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


Verses 9-11

The next three slokas have a single thread of thought and they have to be studied together. They are treated as one group.

अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति येऽविद्यामुपासते ।
ततो भूय इव ते तमो य उ विद्यायाँ रताः ॥ ९॥

अन्यदेवाहुर्विद्ययाऽन्यदाहुरविद्यया ।
इति शुश्रुम धीराणां ये नस्तद्विचचक्षिरे ॥ १०॥

विद्यां चाविद्यां च यस्तद् वेदोभयं सह ।
अविद्यया मृत्युं तीर्त्वा विद्ययाऽमृतमश्नुते ॥ ११॥

andhaṁ tamaḥ praviśanti yo’vidyām upasate,
tato bhūya iva te tamo ya u vidyāyāṁ ratāḥ (9)

anyad evāhur vidyayā anyad āhur avidyayā,
iti śuśruma dhīrāṇām ye nas tad vicacakṣire (1O)

vidyāṁ cāvidyāṁ ca yas tad vedobhayam saha,
avidyayā mṛtyuṁ tīrtvā vidyayāmṛtam aśnute (11)

These verses have to be understood properly. It is difficult to understand the real import of these mantras. Commentators give all kinds of possible meanings, and each commentator expounds the meaning from his own point of view. For, the mantras lend themselves to all those meanings and interpretations.

From the view point of Ramanujacarya and Madhvacarya, the Mimamsakas, the Naiyayikas, and the Bhakti school there are various interpretations, each from the point of view of its own philosophy. Hence, there are different interpretations for the same words. The terms vidyā and avidyā have been variously interpreted. Sanskrit grammar, Vedanta, kārikās or commentaries, etc., again have got their own interpretations for these words. But all are agreed that vidyā and avidyāupāsana should not be done separately, but together, and each in equal measure to the other i.e., well-balanced. The great ācāryas state that knowledge of an object and the object of knowledge are different. They are never identical. This is their estsblished view. And this is accepted by all. They say that vidyā and avidyā have different meanings. The latter, avidyā is useful in the world of actions performed under motivation and which, therefore, bear fruits. Motivated action seems permissible for they are causes for the effects in end. But, if this meaning is followed up, we would arrive at a wrong interpretation in the context of the rest of the verse. The verse states that we should equalise jñāna and ajñāna and should not adhere to either the one or the other alone. How is this to be done? The meaning is very deep indeed. The whole purport of the verse depends on these two words with their literal meanings and their real import in the context.

The ācāryas’ final conclusion is that knowledge of īśvara cannot be obtained by karma alone nor by knowledge alone, avidyā referring to karma and vidyā to knowledge. Avidyā or karma will yield fruits which have a beginning and an end. And so, attainment of Godhead is not possible, and in order to enjoy the fruits of karma several births have to be taken. This is falling into utter darkness, which in other words is samsāra. This is the established conclusion in the ultimate analysis. But what is its real meaning? The verse further states that if upāsana, devotion, is offered only to avidyā, you will enter into darkness; and if you do upāsana of vidyā alone, it is still worse, for you again enter into greater darkness. He who understands the correct meaning of vidyā and avidyā and thereby brings about a balance between them and does upāsana on this balanced understanding, such a man crossing the world of death, attains immortality. This is stated in verse eleven.

But, what is the correct meaning of these two words? No one can establish the meaning with any finality. Some ācāryas say that knowledge and the object of knowledge are not one and the same thing. Our knowledge of this table is not the table. These two are not identical. Likewise, knowledge of īśvara is not therefore īśvara. Our knowledge that it is a table does not mean that we have become the table. So, to have knowledge of īśvara is not to become īśvara. This view is accepted by all commentators. Scholarly knowledge alone, it should be admitted, cannot bring about the knowledge of the Self. To pundits, karma being taken as avidyā, these scholars well versed in the scriptures, will not even speak about it, leave alone engaging in karma. If vidyā and avidyā are combined in this negative way excluding karma, it will defeat its purpose—this is the view of the ācāryas. The Mumasakas’ view is that through karma, īśvarasākṣākāra or attaining to Godhead is possible. But īśvara is not an object of knowledge and He cannot come under any viṣayākāravṛtti i.e. modification of the mind in the form of an object, projected outside of Him. And karma has Godhead as an object, external to it. So this view in combining vidyā and avidyā is not satisfactory.

The ācāryas of the bhaktimārga state that love of God alone can give īśvarasākṣākāra. To love God, to dedicate all work to God, to be lost in God, to be united with Him in thought, word and deed, without break for even a second—this alone can lead you to the attainment of God-head or Immortality. According to them, bhaktimārga is therefore vidyā, and avidyā the karma in this path. The knowledge of the scholastic pundits divorced from karma cannot lead them to mokṣa, for they, as stated already, completely avoid all karmas. They completely eschew karmas, and therefore, do not attain the final Goal of life.

We generally take that the world is one thing and īśvara is another thing and that the two are different. But through the experience of the sense, we also infer that there must be a cause the result of which is all that the senses perceive. The world appears solid before us. The physical body also appears so. As long as we are in the body, we have to accept the world, for the body is in the world. But we cannot get darśan of īśvara in the same way as we perceive the objects of the world. Knowledge of īśvara is deductive knowledge. Though we cannot see Him, we can all the same have knowledge of His Existence. The changing condition of the world leads us to the inference that a condition exists, where no change should exist, for change always seeks its end. So, we conclude that we can neither be satisfied with the world alone, nor with īśvara alone. We have to take both together. The Bhagavadgita also tells us that you can forget neither God nor the world. So our duty falls towards both with vidyā and avidyāaparokṣa jñāna of the world and parokṣa jñāna of īśvara. They are in other words direct and indirect knowledge of God. Therefore, our updsana of both should be done. So, combine these two and mokṣa is yours.

Through another interpretation of these two words, vidyā and avidyā, we come to the conclusion that the world is not in reality different from īśvara Existence, they appear as distinct from one another, due to nescience. So, our duty to the world seen as distinct from īśvara is of the nature of avidyā and is not vidyā. Therefore, it is that we are asked not to accept God and the world as separate entities. Because of īśvarasatta’s presence, the world appears to exist. Between them there is really perfect harmony. We cannot therefore consider the world as separate and unconnected with īśvara. The world is a distinct fact for us, so long as we live in the body. For, we have already noted that the body is a part of the world. The trouble is that while the body and the world are experienced as solid facts, īśvara’s Existence in connection with it is only an inferential knowledge. But again, the restless and changing nature of the world visible to us goads us to contemplate on the truth behind it. Deep reflection leads us to the conclusion that our upāsana should be a combination of both these types of knowledge. On one side is the ever changing condition of the world, and on the other side is the perfect harmony and system in its working—the appearance, as also its substratum-both are facts—and neither can be left out. The substratum is vidyā and the action based on it, our bounden duty is avidyā. God’s existence is without a body, non-physical in every sense. Our bounden duty is to the world; and though based on God alone as its substratum, it is avidyā, because the world is unreal. In essence, the instruction is that we should do our duty to the world, based on the knowledge of īśvara. And this is karma yoga. This is also parallel in thought to the tantraśāstra which says: ‘you can also rise by that by which you fall’.

The world is the face of God, it is the symbol of God, a reflection of God. This is why we say that God is in everything. So long as your body exists you only see the names and forms in the world. It is in this sense it is said that our bounden duty to the world comes under avidyā. So karma and īśvara-jñāna must be combined together in upāsana. When karma is done as devotion to God, there cannot be greed for ends and means. The fruits of bhakti and karma practised separately, are different. They then are vidyā and avidyā respectively. So these two types should be combined in the adoration of God. Mokṣa can be attained.

Acarya Sankara’s commentary may appear to be different to what has been discussed so far. His method is to get hold of a subtle meaning of the words and through analysis of this subtle point establish his case. He always advocates the advaita philosophy. This is how he explains the words vidyā and avidyā: the knowledge of the world is avidyā and knowledge of God is vidyā. The world of objects is presented to us by our sense, and we accept it as real. We are not conscious of the thread of Consciousness running through each and every object. There is no conviction also that there must be some connection between this seen world and the unseen īśvara. The experience of the world of objects is direct, but that of God is indirect. And yet an undercurrent of a vague feeling exists that there is something that is the cause of all that is perceived, and that this something is the reason behind the incessant change and activity in this world. There is also this feeling: the jīva, the phenomenon of individuality and the world are not īśvara. He is a different entity; but all the same, there is connection between the īśvara and the world. The cause of the existence and experience of the world seems to be the presence of īśvara in the world. So, we live in the world living the life of the jīva, and also accept that īśvara is the cause behind everything. That is to say, our conduct in the world of objects as jīva can be stated to be avidyā, while our acceptance of isvara’s presence in the world, to be vidyā. Our dependence on God as the substratum is vidyā; and our life as we live it in jivahood is avidyā. Neither can īśvara be separate from the world, nor the world can exist as an entity independently. So long as we are in the world with a sense of separate existence as the jīva, the world has to be accepted as though it is real. The world stands before us in all its solidness as an object which all the indriyas-the senses can directly perceive. This experience of the physical world by the jīva is blinding darkness; for the experience is of the world which has no reality of its own, So we should take vidyā and avidyā to be one single factor and not as two which have to be combined in our upāsana.

The cārvākas (materialists) argue to a definite end and say that there is nothing other than and beyond the perceived world. If you accept this view or again that of the naiyāyikas (the logicians) who almost completely accept the philosophy of the vaiieyikas), then you are in the wrong path and will reach the wrong end. In other words, you will fall into blinding darkness. Because you will get lost in this cycle of endless transmigration, great will be your suffering, pain and grief, as a result of following wrong paths such as these.

How then to reconcile vidyā and avidyā? This seems to be a very hard task to accomplish. Know that the world is the face of God. This is the secret of existence of the world. He is sarvāntaryāmi, and therefore, dwells in all, in every being, sentient and non-sentient. So, the world must be accepted and cannot be rejected completely. How can he who does not believe in a God he perceives, believe in a God whom he does not perceive?—asks a philosopher. As said earlier, the tantraśāstra says that, that by which we are caught, even by that itself we can be liberated. This world can do both, it can catch us in its hold and at the same time, it can liberate us also from its hold. To be devoted to the world alone or īśvara alone, will only be acceptance of a part and not the whole. To think of the world alone apart from God, is to reject the latter. Neither should you dislike the world, nor be attached to it. And taking both God and world together, your duties to the world must be done in the light of this knowledge of God. All actions should be an offering to Him, as a bhakta does. Īśvara is the culmination of all activities.

Furthermore vidyā and avidyā can be considered as the two counterparts of the one whole. Thus vidyā can mean knowledge, introversion, transcendental, eternal, subtle, Existance, Clod and meditation; and avidyā may, therefore, mean their conterparts, viz  karma, extroversion, empirical, transient, gross, the law of God, the world and worship.

The sum and substance of all this is that we should adopt a wise combination of avidyā. In other words, the trick you should adopt in sādhana is to bring about a harmony between God and the world. But, we fail in this work of harmonising, for we always hate either the world or God. To us God and world always seem to stand opposed to each other. The characteristic quality of the spiritual neophyte is to hate the world, and that of the materialist is to hate God. But the hand of God is in the world, in every atom of it. He has his finger in all creation. It is only that the impure mind does not reflect God.

By niṣkāmyakarma, unmotivated, desireless action, the mind can be purified, and by meditation one can attain God. For meditation on God, the pre-condition is purity of mind. Without purity of mind, meditation is impossible. If the mind is full of the vibrations in the form of desires or thoughts of various kinds on the objects of the world, meditation or controlled thinking is not possible. The mind cannot become one-pointed. One-pointedness is exactly what the mind has to achieve before one takes to meditation. Unmotivated actions or selfless work is a great help in purifying the mind and acquiring this one-pointed thinking or concentration. Work done as one’s duty in life where there is no hankering after the fruits thereof, is selfless work. Doing your duty comes as the law of the universe and it is not therefore in your power to escape doing it.

There are two levels in which the law of the universe works. One is universal and the other is transcendent. The eternal law operated by īśvara at the transcendental level is satya while ṛta in Vedantic parlance is that eternal law manifested in the universe as the law of creation. You will have to accept both. You have to see the one in the other. No partial acceptance can help you. Doing unmotivated or selfless action is to accepting both. And by doing your duty thus, you will be established in vidyā or the knowledge of God. Even so doing karma is termed avidyā, because while the world exists in īśvara, it does not exist in His transcendental aspect. The Bhagavadgita also says: “He who sees Me everywhere and sees everything in Me, is never separated from Me, and I am not separated from him.” The Kathopanisad also says: What is here is verily there, and what is there is here, likewise. So combine these two satya and ṛta which are the universal law working at the two levels; this is combining vidyā and avidyā in one upāsan; and this verily is the work of a hero.

Vidyā and avidyā have to be taken together and combined for the very reason of our being in the world as a limb of it. This is the real significance of the saying: ‘when you go to Rome do as Romans do’. It becomes necessary for us, living as we are in this world, to do our duty as selfless work. This means that work should be done in such a way as to transcend it, i.e., rise above the fruits thereof. We have already seen that karma can bind us only if done without the knowledge of God; and we can also keep it well under our control, when we know the truth about the nature of karma and its relation to God. The truth is that all karma is based on īśvara-sattā. Physical existence is a compulsion for doing karma. Like the lion in the forest, karma can eat us up if we separate it from the substratum of īśvara-sattā. Bnt once we know the secret of karma, even as the lion is controlled by the circus-master, karma remains under control and loses its binding character. The circus-master knows the secret of controlling the lion, because he possesses the knowledge of the lions’s nature and behaviour. In the same way, once you are in possession of the secret of karma, it can he kept under control. Karma is a double-edged sword. When you know how to handle the sword, you conquer your enemies. A sword in the hands of a soldier vanquishes the enemy, and the same sword in the hands of a child can be the source of the gravest danger to itself and others. If you do your duty ignorant of the true nature of karma divorced from the knowledge of God or vidyā,karma will bind you. Know the secret of karma by uniting karma with vidyā. When thus we do our duty knowing the truth of it, we combine avidyā with vidyā and we attain God, and we are saved from the cycle of birth and death. Understanding īśvara-sattā does not mean attaining Godhood; it is unifying the existence of God and world that achrives this.

What is the cause of death and rebirth? The cause is motivated action, sakāma karma. Unmotivated action does not cause re-birth; it will gradually take you to Godhood. To be liberated from the bonds of karma is the same as obtaining īśvarajñana. To be free of all disease, is to be healthy, although the literal meanings of health and disease are different. To be free from disease and to be healthy are not two different states, but one and the same. To combine īśvarajñana and karma is synthesis of yoga. When through avidyā you get beyond the clutches of karma, you overcome death, and through vidyā you obtain liberation. We arrive at the same goal. Overcoming death and attaining immortality are one and the same thing. This is the conclusion of all ācāryas; Madhvacarya, Ramanujacarya, and all great siddhas also affirm the same conclusion.

Sri Sankaracarya has a different explanation. To him, vidyā and avidyā do not have in this context their dictionary meaning of knowledge and action respectively. He says depending on the interpretation of the word jñana there is a deeper meaning than the literal meaning. The whole set of the different interpretations is based on this single word jñana, knowledge. The other ācāryas say that an object and the knowledge of it, are ever separate and never identical. To know īśvara-sattā is therefore not becoming it. But, to Sri Sankara, the knowledge of the world is knowledge of the thoughts of the objects of the world, or viṣayākāravṛittijñana is īśvara-sattā is the stand the ācāryas takes. Now, the world of objects is ever changing. What does this mean? The individual mind in knowing an object envelopes the object and identifies itself with it for the time being. Thus it is that the mind gets the knowledge of an object. The ever-changing nature of the world is due to this peculiar process of the mind, and perception of variety is the result. When knowledge is thus based on the modification of the mind, the objects will definitely be external to you. Through the extroverted knowledge you cannot know īśvara. For, such knowledge and the object of knowledge will always be separate, never identical. The mind projects the object and limits it in space and time; it then desires it and runs after it. But īśvara cannot be limited by time and space. Limitation and all-pervasiveness are opposed to each other; the one cannot be the other. The knowledge of the world, being viṣayākāra vṛitti, is obtained through the senses. Knowledge of God who is beyond the senses, cannot be obtained through the senses, because they do not have the capacity to go beyond the two factors of time and space. If īśvara were also in space and time, he would not be īśvara, but only naśvara, the perishable. He is not an individual whom the senses can perceive. Individuality has the characteristic of changing. That which has a beginning must also have an end. The senses cannot perceive that which is unchanging and permanent. Therefore, they cannot get īśvarajñana which is unchanging, eternal and imperishable. Sri Sankara’s great siddhānta is—yad-dṛśyam tat naśyam—that which is perceivable is perishable. The world of objects is perceived, and is therefore perishable. It is the individual, the jīva that sees the world of objects through its senses and mind. Hence, what is perceived is not the knowledge of īśvara who is omnipresent i.e. who is unlimited and exists everywhere. Īśvara is not an object that can be perceived by the senses. He is the subject who is the seer of objects. Therefore, the viṣayākāra vṛitti or knowledge of the world cannot be combined with knowledge of īśvara or īśvara jñana, as it is termed.

The means to obtain īśvara jñana, is a different and separate one. It cannot be combined with any other kind of knowledge. Jñana or knowledge is of three kinds: (1) prātibhāsika (illusory), (ii) vyāvaharika (empirical), and (iii) pāramārthika (absolute). The first is that knowledge which says that there is something before us, though there is really nothing, as in dream. Here, the internal subtle impressions in the subconscious mind appear as external objects. This is unreal. The internal impressions get projected into space and time which are also mere projections of the mind. This illusory knowledge cannot be of any use in the waking world and it vanishes when you wake up. This leads us to the conclusion that knowledge with which action is possible in the waking state, is different from this type of illusory knowledge.

The empirical knowledge is known as vyāvaharika knowledge. We can benefit by this knowledge and this is a little better than the illusory dream-knowledge. For, in this—the vyāvaharika knowledge—the object stands outside us and an idea of the object exists inside the mind. We, of course, do not know the ultimate truth of the object, say a tree in front of us; yet the mind understands that there is such an object before us and that it is a tree. This is the practical knowledge over which we have no control whatsoever. For, in reality we do not know the truth about the tree. Yet we do know something of it. We may say that in these present conditions the empirical knowledge is unlike the dream-knowledge, for it is not only in the mind, but outside also. This knowledge is of a separate type existing in its own right; but that does not prevent us from getting the ultimate knowledge. Such is the nature of vyāvaharika or the practical, empirical knowledge.

Pāramārthikajñana is that knowledge which is neither inside us nor outside us. It is neither introvert nor extrovert. It is neither in the mind nor in the world. It is neither like the illusory dream-knowledge, nor the empirical knowledge of the waking state. Pāramārthika knowledge is Absolute knowledge, for nothing exists beyond it. It pervades and transcends all other knowledge. Hence, Sri Sankara says, that while it is possible to combine empirical knowledge with action, such a combination is not possible in the case of Pāramārthikajñana. In the empirical world, object and knowledge are separate and so they can be combined. Therefore, karma (avidyā) and knowledge (vidyā) can come into combination. Vidyā is not pure knowledge, though it is not the extroverted knowledge of the world. Here knowledge is separate from the world. So karma is possible and can be done through combining it with updsana, (meditation).

The physical body is connected with the world and the same body is also connected with the fruits of its action. Karma and its effects are ever inseparable. The result of karma is the transformation of the mind which is ever changing due to its nature. And this constant transformation taking place in space and time, and also conditioned by them, can cease only in an unchanging permanancy. Action is an effect of the mind and is possible only when there is the limitation of space, time and object i.e. deśa kālā vastu pariccheda. The object and its knowledge are of the same kind, because both are the modifications of the conditioning mind, although the knowledge of a tree and the object the tree, are two different factors. Though we understand the knowledge of an individual as finite, in fact it is infinite, for jñana is not divisible. But so long as we take knowledge—jñana to be vyāvaharika it would be something outside us. However, this type of jñana has empirical existence, and it is possible to do karma in the light of it; i.e. jñana and karma can be combined.

But if you take pāramārthikajñana to be the meaning of vidyā, with what will you combine this! And again, how do you know that vidyā is pāramārthikajñana, for, outside the pāramārthikajñana nothing exists. There is nothing beyond it, and there is nothing which it is not. As long as we take karma and jñana to be of equal status, having a common ground, we can take them as karma and upāsana and combine them. Two individual entities can be united. But is jñana individual? Knowledge of the objects is a transformation of the mind. This knowledge we get by the mind covering the object. By this process it perceives an infinite number of objects. This knowledge is knowledge of something outside it, in space and time; in other words, it is finite knowledge. How can this finite know the Infinite, despite all it knows in terms of its vastness in space, time and number! It is the mind again that thinks that īśvara is infinite. Is jñana different from the mind or one with the mind? If you think that jñana is different from the mind, then it becomes an object. But jñana is different from the object jñana. Jñana is non-different, indivisible, all pervasive, rooted in and the inner-controller of all. Such is pāramārthikajñana. Therefore, it cannot be combined with avidyā. If we take that the meaning of vidyā is this jñana. Then, with what will you combine this pāramārthikajñana? In the vyāvaharikajñana also you can argue thus: the object, say a tree, is external; but the knowledge of the tree is internal. But can we say that this jñana is real jñana? Can the knowledge of the tree be separated from the idea of the tree? Are these two different pieces of knowledge? Can one piece be cut away from the other? Neither are we omnicient. Pāramārthikajñana is not an object. Who then can piecemeal it or know it? None.

Let us, for argument’s sake, assume for the time being, that jñana is divisible. All right. But, the question arises, who gave you that authoritative intelligence to make that assumption? How did you know that it is divisible? It is only through jñana that you say you know this. Has jñana, knowledge become the jñanin, the knower of knowledge, to tell you, ‘my knowledge is authoritative and full’? If thus jñana has attained its fullness, it is its culmination. To know it as such, is to attain cidānanda, Knowledge-Bliss. Now the question is whether it is our intellect that thus attains Knowledge-Bliss, or is there something else beyond it? This Knowledge-Bliss is of such a nature that It covers everything, is everywhere and contains all in itself. How then can the finite intellect know the infinite? How can we think that knowledge which the mind can possess, is complete and full knowledge? The mind is of a finite nature, a thing which is not the full. Thus we see that (knowledge is really indivisible, though it appears divisible. Who makes this apparent division in the indivisible Knowledge? It is through the help of Knowledge itself that we say that Knowledge is limited. However to know the limited is also to know the limitless or the unlimited. If we know that the world is finite how can our knowledge which is finite know the Infinite? But, we want to know, and become the Infinite. This indicates that Knowledge or jñana is Infinite.

There is a further argument, says Sri Sankara, to show that there is support for this view in this upaniśad itself. It says that we should combine vidyā and avidyā and attain mukti, liberation. If this is so, this would be the path of kramamukti, i.e. attainment of God step by step. This is different from sadyomukti, immediate liberation. The prayer of this upaniśad is: ‘O! Sun, O! agni, take me by the right path”. It is true, that in sadyomukti there is no question of either a path or going through it. But pāramārthikajñana does give sadyomukti. Therefore, it is quite clear that avidyā and vidyā both come under vyāvaharikajñana and not pāramārthikajñana. Besides we exist on the level of physicality. The world is vyāvaharikabhūmi or the plane of empiricity. Therefore, combine the object of the world with the knowledge of them in a proper way, in a discriminating manner, and then engage in kriya and karma, action and duty. Know that īśvara is not limited by space-time factor; neither perceivable nor perishable. To do karma is our duty, for we of the world, are not intrinsically different from one another. World and God are not different from one another. Understand that God is the world and hence the world is Divine. Know also that God is not limited and is not like the world of which it is commented that that which is perceived is that which perishes. Act in this knowledge. Do your duties of the world in this knowledge. Knowledge of the world, the world, and your duty to the world are inseparable. We now come to the end of this set of three slokas, viz.. 9th, 1Oth & 11th.