Brahman Is Not Realised Through Weakness or Misguided Efforts

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 2, Verse 4:  “This Self cannot be won by any who is without strength, nor with error in the seeking, nor by an askesis without the true mark: but when a man of knowledge strives by these means his Self enters into Brahman, his abiding place.”

People frequently treat the religious or spiritual life as a form of escape from the pressures or disappointments of life in the world; in other words, it is seen as a form of weakness, an inability to grapple with life that leads an individual to withdraw and find comfort in the forest, the cave, the monastery, the cloister.  The Upanishad here makes it clear that a seeking based on vital weakness or an error in knowledge or a false premise for the concentration that is required does not achieve the realisation.  The spiritual life is not for the weak or those who exercise a limited and deluded understanding.

History has shown us examples of such error when monks undertake violent self-flagellation as their penance, or when they otherwise abuse the Self within them with undue mortification which they believe somehow proves their dedication.  The vital nature in these individuals exhibits weakness.  Such seekers believe that suffering of the physical body and vital nature is the path to achievement.

If we go back to the criteria set by this Upanishad earlier, we see that the basis is a poise of serene joyful receptivity, a quiet mind and a focused concentration.  Such a status does not arise from weakness or misdirected energy.  When the seeker finds that right poise, however, the door opens for the Self to “enter into Brahman” and abide there.

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


The Self Cannot Be Seized by the Action of the MInd

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 2, Verse 3:  “This Self is not won by exegesis, nor by brain-power, nor by much learning of Scripture.  Only by him whom It chooses can it be won; to him this Self unveils its own body.”

In today’s world we put a high premium on “brain power”, mental development and learning.  The analytical powers are highly valued.  The brilliance of a strong mental capacity is recognized and appreciated.  Our entire technological society is founded in an ever-greater focus on developing the mind.  Yet the knowledge provided by the mind is at all times a secondary form of knowledge, based in the perceptions of the senses and the nervous impulses being sent to the brain.  Study and analysis provide exercise for this mental development, but they remain a secondary form of knowledge, not knowledge by direct experience.  We are reminded that one can read all the books in the world that talk about swimming, but until we actually get in the water and do it, we truly do not know how to swim.

Similarly, the spiritual knowledge of Oneness is not achieved through any feats of the intellect.  On the contrary, strong mental development may actually prevent the individual from the realisation by focusing the attention on these secondary means.  Mental pride and arrogance also may cloud the mind and prevent new insights from being understood and accepted.

A number of Upanishads make it clear that neither mind nor speech can attain to the truth of the Spirit.  This realisation requires a different type of knowledge, a shifting of the standpoint from the egoistic to the divine.  This brings about knowledge by direct experience, knowledge by identity.  Thus the Mundaka Upanishad notes that the Self must choose to reveal itself to the seeker.  This shift of standpoint means that the seeker identifies with the Self and thus, can see, experience and know based on the viewpoint of the Self.  The shift is not accomplished by individual effort.  The being is prepared to receive through the practices of quieting the mind stuff and the quelling of the desires that disturb the being.  This is where individual effort ends as the being approaches the point in consciousness that transitions from the ego to the Self.  The truth of Oneness, the Existence-Consciousness-Bliss (Sat-Chit-Ananda) of the Supreme can then manifest itself through a being now ready and receptive to this new direct form of awareness.

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

The Result of Overcoming Desires

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 2, Verse 2:  “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 desire (Or, ‘finished with desires’) and has found his soul, for him even here in this world vanish away all desires.”

The key to realisation is the shift of the psychological standpoint from that of an individual, limited and separated from the rest of the world, who tries to gain personal fulfillment of desires, to that of the divine, which recognises the oneness of the entire creation and the inter-dependence of all the beings and forms with one another, and which seeks to express and carry out the will of the divine in its manifestation of the universe.  That shift implies the release of desires.  It is a recurrent theme in various Upanishads that the vital force of desire drives the focus, attention and action of the individual and that the direction of the life, and indeed subsequent lives, is set by this focus.

Desire stirs up the “mind-stuff” and thus, prevents it from having the state of serene and glad receptivity that the Rishi has already described as the condition for realisation.  The issue here is not the artificial suppression of desires on some external moral grounds, but the removal of the force of desire entirely so that neither by its pressure of action, nor by the pressure of its suppression, can it disturb the mind-stuff.  “Serene gladness of mind” is the characteristic that illustrates the quieting of the desire-mind.

Giving up the motive force of desire-fulfillment does not necessarily imply inaction or inability to act in the world.  Desire is the individual deformation of the will of the divine in the expression of the universe.  Once the standpoint has been shifted, the individual can act in the world without the hungry seeking, the frustration of denied desire, or any expectation of result, keeping a quiet mind and heart turned to the Supreme.

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

The Key to the Realisation of the Supreme Brahman

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 2, Verse 1:  “He knows this supreme Brahman as the highest abiding place in which shines out, inset, the radiant world.  The wise who are without desire and worship the Spirit pass beyond this sperm. (Shankara takes it so in the sense of semen virile, which is the cause of birth into the cosmos.  But it is possible that it means rather ‘pass beyond this brilliant universe’, the radiant world which has just been spoken of, to the greater Light which is its abiding place and source, the supreme Brahman.)”

This final section of the Mundaka Upanishad shifts the focus to the psychological texture of the seeker who wishes to shift from the individual to the divine standpoint.  The focus here, starting with this verse, is on the relationship of the vital desires to the realisation of the Supreme Brahman.  Previous segments have developed the understanding of the nature of the Brahman and the relation of the Brahman to the manifested universe, as well as the preparation of the individual seeker for the transition through various yogic processes, including gaining control over the breath, stilling the mind-stuff and attaining a state of reflective, joyful serenity.  The ultimate answer is to overcome the promptings of desire at the individual level which cause us to remain fixated in the individual standpoint, seeing and acting from that view.  The Taittiriya Upanishad in its famous “calculus of bliss” passage makes essentially the same point, that overcoming the force of desire is the key to the indescribable bliss of the highest states of awareness.

Just as individual desire anchors the consciousness in the individual standpoint, releasing the hold of desire and shifting the focus to the Supreme is a necessary basis for the shift to a new standpoint that is unified with the Brahman and the significance of its manifestation.  Some people interpret this to mean suppression of desire, but suppression is essentially equivalent, from a psychological viewpoint, to fulfillment of desire.  In both cases, the focus is on the desire and its impulsion.  The solution lies in a shift of focus and non-attachment to desire or specific fruits of action, as has been explained at some great length in the Bhagavad Gita.  Some believe that desire is necessary as the wellspring of action in the world.  Without desire, they say, there is no motivation to act.  This led eventually to the conclusion that one should renounce the life in the world and somehow thereby overcome desire to achieve oneness with Brahman.  Yet it is possible to act in the world, under the impulsion of the divine force and its intention in the manifestation, without the attachment to personal fulfillment of desire or specific fruits of the action.  The Mundaka Upanishad hints at what turns into an extensive review of applied psychology as a yogic procedure in the Gita.  Sri Aurobindo in Bhagavad Gita and Its Message, as well as in Essays on the Gita, has explored these issues at great length, so rather than repeat them, we refer to those texts.

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

Success and Well-Being in the World Are Attained by the Seeker Who Purifies His Inner Being

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 1, Verse 10:  “Whatever world the man whose inner being is purified sheds the light of his mind upon, and whatsoever desires he cherishes, that world he takes by conquest, and those desires.  Then, let whosoever seeks for success and well-being approach with homage a self-knower.”

The Mundaka Upanishad provides a prescription for success in the world of one’s choosing and focus based on achieving the foundation of the glad, serene state that provides the seeker with the needed receptivity to become aware of his oneness with the Self of creation.  Since it is the Supreme Self that manifests all this world, the identification of the individual with that Supreme Self also aligns the focus and actions of that individual and makes them successful as expressions of the Will of the Supreme.

Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras, after providing the necessary steps and practices to achieve the state of Samadhi, next provides a similar recitation of the powers that come to the seeker who practices concentration along the lines prescribed.  It seems that as  the seeker realises the Self, he gains substantial powers of action in the world as well.  This is not, essentially, an achievement of the individual separate being, but an expression of the greater divine Will in the manifestation.

What becomes obvious is that action taken to quell the surges of desire and ambition, to focus the mind, to calm the emotions and to see things from a wider viewpoint has overarching benefits for both the spiritual and the material aspects of life.  This is not intended necessarily to suggest that the spiritual focus, which is the primary intention of the Mundaka Upanishad, should be treated as a means to a material end; rather, it points more towards an integration that recognizes the primary need and reality of the spiritual realisation, while at the same time recognising that the world and its life also need to be attended to, but from a new standpoint of understanding and action brought about by that very spiritual realisation.  This new standpoint makes the individual, not a separate actor, but an expression of the deeper truth of existence.  The goal is no longer individual fulfillment of desire or ambition, but the expression of the truth of the manifestation through the individual form and being.  The desires of the seeker are now in alignment with the divine purpose.

The Mundaka Upanishad is a dialogue that takes place between a realised sage and a successful man of the world, a renowned “householder”.  The householder, now aligned to the larger significance of his existence, can carry out his dharma, his destined action, and achieve the results intended by the Divine.  The desires, in this case, are the goals set in front of the seeker as the divine Will, not the petty daily desires of a separate individual struggling to get something at the expense of anyone else.

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

Purifying the Life-Force Is an Essential Step in Manifesting the Power of the Self

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 1, Verse 9:  “This self is subtle and has to be known by a thought-mind into which the life-force has made its fivefold entry: all the conscious heart of creatures is shot through and inwoven with the currents of the life-force and only when it is purified can this Self manifest its power. (The verb vibhavati seems here to have a complex sense and to mean, ‘to manifest its full power and pervading presence.’.)

The prana, or life-force, manifests in the human being with 5 major movements, which operate the major actions of the breath, inhalation and exhalation, as well as eliminative functions, and pervasive functions which operate to move energy through the entire body and to balance the actions of the pranas.  The purification of the life-force is required as these pranas are mostly out of balance in some form or another and are driven, through desire, attachment, greed, fear, anger, etc. to great disturbance, which affects the ability of the mind to achieve the serene status of quiet needed to perceive the subtle Self that pervades the entire being and constitutes it.

It is a central tenet of Raja Yoga that Prana represents the link that infuses life into the body and activates the mental powers.  This is the universal energy in its individual action.  Therefore, by gaining control of the action of Prana in the body, one can gain control over the status of the mind and bring it to that state of quiet receptivity needed to perceive the Self.  This led to the development of the practices of Pranayama and is a key element of the spiritual practice of countless seekers throughout the ages.

Purification of the life-force involves the quieting, balancing and harmonising of the action of the five major pranas.  When one begins the practice of pranayama, one may observe all the nervous action at the physical level, but one also begins to see the influence of the impacts of the outer world on the mental status.  It is the prana that takes on the coloring of the emotions and vital desires and physical needs and all of these things create ripples of energy in the mind-stuff.  Yogis recognize that each nervous or emotional status has its own characteristic of breathing, and by consciously controlling the breathing, one has access to bringing the reactions under control.  Thus, it is possible through pranayama to prepare the mind-stuff for the serene and glad quiet that is necessary for the Self to manifest its native power without the deformations of the body-life-mind complex.

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

The Inner Poise Needed to Behold the Indivisible Spirit

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 1, Verse 8:  “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.”

The sense organs perceive the external world and its forms, but do not capture the Spirit which pervades and permeates these forms.  Similarly, the mind cannot grasp nor speech define the Spirit.  The seeker cannot seize hold of the Spirit through any form of outer action, works or austerity.  All of these things create ripples in the “mind stuff” (chitta).  Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras indicate that the perception comes when the mind stuff becomes still and receptive.  Swami Vivekananda in Raja Yoga describes the inner poise and its role in the yogic progression at some length.  The Mundaka Upanishad calls this state “a glad serenity of knowledge”.

Just as the day focuses our perception on the forms and actions in the world, but the night opens up the vast starry universe to our contemplation, so the active mind and senses focus on the outer world and its activities, and the quiet, receptive mind is able to reflect the indivisible Spirit.  The practice of meditation, which involves quieting the mind to this state of “glad serenity of knowledge” prepares the seeker to perceive and experience the spiritual Truth of all existence.

What is needed is an “effortless effort”, a stilling of all desire, ambition, struggle, straining or impatience in the inner poise of the being, without falling into torpor, sleep, lassitude or indifference.  Tapasya is required, in the sense that Sri Aurobindo translates it as “concentration of conscious force”.  This is a particular state of gathered awareness that is still, receptive and serene.

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

Describing the Indescribable

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 1, Verse 7:  “Vast is That, divine, its form unthinkable; it shines out subtler than the subtle: (Or, ‘minuter than the minute:’.)  very far and farther than farness, it is here close to us, for those who have vision it is even here in this world; it is here, hidden in the secret heart.”

The Upanishadic sages wrestled with a conundrum.  They had to figure out how to define what they knew to be beyond all definitions, to describe what they knew to be indescribable.  They were concerned that whatever form or definition they provided would be simply a limitation that would turn that “truth” into an “untruth”.  They knew however that somehow the mind of the seeker needed to be attuned to the divine Truth, and thus, some method must be found.  They recognized the need for both a “negative” and a “positive” affirmation.  The negative took the form of saying things like “neti, neti”, “not this, not that” to ensure that the Absolute would not be artificially limited in any specific form.  At the same time, they recognized that there was a need to provide a positive statement about what the Absolute is.  The present verse is an attempt, therefore, to describe, in positive terms, the Absolute.

The Rishi starts with an image of the universe in its unimaginable vastness, impossible for the human mind to truly grasp, beyond all capabilities of human senses.  Brihat, vast is one of the three terms linked together by the Upanishads when they attempt to put terminology to the Absolute (Satyam, Ritam, Brihat, the Truth, the Right, the Vast).   To ensure that the seeker does not get lost in this vastness, the Rishi then points out the subtlety, and further, it is both far and near, it is here in this world within which we live, and is hidden in the secret heart.

The purpose here is not to set forth a series of logical points of definition but to “texture the awareness” to see the divine Presence in everything without exception, including both those things within our sight and grasp, and those that go beyond our perceptions.  For the awakened seer, for the eye that sees, the divine Presence permeates all existence, and transcends all at the same time.  This is not a statement of limitation of the divine, but a recognition of the limitations of our mental consciousness.  When we think we have defined it, we have failed to capture it in its entirety.  When we seek it through renunciation, to achieve oneness with the Absolute, we may be missing it right here in the world of forms and in our own heart.  This is what Sri Aurobindo calls “reality omnipresent”.  All of the paradoxical statements are meant to define, and yet not limit, the Absolute.

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

Truth, Not Falsehood, Is the Path

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 1, Verse 6:  “It is Truth that conquers 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.”

The Vedic Rishis referred to the Divine manifestation as “the Truth, the Right, the Vast”.  The Upanishad’s references here to “Truth” must be understood in the context of the Vedic conception.  They are not referring here to the limited truth of speaking factual statements in the external world, but to the larger concept of the universal creation as an expression of the Truth of the Divine.  The normal human standpoint is illusory, a falsehood, and therefore misleading as to the implications of how we understand the significance of life, and of the individual.

We see the sun rise in the morning and set in the evening, transiting across the sky.  It is however falsehood to believe that the sun is thereby rotating around the earth.  The limitations of the falsehood kept humanity imprisoned in a limited viewpoint which still is active today in the way we understand the planet, and the relationship of all the people living on the planet.  We do not yet fully comprehend the reality of oneness of all beings in the world, and the larger significance of this world within the solar system, the galaxy and the universe.  We still live under the influence of falsehood in this sense, as in many other areas of our lives.  We believe we can destroy species, change the chemical balance of the atmosphere, and not have consequences because we believe in the individual ego and its gratification as a central theme, rather than recognizing the truth of interdependence.

The fruit of living in the falsehood is suffering.   When we shift our view to the actual reality, to Truth, we find we can address the issues of life in a new way which is based in harmony and oneness.  This leads to true solutions and is the path for the sages to shift to the Divine standpoint as the basis for their lives.

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

Spiritual Practices Conducive to Experience the Truth of the Self

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 1, Verse 5 as follows:  “The Self can always be won by truth, by self-discipline, by integral knowledge, by a life of purity, — this Self that is in the inner body, radiant, made all of light whom, by the perishing of their blemishes, the doers of askesis behold.”

There are those who tell us that the supreme realisation cannot be achieved through individual effort, and that it comes as a form of Grace.  The truth behind this assertion is that the realisation cannot be forced, but must come naturally to the seeker.  That does not mean that all preparation or effort should be disregarded or abandoned; rather it means that one should not undertake the efforts with any expectation or attachment to the result.

The prescription provided by the Upanishad in this verse represents psychological statuses that bring about a quieting of the mind and the emotions and the clamour of the vital and physical being with their desires and needs.  In the calm psychological space that results from continuous practice in these areas, the radiance of the Self can be perceived and experienced.

Swami Vivekananda in his Raja Yoga spends considerable time explaining the need for quieting the “mind stuff” so that the true Self can be reflected.  It is worthwhile to note that the practices known as Yamas and Niyamas, considered preliminary steps in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, all conduce towards a similar end of quieting the mind.  These are not, in the end, moral rules but guidelines for true spiritual growth and development to allow the shift to the Divine standpoint that is required.

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