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Lessons on the Upanishads
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 5: The Isavasya Upanishad Continued and the Kena Upanishad

We noticed that among the many things that the Isavasya Upanishad has to tell us, four important instructions may be considered as very relevant. Firstly, the first mantra of the Isavasya Upanishad tells us that the whole of creation is enveloped by God. We had the occasion to consider briefly the meaning of this word ‘enveloped'. How does He pervade the cosmos? This subject we discussed previously.

It was also mentioned that you should be happy by being in communion with this creation of God, which is pervaded by Him; and your happiness does not consist in possession of objects of any kind, because any object that you wish to possess is an external feature, something unconnected with your own being. Happiness is proportionate to your approximation to God's Existence; and as God is Pure Being, happiness is connected to the extent of ‘being' that is revealed in your own individual being, or existence. The extent of God-Being manifest in your own individual being is also the extent of your joy or happiness in this world; therefore, your joy or happiness does not depend upon what you possess in this world. Therefore, do not be greedy; do not run after things. Even if the whole earth is your property, you are not going to be secure and happy, because your being—even if you are the emperor of the whole earth—is severed from the object of your possession. Therefore, possessions cannot give you any kind of security or freedom and, therefore, they cannot give you happiness. So your freedom, security and joy are determined by the extent of God-Being that has entered into you and by your entering into God Himself, not by property of any kind. Knowing this, renounce attachment. Tena tyaktena bhunjitha (Isa 1.1). ‘Renounce' is the word, but renounce what? Renounce attachment to things and be happy; enjoy all things, but do not form attachment. The more you are unselfish and the more you are detached, the more does the world become subordinate to your thoughts and orders. Nobody will obey a selfish person. The entire world of beings will be at your service, as it were, if you are unselfish, detached and want nothing. When you have emptied yourself of all your selfish cravings and desires, the world will enter into you and it will be yours. Therefore, be not greedy, and hanker not for things of this world.

Perform your duty as a participation in the work of this evolutionary process of creation and not as an individual initiative on your part. In duty, you cooperate with the existent order of things. You do not start independent initiatives which will not be regarded as commensurate with the requirements of the organisation of the universe. I also mentioned that there are various types of organisations; there are levels of organisational setups, starting with the family, up to the universe. At every level you have to be in harmony with the organisational setup. Even your own bodily personality is an organisation, and you have to be in harmony with it. You cannot be in conflict with your body or mind, or anything outside. This, briefly, is the subject that we touched upon and considered previously. These are the two essentials among the many others: the pervasion of God in all creation and the obligation of duty on the part of every person.

The third point that is driven into our minds by the Isavasya Upanishad is that there is no conflict between meditation and action, or knowledge and work. Usually we feel there is a conflict. The more we work, the less we are able to meditate; and the more we want to meditate, the less we have to do work, so that when we are in absolute meditation, no work should be done. Also, we think that a person who is busy with doing things cannot meditate. This is our idea about things. The Isavasya Upanishad gives a new emendation to this concept. I am not going into the technology or the traditional meaning of the verses connected with the subject. I am briefly mentioning to you, for your own information, their significance.

Knowledge and action have to be understood in their proper connotation. You have to decondition your mind a little and give up all preconceived notions of knowledge and action. You may be under the impression that knowledge means knowing something—reading books, accumulating information, having a degree, and acquaintance with the sciences and the arts of the world. But, knowledge is not necessarily this. This is informative and a gathering of structural knowledge of the outer form of things. The inner essence is not gained by ordinary academic learning. You do not know anything in its essence, but you know how it behaves, how it works, and what its structure or pattern or formation is. True knowledge is the insight into the being of things, the Self of all things; and action—about which you have already learnt something recently—is also to be understood with regard to what it actually means.

When you do something, you seem to be occupied with something and, therefore, you feel you cannot be occupied with meditation at the same time. This is the problem. But the question is: When you do proper work as a duty incumbent upon you, are you occupied with something which is not good for your welfare? The conflict imagined to exist between knowledge and action arises because of the feeling that the aim of knowledge is not in harmony with the aim of work. You do work for a purpose which is not really what you want, finally—whereas what you want is something else altogether, which is the aim of knowledge. This is what may be in the minds of people. Actually, knowledge and action go together. The Bhagavadgita highlights this by saying that karma must be based on buddhi yoga. Understanding precedes action, and action minus understanding is a mechanical routine.

An important aspect to be remembered is this: all actions are not liberating; only unselfish duties are liberating. Thus, when action is performed as duty, any kind of cooperation of yourself with the whole to which you belong is liberating in its effect because the whole to which you belong—the organisation—liberates you, takes care of you, protects you and sees to it that you are taken care of in every way. But if you are in disharmony with the whole and you do any kind of selfish work, then the reaction set up by the whole—to which otherwise you integrally belong—will harm your endeavours; you will not reap the fruits of those actions which you have individually undertaken under the wrong impression that you will reap the fruit. You will not get anything out of selfish action, because you are organically related to the whole organism of the creation of the world. This is a fact that you forget when you individually take initiatives and when you expect the fruit to follow from your individually motivated action.

That fruit does not always follow, because the means and ends have some connection. You cannot adopt one kind of means and expect another kind of end. The means—in the ordinary case of people—is a selfish motivation, but the end that you expect has to be sanctioned by the structure of the whole. The world is not under your control and it cannot actually listen to your commands. The fruits are in the world. The world is not your property and, therefore, you cannot order the world to bring something to you. You may order the world, under a different circumstance, but as an individual isolated from it, wholly stationed in a selfish perspective, you cannot give an order to the world. The world will obey you, as I mentioned earlier, provided you are in harmony with the world. Selfishness cuts off all harmony with the world outside. The meaning of selfishness is individualised affirmation: “I am something and the world is another thing. I have no connection with you.” This is the essence of selfishness. But, if I have no connection with you, what can I expect from you? So, the very purpose of selfish action is defeated by the manner in which it is undertaken. You cannot expect anything from the world from which you have segregated yourself deliberately; and you know very well that without that segregation, you will be unable to assert yourself independently. You have a feeling that independent assertion of an egoistic type always brings some fruits, and that abolition of individualised personality is a real loss. There is thus a basic error in the very conception of what is good for you.

You lack knowledge, truly speaking. Study of books on science and philosophy, art and religion may also bring you some information, but the secret of life in the world seems to be so deeply a question of insight that it cannot be gathered easily by study of any book. You can never recognise in your daily life that you have made a mistake in your behaviour with the world. Everything looks all right for you. When you walk on the road, what is wrong with you? Everything looks fine; you are seeing beautiful things all round. You have already asserted yourself. The whole purpose of the Upanishadic teaching is the liberation of the Self. It is not to give you some sweetmeats or pleasantry and make you comfortable in the psycho-physical sense. This is not the intention of the Upanishadic knowledge.

Hence, knowledge has to be construed in the sense of the apprehension of your true relationship with the world of creation outside, which is—to put it briefly—organic and vital. It is so because of the fact it has already been decided that God pervades the whole of creation. Therefore, you cannot stand outside this pervasive aspect of God. Independent motivation, therefore, gets ruled out. The Being of God, having enveloped the whole of creation, includes your being also in the enveloping action. So, where are your independent assertion and your individual existence itself? And, where is the individual motivation? Expecting a fruit from individualised selfish action is something like wanting a property. The fruit of your action—which is externally placed in the world, which you desire and long for—is actually a property that you are asking to possess, and it is mentioned in the very beginning that possession is not the source of happiness. So, knowledge is not commensurate with individual affirmation—egoistic motivation. All true knowledge, which is jnana proper, is the wisdom of life that lights up your personality with the clear vision of your continuous relation with every speck of the world in every nook and corner of creation. You cannot do anything privately. There is no such thing as a private corner in this world. With this knowledge, if you undertake an action as a duty, it certainly stands in a state of harmony with this knowledge because you will not any more be motivating an active process for the purpose of an extraneous result or a remote end.

All ends that you expect, all fruits of actions that you desire, are placed in the future, in the time process, which is yet to come. You do something today, just now, and you expect some result of action to follow after some time. This ‘after some time' is the futurity of it. All actions individually motivated are, therefore, bound by time and, therefore, they are also binding in every other way. All bondage is the bondage of the time process. Only the entry of timelessness or eternity into your life can liberate you. You have to live in the present much more than in the past and the future. But if you worry about the past and get aggrieved about the future, the present is obliterated from your vision. Then the crocodile of the time process will consume you completely. Knowledge and action go together because action is nothing but the movement of knowledge itself. As the movement of waves on the surface of the ocean is in fact a movement of the ocean itself and there are no waves actually speaking—the ocean itself is moving—in just the same manner, all action is the movement of knowledge. Everything that you do from the point of view of this knowledge of the Upanishad is God Himself working through you. The Bhagvadgita also says that you are an instrument in the hands of God—nimittamatram bhava (Gita 11.33). You are like a fountain pen that writes; the Writer is somebody else. You are a tool or an instrument; the Handler is somebody else, because you are a part and God is the whole. The whole determines the part, so you cannot assume the role of the whole while you are only a segment of the totality to which you belong.

Hence, make not the mistake of imagining that you can grab this world and have a lot of property, wealth, land, etc. You will not get it. You may appear to be getting it, but it is an illusionary presentation before you. You will be clouded with a delusion that things are under your control. You will find that nothing is under your control. Even the body is not totally under your control; it is working in its own way, and you have to cooperate with it. No process—individually, socially or outside—is entirely under one man's control, because there is a total wholeness that is operating in all parts, in which we are also participants.

We have to deeply contemplate this great significant teaching of the Upanishad that contemplation is action, and action is contemplation. In Germany there was a great mystic called Meister Eckhart. He used to humorously say, “If you want to meditate more, work more. If you want to work more, meditate more.” What is this contradictory statement? Because work requires a lot of energy and participating capacity in the structure of the whole which is this creation, this capacity to participate will manifest itself through internal contemplation. So if you want to work more, you have to meditate more. And if you want to meditate more, you have to work more because of the fact that your meditational process also is a kind of work, in the sense of an internal participation in cosmic affairs. Psychological participation becomes meditation, and any kind of gesture that you make outwardly to manifest this internal contemplation becomes action. Thus, meditation manifests itself as action and action energises the process of meditation. Therefore, make not the mistake of isolating action from knowledge.

The greatest masters who lived in this world were very great active participants and great masters of wisdom and meditation. They lived as highly energetic participants in every kind of work and were in union with the realities of life within. As a matter of fact, if you create a kind of rift between two things, even mentally, you are creating a rift in your own personality. A personality rift will manifest itself as a rift in society, social behaviour and all things in the world. An alignment of personality will be marred by a psychological rift that you create by the very thought that what you do has a duality behind it—namely, knowing one thing and doing another thing. What you think, that you say; what you say, that you do; what you do, that you speak; and what you speak, that you think. Karmanyekam vachasyekam manasyekam mahatmanam: “Great souls have only one thing in their action, in their speech and in their thought.” And the same verse is repeated in the case of opposite personalities: karmanyekam vachasyekam manasyekam duratmanam. One thing in action, one thing in speech, one thing in thought is the characteristic of great people, but with a different shift, the same thing is the case with people who are paltry and unknowing. What do they do? “One thing is their action, one thing is what they say, and one thing is what they think.” It is a shift in emphasis, but the words are the same.

So the Isavasya Upanishad tells us again, as a third instruction, that knowing is being, and action is the movement of being, and action is also what is called becoming. If the whole process of creation itself is a manifestation of God's Being—the greatest action that you can think of at any time—why should not your action be a manifestation of your being? And your being is nothing but the knowledge of your being. If God's knowledge of His own Being can reveal itself as the wondrous work of this creation, why should not your knowledge of your being manifest itself as your actions? How is it that you find a difficulty?

Here is the essence of the whole matter. If you cannot remember everything, remember at least these two sentences. They will act as a recipe for you to memorise these thoughts. If God's Being can manifest itself as the wondrous action of creation, and inasmuch as your being is inseparable from God's Being, it stands to reason that your actions also should be a manifestation of your being. Therefore, there is no conflict between your actions and your being, which is nothing but the knowledge of your being.

The fourth instruction is: There is no difference between creation and God. The Universal and the particular, the Eternal and the temporal, God and creation, purusha and prakriti, the internal and the external, whatever word you may use, stand always in a state of harmony. God is not outside the world, and the world is not outside God. God is not extracosmic, as some thinkers may tell us. He is not a deus ex machina. He is not an instrumental operative force standing outside the material of creation. We bestowed some thought on this previously. The pervasion of God in all creation rules out any kind of extra-cosmic existence of God. He is not outside the world, standing somewhere in the seventh heaven and fashioning this world as a potter fashions the pot. God is not merely the efficient cause or the instrumental cause; God is also the material cause. In the case of the pot, the potter is only an efficient cause; he is not the material cause. That is, he himself does not become the pot; he has an external material. But in the case of God, external material does not exist because He is infinite. This world, therefore, is a revelation of God. We have to use words carefully here. We cannot say He has modified Himself, changed Himself, transformed Himself, nor can we say He has become something else. We cannot say that, because He has not become something else. He is as He was. In the past, present and future, He exists in the same condition.

Purnam adah, purnam idam, purnat purnam udachyate, purnasya purnam adaya purnam evavasisyate (Isa. Invocation): The eternal Wholeness, which is God's Existence, manifests His Wholeness which is this creation. This creation is very vast. It looks infinite. This infinite creation has come out from the infinite, timeless Eternity which is God. That is the meaning of purnam adah, purnam idam: “That is the infinite, this also is the infinite.” Mathematically there cannot be two infinites and, therefore, the coming out of one infinite from another infinite is to be understood in its proper sense. When this infinite comes out from the infinite, there is no diminution in the infinitude of that infinite. It remains nevertheless the same infinite. Purnasya purnam adaya purnam evavasisyate: Having taken the infinite from the infinite, the infinite always remains without any kind of lessening of its quantum.

If God was totally outside the world of creation and you were part of the creation, there would be no ladder or link between the world and God; there being no linkage between you and God's existence; there would be no propriety in even attempting to attain God. But, this world is a revelation of God. He Himself appears as this world. This is the reason why through this world you can attain God. Even the littlest material in this world can act as a ladder to climb to the pedestal of God's existence. There is no atom in the cosmos where God's eternal Soul is not present. Here, just now, you can enter into God without moving anywhere else because of the pervasion of God in all creation, even in the littlest atom. So this creation in which you are also included, being pervaded by God Almighty, cannot stand outside Him. And your concept of God—as the creator of the world—should require proper educational discipline, in case you have the wrong notion that God is far away and He exists as a creator of the world at a distance. This is the fourth instruction that we can gather.

The Isavasya Upanishad is pregnant with many other wise sayings, all of which we will bypass for the time being. It is enough if you know these four instructions: 1) God envelops the whole cosmos. 2) It is incumbent on the part of every individual to perform duty. 3) Knowledge and action are always in a state of harmony. 4) There is also harmony between God and the universe.

I shall briefly cover the theme of the Kena Upanishad, which has a very interesting anecdote. The anecdote is attached to the teaching of the Kena Upanishad. You will be highly pleased to hear the story and also to know where you stand in this world of creation. We always say that we do things. “I have tilled this land; I have planted this tree; I have won victory in war”—do we not say that? Are we justified in making such statements: “I have done this and that”?

It appears that in the heavens there was a battle between the gods and the demons of yore, and the demons were overthrown. The gods won victory and patted themselves on their backs and exclaimed, “Oh, we have won victory! Oh, we have won victory! Oh, we have won victory!”

The Great Being, God Almighty, thought, “These fellows, these gods, are thinking that they have won the victory and all the strength comes from them. Let me teach them a lesson.”

This Great Being appeared as some frightening spectre and sat on the top of a tree, near the abode of the gods. The gods just beheld it. “What is this peculiarly structured spectre?” they wondered.

All the gods went to Indra and said, “Sir, something frightening is sitting on the top of a tree.”

Indra called one of his emissaries, the god Agni, and said, “Go and find out what it is.”

Agni is the god of fire—what power! The whole earth, everything he can burn to ashes. Agni went and looked at this spectre, and It asked, “Who are you?”

“I am Agni, the god of fire.”

“Oh, I see. What can you do?”

“I can burn anything to ashes. The whole earth I can reduce to ashes,” replied Agni.

“I see,” said the spectre. It placed a little piece of grass in front of Agni and said, “Burn this.”

It was an insult to Agni. “You are asking me to burn a piece of grass!”

Agni ran with great speed to burn it to ashes, but he could not even move it, let alone burn it. He tried again and again, and he failed in the attempt to burn the blade of grass though he had the strength to burn the whole earth. He could not understand what had happened. He went back and told Indra, “I cannot understand who it is. Send another person.” He did not say he was defeated. He only said, “I do not understand.”

Then Indra sent Vayu, the god of wind.

“Go and find out what is the matter,” Indra told Vayu.

Vayu went and the spectre asked, “Who are you?”

“I am the wind god,” Vayu replied.

“What can you do?” asked the spectre.

“I can blow away the whole earth,” said Vayu.

“Now, blow away this,” the spectre said, and it put a little blade of grass in front of Vayu.

Vayu was insulted. “You ask me to blow a blade of grass!” And Vayu blew, but nothing happened. The grass would not move. He was also defeated, and returned to Indra.

Vayu told Indra, “I do not understand anything. You can go yourself and find out.”

When Indra went, the spectre vanished. The Upanishad does not clearly tell us why it vanished when Indra went, when it was visible to the other two gods. Anyway, there are lots of commentaries explaining why it happened in that manner. It is not very important for us. When Indra went, what he saw was not the spectre, but something else. Uma Haimavati was visible there. The Devi—Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Uma Haimavati, the Shakti of the universe, the Power of the cosmos, God's Energy—was there in the form of a divine enchanting medium and told Indra, “What you saw was the Supreme Creator Himself. You were under the impression—very, very wrong indeed, Indra—that you won victory over the demons, these rakshasas. What strength do you have? You cannot lift even a blade of grass. All the strength came from that Being. He was operating through you, and you felt that you did the work. In order to subdue your ego, the Creator came in this form and taught you a lesson.” Having said this, Uma Haimavati vanished from that place.

We also have such instances in the case of the relationship between Sri Krishna and Arjuna. We know the power of Arjuna. Nobody could stand before him. He could stun anybody who stood in the way. When he took up his Gandiva bow and his arrows, the earth trembled under him. But when Krishna departed from this world, Arjuna could not even lift a stick, let alone the Gandiva bow. Sri Krishna was within him as the energising universality and did all the work, though Arjuna acted as an instrument. When the power was withdrawn because the purpose of the manifestation of the power in that manner had been achieved, Arjuna became an ordinary mortal, so poor and helpless that even a shepherd could drive him away.

We should not be proud. None of us should be proud. Arrogance often leads one to say to another, “What do you think you are? Come over here!” You should not speak like that. Everybody knows what kind of person you are. Why do you parade your ignorance? Go and tell the elephant standing in front, “What do you think you are?” Go and touch it and see! Ego is an abomination. It is the worst evil in this world. Ego is the Satan who rebelled against God, asserted independence and said: “The entire kingdom is mine. And God, You mind Your business!” Whoever rebels against God is ego, and if you assert your individuality, you are rebelling against God that very moment. As there is only One Being in the universe, how can there be another being—Mr. so-and-so being? This is not possible. Therefore, every act of yours with the consciousness of your doing something is a rebellion against God, which is very dangerous and unbecoming on your part. You have to be humble.

Trinad api sunicena taror api shisnuna amanina manadena kirtaniya sada harih (Siksastaka 3), says Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu: “You are not fit even to take the name of God if you have egoism in your nature. Humbler than a blade of grass on which anybody can tread, more tolerant than a tree whose branches anybody can chop off, giving respect to others and expecting no respect from other people—such a person is fit to chant the name of Hari, the Great Being.” You cannot proudly chant the name of God and say you are doing kirtan. That serves no purpose. You will be surprised that every action of yours is finally a manifestation of your ego, either covertly or overtly. Sometimes you purposely manifest your ego and project your pride, knowing that it is so. Sometimes, unconsciously, you pat yourself on your back.

Who is seeing? Who is hearing? That question is raised by the Kena Upanishad in the beginning itself. You may be thinking that the eyes are seeing, the ears are hearing and the nose is smelling. Nothing of the kind is taking place. The Smeller is somebody else. If the eyes are seeing, a corpse also can see, because the corpse has eyeballs. No function or sensation is possible when life is withdrawn, as you know very well. The life force is the pervasion of psychic power in your personality. If the mind is withdrawn, the energy will also not be operating in the manner required, as the mind, the psychic power, is nothing but the power of the Soul.

The Cosmic Soul, operating through the individual soul, energises the buddhi, or the intellect, through which it is reflected as knowledge and understanding. Secondly, it is reflected through the mind and, thirdly, it is reflected through the energy, or the prana. Fourthly, it is reflected through the body, and you feel as if you are alive. The body—which is nothing but a corpse, lifeless in its nature basically, composed of five elements, earth, water, fire, air and ether—appears to be living, grand and  beautiful because of a portion of the life of the Soul, or the Self, which is revealed through this personality. The Universal Soul is manifest in the individual soul, the Atman—as it is called—in you. It is reflected through the buddhi, or the intellect; that is reflected through the manas, or the thinking medium; that passes through the prana that energises the body. Then the sense organs begin to operate; then you say: “I am doing; I am seeing; I am alive.”

The Kena Upanishad says, in the very beginning itself, “He who sees through the eyes, He who hears through the ears, He who breathes through the breath, He who thinks through the mind, He who understands through the intellect, know Him.”

“There is no use understanding things,” says the Kaushitaki Upanishad. “There is no use knowing what you are understanding. You must know the Understanding itself.” Understand the Understander, which is more beneficial to you than to know what is being understood by the understanding as an external object. Now I understand that there is a tree in front of me; I can see it. But, that is not enough for me; I must know how it is that the understanding is able to understand that there is a tree in front of me. Who understands the understanding?

These layers of transmission of energy from the Cosmic Soul to the individual soul, from the individual soul to the intellect, from the intellect to the mind, from the mind to the prana, from the prana to the body and to the sense organs have to be known very clearly. Neither is the body really alive and active, nor are the sense organs capable of perceiving things as you imagine. Neither is it true that the prana is working of its own accord, nor can you think through the mind independently; nor is it true that you understand through your intellect; nor is it  true that you are existing even as an individual isolated being, but for the fact of the Universal revealed through this particular point in space-time, which is called the Atman proper, the Soul.

Both these Upanishads—the Isavasya and the Kena—tell us almost the same thing, only in different styles. The emphasis of the Upanishad is ekam sat viprah bahudha vadanti (R.V. 1.164.46), which is a mantra from the Rig Veda. “Poets, sages, masters, men of insight and wisdom call the One Being by various names.” All the colours and hues, all the names and the forms, all the movements and the forces and the activities in this world are, in one way or the other, the revelation of the One Being, Ekam Sat, One Existence. This One Existence is all the other existences which you are attributing to the forms of the objects of sense. Your existence and my existence and the existence of this desk and table, everything—they are participations in the Universal Existence. Thus, God-Being is All-Being and our existence has no significance except as a participating medium in the existence of the Universal Existence. Virtually God is, and nothing else is!