Mandukya Upanishad

Explanations drawn from the writings of Swami Nikhilananda

Sri Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, New York

[Mandukya Upanishad is the shortest of the

major Upanishads,  containing only 12 verses.]

The first chapter of Mandukya Upanishad discusses Turiya by means of the Vedic symbol AUM. The restless mind cannot think of the transcendental Reality without the help of a concrete symbol. Thinking is possible only through symbols. The student is asked to imagine four parts in Brahman, or Cosmic Reality. They are called four quarters. The first three- gross, subtle and causal- constitute the phenomenal world. The fourth, so called only in relation to the three just mentioned, is transcendental, being beyond time, space and causality. It is Turiya, or the unconditioned Brahman.

Brahman and Atman (Self) are identical. The gross aspect of Brahman has its counterpart in the waking state (Visva) of Atman, when the external world is perceived by means of the sense-organs; the subtle aspect, in the dream state (Taijasa), when the internal world, created by waking experiences, is perceived; and the causal aspect, in deep sleep or dreamless sleep (Prajna), characterised by bliss and the cessation of mental activity. The transcendental aspect of Atman, or Pure Consciousness, which is its true nature, is the same as Turiya.

Like Brahman, AUM also has four parts, called letters. The first three are A, U, and M, corresponding to the first three quarters of Brahman and Atman. In addition to these there is an undifferentiated sound of AUM, which comes after the first three letters are pronounced. Devoid of all characteristics, it is not any particular sound, but the substratum of all sounds. It is the same as the unconditioned Brahman, or Turiya. Turiya is here figuratively called a quarter. In reality it does not denote any part. It is Brahman Itself, which does not admit of any differentiation. The knowledge of the fourth quarter is realised by merging in it the previous three. That is to say, the waking state is merged in the dream state, the dream state in dreamless sleep, and finally, dreamless sleep in Turiya, or Pure Consciousness. Thus through meditation on AUM one can realise Brahman both in its cosmic and in its acosmic aspect.

[Note: "Unconditioned Brahman": For explanation, refer to Page 'The Nature of Reality', see column on the left].

The four quarters are like the quarters of a coin, and not like the four feet of a cow. A large coin, for instance a silver dollar, can be divided into four quarters. But these quarters are not essential or intrinsic characteristic of the dollar; they are designed to serve a practical purpose. That is not true of the four feet of a cow, which are essential parts of it. Atman (Self) is partless. Therefore the four quarters mentioned in the text are superimposed upon Atman as the quarters are superimposed on the coin. Again, the waking state merges in the dream state, the dream state in the dreamless sleep, and dreamless sleep in Turiya. The three preceding states are the means of realising the fourth, or Turiya. The attainment of Turiya is the object of philosophical inquiry. Turiya is not a part of Atman.

Mandukya Upanishad

HARIH AUM! Aum, the word, is all this [i.e. the whole universe]. A clear explanation of it is as follows: All that is past, present, and future is, indeed, AUM. And whatever else there is, beyond the three- fold division of time- that also is truly Aum. (Mandukya Upanishad,Verse 1)

All this is, indeed, Brahman (the Supreme Reality). This Atman (Self) is Brahman. This same Atman has four quarters (padas). (Mandukya Upanishad, Verse 2)

The first quarter (pada) is called Vaisvanara, whose sphere of activity is the waking state, who is conscious of external objects, who has seven limbs and nineteen mouths, and who is the experiencer of gross objects.

(Mandukya Upanishad, Verse 3).

[Note: "Who is conscious of external objects", : The self in the waking state is aware of objects other than itself. Consciousness appears to be related to outer objects. This is due to Avidya, or ignorance. From the standpoint of Reality, Brahman or Atman, is Pure Consciousness. Consciousness is non-dual and nothing exists outside it. The duality of ego and non-ego, subject and object, appears in the Cosmic Mind due to avidya. Material objects are illusory in nature and have no independent existence.

"Seven limbs": The word limbs is used here to denote parts of the body. The seven limbs are the head, the eyes, the mouth, the breath, the middle part of the body, the kidney, and the feet. They have their counterparts in the universe, namely the heavens, the sun, fire, air, akasa (space), water, and earth.

"Nineteen mouths": Namely, the five organs of perception (hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell), the five organs of action (the organs of speech or the tongue), hands (for grasping etc.), feet (for locomotion), generation (for procreation), and excretion, the five pranas (the vital breath in its five aspects: prana, apana, vyana, samana, and udana), the mind (manas), the intellect (buddhi), I-consciousness (ahamkara), and the mind-stuff (chitta). These are, as it were, the mouths or organs by means of which the waking person (Vaisvanara) experiences gross objects. Like the seven limbs, these also are superimposed through avidya (ignorance), upon Atman. The etymological meaning of the word 'Vaisvanara' is "common to all men".

The universe may be regarded from two standpoints: the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. The microcosmic (subjective) entity (adhyatma) is endowed with four quarters, namely, Vaisvanara (or Visva), Taijasa, Prajna, and Turiya. Likewise the macrocosmic (objective) universe, comprising the sphere of the sun, the moon, the stars, etc., has four quarters. The first three are known as Virat (the totality of gross physical bodies), Hiranyagarbha (the totality of subtle bodies), and Isvara or Avyakrita, the Unmanifested (the totality of causal bodies). The attributeless Brahman, like Turiya, is the fourth. It is transcendental, beyond all causal relations, and is the unrelated substratum of all appearances. A parallelism runs through the subjective and the objective. The macrocosm is superimposed upon Brahman, and the microcosm upon Atman (Self), through avidya (ignorance). Both are illusory appearances. On account of the non-difference between the subjective and the objective, the limbs of Vaisvanara are described in terms of the objective universe. The purpose is to show the illusory nature of the entire phenomenal world and establish the non-duality of Atman (Self) and Brahman (Supreme Reality).

The identity of Vaisvanara and Virat indicates the similar identity of Taijasa and Hiranyagarbha, and also of Prajna and Isvara. Taijasa is the dream self, the experiencer of subtle ideas. Hiranyagarbha is Consciousness identified, through maya, with the totality of minds. At the time of deep sleep all distinctions between subject and object, and also between objects themselves, as experienced in the waking state and the dream state, are obliterated. The same thing happens at the time of cosmic dissolution.]

The second quarter (pada) is Taijasa, whose sphere of activity is the dream state, who is conscious of internal objects, who is endowed with seven limbs and nineteen mouths, and who is the experiencer of subtle objects.

(Mandukya Upanishad, Verse 4)

[Note: "Dream state": The impressions of waking experiences are reproduced in the form of dream objects. From the empirical standpoint there is a causal relationship between the waking state and the dream state.

'Internal": In dreams mental states consisting of the impressions of the waking state are experienced. During the dream state the sleeping man is aware of the external world and of internal ideas. But when he awakes and reviews the dream experiences, he comes to realise that they were nothing but the internal activity of the mind. When a man is asleep his sense organs are inactive. Therefore the dream experiences cannot but be mental states.

"Endowed with..": The experiencer in the dream state is non-different from the experiencer in the waking state.

"Subtle objects": In the waking state one's consciousness is associated with gross objects, whereas in the dream state one sees the impressions of past experiences. But in reality the experiences of waking and dreaming are of the same nature; for in both states the perceiver is aware only of his mental states. From the standpoint of dreams, the dream objects are as gross and physical as those experienced in the waking state. It is from the standpoint of waking alone that one infers that the dream objects are subtle, inasmuch as in the dream state no gross object exists for the dreamer.]

That is the state of deep sleep wherein one asleep neither desires any object nor sees any dream. The third quarter is Prajna, whose sphere is deep sleep, in whom all experiences become unified, who is, verily, a mass of consciousness, who is full of bliss and experiences bliss, and who is the door leading to the knowledge of dreaming and waking. (Mandukya Upanishad, Verse 5)

[Note: "That is the state of deep sleep": All three states have a common feature, namely, the absence of the knowledge of Reality. But deep sleep differs from waking and dreaming in that it is associated neither with gross objects nor with subtle impressions, which are the characteristics of the other two. Though the same person, ignorant of Reality, experiences the three states, yet the experiencer of the waking state perceives gross objects, and the experiencer of the dream state perceives dream objects.

"Prajna": That is to say, the knower par excellence. This state is characterised only by general consciousness. The other two states are associated with the knowledge of particulars.

"Unified": In deep sleep all the diversified experiences of waking and dreaming, which are nothing but the activities of the mind, reach the state of non discrimination, without, however, losing their peculiar characteristics- just as the various objects perceived during the day lose their diverse appearances when enveloped by the darkness of night. This state of non-discrimination is known in empirical language as the causal state. A person viewing dreamless sleep from the waking state takes it to be the causal state because he finds that the experiences of waking and dreaming merge in deep sleep. This unified experience of deep sleep is quite different from the unity experienced through the knowledge of Brahman; for in the waking or dream state that follows it, one again takes multiplicity to be real. After attaining the knowledge of Brahman one never takes multiplicity to be real.

'Mass of consciousness": That is to say, free from the knowledge of multiplicity. In deep sleep no specific knowledge is present. As in a dark night all cows appear black and cannot be distinguished from one another, so in deep sleep all discriminative knowledge disappears.

"Full of bliss": Deep sleep is a state of ease and repose. The friction caused by the subject-object relationship is absent. All effort disappears. Hence a person in deep sleep experiences bliss, in the sense that one who is free from effort is said to be happy. This bliss is quite different from that of Brahman.

"Door leading to the knowledge": The unified consciousness of deep sleep, wherein all diversities disappear, is the antecedent of the waking and dream experiences. Hence it is regarded as the cause of, or the door to, the other two states.]

He is the Lord of all. He is the knower of all. He is the inner controller. He is the source of all; for from Him all beings originate and in Him they finally disappear.

(Mandukya Upanishad, Verse 6)

[Note: Consciousness associated with deep sleep is known as Prajna. His nature is described in this verse 6.

"He": Refers to Prajna, or Consciousness functioning in deep sleep. In this state, Consciousness, free from the diversities of waking and dreaming, manifests in a marked degree its natural purity.

'The Lord of all": That is to say, of the physical and the supra-physical universe. But this lordship does not refer to an extra-cosmic Creator, as some schools hold. (Compare Brahadaranyaka Upanishad, 4,4,22.).]

[The following comments refer to the next verse No.7. The three states superimposed on Brahman through avidya (ignorance) have already been explained. Within them the causal law operates. Now will be explained the fourth state, known as Turiya, which is free from causality, is of the very nature of Pure Consciousness, and is the Supreme Reality. This will be done through the negation of the three states.] :

Turiya is not that which is conscious of the inner (subjective) world, nor that which is conscious of the outer (objective) world, nor that which is conscious of both, nor that which is a mass of consciousness. It is not simple consciousness nor is It unconsciousness. It is unperceived, unrelated, incomprehensible, uninferable, unthinkable, and indescribable. The essence of the Consciousness manifesting as the self (in the three states), It (Turiya) is the cessation of all phenomena; It is all peace, all bliss, and non-dual. This is what is known as the Fourth (Turiya). This is Atman (Self), and this has to be realised.

(Mandukya Upanishad, Verse 7)

[The following comments refer to the next verse No.8. The highest truth, as explained above by the refutation of the erroneous superimpositions, can be grasped only by students endowed with sharp or moderate intelligence. But ordinary students, who cannot understand philosophical reflections, are advised to concentrate on AUM as the symbol of Ultimate Reality.]:

The same Atman [explained before as being endowed with four quarters] is now described from the standpoint of the syllable AUM. AUM, too, divided into parts, is viewed from the standpoint of letters. The quarters [of Atman] are the same as the letters of AUM, and the letters are the same as the quarters. The letters are A,U, and M.

(Mandukya Upanishad, Verse 8)

[Note: "The same Atman is now described…": The Mandukya Upanishad commences with the statement that AUM covers all things and also that which is beyond. Further, AUM is identical with Atman, which is endowed with four quarters. In the explanation of the word, emphasis has been given to Atman, which the word indicates. The present verse explains AUM from the standpoint of the world itself.

The first verse of the Upanishad states that AUM is everything- past, present, and future, and what is beyond time. The second verse states that AUM is the same as Brahman and Atman. Next follows the explanation of Atman with its four quarters. All these explanations of AUM have been given from the standpoint of Atman, emphasizing the name (i.e. Atman) indicated by AUM. Now the same AUM is being explained from the standpoint of the word itself.

AUM is pronounced OM.

"In Sanskrit  language the vowel 'O' is constitutionally a diphthong, contracted from a + u. Om therefore may be analysed into the elements a + u + m." (R.E.Hume, The Thirteen Principal Upanishads, Oxford University Press.)

Vaisvanara Atman, whose sphere of activity is the waking state, is A, the first letter (of AUM), on account of his all-pervasiveness or on account of his being the first. He who knows this obtains all desires and becomes first (among the great). (Mandukya Upanishad, Verse 9)

[Note: "Vaisvanara Atman": Atman functioning through the waking state. His other name is Visva; he is identical with Virat.

"His": Here Atman is personalised.

"All-pervasiveness…": The sound A pervades all sounds. It is present in all sounds. No sound can be produced without opening the mouth, and the sound that is thus produced is A. Likewise, the entire universe is pervaded by Vaisvanara Atman. It has already been stated that knowledge of the dream state and of deep sleep is possible only in the waking state. Since the three states constitute our entire experience of the universe, the waking state pervades the whole universe. Another point of resemblance between A and Vaisvanara is that just as A is the beginning, or first, of the three letters constituting AUM, so also, Vaisvanara, or the waking state, may be said to be the beginning, or first, of the three states. ]

Taijasa Atman, whose sphere of activity is the dream state, is U, the second letter (of AUM), on account of his superiority or intermediateness, He who knows this attains a superior knowledge, receives equal treatment from all, and finds in his family no one ignorant of Brahman.

(Mandukya Upanishad, Verse 10)

[Note: In this verse the identity of the second quarter of Atman and the second letter of AUM is pointed out.

"Taijasa Atman": Atman functioning through the dream state.

"Superiority": As a matter of fact, A, being the first of all letters, is superior to them all. But U, coming after A, is stated here to be superior in a figurative sense. Taijasa, or Atman functioning through the dream state, is said to be superior to Vaisvanara because he perceives ideas, whereas the latter sees only gross objects. While investigating dreams the student realises physical phenomena to be states of the mind, which knowledge brings him nearer to truth.

"Intermediateness": As the letter U is between A and M, so the dream state is between waking and deep sleep.]

Prajna Atman, whose sphere is deep sleep, is M, the third letter (of AUM), because both are measure and also because in them all become one. He who knows this is able to measure all and also comprehends all within himself.

(Mandukya Upanishad, Verse 11)

[Note: The identity of the third quarter of Atman and the third letter of AUM is pointed out.

""Measure": Both the waking state and the dream state emerge from (during manifestation) and disappear into (during non-manifestation) the dreamless state. Therefore both Vaisvanara and Taijasa are said to be contained in Prajna, which may be compared to the container. The word 'measure' in the text is used in the sense of a container.

"All become one": When the word AUM is repeated quickly several times, the sound actually heard is MAUM. That is why it is said that the letters A and U become one with M. Likewise, Visva and Taijasa become one with, or merge in, Prajna in deep sleep.

"Is able …all": That is to say, he knows the real nature of the universe. He realises that the universe perceived in the waking and the dream states is essentially the same as the experience of deep sleep, inasmuch as all the three states are characterised by non-apprehension of Reality.

"Comprehend all within himself': He attains the status of Isvara, who is the cause of the universe.]

The Fourth (Turiya) is without parts and without relationship; It is the cessation of phenomena; it is all good and non-dual. This AUM is verily Atman. He who knows this merges his self in Atman- yea, he who knows this.

(Mandukya Upanishad, Verse 12)

[Note: AUM, in its transcendental aspect, is Turiya.

"Without parts": That is to say, without sound. This aspect of AUM cannot be expressed by any sound. Being non-dual, it cannot even be described as the substratum of the three other sounds. The AUM uttered through sounds points, by contrast, to the soundless AUM. All sounds must some time or other merge in silence or soundlessness. The soundless AUM is the same as Turiya.

"Without relationship": That is to say, incomprehensible. Objects and their corresponding names or sounds both disappear in Turiya. The physical world is only an idea. Therefore all objects are but ideas expressed by names or sounds. The contemplation of Turiya destroys ignorance and also the mind created by ignorance. With the destruction of thoughts and sounds, there remains nothing by which Turiya can be comprehended.

"This AUM is verily Atman": As already stated, the three letters or sounds of AUM are identical with three states of Atman.]

[The following is adapted from Sri Shankaracharya's commentary] :

Those who have realised Brahman, the Highest Reality, merge the self in Turiya because they have transcended the notion of cause and effect, which inheres in the third quarter of Atman. They are not born again; for they have realised their identity with the causeless Turiya. The illusory snake which has merged in the rope as a result of discrimination between the snake and the rope, does not reappear. Students of dull or mediocre mind who have renounced the world and are endowed with spiritual virtues should meditate on the common features of the sounds of AUM and the quarters of Atman, as explained before. Thus, proceeding step by step, they ultimately realise Turiya, devoid of any state or sound, and attain the Highest Goal.

[The following quotations are from Gaudapada Karika]:

As in dreams the mind acts through maya, presenting the appearance of duality, so also in the waking state the mind acts through maya, presenting the appearance of duality.

There is no doubt that the mind, which is in reality non-dual, appears to be dual in dreams; likewise, there is no doubt that what is non-dual (i.e. Atman) appears to be dual in the waking state. (61-61)

The mind should be concentrated on AUM. AUM is the fearless Brahman. He who is always absorbed in AUM knows no fear whatever. (25)

Aum is indeed the beginning, middle, and end of all things. He who has realised AUM as immutable immediately attains the Supreme Reality. (27)

Here ends the Mandukya Upanishad.

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