mANDUkya upaniShad Part 1

I have just started reading the massive commentary on the mANDUkya, Gaudapada kArikA-s and Shankara bhAShya (if it was Shankara) by Divyaj~nAna Sarojini VaradarAjan, so I thought it might be appropriate to post my own translation and commentary on the Upanishad itself from ‘A-U-M’.

The VaradarAjan book is in two volumes and, as far as I am aware, is only available from Exotic India at £65 to post to the UK. Only 500 copies were printed and these may sell out quickly as her Upanishad commentaries are unparalleled.

My own book ‘A-U-M: Awakening to Reality’ is a ‘by topic’ rather than verse by verse commentary, although it does cover all of the material. The specific translation and commentary on the 12 verses of the Upanishad itself are relegated to an Appendix, since the material is rather ‘dense’, and the tone less ‘conversational’ than the main body of the book. It is available from Amazon:

Book ($34.95): Buy from Amazon US; Kindle ($16.49): Buy from Amazon US

Book (£20.99): Buy from Amazon UK; Kindle (£6.99): Buy from Amazon UK

This series will post the whole of Appendix 1 of ‘A-U-M’ and, in general, each post will cover one verse of the Upanishad. This first post, however, covers the shAnti pATha – the traditional prayer at the beginning of an Upanishad – and Shankara’s introduction.


Note that this Appendix is a detailed analysis of the 12 mantras of the Upanishad, looking at the meaning of Sanskrit terms, ambiguities, academic discussions etc. There are quotations from various translations and commentators. Although I attempt to make the whole thing readable, you should only read it if you are interested in this level of detail! This is why the material is relegated to an Appendix.

shAnti pATha and Introduction by Shankara

The Upanishad itself begins with a shAnti pATha – a traditional prayer for peace, for conditions conducive to uninterrupted study and for the blessing of the gods towards that end, recited before the lessons commence. There is a specific prayer for each of the Vedas. The Mandukya belongs to the atharva veda, which uses the prayer beginning with OM bhadraM karNebhiH.

ॐ भद्रं कण्रेभिः शृणुयाम देवाः।
भद्रं पश्येमाक्श्भिर्यजत्राः।
व्यशेम देव्हितं यदायुः।
स्व्स्ति न इन्द्रो वृद्धश्रवाः।
स्व्स्ति नः पूषा विश्ववेदाः।
स्व्स्ति नस्तार्क्श्यो अरिष्टनेमिः।
स्व्स्ति नो बृहस्प्तिर्दधातु।
॥ ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः॥

AUM bhadraM karNebhiH shRRiNuyAma devAH |
bhadraM pashyemAkShabhiryajatrAH |
sthiraira~NgaistuShTuvA{\m+}sastanUbhiH |
vyashema devahitaM yadAyuH |
svasti na indro vRRiddhashravAH |
svasti naH pUShA vishvavedAH |
svasti nastArkShyo ariShTanemiH |
svasti no bRRihaspatirdadhAtu |
|| AUM shAntiH shAntiH shAntiH ||

The idea is that one offers up prayers to the gods, so that they may look favorably upon this study and grant that both student and teacher should remain healthy and alert for the duration. Some presentations of the Upanishad and kArikA-s omit lines 5-8 while others omit the invocation altogether; maybe because they are impatient to get to the substance of the Upanishad itself. Grant us patience (titikShA) might usefully be added to the invocation!

bhadraM karNebhiH shRRiNuyAma devAH – Oh, Gods! May we hear auspicious (words – i.e. those words to come in what follows – shRRiNuyAma has the same root as shruti; shru means to hear from a teacher, study or learn).

bhadraM pashyemAkShabhiryajatrAH – grant that we may see that which is auspicious, oh (Gods who are) worthy of worship (yajatra)!

sthiraira~NgaistuShTuvA{\m+}sastanUbhiH | vyashema devahitaM yadAyuH – grant us long lives (Ayus), with strong (sthira) limbs (a~nga) and bodies (tanU), (in order that we may) praise you!

svasti na indro vRRiddhashravAH – may the great God Indra (vRRiddhhashravas literally means ‘possessed of great swiftness’) grant us (naH) good fortune (svasti)!

svasti naH pUShA vishvavedAH – may the omniscient (vishvavedas) sun God grant us good fortune! (pUShA is another, less-common name for sUrya and should be understood as Ishvara)

svasti nastArkShyo ariShTanemiH – May the limitless tArkShya grant us good fortune! According to Wikipedia, tArkShya is the name of a mythical being in the RRigveda, described as a horse ‘with intact wheel-rims’ – ariShTanemiH. This means it has no restriction in movement. It is also identified as a bird-like creature (garuda, meaning an eagle) in the Mahabharata. Some translators seem to translate this as ‘Vayu, the god of swift motion’ also; or maybe there is an alternative version of this prayer.

svasti no bRRihaspatirdadhAtu – May bRRihaspati afford (dadhAtu) us success.

shAntiH shAntiH shAntiH – All prayers tend to end with these three words, which ask for freedom from obstacles to receiving the teaching. (shAnti means ‘peace’.)  Obstacles may arise in three ways:

  • from the gods, in the form of catastrophic and unavoidable events such as natural disasters. These are called Adhidaivika – related to or proceeding from supernatural or divine agents.
  • from other humans who create problems or prevent us in some way. These are called Adhibhautika – related to created beings.
  • from our own shortcomings, be it physical or mental. These are called AdhyAtmika – proceeding from bodily and mental causes within oneself.

 OM is spoken at the outset of all prayers and scriptures both as an effective ‘name’ for God and as a symbol for the aim of the study – freedom from ignorance, i.e. enlightenment or mokSha. In the case of this Upanishad, of course, it is also the very subject of the study, representing all states of consciousness and reality itself.

Following this Vedic ‘invocation for peace’, Shankara adds two further verses before the Upanishad commences.

प्रज्ञानान्शुप्रतानैः स्थिरचर्निकरव्यापिभिव्यरप्य लोकान्।
भुक्तवा भोगान्स्थ्विष्ठान्पुनर्पि धिषणोद्भासितान्कामजन्यान्॥
पीत्वा सवरन्विशेषन् स्व्पिति मधुरभुन्ग्मायया भोजयन्नो।
मायासंख्यातुरीयं परममृतमजं ब्रह्म यत्तन्नतोऽस्मि॥

praj~nAnAnshupratAnaiH sthiracharanikaravyApibhirvyApya lokAn |
bhuktavA bhogAnsthaviShThAnpunarapi dhiShaNodbhAsitAnkAmajanyAn ||
pItvA sarvAnvisheShan svapiti madhurabhungmAyayA bhojayanno |
mAyAsaMkhyAturIyaM paramamRRitamajaM brahma yattannato.asmi ||

Without a word by word breakdown, there is no way that I am able to attempt a translation of these verses so the best I can do is to appraise and present the essence of those translations I have been able to find (Prof. J. H. Dave, Ref. 21; Swami Nikhilananda, Ref. 4; Swami Gambhirananda, Ref. 15. None of the other versions present Shankara’s invocation.) I sometimes wonder if it is actually possible to translate some of these Sanskrit ‘sentences’ found in the scriptures into meaningful, grammatically correct English sentences on a one to one basis. They are apparently so long and tortuous that it must take even someone with a good understanding of the language a significant time to understand. It seems that only as a result of familiarity with and a deep understanding of the scripture itself, acquired over many years of learning with a shrotriya teacher, can someone read a verse such as the one above and then tell us immediately what it means. The translations given by Nikhilananda and Gambhirananda are definitely not good English! And Professor Dave does not even attempt a straight English rendering.

In the overall shAnti pATha, we are asking for dispensation to be allowed to begin and complete the study of this Upanishad without encountering any problems or interference. In these two verses, Shankara is not only giving thanks/asking for blessings (the invocation is to brahman in the first verse and turIya in the second) but he has clearly already studied the entire work and makes references to both content and conclusions. Accordingly, his invocation functions also as a ‘curtain raiser’ for what is to come, albeit that one presumes we are not really expected to understand yet what he says!

In the waking state, brahman pervades everything in the universe and thus is the ‘enjoyer’ of all gross objects, moving or unmoving. (Note that brahman is called ‘praj~nAna’ here, from the mahAvAkyapraj~nAnam brahma’ – Consciousness is brahman.) This ‘enjoyment’ is through the ‘rays of’ consciousness reflected in the mind of man (chidAbhAsa). In the dream state, brahman experiences the variety of seeming objects that are brought into existence by desire in the mind (memory). In the deep-sleep state, both gross and subtle objects (of waking and dream states respectively) are absorbed and brahman experiences bliss alone. In this way, through the power of mAyA, brahman makes us experience these three mithyA states. From the standpoint of mAyA, this brahman is called the fourth (turIya) and is the highest (parA), immortal (amRRita) and unborn (aja). I bow to this brahman………………………………… 1

Thus, Shankara is telling us that it is brahman himself who, as a result of mAyA, seemingly becomes the enjoyer-jIva in the three states of existence. This is the topic or subject matter (viShaya) of the Upanishad. More generally, of course, this fact boils down to telling us that brahman and jIva are the same (tat tvam asi) – the jIva is only a reflection of Consciousness. This is the viShaya of Advaita itself. Since brahman is paramamRRitamajaM, we, too, are not subject to birth or death either. Our belief in saMsAra is due to ignorance only and the purpose (prayojana) of the Upanishad is to dispel this ignorance.

प्रज्ञानान्शुप्रतानैः स्थिरचर्निकरव्यापिभिव्यरप्य लोकान्।
भुक्तवा भोगान्स्थ्विष्ठान्पुनर्पि धिषणोद्भासितान्कामजन्यान्॥
पीत्वा सवरन्विशेषन् स्व्पिति मधुरभुन्ग्मायया भोजयन्नो।
मायासंख्यातुरीयं परममृतमजं ब्रह्म यत्तन्नतोऽस्मि॥

yo vishvAtmA vidhijaviShayAn prAshya bhogAn sthaviShThAn |
pashchAchchAnyAn svamativibhavAn jyotiShA svena sUkShmAn ||
sarvAnetAnpunarapi shanaiH svAtmani sthApayitvA |
hitvA sarvAnvisheShAnvigataguNagaNaH pAtvasau nasturIaH ||

turIya identifies with and enjoys the gross universe (virAT) in the waking state. It enjoys the subtle world of its own mind (hiraNyagarbha at the cosmic level) in the dream state. And it withdraws everything into itself in the dissolution of the universe (pralaya), where it is known as the ‘unmanifest’ (avyAkRRita), the causal level of Ishvara. (On the gaining of Self-knowledge) all of this is discarded and he realizes that he is the fourth, free of all distinctions. May this turIya, that is without any attributes, protect us …………… 2

Again, I would like to point out that the above ‘translations’ are my understanding [as of 2010-11 – they were originally posted to Advaita Academy] based on the few commentaries that I have seen. If any Sanskrit scholar is reading this, please email me to point out any errors and suggest a better rendering! (A word by word translation into English of Shankara’s complete works would be invaluable but I do not think such a thing exists.) [Comment on above: The VaradarAjan book of course gives the word-by-word translation of Shankara’s introduction. Unfortunately, I did not have this when I wrote ‘A-U-M’!]

The next post will cover the first verse of the Upanishad.

6 thoughts on “mANDUkya upaniShad Part 1

  1. “I have just started reading the massive commentary on the Mandukya, Gaudapada Karika and Shankara bhashya (if it was Shankara) by Divyajnana Sarojini Varadarajan. Only 500 copies were printed and these may sell out quickly as her Upanishad commentaries are unparalleled.”

    To clarify, “her Upanishad commentaries” are actually compilations of Swami Paramarthananda’s lectures based on her notes taken from classes and audio recordings which she afterwards edited and published in book form.

  2. Thanks for clarification, Rick.

    To be really pedantic, they take into account both Swami Paramarthananda and Swami Dayananda talks and commentaries, add detailed word translations and reword original verbal material so as to make the whole thing more readily comprehensible and accessible. They are way more valuable than mere transcriptions of talks.

    I should certainly have acknowledged the Swamis’ original material. I deliberately chose not to do so because a) this might diminish the value of the book in some readers’ minds and b) because certain contributors to the site have such a low opinion of the sampradAya!

  3. “(A word by word translation into English of Shankara’s complete works would be invaluable but I do not think such a thing exists.)”

    And no wonder. I doubt if such a thing would be of much use. A word in a given language can mean a lot of different things and a translator often has to come up with a whole different word to mean exactly what the writer wanted to say. Sometimes it’s necessary to make compromises and difficult decisions in order to move through an untranslatable phrase. Since every translation involves interpretation, a word-for-word translation would inevitably have to give a number of alternative meanings for many phrases, which could well prove even more confusing than your everyday standard translation.

  4. I understand your comment, Rick but, having had to contend with lots of translations of Shankara in writing ‘Confusions’, I have to disagree. If you compare several different translations, you will sometimes find widely differing explanations. I usually explain these by saying that the translator starts off with a particular understanding of a topic and he looks to find that interpretation from Shankara. And lo! With a bit of judicious selection of alternative word-meanings and associations, the expected understanding is found!

    In such situations, what I really want is a ‘straight’, uninterpreted, word by word translation, leaving it up to the reader to put this into a particular teaching ‘style’. Because I have no real Sanskrit fluency of my own, I have asked Ramesam several times to provide me with this. What I then do is attempt to reconcile this with other ‘undisputed’ writing from Shankara.

  5. Dennis, the following recent ‘Penguin Classics’ book may be quite useful: ‘The Roots of Vedanta – Selections from Sankara’s Writings’, 2012. It is divided into seven sections (462 pp).

  6. Many thanks for that, Martin – I had not heard of this one. I have already ordered it! For anyone else interested, it is much cheaper than Amazon from Majestic Books, via ABE Books UK.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.