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Prelude to Ishvara Gita - Part II: A Summary of Atharvashira Upanishad

In a previous journal post, we published a short article on the Jnana Yoga and stated that it forms an important prelude to an upcoming article on the Ishvara Gita. This post serves to provide another important prelude to the article, involving a summary of Atharvashira Upanishad. This is because the upAsana detailed in this Upanishad is related to the AtmopAsana detailed in the Ishvara Gita.
Shri Uttamur Swami has summarized the Atharvasiras in one page in his tamil work Upanishad Saram. This post is essentially a verbatim translation of the same. Its Tamil original can be read online in this link. This Swami has also authored a stotra called Vedanta Pushpanjali. It envisages each Upanishad as a flower and is offered to the feet of Shri Venkateswara. The section dedicated to the Atharvasiras and a few lines of explanation in Tamil can be read online in this link. We will also translate these into English in this post.
The Devas approached Rudra in the Svarga-loka and asked him who he was. Rudra answered thus: ‘I alone was there in the beginning, am there at present, and will be in future. There is nothing else apart from me’. The Devas were perplexed as Rudra spoke the words that must be spoken by bhagavAn. They doubted whether Rudra considers himself as the Supreme, or whether he considers the Supreme Lord Narayana as his antaryAmin. Rudra then explained his first reply thus: ‘Devas! The paramAtman that you have in mind has entered what is subtler than the subtlest. He has entered all directions. Hence, I am indeed He (i.e., He is my antaryAmin). Thus, I am the all that is eternal, all that is perceivable and imperceptible, and so on (i.e., the antaryAmin of everything is my antaryAmin).’  Rudra answered in this manner due to the nature of his meditation on bhagavAn as his own antaryAmin and as the antaryAmin of everything. Indeed, Vamadeva and Prahlada also have stated thus (in the shruti and smR^iti, respectively). By this, Rudra announces himself as an adhikAri who performs bhagavad bhakti.
In the second kANDa, the Devas praise and worship bhagavAn as their respective antaryAmin, in the manner that Rudra stated earlier. In the third, the praNava that signifies bhagavAn was named variously. In the fourth, those names were explained. In the fifth, the upAsana of bhagavAn as Rudra’s antaryAmin was introduced and specified as a way of bhakti. In it, wearing of the bhasma with mantras was also specified as a vow. Finally, the greatness of bhagavAn and the result of this upAsana were explained.
As stated in the upaniShad, the upAsaka who meditates on bhagavAn as the antaryAmin  of Rudra has to perform bhasma-dhAraNa as part of it. The bhakti-yogi can do this, just as he can meditate on bhagavAn as the antaryAmin of Indra, Brahma, and Surya. Those who are unclear of this will tend to think that the upaniShad says it is appropriate to worship Rudra as the Supreme in the manner of the pAshupata Agamas. If that was the case, there would be no reason for the Devas to first ask Rudra who he was. The only reason was that Rudra’s appearance and actions were different from typical Vishnu bhaktas (in terms of smearing his body with ashes, etc). Rudra’s reply was ‘My antaryAmin is the same as your antaryAmin. Hence, my deeds and attire is also a kind of upAsana’. Having learned this, the Devas praised Rudra as a Vaishnava. Our Purvacharyas have discussed this upaniShad in vedArtha saMgraha, tattvasAra, shrutaprakAshikA, and other works.
Those who read through this Upanishad superficially will think of Rudra as the Supreme. One should however note the words of Rudra ‘He has entered all. Hence, I am indeed Him and I alone am everything.’ He does not say ‘I have entered everything’, but ‘He has entered everything’. Note the third-person usage. Also, note other evidences such as the usage of the term bhagavAn that primarily denotes Vasudeva as per the Vishnu Purana.
In the ashvamedhika parva, where bhAgavata-dharma is explained, Sri Krishna says that even those who worship Him with atharvashiras are bhAgavatas:
atharvazirasA caiva nityam AtharvaNA dvijAH
stuvanti satataM ye mAM te 'pi bhAgavatAH smRtAH
(Mahabharata, Ashvamedhika Parva, BORI 14_004_3378 - 14_004_3379)

Meaning: (You must) know that those AtharvaNa brAhmaNas who chant the atharvashiras daily as part of their worship of Me (KrishNa) are also bhAgavatas, my devotees.
The shruti itself (Nrsimha Purva Tapini) says that the nR^isiMha mantra is the essence of Sri Rudram, Atharvashikha, and atharvashiras.
    sarvAtmyaM rudradR^iShTaM tadanubhavabalAt tasya devaiH stuti~nca
tvadvAcyo~NkAranAmAnyabhihitavivR^itiM bhasmasaMsparshayuktam |
IshAnAntarniyantuH shritarama | tava nidhyAnamitthamvidhatva-
nmAhAtmya~ncApyadhIteH phalamiha ca shiraH saptabhiH prAha khaNDaiH ||
rudro bhasmAvR^itA~Ngo visadR^iganimiShairvismitaiH ko bhavAni-
tyuktaH svaM sAdhuvR^ittaM gamayitumagadat nityasarvAtmatAM svAm |
sa svasmAdantaraM tvAmapi bahirakhilAd vIkShya lakShmIsha ! so.ahaM
sarvo.apyanyonyabhinno.ahamiti dR^iDhamatistaishca vedyaM svamAha ||
tvadrUpastattvadR^iShTyA shritarama | vibudhairvindito.asau tatastvAM
tasyAtmAnaM vidan san bhasitavilasitaH shAntimatyantameti |
tArastvaddhyAnamantraH, vidadhati vidhiviShNvIshalokAptimeta
nmAtrAH turyAdhamAtrA punariha tanute.anAmayatvapadAptim ||
Meaning: The Atharvashiras consists of seven kANDas detailing the following topics:
  • The sarvAntarAtma stage of meditation experienced by Rudra,
  • The praise of the Devas, after knowing that (Rudra attained that stage),
  • The names and meanings of the syllable ‘om’, which relates to Bhagavan Sriman Narayana, and
  • The dhyAna on Rudra’s antaryAmin performed with the wearing of ashes.
Thus the upaniShad explains Vishnu’s greatness.
The Devas enquired Rudra as to who he was, in other words whether he was a Vishnu bhakta or not. This is because Rudra wears ashes in contrast to others. To announce himself as a Vishnu bhakta, Rudra answered their question from the point of view of the antaryAmin, thus: “Since bhagavAn (Sriman Narayana) is the antaryAmin to myself and everything, I can say that I am everything.” Knowing thus, the devas praised him. The upAsaka who meditates on bhagavAn as Rudra’s antaryAmin must wear ashes. The mantra is praNava (the syllable ‘om’). By it, one can attain Para Vasudeva’s eternal blemishless nitya vibhUti.