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Copyright 2001 Realization.org.



Mundaka Upanishad
Translated by F. Max Müller


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First Mundaka


This is the truth: the sacrificial works which they (the poets) saw in the hymns (of the Veda) have been performed in many ways in the Treta age. Practise them diligently, ye lovers of truth, this is your path that leads to the world of good work!


This chapter is about the first kind of knowledge, the lower knowledge of the Vedas, which consists primarily of instructions for practicing ritual sacrifices.

Treta Age = second of the four ages of Hindu mythology. Each lasts millions of years.


When the fire is lighted and the flame flickers, let a man offer his oblations between the two portions of melted butter, as an offering with faith.


The basic idea of Vedic ritual is that the priest feeds the gods by putting food into a fire. Fire was thought to be the mouth of the gods.

Melted butter (actually, ghee, clarified butter) was poured on the fire to make it flare up to receive the main offering.

Oblation = the food which is offered.


If a man's Agnihotra sacrifice is not followed by the new-moon and full-moon sacrifices, by the four-months' sacrifices, and by the harvest sacrifice, if it is unattended by guests, not offered at all, or without the Vaisvadeva ceremony, or not offered according to rule, then it destroys his seven worlds.

  Seven worlds = the desired rewards. The point is that the rituals fail unless they are peformed on an enormous scale and with excruciating attention to detail..


Kali (black), Karali (terrific), Manogava (swift as thought), Sulohita (very red), Sudhumravarna (purple), Sphulingini (sparkling), and the brilliant Visvarupi (having all forms), all these playing about are called the seven tongues (of fire).


Olivelle's translation of this verse captures the poetry of the original superbly:

The Black, the Terrible, the Swift-as-the-mind,
The Blood-red, the Smoke-coloured, the Sparkling,
And the glittering Goddess—
These are the seven flickering tongues of flame.


If a man performs his sacred works when these flames are shining, and the oblations follow at the right time, then they lead him as sun-rays to where the one Lord of the Devas dwells.



Come hither, come hither! the brilliant oblations say to him, and carry the sacrificer on the rays of the sun, while they utter pleasant speech and praise him, saying: 'This is thy holy Brahma-world (Svarga), gained by thy good works.'


The tone here is sarcastic. The man is led on (flattered, deluded) by the spectacle of the sacrifice; he thinks he has elevated himself spiritually because he staged this theatrical extravaganza, but he's kidding himself. Purohit and Yeats capture it quite well:

"'Welcome, welcome!'" cry his pleasant flattering good deeds..."


But frail, in truth, are those boats, the sacrifices, the eighteen, in which this lower ceremonial has been told. Fools who praise this as the highest good, are subject again and again to old age and death.


The author is calling people fools who take the instructions of the Vedas as the highest wisdom.

"The eighteen" may refer to eighteen people who were needed to carry out these complicated rituals properly: sixteen priests, the man who paid for the sacrifice, and the man's wife. Purohit and Yeats call them the "eighteen crew members," extending the boat metaphor brilliantly.

Olivelle thinks "the eighteen" refers to eighteen forms of sacrifice.


Fools dwelling in darkness, wise in their own conceit, and puffed up with vain knowledge, go round and round staggering to and fro, like blind men led by the blind.


Men who paid for such sacrifices were conceited.

An analogy might be drawn to Christ's criticism of people who prayed in public instead of secretly.


Children, when they have long lived in ignorance, consider themselves happy. Because those who depend on their good works are, owing to their passions, improvident, they fall and become miserable when their life (in the world which they had gained by their good works) is finished.


The meaning is that such men are like children. Their happiness is dependent on material things.


Considering sacrifice and good works as the best, these fools know no higher good, and having enjoyed (their reward) on the height of heaven, gained by good works, they enter again this world or a lower one.

  When such people die, they are reborn in the same condition, or a worse one.


Let a Brahmana, after he has examined all these worlds which are gained by works, acquire freedom from all desires. Nothing that is eternal (not made) can be gained by what is not eternal (made). Let him, in order to understand this, take fuel in his hand and approach a Guru who is learned and dwells entirely in Brahman.


Considering all these limitations of the lower knowledge, a wise person will seek out a guru to learn the higher knowledge.

Fuel: a student brought firewood to a guru to symbolize the act of becoming a disciple.


To that pupil who has approached him respectfully, whose thoughts are not troubled by any desires, and who has obtained perfect peace, the wise teacher truly told that knowledge of Brahman through which he knows the eternal and true Person.


  Due to copyright restrictions we can't always publish the best existing translations. The clearest and most accurate English version of the Mundaka Upanishad is contained in this Oxford University Press edition translated by Patrick Olivelle. The book is cheap and we recommend it very highly.


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This page was published on Realization.org on April 18, 2001.

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