Commentary on the Mundaka Upanishad
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 1: Section 1

This is the Mundaka Upanishad – very interesting.

Brahmā devānām prathamaḥ sambabhūva viśvasya kartā bhuvanasya goptā, sa brahma-vidyāṁ sarva-vidyā-pratiṣṭham arthavāya jyeṣṭha-putrāya prāha (1.1.1). Artharvaṇe yām pravadeta brahmātharvā tām purovācāṅgire brahma-vidyam, sa bhāradvājaya satyavāhāya prāha bhāradvājo’ngirase parāvarām (1.1.2). Brahma, the Creator, who was the first born among all evolutes in the process of the manifestation of God Almighty, the creator of this world and the protector of all beings, taught Brahma Vidya – the science of Brahman, which is the origin, the support, and the foundation of every other learning, every other Vidya or science or art – to his eldest son Atharva, a great sage. Artharva taught this Knowledge that he received from Brahma to another sage, called Angi. This great sage Angi, who received it from Atharva, who received it from Brahma, gave this Knowledge to Bharadvaja, another great sage. This is the line of the descent of this Knowledge. Bharadvaja, also known as Satyavaha, taught this once again to Angiras, the wisdom of Paravara, the high and low. This Knowledge includes everything that is here and also everything that is not here. The highest Reality as it is in itself and also the reality manifest in the form of creation is Para-Avara. This Brahma Vidya is the Knowledge and study of this great Reality which appears as Para and Avara, the high and the low at the same time.

An assembly of all the sages is reported to have been frequently held in a place called Naimisharanya. These sessions took place many times, and the teachings of the Epics and Puranas, and the great scriptures, were given by great teachers such as Sutapuranica, who is the speaker in the Mahabharata as well as the Puranas. And one of the sages assembled there listening to these discourses was Saunaka.

We will find that in the Puranas the questioner is always Saunaka. Saunaka was a great sage who performed large sacrifices, and his sacrificial ground was very big. Therefore, he was called Saunaka Mahashala. Shala is the sacrificial ground, and mahashala means a large ground, even kilometres long. At least hundreds and hundreds of yagnas and sacrifices did Saunaka Maharishi perform, and usually these discourses were conducted in the very place where the yagnas were held. On one side of the pandal or tent of the yagnashala, the actual havan, yagna, sacrifice would be performed by the appointed priests, and on the other side discourses would be going on. Even the recitation of the Mahabharata by Vaishambayana was done on the sacrificial ground.

Janamejaya performed a Sarpa Yaga, a yagna which he undertook to vindicate the death of his father Parikshit, who died on account of a snake bite. Janamejaya's anger towards snakes was such that when he heard that his father died in that way, he determined to end the species completely and conducted a yagna called Sarpa Yaga, which did not succeed in the end on account of some interference. At that time Vyasa was present, and he told his disciple Vaishampayana to tell the whole story of the Mahabharata to Janamejaya, who was eager to know what exactly happened to his forefathers the Pandavas, whose progeny was Parikshit, his father. Similarly, the Puranas were recited by Suta, a learned sage in the Naimisharanya forest, which is near the modern Neemsar, somewhere around Sitapur.

Saunaka, the great sage, the Mahashala, the performer of large sacrifices, stood up in the assembly and queried the great sage Angiras, who received this Brahma Vidya through a descending line of teaching commencing from Brahma, the Creator himself. Humbly, respectfully, in a traditional manner, this great sage Saunaka Mahashala approached Angiras, the great master who was in the audience. He put a question. What is the question? Great Master, holy Sage, kasmin nu bhagavo vijñāte sarvam idaṁ vijñātam bhavati iti (1.1.3): What is that, by knowing which, one can know everything else also?

Is it possible to know something which can lead to the knowledge of all things at the same time? Generally, such a thing is not possible. If you know one thing, you will know only that thing. The knowledge of ‘A’ does not involve the knowledge of ‘B’, because ‘A’ cannot be ‘B’. One thing cannot be another thing; it is a law of contradiction in logic. So what is this question? A supernatural question is raised by Saunaka Mahashala: What is that thing which will, at the same time, mean the knowledge of all things? It was a simple question, leading to an answer which is the entire Upanishad.

To the sage who queried in this manner, the master Angiras speaks. Tasami sa hovāca: dve vidye veditavye iti ha sma yad brahmavido vadanti, parā caivāparā ca (1.1.4): Two kinds of knowledge are to be acquired – dve vidye – the higher and the lower. We have to know what higher knowledge is, and we also have to know lower knowledge. This is what we hear from Brahmavids, the great knowers of Brahman. This is the instruction we have received from the Brahmavid with regard to how knowledge can be acquired or obtained. Knowledge of the lower is important, though lower knowledge is not the same as higher knowledge. The lower knowledge is something like the legs of a human being; and a human being can live even without legs. Legs are not essential to the body, but they are necessary for the body. In a similar manner, the lower knowledge is not going to take us to Brahman, but it is necessary as feet are necessary for us, and its essentials need not be overemphasised with an overwhelming feeling of their importance, giving no credit to that which will lead to that essential knowledge.

All knowledge is the graduated training of the mind in the process of enlightenment. From the perceptible, visible, gross, tangible and acceptable reality, we gradually move the mind to that which is not easily acceptable and cannot be understood as quickly as we can understand that which is seen with the eyes directly. That the Sun is giving light to us, it is now daytime, and the Sun rose at a particular hour in the morning, is something acceptable. But that the Sun gives light to all parts of the world at different times in a very systematic manner is something that cannot be seen with the eyes directly. It requires a little imagination and intensive study to know this other fact involved in the illumination given by the Sun on the Earth, as it is not actually accessible to vision physically. There are degrees of knowledge, and there are as many degrees of knowledge as there are degrees of the psychic setup of a human being. We have to pass through as many stages of education as are the stages which compose our own mind. The mental degree is also the degree of reality that it will encounter in the process of enlightenment and education. Saunaka put a question regarding what knowledge is, and Angiras said there are two types of knowledge, the lower and the higher. Now we are told what lower knowledge is.

Now listen about lower knowledge. Tatrāparā ṛg-vedo yajur-vedaḥ sāma-vedo’tharva-vedaḥ śikṣā kalpo vyākaraṇaṁ niruktaṁ chando jyotiṣam iti (1.1.5). Very interesting! It gives a blow to the very root of our imagination that the Vedas are the highest knowledge. The Rigveda Samhitas, and everything connected to the Rigveda – the Brahmanas, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharvaveda – are all lower knowledge only, my dear friend. There are four Vedas. The Rigveda consists of hymns, prayers, mantras. The Yajurveda consists of certain invocations necessary for the performance of sacrifice. The Samaveda is Rig-verses set in music. The Athavaveda contains such material as may be regarded as a sequel or an appendix to the tri, or the threefold Vedas – Rigveda, Yajurveda and Samaveda.

These four Vedas are not easy to understand. Their language is difficult, their grammar is very hard, and the implications of what they say are so deep that without proper introductory learning, one cannot know what the Vedas speak at all. This introductory training consists of what is called the Vedanga, a sixfold education. The anga or the limb of the Veda is sixfold, and we cannot approach the Veda unless we are proficient in these six accessories called the Vedanga.

What are these six Vedangas? Śikṣā kalpo vyākaraṇaṁ niruktaṁ chando jyotiṣam iti (1.1.5). Siksha is the science of phonetics, the art of intonation and modulation of the voice in the recitation of a Veda mantra. You might have heard Panditas chanting mantras of the Veda. It has a way of pronunciation, an articulation, a modulation, and a raising of the voice or a bringing down of the voice, or keeping the voice in a harmonious manner without raising it or bringing it down. These are called the sciences of giving a special meaning to the mantra.

You may be wondering what the great point is in intonating the mantra. “Oh God, protect me.” I can say that in any way I like. Why should I sing it in a particular tone? The reason is the Veda mantras are composed in such a way that different intonations give them different suggestions. Even when we speak, our mode of speaking gives a special significance to the words. We can utter a sentence with different voice formations which may mean different things depending on the different ways of expression. Sometimes we gesticulate, and sometimes we change the tone of voice by raising, lowering or modulating it in such a way that conveys different meanings. For instance, when we say something when we are happy or unhappy, or when we are angry or want to abuse somebody, we know how our voice changes. Likewise, a special kind of technique has been adopted by the science of Siksha, attributed to Panini, the great grammarian, which instructs us in the art of the correct intonation and pronunciation of a Veda mantra, especially the first three Vedas – the Rigveda, Yajurveda and Samaveda.

Kalpa means the performance of a ritual connected with a specific injunction of the Veda, especially of the Brahmanas. We have seen Acharyas, Purohitas performing havana. While chanting they put something here, there, such as dharbha grass here, water there, they will do achamanam, wash their hands, put some rice grains there, and so many other things. These are certain techniques of ritual which are elaborately described in Kalpa Sutras. The Kalpa Sutras are of four types: Shrauta Sutras, Grhya Sutras, Dharma Sutras and Sulba Sutras.

The Shrauta Sutra is a text which describes the manner of the performance of sacrifices according to Vedic injunctions. The Grhya Sutras is connected with sacrifices and performances to be undertaken in one’s own house, and not in some big yagnashala. The Dharma Sutra is that Kalpa which gives us the rules and regulations of social and ethical life, such as Varnashrama Dharma, etc. The Sulpa Sutras describe the length, measurement, etc., of certain articles that are to be used in Vedic sacrificial methods. These are the four types of Kalpa Sutra.

Vyakarana is grammar. There are two types of grammar – classical grammar and Vedic grammar. In Panini’s method both types of grammar are found. Vedic grammar is studied only in advance stages. Students of Sanskrit usually study only classical works and the well-known Vyakarana. Unless we know the technology of the method by which words have been used in the Veda mantras, we will not make any sense out of them, and so Vyakarna, the study of grammar, is necessary.

Nirukta is the etymology of the word, how the word has been formed. Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, this, that – what is actually meant by these words? They have a root. As every word in a language has a root from which it is derived, Vedic words also have a root from where they arise. The Nirukta Shastra of Bhaskaracharya is the great textbook which goes into the details of the etymology of the roots of the words used in the Veda mantras.

Chhanda is the metre. Every verse, every mantra of the Rigveda Samhita particularly, varies in its metre. It is long or short; it is Gayatri Chhandas or Tristubh, and so on, and accordingly the intonation also changes. So, metre is the Chhandas.

Jyotisha is the astronomical science which tells us at what particular time of the conjunction of the stars or the planets we have to undertake a particular ritual or a sacrifice. It does not mean that on any day we can do some worship and on any day we can do some havanam, and so on. A particular havan or yagna should be done at a particular time, in consonance with the respective conjunction of the planets and the stars. That is Jyotisha, the shastra of astronomy.

We cannot go to the Veda directly and understand anything out of it unless we are proficient in these six auxiliary shastras or scriptures called śikṣā kalpo vyākaraṇaṁ niruktaṁ chando jyotiṣam. All these, says the great master, together with the original Vedas – Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda – should be considered as ways of lower knowledge. They purify our mind, and enlighten us into the mysteries of the whole of creation. They will purify our mind because of the power that is embedded in the mantras and the emotional or religious awareness that is stimulated within us on account of the meaning that we see in the mantra, the blessing that we receive from the sages who composed the mantra, and also the special power that is generated by the metre. All these put together create a religious atmosphere in the person who takes to the study of the Veda. It is great and grand, worth studying. It will lift us to the empyrean of a comprehension of values that are not merely physical but superphysical.

Yet, it is not enough. There is a ‘but’ behind it. What is that greater knowledge, which is higher than this mentioned? Atha parā yayā tad akṣaram adhigamyate (1.1.5): that is the higher knowledge with which alone can we reach the imperishable Reality. Learning is different from wisdom; scholarship is not the same as insight. One may be a learned Vedic scholar and very proficient in the performance of sacrifices and the invocation of gods in the heavens, but eternity is different from temporality. All these glories of the Veda are in the region of time, and the eternal is timeless. What is that timeless thing, that which is called Imperishable?

Yat tad adreśyam, agrāhyam, agotram, avarṇam, acakṣuḥ-śrotraṁ tad apāṇi-padam, nityam vibhum sarva-gataṁ susūkṣmaṁ tad avyayam yad bhūta-yonim paripaśyanti dhīrāḥ (1.1.6): That great Reality is to be encountered in direct experience; that Reality which is not capable of perception through the eyes – adreśyam; that which cannot be grasped with a hand – agrāhyam; that which has no origin – agotram; that which has no shape or form – avarnam; which has no sense organs like us – acakṣuḥ-śrotraṁ; no limbs such as feet, hands etc – tad apāṇi-padam; permanent, eternal, all-pervading, subtler than the subtlest – nityam vibhum sarva-gataṁ susūkṣmaṁ; imperishable – tad avyayam; the origin of all beings – bhūta-yonim; paripaśyanti dhīrāḥ – heroes on the path of the spirit will behold that great Reality within their own selves.

Yathorṇa-nābhiḥ sṛjate gṛhṇate ca, yathā pṛthivayām oṣadhayas sambhavanti, yathā sataḥ puruṣāt keśalomāni tathākṣarāt sambhavatīha viśvam (1.1.7). From this Eternal Being, this world, this universe, has emanated. How does the world come from God? We have seen a spider spitting threads from its own body. From its saliva, as it were, threads come out, and it weaves a web around itself. Or we have seen trees spontaneously growing from under the earth, or we have seen hair growing on the head. In some such way is the manner of the creation of this world.

Tathākṣarāt sambhavatīha viśvam. These analogies have some significance of their own. The spider does not create the web from external material. The upadana is the same as the nimitha, as they say. The instrumental cause is the same as the material cause in the case of the spider weaving a web. In the case of the potter making a pot, the instrumental cause is not the same as the material cause; and so is the case with the carpenter making the furniture. That is to say, the potter does not make the pot out of a substance coming from his body, and so is the case with the carpenter. But in the case of the spider, the creation of the web materially emanates from the very body of the spider, and so here the material cause is identical with the instrumental cause; they are not not two different things. God does not create the world as a carpenter or a potter does; the substance of God is verily present in the creation. That illustration is brought out by this analogy of a spider creating a web.

Yathā pṛthivayām oṣadhayas sambhavanti: Or another analogy. Trees grow from the earth; they draw sustenance from the earth. The original support of all the trees is the substance of the earth. This analogy tells us that the world is sustained by God, and all the values of the world come from God only, and He is the soul of all that He creates.

There is also the analogy of hair growing. When we behold rocks, stones, inanimate matter existing in this world, we sometimes have difficulty connecting inanimate things with animate consciousness. How can animate, conscious God create inanimate stuff? This analogy brings out the possibility of inanimate things coming from animate consciousness, as hair grows from animate skin and becomes inanimate so that we can shave it off, or dead nails projecting themselves forth from animate roots, and the like. From consciousness, apparently unconscious things can also emanate.

These difficulties are solved by analogies of this kind – namely, a spider’s web, the trees growing from the earth, and the hair growing from the body. Like that, please understand that eternity produces temporality. To put it in modern scientific language, the four-dimensional reality creates the three-dimensional world of length, breath and height.

Tapasā cīyate brahma, tato’nnam abhijāyate, annāt prāṇo manaḥ satyaṁ lokāḥ karmasu cāmṛtam (1.1.8). In one verse the whole of creation is described. Brahman, the Supreme Absolute, distends, swells – becomes large, as it were – by tapas. Tapas means concentration. Brahman’s concentration is the will to create. It becomes extended in the form of the contemplated shape of creation, as it were. When we think something, the mind takes the form of that thing which we think. Now the Supreme Absolute thinks, wills, concentrates itself upon the shape which creation has to take, and that is the swelling or the extending or the becoming large of Brahman in tapas. The swelling or the extension of being in tapas also means the increase in the potentiality of the one that concentrates. In the case of Brahman, it would mean the contemplation of the form of the world which has to be created in the future. In the case of people like us, tapas would mean the intensity of heat generated inside by the concentration of the mind and the prana.

Tapasā cīyate brahma, tato’nnam abhijāyate. Very mystical are these words. The meanings of the terms in the Upanishads of those times are not to be taken in a dictionary sense. They are highly connotative. Here it is mentioned that when Brahman concentrates itself in tapas, anna is created. From the point of view of ordinary linguistic exposition, anna means food, anything that is eaten. But in the Upanishads, anna does not mean just what we eat. It is something more than that. The material content of consciousness is called anna. The content of the consciousness which takes the shape of the content in the act of concentration creates an anna for it. The object of thought is the food of thought. Anything that we think is the diet of the psychic process. And here in the case of Brahman, the potential material, the matrix of all creation – we may call it Mula Prakriti in the language of Sankhya and Vedanta, etc. – there must be some stuff which has to manifest itself in the form of creation. The concretisation of the will itself is the stuff; or rather, anna may be taken in the sense of the substantiation of the will of God. It has to take effect. The implementation of the ideation of the Absolute is the food, the content, the shape or the form of this tapas. Anna is produced in this manner. Cosmic potentiality is created by the concentrating act of Brahman as tapas. That is the meaning of tapasā cīyate brahma, tato’nnam abhijāyate. When this potential in the form of a concrete substantiality of will wields itself, it immediately vibrates into the form of the future shape in a more distinct form, with creation as space.

In the Panchadasi we have a very clear-cut description of how this kind of manifestation takes place. Brahman is like a canvas on which somebody paints a picture. It is the background of everything. If we invoke the canvas with some consciousness, we may imagine that in order to paint on it, the canvas has to concentrate itself on the thickening process that has to take place by applying starch to it, because painting cannot be done on an ordinary cloth. There should not be pores in the canvas. So in order to paint a picture, the cloth of canvas is stiffened with starch. This stiffening is the process of the will, and it is the anna that is spoken of here.

Then there is prana, the vibration. The painter’s mind vibrates in the form of the outline of the picture that it is intending to draw. But if we do not bring the question of the painter in the case of Brahman because Brahman Itself is the painter here, Brahman itself visualises, in the form of the vibratory process of its will, the outline of the creation that has to take place. After the outline is drawn, ink is thrown over it. It is filled with ink. Then the creation is complete. Likewise, there is first of all a will or an idea wherein the painter – or Brahman, in the case of this verse – has the idea of what it has to become, and then it stiffens itself into the will by tapas, concentration, as a painter would concentrate on the painting that has to be done, and then there is a vibratory force of prana. Here the word ‘prana’ indicates the cosmic prana, or Hiranyagarbha Tattva. Hiranyagarbha is prana, the cosmic vibration of the energy of Brahman through the manifested stuff called anna or potentiality. Then there is a further diversification of this concentrated universal prana in the form of thinking. We may compare this manas, or thinking, of Brahman to Virat Svarupa, which has emanated from the outline of the creative process available in Hiranyagarbha. In the cosmic mind, which is Virat, everything is clear. It is the ink-filled picture, as it were.

Satyaṁ – the words are all very intricate. Their meanings cannot be understood superficially. We have to go deep into the subject, with the help of commentaries. Satya is the order and law of the universe that come together with the manifestation of these gods, Hiranyagarbha and Virat. The law and order of the universe are also created simultaneously. The unified integration of the cosmic prana, Hiranyagarbha or Virat, is the principle behind the law and order that has to operate in the manifested universe.

As we have a constitution of a government, it is an integrated thought of the central law authority that manifests itself as diversified forms of manifestation in various departments until it goes to the lowest level of administration. Then the world is created – lokāḥ – the fourteen worlds, which are made up of the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether. Karmasu cāmṛtam: Then action proceeds there. That is to say, individuals emerge from this cosmic manifestation of the five elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether; then āmṛta, the fruit of actions.

Thus, how many things are there? Firstly, there is the Supreme Absolute. Secondly, there is anna, or the potential for the future manifestation in the form of tapas. Thirdly, there is Hiranyagarbha, the vibratory cosmic prana. Fourthly, there is thinking, which is the cosmic thought identifiable with Virat. Fifthly, there is law and order. Sixthly, there is the manifestation of the fourteen worlds. Seventhly, there is individuality, the individuals or jivas, who are propelled towards action and karma. Eighthly, there is fruit of action. So there are eight degrees: Brahman, Anna, Prana, Manas, Satya, Loka, Karma, Amruta. Look at this wonderful thing! It is like a sutra, one thirty-two lettered verse giving us the whole scheme of creation from Brahman to dust. Look at the power of the composer of this mantra. Great thing indeed! Tapasā cīyate brahma, tato’nnam abhijāyate, annāt prāṇo manaḥ satyaṁ lokāḥ karmasu cāmṛtam. Very difficult verse.

Yaḥ sarvajñaḥ sarva-vid yasya jñānamayaṁ tapaḥ; tasmād etad brahma nāma-rūpam annaṁ ca jāyate (1.1.9). That great being is sarvajñaḥ and sarva-vid. According to the commentator, sarvajñaḥ and sarva-vid mean two different things. Though the literal meaning of both words is ‘all-knowing’, the denotative or the connotative meaning is that being which knows everything in general as also in particular. This is Acharya Sankara’s interpretation. God knows everything in general and also in particular. Somebody asked me a question: “Does God know that a cat is moving in the kitchen?” I said, “He not only knows the movement of the cat, but He also knows how many hairs the cat has.” This is the direct knowledge of even the minutest details of even an atom.

But God does not just dissipate Himself in the knowledge of particulars. There is a general control over the whole of creation, and there He has a cosmic generality of knowledge. A great cosmic order is in His mind. This is the sarvajñaḥ or the generality of the knowledge of God. But the particularity is every little detail, even to counting the number of hairs of a person or the breaths that he breathes. That also is known to Him. Can we imagine what kind of knowledge God must have? How many creatures are there in this creation: gods, human beings, demons, subhuman creatures, insects, and what not? How many leaves on the tree? He will count them. Unimaginable power of comprehension! So God knows everything in general as well as in particular. That is the meaning of being sarvajñaḥ and sarva-vid.

Yasya jñānamayaṁ tapaḥ. We are told that God concentrated Himself. He was doing tapas. What kind of tapas did He do? Did he perform austerity by starving? His knowledge is His tapas. His wisdom, His knowledge, His consciousness, His intention, His purpose, His awareness – that is tapas. The knowledge of God is also the action of God. The awareness of God is also the concentration of God. The existence of God is the same as His work. So His tapas is knowledge. The greatest tapas is the concentration of knowledge, and every other tapas is secondary – yasya jñānamayaṁ tapaḥ.

Tasmād etad brahma nāma-rūpam annaṁ ca jāyate. From this great being, Brahman, Absolute, emanates the secondary Brahman. In the language of scholastic philosophers it is prakriti, as is mentioned in the Bhagavadgita. Here Brahma does not mean supreme Brahman but prakriti, the matrix of things. Then name and form manifest themselves – nāma-rūpam. The inward characteristic of an object is called nama, and its outward characteristic is called rupa. The indication, the determining factor of a particular shape that an individual has to take is called linga sharira in our case, and the subtle body is called the sukshma sharira. Here, nama does not simply mean a name such as Rama, Krishana and Govindha; it is the indicative linga, or the specific character, of the would-be individual in the form of a body. Rupa is the actual physical form. Thus, the subtle and the physical shapes emanate as nama and rupa from this original Brahma, Mula Prakriti. Annaṁ ca jāyate: The field of action is created. Here anna means actual matter is the field of particular individual action for the jivas to reap their fruits according to their deeds. This is also a great verse. In one verse so many things are there.

These nine verses constitute one section of the Upanishad. Very concentrated is the teaching. The verses are only nine, but so much has been said in these nine verses that we may say that these nine verses themselves are a kind of Upanishad. You can commit the whole thing to memory and meditate on the implication, the suggestive meanings of these verses, and it will form a complete meditation for you.