Out of the many hundreds of Upanishads written and accepted as canon, there are only a few “principal” Upanishads: texts that have been accepted as the most important. One of the ancient Upanishads, included in the principal Upanishads, is the Mundaka Upanishad.
It’s the fifth Upanishad, included in the Atharva Veda. It is one of the most commonly translated Upanishads!
This article will give a comprehensive overview of the Mundaka Upanishad and its importance today as one of the principal Upanishads. We will take a look at the below:
- What Are The Upanishads?
- Note On Study Of Scripture
- General Overview
- Historical Context
- Key Teachings And Principles
What are the upanishads?
The Upanishads are highly celebrated Vedic Sanskrit texts that are central to the religious framework of Hinduism.
They are beautiful texts written in both prose and verse, and the content is generally related to meditation, spiritual philosophy, difficult questions around consciousness, and the ontology of reality.
The main theme is largely concerning the relative positions of cosmic reality (i.e. God/Brahman, divinity and esoteric knowledge), with the human body and subjective experience of life (i.e. the mind-body relationship, karma, meditative practice, and Atman).
Note On Study Of Scripture
I have read a wide range of spiritual literature, specifically Buddhist and Hindu canon, along with various commentaries. In my opinion, if you are seeking to delve into spirituality, it is crucial to adopt the approach of reading information established by others.
As per SN Goenka, a prominent figure in the Buddhist Vipassana tradition, it is crucial to peruse the menu when visiting a restaurant.
By reading the menu, one gains an understanding of the available dishes. However, simply reviewing the menu does not allow for a genuine taste of the food.Moreover, observing other people eating their meals provides an insight into what eating the offered food might taste like, yet it still falls short of delivering the actual experience.
The true essence of that experience is only achieved by ordering and eating the food. This same principle applies to spirituality.
Familiarize yourself with the available teachings through reading, witness the actions of wise individuals who have embraced them, and then embark on your own personal exploration through direct experiential engagement and self-inquiry.
The Mundaka Upanishad is a collection of verses used to guide readers in meditation, spiritual knowledge, and ontology about the true nature of the universal Self (Brahman) and the individual Self (Atman).
It is part of the Atharva Veda and is composed of the three main parts (mundakas).
This Upanishad has also been written not for the layman, but for the sannyasin. So its instruction on meditation is for those incredibly serious in dedicating their lives to the pursuit of realization.
It is also written in verse, and so can be read as poetic mantras. In total, the Mundaka Upanishad has 64 mantras!
The Mundaka Upanishad, attributed to the sage Shaunaka, features him as the inquisitive student posing questions to his revered teacher Angiras.
Presented in the form of a dialogue by verse, this Upanishad delves into intricate philosophical and spiritual concepts, fostering a profound exploration of knowledge between the two.
The text is divided into three chapters or sections, each known as a mundaka. Here is a brief overview of the themes covered in each mundaka:
#1: First Mundaka
In the first mundaka, the Upanishad focuses on knowledge of Brahman (brahma vidya), and the divine goal of realization.
This section also explains the difference between higher knowledge (para vidya) and lower knowledge (apara vidya), and how crucial it is that a qualified teacher is required for sincere study and inquiry.
According to the Upanishad, lower knowledge encompasses understanding of the Vedas, phonetics, grammar, etymology, meter, astronomy, as well as knowledge of sacrifices and rituals.
On the other hand, the Upanishad describes the higher knowledge as the knowledge of Brahman and Self-knowledge. This knowledge cannot be perceived with the senses, grasped intellectually, or defined by origin, or the senses.
#2: Second Mundaka
The second section delves deeper into the concepts introduced in the first Mundaka. It discusses the nature of the Ultimate Reality (Brahman) and its relationship to the individual self (Atman).
It explores the metaphor of the two birds on a tree through mantra, symbolizing the relationship between the individual self (Atman) and the Ultimate Self (Brahman).
#3: Third Mundaka
The primary focus of the third Mundaka centers around the journey of self-discovery and attaining freedom.
It delves into the diverse aspects of human existence, including the physical body, sensory perceptions, the mind, and the vital life force known as prana.
In the Mundaka Upanishad, great emphasis is placed on the significance of mastering one’s mind and senses, cultivating a sense of detachment, and recognizing the timeless essence residing within.
In extension, the third mundaka basically elucidates to be ethical, understand yourself, and be tranquil. This combination of aspects is a crystal-clear instruction on liberation that is also similar to Buddhism.
For example in Buddhism, they refer to sila – moral conduct, with samadhi – concentration, and wisdom through insight. This can match ethics, tranquility, and self-inquiry.
The Mundaka Upanishad is also considered one of the most important, as within the three sections it sheds light on the Jnana Marga – the path of knowledge.
The chronology of the Mundaka Upanishad is difficult to pinpoint with precision as the exact dates of its composition are unknown.
However, it is believed to have been composed between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE.
The origin of the term “Mundaka” can be traced back to the Sanskrit root “Munda,” which signifies “shaved head” or “tonsure.”
Within the Upanishad, the term “Munda” or “Mundaka” is employed to denote a particular group of ascetics or mendicants who embraced a renunciate lifestyle, relinquishing worldly possessions and symbolizing their renunciation by shaving their heads.
These ascetics were renowned for their unwavering commitment to spiritual wisdom, leading austere lives and dedicating themselves to the pursuit of knowledge.
And so in the context of the Mundaka Upanishad, the term “Mundaka” specifically alludes to those who actively immerse themselves in the study and practical application of the Upanishad’s teachings.
Key Teachings And Principles
The Mundaka Upanishad covers meditation, mantras, ontology and a relationship with the divine. We outline its key principles below:
#1: Seek the ultimate knowledge
The Upanishad emphasizes the pursuit of knowledge that goes beyond the material world.
It encourages individuals to seek the supreme truth or ultimate reality, known as Brahman.
#2: Distinction between knowledge and ignorance
The Upanishad highlights the difference between knowledge and ignorance. it states that true knowledge leads to self-realization and liberation, while ignorance binds individuals to the cycle of birth and death.
#3: Two paths of knowledge
The Upanishad presents two yogic routes – the path of karma (action) and the path of jnana (knowledge). It indicates that both paths can lead to the ultimate truth, but the path of jnana is considered a superior vehicle as it directly leads to self-realization.
The Mundaka Upanishad stresses the significance of the guru (spiritual teacher) in the spiritual journey. It encourages sincere seekers to approach a qualified guru to receive guidance and wisdom.
#5: The nature of the Self
The Upanishad discusses the nature of the individual Self, known as Atman. It teaches that the individual self is not separate from the universal self (Brahman), and realizing this unity is the key to liberation.
#6: Three levels of reality
The Mundaka Upanishad introduces the concept of three levels of reality—gross (physical), subtle (mental), and causal (ultimate reality).
It explains that realizing the underlying causal reality is essential for transcending the limitations of the gross and subtle levels.
#7: Importance of meditation
The Mundaka Upanishad emphasizes the practice of meditation (dhyana) as a means to attain self-realization and experience the true nature of the Self.
It describes various meditation techniques to still the mind and achieve spiritual insight.
#8: Liberation and immortality
The Upanishad teaches that by realizing the ultimate truth and attaining self-realization, individuals can break free from the cycle of samsara (birth and death).
It leads to liberation (moksha) and the realization of eternal existence beyond the limitations of the physical body.
The Mundaka Upanishad is considered one of the main influencing scriptures of Hinduism.
A good reference to understand how prominent it is, is that the revered Adi Shankaracharya cited it 129 times in his commentaries.
The Mundaka Upanishad is the source of the Indian national motto: “Satyameva Jayate” which is roughly translated as Only Truth Triumphs.
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