Isa Upanishad, The Secret Knowledge of God

The Universal Self, Brahman

Translation and Commentary by Jayaram V

The Isa or Isavasya Upanishad proclaims loudly the philosophy of non-dualism or Advaita, declaring God or Brahman to be the sole inhabitant of everything that exists. It has some similarities with the teachings of the Bhagavadgita. For example, the Bhagavadgita has eighteen chapters and Isa Upanishad has 18 verses. In many ways, the eighteen verses are as significant as the 18 chapters. In the 18 verses, the Upanishad sums up the significance and purpose of human life and with what attitude one should live upon earth and depart from here. It speaks about performing your duties, using the knowledge of the Brahman for righteous ends, and achieving liberation. The knowledge of Brahman or Self, and selfless performance of obligatory duties are both important for liberation. This is the central theme of the Upanishad.


1.All this is inhabited by God, whatever that moves here in this moving universe. Therefore by renunciation alone enjoy all things. Do not covet what belongs to others.

Since the world and every movement within it is inhabited by God and none else, He is the true owner of the entire world and every action or movement in it. As the true inhabitant of the worlds, He alone has the right to enjoy the things of these worlds and none else. In a world on which we can make no ownership claim, a world that actually does not belong to us however rich and powerful we may believe ourselves to be, amidst things whose ownership or kinship we cannot claim rightfully as ours, can there be a better way of living other than renouncing the world and its things and remaining detached from them ?

Renunciation is not negation of life. It is not some morose and lifeless experience. We should not renounce life because of despair or depression arising out of our fears, frustration or personal failures. True renunciation arises out of intense longing for the divine, out of a state of mind in which attachment with the Divine alone makes sense and out of a sense of freedom and fearlessness that stem from unflinching faith in God and His supreme will. You do not renounce life because you do not like it. You renounce life because you love God intensely and live your life with a sense of gratitude and self-surrender. The life of renunciation is a carefree life, utterly devoid of all pretension and seeking and free from the cares and the struggle that accompany all manners of seeking. Man has the right to enjoy his life. There is a divine sanction for it.

Life has to be enjoyed, but without seeking, without coveting, and without struggling to get things done or get things for oneself. It is the renunciation of seeking and of desiring things which constitute the central feature of a life of true renunciation.

Those who renounce life truly, in fact, enjoy life better than those who do not, because the true sanyasis are not troubled by the fear of loss or the possibility of gain. They accept their lot, what comes to them without struggle and seeking and remain indifferent to what does not come to them or what has departed from them. In this aspect this particular verse advocates a philosophy of life that is similar to "the way" described in Taoism.

2. Always by doing works one should wish to live here for a hundred years. There is no way other than this by which actions do not cling to you.

3. Demonic verily are the worlds which are enveloped in blinding darkness. And to them go, after death, those who harm their inner selves.

In the Bhagavad-Gita says Lord Krishna that the self is the friend of the self and the self also is the enemy of the self. In the same scripture we also come across a detailed description of the demonic qualities. Those who harm their inner selves are those who engage in wicked actions and harmful qualities. This verse is a continuation of the same argument on karma that started in the first verse. Do we realize how much harm we do to ourselves each day by our actions and thoughts and what opportunities we fritter away in search of things that actually do not help us in our spiritual progress?

4. Unmoving, yet swifter than mind, beyond the reach of the senses and always ahead of them, standing, it out runs those who run. In it the all pervading air supports the activity of the beings.

The opposite qualities of life which we cannot reconcile in our ordinary capacity are perfectly harmonized and co-exist in the Divine. The unmoving nature of God does not prevent Him from moving in this world and His movements and actions are much faster than what we can achieve or conceive at our level. God is the real doer, actively inactive and inactively active in the drama of earthly life.

5. It moves and It moves not. It is far and It is near. It is inside all this and also outside all this.

6. He who sees all beings in his own self and his own self in all beings does not suffer from any repulsion by that experience.

The whole universe is pervaded by only "I". There is in reality no "you". The "you" exists in our consciousness because of the illusion or maya. In the universal consciousness of a united soul, there is no you, there is no distinction between the knower and the known, there is no gap between the experience and the object of experience and there is no awareness of anything else except oneself.

Every thing happens there simultaneously. It is an all encompassing and comprehensive experience, without any effort, without any motive and without any process. Nothing begins there and nothing ever ends there. There is no time. There is no action and there is no movement.

Such universal vision that is described in this verse, which is the ultimate product of our spiritual endeavor, comes only when one achieves union with the Divine Soul. Likes and dislikes arise because of the attachment of the mind with the objects of the world and because of the feelings of separation. But he who achieves union with God, is no more troubled by the duality of this and that or of likes and dislikes. For him everything is himself, the all pervading oneness of the Supreme Self.

7. He who has known that all beings have become one with his own self, and he who has seen the oneness of existence, what sorrow and what delusion can overwhelm him?

8. He has occupied all. He is radiant, without body (incorporeal), without injury, without muscles, pure, untouched by evil. He is the seer, thinker, all pervading, self-existent, has distributed various objects, through endless years, each according to it's inherent nature.

9. Into blinding darkness enter those who worship ignorance and into greater darkness those who worship knowledge alone.

Ignorance is that which is within the field of prakriti or illusion and knowledge is that which is within the field of divine consciousness. Worship of ignorance includes attachment with the material world, pursuit of transient things, and identification of oneself with the ego-sense. Worship of knowledge encompasses detachment with the material world, pursuit of Brahman and identification of oneself with ones inner self.

What is emphasized here is balance in life. One should stay amidst the world, but pursue Brahman through detachment and performance of ones ordained duties. The one without the other leads to suffering only. Renunciation does not mean escape from the material world. Similarly, while living amidst the world, performing ones duties one should not forget ones connection with God.

10. Distinct they say is the result of knowledge and distinct they also say is the result of ignorance. This is what we heard from the wise who explained these matters to us.

The result of pursuit of knowledge is the vision of oneness of unity in diversity and liberation, while the result of ignorance is greater illusion, suffering and bondage.

11. He who knows both knowledge and ignorance together, crosses death through ignorance and attains immortality through knowledge.

12. Into blinding darkness enter those who worship the unmanifested and into still greater darkness those who take delight in the manifest.

The manifest can be interpreted variously as the visible world, the sense-objects, illusion, idols, the body, Hiranyagarbha, the devas, the elements, the sense organs, material wealth and so on. The unmanifested is the hidden self, the invisible ether, the Non-Being, Purusha, Prakriti, imagination and so on.

13. Different indeed they declare what results from the manifest and distinct they say what comes out of the unmanifested. This is what we heard from the wise who explained these truths to us.

14. He who understands both the manifest and the unmanifested together, crosses death through the unmanifested and attains immortality through the manifest.

15. Covered with the golden disc is the face of truth. Uncover it, O Pusan, so that I who love truth may be able to see it.

16. O Pusan, the one seer, O controller, O sun, offspring of Prajapati, bring out your radiant rays and focus your radiance so that I may be able to see the auspicious form of yours. Who so ever person is there beyond, that also I am.

This is the declaration of the ultimate truth, the utterance that one is indeed God himself that comes of out the experience of the union of self with God and the experience that all is one.

17. May this breath merge into the immortal breath. Then may the body end in ashes. AUM, remember what has been done, O intelligence remember what has been done, remember, remember.

18. O Agni, O God, the knower of all our deeds, lead us along the right path to prosperity. Please take away from us our deceitful sins. Many prayers we offer you.

The last three verses of this Upanishad are part of Hindu funeral rites, uttered during the cremation ceremonies. Having come into existence and as long as he is ignorant, for man there is no escape either from sin or from the consequences of his actions. This is the tragedy of human life because his ignorance does not go away just like that.

An invocation to God to forgive the sins and an appeal to the departing Jiva to remember its past deeds is therefore the right approach to follow, when a person has departed from this world. Here the departing soul has been advised to remember what has been done, not just good deeds but all deeds, because remembrance of its past deeds, both good and bad, so that it can learn lessons from them, is a part of its evolutionary process.

The End

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