Isha Upanishad Verses 17-18
All things that appear
yet there is no such thing
as destruction –
the light always returns
to its source.
which is the life force of
which is without form –
you are that.
Commentary by Vimala Thakar
Vayur anilam amartam ath’edam bhasm’antam shariram
tejo yat rupam kalyana-tamam tat deva tvam asi
yah asau asau purushah tat deva tvam asi
The form of the manifestation gets reduced to ashes but energy that was the vitality of the body (the life force), that caused the breathing system to work, that caused all kinds of manifestations in the body, that goes back to its own source. There is no such thing as destruction. Death does not destroy.
The light contained in that energy which was the source of well-being, which is the content of isness, which is the substance of your life, is not the form of your body which has to end one day. But the substance of your being is that auspicious, nectarous energy which is concealed in and contained in the emptiness of space, and you are that.
Let’s look at the first line. First let’s consider the word shariram. It refers to the body. The body in which you live is going to end in death. Do what you will, you can increase its longevity from one hundred to one hundred and fifty years or even perhaps to five hundred years but finally there will be the dissolution of the biological structure. Just as trees and animals and birds eventually die, the same will happen to this body. There is nothing you can do about it.
Bhasma means ashes. One day the body will be reduced to ashes. Since the most ancient times in India, dead bodies have been cremated. The body is a beautiful and sophisticated organic structure. You may have maintained the body well and looked after it but one day it will come to an end.
Now what is it that keeps the body alive? The body itself is kept alive and full of vigour by that life force which is the nectar of immortality. The body itself wears out and disintegrates but that vitality that is the life force does not die. The body is mortal but vayur or prana is immortal. Vayur refers to prana. With every breath you take you are inhaling and exhaling the inexhaustible energy of life that is prana. Through the process of breathing there is the entering of the nectar of the energy of immortality. Matter is constantly changing in form but energy does not die. That energy which is the life force, not the muscular, glandular, neurological and chemical energies of the body but that subtle life force that keeps your body alive which is prana, merges back into the emptiness of space where it has come from. According to the rishis, the cosmos itself is born of the emptiness of space. It is not created by some creator or god but is the explosion of the energies contained in the emptiness of space which is called akasha.
When the body dies, the nectar of energy which had kept the body alive in the form of prana or the life force leaves the body. It may depart in a number of ways. It may depart through the eyes, the nose, the skull at the top of the head or from some other opening. Basically it exhales itself out of the body and merges back into its source (amartam).
So here the rishi is explaining to the student that energy has no death. That life force which is the essence of life does not die. It is only the corporeal manifestation of the body which like all other living organisms deteriorate and disaggregate. The rishi says that one must realize that tej or the light is not the outer form of the body. The light which is contained in the energy of the body returns to the emptiness of space (akasha).
That light which is contained in the energy which is the source of your well-being which expresses itself as beingness or isness is the essence of your life. It is not the form of the body. This essence of your being is the auspicious nectarous energy which is concealed in the emptiness of space. It is that which animates the life form. It is that which maintains the well-being of the physical organism. You are that. Tat deva tvam asi. You are that. Tat deva tvam asi. You are that.
Vayur anilam amartam ath’edam bhasm’antam shariram. The form of the manifestation gets reduced to ashes but the energy that was the vitality of the body (the life force), that caused the breathing system to work, that caused all kinds of manifestations in the body, that goes back to its own source. There is no such thing as destruction. Death does not destroy. That is what the rishi is explaining to his student.
The rishi says to his student: Tat deva tvam asi. You are that. What does he mean? He is explaining that you are that energy as pure potentiality that is contained in the emptiness of space. The ocean gets converted into steam which becomes clouds. The clouds fall as rainwater which finds its way into streams and rivers which eventually flow back to the ocean. So you get converted into the seed of life and get born in the form of a human being. As energy you interact with the other energies of the cosmos and then when the body expires, like the water flowing in the river to the ocean, you return to the source as the emptiness.
The rishis who were the exponents of the Upanishads were lovers of life and living. They were full of joy and love for life. They were not pessimists or misanthropes. They taught that the manifest world is necessary for life to express itself. But the purpose of life is not the acquisition of material things or experiences. The purpose of life is the cultivation of understanding. It is the recognition of the nature of things such that one can live with full intelligence and sensitivity. Then living becomes a joyous and a beautiful thing.
So this really takes us back to where we started and to the first verse of the Isha Upanishad. Whatever you experience around you is the manifestations or movement of energy. All is permeated by the essential isness of life itself. This isness of life is not limited by time or space and is beyond measurement. All is permeated by isha vasyam. Isha is that supreme intelligence itself which might be described as love. So all that you see around you or hear or feel is permeated by the supreme intelligence of isha. It is not separate from the manifestation that you experience. It permeates and pervades all aspects of life. What you call matter is energy and this energy is permeated by this intelligence which is contained in the emptiness of space itself.
As I mentioned before, the rishis were lovers of life and living. Their approach was not to deny life but to recognize, understand and relate to the energies of life in their context. So they say, recognize the limited nature of the relative and the conditionedness of the manifest. Recognize the divisions, differences and distinctions that are necessary. The relative, the finite and the particular has its own beauty. All the innumerable distinctions of the particular in their innumerable variety of expression represent the wealth of life. Limitedness has its own place and its own beauty. Each thing has its own place. But the symbols and the conceptual structures of description and representation should not be mistaken for the substance of reality itself. If the symbols are mistaken with that which they represent and words are mistaken for the underlying reality then that’s where the labyrinth of confusion begins.
In living one accepts the obvious necessities of having to earn a livelihood, the need to feed and clothe oneself and one’s family. These are the day to day necessities of living that have been basic and imperative to survival for thousands of years. So accepting this, why can’t we go through this without getting stuck in imbalance? It is so simple.
Why have we as the human race converted the act of living into an ordeal, into such suffering and imbalance? We have created a society that is neurotic. The human psyche has become distorted by fragmentation and over-complexity. The way of yoga as taught by the rishis who left behind the Upanishads is about living in relationship with the energies of the cosmos in harmony. If you live like that there is natural peace and joy in abundance. There is the natural flow of aliveness itself.
Aum purnamadaha purnmidam
purnat purnam udachyate.
Purnasya purnam adaya purnam ev’avshishyate.
Aum shantih shantih shantih
Let there be peace says the rishi.
This manifest world is as sacred as the unmanifest because the manifest breathes the energy of the unmanifest. Life in its wholeness is sacred. We must live with the manifest. Matter and energy, everything is a means of coming to see this sacredness and preciousness of life. Life itself is the motiveless movement of spontaneity.
The real gets clothed in time and space and appears to be unreal, the whole expresses itself in the finite or the particular. You may well ask me why, but there is no why in spontaneity. Where is the why in love? Love is life itself and the nature of life is not fulfilled in the absence of love.
The whole of the Ishavasya Upanishad is a song which is telling us that life is a wholeness. All the apparent distinctions and differences appear and exist in this wholeness. They are an expression of the wholeness. So one must learn to interact harmoniously with the manifest and to respect the manifest. It is through this that one becomes aware of and the unmanifest reveals itself.
Life itself is a motive-free spontaneous movement. The movement of wholeness is attention. In attention there is silence. And in this inner-silence is found the sanctity of life.
Life is sacred. The act of living is an offering. To live in the wholeness is the act of worshipping the sacredness of life.