The word ‘Ishwara’ has not just one meaning in Advaita/Vedanta. Contextually it takes different meanings and that is the reason why we have to keep the global vision while trying to understand the meaning in specific instances.
Here, in the IshaavAsyopanishat we have the opening mantra:
ईशा वास्यमिदं सर्वं यत्किञ्च जगत्यां जगत्
Here the word ‘Ishwara’ occurs. In the bhashya Shankara says:
ईशा ईष्ट इति ईट् तेनेशा । ईशिता परमेश्वरः परमात्मा सर्वस्य । स हि सर्वमीष्टे सर्वजन्तूनामात्मा सन् प्रत्यगात्मतया तेन स्वेन रूपेणात्मना ईशा वास्यम् आच्छादनीयम्।
किम् ? इदं सर्वं यत्किञ्च यत्किञ्चित् जगत्यां पृथिव्यां जगत् तत्सर्वं स्वेनात्मना ईशेन प्रत्यगात्मतया अहमेवेदं सर्वम् इति परमार्थसत्यरूपेण अनृतमिदं सर्वं चराचरम् आच्छानीयं स्वेन परमात्मना ।
Here Shankara first says that Ishwara is the ruler. He is the paramAtmA of all. He indeed rules everything being the Self of every being, being the innermost Self of all. Shankara makes a key shift in the commentary: tena svena rUpeNa AtmanA IshA …by this one’s true nature that is the Self which is the Isha is this entire world be covered.
Now, Shankara comes to the word ‘covering’. All that exists in this world is to be seen/realized/known/viewed as one’s own self, being, as ‘I indeed is all this’ in ‘its nature of the absolute truth’, all this consisting of the moving and the unmoving is unreal. So, the ‘covering of all this world by Ishwara’ means, according to Shankara, the realization that all this is unreal when viewed from the absolute standpoint. And what then is all this? Shankara says: all this is my innermost Self. Thus, in the non-paramArtha sense all this is unreal. In their pAramArthic, absolute nature, all this is nothing other than the Self, the pure Consciousness. There is no point in the shruti/shankara teaching us that we are all this perishable nAmarUpa objects. Shankara does not bring the saguNa Ishwara concept at all here in this commentary.
One can see the extremely close similarity between this bhashyam and the BG bhashyam for 15.17:
ईश्वरः सर्वज्ञो नारायणाख्यः ईशनशीलः
[‘Ishwara’ is Omniscient, known as ‘nArAyaNa’ and is the preeminent Lord/Ruler]
In the Bhagavad Gita wherever the Lord says ‘knowing Me, he who knows Me, etc. attains liberation/My state, etc.’ one has to take that ‘Me’ as nirguNa chaitanyam alone and not the saguNa nArAyaNa. We keep the Mandukya segregation (sixth and seventh mantras) in mind. Shankara comments, as quoted above, for this verse, keeping in tune with the BG method of portraying the Supreme. It is the kevala chaitanyam, too, Shankara specifically says in this bhashya itself: svakIyayA chaitanyabalashaktyA, svarUpasadbhAvamAtreNa bibharti…
In Advaita all action, both at the micro and the macro level, takes place due to the mere presence of the Pure Consciousness (see the underlined portion in the paragraph above). It is due to Its ‘prasAda’ which means none other than mere presence do things happen. So, ‘IshanashIlaH’ can and does mean in Advaita the one Pure Consciousness, that by mere presence makes things happen. And how does this happen? Due to mAyA. This Pure Consciousness does not even have a sankalpa that things should happen. Nor even does It really ‘support or bear’ the universe. The word ‘dhAryate’ of the BG 7.5 and the word ‘bibharti’ of the BG 15.17 mean the same. It is the parA prakRti that is spoken of in both places. One can see that the IshAvAsya upanishat too talks about this parA prakRti alone, according to the Bhashya, when it comes to ‘covering’ the entire creation. ‘Covering’ is our ideal realization and ‘bearing’ / ‘supporting’ is from the point of view of Brahman. There is no point in ‘covering’ the constantly changing and perishing world of objects by anything, whether it is the saguna Ishwara or the nirguNa Brahman that covers.
The word ‘sarvajna’ used by Shankara in the BGB 15.17 too poses no difficulty for this word is commented upon by Shankara Himself in the Gaudapada kArikA [3.36 ] as ‘sarvam tat jnasvarUpam cha’ that is, ‘It is everything (in its essential nature) and Consciousness too at the same time’.
In the Taittiriya bhashyam for ‘सोऽश्नुते सर्वान् कामान् सह ब्रह्मणा विपश्चितेति’ Shankara writes: विपष्चिता मेधाविना सर्वज्ञेन । तद्धि वैपशिचित्यम्, यत्सर्वज्ञत्वम् । तेन सर्वज्ञस्वरूपेण ब्रह्मणा अश्नुते ।’ Here, the context is the aspirant realizing his true self and ‘enjoying all desires along with the intelligent Brahman’. Shankara comments that ‘enjoying with this intelligent Brahman means: the intelligent, sarvajna, brahman’. We should not take this ‘sarvajna’ to be omniscient in the sense of the saguNa Ishwara, for, in Advaita, there is no realization of one’s identity with the saguNa omniscient Ishwara nor any bhoga for the Jnani along with the saguNa Ishwara. It is with the nirguNa, shuddha chaitanyam alone. So, the word sarvajna here in the bhashyam means only similar to the GK instance quoted above. That is why Shankara says: sarvajna svarUpeNa.
The word ‘Ishwara’ occurring in the BG 18.61 (ईश्वरः सर्वभूतानां हृद्देशेऽर्जुन तिष्ठति) too has the above meaning of Pure Consciousness alone. In the bhashya we see the word ‘IshanashIlaH nArAyaNAkhyaH’ occurring here too. Even here, it is the shuddha chaitanyam that is ‘seated’ in everyone’s intellect. In BG15.15 too it is as this chaitanyam alone Ishwara is said to reside in the intellect. How do we know or say for sure that such is the case and not the saguNa brahman that is residing in the intellect of everyone? For Shankara has clarified in several places in the Upanishad bhashyam that it is for the purpose of enabling the jiva-s to realize the Supreme that the Supreme is ‘seated’ in the intellect. For, the Taittiriya Upanishad teaches: यो वेद निहितं गुहायां परमे व्योमन्…He who realizes the One residing in the cave of the intellect (attains liberation). Shankara has stated in several places that only because this chaitanyam is available in oneself that one is able to wrongly think oneself to be kartA, bhoktA, vijnAtA, mantA, shrotA, draShTA, etc. All these are possible only because this chaitanya saannidhyam is there in the individual. Such a possibility is not there in the inert objects. Surely this chatianya is not the saguNa Ishwara. For Shankara has strongly argued in the antaryAmi case that it is the chaitanyam alone that is non-different from the jiva’s true nature that is called the antaryAmi, for Shankara reasons, there cannot be two chaitanyams in a jiva.
The above was said to point out that the treatment of the word ‘Ishwara’ in the scripture and the Bhashya could be somewhat confusing. The specific instances I have shown above are cases where the term ‘Ishwara’ is taken as shuddha chaitanyam and NOT the saguNa brahman. We have also seen instances from the BSB, for instance, where Shankara has explicitly negated the reality of the saguNa brahman (Ishwara/Ishwaratvam) as being valid in the vyavahArika alone.
Thus only those who have understood the Advaita shastra as per the sampradaya can correctly identify the manner in which the term Ishwara occurs and is treated in the scripture/bhashya. Others who have no such exposure are bound to take the term ‘Ishwara’ in an incorrect way and get confused. The terms ‘nArAyaNa’ or ‘shiva’ too can take either the saguNa brahman meaning or the nirguNa brahman sense and one has to carefully understand from the context the correct sense. There are verses like ‘नारायणोऽहं नरकान्तकोऽहम्’ where the Jnani proclaims that he is nArAyaNa, the destroyer of naraka. What it means really is that he is none other than the pure consciousness, the realization of which destroys the naraka that is samsara. The same case with ‘shivaH kevalo’ham’. It does not mean the narayana with conch and discus or the shiva with trishula, parvati, ganesha and subrahmanya.
Om Tat Sat