The Mundaka Upanishad (मुण्डक-उपनिषद्) is an ancient Sanskrit Vedic text, embedded inside Atharvaveda. It is a Mukhya (primary) Upanishad and is listed as number 5 in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads of Hinduism which is among the most widely translated Upanishads. It is presented as a dialogue between the great sacrificer Saunaka and sage Angiras and is a poetic verse style Upanishad, with 64 verses, written in the form of mantras. However, these mantras are not used in rituals, rather they are used for teaching and meditation on spiritual knowledge.
Mundaka Upanishad Meaning
Mundaka (मुण्डक) literally means “shaved (as in shaved head), shorn, lopped trunk of a tree”. Eduard Roer suggests that this root is unclear, and the word as the title of the Upanishad possibly refers to “knowledge that shaves, or liberates, one of errors and ignorance”. The chapters of the Mundaka Upanishad are also sequentially referred to as “Mundakam” in ancient and medieval texts, for unclear etymological reasons.
Chronology of Mundaka Upanishad
The exact chronology of Mundaka Upanishad, like other Vedic texts, is unclear. All opinions rest on scanty evidence, an analysis of archaism, style, and repetitions across texts, driven by assumptions about the likely evolution of ideas, and on presumptions about which philosophy might have influenced which other Indian philosophies.
Patrick Olivelle writes: “Both the Mundaka and the Mahanarayana are rather late Upanisads and are, in all probability, post-Buddhist.”
Self and Brahman
Most of the teachings in the Upanishads of Hinduism, including the Mundaka Upanishad, however, relate to the existence of Self and Brahman, and the paths to know, and realize one’s Self and Brahman, making the fundamental premise of Mundaka Upanishad distinctly different than Buddhism’s denial of “Self or Brahman”.
Some of the ideas and allegories in Mundaka Upanishad have chronological roots in more ancient Vedic literature such as Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya, and Katha Upanishads. The allegory of “blind leading the blind” in section 1.2 of Mundaka, for example, is also found in Katha Upanishad’s chapter 1.2. The allegory of two birds in section 3.1 of Mundaka Upanishad, similarly, is found in hymns of Rigveda Chapter I.164.
Mundaka Upanishad Structure
The Mundaka Upanishad has three Mundakams (parts, or shavings), and each part has two Khandas (खण्ड, section or volume). Section 1.1 has 9 mantras structured as metered poetic verses. Section 1.2 has 13 verses, section 2.1 includes 10 verses, section 2.2 is composed of 11 verses, section 3.1 has 10, while the last section 3.2 has 11 verses. Combined, the Upanishad features 64 mantras.
Several manuscript versions of the Mundaka Upanishad have been discovered so far. These show minor differences, particularly in the form of additional text being inserted and interpolated, the insertion apparent because these texts do not fit structurally into the metered verses, and also because the same text is missing in manuscripts discovered elsewhere.
Mundaka Upanishad Contents
The Mundaka Upanishad opens by declaring Brahma as the first of Gods, the creator of the universe, and the knowledge of Brahman (Ultimate Reality, Eternal Principle, Cosmic Self) to be the foundation of all knowledge. The text then lists a succession of teachers who shared the knowledge of Brahman with the next generation.
Charles Johnston suggests that this announces the Vedic tradition of teacher-student responsibility to transfer knowledge across the generations, in unbroken succession. Johnston further states that the names recited are metaphors, such as the One who Illuminates, Keeper of Truth, Planetary Spirit, and mythological messenger between Gods and Men among others, suggesting the divine nature and the responsibility of man continue the tradition of knowledge sharing across human generations.
The higher knowledge versus lower knowledge – First Mundakam
In verse 1.1.3 of Mundaka Upanishad, a Grihastha (householder) approaches a teacher, and asks,
कस्मिन्नु भगवो विज्ञाते सर्वमिदं विज्ञातं भवतीति ॥ ३ ॥
Sir, what is that through which, if it is known, everything else becomes known?— Mundaka Upanishad, 1.1.3, Translated by Max Müller
The setting of this question is significant, states Johnston, because it asserts that knowledge transfer is not limited to old teachers to youthful students, rather even adult householders became pupils and sought knowledge from teachers in Vedic tradition.
Lower and Higher knowledge
The teacher answered, stating verse 1.1.4 of the Mundaka Upanishad, by classifying all knowledge into two: “lower knowledge” and “higher knowledge”. Hume calls these two forms of knowledge “traditions of religion” and “knowledge of the eternal” respectively.
The lower knowledge, states the Upanishad, includes knowledge of Vedas, phonetics, grammar, etymology, meter, astronomy, and the knowledge of sacrifices and rituals. The higher knowledge is the knowledge of Brahman and Self-knowledge – the one which cannot be seen, nor seized, which has no origin, no Varna, no eyes, nor ears, no hands, nor feet, one that is the eternal, all-pervading, infinitesimal, imperishable, indestructible. Some manuscripts of Manduka Upanishad expand the list of lower knowledge to include logic, history, Puranas, and Dharma.
Sacrifices, oblations, and pious works are useless, knowledge useful – First Mundakam
In verses 1.2.7 through 1.2.10, the Upanishad asserts this is foolish and frail, by those who encourage it and those who follow it, because it makes no difference to man’s current life and after-life, it is like blind men leading the blind, it is a mark of conceit and vain knowledge, ignorant inertia like that of children, a futile useless practice.
But frail, in truth, are those boats, the sacrifices, the eighteen, in which these ceremonies have been told,
Fools who praise this as the highest good, are subject again and again to old age and death.
Fools dwelling in darkness, wise in their own conceit, and puffed up with vain knowledge,
Go round and round, staggering to and fro, like blind men led by the blind.— Mundaka Upanishad, 1.2.7 – 1.2.8
The Mundaka Upanishad, in verses 1.2.11 through 1.2.13, asserts knowledge liberates man, and those who undertake Sannyasa (renunciation) to gain such knowledge achieve that knowledge through Tapas (meditation, austerity), living a simple tranquil life on alms, without any sacrifices and rituals. In verses 12 and 13, the Upanishad suggests that “perishable acts cannot lead to eternal knowledge”, instead those who seek freedom must respectfully approach a competent, peace-filled, wise Guru (teacher) to gain knowledge.
Brahman is the inner Self of all things – Second Mundakam
Mundaka Upanishad, in the first section of the second Mundakam, defines and expounds on the doctrine of Atman-Brahman. The Brahman is imperishable, without body, it is both without and within, never produced, without mind, without breath, yet from it emerges the inner Self of all things. From Brahman are born breath, mind, sensory organs, space, air, light, water, earth, and everything. The section expands on this idea as follows:
The sky is his head, his eyes the sun and the moon,
the quarters his ears, his speech the Vedas disclosed,
the wind his breath, his heart the universe,
from his feet came the earth, he is indeed the inner Self of all things.
From him comes fire, the sun being the fuel,
from the soma comes the rain, from the earth the herbs,
the male pours the seed into the female,
thus many beings are begotten from the Purusha. — Mundaka Upanishad, 2.1.4 – 2.1.7
The section continues on, asserting Brahman as the cause of mountains, rivers of every kind, plants, herbs, and all living beings, and it is “the inner Self that dwells in all beings”. Brahman is everything, the empirical and the abstract, the object, the subject, and the action (Karma). To know Brahman is to be liberated.
This is a form of pantheism theory, that continues into the second section of the second Mundakam of the Upanishad.
Om, Self and Brahman – Second Mundakam
The Mundaka Upanishad, in the second Mundakam, suggests a path to knowing the Self and the Brahman: meditation, self-reflection, and introspection. The verses in the second and third Mundakams, also assert that the knowledge of Self and Brahman “cannot” be gained from chanting the Vedas, but only comes from meditation and inner introspection for meaning. Adi Shankara, in his review of the Mundaka Upanishad, calls meditation Yoga.
In verse 2.2.2, the Mundaka Upanishad asserts that Atman-Brahman is real. Verse 2.2.3 offers aid to the meditation process, namely Om (Aum).
That which is flaming, which is subtler than the subtle,
on which the worlds are set, and their inhabitants –
That is the indestructible Brahman.
It is life, it is speech, it is mind. That is the real. It is immortal.
It is a mark to be penetrated. Penetrate It, my friend.
Taking as a bow the great weapon of the Upanishad,
one should put upon it an arrow sharpened by meditation,
Stretching it with a thought directed to the essence of That,
Penetrate that Imperishable as the mark, my friend.
Om is the bow, the arrow is the Self, Brahman the mark,
By the undistracted man is It to be penetrated,
One should come to be in It,
as the arrow becomes one with the mark. — Mundaka Upanishad, 2.2.2 – 2.2.4
Reach the highest Oneness in all beings – Third Mundakam
The third Mundakam begins with the allegory of two birds, as follows:
Two birds, inseparable friends, cling to the same tree.
One of them eats the sweet fruit, the other looks on without eating.
On the same tree man sits grieving, drowned (in sorrow), bewildered, feeling helpless,
But when he sees the other Isa (lord) content, knows his glory, his grief passes away.
When the seer sees the brilliant maker and Isa as the Purusha who has his source in Brahman, then he is wise, he shakes off good and evil, stainless he reaches the highest oneness. — Mundaka Upanishad, 3.1.1 – 3.1.2
Mathur states that this metaphor of the birds sitting on the same tree refers to one being the empirical self and the other as the eternal and transcendental self. It is the knowledge of eternal self, Atman-Brahman, and its Oneness with all others, that liberates. The Upanishad states in verse 3.1.4 that the Self is the life of all things, and there is a delight in this Self (Ātman).
Charles Johnston explains
To theist schools of Hinduism, the Isa is God. To non-theist schools of Hinduism, the Isa is the Self. The theosophist Charles Johnston explains the theistic view, not only in terms of schools of Hinduism but as mirroring the theism found in Christianity and other scriptures around the world.
These verses, states Johnston, describe the sorrow that drowns those who are unaware or feel separated from their Lord. The disciple, when firmly understands his individuality, reaches for meaning beyond individuality, discovers Lord, discovers the wonderful complex life of the Eternal God, states Johnston, and then he is on the way of the “light of lights”. Johnston quotes from Isaiah and Revelation, thus: “The Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and thy God thy glory”.
Adi Shankara’s commentary
Adi Shankara’s commentary offers, as an example, an alternative interpretation of Hinduism. Shankara explains the non-dualistic view as follows: “By meditation and different paths of Yoga, man finds the other, not subject to the bondage of Samsara, unaffected by grief, ignorance, decay, and death.
This is the state, asserts Shankara, free of grief, when a man reaches the supreme equality which is identical with the Brahman. The equality in matters involving duality is certainly inferior to this, states Shankara.
Be ethical, know yourself, be tranquil – Third Mundakam
The last section of the Mundaka Upanishad asserts the ethical precepts necessary for man to attain the knowledge of the Brahman and thus liberation.
सत्येन लभ्यस्तपसा ह्येष आत्मा सम्यग्ज्ञानेन ब्रह्मचर्येण नित्यम् ।
Through continuous pursuit of Satya (truthfulness), Tapas (perseverance, austerity), Samyajñāna (correct knowledge), and Brahmacharya, one attains Atman (Self). — Mundaka Upanishad, 3.1.5
Serene light of knowledge
Through ethical practices combined with meditation, must a man know himself. When thoughts are pure, the Self arises, states verse 3.1.9. This state of man is the state of Bhuti (भूति, inner power, prosperity, and happiness).
In the second section of the third Mundakam, the Upanishad asserts, “the Self cannot be realized by those who lack inner strength, nor by the careless or heedless, nor by devotion or false notions of austerity, nor by knowledge of the empirical. It is obtained by the Self by which it is desired. His Self reveals its own truth”.
Once such self-knowledge is reached, calmness of mind results, a life of liberation emerges, and one becomes and behaves like Brahman. He is beyond sorrow, he is beyond sin, and he is in tranquil union with the Self of all.
Mundaka Upanishad Reception
Most popular Upanishads
The Mundaka Upanishad has been widely translated, as well as commented upon in Bhasya by ancient and medieval era Indian scholars such as Shankara and Anandagiri. Mundaka has been one of the most popular Upanishads, in the past and present. Badarayana devotes three out of twenty-eight adhikaranas to Mundaka Upanishad, while Shankara cites it 129 times in his commentary on the Brahmasutra.
All truth is in the one
Gough calls Mundaka Upanishad “one of the most important documents in ancient Indian philosophy”. It encapsulates the Vedic teachings, states Gough, that “he that meditates upon any deity as a being other than himself has no knowledge, and is mere victim to the Gods”, and “there is no truth in the many, all truth is in the one; and this one that alone is the Self, the inmost essence of all things, that vivifies all sentiencies and permeates all things. This is the pure bliss, and it dwells within the heart of every creature”.
Ross, in his chapters on “meaning of life in Hinduism”, frequently cites Mundaka Upanishad, and states it to be an example of ancient efforts in India to refine tools and discipline of realizing liberation or Moksha.
Relevance to the modern age
Johnston states that the ancient message in Mundaka Upanishad is relevant to the modern age where the “search for and application of Truth” alone often predominates the fields of science. Mundaka Upanishad reminds the central importance of Truth in its third Mundakam, yet it also emphasizes the need for “beauty and goodness”, because “truth, beauty, and goodness” together, states Johnston, create arts, music, poetry, painting, meaning and spiritual answers.
Jacobs has called Mundaka Upanishad as profound and counts it as one of the essential philosophical foundations of Hinduism.
Cultural impact of Mundaka Upanishad
सत्यमेव जयते नानृतं
Translation 1: Only Truth triumphs, not falsehood.
Translation 2: Truth ultimately triumphs, not falsehood.
Translation 3: The true prevails, not the untrue. — Mundaka Upanishad, 3.1.
Philosophy of the Mundaka Upanishad
All the people are puzzled regarding the creation of the world. They try to ascribe various theories to it. The Mundaka Upanishad, very prudently, states that the entire world has emanated from the Supreme Brahman. All things and beings come forth from Brahman.
Brahman which is the source of all beings is all-pervading, eternal, effulgent, and subtle. As Brahman is omnipotent, it expands by its innate power and creates life, mind, food, the five elements, the three worlds, etc. Whatever we see around us has emanated from nothing but the Brahman.
Do not agree with rites and rituals
Generally, the Upanishads do not agree with rites and rituals that form a part of the Karma Kanda. Yet, the Mundaka Upanishad advises that sacrifices should be done. However, people perform sacrifices to attain the desired fruit. Once they obtain it, they become engrossed in its consumption. Sacrifices act as broken boats in the vast ocean of materialism.
Mundaka Upanishad prescribes sacrifices for the sake of mere duty. Sacrifices are essential for the smooth running of the world. It is because of the sacrifices that the deities get power with which they perform their duties in the world.
Mind and the soul are two different things
Brahman stays within us as the individual soul or the embodied self. The body, mind, and intellect, though connected to the soul, are different from it. When the body, mind, and intellect perform their functions, the soul stays within as a witness and provides energy to them. One of them enjoys the sweet fruits of the tree and becomes upset when the fruits turn out to be sour. The other bird accompanies it everywhere all over the tree and merely watches its doings.
Here, the first bird is the mind. The fruits are the sense objects which the mind unceasingly follows. The second bird is like the individual self. This shows that the mind and the soul are two different things. When the person attains emancipation, his mind and intellect merge in the individual self which becomes one with Brahman.
Enjoyments are temporary
It is the destiny of the soul to merge with Brahman. However, the biggest obstacle for the soul is the mind and its desires and the intellect and its ignorance. Despite getting a lot of enjoyment, the mind will always crave more. It feels that the fulfillment of the desires is its only aim. The mind gets entangled in the snares of the sensual pleasures and forgets that the enjoyments are temporary.
Moreover, there is no end to desires and cravings. The fulfillment of each desire will give birth to more. The unfulfilled desires will lead to rebirth and the cycle of birth and death will go on. The goal of the individual is to discover that his identity is the self and not the mind or the body. It is the job of a good preceptor to help a seeker in his journey of self-realization.
Journey of self-realization
The journey of self-realization is compared to the release of the arrow from the bow. When the string of the bow is pulled, the arrow advances forward to hit the target. The bow is the Upanishadic knowledge or the word ॐ; the arrow sharpened by rock is the seeker (or his soul) sharpened by meditation; the goal is the Supreme Brahman. With the help of the bow of Upanishads and Aum, one has to pierce the target of Brahman and become one with it.
Frequently asked questions
Before posting your query, kindly go through the:
|What is the meaning of Mundka Upanishad?
Mundaka (मुण्डक) literally means “shaved (as in shaved head), shorn, lopped trunk of a tree”. Eduard Roer suggests that this root is unclear, and the word as the title of the Upanishad possibly refers to “knowledge that shaves, or liberates, one of errors and ignorance”.
|Which is the last section of the third part of Mundaka Upanishad?
The last section of the Mundaka Upanishad asserts the ethical precepts necessary for man to attain the knowledge of the Brahman and thus liberation.
|What is the cultural impact of Mundaka Upanishad?
The Mundaka Upanishad is the source of the phrase Satyameva Jayate, which is the national motto of India.