An episode from the Amar Chitra volume on 'Dronacharya' that I read in my childhood:
The young Drona and his friend, prince Drupada are students at some Gurukula. Drupada, seen carrying a bundle of clothes, tells Drona: "I shall finish washing our clothes while you recite the Shlokas". The latter assumes a Yogic pose and says: "It is very kind of you, Drupada!" and launches into a chant: "Ishavasyamidam...". I remember wondering what was it about that strange Mantra (only the opening of which was given in 'Amar..'), that could get a prince to do your laundry.
Sukumar Azhikode is an eminent Keralan intellectual - serious scholar, trenchant critic and rabble rousing polemicist. I got to read his masterpiece 'Tat Twam Asi' - a study of the Upanishads - a decade or so ago. The crisply-written book held my interest till the end, but the only discussion from it that has stayed in my (admittedly, not very retentive) mind is a passage on 'Isha-Upanishad'. It began with a quote of Drona's Shloka, which is, in fact, the very first shloka in this Upanishad. Then there was a lengthy and extensive debate: whether 'Ishavasyamidam Sarvam' means "All of this is home for God" or "God has wrapped all of this around himself" (or perhaps "God has wrapped himself around all this"). As Azhikode informs us, this particular debate has been going on among our theologians for over two millennia. "Either way, what diff could it possibly make?" I mused - bemusedly (*).
A few years later, I encountered S.Radhakrishnan's massive work of translation, 'The Principal Upanishads'. Although I planned to read it extensively, poor discipline limited my progress to a few pages - and I did not read the translation of Isha-Upanishad from this particular tome. Indeed, the only 'bit' that has stayed in memory is a rather fantastic mapping from the body of a sacrificial horse to the entire Cosmos and from the movements of the former to the dynamics of the latter (the 'Brihadaranyaka Upanishad'). Some further years down the line, when I read a bit of poetry by A.K.Ramanujan, I could guess that the phrase: 'the iridescence of horse-piss', was an allusion to the Upanishadic image of rain being the cosmic horse urinating!
A few months back, Pop happened to tell me:
"I was recently in Trichur (a town in Kerala) and had a few hours to fill; mysteriously, I thought of taking a look at my old College, a place I had never seen for well over 50 years. Everything there looked the same; and there used to be a quaint phrase on the college logo which is still displayed prominently all over. It goes: 'Tena Tyaktena Bhunjitha'. Wonder what that could mean!"
'Tena tyaktena bhunjitha!' that rang a bell somewhere. I tried hard to recollect and, having failed, searched the web. And there it was:"Ishavasyam idam sarvam
yat kinca jagatyam jagat,
Tena tyaktena bhunjitha
ma grdhah kasya vit dhanam"
The opening Shloka of Ishopanishad, all over again! And I could even vaguely remember Azhikode dissecting the third line of the Shloka - how it enjoins the Seeker to "consume the world, first having abandoned it".
A week ago, via a newly-met Mathematician (thanks to him!), I got to read, in English translation, a Kannada story 'Mantrodaya'. A semi-fictional reconstruction of the genesis of the 'Isha-Upanishad' (also featuring a tight precis of its content), the story was interesting enough for me to go for a re-read; and from there, I went on and explored the web to find out more.
The Ishopanishad is perhaps the briefest Upanishad - all of 18 Shlokas in length. Centuries of Seekers have praised its great density of meaning. Sri Aurobindo, for example, began work on a detailed commentary and left it unfinished; what he did write down runs to something like a 100 printed pages and they analyze only the first 2 Shlokas (some contrast, that, with the simple 'Siddhartha'-esque(?) brevity of 'Mantrodaya')!
To give a taste of Sri Aurobindo's meditations (see here: http://www.odinring.de/eng/isha.htm):Immediately after the great fundamental reconciliation (implicit in 'Tena tyaktena bhunjitha'), the Seer proceeds to a phrase which under a form of familiar commonness conceals an immoderate wealth of spiritual suggestion. "Lust not after any man's possession." - Ma grdhah kasya svid dhanam.
We seem to have stumbled out of deep and strange waters into a very familiar shallow. Read superficially and without an eye to the words that precede or to the whole serried thought of the Upanishad, this closing cadence of the Seer's opening sloka would suggest only a commonplace ethical suggestion identical in form and spirit with the last of the Mosaic commandments, - just as read superficially and apart from the coherent and interwoven thought of the Upanishad. tyaktena bhunjithah need not go beyond a rule of moral self-discipline in which the aim of the Epicurean finds itself married to the method of the Stoic. But the Upanishads are never, like Greek ( ) and Jewish scripture, simply ethical in their intention. Their transcendence of the ethical plane is part of their profounder observation of life and soul-experience....
Long ago, while at college, we had to study the famous Malayalam love poem 'Manaswini' by Changampuzha: One fine morning, an utterly besotted lover sees his girl return from a bath in the river, her beauty glowing in the fresh sunshine; he proceeds to liken her body, clad as it is in wet and clinging garments, to 'Truth obscured by illusions'. Our prof claimed there was a certain Upanishadic reference therein and quoted the following: "hiranmayena patrena satyasyapihitam mukham" - which, he told us, meant: "The real truth is hidden in a golden vessel".
I felt then that the teacher's claim was a bit far-fetched. But now, I have come to know that the bit of Sanskrit he had quoted also hails from nowhere other than Ishopanishad. Here is the full Shloka with *a* meaning: "hiranmayena patrena satyasyapihitam mukham
tat tvam pushann apavrinu satya-dharmaya drishtaye"
"O Lord Pushan, Sustainer of all that lives, Your real face is covered by Your dazzling effulgence. Kindly remove that covering and exhibit Yourself to Your pure devotee."
And yes, after reading the above translation, I think our teacher did have a point there - and I must admit Changampuzha probably was even smarter than I thought he was!
Among the vast corpus of Upanishadic literature, Ishopanishad is said to be a comparatively recent entry, dating back *only* to the 3rd Century BC. The word 'Isha', approximately translated as 'God', apparently makes its first ever appearance in this Upanishad. One senses a strong semitic flavor in this word, reminiscent of 'Yehoshua' (from which is derived Yeshu/Jesus) or 'Isaiah'. But this is not a very unique phenomenon - the names of many Indian deities have close Biblical counterparts; Brahma-Abraham, Shiva-Yehovah,...
Further, the name of the Indian deity Ishana (said to be a form of Siva) seems to have an interesting derivation, in all probability, from 'Isha'. Whatever, this Upanishad, especially the first sloka has profoundly inspired several of our eminent luminaries - for instance, a young Maharishi Debendranath Tagore, in the throes of a severe spiritual crisis, is said to have instantly figured out all answers from his very first encounter with these lines.
(*) Update (July 2011): I heard this bit of literary spice: Once, there were major plans to produce an English translation of 'Tat twam asi'; then, noted satirist VKN commented: "The book is already a translation from English and there is no need to produce another version of the original!".