Trenchant, witty, flowery and lucid, the commentary on Mundakopanishad by one of the most venerated spiritual personalities in India, is an absolute pleasure to read. Whether laying into pompous ‘learned’ men for their half baked knowledge on the Upanishads, or dissecting the meaning simpliciter underlying seemingly incoherent sounding verses, Swami Chinmayananda is in vintage form. No punches are pulled back as all inhibitions are shed. As the Guru informs his readers at the very beginning of his book, the word “Muṇḍaka” literally means ‘Shaving of the head’. Hence this Upanishad from a literal interpretation means the “Shaving Upaniṣad”, or the ‘Upaniṣad of the Tonsured’. Both terms are metaphorical in their import. ‘Shaving Upaniṣad’ – “because its contents remove the superimposed veil of ignorance obscuring the Ᾱtman through direct and penetrating exposition of the higher knowledge like a razor removes the hair from the head”; and ’Upaniṣad of the Tonsured’ because “it is primarily intended for sannyāsins to help them in their quest for the attainment of the eternal and the imperishable Brahman.”
Arguably, the most poetic amongst all the Upanishads, the Mundakopanishad with its 64 Mantras, urges the Seeker to look inwards and realise the Inner Self that permeates and pervades the entire existence. This particular aspect of Self realization has been liberally adopted and quoted by various philosophies, both Eastern and Western. For example, as Swami Chinmayananda illustrates, “The praṇava is the bow, the Ᾱtman is the arrow and the Brahman is said to be its mark (goal). It should be hit by one, who is self-collected and that which hits becomes, like the arrow, one with the mark meaning Brahman.” This concept finds mention in Best-selling author Paolo Coelho in his latest work, coincidentally termed, “The Archer”.
The quintessence of the Mundakopanishad is captured in an arresting picture. Two birds bound to each other in close friendship are perched on a tree. While one of the birds is busy consuming the fruits of the tree with great relish, the other seems to be in a state of detached equanimity just looking at its compatriot. The tree in this example represents the body. The bird busying itself with the material pleasures accorded by the tree is the ‘Jivatma’ (individual soul), that has an inextricable identification with the body and mind. Such an identification makes the Jivatma both the ‘karta’ (doer) and the ‘Bhokta’ (enjoyer). The observing bird on the other hand, represents the ‘Paramatma’ (the Supreme Self). The Supreme Self remains uninfluenced and untainted by any material pleasures and possessions and remains a still tranquil witness.
The Mundakopanishad also dwells on the pristine ‘Guru-Shishya’ (teacher-student/Master-disciple) relationship. However, as Swami Chinmayananda bemoans, this valuable currency seems to be totally devalued in the modern world. “Now-a-days, not only that we rarely get the chance to meet a true Master but even when we meet him, we know not how to approach him. Men of Realisation are like flutes, by themselves they cannot sing; the music is to be brought out of them by our blowing. To go to a Master and to sit in silent adoration is also a true satsaṅga; but this method is available only between a Master and a very highly advanced seeker. Ordinarily, we must pelt the master with all our doubts – absurd, stupid, imaginary, deep and superficial. Only when we start asking questions can he get a glimpse of our personality and only when he knows us can he open his mouth and serve each of us on the path divine. In the Upaniṣads we find that disciples approached the Guru, and each asked a very pertinent and deep question of pregnant import and endless message.”
The Mundakopanishad seems to be offering paradoxical solutions to the path to salvation. Whilst in some verses, it waxes eloquent on the need and necessity for rituals galore, in succeeding verses it seems to contradict itself by holding forth on the futilities of being entangled, enmeshed and embroiled in the rigmarole of rituals. However, as Swami Chinmayananda clarifies, there certainly is a method behind the madness. The performance of and engaging in rituals that otherwise seem mundane lays the edifice or the groundwork for the transformation of the Seeker into a determined and remorseless pursuer of the Truth. A fertile bed is sown by the rituals from which sprouts forth the seeds of unwavering intellect and concentration. Once this stage is reached, the adherence to rituals is abhorred and the intellect starts preparing itself to realise the Brahman or the Ultimate Reality. The reality, which is described in a verse that represents, according to the author, the very apogee of Sanskrit language:
“acakṣuḥ śrotraṁ tadapāṇipādam, nityaṁ vibhuṁ sarvagataṁ susūkṣmaṁ tadavyayaṁ yadbhūtayoniṁ paripaśyanti dhīrāḥ.”
“That which is invisible, ungraspable, unoriginated and attribute less, that which has neither eyes not ears nor hands nor legs – that is Eternal, full of manifestations, all-pervading, subtlest of the subtle – that imperishable Being is what the wise perceive as the source of all creation.”
The Mundakopanishad also uses the troika of a spider’s web, the sprouting of a plant and the growth of hair in a man’s body to poetically elucidate the merging of the individual with the Self. A spider spins its web out of itself and once the purpose is accomplished the web it withdrawn back into the spider, from whence it was created. “The material of the web becomes the very substance of the spider. In short, the web is nothing but a modified form of the spider itself. Similarly, the supreme Reality Itself is the lock, stock and barrel of this atrocious looking mechanism of saṁsāra!” Similarly, lest any motive be ascribed to the creation of the Universe and mankind to anyone, the Upanishad urges the seeker to study the function of the earth in producing and nourishing various plants and trees. There exists absolutely no motive whatsoever for the earth to engage in such a deed. Similarly, the world too comes out of the Real. Finally, as effortless and spontaneous is the growth of hair in the life of a human being, so is the expression by the finite, of the vitality in the Reality.
The book also offers a glimpse of the laconic wit of Swami Chinmayananda. The story of a respected rotary club member who boasted about a Bhagavad Gita chanting initiative that was taking place uninterrupted for a period of twenty five years at his house induces peals of laughter. The man confesses to Swami Chinmayananda that neither he nor any member of his family know a single verse from the Gita even after more than two decades of chanting. Swami Chinmayananda’ s conundrum is resolved when the man reveals that for a payment of seven rupees a month, a Brahmin visits his house every day and proceeds with the Gita chanting all by himself! As the learned Guru writes, “I could have been stuck down by a feather.”
This is one book that is worth reading, and re reading!