Upanishads I: Isha

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Sri Aurobindo’s translatation and commentary of the Isha Upanishad.

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The Upanishads has now been expanded and brought out in two volumes, with much new material published for the first time in book form. The single volume The Upanishads has been discontinued, with all its content included in the two new volumes, each available as an independent book.

“The Isha Upanishad is the gospel of a divine life in the world and a statement of the conditions under which it is possible and the spirit of its living,” writes Sri Aurobindo in one of the commentaries that make up this book. He had a special interest in this Upanishad, and translated and commented on it a number of times before presenting his final interpretation in a terse, 75-page analysis. In the present volume that final translation and analysis are followed by ten earlier commentaries, also containing much of interest. All of them help us understand “the object of our existence, which is to manifest … the glory of the divine Life and the divine Being”.

“The Upanishads, being vehicles of illumination and not of instruction, composed for seekers who had already a general familiarity with the ideas of the Vedic and Vedantic seers and even some personal experience of the truths on which they were founded, dispense in their style with expressed transitions of thought and the development of implied or subordinate notions.

Every verse in the Isha Upanishad reposes on a number of ideas implicit in the text but nowhere set forth explicitly; the reasoning also that supports its conclusions is suggested by the words, not expressly conveyed to the intelligence. The reader, or rather the hearer, was supposed to proceed from light to light, confirming his intuitions and verifying by his experience, not submitting the ideas to the judgment of the logical reason.

To the modern mind this method is invalid and inapplicable; it is necessary to present the ideas of the Upanishad in their completeness, underline the suggestions, supply the necessary transitions and bring out the suppressed but always implicit reasoning.

The central idea of the Upanishad, which is a reconciliation and harmony of fundamental opposites, is worked out symmetrically in four successive movements of thought.”

– Sri Aurobindo, Upanishads I: Isha Upanishad, p.13

“For the Isha Upanishad is one of the most perfectly worked out, one of the most finely and compactly stated inspired arguments the world possesses-an argument not in the sense of a train of disputatious reasoning, logical not in the fashion of an intellectual passage from syllogism to syllogism, but a statement of inspired thought each part of which has been perfectly seen by the revelatory faculty & perfectly stated by inspired expression in itself, in relation to the others & to its place in the whole. Not only every sloka, but every word in each sloka has been perfectly chosen & perfectly placed. There is a consummate harmony in the rhythm of the thought as well as in the rhythm of the language & the verse. The result is a whole system of knowledge & spiritual experience stated with the utmost pregnant brevity, with an epic massiveness & dignity, but yet in itself full and free from omission. We have in this Upanishad no string of incoherent thoughts thrown out at random, no loose transitions from one class of ideas to another, but a single subject greatly treated, with completeness, with precision, with the inspiration of a poet possessed by divine truth & the skill of a consummate architect of thought & language. The Isha Upanishad is the gospel of a divine life in the world and a statement of the conditions under which it is possible and the spirit of its living.”

– Sri Aurobindo, Upanishads I: Isha Upanishad, p.363

Sri Aurobindo wrote various translations of and commentaries on the Upanishads, most notably the Isha and the Kena, stretching over a period of nearly twenty years. For the first time, all of these are now available in book form with the release of The Upanishads-I: The Isha Upanishad, and The Upanishads-II: Kena and Other Upanishads. These two volumes include all that was published in the single volume titled The Upanishads (now discontinued), as well as much new material.

SABDA presents an overview of Sri Aurobindo’s writings on Vedantic texts, tracing the development of his interpretations from those of the Baroda and Calcutta periods to his final definitive works in Pondicherry.


Sri Aurobindo’s translations of and writings on the Upanishads are now collected in two volumes: The Upanishads – I: Isha Upanishad, and The Upanishads – II: Kena and Other Upanishads. As the titles indicate, the first volume contains his commentaries on a single Upanishad, the Isha, while the second contains his work on all other Upanishads and Vedantic texts. The two volumes contain material written over a stretch of almost twenty years: from around 1900 to 1918.

A little more than half of the material published in the two volumes appeared earlier in The Upanishads. The new material, which amounts to more than 400 pages, is appearing for the first time in book form. New pieces are found both in Upanishads – I and Upanishads – II. The new material is placed according to the overall scheme of arrangement of the two volumes.

Sri Aurobindo first read the Upanishads, in English translation, as a student in England. Even at that time the idea of the Atman or Self made a strong impression on him. But after his return to India in the beginning of 1893, he gave his scholarly attention not to the Upanishads but different sorts of Bengali and Sanskrit literature. Between 1894 and 1900 he wrote essays on Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the Mahabharata and Kalidasa, and translated selections from old Bengali and classical Sanskrit poetry as well as the Sanskrit epics. Then, sometime around the turn of the century, he set aside his incomplete work on Kalidasa and took up the Upanishads in earnest.

His first major attempt at translation, entitled “The Upanishads rendered into simple and rhythmic English”, includes translations of six of the shorter Upanishads: the Isha, Kena, Katha, Mundaka, Prashna and Mandukya. Around the same time he produced full translations of the Aitareya and the Taittiriya, renderings of most of the Swetashwatara and part of the Chhandogya, and brief translations from two Vedantic texts: Gaudapada’s Karikas and Sadananda’s Vedantasara. About a decade later he added translations of short passages from the Brihadaranyaka, the Kaivalya and the Nilarudra. These works show the extent and depth of his study, but most of them are too brief to add much to our understanding of his interpretation of the Upanishads, which was developing all this time.

Sri Aurobindo’s first attempts at commentary were brief and incomplete, though hinting at what was to come. Then, in 1905, around the time he entered politics, he returned to the Isha Upanishad as an exemplar of his philosophy of yogic action. In “The Ishavasyopanishad with a commentary in English” he has a Guru explain to a Student that the Isha Upanishad does not teach the renunciation of the world, but rather the performance of divinely guided action: “The Sruti therefore tells us,” the Guru insists, “that we must not turn our backs on life, must not fling it from us untimely or even long for early release from our body but willingly fill out our term, even be most ready to prolong it to the full period of man’s ordinary existence so that we may go on doing our deeds in this world.” Sri Aurobindo abandoned this commentary after only sixty pages, but he incorporated passages from it in another treatment of the Isha in which he developed the same interpretation on an ampler scale. “The Karmayogin: A Commentary on the Isha Upanishad”runs to more than 125 pages, though it deals with only six of the Upanishad’s eighteen verses. In this work also Sri Aurobindo stressed the necessity of action done as yoga (karmayoga): “The ideal of the Karmayogin,” he writes, “is the Jivanmukta, the self who has attained salvation but instead of immediately passing out of phenomenal existence, remains in it, free from its bondage.”

The “Karmayogin” commentary was written sometime around 1906. This was the year in which Sri Aurobindo went to Calcutta and began his career as a nationalist editor and organiser. During the four years he was active in politics, he embodied the idea of the karmayogin in his own life, taking part in strenuous action even after he had achieved important yogic realisations. While editor of a weekly newspaper named, significantly, The Karmayogin, he published translations of the Isha, Kena, Katha and Mundaka Upanishads that showed some development over his earlier translations.

In 1910, Sri Aurobindo left Calcutta for Pondicherry. During the first four years of his stay in the French colony, he produced several incomplete translations and commentaries on various Upanishads. Most important were three drafts of a commentary on the Isha that he called “The Life Divine”. Published to their full extent for the first time in The Upanishads – I, they cover 228 pages. In the course of these commentaries, Sri Aurobindo not only fine-tuned his interpretation of the Isha, but also began to develop some of the characteristic themes of his own philosophy. In August 1914, in the first issue of the monthly journal Arya, he published the first instalment of his final translation and analysis of the Isha, and also the first chapter of The Life Divine, his most important work of spiritual philosophy. In both of these works he acknowledged the importance of the Isha as the bearer of “the secret of the divine life”:

The second line [of the Isha Upanishad], fixing as the rule of divine life universal renunciation of desire as the condition of universal enjoyment in the spirit, has been explained by the state of self-realisation, the realisation of the free and transcendent Self as one’s own true being, of that Self as Sachchidananda and of the universe seen as the Becoming of Sachchidananda and possessed in the terms of the right knowledge and no longer in the terms of the Ignorance which is the cause of all attraction and repulsion, self-delusion and sorrow.

The Upanishads – I, p. 39

The Isha Upanishad insists on the unity and reality of all the manifestations of the Absolute; it refuses to confine truth to any one aspect. Brahman is the stable and the mobile, the internal and the external, all that is near and all that is far whether spiritually or in the extension of Time and Space; it is the Being and all becomings, the Pure and Silent who is without feature or action and the Seer and Thinker who organises the world and its objects; it is the One who becomes all that we are sensible of in the universe, the Immanent and that in which he takes up his dwelling.

The Life Divine, p. 636

After finishing his analysis of the Isha in the Arya, Sri Aurobindo turned to the Kena. Between 1915 and 1916, he published a translation of and commentary on this text. Unlike his final “Analysis” of the Isha, which follows the text more or less line by line, his commentary on the Kena is in the form of essays on philosophical problems that are raised by the seer of the Upanishad. Some of these essays stand among Sri Aurobindo’s most important treatments of such topics as the relationship between mind and supermind. After completing his work on the Kena, Sri Aurobindo planned to take up the Taittiriya Upanishad, but he only found time for two short “Readings”, one of which was published in the Arya in 1918. His Arya translations of and commentaries on the Isha, Kena and Taittiriya, together with revised translations of the Katha and Mundaka, constitute the core of his mature work on the Upanishads. These pieces, all of which were published during his lifetime, appear in the first Parts of The Upanishads – I and The Upanishads – II. Readers wishing to know his final interpretation of the Upanishads should turn to these works first. His earlier translations and commentaries also contain much of interest, however, and some of them deal with texts that he did not have the time to take up during his life in Pondicherry. These works, none of which were published during his lifetime, are found in Part Two of The Upanishads – I and Parts Two and Three of The Upanishads – II.

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1 review for Upanishads I: Isha

  1. Wayne Cole

    This should be read after reading the The Life Divine. The final translation and commentary (‘Part One’) provides a concise overview of all the ideas presented in The Life Divine in a way that can consolidate and fully integrate the understanding of Oneness of Creator and Creation, and Its continuous flowing evolution of those aspects of consciousness involuted in All at the beginning of physical creation – vitality, mentality, ‘psychality’ and divinity-oneness-conciousness. I also recommend skipping ‘Part One’ to first read ‘Part Two’ of “Isha Upanishad”, the chronologically organized essays and partial manuscripts in the second part of the book. This gives a clear picture of the development and maturation in Sri Aurobindo’s realization of the revelatory meanings of this Upanishad. Then reading “Part One” will convey the full impact of the Isha Upanishad as seen by one who has realized its broadest, deepest and highest meaning.

    To get a clear understanding of the consequences of living under the delusion of separateness and how life could be transformed were we cured of that delusion, read this book.

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