Discussions about nonduality often take place on Facebook these days. Most of the people I encounter in these settings have had little or no direct exposure to the traditional teachings of Advaita/Vedanta. Here is an excerpt from such a discussion. One person, named Jonathan, posted a verse in translation from the Mundaka Upanisad and I replied to what he said.
The Mundaka Upanishad reminds us that there are two kinds of knowledge to be acquired—the higher and the lower. The lower includes all that the mind instrument can 'know,’ particularly the scriptures, the Vedas and Upanishads. They are lower knowledge.
Then there is the higher knowledge, 'by which is attained that Imperishable’ This cannot be known by the mind. With the aid of a 'qualified' teacher, one can be pointed towards it and experience it directly:
“(By the higher knowledge) the wise realize everywhere that which cannot be perceived and grasped, which is without source, features, eyes, and ears, which has neither hands nor feet, which is eternal, multiformed, all-pervasive, extremely subtle, and undiminishing and which is the source of all.”--Mundaka I,1, 6
I think it is somewhat tricky to try and read the Upanisads on one’s own and come up with a proper understanding of what they are trying to say. First of all, we will understand them from our own individual way of seeing things, putting our own interpretation upon the words, so we very well may not understand what they are trying to say about non-duality. And furthermore the translation we read may not be very good or accurate. Even if each word is translated correctly, the deeper meaning of the words will probably not be represented properly.
So right there are two stumbling blocks to understanding them. When one is trying to understand the words of the Upanisads it is best to have a living teacher who can explain the words and answer one’s questions if one is confused on the meaning. That would be best in order to clarify one’s concepts and misunderstanding.
There really are two basic questions the seeker has: (1) who or what am I? And (2) what is the truth of this whole apparently dual world of experience which is seen and perceived through the sense organs and mind?
Swami Dayananda is someone whose explanations of the words of the Upanisads I trust. Luckily he has published and written translations and commentaries on two Upanisads, and one of them is Mundaka, which you quoted, thus I was able to look up the parts of the Upanisad you were referencing above.
If you want to talk about the ‘two types of knowledge’ that Mundaka Upanisad mentions we can do that. In Sanskrit they are called ‘para’ and ‘apara.’ Swami Dayananda indeed translates those two words as ‘higher and lower.’
So what is lower knowledge? And how can the Upanisads, if they contain the teaching of nonduality, be said to be ‘lower knowledge?’
This seems to be a statement which applies particularly to the Vedic culture from which the Upanisads come and needs to be understood as such. In India, even today—and certainly thousands of years ago, prior the Upanisads being written down—people might memorize the entire content of the Vedas.
A person might be able to chant an entire Veda from memory, which would be a lot of material to commit to memory.
However even though having memorized all the words—including the words of the Upanisads, which are found at the end of the Vedas and contain the teachings of advaita—that person still might very easily not know what the deeper meaning of the words of the Upanisads was. That person would not necessarily understand what nonduality is, nor would he have recognized that the nature of everything is nondual.
He would not know because he would not have been exposed to the methodology of Vedanta which points the student to recognize what nonduality is. That methodology is locked up in the words of the Upanisads, and it takes a teacher, who is trained in the methodology, to expand and explain the verses in order that they work as a means to bring about self-knowledge in the mind of the student.
Thus one type of ‘lower knowledge,’ would be the ability to recite the words of the Vedas from memory without necessarily knowing the intended meaning of the words of the Upanisads. So that's the cultural meaning of that statement.
Another type of 'lower knowledge' is this, and we can extrapolate the meaning out to make it relevant for people of our era and culture. The first portion of the Vedas is known as the Karma Kanda, or the section which deals with action, or doing. It contains information on the things one should and should not do in order to live the best life one can possible have within the changing world of experience—within duality—which is also known as samsara.
So that’s the content of the first portion of the Vedas. And if you distill the entire first portion down to its essence it’s all about dharma, in other words, how to conduct oneself so one doesn’t cause trouble for oneself, or others and how to contribute in a positive way to society. It also gives advice about how one can attain the things human beings want and are beneficial to have, like security and the pleasures life has to offer.
So for us now, in this day and age, we could say that lower knowledge is about being good, not stealing or lying, not doing things that hurt yourself or another, helping others, acting with compassion for yourself and others; living a good life, while fulfilling your desires and getting your needs met, as long as doing so doesn't hurt yourself or another. If you think about it, this isn’t really 'lower' in a sense. It’s about how to behave within duality in order to have a relatively good life, or as good a life as you can have, given that circumstances will always be changing.
So then what is higher knowledge? Higher knowledge is for those who’ve recognized that as good as life gets in the realm of samsara—in duality—it’s never going to be good enough, because one will always feel that one is lacking and subject to sorrow. So ‘higher knowledge' is the knowledge or recognition of that the truth of oneself and the entire apparently dual world of experience is one nondual alone
Okay then, let's address what is said about the mind. The recognition of who I am and what the truth of this whole thing is, does take place in the mind.
However, what this Upanisad is trying to show, and what all words used in the Upanisads are trying to show when they say things such as, ‘It can't be known by the mind,’ is that this type of knowledge, or recognition, which in Vedanta is called ‘self-knowledge,’ or atma jnanam, is not like any other type of knowledge we are used to having.
In other words the recognition of the truth of myself and this whole thing is not a recognition of something which is an object in the dual world of experience. It’s the recognition of my self, who am already and ever present as the ultimate subject, the bottom line of each and every experience.
The only way anything is known is by the mind. If people didn’t have minds, which were self-aware, there would be no such thing as enlightenment or self-knowledge. There would be no such thing as some people having recognized the truth and some people not having done so. Therefore enlightenment itself is for the mind of the individual, as strange and heretical as that may sound to some on these Facebook forums.
From the perspective of absolute nondual reality, there are no individuals, no minds, no one to suffer, no one to be enlightened or not, there is no duality at all, and thus there is no problem.
So higher knowledge is knowledge of something, but it is knowledge of something which is not an object that exists separately in duality. It is the recognition of myself as I am, whole and complete, never coming or going at any time, the being of this entire changing world of experience. And That which is not an object is already here as you, but you may not have recognized yourself as such yet.
Then to address something else which you said above: “With the aid of a ‘qualified’ teacher, one can be pointed towards it and experience it directly.”
I looked around this Upanisad to try and find where you might be coming up with the phrase ‘experience it directly.’ Some texts, including Mundaka, talk about the ‘gain’ of brahman, or becoming brahman—brahman meaning the non-dual reality—and I suppose such statements could be interpreted to mean, experiencing brahman, or experiencing the nondual reality, or having an experience that is different or other than the experience one is already having.
This is a very common misunderstanding, not only among those who study Vedanta without a good teacher, it’s also very common I’ve found amongst people who are involved in modern nondual teachings. Oftentimes people will think, “I have to have an experience of nonduality, because I’m certainly not having that experience now.” And in fact this is not at all true.
You think that you are not experiencing yourself as the nondual reality, but you are. You think that you are not, because you take that nondual reality—your actual never changing being—to be one with and a product of the changing body/mind and sense organs.
You take these two entirely different ‘things,’ one which is changing and subject to birth, death and decay—the body/mind—; and the other which is unchanging, i.e. being/awareness—the nondual reality that you are—to be one and the same thing. And they are not the same thing, although they co-exist, which is why they get superimposed on each other and are taken to be the of same order of reality, taken to be one and the same 'thing.'
Because you already exist as the nondual reality, even though you have not recognized yourself as such yet, there is therefore no new experience to be gained. There is nothing new to become. Instead there is something about yourself and your own experience to be recognized as it really is. This recognition is often referred to in the teachings of Vedanta as ‘the attainment of the attained,’ or ‘the gain of the gain.’
In fact it isn’t an attainment or a gain. In reality it is a loss. A loss of the misunderstanding of who you are right now and what your present experience actually is. So it's a seeing clearly of how things actually are, due to the loss of interpreting things incorrectly.
There is nothing new to experience, but there is something to recognize about your present experience, because right now you are interpreting your present experience incorrectly.
So the recognition of what the actual truth of your here and now experience is is called ‘higher knowledge.’ It’s also known as moksha or enlightenment or self-knowledge.
But lower knowledge and higher knowledge are not entirely unconnected, the reason being that behaving in a dharmic manner helps the mind to become and remain relatively calm, clear, and peaceful. Then when the teacher is teaching and pointing out certain things to you about the truth of your here and now experience, if your mind is clear, calm and peaceful, you will have a better chance to directly recognize what it is that he or she is pointing out.