Glimpses of Vedic Literature - Mundaka Upanishad

Mundaka Upanishad

Mundaka Upanishad

LIKE the Mandukya, Mundaka also belongs to the Atharvaveda. Mundaka is, however, in poetic form and is much longer, consisting of three chapters, each having two sub-sections. It is one of the most popular and favourite Upanishads. In almost every collection of Upanishads, it finds a place. Even Badarayana devotes to it three of the 28 parts in which he has dealt with the doctrine of Brahman. Shankara cites it 129 times in his commentary on the Brahmasutra. This Upanishad contains in its pure form the old Vedanta doctrine. The beauty of its poetry has also contributed a great deal to its pre-eminent position.

The first part of the Upanishad deals with the preparatory stages of the knowledge of the Brahman; the second part expounds its vision and realisation of the Brahman in its integrality and the third part expounds the method of the Yoga to realise the Brahman. But in each part, something of the other parts is also to be found.

The central question of the Upanishad is raised by Shaunaka. He approaches Angiras in the due way of the disciple and asks him:

Mundaka Upanishad

Mundaka Upanishad

"Lord, by knowing what does all this that is become known?"

Those who have read the Chhandogya Upanishad will recall the same question that occurs in the dialogue between Arum, the father, and Shvetaketu, his son. In fact, it was this question that the father had put to him to demonstrate the inadequacy of his son's learning, since the son had become conceited after he had learnt all that his teacher had taught him. When he could not reply, the son prayed to his father to expound to him that all-comprehensive knowledge knowing which everything could be known.

In the Mundaka Upanishad, this question has been dealt with differently and the emphasis in the answer is on the integral knowledge of the Brahman.

In the first place, Angiras makes a distinction between the lower knowledge and the higher knowledge. The lower knowledge consists of the Rigveda, Yajurveda and Samaveda, chanting, ritual, grammar, etymological interpretation, prosody and astronomy. The higher knowledge is that by which the Immutable is known.

This universe is, according to the Mundaka, mutable and is subject to change. But it is a manifestation of the Immutable Reality. Angiras explains:

"As the spider puts out and gathers in, as herbs spring up upon the earth, as hair of head and body grow from a living man, so here all is born from the Immutable."

The Immutable is described as follows:

"The Imperishable is invisible, unseizable, without connections, without hue, without eye or ear, that wliich is without hands or feet, eternal, pervading and which is in all tilings and impalpable. The Imperishable is the womb of creatures that sages behold everywhere."

Mundaka Upanishad

Mundaka Upanishad

In a short verse, the Upanishad proceeds to give an account of evolutionary process:

"Brahman grows by his energy at work, and then from Him is Matter born, and out of Matter life, and mind and truth and the worlds and in works Immortality."

Elucidating this process, it adds:

"He who is the Omniscient, the all-wise, He whose energy is all made of knowledge, from Him is born this that is Brahman here, this Name and Form and Matter."

We may note that in a later composition, that is the Bhagavadgita, a distinction has been made between the mutable and the Immutable, and these two are synthesised in the Supreme that is at once mutable and Immutable, and beyond. That Supreme is called in the Gita "Purushottama".

We find the same doctrine in the Mundaka. In the following two verses, this doctrine is expounded:

"This is That, the Truth of things: as from one high-kindled fire thousands of different sparks are bom and all have the same form of fire, so, 0 fair son, from the immutable manifold becomings are born and even into that they depart."

"He, the Divine, the formless Spirit, even He is the outward and the inward and he the Unborn; He is beyond life, beyond mind, luminous, Supreme, beyond the Immutable, askharat paratah parah."

Just as in the Gita, there is description of the manifestations of the Supreme in the world, even so, here in the Mundaka there is a similar description, although not as elaborate as in the Gita. Says the Upanishad:

"Fire is the head of Him and His eyes are the Sun and Moon, the quarters His organs of hearing and the revealed Vedas

Mundaka Upanishad

Mundaka Upanishad

"All this is Brahman alone, all.this magnificent universe."

In a beautiful simile that reminds us of the Rigvedic image, the Upanishad explains our present state and the process of liberation from it. It states:

"Two birds, beautiful of wing, close companions, cling to one common tree; of the two one eats the sweet fruit of the tree, the other eats not but watches his fellow.

"The soul is the bird that sits immersed on the one common tree; but because he is not lord he is bewildered and has sorrow. But when he sees that other who is the Lord and beloved, he knows that all is His greatness and his sorrow passes away from him."

It declares the methods of Yoga:

"The Self can always be won by truth, by self-discipline, by integral knowledge, by a life of purity...

"It is Truth that conquers1 and not falsehood; by Truth was stretched out the path of the journey of the gods, by which the sages winning their desire ascend there where Truth has its Supreme abode.

"Eye cannot seize, speech cannot grasp Him, nor these other godheads; not by austerity can he be held nor by works; only when the inner being is purified by a glad serenity of knowledge, then indeed, meditating, one beholds the spirit indivisible.

"He who cherishes desires and his mind dwells with his longings, is by his desires born again wherever they lead him, but the man who has won all his desires and has found his soul, for him even here, in this world vanish away all his desires.

"Doers of askesis who have made sure of the aim of the whole knowledge of Vedanta, the inner being purified by the Yoga of renunciation, all in tlie hour of their last end and passing

Mundaka Upanishad

Mundaka Upanishad

beyond death are released into the worlds of the Brahman.

". . . all the gods pass into their proper godheads, deeds and the Self of Knowledge,—all become one in the Supreme and Imperishable. '

"He, verily, who knows that Supreme Brahman becomes himself Brahman... He crosses beyond sorrow, he crosses beyond sin, he is delivered from the knotted cord of the secret heart and becomes immortal."

Towards the end of the teaching, Angiras declares that the above knowledge can be learnt only by performing the Vow of the Head. It appears that this vow consisted of bringing the inner fire of aspiration to rise right up to the head so that it can cross the limits even of our highest mental consciousness and join itself with the Fire of the Divine that is at the origin of the universe.

It may also be interesting to note that the name of the Upanishad, "Mundaka" means, literally/ the Head or the shaven head, which symbolises the shinning of the head by virtue of the blazing fire that rises up from below in its movement to reach the highest light or fire of the Supreme that transcends both the mutable universe and the Immutable, the Supreme that is integral, knowing which all can become known.

It seems appropriate to conclude these brief notes by. presenting a few passages from Sri Aurobindo, which dwell on the character and significance of the Upanishads:

"The Upanishads are the supreme work of the Indian mind, and that it should be so, that the highest self-expression of its genius, its sublimest poetry, its greatest creation of the thought and word should be not a literary or poetical masterpiece of the ordinary kind, but a large flood of spiritual

Mundaka Upanishad

Mundaka Upanishad

revelation of this direct and profound character, is a significant fact, evidence of a unique mentality and unusual turn of spirit. The Upanishads are at once profound religious scriptures, —for they are a record of the deepest spiritual experiences,—documents of revelatory and intuitive philosophy of an inexhaustible light, power and largeness and, whether written in verse or cadenced prose, spiritual poems of an absolute, an unfailing inspiration inevitable in phrase, wonderful in rhythm and expression. It is the expression of a mind in which philosophy and religion and poetry are made one, because this religion does not end with a cult nor is limited to a religioethical aspiration, but rises to an infinite discovery of God, of Self, of our highest and whole reality of spirit and being and speaks out of an ecstasy of luminous knowledge and an ecstasy of moved and fulfilled experience, this philosophy is not an abstract intellectual speculation about Truth or a structure of the logical intelligence, but Truth seen, felt, lived, held by the inmost mind and soul in the joy of utterance of an assured discovery and possession, and this poetry is the work of the aesthetic mind lifted up beyond its ordinary field to express the wonder and beauty of the rarest spiritual self-vision and the profoundest illumined truth of self and God and universe. Here the intuitive mind and intimate psychological experience of the Vedic seers passes into a supreme culmination in which the Spirit, as is said in a phrase of the Katha Upanishad, discloses its own very body, reveals the very word of its self-expression and discovers to the mind the vibration of rhythms which repeating themselves within in the spiritual hearing seem to build up the soul and set it satisfied and complete on the heights of self-knowledge.

"This character of the Upanishads needs to be insisted upon with a strong emphasis, because it is ignored by foreign translators who seek to bring out the intellectual sense without feeling the life of thought vision and the ecstasy of

Mundaka Upanishad

Mundaka Upanishad

spiritual experience which made the ancient verses appear then and still make them to those who can enter into the element in which these utterances move, a revelation not to the intellect alone, but to the soul and the whole being, make of them in the old expressive word not intellectual thought and phrase, but sruti, spiritual audience, an inspired Scripture. The philosophical substance of the Upanishads demands at this day no farther stress of appreciation of its value; for even if the amplest acknowledgement by the greatest minds were wanting, the whole history of philosophy would be there to offer its evidence. The Upanishads have been the acknowledged source of numerous profound philosophies and religions that flowed from it in India like her great rivers from their Himalayan cradle fertilising the mind and life of the people and kept its soul alive through the long procession of the centuries, constantly returned to for light, never failing to give fresh illumination, a fountain of inexhaustible life-giving waters. Buddhism with all its developments was only a restatement, although from a new standpoint and with fresh terms of intellectual definition and reasoning, of one side of its experience and it carried it thus changed in form but hardly in substance over all Asia and westward towards Europe. The ideas of the Upanishads can be rediscovered in much of the thought of Pythagoras and Plato and form the profoundest part of Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism with all their considerable consequences to the philosophical thinking of the West and Sufism only repeats them in another religious language. The larger part of German metaphysics is little more in substance than an intellectual development of great realities more spiritually seen in this ancient teaching, and modern thought is rapidly absorbing them with a closer, more living and intense receptiveness which promises a revolution both in philosophical and in religious thinking; here they are filtering in through many indirect influences, there slowly

Mundaka Upanishad

Mundaka Upanishad

pouring through direct and open channels. There is hardly a main philosophical idea which cannot find an authority or a seed or indication in these antique writings—the speculations, according to a certain view, of thinkers who had no better past or background to their thought than a crude, barbaric, naturalistic and animistic ignorance. And even the larger generalisations of Science are constantly found to apply to the truth of physical Nature formulas already discovered by the Indian sages in their original, their largest meaning in the deeper truth of the spirit.

"And yet these works are not philosophical speculations of the intellectual kind, a metaphysical analysis which labours to define notions, to select ideas and discriminate those that are true, to logicise truth or else to support the mind in its intellectual preferences by dialectical reasoning and is content to put forward an exclusive solution of existence in the light of this or that idea of the reason and see all things from that viewpoint, in that focus and determining perspective. The Upanishads could not have had so undying a vitality, exercised so unfailing an influence, produced such results or seen now their affirmations independently justified in other spheres of inquiry and by quite opposite methods, if they had been of that character. It is because these seers saw Truth rather than merely thought it, clothed it indeed with a strong body of intuitive idea and disclosing image, but a body of ideal transparency through which we look into the illimitable, because they fathomed things in the light of self-existence and saw them with the eye of the Infinite, that their words remain always alive and immortal, of an inexhaustible significance, an inevitable authenticity, a satisfying finality that is at the same time an infinite commencement of truth, to which all our lines of investigation when they go through to their end arrive again and to which humanity constantly returns in its minds and its ages of greatest vision. The Upanishads are

Mundaka Upanishad

Mundaka Upanishad

Vedanta, a book of knowledge in a higher degree even than the Vedas, but knowledge in the profounder Indian sense of the word, jnana. Not a mere thinking and considering by the intelligence, the pursuit and grasping of a mental form of truth by the intellectual mind, but a seeing of it with the soul and a total living in it with the power of the inner being, a spiritual seizing by a kind of identification with the object of knowledge is jnana. And because it is only by an integral knowing of the self that this kind of direct knowledge can be made complete, it was the self that the Vedantic sages sought to know, to live in and to be one with it by identity. And through this endeavour they came easily to see that the self in us is one with the universal self of all things and that this self again is the same as God and Brahman, a transcendent Being or Existence, and they beheld, felt, lived in the inmost truth of all things in the universe and the inmost truth of man's inner and outer existence by the light of this one and unifying vision. The Upanishads are epic hymns of self-knowledge and world-knowledge and God-knowledge. The great formulations of philosophic truth with which they abound are not abstract intellectual generalisations, things that may shine and enlighten the mind but do not live and move the soul to ascension, but are ardours as well as lights of an intuitive and revelatory illumination, reachings as well as seeings of the one Existence, the transcendent Godhead, the divine and universal Self and discoveries of his relation with things and creatures in this great cosmic manifestation. Chants of inspired knowledge, they breathe like all hymns a tone of religious aspiration and ecstasy, not of the narrowly intense kind proper to a lesser religious feeling, but raised beyond cult and special forms of devotion to the universal Ananda of the Divine which comes to us by approach to and oneness with the self-existent and universal Spirit. And though mainly concerned with an inner vision and not

Mundaka Upanishad

Mundaka Upanishad

directly with outward human action, all the highest ethics of Buddhism and later Hinduism are still emergences of the very life and significance of the truths to which they give expressive form and force,—and there is something greater than any ethical precept and mental rule of virtue, the supreme ideal of a spiritual action founded on oneness with God and all living beings. Therefore even when the life of the forms of the Vedic cult had passed away, the Upanishads still remained alive and creative and could generate the great devotional religions and motive the persistent Indian idea of the Dharma."

"The Upanishads abound with passages which are at once poetry and spiritual philosophy, of an absolute clarity and beauty, but no translation empty of the suggestions and the grave and subtle and luminous sense echoes of the original words and rhythms can give any idea of their power and perfection. There are others in which the subtlest psychological and philosophical truths are expressed with an entire sufficiency without falling short of a perfect beauty of poetical expression and always so as to live to the mind and soul and not merely be presented to the understanding intelligence. There is in some of the prose Upanishads another element of vivid narrative and tradition which restores for us though only in brief glimpses the picture of that extraordinary stir and movement of spiritual enquiry and passion for the highest knowledge which made the Upanishads possible. The scenes of the old world live before us in a few pages, the sages sitting in their groves ready to test and teach the comer, princes and learned Brahmins and great landed nobles going about in search of knowledge, the king's son in his chariot and the illegitimate son of the servant-girl, seeking any man who might carry in himself the thought of light and the word of revelation, the typical figures and personalities, Janaka and the subtle mind of Ajatashatru, Raikwa of the cart,

Mundaka Upanishad

Mundaka Upanishad

Yajnavalkya militant for truth, calm and ironic, taking to himself with both hands without attachment worldly possessions and spiritual riches and casting at last all his wealth behind to wander forth as a houseless ascetic, K.rishna son of Devaki who heard a single word of the Rishi Ghora and knew at once the Eternal, the Ashramas, the courts of kings who were also spiritual discoverers and thinkers, the great sacrificial assemblies where the sages met and compared their knowledge. And we see how the soul of India was born and how arose this great birth song in which it soared from its earth into the supreme empyrean of the spirit. The Vedas and the Upanishads are not only the sufficient fountainhead of Indian philosophy and religion, but of all Indian art, poetry and literature. It was the soul, the temperament, the ideal mind formed and expressed in them which later carved out the great philosophies, built the structure of the Dharma, recorded its heroic youth in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, intellectualised indefatigably in the classical times of the ripeness of its manhood, threw out so many original intuitions in science, created so rich a glow of aesthetic and vital and sensuous experience, renewed its spiritual and psychic experience in Tantra and Purana, flung itself into grandeur and beauty of line and colour, hewed and cast its tfiought and vision in stone and bronze, poured itself into new channels of self-expression in the later tongues and now after eclipse re-emerges always the same in difference and ready for a new life and a new creation."2


1. This sentence is so important that it has been made the motto of free India. The Indian emblem declares: "It is Truth that conquers, satyam evajayate."
. Sri Aurobindo: The Foundations of Indian Culture, Vol. 14, Centenary Edition, pages 269-72 and 280-281.

Mundaka Upanishad

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