by F. Max Müller
ORDER TO UNDERSTAND how remarkable this Upanishad is,
its useful to know a few things before you plunge
of all, in the original Sanskrit, this document is a
poem. Its a very fine poem, a famous one, widely
regarded as the best among all the Upanishads.
need to tell you this because you cannot possibly guess
it from the translation youre about to read. The
man who made it, F. Max Müller, was justly
famed for his scholarship, but he was a tin-eared butcher
when it came to style. In a few places, where hes
made a verse seem particularly ugly (or even worse,
hard to understand), Ive inserted a note with
a superior translation by Olivelle
and Yeats. (I wish we could reproduce the whole
text of those other translations instead of Müllers,
but that's impossible due to copyright restrictions.)
next thing you should know is that the ancient Hindus
apparently took for granted that there is some special
knowledge you can acquire that automatically gives you
knowledge of everything else in the universe. The idea
may be clearer if we compare tthis special knowledge
to what you would learn from a particular magical book.
By reading that one book, you would learn everything
contained in all the other books ever written.
argument of this Upanishad begins with that idea in
the third verse of the first chapter, where somebody
asks, "What is it that when known, gives knowledge
of everything else?" The rest of the Upanishad
is devoted mainly to providing the answer.
third and last thing you should know may help you appreciate
the revolutionary nature of this Upanishad. Religious
Hindus have always believed that the highest possible
truth is contained in the ancient writings called Vedas.
These old texts were thought to be ultimately true in
the same way that Christians believe the Bible to be
the word of God. What can top the word of God? Nothing.
this Upanishad asserts and this must have been
shocking at the time that there is an even higher
knowledge than the one in the Vedas. The Vedas, you
see, are largely concerned with ritual sacrifices. They
give very precise instructions for performing these
rituals: the places where each participant should sit,
the words that each priest should chant, and so forth.
Upanishad ridicules those old sacrifices in scathing
terms. People who take them for the highest knowledge
are "fools" because such acts are motivated
by hopes of getting a reward and therefore cannot help
a person achieve liberation. In place of the old teachings,
the Upanishad presents a new, superior alternative:
people should seek knowledge of Brahman, the absolute
replacement of old Vedic knowledge with a higher knowledge
is a main theme of the Upanishads, and no Upanishad
states it more clearly than this one does.
the analogy is imperfect, this change may be compared
to the emergence of Christianity from Judaism. Judaism
emphasized the observance of laws prescribed by the
Hebrew Bible; Vedic Hinduism emphasized rituals prescribed
by the Vedas. Jesus told his fellow Jews that they didn't
need to follow the old rules anymore; the authors of
the Upanishads told fellow Hindus that they didn't need
to practice the old sacrifices anymore. The new teachings
of Jesus were codified in the New Testament and added
to the Hebrew Bible (give or take a few parts of it)
to make the Christian Bible; similarly, the new Hindu
teachings were set forth in the Upanishads and they
were added to the pre-existing Vedas as appendices.
I said, the analogy is imperfect, but if youre
careful not to take it too far, you may find it helpful.
The point is that the current versions of the Vedas
are like the Christian Bible; the old portions of the
Vedas, which are concerned largely with ritual actions,
are like the Old Testament; and the Upanishads are like
the New Testament. The comparison is rough and inexact,
but you may find it helpful as a starting point.
are similarities between Jesus's critcism of the
Pharisees and this Upanishad's criticism of people
who performed sacrifices.
date of the Mundaka Upanishad is unknown. Olivelle
(p. xxxvii) estimates that it was composed during the
last few centuries BCE.
notes to the right of the text were written by me. In
the past, the notes I've produced for other Upanishads
have mainly concerned small factual matters like the
meanings of words, but this time, in response to a request
from a reader, I've also included remarks that attempt
to point out the main lines of argument in the text.
As always, any mistakes in the notes are mine, not the
of my notes describe facts, but others express opinions
about the meaning of the text (for example, the note
to I. ii. 3). These interpretive remarks are
merely the opinions of a single reader, namely me, and
I include them mainly to make the text more interesting
for you by giving you something to agree or disagree
with. Please do not assume that they express the consensus
opinion of traditional commentators or scholars or any
other groups. In other places I do describe such consensus
opinions, and where that happens, I say so explicitly.
translation was first published in 1879 by Oxford University
as part of a mammoth series of scholarly books called
"The Sacred Books of the East." Their publication
was a major event in the history of Sanskrit studies,
and the translation is a famous one, despite its limitations.
the Mundaka Upanishad was regarded as part of the Artharva
Veda, but modern scholarship has cast doubt on this
theory. Olivelle says flatly that the Mundaka always
stood alone as an independent work (Olivelle,
title "Mundaka" means "shaven" or
"shaven-headed." Traditional commentators
explained this name by saying that the Upanishad was
written for monks with shaved heads or for students
who required a razor to cut what is ultimately true
from what is not. Some modern scholars doubt that either
of these explanations is correct, but apparently nothing
better has been suggested.
April 18, 2001
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
IT FROM AMAZON
This page was published on Realization.org on April 18, 2001.