Isha Upanishad

Devanagari ईशा
IAST īśā
Date 1st millennium BCE
Type Mukhya Upanishad
Linked Veda Shukla Yajurveda
Verses 17–18
Commented by Adi Shankara, Madhvacharya[1]
Part of a series on the Hindu scriptures
Brihadaranyaka · Isha · Taittiriya · Katha
Chandogya · Kena
Mundaka · Mandukya · Prashna
Other Major Upanishads
Shvetashvatara ·Kaushitaki ·Maitrayaniya

The Isha Upanishad (Devanagari: ईशोपनिषद् IAST īśopaniṣad) is one of the shortest Upanishads, embedded as the final chapter (adhyāya) of the Shukla Yajurveda. It is a Mukhya (primary, principal) Upanishad, and is known in two recensions, called Kanva (VSK) and Madhyandina (VSM). The Upanishad is a brief poem, consisting of 17 or 18 verses, depending on the recension.

It is a key scripture of the Vedanta sub-schools, and an influential Śruti to diverse schools of Hinduism. The name of the text derives from its incipit, īśā vāsyam, "enveloped by the Lord",[2] or "hidden in the Lord (Self)".[3] The text discusses the Atman (Soul, Self) theory of Hinduism, and is referenced by both Dvaita (dualism) and Advaita (non-dualism) sub-schools of Vedanta.[4][5]

It is classified as a "poetic Upanishad" along with Kena, Katha, Svetasvatara and Mundaka by Paul Deussen (1908).[6]


The root of the word Ishvara comes from īś- (ईश, Ish) which means "capable of" and "owner, ruler, chief of",[7] ultimately cognate with English own (Germanic *aigana-, PIE *aik-). The word Isha (ईश) literally means "ruler, master, lord".[8] The term vāsyam (वास्य) literally means "hidden in, covered with, enveloped by".[9]

Ralph Griffith and Max Muller, each interpret the term "Isha" in the Upanishad interchangeably as "Lord" and "Self" (one's soul).[2][3] Puqun Li translates the title of the Upanishad as "the ruler of the Self".[10]

The Upanishad is also known as Ishavasya Upanishad and Vajasaneyi Samhita Upanishad.[3]


A manuscript page from the Isha Upanisad.

The chronology of Isha Upanishad, along with other Vedic era literature, is unclear and contested by scholars.[11] All opinions rest on scanty evidence, assumptions about likely evolution of ideas, and on presumptions about which philosophy might have influenced which other Indian philosophies.[11][12]

Buddhism scholars such as Richard King date Isha Upanishad's composition roughly to the second half of the first millennium BCE, chronologically placing it after the first Buddhist Pali canons.[13]

Hinduism scholars such as Stephen Phillips[11] note the disagreement between modern scholars. Phillips suggests that Isha Upanishad was likely one of the earliest Upanishads, composed in the 1st half of 1st millennium BCE, after Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya, but before Taittiriya, Aitareya, Kaushitaki, Kena, Katha, Manduka, Prasna, Svetasvatara and Maitri Upanishads, as well as before the earliest Buddhist Pali and Jaina canons.[11]

Earlier 19th and 20th century scholars have similarly expressed a spectrum of views. Isha Upanishad has been chronologically listed by them as being among early Upanishads to being one among the middle Upanishads. Deussen[14] suggested, for example, that Isha was composed after ancient prose Upanishads - Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Kaushitaki and Kena; during a period when metrical poem-like Upanishads were being composed. Further, he suggests that Isha was composed before other prose Upanishads such as Prasna, Maitri, Mandukya and all post-Vedic era Upanishads.

Winternitz,[15] suggests that Isha Upanishad was probably a pre-Buddha composition along with Katha, Svetasvatara, Mundaka and Prasna Upanishad, but after the first phase of ancient Upanishads that were composed in prose such as Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Kaushitaki and Kena. Winternitz states that Isha was likely composed before post-Buddhist Upanishads such as Maitri and Mandukya.

Ranade[16] posits that Isha was composed in the second group of Upanishads along with Kena Upanidhad, right after the first group of Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya, but chronologically before Taittiriya, Aitareya, Kaushitaki, Katha, Mundaka, Svetasvatara, Prasna, Mandukya and Maitrayani.


Isha Upanishad is the only Upanishad that is attached to a Samhita, the most ancient layer of Vedic text known for their mantras and benedictions. Other Upanishads are attached to a later layer of Vedic texts such as Brahmanas and Aranyakas. Max Muller notes that this does not necessarily mean that Isha Upanishad is among the oldest,[17] because Shukla Yajur Veda is acknowledged to be of a later origin than textual layers of other Vedas such as the Rig Veda.

The 8th-century Indian scholar Adi Shankara, in his Bhasya (review and commentary) noted that the mantras and hymns of Isha Upanishad are not used in rituals, because their purpose is to enlighten the reader as to "what is the nature of soul (Atman)?"; the Upanishad, thus, despite Yajurveda Samhita's liturgical focus, has not historically served as a liturgical text.[17][18] Isha Upanishad is a philosophical text.[19]

Difference between recensions

The Isha Upanishad manuscript differs in the two shakhas of the Shukla Yajurveda. These are called the Kanva (VSK) and Madhyandina (VSM) recensions. The order of verses 1–8 is the same in both, however Kanva verses 9–14 correspond to Madhyandina verses 12, 13, 14, 9, 10, 11. Madhyandina verse 17 is a variation of Kanva 15, Kanva verse 16 is missing in Madhyandina, and Kanva verses 17–18 correspond to Madhyandina 15–16.

In both recensions, the Isha Upanishad is the 40th chapter of Shukla Yajur Veda. Versions with 18 verses refer to Kanva, while those with 17 verses are referring to the Madhyandina.

Kanva 40 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
Madhyandina 40 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 12 13 14 9 10 11 (17) 15 16


Monism versus theism

The Isha Upanishad is significant for its singular mention of the term "Isha" in the first hymn, a term it never repeats in other hymns. The concept "Isha" exhibits monism in one interpretation, or a form of monotheism in the alternate interpretation, referred to as "Self" or "Deity Lord" respectively.

Enveloped by the Lord must be This All — each thing that moves on earth. With that renounced, enjoy thyself. Covet no wealth of any man.

Isha Upanishad, Hymn 1[20]

Ralph Griffith interprets the word "Isha" contextually, translates it as "the Lord", and clarifies that this "the Lord" means "the Soul of All, and thy inmost Self – the only Absolute Reality".[21] The term "This All" is the empirical reality, while the term "renounced" is referring the Indian concept of sannyasa, and "enjoy thyself" is referring to the "blissful delight of Self-realization".[21][22]

The Advaita Vedanta scholar Shankara interprets the above hymn 1 as equating "the Lord" as the "Atman" (Soul, Self).[18] In contrast, Madhvacharya, the Dvaita Vedanta scholar interprets the hymn as equating "the Lord" as Vishnu, or a monotheistic God in a henotheistic sense.[23] Other interpretations have also been suggested. For example, the more recent scholar Mahīdhara suggested that hymn 1 may be referring to Buddha, an interpretation that Max Muller stated was inadmissible because of the fundamental difference between Hinduism and Buddhism, with Hinduism relying on the premise "Soul, Self exists" and Buddhism relying on the premise "Soul, Self does not exist".[22][24]

Pursuit of Karma versus pursuit of Self

The Isha Upanishad, in hymns 2-6, acknowledges the contrasting tension within Hinduism, between the empirical life of householder and action (karma) and the spiritual life of renunciation and knowledge (jnana).[2]

Should one wish to live a hundred years on this earth, he should live doing Karma. While thus, as man, you live, there is no way other than this by which Karma will not cling to you. Those who partake the nature of the Asuras [evil], are enveloped in blind darkness, and that is where they reside who ignore their Atman [Self]. For liberation, know your Atman, which is motionless yet faster than mind, it is distant, it is near, it is within all, it is without all this. It is all prevading. And he who beholds all beings in the Self, and the Self in all beings, he never turns away from it [the Self].

Isha Upanishad, Hymns 2-6[18][25]

Adi Shankara suggests that "he" in hymn 6 (last sentence in above quote) is the "seeker of emancipation, on a journey to realize Self and Oneness in innermost self and everyone, and includes those in sannyasa";[18] while Madhvacharya suggests "he" is "the individual soul in loving devotion of God, seeking to get infinitely close to the God soul".[23]

Max Muller, in his review of commentaries by many ancient and medieval Indian scholars,[22] states that these verses of Isha Upanishad are proclaiming the "uselessness of all rituals, whether related to sacrifices or precepts of dharma", but simultaneously acknowledging the "harmlessness and necessity of social activity, that may be seen as potentially intermediate preparation to the path of Knowledge". The Isha Upanishad, is reminding the reader that neither routine life and rituals are right nor are they wrong, states Max Muller.[22] They may be necessary to many, nevertheless, to prepare a person for emancipation, to show the path where cravings feel meaningless, and to produce a serene mind that longs for meaning and one that can discern highest knowledge.[22] Ralph Griffith suggests the verses 2-6 of Isha Upanishad are condemning those who perform Karma in order to "get future advantages in life or to gain a place in heaven", because that is ignorance. The avoidance of "soul knowledge and its eternal, all-pervasive nature" is akin to "killing one's soul" and living a dead life in Isha Upanishad, states Griffith.[2] The pursuit of Self is the seeking of the eternal, the whole, the all-transcending, the self-depending, the Oneness and law of all nature and existence.[26]

Vidya versus Avidya

The Isha Upanishad suggests that one root of sorrow and suffering is considering one's Self as distinct and conflicted with the Self of others, assuming that the nature of existence is a conflicted duality where one's happiness and suffering is viewed as different from another living being's happiness and suffering. Such sorrow and suffering cannot exist, suggests the Upanishad, if an individual realizes that the Self is in all things, understands the Oneness in all of existence, focuses beyond individual egos and in the pursuit of Universal values, the Self and Real Knowledge.[19]

When to a man who understands,
the Self has become all things,
what sorrow, what trouble can there be,
to him who beholds that unity.

Isha Upanishad, Hymn 7[25]

The Isha Upanishad, in hymn 8 through 11, praises the study of Vidya (Real Knowledge, eternal truths) and Avidya (not Real Knowledge, empirical truths).[22][27] It asserts that to he who knows both Vidya and Avidya, the Avidya empowers him to overcome death (makes one alive), while Vidya empowers him with immortality. The Real Knowledge delivers one to freedom, liberation from all sorrows and fears, to a blissful state of life.[18][22] Mukherjee states that Isha Upanishad in verse 11 is recommending that one must pursue material knowledge and spiritual wisdom simultaneously, and that a fulfilling life results from the harmonious, balanced alignment of the individual and the social interests, the personal and the organizational goals, the material and the spiritual pursuits of life.[28]

The hymns 12 through 14 of Isha Upanishad, caution against the pursuit of only manifested cause or only spiritual cause of anything, stating that one sided pursuits lead to darkness. To be enlightened, seek both (उभय सह, ubhayam saha), suggests the Upanishad.[29] It asserts that he who knows both the Real and the Perishable, both the manifested not-True cause and the hidden True cause, is the one who is liberated unto immortality.[18][22]

Virtue versus vice

In final hymns 15 through 18, the Upanishad asserts a longing for Knowledge, asserting that it is hidden behind the golden disc of light, but a light one seeks. It reminds one's own mind to remember one's deeds, and accept its consequences.[18] The Madhyandina recension and Kanva recension vary in relative sequencing of the hymns, but both assert the introspective precept, "O Agni (fire) and mind, lead me towards a life of virtues, guide me away from a life of vices", and thus unto the good path and the enjoyment of wealth (of both karma's honey and Self-realization).[19][22] The final hymns of Isha Upanishad also declare the foundational premise, "I am He", equating one soul's oneness with cosmic soul.[18][30]

पुरुषः सोऽहमस्मि
I am He, the Purusha within thee.

Isha Upanishad, Hymn 16 Abridged[25]


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi thought so highly of it that he remarked, "If all the Upanishads and all the other scriptures happened all of a sudden to be reduced to ashes, and if only the first verse in the Ishopanishad were left in the memory of the Hindus, Hinduism would live for ever."[31]

Paul Deussen states that the first verses are notable for including ethics of one who knows the Ātman.[32]

Swami Chinmayananda in his commentary states "The very first stanza of this matchless Upanishad is in itself a miniature philosophical textbook. Besides being comprehensive in its enunciation of Truth, it provides a vivid exposition of the technique of realising the Truth in a language unparalleled in philosophical beauty and literary perfection. Its mantras are the briefest exposition on philosophy and each one is an exercise in contemplation."[33] Swami Chinmayananda notes in his commentary that the 18 verses (VSK recension) proceed over 7 "waves of thought" with the first 3 representing 3 distinct paths of life, 4-8 pointing out the Vision of Truth, 9-14 revealing the path of worship leading to purification, 15-17 revealing the call of the Rishis for man to awaken to his own Immortal state, and verse 18 the prayer to the Lord to bless all seekers with strength to live up to the teachings of the Upanishad.[34]

See also


  1. Sharma, B.N.K: Philosophy of Sri Madhvacharya, page 363. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1962.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Ralph T. H. Griffith, The Texts of the White Yajurveda, pages 304-308
  3. 1 2 3 Max Muller, The Upanishads, The Sacred Books of the East, Part 1, Oxford University Press, Reprinted by Routledge in 2013, ISBN 978-0700706006, Vol. 1, pages 311-319
  4. AK Bhattacharyya, Hindu Dharma: Introduction to Scriptures and Theology, ISBN 978-0595384556, pages 25-46
  5. Madhava Acharya, The Commentary of Sri Madhva on Isha and Kena Upanishad, OCLC 24455623; also Isavasyopanisad bhasya sangraha, ISBN 978-8187177210, OCLC 81882275
  6. Deussen, Paul (1908), The philosophy of the Upanishads
  7. Arthur Anthony Macdonell (2004), A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120820005, page 47
  8. iza Sanskrit English Dictionary, Cologne University, Germany
  9. vAsya Sanskrit English Dictionary, Cologne University, Germany
  10. P Li (2012), A Guide to Asian Philosophy Classics, Broadview Press, ISBN 978-1554810345, page 4
  11. 1 2 3 4 Stephen Phillips (2009), Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy, Columbia University Press, ISBN 978-0231144858, Chapter 1
  12. Patrick Olivelle (1996), The Early Upanishads: Annotated Text & Translation, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195124354, Introduction Chapter
  13. Richard King (1995), Ācārya, Gauḍapāda - Early Advaita Vedānta and Buddhism: the Mahāyāna context of the Gauḍapādīya-kārikā, SUNY Press, ISBN 978-0-7914-2513-8, pages 51-54
  14. Paul Deussen, The Philosophy of the Upanishads, pages 22-26
  15. M Winternitz (2010), History of Indian Literature, Vol 1, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120802643
  16. RD Ranade, A Constructive Survey of Upanishadic Philosophy, Chapter 1, pages 13-18
  17. 1 2 Max Muller (Translator), Vajasaneyi Samhita Upanishad, Oxford University Press, Introduction section pages c-ci
  18. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 The Isa, Kena and Mundaka Upanishads and Sri Sankara's Commentary Adi Shankara, SS Sastri (Translator), pages 1-29
  19. 1 2 3 Charles Johnston (1920), The Mukhya Upanishads: Books of Hidden Wisdom at Google Books, Reprinted by Ksetra Books, pages 49-83
  20. Book the Fortieth White Yajurveda, Ralph Griffith (Translator), page 304-308
  21. 1 2 Book the Fortieth White Yajurveda, Ralph Griffith (Translator), page 304 with footnote 1
  22. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Max Muller (Translator), Vajasaneyi Samhita Upanishad, Oxford University Press, pages 314-320
  23. 1 2 Isopanishad with commentary by Sri Madhavacharya Extracted pages 1-5 (in Sanskrit)
  24. John C. Plott et al (2000), Global History of Philosophy: The Axial Age, Volume 1, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120801585, page 63, Quote: "The Buddhist schools reject any Ātman concept. As we have already observed, this is the basic and ineradicable distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism".
  25. 1 2 3 Max Muller (Translator), Vajasaneyi Samhita Upanishad, Oxford University Press, pages 311-314
  26. Astrid Fitzgerald (2002), Being Consciousness Bliss: A Seeker's Guide, Steiner, ISBN 978-0970109781, page 52
  27. Richard H. Jones (1981), Vidyā and Avidyā in the Isha Upanishad, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Jan., 1981), pages 79-87
  28. S Mukherjee (2011), Indian Management Philosophy, in The Palgrave Handbook of Spirituality and Business (Editors: Luk Bouckaert and Laszlo Zsolnai), Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-0230238312, page 82
  29. Sanskrit original: विद्यां चाविद्यां च यस्तद्वेदोभयँ सह । अविद्यया मृत्युं तीर्त्वा विद्ययाऽमृतमश्नुते ॥११॥ (...) सम्भूतिं च विनाशं च यस्तद्वेदोभयँ सह । विनाशेन मृत्युं तीर्त्वा सम्भूत्याऽमृतमश्नुते ॥१४॥ (Source: Wikisource);
    English Review and Translation: Max Muller (Translator), Vajasaneyi Samhita Upanishad, Oxford University Press, page 317
  30. E Röer, Bibliotheca Indica: A Collection of Oriental Works, Isha Upanishad, Asiatic Society of Bengal, Volume 15, pages 69-74
  31. Easwaran, Eknath: The Upanishads, Translated for the Modern Reader, page 205. Nilgiri Press, 1987.
  32. Paul Deussen (Translator), Sixty Upanisads of the Veda, Vol 2, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120814691, page 547
  33. Chinmayananda, Swami: "Isavasya Upanishad", preface.
  34. Chinmayananda, "Isavasya Upanishad", pp.58-9
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