Isavasya Upanishad for Beginners
Half hour talks in Hindi translated into English
by Swami Krishnananda
असुर्या नाम ते लोका अन्धेन तमसाऽऽवृताः ।
तामस्ते प्रेत्याभिगच्छन्ति ये के चात्महनो जनाः ॥ ३॥
asuryā nāma te lokā andhena tamasā vṛtāḥ,
tāṁs te pretyābhigacchanti ye ke cātmahano janāḥ (3)
Now, īśvara’s satta has come in the first śloka starting with īśāvāsyam idaṁ sarvam. But who is this īśvara? This knowledge is given in the ślokas 3, 4 and 5. Here ātman is the primary word. This word hana in verse 3 means to destroy, kill or demolish. And it refers to those who kill the ātman, i.e. those who commit suicide. What is committing suicide? It means that you yourself, by your own self, destroy the ātman. In the waking consciousness, the ātman is identified with the ‘body; in the dream state the ātman is identified with the mind, and in deep sleep-state, you do not know what is to be identified with what, for there seems to be nothing at all. So, during all the three states we do not understand what this ātman is, nor its nature. To engage oneself in action without realising what this ātman is, or understanding its nature, is to act contrary to its nature. This is referred to as killing the ātman. You make a prisoner of your own self. It is something surprising that you do acts against your own self! Doing actions which are not good for you, which cannot bring you the right fruits, is what is spoken of as killing of the ātman. Not understanding one’s own self and thereby destroying the self by doing irrelevant and wrong actions, in a wrong manner, is suicide. To think that the ātman is the group of organs or the mind, is to invite sorrow; for these are not the ātman and such a knowledge is neither correct nor true. And so, the farther you are from the self or the ātman, the greater is your sorrow. This is the cause for your rebirth. Who but you causes your rebirth? None but yourself causes it. You build your own prison-house and get into it. The reason for rebirth and for getting another body is due to your wrong identification of the ātman with the body. Therefore it is, that desire and anger, attraction and repulsion arise in you. These qualities belong to the aggregate of this body and not to the ātman, and, they bring about rebirth. The first mistake you commit is the wrong understanding that the ātman is the body. Next you commit the mistake of saying that objects are outside you. Then you connect yourself with them and say: ‘I am connected with these objects and I must obtain them’, or, ‘I must avoid them’. This results in seeking connection with the outside world. Now we land in this mess of wrong knowledge and we are caught up in this mess of wrong knowledge. This mental condition ends in rebirth bringing in its wake, desire, anger, lust, hatred, etc. etc. This state of affairs is designated by this Upaniṣad as tamas, darkness.
The third śloka next states that such darkness prevails in the asurya lokāḥ, i.e., the world filled with asuras, the demons. In other words, it is a world filled with the demoniac wealth, a veritable kingdom of the demons. Some give the meaning of this phrase differently. Asūrya is split into a and sūrya and they give the meaning as the worlds where there is no light. There are two types of darkness; one is physical caused by the elements of nature, known as ādhibhautik; and the other is ādhyātmik relating to one’s own self. The latter darkness is always existing in us, because of which we do not have self-knowledge. To be without God-consciousness is to be in darkness. This the Bhagavagīta also states : To the jñānins to whom Light of wisdom shines this darkness appears as nonexistent; it is light for them, for they see everything clearly. On the other hand, what we see with the light of the physical sun only, to the jñānins that, is darkness, i.e., they do not see the objects of this world as we see them. The jñānins see only the Reality behind the objects. Hence what is darkness for us is light for them. The world of phenomena which we see does not exist for them. We see the phenomena of the world with but the light of the physical sun, because we are not conscious of the real nature of the world-phenomena. Such a phenomena is night for the jñānins. The sages live in the ātman, while that life in the ātman is night for us. To the jñānins full of the knowledge of the self, there is no darkness of the spirit, and they see the Supreme Reality directly. It is different with us; not only are we ignorant of the spirit, the Supreme Reality, but also caught up in the veil which covers it—the āvarana śakti. This āvarana śakti is something in addition to the darkness, the ignorance which causes rebirth. It is not that it is merely the ignorance which causes darkness, it goes further, beyond even this condition and sees that which is not there. This further blunder is vikṣepa which means a perverted view. The confusion due to ingnorance causes jñānins which results in seeing that which is untrue and in remaining blind to what is true. This is the condition we are in. It is one thing not to be able to see at all, but quite another thing to see wrongly. Both these conditions are two types of ajñāns, viz., the veiling, and the perverted view. All that we see outside us as earth, water, fire, air, ether, the physical body, etc., is but the mischief of this perverted view, caused by the vikṣepa śakti. First, the veiling power makes a fool of us and next the vikṣepa śakti puts before us an illusion. The veiling power makes the organs act and they act busy chasing after an illusion created by vikṣepa. Sri Sankarcharya describes vikṣepa as the whirlwind that throws up dust and covers everything, when the sun is already covered by the clouds! First we forget the ātman, next we get hold of something else as the ātman. Thus in one breath we commit two wrongs, first we forget the sat or the real and next we catch hold of the asat or the unreal. This is the nature of the world experience. We are like the monkey caught in a trap. Some sweets were placed in an empty cocoanut shell with a small opening. The monkey slowly thrust one of its hands into it and took as much of the sweets as the hand could hold. When it wanted to take out the hand, the opening being too small, it could not, and it would not let go the sweets! So it is caught. [Swamiji enacted this story. As he narrated it acting the monkey struggling to get its hand out of the opening in the cocoanut he roared with laughter along with us.] We are also caught like this. We do not let go the world and yet we wish to pull out of the world to save ourselves. Thus we are caught up in the chain of birth and death. And so long as we are unaware of the Self and far from the Absolute, we will remain in darkness, for we are then under the force of the power of the sense organs and the mind forgets the atman. For, to be under the sway of the sense organs is the same as forgetting the ātman. So long as the mind is supported by the sense organs only the objective world alone appears as real. The ātman cannot rest peacefully in any limited time or space; and this is an unalterable fact and a psychological truth. When the mind loves an object, it does not consider it to be different from the self and considers the object as part of itself. The object being identified with the ātman, when this loved object is lost, there is a feeling of having lost a part of one’s very self. One feels as though a limb of the body is cut off because one feels, I am the object, and what happens to the object happens to myself. To thus live in a world of wrong identification is to live in the world of objects, or the asūrya loka. To live in the world of objects is the characteristic of samsāra. And this is our present condition. To consider objects as outside us is to bind ourselves to them and we exert ourselves to pull them towards ouerselves. This is samsāra. How can objects be identified with the ātman? This can never be. This is why we live in asūrya loka, the world of darkness. We think we are in the bright daylight of the sun. But this daylight is but a kind of spiritual darkness. Schopenhaur has written a book called “The World as Will and Idea”. The crux of his writing is that all knowledge which we have acquired by our intellect and rational thinking is also a kind of illusion. For, intelligence exists in foolish people also, and conversely a foolish man also can be an intelligent man. Intelligence and knowledge are not the same thing. Intelligence is acted upon by the veiling power, the āvaraṇa śakti, understanding and knowledge by vikppa Sakti or preversion in assessing the information brought in by the indriyas. Both these affect the action performed. Not only do the indriyas cover the Truth behind the objects, but also veil the understanding, thereby giving rise to wrong actions. The two meanings, side by side, are taken together for interpreting the term “The world of darkness”.
One who forgets the ātman is the one who commits suicide, not he who hangs himself with a rope. Forgetting the ātman is killing the atman and this is the suicide referred to in the mantra. Forgetfulness of God is ātmahatti or ātmahana. Such people are destined for the chain of rebirths. The Kathopaniṣad also says: Living in the midst of ignorance and considering themselves intelligent, the non-discriminating persons suffer in this cycle of birth and death (I-2-v). For they who live in blinding darkness, who do not know the ātman, are the killers of the Self; and we are in this state. So we must understand that we will take birth where no knowledge exists. Tam te pretyābhigacchanti ye ke cātmahano janāḥ. To save one’s self from this kind of birth-death cycle, one should purify the mind by methods already indicated, i.e., doing karma as an offering to īśvara, īśvarapraṇidhāna, as sage Patanjali puts it.