The upanishads
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The Upanishads. Isa Upanishad. Upa (near) + ni (below) + shad (sit). These are the recorded notes of students sitting “below” or “near” an illumined sage. Knowledge cannot be transmitted through books. It is transmitted by example, by experience and by life. . The principal Upanishads.

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The Upanishads

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The upanishads

The Upanishads

Isa Upanishad

Upa near ni below shad sit

Upa (near) + ni (below) + shad (sit)

  • These are the recorded notes of students sitting “below” or “near” an illumined sage.

  • Knowledge cannot be transmitted through books.

  • It is transmitted by example, by experience and by life.

The principal upanishads

The principal Upanishads

  • Isa

  • Kena

  • Katha

  • Prasna

  • Mundaka

  • Mandukya

  • Taittiriya

  • Aitareya

  • Chandogya

  • Brhadaranyaka

  • Svetasvatara

  • Kausitaki

  • Mahanarayana

  • Maitri

Mundaka upanishad 1 1 3

Mundaka Upanishad (1.1.3)

  • What is that by knowing which everything is known?

  • The core message of the Upanishads is that there is an ultimate Reality or Universal Awareness that they label as Brahman.

  • This word is derived from brih which means that which is vast and expansive.

Tat tvam asi you are that

Tat tvam asi = You are That

  • At a fundamental level, we are That which is vast and expansive.

  • To indicate that dimension of the ultimate Reality at the individual level, the Upanishads use the term atman.

  • The English word “atmosphere” is derived from the Greek atmos, which means vapor or air. The Greek word is derived from the Sanskrit word atman.



  • In many early translations, this word was translated as “soul” which is inaccurate.

  • A more accurate English rendering is “Self” to indicate background awareness bereft of any idea, thought or feeling.

  • One should definitely not confuse this with the ego.

Isa upanishad

Isa Upanishad

  • This Upanishad consists of 18 verses and is one of the smaller ones. We will study it in its entirety.

  • Isa vasyam idam sarvam yat kinca jagatyam jagat

  • Tena tyaktena bhunjitha ma grdhah kasya svid dhanam.

  • Isa can be translated as “cosmic intelligence” or “cosmic ruling force”

Isa and asti

isa and asti

  • These two words are related.

  • The English word “is” can be traced back as follows:

  • ist (German)

  • est (French)

  • esti (Latin)

  • asti (Sanskrit)

The meaning of the first verse

The meaning of the first verse

  • The ruling force dwells in everything.

  • In every bit of it,

  • Even in anything that is changing and moving.

  • By that renunciation, enjoy.

  • Do not covet the wealth of anyone.

Tyaga renunciation

tyaga = renunciation

  • This is a recurrent word in the Upanishads and means “to give up the sense of ownership,” “to be detached,” “to give up the sense of possession”.

  • It does not mean to give up everything and walk away, nor does it mean that one should be cynical and pessimistic.

  • Renunciation is a corollary of the main thesis:

  • All that exists is One, and by this realization, enjoy.

Enjoyment in the upanishadic sense

Enjoyment (in the Upanishadic sense)

  • Give up the mental idea of ownership.

  • It is not attained by outwardly becoming a mendicant, but inwardly, by giving up all ideas of possession.

  • “To see a world in a grain of sand

  • And heaven in a wild flower

  • Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

  • And eternity in an hour” – William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Gandhi and the isa upanishad

Gandhi and the Isa Upanishad

  • “Since Isa pervades every fibre of my being, and all of you, I derive from it the doctrine of equality of all creatures on earth … This mantra tells me that I cannot hold as mine anything … and if my life and that of all who believe in this mantra has to be a life of perfect dedication, it follows that it will have to be a life of continual service of our fellow creatures.”

Second verse of the isa upanishad

Second verse of the Isa Upanishad

  • Only by doing work should one desire to live here a hundred years. Thus, and in no other way, work will not stain you.”

  • Work, here, should be understood as “service to our fellow beings” and if we work in this way, we will not be attached to our work.

  • This is the seed form of the idea underlying karma yoga, which we will take up later in these lectures. It is a central theme of the Bhagavad Gita.

Surya and asurya

Surya and Asurya

  • Surya means “sun” or “light”.

  • Asurya means “without light”.

  • Third verse: Those who do not understand this life principle, the isa are without light and live in a world of blind gloom, as it were.

The fourth verse

The fourth verse

  • “Unmoving, the One is faster than the mind. The sense organs cannot reach It. … It moves, and It moves not. It is far and It is near. It is within all this and It is also outside all this.”

  • In these verses, “It” can be taken to mean universal awareness or pure consciousness, bereft of any idea.

  • “It” can also be taken as the principle of life.

Matarisvan mata isvara

matarisvan = mata + isvara

  • isvara is derived from isa, and this signifies the principle of existence, the principle of “isness”.

  • The word mata brings the “mother aspect” and so this word refers to the “life principle.”

  • The English word “mother” comes from the Latin mater which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit mata.

  • matarisvan is the matrix out of which things evolve. (Aurobindo)

Matrix and mater

Matrix and mater

  • What does the word “matrix” mean?

  • It is “that within which something originates, takes form.” (Webster’s dictionary)

  • In mathematics, it means a grid of numbers or algebraic quantities.

  • The word can be traced back to the 19th century in the work of Hermann Grassman, who wrote the first treatise on matrices.

  • In fact, Grassman was a Sanskrit scholar and was the first to compile a German translation of the Rig Veda.

H. Grassman (1809-1877)

Aurobindo and matarisvan

Aurobindo and matarisvan

  • “Matarisvan seems to mean ‘he who extends himself in the Mother or container’ whether that be the containing mother element, Ether, or the material energy called Earth in the Vedas and spoken of there as Mother. It is a Vedic epithet of the God Vayu, who representing the divine principle in the Life energy, Prana, extends himself in Matter and vivifies its forms. Here it signifies the divine Life power that presides in all forms of cosmic activity.”

The next four verses

The next four verses

  • 6. One who clearly perceives the atman in all beings, and all beings in the atman does not separate oneself from the cosmic principle.

  • 7. What sorrow, what delusion is there for one who sees intimately the unity of existence and knows all beings to be one’s own Self (atman).

  • 8. It is all pervasive, radiant, indivisible, without a body, without a scar of imperfection, without sinews. It is pure and uncontaminated by ignorance. The poet is the ruler of the mind, the ruler of nature, and self-existent. It has assigned all things properly.

  • 9. They enter into blinding darkness who adore ignorance. Into greater darkness, as it were, they enter who are devoted to knowledge alone.

What is the meaning of the last verse

What is the meaning of the last verse?

  • We must be cautious about the arrogance of knowledge.

  • It also means, the more you know, the more there is yet to be known.

  • The import of the next two verses is that this “greater darkness” must be transcended.

Transcending the greater darkness

Transcending the “greater darkness”

  • 10 & 11. One result they say is obtained by knowledge, and quite another by non-knowledge. Thus we have heard from the wise who explained it to us. He who understands both knowledge and non-knowledge, conquers death through non-knowledge, and attains immortality through knowledge.

  • Non-knowledge refers to knowledge of the changing.

  • Thus, we conquer death through knowledge of the changing, but transcend both life and death through knowledge of the ultimate Reality.

Verses 12 13

Verses 12 & 13

  • Those who think That is beyond manifestation enter into blinding darkness. Those who say That has form enter into greater darkness, as it were. One result, they say is obtained from the adoration of manifestation and quite another from the adoration of the unmanifest. Thus we have heard it from the wise who have explained it to us.

  • The human being is conditioned to think in forms and words. Thus, if we are to grasp ultimate Reality without these methods, we plunge into darkness. Without words, we have no support and nowhere to stand on.

  • If on the other hand, we insist on thinking only in terms of words and forms, then we plunge into greater darkness, as it were, since we limit our idea of That through definitions.

The last five verses

The last five verses

  • 14-17: Like a lid, Thy shining golden orb covers the entrance to Truth. Please remove it, O Supporter, so that I who am devoted to Truth may behold That. O Nourisher, the sole Seer, O Controller, O Sun, the supporter of all. Gather thy brilliance, draw together thy light. Through your grace, I behold That which is beyond. I am That. Let my life force be merged in the all-pervading Life. Let the body be reduced to ashes. Om. Remember the goal. Remember the goal.

  • 18. O Agni, lead us by the goodly path. You know all the ways. Prevent all distractions from the goal. We salute you again and again.

The deeper stages of meditation

The deeper stages of meditation

  • It is possible to completely silence all mental modifications so that one may “perceive” the underlying awareness.

  • It cannot be objectified. It can be experienced. This is the meaning of “I am That.”

  • There are various levels of concentration and this can be compared to the trajectory of a multi-stage rocket.

  • Om is the recurrent symbol of ultimate Reality that occurs in the later Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.

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