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Statements from the shastras, such as, ‘त्व्विद्ययाऽमृतमश्नुते’’ – ‘Vidyayã’mrutamashnute’ (Ishãvasyã Upanishad: 11) and ‘त्व्विद्यया विन्दतेऽमृतम्‌’– ‘Vidyayã vindate’mrutam’ (Kena Upanishad: 2/4) describe vidyã (knowledge) as the supreme means for moksha (liberation). Which vidyã is this? Brahmavidyã. Brahmavidyã has the strength too break the ties of the world. What is brahmavidyã? How does it break the ties of the world?
To experience this one must read, study, contemplate on and imbibe the teachings of the Mundaka Upanishad. The Mundaka Upanishad has left nothing in revealing the totality of brahmavidyã. Let us absorb ourselves in it.
Introduction
The Mundaka Upanishad, which is encompassed with in the Atharva Veda, has three main sections – each is called a mundaka. Each of these mundakas has two subsections called khandas. Thus this Upanishad has a total of six khandas in three mundakas. Mundaka means head. This Upanishad gives comprehensive precepts on brahmavidyã, the foremost (head) of all vidyãs, and therefore it is called the Mundaka Upanishad.
The Story
The description of brahmavidyã has been given through a guru-shishya paramparã (lineage). ‘त्व्ब्रह्मा देवानां प्रथमः सम्बभूव। विश्वस्य कर्ता भुवनस्य गोप्ता। स ब्रह्मविद्यां सर्वविद्याप्रतिष्ठामथर्वाय ज्येष्ठपुत्राय प्राह॥ अथर्वणे यां प्रवदेत ब्रह्माऽथर्वा तां पुरोवाचाऽङि्‌गरे ब्रह्मविद्याम्‌। स भारद्वाजाय सत्यवहाय प्राह भारद्वाजोऽङि्‌गरसे परावराम्‌॥’ – ‘Brahmã devãnãm prathamaha sambabhoova, vishvasya kartã bhuvansya gopta, sa brahmavidyãm sarvavidyãpratishthãmatharvãya jyeshtha-putrãya prãha. Atharvane yãm pravadeta brahmã’tharvã tãm purovãchã’ngire brahmavidyãm, sa bhãradvãjo’ngirase parãvarãm’ (Mundaka Upanishad: 1/1/1-2). This means Paramãtmã first created Brahmã, the creator and nourisher of this universe (brahmãnd). He inspired brahmavidyã within him. Brahmã gave the teachings of this brahmavidyã to his eldest son, Atharvã. Atharvã taught this vidyã to a disciple named Angir. He explained this vidyã to Satyavãha, a descendant of Bharadvãj. Satyavãha Muni spoke this vidyã to one of his disciples named Angirã. Further in this lineage, ‘त्व्शौनको ह वै महाशालोऽङ्गिरसं विघिवदुपसन्नः पप्रत्व्छ’– ‘Shaunako ha vai mahãshãlo’ngirasam vidhivadupasannaha paprachchha’ (Mundaka Upanishad: 1/1/3). The wealthy aspirant Shaunak, who himself had a big place for yagnas, ceremoniously took the discipleship of Maharshi Angirã. One thought had been on Shaunak’s mind for a long time: this world is filled with many varieties of things. This rare life that we have received is also limited. It is short. In this short life how much needs to be known in order to be freed from these worldly ties? Moreover, if we attempt to know one thing, something else will always be left unknown.
Is there a vidyã by knowing which all vidyãs are encompassed, and nothing else needs to be known? By knowing which we become all-knowing. With these sentiments the aspirant Shaunak asked, ‘त्व्कस्मिन्नु भगवो विज्ञाते सर्वमिदं विज्ञातं भवतीति’– ‘Kasminnu bhagavo vignãte sarvamidam vignãtam bhavateeti.’ – ‘By knowing what does one know everything or know all the secrets of the shastras’ (Mundaka Upanishad: 1/1/3).
The Two Types of Vidyã
There are not many who would ask about such matters. Hearing the question, Angirã Muni was pleased. He clarified one thing before answering, ‘त्व्द्वे विद्ये वेदितव्ये इति ह स्म यद्‌ ब्रह्मविदो वदन्ति परा चैवापरा’ – ‘Dve vidye veditavye iti ha sma yad brahmavido vadanti parã chaivãprã.’ – ‘Shaunak! The wise experts of brahmvidyã say that there are two types of vidyã famous in this world. One is parã vidyã, the other aparã vidyã’ (Mundaka Upanishad: 1/1/4).
Parã means paramount. The paramount vidyã of all vidyãs is parãvidyã. This parãvidyã, i.e. paramount vidyã, is brahmavidyã itself. For this very reason, this Upanishad commences by explaining the supremacy of brahmavidyã with the words, ‘त्व्ब्रह्मविद्यां सर्वविद्याप्रतिष्ठाम्‌’ – ‘Brahmavidyãm sarvavidyãpratishthãm.’ – ‘It is brahmavidyã itself that resides as the prestige and support of all vidyãs’ (Mundaka Upanishad: 1/1/1). The Bhagavad Gitã calls this adhyãtmavidyã. ‘त्व्अध्यात्मविद्या विद्यानाम्‌’ – ‘Adhyãtmavidyã vidyãnãm’ (Gita: 1/32). Showing it to be a vibhuti it has placed it at the topmost position of all vidyãs. The fruit that cannot be attained by any other vidyã, the fruit of moksha (liberation), can only be attained by this parãvidyã; this is the reason for its supremacy. In this way, what has been described in the shastras as brahmavidyã or adhyãtmavidyã has been presented here as parãvidyã.
The other vidyã is aparã. Aparã vidyã means mundane knowledge, distinct and minor to parã. It is vidyã which is obtained without realization merely in the form of information. Even if someone has the four Vedas with their six angas at their fingertips, but if it is mere knowledge of words and has not been imbibed in one’s life, and has not resulted in realization, then that knowledge, although it is of the shastras, is aparã. This vidyã can never destroy misery. This can be understood better from the example of Maharshi Nãrad. Maharshi Nãrad knew the four Vedas, the Itihãs scriptures, the Purãnas, the science of reasoning (logic), pitruvidyã (ancestral knowledge), science of the constellations, devavidyã, sarpavidyã and many other vidyãs. Nevertheless, ‘त्व्सोऽहं भगवो शोचामि तं मां भगवान्‌ शोकस्य पारं तारयतु’ – ‘So’ham bhagavo shochãmi tam mãm Bhagavãn shokasya pãram tãrayatu’ (Chhãndogya Upanishad: 7/1/3). O Gurudev! I am submerged in an ocean of misery. Please draw me out. Thus he acknowledged that he was miserable and asked to be freed from his misery.
Characteristics of Brahmavidyã
Two types of vidyã have been mentioned. Of them, the characteristics of parãvidyã, i.e. brahmavidyã are then described. Maharshi Angirã says, ‘त्व्येनाऽक्षरं पुरुषं वेद सत्यं प्रोवाच तां तत्त्वतो ब्रह्मविद्याम्‌’ – ‘Yenã’ksharam Purusham veda satyam provãcha tãm tattvato brahmavidyãm.’ – ‘That by which both the entities ‘Aksharam’, i.e. Aksharbrahman, and ‘Purusham’, i.e. Purushottam, are known is called brahmavidyã’ (Mundaka Upanishad: 1/2/13).
Here brahmavidyã does not just encompass knowing Parabrahman but it encompasses the principle of knowing both these divine entities Brahman and Parabrahman, i.e. Akshar and Purushottam. This means that if someone only knows the form of Parabrahman, or only of Aksharbrahman then that is not complete brahmavidyã. Both must be fully known with complete realization. Only then can that brahmavidyã be said to be complete.
That is indeed why the rishis of the Taittiriya shãkhã (school) say, ‘त्व्असन्नेव स भवति। असद्‌ ब्रह्मेति वेद चेत्‌। अस्ति ब्रह्मेति चेद्‌ वेद। सन्तमेनं ततो विदु!’ – ‘Asanneva sa bhavati, asad brahmeti veda chet, asti brahmeti ched veda, santamenam tato vidu!’ – ‘One who does not known the existence of Aksharbrahman has squandered his own existence, and one who knows the existence of Aksharbrahman, himself attains true existence’ (Taittiriya Ãnand Valli: 6). Maharshi Yãgnavalkya explains something similar to Gãrgi in the Bruhadarãnyaka Upanishad, ‘त्व्यो वा एतदक्षरं गार्ग्यविदित्वाऽस्मिंल्लोके जुहोति यजते तपस्तप्यते बहूनि वर्षसहस्राण्यन्तवदेवास्य तद्‌ भवति’ – ‘Yo vã etadaksharam Gãrgyaviditvã’sminlloke juhoti yajate tapastapyate bahooni varshasahasrãnyantavadevãsya tad bhavati’ – ‘O Gãrgi! Without knowing Aksharbrahman, even if someone performs yagnas, or does austerities for thousands of years, they will only attain a perishable fruit [i.e. they will not attain an eternal fruit]’ (Bruhadarãnyaka Upanishad: 3/8/10). Moreover, ‘त्व्यो वा एतदक्षरं गार्ग्यविदित्वाऽस्माल्लोकात्‌ प्रैति स कृपणः’ – ‘Yo vã etadaksharam Gãrgyaviditvã’smãllokãt praiti sa krupanaha.’ – ‘O Gãrgi! Whosoever attains death without knowing Aksharbrahman is pitiful and lacking [because they will have to be born again]’ (Bruhadarãnyaka Upanishad: 3/8/10).
In the same way, it is also clear that there is no chance for moksha (liberation) without knowing Paramãtmã. For example, it is said in the Yajurveda, ‘त्व्तमेव विदित्वाऽतिमृत्युमेति नान्यः पन्थाः विद्यतेऽयनाय’ – ‘Tameva viditvã’timrutyumeti nãnyaha panthãhã vidyate’yanãya.’ Meaning, knowing God is the only path for reaching God’s abode.
The reason for this unique definition of brahmavidyã has also been explained for us by such scriptures. The Bhagavad Gitã says, ‘त्व्ब्रह्मभूतः प्रसन्नात्मा न शोचति न काङ्‌क्षति। समः सर्वेषु भूतेषु मद्भक्तिं लभते पराम्‌॥’ – ‘Brahmabhootaha prasannãtmã na shochati na kãnkshati, samaha sarveshu bhooteshu madbhaktim labhate parãm’ (Gitã: 18/54). Only one who becomes brahmarup i.e. aksharrup is benefited with the bhakti of Purushottam. The Taittiriya Upanishad also says, ‘त्व्ब्रह्मविदाप्नोति परम्‌’ – ‘Brahmavidãpnoti Param’ – ‘He who knows Brahman, i.e. Akshar, is brahmarup and only he attains Paramãtmã.’ In this way, for eternal liberation, one must know Purushottam Parabrahman and offer bhakti and upãsanã to him. It is clear that in order to accomplish that knowledge, upãsanã and bhakti one must know Aksharbrahman and become aksharrup.
In this way, the supreme essence of brahmavidyã is to become brahmarup and offer bhakti and upãsanã to Parabrahman. Only by compulsorily knowing both divine entities, Brahman and Parabrahman, in other words, by imbibing the Akshar-Purushottam principle, does the supreme essence of brahmavidyã blossom fully within us.
Now let us see how this essence is revealed here.

Translated by: Sadhu Paramvivekdas

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