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THE MESSAGE OF THE UPANISHADS

Book: Swami Ranganathananda


Summary: Satyendra Nath Dwivedi

“Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides.”


[Rig-Veda I-89-i]

PART 2

ISHA UPANISHAD

“The invisible (Brahman) is the Full; the visible (the world) is also Full. From the
Full (Brahman), the Full (the visible universe) has come. The Full (Brahman)
remains the same, even after the Full (the visible universe) has come out of the
Full (Brahman).”

This ‘Shanti-Patha’, Peace Invocation, precedes the Isha and all other
Upanishads belonging to the ‘Shukla Yajur-Veda’. This verse tells us that beyond
and behind the manifested universe is the reality of the Brahman, which is the
fullness of pure Being; it then tells us about this world of becoming, which being
nothing but Brahman, is also Full. Then it adds, from the Fullness of Brahman
has come the Fullness of the universe, leaving Fullness alone as the remainder.

To the purified vision of the Upanishadic sages, this whole universe


appeared as the Fullness of Being, which was, which is, and which shall
ever be.

That is the nature of the Brahman; and the theme of the Upanishads is this
Brahman. It is also the true nature of man; and a second theme of the
Upanishads is therefore the achievement by man of his true nature, the fullness
of his being, ‘Purnata’.

This is the clarion call of the Upanishads to the human spirit. Do not rest content;
the best is yet to be. Intense dissatisfaction with the present and keen desire to
scale further heights are the true marks of moral and spiritual greatness.
Wherever they are found, there the true Vedantic spirit and temper are present.

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Man must be educated in the knowledge of his divine nature. This is ‘Atma-
Jnana’, Self-knowledge, the knowledge not of our own separate ego-natures, but
of the One Self of all; ‘in Him we live and move and have our being’. This is the
knowledge that will restore to us freedom which is our birth-right.

“That from which all these entities and beings are born; That in which, being born
they live; That unto which, in the end, they enter; know That; That is Brahman.”
[Taittiriya Upanishad 3.1]

The deep philosophy of the Upanishads is not revealed to the casual questioner;
it is only revealed to the earnest enquirer who, with a ceaselessly questioning
mind, is capable of penetrating the innermost depths of his being.

The Isha Upanishad, which is always regarded as the first among the
Upanishads, has special significance. This very first verse of the Upanishad is,
as it were, a proposition, or statement that is substantial and authenticated by
every other Upanishad.

“Whatever there is changeful in this ephemeral world, all that must be


enveloped by the Lord. By this renunciation, support yourself. Do not covet
the wealth of anyone.” [Isha Upanishad 1]

This is the one great message of the Upanishads, the message of the immortal
and imperishable Self behind the mortal and the perishable. Says the Katha
Upanishad [2.2.13]:

“He is the eternal in the midst of the non-eternals, the principle of intelligence in
all that are intelligent. He is One, yet fulfills the desire of the many. Those wise
men who perceive Him as existing within their own self, to them belongs eternal
peace, and to none else.”

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Renunciation is an eternal maxim in ethics as well as spirituality. There is no true
enjoyment except what is purified by renunciation. Through renunciation and
detachment, we become identified with the immortal and divine Brahman which
is the Self of all. We see with our eyes and mind purified, this universe as the
Brahman and renounce what our small separatist ego has conjured up.

Shankaracharya, in one of his beautiful hymns [Bhaja Govindam2] addressing


man, says:

“O fool, Give up this excessive desire for wealth; yoke your mind to the good and
true, and cultivate detachment. Whatever wealth you obtain by your honest
labour, with that learn to delight your mind and heart.”

Enjoy life with zest, with the fruits of your own honest labour; avoid
covetousness, for it will lead to exploitation, which will destroy the moral life of
both the exploiter and the exploited. It is only when we become free from all spirit
of selfish exploitation that we can truly enjoy life. The world is nothing but the
blissful Brahman; and we are here to enjoy it. It is only when our eyes are
purified by renunciation that the world will appear to us in its true form, as
consisting of waves and waves of bliss of Brahman. This is the true joy of life; it is
growth; it is development; it is realization for man. It is fulfillment, ‘Purnata’, the
goal of evolution.

“In this world, one should desire to live a hundred years, but only by performing
actions. Thus and in no other way, can man be free from the taint of actions.”
[Isha Upanishad 2]

So the Isha Upanishad gives us at once two basic ideas which together
constitute the totality of the Vedantic Outlook. These two basic ideas ask
us to live a full span of life, to work with zest and joy and with a new
outlook, an outlook based on true understanding of the real nature of man
and the universe, seeing all as ‘enveloped by Lord’.

The greatest truths do not lie on the surface of life, but in its depths. “The shells
float on the surface of the ocean, but the pearls lie in its depths”, says Shri
Ramakrishna. The Upanishads are a storehouse of these pearls. Enlightened by

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this knowledge of God, the sages of the Upanishads tell us that life, including life
at the surface, is an inherent good, that we should live with joy and zest, and that
we should, in the process, also seek to find the true source of this zest and joy.

The outlook of the Upanishads is characterized by joy and cheer, by what William
James called ‘healthy- mindedness’. God’s name itself is joy in the Upanishads.
What a beautiful exposition of divine nature is found in the Taittiriya Upanishad.
[2.7]:

“He is, verily, bliss; man, verily, is blissful by getting this bliss. Who would have
lived, who would have breathed, if this infinite expanse of bliss were not there?”

This Upanishad says that the nature of God is bliss itself, and the little joys we
experience in life, even in the sense life, are but particles of that infinite bliss of
God.

Spiritual realization confers immeasurable happiness, as it connects one with


Brahman, God, which is the ocean of all bliss, of which all these are particles.

This positive, cheerful, sunny attitude to life and religion is what modern man will
learn from Upanishads. Upanishads treat spiritual bliss as the fulfillment and
completion of the joys of a perfect youth.

There is a verse in the ‘Shrimad-Bhagavat’ [11.29.22] in which Shri Krishna says:

“This is the intelligence of the intelligent, the wisdom of the wise, that a man
attains Me, the immortal One, here (in this very life) by means of the unreal and
mortal – his psycho-physical organism.”

This is the technique of religion; hence its insistence on the proper care of the
body and of the mental functions that derive from it. The health of the psycho-
physical organism is necessary for all achievement, worldly or religious. Properly
trained and disciplined, this organism will eventually land us on the other shore of
life – on the shore of illumination and immortality.

Old age is not a thing to be looked down upon; it has its own graces. The young
and the old both have a divine within; and that alone can be the locus of true
value for man; for it is indestructible and inalienable; physical capacities for work
and pleasure cannot be the true criterion of human value.

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“Thou art the woman, Thou art the man; Thou art the youth and maiden too;
Thou art old man tottering on his stick. Thou art born in diverse forms.”
[Shvetashvatara Upanishad 4.3]

Life’s problems are not to be avoided; they have to be faced. It is not escapism
that is taught in the Upanishads, but acceptance, the coming to grips with life,
meeting the challenge of life with the challenge of philosophy, with the strength of
spirituality. The greatest strength comes from the knowledge of the Atman, our
divine nature; says the Kena Upanishad [2.4]:

“Strength comes from (the knowledge of) Atman.”

Over and over again, the Upanishads exhort man to turn his attention to the
realization of his nature-given equipment of body, senses and mind.

“This Self is one. It is unmoving; yet It is faster than the mind. Thus moving
faster, It is beyond the reach of the senses. Ever steady, It outstrips all that run.
By Its mere presence, the cosmic energy is enabled to sustain the activities of
living beings. It moves; It moves not. It is far; It is very near. It is inside all this; It
is verily outside all this.” [Isha Upanishad 4, 5]

In Vedantic language, space or ‘akash’ is taken as the nearest symbol of the


Infinite and the Absolute, Brahman or Atman.

The theme of the Upanishads, clearly stated in these two verses, is that the
Atman is One and that It is everywhere. It is the One behind the many, sustaining
the many. Being infinite and all pervasive, It does not move; but It appears to
move through association with the moving mind and senses, through being
viewed through the ‘human spectacles’ as Jeans expresses it.

Logic is in fact a very poor instrument to help us understand the depths of truth.

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Thought is a force subtler than a nerve impulse, subtler than even light, and
faster than both. But the Atman travels faster than the senses, faster than light,
and faster than even the mind.

In the Chhandogya Upanishad the teacher tells the disciple again and again that
the whole universe is centred in the self:

“Every thing in the universe has this subtle reality for its Self; That is Truth, That
is Atman, and that thou art.”

The Upanishads tell man that he is not finite; that he is not the limited, truncated
thing he considers himself to be. He seems to be limited because he is viewed,
or he views himself, through the limitations of the body and the senses. In his
essential nature, however, he is pure being, pure consciousness, and bliss –
‘Sat-Chit-Ananda’ – and, as such, he is one with all. Pure consciousness cannot
be divided; it only appears to be divided by the manifesting media of bodies and
minds. But it is ever one and unmoving – ‘anejat-ekam’, as this verse puts it.

“The wise man who realizes all beings as not distinct from his own Self,
and his own Self as the Self of all beings, does not, by virtue of that
perception, hate any one. What delusion, what sorrow can there be for the
wise man who realized the unity of all existence by perceiving all beings as
his own Self.” [Isha Upanishad 6, 7]

This realization according to Indian thought, modern as well as ancient, make the
highest point of human excellence. These two verses convey a message of the
highest spirituality, where the highest vision becomes embodied as the highest
character. All the great ones of India have reacted to these two verses with a
whole-hearted response. The saints and sages, intellectuals and devotees, of our
country accord the highest place to this spiritual attainment. Through this
realization, man realizes his basic oneness with all men, with all beings; through
this he achieves life fulfillment.

All morality, all ethics and spirituality, tell us that we are one, basically one. Jesus
says:” Love thy neighbor as thy self”. The Upanishads add: “For you are thy
neighbor”. It is a philosophy that proves to us that the sense of separateness is

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not true; it imparts to us the knowledge of oneness; and with knowledge comes
also morality and ethics, and we discover our true kinship with every man and
woman, and with the whole of nature. “Knowledge leads to unity and ignorance
to diversity”, says Shri Ramakrishna. So the purpose of spiritual knowledge is to
destroy this delusion of separateness, this ‘original sin’ of ignorance, which cuts
us off from the main stream of life.

The capacity to realize this sameness comes to the human mind by discipline in
social awareness as a citizen, and by discipline in inwardness as a spiritual
seeker.

The Vedantic study of the mystery of man has all the qualities of a scientific
study, including the most important one of verifiability. It is also systematic and
thorough, leading the enquirer through the various outer shells or sheaths or
‘koshas’ of personality, to the abiding innermost being of man, the Atman, which
is also the innermost being of the universe, Brahman. ‘Brahma-Jnana’ (wisdom)
is ‘sarvatma-bhava’, realization of the Atman as the self of all.

It is through the intensification of man’s spiritual awareness, through the


knowledge that he is the Atman, that equality will become a social fact.

If we want to avoid the sufferings and sorrows arising from nervous diseases,
and mental tensions, we have to educate ourselves to the fact that we are not the
body, nor the senses, nor the mind, nor the intellect, but we are the Atman, the
eternally pure, eternally awakened, and eternally free Self – ‘Nitya-Shuddha-
Buddha-Mukta-Svabhava Parmantman’ as Vedanta expresses it. This knowledge
will at once lift us up above the trivialities of sensate existence and confer on us
universality of vision and sympathy.

If Brahman and Atman are one, if the world is spiritual through and through, then
certain consequences follow for the life and destiny of man. It at once unifies the
external and the internal, the secular and the spiritual fields of man’s life; it unifies
science and religion. The discords and conflicts arising from partial views of
reality become resolved in the light of this total view, making possible a
comprehensive spirituality in which the believer and the non-believer, the theist
and the agnostic, the religious man and the scientist, the contemplative and the
worker, become transformed into fellow seekers of truth.

All education, all training, all culture, according to Vedanta, are but the methods
by which the ever-present universal is liberated from the temporary limitations of
the finite and the particular. The more educated a person and the more cultured,
the more he sees the oneness of things; this vision finds expression in life in
increase of love, compassion, and service. The sign of true culture is
comprehension and compassion.

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Man in the Indian context needs to be inspired by the Vedantic vision of
human excellence and the Vedantic will to realize that excellence in
character and conduct. The Vedantic ideas have the power to nourish and
strengthen man, but only when taken in and assimilated. The capacity for
assimilation of ideas comes to man from self-discipline and self-discipline
alone.

“Education is not the amount of information that is put into your brain and runs
riot there, undigested, all your life. We must have life-building, character-making,
assimilation of ideas.”
- Swami Vivekananda

“They enter into blinding darkness who worship ‘Avidya’; into still greater
darkness, as it were, do they enter who delight in ‘Vidya’. He, who knows both
‘Vidya’ and ‘Avidya’ together, overcomes death through ‘Avidya’ and experiences
immortality by means of ‘Vidya’.” [Isha Upanishad 9, 11]

The ‘Brihadaranyaka Upanishad [2.3.1] says:

“Brahman (Reality), indeed has two aspects – with form and the formless, mortal
and immortal, limited and unlimited, defined and undefined.”

Vidya or knowledge refers to the knowledge of the Self, the changeless reality,
the ‘Amritam’, while ‘Avidya’ refers to the knowledge of the non-self, the
changeful universe, the ‘martyam’.

The study of the non-self or the world of change is science; this study gives man
knowledge of the laws that govern the world of change, and the capacity to
control and manipulate it in the interest of his development, in the interest of a
richer and fuller life for himself. But if this is done in isolation, if this is attempted
without reference to his inner world, the world of the Self, the result will not be life
and more life, but death and more death. Hence the exhortation to combine it
with the knowledge of the Self, the changeless, deathless reality in man. It is this
knowledge of the Self that imparts meaning and significance to man’s knowledge
of the not-Self.

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“Into deep darkness do they enter who worship the ‘asambhuti’ (the world of
Becoming as detached from Being). Into still darkness, as it were, do they enter
who delight in ‘sambhuti’ (pure Being or Brahman.”
“He who knows ‘sambhuti’ (Brahman) and ‘asambhuti’ (the perishable world of
becoming) both together, overcomes death through ‘Vinasha’ and achieves
immortality through ‘sambhuti’.” [Isha Upanishad 12, 14]

The word ‘Vinasha’ means destruction; here it means the destructible, that which
is subject to destruction – the world of becoming, of name, form and action.

“If a man plunges headlong into foolish luxuries of the world without knowing the
truth, he has missed his footing, he cannot reach the goal. And if a man curses
the world, goes into a forest, mortifies his flesh, and kills himself little by little, by
starvation, makes his heart a barren waste, kills out all feeling, and becomes
harsh, stern, and dried up, that man has missed the way. These are the two
extremes, the two mistakes at either end. Both have lost the way, both have
missed the goal…. So, work, says Vedanta, putting God in everything. Work
incessantly, holding life as something deified, as God Himself….. God is in
everything, where else shall we go to find Him. He is already in every work, in
every thought, in every feeling. Thus knowing, we must work, this is the only
way.”
- Swami Vivekananda.

‘Vidya’ and ‘Avidya’, the Self and non-self, as well as ‘sambhuti’ and ‘asambhuti’,
‘Brahman’ and the world, are basically one, not two. ‘Avidya’ affirms the world as
a self-sufficient reality. ‘Vidya’ affirms God as the other, as a far away reality.
When true knowledge arises, says this Upanishad, this opposition is overcome.

The Atman or Brahman is the changeless Reality; It is termed ‘Nitya’, the Eternal,
in Vedanta. The relative world when viewed in the light of this ‘Nitya’ is termed
‘Lila’, God’s cosmic play. And we then get the equation: the Nitya and the Lila are
one. It is also expressed in another way: Brahman and Shakti, Being and its
power of becoming, are one.

“A man should reach the ‘Nitya’, the Absolute, by following the trail of the ‘Lila’,
the relative. It is like reaching the roof by the stairs. After reaching the Absolute,
he should climb down to the relative and live on that plain in the company of
devotees, charging his mind with the love of God. This is my final and most

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mature opinion… If you accept the Nitya, you must also accept the Lila. It is the
progress of negation and affirmation. You realize the Nitya by negating the Lila.
Then you affirm the Lila, seeing in it the manifestation of the Nitya. One attains
this state after realizing Reality in both aspects: Personal and Impersonal. The
Personal is the embodiment of ‘Chit’, consciousness; and the Impersonal is the
Indivisible ‘Sat-Chit-Ananda’, “Existence-Knowledge-Bliss”.
-The Gospel of Shri Ramakrishna

The ‘Mahanarayana Upanishad’ says [13.5]:

“Narayana (the indwelling Divine), exists pervading all things, externally as well
as internally.”

The Gita teaches that true spirituality confers on man all-round efficiency –
efficiency in the field of action, and efficiency in the field of thought and
contemplation. This total efficiency is the product of a total vision of reality.

Vedanta, as the philosophy and the religion of the Upanishads is known,


enshrines this total vision and upholds this comprehensive spirituality. In virtue of
this, it has received the name of ‘Sanatana Dharma’, Eternal Religion, or
Perennial Philosophy, as Aldous Huxley has translated it. The ‘Sanatana
Dharma’ in its wholeness is a synthesis of what the Isha Upanishad calls ‘Vidya’
and ‘Avidya’. That this is its unique feature is clearly expressed by
Shankaracharya in the very opening paragraph of his beautiful commentary on
the Bhagavad-Gita:

“Two-fold, verily, is the dharma as taught by the Vedas, one characterized by


‘Pravritti’, action (or, rather, outgoing action), and the other characterized by
‘Nivritti’, inaction (or, rather, inward directed action), both together constituting
the stabilizing factor of the world, and the true cause of the ‘abhyudaya’ (worldly
welfare) and ‘Nihshreyasa’ (spiritual well-being) of all beings.”

The philosophy of total vision thus synthesizes action and contemplation, the
secular and the sacred, reason and faith, the human and the Divine.

Action becomes a snare and a defeat for man when it does not draw
nourishment from his true Self, which is the Self of all. Action illumined by
the Knowledge of the Self becomes itself illumination, and ceases to be
mere action. Work becomes worship.

These beautiful verses of the Isha Upanishad, though written ages ago, breathe
the spirit of the universal and human, and bring to us the message of a
comprehensive spirituality capable of energizing and illumining every aspect of
human life, every field of human endeavor. They summon us to a converging life

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endeavor to develop anal-sided character, broad as the skies and deep as the
ocean.

This knowledge of the essential spiritual oneness of the whole universe, cosmic,
celestial, as well as terrestrial, is emphasized again and again in the Upanishads.

Bhagavad-Gita [5.19] says:

“In this very life have they overcome birth (relativity) whose minds are fixed on
sameness; for Brahman is free from all evil and is the same in all. Therefore they
are fixed in the Brahman.”

Two sentiments that are more often associated with the idea of salvation in India
are disgust for this world and fear of rebirth. But these fears have been
overplayed in India. Our later religious books are heavy with these two
sentiments. And our people in general have sought in religion only one blessing
of a cessation from rebirth. This fear of life, this hope of salvation, this intense
religious desire to escape from rebirth, have gone so far as to throw into the
shade the problems and prospects of the brief spell of human life on earth.

The character of the average educated citizen of India, even today, is an


assembly more of negative values than of positive ones. There is a strong
tendency in us to avoid difficult situations, to escape responsibility, and
generally resort to easy and cheap ways in earning wealth, acquiring
knowledge and education, and even in the matter of realizing God.

“If there is one word that you find coming out like a bomb from the Upanishads,
bursting like a bombshell upon masses of ignorance, it is the word ‘fearlessness’.
And the only religion that ought to be taught is the religion of fearlessness. Either
in this world or the world of religion, it is true that fear is the sure cause of
degradation and sin. It is fear that brings misery, fear that brings death, fear that
breeds evil. And what causes fear? Ignorance of our own nature.”
- Swami Vivekananda

This is the gift of a true and robust philosophy to the human mind; the criterion of
its truth is the spirit of freedom and fearlessness, love and service that it imparts
to human life.

Indian religious thought has visualized India as a ‘Punya-bhumi’, holy land, and
‘Karma-bhumi’, land of work, where souls are born not to indulge in sense
pleasures but to work their way to the realization of God.

In the Shrimad-Bhagavat [5.19.20-22], Gods (in heaven) verily sing thus (of the
glory of human birth in India):

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“Oh! What auspicious deeds have these done that Hari (the indwelling God)
Himself has become pleased with them – deeds by which they have obtained
birth in the continent of India, a birth which is the means of service of Hari. Far
better it is to win a few moments of life in India than aeons of life in these
celestial regions; because there, heroic souls can achieve, in a moment, the
state of fearlessness in God, by renouncing in Him all actions done by their
perishable bodies.”

What tragic irony that men in India learnt to fear and despise that life on its
soil which was coveted by their own gods in heaven! And our people pine
to go to a post mortem heaven, unmindful of the fact that a great heaven
lies about them.

Summary: Satyendra Nath Dwivedi

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