Dialectics of Enlightenment

The Isha Upanishad offers insight into some core dialectics of enlightenment. Spiritual dialectics are resolved in the Innermost Self (Ātman), as a spiritual seeker realizes higher and higher levels of synthesis, until an ultimate dialectic is resolved: the identity of the Innermost Self (Ātman) in the Supreme Self (Brahman).

It is said that the Vedas are the body of the cosmic Purusha (see image above). As we read the Vedas, and work with the symbols and concepts contained therein we inhabit a sacred body. Cosmic Purusha is comprised of Lokas or worlds, and the body of Purusha contains lower worlds and upper worlds, places where Devas and Asuras reside. Enlightenment entails movement toward the light of the Devas (spiritual truth), and away from the darkness of the Asuras (ignorance). Ultimately, even this duality is resolved as we encounter the cosmic light and heart of Purusa, as an inner light and inner heart.  This inner heart is our own and yet does not find its location in any organ of the body. It is a symbolic heart: a symbolic light, ours and beyond ours.

Here is the labor of enlightenment, called jñāna or knowledge. Although the Truth of Brahman exists, eternal and limitless, enlightenment is not a state once achieved and forever fixed.  Although it is our very own Self (Ātman), enlightenment is not something to be claimed. Although the bliss (Ānanda) of Brahman never ceases, it is never frozen into a solid state.

Enlightenment, as revealed in the Upanishads, is jñāna (knowledge) of Brahman (eternal Truth), a truth discovered in and of the Innermost Self (Ātman). Brahman appears as the Cosmic Purusha, and the Cosmic Purusha appears as the Veda, and the Veda offers itself as the divine body in the form of sacred dialectics. Only through upāsanā (meditation, contemplation) on the divine body may the path of knowing emerge.

Mantra 1 of the Isha Upanishad begins with a concise presentation of a core dialectic of the Veda.  This dialectic reveals something about the Veda itself, about the body of Brahman. We are offered a riddle: Isha vāsyam idam sarvam. The translation of this sacred sloka is complex and ambiguous, even for those steeped in the tradition. Translation from Sanskrit to English adds another level of ambiguity. Yet, through working with the sacred words and their meaning, through a practice called upāsanā, the dialectic is revealed and resolved. In my previous post on on Mantra 1, I draw from Adi Shankara and Sri Aurobindo, and I show a difference in the interpretation of vāsyam between these two great thinkers. Playing with their combined translations, the phrase might read something like: “all this is ‘dwelling in’ or ‘covered by’, ‘enveloping’ or ‘inhabiting’ Isha.”

The two central concepts in this phrase are idam sarvam as ‘all this’ and Isha as ‘the eternal Truth of the Self’. The dialectic resolves as we contemplate the dynamic tension in the term vāsyam: ‘dwelling in’ or ‘covered by’, ‘enveloping’ or ‘inhabiting’. This meditation may give rise to a realization of a relation in this tension. The truth emerges as a limitless truth: a third concept beyond the mind’s capacity for symbolic representation, resolving only in a knowing. This knowing called jñāna. Jñāna is Brahman: ‘the eternal Truth of the Self’. Thirdness itself is an archetypal motif, and we will discover it again and again in the Veda. The pair of two give rise to a third: a synthesis that is the divine child of being itself, always a limitless truth beyond name and form.

Enlightenment is a realization of the relation between Idam sarvam (all this) and Isha or Brahman. The labor of dialectics may lead to many resolutions, to various ‘schools of thought and enlightenment’. For instance, the dialectic may resolve into a realization that the supreme Self is covered by All this. Or, the dialectic may resolve into a realization that the eternal Truth dwells within All this. Or, the dialectic may resolve into a realization that all this is conditional upon Brahman. For a few, the dialectic may resolve into sat chit ānanda, an experience of love and bliss (ānanda) beyond concept. One realizes eternal Truth (sat) and knowledge (chit) as one. One transcends ‘schools of thought’ all together and enters into the living body of Brahman, as jñāna.

Jñāna gives rise to a call, a call to protect the realization though renunciation of all that is conditional, temporal, and ephemeral. Jñāna evokes a path, as we un-weave the ties that bind our perception. Jñāna gives rise to ānanda, as we steady in the innermost Self (Atman) of eternal Truth. Jñāna no longer entails labors in the world, but now entails labors of the soul: the labors of symbolic life. Jñāna is itself a dialectic: at once an ānanda of eternal Truth and at the same time a path, weaving together the dualities inherent in the mind: one steadies in sat chit, the eternal Truth of being .

If upon hearing these words, one finds no meaning, no Truth, then Mantra 2 of the Isha Upanishad offers the path of karma. Mantra 2 says “By doing karma, indeed, one should desire to live for a hundred years.” It is implied that by doing karma and living a hundred years, one may become ready for jñāna.

The dialectic of Mantra 1 between all this and the Self opens a space for the dialectic of Mantra 2 between karma and jñāna. Shankara says, “the antithesis between jñāna and Karma is in fact unshakable like a mountain.”  Shankara is setting up a clear dialectic. He is correct in doing so: the word karma finds its root in the Sanskrit kr-, meaning “act, do, bring about”; jñāna finds its root in the Sanskrit jñā-, meaning to “know.”   The antithesis between jñāna and Karma is undeniable.

Karma speaks of processes; Jñāna is beyond all process. Karma signifies a relation between subject and objects;  Jñāna is the identity of Subject and object. Karma finds the self in multiplicity; Jñāna finds the Self in unity. Karma speaks to our actions within the world of transience and temporality; Jñāna speaks to knowledge of the eternal Truth beyond transience and temporality. Jñāna is Brahman; and Brahman is related to ‘all this.’

Those that practice karma work within the realms of cause and effect; jñāna is bliss beyond cause and effect. Those that practice karma seek rewards; jñāna is bliss beyond reward. Shankara reminds us that “the fruits of Karma are there perceived or enjoyed (lokyante)” (Shankara, p. 7) Loka is a Sanskrit word for the world or “all this”;  jñāna is the bliss of all this.

Karma is a spiritual principle that works with the subtle dialectics of good and bad, right and wrong, light and dark. The principle of karma says: Just as the fruit of seeds planted now or in the past may bear fruit in the future; so too, the seeds (bīja) planted by one’s actions now or in the past may bear fruit (phala) in the future. The path of karma involves awareness of how our current (good/ bad, right/wrong) actions may lead to later fruit of joy or suffering.

The dialectics of karma may, in time, lead to jñāna. This dialectic does not resolve to a realization “beyond good and evil”, but to a more subtle Truth of the heart. This possibility is conditional upon how we practice karma. The Isha Upanishad implies that if we are going to practice karma then we should practice karma with awareness of the eternal truth. In this way, the seeds (bīja) planted by our actions now may one day bear a fruit (phala) of a Truth which resolves all dialectics. This is the path the Upanishads offer, not enlightenment as a fixed or frozen state of consciousness, but enlightenment as jñāna, as Sat Chit Ananda…  as the love, bliss, and limitless enjoyment of knowledge, as eternal Truth deeply related to ‘all this’.


  1. The Upanishads and Sri Sankara’s Commentary: Isa, Kena & Mundaka, 1898.

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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Agni: archetypal image of the creative force

Agni and his consort, circa 1800
Agni and his consort, circa 1800. US public domain via wikimedia
It is said that Agni is the first-born; that Agni is the God of fire. Agni is an image of the creative force.

In the above image we see the Hindu deity Agni and his consort Svaha.  Agni appears in his dual nature, with two heads he faces both God and man.

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Hiranyagarbha: the golden egg

Hiranyagarbha The Golden Embryo by Artist Vidya Devi and Dhirendra Jha, with permission from Exotic Indian Art

In the image above, we see Hiranyagarbha. Hiraṇyagarbha means the ‘golden womb’ or ‘golden egg’. It is also called the universal germ of creation. Carl Jung likens Hiraṇyagarbha to the “phenomenology of the child’s birth” saying:

“The ‘child’s’ birth always points back to an original psychological state of non-recognition, i.e., of darkness or twilight, of non-differentiation between subject and object, of unconscious identity of man and the universe.” (CW 9i, para 290)

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Gayatri: the mother plays an important part in the woman’s unconscious

 A representation of the Gayatri Mantra by Raja Ravi Varma. US public domain via wikimedia
A representation of the Gayatri Mantra
by Raja Ravi Varma. US public domain via wikimedia

Carl Jung speaks of the importance of the Goddess in the life of women, for instance:

“the Earth Mother plays an important part in the woman’s unconscious, for all her manifestations are described as ‘powerful.’ (CW 9i, para. 212)

Western spirituality is dominated by the image of the Father God. This may be a detriment to feminine psyche, as well the male. We need the mother goddess, she play an important role in the unconscious. As Jung says, we need her “power”.

Hinduism understands this. In the Hindu pantheon, there are many Goddesses. As the ancient Hindu texts seem to understand, the many goddesses are forms or ectypes of the great mother goddess, the Devī (the Sanskrit word meaning Goddess). In Tantra, the Goddess (as Devi or Shakti) is realized as the “power” of the cosmic Self (Shiva).

One form of mother Goddess is Gayatri. In the image above, we see Gayatri with five heads, seated on a lotus. It is said that her four heads represent the Vedas and the fifth head represents the supreme Self.

Gayatri is also one of the most important Vedic Mantras. Gayatri offers herself as a wonderful healing hymn for all beings on the path to enlightenment. Singh says,

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