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Our email address is editor @realization.org.

Copyright 2001 Realization.org.



Mundaka Upanishad
Translated by F. Max Müller


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Editor's Introduction

IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND how remarkable this Upanishad is, it’s useful to know a few things before you plunge in.

First of all, in the original Sanskrit, this document is a poem. It’s a very fine poem, a famous one, widely regarded as the best among all the Upanishads.

I need to tell you this because you cannot possibly guess it from the translation you’re 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 he’s made a verse seem particularly ugly (or even worse, hard to understand), I’ve inserted a note with a superior translation by Olivelle or Purohit and Yeats. (I wish we could reproduce the whole text of those other translations instead of Müller’s, but that's impossible due to copyright restrictions.)

The 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.

The 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.


The 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.

But 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.

This 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 reality.

This 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.


Although 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.

As I said, the analogy is imperfect, but if you’re 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.

There are similarities between Jesus's critcism of the Pharisees and this Upanishad's criticism of people who performed sacrifices.

A Few Details

The date of the Mundaka Upanishad is unknown. Olivelle (p. xxxvii) estimates that it was composed during the last few centuries BCE.

The 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 translator’s.

Some 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.

This 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.

Traditionally, 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, 266.)

The 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.

— Editor, Realization.org
April 18, 2001

  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.

Copyright 2001 Realization.org. All rights reserved.