The path to enlightenment: karma & jnana in the Isha Upanishad

Moksha मोक्ष is a Sanskrit word meaning “free, release, liberate“.  This word is related to the Sanskrit word mukti मुक्ति meaning “liberation”.The root word of both is muc मुच् meaning “to be free” * .

In his commentary on the Upanishads, 8th century CE philosopher and theologian Adi Shankara speaks of Moksha. Shankara tells us that the Upanishads, the Gita, and the scriptures establish a path to Moksha. Sankara says:

“The Upanishads exhaust themselves simply by determining the true nature of the Self, and the Gita and the scriptures dealing with moksha have only this end in view” [Intro to the Isa Upanishad].

The Upanishads ‘liberate’ the soul through the removal of spiritual ignorance. Shankara explains:

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Covering, revealing, inhabiting the Self: Isha Upanishad, mantra 1

Isa upanisad.
Sanskrit of the Isha Upanishad. Creative commons.

The heart of the Upanishads is the Self, expressed as both a path of Self-knowledge and a realization of the fullness and potential of an eternal Truth discovered within the innermost Self (Atman).  In the Isha Upanishad, Isha is the eternal Truth of the Self.

The first mantra of the Isha Upanishad expresses, within its compressed form, a profound insight into the nature of the Self. The eternal truth is expressed in a few mantric syllables, as is a complete path to enlightenment. One only need meditate on the words, recite the words, come into a full understanding of the meaning of the mantras. The Self reveals itself within these sacred syllables, inviting us to inhabit the mantra: Om Isha vāsyam idam sarvam…

Mohandas K. Gandhi said, “if only the first verse in the Ishopanishad were left in the memory of the Hindus, Hinduism would live for ever.”[1] The first verse expresses a fundamental insight not only of Hinduism, but of a universal awareness. The verse offers a religion, a philosophy, a psychology, and a transformation in our very modes of seeing and perceiving, our means and modes of being.

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Shiva Speaks: words of the supreme Self




Shiva holding a trident with a dog at his feet, unknown author, Owned by Sir Elijah Impey (1732–1809), chief justice of Bengal. US public domain
Shiva holding a trident with a dog at his feet, unknown author, Owned by Sir Elijah Impey (1732–1809), chief justice of Bengal. US public domain

Both the work of Carl Jung (CW 9ii) and Vedanta (Adi Shankara and the Upanishads) agree: the deity image represents the inner Self. In Vedanta, the deity image represents the innermost Self (Ātman)

In my last post, titled Fires of knowledge: Ashes of wisdom, I spoke of ash as a symbol of Shiva, and thus of the supreme Self. In that post, I drew from a passage from the Brahmanda Purana. In this post, I am going to share more from the Brahmanda Purana (Chapter 27). In the story, Shiva makes a strong statement concerning his own nature, and thus the nature of the supreme Self.

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Vishvarupa: Cosmic Man

Vishnu as the Cosmic Man (Vishvarupa), Jaipur, Rajasthan- c. 1800-50. US Public Domain, Wikimedia
Vishnu as the Cosmic Man (Vishvarupa), Jaipur, Rajasthan- c. 1800-50. US Public Domain, Wikimedia
In Symbols of Transformation, Carl Jung speaks of the ‘cosmic man’, drawing upon a passage from the Shvetashvatara Upanishad:

“Without feet, without hands, he moves, he grasps; eyeless he sees, earless he hears; he knows all that is to be known, yet there is no knower of him. Men call him the Primordial Person, the cosmic man. Smaller than small, greater than great ….” (cited in CW5, para. 182)

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Mahavidyas: working with the ambivalent aspect of the mother archetype

An image of Durga (Shakti) under an arch displaying the Mahavidyas, with Shiva at the apex; 1930’s. US Public Domain via Wikimedia

In the image above, we see the Goddess Durga (Shakti) under an arch displaying the Mahavidyas. The mahavidyas express various forms of the Devi. Mahavidya is a Sanskrit word that speaks to the revelatory power of the mother goddess. Maha means ‘great’ and Vidya means ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’.

Sitting on top of the arch, we find Shiva. Shiva is an image of the cosmic Self (Brahman). The mother goddesses express the form and power of the cosmic Self. As such, she emerges as ‘great wisdoms’, offering esoteric knowledge of the Cosmic Self. Arthur Avalon speaks to the relation of Shiva and Shakti:

“Mind and Matter are ultimately one, the two latter being the twin aspects of the Fundamental Substance or Brahman [or Shiva] and Its Power or Shakti. Spirit is the substance of mind-matter, the Reality (in the sense of the lasting changelessness) out of which, by Its Power, all Appearance is fashioned not by the individual mind and senses but by the cosmic mind and senses of which they are but a part. What It creates It perceives.”

Shiva and Shakti form two aspects or poles of the cosmic Self (Brahman). All of reality emerges as such: cosmic mind and cosmic body. For the yogi, this eternal truth is revealed within both the macrocosm (cosmic body) and the microcosm (individual body). By working to realize these poles of being, we come to know the nature of the Self.

The goddesses are forms or images of Shakti (the great mother goddess), expressing both the positive and the ambivalent aspects of the mother archetype. In some images, the goddess takes the form of loving kindness; in others, she takes a more ambivalent or fierce form. Carl Jung related such images to the mother archetype.  Jung reveals his awareness of the eternal truth of the mother when he says: “the mother archetype appears under an infinite variety of aspects” (CW 9i, para. 157).

Jung states that the mother archetype may “have a positive, favorable meaning” (ibid). The mother in her positive form provides nourishment, love, care, holding, containment, rebirth and transformation. Positive symbols include “things arousing devotion or feelings of awe, as for instance…. heaven, earth, the woods, the sea or any still waters, matter even, the underworld, the moon” (ibid). We also find “places standing for fertility and fruitfulness: the cornucopia, a ploughed field, a garden. It can be attached to a rock, a cave, a tree, a spring, a deep well, or to various vessels such as the baptismal font, or to vessel-shaped flowers like the rose or the lotus. Because of the protection it implies, the magic circle or mandala can be a form of mother archetype. Hollow objects such as ovens and cooking vessels are associated with the mother archetype, and, of course, the uterus, yoni” (ibid).

Jung also understands that there is “a negative” or “an ambivalent aspect” to the mother archetype: “the negative side the mother archetype may connote anything secret, hidden, dark; the abyss, the world of the dead, anything that devours, seduces, and poisons, that is terrifying and inescapable like fate” (ibid)

In the Devī Māhātmyam (meaning Glory of the Goddess), Shakti uses her ferocity in service of the eternal truth. The Devī Māhātmyam presents a battle between the spiritual knowledge (vidya) and spiritual ignorance (avidya). In the story, the Goddess takes on various forms, such as Durga and Kali. The goddess is the form of vidya. In such form she leads the battle against the demon Mahishasura, as the form of avidya.

The goddess uses her fierce form only in service of spiritual knowledge. She is the slayer of demons (asuras); and thus the slayer of spiritual ignorance as represented by the demons. In peaceful times, the Devi manifests as Lakshmi, a pleasant and prosperous form of the Devi.

Working with ambivalence may lead to great (maha) wisdom (vidya). The Vedas realize a link between the macrocosm and the microcosm, between the cosmic Self and the individual self, as well as between the symbolic and the actual. In working with symbolic life (microcosm), we transform our relation to world (macrocosm). This is a realization present in Vedic tradition as well as in the psychoanalytic tradition.

Both Jungian and Kleinian psychoanalysis work with internal representations of the mother. Carl Jung showed that there is a psychical tendency to fear or feel revulsion toward the more ambivalent aspects of the mother archetype. From a psychoanalytic perspective, the infant splits internal representations into good and bad representations (called objects). Psychoanalysis works to integrate such splits. Melanie Klein understood that the primary and most important duality is in internal representations of the mother (You can read more about this in my post on the Mother World).

Embracing both the loving and the fierce form of the Devi may lead to an integration of the splits within the mother. It may also help us to individuate from our worldly mother, taking on a relation to the symbolic mother.

Spiritual development, in the yogic sense, is coincident with Self-knowledge or jñāna. Self-knowledge is a knowledge of the eternal truth of the Self, existing beyond duality.

A yogi works with the mother goddess in a symbolic sense, confronting the internal representations of the mother. The aim of spiritual development, as Self-knowledge, is a movement away from the literal object world, toward a more spiritual and symbolic world, and finally toward the eternal truth of the Self– beyond even the symbolic. This movement always starts with prakriti (the mother goddess as the literal world). As the yogi progresses in his work he comes into relation with Shakti (as symbolic mother goddess).

By becoming aware of our aversions and desires in relation to the mother world (Prakriti), we begin to liberate (moksha) our fusional relations with the various forms of mother, as the “object of desire” (Sri Aurobindo). To truly know Shakti, the yogi embraces both the positive and the ambivalent aspects of the Devi. Kali in her fierce from is loved just as is Lakshmi in her more pleasant form.

Through working with the Mahavidyas, the mind transforms its relation to ferocity, realizing the power of the Goddesses to dispel spiritual ignorance. In moving from the literal to the symbolic, the yogi realizes that the symbolic ferocity of the mother Goddess can be in service of spiritual development: Durga’s ferocity becomes the inner power to slay the symbolic demons of ignorance. In this realization, both the literal and symbolic are overcome in service of the eternal truth of the Self.

Such realization transforms worldly ‘desire’ into ‘enjoyment’. The Tantric idea of ‘enjoyment’ points to an ability to savor all the experiences of life, in all its myriad of forms, sensations, emotions, perceptions. To truly ‘enjoy’ life is to become one with Shiva (the cosmic Self) in his enjoyment. The Spandakarika says

“It is the lord himself as the enjoyer who is, always and everywhere, established in and through the objects of enjoyment.”

It is through working with the mother goddess– as that which is both favorable and that which is ambivalent– that Shiva (our consciousness) may unite with Shakti (life) in a realization of their non-dual union.

Sat Chit Ananda is the love, bliss, awareness– the enjoyment– the devotee knows upon the realization of the non-dual union of Shiva and Shakti. Shakti and Shiva are reunited in one’s own love and enjoyment. This love is the emergence of undifferentiated awareness. All is an expression of the cosmic Self, an eternal truth inseparable from love.


  1. Carl G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious – Collected Works volume 9i.
  2. Shakti and Shâkta by Arthur Avalon by Sir John Woodroffe 1918
  3. An Introduction to Tantric Philosophy: The Paramarthasara of Abhinavagupta with the Commentary of Yogaraja, translated by Lyne Bansat-Boudon, Kamalesha Datta Tripathi
  4. Commentary of the Isa Upanishad by Sri Aurobindo