This write-up intends to present an analysis of apparently contradictory issues of Ishavasya in question-answer format. Without understanding these crucial issues, it is very likely that we miss correct import of this Shruti. The analysis is based on my understanding of the Bhashya of Shri Shankaracharya.
Q. First verse of this Upanishad advocates the renunciation of world which is nothing but name-form-action. This is to be done by knowing that everything is pervaded by Ishwar. How can then the very same Upanishad speak of doing action and desire to live for hundred years in next verse?
A. The source of this confusion is an unsubstantiated presumption that both these verses are spoken to same person. This presumption is wrong. The audience of first verse is different from that of second verse. First one is intended for those who are knowers of Self, i.e. आत्मविद्. The Shruti enjoins to them the renunciation of all three attachments etc. On the contrary, the audience for second verse are those persons who are incapable of understanding Self and who, therefore, don’t know the Self. That is, the audience for second verse are अनात्मज्ञ.
Thus, Shruti enjoins renunciation for आत्मविद् and action (actions enjoined by scriptures like fire sacrifice etc) for अनात्मज्ञ.
Q. What is the basis on which you say that first verse speaks about ज्ञाननिष्ठा of संन्यासी and second verse speaks of कर्मनिष्ठ who is incapable of ज्ञाननिष्ठा?
A. Because ज्ञान and कर्म are incompatible. They cannot co-exist. कर्म precedes ज्ञान. स्मृति also speaks of same as follows:-
द्वाविमावथ पन्थानौ, यत्र वेदा: प्रतिष्ठिता:। प्रवृत्ति लक्षणा धर्मो, निवृत्तौ च सुभाषित:॥
Thus, you must understand that first and second verses are not intended to same person or class of persons. And therefore, there is no contradiction.
Q. Who are the people whom Shruti mentions as आत्महना: in third verse and what is it that the Shruti refers as असुर्या?
A. Those who kill their Self are आत्महना:. Those who are not विद्वान are आत्महना:. Those who don’t have understanding of non-dual Supreme Self (अद्वय-परमात्म-भाव) are अविद्वान and it is they who are आत्महना:. Essentially, आत्महना: are those who are under the realm of avidya. They neglect self-evident Self and accordingly the effects of अद्वय-परमात्म-भाव viz. अजरत्व, अमरत्व etc are effectively killed for them. Because of this, they are called आत्महना:.
असुर्या refers to everything which doesn’t have अद्वय-परमात्म-भाव. Therefore, even gods (देवता) are included as असुर.
Q. Verse four has umpteen contradictions. Shruti states, in same breath, Self to be both unmoving as well as swifter than mind. How can it be reconciled?
A. This is not a contradiction. If we describe Self without referring to limiting adjuncts (उपाधि), then it is said to be unmoving whereas the description of Self in conjunction with limiting adjuncts can very well include statements such as swifter than mind.
Q. Verse nine states that they who worship (उपासना) अविद्या enter dense darkness whereas those who worship विद्या enter denser darkness. What does the Shruti mean here? How can the worshiper of विद्या enter even darkness forget denser darkness? To whom is this Shruti applicable?
A. This verse applies to the same person to whom second verse is applicable. Those who don’t have ज्ञाननिष्ठा and are therefore कर्मनिष्ठ and who desire living for hundred years are the audience of this Shruti.
The usage of terms विद्या and अविद्या should not be confused with the popular sense in which these terms are used. In present verses, they are used differently. विद्या doesn’t mean परमात्म-विद्या here. It is used in the sense of knowledge related to gods (देवता-विषयक-ज्ञान). अविद्या is used in the sense of actions enjoined by scriptures such as fire-sacrifice (अग्निहोत्र आदि शास्त्र-विहित-कर्म).
It is important to understand that worships of both vidya as well as avidya are criticized here. Shruti says that if you worship only avidya, i.e. if you do only actions enjoined by scriptures such as fire-sacrifice etc, then you will enter darkness. And if you worship only vidya, i.e. if you are involved only in knowledge related to gods, then you are set for denser darkness. Please note that the emphasis is on the word ‘only’. Thus, the basic idea behind the individual criticism of both worships is to enjoin the worship of both avidya and vidya in mutual conjunction and not to the exclusion of each other.
This is also supported by the fact that the effects of worships of both avidya and vidya are different.
Q. How is verse nine justified when it states crossing of death (मृत्यु) by avidya and attainment of immortality (अमृत) by vidya? What is the meaning of death and immortality here?
A. By death, natural action and knowledge (स्वाभाविक कर्म और ज्ञान) like fire-sacrifice etc is meant. By immortality, देवात्म-भाव is meant. अमृत is not used in its primary sense. It is used in a relative sense as the effect of vidya (देवता-विषयक-ज्ञान).
Q. What is the meaning of सम्भूति and असम्भूति used in verse twelve?
A. सम्भूति is कार्य-ब्रह्म which is also known as हिरण्यगर्भ. असम्भूति is used for avyakta, Prakriti. Since avyakta is avidya-lakshana, Shruti rightly says that the worshippers of असम्भूति enter dense darkness. And the worshipers of सम्भूति enter denser darkness.
Idea here, again, is to enjoin the worship of both असम्भूति as well as सम्भूति in conjunction with each other because both have different results. Worship of असम्भूति results in प्रकृति-लय, which is basically another name of अमृत. On the other hand, worship of सम्भूति results in opulence like anima etc (अणिमा आदि ऐश्वर्य).
Q. If we compare verses fourteen and eleven, there appears to be confusion in the usage of words. How to reconcile it?
A. विनाश is to be understood as सम्भूति. Further, सम्भूति is to be read as असम्भूति in verse fourteen. It will make sense only then. By the knowledge of विनाश i.e. सम्भूति, one gets opulence like anima etc and thus crosses the death, which is non-opulence (अनैश्वर्य मृत्यु). And by knowing असम्भूति, one gets अमृत, which is basically nothing but प्रकृति-लय.
Q. What does this Upanishad intend to convey?
A. The basic idea is to prescribe the paths for two kinds of individuals, आत्मविद् and अनात्मज्ञ. For the former, the path of renunciation (निवृत्ति) is prescribed. For the latter class of persons, the Upanishad provides the path of conjunction of vidya and avidya, of असम्भूति and सम्भूति.
This is the import of Ishavasya Upanishad.