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...

Verse 9-18 - The simultaneous practice of Karma and Upāsanā

Introductory Remarks by Śaṅkara

The first point taught here in Verse 1 is (exclusive) devotion to true knowledge after giving up desires of all kinds. The second point—taught in verse 2,—is that as this devotion to self-knowledge is not possible to the ignorant who seek to live (in the ordinary way) they should devote themselves to karma. The distinctness of the two courses referred to in these verses (belonging to the Suklayajurveda Saṃhitā) is also indicated in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka (which forms part of the Suklayajurveda Brāhmaṇa). (Thus we understand) from the passage beginning with “He desired, ‘Let me have a wife’ etc” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I, iv, 17) that all karma is for the ignorant actuated by worldly desires. And the statement, (in the same passage) “To him the mind is the Self; speech, wife; &c”[1] makes it clear that ignorance and covetousness characterise the person devoted to karma. Its result is accordingly the creation of the seven kinds of food and (thereafter) identifying with them oneself (and one’s interests)[2]. Again, as opposed to adherence to karma, exclusive devotion to the Self, in its reality, through renunciation of the three kinds of desire for wife &c., is taught to knowers of the Self in the passage beginning with “What have we to do with offspring—we to whom this Self is the desired end (world)?” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV, iv, 22.)

In verses 3—8, by first showing, dis-paragement of the ignorant, the real nature of the Self has been explained to such as devote themselves, after renunciation, to Self-realisation; for it is the knowers and not the worldly-minded that are qualified for it (Self-realisation). The same has been distinctly stated in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad (vi, 21)—“To those in the highest religious stage, he well explained the sacred truth followed by many sages” The following verses are (now) addressed to the worldly-minded who, devoting themselves to karma, desire to live a life of activity. How is it to be known (that they are addressed to such alone) and not to all? The reply is—None but the deluded would associate with karma or with other kinds of knowledge, that knowledge of Self-unity, which arises from the destruction of all difference between end and means as taughc to the unworldly in verse 7. In what follows the dispraise of the ignorant is with a view to associate Karma with Vidyā. (Hence we should understand that) only such (knowledge) is meant here as can, with reason or in accordance with śāstra, be combined with karma. That knowledge is knowledge of deities (upāsanā or meditation), known as ‘divine wealth’ which is taught here as co-existent with, and not the knowledge of the supreme Self, for a specific result is known to follow (from a knowledge of deities) from the text—“The world of the gods through meditation” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I, v, 16). The separate practice of meditation and karma is condemned here with a view to (inculcate their) simultaneous practice and not for altogether deprecating (either); for specific results are known (from the Veda) to follow from each. Compare—‘That, They ascend through meditation’; ‘The world of the gods through meditation’ ‘Those who take the southern path do not go there ‘The world of the manes by karma’. Nothing that śāstra prescribes can possibly be blameworthy.—


Īśāvāsyopaniṣad, verse 9

अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति येऽविद्याम् उपासते ।
ततो भूय इव ते तमो य उविद्यायां रताः ॥ ९ ॥

andhaṃ tamaḥ praviśanti ye'vidyām upāsate |
tato bhūya iva te tamo ya uvidyāyāṃ ratāḥ || 9 ||

9. Into blinding darkness pass they who adhere to karma and into still greater darkness, as it were, they who delight in meditation.



Śaṅkara’s Commentary

andham tamaḥ = blinding darkness, praviśanti =(they pass). Who? ye avidyām upāsate = yjey who practise karma. avidyā is what is other than knowledge i.e. karma, because karma is opposed to knowledge. upāsate =devoutly practise i.e. perform only karma such as agnihotra. tataḥ i.e. than such blinding darkness. bhūya-iva= greater, as it were.[3] te tamaḥ i.e. they pass into darkness. Who? ye-u = those who, on the other hand; vidyāyām =in meditating on deities; ratāḥ take delight i.e. who engage themselves in it to the exclusion of karma.

Now follows a statement of the distinction between the respective fruits of meditation and karma, as an argument for their simultaneous practice. Otherwise, if of the two thus proximately stated, one only is known to bear fruit and not the other, the relation between them would be (according to rules of interpretation, not one of co-ordination but) only that of subordination[4].


Īśāvāsyopaniṣad, verse 10

अन्यद् एवाहुर् विद्ययान् यद् आहुर् अविद्यया ।
इति शुश्रुम धीराणां ये नस् तद् विचचक्षिरे ॥ १० ॥

anyad evāhur vidyayān yad āhur avidyayā |
iti śuśruma dhīrāṇāṃ ye nas tad vicacakṣire || 10 ||

10. Distinct, they say, is (the fruit borne) by meditation and distinct again, they say, is (that borne) by karma. Thus have we heard from sages who taught us that.


Śaṅkara’s Commentary

anyat-eva= quite distinct. Vidyayā =(by meditation) i.e. the fruit borne by meditation is distinct. āhuḥ= they say; (the second pāda) means “karma yields a distinct fruit altogether”; as recorded in “The world of manes through karma; the world of gods through meditation”. iti =thus. śuśruma =we have heard, dhīrānām i.e. (the saying) of the wise, yei.e., which teachers. naḥ= to us. tat i.e. karma and meditation. vicacakṣire =explained well. The purport is that this their teaching has been handed down by tradition,

Since it is so,


Īśāvāsyopaniṣad, verse 11

विद्यां चाविद्यां च यस् तद् वेदोभयं सह ।
अविद्यया मृत्युं तीर्त्वा विद्ययामृतम् अश्नुते ॥ ११ ॥

vidyāṃ cāvidyāṃ ca yas tad vedobhayaṃ saha |
avidyayā mṛtyuṃ tīrtvā vidyayāmṛtam aśnute || 11 ||

11. Whoever understands meditation and karma as going together, (he) overcoming death through karma, attains immortality through meditation.



Śaṅkara’s Commentary

The first pāda means ‘meditating on deities and karma’. yah= (whoever.) ta = etat =this. ubhayam =(two) sahai.e. to be practised by the same person. veda =(understands). (The second half of the verse) states that only a person, practising both together, will in due course, achieve the chief end[5] avidyayā= by karma like agnihotra. mṛtyum—by this word are here meant usual activity and knowledge. having overcome those two. vidyayā= by meditation on deities. amṛtam= (immortality); godhead. aśnute =attains. Becoming one with the deity (meditated upon) is termed ‘immortality’ here.

Now with a view to inculcate their simultaneous practice, follows the condemnation of the separate meditation on the manifest and on the unmanifest—


Īśāvāsyopaniṣad, verse 12

अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति येऽसम्भूतिम् उपासते ।
ततो भूय इव ते तमो य उ सम्भूत्यां रताः ॥ १२ ॥

andhaṃ tamaḥ praviśanti ye'sambhūtim upāsate |
tato bhūya iva te tamo ya u sambhūtyāṃ ratāḥ || 12 ||

12. Into blinding darkness pass they who are devoted to the unmanifest, and into still greater darkness, as it were, they who delight in the manifest



Śaṅkara’s Commentary

Saṃbhavanam means birth. That which is born and is an effect is sambhūti. asambhūti is what is other than sambhūti i.e., prakṛti, the undifferentiated cause whose essence is nescience and which is the source of all activity and desire. They who devote themselves to such Cause enter (as may be expected) darkness which is correspondingly blind in its nature. Sambhūtyām i.e., in the phenomenal Brahman known as Hiraṇyagarbha. They who delight only in Him enter darkness which is, as it were, more blinding still.

Now follows as an argument for their simultaneous practice, a statement of the distinction between the respective fruits of the two kinds of meditation—


Īśāvāsyopaniṣad, verse 13

अन्यद् एवाहुः संभवाद् अन्यद् आहुर् असंभवात् ।
इति शुश्रुम धीराणां ये नस् तद् विचचक्षिरे ॥ १३ ॥

anyad evāhuḥ saṃbhavād anyad āhur asaṃbhavāt |
iti śuśruma dhīrāṇāṃ ye nas tad vicacakṣire || 13 ||

13. Distinct, they say, is (what results) from the manifest and distinct again, they say, is (what results) from the unmanifest. Thus have we heard from the sages who taught us that.



Śaṅkara’s Commentary

anyat-eva= altogether distinct. āhuḥ =(they say). Sambhavāt =from that which has birth i.e., from meditating on the phenomenal Brahman, supernatural power such as assuming, at will, extreme subtlety is said to result. Similarly, they say that there is a (distinctive) fruit from meditating on the unmanifest,—that, alluded to in pāda 1 of verse 12 and which is known as “absorption into primal cause”[6] to those versed in the Purāṇas. iti =thus. śuśruma-dhīrāṇāmi.e., we have heard the saying of the wise. The last pāda means “who explained to us the results of meditating on the manifest and the unmanifest”

Since this is so, it is but right that meditation on both the effect and the cause should be practised together; a further reason being the achievement (through such meditation) of the chief end.[7]


Īśāvāsyopaniṣad, verse 14

संभूतिं च विनाशं च यस् तद् वेदोभयं सह ।
विनाशेन मृत्युं तीर्त्वा संभूत्यामृतम् अश्नुते ॥ १४ ॥

saṃbhūtiṃ ca vināśaṃ ca yas tad vedobhayaṃ saha |
vināśena mṛtyuṃ tīrtvā saṃbhūtyāmṛtam aśnute || 14 ||

14. Whoever understands the manifest and the unmanifest as going together, (he), by overcoming death through the manifest, attains immortality through the unmanifest



Śaṅkara’s Commentary

The first half of the verse means “He who understands that meditation on the manifest and the unmanifest should be practised together”, here means an “effect”—that whose character is transitoriness; the abstract being put for the concrete, vināśena means “by meditating on such (Brahman)”. mṛtyum =death all kinds of deficiency arising from limited power, demerit, covetousness and soon. tīrtvā =(having overcome); for great supernatural power is attained by the contemplation of Hiraṇyagarbba. Having thus overcome death or limitation of power &c., asambhūtya i.e., by meditating on the unmanifest. amṛtam i.e. absorption into the First Cause. aśnute (attains). It should be noted that sambhūti in the first pāda is mentioned without the (initial) a (and is to be taken as equivalent to asambhūti) agreeably to the statement that the result is absorption into the First Cause.

The result derivable, according to śāstra, through worldly and divine ‘wealth’[8] extends up to absorption into the First Cause. Thus far is metempsychosis. Higher than that, is the realisation of the unity of Self spoken of in verse 9—the result of renouncing all desires and devoting oneself (exclusively) to true knowledge. Thus the twofold teaching of the Veda, as relating to worldly activity and to withdrawal from it, has been explained here. And the (Śatapatha) Brāhmaṇa up to (the chapters on) Pravargya (purificatory ceremonies described in Khanda xiv chapters 1—3 ) concerns itself with elucidating, in full, the Vedic teaching relating to the path of activity, consisting of injunctions and prohibitions. The succeeding portion, viz., the Brhadāraṇyaka, explains the path of withdrawal from the world. In verse 11 it has been stated[9] that he who desires to live performing karma (in its entirety) from conception to death, and along with it, practises meditation on the lower (phenomenal) Brahman will attain immortality. It is now pointed out by what course, one so qualified becomes immortal. (We read in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad V, v, 2) “That is what is Truth; it is the Sun, the Person in this disc, as also the Person in the right eye”. The worshipper of this two-fold Brahman—Truth—who has also been performing karma as prescribed, addresses thus, when the end is come, Brahman who is Truth, beseeching Him for entrance—


Īśāvāsyopaniṣad, verse 15

हिरण्मयेन पात्रेण सत्यस्यापिहितं मुखम् ।
तत् त्वं पूषन्न् अपावृणु सत्यधर्माय दृष्टये ॥ १५ ॥

hiraṇmayena pātreṇa satyasyāpihitaṃ mukham |
tat tvaṃ pūṣann apāvṛṇu satyadharmāya dṛṣṭaye || 15 ||

15. Truths face is covered with a golden lid; remove that, O Pūṣan, that I, Truth’s devotee, may see It.



Śaṅkara’s Commentary

Hiranmayam =seeming golden, resplendent tena =by such. pātrena =lid, as it were, satyasya i.e., of the Brahman residing in the Solar disc, apihitam =covered. mukham= entrance. tat= (that); tvam =(you); he-pūṣan =O Sun, apāvṛṇu =remove. satyadharmāya i.e., to me who am through meditation on you who are Truth. Or this expression may mean “one that practises true piety” Dṛṣṭaye i.e., for reaching you whose essence is Truth.


Īśāvāsyopaniṣad, verse 16

पूषन्न् एकर्षे यम सूर्य प्राजापत्य व्यूह रश्मीन् समूह तेजः ।
यत् ते रूपं कल्याणतमं तत् ते पश्यामि योऽसाव् असौ पुरुषः सोऽहम् अस्मि ॥ १६ ॥

pūṣann ekarṣe yama sūrya prājāpatya vyūha raśmīn samūha tejaḥ |
yat te rūpaṃ kalyāṇatamaṃ tat te paśyāmi yo'sāv asau puruṣaḥ so'ham asmi || 16 ||

16. O Pūṣan, sole traveller, Yama, Sun, child of Prajāpati, recall thy rays; withdraw thy light that I may behold thee of loveliest form. Whosoever that Person is, that also am I.



Śaṅkara’s Commentary

Pūṣan=the sun, so called because he protects the world. Ekarṣe, because he traverses (the sky) alone. Yama, Death, because he controls all. Sūrya, because he sucks up rays, life and water. Prājāpatya, because he is the son of Prajāpati, the Creator. vyūha =remove, raśmīn i.e. your rays. samūha= unite i.e. withdraw. your light, yat-te =what is yours. rūpam =form, kalyāṇatamam = loveliest, tat-te =that of yours paśyāmi i.e. I may see by your grace. Further I am not entreating you as a servant, because whoever is the Person in the Solar disc, composed of vyāhṛtis,[10] the same am I. He is known as purusha (person) because He is of the form of a person, or because this world is full of Him in His modes of activity and thought or, again, because He lies in the citadel of the body.


Īśāvāsyopaniṣad, verse 17

वायुर् अनिलम् अमृतम् अथेदं भस्मान्तं शरीरम् ।
ओं क्रतो स्मर कृतं स्मर क्रतो स्मर कृतं स्मर ॥ १७ ॥

vāyur anilam amṛtam athedaṃ bhasmāntaṃ śarīram |
oṃ krato smara kṛtaṃ smara krato smara kṛtaṃ smara || 17 ||

17. (May) this life (merge in) the immortal breath! And (may) this body end in ashes! Om! mind, remember, remember thy deeds; mind, remember, remember thy deeds!



Śaṅkara’s Commentary

Now that I am dying, may my life (Vāyu) abandoning the bodily adjunct assume the godly, in the immortal breath of the universal Self, the ‘connecting thread’ of all. pratipadyatām (“may reach”) is to be understood. The meaning, agreeably to the prayer for entrance, is “May this subtle body purified by meditation and karma advance”. atha =(and). idam =(this), śarīram =(body), hutam =(burnt) in fire. bhasmāntam i.e., may it end in ashes. Om—thus is addressed Brahman—as identical with what is known as Agni the essence of Truth—following the mode of meditating on Him-through this symbol, krato i.e., O mind, so called because it desires, smara i.e., remember what has to be remembered, for the time for it is now come. Therefore remember what has till now been meditated upon. Remember also whatever karma you have done till now[11]—since boyhood. The repetition of the third pāda indicates-earnestness.

By another verse also, entrance is prayed for—


Īśāvāsyopaniṣad, verse 18

अग्ने नय सुपथा राये अस्मान् विश्वानि देव वयुनानि विद्वान् ।
युयोध्य् अस्मज् जुहुराणम् एनो भूयिष्ठां ते नम उक्तिं विधेम ॥ १८ ॥

agne naya supathā rāye asmān viśvāni deva vayunāni vidvān |
yuyodhy asmaj juhurāṇam eno bhūyiṣṭhāṃ te nama uktiṃ vidhema || 18 ||

18. O God Agni, lead us on to prosperity by a good path, judging all our deeds. Take away ugly sin from us. We shall say many prayers unto thee.



Śaṅkara’s Commentary

Agne =(O Fire), naya =lead, supathā =by a good path. This qualifying word excludes the southern path. (The devotee means)—“I am tired of the southern path characterised by birth and death, and therefore do I repeatedly ask you to lead (me) by the good path free from birth and death”. rāye =for wealth i.e. (here) for enjoying the fruit of karma. asmān =us, that are qualified for (the enjoyment of) the fruits of the prescribed practices. viśvāni =all. deva =O God, vayunāni=karma or meditation. vidvān =knowing. Further, yuyodhi i.e., separate or destroy. asmat=asmattaḥ =from us. juhurāṇam =crooked or deceitful. enaḥ= sin; so that becoming pure thereby we may obtain our wish. We are not, however, able now to serve you actively (as of old); we can but do obeisance again and again (bhūyiṣṭhām) to you.

Some entertain a doubt (as regards the antithesis between karma and true knowledge) hearing the statements (contained in verses 11 and 14—“Overcoming death through avidyā, he attains immortality through vidyā” and “Overcoming death through the manifest, he attains immortality through the unmanifest”. We shall therefore briefly consider (the matter now) in order to clear (this doubt.) Now then, what is the reason for the doubt? The answer is—Why should not true knowledge itself be understood by vidyā in the above passage? and also (by amṛtatva true) immortality? Well, are not this knowledge of the supreme Self and karma mutually exclusive on account of the antithesis between them? True; but this antagonism is not known (through śāstra) for antagonism or the reverse should be based on śāstraic authority only. Just as the performance of karma and the practice of Vidyā are known through śāstra alone, so also should their opposition or agreement be. As the śāstraic prohibition “No creature should be hurt” is annulled by śātra itself in “In a sacrifice animals may be killed” so also should it be in the case of vidyā and avidyā as well as in the case of knowledge and karma.[12]

No; because the Veda says—“Distant are these.—opposed and leading in diverse ways—karma and knowledge” (Katha Upanishad ii, 4)- If it be said that owing to the statement in verse 11, there is (likewise) no antagonism between them, we reply ‘No’; because[13] there can possibly be no option as regards opposition or agreement between true knowledge and avidyā[14]. If it be rejoined that there is no antithesis at all, on the strength of the injunction (here in verse 11) regarding their combined practice, we repeat ‘No’; for the two cannot conceivably co-exist.

If it be urged that vidyā and avidyā are to be pursued by the same (person) one after the other[15], we reply ‘No’; for when true knowledge comes to a person, nescience is inconceivable in him. Thus (for instance) if once a man experiences heat and light in fire, there cannot arise in him the ignorance—that fire is cold or devoid of light. Nor can there be doubt or delusion (in a knower) for verse 7 denies all possibility of them. Nescience being inconceivable,—we have said—its result[16]—karma—is equally inconceivable. The immortality spoken of (here) is only relative. Further if vidyā in this passage referred to knowledge of the supreme Self, praying for an entrance would be inappropriate.[17] Thus we conclude by stating that the meaning of the verses in question is, as we have explained.

Footnotes and references:


Believing mind to be the Self is an indication of nescience.


I read bahutaram iva.


I read aṅgāṅgitaiva syāt.


I read Samucchayakāriṇa eva ekapuruṣārthasaṃbandhaḥ.


This state may be sought on account of the absence of the ordinary excitements of life in it as in sleep.


I read yukta eva and ekapuruṣārthatvāccha.


Worldly wealth or means comprising cattle, land, money &c., all required for performing karma. ‘Divine wealth’ is knowledge of deities.


taduktam iti, tam pratyuktam mantreṇa vidyāṃcāvidyāṃcetyādinā.-—Ānandagici. One Ms., reads tampratyetaduktam in place of taduktam.


Vyāhṛti is literally ‘utterance’ and is the term used to denote the three sacred syllables bhūḥ, bhuvaḥ, suvaḥ. See Brihadaranyaka Upanishad V, v, 3.


I read agre in place of agne.


I omit samucchayaḥ after vidyākarmaṇaśca.


I omit hetusvarūpaphalavirodhāt. I also put a full stop after vikalpāsambhavāt


Option is conceivable in the case of karma. Thus one śākha of the Veda prescribes “udite-juhoti”; another, “anudite-juhoti.”. Here it may be understood that the Veda gives one, option to offer oblations either after sunrise or before. But the same rule cannot apply to vidyā and avidyā, on the strength of the two texts in question. In this case, only one of the statements can hold good and the other, instead of being taken literally, has to be interpreted in such a manner that it will not clash with the first. Reason has to decide which statement is to be understood literally and which not.


If it is meant that karma precedes knowledge, there is no difficulty in agreeing with the opponent, for it is recognised that karma prepares man for true knowledge. But if karma is to succeed knowledge, the statement of the opponent cannot be admitted. 


The opponent may argue at this stage that the antithesis hithereto spoken of is between vidyā and avidyā and not between karma and vidyā. This argument is met by stating that dissociating avidyā from a knower is perforce dissociating karma also from him.


This is said in reference to the Vedic text. “na tasya prānā utkrāmanti” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad v, 6), which declares that final release is attained by a knower, where he is, and not by his going elsewhere.

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