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Shrikanth Krishnamachary @shrikanth_krish
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The Isha Upanishad is one of the most widely known Hindu scriptures.

It occupies a central place in Vedanta, and has been commented upon by Acharyas in all the great Vedantin traditions - the most prominent among whom are Sankara, Madhwa and Vedanta Desika
One of the reasons for its popularity and appeal is its brevity and apparent simplicity. It comprises of just 18 verses, and ranks among the shortest of all Upanishads
Partly because of these characteristics, the Isha Upanishad is a text that has attracted the attention of many people not remotely associated with the Hindu tradition.

This has naturally provoked a discussion on cultural appropriation
A couple of such attempts have been very recent.

In 2016, Rahul Gandhi quoted from the Isha Upanishad to score a political point. Here is his tweet -

In 2008, one Mr Ninan wrote a controversial book on the Isha Upanishad interpreting it as a Christian doctrine.…
This is notwithstanding the fact that the import of Isha Upanishad is deeply philosophical with strong tendencies to monism, and is very far removed from the strict historicist dualism of Christianity or the nihilistic materialism of Rahul Gandhi and his acolytes
To counter such appropriations it is important that more Hindus read the Isha Upanishad - a relatively accessible text in the Vedantin tradition with copious commentaries to assist us in understanding it.
This thread is an attempt to dig deep into this short poetic Upanishad, with the assistance of the commentaries of two great Vedantins -

Adi Sankaracharya - 8th century commentary (Advaitin view)
Vedanta Desika - 13th century commentary (Sri-Vaishnava / Visishtadvaitin view)
The translations I have relied upon for the thread are those of Mysore Hiriyanna from 1911 (for Sankara’s commentary) and KC Varadachari & T Thathacharya from 1975 (for the Vedanta Desika commentary)
Before we examine the Isha Upanishad, let’s dwell on the Upanishads a little bit.

The Upanishads are rightly regarded as being among the most important as well as the most consequential of all Hindu scriptures.
Along with Badarayana’s Brahma Sutras vAsudeva’s Bhagavad Gita, it forms a part of “Prasthana Trayi”. Among the three the Upanishads are the oldest, and are regarded as “Shruti”
While there are over hundred works that enjoy the status of being an “Upanishad” there are 13 of them that are regarded as being “Principal” or “Mukhya” by the Hindu tradition

Among the 13, the Isha Upanishad is one of the shortest with just 18 verses. And among the most popular
The Isha Upanishad is associated with the Shukla Yajurveda. It is also known as “IshAvAsya” Upanishad. IshAvAsya means “Enveloped by Isha - the Supreme Soul”
Unlike any other Upanishad, the Isha Upanishad is associated with the Samhita portion of the White Yajurveda, and not the Brahmanas / Aranyakas as is usually the case
It is available in two recensions - the Kanva shakha version which has 18 verses and the Madhyandina shakha version which has 17 verses
The Kanva recension is very popular among Shukla Yajurvedins in the South and Deccan, while the Madhyandina recension is more prevalent in Northern India.

I may be wrong on the regional prevalence, but this is what I can gather from public domain
What is the age of Isha Upanishad?

Dating Upanishads in general is a somewhat pointless exercise as they are in essence anthologies, so the date of the compilation of anthology could well be very different from the date of the composition of individual hymns
Generally western scholars estimate Isha Upanishad to be at least 2500 years old if not more, but traditionalists would bat for a much much earlier provenance.

And the traditional skepticism at these dates is warranted for the reason we discussed in the previous tweet
So what are the 18 verses about?

Mysore Hiriyanna in his 1911 work on Isha Upanishad (working with Sankara’s commentary on the Kanva recension) thinks of this small work as comprising of four parts.

I am paraphrasing him below -
Verse 1 : Directed to those who are capable of true Jnana and withdrawal from the world to realize Brahman (the True Self)

Verse 2 : Directed to those who cannot seek the Self as suggested in Verse 1 and hence the emphasis for them is to engage in Karma.
Verse 3-8 : Describes the nature of the True Self. These verses are directed to the same audience as Verse 1

Verse 9-18 : Commends the simultaneous practice of Karma and upāsanā for persons referred to in Verse 2.
But this particular organization is something that is in line with Sankara’s bhashya. Not necessarily with that of Vedanta Desika, as we shall see
Before we get to the verses (or maybe just a sample of them given that this is a twitter thread), let’s briefly examine how Sankara and Vedanta Desika introduce the Upanishad.

The introductions are strikingly different
One thing to note about the introductions is that both commentators are conscious of the uniqueness of this Upanishad - in that it is a concluding part of a Samhita text unlike other Upanishads
It forms the 40th chapter of the vAjasaneya Samhita of Shukla Yajurveda - a text that deals primarily with performance of various karmas and sacrifices.
So how does Sankara introduce the Upanishad?

Despite its association with Samhita, Sankara urges us to view it as a mainly philosophical text, that should not be used in any Vedic ritual. I quote him from his introduction -
“The verses beginning with Īśāvāsyam are not utilised in ritual, since they explain the true nature of the Self which is not subsidiary to karma."

""The true nature of the Self, as will presently be indicated, is purity, taintlessness, oneness, permanence, bodilessness, omnipresence and so forth, which being inconsistent with karma, it is only right that these (verses) are not used in ritual"
Vedanta Desika, who comes from a very different spiritual lineage (that of Ramanuja), has a very different take in one of his introductory verses (at least in my view) -
"All (actions) prescribed in the Samhita could be utilized on account of separate injunction for knowledge ; this addition (anuvAka) at the end of the Samhita is for pointing this out clearly”
So while Desika is not spelling out if the verses that follow can be used for ritual, he is not making a very clear distinction between the seeking of Self (Jnana) and Karma - in a manner that Sankara does.

The action vs Knowledge dichotomy is less evident in Desika’s bhashya
Now let’s select 4 of the 18 verses in this text as a sample (from the four groupings identified by Hiriyanna) and examine their import as per Sankara and Desika -

Verse no 1 :

ईशा वास्यम् इदं सर्वं यत् किञ्च जगत्यां जगत् ।
तेन त्यक्तेन भुञ्जीथा मा गृधः कस्य स्विद्धनम् ॥ १ ॥
Translation (Hiriyanna) : In the Lord is to be veiled all this—whatsoever moves on earth. Through such renunciation do thou save (thyself); be not greedy, for whose is wealth?
So what is Sankara’s take on this verse. As reproducing the bhashya can be a long read, let me excerpt it (with Hiriyanna’s translation ofcourse)
“The Lord is the Ruler and the real Self of every creature”
“By one’s own Self,—the Lord, the supreme Self—which is the sole reality, all these unreal (things), both movable and immovable, have to be covered over”

"Just as bad odour in a piece of sandal, arising from moisture, is overcome by true fragrance when the (sandal) piece is rubbed, so will all the variety of the world, superimposed on Self, disappear at the perception of the (one) really existent Self”
“What a person, that is so full of the conception that the Lord is the Self of all, ought to do is to renounce the three-fold desire for offspring etc., and not (be engaged in) karma. In tena tyaktena, tyakta means renunciation “
So what do we gather from Sankara’s comments above?

We notice a very strong monistic orientation as one would expect from Sankara. We also notice Sankara saying that the one who indeed seeks to realize the true self must renounce desire and not engage in Karma
What is Vedanta Desika’s take on this verse?

Firstly we note that Desika differs from Sankara even in the interpretation of the first two words of the verse - “ishA vAsyam”
While the Lord in Isha is interpreted by Sankara as the true Self - the one unitary Brahman that is the ultimate reality, Desika views Isha differently
In his view Isha is none other than the “all-controlling Purushottama well known as entirely different from the soul”. He backs this understanding by citing passages in Shwetaswatara Upanishad which talk of “the knower and the ignorant”, “the Lord and the nonLord”
With regard to vAsyam - Sankara views it as the veiling or covering of all the unreal things in the world by the Supreme self (sole reality).

In contrast, Desika defines vAsyam as “Fit to be pervaded”.

And he talks of how Purushottama dwells everywhere , and also how everything dwells in him. This is interestingly reminiscent of the first two names in the Vishnu Sahasranama - Vishvam and Vishnuh
This is in line with Sri-Vaishnava philosophy that views the “real” universe as a part of the Supreme soul’s body. (Sharira atma bhava)
Desika agrees with Sankara’s understanding of renunciation, but unlike Sankara he does not contrast renunciation with Karma, nor does he say anywhere that the seeker of the true self must not be engaged in Karma.

So it is a very distinct interpretation
Now let’s move to Verse 2 of the Upanishad.

कुर्वन्न् एवेह कर्माणि जिजीविषेच्छतं समाः ।
एवं त्वयि नान्यथेतोऽस्ति न कर्म लिप्यते नरे ॥ २ ॥
Translation (Hiriyanna) : Always performing karma here, one should desire to live, for a hundred years. So long as thou (seekest to live) a mere man, no other (path) exists (where) activity does not taint thee
Now let’s excerpt Sankara’s bhAshya on this-

“Do you not remember the aforesaid antithesis between jñāna and karma?
Here also the same has been expressly stated in verses 1 and 2,—(that he who seeks to live must perform karma and that he who does not, must give up all desire”
So Sankara is making a distinction not just between the “path of activity” and the “path of withdrawal”, but is also saying that these two paths are for different sets of Jivas.
The Jivas who seek true realization must pay attention to Verse 1. And those who are not capable of it and seek to live, must engage in Karma
Desika’s take is radically different. Let’s excerpt him -

“Now, if it be asked, will there not accrue bondage to the knower of Brahman, since there is the performing of work (karma), the teacher says - “Works do not get smeared over man””.
“Brahma vidyA is so powerful as to prevent any works from staining man, and therefore no expiation is needed, but what is established in the case of those who practice brahmavidyA, is that the only sins which do not stain them are those performed inattentively (pramAdikAnAm)”
Again it is a striking contrast. Desika is not exhorting the brahman-seekers from refraining from Karma. But is only rebuking selectively against karmas performed without care / attention.
So the first two verses which set up the rest of this Upanishad are remarkable in the degree of variation in interpretation that they have provoked
Now let’s look at two other verses among the remaining 16 to round up our thread.

Verse 5 :

तद् एजति तन् नैजति तद् दूरे तद् व् अन्तिके ।
तद् अन्तर् अस्य सर्वस्य तद् उ सर्वस्यास्य बाह्यतः ॥ ५ ॥
Translation: It moves: and it moves not; it is far and it is near. It is inside all this; it is also outside all this

Sankara’s bhAshya is briefly paraphrased below -
“The self does not move. Being in truth it is motionless, and it only appears to move.”
"“It is distant, as it were, because the ignorant cannot get at it even in a thousand million years”
"“It is near to the wise, as it is their very Self”
“It is not merely far and near, it is inside of all this”.
Again this is an elegant bhAshya that is consistent with Sankara’s non dualism.

How does Desika handle this verse? Here are his paraphrased comments
“To those whose faces are turned away from Govinda, whose minds are attached to objects of senses, to them the Supreme Brahman is farther than the far ; to those whose minds are absorbed in Govinda, having renounced all objects, it is near”
So Desika’s take has a stronger theistic flavor and is decidedly imbued with Vaishnava Bhakti
So let’s discuss one more verse. This is Verse 15 towards the end of this short text -

हिरण्मयेन पात्रेण सत्यस्यापिहितं मुखम् ।
तत् त्वं पूषन्न् अपावृणु सत्यधर्माय दृष्टये ॥ १५ ॥
Translation (Hiriyanna): Truth’s face is covered with a golden lid; remove that, O Pūṣan, that I, Truth’s devotee, may see It.
This is perhaps the most popular verse in Isha Upanishad that is very widely known in India today.

Largely because of the famous Surya namaskAr Asana - a very popular Yoga asana that begins with the chanting of this verse.
It belongs to the concluding section of the Isha Upanishad - the section that consists of upAsanas.

Here are Sankara’s comments (with paraphrasing)-
“The Brahman residing in the solar disc is covered by a seemingly golden lid. O Pusan, remove the lid for me, who is meditating on you who are the Truth”

So Sankara bhAshya on this verse is pretty brief.
Desika has a bit more to say on this verse -

To him, the golden vessel (hiranmaya patra), is a vessel full of Rajas (passion) and is full of rAga (attachment and redness) which obstructs activities related to the Supreme Self."

"So the seeker here is seeking the vision of the Truth (Brahman) by asking the Supreme Soul to remove that vessel of Rajas which is obstructing the vision of Truth."
Desika also describes “golden” not as denoting a color, but as denoting a group of “enjoyable things” which are dependent on works (karma)
Also interestingly Desika totally discounts the mention of Pusan and gives a metaphorical commentary where the verse represents the need to conquer the tendencies towards “Rajas” that exist in all of us.
Hope this discussion of four of the eighteen verses in Isha Upanishad, gives a good flavor of the import of this most philosophical of all Hindu texts.
While the discussion may be judged by a cynic to be too academic and as a lot of hair splitting by men with a lot of time on their hands, the purpose of discussing this Upanishad is to be reminded of the remarkable intellectual diversity in this country even among Vedantins
Also Isha Upanishad reveals itself to be a rich text that is not historicist, and is open to interpretation.
Its appropriation in our times by socialists who latch on to the “do not covet” stricture in Verse 1, or even worse its appropriation by Christian dualists as we discussed, is untenable
It remains a quintessentially Hindu text that is hard to stereotype or summarize with a few catchy phrases, or straitjacket with any ideological lens.
Here are the links to the bhAshyas and their translations :

Sankara :…

Vedanta Desika :…
Post-script : A clarification. The comments attributed to Vedenta Desika in the below tweet were actually said by Shaunaka whom Desika was quoting. Thanks @techieV2 for pointing out

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