The Development of the Lower Knowledge and Its Limitations Through the Action of Aspiration and the Forms of Sacrifice

Sri Aurobindo translates Chapter 1, Section 2, Verse 7 of the Mundaka Upanishad as follows:  “But frail are the ships of sacrifice, frail these forms of sacrifice, all the eighteen of them, in which are declared the lower works; fools are they who hail them as the highest good and they come yet again to this world of age and death.”

Some commentators go into great descriptions of the external sacrifices, their specific forms and specific applications.  Others describe the esoteric and symbolic meaning of this verse.  As we are focused on the spiritual development potential described by the Upanishad, we will briefly discuss the symbolic aspect.  In this view, the physical body, with its vital and mental capacities developed, represent the “ships of sacrifice” that the soul utilizes to achieve realisation.  Sankhya recognizes 24 principles that make up the creation, and 18 of those represent the operations of body, life and mind in the physical world, with 5 elements, 5 senses of perception, 5 senses of action, mind, ego and the reasoning intellect.  Esoteric commentators refer to these 18 as the “ships of sacrifice” by which we traverse the world of life as souls embodied in the mortal existence.  The focus and activity of these “ships of sacrifice” are the province of the lower knowledge as previously defined.  The lower knowledge does not escape from the chain of action, cause and effect, and therefore subjects the individual to birth, growth, illness, suffering and death, along the lines that Buddha described so lucidly.  The goal of this Upanishad is to differentiate this lower knowledge from the higher knowledge of the Immutable which takes the soul beyond the limitations and suffering of the world and its activities.  Those who therefore concentrate on the forms of sacrifice and the inner sense of the sacrifice within the limits of body, life and mind, find that their results are limited and they do not achieve the higher knowledge through these actions.

Sri Aurobindo has pointed out that the symbolic meaning of the sacrifice is the true inner sense.  The development of what the Upanishad calls the lower knowledge is however not entirely sterile and self-defeating, when one considers both the preparation of the being that is involved to achieve the realisation and the need for perfected instruments of action to carry out the significance of the manifested universe rather than simply escape from it by “cutting the knot” of the riddle of existence.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Mundaka Upanishad, pp. 193-210

The Vedic Sacrifice Leads to the Fulfillment of the Powers of the External World

Sri Aurobindo translates Verse 6, of Chapter 1, Section 2 as follows:  ” ‘Come with us’, ‘Come with us’, they cry to him, these luminous fires of sacrifice and they bear him by the rays of the sun speaking to him pleasant words of sweetness, doing him homage, ‘This is your holy world of Brahman and the heaven of your righteousness.’ ”

The context of this verse is to act as a transition from the exposition of the Vedic sacrifice and its relation to the ‘lower knowledge’ and the Upanishads focus hereafter on the ‘higher knowledge.’   The fruits of the aspiration and the development of the powers of the 7 planes of existence, the opening of the 7 chakras and the energetic release that comes therefrom, are primarily worldly results in various fields of endeavour.  Whatever goals or desires one has, the systematic focus on and aspiration towards achieving them brings them nearer.  The “pleasant words of sweetness” are the encouragements one receives as the desires are being fulfilled.

There is a long history of stories from the ancient texts about individuals who undertook various forms of intense discipline to achieve a goal and were thereby able to reach one of the divine heavens, where life fulfilled their needs and their desires for enjoyment.  Eventually, when the force of the effort runs out, the momentum is gone, and they fall back to earth, to once again face the difficulties and issues and once again have to undertake serious efforts.  The heaven of Brahman is a supreme reward for undertaking the Vedic sacrifice, but eventually it too recedes as the enjoyment overtakes the force of the discipline.

The Upanishad explains through ‘Come with us’ that there is a real attraction that takes place, a call to continue, as the discipline, the aspiration, the sacrifice proceed.  The encouragement comes in the form of signs and results along the way and the implicit promise is that if one continues, there will be more and larger results.  One will gain fame, or fortune, knowledge, or fulfillment of vital desires, material plenty and satisfaction through family, career and children.  In other places the Upanishads make it clear that such is the result one can expect from efforts made on the seven planes of existence through focused effort and aspiration.

An example from the Taittiriya Upanishad illustrates this clearly:  “She bringeth me wealth and extendeth it, yea, she maketh speedily my own raiment and cattle and drink and food now and always; therefore carry to me Fortune of much fleecy wealth and cattle with her.”  (translated by Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, pg. 258)   While we can appreciate that there is an inner sense to what shows up as obviously symbolic language in the context, it is also clear that there is a real outer meaning that illustrates the results to be attained through development of the powers of body, life, mind, knowledge, and existence-consciousness-bliss as they begin to manifest through the opening of the being to the powers of each level.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Mundaka Upanishad, pp. 193-210

Spiritual Experiences of the Seeker of Enlightenment

Sri Aurobindo translates Verses 4 and 5, Chapter 1, Section 2 of the Mundaka Upanishad:  “Kali, the black, Karali, the terrible, Manojava, thought-swift, Sulohita, blood-red, Sudhumravarna, smoke-hued, Sphulingini, scattering sparks, Vishwaruchi, the all-beautiful, these are the seven swaying tongues of the fire.  He who in these when they are blazing bright performs the rites, in their due season, him his fires of sacrifice take and they lead him, these rays of the sun, there where the Overlord of the Gods is the Inhabitant on high.”

There are certain experiences which arise when a seeker takes up spiritual practices in earnest.  The appearance of various forms of light to the inner vision is quite common and has been described in yogic literature as well as in Buddhist traditions.  A study published in 2014 in Frontiers of Psychology, titled A phenomenology of meditation-induced light experiences: traditional Buddhist and neurobiological perspectives undertook to describe and codify the type of experiences that arise during the practice of meditation.  The yogic tradition also speaks of 7 primary chakras or energy centers and as these chakras “open” and their energy begins to pour out, different colors and lights appear.  The Mundaka Upanishad refers to 7 “tongues” of the fire, holding once again to the outer, external image while referring to an inner experience.  The Upanishad itself refers to them as “rays of the sun” which speaks to the illlumination that occurs.  There are seven “worlds” that correspond to the seven chakras, seven colors, seven forms of light.  The aspiration of the seeker, in conjunction with the practice of meditation, helps bring about illumination in all the seven realms, the material world, the vital world, the mental world, the supramental, and the worlds of existence-consciousness-bliss.  The spiritual experiences open new vistas for the seeker and help to take his awareness to the place where all the manifesting powers of the creation originate and find their source and powers of expression.


Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Mundaka Upanishad, pp. 193-210

The Inner Sense of the Vedic Sacrifice and Its Significance for the Spiritual Seeker

There is an outer form of sacrifice in the Vedic tradition, which was heavily practiced and continues today in Hindu society.  These forms are highly regulated in order to achieve optimal results, which are traditionally connected to various forms of success or benefits in the external world of life and action.  These outer forms correspond to similar traditions around the world, such as praying to certain Saints in the Christian tradition to obtain specific results.  Yet there is also an inner significance to the Vedic sacrifice as Sri Aurobindo has described, and this inner sense is more consistent in terms of the action and the result than the external sense which confused so many Western scholars when they attempted to understand the Vedas and the Upanishads, and came away with the idea that the profoundest ideas were mixed up with confused seeking after worldly results.

Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 1, Section 2, Verse 3 continues the description of the Vedic sacrifice and its proper form.  Sri Aurobindo translates:  “For he whose altar-fires are empty of the new-moon offering and the full-moon offering and the offering of the rains and the offering of the first fruits, or unfed, or fed without right ritual, or without guests or without the dues to the Vishwa-Devas, destroys his hope of all the seven worlds.”

The seven worlds correspond to the 7 layers or dimensions of existence, the physical, the vital, the mental, the knowledge-consciousness, and the 3 higher realms, Sat-Chit-Ananda, existence-consciousness-bliss.  These in turn relate to the 7 primary chakras that act as energy centers within the human individual and channel the powers of the 7 realms into their human action.  We may not, today, be able to ascertain the specific psycho-spiritual aspects corresponding to the “new moon” or “full moon” or other offerings, but it is certainly indicative of the all-embracing nature of the fire of aspiration expected of the seeker in his attempt to obtain the spiritual realisation.  The Vishwa-Devas are the powers of existence that correspond to the physical and material world, the vital world, the mental world, etc.  These powers must be recognized, supported and developed in order to bring about the full development of the world.  All of this, however, falls under the rubric of the “lower knowledge” of the manifested universe rather than the “higher knowledge” of the Immutable.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Mundaka Upanishad, pp. 193-210

The Meaning of the Vedic Sacrifice

The Mundaka Upanishad, in Chapter One: Section 2 has a series of verses describing the act of the sacrifice.  Most commentators interpret this in a strictly external sense and describe the forms of the ritual sacrifice.  Sri Aurobindo, in The Secret of the Veda, has described the ;symbolism of the language of the sacrifice and its true relation to the aspiration of mankind:

“The Vedic sacrifice is, psychologically, a symbol of cosmic and individual activity become self-conscious, enlightened and aware of its goal. The whole process of the universe is in its very nature a sacrifice, voluntary or involuntary. ” (Sri Aurobindo, The Secret of the Veda, pg. 266)

Verse 2 of Chapter 1: Section 2 of the Mundaka Upanishad is translated by Sri Aurobindo:  “When the fire of the sacrifice is kindled and the flame sways and quivers, then between the double pourings of butter cast therein with faith thy offerings.”

The fire is the conscious divine will, Agni, the “knower of all things born”, manifested in the human being as aspiration for the divine truth of existence and the meaning of life.  When this aspiration is awakened it is not constant nor steady to begin with and thus needs to be supported and reinforced constantly.  The “double pourings of butter” represent, as Sri Aurobindo has described in The Secret of the Veda, the working of the clarified mind.  With a clarified mind, one must then make the offerings with faith.  The offerings of the human being are the thoughts, the feelings and the actions in life.  All life becomes the sacrifice and all one’s actions become the offerings.

The Mundaka Upanishad thereby describes the process of spiritual growth to be undertaken by the awakened human being through application of the powers of the mind, the will, the heart and the actions of the vital life force.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Mundaka Upanishad, pp. 193-210

The Road to the Heaven of Good Deeds

Having provided an overview of the higher and the lower knowledge, the Mundaka Upanishad next takes up the actions of the seeker.  Chapter 1, Section 2, verse 1, as translated by Sri Aurobindo:

“This is That, the Truth of things: works which the sages beheld in the Mantras (The inspired verses of the Veda) were in the Treta (The second of the four ages) manifoldly extended.  Works do ye perform religiously with one passion for the Truth; this is your road to the heaven of good deeds.”

Every action has consequences.  “Works” are karma, and they create a chain of cause and effect.  Action undertaken with a focus on attaining the Truth of existence will lead eventually to “the heaven of good deeds”.  Some interpret this literally and expect to go to a physical location of heaven.  Yet this can be a psychological space of happy and positive energy and feelings that result from positive actions.  Modern day western scientists are now positing that there are multiple dimensions in what is known as “string theory” that occupy the same space.  These dimensions provide answers to questions of quantum physics and may help us understand that someone living in our physical world, may actually be occupying another dimension of existence based on the heavens or hells of our own creation through the motive and focus of our actions.  While we may believe in the existence of physical locations of heaven or hell, we may also recognize that we create our own subjective heaven, or our own subjective hell, based on how we approach the meaning, purpose and directed actions of our lives in the physical world we occupy.  As with any result, however, they only last as long as the impetus in that direction continues, and then, as the energy decays, the results take on a new character.

There are stories in the ancient texts that speak of someone who undertakes sacrifices, chants powerful mantras, and builds up a powerful body of good deeds.  This individual attains a “heaven” as a result of this focus and these actions, but eventually, as the person enjoys the “heaven” the actions themselves slack off, and thus, eventually, the sojourn in that heaven is ended and they go back to a world of suffering.  Some hold that such heavens are not evolutionary as they encourage enjoyment rather than continued effort, and thus, they even claim that the gods who occupy various heavens have to take human birth in order to progress in the evolutionary development.

Focus on the Truth, and continued good deeds, helps to calm and concentrate the mind, and thereby remains a preparatory step towards higher realisations and development of higher evolutionary states of awareness, as long as the seeker does not rest content in the achievement of some heavenly experience and discontinue further efforts.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Mundaka Upanishad, pp. 193-210

The Manifestation of the Brahman as the Universal Creation

Western scientists have long theorized that the universe began with a “big bang” that was an enormous release of energy that continues to expand today, around 13.8 billion  years later.  They claim now to have actually viewed results of the big bang shortly after (in astronomical time) the event occurred.  The preceding state was one of high density and temperature, and since the Big Bang the universe has been not only expanding, but cooling.

The Upanishadic sages had similar insights thousands of years ago, as we see in Chapter 1, Section 1, Verses 8 and 9 of the Mundaka Upanishad, as translated by Sri Aurobindo:

“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.  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.”

The translation “energy” is from the word tapas in the Sanskrit original.  Sri Aurobindo has pointed out elsewhere that this term represents a consciousness-force, a concentration of force, a conscious energy.  The term, frequently translated as “austerity” or “penance” conveys far more than the limits of those two terms.  In Verse 9 he indicates “He whose energy is all made of knowledge”, jnanam tapa, thus affirming the relationship of consciousness to the energy described.  The Upanishad affirms that all that exists here arises from the Brahman, thus indicating that “all this is the Brahman” in the more commonly used formula.  Verse 8 also provides insight to the evolution of the planes of existence and the corresponding expressions of consciousness, with Matter (annam, or food) formed from the conscious energy released, then life (prana), and thence arises mind.  Thereafter comes truth and the worlds.  Sri Aurobindo elsewhere describes this level as the supramental truth-consciousness that is the level at which the One, Sat-Chit-Ananda (existence-consciousness-bliss) remains fully in the consciousness, while it undertakes to create the differentiation of the world of the multiplicity.  The universe, once created and formed, continues through “works”.  The term used for works is karma, also understood as the chain of cause and effect, and thus, the Upanishad recognizes that immortality in the created universe is a product of the continuation of the energy in development through cause and effect.

Western science has not yet reached the stage where it can recognize that the “big bang” can only occur where there is some Existent with Consciousness to manifest that “big bang”.  Once they do, they will be on the track followed by the sages of the Upanishads millennia earlier.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Mundaka Upanishad, pp. 193-210

The Knowledge Concerning the Immutable Brahman

The higher knowledge relates to the Immutable Brahman, as noted in verses 6 and 7 of the 1st section of chapter 1 of the Mundaka Upanishad, as translated by Sri Aurobindo:

“That the invisible, that the unseizable, without connections, without hue, without eye or ear, that which is without hands or feet, eternal, pervading, which is in all things and impalpable, that which is Imperishable, that which is the womb of creatures sages behold everywhere.  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 Upanishads use a lot of “negative” attributes to describe the Immutable Brahman, in order to avoid the mind fixing on a specific characteristic and thereby trying to limit the Brahman by that characteristic.  The positive characteristics that express the unlimited nature of the Brahman are immediately associated.  The Brahman transcends all created objects and forces, it acts as their container, their womb, and their content.

The images of the spider, the herbs and the hair all illustrate how the  manifested universe is based on and is created by, and from, the Immutable Brahman.  They are not separate or independent, but actually embody the Brahman in form, without thereby limiting the Brahman in its all-pervasive, infinite and Immutable form.

The Upanishads make it clear that we cannot grasp the Immutable with our minds or our words.  They also make it clear that there is no duality: “one without a second” and that the names, forms, and energies that go into the world we live in are manifestations of that sole Existent:  “all this is the Brahman.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Mundaka Upanishad, pp. 193-210

The Lower and the Higher Knowledge As Described by the Mundaka Upanishad

The Mundaka Upanishad first describes for Saunaka the elements of the lower knowledge and then contrasts this with the higher knowledge.  The lower knowledge represents the means of action and success in the outer world.  One can attain all one’s desires and achieve states of heavenly enjoyment through proper understanding of the Vedas and related sciences.  Yet all of these results are transitory and to some degree illusory as they come, and then they go.  The higher knowledge is permanent and is the knowledge of the Supreme, the Absolute, the Unchanging.

Verse 5 of Chapter 1, Section 1 of the Mundaka Upanishad:  “Of which the lower, the Rig-Veda and the Yajur-Veda, and the Sama-veda and the Atharva-veda, chanting, ritual, grammar, etymological interpretations, and prosody and astronomy.  And then the higher by which is known the Immutable.”

The Vedic knowledge and the various other sciences are essential for worldly action, and to some degree, the concentration or focus involved develops the faculties and prepares them for the next step of human development.  The seeking after the higher knowledge of the Immutable requires deep concentration and the tools developed in what is known as Jnana Yoga are based initially on powers developed through the concentration on the Vedic texts and their application in action, including chanting, rituals, and various sacrificial forms which are not to be taken solely in the restricted sense of religious rituals, but in the sense of the dedication of one’s time, energy, and focus on spiritual truths of existence, and the implementation of these principles in outer action of all kinds.  It is true that in certain phases of development, Vedantic practitioners and scholars have limited the scope to observance of religious rituals, but apparently the intended scope was wider and encompassed all of the life activities.  This is one significance of the teaching being given to a “house lord” in this Upanishad, to remind the seekers that this knowledge is not restricted solely to those who have dedicated themselves to a religious life of abstention and one-pointed exclusive concentration.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Mundaka Upanishad, pp. 193-210

The Key Question Raised by the Upanishad: By Knowing What Is All This Known?

The great question posed by the Upanishads is “by knowing what does all this that is become known?”  The Upanishads in general focus on finding the key to our life and purpose, the core knowledge which illuminates everything we think, we feel, we do and we experience.  The Mundaka Upanishad raises this question in the 3rd verse and provides the basis for the answer in the 4th verse.

Chapter One: Section 1, Verses 3-4:  “Shaunaka, the great house-lord, came to Angiras in the due way of the disciple and asked of him, ‘Lord, by knowing what does all this that is become known?’  To him thus spoke Angiras:  Twofold is the knowledge that must be known of which the knowers of the Brahman tell, the higher and the lower knowledge.”

There are several things to note in these verses.  First, the Upanishad clearly indicates that the knowledge is not to be restricted to renunciates or scholars by bringing it to a wealthy householder, someone clearly immersed in the dealings of the external world.  Second, there is obviously a respectful poise taken by this man of the world to the teacher, as he approaches “in the due way of the disciple”.  This implies an open-minded and sincere seeking on his part, and acknowledges that knowledge is passed on through the guru-disciple relationship.  This householder then raises the timeless question as to the core knowledge that is at the heart of the Upanishadic teaching.  Interesting to note is the fact that the sage responds by describing both a higher and a lower knowledge.  The higher knowledge represents the knowledge of Brahman; the lower, the knowledge of the world and its manifestation.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Mundaka Upanishad, pp. 193-210