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Gems from Mundaka Upanishad


Om! O gods, may we hear auspicious words with the ears; while engaged in sacrifices, may we see auspicious things with the eyes; while praising the gods with steady limbs, may we enjoy a life that is beneficial to the gods.

May Indra of ancient fame be auspicious to us; may the supremely rich (i.e. all-knowing) Pusha (God of the earth) be propitious to us; may Garuda, the destroyer of evil, be well disposed towards us; may Brahaspati ensure our welfare.

Om! Peace! Peace! Peace!

Shaunaka, a wise and prosperous householder, and seeker after the Truth, approached sage Angirasa and humbly asked: "O adorable sir, which is that thing which having been known, all this becomes known? (And nothing else remains to be known.)" [I.i.3]

These two lines from the great Mundaka Upanishad contain such a vast wealth of knowledge that many a page can easily be written on them.

A householder, having enjoyed Dharma, Artha, and Kama (the three of the four Purusharthas) now is desirous of seeking the ultimate knowledge, which is beyond the purview of these efforts and gains. And that knowledge is the fourth Purushartha - the Moksha or the Final Liberation. The householder has lived true to his Dharma; has sought joys and pleasures of life according to righteous living and earning. He has performed sacrifices and rites according to the injunctions of the scriptures. He held positions of privileges and honour; has acquired progeny, fame, and name, but still he is not satisfied. Something is missing in his life; something still eludes him that is of ultimate value. He has yet to know Brahman or Atman. He has therefore become a mumukshu - the seeker after the Truth.

Therefore, with due humility he approaches the sage who has gained the final Liberation, who has the knowledge of Brahman. He seeks the spiritual knowledge from a spiritual teacher. Therefore, this question: "Does there exist a single substance that is the cause of the whole Universe of diversity; by knowing which one substance all things become known?"

A Guru-Shishya relationship is thus established; the calf has approached the cow, the milk is sure to flow from her udders.

The noble and loving Guru replies:

"There are two kinds of knowledge to be acquired - the higher (para vidya) and the lower (apara vidya); this is what, as tradition runs, the knowers of the import of the Vedas say." [I.i.4]

Here we can see that the Guru does not answer the question directly; instead of telling the disciple that 'Brahman if known, everything else becomes known', he says that what we ordinarily think as knowledge is in fact a lower knowledge. And then there is that higher knowledge, which leads the aspirant to that 'thing' knowing which everything else becomes known. As a matter of fact, soon the wise person, on realization of Brahman also realizes that that higher knowledge itself is Brahman!

Thus the Rishi adopts a gradual process of clearing the doubts, and leads the aspirant from ignorance to truth, from darkness to light. The whole Upanishad is thus a revelation of Knowledge from lower knowledge (apara vidya) to higher knowledge (para vidya).

Describing the lower knowledge, the sage explains: "Of these the lower comprises the four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva Veda); the science of pronunciation, the code of rituals, grammar, etymology, meter, astrology, and various other sciences. Then there is the higher knowledge by which is attained that Imperishable - Brahman." [1.i.5]

Immediately a question would rise in our mind: "How come the Vedas have become lower knowledge!" If this is so, why should we call them sacred? No, no, the Vedas must be included in the higher knowledge. However, here the Rishi means mere book learning when he includes the Vedas in lower category. The "higher knowledge" points to that knowledge of the Imperishable (Brahman) that is imparted only by the Upanishads, i.e. the revealed knowledge, and not merely an assemblage of words found in the books called Upanishads.

What is perceived at the higher state of realization? The aspirant experiences that which cannot be perceived or grasped with ordinary five senses. He comes face to face with that Reality which is without features, eyes or ears; which has neither hands nor feet; which is eternal, all pervading, infinite and without beginning or end. It is of extremely subtle nature, uniformly one without parts, neither diminishing nor increasing, and which is the source of all that we perceive as this universe. From that transcendental Brahman originates immanent Brahman of name, form, and colour. [I.i.6]

At our present state of ignorance, we do not understand the transcendental aspect or spiritual nature of Brahman and, therefore, think it to be non-existent. Then this world or universe of matter becomes the absolute or final reality or existence or truth for us. This is called ignorance or avidya. This ever-changing world we try to explore for its meaning and content, for the interrelations of various objects and phenomena therein; thus coming up with physical sciences, art and literature, music and language we pride ourselves in thinking and claiming that we have understood everything. Thus, apara vidya or lower knowledge itself becomes the focus of our study, struggle, endeavours, and actions. These actions known as karmas further complicate the matter producing desires, impressions, and results, which are responsible for the perpetual cycle of life and death.

A few of us (less ignorant may be!) engage in actions led down in the scriptures and take to sacrificial rites, rituals, (for example: Agnihotra, etc.) These righteous karmas, as enjoined in the Vedas, offer these aspirants the fruits of their actions in the form of pleasures on the heights of heaven. However, soon even these yogis, hankering after the fruits of actions, enter the lower world of cause and effect, of joy and sorrow after the fruits of their actions are exhausted. Thus, not only this earthly world, but also the long life of immense pleasure in heaven is not enough to liberate a person from the painful clutches of birth and death.

Therefore, a time comes in the life of every sadhaka when he or she realizes the futility of seeking sense pleasures alone, of getting engrossed in material pursuits, of acquisition of name and fame, progeny and wealth. Such discriminating aspirant becomes disgusted with life on earth and in heaven, and retires to forest (becomes inwardly oriented) or becomes a sannyasin. He or she has renounced everything not in hopeless pessimism but, like Shaunaka, he tries to seek that 'knowing which nothing else remains to be known.' Knowing which the sorrowful cycle of birth and death, pain and pleasure can be broken forever. The aspirant becomes the seeker after the higher Truth, the truth of Purusha or Brahman. [II.ii.11]
A bird was hopping on an immense tree having innumerable branches and huge foliage. The branches were laden with fruits of different sizes and shapes. The lone bird chirped and jumped from one branch to another. The sweet taste of fruits made him happy, and his eyes sparkled with contentment and joy. His breast swelled up with the pride of having discovered and enjoyed the sweet fruits.

But soon, the bird tasted a bitter fruit and his joy turned sour; his ego deflated. Cursing the whole tree, he pondered, 'all this is useless; there is no happiness or joy in these fruits. I don't want any of them.' Ah! The glorious feeling of discrimination and renunciation occupied his heart. He looked hither and thither, and his eyes caught sight of a calm and serene looking bird sitting at the top of the tree. That Bird appeared to be in state of meditation, golden effulgence radiating from His countenance that illumined the whole tree including our little bird.

'O my, my! What a dignified composure and wonderful peace! I must go there,' resolved the little one. It flew up for a while, but soon the temptation of juicy fruits hanging from the innumerable branches overpowered his resolve. He thought, 'those fruits on the lower branches were bitter, but these fruits here appear different, sweeter. Let me enjoy a few of these.' Thus, our little friend stopped and pecked at one juicy fruit. And what a wonder! The fruit indeed turned out to be very sweet. Soon, forgetting the past experiences of repulsive bitter tastes, forgetting everything about that Golden Bird above, this little bird got busy in relishing the sweetness of fruits and cool comfort of green foliage.

However, the story was repeated; it had to. For, the fruits although appearing healthy, juicy, and fresh were but a mixture of sweet and bitter. The bitter taste once again caused dejection, and once again there arose an intense desire to reach the Bird at the top. Repeating such cycles of which no account can ever be kept, at last the lower bird reached the treetop. Approaching the Graceful Bird with a mixture of fear and awe, respect and humility, the lower bird realized to his surprise that he was but the reflection of that Golden Bird! He also acquired that golden hue, that state of peace and bliss, which he had never experienced in its life before. At last, as he reached nearer and nearer to that Bird our friend became one with It, losing his own identity forever.

And on the lower branch another bird appeared and began tasting the fruits of the tree.
c s shah
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