The Isha Upanishad introduces to us the integral spiritual realisation and the principle of the integral yoga; within a short space it resolves many difficult problems. It is a śruti replete with sublime, profound and fathomless significances. This Upanishad, concluded in eighteen slokas, explains in these small mantras many major truths of the world. Such ‘infinite riches in a little room’ can be found only in this śruti.
Synthesis of knowledge, synthesis of dharma, reconciliation and harmony of the opposites form the very soul of this Upanishad. In Western philosophy there is a law called the law of contradiction, according to which opposites mutually exclude each other. Two opposite propositions cannot hold good at the same time, they cannot integrate; two opposite qualities cannot be simultaneously true at the same place and in the same instrument. According to this law, opposites cannot be reconciled or harmonised. If the Divine is one, then however omnipotent He might be, He cannot be many. The infinite cannot be finite. It is impossible for the formless to assume form; if it assumes form, then it abrogates its formlessness. The formula that the Brahman is at the same time with and without attributes, which is exactly what the Upanishad also says about God who is nirguṇo guṇī, with and without attributes, is not admitted by this logic. If formlessness, oneness, infinity of the Brahman are true, then attributes, forms, multiplicity and finiteness of the Brahman are false; brahma satyam jaganmithyā, ‘the Brahman is the sole reality, the world is an illusion’ — such a totally ruinous deduction is the final outcome of that philosophic dictum. The Seer-Rishi of the Upanishad at each step tramples on that law and in each sloka announces its invalidity; he finds in the secret heart of the opposites the place for the reconciliation and harmony of their contradiction. The oneness of the universe in motion and the immobile Purusha, enjoyment of all by renunciation of all, eternal liberation by full action, perpetual stability of the Brahman in movement, unbound and inconceivable motion in the eternal immobility, the oneness of the Brahman without attributes and the Lord of the universe with attributes, the inadequacy of Knowledge alone or of Ignorance alone for attaining Immortality, Immortality obtained by simultaneous worship of Knowledge and Ignorance, the supreme liberation and realisation gained not by the constant cycle of birth, not by the dissolution of birth but by simultaneous accomplishment of Birth and Non-Birth, — these are the sublime principles loudly proclaimed by the Upanishad.
Unfortunately there has been a great deal of unnecessary confusion regarding the meaning of this Upanishad. Shankara is generally recognised as the most important commentator of the Isha Upanishad, but if all these conclusions are accepted, then Mayavada, the Illusionism of Shankara, sinks in the bottomless ocean. The founder of Mayavada is incomparable and immensely powerful among the philosophers. Just as thirsty Balaram brought to his feet the Yamuna unwilling to alter her course, by dragging and pulling her with a plough, so also Shankara, finding this Upanishad destroyer of Mayavada and standing across the path toward his destination, dragged and pulled the meaning till it agreed with his own opinion. One or two examples will suffice to show the miserable condition to which this Upanishad has been reduced by such treatment.
It is said in the Upanishad, ‘Into a blind darkness they enter who follow after the Ignorance, they as if into a greater darkness who devote themselves to the Knowledge alone’. Shankara says, ‘I am not willing to give to the words vidyā (knowledge) and avidyā (ignorance) their ordinary sense’; vidyā signifies here devavidyā, ‘the science of propitiating the gods’. The Upanishad declares, ‘vināśena mṛtyum tīrtvā sambhūtyāmṛtamaśnute’, ‘by the dissolution crosses beyond death and by the Birth enjoys Immortality’. Shankara says it has to be read as asambhūtyāmṛtam, ‘by NonBirth enjoys Immortality’, and vināśa (dissolution) as signifying here ‘birth’. In the same way a commentator of the Dualistic School, when he came across the word tattvamasi, ‘Thou art That’, indicated that it should be read as atat tvamasi, ‘Thou art that other one’. A prominent teacher of the Mayavada who came after Shankara adopted a different means; he satisfied himself by expelling the Isha Upanishad from the list of the principal authoritative Upanishads and promoting the Nrisimhottaratapini in its place. In fact it is quite unnecessary to impose one’s opinions by such physical force. The Upanishad illustrates infinite aspects of the infinite Brahman and, because it does not uphold any particular philosophic view, a thousand philosophic views have sprouted from this single seed. Each philosophy takes up a side of the infinite truth and presents it to the intellect in a systematic way. The infinite Brahman manifests itself in infinite ways; paths leading to the infinite Brahman are also numberless.
(Vividha Rachana, 1955)