Do not covet the wealth of anyone.’

This is a very profound utterance, unequivocal, and yet extremely simple. The whole universe, it tells us, is filled with the spirit of God. And our experience of the manifold, of sense world, must be seen in the light of this abiding truth. A bubble on a sheet of water, plays for an instant on the surface, and disappears. Whence did it come, what was it, and where did it go? From water it came; having come, it is water still; and water it returns at the end. The real nature of that momentary existence, the bubble, is water. Similarly, Brahman is the real nature of this world. Realize that do not lose sight of that, caught up in the trivial waves of passing sense experience, says the verse. Change is here death is here, in every phase of life; there is no steady base here on which we can safely erect the structure of our life; but look deeper, says the Upanishad, and you will see the death-less in the midst of death, the changeless in the midst of many. This is the great message of the Upanishads, the message of the immortal and imperishable Self behind the mortal and the perishable. Says the Katha Upanishad (V. 13):

नित्योऽनित्यानां चेतनश्चेतनानाम्
एको बहूनां यो विदधाति कामान् ।
तमात्मस्थं योऽनुपश्यन्ति धीराः
तेषां शान्तिः शाश्वतं नेतरेषाम् ॥

nityo'nityānāṃ cetanaścetanānām
eko bahūnāṃ yo vidadhāti kāmān |
tamātmasthaṃ yo'nupaśyanti dhīrāḥ
teṣāṃ śāntiḥ śāśvataṃ netareṣām ||

‘He is the eternal in the midst of non-eternals, the principle of intelligence in all that are intelligent. He is One, yet fulfils the desires of many. Those wise men who perceive Him as existing within their own self, to them eternal peace, and non else.’

If, then, we can see ‘the eternal in the midst of the non-eternals’, if we can envelop everything with the Lord, We shall understand the real nature of the universe. After that, the next step is, as this first verse of the Isha Upanishad tells us, renunciation of whatever is not real. In the language of Vedanta, there must be both a negation and affirmation, if we are to enjoy this world. Tena tyāktena bhuñjīthāh - ‘by this renunciation, support yourself,’ says this verse. What supports us is not we renounce, but we possess and enjoy; and this verse tells us to enjoy the world through possessing God. This world enjoying, and we should enjoy it with zest. Zest in life is expounded throughout the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads. The great teachers who discovered these truths were not kill-joys; they were sweet and lovable men. Sri Ramakrishna was full of joy and Shri Krshna was full of joy. Jesus, too, was really a man of joy, although later dogma made him a man of sorrows.

Before we can enjoy this world, we have to learn the technique of enjoyment. This technique is described in detail in the Bhagavad-Gita, but here, in this first verse of the Isha-Upanishad, the technique is summed up in that one word ‘renunciation’. When Swami Vivekananda was in America, he met Professor Ingersoll, a man who was the terror of the theologians of the time; he was an agnostic and great scholar and orator. In his ‘Inspired Talks’, Swami Vivekananda describes a conversation he had with Ingersoll (Complete Works, Vol. VII, p. 77):

‘Ingersoll once said to me: “ I believe in making the most out of this world, in squeezing the orange dry, because this world is all we are sure of.” I replied: “ I know a better way to squeeze the orange of this world than you do, and I get more out of it. I know I cannot die, so I am not in a hurry; I know there is no fear, so I enjoy the squeezing. I have no duty, no bondage of wife and children or property. I can love all men and women. Everyone is God to me. Think of the joy of loving man as God! Squeeze your orange this way and get ten thousandfold more out of it. Get every single drop.”’

This, then, is the technique of enjoying life, which this Upanishad proposed, leaving it to Bhagavad-Gita to develop all its practical implications. Says the Bhagavad-Gita (II. 49):

दूरेण ह्यवरं कर्म बुद्धियोगाद्धनञ्जय ।
बुद्धौ शरणमन्विच्छ कृपणाः फलहेतवः ॥

dūreṇa hyavaraṃ karma buddhiyogāddhanañjaya |
buddhau śaraṇamanviccha kṛpaṇāḥ phalahetavaḥ ||

‘Work (done with selfish desire) is far inferior, O Arjuna, to that done with a detached reason. Small-minded are they who are motivated by selfish results.’

Renunciation is an eternal maxim in ethics as well as in spirituality. There is no true enjoyment except what is purified by renunciation. In our daily lives, in interpersonal relationships, we observe that we achieve the greatest joy not when we affirm ourselves, but we deny ourselves. And in this teaching of the Upanishads, we have the explanation of this great truth. Through renunciation and detachment, we become identified with the immortal and divine Brahman which is the self of all. We see, with our eyes and mind purified, this universe as that Brahman and renounce what our small separatist ego had conjured up. Thus, this renunciation is not a mere negation; it is negation leading to a larger affirmation. The dialectics of the higher life, like the dialectics of evolution itself, proceeds through a series of negations and affirmations. It is the affirmative elements in this dialectic movement that constitute the positive content of joy in ethical and spiritual life.

Finally, this first verse of the Isha-Upanishad says: ma grdhah kasya svid dhanam - ‘Do not covet the wealth of another.’ That is a very plain statement, but it involves a number of ethical and spiritual values. Whatever you have gained by your honest labour, say all moral and spiritual teachers, that alone belongs to you; enjoy life with that, and do not covet what belongs to others. Shankaracharya, in one of his beautiful hymns, addressing man, says:

मूढ जहीहि धनागमतृष्णाम्
कुरु सद्बुद्धिं मनसि वितृष्णाम् ।
यल्लभसे निजकर्मोपात्तम्
वित्तं तेन विनोदय चित्तम् ॥

mūḍha jahīhi dhanāgamatṛṣṇām
kuru sadbuddhiṃ manasi vitṛṣṇām |
yallabhase nijakarmopāttam
vittaṃ tena vinodaya cittam ||

‘O fool, give up excessive desire for wealth; yoke your mind to the good and the true, and cultivate detachment. Whatever wealth you obtain by your own honest labour, with that learn to delight your mind and heart.’

Our heart will ask: is wealth evil? Are we to become mendicants? No, replies Shankaracharya, and adds: but yoke your mind to righteousness and cultivate dispassion. Take the mind away from what does not belongs to you, what you have not earned yourself. Enjoy life with zest, with the fruits of your honest labour; avoid covetousness, for it will lead to exploitation, which will destroy the moral life of both the exploiter and the exploited. Exploitation in any and every form must be avoided if you want to develop your spiritual nature, which is the true aim of life. Remembering that it is by the dialectics of negation and affirmation that true joy in life is achieved, we approach wealth and in a spirit of dedication, by negating the ego and its evaluations and affirm the universal value of Brahman. It is only when we become free from all spirit of selfish exploitation that we can truly enjoy life. The world is nothing but the blissful Brahman; and we are here to enjoy it. It is only when our eyes are purified by renunciation that the world will appear to us in its true form, as consisting of waves and waves of the bliss of Brahman. This is the true joy of life; it is growth, it is development, it is realization for man. It is fulfillment, purnata, the goal of evolution itself.