by Swami Krishnananda
This is the Mundaka Upanishad – very interesting.
Brahmā devānām prathamaḥ sambabhūva viśvasya kartā bhuvanasya goptā, sa brahma-vidyāṁ sarva-vidyā-pratiṣṭham arthavāya jyeṣṭha-putrāya prāha (1.1.1). Artharvaṇe yām pravadeta brahmātharvā tām purovācāṅgire brahma-vidyam, sa bhāradvājaya satyavāhāya prāha bhāradvājo’ngirase parāvarām (1.1.2). Brahma, the Creator, who was the first born among all evolutes in the process of the manifestation of God Almighty, the creator of this world and the protector of all beings, taught Brahma Vidya – the science of Brahman, which is the origin, the support, and the foundation of every other learning, every other Vidya or science or art – to his eldest son Atharva, a great sage. Artharva taught this Knowledge that he received from Brahma to another sage, called Angi. This great sage Angi, who received it from Atharva, who received it from Brahma, gave this Knowledge to Bharadvaja, another great sage. This is the line of the descent of this Knowledge. Bharadvaja, also known as Satyavaha, taught this once again to Angiras, the wisdom of Paravara, the high and low. This Knowledge includes everything that is here and also everything that is not here. The highest Reality as it is in itself and also the reality manifest in the form of creation is Para-Avara. This Brahma Vidya is the Knowledge and study of this great Reality which appears as Para and Avara, the high and the low at the same time.
An assembly of all the sages is reported to have been frequently held in a place called Naimisharanya. These sessions took place many times, and the teachings of the Epics and Puranas, and the great scriptures, were given by great teachers such as Sutapuranica, who is the speaker in the Mahabharata as well as the Puranas. And one of the sages assembled there listening to these discourses was Saunaka.
We will find that in the Puranas the questioner is always Saunaka. Saunaka was a great sage who performed large sacrifices, and his sacrificial ground was very big. Therefore, he was called Saunaka Mahashala. Shala is the sacrificial ground, and mahashala means a large ground, even kilometres long. At least hundreds and hundreds of yagnas and sacrifices did Saunaka Maharishi perform, and usually these discourses were conducted in the very place where the yagnas were held. On one side of the pandal or tent of the yagnashala, the actual havan, yagna, sacrifice would be performed by the appointed priests, and on the other side discourses would be going on. Even the recitation of the Mahabharata by Vaishambayana was done on the sacrificial ground.
Janamejaya performed a Sarpa Yaga, a yagna which he undertook to vindicate the death of his father Parikshit, who died on account of a snake bite. Janamejaya's anger towards snakes was such that when he heard that his father died in that way, he determined to end the species completely and conducted a yagna called Sarpa Yaga, which did not succeed in the end on account of some interference. At that time Vyasa was present, and he told his disciple Vaishampayana to tell the whole story of the Mahabharata to Janamejaya, who was eager to know what exactly happened to his forefathers the Pandavas, whose progeny was Parikshit, his father. Similarly, the Puranas were recited by Suta, a learned sage in the Naimisharanya forest, which is near the modern Neemsar, somewhere around Sitapur.
Saunaka, the great sage, the Mahashala, the performer of large sacrifices, stood up in the assembly and queried the great sage Angiras, who received this Brahma Vidya through a descending line of teaching commencing from Brahma, the Creator himself. Humbly, respectfully, in a traditional manner, this great sage Saunaka Mahashala approached Angiras, the great master who was in the audience. He put a question. What is the question? Great Master, holy Sage, kasmin nu bhagavo vijñāte sarvam idaṁ vijñātam bhavati iti (1.1.3): What is that, by knowing which, one can know everything else also?
Is it possible to know something which can lead to the knowledge of all things at the same time? Generally, such a thing is not possible. If you know one thing, you will know only that thing. The knowledge of ‘A’ does not involve the knowledge of ‘B’, because ‘A’ cannot be ‘B’. One thing cannot be another thing; it is a law of contradiction in logic. So what is this question? A supernatural question is raised by Saunaka Mahashala: What is that thing which will, at the same time, mean the knowledge of all things? It was a simple question, leading to an answer which is the entire Upanishad.
To the sage who queried in this manner, the master Angiras speaks. Tasami sa hovāca: dve vidye veditavye iti ha sma yad brahmavido vadanti, parā caivāparā ca (1.1.4): Two kinds of knowledge are to be acquired – dve vidye – the higher and the lower. We have to know what higher knowledge is, and we also have to know lower knowledge. This is what we hear from Brahmavids, the great knowers of Brahman. This is the instruction we have received from the Brahmavid with regard to how knowledge can be acquired or obtained. Knowledge of the lower is important, though lower knowledge is not the same as higher knowledge. The lower knowledge is something like the legs of a human being; and a human being can live even without legs. Legs are not essential to the body, but they are necessary for the body. In a similar manner, the lower knowledge is not going to take us to Brahman, but it is necessary as feet are necessary for us, and its essentials need not be overemphasised with an overwhelming feeling of their importance, giving no credit to that which will lead to that essential knowledge.
All knowledge is the graduated training of the mind in the process of enlightenment. From the perceptible, visible, gross, tangible and acceptable reality, we gradually move the mind to that which is not easily acceptable and cannot be understood as quickly as we can understand that which is seen with the eyes directly. That the Sun is giving light to us, it is now daytime, and the Sun rose at a particular hour in the morning, is something acceptable. But that the Sun gives light to all parts of the world at different times in a very systematic manner is something that cannot be seen with the eyes directly. It requires a little imagination and intensive study to know this other fact involved in the illumination given by the Sun on the Earth, as it is not actually accessible to vision physically. There are degrees of knowledge, and there are as many degrees of knowledge as there are degrees of the psychic setup of a human being. We have to pass through as many stages of education as are the stages which compose our own mind. The mental degree is also the degree of reality that it will encounter in the process of enlightenment and education. Saunaka put a question regarding what knowledge is, and Angiras said there are two types of knowledge, the lower and the higher. Now we are told what lower knowledge is.
Now listen about lower knowledge. Tatrāparā ṛg-vedo yajur-vedaḥ sāma-vedo’tharva-vedaḥ śikṣā kalpo vyākaraṇaṁ niruktaṁ chando jyotiṣam iti (1.1.5). Very interesting! It gives a blow to the very root of our imagination that the Vedas are the highest knowledge. The Rigveda Samhitas, and everything connected to the Rigveda – the Brahmanas, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharvaveda – are all lower knowledge only, my dear friend. There are four Vedas. The Rigveda consists of hymns, prayers, mantras. The Yajurveda consists of certain invocations necessary for the performance of sacrifice. The Samaveda is Rig-verses set in music. The Athavaveda contains such material as may be regarded as a sequel or an appendix to the tri, or the threefold Vedas – Rigveda, Yajurveda and Samaveda.
These four Vedas are not easy to understand. Their language is difficult, their grammar is very hard, and the implications of what they say are so deep that without proper introductory learning, one cannot know what the Vedas speak at all. This introductory training consists of what is called the Vedanga, a sixfold education. The anga or the limb of the Veda is sixfold, and we cannot approach the Veda unless we are proficient in these six accessories called the Vedanga.
What are these six Vedangas? Śikṣā kalpo vyākaraṇaṁ niruktaṁ chando jyotiṣam iti (1.1.5). Siksha is the science of phonetics, the art of intonation and modulation of the voice in the recitation of a Veda mantra. You might have heard Panditas chanting mantras of the Veda. It has a way of pronunciation, an articulation, a modulation, and a raising of the voice or a bringing down of the voice, or keeping the voice in a harmonious manner without raising it or bringing it down. These are called the sciences of giving a special meaning to the mantra.
You may be wondering what the great point is in intonating the mantra. “Oh God, protect me.” I can say that in any way I like. Why should I sing it in a particular tone? The reason is the Veda mantras are composed in such a way that different intonations give them different suggestions. Even when we speak, our mode of speaking gives a special significance to the words. We can utter a sentence with different voice formations which may mean different things depending on the different ways of expression. Sometimes we gesticulate, and sometimes we change the tone of voice by raising, lowering or modulating it in such a way that conveys different meanings. For instance, when we say something when we are happy or unhappy, or when we are angry or want to abuse somebody, we know how our voice changes. Likewise, a special kind of technique has been adopted by the science of Siksha, attributed to Panini, the great grammarian, which instructs us in the art of the correct intonation and pronunciation of a Veda mantra, especially the first three Vedas – the Rigveda, Yajurveda and Samaveda.
Kalpa means the performance of a ritual connected with a specific injunction of the Veda, especially of the Brahmanas. We have seen Acharyas, Purohitas performing havana. While chanting they put something here, there, such as dharbha grass here, water there, they will do achamanam, wash their hands, put some rice grains there, and so many other things. These are certain techniques of ritual which are elaborately described in Kalpa Sutras. The Kalpa Sutras are of four types: Shrauta Sutras, Grhya Sutras, Dharma Sutras and Sulba Sutras.
The Shrauta Sutra is a text which describes the manner of the performance of sacrifices according to Vedic injunctions. The Grhya Sutras is connected with sacrifices and performances to be undertaken in one’s own house, and not in some big yagnashala. The Dharma Sutra is that Kalpa which gives us the rules and regulations of social and ethical life, such as Varnashrama Dharma, etc. The Sulpa Sutras describe the length, measurement, etc., of certain articles that are to be used in Vedic sacrificial methods. These are the four types of Kalpa Sutra.
Vyakarana is grammar. There are two types of grammar – classical grammar and Vedic grammar. In Panini’s method both types of grammar are found. Vedic grammar is studied only in advance stages. Students of Sanskrit usually study only classical works and the well-known Vyakarana. Unless we know the technology of the method by which words have been used in the Veda mantras, we will not make any sense out of them, and so Vyakarna, the study of grammar, is necessary.
Nirukta is the etymology of the word, how the word has been formed. Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, this, that – what is actually meant by these words? They have a root. As every word in a language has a root from which it is derived, Vedic words also have a root from where they arise. The Nirukta Shastra of Bhaskaracharya is the great textbook which goes into the details of the etymology of the roots of the words used in the Veda mantras.
Chhanda is the metre. Every verse, every mantra of the Rigveda Samhita particularly, varies in its metre. It is long or short; it is Gayatri Chhandas or Tristubh, and so on, and accordingly the intonation also changes. So, metre is the Chhandas.
Jyotisha is the astronomical science which tells us at what particular time of the conjunction of the stars or the planets we have to undertake a particular ritual or a sacrifice. It does not mean that on any day we can do some worship and on any day we can do some havanam, and so on. A particular havan or yagna should be done at a particular time, in consonance with the respective conjunction of the planets and the stars. That is Jyotisha, the shastra of astronomy.
We cannot go to the Veda directly and understand anything out of it unless we are proficient in these six auxiliary shastras or scriptures called śikṣā kalpo vyākaraṇaṁ niruktaṁ chando jyotiṣam. All these, says the great master, together with the original Vedas – Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda – should be considered as ways of lower knowledge. They purify our mind, and enlighten us into the mysteries of the whole of creation. They will purify our mind because of the power that is embedded in the mantras and the emotional or religious awareness that is stimulated within us on account of the meaning that we see in the mantra, the blessing that we receive from the sages who composed the mantra, and also the special power that is generated by the metre. All these put together create a religious atmosphere in the person who takes to the study of the Veda. It is great and grand, worth studying. It will lift us to the empyrean of a comprehension of values that are not merely physical but superphysical.
Yet, it is not enough. There is a ‘but’ behind it. What is that greater knowledge, which is higher than this mentioned? Atha parā yayā tad akṣaram adhigamyate (1.1.5): that is the higher knowledge with which alone can we reach the imperishable Reality. Learning is different from wisdom; scholarship is not the same as insight. One may be a learned Vedic scholar and very proficient in the performance of sacrifices and the invocation of gods in the heavens, but eternity is different from temporality. All these glories of the Veda are in the region of time, and the eternal is timeless. What is that timeless thing, that which is called Imperishable?
Yat tad adreśyam, agrāhyam, agotram, avarṇam, acakṣuḥ-śrotraṁ tad apāṇi-padam, nityam vibhum sarva-gataṁ susūkṣmaṁ tad avyayam yad bhūta-yonim paripaśyanti dhīrāḥ (1.1.6): That great Reality is to be encountered in direct experience; that Reality which is not capable of perception through the eyes – adreśyam; that which cannot be grasped with a hand – agrāhyam; that which has no origin – agotram; that which has no shape or form – avarnam; which has no sense organs like us – acakṣuḥ-śrotraṁ; no limbs such as feet, hands etc – tad apāṇi-padam; permanent, eternal, all-pervading, subtler than the subtlest – nityam vibhum sarva-gataṁ susūkṣmaṁ; imperishable – tad avyayam; the origin of all beings – bhūta-yonim; paripaśyanti dhīrāḥ – heroes on the path of the spirit will behold that great Reality within their own selves.