Isavasya Upanishad for Beginners
Half hour talks in Hindi translated into English
by Swami Krishnananda

Verse 2

Next, śloka No. 2 explains what our duty is. What is our duty? It is to act for īśvara as His agent and not to act for your own self as an individual, a personality. If we should dwell on, meditate upon, and run towards Him and towards Him alone, we must do our duty also as an offering to Him; this has already been concluded earlier. We must understand that the world is but īśvara’s pratibimba, a reflection of Him. Thus we should have the feeling, ‘I am nothing, I have no standing, I am entirely dependent on Him alone’. With this feeling we should do our duty.

All these elaborations are given in the form of at apho­rism; in this śloka the very first in the Īśāvāsyopaniṣad. By reading between the lines, we get all this fund of meaning. Īśvara fills the universe, it states. This means, what? It means that as the bimba (the original) is, so is the “pratibimba” (the reflection) bimba and pratibimba—to say this, is to say that what is pūrṇam is seen in the reflection also as “pūrṇam”. Īśvara, is sat-cit-ānanda. And since īśvara fills this world, it follows that everywhere there is sat, everywhere in this world there is cit, and

In short, īśvara is everything. Existing everywhere, He is the ultimate Cause for all; He is also all this effect in the form of the universe, in every atom of the universe, sentient or insen­tient. Understanding this, with the help of this knowledge through tyāga, (sacrifice of the individual personality) be happy, enjoy ānanda without letting greed for others’ wealth enter your mind. With the conviction that īśvara, the parama sattā, the parama puruṣa alone is your wealth, you can enjoy the whole universe. With no thought other than of Him, as His agent, you must perform your duties. As much as you are self-less, so much this ānanda pervades you. In this one śloka is condensed all the purport of all the texts on dharma.

Now there is another question arising out of this state­ment. Man’s individual intellect is but a poor one in compari­son to what has to be understood. He is after all human, an individual personality filled with desire, anger, jealousy, etc. How are we to conduct ourselves in life so that we may do all our duties as God’s agent? Once you concede that īśvara is the Supreme Existence you have to offer all duties unto Him as the Supreme Doer. On this statement again arise a number of questions. Life is not easy. It is a very difficult problem. It is not a joke. Jīva’s predominant characteristic is action. The whole life is action, whether it is of the mind, speech or the other limbs of the body. Everything in life is caught in a mesh of action, In these circumstances, placed as we are, how should we do our duty? What is that kind of action? Is there any particular karma? Is there any particular disci­pline according to which we should do it? Or can we do it in any way we can? What is action? What is its cause? What is the effect of that cause? What form does the effect take? What is its process? So on and so forth, such questions arise. Answers to these questions, we get in the second verse.

कुर्वन्नेवेह कर्माणि जिजीविषेच्छत समाः ।
एवं त्वयि नान्यथेतोऽस्ति न कर्म लिप्यते नरे ॥ २॥

kurvann eveha karmāṇi jijīviṣet śataṁ samāḥ,
evaṁ tvayi nānyatheto’sti na karma lipyate nare

Karma yoga siddhantā is stated in this second śloka of the Īśāvāsyopaniṣad. Duty arises so long as we feel we are separate personalities and the notion of an embodied being persists. We feel that we are individuals, there are objects outside us, the world exists, the society exists, and so on. Jijīviṣa means the wish to live. As long as this idea that we want to live exists, so long action also exists. It is the will of the sattā to live; it is sattā’s characteristic; it is an īśvara-bhāvā to which the jīva adds abhiniveśa or its eagerness to cling to the body. So the jīva says: “I am not only an individual, also I must live”. So long as this desire is the basis of life, there will be the necessity to take care of the body and prevent its destruction, for the body is needed for carrying out our duties.

You should live doing your karmas as selfless, dedicated ones and without lusting for that which has not been given to you by īśvara. This is your duty, which should be performed in this spirit only. This has been told to us in the first śloka itself. Because of the present condition n which you are this placed by īśvara, this discipline of karma yoga is laid on you. This is a law that pertains to all individuals who cannot give up the notion that they are individual person. In the circumstance of your being compelled to live in a body, the mantra says na anyathā asti, evam tvayi, for you no other way exists but this and this alone, What has been given in an aphoristic form in this mantra, has been elaborately explained in the Bhagavadgīta, and what is expounded in the latter in exegesis is given in a condensed form in the former. There is no other way to do your karma but in a selfless and dedicated way. However, fear not, for karma done in this way, na lipyate, will not bind you. Karma can also liberate you even as it can bind you. It is a double-edged sword which can either cut or save you. Karma liberates you when you base all your actions in īśvara. So dedicate them to īśvara. And, action unasssociated with individuality and associated with God is liberating karma. Actions associated with one’s individual personality and unassociated with God is binding karma. All these explanations can be inferred from the meaning of this short phrase na lipyate. Well, you should understand your present position; you are in a very dangerous position. We, attached to the body as we are, are not siddha puruṣas who have Divine Consciousness. If we want to be liberated through karmas, we should understand the precarious position we are in. We should unequivocally and firmly understand that we are in body-consciousness; and that our knowledge of things here is next to nothing. Staying in this body we have to carry out our duties. We are puny individuals before īśvara, the virāt puruṣa. We are embedded in this perishable body. How much ṣādhana can we do? Not much. Little is our strength and little is our knowledge. In this state of affairs, how can we refrain from not doing our karma? And if we do karma for the sake of body alone, it lands us in pit-falls. So now, in the waking consciousness, consider yourself as one of the millions in the creation of īśvara and do karma founded on this unselfish idea. You can then save yourself. Hence the śloka assures that duty done on this understanding does not bind one. “When you go to Rome do as Romans do” is the saying. You are now in the world with only the consciousness of being just a human being, an individual, and there is no question of your having anything to do with Divine Conscious­ness. Beyond this body-consciousness and world-conscious­ness you see nothing. And yet even in this condition the jīva’s desire to live is natural. For, as already explained, this is of the nature of īśvara’s satta, the essence of Being. In īśvara there is oily pure sat (existence). Unfortunately, to this nature of īśvara, jīva adds another clause and changes its own true nature which Sage Patanjali terms as abhineveśa, meaning love of life and fear of death. Jīva now gets a desire to live and to go on and on living for ever in this body. This is jivjīṣet. Under these circumstances, karma becomes a duty, an inescapable duty, a law inseparable from life, determining life itself. Life is action. Karma and life mean one and the same thing. Karma or duty is a kind of force which connects you to the atmosphere and conditions outside and external to you. He who wishes to live but does no karma will destroy his own life and will defeat the purpose of the wish to live a long and lasting life.

You are dragged towards karma, why? Because you are a part of the universe. Every cell in your body works in accor­dance with a certain set law. What is the necessity for the cells to work according to this set law? The reason is that the cells are a part of the body. The system of the body is such that it takes work from every cell of it. So they work unceasingly night and day, inseparable from existence and continuously, inescapably, set into action. Īśvara is virāt svarūp. Even as every cell in the human body works continuously and unceasingly without in anyway interfering with the working of other cells in the same body, the body of īśvara the virāt svarūp works as the universe. Man thus is like a single cell in the body of īśvara, the virāt. And therefore, man’s duty should be done in the same way as the single cell works without interfering with the work of other parts of the body. “You will be forced to work” declares Lord Kṛṣṇa “for everyone is made to act help­lessly indeed by the qualities born of prakṛti”. That is, virāt will pull you by the ear and put you to work, stand over you and see that you work. But, how is this work to be done? As duty, without expectation of fruits and as worship to God, as has been stated in the very first śloka of this Upaniṣad.

Inasmuch as the determination to live and duty are inseparable, man should live a long, healthy life. The sandhyā-­vandana mantras also pray similarly : “May I see for a hundred years; may I hear for a hundred years; may the fire (agni) be with me a hundred years” and so on. Longest life in all health is its prayer. And he who thus wishes to live a hundred years, should do his duty and do it as karma yoga. Consider yourself as just one of the millions in the creation of īśvara and do karma founded on this selfless idea. In this way, save yourself.

These two śloka may be said to be the mūla mantras for the whole of this Upaniṣad, in the same way as the first chapter of Rāmāyana is called the mūla Rāmāyana, or the soul of Rāmāyana, because all the rest that follows is only an exposition upon the first chapter. Even so all that is taught in the succeeding mantras of this Upaniṣad are contained in the first two ślokas we have just studied.