Isa Upanisad


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About the Book

Isa Upanisad is the only Upanisad directly connected with Sukta Yajurveda (it’s last chapter), unlike other Upanisad which are connected with the Brahmana portion of the Vedas. It is as if a clarion call of the Truth that all works lead to and end in knowledge.

In only a8 mantras, we have an all comprehensive integral and harmonious vision and philosophy of Life Divine. Transformation of greed and lust tainted with black and evil works into unattached but strong white-pure and good works and its culmination into the Universal consciousness of an all embracing Aupanisadic Purusa is the central theme of this Upanisad.

The uniqueness of this commentary of Sri Anirvan lies in his wonderful interpretation of the contradictory terms Vidya (knowledge) and Avidya (ignorance-rather the unknowable) and Sambhuti (Becoming Birth-Creation) and Asambhuti (Non-Becoming Non-Birth or Vinasa-Destruction). By giving his mystic and yet analytic interpretation, he has boldly brought about a harmony between the two opposite currents of works-Sacrifice and Knowledge and thus established Life-Divine on this Earth on sound footing.

In the end, we have a wonderful unity of works, knowledge and Devotion (Karma, Jnana and Bhakti) as found later in the Bhagavad Gita.


Talks on Upanisat Prasanga was begun regularly from 1955 at the Dharma-Sabha founded by late Bandhu Dharmapal. Talks on the Isopanisad were transcripted and edited by Smt. Sandhyadevi. The present book has been rewritten with its help. General Introduction to the Upanisads is the summary of the discussion on it in the author’s Veda Mimamsa.

The reference-mantras quoted in the exposition of the Isopanisad have generally been taken from the Samhita, Brahmans and Aranyaka and from Upanisads such as Chandogya, Kausitaki and Brhadaranyaka to avoid the flaw of anachronism, all of them being old or contemporary. Thus it has been attempted to keep the exposition nearer to the historical chronology of Vedic Thought. One can see that the exposition of Vedic Thought is a vehicle of an unbroken, integrated and fundamental Idea. Here lies the basis of the authenticity and eternity of the Vedas-Sruti.

The present Upanisat-Prasanga was read as a part of the Extension Lectures at the Burdwan University on the initiative, zeal and fervour of the then Dean of the Faculty of Sanskrit Dr. Gobindgopal Mukherjee and at the invitation of the then Vice-Chancellor, Honourable Brajakanta Guha in April 1965 and later it was published in book-form from the same University. My thanks to both of them. Dr. Mukherjee has taken-up all the responsibility of printing and publishing the same for which I am all the more thankful to him.

May the Vedas enlighten the hearts of all the organisers, listeners and readers of this book.


Isa or isavasya Upanisad is the last chapter of the Sukla Yajurueda. Its name is derived from the first word of the first mantra.

The Yajurveda is also called Karmaveda or Adhvaryuveda. Sacrifice is considered as true work. Offering something to the Gods is sacrifice-yajna. The person who offers is called yajamana. Things offered represent yajamana himself. Thus to offer a thing is, in fact offering one’s own self. The rituals of sacrifice have become very complex. So for its performance, help is required. The priests who perform the complex rituals on behalf of the yajamana are called rtvijs. Somayajna, the best of the sacrifices, requires four types of rtvijs. The chief of the rtvijs, who actually pours oblations and does all associated works for it is called Adhvaryu. According to the Rgveda, “He is the creator of the body of the sacrifice”. Mantras with whose help he does so are called Yajus. According to the Rgveda, these Yajus were hidden in the causal waters as secret power centres, the means of ascending and descending concentrated consciousness leading to spiritual realisation. With them reside the mysteries of the Unknown, the outpouring of the Universal Life-Force (visva prand), felicity and effulgence of the individual consciousness (adbarar). Yajurveda is the repository of all the Yajur-mantras, with details about their use and applications in different sacrifices.

The Krsna (the black, the traditional) and the Sukla (the white, the purified) are the two streams or schools in Yajurveda. Generally it is said that in the Krsna Yajurveda, mantra and Brahmana portions are mixed, whereas in the Sukla Yajurveda they are separated. But this meaning seems to be very elementary. We find at the end of the Satapatha Brahmana of the Sukla Yajurveda that Vajasaneya Yajnaavalkya received all these Sukla Yajus from Aditya, the Sun-God and then revealed them. These Yajus are effulgent with Aditya consciousness and are therefore called Sukla. In the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad of the Sukla Yajurveda, we find that there are two schools of the Veda, Brahma and Aditya. After Aditya the first two acaryas of the Aditya school were Ambhrni and Vak. Vak, the daughter of Ambhrni, is the seer of the famous ‘Devi Sukta of the Rgveda. If the effusion of universal consciousness that we see in the Sukta is the inspiration behind the works of the Yajurveda, there can be no doubt that the works will be ‘Sukla’ shining and purified by the Light of the Sun.

This idea was behind the division of the two schools and so we can say that in comparison to the Brahma school, the Aditya School is definitely an upholder and propounder of a revolutionary ideal. The acaryas of the school desired to keep the Veda mantras ‘pure and fresh’, ayatayama, that which is not kept overnight and therefore not stale or rotten, by keeping their knowledge effulgent like sunlight in their hearts. In the Jabala Samhita this school is called Ayatayama samjnyab ayam krtsnakarma prakasakab. This school is called ayatayama because it is the propounder or illuminator of Krtsnakarmakrt. We find the word in the Gita used in its technical sense. The Yogi who sees action in inaction and inaction in action is Krtsnakarmakrt. We find a great similarity with this ideology of the Gita with that propounded by the Vajasaneya Samhita or the Sukla Yajurveda propounded by Yajnavalkya. Later, we shall see that it is founded on the synthesis of Renunciation and Enjoyment, of Knowledge and Ignorance, of Becoming and Non-Becoming. It is based on the ideal of detachment or unattachment even while doing all types of works. This is the sunlit whiteness or purity of works and love or lust for life.

Isopanisad is in verse form, very short in size, having only eighteen mantras in the Kanva Branch. But even in these few mantras, we have an all comprehensive, integral and harmonious vision and philosophy of life divine. Transformation of greed and lust tainted with black and evil works into unattached but strong, white-pure and good works and its culmination into the universal consciousness of an all-embracing Aupanisadic Purusa is the central theme of this Upanisad. It is worth noting that in this Upanisad there is no mention of the word ‘Bramhan’ as mostly found in the other Upanisads. In its place we find the non-relative absolute term Tat and relative passive terms like Isa and Purusa. We have also the use of the word Atman. It is also worth noting that the highest Divinity that appears here is ‘Aditya’, the Sun. In the first portion of the Upanisad, there is the synthesis of works and knowledge but at the end we have the outpouring of humble devotion. Thus here also we find the great synthesis of works, knowledge and devotion-karma, jnana and bhakti as in the Bhagavad Gita propounded by Sri Krsna.

While commenting on this Upanisad, the great commentator Acarya Sankara has followed the Kanva Branch of the Sukla Yajurveda. Here we also do the same. We will begin with the Peace Invocation.

General Introduction

‘Upanisads’ are called ‘Vedanta’ which means the end of Veda in two senses, they being the last portion of the Veda and also being the last exegesis.

Mantra and Brahmana together are called Veda. The mantras, that is the Samhita portion is the oldest part and the original base of the Veda. The spiritual experiences of the rsis and the secrets of their sadhana have been elaborated in the Brahmanas, The Brahmanas consist of three parts-Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanisad. There is a continuity amongst these three parts. They are so much intermixed that at times it is difficult to ascertain or indicate where one ends and the other begins. It proves that the whole of the Veda is a vehicle of an integral and whole Idea or Ideal and one part of it is not a protest or a negation of the other. The experience that is intuitive in the Mantra portion is elucidated rationally or intelligently in the Upanisads. In this way, Upanisads are truly the Vedanta, both as the last portion of the Vedas as well as being their last exegesis.

Just as Vedanta is the end or final exegesis of Vedism (Vedavada), so it is siddhanta-the final elucidation of the experiences of the siddhas. Propounders of Vedanta were rsis, that of Siddhanta were ‘munis’ as we find in the Gita- “Foremost amongst the siddhas is Kapila Muni”. The ‘Sankhya’ propounded by Kapila is one of the oldest Indian philosophies-it is Munidhara--the Muni tradition or Tarka Prasthana, the way of the rationalist. Vedanta, on the other hand, is Rsidhara-the Rsi tradition or Mimamsa Prasthana- the way of the exegetists. One looks within or is introvert whereas the other looks outwards or is extrovert. The muni dives within and sees himself or the Atman, the rsi keeps his eyes wide open and sees God or Brahman everywhere. It is this rsi again who proclaims loudly-”The ‘Purusa’ who is there and there, He am I”, “The Purusa who is in me and the Purusa who is in that Sun, the two are One indeed”.

In this way beginning their pilgrimage from two different viewpoints or different angles, the Vedanta and the Siddhanta both merge in one integral realisation of the Supreme Truth. We see in the older Upanisads these broad and vast flashes of truth like the sun shining in the sky. These flashes of Truth are the true meaning of the Vedas, of which Upanisads are the end.

Just as Vedanta and Siddhanta are complementary, so in Vedanta or Vedism, Jnanakanda or the knowledge portion and Karmakanda or the works portion are complimentary. Pure Brabmanas are the upholders of Karmakanda that is the portion related to works, that is sacrifices and the rituals necessary for it, whereas Upanisads are the upholders of the knowledge portion.

Aranyakas are in between. It is but natural that works and knowledge are complementary and go together. Desire or Will is the driving force behind all works. Behind will or desire is the knowledge of the goal and its impetus. The goal of Vedic works is some other-worldly attainment which is intelligible but extra-sensory, something like Immortality or a Vast Light, Great Illumination, Supreme Bliss or Union with the Divine. By works this becomes clear and evident to one’s consciousness. From the Brahmanas to the Upanisads, we find the amplification of the Gita’s dictum. “All works end in knowledge. Upanisads are part and parcel of the Brahmanas, not their opponents. The true meaning of the word ‘Brahmana ‘ is dialogue or discussion of the believers or followers of Brahman, that is, the questing or enquiry, all- round thinking and the conclusions arrived at regarding ‘Brahma’. And in the Veda ‘Brahma’ means the inspired Divine Word or Mantra that is revealed in the hearts of the rsis because of the explosion and expansion of their consciousness. It has its bearing on both knowledge and works. As an example, we can mention the ‘Hiranyagarbha Sukta, of the Rgveda. In its refrain, we have “Kasmai devaya havisa vidhema”,-who is the God, towards whom we will move forward and dedicate our offerings? In the first three lines of the mantra, the referred God is introduced. Here the offering and moving towards God is the work and the introductory passage is knowledge. Work is done for the sake of knowledge and its attainment. The questioning is also a part of the mantra. Questioning or enquiry is necessary for works as well as knowledge. The two are complementary, there is no difference between those who carry on dialogue about Brahman in the Brahmanas or in Upanisads, The hypothesis of the western scholars that the spirit of enquiry, of questioning has appeared all of a sudden during the Upanisadic period as a result of aversion towards sacrifices is baseless. The performance of knowledge-oriented works or rituals has always continued in our country in spite of the great opposition of powerful heretic Arya sects-the non- believers in God or Sacrifice, ‘adeva ayajnah’.

We find criticism of ignorant works even in the Veda. There are indications as to how to transform sacrifices of things into sacrifices of knowledge. We see detailed discussion on this in the beginning of the older Upanisads.

In short, in whatever way we see, the Upanisads are, in its truest sense, an integral and whole, complete vehicle of the knowledge of the Veda-the Vedanta, a great synthesis of faith and reason, of the inspired knowledge and rational knowledge, as well as of works and knowledge. It is not accidental to describe Vedic Exegesis as sodasadhyayi, consisting of sixteen chapters. Behind it lies a great effort of transforming a Sodasa Kalah Purusa=one Infinite Supreme Divinity with sixteen qualities into a knowable Book of knowledge.

There has been a lot of debate in the present age regarding the meaning of the term ‘Upanisad ‘, upa-ni-sad (to sit). So the first primal meaning of the word is, ‘to sit near attentively’. From this, western scholars have come to a conclusion that ‘Upanisad’ is the knowledge (Vidya) that was received while sitting near the Teacher, Acharya, in the solitude of the forest. But it is worth noting that though the fact that one has to go to a teacher to gather knowledge is mentioned in many places in the Upanisads, the word either upa-ni-sad or ni-sad in the sense of ‘to sit’ is not used anywhere in the older Upanisads, All knowledge had to be gathered by going to a teacher and serving him. Hence all knowledge can be called Upanisad. So it can be said or understood that the root-meaning is not applicable here. The word is in fact used in a technical sense.

The oldest reference to the word Upanisad is found in a Khila Sukta of the Sakala Samhita. There we find the phrase “Nisat Ca Upanisat Ca”. We also find in Mahabharata the phrase, “Vakesu anuvakesu, nisatsu-upanisatsu “. Which relevantly means respectively the mantra and the Brahmana connected with it, the Aranyaka revealing the inner mystic meaning and the Upanisad which elaborates the metaphysics and the underlying philosophy. We also find the word nisat in its technical sense in Samhita, Upanisad and Brahmana too. It means, “To experience the influx (avesa) of the Divine in one’s being (adhara).” The Brahmanas and Aranyakas, too, give its meaning in a technical sense, i.e. the Truth or the secret which is ‘deeply hidden’ or ‘hidden within’. Considering all these, we can come to the conclusion that the root-meaning of the word is applicable not to man but to God. It is as if God comes down and takes his seat in the heart of the teacher and the knowledge that is intuitively experienced and uttered by the teacher because of this influx is ‘Upanisad ‘, just as we see in the Buddhist sastras that the intuitive word that is heard or received in the ascending consciousness of a Buddha is called “udana’, This meaning of an ‘inspired word’ is most natural and traditional. The meaning to receive knowledge by sitting before a teacher is secondary and incidental.

Shankaracharya’s meaning of the Upanisad, ‘that which destroys ignorance is criticised by modem scholars. Shankar’s meaning may not be according to the rules of grammar, but it has a Vedic background. There is a ritual, a type of sacrifice called upasad in the Soma sacrifice. It is said in the Brahmans that the demons had built three forts- that of an iron on earth, that of silver in the mid-regions and that of gold in the heavens. Upasad was the sacrifice that helped the gods in destroying these three forts. We also find in the Rgveda that the word “upasad, like “upasana’ is the name for constant or eternal nearness with the divine.” Putting together the two meanings, it will mean according to spiritual science, ‘destroying the fort of ignorance’. In Upanisads the same is called ‘loosening or cutting the knots of ignorance’. It becomes possible only when the Divine reveals or establishes Himself in the devotee’s heart. ‘Upasad’ and ‘Upanisad’ both carry the same inner meaning, so, Shankara’s definition is not altogether baseless.

Till now more than two hundred Upanisads have been found. Most of them are, of course, modern. The following Upanisads are directly connected with the Aranyakas of the Vedas-Aitareya, Kausitaki, Chandogya, Kena, Taittiriya and Brhadaranyaka, Mahanarayana or Yajniki Upanisad, though included in the Taittiriya Aranyaka, is considered a subsequent addition from ancient times. Thus the six Upanisads, viz. Aitareya, etc. can only be called the oldest Upanisads considering their language and expression and way of speaking. They are written in prose like the Brahmanas except the first two chapters of Kenopanisad which are composed in verse. According to the scholars, these date back to pre-Buddha period. Though not connected with any Brahmana, Katha, Svetasvatara, Mundaka and Prasna, too, belong to this age. The first three are in verse but the last one is mostly in prose. Mahanarayanopanisad, too, is like Prasna. Maitrayani and Mandukya Upanisads are also in prose but their prose is not the prose of the Brahmanas, We can say that the lineage of the Vedic Upanisads ends here.

Apart from these thirteen Upanisads there is one exceptional Upanisad ‘Isa’ or ‘Isavasya’. It is not a part of any Brahmana, but is directly an end portion of the Samhita. In short, we can say that these fourteen Upanisads are traditionally the representatives and carriers of Vedic tradition and ideology.

The Vedic tradition of the Upanisads has been popularised through Itihasa and Purana. It then becomes not ‘Sruti’ but ‘Smrti’, as Bhagavad Gita in the Mahabharata is both a ‘Smrti’ and an ‘Upanisad’. If Upanisads are the inspired words revealed to the seers through their supramental con sciousness by the Divine, the Gita can claim that epithet too That is why we find that the inspired and revealed saying of the prophets of later Vedic or Non-Vedic sects are also designated as Upanisad. In this way, this term Upanisad has helped in uniting the varied spiritual attainments of Bharata into a harmony. In spite of sectarian differences nobody car defy, nullify or denounce another ‘Sruti’. Therefore there has been a tendency to synthesise one’s own ideas with those of others. Thus in every age Upanisadic ideal has been an indispensable instrument in bringing about a cultural unity in India.

Let us now take up the Vedic Upanisads one by one and try to get some understanding about them. We will begin with isopanisad of Sukla (white) Yajurveda. We have already said that this Upanisad is not a part of an) Brahmans but is directly connected with Samhita. This is it: unique specialty. It is as if a clarion call of the truth that al work lead to and end in knowledge, its light is a worth) bridge between work and knowledge.


  Shri Anirvan 7
  Foreword 11
  General Introduction 13
  Preface 21
  Peace Invication 25
  Prologue 31
1 Mantra 1 37
2 Mantra 2 47
3 Mantra 3 56
4 Mantra 4 63
5 Mantra 5 72
6 Mantra 6-7 75
7 Mantra 8 87
8 Mantra 9-14 103
9 Mantra 15 121
10 Mantra 16 127
11 Mantra 17 134
12 Mantra 18 141
  Summary of Isopanisad 145
  Abbreviations 149
  Index 151