mANDUkya upaniShad Part 2

*** Read Part 1 ***

Mantra 1

हरिः ॐ।
ॐ इत्येतदक्शर्मिदं सर्वं तस्योपव्याख्यानं भूतं भवद्ः भ्विष्य्दिति सर्वमोंकार एव।
यच्चान्यत्ः त्रिकालातीतं तदप्योंकार एव॥ १॥

hariH OM |
OM ityetadakSharamidaM sarvaM tasyopavyAkhyAnaM bhUtaM bhavadH bhaviShyaditi sarvamoMkAra eva |
yachchaanyatH trikAlAtItaM tadapyoMkAra eva || 1 ||

OM iti etad akSharam – Thus, this syllable OM
idam sarvaM – (is) all this.
tasya upavyAkhyAna – The explanation begins with this:
oMkAra – the syllable OM (is)
iti eva – thus truly
sarvaM – everything –
bhUta – past,
bhavat – present
bhaviShyat – (and) future.
yat cha anya – and what is other than
atIta – transcending these
trikAla – three time periods
tat eva – even is that only
oMkAra – OM
api – as well.

The syllable OM is everything. The explanation follows (with this Upanishad). All that is past, present and future is OM. And, whatever is beyond the three periods of time, that too is only OM.

At first sight, this opening mantra seems incomprehensible. Is it really saying that OM literally is everything, the entire universe? It certainly seems so. idam sarvaM, ‘all this’ can only refer to everything that is in front of one, available to the senses.

If you listen to the wonderful three-CD musical interpretation of this Upanishad by Pandit Jasraj (Ref. 31), you will find the spoken mantras are taken from the translation by Sri Purohit Swami and W. B. Yeats and this majestic version is even clearer:

The word OM is the Imperishable; all this its manifestation. Past, present, future – everything is OM. Whatever transcends the three divisions of time (i.e. the unmanifest), that too is OM. (Ref. 30)

Some translations are even more explicit, to avoid any possibility of doubt. Swami Lokeswarananda (Ref. 20) ‘translates’: OM is this phenomenal world.” and points out that “OM stands for brahman, as both cause and effect.” (One presumes that he actually means Ishvara, here, since brahman is kAryakAraNavilakShaNa – beyond cause and effect – as the kArikA-s will later make clear!)

The word akShara can mean ‘imperishable’ but is also used to refer to a syllable, letter or sound. But, in this context, it has the connotation of brahman. Anything created has a beginning in time and will therefore also have an end – it is perishable. brahman, being prior to creation, is imperishable. It may manifest forms but essentially remains always the same. Accordingly, there is already the implication (which will be made explicit later) that OM, in the sense of being immortal (akShara), is brahman. Also, the ‘past, present and future’ refers to the vyAvahArika manifestation of the world of space, time and causality; that which ‘transcends time’ is the unmanifest pAramArthika. ‘Both’ are, of course, brahman; OM refers to everything.

So, it seems reasonable that we should use OM as a symbol for brahman but the mantra seems to be saying much more than this – why? The key to understanding this is the vAchArambhaNa sutras from the Chandogya Upanishad. (Note that the Mandukya Upanishad is the last one taught traditionally, so that you would be expected to know all the others very well by this time!) In Chapter 6 of the Chandogya, Svetaketu asks his father to explain how the Vedas can teach us about unknown things (i.e. the Self) by talking about things that we do know. In VI.1.4, the father tells Svetaketu:

O good looking one, as by knowing a lump of earth, all things made of earth become known: All transformation has speech as its basis, and it is name only. Earth as such is the reality. (Swami Gambhirananda translation)

And then the next verse uses the well-known metaphor of gold and gold ornaments. Everyone who has made more than a passing study of Advaita will know that chains, rings and bangles are all only name and form of gold. But the argument is much more subtle than this. How is it that, by knowing that gold is the material cause of the ornaments, the different products become known? Shankara points out that this objection is not valid because the product is not different from the cause. The Upanishad makes the following crucial point: it is effectively the naming of (giving a label to) the discrete forms (which are all actually the same substance) which ‘creates’ the supposed, new object. The phrase ‘vAchArambhaNaM vikAro nAmadheyaM’ is repeated many times in the chapter to emphasize that all objects have no substantive other than brahman. vAchArambhaNa is a Vedic form of vAgAlambhana, which means it depends upon mere words or on some merely verbal difference. vikAro nAmadheyaM means that the vikaraH, transformation, is nAmadheya, (just in) name only.

In the metaphor, rings and bangles etc are mithyA, while the gold alone is satyam. The rings and bangles are always gold and nothing but gold. It is by the very act of putting a name to a specific form that we con ourselves into thinking that we have a separate, distinct object. And, of course, in the wider context everything in the world is mithyA and brahman alone is satyam. There are no separate things; there is only name and form of brahman. In a very real sense, we can say that the name IS the object; without the word, there would not be any separate thing. That which we ‘bring into existence’ by naming would otherwise simply be part of the ‘background’. So name and form are inseparable; and both are mithyA.

Now, it is simply a matter of combining this understanding with the analysis of OM that was carried out in the section ‘A (very little) Sanskrit background’. There, we saw that all sounds (and therefore all words) are ‘contained’ in the word OM. OM ‘contains’ all sounds in the same way that brahman ‘contains’ all forms. Since name effectively is form, therefore OM effectively is every ‘thing’. As Shankara puts it in Swami Gambhirananda’s translation (Ref. 15):

As all these objects that are indicated by names are non-different from the names, and as names are non-different from OM, so OM is verily all this.

 And the reason that this is so important is explained by Shankara:

The necessity of understanding their identity arises from the fact that (once this identity is established,) one can by a single effort eliminate both the name and the nameable to realize brahman that is different from all.

According to Shankara, the syllable OM (oMkAra) is both the form and the expression of Atma. The sound OM pervades all spoken words (which are just ‘modifications’ of OM). Similarly, the named ‘things’ are the illusory appearances of Atma and are not different from their names.

Thus it is said that OM is everything, as expression OM and the expressed Atma are not different. The name and the nameable are one only… ultimately only one entity, devoid of subject-object relationship, of distinction (of the name and the nameable) is established and all modifications are found as unreal. (Ref. 21)

Note that, of course, brahman cannot literally be OM – this really would not make any sense. It is rather that brahman can be realized through the analysis of OM that is carried out in this Upanishad and kArikA-s. brahman is the substratum, the essence of all that appears as this world and it is being represented by the name OM. The name and form of any object are effectively the same. Any name is ‘contained’ in the all-encompassing symbol OM. Therefore it makes sense that OM is an effective pointer to brahman, itself.

It should also be mentioned that OM corresponds to what is spoken of in the Bible as ‘In the beginning was the Word’. Creation is said (in the philosophy called sphoTa vAda rather than Advaita) to have begun with the vibration of the word OM (spoken by the saguNa creator). Again, this is a perfect analogy. All sounds (words) come out of (are part of) the syllable OM. Similarly, all of creation (objects) come out of (are part of) Ishvara. The metaphor often used for this is the spider building its web out of its own substance. Ishvara is both the efficient and material cause of creation. Every ‘thing’ is a part of Ishvara and an ‘effect’ of Ishvara’s ‘cause’ – the effect being a ‘manifestation’ of the cause (vivarta vAda). (Ishvara, of course, has to be prior to creation. He is not Himself created, being not other than nirguNa brahman in reality.)

This, of course, is all from a vyAvahArika standpoint. As has been pointed out in the main text, there is not really any creation at all. All is always and only brahman from the standpoint of absolute reality. This is the final truth (ajAti vAda).

*** Go to Part 3 ***

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