Isha Upanishad defines the concept of ‘Self’ and its innate nature. It describes ‘Self’ as pure consciousness, the absolute reality that is universal, infinite, untainted by death or evil. It is the native land of us humans to which we belong and it is this ‘Self’ that we must seek to achieve during our life.
Isha Upanishad, much like other Upanishads, lays emphasis on the fact that we humans are used to living a life under the influence of our senses. In other words, we spend our lives in a world that is presented to us by our five senses. A world that is finite, temporary, superficial bounded by desire, evil, fear, and sorrow.
However, there is something more to this life that lies beyond our routine experiences. A world that is unbounded, free from desires, fear, and evil, and which if attained during our life leads us to ‘Liberation’ or ‘Moksha’. It is the supreme reality, the eternal power from which all living creatures have come into existence including humans.
Let’s first understand the concept of ‘Self’ as defined in Isha Upanishad and then look at why its attainment is the only purpose for which we should live.
Meaning of Self
Supreme Godhead – the Absolute Reality as per Isha Upanishad
As per Isha Upanishad, there is a supreme Godhead that is the basis of our lives against which all the things we see, touch, or experience in daily life are secondary. This Supreme Godhead, which is called Brahman, is the essence of every created thing. And by being in unison with ‘Self, that is our consciousness, we are actually in unison with Brahman. In other words, we all are one with this power, the supreme reality from which all life emerged.
This concept of unity to which all creation can be referred is similar to what astrophysicists say when they describe creation.
According to them, all matter in the universe (that is all creation such as stars, moon, sun, living beings, day, night, etc) must be present in that ‘Primeval Atom’. This atom must be incredibly small in size and in such a state of the atom, it wouldn’t have been possible for matter to exist in all its variations such as gravity, time, space, moon, sun, stars, etc. That is, the matter would simply be reduced to its simplest form, the pure energy which itself would be raw and undifferentiated.
Similarly, when we are in this unitive state, that is pure consciousness or complete absorption, all reality, both inner and outer, is reduced into pure energy which is not bound by any time, space, dimensions, and differentiation. This is because these concepts of time, space, and causality are forced onto us by our senses. And in unison with ‘Self’, one is free from mind, body, and ego.
Thus, pure consciousness is complete fullness for all reality such as matter, energy, time, space, causality lie here. That is why if we attain ‘Self’, all our desires are fulfilled for achieving ‘Self’ is all our desire.
Self – The Pure Consciousness
The sages of the Upanishads had a fervent desire to know what is the purpose of human life and what is it that makes us see, think and act? To find answers to these questions, they focused on studying the mind and various states of consciousness the mind passes through as human concentration deepens.
Upanishads use a metaphor here to explain why sages undertook the study of consciousness and why they said that consciousness is the answer to all questions about human life – such as life after death, the purpose of human life, etc. Just by knowing one piece of gold, all things made of gold are known: they differ only in name and form, while the stuff of which all are made is gold. Similarly, just by knowing consciousness, everything else in respect of humans can be known.
This study they called ‘Brahmavidya’ – both the ‘supreme science’ and ‘the science of the Supreme’.
So What is Brahmavidya?
It is defined as a Lab science where the mind is both the object and laboratory. In Brahmavidya, the mind is trained to concentrate on the inner self through meditation. Meditation allows for training the mind to focus on the inner self without meandering until it gets fully immersed in focusing on itself.
It is a state of deep concentration, where one forgets the outside world. Well, this is not to say that one enters a state of unconsciousness while meditating. One may be unaware of what is happening around him but is fully absorbed in the object of its concentration – that is the inner self. This profound concentration during meditation is similar to the focus that poets, writers, artists, etc experience when they give shape to their understanding of the outside world and present it in the form of saying, a painting, poem, a piece of writing, etc.
Attaining Self and Supreme Godhead – Atman and Brahman
During meditation, one tends to concentrate on a single thing – that is our inner self. As the concentration deepens, our awareness withdraws from our senses. For instance, awareness begins to pull back from ears, eyes, etc. That is to say, these senses may still function, but we do not see or hear things around as attention detaches from these senses.
Likewise, this deep concentration makes you lose track of your body. In other words, you forget your physical existence and with time understand that you are not your body. That is, you don’t yearn for any physical desire and are no longer scared of death. In other words, you eventually understand that with death, it’s only your body that dies and not you.
The Many Layers of Human Personality
As per the Upanishads, a human personality has many layers to it. The most physical of all the layers is the body. As you go deep into these layers, you find that each layer gets less physical than the layer before. These layers are called the components of the mind and include senses, emotions, intellect, and will.
As your attention pulls back from your senses, emotions, intellect, and will, your focus further deepens. Thus, you are still aware even though the attention withdraws from your mind. Here, you understand that you are neither your mind nor your body. All your awareness is now focused on something beyond body and mind.
At this point in time, when your awareness is withdrawn from your body and mind, the sole thing that keeps you separate from attaining the infinite consciousness is your individual identity. The I, Me, and Mine which you have been defining as your personal identity. In the state of profound concentration, even this ‘I’ disappears. Though ‘I’ cannot be wiped out, it certainly gets dissolved in this pure consciousness. This is what is called pure consciousness, where one is aware of neither body and mind. This is a state where one is free from all conditioning, time, space, and causality.
What is left after every single mark of your personal identity is removed is the pure living being.
Why are we separating this unity from body, mind, and ego? This is because this unity is what is the essence of every created thing. It is from this unity all created things acquire their name and form.
Brahman and Atman
This unity, sages define as Brahman coming from the root word ‘Brih’ which means ‘to expand’. This Brahman is limitless, the essence of every created thing. And from this awareness of unity comes the concept of ‘Self’. This unitary awareness is the foundation of one’s elemental personality which is called the ‘Atman’ or ‘the Self’. In this unitive state, the Self is taken as the same in every created thing. This Self is the core of all creatures and as Upanishads say this Self is identical with Brahman or rather Self is Brahman. That is, the Self is not separate from the absolute Reality known as God.
One who attains Self gets on the path to Liberation, Samadhi – absolute absorption, and Moksha. Further, this Self is infinite, free from all desires and conditioning of body and mind. When one attains Self, he is free from every desire and sorrow because Self is untainted by death, evil, and fear. Further, it is complete fullness as all reality such as matter, time-space, causality, and states of consciousness lie here. Thus, one need not desire anything else after attaining Self for attaining Self is all our desire.
The message given by Upanishads is that nothing less than attaining the Self can satisfy the human heart. There is no joy in the finite; there is joy only in the infinite. Nothing else apart from our union with Self can satisfy us. Thus, attaining Self is the purpose of all human life to experience infinite joy.
Now that we know the concept of Self, let’s have a look at the verses of Isha Upanishad that define Self and its nature.
Isha – The Inner Ruler
As mentioned above, we humans are driven by our senses. Isha Upanishad clearly states that our material needs take us away from our inner selves, which is bad. But what is worse is that we get carried away by our emotions, feelings, and sensations and forget the world around us.
However, if we are aware of both the inner wall as the outer world, we can attain one Reality, the Absolute Reality. When we are driven by materialism, a pattern of scarcity gets strengthened. People are bound to fight each other for what they are running after (that is the resources that satisfy our material needs) are limited.
Thus, those for whom the outer world is the only reality are the ones who are overwhelmed with scarcity. However, those for whom attaining Self (consciousness) is the ultimate purpose, who understand that Self is one and core of one’s personality and that the Supreme Godhead is the absolute reality, are never overcome by scarcity. This is because they seek love, respect, meaning, etc – the resources oF consciousness that are available in abundance.
The Isha Upanishad – Teachings
1. God Dwells in All Created Things
God resides in the hearts of all created things. He is the Supreme or Absolute Reality. Everything belongs to him. We must all rejoice in the lord by renouncing all material pleasures and experiencing his blessings and being grateful for them.
2. Those Who Deny Self Never Attain Liberation
Those living beings who challenge Self (or reject Self) can never attain Moksha (freedom from the cycle of birth and death) or complete absorption. Since they are blind to Self, wrapped in ignorance, and lack love for God, they are born again. In other words, they are never freed from the cycle of life and death.
3. Self Is One, Same and Undifferentiated in All Created Things
As mentioned above, the Self is one. In the unitive state, the Self is taken as one, same or undifferentiated in all created things. And this Self or pure consciousness is the essence of one’s personality. Though motionless, the Self is quicker than thoughts and senses. Further, attaining Self is the highest of all the pursuits. No life can exist without Self.
4. Self is Within All, Above All
The outer world we reside in is ever-changing. This is because we are driven by our senses, emotions, and feelings which present a world that is superficial and impermanent. However, our inner world, where Self resides, remains constant. This is because the Self is the same in all created things for we all are made from the same Supreme Energy. That is, the Supreme Godhead dwells in all living beings. Further, this Inner Self is untainted by death, fear, or evil. That is to say, nothing can contaminate the Inner Self. Further, Self seems to be moving but remains still. Self seems to be far away from one’s reach but is at all times near. This is because it dwells in all created things and seeking the Self is the highest of all pursuits of living beings.
5. Those Who See Self in All and All in Self Know No Fear
Those who understand that we all are made of the same Supreme Power see Self as one and unvarying in all created things. Thus, such people, who realize Self, are able to see themselves in all other created things and all created things in themselves. In other words, the materialistic pleasures of the outer world would not mislead such people as they have an understanding that the Self is not separate from other creatures.
6. Self is Everywhere, Pure, indivisible, and Supreme
As mentioned above, the Self resides in all created things. Further, since the Supreme Power dwells in all created things, the Inner Self cannot be separated from other creatures. It is the same and unvarying in all. Also, the Self is pure and unaffected by any fear or evil. It is wise and Supreme. It is this Supreme Power that keeps the universe together.
7. Action and Meditation Make you Defeat Death and Attain Immortality
As per the Upanishads, those for whom a world without Self is the only real live in darkness. However, those for whom the inner world alone is the only reality are the ones who live in even more darkness. This is because the first results in a life of action and the second in the life of meditation. Those who fuse action with meditation are able to defy death via action and become immortal by undertaking meditation.
8. Those Who Consider God to be Both Immanent and Transcendent Defeat Death and Attain Immortality
Upanishads say that those who consider God only to be a Supreme power live darkness. However, those who consider God only to be the one that resides in all live in even more darkness.
But those who consider him both all-pervading (immanent) and Supreme (transcendent), are the ones who defy death (for their belief that God is all-pervasive) and attain immortality (for their belief that God is the Supreme Power).