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The Mundaka is regarded as one of the most important Upanishads. Belonging to the Atharva Veda, its central message is the importance of austerity, truthfulness and understanding in attaining enlightenment. Mundaka means "shaved head", and this Upanishad paints a picture of the tonsured anchorite, the pure and austere seeker after truth.
However, that is not all there is to it. Although faith, good works, meditation and all the usual Vedantic practices are recommended, the Mundaka Upanishad states that the mere practice of these things alone will not bring a student to enlightenment. In fact, no amount of effort and practice is guaranteed to produce enlightenment, or the realization of Brahman - this is one of the central teachings of the Upanishads, often misunderstood. Brahman is alive and real, the liver, breather, knower and experiencer of all things living and dead, and no individual being can hold the universe to ransom: "Look at all the stuff I did! You HAVE to enlighten me!" The whole illusion to be transcended is that of the separate, individual self - it could be said that there is no enlightenment, because there is no one to become enlightened - there is only Brahman, who is both the spider and the web.
Translation by Max Muller (1884) - The Sacred Books of the East
1. BRAHMA was the first of the Devas, the maker of the
universe, the preserver of the world. He told the knowledge of Brahman, the
foundation of all knowledge, to his eldest son Atharva.
2. Whatever Brahma told Atharvan, that knowledge of Brahman
Atharvan formerly told to Angir; he told it to Satyavaha Bharadvaga, and
Bharadvaga told it in succession to Angiras.
3. Saunaka, the great householder, approached Angiras
respectfully and asked: 'Sir, what is that through which, if it is known,
everything else becomes known?'
4. He said to him: 'Two kinds of knowledge must be known,
this is what all who know Brahman tell us, the higher and the lower knowledge.'
5. 'The lower knowledge is the Rig-veda, Yagur-veda, Sama-veda,
Atharva-veda, Siksha (phonetics), Kalpa (ceremonial), Vyakarana (grammar),
Nirukta (etymology), Khandas (metre), Gyotisha (astronomy); but the higher
knowledge is that by which the Indestructible (Brahman) is apprehended.'
6. 'That which cannot be seen, nor seized, which has no
family and no caste', no eyes nor ears, no hands nor feet, the eternal, the
omnipresent (all-pervading), infinitesimal, that which is imperishable, that it
is which the wise regard as the source of all beings.'
7. 'As the spider sends forth and draws in its thread, as
plants grow on the earth, as from every man hairs spring forth on the head and
the body, thus does everything arise here from the Indestructible.'
8. 'The Brahman swells by means of brooding (penance); hence
is produced matter (food); from matter breath, mind, the true, the worlds
(seven), and from the works (performed by men in the worlds), the immortal (the
eternal effects, rewards, and punishments of works).'
9. 'From him who perceives all and who knows all, whose
brooding (penance) consists of knowledge, from him (the highest Brahman) is born
that Brahman, name, form, and matter (food).'
1. This is the truth: the sacrificial works which they (the
poets) saw in the hymns (of the Veda) have been performed in many ways in the
Treta age. Practise them diligently, ye lovers of truth, this is your path that
leads to the world of good work!
2. When the fire is lighted and the flame flickers, let a man
offer his oblations between the two portions of melted butter, as an offering
3. If a man's Agnihotra sacrifice is not followed by the
new-moon and full-moon sacrifices, by the four-months' sacrifices, and by the
harvest sacrifice, if it is unattended by guests, not offered at all, or without
the Vaisvadeva ceremony, or not offered according to rule, then it destroys his
4. Kali (black), Karali (terrific), Manogava (swift as
thought), Sulohita (very red), Sudhumravarna (purple), Sphulingini (sparkling),
and the brilliant Visvarupi (having all forms), all these playing about are
called the seven tongues (of fire).
5. If a man performs his sacred works when these flames are
shining, and the oblations follow at the right time, then they lead him as
sun-rays to where the one Lord of the Devas dwells.
6. Come hither, come hither! the brilliant oblations say to
him, and carry the sacrificer on the rays of the sun, while they utter pleasant
speech and praise him, saying: 'This is thy holy Brahma-world (Svarga), gained
by thy good works.'
7. But frail, in truth, are those boats, the sacrifices, the
eighteen, in which this lower ceremonial has been told. Fools who praise this as
the highest good, are subject again and again to old age and death.
8. 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.
9. Children, when they have long lived in ignorance, consider
themselves happy. Because those who depend on their good works are, owing to
their passions, improvident, they fall and become miserable when their life (in
the world which they had gained by their good works) is finished.
10. Considering sacrifice and good works as the best, these
fools know no higher good, and having enjoyed (their reward) on the height of
heaven, gained by good works, they enter again this world or a lower one.
11. But those who practise penance and faith in the forest,
tranquil, wise, and living on alms, depart free from passion through the sun to
where that immortal Person dwells whose nature is imperishable.
12. Let a Brahmana, after he has examined all these worlds
which are gained by works, acquire freedom from all desires. Nothing that is
eternal (not made) can be gained by what is not eternal (made). Let him, in
order to understand this, take fuel in his hand and approach a Guru who is
learned and dwells entirely in Brahman.
13. To that pupil who has approached him respectfully, whose
thoughts are not troubled by any desires, and who has obtained perfect peace,
the wise teacher truly told that knowledge of Brahman through which he knows the
eternal and true Person.
1. This is the truth. As from a blazing fire sparks, being
like unto fire, fly forth a thousandfold, thus are various beings brought forth
from the Imperishable, my friend, and return thither also.
2. That heavenly Person is without body, he is both without
and within, not produced, without breath and without mind, pure, higher than the
3. From him (when entering on creation) is born breath, mind,
and all organs of sense, ether, air, light, water, and the earth, the support of
4. Fire (the sky) is his bead, 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
5. From him comes Agni (fire), the sun being the fuel; from
the moon (Soma) comes rain (Parganya); from the earth herbs; and man gives seed
unto the woman. Thus many beings are begotten from the Person (purusha).
6. From him come the Rik, the Saman, the Yagush, the Diksha,
(initiatory rites), all sacrifices and offerings of animals, and the fees
bestowed on priests, the year too, the sacrificer, and the worlds, in which the
moon shines brightly and the sun.
7. From him the many Devas too are begotten, the Sadhyas
(genii), men, cattle, birds, the up and down breathings, rice and corn (for
sacrifices), penance, faith, truth, abstinence, and law.
8. The seven senses (prana) also spring from him, the seven
lights (acts of sensation), the seven kinds of fuel (objects by which the senses
are lighted), the seven sacrifices (results of sensation), these seven worlds
(the places of the senses, the worlds determined by the senses) in which the
senses move, which rest in the cave (of the heart), and are placed there seven
9. Hence come the seas and all the mountains, from him flow
the rivers of every kind; hence come all herbs and the juice through which the
inner Self subsists with the elements.
10. The Person is all this, sacrifice, penance, Brahman, the
highest immortal; he who knows this hidden in the cave (of the heart), he, O
friend, scatters the knot of ignorance here on earth.
1. Manifest, near, moving in the cave (of the heart) is the
great Being. In it everything is centred which ye know as moving, breathing, and
blinking, as being and not-being, as adorable, as the best, that is beyond the
understanding of creatures.
2. That which is brilliant, smaller than small, that on which
the worlds are founded and their inhabitants, that is the indestructible
Brahman, that is the breath, speech, mind; that is the true, that is the
immortal. That is to be hit. Hit it, O friend!
3. Having taken the Upanishad as the bow, as the great
weapon, let him place on it the arrow, sharpened by devotion! Then having drawn
it with a thought directed to that which is, hit the mark, O friend, viz. that
which is the Indestructible!
4. Om is the bow, the Self is the arrow, Brahman is called
its aim. It is to be hit by a man who is not thoughtless; and then, as the arrow
(becomes one with the target), he will become one with Brahman.
5. In him the heaven, the earth, and the sky are woven, the
mind also with all the senses. Know him alone as the Self, and leave off other
words! He is the bridge of the Immortal.
6. He moves about becoming manifold within the heart where
the arteries meet, like spokes fastened to the nave. Meditate on the Self as Om!
Flail to you, that you may cross beyond (the sea of) darkness!
7. He who understands all and who knows all, he to whom all
this glory in the world belongs, the Self, is placed in the ether, in the
heavenly city of Brahman (the heart). He assumes the nature of mind, and becomes
the guide of the body of the senses. He subsists in food, in close proximity to
the heart. The wise who understand this, behold the Immortal which shines forth
full of bliss.
8. The fetter of the heart is broken, all doubts are solved,
all his works (and their effects) perish when He has been beheld who is high and
low (cause and effect).
9. In the highest golden sheath there is the Brahman without
passions and without parts. That is pure, that is the light of lights, that is
it which they know who know the Self.
10. The sun does not thine there, nor the moon and the stars,
nor these lightnings, and much less this fire. When he shines, everything shines
after him; by his light all this is lighted.
11. That immortal Brahman is before, that Brahman is behind,
that Brahman is right and left. It has gone forth below and above; Brahman alone
is all this, it is the best.
1. Two birds, inseparable friends, cling to the same tree.
One of them cats the sweet fruit, the other looks on without eating.
2. On the same tree man sits grieving, immersed, bewildered
by his own impotence (an-isa). But when he sees the other lord (isa) contented
and knows his glory, then his grief passes away.
3. When the seer sees the brilliant maker and lord (of the
world) as the Person who has his source in Brahman, then he is wise, and shaking
off good and evil, he reaches the highest oneness, free from passions;
4. For he is the Breath shining forth in all beings, and he
who understands this becomes truly wise, not a talker only. He revels in the
Self, he delights in the Self, and having performed his works (truthfulness,
penance, meditation, &c.) he rests, firmly established in Brahman, the best
of those who know Brahman.
5. By truthfulness, indeed, by penance, right knowledge, and
abstinence must that Self be gained; the Self whom spotless anchorites gain is
pure, and like a light within the body.
6. The true prevails, not the untrue; by the true the path is
laid out, the way of the gods (devayanah), on which the old sages, satisfied in
their desires, proceed to where there is that highest place of the True One.
7. That (true Brahman) shines forth grand, divine,
inconceivable, smaller than small; it is far beyond what is far and yet near
here, it is hidden in the cave (of the heart) among those who see it even. here.
8. He is not apprehended by the eye, nor by speech, nor by
the other senses, not by penance or good works. When a man's nature has become
purified by the serene light of knowledge, then he sees him, meditating on him
as without parts.
9. That subtle Self is to be known by thought (ketas) there
where breath has entered fivefold; for every thought of men is interwoven with
the senses, and when thought is purified, then the Self arises.
10. Whatever state a man whose nature is purified imagines,
and whatever desires he desires (for himself or for others), that state he
conquers and those desires he obtains. Therefore let every man who desires
happiness worship the man who knows the Self.
1. He (the knower of the Self) knows that highest home of
Brahman, in which all is contained and shines brightly. The wise who, without
desiring happiness, worship that Person, transcend this seed, (they are not born
2. He who forms desires in his mind, is born again through
his desires here and there. But to him whose desires are fulfilled and who is
conscious of the true Self (within himself) all desires vanish, even here on
3. That Self cannot be gained by the Veda, nor by
understanding, nor by much learning. He whom the Self chooses, by him the Self
can be gained. The Self chooses him (his body) as his own.
4. Nor is that Self to be gained by one who is destitute of
strength, or without earnestness, or without right meditation. But if a wise man
strives after it by those means (by strength, earnestness, and right
meditation), then his Self enters the home of Brahman.
5. When they have reached him (the Self), the sages become
satisfied through knowledge, they are conscious of their Self, their passions
have passed away, and they are tranquil. The wise, having reached Him who is
omnipresent everywhere, devoted to the Self, enter into him wholly.
6. Having well ascertained the object of the knowledge of the
Vedanta, and having purified their nature by the Yoga of renunciation, all
anchorites, enjoying the highest immortality, become free at the time of the
great end (death) in the worlds of Brahma.
7. Their fifteen parts enter into their elements, their Devas
(the senses) into their (corresponding) Devas. Their deeds and their Self with
all his knowledge become all one in the highest Imperishable.
8. As the flowing rivers disappear in the sea, losing their
name and their form, thus a wise man, freed from name and form, goes to the
divine Person, who is greater than the great.
9. He who knows that highest Brahman, becomes even Brahman.
In his race no one is born ignorant of Brahman. He overcomes grief, he overcomes
evil; free from the fetters of the heart, he becomes immortal.
10. And this is declared by the following Rik-verse: 'Let a
man tell this science of Brahman to those only who have performed all
(necessary) acts, who are versed in the Vedas, and firmly established in (the
lower) Brahman, who themselves offer as an oblation the one Rishi (Agni), full
of faith, and by whom the rite of (carrying fire on) the head has been
performed, according to the rule (of the Atharvanas).'
11. The Rishi Angiras formerly told this true (science); a
man who has not performed the (proper) rites, does not read it. Adoration to the
highest Rishis! Adoration to the highest Rishis!
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