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...

Introductory Remarks by Śaṅkara

The verses beginning with Īśāvāsyam are not utilised in ritual[1], since they explain the true nature of the Self which is not subsidiary to karma. The true nature of the Self, as will presently be indicated, is purity, taintlessness, oneness, permanence, bodilessness, omnipresence and so forth, which being inconsistent with karma, it is only right that these (verses) are not used in ritual. The Self whose essence is thus described, moreover, cannot be produced, modified, acquired or purified; nor is it of the character of an agent or an enjoyer; in which case it would be subsidiary to karma. (And its existence cannot be called in question) inasmuch as all the Upanishads purport only to unfold its nature. The Bhagavadgīta and the Mokṣadharma (in the Mahābhārata) have also the same aim. (It has therefore to be presumed that) karma is prescribed taking (for granted) that, as recognised by the intelligence of the average man, plurality, agency, enjoyment and so forth, as also impurity and sinfulness, are of the Self. Those that know who are eligible (for ritual) state that karma is prescribed only for him who is desirous of its fruit—whether that fruit be visible (i.e. attainable in this life) as spiritual lustre or invisible (i.e. attainable only in another life) as Svarga—and thinks “I am a twice-born, free from blindness, dwarfishness and the like marks of disqualification”[2]. Therefore the following verses, removing this original nescience concerning the Self, from an explanation of its real nature, produce a knowledge of unity which is the means of eradicating sorrow, delusion and other similar features of mundane existence. We shall briefly comment on these verses, having thus indicated the persons entitled to study them, the subject-matter, aim and their inter-relation[3].

Footnotes and references:


The doubt whether these verses are to be used in ritual arises because this Upanishad forms part of a Saṃhitā and the verses in the Saṃhitā portion of the Veda are generally so employed. If these verses are at all to be utilised in ritual there should be an express statement to that effect in the Veda or there should at least be an indirect guidance afforded by their contents. We find no such express statement, and the subject matter, so far from being connected with karma, is directly antagonistic to it. Further it is usual to classify whatever is subsidiary or supplementary to ritual in four ways as follows—that which is produced as e.g. a sacrificial cake which is newly made out of flour, that which is modified, as e.g. soma juice which is extracted from soma leaves, that which is acquired as e. g. a mantra which is learnt by rote before being used in ritual and, lastly, that which is purified, as e. g. unhusked rice which is utilised after being ceremonially sanctified. The Self cannot be brought under any of these classes. It is neither an effect, nor a modification. It is not external to us to be obtained anew; nor is it impure to require any purification. The only other way of connecting the Self with karma is to make it an agent or an enjoyer. Neither of these, however, can the Self be, as will hereafter be explained in the commentary. Hence the denial of all relationship between the Self and karma.

Compare— (?? the position of the note with these references was unclear ??)

samam sarveṣu bhūteṣu tiṣṭhantam parameśvaram
vinaśyatsvavinaśyantam yaḥ paśyati sa paśyati
      —Bhagavad Gita xiii 27.

eka eva hi bhūtātmā bhūte bhūte vyavasthitaḥ.
ekadhā bahudhā chaiva dṛṣyate jalachandravat.


Desire, which is either for attaining happiness or for avoiding misery necessarily implies nescience. For the Self being in reality bliss itself, untouched by sorrow, cannot by its nature, be affected by any desire. Similarly, believing that the Self is fit for performing karma because its bodily adjuncts with which it is empirically connected are fit for it is also an indication of nescience.


In the beginning of a commentary it is customary to point out specifically the qualifications of persons entitled to study the treatise, its subject-matter, the aim of its teaching and their inter-relation, especially that between the last two. Deficiency in respect of any of these which are termed the Anubandhachatuṣṭayam is understood to indicate the unworthiness of the treatise to be commented upon.

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