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Lessons on the Upanishads
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 4: The Isavasya Upanishad

Of the many Upanishads, I mentioned the names of ten that are very important. Among these ten, one is known as the Isavasya Upanishad. Inasmuch as it occurs in the mantra portion, or the Samhita part of the Vedas, it is also called the Mantra Upanishad. Though it is very short, it is a very important Upanishad.

In a sense, this Isavasya Upanishad gives us four important instructions. Four types of knowledge are imparted to us by this Upanishad. Firstly, the Creator pervades the whole of creation. Secondly, everyone is to do one's duty. Thirdly, knowledge and action have to be combined and not be considered as opposites. Fourthly, we should view God and the world as being in a state of harmony, not as opposed to each other.

Isavasyam idam sarvam yat kim ca jagatyam jagat, tena tyaktena bhunjitha, ma gridhah kasyasvid dhanam (Isa 1) is the first mantra of the Isavasya Upanishad. This mantra says: “All this is enveloped by the Supreme Being.” The word ‘enveloped' has to be understood in its proper connotation. I am enveloped here by this piece of cloth. You are enveloped by a shirt. Is it in this sense that the Creator envelops the universe, or is there any other meaning implied in this great statement? The philosophies, or Darshanas as they are called, have many things to tell us about this matter.

The Creator, Whom we call God, manifests this universe, creates this universe. In what manner does He create the universe? There are instances of someone creating something in this world. A carpenter creates a table or a chair. A potter creates a mud pot. Is this the way in which God creates the world? Some say that this is not the way in which God creates, because a carpenter requires some tool and some material out of which and through which he can manufacture a table or some furniture. But, where is the instrument or tool, and where is the material for God? If we say that there is some material outside God, then there will be another difficult question: Who created this material? If God created the world out of some existent material, someone must have created that material also. Is God Himself the creator of that material wood or furniture of this cosmos? The question is a vicious one; it is what is called ‘begging the question'. Hence, problems connected with the creation of the world do not seem to be easily solvable by merely assuming that there was some material before God at the time of the creation of this universe. Though there are some thinkers and philosophers who hold this opinion that there is an eternally existing material out of which God fashions this universe, there are others who feel that this is not the proper way of visualising the fact of creation.

God must have modified Himself into this universe, as milk modifies itself into yogurt or curd. Otherwise, we cannot explain how God creates this world. The assumption of a totally independent material existence outside God is not permissible for various reasons, one of the reasons being that it would limit God to a finite entity. Finitude is that state of being which has something outside it, another finite. Everyone is limited and everyone is finite because of the existence of other finitudes—in the sense that there are things and persons outside every person and thing. God also would become finite because the existence of another thing outside God, such as the material for creation, would condition God to a limited existence. Therefore, the doctrine that the creation of the world came out of an already-existing material would be a contending factor before God, an opposition to God. God would then not be infinite. Therefore, God must Himself have become this universe. This is the second doctrine.

The first doctrine is called Arambhavada. A creation out of something and producing something totally new is the doctrine of Arambhavada, which involves multiplicity and duality in creation. As I mentioned, the assumption of a duality between God and the material of creation would limit God to a finite existence and He would be mortal like anybody else. He would no more be immortal. This is the reason why the Parinama doctrine, which is the second one, the transformation theory, was conceived by certain philosophers. God has become this universe, as milk has become curd.

However, there was a third set of philosophers who thought that this is also not a very reasonable way of arguing the case. How can God modify Himself? That would mean He transforms Himself into something else. Milk can never become milk again, after it has become curd. It is destroyed; it has become something else. ‘A' has become ‘B'. When ‘A' becomes ‘B', ‘A' ceases to exist afterwards. There would be no God. There would be only creation, as there would be only curd and no milk in the act of transformation. Where is the point in searching for God and aspiring for the attainment of God if He does not exist at all and He has already destroyed Himself by a self-modification of His being into the form of this cosmos? This theory, known as Parinamavada, is not to be regarded as very appropriate to God's eternity and immortality.

What is the meaning of saying that God pervades the whole cosmos? When we dip a piece of cloth into a bucket full of water, we may see the water pervading the entire cloth. Water inundates every fibre of that fabric. Is this the way in which God pervades things? No, it cannot be. Here again, a distinction is created between the pervading principle and that which is pervaded. The original difficulty once again creeps in. Cloth can never become water even if it appears that water has gone into every fibre of the cloth, because it can be dried till there is no water left. Therefore, one must understand the pervasion theory carefully. Actually, it is believed that nobody can answer this question as to how creation came at all. In any way we try to describe the process, we seem to fail. We have no clear-cut, logical, conclusive answer.

There was a saint, it is told, who was sitting on the shore of the ocean and contemplating this great subject as to how God could have created this world, and in what manner. The story goes that while the saint was contemplating on this subject and wanting to get an answer, suddenly a boy appeared nearby—a divine being, who came to instruct this saint. The boy held a mud pot that had several holes at the bottom, and he was using it to scoop up water from the sea and throw it on the bank. He was doing it continuously—a hundred and twenty times he went on scooping and pouring.

The saint asked, “Hey, little boy, what are you doing?”

“I am emptying the ocean,” replied the boy.

“Have you any sense?” asked the saint. “Firstly, the ocean cannot be emptied; secondly, not with this little pot with holes in it.”

“Great Master,” replied the boy, “if you can get an answer to the question you have in your mind, I can empty the ocean.”

They say that God Himself appeared in the form of the boy. No philosopher has finally succeeded in giving us a conclusive answer to this question.

There were others who escaped this problem by saying that God never created the world and, therefore, there is no problem. However, we will be very worried if the answer indicates that God never created the world. If that is the case, what are these problems before us? Do we also not exist? It would mean that you also do not exist; I also do not exist. That will be the conclusion if we say that God never created the world. It is stunning and astonishing, and seems to be apparently more unacceptable than any other answer. This is the creation theory and the acosmic theory, as they both are called. The latter one, called acosmic, holds the doctrine that creation never took place.

I will tell you, in a homely way, why these people say so. Why should you think that creation never took place when actually you can see solid objects in front of you? Here is a little illustration. There is a big boulder, a stone. You see the stone; it is very hard and heavy, and you can touch it as a solid object. Bring a sufficiently powerful microscope and look at this stone. You will find that the stone is a heap of very minute, fly-like, insect-like entities called molecules. It is a heap of certain things, and not one solid object. Bring another, more powerful microscope, more powerful than the earlier one. Even the molecules will not be seen there. There will be still finer elements looking like almost non-cognisable particles which are called atoms. Bring a still more powerful microscope. You will find that even these little particles melt into a continuum of energy, or force, which impinges on the energy centres which are other atoms. It looks as if there is one sea of force everywhere, an indistinguishable continuum. What has happened to the stone? Can you say that this sea of force, these atoms, one day thought: “Let us become a stone”? If the atoms have really become the stone, they will not be there for you to see through the microscope. You will conclude that they have never become the stone. It is only your vision that presents the perception of a solid object. These so-called ‘things'— molecules, atoms, energy centres, etc.—never became the stone. They were never transformed into the stone. They did not create the stone. They exist and have always existed in the same condition as they were when you perceived them through a powerful perception. The only difference is that in one case our perception is gross, and in another case it is subtle and correct. The stone has not been created, though it is solidly perceivable. In the same way, the world has not been created, though it is visible to the eyes. This doctrine is too much for us. We shall put it in our pockets and never talk about it again.

Isavasyam idam sarvam: “This creation is enveloped by the Almighty Supreme Being.” From the conclusion that we can draw out of our considerations on the very first session, it would follow that there is something which cannot be divided into parts, which is infinite in its nature, which is existing everywhere to such an extent that it may appear that it is the only thing existing. That only-existing ‘Something' is the Ishvara that the Isavasya Upanishad speaks of. You have to somehow or other accommodate your mental operations to get tuned up to this interesting situation of there being Something which Alone Is—at all times, and outside which nothing can be. This conclusion follows from the nature of consciousness, whose structure we tried to analyse on the very first day.

Consciousness cannot be in some place because to be conscious that consciousness is in this ‘some place', it has also to be somewhere else—where it now appears not to be. Therefore, consciousness cannot deny that it exists in another place as well, somewhere else, because such denial is impossible unless it is already present there at the spot which is being denied. Therefore, the nature of consciousness is universal. This is the nature of the Ultimate Reality. This is what we call God. This is what we call Ishvara. Therefore, the pervasion of this Supreme Consciousness, which is the Absolute Reality, is not pervasion—something entering into something else—in the ordinary sense of the term. It is the One Thing being all things. In a great mantra of the Rig Veda we are told: ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti (R.V. 1.164.46). “The one Being—poets, sages, and masters call It by different names” such as Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, and so on. Therefore, this world of perception, this universe of variety, is a perceptional presentation and not actually a modification, because eternal things cannot modify themselves. If eternity modifies itself, it becomes a temporal something. That which is above time cannot become something in time.

This is the tough doctrine of creation, hard to understand, which will never enter the brain of a person; and even if it enters, it will not stay there for a long time. So, be cautious about this. The great sage of the Upanishad, therefore, tells us: “Whatever is apparently moving or not moving—yat kim ca jagatyam jagat tat sarvam—all that is Ishvara.” You  must be able to convince yourself as to the way in which God, Ishvara—the Ultimate Being—can be everywhere and also be everything. From this consideration it follows that God is not merely everywhere, He is also everything. “Knowing this, be happy without the sense of possessiveness in regard to any object,” is the second half of this mantra: tena tyaktena bhunjitha, ma gridhah kasyasvid dhanam.

You feel happy only if you have some property. A propertyless person is considered an unhappy person. People say: “I have nothing—neither land, nor house, nor money. My condition is pitiable.” If you obtain land, money and a house, you are happy. But the Upanishad says: “You will not be happy by acquiring land, money, house, etc.” Actually, possession is not the way of being happy. There is no such thing as possession. You cannot possess an area of land. It was already there, and was there even before you were born. Can you grab a piece of land, which is the earth? How can you grab the earth? Even the house that we propose to purchase from somebody must have been there before you existed. What exactly do you mean by saying “I possess something”? Does that object enter into your body? Does the house seep into your flesh and bones? Does the land enter your brain, and is the money under your skin? Does it happen so? They always remain outside, just as they were outside even before you were born. Nobody has seen money entering into someone's stomach.

For obvious reasons, a thing that is outside, totally, cannot become yours. How can you possess a thing that is not yours? But you somehow convince yourself that it is yours. You have a way of operating your mind and of convincing yourself: “This tree is mine from tomorrow because I have purchased it from someone.” Neither that person who got money from you really had it, nor have you really got this tree as you imagined. But the mental operation is so very important and so very tricky that it can make you happy or unhappy. If somebody has taken away something and kept it somewhere else, you consider it lost and you grieve that it has gone. It has not gone anywhere; it is in some other location. Now, suppose the location shifts. The object is placed in another location and your mind is adjustable to the idea that it is yours; you are happy. That which is capable of leaving you, for any reason whatsoever, cannot belong to you. A thing that is yours cannot leave you. Anything which can leave one day or the other is not yours, and there is nothing in this world which will not leave you one day or the other. Therefore, it cannot be considered as yours. Hence, you should not be under the impression that you will be happy only because of possessions. In this wondrous universal context of the pervasion of God in all things and God being all things apart from being everywhere, who will possess what? Are you concocting some imaginary dream-like situation in which you can be falsely happy by a false sense of possession of existing or non-existing things?

Therefore, renounce attachment. It is another way of saying renounce the sense of possession. You do not grab anything; you cannot grab anything. Happiness is a state of being and not a consequence of possessing. God is not a possessor of the world; and do you believe that God is happy or unhappy? Is God very unhappy because He does not possess anything? Sometimes God is called Bholebaba, like Lord Siva who has not even a house to stay in. If God is the happiest of conceivable realities and if God has no possessions of any kind, then the highest happiness is not in possession. The more you feel the need to be alone to yourself as a state of being rather than a possessor of objects, the more happy will you be. The greater is the approximation that you strike to God's universal Existence, the greater also is your joy, your happiness.

Therefore, enjoy, be happy. The Upanishad does not say, “Be sorry.” Bhunjithah—“Enjoy.” Does God enjoy anything? Or is He starving? You will be wondering if the question itself has any meaning. God does not starve. He does not require any diet and, therefore, there is no question of starving. Why does He not require any diet? He is all things and so the diet is also Himself only. Therefore, where is the question of His grabbing it? If you consider God as the Ultimate Reality and all others as lesser realities, or perhaps not realities at all, your welfare consists in your approximation to God's Existence in some way, to some extent, in some measure, and not in anything else.

So, enjoy everything without possessing anything. Can you enjoy a flower without plucking it from the garden? Here is the whole point. Why do you pluck things and want to say “it is mine”? Let it be there; let the flower be there, growing luxuriantly on the plant. Let it be happy as it is and ought to be, in its own location. Why do you want to cut it off and say it is yours? Would you like someone to say that you are his? Would you like to be a property of somebody? “You are my property from tomorrow.” Would you like to be told this? You will say, “What kind of thing is this? How is it possible? I am an independent person. I am what I am and how can you possess me?” Nobody likes to be even a servant or a slave. It is a very unpleasant thing to become a servant, a slave, an underdog of somebody; and to say “You are my property” is still worse. How would you expect anyone else to tolerate this statement of yours? Even the land would not like to be told “You are mine from tomorrow onwards”. This is not a joke; in fact, there is a reference to this in the Bhumi Gita of the Bhagavata, where the earth says: “Oh, so many kings have come and wanted to possess me! Nobody really possessed me. They went and I am here as I am. Nobody possessed me! So many kings walked over me and said, ‘Oh, you are mine', but nobody took me. They went, and I remained.” The Bhumi Gita is very interesting. You will find this in the Vishnu Purana and also in the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana.

Therefore, do not be under the impression that you require possessions in order to be happy. Being enhanced is the state of happiness. Your existence has to increase in its dimension; you have to become larger, not by adding some accretions from outside in the form of property, which can never become yours, but by your ‘being' itself becoming larger. You have to learn this technique of how your being can become large.

If you can conceive of God, you can conceive of this large Being also. God is the largest expanse of Being, and is not ‘becoming', or an object. Pure Sat, Existence as such, Being qua Being is Ishvara, God. And if you know He is the happiest pinnacle of existence without having any kind of association or possession from outside, you can also be happy in the same way, provided you are able to adjust your being in some measure at least, to the extent possible, with that Great Being of the Cosmos.

Hence, the first mantra of the Isavasya Upanishad says, Isavasyam idam sarvam yat kim ca jagatyam jagat: “All this that you perceive, see, or contact through the sense organs is enveloped by God.” I have tried to explain the meaning of this word ‘enveloped', which is very intriguing, and deep connotation and significance are involved in it. “Knowing this, be happy.” Merely by knowing this, you will be happy. Are you not happy merely by knowing that you are alive? Will you be happy by knowing that you will not be alive? The greatest happiness is in the feeling that you are hale and hearty. And if you are not hale and hearty, any kind of possession is not going to make you happy. Even in ordinary daily life you will realise that your being itself is a source of happiness. “I am perfectly secure, hale and hearty; it makes me happy. However, if I am not that, then put all gold and silver on my head. Will I be happy? Crush me with the weight of a load of silver; what is the good if I am not hale and hearty?” Happiness is the condition of Being, which is you. Happiness is not some consequence or result that follows from accretion of objects into your so-called personality. This mantra is very difficult to understand. One great thinker said that if all the scriptures in the world were destroyed and if only this mantra is available to us, we need not learn anything else afterwards. Let this one mantra remain and all the scriptures be destroyed. This one verse is sufficient to save us: Isavasyam idam sarvam yat kim ca jagatyam jagat, tena tyaktena bhunjitha, ma gridhah kasyasvid dhanam (Isa 1).

Do not be greedy. Do not be possessive. Do not say “I want, I want, I want.” You require nothing, finally. Even the richest people do not sleep on ten kilometres of land. They require six feet on which to sleep. Do you think a millionaire requires a longer, lengthier bed, several furlongs long, to sleep on? Will a rich person eat two quintals of food because he is rich? He will perhaps eat less than what you eat. These are confusions in the mind. Wealth and possession— accretion of objects, imagination that one has everything in this world—“I am the ruler of this earth”—these are rank illusions in the mind, and you will know this when the time comes. When everything goes, you will realise that you made a mistake in thinking that you had everything. You never brought anything when you came to this world. Are you trying to possess things which you did not bring? How did you earn this property of the world when you did not bring it with you when you came? Actually, if you have earned this property, you could take it when you go. Why do you not take it with you? You have so much wealth that you have earned through your profession; take it with you when you go. Can you? If you cannot bring anything and if you cannot take anything either, how is it possible for you to possess anything in the middle? The logic is: that which is not in the beginning, and not in the end, is also not in the middle. It is a total delusion, which is hard to understand and difficult to appreciate. A bitter pill is this knowledge. But this is the truth, and this is what the first mantra of the Isavasya Upanishad says.

I have told you there are four instructions in this Upanishad. The first one is the fundamental, philosophical doctrine—the basic philosophy, not merely of this country, but of humanity as a whole. It is possible to thrust all religions into this one single verse of the Upanishad, i.e., the first verse—isavasyam idam sarvam…, as one can thrust things into a hold-all. All philosophies, all religions, all doctrines go into the hold-all of this one verse of the Isavasya Upanishad. Well, that is wonderful. This is the metaphysical foundation of philosophy and the highest peak of human thought.

The second mantra says: “Everyone has to do something.” Knowledge of the Supreme Being does not mean idleness of personality. This is something even more difficult to understand than the earlier mantra. You will say: “If God alone is, why should I do anything? I will keep quiet.” Here, in saying so, you make the mistake of having a wrong notion about yourself. “I will keep quiet.” Which ‘I' is keeping quiet? Is the body ‘I' keeping quiet? Is the mind ‘I' keeping quiet? What is meant when you say: “I shall keep quiet because God does all things and He is all things”? It is a consciousness of a peculiar condition of your personality that makes this statement. Here you have made a blunder. Your statement that you need not do anything implies your acceptance of your being an individual nevertheless, a body-mind complex, in spite of your theoretical and intellectual acceptance of the omnipresence of God. This is something very interesting, which may also look very difficult; but if you remember this, you may not have to learn anything else afterwards.

It is a wrong notion of yourself that makes you conclude that one can keep quiet without doing anything because God does all things. Then how do you come into existence as an idle person, if God exists everywhere and God is all things? Do you believe that you have also negated yourself, and your existence is abolished? If you really feel that God exists and He is all things, it is wonderful. If you are convinced that you do not exist and you have melted into the Cosmic Being, why should you feel the need to say that you need not do anything? In making this statement, you have made a mistake due to a wrong concept of your individuality that has crept in, even as you appear to be making a correct statement from your point of view.

The concept of the Absolute is the subject of the first mantra. The concept of individuality is the subject of the second mantra. What are you, in the light of this conclusion that God pervades all things and God is everything? If you are cautious enough in exercising your thoughts in this context, you will be compelled to conclude—and feel, too—that you cannot exist at all. You do not any more exist. It has gone. Your so-called ‘me' has gone  into the Universal ‘I'. Such a feeling, intellectually, is appreciable and conceivable. Practically, you cannot accommodate yourself to this consciousness because you can feel this hard body when you touch it with your fingers. So the Upanishad says: “Do not be in a hurry. Go slowly. Do such things as will gradually widen the concept of your personality, or individuality, and make it commensurate with the supreme universal personality of God Himself. This is done by the duty which is to be performed.”

Yesterday I made a brief reference to the concept of duty. Duty is the work that you do in participation with a larger whole—an organisation, a family circumstance, a national setup or even the universe itself. Actually, work in a spiritual sense is not something that is done in some way, for some reason. “I am doing something”—that is not the point. The work that you do as a duty becomes valuable—and actually can be called duty and as work that has that a value in it—only if it is a sacrifice on your part by way of a participation in the welfare of a larger whole to which you belong. If you are in a family with five people, ten people, each member has to contribute something by way of a sacrifice of his personal interest for the welfare of a larger organisation, which is the group of individuals called the family. If each one sticks to his own guns, there will be no family. It will disintegrate. A family is a consciousness; it is not a bundle of people. It is an awareness of oneself belonging to a total whole, which is what is called a family. It is a conceptual entity, not a physical body. So is an organisation; so is a nation. You cannot see the nation with your eyes. You see only mountains, rivers, trees and the ground. Nation is a concept, a consciousness of a totality of values to which you belong as a citizen thereof. When you say, “I am a citizen of this country,” what is it that you actually mean? You are a citizen; it means you are a person, an entity that belongs to a total whole, which is not visible to the eyes. You have to participate in the welfare of the whole.

There are various wholes. The body itself is a whole. You have to take care of it, not torture it and kill it. The body also is an organism; it is an organisation. The family is an organism, an organisation. So is a state, a nation, an international setup, the United Nations Organisation or the whole universe of creation. In each one, in each level, you have to be a participant and not be in opposition. You should not belong to the opposite party always. You should be a participant in the welfare of the whole to which you belong. This is the duty that you have to perform. Do work as long as you are alive in this world. There is no retirement from work of this kind. There may be retirement from office work, from industrial work and so on, but there is no retirement from duty because you retire from duty only when you cease to exist as an individual. As long as personality persists, duty continues. You may live for a hundred years, if possible—shatam jivema. What will you do for one hundred years? You will be doing duty. What is the duty?

A person who has not understood the meaning of the first mantra will not understand the meaning of the second mantra either. They go together as associates, like the right hand and the left hand. You will not be able to understand what duty is, in the sense of this self-sacrifice for the welfare of the whole, unless you know what the whole is. I gave you a traditional list of several wholes. The ultimate whole is the Absolute Being. All these lesser wholes are determined by the Supreme Whole. In every case you ought to be a participant. You have to participate in every way necessary for the welfare of your bodily and mental health. You should not destroy your mind and body. So also it is with your family, and so also with all the things that I have enumerated just now.

Therefore, you can be a very happy person by belonging to something, not by possessing something. The moment you belong to something, that something to which you belong will take care of you. Hence, privileges follow automatically from duties. However, these days people cry only for rights, and want no duties. “I have no work; I will sit outside. Bring my salary.” This is against the law of the cosmos. You cannot expect remuneration without doing anything. If you understand what I said, you will be very happy.