Anti-Ritualism in the Mundaka Upanisad Echoed through Kabir

The strong current of anti-ritualism as expressed in the Mundaka Upanisad has reverberated throughout Hinduism, penetrating the thoughts and attitudes of the later Sant poets regarding the nature of bhakti, proper devotion. While the Mundaka and the body of writing of the Sants emanate from different contexts and offer different suggestions on bhakti, the two texts remain in general accordance. The Mundaka attacks ritualism bluntly in the form of a discourse. The Mundaka expresses the ritualists’ perspective that “immortality in rites” follows from the consciousness which ultimately emanates from Brahman and consequently turns again to Brahman (1.1.8) . Part of the text involves a description of the totality required from devotional rites, that an insufficient performance of all rites would rob one “of his worlds, up to the very seventh” (1.2.3), and that one who performs all the prescribed rites, deeds, and offerings would be carried by one’s very oblations “to where the king of gods resides, / the only place to reside” and told, “‘This is yours, this Brahman’s world, / built by good deeds and rites well done'” (1.2.6).The Author’s response is sharp in both its directness and its tone. The ritualists are insulted variously as “fools,” “blind men,” and “imbeciles” who are “wallowing in ignorance” and “hurting themselves badly” and will ultimately “fall, wretched and forlorn” (1.2). To the notion that the worlds are built with rites, the Author insists on a disgusted response, that “‘What’s made / can’t make / what is unmade!'” (1.2.12).The counterpoint to ritualism offered in the Mundaka is learning about the nature of the Brahman. The evocative and heady flame imagery used in the ritualist description of sacrificial rites is contrasted with “those in the wilderness, calm and wise, / who live a life of penance and faith,” and a student “of tranquil mind and calm disposition” is offered “the knowledge of Brahman,” “the true, the imperishable” (1.2). It is stated that all things — words, worlds, rites, prayers, the seven flames — emanate from divine Brahman and that one who realizes this “cuts the knot of ignorance in this world” (2.1.10). One is taught by the text to, through meditation on OM, shoot oneself into Brahman, which is represented as a “divine fort” and a state of omniscience: “Who knows all, who observes all, / to whom belongs all greatness on earth” (2.2.7a). One must meditate in order to perceive the divine, and that wisdom enables one to see “what becomes visible as the immortal / in the form of bliss” (2.2.7b).The Mundaka’s definite emphasis on meditating (in addition to knowledge and austerity in life) in order to achieve a certain understanding of the divine is strongly echoed by the notions of the Sant Kabir. The Sant Kabir attacked the institutions and rites both of Hinduism and of Islam in his adherence to the doctrine of nirguna, that by the limitations of human understanding, divine Brahman is unknowable and essentially indescribable. In his more absurd and banal statements, Kabir himself exemplified the idea that nirguna bhakti must be a formless expression of divine love, one which is not contingent on any expectation or image of the divine.Like the Mundaka, Kabir’s trenchant writing insults ritualism and various traditions, placing emphasis instead on seeing the “inward Ram.” One such epigram:If shaving your headSpelled spiritual success, Heaven would be filled with sheep. [KG pad 174]Kabir further ridiculed those who do not contemplate the divine, suggesting in contrast to the caste system that “The only lowly are those / who never talk of Ram” [KG pad 182]. On the bliss that comes from knowing the divine, Ram bragged “Kabir? Dead already. / He’s enjoying life with Ram” [KG pad 46]. In a series of epigrams using similar fire imagery to that discussed above, Kabir wrote, “My mind was soothed / When I found the boundless knowledge, / And the fires / that scorch the world / To me are water cool” [KG sakhi 17.1].Another Sant poet, Tulsidas, placed a special emphasis on the name “Ram” itself, insisting that the very name of God brings one closer to the divine in a certain meditative fashion. Within the context of the Mundaka Upanishad these Sant poets broadly rejected ritualism and certain customs, insisting instead that meditation, the name of God, and education bring one closer to Brahman. While the Sants were in many respects not doctrinaire in terms of the Mundaka itself, these writings and concepts are nevertheless broadly aligned, as scholars recognize today.