Q.343 – Meaning of Ishopanishad mantra

Q : The second line in the first Shloka of Ishopanishad begins with ” Tena tyaktena Bhunjeeta”. The literal meaning appears to be ” therefore, enjoy with a sense of tyaga or renunciation (as everything created in this world is permeated by Ishwara) but Adi Shankaracharya has interpreted these words to mean ” protect ourselves”. Is there a satisfactory explanation for this interpretation? 

Also, the second word of first verse of Ishopanishad: is it vasam (is full) or vasyam (should be considered full). Shankara says vasyam. Vasam appears more logical to me.

A (Ramesam): In order to fully appreciate and admire the beauty and profundity hidden behind the simplicity of a cryptic statement, one ought to know the background and the context against which that expression gets developed.  It is as much true when we talk of an equation such as E = mc^2 or a routine proverb like ‘Still waters run deep.’

The brevity of IshAvAsyOpanishad is perhaps second only to that of MandUkya in its excellence. So it helps if one takes up a study of IshAvAsya after obtaining some reasonable grounding  in Advaita in order to savor the depth of thought that shines through its mantras.  We have to also bear in mind that this Upanishad comes embedded within a samhita (leaving apart some controversial opinions on this). The mantras therein are not meant for ritualistic practices. It’s out and out a philosophical teaching and Sankara had to highlight this point in his time against the prevailing mindset immersed in the performance of sacrificial rites.

The first mantra affirms to a committed mumukshu that (s)he should not deviate from the path of renunciation and save himself from the lures of the world or the rewards that accrue by performing sacrificial rituals. The mantras from the 4th to the 8th  further describe the nature of Brahman. The remaining parts of the Upanishad address a person still lost in desires.

tena tyaktena = by renunciation; bhunjIthAh = support (yourself):

This teaching is the key for one on the Knowledge path, having renounced the worldly desires. Swami Sharvananda in his explanation to the word  bhunjIthAh said (1943, Ramakrishna Math): “Renunciation helps one to realize Brahman and attain bliss born of it. Hence the SanyAsin is asked to support himself by renunciation, in contrast to worldly men who support themselves by the satisfaction of desires.”

Further what wealth or whose wealth is there in the world even to covet, when the seeker is already knowledgeable of the fact that the entire world and its content are ephemeral and illusory? So staying the course and not swerving away from it, the seeker should continue to abide in Brahman. This is the meaning behind “protect yourself.”

We should also note that, as Shri M. Hiriyanna (1911, Vanivilas Press) said:  “This statement is not to be understood literally for the Self does not, in reality, require to be saved. It is only intended to extol renunciation by ascribing final release to its influence.”

 Regarding vAsyam or vasam:

vAsyam’ is correct.

It seems to me that your contention on the usage of the word ‘vAsya’ vs. ‘vasam’ comes from the way you are trying to wrap your mind around what is being taught by this mantra. 

The phrase “idam sarvam IshAvAsyam” (this entire world is full of Brahman (Consciousness)) is modeled, willy-nilly, within your mind as though the world is a container and Consciousness is a substance — like when we say ‘the yard is full of water’ or ‘her story is full of lies.” But that is not the way we have to understand. 

Even if we say Brahman permeates all things, one may conceive something like water permeating the porous space within a sponge. Another tendency I find with many people is to imagine Brahman as a fundamental ‘building block’ of everything in the world.

Such mental understanding emerges because of the fact that our mind can handle only ‘objects’ with finite and well set dimensions. We cannot think of an undimensional ‘something.’ Thinking cannot go there. So rightly it is said that ‘yatovA nivartante aprApya manasAsah.’

The nearest simile we can provide is the computer screen with various documents, images and pictures on it. The screen never disappears from its place nor does it change when an image or a picture comes up on it. It is the screen only which appears, at some given pixel positions, in a particular form or color. The picture or the alphanumeric at that position may tentatively ‘veil’ the screen; still, when you are looking at the picture, you are actually seeing the screen only. Brahman is like the screen and the world is a modulation of It. Even this metaphor is not fully correct; for, it is the Consciousness which appears as the world when perceived. And it is Consciousness which perceives Itself.

When there is no perceiver (doer), what is all, is that nameless, formless, infinite ‘whatever-that-is.’ One indicative name for ‘whatever-that-is’ is Isha. So everything in what we call as ‘world’ is made up of and permeated by nothing other than Consciousness. IshAvAsyam idagm sarvam.

 A (Śuka): Śruti (vedas) is the only pramāṇam (means of knowledge) by which ātmajñānam (self-knowledge) is gained. Since its subject matter is the very “Subject”, it uses a particular teaching methodology to impart this knowledge. It is trying to achieve the impossible, by its own admission, “yato vāco nivartante aprāpya manasā saḥ”; and yet its very purpose is to accord self-knowledge. It does this by using the language of paradox, which can make sense only if the literal meaning is sacrificed and figurative meaning is sought. When we seek figurative sense, it is imperative that the vision of the whole is kept in mind, else interpretations will become self-contradicting. Even an excellent knowledge of Sanskrit  is inadequate to understand śruti vākya. It is unfolded only by the one who has the vision of the whole, yet is learnt one word at a time. Therefore, the Guru parampara becomes very important for they are the ones who have in their possession the methodology to unfold śāstra. A Guru is a sampradāyavit (traditionalist) and the parampara starts from the very īśvara himself.

I gave all this background because in your question, you seem to be attempting to interpret śāstra from its literal sense. (bhuñjīta – enjoyment).

I have given below the relavant bhāṣya in its original form along with its meaning.

Question 1.

Śankara, in his bhāṣya, gives a every clear explanation as to why he interprets bhuñjīta as protection and not as enjoyment. He says and I quote

“ evaṁ īśvara ātma bhāvanayā yuktasya putrādi īṣaṇātraya saṁnyāsa eva adhikāraḥ na karmasu. Tena…”  He, who is thus engaged in the thought of the Self as God, has competence only for renouncing the three kinds of desire, viz., for son, wealth and the worlds, and not for karma.

“tyaktena tyāgena iti arthaḥ” – tyaktena means through detachment and not by abandonment.

“na hi tyaktaḥ mṛtaḥ putraḥ vā bhṛtyaḥ vā ātma saṁbandhitāyā abhāvāt ātmānaṁ pālayatyataḥ tyāgena iti ayameva vedārthaḥ – for a son, or a servant, when abandoned or dead, does not protect one, since he has no connection with oneself. So the meaning of the vedic word is indeed this – “through renunciation”

“bhuñjitāḥ pālayetāḥ” – means protect.

Thus śaṅkara establishes why the meaning protection has to be taken instead of enjoyment. 

Question 2

The word is vāsyam and not vāsam. This is not because śankara says so, but because that’s how it is in the original. I have not read any rendering of the original wherein the word is vāsam. Also, the first word īśā is in tritiyā, instrumental clause. It means “by īśvara”. Vāsyam – ācchādanārtham – should be covered., idam sarvam yat kim ca – all that there is. 

Also, I would like to point out that in traditional advaita, yukti (logic) is considered subservient to śruti, because the primary pramāṇa for ātmajñānam is śruti. 

I don’t know which is your source book, but from your question I can tell you that it is not an authentic.

A (Dennis): The verse is not straightforward and the Isha is not usually studied until you have quite a bit of traditional background. The idea behind this verse is that the world is mithyA, with its reality being brahman (Ishvara). You have to ‘renounce’ the mithyA by gaining Self-knowledge and thereby escape saMsAra.

To answer your specific questions, then, the word is vasyam, not vasam. If this were not the case, it would have been called Ishavasa Upanishad instead of Ishavasya! 😉 It means the world is ‘indwelt by’, ‘pervaded by’, ‘enveloped by’. This is in the same way that the wave or stream is pervaded by water. In fact, wave and stream are just name and form, like the ring and bangle – the reality is water and gold, respectively. Similarly, the world is name and form of brahman.

Having given up this identification or belief (tena tyaktena – as a result of that detachment) that the name and form are the reality, that which is ‘left’ is brahman. Having realized this, bhu~njIthA, one ‘protects’ or ‘saves’ oneself (from saMsAra).

A (Peter): You wish to resolve two doubts: (1) Should the word vāsyam be vāsam? (2) Why the word bhuñjīthā is interpreted as ‘protect’ instead of ‘enjoy’.

 Let’s start with the first of these: your question related to vāsyam can be resolved from a grammatical perspective, as well as by understanding the intended meaning of the verse. (As most people are unlikely to be interested in grammar, the grammatical answer is dealt with as a note at the end of this response.) The correct wording of the opening phrase of the Īśā Upaniṣad is: Īśā vāsyam idam sarvam. And the correct literal translation is: The whole universe is to be covered by the Lord.

 By his statement the teacher wishes us to understand that unhappiness comes from our belief that we are bound, which in turn arises from our belief that the dependently real mithyā universe is absolutely real. And that happiness, which is already there, manifests when the wrong notion is resolved. With this in mind, we can now unfold the verse.

 The Īśā Upaniṣad presents two means: the means for knowledge, jñāna yoga, in Verse 1, and the means for preparation for this knowledge, karma yoga, in Verse 2. Jñāna yoga is the elimination of our mistaken belief that the perceived duality is Absolutely real.  We need to be clear that the perception of duality is not the problem, but taking the duality to be Reality is the problem. Correction of this erroneous notion of ours does not involve a physical undoing of duality: the perception of duality is unavoidable, but the correction of error of taking duality to be the reality, though the knowledge of non-duality of Reality, is possible. This is what the Upaniṣad intends to teach.

 The essential meaning of the root ‘vas’ (to put on, to wear, enter into, clothe) is given in Pāṇini’s Dhatupāha as ‘ācchādane’ (in covering, in concealing). So ‘vāsyam’, being the potential passive form of ‘vas’, has the meaning ‘should be covered’ (see grammatical note at the end). When an object is covered it is unseen and thus as good as non-existent. By saying that the mithyā universe, which is mistakenly taken to be absolutely real, ‘should be covered’, the Upaniṣad is saying that the duality that is mistaken for reality ‘should be negated, i.e. should be falsified’.

 How is this negation achieved? Īśā, i.e. by understanding the non-duality of Reality, nirguna Brahman.

 Pulling all this together, Īśā vāsyam idam sarvam means: Through understanding the non-duality of Reality, may this entire universe be negated as mithyā.

 This expression is meaningful and instructive. The implication of your proposed translation – ‘The universe is filled with the Lord’ – doesn’t carry the same impact. At best it might encourage more devotional people. On the other hand, by the use of the potential form ‘should be negated’ or ‘may it be negated’ or ‘is to be negated’, the teacher shares a vision and gives the student a clue as to what is the means for self-knowledge.

 After explaining what is meant by ‘idam sarvam, all this’ – namely, yat kiñca jagatyā jagat, ‘everything whatsoever in the universe that comes and goes’ – Śaṅkara brings out a mahāvākhya in this first verse with his deft unfoldment of the next word: tena.  He explains tenā, Īśvara-jñānena as pratyagātmatayā, i.e. through the knowledge of Reality being one’s own inner Self!

 Tenā īśā vāsyam idam sarvam can now be understood as: Through the knowledge of nirguna Brahman, the non-dual Reality, as one’s own self, may this entire universe be negated as mithyā.

 By adding oneself into the picture the statement finally become complete. As long as I am one and the Lord is another, sasāra will continue, which means that there continues to be a separate universe to trigger my sense of smallness, insecurity and suffering. With an understanding of the non-difference between myself and the Lord, the difference between me and universe also resolves and sasāra, the endless cycle of birth and death, characterised by sorrow, will come to an end.

 This brings us to your second question…

 The verse continues with: tyaktena buñjītā. The literal translation is ‘enjoy through abandonment’. Śaṅkara first points out that tyaktena (‘by abandonment’) should be understood as tyāgena, ‘by renunciation’, because there can be no enjoyment from things that have been abandoned as they have no connection with oneself. (It is this level of precision with language that we need to bring to the study of Vedānta: woolly use of language will only maintain our ignorance and thereby chain us to our unhappiness.)

 We next need to be clear about what is meant by ‘renunciation’ here.

 There is relative renunciation where, as a karma yogi, you choose to refrain from wrong action. There is vividiā sannyāsa for the person committed to knowledge, who renounces artha and kāma for the sake of moka. And finally, from the knowledge gained of the oneness of Reality and myself, there is vidvat sannyāsa, which is the absolute renunciation where the ahakāra is resolved into the truth of itself. Doership and enjoyership are resolved. It is this absolute renunciation that is meant by ‘tyaktena’.

 What follows the resolution of ahakāra is bhuj, enjoyment of fullness, happiness, freedom which is already there. The word in the text, bhuñjīthāḥ, is also in the potential mood, and is interpreted by Śaṅkara as: ‘may you protect’.

 Why not ‘may you enjoy’?

 To understand this we need to understand that ‘absolute renunciation’ is protection from sasāra, the cause of unhappiness, which is the result of taking the perceived duality to be Reality. The protection that comes from the resolution of ahakāra – understanding the truth of oneself and the universe being one and the same non-dual Reality – is absolute protection from sorrow.

 May you have the luxury of revelling in the truth of your own self being sukham. May you enjoy everlasting happiness without anxiety or fear of losing it. Being bound is being limited. Being limited is being sorrowful. Being sorrowful is being unprotected. Therefore being free is being limitless. Being limitless is being happy. Therefore knowledge of the Truth as one’s own self is the absolute protection.

 In conclusion, therefore, tenā tyaktena buñjītā means: may you protect yourself through the resolution of ahakāra into the truth of itself, which is attained through the knowledge that ‘I’ and the non-dual Reality are one and the same, thereby falsifying sasāra as mithyā.


NOTE: Vāsam vs. vāsyam, from a grammatical perspective…

 Your suggestion that the opening sentence of the Upaniṣad should read: Īśā vāsam idam sarvam doesn’t seem to acknowledge why the text uses Īśā, the instrumental form of Īś, which is translated as ‘by the Lord’. It is instrumental because the sentence is expressed in the passive mood. ‘Rāma protects you’ is a sentence in which the verb ‘protects’ is active and ‘you’ is the object. To express the sentence in a passive way it would be, ‘You are protected by Rāma’. ‘You’ is now the subject and ‘by Rāma’ expresses instrumentality. The passive voice is used to indicate choicelessness: if you want result X, then you have no choice – Y has to be done. It is also used because Brahman does nothing: any covering is from the perspective of the universe and not from the perspective of Brahman.

 If the intention was to use the simple passive, the word would be ‘vasyate’. This form too might imply that Brahman does the filling, which is not accurate. Thus ‘vāsyam’, being the potential passive form of ‘vas’ is not only consistent with the use of the instrumental form ‘Īśā’ but is also philosophically sound. The potential passive is what gives the sense ‘should be..’, ‘may it be…’. And, by adopting the essential meaning of vas as ācchādana, ‘covering’, we end up with vāsyam being translated as ‘should be covered’ or ‘is to be covered’ or ‘may it be covered’.


One thought on “Q.343 – Meaning of Ishopanishad mantra

  1. Here is a small correction to my late answer to the above question – the word OF, added in capital letters to the following paragraph:
    Tenā īśā vāsyam idam sarvam can now be understood as: Through the knowledge OF nirguna Brahman, the non-dual Reality, as one’s own self, may this entire universe be negated as mithyā.

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