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The journey in the destination || On Mundaka Upanishad (2021)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
18 min
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प्रणवो धनुः शारो ह्यात्मा ब्रह्म तल्लक्ष्यमुच्यते । अप्रमत्तेन वेद्धव्यं शरवत्तन्मयो भवेत् ॥

praṇavo dhanuḥ śāro hyātmā brahma tallakṣyamucyate apramattena veddhavyaṃ śaravattanmayo bhavet

AUM is the bow and the soul is the arrow, and That, even the Brahman, is spoken of as the target. That must be pierced with an unfaltering aim; one must be absorbed into That as an arrow is lost in its target.

~ Verse 2.2.4

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Acharya Prashant (AP): The context in which ‘soul’ used here does not refer to Ātman or Truth; it refers to the mind, jīvātman . These are subtle things, and if you miss them, then there are possibilities of great misinterpretation. Because, you see, even the verse does not say jīvātman ; the verse says ātmā . At the same time, the verse, in the same breath, says the Brahman is the target.

Now, some pundit can come and argue that when the verse is saying that AUM is the bow and the ātmā is the arrow, why are you interpreting ātmā as jīvātman here? I have very important reasons.

The very central principle of the Upanishads is the identity of Ātman with Brahman . Ayam Ātmā Brahm (This Self is Brahman); that’s a Mahāvākya (lit. ‘great sentence’, axiomatic statement of Vedanta), very, very central. So, Ātman is anyway always identical to Brahman . What sense does it then make in saying that AUM is the bow and then Ātman , like an arrow, has to penetrate into Brahman ? Ātman and Brahman are anyway identical.

So, it is not the Ātman that will go to Brahman ; it is the mind that has to go into Brahman . What is it that distances itself from Brahman ? The mind. Ātman and Brahman are always one; they are two names for the same Truth. One is never separated from the other, so there is no question of one penetrating the other. Penetration or meeting demands a separation in the first place. There is never a separation, so how can there be penetration?

So, even if the verse here says ātmā , it has to be read as jīvātman or mana (mind) or aham (I am). These are the things we have to be very careful of. Otherwise, you will yield to the kind of popular misinterpretation that we have been suffering since thousands of years.

The entire aim of all spirituality, the entire emphasis of Vedanta, is establishing the unity of Ātman and Brahman , and the distinctiveness of Ātman and aham . The latter is even more important. Even if you do not know Ātman and Brahman to be one, you must at least know that you have two centers within and they are very separate, dimensionally separate. The center of Ātman is in no way similar to or proximate to the center of aham . So, therefore, the entire teaching is to separate these two, Ātman from jīvātman , or Ātman from aham .

But when you start conflating these two, then you have entered a blunder of a Himalayan size, and that’s what has happened in India. Instead of seeing that the two within you are very separate and one of them is false and has to be dropped, you have started equating the false with the Truth; you have started equating Ātman with jīvātman . You know, my soul, my Ātman , various Ātmas , million Ātmas ; thirsty Ātman , happy Ātman , good Ātman , bad Ātman , dead Ātman , reincarnated Ātman , infant Ātman , old Ātman , śānti (peace) of the *Ātman*… These are terrible blunders.

Ātman is not soul. Ātman is not jīvātman . Ātman is Brahman alone, the one Truth without a second. Ātman admits no plurality because Ātman is indivisible. And Ātman is outside and beyond all experience; therefore, the Ātman is not at all a center of feeling. Neither does the Ātman feel anything nor can you feel the Ātman . It is beyond all perception, description, and experience.

This is where popular spirituality has gone very wrong in India, in the Sanātana tradition, since thousands of years. I do not know where the understanding took a wrong turn, but somewhere it did. Somewhere it happened that somebody confused and conflated these two, and the adherents of the Sanātana Dharma have paid a terribly high price for this misunderstanding.

Now, this verse here is exactly the type of material that is prone to deep misinterpretation. Because it says here that praṇava , AUM, is the dhana , meaning the bow, and then Ātman is the arrow and Brahman is to be targeted, so it lends credence and weight to the popular belief that the Ātman is incomplete and something has to be done to make it complete. Isn’t that being said here after all, that using the AUM, the Ātman has to be launched into Brahman ?

So, one has to be very, very careful while negotiating this verse. And I sincerely wish that the Rishi had been more specific and more discreet here. Instead of using the word ātmā , some other world should have preferably been used. But I also know the context in which the Upanishads came up, so I won’t complain. The context is that the seers or groups of seers who came up with the verses were situated, located often thousands of kilometers apart geographically, and often hundreds of years apart in the temporal sense. Therefore, there was really no standardization when it came to terms. Terms, it is quite possible, were not very very precisely defined.

You see, when Sanskrit grammar had to be standardized by Pāṇini (an Indian scholar and philologist) at a later date—do you understand what that means? In fact, the Sanskrit of the Rig Veda is in some ways different from the Sanskrit of the later Vedas. Language itself had not been standardized. So, it is unreasonable to expect that there should be precise and very mathematical demarcation of spiritual terms. It was not there. It is possible that, at some places, some terms have been loosely or a bit vaguely used. Then the onus is on the reader to interpret that verse in the context of the larger message of the Upanishads. One verse of one Upanishad obviously cannot stand in contradiction to the general principle that the Upanishads enunciate. Isn’t that obvious?

So, when you come across a verse like this, you must cross check it against the fundamental principles. The fundamental principles are supreme. I often talk of the supremacy of the Upanishads, but even within the Upanishads there are some verses that are more Upanishadic than the other. Even among the Upanishads there are some Upanishads that are more Upanishadic than the other. You have to be discreet.

Not without reason four verses carry the *Mahāvākya*s. Why must then the *Mahāvākya*s or the higher statements, higher verses, be only four? If all verses were equal, then why these four have been taken as the gold standard? Because there are verses, and then there are verses. Not all verses carry the same degree of clarity, emphasis, and directness.

So, when you feel stuck with a verse, you are not quite sure how to interpret it, how should you interpret it? Through the gold standards. Ultimately, all verses must conform to what the *Mahāvākya*s are saying. We know of four *Mahāvākya*s generally. There are more than four—eight, ten. All of them are pure gold, and none of them contradict each other. So, when you look at them, you come to know what the Upanishads are centrally, principally trying to communicate, and then there is no confusion.

So, here, AUM is the bow and mind is the arrow— mind is the arrow. And in continuation of the previous verse: Brahman is the target.

“That must be pierced with an unfaltering aim; one must be absorbed into That just as an arrow is lost in its target.”

That is one-pointedness. Give all your energy to sharpening of the arrow, and the sharp arrow must then be fired with all your energy, with a concentration that sees only the target. Sharp arrow, seeing only the target, and then the arrow meets its destiny. Before the arrow gets lost in the target, the mind must already be lost into the target. But then, the arrow itself is the mind. So, it must happen before it happens. And when you know that it happens before it happens, then time becomes immaterial for you, and then it has happened.

It was the bard who said, “Coming events cast their shadow before.” He said it in a very limited context, in a very worldly context, but it is more relevant here actually than anywhere else. You meet the Truth only when you have met the Truth long before you meet the Truth.

“But if we have already met the Truth, why do we again need to meet the Truth?”

Son, as far as you go, you have a long way before you meet the Truth. That’s what your question reveals! So, it would be good for you that you don’t talk so much about the Truth and look into yourself instead.

Those who are anywhere close to the Truth will know what I am saying. The journeying fructifies only when you are at the destination in the beginning itself. Be at the destination right in the beginning, and then your journey will be successful. But if you are traveling to reach the destination, you will never reach because the traveler is designed to not reach. If he were to reach, why would he be a traveler?

The distinction is subtle, please understand. In the world, the traveler is the one who reaches the destination. If you are a traveler, you travel, and what do you do? You reach somewhere. In the inner world, if you are a traveler, then you have defined yourself as the one who travels; then you will keep traveling. Why will you ever reach? Who are you? The traveler. Therefore, what do you do? You travel, and you keep traveling.

‘Who am I’, Koham , is therefore so important. If you say, “I am beginning from a place away from the destination,” then who are you? Then you are a citizen of an alien land; that is your nationality. And if that is your nationality, how will you ever enter the land of immortality? You cannot have two nationalities; dual passport system doesn’t work there.

If I am coming from somewhere and I want to reach the Truth, what is written on my passport? “I am coming from the land of the false, obviously, because I want to reach the Truth, so I have to be separated from the Truth. So, I am coming from the land of the false; my passport has falseness stamped or rather printed all over it. And I cannot have two nationalities. Dual-citizenship not allowed.”

So, in the inner world a traveler is the one who is condemned to remain traveling and never reach. Then how do you reach even before traveling? The answer is love. Love makes it possible. Be there even before taking the first step; you have reached without moving an inch. To have attained everything while your pockets remain empty, that’s love.

Love makes it possible for the little jar to contain the ocean. We do not know when the little water in the jar would actually, physically empty itself into the ocean; we do not know when that would happen. But love makes it possible for the jar to just know that there is complete identity between the little water that it contains and the infinite waters of the ocean, that they are fundamentally the same at the atomic level. That’s love.

So, when you start, you must have that kind of love: a love that makes you travel and convinces you that you are already at the destination, that it is just not possible that you remain separated. Such is the intensity, the ferocity of love that it cannot entertain the thought of separation. “I am already there, I have to be already there. I am already there, and I am traveling.”

Then what does this business of traveling now reduce itself to or, alternately, elevate itself to? Now it is fun, līlā (divine play) and ānanda (joy).

“Because I am already there, so now it is just a child’s play. The result has been obtained. Now it is just for namesake that the exam is being written. The result is obtained, and the result is so much as per my desire that it has left me desireless. I have no more desire.”

What are you writing these papers for, then?

“Fun. Good fun!”

And that’s the good life. Great work, while realizing that you really have nowhere to reach; intense activity, energetic movement, while realizing fully well that all this will really not give you anything more. You already have it. You already have everything. That’s the good life. Are you getting it?

You will get it only if you have it. You will understand only if you have already understood.

Then what am I doing here explaining all these things to you?

Having fun, dude!

(The speaker and the listeners burst out laughing)

I sometimes wonder, these Rishis, how much they have said on a topic where there is really not much to say. And then they have obliged people like me to speak endlessly. Oh, not that it is not fun. Yes! Gods, one Ātman appearing as ten faces. Anything that you don’t understand? Come one, entertain me! Show me that you still don’t understand! Show that the Ātman still needs to know a few things!

One thing that I must address: AUM. AUM has been talked of here as the bow that shoots the mind into the Truth. Why AUM, and how to relate it to the mind?

The disappearance of sound into silence, as it happens in AUM, is analogous to the disappearance of the arrow mind into the Brahman target. What is AUM? Sounds finally dissolving into, tapering off into silence. That’s what it represents. And then, figuratively, we say that AUM, comprising of A, U, Ma, akāra, ukāra, makāra (Sanskrit names for the letters in question), representing the three states of consciousness, dissolves into silence. Silence is the target. Similarly, the mind, leaving behind all its three states, the various three thousand states possible to the three states, disappears into the target.

So, that’s how AUM sends the mind rushing into the target. Pass through all that you can experience, all that is possible in waking, dreaming, sleeping, and then cross over, jump over, transcend—into what? Into non-being, into your absence. Because your presence is only within the three states. Now, within the three states you are you. And what happens when you leave the three states behind? You have not left merely the three states behind; you have left yourself behind. And when there is no you, when there is no mind, no ego, That is.

It is beautiful how our elders, the seers, were so much in love with realization and liberation and attainment of Truth—whatever you call it—they were so insanely in love with this thing that they turned entire life into simply a process of liberation, or, more poetically, they turned entire life into a love song.

So, two people meet, and these are just normal, rustic villagers. And they say, “Hari Om!” Even if they are meeting to borrow and lend money, even if they are meeting for a very materialistic purpose, still they begin with ‘Hari Om’. Now, money was the agenda, but the whole thing has begun with transcendence. “Om… Go beyond money, go beyond money.” And the whole affair, the meeting ends with ‘Hari Om’ as well, not ‘good morning’ or ‘how is your sister-in-law doing’, none of that. The fellow yawns and says, “Hai Rama!”

That’s the thing that happens with me as well. Doesn’t feel well? He says, “Hai Rama!” Is aghast or dismayed? “Hai Rama!” Whatsoever is happening, Rama has to be there. The entire life has been impregnated by Rama, as if there is nothing else to do, as if there is nothing else at all—just Rama. And you can have your version, you can have your particular flavor. You can say, “Sita Rama.”

On one hand, life is devoted to That, which is being connoted by Rama here; on the other hand, there is such an omnipresence of Rama in your daily, worldly activities that you are already with Rama; you wake up with Rama, you sleep with Rama. Now, where is the distance between you and Rama? You are already there. You step out of your house, and what do you see? There is that temple. Even before you step out of your house, what is it that wakes you up? The chiming of the bells from the temple. So, you have reached, already reached.

Your life, every grain of it, is imbued in the color of That. So, in one sense, you have already reached; in another sense, there is an infinity still between you and Rama. Tad dūre tadvantike (It is far, it is near). So, on one hand, the entire passage of life is just a game, a child’s play; on the other hand, nothing is to be taken casually.

Now, this is something that a mind trained in duality alone cannot comprehend. Because duality says, “If you are near, then you cannot be far, and if you are far, then you cannot be near.” Only someone who has had a flavor of advaita , non-duality, will know what we are saying here.

On one hand, everything is just līlā , it’s like a game; on the other hand, be extremely careful that you do not miss out on Rama even in the mundane acts of everyday life. And these two go together. Far from being opposites, far from being even complementary; they are concurrent, they always go together.

When you remember Rama in every breath—I hope I am not confusing you. When I say Rama here, I mean Ātman and Brahman , That which is being spoken of in the lines we have at hand. So, only when you remember Rama in each breath, when such is the intensity of love, when such is the one-pointedness of devotion, only when this is there, life becomes a game to be enjoyed. Else, life is your albatross; life is your burden, a cross to be just carried till you die. And not like Jesus, by the way; like a punishment.

Questioner: One one hand, you are saying we should live life like a līlā ; on the other hand, you say that we have to live very carefully, mindfully. And it is just love that can make this possible? Nothing more is needed?

AP: Love is enough.

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