Was Isa Upanishad part of Ancient Self-immolation Rituals?


by Jayaram V

The Isa Upanishad is one of the smallest, but one of the most significant Upanishads, which contains the secret knowledge of God, the Self, death and liberation. Although small, it bears some resemblance to the Bhagavadgita. While the scripture has 18 Chapters and 700 verses, the Upanishad has 18 verses only. However, in those 18 verses, the Upanishad covers a lot of ground and introduces the major concepts of righteous conduct and liberation theology.

We do not know the true purpose of the Upanishad or its place in the ritual and spiritual practices of Vedic religion. However, based upon the last few verses in the Upanishad, one may draw the conclusion that originally it might have had some connection with the last rites or the funeral rituals of a departing soul. The inclusion of the funerary verses might not be by chance or coincidence. They must have served an important purpose in the funeral rituals of the householders or in the final dissolution (maha Samadhi) of ascetic people, who willingly gave up their lives as the final act of self-sacrifice either by withholding their breath in a yogic posture or by willfully self-immolating themselves by jumping into a burning pyre.

Such a practice did exist in ancient India in some ascetic traditions, although it was never practiced universally. Those who practiced it considered it the final act of self-purification in which they burnt the remains of their emaciated bodies, which were already subjected to rigorous austerities and intense starvation. Having practiced self-purification for a long time, burnt all the latent impressions and reached the culmination in the practice, they would self-immolate themselves in a sacrificial fire. By offering their bodies to fire, who was the purifier, and getting rid of the last remnants of the residual impurities and unexhausted karma, they believed that it would lead to final liberation (Moksha). An identical practice, known as Sallekhana, still exists in Jainism, although it is practiced rather differently without the use of fire.

The structure of the Upanishad

The Isa Upanishad has five parts or five main themes. Of them the last part is devoted to death and the departure of the soul from the body. The following is a brief account of the contents of the Upanishad and their organization.

1. The first part deals with the all-pervading nature of God, who is the inhabitant of the universe. The opening verse begins with the profound declaration that God is the sole inhabitant of the universe and an integral part of its every movement (actions) and movement within movement.

2. The second part advises people how they should conduct their lives upon earth. The second verse of the Upanishad rather cryptically declares that (since the universe belongs to God and all movements or actions arise from him), one should wish to live upon earth for a hundred years, performing actions with a sacrificial attitude, without desiring their fruit.

3. The third part is about eternal nature of the hidden Self, who is the sole inhabitant of the body, just as God is the sole inhabitant of the universe. Verses 3-8 describe the eternal and transcendental nature of the Self,  the need to protect the Self from evil actions, the consequences of not doing so, and the need to cultivate soul-centric awareness and remain absorbed in that identity to overcome delusion and sorrow.

4. The fourth part emphasizes the importance of vidya and avidya (higher and lower knowledge) and the need for balance. It is meant for the householders who pursue the four aims of human life namely dharma, artha, kama and moksha. The verses 9-14 suggest that people should perform their obligatory duties, without ignoring their spiritual obligations and work for their liberation. They must pursue the lower the knowledge of karma yoga (avidya) to practice the rituals (karma kanda) and the higher knowledge of Self (vidya) to practice spirituality (jnanakanda) and achieve liberation. Those who ignore one or the other will incur sinful karma and enter blinding darkness. Similarly, they should worship both the visible forms of God (Sambhutam) and the invisible aspect of God (Asambhutam). The implication is that one should worship God both ritually and spiritually. Those who do not practice it will not attain liberation but different results.

5. The fifth part deals with the final departure of the soul from the body. The last four verses (15-18) of the Upanishad are meant to be chanted in honor of the departing soul. They are addressed to Pusan, Prajapati and Agni, in which the seeker prays to merge his breath into the immortal breath and requests his soul to remember all the good deeds. Then, he invokes Agni to remove all the impurities from his burning body by consuming them and lead him in the right direction along the righteous path (of immortality) because of the merit of good karma he has earned.

Thus, we can see that the arrangement of verses in the Upanishad may not be by coincidence. There seems to be a hidden structure which points to a hidden purpose, which is to facilitate the soul’s peaceful transition from the mortal world into the immortal world. That the last four verses are in the first person point to the possibility that in ancient times they were probably chanted by seekers who knew in advance that their death was imminent.

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