The upodghāta (introduction) of Śaṅkara’s Īśā Upaniṣad Bhāṣya

The upodghāta (introduction) of Śaṅkara’s Īśā Upaniṣad Bhāṣya

This post is an elucidation of the upodghāta (introductory) section of Śaṅkara’s Īśā Upaniṣad Bhāṣya. Such texts give us insights about how the ancient Indian scholars approached the sacred texts, the sort of issues they brought to bear upon them for resolution, and so on. We can also appreciate their brilliance and the dexterity with which they used the Sanskrit language to convey their ideas succinctly. I have also narrated most of the following in videos for which I have provided links at the end.


ईशा वास्यं इत्यादयो मन्त्राः कर्मसु अविनियुक्ताः तेषां अकर्मशेषस्य आत्मनो याथात्म्यप्रकाशकत्वात्।

īśā vāsyaṃ ity ādayo mantrāḥ karmasu aviniyuktāḥ teṣāṃ akarmaśeṣasya ātmano yāthātmya-prakāśakatvāt|

īśā vāsyaṃ ity ādayo mantrāḥ refers to the mantras beginning with the phrase īśā vāsyaṃ i.e. Śaṅkara is referring to all the verses in the Īśā Upaniṣad and he says that they are karmasu aviniyuktāḥ i.e. they are not assigned for use in karmas. Here karmas refer to the Vedic rituals, such as the yajña; viniyuktāḥ formed by adding the upasargas vi and ni to yukta means ‘assigned’ and aviniyuktāḥ means ‘unassigned’ i.e. these mantras are not to be used in the performance of Vedic rituals.

But why not? Because, he says, teṣāṃ akarmaśeṣasya ātmano yāthātmya-prakāśakatvāt. Because they illuminate, they reveal, the yāthātmya yāthātmya is derived from the words yathā ātman which literally means ‘just as something is by itself.’ All knowledge is mediated by the senses while yāthātmya refers to the knowledge of the thing unmediated by the senses and therefore it is the knowledge of the thing-in-itself.

But whose yāthātmya? The yāthātmya of the ātman i.e. the self. Note the play on words here ātmano yāthātmya ‘the knowledge of the self as it exists in itself.’ Now the self here means the ordinary self i.e. evident as the ‘I’ or ego-consciousness. As self-conscious beings we are all of us aware of a self that we use in sentences like ‘I am a man’ or ‘this is my car.’ Śaṅkara is saying that these mantras illuminate the yāthātmya of the self that is ordinarily perceived as such, as a cluster of worldly identities.

Now going back to the splitting of yāthātmya as yathā and ātman, the word ātman when it occurs at the end of a compound, as it does in the word yāthātmya, generally means ‘essential nature’ so that yāthātmya can mean ‘according to its essential nature.’

So to summarise what we have covered so far, īśā vāsyaṃ … yāthātmya-prakāśakatvāt means that the mantras beginning with īśā vāsyaṃ are not assigned to the performance of Vedic rituals because they reveal the essential nature of the self. And now for the remaining and most important word in this sentence: akarmaśeṣasya, which qualifies the ātman. The mantras are not irrelevant to Vedic ritual simply because they reveal the essential nature of the self but because they reveal the essential nature of a self as akarmaśeṣa. This is a bahuvrīhi or a possessive compound. It means one who has no actions remaining i.e. one who does not possess residual action.

Our ordinary understanding of the self, on the other hand, is that of a being possessing residual actions. All of us say that we have actions yet to be performed: I have things to do tomorrow or a week later or in a few months or a few years, and so on. As Robert Frost famously said ‘I have miles to go before I sleep and miles to go before I sleep.’ This is akarmaśeṣatā – the state of being possessed with actions yet to be performed. The real nature of the ātman, its yāthātmya, on the other hand, Śaṅkara claims, is akarmaśeṣa. Since the mantras reveal that the essential nature of the self is one who has no karma remaining, they cannot be employed in the performance of karma.

This is Śaṅkara’s point but there is more to it. Usually, sentences in the Vedas which are not directly applicable to ritual are termed as arthavāda in Mīmāṃsa and the dharmaśāstras. This term is generally translated as commendatory, hortatory, etc. but what it means basically is that they are not primarily significant. Since the Vedas were regarded as injunctive texts i.e. texts which enjoin actions, any sentence they contained which did not carry a prescriptive force was downgraded to arthavāda. Mantras, on the other hand, were valuable because they were understood as being prakāśaka i.e. capable of illuminating some aspect of the ritual and were therefore employed in the process.

From this perspective, the statements in the Īśā vāsyaṃ and other Upaniṣads would be dismissed as arthavāda since they are not injunctive by nature i.e. they do not prescribe any action. And I think Śaṅkara is responding precisely to this interpretive posture in referring to them as mantras even if they are not to be employed in ritual. These are mantras and not just arthavāda because they too are prakāśaka. They carry the power of illumination as well but it is not some aspect of ritual that they illuminate but the yāthātmya of the self as transcendent of all actions.


But what is the yāthātmya of the ātman? Śaṅkara says:

याथात्म्यं च आत्मनः शुद्धत्वापापविद्धत्वैकत्वनित्यत्वाशरीरत्वसर्वगतत्वादि वक्ष्यमाणम्। तच्च कर्मणा विरुध्यते इति युक्त एवैषां कर्मस्वविनियोगः।

yāthātmyaṃ ca ātmanaḥ śuddhatva-apāpaviddhatva-ekatva-nityatva-aśarīratva-sarvagatatva-ādi vakṣyamāṇam| tacca karmaṇā virudhyate iti yukta eva eṣāṃ karmasv aviniyogaḥ|

vakṣyamāṇam is the future participle which means ‘it will be stated later on’ i.e. the yāthātmya of the ātman will be explained further by the mantras of the Īśā Upaniṣad. But Śaṅkara already gives us a hint as to what they will say. The essential nature of the ātman is:

  • śuddha – pure, unsullied,
  • apāpaviddha – not pierced by, not afflicted by sin,
  • eka – one only without another i.e. what I conceive of as myself, what you conceive of as yourself and what each one of us conceives of as oneself, are ultimately one being,
  • nitya – eternal,
  • aśarīra – disembodied,
  • sarvagata – omnipresent, all-pervasive.

tacca karmaṇā virudhyate – but that is opposed to karma. Indeed, if the ātman is really of such a nature, then it simply cannot engage in any action for all engagement in action presupposes a self-understanding that is contradictory to such a view. We act because we realise ourselves to be different from each other and the world, because we think that we are embodied beings and because we think that we are transient creatures. On the other hand, if we were to realise the true nature of the self, then there would not remain any desire to act. Therefore, Śaṅkara says iti yukta eva eṣāṃ karmasv aviniyogaḥ – thus it is only appropriate, it is only sensible that these mantras cannot be employed in karma.


Having explained that the yāthātmya of the ātman is akarmaśeṣa i.e. lacking in any residual action, Śaṅkara adds a further caveat:

न ह्येवंलक्षणमात्मनो याथात्म्यं उत्पाद्यं विकार्यं आप्यं संस्कार्यं वा कर्तृभोक्तृरूपं वा येन कर्मशेषता स्यात् …

na hy evaṃ lakṣaṇam ātmano yāthātmyaṃ utpādyaṃ vikāryaṃ āpyaṃ saṃskāryaṃ vā kartṛ-bhoktṛ-rūpaṃ vā yena karmaśeṣatā syāt …

The problem is that people may agree with the lakṣaṇas (characteristics) which have been just described as the yāthātmya of the ātman, they may admit that ‘yes, in reality the ātman is śuddha, apāpaviddha’ and so on, but will then say that it is precisely this yāthātmya which constitutes the karmaśeṣatā of the ātman. Since the ātman is ordinarily not experienced according to its yāthātmya but rather exactly as its opposite, people are likely to interpret akarmaśeṣatā to mean only that the ātman has no residual action to perform in the world but that it does possess residual action inasmuch as it has to attain to its yāthātmya.

Śaṅkara is here cautioning against such misinterpretation. He says that these lakṣaṇas of the yāthātmya of the ātman are such that they are not utpādya (producible), vikārya (modifiable), āpya (achievable), saṃskārya (able to be purified) or kartṛ-bhoktṛ-rūpa (bearing the form of doer or enjoyer); kartṛ is the one who commits the action and bhoktṛ is the one who experiences the result. Basically we engage in this world as the kartṛ and bhoktṛ of actions. However, the characteristics of the yāthātmya of the ātman are such that they are not something yet to be accomplished and so one should not confuse the yāthātmya of the ātman as its karmaśeṣatā.

How do we know this? Given the diametric opposition between the yāthātmya of the ātman and the ātman as it is ordinarily experienced, how can Śaṅkara say that this yāthātmya is not an object to be achieved through the performance of karma? Śaṅkara mounts his defence entirely on scripture:

… सर्वासां उपनिषदां आत्मयाथात्म्यनिरूपणेन एव उपक्षयात् गीतानां मोक्षधर्माणां चैवं परत्वात्।

sarvāsāṃ upaniṣadāṃ ātma-yāthātmya-nirūpaṇena eva upakṣayāt gītānāṃ mokṣa-dharmāṇāṃ caivaṃ paratvāt|

Because all the Upaniṣads undergo an upakṣaya i.e. they utterly exhaust themselves by a nirūpaṇa (a determination, an ascertainment) of the ātma-yāthātmya i.e. the essential nature of the self. It means that just as the karma-kāṇḍa section of the Vedas enjoin certain karmas, in the same way the jñāna-kāṇḍa section of the Vedas i.e. the Upaniṣads enjoin certain self-knowledge, which is the ātma-yāthātmya.

Now, there is a debate on whether the śabda of the Upaniṣads is sufficient to give rise to the liberation consisting of true self-knowledge or an additional step of anubhava arising from bhakti or dhyāna is necessary. In my view, bhakti and dhyāna are not necessary complements but distinctive from the jñāna-mārga of which Śaṅkara was a proponent. Of course, advocates of bhakti-mārga and dhyāna-mārga may consider their respective techniques as required in addition to ‘mere’ jñāna for the self-realisation to actually occur, but I don’t think this was Śaṅkara’s view.

But how is that possible? Many of us have read the Upaniṣads and have theoretically gained self-knowledge but it has not transformed us into self-realised beings. Our self-consciousness as limited, finite, contingent beings persists in spite of reading the Upaniṣads over and over. This is because we although we study the Upaniṣads, we really do not have any adhikāra to do so. Among the requirements of eligibility are disillusionment with the world (vairāgya-bhāva) and a strong desire for liberation (mumukṣatva)In the Gītā-Bhāṣya, Śaṅkara adds that the performance of dharmic actions without hankering after its rewards leads to the sattva-śuddhi which makes one eligible for ātmajñāna. Since most of us do not satisfy these requirements, the śabda of the Upaniṣads cannot have any effect on us. This leads to our commonplace assumption that śabda has no effect at all and so other aids such as bhakti and dhyāna necessary complements to ‘theoretical’ self-knowledge.

But Śaṅkara was addressing an audience to whom the power of the śabda was well-known. In fact, dharma was itself understood as codanā lakṣaṇa – it directed or restrained human beings to and from actions by the prescriptive or proscriptive force of its śabda. Śaṅkara, in my view, was basically extending the argument from action to knowledge. If śabda can enjoin action, then why can’t it enjoin knowledge? Given your adhikāra to perform an action, if śabda can impel you to perform it, then, given your adhikāra to abide in a state of true self-knowledge, why can’t śabda impel you to abide in it? I think it is a brilliant argument.

Thus, the scope of the enjoinment of the Upaniṣads is limited to an ascertainment of self-knowledge and there are no actions prescribed to actually attain the ascertained state. This can only mean that the ascertained state must be an accomplished (siddha) one and not one that is yet to be accomplished (sādhya). Furthermore, texts on mokṣa-dharma i.e. texts which enjoin mokṣa i.e. liberation from saṃsāra such as the Bhagavad Gītā consider it so to be paratva (highest) i.e. the highest way. I think Śaṅkara has made this distinction between the Bhagavad Gītā and the Upaniṣads because unlike the Upaniṣads, the Bhagavad Gītā enjoins action in the world. Therefore, Śaṅkara is suggesting that even if the Bhagavad Gītā enjoins action in the world, it does not view action as leading directly to mokṣa but only of cleansing the person of the accumulated karma-pravṛttis (disposition to actions in the form of traces) of past lives and making him ready for the self-knowledge which brings about mokṣa or rather which is itself mokṣa inasmuch as it does not involve any action. Śaṅkara has elaborated on this argument in his Bhagavad-gītā-bhāṣya which will be noted in a different post.


तस्मादात्मनः अनेकत्वकर्तृत्वभोक्तृत्वादि च अशुद्धत्वपापविद्धत्वादि चोपादाय लोकबुद्धिसिद्धं कर्माणि विहितानि॥

tasmād ātmanaḥ anekatva-kartṛtva-bhoktṛtva-ādi ca aśuddhatva-pāpaviddhatva-ādi ca upādāya loka-buddhi-siddhaṃ karmāṇi vihitāni||

Therefore, it follows that actions are prescribed, having presupposed the multiplicity of the self, its doership and its enjoyership, and that the self is impure and afflicted by sin – presuppositions that are based on commonsensical thinking. It is loka-buddhi-siddha established by worldly or practical or commonsensical thinking that there are many selves – yourself is different from myself which is different from the selves of all other creatures, that each one of us here in the body is a doer and an enjoyer, that this embodiment, this contact with the body sullies the self and causes it to partake the sins of the body. It is having taken all this for granted that humans engage in action to improve their condition, to make progress materially and spiritually.


यो हि कर्मफलेनार्थी दृष्टेन ब्रह्मवर्चसादिना अदृष्टेन स्वर्गादिना च द्विजातिरहं न काणत्वकुब्जत्वाद्यनधिकारप्रयोजकधर्मवान् इत्यात्मानं मन्यते सोऽधिक्रियते कर्मस्विति ह्यधिकारविदो वदन्ति।

yo hi karmaphalenārthī dṛṣṭena brahmavarcasādinā adṛṣṭena svargādinā ca dvijātir ahaṃ na kāṇatva-kubjatva-ādy-anadhikāra-prayojaka-dharmavān ity ātmānaṃ manyate so’dhikriyate karmasv iti hy adhikāravido vadanti|

Let us understand this assertion in parts beginning with the subject and the verb. The adhikāravidaḥ are those who are knowledgeable about adhikāra i.e. competency in the performance of actions. adhikāravido vadanti means ‘those knowledgeable about adhikāra say.’

What do they say? so’dhikriyate karmasu ‘He is entitled or eligible or is competent i.e. he has the adhikāra with regards to actions.’ Who has such an adhikāra? yo hi karmaphalenārthī – the one who is an arthī i.e. a supplicant, a person who desires – what? karma-phala ‘the fruit or result of actions’ – what kind of fruits? Both dṛṣṭa (visible) and adṛṣṭa (invisible). For example, when you get your salary for doing your job, that is dṛṣṭa-phala. The example given here is brahma-varcas which I find a bit odd because one would think that it is an adṛṣṭa-phala. I am not sure what brahma-varcas exactly means. Gambhirananda has translated it as ‘spiritual eminence’ but we should refer to Mīmāṃsa and the dharmaśāstra texts to understand what is properly implied by it and why Śaṅkara considers it a kind of dṛṣṭa-phala.

The example of an adṛṣṭa-phala is svarga (heaven) which is clearly an imperceptible result. The people who desire the results of action think: I am dvijāti (twice-born, having performed the upanayana ceremony, and thus become eligible for study of the Vedas and ritual performance). I also do not suffer from any defects such as being one-eyed or being hunch-backed.

Let us unpack the phrase na kāṇatva-kubjatva-ādy-anadhikāra-prayojaka-dharmavān. Now, dharmavān is one possessing some dharma. The term dharma in this case means ‘characteristic’ or ‘property.’ What dharma? An anadhikāra-prayojaka-dharma i.e. some dharma which makes one lose adhikāra or eligibility to perform ritual; kāṇatva and kubjatva, one-eyed-ness and hunch-backed-ness, are examples of anadhikāra-prayojaka-dharmas. For example, if there is a ritual which require the performer to look at something with both eyes, then a one-eyed person cannot complete it successfully and thus become ineligible for the ritual. These are the three conditions necessary for performing a ritual: one must possess the desire for its results, one must be dvijāti and one must not possess any defects that may hinder its performance. Those who satisfy these three conditions have the adhikāra to engage in karma. So the adhikāravidas advise us.


तस्मादेते मन्त्रा आत्मनो याथात्म्य प्रकाशनेन आत्मविषयं स्वाभाविककर्मविज्ञानं निर्वतयन्तः शोकमोहादिसंसारधर्मविच्छित्तिसाधनमात्मैकत्वादिविज्ञानमुत्पादयन्ति।

tasmād ete mantrā ātmano yāthātmya prakāśanena ātmaviṣayaṃ svābhāvika-karma-vijñānaṃ nirvartayantaḥ śoka-moha-ādi-saṃsāra-dharma-vicchitti-sādhanam ātmaikatvādi-vijñānam-utpādayanti|

Here, ete mantrā ‘these mantras’ of the Īśā Upaniṣad are the subject. There are two verbal forms: nirvartayantaḥ a present participle which means ‘dispelling, removing’ and utpādayanti which means ‘they produce, they give rise to.’ The immediate object of both these verbal forms is vijñāna which means ‘realisation.’ Note the difference between jñāna and vijñāna: jñāna is just theoretical knowledge as when you are told that something is the case whereas vijñāna is effective knowledge when you realise that something is truly the case because you have experienced it first-hand. So these mantras are destroying one kind of vijñāna and producing another kind of vijñāna.

The vijñāna which the mantras are destroying is ātmaviṣayaṃ svābhāvika-karma-vijñāna ‘the realisation that action is natural with regards to the self.’ This is, of course, our ordinary experience of the self as doer or enjoyer. Dispelling it, the mantras produce a contradictory ātmaikatvādi-vijñāna ‘the realisation that the self is one, and so on’ i.e. it is śuddha, apāpaviddha, and so on.

This vijñāna is śoka-moha-ādi-saṃsāra-dharma-vicchitti-sādhana ‘it is the means to the destruction of the saṃsāra-dharma, the characteristics of saṃsāra such as śoka and moha.’ What is saṃsāra? It is the experience of the world as the realm of śoka (grief) and moha (attachment). We experience śoka when we lose something and moha when we are unable to get something we want. Something is constantly beckoning us further and something is constantly slipping by us. Such an experience of the world constitutes saṃsāra.

So the whole sentence is saying that these mantras, by illuminating the yāthātmya of the ātman, are destroying the vijñāna that karma is svābhāvika (natural, essential) with reference to the ātman, and they produce the vijñāna of the ekatva and so on, of the ātman, which is the means of destroying the saṃsāra-dharmas such as śoka and moha.

Finally, let us reflect on the logical connector tasmat (therefore) which joins this sentence with the previous one in a causal sense. As you can see, it says tasmād ete mantrā ātmano and so on. The point appears to be this: since one engages in action, presupposing that one is dvijāti and so on, therefore as these mantras are dispelling such false notions regarding the self, they produce a self-realisation that is instrumental in the cessation of saṃsāra.


इत्येवमुक्ताधिकार्याभिधेयसंबन्धप्रयोजनान्मन्त्रान् संक्षेपतो व्याख्यास्यामः॥

ity evam ukta-adhikārya-abhidheya-saṃbandha-prayojanān mantrān saṃkṣepato vyākhyāsyāmaḥ||

It means ‘having stated the adhikārya, the abhidheya, the saṃbandha and the prayojana, I will now briefly elucidate the mantras.’ The explanation of these four topics occurs in the upodghāta ‘introductory’ section of commentaries and this literary formality is called śāstrārambha: adhikārya means who the text is meant for; abhidheya refers to the subject matter; prayojana spells out the purpose and saṃbandha is the relation between the three.

In this case the adhikārya is one who is not karmaphalenārthī i.e. one who does not hanker after the fruits of action. He must have achieved nirveda or disillusionment with the world and become convinced that karma cannot bring about an ultimate cessation of śoka and moha. The abhidheya i.e. the subject matter of the text is mokṣa or liberation from saṃsāra. Its prayojana or purpose is to bring about a cessation of saṃsāra and the sambandha is the removal of the faulty self-understanding that the self is the doer and enjoyer, and the generation of the correct self-understanding of the unity of the self and so on. Thus, having explained what the mantras are all about, Śaṅkara then proceeds to elucidate them one by one. This ends the upodghāta section of Śaṅkara’s commentary on the Īśā Upaniṣad.


In conclusion of my elucidation here, there is one point I would like to mention. With regards to adhikāra, one may argue that most of us are yet karmaphalenārthī. From the foregoing it would thus appear that we are not eligible to read the Īśā Upaniṣad. So why should we read it? Well, I think that in premodern India it was believed that not everything is meant for everyone. You must be in a certain position; you must have arrived at a certain state to perform a certain action or gain a certain knowledge. If not, you might harm yourself as well as others. Or in any case, you will not derive any value from the action or knowledge for which you are deemed ineligible.

On the other hand, as modern and post-modern human beings we strive for or are expected to strive for a theoretical understanding as well. Even if we are not seeking mokṣa, we should be able to intellectually reflect upon it and try to understand how, say, Śaṅkara understood it in the context of the Īśā Upaniṣad. The ancient Indian would totally disagree with this contemporary approach to texts and I think, deep down, they are right. To read a text is to participate in it seriously, to experience it and let it transform you. This can, indeed, get dangerous which is why there is a restriction on adhikāra. Be that as it may, as inhabitants of a modern and post-modern world, we should undertake a reading of texts not allegedly meant for us as objectively as possible with a view to understand our intellectual heritage.

The article has been republished from author’s blog with permission.

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Ashay Naik

Ashay Naik is a Sanskrit scholar and a software professional. He is deeply interested in studying Bharatiya culture, political philosophy and theology. He has completed his Honours in Sanskrit from the University of Sydney and is a contributor to the Swadeshi Indology series. He is the author of Natural Enmity: Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra. He blogs at and tweets at @AshayNaik1.