Commentary on the Mundaka Upanishad
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 3: Section 1

Now we go to Section 1 of Chapter 3. The same verse that occurred earlier, of the illustration of two birds perching on a single tree, is before us.

Dvā suparṇā sayujā sakhāyā samānaṁ vṛkṣam pariṣasvajāte tayor anyaḥ: pippalaṁ svādv atty anaśnann anyo’bhicakaśīti (3.1.1): There are two birds in this tree of life. This tree of life may be either this body of the individual, or it may be the entire creation itself. Ishvara and jiva are present in the world of creation, as well as in the human body. They are friends. God and the individual are like Nara and Narayana of ancient mythology. They are inseparable brothers, one perpetually connected with the other. They are compared to birds living on a single tree, which is this vast creation, and they enjoy their existence on the tree. The only difference is, one of these birds is busy enjoying the delicious fruit of this tree, and the other bird is not interested in eating anything. It is merely looking on, unconcerned and unattached.

This unattached bird is God, Ishvara, seated in our own hearts and everywhere in this world. The bird that is eating the sweet fruit of this tree is the individual soul, the mind-body complex. So there are two phases of experience going on in one’s own body: a consciousness that is totally detached, and a consciousness that is very much involved. The detached consciousness in us is called kutastha chaitanya. It stands uncontaminated even in the state of deep sleep, and enables us to regain our consciousness of identity of personality when we awake the next morning and feel that we are there.

This consciousness of our being the same person that we were yesterday is not the action of the mind, not of the sense organs, not of the body. The body cannot know anything because it is unconscious, and the mind and the senses were not functioning in sleep. So who told us that we existed yesterday? There is some minimal awareness, consciousness qua being, as it is called, which is our essence that existed in deep sleep, and which is responsible for our memory of the fact of our having existed yesterday also. That is the uncontaminated, detached consciousness in us. It is not connected with body, mind and sense organs. That is the Ishvara tattva that is in us. The jiva tattva is our own selves. The very consciousness that is contaminated by the body, mind and sense organs becomes the jiva. Consciousness connected with the sense organs, mind and body is the jiva—the individual, so-called. The detached consciousness, unconnected with these, is Ishvara himself because the general consciousness we experience in the state of deep sleep, unconnected with the senses, body and mind, is universal in its nature. Because consciousness cannot be located only in one place, cannot be divided into parts, cannot have fractions, it is therefore universal.

Hence, the Universal Being is inside us. In the deep sleep state we land ourselves on it, as it were, and feel the bliss of it so intensely that we do not like to wake up in the morning. So intense is the joy of sleep that we want to go to sleep again and again. But when we wake up, we are once again the jiva, the fruit-eating bird in this world-tree of samsara, and are not even conscious that there is another bird sitting there, always uncontaminated. Are we aware that we have a universal background in us? No, never. We always think we are this body, that body, this individual, that individual, performing this work and that work. Does anyone believe that there is a universal ocean at the back of our consciousness? We are floating on the sea of Absolute Being. Do we know that? Has anybody had time to think like this? No. Because we are eating the sweet fruit of life, we are very busy indeed. Let the Universal be there; what does it matter to us? So this bird that is eating the sweet fruit does not even know that another bird is sitting there, as it is so much engrossed in the indulgence of the bliss, joy, pleasure of eating the sweet fruit. These are the two birds.

Samāne vṛkṣe puruṣo nimagno’nīśayā śocati muhyamānaḥ, juṣṭam yadā paśyaty anyam īśam asya mahimānam iti, vīta- śokaḥ (3.1.2): Helplessly sunk in the apparent joy of the sweetness of the fruit, one of these birds is also, at the same time, sunk in sorrow, because we do not merely suck the fruit, the fruit also sucks us. We do not merely get stuck in the object, the objects sticks to us. The more we try to grab objects, the more will objects try to grab us, like crocodiles. If we try to grab a crocodile with our hands, it will grab us with greater force.

In the Upanishads, the sense organs are called graha because they grasp, and the objects are called atigraha, the greater grabbers. Our condition may be really pitiable if we give a long rope to these sense organs and allow them to go on grabbing objects, because the result would be that the objects will grab us with a greater force. The result would be utter helplessness, and one will be reduced to slavery to such an extent that it will be difficult to distinguish between oneself and the object outside. The slave is like an object; he has no subjectivity. He does not think in terms of himself; he always thinks in terms of his master. So we are like slaves thinking in terms of our master, which is this world of objects, and we have no independence ourselves. We are caught and bound in the chain of this helplessness caused by our indulgence in the objects which appear to be our masters. Samāne vṛkṣe puruṣo nimagno’nīśayā śocati muhyamānaḥ: Deluded is this bird that is indulging itself like this.

Juṣṭam yadā paśyaty anyam īśam: When by chance this indulgent bird has time to look around and see the other bird seated there, the most adorable Being, the moment we behold it, our bondage is snapped. The vision of God is also the end of all sorrow. The consciousness of universality is the cessation of attachment to particularity. But we are not able to maintain an awareness of this Universal in us. We cannot see that there is a bird called the Universal in us. We see only the object in front of us. The moment we become aware of the Universal bird, the consciousness of its existence will redeem us at once.

Juṣṭam yadā paśyaty anyam īśam asya mahimānam iti, vīta-śokah: When the glory of that Universal bird is seen, all the sorrow of indulgence and involvement in things in the world ceases at once, as night departs when the Sun rises. They are simultaneous, and do not come one after the other.

Yadā paśyaḥ paśyate rukma-varṇaṁ kartāram īśam puruṣam brahma-yonim, tadā vidvān puṇya-pāpe vidhūya nirañjanaḥ paramaṁ sāmyam upaiti (3.1.3): When this seer, the individual soul, beholds this glorious, luminous, radiant, Universal bird nearby—which is really the ruler, the originator, the controller of all things, which is the seat of Brahman itself, the Supreme Purusha, Mahapurusha, Purushottama—then the knower of this Universal bird sheds all the effects of punya and papa, merit and demerit. Freed from contact with the effects of good and bad deeds, one attains equality with the Universal. The moment we are conscious of the Universal, we have become one with the Universal.

Here, in this case, knowledge is the same as being. In ordinary life, knowledge is not being. If we know there is a lot of money in a bank, it does not follow that we possess that money. In ordinary life, knowledge is not power, and it is also not being. But here, knowledge is at the same time power and being. The being of the object is, at once, the being of the knowledge of that object. The knower of Brahman becomes Brahman. Universal equality is attained by the consciousness of there being such a thing called Universality. Therefore, we have to awaken ourselves to the consciousness of our true nature, which is Universal existence, and not this body-mind complex.

Prāṇo hy eṣa yaḥ sarva-bhūtair vibhāti vijānan vidvān bhavate nātivādī, ātma-krīḍa ātma-ratiḥ kriyāvān eṣa brahma-vidāṁ viriṣṭhaḥ (3.1.4): This great Hiranyagarbha Prana, the Universal life principle, is visible in the form of the life of every little creature in this world. Having known this, our mouths are shut and we will not speak afterwards. Like a drowning person whose mouth is filled with water, Eternity will fill us to such an extent that we will have no occasion to open our mouths, and we will not speak. Silence is golden. Not merely is it a policy, but it is a result that follows from the highest vision. The more we know, the less we speak. As it is said, it is only half-filled pots that make a lot of noise. One who is filled with this knowledge of the Universal Prana operating through all life in this world is the true knower, and he does not speak afterwards. What does he do then?

Ātma-krīḍa ātma-ratiḥ kriyāvān eṣa brahma-vidāṁ viriṣṭhah: He is the Knower supreme. He is the best of the knowers of Brahman. He rejoices not with things outside; he rejoices with himself—ātma-krīḍa. He plays with himself, he rejoices with himself, he works through himself, not with instruments outside. God does not have instruments like a pickaxe, a fountain pen, etc. By His very existence, He works. So is this knower of Brahman capable of working miracles in this world by his very existence. The words used here are brahma-vidāṁ viriṣṭhah, which means the best of the knowers of Brahman.

There are four stages of Brahman knowledge described in the Yoga Vasishtha, and these stages are called brahmavid, brahmavidvara, brahmavidvariya and brahmavidvarishta. There are seven stages of knowledge in the ascent of the spirit to God—shubhecha, vicharana, tanumanasi, sattvapatti, asamsakti, padartha-bhavana and turiya. The fourth stage is called sattvapatti, where light flashes from Brahman, and that condition of the awareness of the flash of light from Brahman is called the state of brahmavid. Then the next stage comes. When we are totally detached from everything on account of the perception of this light everywhere, that is brahmavidvara. When we see consciousness illuminating through every brick, every stone and every atom, that stage is brahmavidvariya. Then we feel that the light is scintillating within us also, and we become indistinguishable from this mass of light everywhere; that is turiya. Such a stage is called brahmavidvarishta. He plays with himself, he rejoices with himself, he is satisfied with himself, and he works through the soul, and not by any kind of external instruments. Such a great soul, a true knower of Brahman the Supreme, is called brahmavidvarishtaeṣa brahma-vidāṁ viriṣṭhah.

Satyena labhyas tapasā hy eṣa ātmā samyag-jñānena brahmacharyeṇa nityam, antaḥ-śarīre jyotir-mayo hi śubhro yam paśyanti yatayaḥ kṣīṇadoṣāḥ (3.1.5): The Atman is attained through truth, penance, correct knowledge, and brahmacharya (self-control), observed continuously without break. The Atman is beheld within in the form of light and purity by the austere ones who are freed from all kinds of sins.

Truth is adherence to fact, whether absolute or relative. It is proceeding along the way of the unity of existence. Relatively, it takes the form of acting in conformity with facts that are experienced through the process of individual knowledge. Absolutely, it is living in the light of the fact that Existence is absolute and indivisible. Falsehood is the opposite of truth, and is the result of clinging to the falsehood of individuality. Truth is the way of disintegrating the individual personality through presentation of the good and not the pleasant. Truth is that which is universally good; but falsehood, when it is deliberately resorted to for the fulfilment of a definite purpose, appears pleasant only to an individual or certain individuals. Falsehood, therefore, fattens the individuality, whereas truth breaks open the individuality and enables one to realise the Atman.

Tapas, or penance, in its true sense, consists in the withdrawal of the senses and the concentration of the mind. Austerity, or penance, is only a means to the end, and not the end itself. It is a means inasmuch as it disciplines the individual functions and directs them to meditation, which leads to wisdom and realisation. By tapas, what is meant is not merely bodily mortification, because bondage does not consist in the body, but in the mind that animates the body. The cause of bondage is the mind alone, and therefore the discipline of the mind is tapas.

Proper knowledge is equal vision, or perception of the one Atman in all. This is a function deeper than that of speaking truth or practising tapas. It is a function of the spirit which realises itself in every form of existence.

Brahmacharya is the method of the abstraction of sense-energy from the externals, and the conservation of the same for the sake of steadying the mind and giving it the energy necessary for the practice of concentration and meditation. Though the popular meaning of brahmacharya is continence, it really means leading a life befitting the nature of Brahman. It is, in other words, charya, or moving or acting or conducting oneself in accordance with the law of Brahman, which is the unity of existence. Such control is not merely the abandonment of objects, but is the absence of the taste for objects. Bondage is not caused by the existence of objects, but by the connection of the mind with those objects. In short, self-control is absence of sense-experience, giving rise to mental equilibrium, light, consciousness and joy.

These observances should be practised continuously without exceptions to the rules, and not practised for some time alone and with certain exceptions. These should be practised until the realisation of the Self, because the stoppage of such practices may lead to the assertion of individuality and impede the process of Self-realisation. The Upanishad says that the Atman is attained by those in whom there is no crookedness, no falsehood and no play of tricks.

This Atman is realised within oneself, and not outside oneself. Though the process of realisation is an inward one, the goal that is attained includes the outward also. Sadhana starts with an introversion of the mind, but in the end, the result achieved is not simply internal but is infinite. From the point of view of the individual, it is said that this Atman is realised in one’s own heart in the form of a splendid effulgence, perfectly pure and limitless in its nature, which is realised only by those who are free from attachments, sins, desires, and all kinds of greed. This realisation is effected through the practice of virtues such as truth, enumerated above. Sankara was of the opinion that only a Sannyasin—that is, a person of complete renunciation—will be able to achieve this Supreme End which requires of the aspirant a total transcendence of the universe.

Satyam eva jayate nānṛtam, satyena panthā vitato deva-yānaḥ, yenākramanty ṛṣayo hy āpta-kāmā yatra tat satyasya paramaṁ nidhānam (3.1.6). Truth alone triumphs, not falsehood. Through truth the divine path is spread out, by which the sages whose desires have been completely fulfilled reach to where that supreme treasure of Truth is. Truth is more than truth-speaking. Truth is the symbol of perfection, a representation of the Divine Being. Adherence to truth means embracing the universal nature of Reality. Therefore, truth wins victory everywhere. Truth is the essence of the Universal movement consisting of evolution and involution. Untruth is negative, whereas truth is positive. Through truth the consciousness blossoms into more expanded experience, but untruth attempts to stifle consciousness altogether and disallows the expansion of consciousness causing, at the same time, the hardening of individuality.

It is Truth through which the divine way, or the life of spiritual striving, is spread before the aspiring individuals. The universe, as a spiritual organism to be striven for, is brought into the consciousness of the individual through the practice of Truth. Truth is, in fact, the eye of the individual aspiring for the realisation of its Absolute nature. The sages got a vision of this Truth because they were absolutely free from defects such as deceit, delusion, fraud, pride, vanity and falsehood. They found the consummation of their desires and aspirations in this Absolute Truth. They became first desireless, and then sought the Truth. Desire breeds falsehood, and desirelessness gives rise to Truth. Truth enables one to attain the Supreme Treasure, which is the Absolute Truth.

Bṛhac ca tad divyam acintya-rūpaṁ sūkṣmāc ca tat sūkṣma-taraṁ vibhati, dūrāt sudūre tad ihāntike ca paśyatsv ihaiva nihitam guhāyām (3.1.7): Bṛhac is this Brahman, larger than space is its size; divyam: divinity supreme; acintya-rūpaṁ: unthinkable is its form; sūkṣmāc ca tat sūkṣma-taraṁ vibhati: subtler than the subtle is its inner subjectivity. First it was said it is larger than the largest. Now we are told it is subtler than the subtlest, smaller than the smallest.

Dūrāt sudūre tad ihāntike ca: Most remote it is, and also very near it is. It is as far from us as the horizon. We cannot touch it; we cannot know where it is. The horizon recedes further and further the more we move in its direction, and we will never touch it. The end of space cannot be seen. Space is so far, but this is even further. That is the distance between us and God. But it is so near because it is our very Self, the Atman.

Paśyatsv ihaiva nihitam guhāyām: It is in the cave of the heart of the individual, and also in the cave of the heart of the universe. It is the soul of the universe, and is also the soul of every individual being. The question of distance does not arise here in Consciousness. The ideas of remoteness and nearness, etc., arise from our living in space, time and objectivity. As there is no distance or measuring of separation of one thing from another, and there is no duration of time, and there is nothing external—neither space nor time, nor objectivity—the statement that it is farther than the farthest and nearer than the nearest has to be taken in the sense of a metaphor explaining that Brahman is everywhere and all things. It is the deepest root of our heart.

Na cakṣuṣā gṛhyate nāpi vācā nānyair devaiḥ tapasā karmaṇā vā, jñāna-prasādena viśuddha-sattvas tatas tu taṁ pasyate niṣkalaṁ dhyāyamānaḥ (3.1.8): Not with the eyes is it to be seen, not with the speech is it to be described. No god can help us in reaching it. We can worship any god, but we will reach only that god, and nothing beyond. All the gods were created after the manifestation of space and time. As they are effects, how can they know the cause? Brahman exists prior to all these gods, and so we cannot know it by worship of these divinities. We also cannot know it merely by intense tapas of the body and the mind without concentration of consciousness. Actions, which produce perishable fruit, also cannot take us there because, as already mentioned in earlier verses, the perishable results of karma cannot take us to the Imperishable. Not by eyes, not by speech, not by worship of divinities, not by sheer austerity, not by actions of any kind is this Brahman to be known. Not by work, not by progeny, not by wealth can this world of Brahman be attained. Only by true renunciation can it be attained.

Jñāna-prasādena viśuddha-sattvas tatas tu taṁ pasyate niṣkalaṁ dhyāyamānaḥ: By knowledge alone is this Brahman realised. How is this knowledge attained? It is attained by the dispersal of the clouds that are covering consciousness in the form of ignorance, desire, and impulsion to action. As already mentioned, they are called avidya, kama and karma, the three grantis, three knots.

There were three cities of three demons, called Tripuras, as is elaborately described in the Siva Puranas and also in the Drona Parva of the Mahabharata. One city was built of iron, another of silver, the third of gold, and they were all suspended in space. The power of the demons occupying these cities was such that nobody could face them; they controlled even the gods. Lord Siva struck down these three cities with one arrow. These demons had great powers obtained by drinking from a nectarine pot in their house every day. As long as they drank the nectar, nobody could face them. So Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra joined together and hatched some plan to see that these three cities were destroyed, which could not easily be done. Brahma became a cow with a calf, and drank the nectar in their house, and when the demons returned they found the pot empty. Vishnu became the arrow to ensure that it would hit the target, and Rudra used his bow to shoot the arrow of Vishnu, which went straight to the three cities and destroyed them at one stroke, just as Rama cut down seven trees suddenly, abruptly, with the force of the single arrow that he discharged, as told in the Kishkinda Kanda of the Ramayana.

In a similar manner, we have to break this fortress of avidya, kama and karma in our hearts. They are not easy of overcoming. The profundity of our ignorance is known very well. We can never have even an inkling of the existence of God anywhere in this world. We have to scratch our heads day in and day out to bring into our minds the little faith that God must be existing. Otherwise, for all practical purposes, He does not exist. Who is going to think of God day in and day out? We have other works, and therefore this idea never arises. Such is the depth of our ignorance, and the impulsion of our desires. This must be done, that must be done, this project, that project, this industry, and so on. We set up plants to increase industry. We have so many desires, so many desires, because the idea of God has gone and action immediately rises like a whirlwind. We are busy with what we are doing every day due to our desires, created by the ignorance of the existence of God. Avidya, kama and karma cannot easily be broken. We require Rudra’s power and Vishnu’s arrow, and the nectar, which is the joy of the sense objects, should be cut by the discriminating faculty of the intellect, which is the seat of Brahma. Knowledge alone is the source of this dispelling of ignorance: jñāna-prasādena viśuddha-sattvas.

Tatas tu taṁ pasyate niṣkalaṁ dhyāyamānaḥ: Then with deep meditation we will thus know that radiance which is within us and that radiance which is spreading itself around. The whole world is the radiance of Brahman.

Eṣo’ṇur ātmā cetasā veditavyo yasmin prāṇaḥ pañcadhā saṁviveśa, prāṇaiś cittaṁ sarvaṁ otam prajānām, yasmin viśuddhe vibhavaty eṣa ātmā (3.1.9): This subtle Atman is to be known only through intuition, in which the mind, the intellect and the sense organs stand together as if they melt into a single faculty. The mind thinks, the intellect understands, the eyes see, the ears hear, and so on, but intuition, or insight, is a single faculty which operates as sight, hearing, thinking, understanding, and everything that the other functions are capable of reporting to us. Intuition is actually the soul operating from inside. The soul has no eyes and ears; therefore, the knowledge which the soul manifests from itself is not seeing, hearing, etc. It is direct, immediate apprehension. Here the word ‘chetas’ is used to signify the deepest intuition possible.

Yasmin prāṇaḥ pañcadhā saṁviveśa: The fivefold pranas and the mind are all located in this central function. The five pranas are prana, apana, vyana, udhana and samana. Prāṇaiś cittaṁ sarvaṁ otam prajānām: The mind is enveloped by the powers of the sense organs, and amidst these functions there is the Atman shining independently of these separated functions, and yet causing the functions to take place independently. As the Sun who has no colour may appear as sevenfold in colour when its light is passed through a prism, for instance, the single faculty of intuitional apprehension may look like sensory operations, mental thinking, intellectual understanding, etc., because of the prism-like action taking place in the psyche of the individual through which the integral light of the Atman passes. This integral light is called intuition, insight, direct experience, etc. Subtle is this Atman, capable of being known only through inward intuition in which all the pranas and the sense organs are located, and in which the mind, together with sense organs, is fixed, in the midst of which this Atman shines.

Yam yaṁ lokam manasā saṁvibhātivi śuddha-sattvaḥ kāmayate yāṁś ca kāmān, taṁ taṁ lokaṁ jāyate tāṁś ca kāmāṁs tasmād ātmajñaṁ hy arcayed bhūti-kāmaḥ (3.1.10): When we apprehend this Self in direct experience, whatever we wish to have will be in our hand. Whatever world we want to reach will be reached by us instantaneously. It may be the highest heaven, and we shall be there instantly. Ancient rishis were of this power. Narada can traverse through all the worlds as we can move through all the countries in this world with a vehicle. They have the capacity to adjust their spiritual personality to the conditions, laws and regulations of the different worlds. When they descend into the gross world, they adjust their personality into the gross conditions necessary; when they go to the heavenly world, they make their whole personality subtle, and they can even reach Brahmaloka as well. Narada is the son of Brahma himself. He can go to Vaikuntha and accost Narayana. So is the case with the knower of Brahman: yam yaṁ lokam manasā saṁvibhāti.

Taṁ taṁ lokaṁ jāyate: All regions come under the control of this knower of Brahman. And all the visualisations through the mind as objects of desire also get fulfilled in an instant. There is no time process. The objects of desire do not come tomorrow, they come just now; and we do not reach a place after some time, but immediately. A spaceless movement and a timeless achievement of purpose follows from the realisation of the Atman, which is eternity and space-like identity.

Therefore, it is proper for all people to worship the knower of Brahman. Because of the power of that person, the glory and greatness of that person who has known the Self, his blessing is wonderful. His blessing itself is a great virtuous benefit that accrues to us, because even to come in contact with a great soul should be regarded as the result of some meritorious deeds of the past. We shall not come in contact with anything worthwhile if our karmas do not permit.

Thus, the verse says that whatever world we contemplate in our mind, that we shall reach immediately, and whatever we think in our mind, that also will be materialised at once because of the power of the knowledge of the Atman. Hence, the knower of the Atman should be worshipped by everybody who is intent on their own welfare.