The Isha Upanishad, also known as the Isavasya Upanishad, is the fortieth chapter (last chapter) in the Vajasaneya Samhita of the White Yajurveda. It contains eighteen mantras which describe the wisdom and state of bliss that can be attained through vairagya which is the method of living a fruitful life while being detached from material things. By liberating man from material bonds, vairagya brings freedom from fears, suspicions, jealousies, angers, frustrations, and insecurities—a man with spirit of vairagya pays heed to the teachings of the scriptures and venerates the divine. Our lust for material things, blinds our senses and deludes our mind, making the scriptures unintelligible to us and the divine invisible to us, but this problem of blindness and delusion can be conquered by inculcating a spirit of vairagya .
The Isha Upanishad rejects both schools of thought—one which holds that man can achieve liberation by following the path of worldly duties and knowledge, and the other which holds that man can achieve liberation by following the path of renunciation and bhakti (devotion). It preaches that the two paths are complementary and not contradictory, and that liberation is attained by a method that is a combination of the two paths. Since man and the material world are part of the same divine, the pursuit of knowledge and the fulfillment of worldly duties is not hindered by renunciation and devotion. Man can easily traverse the two paths, if he accepts that worldly glory and success come from the divine and makes efforts to attain the spirit of vairagya.
The Upanishad gets its name from the first word of its opening mantra:
ॐ ईशा वास्यमिदँ सर्वं यत्किञ्च जगत्यां जगत् ।
तेन त्यक्तेन भुञ्जीथा मा गृधः कस्यस्विद्धनम् ।।
(Translation: All this, all that moves in this moving world, is pervaded by God. Therefore find your bliss in what has been renounced, do not covet what belongs to others.)
The eighteen mantras in the Upanishad can be placed in five broad categories: the first category consists of the mantras one to three; the second consists of mantras four to eight; the third consists of mantras nine to fourteen; the fourth consists of mantras fifteen to seventeen; and the fifth category consists of the final eighteenth mantra.
The purport of the first mantra is that enjoyment is possible to a man who detaches himself from material things while continuing to perform his wordy duties. Once we realize that everything in the world, including our own self, is pervaded by the divine, the feeling of being detached is easier to develop. The second mantra states that the path of knowledge is for the seers, and for others, there is the path of action—the essence of this mantra is that liberation is attained when one performs one’s worldly duties with the spirit of vairagya, or with the notion that every action is in the service of the divine. The third mantra states that those who fail to follow this path, the path of vairagya, become the slayers of their own self and are mired in pain and darkness.
The mantras four to eight shed light on the transcendental and immanent nature of the divine. The divine is eternal and ephemeral; it is inherently immutable, while overtly being in a state of constant change. The mind is the fastest thing in the universe, but the self, which is the divine in us, is faster since there is no place where the divine is not present. The fifth mantra offers a series of contradictions: “It moves, it moves not; It is far; near it is; It is within all this, outside it is.” The contradictions are indicative of the difficulties that the human mind faces while trying to describe the ultimate reality, since the ultimate reality transcends all categories of thought.
The mantras nine to fourteen deal with the problem of ignorance—they preach that the cure for the problem of ignorance is wisely performed actions. Work (actions) without wisdom push the spirit into darkness, and the pursuit of wisdom and neglect of work pushes the spirit into even greater darkness. The benefits are accrued to those who maintain a balance between work and wisdom. The mantras fifteen to seventeen exhort man to discover and glorify the divine that exists inside him. The mantra eighteen is a prayer to the divine for blessing and assistance for self-development: “O Agni, the god who knows all; lead us on the auspicious road to prosperity. O Lord, who knows our every deed, take away our deceits and sins. We offer you our prayers.”
The Ihsa Upanishad addresses the needs of those who desire liberation but are not in a position to renounce the world. It does not exhort us to give up and become indifferent to the world. It teaches that a life of bliss is possible to those who fulfill their worldly duties while being in a spirit of vairagya. The ancient sages, who compiled this Upanishad, realized that man’s life can never be free from worldly duties. Even the man who becomes a sanyasi (religious mendicant) continues to owe certain duties to the world, though in his case, the duties are ritualistic and religious. The man, who is not a sanyasi, must continue to perform his worldly duties while following the path of dharma (morality)—this can be achieved by living with a spirit of vairagya.