The first Upanishad we will look into is the Isha Upanishad, so called from its opening word: ishavasyam.
An instructive story
Just before going to India for the first time in 1962, I had the great good fortune to meet and hear Sri A. B. Purani, the administrator of the renowned Aurobindo Ashram of Pondicherry, India. From his lips I heard the most brilliant expositions of Vedic philosophy; nothing in my subsequent experience has equaled them. In one talk he told the following story:
In ancient India there lived a most virtuous Brahmin who was considered by all to be the best authority on philosophy. One day the local king ordered him to appear before him. When he did so, the king said: “I have three questions that puzzle–even torment–me: Where is God? Why don’t I see Him? And what does he do all day? If you can’t answer these three questions I will have your head cut off.” The Brahmin was appalled and terrified, because the answers to these questions were not just complex, they were impossible to formulate. In other words: he did not know the answers. So his execution date was set.
On the morning of that day the Brahmin’s young son appeared and asked the king if he would release his father if he–the son–would answer the questions. The king agreed, and the son asked that a container of milk be brought to him. It was done. Then the boy asked that the milk be churned into butter. That, too, was done.
“The first two of your questions are now answered,” he told the king.
The king objected that he had been given no answers, so the son asked: “Where was the butter before it was churned?”
“In the milk,” replied the king.
“In what part of the milk?” asked the boy.
“In all of it.”
“Just so, agreed the boy, “and in the same way God is within all things and pervades all things.”
“Why don’t I see Him, then,” pressed the king.
“Because you do not ‘churn’ your mind and refine your perceptions through meditation. If you do that, you will see God. But not otherwise. Now let my father go.”
“Not at all,” insisted the king. “You have not told me what God does all day.”
“To answer that,” said the boy, “we will have to change places. You come stand here and let me sit on the throne.”
The request was so audacious the king complied, and in a moment he was standing before the enthroned Brahmin boy who told him: “This is the answer. One moment you were here and I was there. Now things are reversed. God perpetually lifts up and casts down every one of us. In one life we are exalted and in another we are brought low–oftentimes in a single life this occurs, and even more than once. Our lives are completely in His hand, and He does with us as He wills” (“He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.” Luke 1:52).
The Brahmin was released and his son was given many honors and gifts by the king.
The Isha Upanishad opens with the answer to the question as to God’s whereabouts.
He is within all
“In the heart of all things, of whatever there is in the universe, dwells the Lord” (Isha Upanishad 1). Whatever we experience, whether through the inner or outer senses, it is a covering of the Lord (Isha). Since it conceals, it necessarily blinds, confuses, or inhibits us. It is a door closed in our face. Tragically, throughout lives without number we have not known this simple fact and have as a consequence believed that what we have experienced, whether objective or subjective, is the sole reality and have dissipated life after life in involvement with it to our pain and destruction. A door is never the way out: the way out is revealed when the door is moved aside–eliminated. Not knowing this, either, we have clawed, hammered, and hewn at the door–at least in those lives when wewere not adulating and worshipping it or calling it “God’s greatest gift to us”–to no avail. The root problem is our believing in the door’s reality, thinking that it is the beginning, middle, and end. Only when it disappears will we see the truth that lies beyond outer appearances.
We must not just get inside things, we must get to their heart. And how is that done? By getting into our own heart, into the core of our own being. There everything will be found. The key to the door is meditation.
Prabhavananda has conveyed the ultimate message of these opening words of the Isha Upanishad. The literal translation, however, gives us another view which we should consider: “All this–whatever exists in this changing universe–should be covered by the Lord” (Translation by Swami Nikhilananda). Rather than speaking of piercing to the heart of things, the literal meaning is that the Lord should be seen covering–that is, enveloping–all things. This has two meanings.
1) What I have just expressed, that we should experience–not just think intellectually–that God is encompassing all things, that we should not see things as independent or separate from God, but as existing within God. And this vision should extend to us: we, too, exist only within Him.
2) In our seeing of things, God should always be between us and them. First we should see God, and only secondarily see the things.
The renowned Swami (Papa) Ramdas in his spiritual autobiography In Quest of God writes of his initial spiritual awakening in these words: “It was at this time that it slowly dawned upon his mind that Ram was the only Reality and all else was false.…All thought, all mind, all heart, all soul was concentrated on Ram, Ram covering up and absorbing everything.”
In the Bhagavad Gita, considered to convey the essence of the upanishadic wisdom, both Prabhavananda’s and the literal translations are put together when Krishna tells Arjuna that the wise see God in all things and all things in God. “Those who see Me in everything and see everything in Me, are not separated from Me and I am not separated from them” (Bhagavad Gita 6:30).
He IS all
If we accept the foregoing, then we will take the next step and experience that “He alone is the reality” (Isha Upanishad 1). This can be understood more than one way. We can conclude that God alone is real and everything else is unreal. The problem with that is our tendency to equate “unreal” with non-existent, and wrongly belief that everything is only an illusion, that it has no reality whatsoever. The great non-dual philosopher Shankara explained the accurate view by likening our experience of things to that of a man who sees a rope in dim light and mistakes it for a snake, his mind even supplying eyes that glitter and a mouth that hisses at him. When light is brought, he sees that there is no snake, only a rope. The snake was not real, but his impression, however mistaken, was real and did exist. The rope was the reality and the snake was an illusion overlain on it. In the same way God is the reality and everything else is illusory like the snake.
But illusion does exist. Denying it gets us nowhere; we have to deal with it by seeing through it, by dispelling it. Then we will see the reality: God. After that we can progress to the understanding that even though our interpretation may be wrong, what we perceive does have a real side to it, and that is God Himself. Hence, all things are God in their real side. The “wrong” side is in our mind alone. We can say that God is the reality of the unreal, which we need to see past. And that is the whole idea of the opening verse of the upanishad. He alone is real; He is all things.
Be at peace
“Wherefore, renouncing vain appearances, rejoice in him” (Isha Upanishad 1). All of our sorrows and troubles come from our mistaking vain appearances for reality, from our looking at them with our outer eyes instead of beholding God with the inner eye. But we are addicted to those vain appearances–we have to admit that. Yes, we are even addicted to all the pain and anxiety they bring us. That is foolish, but is it any more foolish than it is to be addicted to drugs or alcohol–or to people that harm us? We are insane on certain levels; this world is a madhouse for people of our particular lunacy. The sooner we understand this and resolve to be cured and released, the better things will be for us. For from “things” we will move on to God-perception.
For this reason the yogis, those who seek God in meditation, should be the most cheerful and optimistic of people. If we look to God we will see only perfection and rejoice in it; if we look at ourselves, others, and the world around us we will see only imperfection and be discontent. Depression comes from looking in the wrong place. It is the bitter fruit of ego-involvement, of ego-obsession. The remedy is not to have “high self-esteem” but rather to have God-esteem. And since we live in God, we will see the divine side even of ourselves and be ever hopeful.
Once God spoke to a mystic and said: “I am He Who Is. You are She Who Is Not.” Now to the ego that may sound hateful, but to the questing spirit it is a liberating assurance. The unreal which we call “me” need not be struggled with: it is only a ghost, a shadow. Bringing in the light of God-contact will reveal that to be the truth. Then we will be at peace and in perfect joy. What a burden is lifted from those who come to know that God alone is real and true, and that we need only look to Him. When we look within we find Him at the heart of our selves.
We must renounce unreality. As I say, we are addicted to it, so we will have to struggle to break the terrible habit of delusion, just as those addicted to the hallucinations produced by drugs have to break away from them and discard them forever. Then we will “rejoice in Him.”
“Covet no man’s wealth.” Why? Because it does not exist! It is just a bubble destined to burst leaving nothing in its place. There are no “things” to covet or possess. They are the fever dreams of illusion from which we must awaken. No one really owns anything–firstly because the thing (as we perceive it) does not exist, and the “man” does not exist either; and neither do we–as least so far as our perceptions of “them,” “it,” and “me” go.
God and I in space alone
And nobody else in view.
“And where are the people, O Lord!” I said.
“The earth below and the sky o’erhead
And the dead whom once I knew?”
“That was a dream,” God smiled and said,
“A dream that seemed to be true,
There were no people, living or dead,
There was no earth and no sky o’erhead
There was only Myself–and you.”
“Why do I feel no fear,” I asked,
“Meeting you here in this way,
For I have sinned I know full well,
And there is heaven and there is hell,
And is this the judgment day?”
“Nay, those were dreams,” the great God said,
“Dreams that have ceased to be.
There are no such things as fear or sin,
There is no you–you have never been–
There is nothing at all but Me.”
(“Illusion” by Edna Wheeler Wilcox).
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: Living a Life Worth Living