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 next verse of the Isha Upanishad, the eighth, gives us another majestic and poetic description of the nature of the ultimate Reality:

स पर्यागच्छुक्रकायमव्रणस्नाविरं शुद्धमपापविद्धम् ।
कविर्मनीषि परिभूः स्वयम्भूर्यथातथ्यतोऽर्थान्
व्यदधाच्छाश्वतीभ्यः समाभ्यः ॥

sa paryāgacchukrakāyamavraṇasnāviraṃ śuddhamapāpaviddham |
kavirmanīṣi paribhūḥ svayambhūryathātathyato'rthān
vyadadhācchāśvatībhyaḥ samābhyaḥ ||

Isha Upanishad-8th Mantra

‘He, the self-existent One, is everywhere-the pure one, without a (subtle) body, without blemish, without muscles (a gross body), holy and without the taint of sin; the all seeing, the all knowing, the all-encompassing One is He. He has duly assigned their respective duties to the eternal Prajapatis (cosmic powers).’

The nature of the Atman is holy and pure, free from the taint of sin. This is India's eternal gospel of universal human redemption; Vedanta does not accept that any particular historical event can become the gospel of human redemption acceptable universally. A gospel derived from human nature can alone become a universally acceptable gospel of redemption. This is what Jesus meant when he taught: ‘The kingdom of Heaven is within you.’

Here is another beautiful epithet of the Atman: Kavih, the poet, the seer. He is the great poet and the world is his poem, coming out in rhymes and verses. The word kavi, poet, means not only one who composes verses, but one who is far seeing, krāntadarshi, as Shankaracharya puts it, one who has insight and can see and grasp the inner significance of things. The great poets of the world share this virtue with the Atman. Poetry brings a message from the heart of nature. What to the prosaic and humdrum mind may seem ordinary and insignificant, to the poet will be charged with meaning and significance. This thought has neatly expressed in an English verse depicting the poetic vision of Shakespeare:

The poem hangs in the berry bush
When comes the poet's eye;
The street begins to masquerade
When Shakespeare passes by.

Every act every situation is full of poetic suggestion to a poet; his sensitive mind sees meaning and significance in them. There is no event or thing in nature which does not ensoul the Soul of the universe; the poet catches the divine pulsations of nature by momentary elevations to kinship with the divine Poet. The ordinary individual, on the contrary, sees only prosaic, discrete facts and events.

This Atman is the source of the orderliness in the nature, says the verse:

यथातथ्यतोऽर्थान् व्यदधाच्छाश्वतीभ्यः समाभ्यः ।

yathātathyato'rthān vyadadhācchāśvatībhyaḥ samābhyaḥ |

The unalterable laws of the cosmos are an expression of its divine ground. The universe is ruled by law; the sun, the stars, the nebulae, fire lighting, rain, everything in nature obeys law. It is law that keeps all things within their limits, so that do not overstep those limits and cause chaos.

Poets are the unacknowledged legislatures of the world, said Shelly. As the poet of poets, God is the greatest law-giver; He gives himself in His law. Says the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (IV. 4.22):

स वा एष महानज आत्मा ... सेतुर्विधरण एषां लोकानामसम्भेदाय ।

sa vā eṣa mahānaja ātmā ... seturvidharaṇa eṣāṃ lokānāmasambhedāya |

‘This verily, is that great birthless Self…an embankment that serves as the boundary to keep the different worlds apart.’

In the Vedas this concept of law was described as rta, and rta means order, rhythm. Within the heart of nature there is orderliness although on the surface everything may appear disorderly or even chaotic. A boy opening up a machine to see its inside will find what appears to him to be a chaotic jumble of wires; but to the expert there is order in the arrangements of wires, and he understands the significance and function of each one of them; through such knowledge he controls their operations as well. Similarly, in nature, everything functions according to law; and this law reveals the divine within. This Divine in the heart of nature is not a dualistic concept, a god sitting somewhere above the clouds and ruling the world from there; it is the Atman, the Self of man and the universe, whose subtle presence the mind of man traces and unveils through the objects and events of the universe and the laws that hold them together.

The Isha Upanishad commenced with the declaration that the universe is spiritual through and through: Ishavasyamidam sarvam. It then taught man to live full span of life and to utilize the same to realize this truth and be free; without this realization, it warned, life would be lived in darkness and sorrow, and rendered meaningless and sterile. Then it expounded the nature of this divine presence in man and nature and showed how its realization completely lifts the veil of delusion and sorrow from the heart of man, converting it into an abode of peace and bliss and universal benevolence.

The Upanishads called this all-pervading spiritual reality by the name of Atman; this reality is beyond speech and thought, being the Self of all; but it is also the idam, the ‘this’, the universe, as such, the object of all speech and thought. It is thus both the ‘within’ and the ‘without’ of things, in the language of Teilhard de Chardin, both the transcendent and the immanent reality. But the term ‘Atman’ bears the impress of the search for discovering the ‘within’, the pratyak tattwa, of the universe, through a penetrating study of the human personality, which is a microcosm in itself. The study of the ‘without’ of the universe by the Upanishads had earlier yielded the concept and term Brahman, the One behind the many. This concept passed through various stages of clarification and enrichment; it meant prayer; it meant a monotheistic god; it meant a logical absolute behind the relative universe. Finally, the Upanishads viewing it through their knowledge of the ‘within’ of things, the Atman, discovered the unity of ‘without’ and ‘within’ in a reality which, as Brahman-Atman, is both transcendent and immanent, is a given fact of experience, and is not a mere concept or logical presupposition. Through the knowledge of the Atman, of the within of things, the Upanishads converted the concept of Brahman from the monotheistic deity and a logical absolute to a spiritual experience—anubhava avasthanam—as expressed by Shankaracharya in his Brahmsutra Bhasya (I.ii. 2).

Similarly, through a penetrating study of the phenomenon of chit, jnana, or samvit, awareness, knowledge or consciousness, the Upanishads also transformed the Atman concept from a word meaning a jiva or soul an entity possessing consciousness as a quality, and involving plurality, through a term meaning the antaratman, the pure and unattached self of man, also involving plurality, into one meaning the Paramātman or Sarvātman, the pure and perfect, eternal and nondual Self of all and the Self of the universe. Atman is pure Being and Awareness and the object of awareness are non-different, as are mind and its presentations. As in physical science, the objects and the entities and event in the space-time continuum become merely its passing configurations space-time continuum alone being real, so also, taking existence as totality, the world of mind and matter, of souls and bodies, becomes revealed as mass of pure Awareness or pure Consciousness, vijnānaghana or chidghana, of which all the objects, entities, and events of the physical and non-physical worlds become passing configurations.

These landmarks in spiritual and philosophical thought are registered in some of the famous passages of the Upanishads:

Says the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (II. 4. 12):

इदं महद्भूतमनन्तमपारं विज्ञानघन एव ।

idaṃ mahadbhūtamanantamapāraṃ vijñānaghana eva |

‘This great Being is endless and without any limit. It is a mass of consciousness only.’

Says the Chandogya Upanishad (VIII. 3. 4):

एतदमृतमभयमेतत् ब्रह्मेति ।

etadamṛtamabhayametat brahmeti |

‘This is Brahman, the immortal and the Fearless.’

The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (III. 4. 1) proclaims the absolute as a given fact of experience, as the innermost Self of man:

यत्साक्षादपरोक्षात् ब्रह्म य आत्मा सर्वान्तरस्तं मे व्याचक्ष्व।

yatsākṣādaparokṣāt brahma ya ātmā sarvāntarastaṃ me vyācakṣva|

‘The Brahman which is immediate and direct, which is the innermost Self of all-expound that Brahman to me.’

The Katha Upanishad speaks of the realization of the unity of the Self (IV. 15):

यथोदकं शुद्धे शुद्धमासिक्तं तादृगेव भवति ।
एवं मुनेर्विजानात आत्मा भवति गौतम ॥

yathodakaṃ śuddhe śuddhamāsiktaṃ tādṛgeva bhavati |
evaṃ munervijānāta ātmā bhavati gautama ||

‘As pure water poured into pure water becomes pure water only, so becomes O Gautama, the Self of sage who realizes Brahman.’

And the Mandukya Upanishad (verse 2) expounds the spiritual unity of the universe in a majestic equation:

सर्वं ह्येतद्ब्रह्मायमात्मा ब्रह्म ।

sarvaṃ hyetadbrahmāyamātmā brahma |

‘All this universe is, verily, Brahman: this Atman is Brahman.’

If the Brahman and Atman are one, if the world is spiritual through and through, then certain consequences follow for the life and destiny of man. It at once unifies the external and the internal, the secular and the spiritual, fields of man's life; it unifies science and religion. The discords and conflicts arising from partial views of reality becomes resolved in the light of this total view, making possible a comprehensive spirituality in which the believer and non-believer, the theist and the agnostic, the religious man and the scientist, the contemplative and the worker, become transformed into fellow seeker of truth.

How the vision of human life and action becomes transformed in the light of this philosophy is expounded by Swami Vivekananda in his lecture on the ‘the Ideal of a Universal Religion’ (Complete Works, Vol. II, p. 381):

‘Through high philosophy or low, through the most exalted mythology or the grossest, the most refined ritualism or the arrant fetishism, every sect, every soul, every nation, every religion, consciously or unconsciously, is struggling upward, towards God; every vision of truth that man has, is a vision of Him of none else.’

Expounding the all inclusiveness of this vision, Swami Vivekananda further says (ibid., pp. 385-86):

‘What I want is to propagate a religion that will be equally acceptable to all minds; it must be equally philosophic, equally emotional, equally mystic, and equally conducive to action. If professors of the colleges come, scientific men and physicists, they will quote reason. Let them have it as much as they want. There will be a point beyond which they will think they cannot go, without breaking with reason…Similarly, if the mystic comes, we must welcome him. Be ready to give him the science of mental analysis, and practically demonstrate before him. And, if emotional people come, we must sit, laugh, and weep with them in the name of the Lord: we must “drink the cup of love and become mad”. If the energetic worker comes, we must work with him, with all the energy that we have. And this combination will be the nearest approach to the ideal of a universal religion….To become harmoniously balanced in all these four directions is my ideal of religion.’

The next six verses of the Isha Upanishad, which we shall take up next, will expound to us the implications of such a philosophy for religion, life and character. Religion in India, as also elsewhere, has experienced a recurring opposition, often irreconcilable, between the path of the mystic and that man of the action, between the claims of the beyond and the claims of this world. These verses pointedly seek to resolve this opposition in the life of the synoptic and total vision of reality achieved in Vedanta. But what this Upanishad does is only to offer hints and suggestions. It was left to the Bhagavad-Gita of a later age to capture the energy and charm of this vision in a comprehensive statement of practical spirituality.

In verses four to eight of the Isha Upanishad, as we have seen, there is the pronouncement of the Vedantic vision of life. How does life appear from the point of view of the highest spiritual realization? The Upanishad told us that when a man realizes the Atman, the divine Self within, he sees the same Self in every being and because of this realization, he does not hate anyone; for there is none separate from him. He achieves equal-mindedness everywhere. As a result of this realization he also becomes free from all delusion and all sorrow, which afflict a person who sees in their separateness, cannot afflict him when he realizes the spiritual unity of all existence.

As we have seen before, the whole philosophical thought of India has this great lesson to teach us- the realization of the one behind the many, the One in the many. The vision of the One is philosophy. Armed with that knowledge we can handle the many in the most consummate manner possible. Shri Ramakrishna tells us: Advaita jnan anchale bendhe ja iccha tai koro — ‘Tie the knowledge of Advaita, the knowledge of this Oneness, in the fold of your cloth and do whatever you please.’ Whatever be the field of your activity, whatever be the mode of our life, we shall never miss the goal. This knowledge of the true nature of man is sought to be impressed upon by these great Upanishads. What a ringing declaration is given in the seventh verse:

यस्मिन्सर्वानि भूतानन्यात्मैवभुद्विजानतः । ।
तत्र को मोहः कः शोक एकत्वमनुपश्यतः ॥

yasminsarvāni bhūtānanyātmaivabhudvijānataḥ | |
tatra ko mohaḥ kaḥ śoka ekatvamanupaśyataḥ ||

When we realize this oneness ‘how can there be sorrow and delusion?’, how can there be hatred which is born out of a sense of separateness? Such thing cannot be; their roots consisting of spiritual blindness have been burnt in the fire of spiritual awareness.


True Nobility

Human society will get a new integration as a fruit of this vision. We in India speak of national integration today; but it is integration limited to one nation. Vedantic concept of integration goes beyond the merely national to embrace the whole humanity in its sweeping vision of kinship and oneness. It has thus a global reference. The sentiments of these five verses are therefore, are appreciated and honoured by thinkers both in the East and the West. In Vedanta, however, it is a spiritual vision; it is not a theory, a concept, or a programme expediency. It is achievement of universality by individual men and women. Man achieves it when he transcends the barriers which his little ego, with its instrument of the sense bound mind, has erected around itself. The ego separates, but behind the ego is the Atman, the true Self of man, which is also the true Self of all.

The transcendence of this ego is the whole purpose of religion morality and the social process. Vedanta teaches that the universal is a given fact of experience. Therein is man's true selfhood. But he in his ignorance cuts it up into finite loyalties of caste and creed, race and sect. Remove these ego-built limitations and the universal in him shines untarnished, pure, and whole. All education, all training, all culture, according to Vedanta, are but the methods by which this ever-present universal is liberated from the temporary limitations of the finite and the particular. The more educated a person and more cultured, the more he sees this oneness of things; this vision finds expression in life in increase of love, compassion and service. The sign of true culture is comprehension and compassion. Violence and wickedness, exploitation and egoism, are indications of a truncated vision. Vedanta calls these the fruits of a smallness of mind, littleness of character. One of the oft-quoted Sanskrit verses has this for its theme-the littleness and greatness of man:

अयं निजः परो वेत्ति गणना लघुचेतसाम् ।
उदारचरितानान्तु वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् ॥

ayaṃ nijaḥ paro vetti gaṇanā laghucetasām |
udāracaritānāntu vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam ||

‘This is my countryman; that is a foreigner—such a view is entertained only by small minded people; but to the noble minded, the whole world becomes his family.’

Where is the limit of a man’s being? Can the skin be his limitation? Can his sect and creed and church and nationality be his limitation? Can these ever really limit the dimension of his true nature? Such limitations are experienced only when we are ignorant of our true nature. But as we overcome our ignorance, we also overcome our limitations and realize ourselves as we truly are- infinite and immortal. This infinite being of man is finding limited expressions through the body and the senses, through social and political systems, through religious sects and creeds. But it can never be exhausted in any one of these. It is in them but it also transcends them. The little man sheds his littleness and realizes himself as the Atman; he realizes as the infinite, as the Eternal.

This is the teaching of Vedanta on the subject of man. Vedanta seeks to liberate this universal value embedded in each individual; and today the world is in urgent need of this type of education. The whole trend of modern civilization and culture is towards this global unity, towards the emergence of the universal man, and here is the philosophy that stands sponsor to all such effort and struggle. That is why Vedanta holds such a great fascination for thinking minds of all parts of the world. No sentiment of triviality, of limitation, of finitude, of exclusiveness, of separateness, vitiates its language and thought. It speaks in terms of man as such, not as man cut up into creeds and sects and political systems. What a beautiful conception of man this is! It is beautiful because it is true; and therefore it is also good, beneficial. It is, in the Vedantic language, — satyam, shivam and sundaram — true, good and beautiful. A new vision of man and his greatness, that dimension of universality, on the part of man everywhere.


The ‘Universe Souls’

Two types of minds are there — one the laghuchetas — the little mind, and the other the udāracharita — the great mind. This praise of the udāracharita is not confined merely to our literature; but our history has produced a galaxy of great men and women who expressed this value of universality in their lives and characters. The sages of the Upanishads, and Krishna, Buddha, Shankara, Chaitanya, Nanak, Kabir and a host of lesser known luminaries in the past, and Rammohan Roy, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and Gandhi in our own time, were such udāracharitas. They always considered themselves as belonging to the world. Thus this noble concept of man did not merely a concept in India but it assumed flesh and blood again and again in the lives of men and women whom the nation adores as its true leaders and exemplars.

When Jesus Christ tells us ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’, we are in presence of similar enunciation. It is the greatest teaching of ethics and morality. We hear this teaching; it is clear in itself; but the heart of man which receives this teaching is not always clear. On hearing this pronouncement, the human heart whispers a question to itself: who is my neighbour? And the reply man gets to this question depends on his notion on himself. To the self-centered-man the neighbour is practically himself; all others are as one's own satellites to be exploited in one's own interest. That is the answer of crude human heart to this question. Here is man in the raw state; he needs to be educated and cultured into that largeness and fullness of attitude where he finds his neighbour in everyone, everywhere, and loves and serves all. This education is a long process, taking man step by step to an expansion of his neighbour awareness from himself to his family, thence to the clan, tribe, caste, and nation to reach out eventually to the whole of humanity, nay to all existence. Breaking down all barriers, the neighbourliness marches on to embrace the whole world. Behind this external march of idea, and sustaining at every step, is an internal march of the self of man to the finite little ego to the infinite universal Atman. This unlimited expansion of man's selfhood resulting in infinite expansion of his understanding and sympathy is what results in udarcharita. When a man achieves that, he achieves a towering personality. He does not remain a citizen of one nation, he becomes a citizen of the whole world; one of the greatest achievements of India has been the production of what Romain Rolland terms ‘Universe Souls’ (Life of Ramakrishna, p. 22, Fourth Impression). He refers to Ramakrishna and Vivekananda as:

‘….two men who have won my regard because with incomparable charm and power they have realized this splendid symphony of the Universal Soul.’ (ibid., p. 8).

When Swami Vivekannda was in America, several saw in him one of themselves. In a letter dated19 February 1896 one of his American disciples wrote half humorously to a journal in India thus (Life of Swami Vivekananda by His Eastern and Western Disciples, Fourth Edition, p. 393):

‘By the way, India had better at once make clear her title to the ownership of the Swami. They are about to write his biography for the national encyclopaedia of the United States of America, thus making him an American citizen. Time may come when as seven cities disputed with each other for the honour of having given birth to Homer, seven countries may claim our Master as theirs, and thus rob India of honour producing one of the noblest of her children.’

The great ones of India have impressed this value of the universal into the Indian cultural experiment; and that explains the continued existence and vitality of India. If India had gone in for any of the trivial, narrow attitudes, she would have died long ago. She has given to man the vision of something pure, glorious eternal, and fearless about the nature and destiny of man. Such an expression of glory of man was found in our age in Shri Ramakrishna who lived in the Dakshineshwar temple, which is hardly four miles to the north of Calcutta (Kolkata). There was enacted a few decades ago, a mighty drama of the universal, from which proceeded the most powerful and creative ideas capable of composing the distractions of man in the modern age. The literature and thought of the 'Universe soul' of ancient India which the Upanishads are, are therefore, not of mere academic interest; they carry the bread of life to all men. Modern man has to be nourished on this bread so that he may grow into that largeness and fullness which is his birthright. This is true education, positive purposive, and perennial. That India bears some impress of such an education from her 'Universe Soul, of past and present times is proved by the fact that no man can aspire to be a leader of the Indian people for long if he speaks in terms of narrow loyalties, of selfish chauvinistic ideas. But if a leader arises expounding broad ideas and large sympathies, people appreciatively and respectfully listen, and try to follow him as best as they can. The nation has been conditioned that way by this philosophy.


Theory to flow into Practice

We have thus a great philosophy; we have been conditioned by it to some extent these millennia of our history, and we have had also the inestimable privilege of guidance by ‘Universe Soul’ again and again. But we have to confess that we have failed our philosophy and our guides in many instances. Our weakness did not allow us to function long in the rarefied atmosphere of this philosophy. So we paid holy allegiance to it, and went our own less ways to conduct our lives at the easier levels of the little self and the trivial ego. This miss education has gone so far that our society contains the largest number of self-centered men and women in the all the world. Our homage to these great philosophical ideas has been reduced to lip-service or homage proceeding from national vainglory. This disparity between high philosophy and low practice, has been with us for quite a long time. Swami Vivekananda marked it and felt deeply over it. He has referred to it one of his beautiful epistles written from America to a disciple in India (Complete Works, Vol. V, p, 15):

‘No religion on earth preaches the dignity of humanity in such a lofty strain as Hinduism and no religion on earth treads upon the necks of the poor and the low in such a fashion as Hinduism.’

We profess the highest philosophy and we indulge in low behaviour. Why? Swami Vivekananda diagnosed this as lack of will power to carry idea into practice. Ideas became short-circuited; practice never got sustenance from the lofty idea. So, on one side was practice untouched by the blessings of idea, and on the other side was idea waiting to express, but unable to express, in action and behaviour, and therefore, becoming sterile. An idea which does not find expression in practice tends to become sterile. It then becomes an enemy and not a friend, however lofty it may be.

The next six verses of Isha Upanishad deal with this subject of the harmonizing of idea and practice, of the inner and the outer. Where these do not co-operate, life will derive no blessing from either of them. But if they reinforce each other, we shall see the finest flowering of philosophy in perfection of character. We have need to assimilate the ideas of this philosophy and raise the tone of our character. If I accept the truth of this philosophy that we are all basically non-separate from each other, then the only way in which I can express that acceptance is through a life suffused with the spirit of love and service. It is this spirit of love and service acts as a thread to unite all men and women. The spirit of love pulsating in the heart will always seek expression in little acts of service. The mother's love for the child does not remain merely as a sentiment or as a matter of mere talk, but finds continued expression in acts of service to the child. The same thing applies to all other spheres of human relationship. A sentiment becomes mere sentimentalism, says psychologist William McDougall, if it has no object to express itself on.


Renunciation and Service

Swami Vivekananda taught us to express our age-old spiritual idealism in forms of love and service to man, to God in man. Says he (Complete Works, Vol. V, p.228)

‘Renunciation and service are the twin ideals of India; intensify her in those channels, the rest will take care of itself.’

When we can assimilate these twin ideas of renunciation and service, tyaga and seva, we shall achieve the richness and steadiness of the Vedantic character. Tyaga, renunciation, is the theme of the very first verse of this Upanishad: tena tyaktena bhuñjīthā — ‘enjoy the life through renunciation.’ We are asked to rise above our little ego, the grasping self, and express our true Self, the Self that realizes its oneness with all, and gives itself away to all, in sentiments of love and acts of service. When we achieve this even our little acts become potent means of transforming the human situation into a pattern of beauty. Self-seeking and exploitation are forms of ugliness. Their presence in a man bespeaks of a lack of vision and of a lack of discipline in terms of what is highest and best in him. This ugliness seems to have invaded our social life in an aggressive form after our political liberation. Political independence has tended to liberate our lower self and thwart the expression of our higher self. There is an increase of self-centeredness and lack of self-discipline, and general lack of concern for the other individual. These social maladies have resulted in much social unhappiness and a retreat from the national goal of welfare and fulfillment. The nation is living on his inherited spiritual assets, which however, are fast dwindling in the absence of continuous replenishments. The dwindling of our foreign exchange resources is a serious matter for our developing economy today; but far more serious is this fast dwindling of our moral and spiritual assets. As our economic and trade policies are energetically tackling the first, our education should vigorously tackle the second.


Education as Assimilation of Ideas

This is the blessing that the Upanishads hold for us. They will help us to continually build up our moral and spiritual assets and, through them even our material assets. They will enrich man’s inner life by helping him to build up the structure of his higher personality. The later is the undisciplined ego which is always of a grasping nature, which desires to exploit others for its own benefit and which is the perpetual focus of tension and sorrow. This little ego must be transcended, making for the manifestation of the true Self. Shri Ramakrishna refers to the first as kacha or unripe ego, and to the second as the paka or ripe ego. That is true education and that again is true religion. It is such an education that fits man for a truly civilized, truly cultured, existence. Sings Wordsworth in The Excursion:

And that unless above himself he can
Erect himself, how poor thing is man!

Our society today must bend its energies to get such an education for itself. Man in the Indian context needs to be inspired by the Vedantic vision of human excellence and Vendantic will to realize that excellence in character and conduct as taught by the Gita (Chapter XVIII, verses 20, 30 and 33). The study of Gita will be a fascinating experience after the study of the Upanishads. It is the essence of all the Upanishads, of all the Vedas,



, as Shankaracharya tells us in the introduction of his commentary on the Gita. It is one thing to have a philosophy, even to read and master it, and quite a different thing to live it and express it in forms of life, conduct and behaviour. Whatever may be made of other philosophies, Vedanta shines best not in study and discussion, but in life application. It is so because, in the words of Shankara, (Brahma-Sutra Commentary: I. ii. 2):



— ‘It finds its consummation in experience.’ As Shri Ramakrishna used to put it: Some have heard of milk, some have seen it, some have touched it, and some have drunk it and assimilated it. Among these, the last alone have been benefited by the milk; for they alone were nourished and strengthened by it. Such is Vedanta; its ideas have the power to nourish and strengthen man, but only when taken in assimilated. They are not meant for mere study or argument, mental ornamentation, or intellectual exercise.

This capacity for assimilation of ideas comes to man from self-discipline alone.

तपसा ब्रह्म विजिज्ञासस्य

tapasā brahma vijijñāsasya

— ‘Seek to know Brahman through tapas, self-discipline,’ says the Taittiriya Upanishad (III. 2). Where there is lack of this self-discipline, there will also be lack of this capacity to assimilate high ethical and spiritual ideas. Our nation today needs to generate within itself this capacity to assimilate lofty values and ideas. We have the historically developed capacity to grasp and keep ideas. We have developed a love for ideas and a tremendous memory to keep them in our minds. But for lack of will and the humanistic urge, they have remained in our heads static and sterile; they have failed to percolate into the heart and the nervous system, into the bones and the muscles, to find expression in lived experience. That is a different type of experience; and we need to enter this type of experience to be able to taste the fruit of the Vedantic character — clear vision, broad sympathies, and intense practicality. Where there is only memory and no assimilation, man becomes merely a storehouse of ideas, and storehouse is just a storehouse, and nothing more. Swami Vivekananda taught us more than hundred years ago to aim, in our education, at the assimilation of ideas, and not to be content to their storehouse. Says he quoting the famous poet Bhatrihari (lecture on ‘The Future of India’, Complete Works, Vol. III, p.302):

‘Education is not the amount of information that is put into your brain and rot there, undigested all your life. We must have life-building, man making, character making, assimilation of ideas. If you have assimilated five ideas and made them your life and character, you have more education than any man who has got by heart a whole library.

यथा खरश्चन्दनभारवाही भारस्य वेत्ता न तु चन्दनस्य ।

yathā kharaścandanabhāravāhī bhārasya vettā na tu candanasya |

— “The ass carrying its load of sandalwood knows only the weight and not the value of the sandalwood.” If education is identical with information, the libraries are the greatest sages in the world, and encyclopaedias are the Rishis.’

To carry ideas in the head and not to know their value is to be an ass carrying sandalwood, says Swami Vivekananda. As the English saying goes: the spoon does not know the taste of the soup. Our education today, I am afraid, has such a tendency. A student or a citizen in our country feels the weight of knowledge in his head but knows very little of its value. He has studied history but his behaviour does not express its values or its lessons. History has told him that for want of national unity, for want of broad ideas, in the absence of social justice, its country lost freedom again and again. It has suffered humiliations and oppressions from many foreign invasions for a thousand years. Having studied all these, he behaves in public and private in always calculated to jeopardize the freedom and national unity won after decades of struggle. He did not extract from her study an emotional identification with the good and ill fortune of his people so as to make of his life, conduct, and character, a guarantee of his nations unity, strength and progress.


Man-making and Character-building Education

The same situation obtains in other field of study like logic or law, science or civics, philosophy or religion. To study law and behave lawlessly, to study civics and be innocent of the social sense, to study the sciences and be innocent of the scientific outlook and temper, is a travesty of education. Such an education does not impart dynamism to ideas; it does not result in force of character, richness of personality, and efficiency in life and action. These are the product of digested and assimilated ideas, just as physical efficiency and physical strength just as physical efficiency and physical strength are the product of digested and assimilated food. Undigested food becomes poison and enemy of the body. Similarly, undigested knowledge also becomes poison and enemy of the mind. Vanity, cunningness, and other similar mental traits are the poisonous fruits of undigested knowledge. Where there is assimilation of knowledge, there can be no vanity; our literature tells us that vidyā dadāti vinayam — ‘knowledge gives humility.’ ‘When the corn is ripe’, says Shri Ramakrishna, ‘it bends down; when it is not ripe it stands erect.’ When there is ripeness of knowledge in wisdom, man becomes humble; when that is not achieved, vanity and pride reign. Education must help us to gather knowledge and to digest and assimilate it; even a fraction of this digestion gives us immediate strength. The whole nation will feel with the pulsations of a new strength and pure resolve if even a little of this assimilated process finds a place in its education. This was the dream and passion of Swami Vivekananda who taught nation building through man-making. When we become men in this sense, we shall feel the galvanic touch of the ideas of our philosophy. They will start moving men, and also the world around men. The opening words of this Upanishad that God is in everything, or the words of Krishna in the Gita that He, the Lord, resides in the heart of all beings, will no more remain sacred words and pious sentiments, but will enter into our blood-stream and our nerve currents, and make us lovers and servants of the God in man, irrespective of caste or creed, race or gender. Swami Vivekananda awakened India to an awareness of this great national destiny. He preached this vision of unity through everywhere, in East and West alike. He felt that the dark night of human separation with its injustices, sorrows, and sufferings was past and this country was on the threshold of a great era when Vedantic ideas will be realized in life and society, both within the country as well as without. India needs the vision of her Vedanta to channel the energies of her awakening to constructive paths of human service everywhere. The teachings of the Upanishads need to be assimilated by her children so that they may become strong to render this service to themselves and to the world. Vivekananda felt that the great ideas of Vedanta which had till now been in the possession of a minority, realized and re-authenticated by a gifted few in every age, should now become the property of everyone in every country, as it so adequately answers to the intellectual and spiritual demands of this scientific age. He held that this was India’s gift as physical science was the gift of the West, to the modern world. So far as India is concerned, Vedanta as expounded by Vivekananda is the philosophy that stands sponsor to the highest aspirations of the Indian mind today, both in its spiritual and secular aspects; for modern science, technology, and social thought are but practical Vedanta according to him. Vedanta does not see any irreconcilable opposition between the sacred and the secular, between faith and reason. The assimilation of the spirit of Vedanta and modern science—Vivekananda placed this at the core of his scheme of Indian education. It is thus we can ensure man's total welfare, worldly as well as spiritual, social as well as trans-social.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: