Ishavasya Upanishad with Shankara’s Commentary

by M. Hiriyanna | 1911 | 8,153 words

The Ishavasya Upanishad (or simply Isha) is one of the shortest of its kind, and basically represents a brief philosophical poem discussing the soul/self (Atman). This edition contains the Kanva recension, consisting of 18 verses. The words “Isha vasyam” literally translates to “enveloped by the Lord” and refers to the theory of soul (Atman); a co...


The Īśāvāsyopaniṣad—so called from its initial words—forms the concluding chapter of the Saṃhitā of the Suklayajurveda The name of Samhitopaniṣad is also sometimes given to it, in order to distinguish it from the other Upanishads which generally find their place in the Brāhmaṇas. According to the commentary here translated, the eighteen verses of this Upanishad are to be understood as falling into four sections—

  1. Verse 1, which teaches that those who understand the Self and are fit for realising it should give up all worldly desires and devote themselves exclusively to attaining final release;
  2. verse 2, which enjoins the performance of karma on such others as do not comprehend the Self and are consequently unable to realise it;
  3. verses 3-8, which, having in view persons referred to in verse 1, describe the real nature of the Self and indicate the consequences of realising or not realising it;
  4. and verses 9-18, which commend the simultaneous practice of karma and upāsanā, to persons referred to in verse 2.

In commenting on this Upanishad, Śrī Śaṅkarāchārya, now and again touches on the following point which is of much importance in understanding his view aright. The Veda inculcates, he says, two independent lines of conduct—one of karma or activity and the other of jñāna or withdrawal from the world. The first forms the subject-matter of the liturgical portion or the and the second, of the Upanishads or the of the Veda. The teaching of the is whole in itself, and should not be considered as subsidiary, in any way, to the teaching of the karmakāṇḍa. Nor should it be imagined that both these teachings can be concurrently followed by anybody, for there is a fundamental antithesis between them. The latter presupposes a belief in variety, as ordinarily experienced, while the former, denying all this variety, insists on the truth of only the unity underlying it. Thus the two paths of karma and jñāna are opposed to each other. Only we should remember that there is a sense in which the first may be looked upon as subsidiary to the second, for when the path of activity is followed without any selfish desire for rewards, it serves as a preparation for the path of withdrawal by producing that composure of mind without which man cannot seek the highest truth. In this nobler sense karma is reckoned as an ‘extrinsic’ aid (bahiraṅga) to final release. But the ‘intrinsic’ aid (is jñāna, and when a person once betakes himself to it, it logically follows that all karma loses its significance to him.

As has been well put by the Vārtikakāra,

satyantaraṅge vijñāne bahiraṅgam na siddhyati
samskārakam tu karma syāt jñānāttvajñānaninhutiḥ
      Sambandha Vārtika 368.

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