Notes on the Isha Upanishad

In the Isha Upanishad (perhaps meaning hidden or enveloped in the lord or ruler), there is an acknowledgement of the distinction between the ‘transient’ and the ‘eternal.’ In the opening line, the eternal is identified as superior to the transient. One who dwells exceedingly on the latter will descend into darkness, but one who acts according to the former, and sees himself in light of all things in the cosmos, loses fear. Christianity embraces a like-minded dualism, though the self is not annihilated or subjugated to the greater universe.

Similar to the project embarked upon by Lucretius in his later Epicurean work entitled De Rerum Natura, the Isha Upanishad attempts to address man’s primal fear. This fear is best described as the terror of death in light of eternity, or the gripping fear that comes from an awareness of the cold, purposeless, and chaotic cosmos. The author advises us to see ourselves in everything, and thus to lose fear. Death is not unique, as it would be infinitely to the solipsist, but rather a part of the greater unfolding of all things. Another way of formulating the proposition is to say that fear grows from a demonstrative belief in the self alone, divorced from the rest of the cosmos. By shedding this fear, a “sage” can also necessarily depart from his delusions and sorrows.

The Isha Upanishad, although one of the shortest Upanishads, also advises against both “action” and “knowledge,” for both lead down a path to deeper darkness. Man is positioned at a great abyss -transience leads man into darkness, and knowledge and action lead man into an even greater darkness. However, curiously by knowing both, a sage can overcome death and reach immortality.

The Upanishad closes with a prayer to the spirit or god to “reveal” the hidden truth, and to the sun containing the sacred word “OM”, and a plea to shed the body so that it may become ashes in favor of remembrance of “past strivings.” As the scripture concludes, the author longs to follow the path of the good.

For this reading I used the Penguin Classics Edition translated by Juan Mascaro.

Introduction to the Upanishads

The word “Upanishad” comes to us from the Sanskrit meaning ‘to sit at the foot of’ -presumably referring to a student or a disciple sitting at the foot of a master, eager to consider his esoteric wisdom. Other translations interpret the Sanskrit to mean “to sit below” or “to sit near.”

The Upanishads are the highest texts of the Vedic scripture, and also they are the most ancient texts of India, and modern scholars seem to search in vain for the origins and authors of these scriptures. As with the Homeric question or the question concerning Biblical authorship, in searching for one single mind from which the Upanishads sprang is a fabled mission, destined to end with modern scholars tilting at windmills.

Classical Hindu schools acknowledge the first 10-12 Upanishads as the Mukhya Upanishads, and they are considered central to the teaching. Each Upanishad is localized to one Brahmana, which then is matched to one of the four Veda. The Upanishads are considered the ‘end’ of each Veda, both as the conclusion and also the teleological purpose. Although impossible to pinpoint, the oldest Upanishads date back to somewhere between the 800-400 B.C. era.

Two concepts are elemental to the ancient Hindu mind: Brahman and Atman. Brahman comes from the Sanskrit word for “all” and appropriately it is the spirit from which all things emanate, the ultimate reality. In Aristotelian terms, Brahman is the material, efficient, formal, and final cause of all things in the cosmos. It is, in vulgar terms, the “highest reality.” Atman is commonly called the soul or self. We might say Brahman is outward truth, and Atman is inward truth. Perhaps as an early root of Greek thought, the Upanishads encourages self knowledge above all else. In addition, it has been said that the Upanishads presents a dualistic cosmos, between Brahman and Atman, however the text is vague on this point as elsewhere it is said that both spirits emanate from the same “oneness”.

The rediscovery of the Upanishads and the Vedas comes to the Western world through the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Schelling, and the American Transcendentalist movement. This fascination with vague, contradictory eastern mysticism pervades Western thought up to the present day.

There exist approximately 112 Upanishads. If collected in whole, they would fill a book about the size of the Bible. However, they have always been scattered and never entirely compiled as a cohesive whole. The notion of one distinct and cohesive book that is complete is a fundamentally Western design. However, the Upanishads are part of the four Vedas: the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, and the Atharvaveda. The Upanishads constitute the Vedanta, or the concluding portions of the Vedas.

Two Myths in Hesiod’s Works and Days

In his poem, Works and Days, Hesiod writes a letter addressed to his brother, Perses, encouraging him to embrace the practical attitude and let Discord spur him to plow his fields and yield abundant crops. His purpose is to encourage strong values in Perses, ones that combat the impetus for laziness. However, he tells Perses that “the gods keep secret from humankind the means of survival” (42), thereby challenging Perses to discover the means of survival; to uncover the secrets. Similarly, Sir Francis Bacon will make a claim about the processes of nature being hidden by God for humans to discover in his anti-Aristotelian “New Organon” thousands of years later.

Hesiod and the Muse by Gustave Moreau in 1891

Why do the gods hide these secrets from humans? Hesiod responds, appropriately, with a myth. Zeus was angry that Prometheus so carelessly gave away the gift of fire to humans by deceiving the mind of Zeus. Laughing, in repayment to mankind, Zeus employs the lame Hephaestus to fashion a woman, with the help of the other Olympians, and he calls this “bane to industrious mankind” Pandora. Before Epimetheus accepts the gift of Pandora and forgets Prometheus’s command to deny any gifts from Zeus, mankind lives peacefully and with little strife. However, Pandora opens her great jar releasing miseries upon humankind, only Hope stays behind to hide in Pandora’s jar.

Hesiod then gives an “alternate story” if it is preferable, recalled later by Plato in the Republic. First, the immortals fashioned a race of articulate men, Golden, living when Cronus ruled (Zeus’s father). They lived well and peacefully, with many banquets and easy crop yields, until they were buried. Second, the Olympians fashioned a Silver race, which was inferior. They lived like children and committed violence on one another, never worshipping Zeus and making him angry. Third, Zeus fashioned a Bronze race, the offspring of ash trees. Their tools and armor were bronze, and they killed each other with them, sending them down to the cold underworld. Fourth, Zeus created a “new” generation who superior and lovers of “justice” (152). they were Demigods, the last prior to our own generation.

Hesiod laments this “iron” generation and all their suffering, though “there will always be good mixed in with the evil” (177). Zeus will destroy this race when children rise up against their fathers, and when the gods are not followed. Hesiod beckons Perses to pay attention to Justice, for whole cities can be lost with the actions of one evil man, and Hesiod also commands Princes to practice just deeds. In the first account the existence of strife and discord is justified, but hope is given space, as well, for Perses. In the second account, Justice is deemed a worthwhile pursuit, for the fate of mankind.

Following the myths at the outset, the remaining poem is composed of a series of instructions and advice to Perses who is to become a farmer. We are led to believe that he is somewhat feeble minded, contrasted with Hesiod’s great victories as a poet.

For this reading I used the Daryl Hine translation.

Book XVIII of the Iliad: Examining the Shield of Achilles

In Book XVIII of the Iliad, Achilles is distraught. Patroclus has been killed by Hector, and the armor of Achilles has been stripped and stolen by Hector. Thetis, Achilles’s goddess mother, travels to the house of Hephaestus to convince him to build a new shield for Achilles so he can return to the battle and exact vengeance on Hector.

Hephaestus, the crippled smith, constructs a massive shield with a silver shield strap and five layers of metal. He creates a “world of gorgeous immortal work” (564). This shield is curious for many reasons. Homer takes great length to describe its contents. It is also the only piece of armor forged by the gods, namely the lame smith, Hephaestus.

Hephaestus begins with the cosmos: the earth, the sky, and the sea -the ancient tripartite division of the known world. He also adds the sun and the moon, along with the constellations such as the Pleiades, the Hyades, Orion, the Great Bear (also called the Wagon, always watching the Hunter and alone is denied the plunge into the Ocean’s baths).

“Thetis Accepting the Shield of Achilles from Vulcan” by James Thornhill in 1710

Next, Hephaestus moves from the cosmic to the political. He constructs two “noble” cities filled with the mortal men. In one city, two men are feuding over a murder related to a wedding celebration. They press for legal action -a judge to cut the knot, as was customary in the ancient near east. The judge is to be awarded two bars of gold, to encourage the most just verdict.

In the second city, the men are deliberating about whether or not to plunder an enemy city or share the spoils among the people. They enter into conflict the opposing city as Strife and Havoc enter the fight.

Following the two cities, one of law, the other of war, however, both rife with conflict, Hephaestus creates a fallow field being tilled (the “wonder” of Hephaestus’ work), a king’s estate, a thriving vineyard with a young boy plucking his lyre, a collection of animals in herds, a meadow of sheep grazing, young boys and girls courting one another, and, finally, he forges the Ocean’s River. This concludes his forging of the shield, as he places it at the feet of Thetis.

Unlike the other shields or pieces of armor described throughout the poem, the shield of Achilles is sobering, and less ferocious. It’s subject matter is a world unto itself. It covers both the natural world as well as the political. It portrays a cosmos filled with conflict, strife, and envy, as is the nature of the Greeks.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.