Mundaka Upanishad

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The Higher Knowledge


Like some other Upanishads, the Mundaka Upanishad gives its instruction in the form of a dialogue between a disciple and his preceptor. The disciple, Saunaka, fully qualified for Brahmavidya, asks Angiras, the teacher:
"Revered sir, what is that by the knowing of which all this becomes known?"
Here one sees the passion of the ancient Hindus for knowledge. The teacher replies that there are two kinds of knowledge, and a seeker should acquire them both. They are called the lower knowledge and the Higher Knowledge.

The lower knowledge includes the teachings of all the Vedas (the sections dealing with rituals and sacrifices) and their auxiliaries; it endows a man with knowledge of the manifested universe and enables him to enjoy material prosperity on earth and happiness in heaven.

By means of the Higher Knowledge one realizes the Imperishable Truth. Brahman, the goal of the Higher Knowledge, is the ultimate cause of the universe and all beings. It may be noted here that the Vedic philosophers did not discourage secular knowledge or worldly happiness; on the contrary, they held that unless, through experience, one had learnt their unsubstantiality, one did not acquire the necessary mood for the cultivation of the Higher Knowledge.

The aspirant for Immortality must therefore turn away from both, renounce the world, repair to a qualified teacher, and obtain the Knowledge of Brahman, by means of which, alone, can he conquer time, space, and death.

The discipline for the unitive knowledge is the practice of truthfulness, chastity of body and mind, and concentration. This knowledge cannot be attained through mere study of the scriptures or through intellect, nor by one who is weak, slothful, or attached to worldly values.

The knower of Brahman becomes Brahman.

Om. Brahma, the Maker of the universe and the Preserver of the world, was the first among the devas. He told His eldest son Atharva about the Knowledge of Brahman, the foundation of all knowledge. (1.1.1)


Because all forms of knowledge rest upon the Knowledge of Brahman. The objects of all knowledge are known through the Knowledge of Brahman. Compare: "Have you ever asked for that instruction by which we hear what cannot be heard, by which we perceive what cannot be perceived, by which we know what cannot be known?" (Chandogya Upanishad 6.1.3)

The Knowledge of Brahman was taught in ancient India through a succession of teachers, from teacher to disciple or from father to son.

Saunaka, the great householder, approached Angiras in the proper manner and said: Revered sir, what is that by the knowing of which all this becomes known? (1.1.3)

To him he said: Two kinds of knowledge must be known—that is what the knowers of Brahman tell us. They are the Higher Knowledge and the lower knowledge. (1.1.4)


The lower knowledge is the knowledge of the phenomenal world. In reality it is ignorance, for it does not lead to the Highest Good. The seer of the Upanishads asks the aspirant to acquire both the knowledge of the relative world and the Knowledge of Ultimate Reality. When by the pursuit of the former he fails to attain true freedom and immortality, he cultivates the latter.

Of these two, the lower knowledge is the Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda, the Atharva-Veda, siksha (phonetics), kalpa (rituals), vyakaranam (grammar), nirukta (etymology), chhandas (metre), and jyotis (astronomy); and the Higher Knowledge is that by which the Imperishable Brahman is attained. (1.1.5)


The Higher Knowledge refers to the actual realization of the subject matter taught in the Sruti [sacred texts]. It primarily means the experience of the Imperishable Brahman taught in the Upanishads, and not the mere words contained in them. The Vedas generally—and especially in this context—signify the mere assemblage of words (sabdarasi) constituting their texts. In order to attain the Higher Knowledge, a student who has mastered the words of the scriptures must go to a qualified preceptor and cultivate such spiritual disciplines as discrimination and renunciation. Otherwise he cannot realize the Imperishable Brahman. ... The knower of Brahman becomes Brahman.

By means of the Higher Knowledge the wise behold everywhere Brahman, which otherwise cannot be seen or seized, which has no root or attributes, no eyes or ears, no hands or feet; which is eternal and omnipresent, all-pervading and extremely subtle; which is imperishable and the source of all beings. (1.1.6)

As the spider sends forth and draws in its thread, as plants grow on the earth, as hair grows on the head and the body of a living man — so does everything in the universe arise from the Imperishable. (1.1.7)


Brahman, through Its own inscrutable power, appears as the universe of name and form without Itself undergoing any change whatsoever. This is called maya.

Brahman expands by means of austerity, and from It primal matter is produced; from matter, Prana; from Prana, mind; from mind, the elements; from the elements, the worlds; thence works, and from the works, their immortal fruits. (1.1.8)

For him who knows all and understands everything, whose austerity consist of knowledge - from Him, the Imperishable Brahman, are born Brahma, name, form, and food. (1.1.9)

Let a brahmin, after having examined all these worlds that are gained by works, acquire freedom from desires: nothing that is eternal can be produced by what is not eternal. In order that he may understand that Eternal, let him, fuel in hand, approach a guru who is well versed in the Vedas and always devoted to Brahman. (1.2.12)

To that pupil who has duly approached him, whose mind is completely serene, and whose senses are controlled, the wise teacher should indeed rightly impart the Knowledge of Brahman, through which one knows the immutable and the true Purusha. (1.2.13)

This is the truth: As, from a blazing fire, sparks essentially akin to it fly forth by the thousand, so also, my good friend, do various beings come forth from the imperishable Brahman and unto Him again return. (2.1.1)

How to know Brahman

The Luminous Brahman dwells in the cave of the heart and is known to move there. It is the great support of all; for in It is centred everything that moves, breathes and blinks. O disciples, know that to be your Self—that which is both gross and subtle, which is adorable, supreme and beyond the understanding of creatures. (2.2.1)


Brahman is without any form. How, then, can It be known? The Upanishad describes the method of Its realization:

All things perceived in the universe are effects and therefore limited. They are dependent upon something else, which is their cause. Brahman is the cause and support of everything, gross and subtle, and also of maya. That Brahman, again, is the inmost Self of all and the illuminer of their mental states.

That which is radiant, subtler than the subtle, That by which all the worlds and their inhabitants are supported—That, verily, is the indestructible Brahman; That is the prana, speech and the mind; That is the True and That is the Immortal. That alone is to be struck. Strike It, my good friend. (2.2.2)

Take the Upanishad as the bow, the great weapon and place upon it the arrow sharpened by meditation. Then, having drawn it back with a mind directed to the thought of Brahman, strike that mark, O my good friend—that which is the Imperishable. (2.2.3)

Aum is the bow; the atman is the arrow; Brahman is said to be the mark. It is to be struck by an undistracted mind. Then the atman becomes one with Brahman, as the arrow with the target. (2.2.4)


As the bow is the cause of the arrow's entering into the target, so Aum is the cause of the atman's entering into Brahman. The atman becomes purified through the constant repetition of Aum, and then with the support of this mystic syllable is absorbed in Brahman.

In Him are woven heaven, earth, and the space between, and the mind with all the sense-organs. Know that non-dual Atman alone and give up all other talk. He is the bridge to Immortality. (2.2.5)

He moves about, becoming manifold, within the heart, where the arteries meet, like the spokes fastened in the nave of a chariot wheel. Meditate on Atman as Aum. Hail to you! May you cross beyond the sea of darkness! (2.2.6)

He who knows all and understands all and to whom belongs all the glory in the world—He, Atman, is placed in the space in the effulgent abode of Brahman. He assumes the forms of the mind and leads the body and the senses. He dwells in the body, inside the heart. By the knowledge of That which shines as the blissful and immortal Atman, the wise behold Him fully in all things. (2.2.7)

The fetters of the heart are broken, all doubts are resolved and all works cease to bear fruit, when He is beheld who is both high and low. (2.2.8)

There the stainless and indivisible Brahman shines in the highest, golden sheath. It is pure; It is the Light of lights; It is That which they know who know the Self. (2.2.9)


It is through knowledge of the inner Self, and not through study of external objects, that one directly knows Brahman.

The sun does not shine there, nor the moon and the stars, nor these lightnings, not to speak of this fire. When He shines, everything shines after Him; by His light everything is lighted. (2.2.10)

That immortal Brahman alone is before, that Brahman is behind, that Brahman is to the right and left. Brahman alone pervades everything above and below; this universe is that Supreme Brahman alone. (2.2.11)


Brahman is the reality of all things endowed with name and form.
When the Truth is known, the illusion of duality disappears and the universe, known as non-Brahman to the ignorant, reveals itself as the effulgent Brahman.

Two birds, united always and known by the same name, closely cling to the same tree. One of them eats the sweet fruit; the other looks on without eating. (3.1.1)

Seated on the same tree, the jiva moans, bewildered by his impotence. But when he beholds the other, the Lord worshipped by all and His glory, he then becomes free from grief. (3.1.2)


The two birds refer to the jivatma, or individual soul, and the Paramatma, or Supreme Self. The former is Pure Consciousness conditioned by the body and mind on account of Its association with ignorance (avidya). The latter is Pure Consciousness, the Lord Himself, who is eternally pure, free, and illumined and is the master or controller of avidya.

When the seer beholds the self—luminous Creator, the Lord, the Purusha, the progenitor of Brahma, then he, the wise seer, shakes off good and evil, becomes stainless and reaches the supreme unity. (3.1.3)

He indeed is Prana; He shines forth variously in all beings. The wise man who knows Him does not babble. Revelling in the Self, delighting in the Self, performing actions, he is the foremost among the knowers of Brahman. (3.1.4)

This Atman, resplendent and pure, whom the sinless sannyasins behold residing within the body, is attained by unceasing practice of truthfulness, austerity, right knowledge, and continence. (3.1.5)

Truth alone prevails, not falsehood. By truth the path is laid out, the Way of the Gods, on which the seers, whose every desire is satisfied, proceed to the Highest Abode of the True. (3.1.6)

That Brahman shines forth, vast, self-luminous, inconceivable, subtler than the subtle. He is far beyond what is far, and yet here very near at hand. Verily, He is seen here, dwelling in the cave of the heart of conscious beings. (3.1.7)

Brahman is not grasped by the eye, nor by speech, nor by the other senses, nor by penance or good works. A man becomes pure through serenity of intellect; thereupon, in meditation, he beholds Him who is without parts. (3.1.8)

He, the knower of the self, knows that Supreme Abode of Brahman, which shines brightly and in which the universe rests. Those wise men who, free from desires, worship such a person transcend the seed of birth. (3.2.1)

He who, cherishing objects, desires them, is born again here or there through his desires. But for him whose desires are satisfied and who is established in the Self, all desires vanish even here on earth. (3.2.2)

This Atman cannot be attained through study of the Vedas, nor through intelligence, nor through much learning. He who chooses Atman—by him alone is Atman attained. It is Atman that reveals to the seeker Its true nature. (3.2.3)

This Atman cannot be attained by one who is without strength or earnestness or who is without knowledge accompanied by renunciation. But if a wise man strives by means these aids, his soul enters the Abode of Brahman. (3.2.4)

As flowing rivers disappear in the sea, losing their names and forms, so a wise man, freed from name and form, attains the Purusha, who is greater than the Great. (3.2.8)

He who knows the Supreme Brahman verily becomes Brahman. In his family no one is born ignorant of Brahman. He overcomes grief; he overcomes evil; free from the fetters of the heart, he becomes immortal. (3.2.9)


Brahman, or Pure Consciousness, alone is real. The idea of individuality associated with the body, the senses, the mind, and the ego is the result of ignorance. So also is the idea of birth, death, and rebirth. From the standpoint of Brahman, all this is illusory. Self-Knowledge destroys these illusions and one realizes one's true nature. The knower of the Self remains conscious of non-duality, while he is alive, and totally merges in Brahman after death.

Brahman is Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute.

The knower of Brahman leaves behind no footprint by which he can be traced. "As a bird flies in the air, as a fish moves in the water, without leaving any trace, so likewise the illumined soul leaves behind no footprint."

* Commentary by Swami Nikhilananda

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