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


The God-Knowledge Which Encompasses Both a Higher and a Lower Knowledge

Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter One: Section I, Verses 1 and 2:  “Brahma first of the Gods was born, the creator of all, the world’s protector; he to Atharvan, his eldest son, declared the God-knowledge in which all sciences have their foundation.  The God-knowledge by Brahma declared to Atharvan, Atharvan of old declared to Angir; he to Satyavaha the Bharadwaja told it, the Bharadwaja to Angiras, both the higher and the lower knowledge.”

The creation of the universe is described in the Rig Veda, X.129.1-5:  “Then existence was not nor non-existence, the mid-world was not nor the Ether nor what is beyond. … That One lived without breath by his self-law, there was nothing else nor aught beyond it.  In the beginning Darkness was hidden by darkness, all this was an ocean of inconscience.  When universal being was concealed by fragmentation, then by the greatness of its energy That One was born.  That moved at first as desire within, which was the primal seed of mind.  … There were casters of the seed, there were Greatnesses; there was self-law below, there was Will above.”  (translated by Sri Aurobindo in The Life Divine, pg.240)

Within the context of this Vedic cosmology, we place Brahma, “the first of the Gods” who then created the rest of the universal manifestation.  The Gods, as described by Sri Aurobindo, are the cosmic powers of existence that manifest all things in the universe.

The Upanishad describes both a “higher and a lower knowledge”.  The higher knowledge is the knowledge of Brahman.  The lower knowledge is the knowledge of the powers, forms and forces that exist in the created universe.  God-knowledge encompasses “all sciences”, embracing both the knowledge that can only be known by identity, and the knowledge which can be organized and transmitted through the reasoning intellect of the mind, as well as the knowledge which is involved in Matter and Life and is known as “instinct”.  Instinct is the term we use for an inherent knowledge of a life-way of a being who does not have an organized mental system for communication, and education of the next generation to that life way.  For instance, monarch butterflies undertake a multi-thousand mile journey from Mexico to Canada and back, encompassing 4 successive generations of butterflies, and yet they reach the right destination and return to the right destination despite the 4th generation never having known through education what the 1st generation knew.  This is a simple example of involved knowledge.  Another is the encoded information in a seed that becomes a specific type of tree.  Simply reviewing all the organized facts and deducing principles, the mental processing that takes place in the world, cannot explain these things.  It takes the knowledge of Brahman and an understanding of the principles and significance of the creation to truly comprehend these things.

The knowledge is communicated from the Creator of all, Brahman, directly to his eldest son, who is called elsewhere “manas putra” or “mind-born” son.  The knowledge is communicated through a lineage.  The names recited are in some cases included in the lists of the “sapta rishis’, the 7 great sages who have both the higher and lower knowledge and whose role it is to intermediate this knowledge to humanity.  This is not something that can be written down in a book.  The Upanishad itself is meant to provide notes along the way, not a comprehensive step by step analysis.  The role of the Guru is thereby set forth, and the God-realised soul is able to touch other souls and thereby communicate the knowledge.


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

Introduction to the Mundaka Upanishad

The Mundaka Upanishad is complex and seems somewhat obscure to our modern understanding.  It appears in the Atharva Veda, and thus represents one of the older streams of thought as presented by the Rishis to their posterity.  Much of the obscurity is due to its treatment of various practices and sacrifices and its use of symbolic language to convey a meaning to those who had an existing familiarity with the specifics referred to.  Yet within the Mundaka Upanishad one may still extract very substantial guidance for the seeker of knowledge of Brahman.

Sri Aurobindo has provided a translation on this Upanishad which helps to clarify otherwise difficult passages, but he has declined to provide any extensive commentary on the Upanishad itself.

Certain sections of this Upanishad contain passages that are important and rightfully famous in their explanations, such as the role of the syllable OM, or the passage about two birds sitting on a common tree.  Both of these will be taken up in due course as the review of this Upanishad proceeds.

Given the obscurity of some passages related to specifics of various sacrificial practices of an ancient time, and their symbolic representations in terms of the spiritual practices of the aspirant, there is a certain range of interpretation possible, from those that exclusively dwell on the external aspects of the sacrifice, for instance, and those that relate them to inner spiritual experience.  As with every text or scripture, there are elements which are temporary and temporal in nature, and others which remain true and valuable without regard to the temporal elements.  It is these latter which we intend to highlight as our focus here.

The Mundaka Upanishad focuses attain on attaining to the Supreme Brahman and distinguishes the higher knowledge of the Supreme from the lower knowledge related to actions in the world.  Its primary role is to focus the mind of the seeker on the Supreme in an exclusive concentration.  In a world fixated on transitory things, such a focus is needed to break out of the bounds of body, life and mind.

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

To Be a Human Centre of the Divine Manifestation on Earth

In his major work The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo starts from an understanding that the basic aspirations that arise in the human soul from time immemorial, the seeking for “God, Light, Freedom, Immortality” represent a secret motive force that impels our evolution and action in this world.  His conclusion there was that the future of humanity holds out the promise of a divine life on earth, based on the manifestation of the next level of consciousness that can solve the contradictions that arise from the limits of the mental consciousness and its attempt to control and direct the vital and physical aspects of life.

If we follow the guidance provided by the Isha and Kena Upanishads, and do not abandon earthly life in pursuit of the Absolute, but accept it and work to integrate the awareness of the Supreme with the perceptions and actions that accompany daily life, then we accept that the manifestation has a significance and a purpose that is not opposed to the supreme Brahman, but rather, is part of the Existence that is the Brahman.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “To assist in the lesser victories of the gods which must prepare the supreme victory of the Brahman may well be and must be in some way or other a part of our task; but the greatest helpfulness of all is this, to be a human centre of the Light, the Glory, the Bliss, the Strength, the Knowledge of the Divine Existence, one through whom it shall communicate itself lavishly to other men and attract by its magnet of delight their souls to that which is the Highest.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Kena Upanishad and analysis, pp. 189-190

The Seeker’s Commitment to the External Manifestation

The Buddhist conception of the Bodhisattva, the enlightened soul who refuses to enter into the dissolution of Nirvana “until all other beings attain enlightenment” sets forth a high ideal for the spiritual seeker which acknowledges the Absolute, while at the same time, recognizing the need for the realized soul to remain active in the world of manifestation “for the good of all creatures”.  The idea of individual salvation represents in its deepest sense a “duality”, a separation between the Eternal and the created universe; but the ultimate Oneness implies that the Eternal Absolute and the world of forms, forces and actions, are unified and thus, there is a purpose or significance to this world that all those that abide in it have a role to carry out.  The attainment of Oneness with Brahman, therefore, does not either imply nor necessitate a withdrawal entirely from the actions of the world; rather it implies the opposite, the need to remain engaged and act for the “good of all creatures”.

Sri Aurobindo comments:  “Fortunately, there is no need to go to such lengths and deny one side of the truth in order to establish another.  The Upanishad itself suggests the door of escape from any over-emphasis in its own statement of the truth.  For the man who knows and possesses the supreme Brahman as the transcendent Beatitude becomes a centre of that delight to which all his fellows shall come, a well from which they can draw the divine waters.  Here is the clue that we need.  The connection with the universe is preserved for the one reason which supremely justifies that connection; it must subsist not from the desire of personal earthly joy, as with those who are still bound, but for help to all creatures.  Two then are the objects of the high-reaching soul, to attain the Supreme and to be for ever for the good of all the world, — even as Brahman Himself; whether here or elsewhere, does not essentially matter.  Still where the struggle is thickest, there should be the hero of the spirit, that is surely the highest choice of the son of Immortality; the earth calls most, because it has most need of him, to the sol that has become one with the universe.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Kena Upanishad and analysis, pg. 189

Overcoming the Lure of an Exclusive Concentration on Individual Salvation

The power of an exclusive concentration cannot be underestimated.  The ability to block out distractions and devote the full attention to a particular subject or practice has brought about enormous progress in all fields of human life.  It is therefore not surprising that when it was necessary for humanity to focus on the Absolute, the use of an exclusive concentration would be recommended.  This is the underlying basis for the “refusal of the ascetic” which insists that the seeker must abandon the life of the world to achieve the truth of the Spirit.  It is also true, however, that every form of exclusive concentration must eventually be integrated into a larger wholistic development that takes the fruits of that effort and harmonises them with the more comprehensive view of human life and the other needs of human life.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “It was necessary at one time to insist even exclusively on the idea of individual salvation so that the sense of a Beyond might be driven into man’s mentality…  But as the lures of earth have to be conquered, so also have the lures of heaven. … The lure of a release from birth and death and withdrawal from the cosmic labour must also be rejected, as it was rejected by Mahayanist Buddhism which held compassion and helpfulness to be greater than Nirvana.  As the virtues we practice must be done without demand of earthly or heavenly reward, so the salvation we seek must be purely internal and impersonal; it must be the release from egoism, the union with the Divine, the realisation of our universality as well as our transcendence, and no salvation should be valued which takes us away from the love of God in his manifestation and the help we can give to the world.  If need be, it must be taught for a time, ‘Better this hell with our other suffering selves than a solitary salvation.’ ”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Kena Upanishad and analysis, pp. 188-189

The Need of Fulfillment for the Individual and for the Human Race

The path of renunciation of the world to achieve spiritual fulfillment for the individual has adherents throughout the world.  This path represents a “one pointed” concentration on achieving the goal of oneness with the silent, unmoving Brahman.  Few are those capable of treading this path, which leaves the rest of humanity without a meaningful path for actual fulfillment.  Either they have to simply immerse themselves in the life of the world and its pleasures and rewards, or they accept at some level the need for renunciation and thus live a conflicted life or enter into a form of depression due to inability to achieve any real goal in a world of illusion.

There is a long history in various traditions of a “kingdom of heaven on earth” or some similar concept, which represents the transformation of human life into something which truly reflects the spiritual evolutionary process and enhances the harmony.  Some call it the Golden Age, some call it the Age of Truth, some the City of God, but whatever it is called, it implies a transformation in the life of the race and of the society.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The Vedic gospel of a supreme victory in heaven and on earth for the divine in man, the Christian gospel of a kingdom of God and divine city upon earth, the Puranic idea of progressing Avataras ending in the kingdom of the perfect and the restoration of the Golden Age, not only contain behind their forms a profound truth, but they are necessary to the religious sense in mankind.  Without it the teaching of the vanity of human life and of a passionate fleeing and renunciation can only be powerful in passing epochs or else on the few strong souls in each eage that are really capable of these things.  The rest of humanity will either reject the creed which makes that its foundation or ignore it in practice while professing it in precept or else must sink under the weight of its own impotence and the sense of the illusion of life or of the curse of God upon the world as mediaeval Christendom sank into ignorance and obscurantism or later India into stagnant torpor and the pettiness of a life of aimless egoism.  The promise for the individual is well, but the promise for the race is also needed.  Our father Heaven must remain bright with the hope of deliverance, but also our mother Earth must not feel herself for ever accursed.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Kena Upanishad and analysis, pg. 188