Isha Upanishad- Paradox Personified in Verse
The enigmatic, 17 verse Isha Upanishad starts off with a deep verse. Isha, or the Creator’s perfect and so is his Creation. The Creator minus his Creation is still perfect. Poetry tantalizes us, frustrating our attempts at decoding it completely. This Upanishad is filled with paradoxes. After a point, just enjoy the images like an Impressionist painting, rather than looking for 20 megapixel clarity.
God lives in all Creation, in all that’s alive. So give up the idea of owning anything in the world and enjoy it. Don’t covet what we think others have. As part of God’s Creation, everything in the world is ours too. See what I mean about paradox?
Do your duty, that will make work palatable. Mani Rao suggests that the Isha Upanishad is saying that even though everything is ours, we still need to work to engage ourselves.
Those who don’t do this and those who don’t believe in the Creator go to dark places when they die.
The poem switches back to Isha. More paradoxes- Brahman doesn’t move and yet is faster than thought. Even the devas can’t comprehend it. Rao explains that devas are often interpreted as senses since they illuminate them.
Wind supports activity in Brahman- since as Rao points out, breath powers our work.
Brahman is both far away and within everything.
He who sees all beings within himself and himself in all beings can’t hate anyone. So extremes of emotion like excitement or grief don’t happen.
Again, the poem switches back to Isha. Brahman is radiant, without body and so can’t be hurt. Pure, omniscient and born from himself, he runs things like they should be run.
The ignorant enter darkness and so do those who relish knowledge. How can both be possible? It becomes even more puzzling. He who has both ignorance and knowledge-
Because of ignorance crosses death
Because of knowledge reaches immortality
Then, a flash of light-
He who knows both Creation and Destruction,
Because of Destruction crossed death
Because of Creation reaches immortality.
Notice the similarity between these verses and the ones before them?
A beautiful image-
A golden lid covers the mouth of truth
The poet pleads with the Sun to step aside, so that the truthful and righteous can see the mouth of truth.
Now, linking the Sun to the Creator, and also to Yama, the poet asks him to remove the blinding rays around Him, to show a toned-down version. We are this Creator, since we are Creation and the Creator is the Creation- remember the first verse?
Breath becomes immortal air,
The body, ash
Mind, remember what’s been done, directs the poet.
We merge in Creation, but our soul remembers, is how I’d read this.
The poet now addresses Agni- you know all the deeds those in the world do
Take us to riches by an easy way
Take thorny sins away.
Probably the riches here are knowledge? And sins the obstacles in getting knowledge.
The cyclicality of things is beautifully shown. Wind powers activity initially, as breath is our horsepower. In the end, breath returns to air, repeating the cycle.
I like Mani Rao’s translation. Although it’s different from the usual ones, the interpretation makes more sense. Isha Upanishad is truly enigmatic, teasing us with the meaning it promises.