The present publication of the Isavasya along with its commentary by Acarya Madhva (1238-1317 CE) and subcommentaries by others in his lineage, will, it is hoped, serve to highlight and make available an important resource useful in the study of this Upanisad. For as the late H.H. Sri Vidyamanya Tirtha of Palimar Matha noted [DNS82], this Upanisad contains a depth of meaning not obvious from its short length:
Isavasyopanisat pañcanimisaireva samagrapi pathitumarha, athapi
sarvavedarthagarbhita, brahmandagarbhita-Sri Krsnavadanamiva
ascaryajanani, bahugambhira ca
As with many of Madhva's works, there is the problem of lack of availability and awareness regarding his commentary upon this text, and as with our release of an online version of the Mahabharata-Tatparya-Nirnaya of Madhva this past February, this effort should help with these problems -- in his asirvacana given at the time, the late Swamiji had expressed the wish that all works of Madhva and other leading scholars in his lineage should be so published. The present editio cum notis variorum is part of a continuing effort to fulfill this command.
Along with the Upanisad are given Sri Madhva's Bhasya, the Tika thereon by Sri Jayatirtha (career 1364-1387 CE), and the Prakasika thereon by Sri Vadiraja Tirtha (1480-1600 CE). The Khandartha of Sri Raghavendra Tirtha (1595-1671 CE), which is an independent gloss taking its lead from the earlier works, is given separately as well. These may be said to be the most important works produced by the Madhva tradition in explanation of the Isavasya. Details about the lives and works of all these scholars may be learned from `The History of the Dvaita School of Vedanta' by B.N.K. Sharma [BNK81].
Where necessary, we have also given quotes from sub-commentaries by other authors in the tradition, as footnotes, in explanation of specific points. In a small number of instances, footnotes given in Govindacharya's edition [BG69] are also given to record his reasoning in respect of certain variant readings. Since the Bhasya of Sri Sankaracarya is frequently referred to and criticized by Madhva's commentators, we have included the same as an appendix, for ease of reference in study. (The Visistadvaita interpretation of this Upanisad, presumably deriving from the commentary of Kuranarayana, is also criticized, but that commentary has not been available to us.)
As for the commentaries themselves, we may note that the Bhasya of Madhva is quite terse, and does not overtly bother itself with refutation of contrary explanations. That task is entirely left to his commentators. The Bhasya is also not given to returning to verses or phrases previously explained to make second attempts, as may be observed in case of the commentaries of other traditions. However, these very qualities can make the depth of the commentary extremely difficult for an ordinary person to comprehend. It is unfortunately too often the case that Madhva's works are read without their commentaries, and highly improper conclusions are reached about them as a consequence. It is here that we owe a great deal of thanks to the other stalwarts who have explained Madhva's positions in a manner that we can appreciate more easily. The Tika, the Prakasika, and the Khandartha each fills a distinct and important niche, and all of them collectively aid in the proper understanding of the Bhasya.
The Tika often uses illustrative examples whose simplicity conceals a universe of depth: for instance, in connection with the second mantra, it is said that one must perform one's duties ``just as one quenches thirst'' ( trsnavicchedavat). This simple illustration covers a lot more ground than may be idly supposed:
- one must perform one's duties regularly, as often as possible, just as one quenches thirst regularly, not just once in a while;
- one must continue with one's duties at the next available opportunity, even when one's schedule is interrupted (as it will be at some time or another), just as one does not stop attending to one's bodily needs when a schedule for the same is upset;
- one must not procrastinate or delay one's duties, just as one does not procrastinate in the matter of the need to quench thirst, even in the face of competing needs and difficulties;
- one must exercise sound judgement in the manner in which one performs duties, just as one is obliged to do so in the matter of quenching thirst, taking care to avoid harm to oneself;
- one must perform one's duties to one's limit of ability, just as one quenches thirst to one's limit, not just in tiny sips
-- and so on. The Prakasika also shows how each word in the invocatory verses of the Tika summarizes epithets and phrases of the Upanisad itself. Therefore, no one should have the least doubt that Sri Jayatirtha's work is of stellar quality, and that a proper and thorough understanding of the same would be the work of a lifetime for a very great scholar, not just a casual endeavor for a layman. Even so, one is obliged, even in spite of lack of sufficient skill, to try to improve one's understanding as best as one possibly can, as the trsnavicchedavat example of the Tika itself requires.
The Prakasika, though nominally a subcommentary, extends the scope of the discussion beyond that found in the Tika in more than one instance, and shows that Sri Vadiraja is able to reason independently and reach bold conclusions without having to necessarily resort to the support of the Tika. Of particular note is the Prakasika's detailed explication of yo'savasau purusah so'hamasmi, where among other things the point is made, ``A destitute supplicant does not ever say, `I am verily the same as you,' to a great king'' (na hi yacako daridrah yacyamanamaharajam prati `tvamevahamasmi' iti kvacid brute). Likewise, the seer of the Upanisad, seeking the Lord's succor due to highly adverse circumstances, would not have couched his entreaties to his Deity in terms of identity (as indeed he undoubtedly has not, in other verses). Such interpretation is thus barred by the context (and also by grammar as well as other considerations). Both the Tika and the Prakasika take issue with Sankara's interpretations in many instances, and the Prakasika in particular condemns Sankara's handling of the Upanisad as ``akin to a monkey's (rude and unappreciative) handling of a necklace of precious gems'' (markato svakaragata ratnamalaya iva) and ``only indicative of his own (perverse) nature'' ( svasvarupapradarshanaparameva). However, it is not to be supposed that the Prakasika can only claim calumny for its singular achievement: it may indeed be observed that the errors in the interpretations criticized are beyond dispute, and cannot be wished away by pious outrage. The `History of the Dvaita School' [BNK81] (p. 255) points out, ``The Advaitin's idea of Devata-jñana, introduced into Isa 11, is alien to the spirit of the Upanisads, which are mainly devoted to the science of the Atman,'' and also says that there is no sanction in the rules of grammar for ``the arbitrary way in which Samkara explains away verse 14, after prefixing a negative particle before sambhuti and turning it into asambhuti'' -- a feat which begets sarcastic praise in the Tika for its ``unprecedented skill in grammar'' (apurva vyakarana kausalam). The same book [BNK81] also points out elsewhere (p. 158, fn. 2) that Schrader [FOS33], after a critical study, dismisses Sankara's interpretation as ``forced.''
It would also not be out of place to observe that the late F. Max Müller [FMM64], though operating in perfect ignorance of the Madhva criticisms of the Advaitic interpretations of the Isavasya, has come up with very similar ones on his own steam:
``The verses 9-14 are again full of difficulty, not so much in themselves as in their relation to the general system of thought which prevails in the Upanishads, and forms the foundation of the Vedanta philosophy ...Sankara explains avidya, not-knowledge, by good works, particularly sacrifice, performed with a hope of reward; vidya, or knowledge, by a knowledge of the gods, but not, as yet, of the highest Brahman. The former is generally supposed to lead the sacrificer to the pitrloka, the world of the fathers, from whence he returns to a series of new births; the latter to the devaloka, the world of the gods, from whence he may either proceed to Brahman, or enter upon a new round of existences. The question then arises, how in our passage the former could be said to lead to blind darkness, the latter to still greater darkness ...This antithesis between vidya and avidya seems to me to be so firmly established that I cannot bring myself to surrender it here. Though this Upanishad has its own very peculiar character, yet its object is, after all, to impart a knowledge of the Highest Self, and not to inculcate merely a difference between faith in the ordinary gods and good works. It was distinctly said before (verse 3) that those who have destroyed their self, i.e., who perform works only, and have not arrived at a knowledge of the true Self, go to the worlds of the Asuras, which are covered with blind darkness. If then the same blind darkness is said in verse 9 to be the lot of those who worship not-knowledge, this can only mean those who have not discovered the true Self, but are satisfied with the performance of good works. And if those who perform good works are opposed to others who delight in true knowledge, that knowledge can be of the true Self only.
``The difficulty therefore which has perplexed Sankara is this, how, while the orthodox believer is said to enter into blind darkness, the true disciple, who has acquired a knowledge of the true Self, could be said to enter into still greater darkness.''
Therefore, it would be as well to note that the criticisms found in the Tika and Prakasika have their basis in this, the arriving at by Sankara of absurd and self-defeating conclusions that confound and discomfit neutral scholars as well. We may thus take it that unbiased scholars, those having not the least interest in Madhva's theology per se, will nonetheless be pleased to note that his interpretations of the Isavasya are completely self-consistent, lead to no absurdities, and thus offer much scope for neutral scholarship. The late Max Müller would doubtless have found the ready and cogent interpretations of the Khandartha much better than the sources he was forced to work with.
The first English translation of Madhva's commentary on this Upanisad was by the late S.C. Vasu [SCV11] way back in 1911. Vasu was apparently not formally schooled in the Madhva traditional works (based on the trend of his own writings; one is not aware of any source of biographical data), but his groundbreaking efforts at translating Madhva's Upanisad commentaries are highly laudable. It is unfortunate that his works have been so little noticed and are out of print. Although Vasu's propensity for drawing parallels between Madhva's opinions and Judeo-Christian theologies is distracting and of doubtful value overall (Sharma [BNK81], p. 159 however cites one instance, that of verse 17, approvingly), it is without doubt that his product is very valuable to serious scholars. For instance, Vasu observes with regard to verse 8, ``Sri Madhva has explained this verse, not in his own words, lest some one may question his authority, but by quoting Varaha Purana where this verse has been fully and exhaustively explained (sic).'' No Madhva could claim that this does not correctly capture the spirit of Madhva's preference for quotation (often baffling to outsiders) rather than his own unsupported word (as is standard with Sankara and others in many cases) in his commentaries and original works. Similarly, we learn from Vasu under verse 4, ``There is no such root as Rsa jñane in the Dhatu-Patha, but in the Maha Bhasya it is said there is such a root.'' One does wish that Vasu had been more careful to highlight the fact that his ``notes'' and ``NBs'' are often translations of subcommentaries upon Madhva's words rather than his own original ideas, but this is a minor grievance only.
A more recent work claiming to be a translation is by Sonde [NDS90]. This however is more of a free-wheeling presentation of ideas, many of which are but very poorly correlated with the actual texts of the commentary and subcommentaries thereon. Many traditional authorities from the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanisads not referred to by the commentators are also introduced at the whim of the ``translator.'' A presentation in English that is faithful to the letter and spirit of Madhva is the one by Pandurangi [KTP85]. It does not translate the Bhasya, much less the further commentaries upon it, word for word, but gives a broad presentation of the major ideas, with some citations from the actual texts to arouse the curiosity and deeper interest of discerning readers. Shanbhag [DNS82] includes a fairly detailed foreword to his publication of the available Madhva commentaries, giving other comparative views and a summary of Madhva's interpretation.
Among newer, non-traditional interpreters and translators of the Isavasya, the work of Aurobindo Ghosh [AG21] probably comes the closest to Madhva's understanding, though there are many significant differences. (Aurobindo however cuts himself off from Sankara's interpretations, starting at the very first word of the first verse.) The work of Prabhupada [P74] claims to be ``authorized'' (which he has elsewhere, in his translation of the Bhagavad Gita, claimed as meaning that his ``purports'' reflect a learning come from a ``disciplic succession'' including Madhva), but in the event his explanations bear little resemblance to Madhva's, and have very little to do with any manner of rigor or accuracy of exposition either, even setting aside the theological differences. Surely, the illustration of ``a monkey handling a necklace'' applies as much in his case as well, and the claim that his opinions are ``authorized'' is just phony baloney.
We have included a list of authorities cited by Madhva and all the other included commentators also, including Sankara, in expounding the Isavasya, as an appendix. As with our earlier effort, exact citations from authority are marked off by double quote-marks, while paraphrases or rhetorical phrases are marked off by single quote-marks. We would much appreciate any information concerning misprints, etc., in the text. If readers are interested in helping with future works of this type, we would warmly welcome such participation also.
The latest version of this material is always available on the web at http://www.dvaita.net, and the persons who maintain it may be reached by electronic mail at firstname.lastname@example.org as well.