The Mandukya Upanishad
by Swami Krishnananda

Section 8: The Atman as the Pranava

The Atman is the content of the meaning of Omkara, with which the Upanishad commenced. This Om, which is All, the all-comprehensive. Name designates this All, which is the Atman. The Atman is the designated; Om, Pranava, is the designator.

As there are three relative phases of the Atman, there are the three relative phases of Om. A, U, M, are the three constitive elements of Om. Just as waking, dream and sleep may be regarded as the constitutive elements of the manifested Form of the Atman, Om, in its three-syllabled constitution, is manifested. Pada matra, matrasca pada: The feet of the Atman are the Matras or the syllables of Om, and vice versa. The Matras or the syllables are A, U, M, Akara, Ukara, Makara iti. So 'yamatma-adhyaksharam: The Atman is the Overlord of this Akshara, imperishable Om. Adhimatram: It is also the Lord over the three syllables, A, U, M, which may be compared with the three states described of the Atman – Jagarita (waking), Svapna (dream), Sushupti (sleep). This Supreme Atman as the designated is comparable with Om with its Matras, A, U, M, and we have to learn now how these syllables are comparable with the three states. And, also, just as there is a fourth transcendent state beyond the three states of the Atman, there is a transcendent state of Om, too, beyond the three syllables, A, U, M. As there are four states of consciousness, there are four states of Omkara, each one, respectively, comparable with its corresponding counterpart.

What is the first state of the Atman? It is Vaisvanara. The Vaisvanara, or Visva, is the first manifestation of the Atman, which can be compared with the first manifestation of the three-syllabled Pranava, or Omkara. The Jagaritasthana, or the waking condition of the Vaisvanara, is the Prathamapada, or the first foot, of Pranava or Om. Jagaritasthano vaisvanar-okarah prathama matra: The Jagaritasthana, or the waking condition of the Atman, called the Visva, or Vaisvanara, is the first syllable of Om – Akara. Apteradimatvadva: 'A' is comparable, in a very peculiar way, with the first phase of the Atman. All states of consciousness, relatively speaking at least, begin with the waking state, in which the other states, viz. dream and sleep, may be said to be comprehended. From the point of view of the Jiva – not from the point of view of Isvara – the waking condition is the cause, and dream and sleep may be regarded as its effects. If dream is the effect of impressions of perceptions in the waking state, sleep is a condition in which all the unfulfilled impressions are wound up into a latent state, ready for manifestation, subsequently. In this sense, we may say that the waking state is the beginning of the other states. Likewise, 'A' is the beginning of all letters, the first syllable in the series of letters in the alphabet; and in this Akara all other word-formations are said to be contained, because the moment you open your mouth to speak, the sensation is towards the utterance of 'A'. And, thus, it is regarded by the Upanishad as the beginning of word-formation. This beginning of word-formation is compared with the beginning of experiences in consciousness, which is the waking state. This condition of the Atman in the waking state is comparable, therefore, with Akara, the first syllable of Omkara. And the Upanishad also says that by meditation on this harmony between Akara of Om and the waking state of the Atman, one achieves the fulfilment of all desires – Apnoti ha vai sarvan kaman. One becomes, also, the foremost among all persons, and almost the beginning of all things in the sense that everything comes to that person, even uncalled for – Adisca bhavati. This achievement of the Yogin by meditation is described, also, in the Chhandogya Upanishad in the context of the description of a technique called the Vaisvanara Vidya. Though the Mandukya Upanishad is very brief in its description of Vaisvanara, the Chhandogya Upanishad goes into great detail by way of a clarification of the Vidya, or meditation, on the Vaisvanara. By a meditation on this Cosmic State of the Atman, called Vaisvanara, the Yogin achieves a power which cannot be faced by anything else in the world, and everything comes to him without his asking for them. Real power is that which summons things even without expressing it in words. You do not tell a person, 'do it'; he simply does it. And that is the height of all power. This is achieved by meditation on the Vaisvanara. Ya evam veda: One who knows this secret of meditation on the harmony between Akara and the waking state of the Atman, who meditates on the Vaisvanara-Atman as designated by the first phase, or syllable of Omkara, becomes a master over all things, a perfected Siddha does he become, and he is an adept in Yoga. This is in relation to the waking state, Jagaritasthana which is Vaisvanara, Prathamapada, Akara, which brings about a result of this nature, when one resorts to meditation in this manner.

Now, the Upanishad proceeds further to a comparison of the second syllable of Omkara, namely 'U', with the second phase of the manifested Atman, namely, Taijasa.

Ukara is the second syllable of Om, which can be compared with the second Pada or foot of the Atman. The Ukara is regarded as Utkarsha or elevated in the sense that it is beyond Akara, proceeds after Akara. In the series of the letters of the alphabet, 'U' comes after, as an effect, as it were, of the pronunciation of Akara; and while Akara may be regarded as the commencement of language, Ukara is the middle of all vowel-formations. When you utter 'U', you find that the middle of the throat begins to function. It is elevated, symbolically, says the Upanishad, in the sense that it is above Akara in the process of word-formation. So also is Taijasa or dream-consciousness that comes afterwards as an effect of the waking experience; proceeding from the waking experience, existing midway between waking and sleep. Ubhayatvadva; It is Ubhaya, or both, in the sense that it has two sides, namely, waking and sleep, from the point of view of the Padas of the Atman, and it is between Akara and Makara, from the point of view of the Matras, or syllables, of Omkara. Thus we can compare, in meditation, Ukara with Taijasa, the dreaming consciousness. These comparisons are made by the Upanishad to help one in meditation, so that one can bring Omkara in juxtaposition with the states of the Atman. All these comparisons are symbolic, and we should not take them literally. All meditations are symbolic; all Vidyas of the Upanishads are symbolic, as the comparison of Brahman to the rope and the world to the snake seen in the rope, in the analogy of the snake-in-the-rope, is symbolic. When you say, Brahman is like the rope, it does not mean that Brahman is long like the rope. The analogy is limited to the symbology intended; and likewise we have to take this comparison as a symbology to help meditation on the unity of all names and forms, comprehended in the unity of Omkara with the Atman in all its phases. Thus, Ukara being elevated above Akara, existing midway between Akara and Makara, is comparable with the dreaming state, which is elevated above the waking state as an effect of it, and exists between the waking and the deep sleep states. Utkarshati ha vai jnana-santatim: And one who meditates in this manner, rises in his status of knowledge. As 'U' is raised over 'A', and dream is raised over waking, the knowledge of the meditator rises above all the ordinary informative understanding of the schools of thought. He becomes a real knower, a Jnanin, by a meditation on the unity of Ukara with the Taijasa. Samanasca bhavati: Just as there is an equilibrating effect of Taijasa in relation to the waking and sleep states, in the sense that it is conscious like waking, and yet not externally conscious in the same sense, just as there is an equalising effect of Ukara between Akara and Makara, one who meditates thus becomes an equalising factor in society and in all creation. One becomes a harmonising element everywhere. There is no conflict in one's mind, then, and one does not create conflict in society when established in this meditation. One has peace within oneself, and creates peace outside, too, on account of the radiance of peace emanating from oneself. The meditator becomes a spontaneous peace-maker. His existence itself is a peace-making. He need not say anything in the world. In his presence, conflict cannot arise, and turmoil ceases, vexations and emotional tensions come to a close on account of meditation practised thus as an equalising factor of consciousness between waking and deep sleep through the syllable 'U' of Ukara, says the Upanishad. Not only that; Nasyabrahmavit kule bhavati – so purifying is this meditation, such an effect it has upon the meditator and all those connected with him, that in his family no one who does not know Brahman can be born. He will have only Brahmavids in his family on account of the effect of this meditation. His blood gets purified so much, the very cells of his body are charged with this super-physical knowledge to such an extent, that an idiot child cannot be born to him. What is a child after all? It is you, yourself, reborn. Atma vai putranama asi: You yourself arc reborn, as your child, in some other form; and your knowledge will be communicated to the child, and because of this meditation, when it takes effect, you become flooded with knowledge; you become knowledge itself. Rather, it is not your body that is reborn; it is knowledge that is reborn. You do not merely pass on the chromosomes or blood-cells in the birth of a child, but you pass knowledge. You get inundated with spiritual knowledge to such an extent that you cease to he a mere physical body. The physical body vibrates as a body of knowledge. Such is the power of this knowledge. The family is nothing but the generation of your children, which, the Upanishad says, should be one of knowledge alone. Therefore, your generation, your posterity shall be a series, not of bodily children, but children of knowledge – Amritasya putrah. Such is the glory of this meditation.

There is, then, the comparison between Makara and the deep sleep state of consciousness. Sushuptasthanah prajno makarastritiya matra: Makara is the third Matra of Om, and it is comparable with Prajna, the third state, causal, of the Atman. Miterapiterva: It is the measure of all things, and it is the dissolver of all things. When we chant Om, Akara and Ukara merge in Makara, as all the impressions of waking and dream merge in Prajna, deep sleep, the causal state. Just as you end the chant with Makara, you end all experience in deep sleep; and as you can repeat the chant subsequent to the closure of the recitation by Makara, waking life commences once again as an offshoot of the deep sleep state, which is the cause of waking. Deep sleep can be called the cause of waking in one sense, the effect of it in another sense. The waking is due to the agitation of the unfulfilled impressions lying buried in the deep sleep state. In this sense we may say that waking is an effect of the state of deep sleep. Deep sleep is the cause, and all experiences in waking and dream are its effects. As Isvara is the cause of all things, the deep sleep state seems to be the cause of our waking and dreaming, in one sense, namely, that we wake up from sleep on account of unfulfilled desires. If all our desires are fulfilled, we would not be waking up from sleep, at all. Why should we wake up? What is the purpose? There is something unfulfilled, unexecuted, and therefore we wake up. The Prarabdha-Karma agitates, urges us into activity, wakes us up into the world of objects. Thus, in one sense, Prajna (sleep) is the cause of experience through Visva (waking) and Taijasa (dreaming). But, in another sense, Prajna may be regarded as the effect, because Prajna is nothing but that state of consciousness where all the impressions, unfulfilled, unmanifested, lie latent, and these impressions are nothing but the consequences of perception and experience in the waking state. In that sense, the condition of deep sleep is an effect of waking. Makara is of that nature in Om. We may say that the chant commences with Makara or closes with Makara, as in the series of chants of Om. Just as we can have a series of chants or recitations of Pranava, we have a series of wakings and sleepings, and wakings and sleepings. The sleep state measures (Miteh) all things in the sense that the waking and dreaming experiences are determined by the impressions that are there as Sanchita-Karma in the Anandamaya-Kosha (causal state), manifesting itself in the sleep state. The Sanchita-Karmas are those group of unfulfilled Samskaras and Vasanas which are there in the state of deep sleep, Prajna, and which sprout forth shoots in the form of experiences in waking and dream. In this sense we measure our experiences in terms of tendencies present in the deep sleep state. The dream and the waking experiences are measured by the potencies already present in the state of sleep, as unfulfilled Vasarras and Samskaras. It is, therefore, the measure (Miti) of experience. And, so is Makara regarded as the container of the processes of chants. Just as the contained is supported by the container, Akara and Ukara seem to be contained in Makara with which one closes the chant. Just as all experiences get submerged in the deep sleep state, even as all our efforts cease when we go to sleep, the recitation of Pranava ceases when Makara commences. 'A' and 'U', merge themselves in 'M'. Minoti ha va idam sarvam: One, who meditates thus, has the capacity to measure all things, that is, to know everything – he becomes Sarvajna. He becomes Isvara Himself. He becomes the measure of all things; he becomes the yardstick for the cognition of everything in creation. Everything is referred to him; he does not refer himself to other things. He becomes the reference for the whole of creation, the centre of all experience in the cosmos. Apitisca bhavati: Everything merges in him; as the verse in the second chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita says, everything enters into him, as rivers enter the ocean. Isvara is the Merger of all creation, and when you become Isvara, the whole creation merges in you. You realise this state by this meditation on the unity of Makara and Prajna, the causal state of Pranava and the causal state of Consciousness, both individually and cosmically.

Now, as there are three relative conditions of the Atman, Jagrat, Svapna and Sushupti – waking, dream and deep sleep – Akara, Ukara, and Makara of Pranava, or Omkara, may be regarded as its relative conditions. But, just as there is a transcendent state of the Atman which has been described as 'Nantah-prajnam, na bahih prajnam, no-'bhayatah-prajnam', etc., there is a transcendent condition of Pranava, or Omkara, which is not constituted of Matras or syllables, but is Amatra, without any measure or syllable. Even as we cannot designate the Atman as either this or that, so we cannot specify this Amatra condition of Om as either this or that. It is a vibration of being, and not a state of sound, and there is no material content in this vibration. It transcends the physical, the subtle and the causal states, and it is not even merely the vibration which sets creation in motion. It is subtler than even the causal vibration with which creation commenced. The only word the Upanishad uses to name this state is Amatra, immeasurable. As the Atman is ungraspable, unrelatable, indescribable, unthinkable, so is this Amatra condition of Omkara measureless in every way.

This Om, in its fourth or transcendent state, is Atman itself. There is a soundless state of Pranava that is Existence itself. All sounds and vibrations merge into Existence, and Existence is One. We may call it Pranava in its Amatra state or as Atman in its indescribable state of Being. Pure Existence is the merging together of Pranava and the Atman. Amatrascaturthah avyavaharyah: The fourth state of Pranava is that with which we cannot have any dealings, as with objects, words or sounds, such as in connection with usages in language. Prapancopasamah: All the world of sound ceases here in this soundless state of Pranava. Sivo'dvaitah: It is most auspicious, blessed and non-dual like the Atman, because it is The Atman. Omkara atmaiva: This Omkara which is soundless, transcendent, is the Atman itself. It is another name for the Atman. Creation and the Creator become one here. The merger of Om in the Atman is the merger of creation in the Absolute. There is no creatorship also, because there is no created. There is no sound that is supposed to be the first vibration of creation. Sound reaches the soundless state. It becomes, then, relationless. Samvisatyatmanatmanam: One who knows this secret, by deep meditation, enters the Atman by the Atman. We do not enter the Atman by a gate, we enter the Atman by the Atman. We do not enter the Atman; the Atman enters the Atman. We do not exist. We evaporate into the Atman, and the Atman becomes the Atman. Sounds merge in Pranava; it becomes the Atman. The Atman alone is. When the Atman becomes the Atman through the Atman, it is called Atma-sakshatkara – realisation of the Atman. It is also Brahma-sakshatkara – realisation of Brahman. From the point of view of the Atman animating the individual states, we call this achievement Atma-sakshatkara. From the standpoint of this very same Atman animating the whole cosmos, we call it Brahma-sakshatkara. It is Self-realisation and God-realisation at one and the same time. It is Existence, it is Consciousness, it is Power, it is Bliss, it is Perfection, it is Immortality, it is Moksha, it is Kaivalya. This is the Goal of life, the path to which is beautifully described in the Mandukya Upanishad.

The Mandukya is the essence of all the Upanishads, a study and assimilation of which, alone, is sufficient to lead one to emancipation, Mandukyamekamevalam mumukshunam vimuktaye: For the liberation of the seeker, the Mandukya Upanishad, alone, is adequate, if it is properly digested into experience. You should not merely listen to it, and then forget it. You have listened to an exposition of the glorious meaning of the Mandukya Upanishad, and I wish that you absorb it into your minds and make it a part of your practical life. Let this knowledge which is so rare, so difficult to acquire, not go to waste. Do not throw it to the winds or to the wilderness. Even if you cry aloud, it would be hard for you to gain this knowledge. It is such a rare asset in this world; and when you get it, do not lose it, and do not forget that you have it. Imbibe it by deep reflection, make it a practical means of your living in this world, so that your life may be converted into Divine Life, so that you may become veritable divinities walking on this earth, spreading peace everywhere by your very existence, so that you may become Bhudevas, gods on earth. He is a real Brahmana who knows this secret, who has this knowledge, who lives this knowledge, and to whom this knowledge is practice, to whom action is not different from having this knowledge where Karma and Jnana come together in a fraternal embrace, where there is no friction between work and contemplation, where life becomes realisation, where work becomes worship and God-consciousness, where one's very existence becomes a blessedness to all earth, where one's life on earth becomes a teaching, where example becomes a precept, and where one becomes a representative of Isvara in this world. This is the grand Gospel of the Mandukya Upanishad, and my prayer to the Almighty is that He may bless you all with a remembrance of this knowledge, that you may not forget it throughout your daily living, a wonderful knowledge, as the Chhandogya Upanishad says, which should not be equated with even the treasures of the whole earth. This knowledge is greater than the wealth of all the world, a saviour of humanity from the thraldom of finite life, a direct means to Moksha, Immortal Existence, the great Goal of your lives.