Ishavasya Upanishad

From Conversations on the Science of Yoga – Karma Yoga Book 4, Action with a Purpose

What does the Ishavasya Upanishad say about the need for involvement?

Swami Satyananda: The Ishavasya Upanishad consists of only eighteen verses, yet contains sublime and practical teachings. It clearly points out the importance, in fact the necessity, of performing one’s duties. It emphasizes that a person must live in the external as well as the internal world. One without the other leads to delusion and away from the path to higher knowledge. People who have spiritual aspirations are faced with a dilemma: whether to live in the world of action, or only practise meditation techniques. The Ishavasya Upanishad gives a clear answer. It says that both must be done simultaneously. One must be both extroverted and introverted. One must supplement and express one’s inner experience with outer actions. This is stated in no uncertain terms (verse 9):

Andham tamah pravishanti ye-avidyaamupaasate; Tato bhooya iva te tamo ya u vidyaayaam rataah.

Those who follow the path of avidya (ignorance) enter into darkness. More than that, those who are engrossed in vidya (knowledge) enter into still greater darkness.

It means that those who follow the path of action alone will surely enter the blinding darkness of ignorance. Furthermore, those who retreat from the world in order to seek knowledge through the constant practice of meditative techniques similarly remain in the quagmire of ignorance. This is like the razor’s edge. There must be a balance between excessive worldly interest and activity, and over-introspection.

One must try to integrate the paths of extroversion and introversion. Great yogis, saints and sages throughout history expressed themselves in the outside world. Even though they experienced and probably lived permanently in the infinity of enlightenment they still continued to express themselves in the outer world. This applies to Buddha, Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda and others. They taught their disciples, travelled giving sermons and tried to help people who sought their guidance.

Each of these illumined people continued to act and express them selves in the outside world according to the natural dictates of their dharma. Some became hermits, others worked ceaselessly for the general welfare of humankind, such as Swami Sivananda and Mahatma Gandhi. None of them became a human vegetable. This does not only apply to those who live in and know the highest states of illumination - it applies to all. Everyone must strike a balance between external action and introspection.

The Ishavasya Upanishad further emphasizes this important point (verse 10):

Anyadevaahuh vidyuayaa anyad aahuh avidyayaa; Iti shushruma dheeraanaam ye nastad vichachakshire.

The result of vidya, they say, is distinct and so is the result of avidya. Thus has it been explained to us by the wise.

It means that which is known through doing only external actions is different to that which is known through introversion. Total concern with the outside world leads to intellectual knowledge. Only understanding of the internal sphere of existence brings about deeper understanding of the material world around.

On the other hand, rejection of the worldly life and complete concern for meditation practices and the mind is also a block.

Without resolving and harmonizing one’s outer life, one can never really know deeper states of knowledge. Higher states of awareness only occur when there is perfect balance both in the inner and outer worlds.

People who tend to reject their activities in the world still tend to have many unresolved problems. Rejection of the world does not remove the problems, and they merely lie dormant in the mind, acting as obstacles to success in meditation practices. Failure to clear up outer conflicts and concerns automatically prevents one gaining the highest benefits from introspection. Therefore, there must be a dual process of external activities combined with periods of trying to explore the mind. This applies mainly to the early stages of spiritual life, for eventually there ceases to be any difference between the inner and outer world.

This is what Ramana Maharshi meant when he said, “Setting apart time for meditation practices is only for beginners. A person who is advanced in the spiritual path will begin to enjoy deeper beatitude whether he is at work or not. While his hands are in society, he keeps his head cool in solitude.”