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

The Seer Lives and Acts in the Standpoint of the Oneness of the Eternal

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 1, Verse 4:  “This is the life in things that shines manifested by all these beings; a man of knowledge coming wholly to know this, draws back from creeds and too much disputings.  In the Self his delight, at play in the Self, doing works, — the best is he among the knowers of the Eternal.”

As a follow up to the prior verse, the Upanishad clarifies that the Brahman is manifest in all the beings and forms of the world we experience around us.  The seer experiences the oneness and thereby recognizes that the fragmented understanding of the mind leads to disputes based in partial and incomplete knowledge and understanding.  Philosophies, creeds, religions, ways of life are all simply existence seen from the differing perspectives that arise as the mind perceives things from the individual, not the universal or transcendent standpoint.   Logical argument, reasoned disagreements, emotional differences all arise from this limited perspective.  When the seeker achieves the divine standpoint, all these things are seen as elements of the complex tapestry of individual forms woven by the divine manifestation, and they are all one and unified.

It must also be noted that the Upanishad also makes a point of re-integrating the outer existence in the final sentence of this verse.  “…at play in the Self, doing works, — the best is he among the knowers of the Eternal.”.  While an exclusive concentration may be needed initially to achieve the shift of standpoint to the Divine standpoint, eventually the seeker must reintegrate the reality of the outer world and works as also being the Brahman.  Those who are fixated on the outer world operate in a form of ignorance.  Those who are fixated solely on the Eternal and lose sight of the omnipresent reality of the creation that IS the Brahman also operate under a limitation.  This echoes the sentiment we find in the Isha Upanishad as well.  Some commentators hold that nothing here indicates any reality for the outer world or the idea of integrating the outer world with the experience of the Eternal.  We believe the plain language about “doing works” combined with the fact that it is a householder receiving the teaching, implies a non-dual approach that recognizes the world also as Brahman, and not simply an illusion to be discarded.

The Mundaka Upanishad has a lot of emphasis on the achievement of the shift to the Divine standpoint and obviously making this happen is a major focus and emphasis for the seeker of realisation.  In this verse, the seeker is reminded to not create a duality, but recognize the inherent oneness of the Eternal and the manifested universe, and to participate in that process with full knowledge.


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

The Divine Standpoint Takes the Seeker Beyond Sin and Virtue

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 1, Verse 3:  “When, a seer, he sees the Golden-hued, the maker, the Lord, the Spirit who is the source of Brahman (Or, ‘whose source is Brahman’; Shankara admits the other meaning as an alternative, but explains it as ‘the source of the lower Brahman’) then he becomes the knower and shakes from his wings sin and virtue; pure of all stain he reaches the supreme identity. (Or, ‘pure of all staining tinge he reaches to a supreme equality’.)

In the Isha Upanishad, the rishi declares “the face of Truth is covered with a brilliant golden lid”.  The imagery of bright, golden color is not purely a poetic description, but rather the result of the experience as the seeker opens to higher realms of conscious awareness.  The experience takes one out of the normal mental awareness, through this brilliant gateway to a new standpoint that re-frames the entire experience of life and its significance.  As the current verse indicates “then he becomes the knower”.  A result of this shift is the recognition that neither sin nor virtue have any further relevance.  This is a truer meaning of the concept raised by Friedrich Nietzsche of going “beyond good and evil”.  This phrase has been used to justify self-aggrandisement and placing oneself, through that process, beyond judgment and without responsibility for effects; self-will has been taken as the right and due of the evolved man.  However, the actual sense is that it is through surrender of the ego-personality and a shift to the divine standpoint that brings an equal vision to all, the terms sin and virtue simply no longer apply.  This is not then a license to undertaken wanton fulfillment of desires, but a status whereby satisfaction of individual desires is not any longer a goal of the being.

It is through attaining identity with the Brahman in the shift to the divine standpoint that the seeker becomes free of the attachment and thereby the “stain” of karmic consequence.  The seeker becomes a “doer of divine works” as the Bhagavad Gita explains and does not get troubled by sin and virtue any longer.

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

Two Birds on a Common Tree

Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 1, Verses 1 and 2, as translated by Sri Aurobindo:  “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.”

The parable of the two birds is famous and appears in multiple Upanishads.  (It appears also in the Shwetashwatara  Upanishad for instance)  The individual soul, the Jivatman, is focused on the life of the world, eating the sweet fruit of the tree, and because it is immersed in that life and the results of action in the world, it is subject to the illusion of separation and the suffering that attends it.  The other bird represents the Divine consciousness which exists in a state of unity, not fragmentation.  It witnesses the action of the fragmented consciousness of each individual, yet remains aloof and unmoved by the joy and suffering of the individuals.  When the soul recognizes its oneness with the Divine, then it passes beyond sorrow and grief.

The parable illustrates the shift needed from the individual standpoint to the divine standpoint, and the result achieved thereby includes the release from suffering and the piercing through the veil of Maya and its illusion of separateness of the individual in the manifested world.

There is a practice of Yoga that involves the cultivation of the witness consciousness that observes the action of the body, life and mind of the individual.  This practice helps bring about detachment and at the same time provides the seeker with a method to shift the standpoint to the divine standpoint.  It leads to the awareness of the witness Purusha observing the active Prakriti.  The witness sustains and supports but does not intervene in the action of Nature in the individual.  As the practitioner becomes more successful in shifting to the witness consciousness, a new viewpoint arises which has its effects upon the action of Nature.  As the Upanishad states “he knows that all is His greatness and his sorrow passes away from him.”

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

All This Is the Brahman

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 2, Section 2, Verse 12:  “All this is Brahman immortal, naught else; Brahman is in front of us, Brahman behind us, and to the south of us and to the north of us and below us and above us; it stretches everywhere.  All this is Brahman alone, all this magnificent universe.”

There can be no clearer statement about Brahman as the sole Existent who manifests the entire universe and everything we experience.  There is this one Brahman; there is no other.  Dualistic views of the universe, which indicate there is a Creator who fashions the universe and observes it from outside are specifically rebuffed.  At the same time, those who speak of the universe being something of an illusion and who must renounce the world in order to find the Divine are also cautioned here.  Earlier in the Mundaka Upanishad it may have appeared that renunciation was the goal.  With this verse, it is now clear that renunciation is a tactic, not a goal, and that its purpose is to orient the understanding and focus of the seeker.  Once the standpoint of the seeker has been altered, the reality of the universe as Brahman can now be affirmed.

In The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo resolves the tension between the materialist view that the world is real and the Divine is unreal versus the renunciate’s view that the Divine is real and the world unreal, with the concept of “reality omnipresent”.  In this view, the world is Brahman, and thus, not to be denied its significance, while at the same time, Brahman is not defined or limited by the framework of the manifested universe; rather the specific forms and forces are expressions of Brahman, without being limiting factors.


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