The Mandukya Upanishad: What Are The 12 Sacred Verses That Expound The Essence Of Om?

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The shortest of all one hundred and eight of the Upanishads within the Muktika canon, the Mandukya Upanishad is considered to give us the practices to attain enlightenment.

A bold statement!

The Mandukya Upanishad is made up of just twelve verses that explore the mantra Om and its relationship to consciousness.

In addition, the Mandukya Upanishad discusses waking, dreaming, deep sleep and pure consciousness, which comprise the four states of consciousness.

One of the first commentaries on the Mandukya Upanishad was written by Gaudapada but reference to the Mandukya Upanishad in this article is taken from Swami Rama’s interpretation “Enlightenment without God”.

In this article we’ll explore:

  • What is the Mandukya Upanishad?
  • The content of the Mandukya Upanishad
  • Vedanta and how it relates to the Mandukya Upanishad
  • The different states of AUM outlined in the Mandukya Upanishad

Non-attachment and practice are the most effective tools in the quest for real knowledge.  

Contemplation is not a method of escaping from the realities of life; rather through the process of contemplation, one makes a strong mental resolution on which he builds his whole philosophy of life

statue of the rishi who wrote the Mandukya Upanishad
Madku island Mandukya rishi memorial”, by Ms Sarah Welch, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The Upanishads

The Upanishads are not religious but include a philosophy for all. They are the final scriptures of the Vedas (Sacred Hindu scriptures) and are therefore known as Vedanta.

The Upanishads encourage us to know ourselves and then to know the Self.  We are all a moving embodied house for Supreme Consciousness.

The Manduka Upanishad was written approximately 800-500 B.C.E. The root of the word Mandukya is often translated as “frog”, and Upanishad is often translated as “to sit down near”.

There are 13 Upanishads that are well known. They are:

statue doing a meditation mudra

How does it relate to Vedanta?

The Vedas are pretty old.

In fact, they are considered the oldest known scriptures. The Vedas are known to have been collated as early as 1400 B.C.E. All of the Vedas contain mantras and the Mandukya is no exception.

There are four Vedas:

1. Rig Veda

2. Sama Veda

3. Yajur Veda

4. Atharva Veda

The Mandukya Upanishad is part of the Atharva Veda. 

Vedanta philosophy, including the Upanishads, sets out questions and provides a method for finding the ultimate truth. The Upanishads answer the ‘who am I?‘ question as well as the role of the individual in the universe.

The Vedas help us to see that there is only one principle – Absolute truth. This is not subject to change, and it is said that when this truth is realized, there is no fear and only love. 

Non-attachment is a necessity for seeking the absolute truth and worldly possessions and relationships are unnecessary on the path of Turiya.

yogi meditating in her apartment

There are two main Vedanta paths:

  • The renunciation of all thoughts, desires, and feelings – this is for those who are fully awakened.
  • Learning to perform duties without attachment. This means renouncing the fruits of one’s actions while still living in the world.

Both paths can lead to turiya, also known as supreme consciousness.

Om or AUM

If Om is a word, the whole universe is its explanation. If it is a sound, the whole universe is its vibration

The first several verses of the Mandukya Upanishad cover the self and absolute reality, while the middle verses describe the four states of consciousness in relation to the breakdown of A U M to Om. 

Om represents all levels of consciousness and does not belong to any particular language.  Basically, everything comes from and is Om. This is a pretty big concept to get one’s head around.

Om or AUM represents pure consciousness which means that Om is the source of everything within the world and is the absolute reality that is not confined to time or space.

om symbol in water

The Mandukya Upanishad’s opening states that the Aum is the whole world.

Throughout the twelve verses,  it gives explanations on what Om means and what it signifies. This is built upon the notion or structure of “four fourths” which is derived from the syllables A, U, M, and silence (we’ll look at this later).

The four states of consciousness

This Mandukya Upanishad is said to give us the practices to attain liberation. The four states of consciousness (Brahman) relating to AUM are:

1. Vaisvanara

The first state is the waking state known as vaisvanara. It is our awareness of our everyday waking state.

2. Taijasa

The second state is the dreaming state known as taijasa. It is often described as the subtle body or as “inward knowing”.

3. Prajna

The third state is the state of sleeping or deep sleep and is known as prajna. In the third state the “underlying ground of consciousness is undistracted”.

4. Turiya

The fourth part is the state beyond all of these which is pure consciousness known as turiya. It is a place free from the concept of dualism.

two people with a cosmos around their heads

Three sounds of aum

Om has three sounds. Although we consider Om to have just two letters, the sound which starts at the back of the mouth and ends at the front represents the four states of consciousness:

A = waking – this can be likened to the ground floor of a building

U = dreaming –  this can be likened to the first floor of a building

M = sleeping –  this can be likened to the top floor of a building

The fourth state is the following silence looking down from the roof top.

A, U and M are the individual stories but the silence after is the whole thing.

By understanding the dreaming reality, we can understand the waking reality.  We cannot dream about something unless we have seen or experienced it in the waking state.

The conscious mind functions through the waking state it is considered creative and dynamic. It’s where we express ourselves in the external world.  

The dreaming state is where we start to dive into mastery of the unconscious mind.  We become more aware of samskaras (patterns) and we can then begin to overcome negative mental states.  

The dreaming state is beyond the control of the ordinary person’s conscious mind.  This is where we start to look at unfulfilled dreams and desires. If there is no desire to fill, there will be no dreams.

om symbol in tie dye

The final stage encompasses all of the states that precede it. Subject/object consciousness is the center of the waking state and the material world.

The ego enables us to split ourselves from the objects we perceive but it also separates us from the concept of being part of a whole.

The later verses of the Mandukya Upanishad explore the journey of self-realization through the different states of AUM leading the practitioner to the fourth state Turiya (the silence after the mantra), a state that transcends time revealing that the self is the Self. 

The Mandukya Upanishad works on the non-dualist premise that Atman and Brahman are the same thing“Thou art that”.

The non-dualist nature of the text is addressed in the opening/introductory chapter of the book where the role of religion and faith are questioned for the need to have God ‘gift’ faith. 

Swami Rama, in his translation, comments on the limitation of science and psychology in their ability to measure the process and results of Sadhana (spiritual practice), highlighted by themselves being bound to the material world or the waking state. 

Why Om?

Om is the key. 

It is a representation of the four states of consciousness and provides the practitioner with a vehicle to move toward Turiya. Each state explores the one before becoming subtler and merging into the next.

person doing yoga by the sunset with birds flying

Turiya encompasses all of the states before and “sees” them.

In order to move through the different states and towards Turiya, we must quiet the senses. Om helps us as it focuses the mind taking it inward.

As long as we are indulging in the senses, we are not able to bring the mind under control. Voluntary withdrawal of the senses becomes one of the primary steps of sadhana and this is part of the journey through the four states of consciousness.   

Contemplation on Om is said to deepen spiritual awareness.

The mind can be trained to concentrate on the sound Om until it becomes an unconscious habit and a part of life for the aspirant.

Ultimately, we look not only at expanding out of individuality but into pure consciousness where consciousness both “arises and dissolves” from the source of consciousness through AUM. 

Key teachings

One of the key teachings is that when we come to the realization that the self and the Self are not separate, we remove ignorance. If you know about Om, then you know about everything from the universe to Absolute truth.

OM, This syllable is everything. The explanation of which is, the past present, future all of it is Om. All that is beyond the three states of time is OM

If reading about the Mandukya Upanishad has left you wanting to learn more about the Upanishads in general, then why not check out Understanding the Upanishads: The Basics.

Photo of author
Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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