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 first verse of the Isha Upanishad, as we have seen, gives us the fruit of the greatest and loftiest vision of the sages of the Upanishads – the presence of the divine in man and nature, the truth of the spiritual character of the universe. The second verse, which we are to study now, provides the corollary of that vision. For if this vision be true, if the universe be spiritual through and through, the question arises, how shall I live my life here in this world? This is answered by the second verse which reads thus:

कुर्वन्नेवेह कर्माणि जिजीविषेत् सतं समाः
एवं त्वयि नान्यथेतोऽस्ति न कर्म लिप्यते नरे…

kurvanneveha karmāṇi jijīviṣet sataṃ samāḥ
evaṃ tvayi nānyatheto'sti na karma lipyate nare…

(2nd Mantra, Isha Upanishad)

‘In the world, one should desire to live a hundred years, but only by performing actions. Thus, and in no other way, can man be free from the taint of actions.’

In these words, the Isha Upanishad gives us immediately the assurance that this life on earth has meaning and significance. We need not despair of this life, nor seek to cut it short, nor weep and wail our lives out. Having understood the meaning and significance of life, we must try to live our lives to the full span, and the full span of life, according to the Vedas, is one hundred years: Shatāyur vai purushah. Says Shankaracharya in his commentary: tavad hi purushashya paramayuh nirupitam-'that long, verily, has been determined to be the length of human life. This determination was the product of a close study of human life. The sages came to the conclusion that if an individual lived a healthy life, physically and mentally, he would live a hundred years; they also saw that if an individual lived an unhealthy life, if his diet was poor, sanitation unsatisfactory, and his way of life faulty, his span of life would be reduced to lower and lower levels. India's average life expectancy was reduced to as low as twenty-nine in the beginning of this century; but now, as a result of the vigorous implementation of sanitary and health measures, it is rising and is somewhere in the region of fifty. If we can raise it to seventy-five or eighty, as in other advanced countries, it will come to the ancient Vedic standard; India will then understand the Vedic ideal of the worth of human life and learn to invest it with joy and zest.

This idea of hundred years’ life span is the accepted tradition in India. In the brahmacharya ceremony, for instance, at the time of the investiture with the holy thread, the boy is blessed with the word: ‘May you live a hundred years!’ after the marriage ceremony, the husband and wife pray together: ‘May we live a hundred autumns!’ But it must not be supposed that this tradition implies merely length of life, India discovered very early in her history that a long life, in itself, had no meaning. That was merely quantity; but quality emerges as the more dominant factor in the higher levels of human life.

So life must be not only long in years, but also rich in quality, in knowledge and joy: this is the product of disciplined life and action. And this is the significance of this second verse. The Upanishads tell us that we must try to live a hundred years, the full span, but that must be lived with joy and zest. Imparting this quality to life is only possible through self-knowledge, through an increasing awareness, in the midst life and action, of our inherent divine nature. Unless we can do this we shall be ‘enjoying’ only darkness all the time; and the longer our lives the denser will be that darkness all the time, the feeling of loneliness and frustration, which in the industrial civilization, in which we now live, is one of the most predominant characteristics of advancing age.

So the Isha Upanishad gives us at once two basic ideas which together constitute the totality of the Vedantic outlook, the outlook which later developed later as a comprehensive spirituality in the Bhagavad-Gita, and which, in our own time, found still further and fuller expression in the message of Swami Vivekanda. These two basic ideas ask us to live the full span of life, to work with zest and joy and with a deep interest in life and its affairs, but do all this with a new outlook, an outlook based on true understanding of the real nature of man and the universe, seeing all is enveloped by the Lord. Overcoming laziness and indifference, we must work, we must fill our long lives with good, useful actions, but all that work must be done in the light of the divine, and the mortal must become man the immortal in this very life.

The heart of the seeker asks: If God is true, if He is the Self of all, how shall I conduct this little life of mine? Put God in everything, says the Upanishad; conduct your life, in and through God; for He is the truth of all and everything. Life and its achievements become trivial when this truth of God does not shine through them. The trivialities of life are only trivial when taken by themselves. Renounce this faulty method, says this Upanishad, and affirm the truth of God and watch even the most trivial aspects of life become aglow with purpose and significance. In the beautiful words of Shri Ramakrishna, the zero by itself has no value; we may add zero to zero and make a whole string of zeros, but yet they will have no value. But if we put the digit one before it, the zero immediately becomes significant. That one is God, according to Vedanta, the Self of all, in whom we live and move and have our being. Sings the English poet Shelly (‘Adonais’, LII):

The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven's light for ever shines, Earth's shadows fly.

Nevertheless, in order to understand this truth, which alone can make possible a life full of zest and joy, a spirit of enquiry is required. The greatest truths do not lie on the surface of life, but in its depths. The shell floats on the surface of the ocean, but the pearl lie in its depths, says Shri Ramakrishna. Investigation is therefore, necessary to understand this fundamental truth of the divinity of life. The surface aspects of life, taken by themselves, do not disclose this truth. But there have been people who had the courage and the capacity to dive to life's depths and bring to the surface gaze the precious pearls of the truth of God of the spiritual life. The Upanishads tell us that life, including life at the surface, is an inherent good, that we should live with joy and zest, and that we should, in the process, also seek to find the true source of this zest and joy. When so planned, life becomes unified meaningful. And length of life becomes length of time and opportunity to dive to the depths and get at the pearls that are there.

This is the positive outlook we find in Vedanta, in the philosophy of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita. There is no weeping and wailing in this philosophy. The conception of life as a wail of tears came to India a little later, and we hugged it to our bosom more and more as the nation began increasingly to lose its vigour. Summoning India to this Vedantic heritage, Swami Vivekananda said (Lecture on ‘Vedanta and its application to Indian Life’, Complete Works, Vol. III, p.238):

‘And the more I read the Upanishads, my friends, my countrymen, the more I weep for you, for therein is the great practical application. Strength, strength for us. What we need is strength, who will give us strength? There are thousands to weaken us, and of stories we have had enough. Every one of our Puranas if you press it, gives out stories enough to fill three-fourths of the libraries of the world. Everything that can weaken us as a race we have had for the last thousand years… Therefore, my friends, as one of your blood, as one that lives and dies with you, let me tell you that we want strength, strength, and every time strength. And the Upanishads are the great mine of strength. Therein lies strength enough to invigorate the whole world; the whole world can be vivified, made strong, energized through them. They will call with trumpet voice upon the weak, the miserable, and the downtrodden of all races, all creeds, and all sects, to stand on their feet and be free; freedom, physical freedom, mental freedom, and spiritual freedom, are the watchwords of the Upanishads.’

True religion suffers when it falls in to the hands of weak people. Shankaracharya refers to this in his commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita. In the Gita, Krshna says that this yoga, which was honoured and practiced by a succession of great people, emperors, in the past, from Vivaswat to Manu and from Manu to Iksvaku, in the course of centuries, became diluted and was lost (IV. 1-2). Commenting on this brief statement of Krshna, Shankaracharya adds that this great science and art of spiritual life became diluted and lost by falling into the hands of people with mind and body weak and sense organs undisciplined. Similarly, Swami Vivekananda attributed the prevalence of easy-going forms of religion, bereft of the heroic elements, to the general weakness of the Indian people. So he taught the people once again the Vedantic message of strength and fearlessness and exhorted them to develop strength of will and character through the service of man, before trying to understand and scale the spiritual heights revealed in the Upanishads. How often did he call upon our people to be strong (ibid., p. 242):

‘Be strong, my friends; that is my advice to you. You will be nearer to heaven through football than through the study of the Gita. These are bold words, but I have to say them, for I love you… You will understand the Gita better with your biceps, your muscles, a little stronger. You will understand the mighty genius and mighty strength of Krshna better with a strong blood in you. You will understand the Upanishads better and glory of the Atman, when your body stands firm upon your feet, and you feel yourselves as men.’

 

Zest in Life

These words of Swami Vivekananda bring to us the atmosphere of the Upanishads, an atmosphere of positive thinking, of freshness, of vigour, of zest. There are any number of passages in the Upanishads where you will find this atmosphere of zest and joy and vigour. The outlook of the Upanishads is characterized by joy and cheer, by what William James called ‘healthy-mindedness’. God’s name itself is joy, in the Upanishads. What a beautiful exposition of divine nature is in the Taittiriya Upanishad (II.7):

रसो वै सः
रसं ह्येवायं लब्ध्वाऽनन्दी भवति ।
को ह्येवान्यत् कः प्राण्यात्
यदेष आकाश आनन्दो न स्यात् ॥

raso vai saḥ
rasaṃ hyevāyaṃ labdhvā'nandī bhavati |
ko hyevānyat kaḥ prāṇyāt
yadeṣa ākāśa ānando na syāt ||

‘He is verily, bliss; man, verily, is blissful by getting this bliss. Who would have lived, who would have breathed, if this infinite expanse of bliss were not there?’

This Upanishad says that the nature of God is blissful itself, and the little joys that we experience in life, even in the sense life, are but particles of that infinite bliss of God.

The Taittiriya Upanishad further discusses the nature of human joy. After a majestic preparatory utterance:

सैषाऽनन्दस्य मीमांसा भवति

saiṣā'nandasya mīmāṃsā bhavati

- ‘Now begins an investigation into the nature of ananda, joy, bliss, or happiness’, it begins to give what may be termed a calculus of happiness. It is instructive to notethat, unlike the usual run of theologies, the Upanishad does not begin its calculus with the bliss of heaven as its unit; on the contrary, it finds its unit in what seems to be, theologically speaking, the most unlikely place- a young man! And it reveals thereby its refreshing positive outlook. Says the Upanishad (II.8):

 

युवा स्यात्साधुयुवाऽध्यायकः ।
आशिष्ठो दृढिष्ठो बलिष्ठः ।
तस्येयं पृथिवी सर्वा वित्तस्य पूर्णा स्यात् ।
स एको मानुष आनन्दः ॥

yuvā syātsādhuyuvā'dhyāyakaḥ |
āśiṣṭho dṛḍhiṣṭho baliṣṭhaḥ |
tasyeyaṃ pṛthivī sarvā vittasya pūrṇā syāt |
sa eko mānuṣa ānandaḥ ||

‘Let us take a youth, a good mannered youth, well educated; full of hope, firm in mind, and strong in body; let him have dominion over the full wealth of this earth; that is the unit of human bliss.’

Having fixed the unit, the Upanishad proceeds to measure and fix every other form of happiness, human and divine, in terms of this unit, as multiples of the happiness of the youth. But we find that, in commencing with a youth as the unit of happiness, the Upanishad will not accept any and every youth. Any youth, simply because he or she is young, cannot serve as the unit. Looking about us today we see plenty of young people who cannot certainly be taken as units of human happiness; many of them are jaded and haggard, even they are young in body; they are old even before they have started being young! So they cannot serve as units of human happiness. Besides youth, the Upanishad enumerates six other constituents. Goodness comes second, a good disposition; the third is education, the stimulation of creative and expansive intelligence; the fourth is hope and aspiration, the joyous beckoning of the future; the fifth is firmness of the mind and purpose, a disciplined will; and the sixth is strength of body, general physical health and well-being. The Upanishad is not satisfied with these six, and adds a seventh — wealth; youth, goodness education, hope, and strength of mind and body will ever remain a fraction, thinks the Upanishad, without the addition of wealth; to complete his happiness, the young man must have command over wealth to make his way in the world.

Now, then having at last defined its unit of human happiness, the Upanishad proceeds to estimate all other forms of happiness in terms multiples of a hundred of this one; in this ascending series comes the happiness of angels and gods and all orders of higher beings, reaching up to Prajāpati, the Cosmic person. But equal to the happiness of a man who has realized Brahman, God, the Self of all, and ceased to be a slave of his senses and sense bound mind. Spiritual realization confers immeasurable happiness, as it connects one with Brahman, God, which is the ocean of all bliss, of which all others are but particles. And every youth is heir to the attainment, in virtue of which he ranks higher even the angels or gods. This is the highest excellence of man, say the Upanishads.

Think for a moment of the happiness experienced by Shri Ramakrishna, or Jesus, or Buddha. What in the world can compare with their happiness? They are as happy as the angels and god in heaven, and they are equally as happy as a youth on earth. A youth feels humble before such a man; having realized the self in all, is the equal of all, but none is his equal. This is how Shankaracharya expresses it (Vivekachudamani; verse 543):

निर्धनोऽपि सदा तुष्टोऽप्यसहायो महाबलः ।
नित्यतृप्तोऽप्यभुञ्जानोऽप्यसमः समदर्शनः ॥

nirdhano'pi sadā tuṣṭo'pyasahāyo mahābalaḥ |
nityatṛpto'pyabhuñjāno'pyasamaḥ samadarśanaḥ ||

‘Ever-satisfied, though without riches; infinitely strong, though without help or support; ever content, though not enjoying sense pleasures; and without an equal, though looking on all as his equal — (such is a man of self-realization)’

None is superior, none is inferior, for the same Atman as in all, and he has realized this truth. But we look upon him as a spiritual giant among men, so tall, so great is he. Shri Ramakrishna behaved with each one just like a friend and equal, but everyone realized how far above them all he was. This is the eternal glory of a knower of Brahman, say the Upanishads. It is the acme of happiness and blessedness for man.

Man in the Indian context is yet far far away from that elementary unit of happiness delineated in the Upanishads; he has yet to achieve the virtues and graces, joys, and delights, of social existence through economic and social amelioration measures, and efficient system of education designated, in the words of Vivekananda, to bring out the perfection already within man. This according to him, is the early phase of the spiritual training of the man, man-making as he termed it. Religion, the realization of the Atman within, achievement of the bliss of God, comes only after this. Godliness is the fulfillment of manliness and not its negation. Man first achieve human happiness before running after divine happiness; otherwise, religion will be cheap, and the happiness achieved through will be a sham. Hence, Vivekananda exhorted his countrymen (Complete Works, Vol. V, Seventh Edition, pp. 10-11):

‘Come be men! Come out of your narrow holes and have a look abroad. See how nations are on the march! Do you love man? Do you love your country? Then come, let us struggle for higher and better things; … Sympathy for the poor-and bread to their hungry mouths-enlightenment to the people at large-and struggle unto death to make men of them who have been brought to the level of beasts by the tyranny of your forefathers.’

This positive, cheerful, sunny attitude to life and religion is what modern man will learn from Upanishads. Religion is associated by the spiritually blind, be they scholars or ordinary people with all sorts of abnormalities; they experience or come across a pathological condition and christen it religion. But the Upanishads, as we have seen, treat spiritual bliss as the fulfillment and completion of the joys of a perfect youth.

Youth has zest in life; much of religion as taught in society is designated to take away that zest without putting in any new focus of zest. Religion so understood has the effect of contracting a man's personality, narrowing his interests, and making him self- centered. True religion does not destroy zest, but purifies, expands and heightens it. The earlier zest was based on self-interest, and derived its force from physical vitality and mental ambition. This is purified and transformed by the new vision of life brought by religion with its intimations of the immortal and the divine within, and its sense of oneness with all outside. The moment I realize myself as one with all, a new zest comes to me, more intense, more pervasive, and more pure. To make others happy is my happiness, to serve others and help them to achieve their life's fulfillment is my fulfillment. This is the essential teachings of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita; this is the basis, the metaphysical foundation, of all ethics and religion.

 

Joyful Old age

In the light of the above, we get a clearer perception of the significance of the second verse of the Isha-Upanishad: ‘In this world one should desire to live a hundred years, but only by performing actions.’ Man must use his body, as an instrument, to work and, through work, to create beauty, wealth, and welfare outside, and moral and spiritual development within. It can help us to attain the highest spiritual experience. In the Upanishads we find the human body described as the most valuable instrument that man can have. The best of music can be produced from this instrument, provided it is tuned correctly, disciplined and trained properly. There is a verse in the Shrimad-Bhagavatam (XI. xxix. 22) in which God speaks to man thus:

एषा बुद्धिमतां बुद्धिर्मनीषा च मनीषिणाम् ।
यत्सत्यमनृतेनेह मर्त्येनाप्नोति मामृतम् ॥

eṣā buddhimatāṃ buddhirmanīṣā ca manīṣiṇām |
yatsatyamanṛteneha martyenāpnoti māmṛtam ||

‘This is the intelligence of the intelligent, the wisdom of the wise, that a man attains Me, the Immortal One, here (in this very life), by means of the unreal and mortal — his psycho-physical organism.’

This is the technique of religion; hence its insistence on the proper care and the mental functions that derive from it. The health of the psycho-physical organism is necessary for all achievement, worldly or religious. Properly rained and disciplined, this organism will eventually land us on the other shore of life — on the shore of illumination and immortality.

This was the positive, refreshing outlook imparted by the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita. But after long centuries, it gave place to weakening and negative attitudes, first in religion, and later, in all aspects of our national life. The spirit of effort and struggle gave way to complaisance. Unwilling and unable to play the price, the nation sought for cheap, easy, and quick successes, in religion as much as in worldly life. The search for the highest and best, which makes for character in any field of endeavour, became weaker and feebler. The joy that characterizes all healthy search after higher values, the joy of mountain climbing felt by a healthy youth, gradually vanished from life, and sadness invaded its sacred precincts; happiness began to be sought not in action but in inaction; instead of the Upanishadic ideal of life in death, it became death in life. The following lines of a modern poet appear to be an exact description of this weakened Indian outlook:

Sweet is sleep, death is better;
But it is never to have been born.

It is amazing to reflect that this weak, defeatist attitude could pervade the Indian atmosphere for centuries, entertained not only by the ignorant but even by the learned; and that, too, in spite of the fearless, sunny, outlook of the Upanishads, India is gradually overcoming this attitude and waking to the world of life and light. This is the great contribution of Swami Vivekananda to India to the world; he was awakener of souls. He preached in East and West the Vedantic message of strength and fearlessness, love and service. With the strength that comes from the knowledge of our inherent divine nature, our youths will recapture the spirit of youthfulness, and our aged will continue to be cheerful.

What a great contribution these spiritual ideas can make to enrich human life not only in India, but everywhere today! In spite of its glitter, in spite of its mirth and laughter, modern industrial civilization hides beneath its polished face much sad song. There is a tremendous moan beneath that civilization. Its fierce competitive milieu has no place for the thousands who fail in life; neither has it any honoured place for the old and the infirm who have ceased to be productive individuals. The aged man, on his part, also loses faith in himself even before others lose faith in him: you are unwanted. The current of youthful life flows by him, but he is left stranded on the sands. He feels squeezed out and thrown in to the scrap heap, as it were; and sadness, dejection, and utter loneliness descend upon him.

This the Upanishads will not allow. Old age is not a thing to be looked down upon; it has its own graces. The young the old both have the divine within; and that can be the locus of true value for man; for it is indestructible; physical capacities for work and pleasure cannot be the true criterion of human value. These pass, but the Atman, the Self of man, remains unaffected by the changes and chances of the body. The Upanishads view the young and the old in this light (Svetashvatara Upanishad, IV.3):

त्वं स्त्री त्वं पुमांसि त्वं कुमार उत वा कुमारी ।
त्वं जीर्णो दण्डेन वञ्चसि त्वं जातो भवसि विश्वतोमुखः ॥

tvaṃ strī tvaṃ pumāṃsi tvaṃ kumāra uta vā kumārī |
tvaṃ jīrṇo daṇḍena vañcasi tvaṃ jāto bhavasi viśvatomukhaḥ ||

‘Thou art the woman, Thou art the man; thou art the youth and the maiden too; Thou art the old man tottering on his stick. Thou art born in diverse forms.’

A healthy society is one that brings the awareness of this divine nature to more and more of its young and old. There are two major problems plaguing modern civilization. One is the problem of old age, the other is the problem of leisure. Vedanta, with its message that the object of life is to realize this divine, contains a gospel of hope for modern man. Vedanta would not have asked man to desire to live the full span of a hundred years if such life were to be lived by him in ennui and frustration. Nothing else can be expected of a philosophy in which life and leisure mean only a round of three ‘e’s, namely, entertainment, excitement, and exhaustion! Vedanta holds before man another ideal: growth, development, and realization, in the light of which both labour and leisure become creative and educative. ‘Enjoy through renunciation’, says Isha Upanishad; and adds, that is the only thing by which our actions may not pile more bonds on us, by which we become truly free. Given this spiritual purpose and direction, life gains in richness with every passing year. And leisure becomes the means of deepening life and given it to purer joys and delights. Thus, getting the utmost out of life is a policy common to materialism and Vedanta. But what is so gained, there is the utmost divergence between the two.

 

Coming to Grips with Life

There is another point to notice while considering the second verse of the Isha Upanishad, another reason why we should direct our energies to get the utmost out of life. This is that the Upanishads say that truth can be realized only in through the human body. We may go to heaven and enjoy the pleasures there as one of the gods, but never be able to realize Truth there. The merit that took us there, in the language of economics, becomes a vanishing quantity, like an unearned increment; and it does not last. Sooner or later it will be exhausted; we do not produce new merit there; and we shall, in due course, have come back to human world and start once again on our journey towards truth and perfection. So, say the Upanishads, why not strive to realize Truth here and now? Life is static if it means only a round of pleasures in the world in a heaven. It becomes creative only if it moves towards Truth, towards perfection. After a long travail has nature evolved the human body, says modern biology. Paying a heavy price of merit has man purchased his psycho-physical equipment, say the Hindu scriptures. The body is an instrument to achieve two things; the delights of social existence — abhyudaya, and spiritual emancipation — nihshreyasha. So the Upanishad tell us that a long life of a hundred years gives one ample opportunity to see life steadily and see it through, to achieve fulfillment through the realization of the Self.

This of course, is no easy task; it does not come about without yoking intelligence and will do this high purpose. Shankaracharya, in one of his memorable verses (Charpatpanjarikā Stotra, 7), says:

बालस्तावत्कृडासक्तस्तरुणस्तावत्तरुणीसक्तः ।
वृद्धस्तावच्चिन्तामग्नः परे ब्रह्मणि कोऽपि न रक्तः ॥

bālastāvatkṛḍāsaktastaruṇastāvattaruṇīsaktaḥ |
vṛddhastāvaccintāmagnaḥ pare brahmaṇi ko'pi na raktaḥ ||

‘While a child is attached to play; while a youth is attached to lust: when an aged gets immersed in various anxieties; there is none, alas, who is attracted to the Supreme Brahman!’

This is life’s great tragedy. Time slips away while we give the body and mind up to life's secondary purposes, forgetting and ignoring its primary purpose. The Upanishads tell us that there is another way of going through life, a way that will enable us to maintain our youthful zest right through the end, and by asking questions, by striving, to come to grips with life, and place ourselves in touch with the abiding reality behind all passing things. This is the great challenge of life to human intelligence. And human intelligence as expressed in the Upanishads accepted this challenge and gave to humanity the vision of its highest excellence. Vedanta embodies both this challenge and this vision.

Because it is such a significant challenge, ever pleasing the heart of man, Vedanta stands as a perpetual message, as fresh in this twenty-first century as it was when it was first delivered in those far off ages. Verse after verse in this literature brings before us the great joy of living, showing us how to deepen our perceptions so that, each day, we get newer and newer vistas of life's beauty as grow in years and maturity. In his ‘Lines above Tintern Abbey’, Wordsworth records a similar thought:

For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still and music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.

This maturity will come to us, bringing with it a sense of compassion, an out- growing from the chrysalis of our little egos, a sense of identity with joys and sorrows of others. This is what is called growing spirituality. This is growing old gracefully, vigour and vitality finding expression in the inner man, while the outer man is gradually withering away. Shri Ramakrishna used to compare this with the technique of statue- making. First, the mould is carefully prepared; then molten metal is poured into it: cooling, it sets. When the image is formed inside, the outer mould, having done its work, is cast away without evoking any regret or sadness.

What, then, is the secret of coming to grips with life? The answer this Upanishad gives to this question is: Work, but in a spirit of detachment. This cryptic, aphoristic statement is typical of Upanishadic teaching. The Upanishads had no time to bring out all the implications of their great message; the hearts of sages were full, for they had seen visions profound and tremendous, and they wanted to communicate them to man in concise, simple unequivocal language. Detailed development of their ideas they left to later thinkers. Fundamental to our spiritual progress, says this Upanishad, is what we do and how we do it. All our life we are engaged in some action or other, and if, at the end of our lives we take account of these actions, we find that, instead of releasing us from bondage they have merely helped to increase our bondage. The way to come to grips with life, therefore is to use every action, every opportunity, as a means of freeing ourselves from that bondage. If we make our actions and our life the venue of an abiding quest for the deep meaning and significance that is hidden in life, then every action will help to destroy that bondage a little and give man a taste of true freedom. This is the impact of philosophic knowledge of wisdom on life. Says the Bhagavad-Gita (IV. 37):

यथैधांसि समिद्धोऽग्निर्भस्मसात्कुरुतेऽर्जुन ।
ज्ञानाग्निः सर्वकर्माणि भस्मसात्कुरुते तथा ॥

yathaidhāṃsi samiddho'gnirbhasmasātkurute'rjuna |
jñānāgniḥ sarvakarmāṇi bhasmasātkurute tathā ||

‘As blazing fire reduces to ashes a pile of wood, so, O Arjuna, does the fire of jñana (wisdom) reduces to ashes all actions.’

Philosophy or wisdom does not destroy actions, but only their binding power. Wisdom purifies life and action, says the next verse of the Bhagavad-Gita:

न हि ज्ञानेन सदृशं पवित्रमिह विद्यते ।

na hi jñānena sadṛśaṃ pavitramiha vidyate |

‘There is nothing so purifying as wisdom in this world’

A rope can bind no more after it is burnt, says Shri Ramakrishna, though it may still retain the appearance of a rope. Similarly, actions bind man; but burn them in the fire of wisdom; then they may retain the appearance of action but will no longer have the power to bind. The energy that found expression as action will be assimilated to knowledge and wisdom, says the Bhagavad-Gita (IV.33):

सर्वं कर्माखिलं पार्थ ज्ञाने परिसमाप्यते ।

sarvaṃ karmākhilaṃ pārtha jñāne parisamāpyate |

‘All actions in its entirety, O Partha, attains its consummation in knowledge (wisdom).’

How then are we to create in us that burning fire of knowledge or wisdom in which to burn our actions? The answer lies in the message of Vedanta, in the teachings of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita if we want the answer, we must face up the problem. We cannot escape actions by running away from action. ‘Face the Brute’, as Swami Vivekananda expressed it in a lecture on Vedanta in London, recalling his experience, during his monastic wonderings in India, of an encounter with a group monkeys. He first tried to run, but they chased him; just then a passer by shouted to him; not to run away but o face the brutes; he did accordingly. And as soon as turned and faced hem, they fell back. By shutting the eyes or by running, the brute does not vanish; it will stare us in the face when we open our eyes again. Life’s problems are not to be avoided; they have to be faced. It is not escapism, therefore, that is taught in the Upanishads, but acceptance, to coming to grips with life, meeting the challenge of life with the challenge of philosophy, with the strength of spirituality. Therein lies its intense practical reference. Vedanta is not only profound metaphysics, but intensely practical science and art of life- Brahmavidya and Yoga-shastra. If we live even a fraction of its message, we shall achieve much fearlessness, says the Bhagavad-Gita (II.40):

स्वल्पमप्यस्य धर्मस्य त्रायते महतो भयात् ।

svalpamapyasya dharmasya trāyate mahato bhayāt |

‘Even a little of this dharma will save us from great fear.’

Very often we hear people say, ‘I do not believe in all this metaphysics and religion. I believe in doing good. That is my philosophy of life.’ This is good as far as it goes; but it does not go very far. Doing good often becomes the outward expression of either of the fatness of the ego or the emptiness of the heart. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan referring to this school of thought, says in one of his lectures: the modern man and the modern woman do not believe in religion and in God. They believe only in what they call ‘going about doing good’. But it is more ‘going about’ than ‘doing good’. The philosophy of ‘doing good’ is a cheap philosophy. Those who try to base their lives on it will soon find its inadequacy when confronted by the knocks and trials of life. On such occasions the mind often beats a retreat from its 'doing good to the world' position. Such an attitude does not give one that spiritual strength which alone can keep the mind steady in all situations of success or failure, joy or sorrow. The greatest strength comes from the knowledge of the Atman, our divine nature; says the Kena Upanishad (II.4):

आत्मना विन्दते वीर्यम्

ātmanā vindate vīryam

‘Strength comes from (the knowledge of) the Atman.’