What Lives

Guest post by Mani Rao

Mani Rao explains how she translates Line 1, Verse 1 of Iśāvāsya Upaniṣad.

Īśāvāsyamidam sarvam yatkiñca jagatyām jagat

   Photo credit: Surya Ramanathan

   Photo credit: Surya Ramanathan

A parable describes a conversation between two babies in a womb. Said one to the other, ‘I think this story about ‘Mother’ is fictitious. I don’t see anyone. Maybe there is no one out there.’ As we smile at this sceptical baby, we also see ourselves in a similar position, asking after the address and even the existence of ‘God.’

We may think of God as within us, or what we are within. Iśāvāsya Upaniṣad lets us know that ‘all this’ is the house of the divine. One of the most lyrical and intriguing Upaniṣads, the Iśāvāsya is named after its very first word. Its main reference is not to the usual Upaniṣadic impersonal term for the divine, ‘brahman,’ nor to any specific deity; instead, it talks about an Īśā. If this name or reference is considered a descriptor, Īśā is someone who rules, for the verb ‘Īś’ means to own, to possess, to be master of, in Hindi we are familiar with the word ‘Īśvar.’

Next, there is a hinge or a relationship between the two deceptively simple words, ‘idam’ and ‘Sarvam.’ ‘Idam’ means ‘this’ and ‘sarvam’ means everything, so that may be everything you see, or know or even imagine, but the Upaniṣad qualifies ‘sarvam’ with ‘idam’ which means ‘all this’ – rather than ‘all that’ – a sense of immediacy and relevance comes into the assessment, we are asked to consider ‘all ‘this,’ and also ‘all’ as ‘this,’ but also, ‘this’ is ‘all’? Think no further than what is right here, I, you, we, this world.

The very next step is with ‘yat kiṃca jagatyāṃ jagat’ – ‘whatever world is in the world,’ reminding us there are many worlds in any world, and they are all residences of Īśā. ‘This’ is you and me, and we are the house of Īśā.

And if we are not? Can that be so? There are two meanings for Vāsya, and in one of them ‘Vāsyam’ is not just in the present tense, the form of the word means ‘to be lived in.’ Whatever world is in this world is to be Īśā’s residence. Therefore I hint at this caveat when I translate the last line, it is not just any life but what’s alive in life, that is Īśā’s. Vāsya is also to be covered, or enveloped, and that gives the translation its title, ‘Covered in Īśā.’ We are the house of Īśā, and Īśā is our home.

I translate:

In all this

God is

In all this

God lives

Whatever's alive in life

                                                 It's all God's