Isha Upanishad Verses 9-11

Isha Upanishad Verses 9-10

Those who lose themselves
in the world
live in darkness.
Those who try to run from it
fall into even deeper darkness.

Commentary by Vimala Thakar

Andham tamah pravishanti ye avidyam upasate
tato bhuya iv ate tamo ya u vidyayam ratah

Vidya as knowledge pertaining to the absolute reality and avidya as knowledge of the objective world are both necessary. But when you worship avidya and the pleasure you can extract from it and when you get psychologically absorbed in vidya then you fall into darkness because the desire to turn to the other is no longer there.

This mantra has two very significant and crucial words. They are vidya and avidya. Literally, vidya means knowing and avidya means ignorance. But the rishis who wrote the Isha Upanishad have not used the words with this meaning in mind. In the Upanshads, vidya implies knowledge about reality which can also be described by the words brahma vidya or atma vidya. What is meant is knowledge pertaining to the ultimate nature of reality or the nature of the divinity which is contained both inside you and outside of you.

So here, avidya does not mean ignorance but the knowledge of matter and the perceived cosmos that we inhabit. Vidya is knowledge pertaining to what is inside of you and avidya is the knowledge which pertains to what is outside of you. Alternatively you could describe it as knowledge of the objective and the subjective aspects of life. This is basically what is indicated by the phrase.

The rishis of ancient India were lovers of life. They loved life and they lived with passion and feeling for it. In order to better understand what life is and to discover the mystery of living, they started to examine the nature of matter. They realized that in order to be able to live comfortably, matter had to be understood so that it could be shaped to behave in certain ways conducive to living. So working with matter and regulating and shaping it became part of civilization and culture. They saw that while you could mould, shape and regulate the gross matter, the subtle matter or energies could not be conditioned in the same manner.

And so the peoples of ancient India developed certain methods and techniques for training and conditioning the body and mind based on their physiological studies of the human body and the environment. They created yogic asanas for the purpose of refining the energies of the physical body. They crystalized certain techniques and methodologies for this purpose. In the same way they studied different types of food and plant medicines and their physiological effects on the body. And so there arose the science of nutrition and diet (ayurveda). These sciences are described in the shastras. A shastra can be translated into English as a science. So you have hatha yoga (yoga of the body), mantra yoga (yoga of conditioning), nada yoga (yoga of sound), dhyana yoga (yoga of concentration), laya yoga (yoga of sleep), karma yoga (yoga of action), jnana yoga (yoga of knowledge) etc. All of these yogas are sciences of training, balancing and refining the physical and mental body. All of these sciences are what are being referred to in the Isha Upanshad as avidya because they deal with matter (whether gross or subtle).  

Now vidya is the knowledge which pertains to the “I” or the centre. It is concerned with the question whether there is anything beyond the brain, mind, thought and conceptual knowledge. Is there something more subtle or fundamental that is beyond the material and the conceptual? So it is the existential quest of the beyond. 

Avidya is the quest of harmonizing and regulating the matter and energies that are visible and tangible. They also include the invisible (psychic) and the esoteric. They are all concerned in some way with the experience or shaping of objective phenomena.  Vidya is the quest for what is beyond all that. This is very important, do you see the distinction between the two?

The words andham tamah were used in the previous mantra. They refer to the region of blind darkness. Let’s go into the literal meaning of the mantra. In the first line it is saying that those who worship the sciences and methodologies pertaining to the regulation of matter and energy enter into blinding darkness. Then it goes on to say in the second line that those who become absorbed in the study of the nature of reality enter into a darkness which is even darker than the previous one.

So the first line is talking about those who become captivated with and absorbed by techniques and practices and rituals. The second line is talking about those who get caught in their intellectual knowledge and speculations about the nature of the absolute. Why does the mantra say that the darkness of the second is even darker than the first? This is an interesting question.

It is because when you follow the techniques and practices for conditioning the body (matter), that activity at least produces a result.

As soon as there is an activity, there is an experience that follows. As soon as there is psychological movement there is experience. So conditioning matter and energy produces results and experiences which in turn then further condition. These conditionings are inescapable. Let’s explore this a bit further.

When you educate a child in school, the child learns writing, arithmetic, logic etc. The intellect is being disciplined. Training the body and disciplining the intellect and sublimation of the raw instincts through the teaching of ethics and morality is necessary to refine the emotive part of the being. A conceptual world is created and through it, the animal instincts are sublimated. This involves discipline. And all of this is a necessary part of being human and you can’t escape it. So at a relative level it has its importance but if you over-elevate it such that it becomes an end in itself then it is counter-productive. If it becomes the object of worship in itself, then says the Isha, that’s darkness because you are caught in the part and so you are missing the whole. To recognize the usefulness of the technique or method is one thing. But when you look upon it as the end in itself then that’s darkness.

When you start to worship avidya and you are so caught up in your knowledge about the objective world and so absorbed in the pleasure that all your knowledge and the abilities that your techniques might have given you, then you are in darkness. You have lost yourself. You have absolutely missed the point.

On the other hand when you do not impose your conditionings on others, when you do not become insistent about them, when you do not attach the wholeness to the part, then the conditioning of avidya becomes something useful. It is the wealth of life. If the purpose that it is used for is to further understanding, if it is used without dogma or insistence than it might lead to that deeper enquiry as to what is beyond all the conditioning. So what I am suggesting is not the throwing of everything overboard. What I am saying is that avidya has its place and purpose. But it needs to be understood in its context.

By simply discarding or rejecting the conditioned or avidya, this does not take you to the unconditioned. Ignoring or rejecting does not lead to true transformation. Rejection never leads to creation. Those who reject the human sphere of avidya just because it is conditioned and start to indulge in talk about freedom, satori, the absolute or vidya, the Isha says, that they are entering into even denser darkness. They are even more deluded than those who are absorbed in avidya. The rishis are saying that all that accumulation of verbal and stagnant and sterile intellectual knowledge about the atman and the paratman, the godhead and the absolute or Brahman is even more dangerous and destructive than the conditionings of avidya.       

The Isha is saying in effect that life is both. Both are necessary. They are two sides of the same coin. There is the conditioned and the unconditioned side by side. There is both the necessity of the order and regulation of life that is avidya as well as the spontaneous freedom and love that flows from vidya. The two must co-exist. You can’t deny or reject the one in order to obtain the other.

But if on the one hand you turn the usefulness of avidya into some kind of ritualised object of empty repetition then you’ve stepped into darkness. And on the other if you simply reject avidya before you have touched the truth for yourself and start to talk about some kind of hypostatized vidya which you then elevate to become an object of worship, then you are in even deeper darkness.

From a practical perspective what I am saying to you is that transformation cannot properly occur unless the biological and physiological system is prepared. Just talking and thinking about it isn’t going to take you there. So the merging of oneself deeply into the ocean of silence and non-movement is necessary if you want to step into the wholeness that I am talking about. I hope that this is clear.

In relation to your way of relating to the world, it has to be an unfoldment of what is within. There are no rules about this. Everyone is different. We are concerned with living and living is this process of constant unfoldment which is the unfoldment of your intelligence. Intelligence is love. So it is an unfoldment of love.

What I am trying to communicate to you is the necessity for inner-freedom. It is to do things out of unfoldment and not out of compulsion. You see the whole thing is about setting yourself free from this sense of compulsion, both inner and outer, so that your inner being can unfold naturally. Once you find that sense of inner balance then there is spontaneity in your life and that is freedom and in that is found the joy of being alive.

Isha Upanishad Verse 11

The sage dispels the darkness
so that the light can be seen.  

Commentary by Vimala Thakar

Anyad ev’ahur vidyaya anyad ahur avidyaya
iti shushruma dhiranam ye nas tad vicacakshire

The teacher helps the student to dispel the darkness of ignorance by indirect perception through words and by direct perception through activating the sensitivity to see the truth for himself.

The Upanishads are dialogues between rishis or teachers and students. The purpose of the dialogue is to uncover the nature of reality with the help of words, to assist the student to have an indirect perception of reality through those words. When the meaning that is understood penetrates the brain and reaches the organic intelligence which is contained in the body, then there may be direct perception and the activation of sensitivity. Reality is uncovered partly by words and the uncovering of revelation is completed by the stimulation and activation of sensitivity. The sensitivity like the intelligence permeates your whole being and therefore your whole being feels the reality and the truth indicated by the words. The dialogues are meant to stimulate this indirect and direct perception.

Who can be called teacher and who can be called student? The Upanishads say that the person who has the urge to see the meaning, to perceive it personally for himself not relying on some second-hand narration or explanation, is the student. What is important is the inner urge to uncover the truth and allow the unveiling or revealing of that truth to take place in one’s life. Such a person is the student or shishya. The word indicates an openness and willingness to learn. The mind and the heart must be genuine. They must be open enough to accept and receive. Such is the student.

And who can be called a teacher? The Upanishad has given us the word kavi. That is one who penetrates the manifest, who sees the unmanifest and even that which is unmanifestable. The one who sees the visible, penetrates the invisible and is capable of feeling the infinite. Such a person is kavi. What else constitutes the teacher? The Upanishads also give us the word manishi. That is to say, the one in whom the perception of reality has penetrated his whole mind. The intuition of the limitless and unnameable, the immeasurable and indescribable has penetrated his being. If the limited thought structure is not permeated by the awareness of the unlimited, then the person cannot be called manishi.

What is expected of the teacher? The word dhira is a beautiful word. It means the person who has dhi which means intelligence. What it is referring to is that the direct perception of the real has stimulated intelligence. And out of this perception there is the ability to transmit knowledge. So we are not talking here about a person who has read many books. Such a person can be called a scholar or a philosopher. But all this book knowledge and learning is only indirect knowledge. It is not the direct perception or intuition of the real and according to the Upanishads that does not qualify the person to be a teacher. Do you see the difference? This is very important. A person who has direct perception of the real is capable of awakening the operation of intelligence in another through the transmission of knowledge. His intelligence is capable of activating the intelligence in another.

Now when you read the words or listen to them, they must stir the intelligence. If the meaning does not hit home, then the intelligence does not get activated. If the intelligence which is a non-cerebral energy is not stirred or activated then even indirect perception cannot take place.

Activation of intelligence through knowledge and understanding is one meaning of the word dhira. The second meaning is that the intelligence that is activated by the cultivation of knowledge has to percolate right through to the level of the senses. It must be held and contained by the senses. This intelligence or wisdom must be contained and held in the biological structure of the being. The word dhi is related to the word dhirate which means to hold or contain. So the intelligence that is awakened by the cultivation of knowledge percolates through all the senses, through the thought structure and becomes implicit in the person’s relationship with the world. That is to say that it becomes implicit in the behaviour and movement on the level of the senses. The intelligence is held and contained in the psycho-physical structure of the organism.

 So we can say that the teacher has both indirect perception of the reality through knowledge and also direct communion with the real through the activation of intelligence. And this becomes manifest in the teacher’s behaviour and relationship with the world. Such a person is a teacher. One who merely talks about reality, writes about it or sings songs about it is not a teacher unless there has been this direct communion of experience of it.

Life is for living and living is the act of uncovering the divinity within and without. How does the teacher reveal the reality? The teacher has a steadiness or stability that is rooted in balance and inner peace. The physical presence exudes the relaxation of peace. Because of this the words spoken carry the authority of authenticity. They are able to dispel darkness. If this is absent then the urge to explore and to experiment in the student does not get stimulated. Lots of people are capable of making beautiful speeches. But beautiful words quickly get forgotten.

The quality of the teacher’s life is the test. The verification and confirmation is in the behaviour. This is so because reality is uncovered in the movement of life itself. A person can be a professor of philosophy and be able to discourse on the most abstruse metaphysical issues. But this has nothing to do with it. We are talking about something that has nothing whatsoever to do with the cerebral or the realm of ideas. Reality becomes manifest in the ordinary, in the day to day. What we are talking about is the supreme intelligence as reality coming alive as the act of living itself. And so the teacher is the person in whom this intelligence is manifest. And the way it manifests is in the behaviour of that person.

In the second line of the mantra, the words ye nas tad vicacakshire mean, “those who have helped us to listen and see for ourselves”. So if the words of the teacher do not stimulate, awaken or activate the sensitivity to perceive the truth first hand, to have a personal encounter or have a direct recognition of truth, then the dialogue is in vain. Then they are just dead or dry words.

So to summarize, the teacher must be capable of stimulating firstly indirect perception through words and then beyond that to be able to activate direct perception through sensitivity.

But, what is it that needs to be perceived?

It is the perception of the essential mystery and sacredness of life itself that the teacher must awaken in the student.