The Mundaka Upanishad’s primary claim to fame is the ubiquitous ‘Satyamev Jayte’ – India’s national motto and an overused cliché in Indian television and cinema. However, the triumph of truth is a small drop in the vast ocean of wisdom contained in this Upanishad.

An ancient Sanskrit vedic text (the date and origin of which is contested), the Mundaka Upanishad is nestled within the larger Atharva Veda. It’s teachings take the form of deceptively simple poems which dwell on the nature of existence and spirituality. While the language relies on simple composition and common metaphors, the central message in each poem is often ambiguous and multivalent.

In this cryptic poem ‘Two Birds’, translated by A. K. Ramanujan, we encounter the inherent ambiguity of existence – the thirst to experience life completely and the vague, nagging impulse to detach from worldly pleasures. Two birds reside in the same tree – perhaps a metaphor for the body – and choose completely different paths, one of indulgence and the other of detachment. And yet, the one who take wilful action or “eats the fruit” is the one “engulfed in his impotence”.

Which one is trapped and which is free? Read the full poem and prepare to uncover its layers of meaning.

 

Two Birds

Two birds. twin images

in plumage,

friends. ever inseparable,

cling to a tree.

One eats the fruit,

eats of the sweet and eats

of the bitter,

while the other watches.

watches without eating.

Buried in the bole

of the self-same tree

one suffers. engulfed

in his impotence.

Yet as he watches the watching

bird, the adorable one, and sees

the sweet bitter glory

as His alone,

He rises, free

from grief.

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