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That which the self-knowers know || On Mundaka Upanishad (2021)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
25 min
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हिरण्मये परे कोशे विरजं ब्रह्म निष्कलम् । तच्छुभ्रं ज्योतिषं ज्योतिस्तद्यदात्मविदो विदुः ॥

hiraṇmaye pare kośe virajaṃ brahma niṣkalam tacchubhraṃ jyotiṣaṃ jyotistadyadātmavido viduḥ

In a supreme golden sheath the Brahman lies, stainless, without parts. A Splendor is That, It is the Light of Lights, It is That which the self-knowers know.

~ Verse 2.2.10

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Acharya Prashant (AP): A very rich verse, consisting of several parts, each complete in itself. We shall look at them one by one.

“In a supreme golden sheath the Brahman lies”—and the Upanishads refer to the Truth repeatedly this way. Elsewhere also say the scriptures, that the face of Truth is covered with gold. And here again we see: “In a supreme golden sheath the Brahman lies.” What is it that the sage is trying to say?

Before one comes to the Truth, what one encounters, and therefore what one has to overcome, is a great force of desire that asks you to stop. What is gold? Gold is that which you strongly desire; that is the definition of gold here. The face of Truth is covered with gold. Truth implies the dissolution of your individuality: you become one with the Immeasurable, but you lose the little thing that you call as your individual self.

Therefore, what is it that prevents you from coming to the Truth? Now it is obvious: the desire not to lose yourself. Gold is that desire. Else, the Truth is extremely near, the Truth is pre-attained; you do not even need to strive for it. But between you and the Truth stands your desire to maintain your existence which is your individual, personal self. And that is what is being referred to here as the golden sheet that covers Brahman .

Isn’t it quite interesting? If Brahman is infinite, how can Brahman be contained in anything, or how can the face of Brahman be obfuscated by anything? But Maya makes the impossible happen: the one who seeks peace and refuge in Brahman is also the one who seeks peace and refuge for himself or herself.

We do not seek peace absolute and final; we seek peace relative to our turbulent condition. We do not seek non-dual, absolute peace; we seek relative, dualistic peace. Therefore, when total peace is to come to us, we have no taste for it. Let alone welcome it, we actively resist it. That resistance has been pointed at by the use of the metaphor of the golden sheath.

We want peace, but for ourselves. We want peace, but remaining as we are. We want the Truth while retaining our core falseness; we want only as much Truth as would suit our fundamental falseness. A wider Truth, a bigger Truth scares us. We want peace when our self-made noise starts to deafen and sicken us, but total peace is a threat; we do not want total peace.

It is another matter that dualistic or relative truth or peace or freedom are actually worse than open and clear bondages and falsehoods. When bondages are clear and exposed, you at least do not have an excuse to keep supporting them. The fact is out, and it becomes impossible for you to deny it. But when Truth is incomplete, when falseness itself comes to you as Truth, then it becomes comfortable to keep living in falseness, consoling oneself that one is near to the Truth.

It is a very strange thing that the one who wants the Truth or freedom or completion is himself dead set against their attainment. Look at how strange the game is; look at how hard we work to deceive ourselves. We say we want something and then we work very, very hard to attain it, and we don’t attain it because we are ourselves against the prospect of the attainment. Great are those who finally concede that they are suffering a lot, that it is preferable to acknowledge the suffering and bring it to an end rather than masking it and perpetuating it.

Remember, it will not be easy to be liberated, because the one on the journey of liberation exists because of his bondages. Liberation would have been very easy, very acceptable, had liberation been something that comes to the bonded one, but that doesn’t happen. When liberation comes to the one in bondages, then only liberation remains; the bondages and the bonded entity both disappear. Therefore, liberation is a kind of suicide, self-destruction, an inner death, a total termination of our inner falseness.

If you are coming to liberation because your bondages demand it, then liberation will elude you, or all that you get will be a sham liberation. On the other hand, if you are coming to liberation to be free of the bondages, then you will probably succeed. But remember, again, you will not live to relish your success. Your success will remain, you won’t.

Don’t be scared, we are not talking of physical death here. Physical death is relatively easy; there are so many people who commit physical suicide. But there are only a handful who are ever liberated. Real inner death is very difficult and very expensive. But then, it is a small price to pay to come really alive.

“Stainless, without parts.” Truth is stainless. How? Let’s understand.

You do not just get a stain on the mind; the mind has a tendency to get stained, the mind has a tendency to react to and get attached to the staining influence. If the mind does not have that tendency, the mind cannot get stained. What is it to get stained? To get stained is to get influenced or conditioned; something comes and marks its imprint on the mind.

So, nothing, including the mind, can ever get stained if it does not have a tendency, call it a desire, to get stained. And what is a desire to get stained? A desire to get stained is a desire to stick to something external. Which means that you get stained only because you feel an inner incompleteness that demands that you hold hands with something of the outside.

Your inner desire first of all projects a world according to its incompleteness, and then in this projected world, which is a self-created design, it keeps finding one thing after the other to stick to. This is called getting stained.

Now, had it been your intrinsic nature to be incomplete, then it would have been possible to hold hands with something or somebody and come to a completion, a wholeness. But that has never been observed, that just does not happen. Irrespective of how hard you try, irrespective of how many hands you hold, either together or one after the other, completion or contentment are not seen to come. Which means, obviously, directly, that incompleteness is not your nature. That incompleteness is just as much of an impossibility as contentment to incompleteness is.

If contentment to incompleteness is impossible, what does that mean? Does that mean contentment is impossible? No, that means that incompleteness is impossible. But we continue to believe in something that is impossible; that is called falseness. Something that is impossible to exist is thought of as existent; that is Maya . And when that incompleteness is taken as existent, then that incompleteness keeps looking here and there, keeps finding one thing after the other to associate itself with, to partner, to befriend, to identify with, to pair with. What you call as pairing the sages would call as getting stained.

You must have cooking vessels at home, right? You cook something in the vessel, in oil and spices and other organic matter; it sticks to the inner surface of the vessel. In your language, the vessel is now stained. In the language of the molecules of the vessel, a chemical bond has been formed. What has been formed? A bond. Now, that’s quite constructive.

That which is a bond in our language is called bondage in spirituality. What do you call it? You will say it is a hydrogen bond, a weak bond, or one of the classical covalent electrovalent bonds. And why do those bonds come into existence? Because no atom is perfectly stable. So, they associate with other atoms, either by sharing electrons, or accepting or donating electrons. And why does all of that happen? Because, in a sense, the atom is lonely. It feels incomplete, it has excess energy; that makes it unstable. It wants to come to a more stable state, so it does all these things.

In a way, the mind is also chemical; it keeps looking around to form bonds. But you do not quite like it when your cooking utensils form bonds, or do you? You say it is a stain. And then one day you get fed up and buy a little modern cookware, and it is stainless or non-sticky. When you say it is non-sticky, are you supposed to change the composition of the stuff you put in or cook in the vessel? Is that how you obtain non-stickiness or stainlessness? No, the stuff that is cooked remains the same—the same spices, the same vegetables, the same water, the same ingredients, everything remains the same. Then why are there no more stains? Because the surface, the vessel, is no more hungry to be associated. It will do the job, but not get stained. Isn’t that great? It’s not that it won’t do the job anymore; in fact, now it does the job even better. It does the job without entering into any kind of nuisance.

There is fire below, there is the curry above; the vessel says, “My job is to just conduct heat. It is not befitting of me to become a participant in the meals. It is not befitting of me to interfere in the cooking. Who am I to form bonds? I am not here to cultivate relationships; I will conduct away the heat.” What is it doing? Conducting away the heat.

So, heat comes from the bottom and gets conducted away to the top. The same old molecules are still striking the surface of the vessel, but the vessel is no more interested. The molecules come, they knock, and what is the vessel now saying? “I am happy as I am. Sorry, I don’t want to hold hands.” And the stuff is trying all kinds of things. One molecule comes and says, “You know, I will oxidise you.” “I don’t want that.” So, this one goes and delivers the news, “You know, this new element is not eager to be oxidised.” So, another one comes and says, “Fine, I will reduce you.” “Thank you so much, but no thanks. I am alright as I am.”

We need a mind that is not eager to react. That does not mean that it does not act; it acts beautifully, but it does not react. In fact, these two things go together: the ability to act beautifully and the lack of tendency to react. The more reactive you are, the more your action would be compromised; your action would lack authentic agency; your action would just be an echo of something that somebody else did. There would be no originality.

Brahman , the one without parts.”

It would be obvious by now that when we are talking of Brahman , we are actually talking of a very special condition of the mind beyond all conditions and conditioning, a condition so special you can call it another dimension. When we are talking of Brahman , we are not talking of any objective entity; we are talking of the subject itself in its most purified, rarefied form. If we do not get this, then we will miss the essence of the entire discussion.

When we say Brahman , what is it that we are referring to? We are not referring to the wall, to the door, to the stars, to the constellations; we are not even referring to some imagination or concept. All these are objects to the mind, in the sense that the mind thinks of them. When we say Brahman , we are referring to the mind itself, but not the usual state of the mind, not the normal, conditioned mind.

Brahman is mind special. Brahman is mind free of itself. Brahman is mind liberated from the fear of its own existence.

Now you will see clearly what is meant when it is said that Brahman is niravayava , without parts— avayava is the one having parts—or when Brahman is referred to as niṣkala . Kala , again, means parts.

The common mind is fragmented, it has lots of parts. What is meant by parts? Parts are things that are next to each other, that coexist, but never merge into each other. They coexist but never coalesce. The mind is like that. It has a thousand parts that keep shifting, changing, increasing, decreasing. Each of these parts is actually a territory occupied by an external influence.

You could have a vast piece of land that has been colonized by forty different external powers; now, these parts will keep fighting with each other because each of them is ruled by a different power. That’s the condition of the mind. One part of the mind is dominated by one power, the other part is dominated by a totally different power. At one point in time, one part is at the forefront. When it is at the forefront, it takes the name of ‘I’. The part of the mind that is dominant at the time becomes your identity.

But like in territorial occupation, no dominance is permanent. One part that is permanent right now would be overtaken or defeated by another part after a while, and then the ‘I’-statement will change. That is the reason why most people are many people. That is the reason why we are unable to stick to our resolutions. That is the reason why most people are in a state of constant internal strife. That is why most people are not trustworthy.

Think of a house that has twenty residents, and these twenty do not go well with each other; there is constant infighting. But at any given point in time one of them is the champion. And this one might be upstaged the very next moment, but for that moment he is the champ.

So, you go and knock on the door, and one of them opens—and, obviously, which one? The champion. And the champion says, “Hey, great! Can you lend me a hundred rupees? I am borrowing on behalf of this entire house.” And you say, “Yes, this chap is the champion right now; all the others seem to be following him, all the others seem to be subservient to him.” So, you coolly lend the money.

Next day you return to get your money back. You knock, and what do you find? Somebody else opens the door, and now you say, “I want my money back.” And what does he say? “Who the hell are you? We do not know you!” You say, “But that fellow was speaking on behalf of everybody!” This one says, “Well, what he said has been buried with him, so nothing doing!” And you have no argument left.

This is the reason why most people deceive themselves and others. How do they deceive themselves? They make resolutions and then they can’t live up to them, because the part that resolved to do something is no more the dominant part after a few days or a few hours. And then you wonder, “What happened to my willpower? With great confidence and devotion I had decided to do such a thing. Why have I failed?” Because you are no more the same person who decided; because you are just too many persons. You have no integrity, you are fragmented. And that’s also the reason why you are not dependable when it comes to others.

Never rely on a person you find influenced or conditioned. This person is helpless. Even if he wants to, even if he tries to, he won’t be able to live up to his promises. And that won’t be his fault; it would be your fault to have trusted him. You go and you sign an agreement with a peon working in an organization. Would you expect the organization to honor the agreement? That’s what.

We are not masters of our mind, we are servants. And anything that the servant says or commits to has very little value. Trust only the one who is his own master. If you are trusting others, it would be at your own peril. A person who is of so little use to himself obviously cannot be of much use to others.

Questioner: I find this situation happening everywhere constantly, including in myself. So, in this context, how should I relate with myself, with others, with everything in general? Everything is in a flux, and meeting someone who is a master of his own mind is rare. How can one live in such a chaotic world? One can work towards becoming more responsible, but one does not have any control over how others will behave.

AP: See, all the occupants of the house are actually trespassers and encroachers; the house is yours. Don’t you love your house? If you love your house, would you ask, “How do I get it vacated?” Go and kick the damn occupiers out! They are not in you out of love; they are in you as an act of violence. They have come to make an imprint on you; they are impressing their presence on your impressionable, delicate mind. This is violence.

Why do you want to harbor them? Why provide them shelter? And remember, the law is with you, the law of existence. If you don’t want this invalid occupation to continue, it can’t.

Please understand. Have you given every single person in the world decent space in your mind? Is that the case? So, who are the people, or thoughts, or stuff that has managed to find a nice place, strong foothold in your mind? The ones you relate to, the ones you allowed entry to. Otherwise, they have no power to occupy you. And why do you allow them entry? You must have seen some profit, or you might have been unconscious.

You are drunk and sleeping with the gate flung wide open, so what happens then? Strangers just come over and start occupying your place, and even when you gain some consciousness, they fool you and also drug you so that you remain unconscious and therefore not resistive to their presence. If you gain full consciousness, will you tolerate their presence anymore? So, first of all, they will enter when you are unconscious, and secondly, they will keep drugging you so that you remain unconscious. But all said and done, the house is yours. Wake up, get up, and command ownership.

I repeat, all these are not in you out of love. If someone comes to your door in love, by all means open the door and welcome. But be honest with yourself. Is it love?

We had said these people fight with each other, that there is always in-house strife. We didn’t say why these people fight with each other. Do you know why they fight so much with each other? They fight with each other to decide which of them will rule you and exploit you the most. The winner amongst them gets to exploit you, torment you, and rape you; that’s why they fight, that’s the domination they crave.

We could go deeper into it and say that these foreign influences exist in the first place because you are unconscious. Once you get up and roar aloud, you don’t even need to fight them; they are gone. But whatever be the case, the fact is they exist as long as your ignorance and your unconsciousness does.

I repeat, they are not lovers, they are not friends. Your tendencies do you no good. Don’t side with them, don’t favor them, don’t protect them. If you refuse them safe sanctuary, they won’t have a place to hide; they are as good as gone the moment you resolve. Their presence in you is not really a forcible occupation; their presence in you is a thing sanctioned by you. Withdraw the sanction, be ruthless.

In a few matters, one should not be accommodative. Don’t give an inch; put your foot down and stay put. Be very unremitting, unyielding. The word for that is nirmama (disinterested). “You are not mine.” It is instructive that the word nirmama has a pejorative meaning in layman language: there it means cruel. But nirmama is actually a beautiful word; nirmama means ‘not mine’. “You are not mine. Why must I shelter you? You are not mine. No, you are no well-wisher, you are no lover. I will be nirmama .” If this is cruelty, you need this kind of cruelty. It is a very life affirmative cruelty.

“A Splendor is That, It is the Light of Lights, It is That which the self-knowers know.”

To see you need two lights: one is the external light that must fall on the object you want to see, and then there is an internal light that must be there to perceive the external object, the external light, and even the internal subject. Without that internal light you will be blind in spite of the external light. You might be in a room flooded with light, but if your eyes have no light, you will see nothing.

That’s the analogy being used here: Brahman is the light of lights. Light connects the subject with the object. If there is no external light, there is no object. So, light is what forms the relationship between the seer subject and the seen object. In other words, light is at the base of the world itself, the seen world.

So, Brahman is the light behind the light; Brahman is the Truth behind the world. Brahman is the base, the foundation of all your experiences. Something special needs to be there for the subject to experience any object; that something special is Brahman . Think of an unconscious man or a dead man. Objectively, as you see, there is still the entire world around him. Does he experience anything?

Brahman is at the foundation of all your experiences. Otherwise, the sensual objects can be there, the sensing mechanism can be there, and yet there would be no sensation. For the sensation to happen a miracle is needed; that miracle is called consciousness. Had it not been a miracle, science would have been able to duplicate consciousness.

Had consciousness just been a property of material, then science would be able to manipulate material and therefore produce consciousness in some way on some day. Had consciousness been something related just to material, then consciousness would have been squarely in the domain of science. Scientists would then strive to find a way to produce AC, just as you have AI today. What is AC? Artificial Consciousness. But you cannot have artificial consciousness.

So, that something special that gives birth to consciousness, that enables consciousness, that sustains consciousness—that is called Brahman , the light of lights.

"It is That which the self-knowers know.”

Brahman is that which the self-knowers know. Now, this is a bit tricky, so be cautious.

The self-knower comes to know the non-existence of the self, so the self-knower does not remain existent anymore. The self-knower in fact loses his confidence in all that he knew about the self till now.

If you are not a knower of the self, then you have a lot of beliefs about the self: “This is the way I am, this is where I come from, this is what my life is for, this is what my future must be like; I am this, I am that, I enjoy this, I hate that.” This is the state of someone who does not know the self.

The more you know the self, the more you start dissociating with everything you associated yourself with. The false self falls. The false self falls along with all the knowledge—which is false knowledge—that it had about itself.

So, the self-knower actually becomes free of knowledge. That knowledge was anyway worthy of retention. The self-knower drops that knowledge.

Knowing the self is not like an accretion in your knowledge base; knowing the self is an exercise in acknowledging the hollowness, the deficiency of your existing notions and beliefs.

I would want to reiterate this a hundred times, because Ātmajñāna , self-knowledge, has been very, very dangerously taken as knowledge of the Truth, and this false notion is very pervasive, very ubiquitous. Ātmajñāna is not knowledge of the Truth or Ātman . It is a fundamental thing in the Upanishads that the Truth or Ātman are beyond all knowledge. The Upanishads tell us again and again, Truth is ajñeya , beyond knowledge; then how can one have knowledge of the Truth or Ātman ?

Therefore, Ātmajñāna is actually the realization of the falseness of that which you used to take as Ātman , that which was actually ahaṅkāra or the false self, but was erroneously taken by you as the true self. So, in self-realization you actually un-realize; it is a process of losing your false realizations.

So, Brahman is that which the self-knowers know. Brahman , therefore, is just liberation, liberation from false knowledge.

What is Brahman? Nothing in particular. Just freedom. If freedom is something in particular, then freedom is not free of that thing in particular. What kind of freedom is that? Therefore, freedom or liberation are just nothing in particular. Don’t define them, don’t tie them to an object, don’t circumscribe them by a definition. That is Brahman.

What to do, then? Just erase the boundaries, just unlock the doors. You don’t have to create anything; you have to get rid of a lot, and after that creation happens on its own. You don’t have to worry about creation then. You have to let the bird out of the cage, and then the flight happens on its own; you don’t have to teach her to fly.

But we are pretty special characters. Instead of opening the door of the cage, we try to teach the bird to fly within the cage, and this we call as spiritual effort or sādhana . Most of that which goes by the name of sādhana is exactly this. People are trying to learn flying within their cages, and nobody is even talking of unlocking. You unlock, and flight is natural. Whom are you deceiving by participating in all those ridiculous flying lessons?

You are a bird, your nature is to fly. You don’t need to be taught your nature; you need to be freed from the cage.

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