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Commentary on the Isavasya Upanishad

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Part 1

The first two mantras of the Isavasya Upanishad are supposed to give us in a few words a perfect philosophy of life. There are thinkers who feel that if none of the Upanishads becomes available at any time, and if only these two verses remain, that will sustain the world of philosophy.

What this Upanishad in its commencing mantras tells us at the very outset is something which we always forget, but which has to be kept in mind constantly if there is to be any meaning in our living in this world. What it makes out in the beginning is that there is the same invisible content pervading all things, connecting everything with everything else, and bringing about a relationship of all diversity, whatever be its nature – organic or inorganic, living or non-living. Whatever be the nature of the diversity of content, irrespective of this nature of diversity, a mysterious link brings them together into a perfect formation and leaves nothing unrelated. Right from the highest heaven to the lowest atom conceivable, everything is taken notice of, and all these things are put in their proper position.

The manner in which things are put in proper position is called organisation. Where such a thing is not done, it is chaos and a medley, a pell-mell, a presentation of meaninglessness. The relation that this unknown content manages to maintain is proportionally manifested. It does not strike everything with the same blow. The prick of a needle by a physician varies in its intensity from the hammer of a blacksmith or the axe of a woodcutter, etc. We have examples of difference in the manner of the placement of values. Yet everything is connected. The brain, the heart and the lungs, and the limbs of the body are placed in a position of unitedness. This is something known to us in our daily life. But they are not just chaotically related. They are in their different particularities placed in the proper context. The different limbs of the body perform different functions, one not overlapping the other, one not repeating the function that the other does, yet not contradicting the function of the other.

Such a relation is maintained throughout the variety of creation, presenting a beautiful picture of perfection that this creation really is. The different kinds of work that the limbs of the body perform do not create ugliness in their performances. We know what the teeth and the tongue do, the ears and the eyes do, and the legs and the feet, fingers, and so on do. Even the hairs on the body have some function to perform. But irrespective of a distance apparently being there between their functions, all of them look perfectly all right. The feet are as beautiful as the nose and the eyes and the face. Their position is the one that is intended for us. When a particular thing occupies a position intended for it, it looks beautiful. When it does not occupy that position and occupies somebody else’s seat, it is not beauty.

Incidentally, it appears to us that beauty is not a solid substance which we can touch with our fingers. It is an arrangement, a pattern, a relativity of adjustment and a proportionate recognition of values, bringing all these values into a completion, such that the whole which they constitute gives a magical touch of perfection to every little part of which the whole is made. The whole gives its beauty in a requisite proportion to every part which belongs to it, and of which it is constituted. The different limbs of the body look beautiful because they cooperate with the wholeness of the organism, which we call this body. Any particular part of the body which does not so cooperate hangs unconnectedly with the system. Its beauty vanishes in a second. A hair that is severed from the head has no beauty. It has a beauty only when it is stuck to the head, in the place where it has a position. Even the nail on a finger has its beauty. It loses its beauty when it is cut off from the finger. Isolated parts, unrelated to the whole to which they really belong, become ugly, redundant, unnecessary things, contingent aspects, and not anything contributing to vital life.

The meaning of life, in this light, appears to be a participation that is called upon everyone in relation to that organisation to which each one belongs. Extending the analogy of the physical body to larger organisations, we will feel that we live only when we participate in a larger-than-ourselves. When we do not participate in a system to which we necessarily belong, we do not really live. We just hang on. There is a difference between hanging on and actually living. A paralysed part of the body may hang on, but it is not living. It is not a part of the body. It exists. We can see it hanging lifelessly, as it were, to no purpose.

The life of a person comes to no purpose when the participation expected of that person in the context of the whole to which that person belongs is absent. The society of human beings is an organisation, and everyone belongs to human society as long as one is a human being. The very finitude of human organisms compels them to participate in a system known as society. There is no necessity for a perfected individual to participate in anything. But the perfected individual is a misnomer, because that which is perfect cannot be an individual. Anyone who is an individual, human or otherwise, is, therefore, not perfect in any sense of the term. Thus, considering even the lowest category to which one belongs in a conceived wholeness, the human individual has to participate in the organic activity of society.

The word ‘society’ has several connotations. It includes within its compass any activity, performance or evaluation necessary for the maintenance of this group called society. We need not go into the details of the issues that may rise from its definition. In every endeavour, project, adventure, work or activity necessary for the continuance of the human individual to sanction the survival of the human personality in order to achieve this perfection, the participation of the individual in society is necessary. An anti-social person cannot be a happy person. An unsocial person will be privately suffering the sorrows of finitude, and cannot enjoy the delights of participation.

Why should we feel happy in participation and feel miserable when we do not participate? The necessity for participation of the limbs in respect of the organism arises because of the necessity for the survival of the body itself. Disorganised limbs of the body disintegrate the body; the organism perishes. It decomposes itself, and is no more there after some time. The parts also die together with their non-cooperation with the whole. It does not mean that a non-cooperating individual will survive, even as a non-cooperating part of the body will not survive, together with the death of the whole to which it belongs, and with which it does not cooperate.

In this analogy, human society becomes an organism of a larger type, wider than the physical body which requires to be maintained by this cooperative participation of individuals for their own equanimous welfare. The participation is not complete merely with a social participation. It is not true, finally, that we live only because other people help us and our friends are charitable to us. It may be that in a social organisation, in a setup of human society, there is a mutual give-and-take policy of people, and they appear to be contributing to mutual survival and existence in a satisfactory manner. But this is only a surface view of things. Irrespective of the fact that social cooperation is necessary for our existence, that is not the whole truth. We do not live merely because of the goodwill of other people. There is something more about things, which escapes the notice of the common eye.

The geographical system of the universe, the astronomical pattern, the solar system, to take only one instance among many other things, conditions us. Human cooperation or no cooperation is irrelevant to the working of the planets and the operation of the solar system – which gives breath to our life, which pumps blood through our veins, and makes the heart pump and the brain think. Cosmic mysteries are beyond human imagination. Who pumps the blood and works the heart? Incessantly there is operation. Even when we are in deep sleep, the breath does not cease. Who pushes the prana like bellows even in the state of deep sleep, when we contribute nothing to the working of the breath? We are nowhere there. Who moves the breath and keeps the body warm and alive, even when cold sleep supervenes? Have we ever thought about the mysteries of the working of the heart? Why should it work? It moves without rest even for a moment.

Have we ever seen motion without a momentum? Unless there is something to propel the motion, motion is inconceivable. Where is the propelling force behind the motion of the heart and the action of the brain? We may be under the impression that the brain thinks and has knowledge. If the brain has plenty of knowledge inside of it, the skull of a dead man also will have knowledge. The propulsion of intelligence is elsewhere than in the cells of the brain, or the parts of the body.

Social life is transcended by universal life. That organisation is a larger society than the human society that we can imagine in our minds. The larger world before our eyes is itself a society of its own kind. The mountains and the rivers and the trees, the shrubs, the flowers, even stones and particles of sand, are not there unnecessarily, for no purpose. To consider these as unnecessary things would be to regard the tip of a fingernail as an unnecessary encumbrance of the body. The nail is not an encumbrance, though it is not doing great work for us. Yet it does some work, if we carefully think over the matter.

Unnecessary things cannot exist in this world. Their importance can be recognised and visualised only when we have the insight to probe into the circumstances of their existence, and the part that they play in a larger society of life – wider than the human, and even the organic as it is conceived – in a cosmical setup. The wind that blows, the rays of the sun that impinge upon the earth, the cool balming radiance of the moon in full-moon night, the scintillating movement of water in a flowing river, the waves of the sea, are not inconsequent occurrences. They are tremendously responsible performances taking place, as is the case with the performances in our own body. This system, which is physiological, sociological, cosmological, can be understood only on the acceptance of a living principle pervading all things, a life that is indwelling the parts, which look like physical entities.

Do we know that the life we seem to associate with our own selves is not capable of identification with any part of the body? I live, you live, and someone lives. I am alive. It is a great joy to feel that I am alive. This joy of the feeling that one is alive does not come from the nose, from the fingers, from any part of the physiological system. This is an instance of the presence of an unknown content operating beneath and behind visible particulars, which are otherwise physical in their nature. Our own personality is an example here. Our feeling, our joy, our satisfaction of having lived in this world, or of living in this world, is an unknown thing operating within the physiological setup we call the body. This very same link is bringing satisfaction in human society in the form of friendship, cooperation, a system of coming together or a get-together, a larger organisation of a nation.

International organisation, whatever it be, gives a satisfaction. It gives a satisfaction not because of the heaps of bodies that form that organisation, but because an unknown element operates in and through the media of these individuals which appear to form the members of this organisation. An organisation is not a bundle of members, just as our life is not a heap of these physical parts. Many people sitting together do not make a society, just as a heap of legs, hands, noses and eyes do not make a man; and so is the case with international organisations and world systems. The physical part is the secondary aspect thereof. There is an unknown element pervading everything.

Īśāvāsyam idaṁ sarvam: a ruling principle pervades the whole Cosmos. ‘Isa’ is the word used in the Upanishad. A controlling, restraining, determining, harmonising, and satisfying principle is Isa, or Isvara. All these aspects are present in it. It gives life to all things. To be alive is the greatest satisfaction, and minus life, nothing can be called satisfaction. Merely to exist is a joy. Sat is chit, as they say; existence is consciousness. Consciousness itself is joy, as it is told us. The gesture of conscious participation in this working of a cosmic content is itself a joy unknown to the sense organs.

The joy of living is not a sensory happiness. Suppose we are sick for some days and suddenly we regain health; don’t we feel a satisfaction? The regaining of health is felt as a kind of jubilation, “Oh, I am happy today. My disease has gone.” A new life has entered into us when we are healthy. That new life is joy. That joy has not come from contact with sense objects. The joy of healthy existence is not a sensory joy. It is super-sensory in the sense that it arises from the totality that we are, the organism that we are, and not the contact that we have. Mostly we think that we can be happy only if we come in contact with things. Where is the contact in being alive? Minus all contacts, a healthy man is happy. A strong man is happy, a powerful man is happy, in spite of the absence of any kind of external contact. This joy, this satisfaction, this delight, arises not because of the limbs which constitute the organism, but because of a life that is present in the organism.