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Mani Rao
From ‘Īśāvāsya Upanishad’ and Śankara
Mani Rao

Manuscript page from the Isa Upanishad
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Īśāvāsya Upanishad


Covered in Īśā, covered in God

That’s perfect Creator
This’ perfect            Creation        From perfection can only come perfection
That minus this
In all this
God is                             
In all this
God lives
Whatever’s alive in life
                                      It’s all God’s
By letting go
proprietorship                    Enjoy it
Don’t be greedy for
what is others’
what isn’t yours                 It’s all yours
Carry on working – do your duty –
Carry on living
Wish for a 100 years
This way –
     and there’s no other way –
Work won’t get you down
What else is there here eh
Say all this is yours, Mani Rao, happy as you may be about that, you can’t be idle for ever, and it won’t hurt to work
Those who deny themselves
go to dark places   visionless   sunless  
when they die
Those who deny God go 
to demonic places 
thick darkness
A warning for the lazy or suicidal? An argument against lack of faith?
Back to that which is perfect: Īśā
Doesn’t move and yet
Faster than thought
Not even the devās senses get it
devāh gods often interpreted as senses because gods illuminate senses
Way ahead of the curve
It stays put
Outruns everything else
In it
Wind supports activity
Because breath
It moves
Doesn’t move
Far away
In everything
Outside everything
The good news:
He who sees all beings in himself
And himself in all beings
Does not hate/hide
When he knows all beings are himself
When he who sees unity
Where’s the excitement the grief?
8, 9.
Bodiless - no sinews - unhurtably so
Pure Unflawed
Poet Omniscient Above-all
Self-born happened on his own
Runs things as they should be
Is there a choice?
Those who lack knowledge enter darkness visionless
Those who relish knowledge all the more so
We heard from the wise
who spoke to us:
Knowledge is one thing
Lack of knowledge another
But there’s also
He who has both
How can you have both? Does not one cancel the other?
Because of the lack of knowledge crosses mṛtyu death
Because of knowledge reaches amṛtam deathlessness
Just what is aṃṛta? Deathlessness? Immortality? Fame? Ambrosia?
Does crossing mean to go through, or to go past? To die, or to overcome

Sambhūti, asambhūti.
What do the terms mean?
What did the terms mean?
Creationism, Nature
Creationism, Evolutionism
Manifest, Unmanifest
Materialism, Idealism
Idealism, Materialism
Theism, Existentialism
Believer, Philosopher
Occurrence, Inertia
Belief, Disbelief
Mere philosophers enter darkness visionless
Mere believers even more so
We heard from the wise
who spoke to us:
Philosophy is one thing
Faith another
But there’s also
He who knows both
Creation and Destruction
Because of Destruction crosses death
Because of Creation reaches deathlessness
Sounds like a win-win, but what does it mean?
Maybe one day the meaning will be clear, even obvious. As the next verse hopes:
A golden lid covers the mouth of truth
Remove it O Sun
So it may be seen by the truthful and righteous
The Sun is the door to truth. Only the righteous go through.
O’ Pūṣān/Sun  
One and only 
O’ Yama /God of Death & Dharma 
O’ Sūrya/Sun  
O’ Prajāpati/Creator
Remove these dazzling rays around you
Show your milder form – That – That Person –
Oh That I Am!
That’s who I am!
At the end
Breath to deathless air
Body to ash
Oḿ   -- Mind, remember what’s been done – Mind, remember what’s been done
O Agni/Fire-God
You who know all the world’s deeds
Take us to riches by an easy path
Take gnarly sins away
We say
Translator’s Commentary
Īśāvāsya Upanishad is a short poem packed with a range of concepts similar to the Gita; in addition, it has a speculative tone that makes it provocative and engaging to read. Commentators have interpreted the term ‘Isha’ in many ways— as a ruling deity, as Brahman, and as Atman. Translated literally, the title means ‘clothed in Isha,’ which could mean both that Isha is hidden in the world, or embodied by it.
Translations of Īśāvāsya tend to be similar. For instance, the standard way to translate the word ‘purnam’ of the famous opening verse is ‘wholeness.’ ‘Amrtam’ is usually translated as ‘immortality.’ I question some of these assumptions, and present alternative readings. For many of the difficult concepts in the poem (‘vidya’/’avidya’, ‘sambhuti’/‘asambhuti’, etc) translations tend to follow the commentary of Śankara. Rather than offering a singular solution, I offer multiple ways of interpreting these terms. If previous translations fix the meaning, I rescue the source-text from such closure and reopen it for reflection and discussion, aiming for a more open text. My own commentarial voice in this translation is in italics, reflecting and speaking freely with the reader. The reader will find herself entering the process of interpretation.
Verse 1’s idea of ‘renounce and enjoy’(‘tena tyaktena bhunjitah’) is explained by Śankara. ankara as ‘renounce this (world), and enjoy that (‘tat’), for ‘that’ is the higher joy.’ My reading goes further: if you consider what precedes (that Isha/god is in and lives in everything) and connect it with what follows (don’t be greedy about what belongs to someone else), all is god’s so don’t think it’s yours (= renounce) + it’s all yours once you feel oneness (= enjoy). Verse 2 is seen as a contradiction in Śankara’s argument. Śankara states the objection, and then answers: ‘Knowledge and rituals, we have already stated, are sheer opposites and to reconcile them would be like moving a mountain.’ But if Verse 2 is considered an aside, it is no longer problematic. Śankara interprets ‘avidya’ as ritual-observing-piety and ‘vidya’ as knowledge of deities because vidya cannot refer to knowledge (or it would not lead to more darkness). In fact, this interpretation is linked to the interpretation of asambhuti/sambhuti as inert matter/form. Śankara interprets: escape the dichotomy of work and wisdom, of worldly materialism and devotion to form, both of which are duality, and reach for transcendence with real knowledge. However, a literal interpretation would be: Neither of you is better off, bow down, both of you, because ‘that’ transcends all of ‘this.’
Īśāvāsya opens with a sense of completion and ends on the brink, on a sharp sense of mortality. There is a precise structure to the poem. Verses 12, 13, and 4 repeat the consequences in the exact pattern of verses 9, 10, 11 but instead of knowledge/lack of knowledge, refer to ‘asambhuti’/’sambhuti’. This is a pattern, and a link, too obvious to ignore for the interpretation of either set. Breath is returned to air in verse 18, and the reversal of air fills Isha with life in verse 4. There is resonance between the blind darkness of the sunless worlds everyone goes to, and the blinding rays of the sunlight the speaker pleads with the sun to move aside, so the face/mouth of truth may be visible. The poem proceeds using a steady method of compare and contrast. Knowledge/lack of knowledge and ‘asambhuti’/’sambhuti’ seem as if clearly differentiated but they are really in the same category – both lead to dark and demonic worlds. In verse 17, we see a fervent soliloquy and repetition – “Mind, remember”. In verse 18, the poet seems to step aside to address a solar deity with an appeal. As a poem, Īśāvāsya is haunting.
Guru – Hymn in Eight Stanzas
(Guru Atakam, Sanskrit, attributed to Śankara, 8th CE.
My body’s shapely so’s my Mrs’
And my fame, pretty as a pic.
I’ve got cash— Mt. Meru heaps
           But if mind’s not at Guru’s feet
It’s futile futile futile futile
Wife ‘n wealth, kids and grandkids
I have a house, ‘n relatives
           But if mind’s not at home at Guru’s feet
All futile futile futile futile
Veda ‘n vedanga I know inside out
Out come the śāstras when I open my mouth
I do poetry I’m a pro in prosody
           If mind’s not studious at Guru’s feet
Futile futile futile futile
Internationally respected nationally celebrated
In proper behavior there’s no one but moi
           If mind’s not true at Guru’s feet
Futile futile futile futile
On the world-stage King-Emperor mobs
keep kissing my feet
           If mind’s not simple at Guru’s feet
Futile futile futile futile
Thanks to my charity my fame’s gone far
Thanks to my blessedness all worldly things are near
           If mind’s not anchored at Guru’s feet
Futile futile futile futile
I’ve no thought for pleasures treasures
Love-treats yogic-feats
           But if mind’s unfocused at Guru’s feet
Futile futile futile futile
Both home and wilderness I’m disinterested
In job, life and precious things
           But if mind’s insincere at Guru’s feet
Futile futile futile futile
Student or householder, ascetic or king, whoever studies the Guru-hymn gets an A+. If mind’s insincere at Guru’s feet, futile futile futile futile.
Translator’s Commentary

The Guru-Aṣtakam, a popular Sanskrit hymn honoring the Guru is attributed to 8th CE Śankara like so many other popular Sanskrit hymns. Who’s a guru? A spiritual teacher. The disciple reminds himself to be humble, to focus on the guru’s feet, and not be carried away by successes, whether worldly or spiritual. Why feet? This is not metonymy, but an understanding that the energy is received by the disciple by contact with the feet of the Guru. Because it’s a tradition that the guru’s feet stand in for the guru and also, the. The refrain "tataḥ-kim" translates literally to "then-what," i.e., "what’s the use," which I take to mean "futile," producing the clipped "f" sound to match the "ḥ" (visarga) at the end of "tatah." I modify the refrain slightly with each verse to accentuate the theme of that verse.


Issue 80 (Jul-Aug 2018)

feature Sanskrit Literature
  • Editorial
    • Usha Kishore: Editorial
    • Artwork featured in this section
  • Poetry Translations
    • A N D Haksar: From Ksēmēndra’s ‘Darpa Dalanaṃ’
    • Anusha S Rao: From ‘Saduktikarṇāmṛta’ compiled by Srīdharadāsa
    • Debjani Chatterjee: From Valmiki ‘Rāmāyana’ and Yōgēśwara
    • Kanya Kanchana and Varun Khanna: From ‘Krṣṇa Yajur Veda’
    • Mani Rao: From ‘Īśāvāsya Upanishad’ and Śankara
    • R R Gandikota: From ‘Vāyu Purāṇa’ and ‘Śankara’
    • Varanasi Ramabrahmam: Autotranslation of ‘Viṣṇu Vaibhavam
    • Shankar Rajaraman and Venetia Kotamraju: From Uddanda Śastri
    • Shankar Rajaraman: Autotranslation from ‘Citraniṣadham’
    • Usha Kishore: From Kālidāsa and Śankara
  • Conversation
    • Atreya Sarma U: In conversation with K V Ramakrishnamacharya
  • Essays
    • Atreya Sarma U: Sumadhuram, Subhashitam
    • Bipin K Jha: A Critical Review on the notion of Kāla
    • K H Prabhu: The influence of Sanskrit on Purandaradāsa’s Kannada lyrics
    • Mani Rao: Asato Mā
    • Pritha Kundu: Kālidāsa’s ‘Śakuntalā’ - ‘Lost’ and ‘Regained’ in Translation
    • R R Gandikota: ‘Cāru Carya’ of Kṣemēndra
    • M Shamsur Rabb Khan: Non-Indian Scholars of Sanskrit Literature
    • Shankar Rajaraman: ‘Citranaiṣadham’
    • Shruti Das: Ecopolitics in the Dasāvatāra in Jayadeva’s ‘Gītagovindaṃ
    • Usha Kishore and M Sambasivan: On Translating the Divine Woman
    • Vikas Singh, Dheerendra Singh and Vruttant Manwatkar: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam