In this article, I endeavor to touch upon a few passages from Isha Upanishad to understand notions of soul (Atma), Brahman, Samsara Karma and Moksha.
'What is Atma? Where does it originate? Does it reside in you? Is it a part of God? Is the soul divine?' are some of the questions that are posed within the various texts of Upanishads for which they provide, dialogues, conversations, hymns and debates to lead the seeker through different paths to learn the truth, and attain salvation or Moksha.
Isha Upanishad is the shortest Upanishad and comprises just 18 verses and belongs to the Samhita of the white Yajur Veda. Isha Upanishad is thus called, because it commences with the word 'Isha'. The word 'Isha' gives an idea of an identity of a God. Although Lord Shiva is often referred to as Isha, it may just mean the 'controller' and not necessarily pertain to any particular God as there seems to be no reference to Bhakthi or devotion in the text.
Om Puurnnam-Adah Puurnnam-Idam Puurnnaat-Purnnam-Udacyate
Puurnnashya Puurnnam-Aadaaya Puurnnam-Eva-Avashissyate ||
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||
1: Om, That is Full, This also is Full, From Fullness comes that Fullness,
2: Taking Fullness from Fullness, Fullness Indeed Remains.
3: Om Peace, Peace, Peace.
The understanding of the above quoted invocatory hymn of the Isha Upanishad is that every living being, animate or inanimate, different shapes or forms, is to be accepted as a complete manifestation. This manifestation is pervaded by the Supreme Atma (that manifestation). Therefore, what comes out of 'complete' cannot result in 'incomplete'.
Although no mention of any particular God is cited in the text, the whole content of Isha Upanishad essentially is an enhancement and expansion of the idea of the all-pervasive Atma the supreme power. This supreme power is referred to as God. The first verse of the Upanishad is as follows:
Ishavasyam idam sarvam yat kinca jagatyam jagat,
Tena tyaktena bhunjitha ma grdhah kasya svit dhanam. Isha 1.
This whole world is to be dwelt in by the Lord, whatever living being there is in the world. So you should eat what has been abandoned; and do not covet anyone's wealth (course notes. Olivelle, P.).
The verse suggests that Isha or the Lord is present in all things around us. The omnipresence of the lord is inherent in everything that exists in the ever-changing world. Olivelle. P translates this verse as, 'God is within one's own being for he is none other than one's true self'. Conducive to this fact, the hymn further expresses that one ought to remember the Lord, surrender to God, and enjoy all the given objects of pleasure. And without getting too attached or greedy, it suggests the need to understand the quality of the objects keeping in mind whose wealth is it?
This can be explained using different words. The 'I' or the jeevatma (conditioned soul/ the ignorant) and the Paramatma (Supreme soul/the enlightened) are part of the same entity. It is significant that the Jeevatma offers prayers to the Paramatma within oneself for its emancipation. Once the jeeva is in tune to worshipping inwardly on its source, then subconsciously the material life is enjoyed. (indiadivine.org)
That the jeeva within every human being is the Atma is something which we reiterate before Hindu rituals:
Devo Devalayaha: Prokthaha: Jeevo Devaha: snadhanaha|
Thyajeth agnyana Nirmalyam Sohambha vena Poojayeth||
It means that (our) body is the temple and the jeeva is the timeless god. Pray sincerely to the supreme as if 'you' and 'I' are the same, for release from Agnyana and return to Gnyana. So one has to do one's duties whatever the chosen profession or lifestyle may be.
The duties or the chosen profession can only be enjoyed or justified when one believes in it, is committed to it and performs it wholeheartedly. Despite having good faith, it is not uncommon for individuals to feel ambiguous or be unsure of trivial actions that may or may not be considered as bad or sinful. It can be as trivial as, consuming non-vegetarian food, leading luxurious lifestyle, or killing an ant by accident. Whilst these may be seen as trivial, someone serving in the army could be heavily burdened by conflict of emotions regarding his course of action, which may entail killing as part of his duties in his profession. Karma is a feared word amongst Hindus. Such feelings carry a huge amount of guilt.
In this context, it is important to understand that as human beings each of us has a role. In Bhagawat Gita Lord Krishna enjoins Arjuna to fight, the aim being to accomplish a supreme justice. Arjuna's lesson is to understand that it is not the soul that is involved in the act of violence. The body and mind trained in the art of warfare has to perform with utmost dedication, in the sheer role of the deliverer and not the doer.
na jayate mriyate va vipascin nayam kutascin na vibhuva kascit
ajo nityah sasvato 'yam purano na hanyate hanyamane sarire
The above verse from the Bhagawat Gita, again stresses the fact that unlike the body which undergoes transformations, the soul has no such changes. As the soul is not born, it does not die either. Therefore it has no past, present or future. The soul is eternal.
There is a similar verse that explains the same fact in the Katha Upanishad (1.2.18). The dialogue between Yama the lord of death and Nachiketas the wise boy, ends with the former's recapitulation of the Atma. Olivelle, translates it as thus:
The Wise one-
He is not born, he does not die;
He has not come from anywhere;
He has not become anyone.
He is unborn and eternal, primeval and everlasting.
And he is not killed when the body is killed.
Although this is a rather simplistic and a straightforward postulation of the nature of 'Atma', the word 'vipascit' (learned) in the hymn, opens up a path towards understanding the meaning of a higher state of consciousness which is the Supreme Consciousness. According to Prabhupada, it posits that the soul is full of Knowledge. One is aware of this consciousness within oneself. This awareness of the consciousness is the symptom of the soul.
It is probably the intellect in a person that enables them to identify the presence of the soul in themselves. Prabhupada points out that this is not the same as the Supreme Consciousness as identified with Lord Krishna. The Supreme Consciousness is that that encompasses the past, present and the future, and that which goes beyond the state of forgetfulness that a mortal is prone to.
Whilst the entire content of the Isha Upanishad seems to weigh on the notions of inner self, that which is not bound by any rules or limitations, it does not offer any methodology or a manual through which to seek Moksha or go beyond these limitations. It simply speaks of 'the soul searching' as an ultimate principle over the distracting factors (i.e. desires) of life that prevail in the world.
As pointed out by Nicholas Sutton, many Vedic practices are largely absent in current and contemporary Hinduism. However, post Vedic times saw many a change in the social life of the people. This is evident from the scriptures of Upavedas, such as Ayurveda, Arthasasthra, Dhanur Veda and Gandharva Veda and so on. With the Bharathanatyasasthra, we can understand that social life of people must have been a thriving aspect. With the advent of deities of Gods and Goddesses, practice of idol worship, performance of rituals and ceremonies, and many more such religious acts that are followed today, the ultimate aim seems to be the same as it was in the Vedic times, which is to attain Moksha. Much later, the rise of religious cults of Shiva, Durga/Kali, Vishnu-Krishna etc. have simply opened up new horizons or paths to find solutions to the same quest.
These do not always pertain to performing rituals as in what the priests adhere to. The quest may continue through performing arts as well. For example, both Bharathanatyam, a classical form of dance and Carnatic style of music (indigenous to South India) are of religious nature in their content. Therefore they may be described as non-Vedic. 18th century composer St.Thyagaraja was believed to have attained moksha simply through his utter devotion to Lord Rama (incarnation of Vishnu) through his own lyrics and musical compositions (thyagaraja.org 2001). Similarly, improvisational technique of Abhinaya that involves, hand gestures and facial expressions in Bharathanatyam dance uses Vritti or a state of being to express utter devotion and surrender to the chosen God or goddess (Vatsayayan, K.1974). Both these art forms have a format and structure to their technique. However, the content or the theme is invariably religious.
Whatever the chosen path may be, it would not be unreasonable to assume that one has to be learned or knowledgeable in the field of their expertise. The whole idea or notion of 'Knowledge', and its exact meaning as perceived in the later verses (verses 9, and 10) of the Isha Upanishad needs a careful study to decipher the accurate substance communicated.
Whilst some parts of the verse are clear in its communication, the others are rather puzzling. For example, the Sanskrit word 'vidya' or knowledge, is represented as 'leading to darkness' and the word 'avidya' which usually represents ignorance, lend themselves to various interpretations by doyens of Hindu philosophy such as Prabhupada, Shankara and Olivelle. The acceptable version seems to be a comment on both those who perform Vedic ritual and those who do not undertake any ritual, and condemning one as 'material learning leading to arrogance'. Olivelle's comment of the following verse (verse 10), 'Realization is a mystical and spiritual experience that may evade the most learned of scholars and yet come to a person who is illiterate', not only seems like a plausible explanation to the previous verse, it also accords an apt example of a relatively contemporary Maharishi, who befit the statement. Ramana Maharishi, who realized the Self during a dramatic experience of death at age sixteen, was just an ordinary schoolboy who had no prior exposure to spiritual thought or practice.
This experience retracted him from the mundane trivia of daily life with family and friends. Since the occurrence of that experience he remained absorbed in total awareness of the Self, for all his life.
'The ultimate aim of life according to both Ramana Maharishi and earlier advaita teachers is to transcend the illusion that one is an individual person who functions through a body and a mind in a world of separate, interacting objects. Once this has been achieved one becomes aware of what one really is: the Self, which is imminent, formless consciousness' (Godman. D. 1994. p3).
Probing into and dwelling on Upanishads and other related strands of Hindu philosophical scriptures, one simply cannot escape the overwhelming feeling of the rich and vast material that these age-old texts offer. 'Who am I?' is a universal and a timeless question which trascends across borders and cultures. These texts not only provide a deep insight in to concepts of Atma, Karma and Dharma, the vast number of slokas or hymns that brim with meaning and reverberating sounds simply boggles the mind. The Isha Upanishad puts forth the idea of Moksha through knowledge, which it provides without any religious bias and aides the seeker in to their spiritual journey of 'Self Enquiry'.
Chadhuri, Nirad C. Hinduism: A Religion to Live by. New Delhi: Oxford University, 2000. Print.
Godman, David. Living by the Words of Bhagavan. Tiruvannamalai, India: Sri Annamalai Swami Ashram Trust, 1994. Print.
Olivelle, Patrick. Upaniṣads. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.
Sarasvati, Chandrasekharendra. The Vedas. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1993. Print.
Sastri, Vratha Pooja Vidhanam. Chennai. Lifco Publications, 2010. Print.
Vatsayayan, K. (1974). Indian classical dance. Delhi. Publications Division.
Date retrieved: 28th December 2012
Date retrieved: 28th December 2012
Date retrieved: 18th December 2012
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Date retrieved: 27th December 2012
Lectures and course notes from 'Vedas and Upanishads' Online Course: University of Oxford (2012)
Dr N. Sutton