by Jayaram V
The Isa Upanishad or Isavasya Upanishad is found in the 40th chapter of the
Vajasaneya Samhita of the Yajurveda. Isa means the Lord of the Universe and
vasya means enveloped or covered. The Upanishad is about God and our roles and
responsibilities in ensuring order and regularity of the world and our own
liberation in the end. The Upanishad explains very briefly, why human beings
should live responsibly doing their duties, without pursuing wrong
methods of knowledge and worship, so that
they can attain liberation by going to the immortal world of Brahman. Good deeds are
important. Truthfulness is important. One must perform all the ordained duties
assigned by God to realize the four aims of human life and do justification for one's birth
and existence in the world owned by God.
Although the Upanishad has only 18 verses, they sum up the essential beliefs and
practices of Hinduism. In fact, spiritually and for the purpose of leading a
divine centered life, the 18 verses are as important as the 18 chapters of the
Mahatma Gandhi found the first verse of the Upanishad profoundly appealing as
he felt that it contained the message of universal brotherhood- not only brotherhood of
human beings but of all living things." The Upanishad begins with the majestic and
triumphant declaration that the whole universe is divine and sacred because it
is inside Brahman and enveloped by Him. The Upanishad contains some important concepts of Hinduism which are also
found in the Bhagavadgita. They are explained below. The Bhagavadgita has
eighteen chapters and the Isa Upanishad has 18 verses. In many ways, the
eighteen verses are as significant as the 18 chapters. In eighteen verses, the
Upanishad sums up the significance and purpose of human life and with what
attitude one should live here upon earth and depart from their bodies.
God is the true owner of and supporter of everything. The whole creation is inhabited
and enveloped by God. He is also its supporter and sustainer. Creation is an extension
or manifestation of Brahman. According to some it is a super imposition. Whatever
may be the nature of creation, the Upanishad affirms that Brahman is the Supreme
Lord of the universe and He is responsible for all movements and actions. He has
apportioned duties and responsibilities for all beings in creation. The Upanishad
describes the nature of Self and the consequences of indulging in self-destructive
actions. The Self is all pervading, faster than the senses and the mind. It is everywhere
and present in everyone. Those who indulge in evil actions and harm their spiritual
welfare go to the sunless worlds of utter darkness. However those who realize the
Self feel no hatred or ill will.
Duty must be performed with detachment, without claiming ownership and doership.
Ownership and doership arise from attachment. The Isa Upanishad declares that since
Brahman is the Lord of the universe, we should not covet the wealth that truly belongs
to God and with this thought in our minds we should wish to live here performing actions with detachment. This is the
only way to avoid karma and sin even when we perform actions. The third verse of the Upanishad is a direct
reference to the yoga of action (karmayoga) and the justification for its practice.
One must pursue both ritual knowledge and spiritual knowledge. The Upanishad
deals with the yoga of knowledge in verses 9-11. True knowledge consists of both
ritual knowledge (avidya) and spiritual knowledge. Both types of knowledge are essential
for human beings to perform their obligatory duties. Those who take up householder's
life should ignore neither the sacrifices nor spiritual practices. Both are required
to fulfill the four aims of human life, namely righteousness, wealth, pleasure and
renunciation. Ritual knowledge and sacrifices should be pursued as a student
and householder. In the later stages, during retirement and the life of renunciation, one should focus solely
upon self-knowledge, abandoning all desires and attachments. Those who pursue
either of the two types of knowledge, incur the sin of neglecting
their obligatory duties. In the end, they enter the darkest hells.
One must worship both manifested and unmanifested aspects of creation.
The yoga of devotion is suggested in verses 12-14. Worldly people who take up
householder's duties should worship both the manifested and unmanifested aspects
of Brahman. This is a continuation of the previous idea. The gods are the
manifested aspects of Brahman. They should
be worshipped through rituals and sacrifices as part of one's obligation towards
them and to maintain order and regularity of the worlds. The Supreme Self and the individual Self
are the unmanifested aspects of Brahman because they are eternal and immutable.
They should be worshipped internally through
meditation, concentration and self-absorption. According to the Upanishad, the householders have an obligation
to practice devotion by practicing both methods of worship. If they follow one or
the other they will enter the darkest hells.
One must lead a dutiful and truthful life to qualify for immortal heaven. The
importance of truthfulness and dutifulness (satyadharma drista) are emphasized in
verses 15, 17 and 18. These are similar to the divine qualities described in the
Bhagavadgita. Only those who perform good deeds and practice
their duties sincerely, abiding by truth, are qualified to reach the world of
Brahman, travelling by the immortal path. Their journey is facilitated by Agni and made possible
by Brahman, addressed in the Upanishad as Pusan, the deity hidden in the golden orb.
One must pray to God at the time of death. The verses
suggest that one's thoughts must be focused upon Brahman and remain detached from the mind
and body. This idea is also emphasized clearly in the Bhagavadgita. The last three verses in the Upanishad are chanted when someone is nearing
death. They are meant to facilitate a soul's journey to the world of Brahman through
the last obligatory duty, which is sacrifice of the body as an offering to Agni.
Detachment from the mind and body are suggested in the verse 17, where the departing
soul makes an offering of the elemental body to fire, and requests the mind to remember
the good deeds so that its journey to the immortal world is ensured.
One must leave the body with good memories. The last three verses also signify
the importance of keeping the mind in a positive state. One should remember
Brahman constantly and remember all the good deeds performed. There must an
aspiration to reach the highest heaven as the culmination of the good life one
has led upon earth. The last three verses are in conformity with the declaration
made in the Bhagavadgita
that whatever a person remembers at the time of his death, that he attains. The
three verses therefore urge us to remain positive and stay focused upon Brahman
and His world while departing from here.
Thus in a very brief and straightforward manner, the Isa
Upanishad puts forth some of the most fundamental aspects of
Hinduism and sums neatly the importance of acknowledging God as
the Lord of the universe, doing our duties, pursuing knowledge,
practicing devotion and keeping our minds focused upon God at
the time of our departure from this world. The emphasis is upon
leading a balanced life, in which we should ignore neither our
worldly duties and obligations nor our spiritual welfare. We
should make use of the human birth we have attained, which is a
rare opportunity, to escape from the cycle of births and deaths.
If the Bhagavadgita is the song of God, Isa Upanishad is the
teaching of Isa, the Lord of the Universe.
Suggested Further Reading