The Iśāvāsya Upanishad

Trisul, Nanda Devi and Himalayan range from Kausani, Uttarakhand – Wikimedia Commons

Pervaded by the dominion [of the Supreme] is all of this which moves in the moving world

Having abandoned this, enjoy! Do not be acquisitive! For whose indeed is wealth?

[Iśāvāsya Upanishad Verse 1; my own translation]

This is the famous first verse of the Iśā or Iśāvāsya Upanishad. This Upanishad is the last part of the Śukla Yajur Veda Saṃhita B, preserved in both the Kāṇva and Mādhyandīna śākhās. Being part of a Saṃhita, it has a special status. About just the first verse quoted above, Mahatma Gandhi is supposed to have said –

“If all the Upanishads and all the other scriptures happened all of a sudden to be reduced to ashes, and if only the first verse in the Ishopanishad were left in the memory of the Hindus, Hinduism would live forever”

[quoted from Eknath Easwaran, ‘The Upanishads’, p.205]

The spirit of renunciation combined with full immersion in the world that is a pervasive characteristic of Hinduism is displayed in this verse. As Eknath Easwaran explains –

“Gandhi was only interpreting this great truth practically when he said, in response to the challenge of a Western journalist who wanted the secret of his life in three words, “Renounce and enjoy!”…”

[Eknath Easwaran, ‘The Upanishads’, p.205]

Poetic descriptions and vivid didactic metaphors are a feature of the Upanishads in general, and here too we find them in abundance. The ātman, self or soul, is described as follows –

It moves; it does not move; it is far; it is near

It is inside of all this; it is outside of all this

[Iśāvāsya Upanishad Verse 5; my own translation]

Light has been invoked as a metaphor for knowledge, wisdom and spiritual realisation since ancient times. In this Upanishad, too, we see both light and darkness used as metaphors in this way, as follows –

They enter darkness who honour ignorance

Thy who are addicted to knowledge [enter] into even greater darkness than that.

[Iśāvāsya Upanishad Verse 9; my own translation]

As Dr. E Rőer explains about this –

“Vidyā, knowledge, is here lesser knowledge, not the knowledge of absolute Brahman, but of Brahman thought under relative attributes; it is opposed to the highest knowledge, because it is also connected with works.”

[Dr. E Rőer, The Twelve Principal Upaniṣads, Vol. I, p.9]

The final verses of the Iśāvāsya Upanishad are considered (by Śaṇkara for example) to be the appropriate final words for a virtuous person at the end of a good life. In these verses, the dying person prays to sun deity Pūṣan to reveal the true reality to their true self and to the fire deity Agni to remember their deeds and the associated karma.

The mouth of truth is covered by the golden bowl

O Pūṣan, reveal the true reality to the eye of true dharma

O unique sage Pūṣan, Yama, Sūrya, descendent of Prajāpati,

Spread rays of light, bring together light!

I see that which is your illustrious appearance

I am that which is that, that primordial spirit

We breathe the unperishing air and then this body ends in ashes

Om! O Kratu, remember deeds, remember! O Kratu, remember deeds, remember!

[Iśāvāsya Upanishad Verses 15–17; my own translation]

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