About Sri Aurobindo and the Isha Upanishad
Isha: the Favourite Upanishad of Sri Aurobindo, By Ramesh Bijlani, aug 14, 2012
Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual philosophy is deeply rooted in Vedanta. However, one of the hallmarks of his philosophy is its strongly life-affirming character. The assertion that the Divine, the Absolute Reality, has undergone a self-limitation in the course of manifesting as the material universe is one of the basic tenets of Vedanta. However, this tenet can lead to two contrasting corollaries. One of these is that since the material universe is merely a fragile and fleeting phenomenon, it is not worthy of interest. While the ignorant masses engage in this play of the Divine with gusto and waste their precious lives, the wise one rejects this superficial world in order to discover the imperishable and constant Reality behind the appearances. This is how Vedanta can acquire a life-negating tilt. However, the basic philosophy remaining the same, Vedanta can be given another tilt. Since the world is a manifestation of the Divine, it is not an illusion. If the Divine is real, Its manifestation cannot be unreal. Therefore, the world should not be rejected but transformed, so that it befits the One that it manifests. This is a life-affirming tilt, the interpretation to which Sri Aurobindo has lent powerful support. Upanishads are one of the pillars of Vedanta, and it is not surprising that one of the favourite Upanishads of Sri Aurobindo was the Isha Upanishad, which has a strong life-embracing character. In the opening verse, the Isha Upanishad states the profound Truth of the all-pervasive presence of the Divine in the universe in the first line, and in the second jumps to the sage advice that worldly life should be renounced and enjoyed. To ‘renounce and enjoy’ seems to carry an internal contradiction, but, in fact, worldly life can be enjoyed only if the person has achieved inner renunciation… The very first verse sets the tone – first by reminding us that the material universe has the all-pervasive presence of the Divine, and therefore should not be rejected; and then by telling us how we may enjoy worldly life. In verse 9, we find another startling statement: In darkness are the ignorant; in still greater darkness are those who follow only Knowledge. The ordinary man rooted in the mental consciousness is in darkness because he is unaware of the deeper Reality within, behind and beyond what is visible to him. But how is a person who has the Knowledge of the Absolute Reality in still greater darkness? That happens if he follows only Knowledge. This person is complacent because he lives in the smug satisfaction of knowing what very few in the world know. But by treating only the Absolute Reality as real, and refusing to see the Divine in the manifest universe, he is neglecting one aspect of the very Reality that he considers real. However, the ascetic who has only such one-sided Knowledge of the Absolute Reality erroneously believes that he knows something beyond which there is nothing more to be known. He is not only ignorant, he does not even know that he is ignorant. Hence there is no hope that his ignorance will ever be lifted. Therefore, the darkness in which he lives is beyond redemption. On the other hand, the ordinary ignorant person might one day discover the deeper truths of existence. Hence there is hope that one day his ignorance will be lifted. Therefore, his darkness is less than that of the one who has the Knowledge. Finally, towards the end of the Isha Upanishad, verse 17 talks in one line about the Vayu (Breath) being immortal, and the body ending in ashes, that is, being mortal. This tells us that although matter is mortal, the Spirit that animates it is immortal. The verse makes us aware of the invisible imperishable Reality being the core of what is visible and perishable. Thus the manifest universe is inseparable from the Absolute Reality it manifests. The principle that the Upanishad thus follows is, in the words of Sri Aurobindo, “the uncompromising reconciliation of uncompromising extremes”.