Isha Upanishad Verses 14-16

Isha Upanishad Verse 14

Beyond the seen and the unseen
there is the real.
All things appear out of
and return to the real.

Commentary by Vimala Thakar

Sambhutim ca vinasham ca yas ted ved’obhayamsaha
vinashena mrtyum tirtva sambhutya’mrtam ashnute

You have to be aware that life has both creation and dissolution, birth and death, manifest and unmanifest. And you have to be aware that there is a transcendental part of life, of reality which remains beyond both the manifest and the unmanifest.

Life does not get exhausted by becoming manifest. What you call the divine is nothing but the inexhaustibility of life. Death is the energy going back to the transcendental source. Death is dissolution not destruction.

Life is immanent in both the manifest and the unmanifest. Life is the energy of love and love transcends both form and the formless. There is on the one hand matter of which the manifest world is formed. And then there is the energy of the unmanifest. And then beyond both there is what we call emptiness. All energies are contained in the emptiness of space. The absolute ground of existence transcends all energies.

Life is immanent in the energy that is formless and in the material world that has form. Life is inexhaustible therefore life has existed for millions of years. Despite the constant birth and death of lifeforms, the fountain of life continues to flow. The inexhaustibility of this source of energy is called the divinity. Life never gets exhausted by becoming manifest. Why is it so? It’s because creation and dissolution form a cycle of continuity. All things take expression in emergence and disappear in dissolution. So death is the natural process of return to the source. Birth is not the beginning and death is not the end. They are just both two parts of a continuous cycle. You see, life is a cycle. In its wholeness it contains both aspects. There are always two aspects. There is creation and dissolution, emergence and return. And so it is best described as a circle. This is the mystery of life.

Isha Upanishad Verses 15-16

The face of the real
is covered by a golden lid.
Don’t you wish to
lift a little that golden lid
that hides
the face of the real?

Commentary by Vimala Thakar

Hiranmayena patrena satysy’aphitam mukham
tat tvam re satya-dharma ishad apavrnu

The face of reality is covered up. It is hidden from our perception by a charming golden lid. At the sensual level by the manifest world and the pleasures that the senses provide. At the mental level by thought and at the level of becoming by the sense of “I”.

My dear student who is looking for the reality, won’t you then gently lift the lid a little by which the face of reality is covered.

This is a dialogue between the rishi and his student. In the first line of the verse, the rishi says that the face of reality is covered by a golden lid or a golden veil. In the second line he says to his student, satya dharma, you whose religion is truth or you who are dedicated to truth, won’t you please lift the lid a little. Ishad has two shades of meaning, firstly in means gently and secondly it means a little.

The word apavrnu means to uncover. This is important. It indicates that sadhana as education is a negative process of uncovering or revealing. It is not a positive process of obtaining something. It is a negative process of discovery.

The journey of sadhana as self-education, is not a process of acquiring something. It has nothing to do with getting something. Seeing or discovery has nothing to do with acquisition. So what is it that is to be put aside or removed? Apihitam could be translated as either a lid or a veil but lid is preferred because there is the sense of something covered rather than concealed.

In this verse, the rishi is pointing out that that which is expressed in time and space, that which has taken form and become manifest as the finite or limited is the lid. The infinite as the inexhaustible and eternal has taken the form of the limited and the finite.

The creative energy of the earth has taken form and given birth to the rose and the jasmine flower. The flower is not the total creativity of the earth, it has become one limited form of expression of that. The intrinsic beauty of the creative potential of the earth as the source has become condensed into the form of the flower. So the flower as the expression is the lid.

Life is not finite. The infinity of life is covered by the finiteness. The unmanifest accepts the cover of the lid of manifestness. The formless accepts the lid of forms. Beauty accepts the limitedness of becoming a beautiful thing. In the infinite as the eternal there is no limitation. But out of love, it expresses itself as finiteness in the forms and shapes of the manifest world.

The wholeness as indivisibility has expressed itself in form and therefore imprisoned itself in time and space. The time and space that we experience as objective expression of the infinite is the lid with which the face of reality is covered. The apparently finite world we see around us, of objects and things, creates the illusion that the whole of life is what is there as the manifest. But the manifest is only a part of the unmanifest. The expressed is only a small part of that which is impressed. The time and space that is experienced are only a tiny fraction of the timeless and spaceless reality. The finite world which we experience through the senses is the golden lid that covers the infinite reality.

By way of example when a child is born, the life that is contained in the shape of the child shines through the eyes and looks at you. It is life itself that is looking at you. You then go and give it a name. You don’t look at it as the eternity looking at you. You then clothe it with all the attributes of an individual that you attribute to it. And so rather than an expression of wholeness the child becomes a separated individual.

But, if there is a recognition that behind the cover of finiteness is the pulsation of the infinite as life itself, that behind the form is the formless source, then you see the reality. Then one may start to notice the face of reality in all things, in the tree, the blade of grass, the flower, the sky and the human being.

Do you see that the Isha Upanishad is concerned with establishing a qualitative change in the way that we relate to the apparently finite as the manifest world. It is about transforming the way that we relate to things. This is the understanding that it is trying to impart. This is the uncovering of the lid.

Once you see the rippling of the infinity in the shape of all the forms of this manifest world then you deal with the finite as the manifest in a different way. Your attitude to it is different. Instead of the grasping of possession and the desire to exploit, there is affection and love. Out of this comes a relationship of harmony with things on a sensual level. The golden lid is made of the appearances of manifestation and the sensual pleasure that comes from relating to the manifest world. If there were no manifest world, firstly we wouldn’t be here and secondly we would not be able to enjoy the beauty of the sensual realm. The pleasure of the sensual realm is a wonderful thing and it should not be scorned or degraded for it forms part of the wholeness of life.

So the world of the manifest and all the energies it contains is the beautiful covering of reality. It is a beautiful covering and that is why the rishi has described it as the golden lid. It is not to be denied or cast away but to be understood and cared for. It is like the clothes you wear which cover your body.

I don’t know where these unfortunate Hindus got the idea that the world is an illusion or that it is maya. There is not one single Upanishad that I have come across that says this. The Upanishads refer to finiteness, to the ever changing nature and transitoriness but nowhere do they say that it is an illusion.

Understanding is the process of uncovering. It is the process of revealing. There is nothing to be obtained. There is nothing to acquire and no goal to be reached.

Let’s go a step further now. Let’s look at thought. Ultimately it is thought that is the golden lid that hides the quality of the real from your sensitivity in the same way that in the apparent objective world you see is hidden the face of the real. What I am getting at is that one sees the world through the veil of concepts and ideas. The realm of thought is the accrual of all the arts, the sciences, the philosophies and the sacred texts. And so one forgets that the word is not the thing. The word may point or describe but it is not the thing itself. And so authority becomes invested in the thought. And then you never remove the word (as thought) to look directly at the face of reality.

So on the mental level, thought and the words that constitute thought is the golden lid. The word is extremely seductive. What does the word cover up? Words are from sound. Sound [as the vibration of energy] is the primary source of creation.  The word is the realm of human creation. Originally there was sound and light and out of sound came the word. And then eventually people became so enchanted and intoxicated with words that they started to look at the word as the thing itself.

So to remove this lid, one must be willing to experience reality without the words, for reality is word-free. It is idea-less. One must be prepared to brush aside the screen of words and all the enchanting ideas that they represent if one wishes to experience reality. For reality is thought-free consciousness.

I would like to emphasise here that I am not talking here about acquiring some new way of thinking. You know, you are disenchanted with your own culture and so you go off to India and pick up all the trappings of some other more exotic culture. That is just adding one layer of conditioning on top of another. That’s just changing your conditioned thought patterns to some new set of ideas. That’s not going to get you anywhere at all.

One has to see that the words, the thoughts, the descriptions and narrations they are the very hurdles that will get in your way. The more knowledge you have I think, the greater the obstacles to understanding, which is really in essence such a simple thing. So all these structures of thought that have been built up and accrued over time have to be let go of or put to one side if you want to perceive the real.

The next line, tat tvam re satya-dharma ishad apavrnu says “please gently lift the lid a little”. Remove the lid little by little, very gently and not with arrogance. This is very important. Gently and with humility.

The first part of the lifting of the golden lid involves the understanding of the nature of the manifest. We have seen the changing nature of all things and the futility of infatuation with the material. We have recognized that life and death forms one continuum of wholeness. In the second part of the lifting of the golden lid we have considered the nature of the word as knowledge and thought. We have understood that the word as ideation is not the thing. And so now we come to the third aspect of the lifting of the golden lid. And this is the most beguiling of all.

Having passed through the first two aspects you now say, alright, let me now experience the reality. And so you take up hatha yoga, raja yoga, mantra yoga, kriya yoga or whatever other spiritual exercises may tickle your fancy. You need to understand that all of these are realms of stimulating experiences in your body. Experiences of the awakening of kundalini, experiences of different psychic and transcendental powers. These are the experiences that you may have on the subtle or non-sensual level. People get very attracted to all of this. You know, you sit down to meditate for a while or concentrate on the third eye and then you start to see all kinds of things or feel movements or heat in the body. And then you think, “Ah wonderful, I’m so spiritual now or I’m enlightened. I’ve had an experience.”

But let me ask you, who gets the experience? What is the essence of what you call experience? What is the stuff of which experience is constituted? It is the “I” or the “me” that experiences. There has to be an experiencer as subject and an experience as the object. There must be a centre there, an “I” who converts the event into an experience. How do you convert an event into an experience? When an event occurs, there is a neurological movement and a neurological reaction to the movement. And you call this an experience.

The thing is, experience requires an experiencer and reference to memory. In order to identify something you have to refer it back to your knowledge and experience. And so you say I just experienced such and such. Experiencing requires recognition, identification and naming. Therefore an experience requires a centre as the experiencer as the censor who refers events back to recorded memory.

You see, experiencing is the neuro-chemical movement that involves naming, identifying and recognizing. It is this experiencer as the censor or the centre itself, the “me”, the “I” that is the third aspect of the golden lid that covers the reality. You see ultimately it is this centre as the reference point that constantly compares this with that which is the veil that prevents one from living in wholeness. It is the “me” centre that is ever unsteady, oscillating between like and dislike, always busy with acquisition of this or that and with the process of becoming that needs to be dismantled gently.

It is this “me” that wants to become a sanyasi, a saint, a yogi, a sage, a great master, a famous teacher or miracle worker etc. It wants to get transformed into something special which is other than what it is. It creates this grand idea of transformation or enlightenment and then runs in that direction after the object that it has created for itself. It is always after something other than what it is. It wants a big transformation. I wants a huge enlightenment experience. It wants an amazing samadhi experience. But you see, it’s just this chimeric “me” centre that is imagining all this. This centre is always unsteady. It’s always on the move, and we mistake this imaginary process of becoming for the essence of our life. It’s like chasing your own tail. But the essence of your life has nothing to do with all this nonsense. The essence of your life is beingness. It’s not an experience. It is what you are. It is the steady, the unmoving, the unchanging, the unseeable, the unhearable,  the unnameable and the unmeasurable.

Our essence is beingness. It is isness or suchness. It is simply what it is. But the beingness is covered by this endless imaginary dance of becoming which is the golden lid. And so what has the person who wants to see the reality to do? He simply has to uncover this. That’s all you have to do. It’s the first and the last step. By understanding, by observation and by perception you simply have to patiently remove the cover, gently, with humility and little by little. That’s all you need to do and it is there.