Two identical birds that are eternal companions perch in the very same tree. One eats many fruits of various tastes. The other only witnesses without eating. —Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.1; translation by Swami Rama
According to non-dualistic philosophy, the entire world is manifested from pure consciousness in a constantly changing parade of forms. The two birds referenced in this verse symbolize two aspects of the same reality. The bird who eats and enjoys the fruit is jivatman, the individual soul, while the bird who does not partake in eating, but rather sits and observes, is paramatman, absolute Brahman, or pure consciousness.
In the process of manifestation, the individual soul mistakenly identifies itself with the mind, body, and senses it inhabits, forgetting its true nature. It is only when it recognizes its other self, the bird who stays non-attached, free of all desires and cravings, that it can remember and liberate itself.
This is true for all of us, each in our own way. Our lower self becomes involved in the dance of life, getting lost in the charms and temptations of the world. When we get what we want, we are temporarily happy, but then we become obsessed with anxiety and fear that we might lose what we have. When we do eventually lose it, we are overwhelmed with grief and sorrow. As long as we identify ourselves with being the doers of our actions, we become attached to their fruits—some of them sweet and some of them bitter.
To be free, we need to identify with our higher self—the bird that merely observes, neither attracted nor repelled by the objects of the world. The subsequent verses in this Upanishad explain how to do this through spiritual practices—specifically, meditation, truthfulness, and performing selfless actions. By understanding and being mindful of what we think, say, and do, we can fully enjoy all that the world has to offer without becoming entangled in it. In this way, we free ourselves of the ties that bind us to our lower self and come to know our true nature.
Considered one of the most important Upanishads, the Mundaka Upanishad has 64 mantras, divided into three chapters. Mundaka means both “a shaving razor” and “a person with a shaven head.” The higher knowledge taught in this Upanishad removes the veil of ignorance that obscures Atman, just as a razor removes the hair covering the head.
Like other Upanishads, the Mundaka Upanishad takes the form of a dialogue—in this case, between Angiras, the preceptor, and Shaunaka, his fully prepared disciple. Shaunaka humbly asks, “What is that by knowing which all this becomes known?” Angiras, seeing that Shaunaka has a burning desire to have the knowledge of absolute truth, Brahman, begins to teach him.
This Upanishad, which comes from the Atharva Veda, is an illuminating guide for both householders and renunciates. By diving deep into the inner significance of each verse through long contemplation and constant meditation, the student gains knowledge and realization of the supreme truth.