Mundaka Upanishad

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Lose Your Identity And Attain Salvation

(This essay originally appeared in the June, 2008 issue of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams’ Illustrated Monthly ‘Sapthagiri’ which is slightly modified here. For the significance of the captioned picture of two birds perching on the branch of a tree please refer to para 7 of this article).

1. Introduction
It is an interesting trait of the human mind that it wants all things instantly i.e. in a jiffy (at short notice) somewhat akin to the modern day ‘Crash Program/Courses’. This mental attitude shows an eagerness to know what is THE ONE THING ?… in every department of life and thought by which one can get the maximum benefit within a limited time-frame and that too with the least possible effort.

It is difficult to pronounce a judgment whether this human nature is a desire for efficiency or a form of intellectual minimalism or outright laziness - chances are it varies from person to person. Nevertheless, getting to the heart of the matter at once is something dear to everybody. We find such a mind-set even in the Upanishadic age.

The Upanishads deal with the transcendental aspects of life. They originated from the revelations to and the personal experiences of the seers with regard to divine truth. Although these revelations do not offer instant solutions to the problems of every day mundane life, the thoughts embedded therein guide us to face such predicaments more effectively. The methodology adopted in the Upanishads for exploring the complex nature of the mysteries of truth is through analogies, stories, discussions, symbols etc.

Mundaka Upanishad which is of one of the major Upanishads on which Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya  had written commentary takes up the question of relationship between the Jivatma (individual self) and Paramatma (Supreme Self)  by means of an analogy of two birds living together on a branch of a tree.

2. Mundaka Upanishad
Mundaka Upanishad belongs to the Atharva Veda and has 64 verses (mantras) spread over three Chapters (mundakas), each of which having two sections (khandas). The word mundaka denotes a shaving razor and a person with a shaven head i.e. a monk. The explanation for naming the Upanishad thus is that the one who comprehends its teaching is shaved or liberated from error and ignorance of higher wisdom and also that such teachings are razor sharp leaving no possibility of any ambiguity.

Sage Angiras taught this Upanishad to Sage Saunaka. The core subject matter of this Upanishad is Brahma Vidya or knowledge of Brahman; it draws a clear distinction between the higher knowledge of Brahman (Para Vidya) and the lower knowledge of the phenomenal world (Apara Vidya).

The terms ‘lower and higher knowledge’ here do not mean the same thing as lower K.G. and upper K.G.  Knowledge has to be judged as lower or higher on the basis of the end-results it brings forth on its acquisition. That knowledge which cannot remove ignorance (avidya) which is the cause of samsara or world process or that which is concerned with things perishable is lower or Apara Vidya. On the other hand that knowledge which is concerned with Brahman and which can eradicate ignorance in its entirety is higher or Para Vidya.

The Upanishad commences with a question put by Saunaka to Angiras. He asks the sage ‘What is that, O Bhagavan, by knowing which everything in the world becomes known?’ Here is an instance of the highest expression of the quest for direct knowledge shown by a student. The implication of the question is by knowing which all this - the entire phenomena experienced through the mind and the senses - is really understood? [M.U. 1:1:3]

The elaborate reply given by Angiras to this important philosophical question covers the remaining part of the Upanishad providing answers to all possible misgivings implied in the original inquiry. The answer given is not straight forward but an exposition on the whole gamut of Brahma Vidya (Transcendental Knowledge) by understanding and experiencing which one knows and attains Brahman.

3. Two Kinds of Knowledge
Those who know Brahman, replied Angiras, say that there are two kinds of knowledge, the higher [para] and the lower [apara].

The lower is knowledge of the Vedas [the Rik, the Sama, the Yajur, and the Atharva], and also of phonetics, ceremonials, grammar, etymology, metre, and astrology. The higher is knowledge of that by which one knows the Changeless Reality. [M.U. 1:1:4-5]