The Mundaka Upanishad (Sanskrit: मुण्डक-उपनिषद्, Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad) is an ancient Sanskrit Vedic text, embedded inside Atharva Veda. It is a Mukhya (primary) Upanishad, and is listed as number 5 in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads of Hinduism. It is among the most widely translated Upanishads.
It is a poetic verse style Upanishad, with 64 verses, written in the form of mantras. However, these mantras are not used in rituals, rather they are used for teaching and meditation on spiritual knowledge.
The Mundaka Upanishad contains three Mundakams (parts), each with two sections. The first Mundakam, states Roer, defines the science of "Higher Knowledge" and "Lower Knowledge", and then asserts that acts of oblations and pious gifts are foolish, and do nothing to reduce unhappiness in current life or next, rather it is knowledge that frees. The second Mundakam describes the nature of the Brahman, the Self, the relation between the empirical world and the Brahman, and the path to know Brahman. The third Mundakam expands the ideas in the second Mundakam and then asserts that the state of knowing Brahman is one of freedom, fearlessness, complete liberation, self-sufficiency and bliss.
In some historic Indian literature and commentaries, the Mundaka Upanishad is included in the canon of several verse-structured Upanishads that are together called as Mantra Upanishad and Mantropanishad.
Mundaka (Sanskrit: मुण्डक) literally means "shaved (as in shaved head), shorn, lopped trunk of a tree". Eduard Roer suggests that this root is unclear, and the word as title of the Upanishad possibly refers to "knowledge that shaves, or liberates, one of errors and ignorance". The chapters of the Mundaka Upanishad are also sequentially referred to as "Mundakam" in ancient and medieval texts, for unclear etymological reasons.
The exact chronology of Mundaka Upanishad, like other Vedic texts, is unclear. All opinions rest on scanty evidence, an analysis of archaism, style and repetitions across texts, driven by assumptions about likely evolution of ideas, and on presumptions about which philosophy might have influenced which other Indian philosophies.
Phillips dates Mundaka Upanishad as a relatively later age ancient Upanishad, well after Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya, Isha, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Kena and Katha. Paul Deussen considers Mundaka Upanishad to be composed in a period where poetic expression of ideas became a feature of ancient Indian literary works.
Max Muller states that, given the similarities, either some of the teachings of the Upanishads were influenced by the doctrine of Buddhism. Most of the teachings in the Upanishads of Hinduism, including Manduka Upanishad, however, relate to the existence of Soul and Brahman, and the paths to know, realize one's Soul (Self) and Brahman, making the fundamental premise of Mundaka Upanishad distinctly different than Buddhism's denial of "Self or Brahman".
Some of the ideas and allegories in Mundaka Upanishad have chronological roots in more ancient Vedic literature such as Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya and Katha Upanishads. The allegory of "blind leading the blind" in section 1.2 of Mundaka, for example, is also found in Katha Upanishad's chapter 1.2. The allegory of two birds in section 3.1 of Mundaka Upanishad, similarly, is found in hymns of Rig Veda chapter I.164.
The Mundaka Upanishad has three Mundakams (parts, or shavings), each part has two khanda (खण्ड, section or volume). The section 1.1 has 9 mantras structured as metered poetic verses. Section 1.2 has 13 verses, section 2.1 includes 10 verses, section 2.2 is composed of 11 verses, section 3.1 has 10, while the last section 3.2 has 11 verses. Combined, the Upanishad features 64 mantras.
Several manuscript versions of Mundaka Upanishad have been discovered so far. These show minor differences, particularly in the form additional text being inserted and interpolated, the insertion apparent because these texts do not fit structurally into the metered verses, and also because the same text is missing in manuscripts discovered elsewhere.
The Mundaka Upanishad opens with declaring Brahma as the first of gods, the creator of the universe, and the knowledge of Brahman (Ultimate Reality, Eternal Principle, Cosmic Soul) to be the foundation of all knowledge. The text then lists a succession of teachers who shared the knowledge of Brahman with the next generation. Charles Johnston suggests that this announces the Vedic tradition of teacher-student responsibility to transfer knowledge across the generations, in unbroken succession. Johnston further states that the names recited are metaphors, such as the One who Illuminates, Keeper of Truth, Planetary Spirit, mythological messenger between Gods and Men among others, suggesting the divine nature and the responsibility of man to continue the tradition of knowledge sharing across human generations.
In verse 1.1.3 of Mundaka Upanishad, a Grihastha (householder) approaches a teacher, and asks,
Sir, what is that through which, if it is known, everything else becomes known?
The setting of this question is significant, states Johnston, because it asserts that knowledge transfer is not limited to old teachers to youthful students, rather even adult householders became pupil and sought knowledge from teachers in Vedic tradition.
The teacher answered, states verse 1.1.4 of the Mundaka Upanishad, by classifying all knowledge into two: "lower knowledge" and "higher knowledge". Hume calls these two forms of knowledge as "traditions of religion" and "knowledge of the eternal" respectively.
The lower knowledge, states the Upanishad, includes knowledge of Vedas, phonetics, grammar, etymology, meter, astronomy and the knowledge of sacrifices and rituals. The higher knowledge is the knowledge of Brahman and Self-knowledge - the one which cannot be seen, nor seized, which has no origin, no Varna, no eyes, nor ears, no hands, nor feet, one that is the eternal, all-pervading, infinitesimal, imperishable, indestructible. Some manuscripts of Manduka Upanishad expand the list of lower knowledge to include logic, history, Puranas and Dharma.Sacrifices, oblations and pious works are useless, knowledge useful - First Mundakam
The first seven mantras of second khanda of first Mundakam explain how man has been called upon, promised benefits for, scared unto and misled into performing sacrifices, oblations and pious works. In verses 1.2.7 through 1.2.10, the Upanishad asserts this is foolish and frail, by those who encourage it and those who follow it, because it makes no difference to man's current life and after-life, it is like blind men leading the blind, it is a mark of conceit and vain knowledge, ignorant inertia like that of children, a futile useless practice.
But frail, in truth, are those boats, the sacrifices, the eighteen, in which these ceremonies have been told,
Fools who praise this as the highest good, are subject again and again to old age and death.
Fools dwelling in darkness, wise in their own conceit, and puffed up with vain knowledge,
go round and round, staggering to and fro, like blind men led by the blind.
The Mundaka Upanishad, in verses 1.2.11 through 1.2.13, asserts knowledge liberates man, and those who undertake Sannyasa (renunciation) to gain such knowledge achieve that knowledge through Tapas (meditation, austerity), living a simple tranquil life on alms, without any sacrifices and rituals. In verse 12 and 13, the Upanishad suggests that "perishable acts cannot lead to eternal knowledge", instead those who seek freedom must respectfully approach a competent, peace-filled, wise Guru (teacher) to gain knowledge.
Mundaka Upanishad, in the first section of the second Mundakam, defines and expounds on the doctrine of Atman-Brahman. It asserts that just like a blazing fire creates thousand sparks and leaping flames in its own form, beings are brought forth from Brahman in its form. The Brahman is imperishable, without body, it is both without and within, never produced, without mind, without breath, yet from it emerges the inner Self of all things. From Brahman is born breath, mind, sensory organs, space, air, light, water, earth, everything. The section expands this idea as follows,
The sky is his head, his eyes the sun and the moon,
the quarters his ears, his speech the Vedas disclosed,
the wind his breath, his heart the universe,
from his feet came the earth, he is indeed the inner Self of all things.
From him comes fire, the sun being the fuel,
from the soma comes the rain, from the earth the herbs,
the male pours the seed into the female,
thus many beings are begotten from the Purusha.
From him come the Rig verses, the Saman chants, the Yajus formulae, the Diksha rites,
all sacrifices, all ceremonies and all gifts,
the year too, the sacrificers, the worlds,
where the moon shines brightly, as does sun.
From him, too, gods are manifold produced,
the celestials, the men, the cattle, the birds,
the breathing, the rice, the corn, the meditation,
the Shraddha (faith), the Satya (truth), the Brahmacharya, and the Vidhi (law).
The section continues on, asserting Brahman as the cause of mountains, rivers of every kind, plants, herbs and all living beings, and it is "the inner Soul that dwells in all beings". Brahman is everything, the empirical and the abstract, the object, the subject and the action (karma). To know Brahman, is to be liberated.
The Mundaka Upanishad, in the second Mundakam, suggests a path to knowing the Self and the Brahman: meditation, self-reflection and introspection. The verses in the second and third Mundakams, also assert that the knowledge of soul (self) and Brahman "cannot" be gained from chanting the Vedas, but only comes from meditation and inner introspection for meaning. Adi Shankara, in his review of the Mundaka Upanishad, calls the meditation as Yoga.
In verse 2.2.2, the Mundaka Upanishad asserts that Atman-Brahman is the real. In verse 2.2.3 offers an aid to the meditation process, namely Om (Aum). The poetic verse is structured as a teacher-pupil conversation, but where the teacher calls the pupil as a friend, as follows,
That which is flaming, which is subtler than the subtle,
on which the worlds are set, and their inhabitants -
That is the indestructible Brahman.
It is life, it is speech, it is mind. That is the real. It is immortal.
It is a mark to be penetrated. Penetrate It, my friend.
Taking as a bow the great weapon of the Upanishad,
one should put upon it an arrow sharpened by meditation,
Stretching it with a thought directed to the essence of That,
Penetrate that Imperishable as the mark, my friend.
Om is the bow, the arrow is the Soul, Brahman the mark,
By the undistracted man is It to be penetrated,
One should come to be in It,
as the arrow becomes one with the mark.
The Upanishad, in verse 2.2.8 asserts that the man with the knowledge of the soul and who has become one with Brahman, is liberated, is not affected by karman, is free of sorrow and self-doubts, is one who lives in bliss.
Two birds, inseparable friends, cling to the same tree.
One of them eats the sweet fruit, the other looks on without eating.
On the same tree man sits grieving, drowned (in sorrow), bewildered, feeling helpless,
But when he sees the other Isa (lord) content, knows his glory, his grief passes away.
When the seer sees the brilliant maker and Isa as the Purusha who has his source in Brahman,
then he is wise, he shakes off good and evil, stainless he reaches the highest oneness.
Mathur states that this metaphor of the birds sitting on the same tree refers to one being the empirical self and the other as the eternal and transcendental self. It is the knowledge of eternal self, Atman-Brahman and its Oneness with all others, that liberates. The Upanishad states in verse 3.1.4 that the Soul is the life of all things, and there is delight in this Soul (Ātman).
These early verses of the third Mundakam have been variously interpreted. To theist schools of Hinduism, the Isa is God. To non-theist schools of Hinduism, the Isa is Self. The theosophist Charles Johnston explains the theistic view, not only in terms of schools of Hinduism, but as a mirroring the theism found in Christianity and other scriptures around the world. These verses, states Johnston, describe the sorrow that drowns those who are unaware or feel separated from their Lord. The disciple, when firmly understands his individuality, reaches for meaning beyond individuality, discovers Lord, discovers the wonderful complex life of Eternal God, states Johnston, and then he is on the way of "light of lights". Johnston quotes from Isaiah and Revelation, thus: "The Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and thy God thy glory".
Adi Shankara's commentary offers, as an example, an alternative interpretation in Hinduism. Shankara explains the non-dualistic view as follows: "By meditation and different paths of Yoga, man finds the other, not subject to the bondage of Samsara, unaffected by grief, ignorance, decay and death. He thinks thus: I am the atman, alike in all, seated in every living thing and not the other; this universe is mine, the lord of all; then he becomes absolved of all grief, released entirely from the ocean of grief, i.e. his object is accomplished". This is the state, asserts Shankara, free of grief, when man reaches the supreme equality which is identity with the Brahman. The equality in matters involving duality in certainly inferior to this, states Shankara.
The last section of the Mundaka Upanishad asserts the ethical precepts necessary for man to attain the knowledge of the Brahman and thus liberation.
Through ethical practices combined with meditation, must a man know his Self. Atman-Brahman is not perceived, states the Upanishad, by the eye, nor by speech, nor by other senses, not by penance, nor by karma of rituals. It is known to those whose nature has become purified by the serene light of knowledge, who meditate on it, who dwell unto it. This is the state, asserts Mundaka Upanishad, when one's thoughts is integrated and interwoven with one's body and all else. When thoughts are pure, the Self arises, states verse 3.1.9. This state of man is the state of Bhuti (भूति, inner power, prosperity and happiness).
In the second section of the third Mundakam, the Upanishad asserts, "the soul cannot be realized by those who lack inner strength, nor by the careless or heedless, nor by devotion or false notions of austerity, nor by knowledge of the empirical. It is obtained by the soul by which it is desired. His soul reveals its own truth". Once such self-knowledge is reached, calmness of mind results, a life of liberation emerges, one becomes and behaves like the Brahman. He is beyond sorrow, he is beyond sin, he is in tranquil union with the soul of all.
The Mundaka Upanishad has been widely translated, as well as commented upon in Bhasya by ancient and medieval era Indian scholars such as Shankara and Anandagiri. Mundaka has been one of the most popular Upanishads, in past and present. Badarayana devotes three out of twenty eight adhikaranas to Mundaka Upanishad, while Shankara cites it 129 times in his commentary on the Brahmasutra. Deussen states that this popularity is because of the literary accomplishment, purity in expression and the beauty of the verses in expressing the profound thoughts that are otherwise shared by other Upanishads of Hinduism.
Gough calls Mundaka Upanishad as "one of the most important documents in ancient Indian philosophy". It encapsulates the Vedic teachings, states Gough, that "he that meditates upon any deity as a being other than himself has no knowledge, and is mere victim to the gods", and "there is no truth in the many, all truth is in the one; and this one that alone is the Self, the inmost essence of all things, that vivifies all sentiencies and permeates all things. This is the pure bliss, and it dwells within the heart of every creature".
Ross, in his chapters on "meaning of life in Hinduism", frequently cites Mundaka Upanishad, and states it to be an example of ancient efforts in India to refine tools and discipline of realizing liberation or Moksha.
Johnston states that the ancient message in Mundaka Upanishad is relevant to the modern age where "search for and application of Truth" alone often predominates the fields of science. Mundaka Upanishad reminds the central importance of Truth in its third Mundakam, yet it also emphasizes the need for "beauty and goodness", because "truth, beauty and goodness" together, states Johnston, create arts, music, poetry, painting, meaning and spiritual answers.