“Having known the Self, the sages are filled with joy. Blessed are they, tranquil of mind, free from passion. Realizing everywhere the all-pervading Brahman, deeply absorbed in contemplation of his being, they enter into him, the Self of all” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:2:5).
What an inspiring description. These are the things that should motivate us, not such cheap things as promises of heaven and threats of hell, or bribes of possessions and power. To at last be ourselves as we really are, to end all struggle with unreality and ignorance–this is the worthy aim. The only worthy prayer is that of Jesus: “O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:5).
How to become a sage
How do the sages get that way? “Having fully ascertained and realized the truth of Vedanta, having established themselves in purity of conduct by following the yoga of renunciation, these great ones attain to immortality in this very life; and when their bodies fall away from them at death, they attain to liberation” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:2:6).
Having fully ascertained and realized the truth of Vedanta. First the Vedantic truths–the teachings found in the upanishads–are carefully read and pondered. But this is not enough–in fact it is worthless unless they go on to realize those truths through meditation, for it is this realization which is of supreme value, and the wise diligently seek it.
Having established themselves in purity of conduct. Not wanting empty theory, the wise understand that their lives must be disciplined for the purification of their outer actions and inner consciousness. Moreover, they ground themselves immovably in that purity.
Following the yoga of renunciation. Since neither Angiras or his students were monks, it is mistaken to interpret sannyasa yoga as monastic life. Rather, it is the inner discipline of detachment from all externals while fixing the mind on the Eternal.
Immortality in this very life. Those who follow this path of the sages will realize their nature as immortality itself. They will not attain it, they will recover and manifest it. Nor will this happen in some vague heavenly realm, but right here and now.
At death, they attain to liberation. For them there is no longer any need for future birth in the material plane. As the Buddhist texts say: “Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.” But they are not just liberated from the earth, they are liberated from all worlds and enter The Real as their eternal abode.
The liberation process
“When death overtakes the body, the vital energy enters the cosmic source, the senses dissolve in their cause, and karmas and the individual soul are lost in Brahman, the pure, the changeless. As rivers flow into the sea and in so doing lose name and form, even so the wise man, freed from name and form, attains the Supreme Being, the Self-Luminous, the Infinite” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:2:7, 8). There are two aspects to these verses: what is shed by the sage and What he merges with in liberation.
At the time of death, the various bodies no longer retain their configuration. Since they are no longer needed for future incarnations, they resolve back into the elements from which they came. What remains? Brahman and their atman-Self. Since these are really the source of all the foregoing, in reality nothing whatever is lost–only the conditioning dreams that held them in false bondage for so long. Finitude is traded for infinity–blessed bargain!
“He who knows Brahman becomes Brahman. No one ignorant of Brahman is ever born in his family. He passes beyond all sorrow. He overcomes evil. Freed from the fetters of ignorance he becomes immortal” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:2:9).
Who should learn this?
“Let the truth of Brahman be taught only to those who obey his law, who are devoted to him, and who are pure in heart. To the impure let it never be taught” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:2:10).
In India everyone knows the basic principles of Brahmavidya. The sage is not recommending secrecy, but warning us away from wasting our time with people who are willfully disqualifying themselves for spiritual life. So who are qualified (adhikari) to receive detailed instruction in the eternal truths? Here is a much more literal and complete translation of the verse with some very interesting symbols: “To them alone should one expound this knowledge of Brahman who are engaged in the practice of purificatory disciplines, versed in the Vedas, and devoted to Brahman, who personally sacrifice to the fire called Ekarshi with faith, and by whom has been duly accomplished the vow of holding fire on the head.”
Engaged in the practice of purificatory disciplines. The word translated by this phrase is kriyavantah, which means those who are engaged in the practice of kriyas. In the broad sense a kriya is any practice that entails doing something, because the root of kriya is kri, which means “I do.” Any practice, exercise, rite, or even movement can be called a kriya. Usually, though, kriya means a yogic practice or method which purifies the body and nervous system, as well as the subtle bodies, to enable the yogi to reach and hold on to higher levels of consciousness and being. Only those who are perpetually engaged in such practices need even hear about those states and their meaning. For to anyone else it is mere theory which can easily be misunderstood by those who have no practical yogic experience.
Versed in the scriptures. The word shrotriyah means one who both knows the scriptures and the disciplines and practices they enjoin. Although mere scriptural knowledge is of little value, it is necessary to know the teachings of the upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita in order to retain a right perspective in spiritual life. Buddha said that a seeker for enlightenment must be sure to follow the teachings of the liberated ones that have gone before. A great deal of problems in spiritual life will be avoided if the upanishads and Gita are studied daily and applied in their entirety.
Devoted to Brahman. Shankara says that the Brahmanishthah are those devoted to Brahman as manifested in the cosmos, yet who are actively seeking to know the transcendent Brahman beyond the cosmos. In other words, the prevailing idea that one is either intent on Saguna or Nirguna Brahman–only one aspect to the exclusion of the other–is mistaken. That the worthy seeker starts from where he finds himself–in the realm of Ishwara, the creation–but strives to know That which lies beyond, as well. This is the real “yoga of synthesis.”
Who personally sacrifice to the fire called Ekarshi with faith. In the Atharva Veda there is a form of sacred fire called ekarshi, but in this verse the reference is to “the sole fire”–the “fire” that is Brahman. For ekarshi is a contraction of “eka-rishi,” the sole seer. As the Gita says: “Brahman is the ritual, Brahman is the offering, Brahman is he who offers to the fire that is Brahman. If a man sees Brahman in every action, He will find Brahman” (Bhagavad Gita 4:24). The ultimate offering into Brahman is our own Self.
By whom has been duly accomplished the vow of holding fire on the head. Continuing this idea, the rishi speaks of those who have accomplished in due order the shirovratam–a vow of holding or carrying the holy fire in the head. That is, one who has established the Divine Fire of Brahman-realization within himself, who ever carries Brahman in his head–his consciousness.
There will not be a great number of students if these criteria are followed, but we must make sure that we are among them.
The sum and substance
In conclusion the upanishad exclaims: “Hail to the sages! Hail to the illumined souls! This truth of Brahman was taught in ancient times to Shounaka by Angira. Hail to the sages! Hail to the illumined souls!” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:2:11).
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Shabda Brahman: Om