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 ...

Verse 15 and 16

He now addresses, in verses fifteen and sixteen, that World Spirit symbolized externally by the sun:

हिरण्मयेन पात्रेण सत्यस्यापिहितं मुखम् ।
तत्त्वं पूषन्नपावृणु सत्यधर्माय दृष्टये ॥

hiraṇmayena pātreṇa satyasyāpihitaṃ mukham |
tattvaṃ pūṣannapāvṛṇu satyadharmāya dṛṣṭaye ||

(Mantra 15, Isha-Upanishad)

By the lid of the golden orb is the face of the Truth hidden;
Please remove it, O Thou, Nourisher of the world
So that I may see Thee — I who am devoted to Truth.

पूषन्नेकर्षे यमसूर्य प्राजापत्य
व्यूह रश्मीन् समूह ।
तेजो यत्ते रूपं कल्याणतमं तत्ते पश्यामि
योऽसावसौ पुरुषः सोऽहमस्मि ॥

pūṣannekarṣe yamasūrya prājāpatya
vyūha raśmīn samūha |
tejo yatte rūpaṃ kalyāṇatamaṃ tatte paśyāmi
yo'sāvasau puruṣaḥ so'hamasmi ||

(Mantra 16, Isha-Upanishad)

O, Nourisher, O lonely Courser
of the heavens, O Regulator,
O Sun, thou offspring of Prajapati,
Remove Thy rays, gather up thy effulgence,
So that I may see that which is
Thy most auspicious effulgence.
The Person that is in Thee, That am I.

The ancient Vedic thinkers of India recognized the sun as the mother of all energy in the solar system. He is pushan, the nourisher, and yama, the controller and regulator of all the events and process of the solar system- physical, organic, and even mental. This is echoed in the conclusions of modern science on the subject. Says Thomas R. Henry in his article on the ‘The Smithsonian Institution’, (The National Geographic Magazine, September 1948):

The sun is the great mother. All life on earth might be considered transient materialization of the exhaustless floods of radiance which she pours on the planet’s surface. This enables green plants to synthesize sugars and starches from water in the soil and from carbondioxide gas in the atmosphere, thus making possible all other forms of life on earth by producing the essential foods. We eat sunshine in sugar, bread and meat, burn sunshine in millions of years ago in coal and oil, wear sunshine in wood and cotton. Sunshine makes the wind and the rain, the summers and winters of years and of ages. Inextricably interwoven are the threads of life and light.


Reality and its Symbol

The Vedic thinkers concluded from this that if there is a God in the universe, it is the sun. What god or gods imagined by the mind of man can compare in glory and majesty with this all-nourishing and all-controlling and visible entity in the sky, the source of all light and life in this world? So they invoked the visible sun as God and worshipped it. The scientific mind of today, which finds no place in its scheme of things of any of the gods of the so-called monotheistic religions, will consider this conclusion of the vedic thinkers, who were inspired by a passion for truth and untiring spirit of free inquiry, and who never sought for a mere cozy belief on which finally to rest their tired minds and hearts, this was a but a first step.

Further steps steadily followed which revealed subtler and subtler depths of the gross surface reality of man and nature, the reality of the invisible. They developed more and more spiritual ideas about man which resulted in the formulation of their ideas of God in more and more spiritual terms. There was an evolution of man and there was corresponding evolution of God or, more correctly speaking, in their conceptions of man resulted in a corresponding evolutions in their conceptions of God. They saw man as a spiritual principle of which the body and mind are but temporary limitations; and from this angle of vision, their God, the sun also appeared to them as an all pervading spiritual principle of which the visible sun in the sky was but a temporary limitation; it was but a symbol. As in the case of the physical man and the physical sun, they discovered an intimate kinship also between the spiritual principle in man and the spiritual principle in the sun.

They then took the next great step when they recognized the spiritual principle in the sun to be but an aspect of the supreme spiritual principle in the cosmos. This is the famous vedic concept of Brahman, the spiritual absolute, which is the origin, sustenance, and dissolution of the whole universe. Says the Taittiriya Brahmana (III. xii. 9:7):

येन सूर्यस्तपति तेजसेद्धः

yena sūryastapati tejaseddhaḥ

That (Brahman) kindled by whose energy the sun shines

Of this supreme spiritual principle, which is beyond man’s speech and thought and which yet is the illuminer of all his speech and thought, they still treated the sun as the best symbol; but only as a symbol. This is the vision that finds embodiment in the greatest Vedic prayer, the Gayatri:

ॐ भूर्भुवस्वः
भर्गो देवस्य धीमहि
धियो यो नः प्रचोदयात् ।

oṃ bhūrbhuvasvaḥ
bhargo devasya dhīmahi
dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt |

Om, this world, the higher world, and the highest world!
That Sun, the adorable One,
On the glory of that luminous One we meditate;
May He endow us with pure intelligence!

This is the spiritual background of the sentiments of these two verses of the Isha-Upanishad, the devotee had been engaged in life-long worship of the sun as the symbol of the cosmic Person. He has not been able to realize the thing symbolized and discard the symbol: he has not yet been able to worship his God ‘in spirit and in truth.’ He has now come to the end of his days in his physical body; only a few moments more are left. He now concentrates his mind, lifts it up in the prayer above the pains and aches of his dying body, and implores, in verse fifteen, the object of his life-long adoration to reveal His true form to him:

हिरण्मयेन पात्रेण सत्यस्यापिहितं मुखम् ।

hiraṇmayena pātreṇa satyasyāpihitaṃ mukham |

The face of the truth is hidden by a golden lid (the golden orb of the sun),
says he, and adds:

तत्त्वं पूषन्नपावृणु सत्यधर्माय दृष्टये ॥

tattvaṃ pūṣannapāvṛṇu satyadharmāya dṛṣṭaye ||

That attractive orb of Thine, O Sun, please remove, so that I may see Thy true form, I who am devoted to Truth.

I am not satisfied with appearances, I am not interested in thy golden orb. I know that there is a truth hidden behind that golden orb; there is the true sun, the cosmic spiritual Person, behind the visible sun, and I want to see Him and realize my kinship with Him, says the devotee. The expression ‘golden orb’ represents the attractive physical aspects of things. I have been seeing the perishable beauty of external aspects of things ., including that of the sun, all my life; I now want to see the imperishable beauty of the sun is but a symbol of the spiritual beauty of its rue form. I am satyadharma — ‘Truth and its quest is my dharma, my religion, my passion.’

Addressing the sun, he says again in verse 16:

Pūshan, ‘Nourisher’; ekarshe, ‘Thou lonely Courser of the sky’; the sun courses through the heavens alone, without a companion. Yama, ‘the regulator of all’; it is the sun that regulates and controls all the activities and processes within the solar system; the most microcosmic and most macrocosmic processes within the solar system are governed by the sun; surya, ‘O Sun’; Prajāpatya, ‘the son of Prajāpati, the Father of all’; vyūha rashmīn, ‘remove thy rays’; samūha, ‘gather up’ (Thy effulgence). Tejo yat te rūpam kalyānatamam tat te pashyāmi — ‘so that I may see the most auspicious effulgence that is truly Thy form’. I want to see that, and not this physical appearance of yours. The physical sun I have seen all my life. I want now to see what is the spiritual reality behind the physical sun.

In our daily life we see the physical realities of men and things around us; we hardly develop the capacity to go beyond the physical to the spiritual. In the world we constantly jostle against each other physically, but rarely enter into each other, to dig our affections into each other. The famous Norwegian arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen referred to modern cities in our civilization, as places, ‘where men incessantly rub against each other until they become round smooth ciphers’ philosophy tells us that man is not exhausted in his visible physical form and dimension, that he has an interior depth to him, invisible and more real than the former. If our physical existence fails to lead to an awareness of this interior depth in ourselves and in everything else in nature, then that existence is infructuous.

The seeker, therefore, seeks to probe into the Truth behind the sun and behind himself. He feels that the effulgence of the familiar sun is nothing compared to the effulgence of the spiritual reality that lies hidden in its depths. If the external effulgence is kalyāna, auspicious, the inner effulgence is kalyānatama, ‘most auspicious’. We are naturally charmed by the body of a person, its youth and beauty; the visible and the tangible, rivet our attention and interest. But when our vision becomes penetrating, a new dimension of the person’s beauty reveals itself, more attractive and elevating than the physical aspects. But few have the time or the capacity to penetrate the body and go into the soul of things, the cosmic Reality of which the sun is but a symbol, and which is the origin, sustenance, and final resting place of the whole universe. He prays from the bottom of his heart that the deity may graciously reveal to him his true and most auspicious form — kalyānatamam rūpam.

किञ्चाहन्न तु त्वं भृत्यवद्याचे

kiñcāhanna tu tvaṃ bhṛtyavadyāce

— ‘More over, I do not beg of you like a servant’, comments Shankara on this passage; for the devotee, recognizing his spiritual kinship with the deity, exclaims in a state of exultation:

योऽसावसौ पुरुषः सोऽहमस्मि

yo'sāvasau puruṣaḥ so'hamasmi

— ‘The Person who is in the sun, I am He.’ The spiritual reality in the sun is also the spiritual reality in me; we are spiritually one. There is really no difference; the body alone makes he difference. The sun is big shining body, I am but a small clod of earth; but behind both is the immortal divine Self. This knowledge of the essential spiritual oneness of the whole universe, cosmic, celestial, as well as terrestrial, this knowledge is emphasized again and again in the Upanishads. The difference in size or in quality or even function does not involve difference in the basic reality. The universe with all its differences, is on the surface, but unity at the depths. The Atman is the reality behind all beings, big and small. A big wave and a small bubble of water have their basic oneness in the ocean. In this way Vedanta asks us to see the One behind the many. The devotee is not frightened simply because the sun is big in size and he is small. His knowledge tells him, his penetrating vision assures him, that behind the big and the small there is a common unity of spiritual nature. As Shankaracharya expresses it in his Vivekachudamani (verse 244):

राज्यं नरेन्द्रस्य भटस्य खेटकः
तयोरपोहे न भटो न राजा ॥

rājyaṃ narendrasya bhaṭasya kheṭakaḥ
tayorapohe na bhaṭo na rājā ||

‘One man with the upādhi, or limiting adjunct, of the dress and function of rulership is called a king; another man with the upādhi of the dress and function of the lowest military rank is called a soldier. But when the particular upādhi of each is taken away there will remain neither king nor soldier, (but only man)’

In the language of a political democracy, citizenship is the common bond uniting all members of a democratic state. Whatever high or low functions the members may be discharging, they have an inalienable common stature in their citizenship status. Taking for example, Bill (William Jefferson) Clinton was the President of the United States of America. But when he ceased to be the President he was just one of the millions of citizens of USA. When he shed his temporary upādhi as the President of USA, he resumed his normal personality, in the democratic context, as a citizen of USA, a citizen among millions of such citizens. He resumed his inalienable political stature and status. Similarly, the upadhi of one individual makes him a tiny individual, the upadhis of another individual makes him a big individual, but when the upadhis are taken away,both become one in their common citizenship and in their common humanity. These upadhis are temporary limitations; they come and go. The Upanishads have also visualized man as without any of the upadhis. This is the Self of man, the pure and perfect, the birthless and deathless Reality, in which we are one.



— I am He — is the Vedantic equation, leading to the highest equation of all:

अहं ब्रह्मास्मि

ahaṃ brahmāsmi

— ‘I am Brahman (the All).’

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