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Isa Upanishad [was Re: Praying other deities. . .]

From: Mani Varadarajan (mani_at_be.com)
Date: Sun Jan 25 1998 - 14:51:13 PST

> It is stated in the Sri Isopanisad:
> 
> andham tamah pravisanti
> ye 'sambhutim upasate
> tato bhuya iva te tamo
> ya u sambhutyam ratah
>
> "Those who are engaged in the worship of demigods enter into the darkest
> region of ignorance, and still more do the worshippers of the impersonal
> Absolute."

The translation of "asambhuti" as "demigods" and
"sambhuti" as "Impersonal Absolute" is not appropriate,
according to our acharyas, such as SrutaprakASika Bhattar
(Sudarsana Suri) and Sri Desika.  The above translation
does not follow from the context and does not represent
the flow of thought of the Upanishad in the best manner.

This is a very difficult verse to construe; it is one
of the great riddles of the Vedanta, and is not easy
to understand (I am not sure I do myself).  

Let me try my best to address this topic.

The context in the Isa Upanishad is the nature of karma
(religious action) vis-a-vis jnAna, or meditative 
knowledge, in the attainment of liberation, i.e., the
unobstructed enjoyment of the Divine Absolute.  

Every word in this sloka is understandable except
"sambhUti" and "asambhUti".  "sambhUti" here is 
derived from "samIcIna bhUti", or the blissful,
clear contemplation of the self. This
is also more popularly known as "samAdhi".

asambhUti is that which is not sambhUti -- something
different from this.  In essence, what the Upanishad
is saying, as explained by our acharyas, is that
mere contemplation on the individual self as blissful
is not enough to attain the Highest. If this were the
end, it would be akin to "theft" of the self.  The
realization must dawn upon us that we cannot attain
the Highest by our own effort -- upAsana or contemplation
on our own self is only a step in the process. It must
also be accompanied by a complete emptiness of agency,
and a complete emptiness of selfishness, upon which
contemplation rises to the next state, i.e., the
vision of God Itself.

This discipline of self-negation is what is known as "asambhUti".
One translation of this term, which I borrow from the
late vidvAn S. Sampath Iyengar, is "abnegativeness",
which he explains as (1) annihilation of self-conceit,
(2) pretentiousness, (3) violence leading to fanaticism,
and finally (4) theft of the self.  Our individual self
neither belongs to us nor to matter, but to the Highest
Self alone, and It alone must guide us to liberation.

Therefore, sambhUti or samAdhi, as an independent process
without these accessory and contributory mental disciplines
will not lead to the Highest.  One must have contemplation,
but one must also know that the Highest Self is our true
Source, our true Master, and that It is responsible for
our liberation in the end. Within our individual self
stands a greater entity, the Highest Self, or paramAtmA.
The cultivation of this feeling is "asambhUti".

This meaning is corroborated by the 14th verse:

	sambhUtim ca vinASam ca yas tad vadobhayam saha |
	vinASena mRtyum tIrtvA sambhUtyAmRtam aSnute || 14 ||

Here, the "asambhUti" of verse 12 is synonymized as "vinASa".

Putting the above verse and this one together, we arrive
at this translation:

	Those who devote themselves [purely] to self-negation
	(asambhUti) enter into thick darkness; those who
	devote themselves [purely] to self-contemplation
	go to greater darkness.

	The person who understands both contemplation 
	and self-negation together, will cross over 
	death (hindrances to true contemplation) by self-negation
	and will attain eternal blissfulness through 
	meditative self-contemplation.

It should be pointed out that it is clear from the verses
that follow, and from the first verse of the Upanishad, 
that the highest form
of self-contemplation is none other than the bhakti-yoga 
detailed by Sri Ramanuja in the Sribhashya and Bhagavad Gita
Bhashya.

The first verse of the Upanishad "iSAvAsyam idam sarvam"
(all this is enveloped by God) was considered by Mahatma Gandhi
to be the essence of our religion.

Mani

P.S. Note that if we kept the translation included at the
top of this email, the 14th verse would make no sense. It
would then read "The person who understands the demi-gods
and Impersonal together will cross over death by the
Impersonal and will attain blissfulness through the
demi-gods."  This obviously violates the spirit of the
Upanishad.