Isavasya Upanishad for Beginners
Half hour talks in Hindi translated into English
by Swami Krishnananda
अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति येऽसम्भूतिमुपासते ।
ततो भूय इव ते तमो य उ सम्भूत्याँ रताः ॥ १२॥
अन्यदेवाहुः सम्भवादन्यदाहुरसम्भवात् ।
इति शुश्रुम धीराणां ये नस्तद्विचचक्षिरे ॥ १३॥
सम्भूतिं च विनाशं च यस्तद् वेदोभयँ सह ।
विनाशेन मृत्युं तीर्त्वा सम्भूत्याऽमृतमश्नुते ॥ १४॥
andhaṁ tamaḥ praviśanti ye’sambhūtim upāsate,
tato bhuya iva te tamo ya u sambhutyāṁ ratāḥ (12)
anyad evahūḥ sambhavād anyad āhur asambhavāt,
iti śuśruma dhīrāṇām ye nas tad vicacakṣire (13)
sambhūtiṁ ca vināśaṁ ca yas tad vedobhayaṁ saha
vināśena mṛtyuṁ tīrtvā sambhūtyā amṛtam aśnute (14)
The above three slokas 12, 13 & 14 also must be taken together for study for the same reason for which the last set of three was taken together for discussion. These two sets of three slokas speak of vidyā and avidyā from different points of view. It should be noted that while verses 9-11 speak of vidyā and avidyā in the microcosm, these three 12-14 speak of the same in the macrocosm. The two sets of slokas speak from different standpoints.
Avidyā and vidyā in the first are parallel in concept to asambhūti and sambhūti respectively in the second set. Asambhūti is unperceivable to the senses. It is also known as avyakta or the unmanifest as against vyakta which is manifest and perceivable to the senses. Asambhūti causes birth; sambhūti is the born. But sambhūti is not the way creation can be said to be born from īśvara. For, asambhūti is both cause and effect; hence it is parallel in concept to avidyā; asambhūti or the state of being unborn is not in the same sense that Mara is the unborn. The state of equilibrium or sāmya-avasthā in a sambhūti is due to the equlibrium maintained among the qualities sattva, rajas and tamas. And sambhūti is, to have birth: it is an effect. All effects have causes. The cause for sambhūti is asambhūti or avyakta the Unmanifest. Sambhūti is the effect. The former is the unseen, and the latter is the seen. Since asambhūti is unperceivable, it cannot be known through the senses. The kathopaniṣad says: Higher than the senses is the mind, higher than the mind is the intellect, higher than the intellect is the mahat and higher than the mahat is the unmanifest. It is from this manifest known as prakriti, or the mahat-tattva known as hiranyagarbha also the sūtratman is born. He is the first born principle the, one source of all gods; His another form is virāt.
These verses instruct us that we should do upāsana of the combination of asambhūti and sambhūti. The previous set of verses tells us that vidyā and avidyā should be combined into one upāsana; that we should not think of the world and īśvara as different; and that our duty to the world and the world are inseparable. This upāsana or meditation will bestow liberation from the effects of actions. Having liberated us from the clutches of death, the meditation will further take us to immortality. It is this same idea that is now being followed up with asambhūti and sambhūti. By a combined meditation of asambhūti and sambhūti we get liberated. Through asambhūti we overcome death, and though sambhūti we attain immortality. Just as verses 9-11 tell us that meditation of avidyā and vidyā is not two different but one upasāna alone, these verses 12-14 which are complementary, instruct us to combine the upasāna of asambhūti and sambhūti. The first set says: Do not think of karma divorced from the individual, the two being inseparable, have to be combined in one upāsana. The knowledge of the world and our duty to the world go hand in hand. Combination of knowledge and karma is combination of vidyā-avidyā. This gives krama mukti; through avidyā one crosses over death and through vidyā attains immortality. This is the way for us who are in the world forming limbs of it, and therefore, a part of it. Do not think of yourself as different from the world, for you and your duty to the world are inseparable. The second set of three verses 12-14 says that we should not think of the world as different from īśvara. Thus, these two sets of verses are complementary to one another.
Now asambhūti, the unmanifest causes the birth of the first born hiranyagarbha. In other words, the source of Hiranyagarbha is avyakta or mūla-prakṛti of the unmanifested cause. Mūla-prakṛti is insentient. The senses cannot know it because they are born of it. How can the result know the cause! And these verses say that the unmanifested and the manifested must be combined in the upasāna.
Who are those that do upasāna of the avyakta? What is prakṛti laya to which this upasāna leads? Prakṛti laya is the state of this manifested world merging in prakṛti. But this is not the final state in which the jīvas merge into to para-brahman the Absolute. Laya means to melt into or dissolve in. That which is merged thus cannot come into creation again. But this is just what happens after prakṛti laya which is like the state of deep sleep. The condition of the body and mind that come out of sleep is just as it was before going to sleep. Similarly, when creation begins, out you come from prakṛti laya in exactly the same condition as you entered the laya. Nothing has changed in you or about yourself. You start all over again where you left off before the prakṛti laya. This is not therefore the final dissolution into the Absolute, it is only a process of involution. The individuality does not finally vanish but remains in seed form, hibernating so to say. If this pralaya is the seedless state of ultimate liberation, how can those who enter into this condition be born again at the time of creation? What happens is this. Those that merge in prakṛti maintain jivahood. Now those who meditate on sambhūti are those who meditate on the cosmos, that all creation is a single unit and that prakrti is not separate from consciousness. Here we should remember that we have already stated prakṛti to be insentient and hiraṇyagarbha is the first-born principle. The jivahood is maintained even though they merge in prakṛti laya. By asambhūti upasana even though the jīvas become one with īśvara when next they emerge (from prakṛti laya) they are born as lords of the cosmos. The jiva emerges though qualified to be lord, but there is no merging or complete dissolution. And further Sage Patanjali in his aphorisms brrefly indicates that avyakta prakṛti causes creation by itself undergoing changes, and reabsorbs the creation. And so merging in prakṛti is not the end of change or in other words, change has not reached its end. These three verses discuss what happens in the upasana of the unmanifested and the manifested separately and why they should be combined.
Let us examine what is Unmanifest and why meditation is done on it. We combine vidyā and avidyā in the microcosm. But the world is in the microcosm and they cannot be separated from one another. All the same, we do make this mistake and meditate either on the one or the other exclusively, as if one is divorced from the other. Inasmuch as these two upasanas are not different from those on vidyā and avidyā, they also have to be combined into one meditation. Vidyā and avidyā relate to the microcosm. In the same way, asambhūti and sambhūti are with reference to the microcosm. The Nasadiya Suktum describes mūla prakṛti or the avyakta in these words: in the beginning, all this was just darkness as it were, unknown, indefinable, un-arguable, as though everything was in a condition of deep-sleep; in a state pf utter oblivion, And Manu says: prasupta iva. Meditation on the unmanifest leads you into blinding darkness, that of the manifest into even greater darkness. So, combine them into one single upāsana, cross death in the form of samsāra (so called because of the endless transmigration) through the former and attain immortality through the latter upāsana. Thus, we see that these verses have the same purport as verses 9-11.
Those who consider śakti upāsana as the highest, following the tantra sāstra, get but poor results. For meditation on śakti takes one only to prakṛti laya. And this has re-birth inherent in it in the seed-form. The upaniṣad under study states that prakṛti laya is the sleeping state of macrocosm; and knowledge of the Absolute is not obtained and one does not get omniscience either. Therefore, it can be stated that this prakṛti is a kind of ‘darkness’, a state of tamas or inertia at the beginning of creation. In śakti upāsana, śakti and śakta are taken as different. Śakti, maya, prakṛti or asambhūti are all one and the same. Really there is no division between śakti and śakta. When śakta is separated, how can śakti exist even in name? So, this upāsana leads only to prakṛti laya which, as already seen, is a lower attainment and not the final mukti. So, this is not the right type of upāsana.
In the process of meditation on sambhūti, it is taken that Consciousness is different from the world, so we perform action for a desired result. Here, there is the desire to enjoy the fruits of one’s good deeds. Action must give its result and this result is transmigration. In this meditation since Consciousness and the world are considered different, the combination of sambhūti and asambhūti will be through avidyā and this will not take you to mukti. The same mistake is being committed when vidyā and avidyā are considered as separate. Lord Manu gives five characteristics for avyakta or mūla prakṛti: (1) Complete darkness, (2) Unknowable, (3) of the form of tamas, (4) indescribable and (5) similar to deep sleep. So meditation on this also fails to bestow final mukti.
Again, even though it is cosmic in character, it is only upāsana, and the object for upāsana in which avyaktam is taken as an object, i.e., you consider that you are different and the avyaktam is different and you are meditating on the other. The cosmos is not really different from the Supreme Consciousness. This is why sambhūti and asambhūti must be combined to get ultimate liberation. You should not confuse this upāsana with what the Chhandogya Upanisad describes as the vaiśvānara vidya. The essential difference between this upāsana of the Isavasya Upanisad and the vaiśvānara vidya of the Chhandogya Upanisad is that in the latter, the cosmos and Consciousness are considered distinct from one another, while in the former this defect is avoided.
Sambhūti by itself is not the door to mukti. If you wish for krama mukti, sambhūti should not be considered as separate from asambhūti in meditation; for, as already seen, either of them taken separately, will lead only to darkness. They are not two but one single, united, combined sadhana. This is what we have seen in the case of vidyā-avidyā upāsana in the microcosm. And, so long as you take sambhūti as different from asambhūti, the upāsana on vidyā and avidyā also becomes not possible. The Supreme Consciousness is not different from the world. Avidyā is not different from the world, and the world is not different from īśvara. The former statement is contained in the first set of three verses (9-11) and the latter in the next set of three verses (12-14). These six verses are very instructive and upāsana has been very picturesquely explained in them. Just as we should not take the world as different from ourselves because we are in and not out of it, even so, the world should not be considered as distinct from īśvara since it is in Him and not outside Him, as explained in verses (12-14).
To continue the study of upāsana on the manifest and the unmanifest, let us find out what these two terms signify. God as transcendental and therefore different from the world is the Unmanifest. Knowledge of the structure of creation is the manifest. To take them as separate and different from the Supreme Cosmic Consciousness, is to treat them as distinct in meditation. Our present concern is to find out the object of meditation. We get the fruit of sadhana according to the attitude we take towards īśvara. Sage Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad has said: As you think of the world, so does the world think of you. When you separate īśvara from the world in your meditation, how can you expect any return from īśvara? There is no chance of īśvara coming into the picture at all. As you think of God, so will He think of you. God will respond to you only when He is meditated upon. If īśvara, you and the world are considered different, there can be no connecting link between them. Even so, if you meditate separating īśvara from the world, you are within the realm of ignorance and re-birth is the result. Whether you take the Supreme Consciousness as different from the world, or take the world as different from the Supreme Consciousness, both concepts are wrong. For, neither the subject separated from the object nor the object separated from the subject, can help us attain the ultimate liberation. Therfore, the knowledge of the objective world and the knowledge of the Supreme Consciousness must be combined in sādhana. And this combination is the existing reality. We have seen that the essence of the objective world is not separate from the Supreme Consciousness, though this is what one cannot understand easily, This lack of understanding is the problem.
One may say that inasmuch as asambhūti upāsana leads to prakṛti laya, it can also destroy Death. In prakṛti laya you reach blinding darkness, this is what Madhvacarya and Ramanujacarya say. But Acarya Sankara says that asambhūti upāsana, it is true, will take you to īśvaratva or lordship of the universe; you will also get all the eight siddhis but destruction of Death is not possible. Sankara interprets vināśa to mean destruction of Death. Prakṛti laya cannot be taken as this destruction for, vināśa is that in which everything is totally destroyed. The merging of the effect into the cause is not death. Death is getting caught in the cycle of birth and death. Getting out of this cycle is crossing Death. What is the reason for your getting into samsāra? If you get at the reason, you can get the result also. It is desire for objects that gets you caught in samsāra. This desire activates you. You cannot escape experiencing the fruits of your actions. So back you come into the world, after death. You alone are the cause of this transmigration; no one else is the cause. Destroy this cause behind the cycle of rebirth and thus conquering death, attain mukti. By combining vidyā and avidyā and combining sambhūti and asambhūti, you will escape death and will attain Godhood.
Removal of the individuality and the objective world through vidyā-avidyā updsana in the microcosm, and the removal of the differentiation between the Supreme Consciousness and the objective world in the macrocosm, both lead to the same result, graduated liberation or krama-mukti and both give freedom from death. However, both these types of upāsana are extremely hard and can be practised only by very advanced sādhakas.
A Guru is absolute essential for either of these meditations. This necessity is illustrated in the story of King Asvapati in the Chhandogya Upanisad. He was a great jnānin and also a great performer of sacrifices. Once six brāhmanas went to him while he was engaged in the yajnasāla performing sacrifices. They told the king that they had come for alms. The king thought that they wanted food, clothing and such material objects, and so told them to wait till he got back to the palace. But the brāhmanas said they did not want any material object but wanted alms in the form of Supreme Knowledge. The king was shocked and said that while they were brāhmanas he was a kshatriya, in the lower scale of social division, and he was not therefore competent to instruct them. But the brāhmanas explained that they had come to him not as brāhmanas but as seekers and disciples and insisted upon the king to be their Guru and teach them the correct method of meditation by which they could obtain ultimate liberation. Thereafter, the king enquired from each of them, on what they had been meditating till then. They replied that they were meditating on one or the other of the aspects of the Reality (as separate and entities in themselves). The king said: “Good you have come to me now. If you had continued your meditations, you heads would have been blown to bits.” And the brāhmanas were then instructed on the correct and combined type of meditation.
Taking the ātman to be limited in space and time is one blunder we make. The second is that we separate the ‘seer’ from the ‘seen’. These two mistakes will be set right by combining karma and knowledge in your duties to the world, and combining the objective world with the Supreme Consciousness in your meditation. These are the central teachings of this Upanisad and are therefore very important.
To enumerate once again: there are two kinds of practices needed to achieve liberation. One is to escape getting caught by karma by combining it with knowledge. The other is to free oneself from desires through dispassion and discrimination. Both these practices of training the mind helps to firmly fix oneself in the Supreme Consciousness. Both in the microcosm and macrocosm, there are two ways of completely detaching the mind. Detach it by removing the desire for objects by vidyā-avidyā updsana (verses 9-11). Detach the mind from the world of objects and fix it in the Supreme Consciousness (verses 12-14).