Mundaka Upanishad: Concluding Thoughts

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 2, Verses 10 and 11:  “This is That declared by the Rig-veda.  Doers of works, versed in the Veda, men absorbed in the Brahman, who putting their faith in the sole-seer offer themselves to him sacrifice, — to them one should speak this Brahman-Knowledge, men by whom the Vow of the Head has been done according to the rite.  This is That, the Truth of things which the seer Angiras spoke of old.  This none learns who has not performed the Vow of the Head.  Salutation to the seers supreme.  Salutation to the seers supreme!”

There is a certain amount of obscurity around the language of these final 2 verses of the Mundaka Upanishad.  Noted commentators have different interpretations of the meaning of the “Vow of the Head”.  There are specific sacrifices that are referenced here as well that may have both an outer and an esoteric meaning.  The sense seems to be that this teaching is only for individuals who have made a commitment to the path of realisation and who have carried out their duties, studied the Vedas and dedicated their lives to this path of Knowledge.

Some commentators believe that the references here imply that this is only for those who take up the path of renunciation, sannyasa.  However, the larger sense of the Upanishad, with the teaching called for and being related to a noted householder, and with references about doing works in the world and the destiny of the lineage of those who accomplish these realisations, is that renunciation of works is not a pre-requisite.  In fact, once the knowledge by identity has taken place, the seeker is identified with the manifestation of the universe and has no need to withdrawn; rather, he can carry out the duties for which he has been created.

In an omnipresent reality, neither absorption and distraction in worldly affairs, nor renunciation of all action are the complete understanding.  The Upanishad implies that the seeker should renounce egoistic desire and identify with the Supreme Brahman in both the Immutable and Mutable poises.  This aligns with the later teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.  While this Upanishad has been used as a substantial underpinning for the path of renunciation of the world in pursuance of the path of Knowledge, the intention appears to have been more nuanced.

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

The Knower of the Supreme Brahman Becomes Himself Brahman

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 2, Verse 9:  “He, verily, who knows that Supreme Brahman becomes himself Brahman; in his lineage none is born who knows not the Brahman.  He crosses beyond sorrow, he crosses beyond sin, he is delivered from the knotted cord of the secret heart and becomes immortal.”

A superficial reading of this verse creates a lot of potential for confusion or misunderstanding.  In the context of all that has gone before, however, it is a relatively straightforward process to understand the Rishi’s intent here.  We know that the logical intellect undertakes a secondary process based on reliance on the information provided by the senses and a process of analysis and a building up of fragments to try to understand the whole.  It is thus not possible for the logical intellect to grasp the Infinity of the Supreme Brahman.

Sri Aurobindo, in The Life Divine, describes another process of knowledge which he identifies as “knowledge by identity”.  This process does not take place through the methodology of the logical intellect; rather it involves a shifting of the entire standpoint of the being to become one with the “object” of knowledge, and thereby know it by “identity”.  The Rishi is clearly describing “knowledge by identity” in this verse and thus, the implication that such a knower “becomes himself Brahman” is the natural outcome of knowledge by identity.

Those who take the approach that such a transition requires complete renunciation of the world and complete absorption in the unmoving Absolute, find it impossible to reconcile the next part of the verse that speaks of the results for those born of his lineage, which implies a continued involvement in the world and its manifestation.  There is, however, no contradiction here when we recognize that the world is itself Brahman and an identification with Brahman does not imply the “refusal of the ascetic”; rather, it integrates the manifest and the unmanifest in a “reality omnipresent”, as Sri Aurobindo explains it.

The very fact of attaining the shift of standpoint of consciousness is bound to have an impact on those who are within the circle of relationship of the Knower, whether this is a lineage of teacher to student, or of father to child.  Thus, the attainment of this status by one person will implicitly transfer to those around him.

The further implications of this transfer of status are described in the last section of the verse.  Once the ego-consciousness has been released and the person identifies with the Supreme, there is no longer any cause for sorrow that results from frustrated egoistic desire fulfillment.  There is also no longer any attachment to the individual form or body, as the consciousness has been universalised.  Thus, death no longer has any meaning.  The seeker passes beyond death and achieves immortality as the Isha Upanishad indicated as well.

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

Beyond Awareness of Name and Form

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 2, Verse 8:  “As rivers in their flowing reach their home (Or, ‘come to their end’) in the ocean and cast off their names and forms, even so one who knows is delivered from name and form and reaches the Supreme beyond the Most High, even the Divine Person.”

This verse describes the spiritual state of the individual who has gone beyond to the Absolute Immutable, the pervading Presence, that is beyond the manifestation entirely.  There is the Kshara Purusha, the consciousness that is involved in and aware of the manifestation and then there is the Akshara Purusha, the consciousness that is unmoving, immutable and uninvolved in the movement and action of the cosmos.  In that state of consciousness, the individual has no relationship with the world of names, forms and circumstance.

In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes different forms of Samadhi, and there is one called Nirvikalpa Samadhi, which is a state of separation from the world “without seed” and this could be considered to place the awareness in the undifferentiated unmoving Absolute.  The “mind stuff” in this status has no movement or waves so that the awareness is the pure awareness of Existence.

As the Bhagavad Gita explains clearly, there is yet another status of consciousness beyond both the Kshara Purusha and the Akshara Purusha that encompasses both the moving and the unmoving, which the Gita calls the Purushottama, or the Supreme Consciousness.  It is the Purushottama that creates the possibility of someone who can live and act in the world while simultaneously maintaining the awareness of the unmoving, pervading basis of all that has been manifesting.


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

All Names and Forms Resolve Themselves Into the Supreme

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 2, Verse 7:  “The fifteen parts return into their foundations, and all the gods pass into their proper godheads, works and the Self of Knowledge, — become one in the Supreme and Imperishable.”

The manifested world consists of a number of parts (kalas) which take the Oneness of the Supreme and cause it to appear in different names, forms and actions, which eventuates in the awareness and actions of the individual beings..  The Prasna Upanishad discusses these parts at some length, although it mentions 16, and they are described as part of the larger enumeration of 24 found in the Sankhya.  Some noted commentators consider the 15 parts to be the 5 breaths (Pranas), the 5 senses of perception and the 5 senses of action.  Others substitute the 5 elements for the 5 Pranas.   It is clear that through the passage of time, the exact enumeration intended by the Rishi has been lost or confused, while the general sense of the meaning remains.

The issue in this verse however is not to undertake a detailed examination of these parts, but to remind the seeker that everything arises from the Supreme and is a manifestation of the Supreme, regardless of the distinctions of name and form that we experience in the outer world through our various senses.  Similarly the universal manifestation, as described in reference to gods and godheads, resolves itself into the Supreme as well.  All action, all knowledge are manifestations of the Supreme, which pervades, permeates and constitutes all that occurs and is experienced in the world.

There is a state of awareness that consists of undifferentiated sense of Oneness, in which all names, forms, elements, sense impressions, objects of senses are resolved into their origin and no longer occupy the consciousness.  In this state of awareness the overwhelming experience consists of that Oneness.  Names, forms and circumstances either no longer register on the awareness or if they register, they are all seen as one ever-changing phantasmagoria superimposed upon this undifferentiated status, real only because of the reality of the Supreme which constitutes, creates and pervades these forms.

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

The Wise Attain to the Brahman

Sri Aurobindo translates Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 3, Section 2, Verses 5 and 6:  Attaining to him, seers glad with fullness of knowledge, perfected in the self, all passions cast from them, tranquilised, — these, the wise, come to the all-pervading from every side, and, uniting themselves with him enter utterly the All. Doers of askesis who have made sure of the aim (or, ‘meaning’) of the whole-knowledge of Vedanta, the inner being purified by the Yoga of renunciation, all in the hour of their last end passing beyond death are released into the worlds of the Brahman.”

We see here a picture of the inner state of poise obtained by the wise who follow the practices outlined previously, who quiet their minds, quell the force of desire, and focus their attention on the shift from the egoistic individual standpoint to the divine standpoint.  Through the renunciation of desires, they effectively disconnect the chain of cause and effect, and thereby abide in the consciousness of the Brahman and are not  subjected to the normal mechanism of desire as the directing force for the process of rebirth.

Earlier the Upanishad links the desires to which one is attached as the attractive force that leads to particular forms of rebirth.  Here, the Upanishad makes it clear that having practiced the inner renunciation of desire, there is no motive force left to drive particular desire-formed births.  Any future rebirth then is linked to the intention of the divine in the manifestation, of which the individual is now a conscious and willing participant from the standpoint of the divine.

There are examples of individuals who lived a depraved life of thievery, distracted involvement in worldly enjoyment or debauchery, who had undergone experiences that were life-changing in their effect.  After such experiences, which could be revelatory visions, near-death experiences, or simply the natural result of an increasing pressure to find new meaning in a life that seems empty and superficial, these individuals took up a focus on attaining to wisdom, looking within and finding the spiritual significance of life, and redirecting their energies to these pursuits and away from their earlier modes of life.  They reached a status of dispassionate wisdom, and became examples of compassionate action focused on being living examples of a divine life.  They attained to the status of Brahman and thenceforth acted from the divine standpoint rather than from the egoistic motives.  The direction of their attention having been changed, the Upanishad indicates that they are now liberated and free from the pressure for rebirth.

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

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