The Isa Upanishad illuminates an aspect of modernity

This post is offered with a head-bowed pranaam in the manner of the Isa Upanishad when it says…
इति शुश्रुम धीराणां ये नस् तद् विचचक्षिरे
(This we have heard from the wise who have expounded it to us)

I don’t remember when I first started reading the Upanishads. I think it was probably just after I came out of college and started working. I remember being deeply moved by the lyrical quality of the unfamiliar language, that seemed just a little bit beyond the reach of understanding. And I remember the assurance with which the Upanishads spoke and the aura of wisdom they exuded.

I was reading the Isa Upanishad again and was struck by something that reminded me of what Pawanji talks about in our courses on Education and modernity. I thought I would present it here and see what you think…

The Isa Upanishad in its eighteen shlokas covers a vast territory. However, in its highly compressed message it still repeats twice, with only minor changes, a set of three shlokas. So, the Upanishad moves away from its terse tone and, through repetition, underlines the message given in 3 of its shlokas. With that as a preface, take a look at the shlokas and the English translation (not word-to-word) done by Eknath Easwaran.

अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति येऽविद्याम् उपासते ।
ततो भूय इव ते तमो य उविद्यायां रताः ॥ ९ ॥

अन्यद् एवाहुर् विद्ययान् यद् आहुर् अविद्यया ।
इति शुश्रुम धीराणां ये नस् तद् विचचक्षिरे ॥ १० ॥

विद्यां चाविद्यां च यस् तद् वेदोभयं सह ।
अविद्यया मृत्युं तीर्त्वा विद्ययामृतम् अश्नुते ॥ ११ ॥

In dark night live those for whom
The world without alone is real; in night
Darker still, for whom the world within
Alone is real. The first leads to a life
Of action, the second to a life of meditation.
But those who combine action with meditation
Cross the sea of death through action
And enter into immortality
Through the practice of meditation.
So have we heard from the wise.

अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति येऽसम्भूतिम् उपासते ।
ततो भूय इव ते तमो य उ सम्भूत्यां रताः ॥ १२ ॥

अन्यद् एवाहुः संभवाद् अन्यद् आहुर् असंभवात् ।
इति शुश्रुम धीराणां ये नस् तद् विचचक्षिरे ॥ १३ ॥

संभूतिं च विनाशं च यस् तद् वेदोभयं सह ।
विनाशेन मृत्युं तीर्त्वा संभूत्यामृतम् अश्नुते ॥ १४ ॥

In dark night live those for whom the Lord
Is transcendent only; in night darker still,
For whom he is immanent only.
But those for whom he is transcendent
And immanent cross the sea of death
With the immanent and enter into
Immortality with the transcendent.
So have we heard from the wise.

The word pairs used in the two sets of shlokas are avidya/ vidya and asambhuti/ sambhuti (using ‘vinasa‘ instead of ‘asambhuti‘ in the 14th shloka). Both sets refer to gross/ subtle or outer/ inner worlds. And the message of the Upanishad is that, since these are two sides of the same reality, focusing on only one side leads to a dark, incomplete life. It tells us to engage with the world of action/ immanence where change and death exist and also to engage with the world of meditation/ transcendence which is the unchanging and immortal world.

And how this ties up with our course is that Pawanji keeps saying that modernity over-emphasizes the outer world of change and action and ignores or negates the inner world of unchanging Truth. In our workshops and courses we point out that a modern life focused on the outer is rudderless and leaves us vulnerable to external manipulation (by modern institutions like the market, state etc.). Whereas, taking decisions grounded in the inner leads to a spontaneous, sahaj outer life. The Isa Upanishad in its eighteen shlokas gives us a description of the territory and gives us indications on how we can navigate through this territory to live a full life.

What do you think?