Analysis of Isha Upanishad, First Movement, Part 3

The third verse of the Isha Upanishad takes up the issue of the state after death based on the focus and action undertaken by the individual during his life:

“Sunless are those worlds and enveloped in blind gloom whereto all they in their passing hence resort who are slayers of their souls.”

There is a lot to consider in this verse, as we are introduced to concepts that our normal limitations to the surface mind and the outer life do not generally consider — the issue of other worlds, the issue of the determination of passing to worlds of light or darkness, the issue of ‘slaying of the soul’.  We also see here what looks like a basis for the understanding of the action of the 3 gunas or qualities, sattva, rajas and tamas.  Sattva represents light, tamas represents darkness.  Rajas, when it embodies action filled with desire, leads to tamas or darkness.  We see here, following up on the statements in verses 1 and 2, that action undertaken in consonance with the Divine’s will in the manifestation is recommended, and that action does not cleave to the soul.   There is still the question however of action that conflicts with the Divine will in manifestation, either through what Sri Aurobindo calls “the materialist denial” with an overemphasis on the outer life and fulfillment of desires, or the “refusal of the ascetic” with its abandonment of the outer life.  Either of these extremes, under the impulsion of rajas, can lead to darkness.

We do not usually consider what happens to the awareness, whether you call it a soul, or a stream of awareness or energy, after it departs from the life in the body.  Yet the Upanishad makes it clear that it is a conscious Divine inhabitant of all the forms of the universe and thus, that consciousness takes new forms, but is not exterminated with the death of the body.  The direction and focus of the energy in life leads to results; thus, those who focus on spiritual development, carrying out the Divine will in the manifestation would go to worlds of light, while those who wallow in the depths of desire and its siblings or children go to worlds of darkness.  The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes after-death states (the ‘bardo’) which track the direction of the energy the soul has taken in life into worlds either blissful or dark and painful.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “By departing from the physical life one does not disappear out of the Movement, but only passes into some other general state of consciousness than the material universe.  These states are either obscure or illuminated, some dark or sunless.  By persisting in gross forms of ignorance, by coercing perversely the soul in its self-fulfilment or by a wrong dissolution of its becoming in the Movement, one enters into states of blind darkness, not into the worlds of light and of liberated and blissful being.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Isha Upanishad and analysis, pp. 19-20 & 27-33


Analysis of Isha Upanishad, First Movement, Part 2

The Isha Upanishad works to establish principles and then implement them into life.  It takes the implication of the principle and then addresses the practicality of living.  Thus, the implication of oneness of all existence leads to conclusions about the normal viewpoint based on ego and desire that we start from generally.  The Upanishad does not preach denial of life nor does it treat the world as an illusion; rather it works to emphasize the reality of the world as a self-manifestation of the Divine.

The second verse continues the thought started in the second half of the first verse:  “Doing verily works in this world one should wish to live a hundred years.  Thus it is in thee and not otherwise than this; action cleaves not to a man.”

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “There is then declared the justification of works and of the physical life on the basis of an inalienable freedom of the soul, one with the Lord, amidst all the activity of the multiple movement (Verse 2)”

“Enjoyment of the universe and all it contains is the object of world-existence, but renunciation of all in desire is the condition of the free enjoyment of all.  The renunciation demanded is not a moral constraint of self-denial or a physical rejection, but an entire liberation of the spirit from any craving after the forms of things.  The terms of this liberation are freedom from egoism and, consequently, freedom from personal desire.  Practically, this renunciation implies that one should not regard anything in the universe as a necessary object of possession, nor as possessed by another and not by oneself, nor as an object of greed in the heart or the senses.  This attitude is founded on the perception of unity.  For it has already been said that all souls are one possessing Self, the Lord; and although the Lord inhabits each object as if separately, yet all objects exist in that Self and not outside it.  Therefore by transcending Ego and realising the one Self, we possess the whole universe in the one cosmic consciousness and do not need to possess physically.  Having by oneness with the Lord the possibility of an infinite free delight in all things, we do not need to desire.  …  It is only by this Ananda at once transcendent and universal that man can be free in his soul and yet live in the world with the full active Life of the Lord in His universe of movement.”

“This freedom does not depend upon inaction, nor is this possession limited to the enjoyment of the inactive Soul that only witnesses without taking part in the movement.  On the contrary, the doing of works in this material world and a full acceptance of the term of physical life are part of its completeness.  For the active Brahman fulfils Itself in the world by works and man also is in the body for self-fulfilment by action.  … Being in this body or any kind of body, it is idle to think of refraining from action or escaping the physical life.  The idea that this in itself can be a means of liberation, is part of the Ignorance which supposes the soul to be a separate entity in the Brahman.”

“The chain of Karma only binds the movement of Nature and not the soul which, by knowing itself, ceases even to appear to be bound by the result of its works.  Therefore the way of freedom is not inaction, but to cease from identifying oneself with the movement and recover instead our true identity in the Self of things who is their Lord.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Isha Upanishad and analysis, pp. 19-20 & 27-33


Analysis of Isha Upanishad, Introduction and First Movement, Part 1

Sri Aurobindo devoted considerable focus to the Isha Upanishad.  In its short scope of just 18 verses, it took up a number of ideas that ordinarily are seen as contradictory to one another and worked to reconcile them in an integral way.  This Upanishad gave considerable trouble to the Mayavadins, those who believe that the outer world is an illusion and that liberation comes through abandonment of attachment to the world of life and action.  This Upanishad brings together two Vedantic concepts “One without a second” and “All this is the Brahman.”  Mayavada tends to rely on the first of these without addressing the implications of the second effectively.

Sri Aurobindo identified four movements with verses 1-3 consisting of the first movement.  He also reminds us that the intuitive method of expression does not try to fill in every detail of an intellectual statement, which implies that the reader must be ready to do so to follow the line of understanding that the Rishi was expressing.

First verse:  “All this is for habitation by the Lord, whatsoever is individual universe of movement in the universal motion.  By that renounced thou shouldst enjoy; lust not after any man’s possession.”

This first verse provides an integral view that shows that all individual aspects of the manifested universe partake of the ultimate reality or as Sri Aurobindo calls it “reality omnipresent”.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “In the first, a basis is laid down by the idea of the one and stable Spirit inhabiting and governing a universe of movement and of the forms of movement. (Verse 1, line 1)    On this conception the rule of a divine life for man is founded, — enjoyment of all by renunciation of all through the exclusion of desire.  (Verse 1, line 2)

“All world is a movement of the Spirit in itself and is mutable and transient in all its formations and appearances; its only eternity is an eternity of recurrence, its only stability a semblance caused by certain apparent fixities of relation and grouping.  Every separate object in the universe is, in truth, itself the whole universe presenting a certain front or outward appearance of its movement.  The microcosm is one with the macrocosm.  Yet in their relation of principle of movement and result of movement they are continent and contained, world in world, movement in movement.  The individual therefore partakes of the nature of the universal, refers back to it for its source of activity, is, as we say, subject to its laws and part of cosmic Nature.”

“Spirit is lord of its movement, one, immutable, free, stable and eternal.  The Movement with all its formed objects has been created in order to provide a habitation for the Spirit, who, being One, yet dwells multitudinously in the multiplicity of His mansions.  It is the same Lord who dwells in the sum and the part, in the Cosmos as a whole and in each being, force or object in the Cosmos.  Since He is one and indivisible, the Spirit in all is one and their multiplicity is a play of His cosmic consciousness.  Therefore each human being is in his essence one with all others, free, eternal, immutable, lord of Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Isha Upanishad and analysis, pp. 19-20 & 27-33

The Wellspring of the Soul and Spirit of India

In the history of human development and cultural expression, there are certain times, places and events which can be recognized as seeds that grew and blossomed, which are looked back upon as important watersheds.  One such period, in the West was the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece.  Another was the Renaissance.  In India, such an epochal event was the development of the Vedas and Upanishads.  Out of this period grew the great religious movements, the spiritual development, as well as tremendous intelllectual, ethical, artistic, literary and aesthetic developments that we associate with historical India.  These periods have a vital force connected to the evolutionary drive of Nature in humanity that gives them their power to influence human life over long spans of time.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The Upanishads abound with passages which are at once poetry and spiritual philosophy, of an absolute clarity and beauty, but no translation empty of the suggestions and the grave and subtle and luminous sense echoes of the original words and rhythms can give any idea of their power and perfection.  There are others in which the subtlest psychological and philosophical truths are expressed with an entire sufficiency without falling short of a perfect beauty of poetical expression and always so as to live to the mind and soul and not merely be presented to the understanding intelligence.  There is in some of the prose Upanishads another element of vivid narrative and tradition which restores for us though only in brief glimpses the picture of that extraordinary stir and movement of spiritual enquiry and passion for the highest knowledge which made the Upanishads possible. … And we see how the soul of India was born and how arose this great birth-song in which it soared from its earth into the supreme empyrean of the spirit.  The Vedas and the Upanishads are not only the sufficient fountain-head of Indian philosophy and religion, but of all Indian art, poetry and literature.  It was the soul, the temperament, the ideal mind formed and expressed in them which later carved out the great philosophies, built the structure of the Dharma, recorded its heroic youth in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, intellectualised indefatigably in the classical times of the ripeness of its manhood, threw out so many original intuitions in science, created so rich a glow of aesthetic and vital and sensuous experience, renewed its spiritual and psychic experience in Tantra and Purana, flung itself into grandeur and beauty of line and colour, hewed and cast its thought and vision in stone and bronze, poured itself into new channels of self-expression in the later tongues and now after eclipse re-emerges always the same in difference and ready for a new life and a new creation.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Introduction, pp. 12-13

Spiritual Truths Blaze Forth in Clear Statements as the Upanishads Develop Beyond the Vedic Imagery

Over time, the Upanishads began to shed the heavy symbolism and imagery of the Vedas in favor of a more direct statement of the truths of the Spirit and the experience of the enlightened sage or seer.  The significance was now brought forward and we see an active transition from an age of symbolism to an age of intellectual focus.  Sri Aurobindo illustrates with some passages of the Katha Upanishad:

“The omniscient is not born, nor dies, nor has he come into being from anywhere, nor is he anyone.  He is unborn, he is constant and eternal, he is the Ancient of Days who is not slain in the slaying of the body….

“This Self is not to be won by teaching nor by brain-power nor by much learning: he whom the Spirit chooses, by him alone it can be won, and to him this Spirit discloses its own very body.  One who has not ceased from ill-doing, one who is not concentrated and calm, one whose mind is not tranquil, shall not get him by the brain’s wisdom….

“The Self-born has cloven his doors outward, therefore man sees outward and not in the inner self: only a wise man here and there turns his eyes inward, desiring immortality, and looks on the Self face to face.  The child minds follow after surface desires and fall into the net of death which is spread wide for us; but the wise know of immortality and ask not from things inconstant that which is constant…..

“He is that from which the Sun rises and that in which it sets: and in him all the gods are founded and none can pass beyond him.  What is here, even that is in other worlds, and what is there, even according to that is all that is here.  He goes from death to death who sees here only difference….”

The exposition in the Katha Upanishad is considerably lengthier than this and covers far more field, but the sense and intention is now clearly visible for all to see.  This marks the transition of the Upanishads from having a strong overlay of Vedic symbolism to an attempt to bring the concepts to a changing intellectual framework of the time.  Given our own intellectual development, this change has brought the teachings of the ancient Sages to modern humanity and opens the door to spiritual insights.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Introduction, pp. 10-12

The Upanishads Transition from the Secret Words of the Veda to the Open Statement of Spiritual Significance

In The Secret of the Veda, Sri Aurobindo describes the language of the Veda as being “secret words” that have an inner significance and meaning for the spiritual practitioner with experience of inner states of conscious awareness, while using symbols and images that have an outer meaning that maintains a veil through which others cannot pierce.  The Upanishads provide a transitional phase whereby the images are still present, but the inner sense is referenced and even brought forward so that it ibecomes clear that a deeper meaning is intended. 

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The intuitive thought of the Upanishads starts from this concrete imagery and these symbols, first to the Vedic Rishis secret seer words wholly expressive to the mind of the seer but veils of their deepest sense to the ordinary intelligence, link them to a less covertly expressive language and pass beyond them to another magnificently open and sublime imagery and diction which at once reveals the spiritual truth in all its splendour.”

In a review of the description of the syllable OM from the Prashna Upanishad, Sri Aurobindo illustrates the process:  “The symbols here are still obscure to our intelligence, but indications are given which show beyond doubt that they are representations of a psychical experience leading to different states of spiritual realisation and we can see that these are three outward, mental and supramental, and as the result of the last a supreme perfection, a complete and integral action of the whole being in the tranquil eternity of the immortal Spirit.  And later in the Mandukya Upanishad the other symbols are cast aside and we are admitted to the unveiled significance.  Then there emerges a knowledge to which modern thought is returning through its own very different intellectual, rational and scientific method, the knowledge that behind the operations of our outward physical consciousness are working the operations of another, subliminal, — another and yet the same, — of which our waking mind is a surface action, and above — perhaps, we still say — is a spiritual superconscience in which can be found, it may well be, the highest state and the whole secret of our being.  We shall see, when we look closely at the passage of the Prashna Upanishad, that this knowledge is already there, and I think we can very rationally conclude that these and similar utterances of the ancient sages, however perplexing their form to the rational mind, cannot be dismissed as a childish mysticism, but are the imaged expression, natural to the mentality of the time, of what the reason itself by its own processes is now showing us to be true and a very profound truth and real reality of knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Introduction, pp. 8-10

Understanding Vedic Imagery and Symbols as Used in the Upanishads

Intermingled with the more modern philosophical and spiritual language in the Upanishads are quite a few symbols and images that harken back to the Vedas.  This is confusing to the modern mind which does not translate these symbols or images easily into the intended inner psychological truths which the Upanishads are otherwise conveying and has led numerous commentators, particularly those from the West, to treat the Upanishads as a confused mix of high philosophy and childish worship of Nature Gods.  Sri Aurobindo untangles the mystery here:

“The Upanishads are not a revolutionary departure from the Vedic mind and its temperament and fundamental ideas, but a continuation and development and to a certain extent an enlarging transformation in the sense of bringing out into open expression all that was held covered in the symbolic Vedic speech as a mystery and a secret.  It begins by taking up the imagery and the ritual symbols of the Veda and the Brahmanas and turning them in such a way as to bring out an inner and a mystic sense which will serve as a sort of psychical starting-point for its own more highly evolved and more purely spiritual philosophy.  There are a number of passages especially in the prose Upanishads which are entirely of this kind and deal, in a manner recondite, obscure and even unintelligible too the modern understanding, with the psychic sense of ideas then current in the Vedic religious mind, the distinction between the three kinds of Veda, the three worlds and other similar subjects; but, leading as they do int he thought of the Upanishads to the deepest spiritual truths, these passages cannot be dismissed as childish aberrations of the intelligence void of sense or of any discoverable bearing on the higher though in which they culminate.  On the contrary we find that they have a deep enough significance once we can get inside their symbolic meaning.  That appears in a psycho-physical passing upward into a psycho-spiritual knowledge for which we would now use more intellectual, less concrete and imaged terms, but which is still valid for those who practice Yoga and rediscover the secrets of our psycho-physical and psycho-spiritual being.”

“I may cite as an example of this development of Vedic idea and image a passage of the Taittiriya in which Indra plainly appears as the power and godhead of the divine mind: ‘He who is the Bull of the Vedas of the universal form, he who was born in the sacred rhythms from the Immortal, — may Indra satisfy me through the intelligence.  O God, may I become a vessel of the Immortal.  May my body be full of vision and my tongue of sweetness, may I hear the much and vast with my ears.  For thou art the sheath of Brahman covered over and hidden by the intelligence.’

“This Vedic and Vedantic imagery is foreign to our present mentality which does not believe in the living truth of the symbol, because the revealing imagination intimidated by the intellect has no longer the courage to accept, identify itself with and boldly embody a psychic and spiritual vision; but it is certainly very far from being a childish or a primitive and barbarous mysticism; this vivid, living, luminously poetic intuitive language is rather the natural expression of a highly evolved spiritual culture.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Introduction, pp. 6-8

The Illumined Poetic Method of Upanishadic Expression

Communication through language, whether oral or written, presents challenges as to not just the content of the communication, but the manner of the expression and the medium to be used.  The sociologist Marshall McLuhan famously stated that “the medium is the message”.  When it comes to expressing luminous intuitive spiritual experience, the linear, intellectual, organized linguistic approach clearly cannot carry the significance of the experience and the content of the insight effectively.  This is one reason that philosophy in many instances seems so dry and abstract.  The Upanishadic Rishis, living in a time that was naturally less inclined to fixate on linear expression, used an intuitive and inspired utterance, frequently couched in poetic metre, to communicate their experience.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “These supreme and all-embracing truths, these visions of oneness and self and a universal divine being are cast into brief and monumental phrases which bring them at once before the soul’s eye and make them real and imperative to its aspiration and experience or are couched in poetic sentences full of revealing power and suggestive thought-colour that discover a whole infinite through a finite image.  The One is there revealed, but also disclosed the many aspects, and each is given its whole significance by the amplitude of the expression and finds as if in a spontaneous self-discovery its place and its connection by the illumining justness of each word and all the phrase.  The largest metaphysical truths and the subtlest subtleties of psychological experience are taken up into the inspired movement and made at once precise to the seeing mind and loaded with unending suggestion to the discovering spirit. …  All  here is a packed and pregnant and yet perfectly lucid and luminous brevity and an immeasurable completeness.  A thought of this kind cannot follow the tardy, careful and diffuse development of the logical intelligence.  The passage, the sentence, the couplet, the line, even the half line follows the one that precedes it with a certain interval full of an unexpressed thought, an echoing silence between them, a thought which is carried in the total suggestion and implied in the step itself, but which the mind is left to work out for its own profit, and these intervals of pregnant silence are large, the steps of this thought are like the paces of a Titan striding from rock to distant rock across infinite waters.  There is a perfect totality, a comprehensive connection of harmonious parts in the structure of each Upanishad; but it is done in the way of a mind that sees masses of truth at a time and stops to bring only the needed word out of a filled silence.  The rhythm in verse or cadenced prose corresponds to the sculpture of the thought and the phrase.  The metrical forms of the Upanishads are made up of four half lines each clearly cut, the lines mostly complete in themselves and integral in sense, the half lines presenting two thoughts or distinct parts of a thought that are wedded to and complete each other, and the sound movement follows a corresponding principle, each step brief and marked off by the distinctness of its pause, full of echoing cadences that remain long vibrating in the inner hearing: each is as if a wave of the infinite that carries in it the whole voice and rumour of the ocean.  It is a kind of poetry — word of vision, rhythm of the spirit, — that has not been written before or after.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Introduction, pp. 4-6

Living, Inspired Hymns of Soul-Experience

We can make a distinction between intellectual exercises of logic and reasoning, and the living and inspired understanding that arises from experience.  The intellect revels in abstraction and in many cases, the logical argument seems to be totally divorced from the realities of life; in some cases to such a degree that it becomes hard to follow and contradictory to what our deepest intuition reveals to us.  Philosophy may tend to the dry and pedantic, to hair-splitting and sophistry.  None of this appears to advance the development of wisdom and true insight to the nature and meaning of life.  The Upanishads represent a different approach, one enlivened by spiritual experience, and thereby exhibiting the passion and energy of real, not abstract, understanding.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The great formulations of philosophic truth with which they abound are not abstract intellectual generalisations, things that may shine and enlighten the mind but do not live and move the soul to ascension, but are ardours as well as lights of an intuitive and revelatory illumination, reachings as well as seeings of the one Existence, the transcendent Godhead, the divine and universal Self and discoveries of his relation with things and creatures in this great cosmic manifestation.  Chants of inspired knowledge, they breathe like all hymns a tone of religious aspiration and ecstasy, not of the narrowly intense kind proper to a lesser religious feeling, but raised beyond cult and special forms of devotion to the universal Ananda of the Divine which comes to us by approach to and oneness with the self-existent and universal Spirit.”

“And though mainly concerned with an inner vision and not directly with outward human action, all the highest ethics of Buddhism and later Hinduism are still emergences of the very life and significance of the truths to which they give expressive form and force, — and there is something greater than any ethical precept  and mental rule of virtue, the supreme ideal of a spiritual action founded on oneness with God and all living beings.  Therefore even when the life of the forms of the Vedic cult had passed away, the Upanishads still remained alive and creative and could generate the great devotional religions and motive the persistent Indian idea of the Dharma.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Introduction, pg. 4

Upanishads: Epic Hymns of Self-Knowledge, World-Knowledge and God-Knowledge

There are a number of forms of knowledge in the world.  The West has especially focused on a process of observation of distinctions, organization, classification and an intellectual management of the implications of these distinctions.  This has turned out to be a great power for action in the physical world.  This type of knowledge, however, does not provide any depth of self-knowledge, nor does it provide insight to the wholeness and oneness of the universe.  It is based on the use of mental faculties of logic, reason, deduction and relies on sense perceptions and memory as tools of this process.  This type of knowledge is subject to constant correction as new facts become known and thus, it is a process of trial and error, an indirect process of knowledge.

The seers and sages of the Upanishads took a somewhat different approach, and looked for knowledge that was direct, immediate and incontrovertible.  They wanted to determine, ‘that which, being known, all is known.’   They focused on developing the tools, internally, to experience knowledge by identity, a form of knowledge which would not be subject to change as new facts became evident, because it directly perceived and understood the truth of things.  Such a process required them to take up practices that would remove the influences and limitations of the body, life-energy, and mind from their interference with that direct knowledge.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “It is because these seers saw Truth rather than merely thought it, clothed it indeed with a strong body of intuitive idea and disclosing image, but a body of ideal transparency through which we look into the illimitable, because they fathomed  things in the light of self-existence and saw them with the eye of the Infinite, that their words remain always alive and immortal, of an inexhaustible significance, an inevitable authenticity, a satisfying finality that is at the same time an infinite commencement of truth, to which all our lines of investigation when they go through to their end arrive again and to which humanity constantly returns in its minds and its ages of greatest vision.  The Upanishads are Vedanta, a book of knowledge in a higher degree even than the Vedas, but knowledge in the profounder Indian sense of the word, jnana.  Not a grasping of a mental form of truth by the intellectual mind, but a seeing of it with the soul and a total living in it with the power of the inner being, a spiritual seizing by a kind of identification with the object of knowledge is jnana.  And because it is only by an integral knowing of the self that this kind of direct knowledge can be made complete, it was the self that the Vedantic sages sought to know, to live in and to be one with it by identity.  And through this endeavour they came easily to see that the self in us is one with the universal self of all things and that this self again is the same as God and Brahman, a transcendent Being or Existence, and they beheld, felt, lived in the inmost truth of all things in the universe and the inmost truth of man’s inner and outer existence by the light of this one and unifying vision.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Introduction, pp. 3-4