Extracts from the commentary of Shri Shankaracharya on the Isha Upanishad

There are many literal translations of this Upanishad but the thought is so subtle that it is not easily grasped by the Western mind. This translation, while closely following the original text, is intended especially to convey its inner meanings as expressed in the authorative Commentary of Shri Shankara.

Benedictory Verse by Shri Shankara

Lord of all beings,
Pervader of all,
Isha !
Let all be covered By that Isha !
Peace Chant from the Vedas
OM ! Brahman is perfect,
His creation, the Universe, is also perfect,
because what is born of the perfect, is perfect.                             1
When at the dissolution of the Universe
the perfect part of the Universe
is absorbed by Brahman,
Perfection alone exists.
May He end the three-fold suffering !

* * *

Introduction by Shri Shankaracharya

The verses of this classic—“ Let all be covered with God ”, are not intended for use in rituals, but rather as texts for meditation. Their aim is to help realization of the true nature of Atman This nature being pure, taintless, eternal, unembodied, all-pervasive, unobtainable by force, and not subject to creation or modification, is totally unsuitable for use in rituals.

The main object of the Upanishads, the Gita and other classics, is to give a description of the true nature of Self and the acquirement of full freedom. Rituals, on the other hand, are used for the benefit of those people of the world, who are interested in those attributes of the Self, which empirical reasoning can discern—plurality, creativeness, enjoyment of fruition, impurity and sinfulness—and for such people, rituals are enjoined. Authorities on ritual agree that those who are candidates for worldly glory and power, and who think of themselves as : “I am a twice- born man. I am a proper person to undertake rituals ”, for such as these, rituals are enjoined.

These verses, then, explain the true nature of the light of the Self. By removing the natural, erroneous conception of the Self, they end all misery, grief and gloom, and become instruments for the understanding of the unity of Self, which removes the darkness of suffering.

Now follows a short explanation of those verses which are meant for the enlightenment of aspirants for liberation. The subject is the unity of Atman and the ultimate aim is the cessation of nescience and the achievement of bliss.

Verse 1

“ OM. See the blessed Lord everywhere. Whatever, movable or immovable is seen in this ever-changing world, is all to be viewed as a manifestation of God. Maintain thyself by the feeling of renunciation of the world. Do not desire wealth of anybody.”

Commentary

He who rules is called a lord. The ruler of all is the Lord God. By becoming the Self of all Jivas, He is their Inner Ruler. All then is to be covered with the Lord who is one’s own Atman.

What is the “ all ” which is to be covered ? All that is on this earth, whether animate or inanimate, is to be viewed from the standpoint of one’s own Atman, the Lord, the

Inner Ruler, the “ I Am ”. Knowing this, one should regard all illusory things and beings as manifestations of one’s true spiritual nature.

An offensive smell of decaying matter can be overcome by the scent of sandal-wood or ambergris, for the perfume imposes its true nature upon the putrid matter. In a similar way, attributes such as acting, enjoying, feeling in duality, superimposed upon Atman, can be covered by the true spiritual nature of Self. By ceaseless contemplation of this Self, one can remove the whole modified universe of names and forms, which is subject to activity.

The man who is endowed with the feeling that his Atman is the Lord, who is also the Atman of the Universe, has to renounce all desire for progeny, wealth and fame. Rituals are not for him. Protect yourself with this renunciation. Freeing the mind from the three-fold desire, do not wish to retain your own wealth, or to gain that of others.

An alternative meaning is : wealth does not really belong to anybody, then why should one wish for it ? The feeling of :          “ This is all Atman, this is all God ”, leads to

renunciation of the love for transient wealth. All this is born of Atman and is Atman> and you must not desire illusory objects.

Thus is it evident that the meaning of the verse is : a knower of Self, giving up desire for sense-objects, wealth and fame, abiding in Self-knowledge, should protect his Self.

Those men who are unable to realize the Atmic truth and are ignorant of the great Reality, for such the second verse is written.

Verse 2

“ For thee, active in the performance of duties, rituals benevolence and the desire to live a hundred years, proud of thy manhood, there is no other path which may keep thee from the taint of actions.”

Commentary

In this world, performing actions like the fire-sacrifice, let a man desire to live up to the maximum age of a hundred years, and let him who wishes this, continue to perform actions.

For thee, wishing to reach this great age, for thee

proud of being a man, there is no other means of avoiding the taint of actions, except by the performance of the fire- sacrifice. He who has such desires, should live performing the fire-sacrifice as enjoined in the scriptures.

Objection : How can it be known that Verse i refers to Knowledge-practice, and that Verse 2 refers to one who, unable to be a renunciate, is enjoined to perform actions and sacrifices ?

Answer: As we have previously explained, the line of demarcation between knowledge and action is as immovable as a mountain.

“ He who wishes for life must live acting,”

“ All this is to be covered with the Lord.”

“ Renouncing those things (movable and immovable objects of the world), protect thy Self.”

“ Do not desire the wealth of others.”

These four quotations indicate the difference between the action-ideal and the knowledge-ideal.

“ Without being desirous of life or death, he must resort to the forests, he must not return home from there ”. This is the injunction of the Vedas.

This quotation also applies to the state of renunciation undertaken with a view to perpetuating the higher knowledge. Further on, we will show the difference between the fruits of the two, for from the dawn of creation, these two paths have been traditionally described.

The path of action precedes that of renunciation. A man treading the second path, must give up the three-fold desire. “ Of the two,” says a verse of the Taittiriya, “ that of renunciation is the superior.” That great teacher of the Vedas, blessed Vyas, has, after due deliberation, given his settled conclusion to his son :—

There are only two paths mentioned in the Vedas :—

  1. The path of action based on duties and the practice of benevolence.
  2. The path of renunciation.

Verse 3

“After their death, those people who kill their Self, migrate to the regions which are covered with the darkness of the ignorance of Self—the region of the Asuras.”

Compared with the sublime state of divine consciousness, even Devas are Asuras. The region of superior wealth is called the Asurya.

Those incarnations in which the fruition of action is enjoyed, are covered with a veil of nescience. After the death of their physical body, men re-incarnate in such environment as is warranted by their actions and knowledge, in a state varying from Brahma to rocks.

Those men who kill their Self are called “ Self-assassinators Who are they ? Are they such as are ignorant of the nature of Self ? How do they assassinate this Self ? In consequence of nescience, they neglect their ever-perfect Atman, and the ever-present Self, the deathless, immortal, Intelligence Absolute, is to them like a dead object, being unrecognized by them. Therefore those ignorant materialists are called “ slayers of Self”. The sin of Selfassassination binds them to the wheel of birth and death.

The ignorant “ killing their Self ”, abide in the region of birth and death. Far otherwise are the God-knowing who become liberated.

Verse 4

“Atman is immovable. He is one and is swifter than the mind. The senses cannot know Him, because He is already there when they approach. Though He is fixed and immovable, yet He outstrips all living beings. By His presence He animates the all-pervading air, which sustains all living beings.”

Commentary

Atman never alters His nature. He is one and is swifter even than the mind, the organ of both positive and negative thought.

Objection : How can we accept this contradiction, that Atman is fixed yet movable, and swifter than the mind ?

Answer : There is no fallacy in it. This seeming paradox can be applied to Atman, conceived with or without adjuncts.

In His absolute state, He is called fixed and one. When considered with adjuncts—the inner organ and its modifications in the form of thought—He is said to be swifter than the mind. The mind can, in an instant, reach the highest most distant region of Brahmalokad The great swiftness of the mind is well-known to people of the world, but those higher regions reached by the mind, have already Atman abiding as their substratum. Therefore the verse says : “ He is swifter than the mind ”.

Atman is not attainable even by the senses. Because of their enlightening power, or their power of bringing objects from obscurity to the light of knowledge, the senses are often called “Devas ”. The mind is swifter than those Devas, the senses, which being inferior to mind are far behind Atman.

Being all-pervasive, like space, Atman, that all-pervasive Principle in its absolute condition, free from attributes, reaches beyond the mind. Being unmodified, He yet experiences all worldly modifications through the medium of the mind. Deluded people, with no discrimination, think that He who is One, is a separate One, in each body.

He outstrips the swift-moving mind and the senses, as if He went beyond them. The sense of “ as if” is implied by the use of the word “ tishthat ” which means “ the fixed one ” which is evident from the context. Though Himself unmodifiable (fixed), yet He goes beyond others.

The Atmic principle, eternally intelligent by nature, animates the air which moves swiftly in space, and which nourishes all bodies and endows them with activity. On Him depend all bodies and senses. He pervades them all, and is like a thread supporting them. He is in fact the Supporter of the Universe. He is the cause of activity in fire, sun and clouds, for the air, which causes fire to burn, sun to shine and clouds to move, is supported by Atman.

The word “dadhati” (translated as ‘animates’) is interpreted as “ becoming or assuming these forms ”, for the body and the senses exist only in their substratum, the eternally intelligent Atman.

The theme expounded in the foregoing verse, is now enlarged upon.

Verse 5

“Atman moves, and yet does not move. He is close at hand, yet distant. He pervades all life, within and without.”

Commentary

The Principle called Atman which is the theme under exposition, moves and yet does not move, though He appears to be moving.

“ He is close at hand ”—not only is He near at hand, but, being the Self of the God-knowing, He is nearest to them.

“ He is distant ”—to the ignorant He is unattainable in hundreds of millions of years, and so appears to be very distant.

“ He pervades all life within and without ”—He is the Essence of all, as indicated by the Shruti.

Being all-pervasive as space, He is outside the world of names, forms and motion, and, being subtle, He is within them too. The Shruti says : “ He is mass-consciousness ” meaning—He is free from the considerations of internality and externality.

The following verse gives a description of the one who is above differences.       ‘

Verse 6

“ The Knower sees all beings in His Atman, and in all beings he sees his Atman. Because of right knowledge, he does not look on anyone with aversion.”

Commentary

The meaning is that the Sage sees every being and object, from the Unmanifest to rocks, in his Self. He does not see them as different from his Atman, for in all of them he sees his own Self. In other words, he knows the Self of all beings, to be his own Self. His conviction is : “As I am the Self of the body and the senses, and as I am witness of all other functions and phases, I am Consciousness, the attributeless ‘ I AM ’, the only Existence. In the same way, I am the Atman of all beings and objects,

from the unmanifest state of matter to rocks He therefore who sees in all things and objects, his unparticularised Atman, and who realizes the universal Self, does not hate anybody. People hate what is faulty or different from themselves, but he who always sees the most pure Atman has no reason for aversion, and therefore hates nobody.

The following verse emphasizes the same point.

Verse 7

“ When the man of God-vision knows all beings as his own Atman, then to that seer of unity what delusion, what grief is there ? ”

Commentary

What grief or delusion can there be to the right-seeing great soul who has known all beings, in the spiritual sense, as his own Self. By virtue of his cognition of the spiritual Reality, they have been recognized as his own Atman.

Grief and delusion are for the man who does not realize the illusory nature of desires and actions, but he who sees the attributeless Atman like Space, that seer of one-ness is not subject to grief and delusion.

“ What delusion, what grief ? ” . . . indicates the entire uprooting of Sansaraf- because grief and delusion are the effects of nescience, the existence of which is impossible in the Self-luminous Atman, and the same applies to Sansara in general, all being an effect of nescience.


All the gains spoken of in the Scriptures, such as cows, land, gold, worldly and celestial wealth, are obtained also in the form of self-identification with the unmanifest Prakriti. So far we have spoken of the worldly (sansaric) powers and achievements. Beyond this is the fruit of renunciation of the threefold desires, the experience of the unity of all in one’s own Self {Atman) as mentioned in Verse 7. Thus is shown the meaning of the Vedas as to renunciation and attachment to actions.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the first portion of the Brahmana instructs the follower of the path of Action as to obligatory and prohibited acts. The path of Renunciation is specially treated in the later portion of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The man who wants to live attached to rituals {karma) from the time of entry into the womb until his death must at the same time acquire a knowledge of the Devas, as stated in Verse 11. Now is explained how he ‘ attains to immortality ’. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (V.5.2.) says

“ That which is the True in man is also the True in the sun. The spirit (Purushd) which is in the orb of the sun is also in the right eye of man ”. He who prays to the universal Spirit and acts according to the injuctions of the Scriptures, at the approach of death addresses his Self {Atman) seated in the luminous orb of the sun in the following verse, in order to discover the way leading to Self-Realization.

Verse 15

“ The face of the Universal Spirit (Brahman) manifesting Himself through the sun, is veiled by a luminous disk. O Sun, unveil Thyself to me who have followed the true doctrines so that I may see the Self ! ”

Commentary

The word ‘ Hiranmaya ’ means ‘ one like gold ’ i.e. all-luminous. This orb covers the face of God (Brahman) who is real, who is in the sun. O Sun, since I have worshipped the truth, the truth has become my inseparable attribute. That ‘ I ’ who is Truth, unveil Thyself to me who have followed truth faithfully, so that I may attain to Thy Self whose form is Truth.

Verse 16

“ O world-maintaining Sun, O lone Wanderer in the heavens, O Guide of the world, O Sun nourisher of Prana (the vital airs and juices), O Causer of delight to Thy subjects, withdraw and gather up Thy rays ! I see Thy form which is the greatest good and bliss. That Spirit, seated in the orb of the sun, the same am I ! ”

Commentary

The sun is called ‘ Pushan ’ because he supports the world. ‘ ekarshi ’ means ‘ he wanders alone ’. He is called ‘ Tama ’ because he rules all. ‘ Withdraw and gather up Thy rays ’ which cause extreme heat (‘tejas). By Thy grace, O Atman, let me see Thee. Not that I beg this favour as a servant. (Here is to be understood a pause ; then the illumined sage exclaims) I am verily He who supports, maintains and pervades the whole universe.

The Prayer of a Devotee at the Point of Death

Verse 17

“ May my vitality return to the all-pervading Spirit ! May this body be reduced to ashes ! Om ! O my thinking mind, remember, remember thy deeds ! Remember, remember thy deeds ! ”

Commentary

May the vitality of this dying ‘ me ’ leaving the physical body, be absorbed in the universal Essence, the Immortality, the Sutratman ! Let the subtle body (linga sharira) containing impressions of knowledge (wisdom) and actions (rituals) rise high ! This verse indicates the path to be trodden by the departed spirit. And may the physical body be offered as a sacrifice to the fire and be consumed to ashes ! ‘ Om the Truth, means Brahman because Om is a symbol of Brahman. ‘ O my thinking mind ’, now think only of that which thou oughtest to think, for this is a critical time ! The repetition of ‘ remember thy deeds’ is for the sake of emphasis.

The Dying Devotee asks for the True Path Verse 18

“ O Fire (Agni), lead us by the shining way that we may obtain the fruit of our actions ! O Deva, Thou knowest all our wisdom and our actions. Destroy all our sins and hypocrisy ! We offer many prayers and salutations to Thee ! ”

Commentary

‘ O Fire, take me by the shining way ’. Here the word ‘ supatha ‘ (good path) shows that the Southern Path* is not meant. The meaning is ‘ I am tired of the Southern Path which leads to reincarnations; and so I pray to Thee, that Thou who knowest all our actions and our wisdom may lead us to the Path which is free from incarnations. And free us from the sins of hypocrisy and crookedness. Then alone shall we attain to our supreme purpose ’. The real meaning of the last sentence is ‘At this moment we are unable to serve Thee actively, and therefore we offer ourselves to Thee and serve Thee only through our beseechings and supplications.’


Asuras: The Aryans called materialists, who were devoted to body- worship and selfish interests—‘Asuras

Atman: the real Self in man. taintless, eternal, unembodied, all-pervasive, unobtainable by force, and not subject to creation or modification, is totally unsuitable for use in rituals.

Brahmaloka : A plane of existence above the material plane, wherein dwell souls in great bliss.

Devas : Superhuman beings, but ignorant of the nature of Reality.

Jiva : the individualised soul.

Sansara : the cycle of birth, death and rebirth involving experience of the phenomenal world.

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