It is an interesting trait of the Western mind that it wants encapsulations of things, lists of essentials, advice on shortcuts, and “what is the one thing?…” in every department of life and thought. Whether this is a desire for efficiency or a form of intellectual minimalism or outright laziness is hard to say–chances are it varies from person to person. Nevertheless, “getting to the heart of the matter” is something dear to the heart of Americans, especially. They are not alone in this attitude. The upanishads reflect the same mentality. Perhaps that is why Vivekananda considered the West, and America particularly, as being more suited to the teachings of the upanishads than the contemporary East.
In the first section of the Mundaka Upanishad we find the highest expression of this attitude: “Out of the infinite ocean of existence arose Brahma, first-born and foremost among the gods. From him sprang the universe, and he became its protector. The knowledge of Brahman, the foundation of all knowledge, he revealed to his first-born son, Atharva” (Mundaka Upanishad 1:1:1).
A pre-creation story
According to Indian texts, at the beginning of the present creation cycle Brahma, that person who was destined to be the creator/projector of the three lower worlds, awoke to find himself in infinite, empty space. At first he felt fear, but then he laughed at his foolishness, for there was no one there but him. Who would he fear? Then he pondered his situation, attempting to comprehend it. At one point a great voice resounded all around him, saying a single word: Tapa: “do tapasya.” This awakened Brahma’s memory of yoga meditation, so he began to mediate. After some time he attained full memory of his past as well as the knowledge of how to create the worlds–which he did. He also became established in direct perception of Brahman.
Among his “children” brought forth through his meditation, was Atharva, to whom he taught the way to realize Brahman. “In turn Atharva taught this same knowledge of Brahman to Angi. Angi, again, taught it to Satyabaha, who revealed it to Angiras” (Mundaka Upanishad 1:1:2).
The essence of knowledge
“To Angiras came upon a time Sounaka, the famous householder, and asked respectfully: ‘Holy sir, what is that by which all else is known?’” (Mundaka Upanishad 1:1:3).
We have already been told that the knowledge of Brahman, Brahmavidya, is the foundation of all knowledge. But Sounaka has a very salutary impatience and ambition. He wants to know what is the one thing which, being known, causes all to be known. This is both a wise quest and a wise attitude. Little Red Riding Hood ended up in the wolf’s stomach because she dawdled on the way instead of going straight to her destination. If we look at the history of religions we will find that the countries which produce the most enlightened persons are those countries which have produced empires. For when such people turn to spiritual life they become imperialists of the spirit–they go after the loftiest spiritual attainments. They seek out the most direct way and go there. Sounaka is one of them, and hopefully so are we. Knowledge is the subject of the question, so Angiras lays a foundation for his answer.
“Those who know Brahman, replied Angiras, say that there are two kinds of knowledge, the higher and the lower.
“The lower is knowledge of the Vedas (the Rik, the Sama, the Yajur, and the Atharva), and also of phonetics, ceremonials, grammar, etymology, metre, and astronomy. The higher is knowledge of that by which one knows the changeless reality” (Mundaka Upanishad 1:1:4-5).
Analysis of knowledge
Now we should look at this very carefully. First of all, who do we believe? When I first emerged from the deadly cocoon of fundamentalist Protestantism my intellectual world was quite simple–simplistic, actually. Fortunately I first read the Bhagavad Gita and then Autobiography of a Yogi. The next step was to get out of my deadly environment, so within a few months I was on the plane to California and wider horizons.
But I discovered in a short time that wider horizons can have a drawback. I began encountering just about every shade of philosophical and religious thought and attitude, most of them incompatible with each other. Almost daily I was told conflicting things, and always with the utmost confidence. As someone once said: “The problem with ignorance is that it picks up confidence as it goes along.” I loved being in the wide-open mental spaces of California, but which way should I go? Who could–or should–I trust?
Since I had been shaken out of my spiritual entombment by learning of the yoga tradition I wisely followed the principle that only those who know God really know anything. So I sought out the teachings of illumined yogis of past and present, discarding those inauspicious Indian teachers who claimed to have a new revelation for a new age, and only paying attention to those who were right in the center of the Eternal Dharma. Once somebody asked me what a great yogi’s “distinctive teachings” were. “None!” I replied with satisfaction. “If he taught anything ‘new’ I would have nothing to do with him. Truth is eternal.” I appreciated it if the English of the book was good and free from typos, and expressed in a way that someone in the twentieth century like myself could comprehend, but I wanted to know what all the great yogis throughout history knew: the tried and proven way to God.
My great blessing was being able to trek many times to the Vedanta Bookshop in Hollywood. There I found an abundance of eternal wisdom, the same wisdom that had been flowing in a life-giving stream for countless ages–like the holy Ganga. The Ganga that emerges at Gangotri high in the Himalayas is the same Ganga that flows into the ocean at Gangasagar. In the same way I found on the shelves of that little shop the same truth spoken by the primeval sages of India. A little further east in Hollywood at the Self-Realization Fellowship I listened every Sunday and Thursday to an ideal presentation of both the philosophy and spiritual practice of Eternal India. All this prepared me for India where, as a friend of ours once said about the same pilgrimage, “I got the idea.” And have treasured it ever since.
So those who know Brahman “say that there are two kinds of knowledge, the higher and the lower.” The lower, they say, is the knowledge of scriptures, ritual, philosophic, expression and suchlike–including, by the way, astrology. Please note that they do not denounce these things as useless or as ignorance. They are definitely said to be knowledge, and a sensible person appreciates and learns them to a reasonable and practical degree. But it must be understood that the essential, “the higher is knowledge of that by which one knows the changeless reality”–Brahman. The knowledge which enables us to Know is to be sought for and prized above all else. While writing this previous sentence I could clearly hear in memory the recorded voice of Yogananda saying: “I walked my feet off from Cape Cormorin to the Himalayas” in search of the knowledge that would reveal God to him.
The lesser knowledge tells us only of that which changes, including our own short physical life. But the higher knowledge brings us to the Changeless Reality. “By this is fully revealed to the wise that which transcends the senses, which is uncaused, which is indefinable, which has neither eyes nor ears, neither hands nor feet, which is all-pervading, subtler than the subtlest–the everlasting, the source of all” (Mundaka Upanishad 1:1:6). The Absolute Consciousness, the Totality of Being, is shown to the wise–to the yogis–by this knowledge.
And the world?
What about this world in which we find ourselves? Is it to be despised as worthless and antithetical to Brahman, our Goal? Lest we think such a foolish thing Angiras further says: “As the web comes out of the spider and is withdrawn, as plants grow from the soil and hair from the body of man, so springs the universe from the eternal Brahman” (Mundaka Upanishad 1:1:7).
The world, then, is an extension or emanation of Brahman. In other words, the world IS Brahman. We are living and moving in divinity manifesting as the world. Why, then, do we say that the world is illusory? It is the world in our mind–our perception, our interpretation, of the world–that is an illusion, not the world itself. In Indian texts we continually find the simile of the snake in a rope or a man in tree. That is, in darkness we see a rope lying on the ground and immediately see a snake lying there–we see the glitter of its eyes and may even hear it hiss! Yet, when light is brought we see only a rope. The rope was always real, was always there. The snake was an illusion that existed only in our mind. In the same way, walking in the darkness we may see a dead tree and mistake it for a human being, taking its branches for arms. We may even see the arms move and think we see a face looking at us. But when we come closer we see it is only a tree–and a dead one, at that. The tree was real, but the man was not. Illusion is never an objective thing, and yet is nevertheless real as a mental phenomenon. So it is illusion and ignorance we must decry, but never find fault with the world; for the world is Brahman.
In both instances, rope and tree, we may experience great fear. But the moment we see them for what they really are, our fear evaporates and we are at peace. This is how it is with us and this world. Our illusions fill us with terrible fears and anxieties, all of which will be dispelled when we see its actual nature as Brahman. No wonder, then, that Krishna told Arjuna: “Even a little of this dharma delivers you from great fear” (Bhagavad Gita 2:40).
The chain of causation
The sage now gives us an outline of the process of the emanation of the world from Brahman. “Brahman willed that it should be so, and brought forth out of himself the material cause of the universe; from this came the primal energy, and from the primal energy mind, from mind the subtle elements, from the subtle elements the many worlds, and from the acts performed by beings in the many worlds the chain of cause and effect–the reward and punishment of works” (Mundaka Upanishad 1:1:8).
Creation is also spoken of as expansions from Brahman, and that is the mode here. “Brahman” comes from the root word brih, which means “to expand.” Brahman first expands as primordial matter, than as primordial energy. From this comes the intelligence inherent in creation, then the elements, and the various worlds in which they predominate. The final ingredient, though, comes from the sentient beings within the universe: karma. God supplies the stage and we supply the actions and reactions which unfold upon the stage.
“Brahman sees all, knows all; he is knowledge itself. Of him are born cosmic intelligence, name, form, and the material cause of all created beings and things” (Mundaka Upanishad 1:1:9). No wonder, then, that in the Gita we find the words: “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).
Seeing is freeing..
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: Delusion and Ignorance
Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:
- The Isha Upanishad
- The Kena Upanishad
- The Katha Upanishad
- The Past is the Future
- Seeing Death, Seeing Life
- The Good and the Pleasant
- The Way of Ignorance
- The Mystery of the Self
- How to Either Know or Not Know the Self
- From the Unreal to the Real
- Finding the Treasure
- The Transcendent Reality of the Self
- The Immortal Self
- The Indwelling Self
- The Omnipresent Self
- The Sorrowless Self
- Who Can Know the Self?
- The All-Consuming Self
- The Divine Indwellers
- The Chariot
- The Chariot’s Journey
- The Glorious Way
- To Know The Self
- The Power of Enlightenment
- The Infinite Self
- The Dweller in the Heart
- The Birthless Self
- The Shining Self
- The Life-Giving Self
- The Eternal Brahman–The Eternal Self
- The Radiant Self
- The Universal Tree
- Hierarchy of Consciousness
- From Mortality to Immortality
- The Prashna Upanishad
- The Mundaka Upanishad
- The Mandukya Upanishad
- The Taittiriya Upanishad
- The Aitareya Upanishad
- The Chandogya Upanishad
- The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
- The Shvetashvatara Upanishad
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