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Introduction to Vedanta, Part I
The Isha Upanishad


Lord Vishnu as Vishvarupa, illustrating the three realms: heaven (head to belly), earth (groin), and underworld (legs). Painting c. 1800-50, Jaipur.

2,774 words

Part II here [2], Part III here [3], Part IV here [4]

In this series of self-contained essays, I will offer an introduction to Vedanta, the philosophy of the Upanishads, through brief commentaries on individual Upanishads. These essays are geared toward individuals drawn to the path of Traditionalism – and especially the Left-Hand Path of Evolian Traditionalism.They place Vedanta in the context of Tradition. Further, they make clear the relevance of this path for those of us who are not just in revolt against the modern world, but who wish to live the ideal of “self-overcoming” –  an ideal for all ages.

I will begin with some brief historical remarks for the uninitiated.

The literature of Hinduism is divided into two categories: shruti, that which is “heard,” and smriti, that which is “remembered.” Texts which are shruti are believed to be divinely inspired – “heard,” in others words, as a revelation of the divine. The earliest shruti texts are the Vedas (from vid-, knowledge), some portions of which have been dated to 6,000 B.C. Much of the content of the Vedas is what we would call “mythology,” and it is quite close in some respects to the lore of other Indo-European peoples. The religious spirit of the Vedas is, to borrow the language of Nietzsche, “life affirming.” In a sense, it is not yet truly Indian. The chief gods of the Vedas include Varuna, Indra, Agni, Rudra, and Vishnu.

The Vedas are ceremonial texts containing chants that were to be performed by priests (Brahmins) in conjunction with sacrifices. In a real sense, the Brahmins “fed” the gods with their sacrifices. In theory, if the rituals were performed properly, the priests could get whatever they wished. After a while, the obvious was realized: that the Brahmins were, in fact, manipulating the gods. And a daring conclusion was drawn: the Brahmins are more powerful than the gods. As a consequence, the significance of the Brahmins and their sacrifices became greatly magnified. The result was the Brahmanas, a collection of mostly rather tedious treatises on ritual.

Incorporated into the end of the Brahmanas, however, are a series of esoteric texts called the Aranyakas or “forest treatises.” It is with these texts that what we think of as “Indian philosophy” really begins. These are speculative treatises about the relation of man to the cosmos. One of the central ideas developed here is the perennial macrocosm-microcosm correspondence. Both are governed by Dharma (the eternal form, pattern, or order of the cosmos), and man is an image of the cosmos.

The Aranyakas are followed by the Upanishads (the earliest ca. 900 BC), from shad, “sit,” and upani, “close in.”[1] [5] One who is initiated into this teaching sits close to a teacher, because what is being revealed is esoteric; it is not for the many. This esoteric doctrine is, further, a “close-in” understanding of the Vedas. In effect, the Upanishads constitute an esoteric commentary on the true or inner meaning of the Vedas. Hence, the philosophy of the Upanishads is referred to as Vedanta: literally, “the end (the point) of the Vedas.” The Upanishads are also regarded as shruti, as divinely inspired. One should not assume, however, that the Upanishads constitute a “later” reflection on the meaning of the Vedas. It is possible, instead, that the wisdom they convey is much older than the texts themselves, possibly even contemporaneous with that of the Vedas (or older). What is offered to us in the Upanishads may be, in part, the written record of a very ancient, primordial teaching that was at one time communicated in oral form alone.

The Isha Upanishad

This text is a good place to begin, one reason being that it is quite short. Isha means “Lord,” and immediately we must ask who, or what, is the “Lord”? The first verse begins “The Lord is enshrined in the hearts of all.”[2] [6] And then: “The Lord is the supreme reality.” Either of these statements seems like it could be found in a Christian text, and Western readers will be continually tempted to understand some passages here, and in other Upanishads, as carrying a familiar theological meaning. As we will soon see, however, this will lead us astray.

The two statements just quoted are deceptively simple. On closer inspection, there is a significant tension between them, which spurs us to think “close in.” To say that the Lord is “enshrined in the hearts of all” seems to suggest that the divine is immanent: that he/it resides within us. Yet we are told the Lord is “the supreme reality.” And we are accustomed to thinking that whatever qualifies as the “supreme reality” must certainly transcend me, or whatever is within me.

Acknowledging this tension, a few lines later we are told “He is within all, and he transcends all.” This is a classic Vedantic formulation, and it is also a perennial mystical idea: the ultimate reality is beyond traditional oppositions. In this case, the ultimate reality is both transcendent and immanent. Of course, this also means that one can say that it is neither immanent nor transcendent. If we claim the ultimate reality is transcendent we will be told “no, not this”; and if we conclude it is immanent we will hear “not that either.” To assert that it is both requires us, essentially, to think beyond traditional categories, and even beyond traditional logic, for we normally regard transcendence and immanence as irreconcilable opposites. Mysticism always requires this sort of “dialectic,” which transcends oppositions. We find such an approach in both East and West. In the West, notably in figures like Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa.

However, instead of going on to explore the “theory” of the supreme reality as both transcendent and immanent, the text immediately presents us with a way or a practice: “Covet nothing. All belongs to the Lord. Thus working may you live a hundred years. Thus alone will you work in real freedom.” Human beings tend to covet possessions and pleasures. Here we are being told that we may have none of these, not truly – nothing may belong to us, for all belongs to the Lord. So what is the use of coveting?

Human beings, however, covet much more than pleasures and possessions. They covet their thoughts and preoccupations as well – things that may even torment us, but which we cannot give up. Many men even covet suffering. None of this, however, truly belongs to us. The text is enjoining us to become detached from the finite – whatever that may be. Of course, we resist this: it certainly seems that much does belong to me – not just my possessions, but my past, my transgressions, my achievements, and much more. And the self that holds onto these seems quite incorrigible: it will not give them up. In truth, the Upanishads – here and elsewhere – ask that we move beyond this self, to quite another one. The way consists not in training the self to be free of covetousness, but in detaching oneself from one’s self.

Indeed, having just asked us to covet nothing, the text now introduces the idea of a self beyond the familiar one. This is Atman. In Sanskrit, this word carries the meaning of “essence,” “soul,” and also “breath.” It derives from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “breath,” from which also derives (among many other examples) Modern German atmen, “to breathe.” “Atman” is one of a number of Indo-European terms denoting soul or spirit which also mean “breath” or are derived from roots having to do with “breath.” These include Latin spiritus and anima, and Greek pneuma and psyche. There is much worth exploring here, but such matters are beyond the scope of this essay.

“Atman” is often left untranslated, but I prefer the approach of Eknath Easwaran and others, who translate it as “the Self,” with capital the s. Here, we are very obviously distinguishing between one “self,” which I normally think of as “me,” and which does such things as covet, and a “higher” Self which is quite distinct from me. Still, the language of “Self” irresistibly suggests that it is still somehow “me” that is being spoken of. This ambiguity and the confusion it generates are essential elements in our path to the wisdom of Vedanta.

We might feel wary about the introduction of this “Self,” and skeptical that it even exists. So immediately upon introducing the term, the text warns us “Those who deny the Self are born again, blind to the Self, enveloped in darkness, utterly devoid of love for the Lord.” In other words, those who deny the self will not escape the wheel of rebirth, of reincarnation. They will achieve neither liberation nor enlightenment. But what is the relation of “the Self” and “the Lord”?

We are subsequently told:

“The Self is one.”

“Without the Self, never could life exist.”

“The Self seems to move, but is ever still. He seems far away but it ever near.”

And then, the line quoted earlier: “He [the Self] is within all, and he transcends all.”

But if the Self is within all, and this “all” belongs to the Lord, we begin to form the suspicion that it is not two things that are being talked about here, but one. Is the Self the same thing as the Lord? This supposition is vindicated by the very next verse: “Those who see all creatures in themselves and themselves in all creatures know no fear. Those who see all creatures in themselves and themselves in all creatures know no grief. How can the multiplicity of life delude the one who sees its unity?”

This suggests clearly that all things are one: there is no difference, fundamentally between myself and all else. I am all, and all is me; the Self is all, and all is the Self. And “The Self is one,” we are told. Of course, questions abound. In what way am I one with all things (or vice versa)? Because this does not seem in any way obviously true. And didn’t we establish that “the Self” is not “me,” the self I am familiar with? We will see that Vedanta offers answers to these questions, as the teaching unfolds. For now, let us just understand that when the text speaks of men seeing “all creatures in themselves and themselves in all creatures,” the “self” that is referred to is our true self, the Self. It is all right if, for the moment, this remains somewhat vague.

Most men, of course, never come to see all in themselves, and themselves in all. Instead, the Isha Upanishad speaks of most men as following two wrongheaded paths. The text states, “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,” which is unsurprising since we associate the man who believes only in a world “out there,” with the “man of action.” But the text tells us that the second path leads to “a life of meditation.” This is surprising, because we expect “meditation” to be presented as something positive. Here, however, it seems to mean something like navel-gazing detachment from the world. The world-deniers meditate in solipsistic detachment.

So, what is the right path? It consists in combining action and meditation: “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.” But what does this mean? Essentially, it means that life itself must become a meditation. Instead of withdrawing from life, we turn our daily acts, no matter how small and insignificant, into meditations. In other words, we turn our daily acts into opportunities for “mindfulness,” to use a word currently popular, and which can help us, in spite of its limitations. Through this practice, every profane action can become sacred.

To quote some relevant words of Karlfried, Graf von Dürckheim:

Let us suppose, for instance, that a letter has to be posted in a pillar-box [i.e., a mailbox] a hundred yards away. If the mouth of the pillar-box is all we see in the mind’s eye, then the hundred strides we take towards it are wasted. But if a man is on the Way as a human being and filled with the sense of all that this implies, then even this short walk, providing he maintains the right attitude and posture, can serve to put him to rights and renew himself from the well of inner essence.[iii] [7]

Essentially, the Isha Upanishad is proposing something very much like the “fourth way” of the Gurdjieff teaching. The other three “ways” are those of the fakir, the monk, and the yogi, all of whom have adopted a “practice” that separates them from the world. What the Isha Upanishad proposes instead is engagement with the world, as in the Gurdjieffian “fourth way.” This approach is also a key element in what Evola and others term “the Left-Hand Path.”

The twin errors of the “life of action” and the “life of meditation” are offered in the text as parallel to a metaphysical error:

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 error of considering the Lord as transcendent only is of a piece with the way of the man who lives the “life of action”: it is thoroughly “extraverted.” In so far as the Lord is believed in, He is a “thing out there.” But an even worse error, so the text makes clear, is to think that the Lord is a “thing in here,” as the man who leads “the life of meditation” might fall into thinking. And if this latter error is taken to a dangerous extreme, might it amount to thinking I am the Lord?

Now, we will see that in a certain sense “I am the Lord” is precisely the message of Vedanta. But the proper understanding of this message is difficult to come by – it is a spiritual achievement that winds up being something more than a purely theoretical understanding. Truly I am the Lord, but not the “I” with which I normally deal, and which I normally think of as “me.” The Lord, again, is the Self – but this Self is something very different from that mundane “I” or “self.” As we have already said, the understanding of the Self is only faintly approached in this Upanishad. We are left hungering for greater understanding of this teaching. Rest assured, it may come. (Then again, it may not.)

For now, let us consider a final point about the parallelism between the life of action/life of meditation, and the metaphysics of the Lord as transcendent/metaphysics of the Lord as immanent. How exactly do we reach the intellectual achievement of thinking the Lord as both transcendent and immanent? As we have said, this “paradoxical thinking” is part and parcel of perennial mysticism – and it seems quite beyond the capacity of human thought. There is a simple answer here, however – one that is also incredibly difficult for most to accept.

The way to understand the Self/Lord as both transcendent and immanent lies in walking the path that combines action with meditation. If we overcome, in ourselves, the “out there” and the “in here” (the transcendent and immanent) we realize the true nature of the Self. Not in the sense of understanding an “idea” of the Self, but in the sense of actualizing in ourselves (i.e., becoming) the Self that is both transcendent and immanent. In other words, the way to understanding the Self is a way, not a thought or a theory. The way of understanding the Self lies in not understanding.


[1] [8] It should be noted that the foregoing historical account greatly simplifies some matters. In the eyes of many scholars, it is difficult to make a sharp distinction between Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads.

[2] [9] The translation I am using is by Eknath Easwaran, The Upanishads (Tomales, Cal.: Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, 2007). This translation takes some liberties, but it is extremely readable. Because we are dealing with short texts, with easily-found lines and verses, I have not footnoted every quotation.

[3] [10] Karlfried, Graf von Dürckheim, The Way of Transformation: Daily Life as Spiritual Transformation, trans. Ruth Lewinnek and P.L. Travers (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1971), 16.