Verse 1 of Isa-UpaNiSad – Gandhiji’s Favorite Verse

Let us begin with what Mahatma Gandhi said about the 1st Verse of the Isa-UpaNiSad:

  • “I have now come to the final conclusion that even if all the UpaNiSad and all other scriptures happen, all of a sudden, to be reduced to ashes and if only the first verse in the Isa UpaNiSad were left intact in the memory of the Hindus, Hinduism would live for ever.”

So this Verse is worth a study if for no other reason than Gandhiji’s testimonial. Of course, there are so many reasons to study this immortal verse.

Why are UpaNiSad important?

The word Upa-Ni-Sad or उप नि सद  means sit very near. The word signifies that the Upa-Ni-Sad are to be discussed as a dialogue between the Guru and the Shishya. They are philosophical discussions and not scriptures. In the words of the renowned Professor N.A. Nikam,

  • In the Upa-Ni-Sad, Philosophy arises as a question and lives as a Dialogue.
  • An Upa-Ni-Sad arises because of a question asked.
  • And the wisdom that makes an Upa-Ni-Sad an Upa-Ni-Sad is not in the answer but in the question.

This is also the wisdom of Mathematics and perhaps of all science. All new Mathematics arises because a question is asked and the greatness of the Mathematical discovery or formulation depends on the greatness of the question. 

For an example of how Upa-Ni-Sad concepts of ancient times can now be best explained by modern Mathematical formulations, please see our article Santi-Paath or The Introductory Verse from the Isa Upanisad.

1st Verse of the Isa-UpaNiSad or Isa-Vasya-UpaNiSad

This two-sentence Verse has been analyzed and interpreted by many people and in many ways. And each analysis we have seen goes into several pages. This itself should demonstrate to you that the Upa-Ni-Sad was intended to create a dialogue.

In our first description, we have chosen to stay close to the interpretation of Adi Shankar-Acharya.

ईशावास्यं इदं सर्वं यत किन्च्य जगत्यां जगत
Isa-Vasyam Edam Sarvam Yat Kinchya Jagatyam Jagat
Whatever is in this ever changing Universe is enveloped by the Lord

तेन त्यक्तेन भुन्जीथा मा गृधः कस्य स्वित धनं
Tena Tykaten Bhunjitha Ma Grudhah Kasya Svit Dhanam?
Renouncing that, support yourself; Do Not Covet, For whose indeed is wealth?

This Verse can be thought to sum up Shankar-Acharya’s school of Vedic Wisdom:

  1. We should accept that everything in this Universe is under the overlordship of the Ruler (Lord)
  2. As everything belongs to Him, life should be led in a spirit of renunciation
  3. Therefore we should not covet what belongs to others.

Thus this Verse can be said to enunciate the three aspects of Vedic Dharma:

  • what pertains to the individual,
  • what pertains to society and
  • what pertains to the Supreme.

A Bhakti Interpretation

Above we interpreted the first word as Isa plus Vasya. This means to be enveloped or pervaded by the Lord. This points us to the renunciation concept.

Another interpretation is to consider IsaVasya as one word. This simply means a dwelling of the Lord. In this interpretation, the first sentence translates to “everything in this universe is the dwelling of the Lord“. This leads us to the Bhakti concept:

  •  the Lord lives everywhere and in everything in the Universe; you do not have to go far and wide to specific temples to find God.

We initially interpreted the first part of the second sentence as “Do not covet; For whose is wealth? Support yourself by renouncing that “.  You get this by applying तेन or “Tena” to धनं (Dhanam) or Wealth at the end of the second sentence or “Kasya svit Dhanam? Tena Tyakten Bhunjitha“.

But if you apply तेन or “Tena” to the Lord in the first sentence, you get a different and simple interpretation. The sentence then reads “Enjoy what has been given by the Lord, Do not covet, for whose indeed is wealth?

This is not renunciation but contentment. Th
is does not ask you to renounce what you have but simply to be content with what you have and not covet what others have. This is the theme that runs through the teachings of Bhagwat Saints. 

So in this interpretation, the 1st Verse reads:

ईशावास्यं इदं सर्वं यत किन्च्य जगत्यां जगत

Isa-Vasyam Edam Sarvam Yat Kinchya Jagatyam Jagat

Whatever is in this ever changing Universe is the dwelling of the Lord

तेन त्यक्तेन भुन्जीथा मा गृधः कस्य स्वित धनं

Tena Tykaten Bhunjitha Ma Grudhah Kasya Svit Dhanam?

Whatever the Lord gives, Enjoy. Do Not Covet For whose indeed is wealth?

This is the interpretation used widely in the Bhagwat Dharma. In fact, there is a old Marathi proverb from Bhagwat Saints which says “ठेविले अनंते तैसेची रहावे” or “you should stay the way Anant kept you“. The origin of this proverb is the Bhakti interpretation of the 1st Verse of the Isa-UpaNisad –   “Enjoy whatever the Lord gives” or “Bhunjitha Tena Tykaten” .

This difference also arises from your interpretation of “Bhunjitha”. It can mean both support/protect and enjoy. The “support/protect” meaning is used in the renunciation interpretation above. The “enjoy” meaning is used in the bhakti interpretation above.

How Gandhiji described this Verse?

Dr. Radhakrishnan quotes the following from Gandhiji’s address at Kottayam in 1937:

  • “The mantra describes God as the Creator, the Ruler and the Lord. The seer to whom this mantra or verse was revealed was not satisfied with the very frequent statement that God was to be found everywhere. But he went further and said: “Since God pervades everything, nothing belongs to you, not even your own body. God is the undisputed unchallengeable Master of everything you possess.If it is universal brotherhood – not only brotherhood of all human beings, but of all living things – I find it in this mantra. If it is unshakable faith in the Lord and Master – and all the adjectives you can think of – I find it in this mantra. Since he pervades every fibre of my being and of all of you, I derive from it the doctrine of equality of all creatures on earth and it should satisfy the cravings of all philosophical communists. This mantra tells me that I cannot hold as mine anything that belongs to God and that, if my life and that of all who believe in this mantra has to be a life of perfect dedication, it follows that it will have to be a life of continual service of fellow creatures.”

After you read these words of Mahatma Gandhi, you understand why he said Hinduism will live forever if only this Verse remains.

The meaning of Isa 

The word Isa (or Isita) is from iste and means, by him, the Ruler. He who Rules is the Lord. This is why we use the word Lord in our translation of the 1st Verse rather than God.

The more colloquial spelling and pronunciation is Ish or Isha. From this is derived the word Ishvar (Ishwar) or ईश्वर, the commonly used word for God in Indian languages. For example, the name गणेश  (Ganesh) is derived as गण + ईश (Gan + Ish) which means the Ruler or Lord of all Gan ( followers) and the name महेश (Mahesh) is derived as महा + ईश (Maha + Ish) which means the Great Lord.

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