Introduction to the Isha Upanishad

About this discourse by Vimala Thakar

In 1989 Vimala Thakar gave a series of discourses on the Ishavasya Upanishad (Isha). There are one hundred and eight Upanishads. Among them ten Upanishads are considered to be the most important among which the Isha is the first. It is said to contain the essence of all the Upanishadic teachings. The Ishavasya Upanishad talks about the principle, the essence of reality which permeates everything in the cosmos. It emphasizes the unity of life and the wholeness and completeness of reality. The Upanishads are an exploration of the nature of reality. They are concerned directly with your life and how you live it. The Upanishads are a song for the ending of misery and unhappiness. They are a song of celebration of the supreme intelligence which expresses itself as joy, bliss and love.

The following are the explanations of the verses of the Ishavasya Upanishads given by Vimala Thakar in a series of discourses in 1989.

Introduction to the Ishavasya Upanishad by Vimala Thakar

In this discussion of the Ishavasya Upanishad we will be looking at the issue which has confronted the human race for thousands of years. Namely, what is creation? What is the universe that we see all around us? What is the source of this creation? How is the source of creation related to the manifested nature of creation? What is mankind? And what is the human race doing here? What is the role of the human race and the relationship between the human being and the source of creation? How does the human being relate to the manifest world, the cosmos and the unmanifest source of creation which is called the divine?

So there are really two questions. What is the nature of creation and its source? And what is the role of mankind in this manifest universe and how does one relate to the source that is unmanifest?

The Upanishads

The Upanishads originated during the last period of Vedic expression. “Upanishad” means “sitting near and listening”. “Upa” means near. “Sada” means to sit down. So a student would sit down near the teacher and receive the living word of the teacher. The Upanishad is the understanding resulting from the communion of the teacher and the student sitting together and discussing the fundamental issues of life. In these ancient times teaching was education through the living word. It was a direct transmission. With the living word comes the breath of your life and the transmission of the energy behind the words.

This era of the Upanishads was an era of complete unconditional freedom of enquiry. There was no religion. There were no institutions with dogmas. It was an era of the living word. It was a time of authentic living. The role of the teacher was to help the student to learn, not to impose his views upon the student. It was a non-authoritarian approach to teaching. The emphasis was on learning. It was a learning that never came to an end in either the rishis or their students.

The ancient rishis never imposed their views. They did not hand out conclusions. If you went to them with a problem, they did not hand out ready-made solutions for to do so is to strangle a person’s enquiry. It is the suffocation of the intelligence of another. Every person’s enquiry is their own. And in the same way the person’s discoveries must be their own.

One of the most important aspects of the Upanishads is their emphasis on the unity of life. The wholeness, the completeness and the homogeneity of reality. The Upanishads are a quest for the nature of reality. They are concerned with the process of perception. They are concerned with the process of thinking and with the purification of the physical and psychological structure. They are not much concerned with philosophical conclusions. They are concerned with how you live and experience your life.

All conclusions are tentative. As the human race progresses and evolves conclusions may go on changing. They may be clothed in different languages but the quality of inquiry and what happens to the inquirer during the process of purification and the act of learning is the most important thing.  Spirituality is the quality of your life. It is what happens to you while you observe, while you learn and what you do with your learning.

The Ishavasya Upanishad

The Ishavasya Upanishad contains the essence of all the Upanishadic teachings. There are one hundred and eight Upanishads in all. Of these ten are considered to be the most important. These are: the Isha, the Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundiaka, Mandukya, Taittirlya, Aitareya, Chandogya and the Brhadaranyaka.

The word “Isha” indicates permeation. The word Ishvara is derived from the root “Isha” which means to penetrate and permeate everything. Permeation means to enter it, to flood it with your essence, to fill with vitality. That is the meaning of permeation.

Permeation is not covering up. It is not only enveloping like you put a letter in an envelope. The universe is not enveloped by divinity. The divinity permeates, it enters and saturates everything. It becomes the being of every expression. This is the meaning of the word Isha. To permeate and to be the essence of what you permeate. Supposing the Isha or the Ishvara as you call it permeates a blade of grass, it means that in the blade of grass you find the qualities of the divinity. It is limited by the shape and form, the time and space, but it is permeated by that essential element.

The Ishavasya Upanishad talks about the principle, the essence of reality which permeates everything in the cosmos. Isha vasyam idam sarvam yat kin ca jagalyam jagat. Jagat means that which has velocity or momentum. World is called jagat. Jagat in Sanskrit means that which has energy and momentum or that which is always changing. Gati sheelam jagat. That which has the momentum, the velocity, the energy of constant movement. Movement in various ways, on various fronts. This Upanishad is about the divinity that permeates everything having motion in the cosmos. That is why it is called Ishavasya Upanishad. I am here only explaining about the word Ishavasya. This is the principle which permeates everything that you see in the cosmos.

The Ishavasya Upanishad contains eighteen verses which are referred to as mantras. The word “mantra” comes from “mana” which means to contemplate. So these eighteen verses or mantras are subjects of contemplation. A mantra is something which helps you on your way. Something which enhances your understanding.