Isha Upanishad Verse 1
The real is in the hearts of all.
There is only the real.
Why bother with the unreal?
There’s nothing you can possess.
All belongs to the real.
Commentary by Vimala Thakar
Isha vasyam idam sarvam yatkin ca jagatyam jagat.
Tena tyaktena bhunjitha ma gradhah kasyasvid dhanam.
Life is a homogeneous, organic wholeness. It has no parts. There is movement in life. Every movement contains and is accompanied by the motionlessness, by the stillness within. As life is a unity, enjoy the essence of life but renounce the inessentials, the secondaries. Remove your infatuation with that which has limited the divinity.
The first line: Isha vasyam idam sarvam yatkin ca jagatyam jagat, tells us that everything is pervaded and permeated by the reality, by the divinity, by the supreme intelligence. Intelligence is contained in every expression of life. The levels of intelligence contained in a horse, an elephant and a sparrow may be different but no expression of life is blind or dumb.
The Isha is trying to tell us that the unmanifest is whole and that the manifest is also whole. The wholeness is a quality which does not get affected by the variety of expressions. The manifest has a variety of expressions. The stars, the planets, the solar systems, the earth, the trees, the birds, the animals. All express this variety of expression. But these varieties are not parts. They do not constitute the totality. They are expressions. What does this mean? It means that every expression contains the quality of the wholeness. A gear of the car does not contain the quality of the car. It has no motion or movement of its own. The quality of wholeness is contained in every expression of life. Life is a wholeness.
Do you understand the relation between the wholeness and the expression of wholeness? Every expression contains the quality of the wholeness but a part of the totality does not contain the quality of the totality. This point needs to be understood accurately.
We are using the words “whole” and “wholeness”. Life is a wholeness, the supreme reality, the essence of life is wholeness. Let us distinguish “whole” and “wholeness” from “total” and “totality”. When you count in numbers from 1 to 100, 100 is a totality. You put 10 and 90 together and you have the sum total of 100. Now say you put together a car. You assemble the parts and you get the sum total, a car. Now if you remove one part, the car cannot function. The totality is the sum total of the parts. It is divisible. But wholeness is not something assembled or put together. It cannot be divided. It is indivisible. You cannot get wholeness by putting together oceans, mountains and forests. They are not parts of reality. They are expressions of the wholeness. They are emanations of the wholeness. A drop of water in the ocean is not part of the ocean. The drop contains the quality of the wholeness of water.
So we need to distinguish between totality which is divisible, which allows for additions and subtractions and wholeness which is organic. For example, the organic wholeness of the body has an inter-relatedness which is itself an expression of the wholeness. The human body is not like some robot which is assembled and put together. Life is a wholeness. It is a homogeneous, organic wholeness. It has no parts. Earth is not a part of the cosmos. The sun and the moon are not parts of the wholeness of life. They are expressions. So there is a great difference between totality and wholeness.
Life is not a totality integrated for a purpose. It has no parts. It is indivisible, it is organic and it has inter-relatedness which is the expression of the wholeness.
Next, the mantra tells us that there is movement. The word jagat indicates motion or movement. The movement contains stillness. The expression contains the quality of wholeness and every movement contains motionlessness. You cannot separate the movement and the stillness. Every spoken word contains silence. Every movement is accompanied by the stillness within.
Now let’s proceed. Let’s say that we now appreciate the unity and sacredness of life. The inexhaustibility of life. And so what do we do with it now? The next part of the mantra says: Tena tyaktena bhunjitha ma gradhah kasyasvid dhanam.
Tene tyaktena means renunciation. Bhunjitha means to enjoy. What do you enjoy? You enjoy the essence. And what is to be renounced? You renounce the secondaries. What does this mean? It means that you renounce your infatuation, your obsession with the form, the object, the colour, the particularity of the object. In other words, that which has limited the divinity. You are going to renounce the limitations and the conditionings. You are going to renounce the obsessions with time and space.
Time and space emanating from the divinity are the secondaries that could be renounced. Let me put it in modern terminology. Time has no reality. Psychological time has no factual content. The rishis of several thousand years ago said that in the process of manifestation the divinity took the form of space and time. So don’t attach importance to space and time which is secondary. Let go of that and enjoy the essence.
Now this is not the meaning that Shankaracharya and the commentators give. They generally interpret tyaktena bhunjitha to mean: enjoy what is available to you with the spirit of renunciation. But the way that I interpret it is that what is to be renounced is time and space as the inessentials. Renounce time and space which are not the essence of reality. They are like the skin of the fruit. When you eat the fruit you don’t eat the skin. In the same way time and space are the skin in which is contained the essence which is the divinity.
Contained in the form is the essence. The taste of the mango, the flavour of the orange, that flavour is the essence of reality. It is the essence of divinity. Don’t be captivated by the outer, the external. Don’t look at the human being and judge by the appearance. Commune directly with the inner energy that is expressed through the eyes and the actions. Commune and relate to that. Don’t relate to the externals, the secondaries. In the movement of relationship, focus on the essence of humaneness. This is what is going to lead to peace and harmony.
The next part of the line reads: ma gradhah. Do not covet. Don’t be greedy. Don’t look at things with the desire for acquisition. Graha refers to acquisitive activity. When you try to acquire something with infatuation, when you have a craving for something, then that kind of acquisitive activity leads to aggression, to competition and violence.
Enjoy by all means. Enjoy the things of life. Enjoy the so called material world. That is what it is for. The cosmos is created for you to live and be related to it. We are not saying not to enjoy being alive. However if you want to really enjoy it there are two things necessary. First there is the renunciation of the inessential (time and space) and second to live without the infatuations of greed and ambition.
You see, the Upanishads say that the whole of life is divine and sacred. That is the starting point. So then how can you be infatuated with grasping after things. You are a part of it. As soon as your relationship to the divine is polluted by these kinds of motivations, then that’s when the trouble starts.
Because you yourself are an expression of the wholeness, how can one expression of wholeness get attached to another expression of wholeness? If you understand this then there is no need to get infatuated with any particular expression of wholeness to the exclusion of the rest. By getting attached to objects, to ideas, to situations, to shapes and forms you lose your balance in the wholeness. Since you yourself are the expression of wholeness in itself, and you are living with the wholeness in innumerable expressions, then where is the place for either attachment or the imbalance of striving to acquire? So enjoy the manifest cosmos as it arises. Joy has nothing to do with pleasure. Joy is converted to pleasure when you say to yourself, “I want to experience that again.” Joy is a spontaneous experience. Pleasure is the reworking or grasping at the recreation of an experience already passed.
The natural harmony of the created universe is a marvellous thing. On the one hand there is thirst and on the other there is water. On the one hand there is sight and on the other there is light. Needs and provisions. There is a natural correspondence between things. There is a rhythm and beauty to life. What would be the use of fruits and vegetables if there were not this sacred appetite that permeates every nerve in the body and creates the requirement for communion between the body and food and water. It is all a natural process. A perfection of balance in itself.
The wholeness expresses itself on the one hand in the nature of appetite, thirst and sex instinct and on the other the provision for those needs. There is a reciprocity. It is in this communion that the wholeness is experienced and realized. There is no need to either get attached to things or to deny them. To do so is to fall out of balance. It is to fall out of wholeness. And falling out of this wholeness you sew the seeds of misery.
The Upanishads are a song for the ending of misery, the ending of sorrow. They are a song for expressing the supreme intelligence which is the discovery of joy, bliss and love.
In the next phrase, kasyasvid dhanam, kasya refers to the divinity and dhanam to wealth. Manifestation is called dhanam. That is to say, the manifestation of the cosmos is wealth. The whole of the cosmos is wealth. It is the grace and abundance of the divine. It is for living beings to share. This implies the necessity of sharing in the cosmos. Whatever is manifest is the glory of life itself. It is the expression of the divine. You are living in the cosmos and it is there to be shared and enjoyed.
Isha Upanishad Verse 2
If you live with that in mind
you’ll live a long time
and you’ll live in freedom.
Commentary by Vimala Thakar
Kurvann ev’eha karmani jijivishec chatam samah
Evam tvayi n’anyath’eto’sti na karma lipyate nare
You can aspire to live for centuries. The urge to live gets justified only through your actions. You have no choice but to act, otherwise you will be carried away by the negative, mechanistic movements of the biological impulses and psychological residues that have gone into your system. It is your responsibility to harmonize your impulses. Action is unconditional unfoldment of being. The unfoldment of being by itself becomes fulfilment. One is never bound by such activity.
Let’s look at the first line: Kurvann ev’eha karmani jijivishec chatam samah. The word karma is repeated. In order to understand the full meaning of the phrase we need to distinguish between karma which may be translated into English as “action” and kriya as “activity”. What is kriya? Wherever there is energy, there is activity. Energy cannot be idle. In our body, outside the body, activity is going on all the time. There is the activity of the earth which is its fertility. You throw the seed in the earth and the activity begins. The seed, the earth, the water, heat and light all interact and there is germination. From that sprouts a plant and from that comes a tree. And from the tree comes further seeds and so the cycle continues. You can observe the cycles going on throughout nature. Such is activity.
In the body, within the biological structure, there is also the continuous movement of activity taking place. And from this comes the impulses of appetite, sleep, procreation etc. They are not actions that are voluntary. These are part of the biological activities contained in the structure of the organism. As you grow up you become more familiar with them and so you are better able to recognize and regulate their rhythms.
Reacting to biological impulses is not action. The movement of impulses is activity. It is not action. Activity is always repetitive. It is not a voluntary thing. It is involuntary. Whereas action is something that does not involve compulsion.
In addition to the biological impulses there are all the conditionings (samskaras), the thoughts, feelings, sentiments, value structures, belief systems the prejudices and the preferences that have been acquired through social and conditioning and interaction. They have settled into the marrow of the bones. They have entered the blood and the neurological system. All of these conditionings are lodged in the neuro-chemical system of the organism. All of this is there in what you call the mind. And from all this comes thoughts and feelings. And this movement of thought and feeling is also an activity. It is not action.
Karma as action is something qualitatively quite different to the movement of activity. The realm of biological and psychological activity is the realm of the conditioned. It has nothing to do with understanding, joy and love. These are non-moral spheres of movement which is an expression of life but has nothing to do with karma or action. Action is the privilege of human beings because of the highly sensitized intelligence that is contained in the body.
The text says: “you can aspire to live for centuries”. Jijiveshec is the urge to live, the aspiration of life. The urge to live gets justified and becomes meaningful only through your action. You can aspire to live for centuries only through your action. It is no use merely succumbing to the biological movement of impulses and the psychological movement of thoughts and feelings. You may spend centuries engaged in these conditioned activities but that is not the quality of really being alive.
Why must you shoulder the responsibility of action? Because you cannot truly live otherwise. The responsibility to act is there. The responsibility to understand is there. Action is the spontaneous movement out of understanding and freedom. The Isha Upanishad says you have no choice but to act. This is because otherwise you will be carried away by the repetitive and mechanistic movements of your conditioning. You will become merely a second hand vehicle for the repetition of the past. Understanding and creating harmony is your responsibility. You must become conscious. This is action. Action requires sensitivity and intelligence.
Your jijiveshec, the urge to live which is an expression of the cosmic urge for unfoldment of the being becomes justifiable and reasonable only through action (karma). Karma is the unfoldment of your being. You are unfolding the inner harmony, the cosmic supreme intelligence which is contained within you. You are unfolding the sensitivity contained in you. The mechanical thought movement has no sensitivity. The movement of the impulses is without sensitivity. The impulse is a programmed instinct. The biological impulses are part of biological programming. The thoughts are a psychological programming. But spontaneity, joy and love can never be programmed. In pleasure and pain there is the possibility of repetition. But love, joy, beauty, freedom and spontaneity can never be repeated. They are the direct expressions of the wholeness of life and so there is expression but not repetition. It is ever new.
It is your privilege if you want, to live for hundreds of years. But you must learn to act. The text uses the phrase chatam samaha, which means literally for centuries together. Even today there are individuals in the world who have lived for 100 to 200 years. They say that in the ancient days in India, there were people who lived for hundreds of years. I’m not asking you to believe that. But the text refers to the potential to live for centuries.
The next question which may arise is, “If I act, will not my actions (karma) bind me? Will I not get polluted and tainted by them? The rishis, anticipating this question, in the last line of the verse say: na karma lipate nare. This means, action can never pollute, contaminate, tarnish or taint the quality of your being.
People think that for the sake of attaining realization or samadhi they must run away from the responsibility to act or refrain from action altogether. The Isha says no. That is incorrect. It is escapism. It’s not going to help you at all. You have to act and act consciously with responsibility. You must act with awareness and alertness. If you were compelled previously by your conditionings, then there’s no freedom or spontaneity in that. Action and freedom go together. Action is the freedom of being compelled by your conditioning. The moment that you act in unawareness out of conditioning they you cut yourself away from the wholeness of life. So the rishis explain that action is non-binding. Spontaneity, freedom and understanding make you light as a feather. Therefore your action becomes the unfoldment of your being. The act of living itself therefore is the unfoldment of your being.
In the next phrase, evam tvayi n’anyath’eto’sti, the Ishta is quite categorical. It says there is no other way to live. It is only through the movement of relationship that you can unfold your being. The movement of relationship is not for becoming. It is for unfolding what you are. The process of becoming and the unfoldment of being are two very different things. Karma is the unfoldment of being whereas kriya is the process of becoming. The process of becoming involves gaining, acquiring, possessing, owning, calculating and manipulating. In the process of becoming as kriya, there is no joy of being alive. In the unfoldment of being there is joy, bliss and love.
Why is it that the movement or action of karma does not bind, pollute or contaminate the quality of your life and being? It is because memory contaminates the quality of your life. The wish to repeat pleasure binds you. If there is the memory of pleasure, then you want to own the thing that gave you’re the pleasure. So it creates the relationship of ownership and possession. And so spontaneity and freedom is lost. You possess the object and the object possesses you.
Karma is action which comes out of understanding, spontaneity and awareness. Then you move into a relationship with life that is spontaneous and whole. Your wholeness is poured into the movement of action. There are no inhibitions whatsoever. There is no wish to gain anything. There is no desire to extract anything out of life. There is no bargaining, no manipulation and no manoeuvring. Your whole being is present in the act of living.
Unfolding the content of your whole being itself becomes a fulfilment. The movement of karma is its own fulfilment and so there is no desire to gather anything as memory out of that movement. The act of unfoldment gives you a sense of complete fulfilment that cannot be described. Nothing is held back. There are no reservations and no fear. The action is not a means to an end. It is an end in itself and therefore it does not leave any conditioning behind as memory. And so action is the unconditional unfoldment of the being. You live fully and in that timeless action of unfoldment you are within the eternity. You are the unfolding of the eternity and so karma is the path of liberation.
Renunciation is the way of living as karma where there is no residue of memory created. There may be pleasure or pain but there is no residue carried over. Dying is the non-creation of any residue. Your action is the very unfoldment of your being. Each moment is complete in itself.