Mandukya Upanishad- An inquiry into what is Real And Unreal -2

Object of this treatise: “As a man stricken with disease regains his normal state with the removal of the cause of the disease, so the self, laboring under misapprehension, owing to identification of itself with misery, recovers its normal state with the cessation of the illusion of duality, which manifests itself as the phenomenal universe. This realization of non-duality is the end to be attained”. – Adi Sankara

In the first essay of this series we had an aerial view of the Mandukya Upanishad and the Karika of Acharya Gaudapada. With the grace of The Lord, let us commence their detailed study. This Upanishad has 12 mantras (with no sub-division) and the Karika has 215 verses divided into four convenient chapters (prakaranas) as stated earlier.


The twelve mantras of the Mandukya Upanishad come under Agama Prakarana with Karika verses interspersed at convenient places for clarification. As the Sanskrit mantras of the Upanishad make a delightful lyrical reading they are reproduced in this essay (in a transliterated form with all its shortcomings) for the benefit of those who are inclined to snatch a look into the original source of light. It may be of interest to note that this entire Upanishad has been rendered into a soulful musical treat by the famous Hindustani Classical Music Vocalist Pandit Jasrajji which is pleasing to the ears and soothing to the heart. In this dissertation the Upanishadic mantras and the Karika verses of the Acharya have been referred to distinctly. According to the scholars the mere Upanishad portion without Karika does not present a full view of the philosophy and hence a study of both is advocated.

This chapter explains the real nature of Atman and focuses on elucidating the meaning of AUM.


Harih Om. om ity etad aksharam idam sarvam, tasyopavyakhyanam bhutam bhavad.h bhavishyad iti sarvam onkara eva, yach chanyat.h  trikalatitam  tad  apy  onkara  eva  .. 1..


Harih om. AUM, the syllable (word), is all this. To be clearer, all that it is past, present, and future is verily AUM. That which is beyond the three periods of time is also truly AUM.

The Mandukya Upanishad starts with the above mentioned declaration which is sudden and straight just as the firing of a bullet. There are no stories, no descriptions, no poetical ramblings, and not even any mention about a teacher and the taught. It is just a big-bang. Despite this, we can visualize a master expounding the revolutionary ideas to an equally devoted, inquisitive student in sylvan ambience because Guru-Sishya parampara is the fundamental creed of our ancient educational system.

We can also presume that the following question would have been posed by the sincere student to the learned teacher to kindle him to expound the great doctrine about Reality. The query could be “Is there not a better purpose of life than eating, drinking, breeding, growing and dying? Is life a mere journey from the womb to the tomb through the road full of the pot-holes of sorrows and smiles, hopes and disappointments, pleasure and pain, love and hate etc.,? Is there no way possible to come out of this swamp and quandary? Can there be at all a destination of unbroken peace and joy?” It is to that intelligent student the Master addresses this famous Upanishadic teaching.

In this first mantra the idea put forward is that understanding the meaning of AUM helps the realization of the essential nature of Atman. This is because all the srutis say so and hence it is the final dictum.

AUM can be looked at three angles viz., a sound a symbol and a word or syllable. For the present the teacher says the word or the name AUM is all this, meaning thereby, that all the plurality and pairs of opposites recognized by us in the outer world is the word AUM which is a Divine Factor, an Over-riding Principle, and a Spiritual Common Denominator. Just as different varieties of mud-pots are in a sense nothing but mud, just as all diversified objects that we see around us indicated by various names are not different from their corresponding names, so too there is a Divine Eternal Factor behind the pluralistic world and therefore all this is verily AUM and not different from it.

The pots have come out of mud, sustained by mud and go back to mud when they are destroyed. Similarly, the visual world phenomena come out of the Divine Truth, exist in that Truth, and return to that Truth when they are withdrawn from their manifestation. That fundamental Truth, the Eternal, All-pervading principle of Consciousness is indicated here as AUM.

To clarify the issue involved, the Master explains that “all that is past, present and future is, indeed, AUM meaning thereby that the entire world of objects cognized by the humans in the past, being cognized in the present, and that may be cognized in the future has one substratum which is unchanging in all three periods of time and that factor is represented by the symbol, the sound and the word AUM. It is further elucidated that if anything can be conceived to exist beyond these three periods of time, that is also AUM. Thus AUM represents not only the manifested world of plurality (the matter) but also its substratum, the unmanifest, non-dual Reality, the spirit behind the matter.


sarvam hy etad.h brahma, ayam atma brahma  so.ayam atma chatushpat.h.. 2..

All this is verily Brahman. This Atman is Brahman. This Atman has four quarters (parts).

This mantra contains three statements as under:

All this is verily Brahman.
This Atman is Brahman.
This Atman has four quarters or padas.

We shall now examine them.

In the previous mantra it was stated that ‘all this is AUM’. Now the sage says that all this is Brahman. It naturally connotes that AUM is Brahman. He also says that this Atman is Brahman. It signifies that the notion we might have entertained that Atman is different from Brahman is not valid and that in the final analysis Atman is Brahman only. We have therefore, to be clear ab initio as to what Atman is and what Brahman is.

The idea of Atman and Brahman can be illustrated by the familiar example of the limited room space and the unlimited total space. The atmospheric space is not limited in any manner. But yet we feel that the space inside the four walls of a room is limited. What brought this situation? The space in the room identifying itself with walls assumes to itself a special ego or status as the room space. The so called room space was the same as the total space before the walls were constructed and if the walls were to be demolished the former room space will go back to the total space or will be identified with the total space. Therefore, the room space is nothing other than the total space and both are one and the same.

Similarly, the All-pervading Reality, Brahman, in its identification with the body, mind and intellect, feels for itself a separate personality in its own delusion or Maya. Once this delusion takes place it acquires the ideas of its own mortality, egoism, vanity and the consequent tribulations. Atman is that Reality, which though undivided and indivisible, eternal, has come to manifest itself within the locus of the body. That undivided Reality is Brahman, the All-pervading, Absolute and Unborn as in the case of the total space mentioned in the above example.  Hence the mantra 2 of the Mandukya Upanished declares “this Atman is Brahman” (ayam atma brahma).

In this declaration the word ‘this’ is very significant and volumes have been written explaining its concept. For our purpose we may understand it as follows. Suppose, from the place where I am sitting (Point ‘A’), there is a table at five feet distance (Point ‘B’) and a chair at two feet distance (Pont ‘C’). So for me Point ‘B’ is ‘that’ and Point ‘C’ is ‘this’.  Suppose, a book is placed between me and the chair say at a distance of one foot from me at Point ‘D’, then Point ‘D’ becomes ‘this’ and the point ‘C’ also becomes ‘that’. In this way if we continue to eliminate all the points coming under the category of ‘that’, we reach the very last point, at which all objects indicated by ‘that’ are gone and only the final ‘this’ remains with reference to which there cannot be anything nearer to me. That last point is our Self, the ‘Atman’ which is referred in this mantra as ‘this Atman’. We may call this as ‘The Absolute This’, an All-pervading spiritual factor. The Upanishad says that this Atman is Brahman.

This oft-quoted declaration is considered to be a major statement – maha vakya - by Vedantic seekers. A Maha Vakya is a Scriptural Declaration which has got inexhaustible connotations which reveal themselves the more and more a seeker reflects on it. The Upanishad follows the technique of explaining an unknown proposition by means of known logical analysis. Just as by looking at the smoke rising at a distance it can be inferred that there must be a fire behind it at that distant place, so too when the insentient or inert body participates in life’s activities it can be conveniently presumed that there is some spark of life (Consciousness) which energizes that body and provokes it to act; when such a spark is absent we take it that it is a dead body.

Similarly the Rishi of the Upanishad attempts to throw light on the concepts of Brahman or the Atman through its manifestations. He says that this Atman has four quarters or padas or limbs. Here limbs do not mean that Brahman has four parts or divisions like four legs to an animal. What the Upanishad means to say is that the same Atman seems to possess four attributes or four aspects viz., the waking, the dream, the deep-sleep and Turiya planes of consciousness, although the first three aspects devolve into the fourth one in actuality just as all the smaller denomination weighing stones like 250 gms, 500 gms, 750 gms lose their individual identity when they are considered as the limbs or members of a Kilogram. When the three states of waking, dream and deep-sleep merge in the order of the previous one in the succeeding one the knowledge of the fourth one, the Turiya state of Consciousness, is attained. In that state, the parts have become One Whole (Atman) and there is no waker or dreamer or deep-sleeper. This is the idea of the Rishi when he says the Atman has four quarters. What they are, what is their behavioral pattern, what are their fields of activity etc., will be taken up next.


[To be continued]

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