The heart of the Upanishads is the Self, expressed as both a path of Self-knowledge and a realization of the fullness and potential of an eternal Truth discovered within the innermost Self (Atman). In the Isha Upanishad, Isha is the eternal Truth of the Self.
The first mantra of the Isha Upanishad expresses, within its compressed form, a profound insight into the nature of the Self. The eternal truth is expressed in a few mantric syllables, as is a complete path to enlightenment. One only need meditate on the words, recite the words, come into a full understanding of the meaning of the mantras. The Self reveals itself within these sacred syllables, inviting us to inhabit the mantra: Om Isha vāsyam idam sarvam…
Mohandas K. Gandhi said, “if only the first verse in the Ishopanishad were left in the memory of the Hindus, Hinduism would live for ever.” The first verse expresses a fundamental insight not only of Hinduism, but of a universal awareness. The verse offers a religion, a philosophy, a psychology, and a transformation in our very modes of seeing and perceiving, our means and modes of being.
We might expect and we do find such an eternal truth to be expressed in a rich form, giving forth a multi-perspectival fullness that transcends any one view. We also find something unexpected, that each view offers a complete truth in and of itself. Each view takes us to a realization that may– if understood, known, realized– transform our own living sense of Self and world. These mantras transform the relation between the individual self and the supreme Self, and again between self and world; these transformations occur in the dynamic movements of transcendence as clarification and immanence as union or return.
Much of the richness of the meaning of the mantra turns on the interpretation of one word, vāsyam. That word expresses or captures the relation between the divine, as Self or God, and the empirical world in which the self finds itself. The term vāsyam may mean ‘covered with’, ‘enveloped by’, ‘dwelling in’, ‘inhabiting’, or ‘in the heart of’. Vāsyam as a word has differing senses that express differing and distinct relations to the divine. What is in one perspective viewed as envelope or covering is from another perspective experienced as a place of dwelling or even the heart. And those differing perspectives may yet be united in a greater synthesis in which they become moments or poles of a greater movement.
Two of the most renowned philosophers of the Isha upanishad, Adi Shankara and Sri Aurobindo express these differing and dialectical views on the meaning of vāsyam. These two philosophers highlight these two different perspectives; these two perspectives, taken together, form a paradoxical unity that reveals a comprehensive dynamics of Self-realization.
Om Isha vāsyam idam sarvam yat kiñ ca jagatyam jagat | tena tyaktena bhuñjitha ma grdhah kasyasvid dhanam
Adi Shankara glosses on this Mantra:
“Om. All this (idam sarvam), whatever moves on the earth, should be covered (vāsyam) by the eternal Truth of the Self (Isha). Protect your Self through that detachment. Do not covet anybody’s wealth. Or – Do not covet, for whose is wealth?
Sri Aurobindo glosses the mantra as such:
“All this (idam sarvam) is for habitation (vāsyam) by the eternal Truth of the Self (Isha), whatsoever is individual universe of movement in the universal motion. By that renounced thou shouldst enjoy; lust not after any man’s possession.
In the first line of the Mantra, we see a juxtaposition of Isha and idam sarvam, united by the word vāsyam. The word Isha may be glossed as power or eternal truth of the Self. The word Isha derives from the root is, meaning ‘to rule or have power’. Isha, as the Self is the inner ruler or inner power. Idam Sarvam means ‘all this’. The term is a reference to the world. Isha and Idam Sarvam are juxtaposed: as supreme Self and ‘all this’, as the eternal and the worldly. Shankara explains the meaning of Isha:
“Isha is Paramesvara (Supreme God), the Paramatman (Primordial Self) of all. He rules everything being the Atman (inner self) of all.
Shankara further offers an explanation of Isha in relation to Idam Sarvam:
“As the indwelling Self (of all) I am all this’; all that is unreal, whether moving or not is to be covered by ones’ own supreme Self.
Isha and Idam Sarvam, as the two basic poles of being, are united by the word vāsyam. The term, again, means ‘covered with’, ‘enveloped by’, ‘dwelling in’, or ‘inhabiting’. The way in which we understand vāsyam expresses a perspective on the nature of the Self in relation to world.
We might ask: Is Isha, as supreme Self, covered by the world? Or, does Isha as supreme Self, dwell within the world? With these understandings there emerge two perspectives, two views, which together may make up an enlightened unity.
Shankara focuses on the first view. Glossing vāsyam as ‘to be covered’. Shankara asks: ‘What is to be covered? Idam sarvam yat kim ca, all this, whatsoever that moves; jagatyam, on the Earth’. Aurobindo notes the diversity of meanings, focusing on the other side of a dialectic. He interprets the word vāsyam as ‘a dwelling-place’ or ‘a place of habitation’ .
These perspectives are not contradictory; they form a dialectical pair They are transformations or moments in Self-knowledge. The first moment represents a shift in consciousness that occurs in relation to ‘all this’ when we question our attachment to ignorance and delusion. In this moment the ‘coverings’ are renounced as that which is not the Self. Such a renunciation prepares the ground for further transformations in awareness; moments that can only occur after we have clarified our awareness. In his commentary on the Isha Upanishad, Shankara offer a description that will assist us in such a clarification:
“All this on this earth differentiated as name, form, and action, this bundle of modifications, superimposed on the Atman [one’s true self] by ignorance, and consisting in this seeming duality with its distinctions of doer, enjoyer, etc. (translated by Sastri)
For many, arriving at the true self, as Atman, may appear a challenge. And to realize the supreme Self, as Paramātmā or Brahman may even seem more remote. Many experience themselves occupying a concrete object world. When a person lives in world of concreteness, objects and object representations are experienced as one and the same. Clarifying out and distinguishing between one’s representation of objects and objects in themselves is a movement or moment of renunciation.
The first transformation in consciousness, the moment of clarification, is synonymous with mindfulness: as a distinction of modified and unmodified form; as an awareness of superimposition; as an awareness of dualistic thought. Through mindfulness we come to realize the superimposition of our internal representations upon form. We see just how concretely our representations of self adhere to the world of names and forms. With such a realization, a new moment emerges in which we may release our attachment to form, forgo cleavage to name. Shankara continues:
“One who is engaged in the thought of the Self as God is bound to renounce the three-fold desire [of son, wealth, and worlds], and not perform Karma. Tyaktena, means through renunciation, through detachment (and not by any abandoning thing). For a son or servant, when abandoned or dead, does not protect one, since he has no connection with oneself. (translated by Gambhirananda)
Through mindfulness we realize the ephemerality of name and form. Neither son nor servant, nor wealth, can protect us from the ephemerality of name and form.
Mindfulness of the distinction between the modified and the unmodified gives rise an awareness of the nature of our inner self. We discover that which is eternal and unmodified within ourselves: ‘the Self as God’. Truth clarifies our relation to name and form.
The Mantra continues: Bhuñjithah, protect. Once you have renounced attachment to desire, ma grdha, do not covet, kasya svid, anybodies wealth, dhanam. For whose wealth is it? Shankara teaches us:
“Do not covet? Why? Whose is this wealth? this question is used in the sense of denial, because nobody has any wealth which can be coveted… The idea is this: Everything has been renounced through this thought of the God — All this is but the Self– so that all this belongs to the Self, and the Self is all. Therefore do not have a hankering for things that are unreal. (translated by Gambhirananda)
The logic seems clear: if all things belong to the supreme Self, then there is no need to covet anything. The true wealth, the Self, is intrinsic, a given. All the wealth emerges from the Self and all belongs to the Self. In realizing the relation between the individual self and the supreme Self, you realize a wealth beyond measure– a wealth beyond name and form.
Subtle awareness opens the field of knowing, a new truth emerges: the name beyond names, the form beyond forms. And then, even more subtle, beyond name or form, awareness opens to the wealth of an eternal unmodifiable truth.
With this realization a deeper wealth emerges, as the infinite wealth of the Self. This opens the potential for another transformation in the field of awareness. A new horizon emerges: ‘all this’ (idam sarvam) is realized as ‘a dwelling-place’ (vāsyam) of the Self. As Shankara understands: ‘all this belongs to the Self, and the Self is all.’ Aurobindo understands this as well.
“The whole thought of the Upanishad teaches the reconciliation, by the perception of essential Unity, of the apparently incompatible opposites, God and the World, Renunciation and Enjoyment, Action and internal Freedom, the One and the Many, Being and its Becomings, the passive divine Impersonality and the active divine Personality, the Knowledge and the Ignorance, the Becoming and the Not-Becoming, Life on earth and beyond and the supreme Immortality. (CW 17)
The Upanishads are poetic hymns, revealed mantras, realized by visionary seers called rishis. One might say that the words of the Vedas, in their original Sanskrit form, are a direct revelation or transmission of the supreme Self to the individual self, inviting us home to ourselves. From one perspective, the return home to Self is a return to the eternal, unbound, unmodified Self that is one with our own in-dwelling self. From another perspective, the return home to Self is an opening to the wealth of name and form as the in-dwelling and habitation of the very Self Itself.
The Upanishads are a gift, not only for spiritual seekers, but for anyone with a mind that seeks Knowledge in clear and compressed form. As Aurobindo tells us, the Upanishads offer a direct knowledge of a dialectics of Self-realization. Truth is realized as an ‘essential unity’ discovered in ‘apparently incompatible opposites.’
- This interpretation is in alignment with the root of vāsyam, vas, which means ‘enter’, or ‘dwell with’ (in Easwaran).
- The unity of opposites is a truth which Carl Jung fiercely pursued, and which makes up the highest aims of his path toward Self-realization.
- Eight Upanishads, with the Commentary of Sankaracarya, Vol. I by Swami Gambhirananda, 1957
- Isha Upanishad, Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, V. 17 (The Isha Upanishad was translated by Sri Aurobindo in “Arya” August 1914)
The Upanishads and Sri Sankara’s commentary by Sitarama Sastri, S, 1898