By Swami Harshananda
Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad originates from the Atharvaveda has been a popular work due to its attractive poetry, elegant expressions and sublime thoughts. Since the word ‘muṇḍa’ means ‘a shaven head’, the Upaniṣad meant to be specially studied by men of shaven heads, viz., the sanyāsins or monks. Just like the shaving of one’s head, it was meant to ‘shave off all ignorance regarding the tattvas or higher truths taught in this work.
Classification of Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad
There are three muṇḍakas or chapters with two khaṇḍas or sections in each. The total number of verses is 65. Division of all knowledge into two categories, eulogy of renunciation, a specific mode of meditation using Om and the method of liberation of a realized soul at the time of death are the special features of this Upaniṣad.
Content of Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad
It has 22 verses. Once Śaunaka approaches the sage Aṅgiras respectfully and puts him the question:
Venerable one! What is that, by knowing which everything else is known?’
Replying to it, Aṅgiras first tells him that all knowledge in this world can be divided into two categories:
- The parāvidyā - It is the higher knowledge. Higher knowledge is that by which the indestructible Brahman is realized.
- The aparāvidyā - It is the lower knowledge. All other branches of knowledge including the Vedas and their subsidiaries are lower knowledge.
Then Aṅgiras describes the Akṣara as the spirit beyond the ken of the senses and the mind, all-pervading and eternal, inherent in all but too subtle to be perceived easily. This entire creation has been effortlessly projected by that Akṣara, even as a spider weaves its web or vegetation appears out of this earth or the hair grows on the body. Creation proceeds from the Akṣara in an orderly way. The products are:
- Anna - avyākṛta, the first unmanifested aspect of Akṣara/Brahman
- Prāna - Hiraṇya-garbha, the world-soul
- Mānas - mind-principle
- Satya - the five elements like the earth, water and so on
- Lokas - the seven worlds
- Karmas - living beings and their activities
- Amṛta - results of karmas
The second section gives some details about Vedic rituals at first. Then it goes on to condemn them as ‘leaky rafts’ since they lead to transmigration and not to liberation. Those who praise them and advocate their performance, are like the blind persons trying to lead other blind ones. On the other hand, those men of renunciation who live in forests and practice austerities to realize the Akṣara, go to Brahmaloka by the Arcirādimārga or the bright path. That is why a person seeking the Akṣara should renounce the Vedic rituals and approach a competent teacher for the same. The teacher, on his part, should teach such a worthy disciple all that he knows.
It has 22 verses. This chapter gives further details about the Akṣara from whom creation has proceeded. All living beings come out of that Akṣara and return to it even as sparks spring from a blazing fire and then fall back into it. The five elements like earth and water, mind and senses and also prāṇa are born out of that Akṣara Puruṣa.
The Virāṭpuruṣa  for whom fire is the head, the sun and the moon the two eyes, quarters the ears, Vedas the speech, the world the heart, the earth the feet, is the inner Self of all. He is the origin of the Vedic mantras and the sacrificial rites as also the worlds attained through them. All the living beings from the gods right up to animals and even the inanimate objects like rivers, oceans, mountains and vegetation have been projected out of him.
Hence one who realizes him, the highest Brahman, in one’s own heart, successfully destroys all bonds of ignorance here and now. But then, how to know this Akṣara Brahman, the brilliant one, who is subtler than the subtlest, in whom all the worlds and beings are established? Now, the Upaniṣad describes this process of meditation with an interesting and picturesque analogy. An expert archer takes a good strong bow, fixes a sharp arrow and then with great concentration discharges it towards the target.
Similarly the seeker should take the bow of praṇava given in the Upaniṣads, fix his Self as the arrow sharpened by the practice of meditation, and discharge it with vigilant concentration, towards the target, Brahman. In other words, the seeker has to concentrate his purified mind on Brahman, repeating the praṇava in his mind and thus attain unity with him.
The text then advises the seekers to know the Cosmic Being, to meditate upon him using Om and give up all other talk, not helpful in this. This is the bridge to immortality. After describing this Being again, as all-pervading and as the light of lights the Upaniṣad declares that one who realizes him will be freed from all the bonds of the heart, the mind and the intellect.
It has 21 verses. This section starts with a graphic description of the jīva and īśvara as two birds perching on the same tree. While the former is eating the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree, the latter is sitting majestically looking at the other bird, itself not eating any fruit. When the first bird realizes the greatness of the second, it becomes freed from all sorrow and suffering.
This Atman can be attained by satya, austerityCite error: Closing
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<ref> tag ‘na aṅṛtam’. The path devayāna to Brahmaloka is ever connected with truth. After describing once again the nature of this Atman as very subtle, but realizable through a pure mind, the Upaniṣad advises the ordinary seekers to worship and honor the knower of the Ātman to get what they want. However, if they worship or honor him without any selfish motives, they can transcend even rebirth in this world.
Though intellectual pursuits and scholarship can be aids to the realization of the Ātman at lower levels if utilized properly, they do not directly help. In fact, Atman can be realized only by him who diligently strives for it or to whom he chooses to reveal himself. It should also be known that the weak and the careless cannot attain him. However, those who are strong in faith and conviction, who are vigilant and are endowed with the spirit of renunciation can certainly attain him. Such persons who have rightly understood the principles of Vedānta and become pure through renunciation and contemplation on the Atman, will go to Brahmaloka and attain total liberation there. Even as the rivers flowing into the ocean lose their separate identity and get merged in it, the liberated soul gets merged in Brahman, the Supreme Person.
The Upaniṣad closes with a statement that this spiritual wisdom must be taught to the deserving seekers who have completed the special rite called ‘śirovrata’ current among the followers of the Atharvaveda and not to others.
- Hence its other name is also the Ātharvanopaniṣad.
- These two categories are the higher and the lower.
- Brahman means Akṣara.
- It is called as adṛdhāh plavāh.
- It means Brahman.
- These senses are at the cosmic level.
- It means vital air.
- It is the Akṣara in the manifested state, Cosmic Being.
- It means Oṅkāra.
- Here he refers to Brahman.
- Jīva means individual soul.
- Īśvara means the Supreme Soul.
- Here tree refers to the human body.
- It means īśvara, Supreme Self.
- Satya means the truth.
- It means ‘Not falsehood’.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore