Pakshi Kalpanam (Two Birds Imagery)

Sishya, today I would like to discuss Pakshi Kalpanam – the two birds imagery.

I know Pakshi means birds, so Kalpanam means imagery?

Like Many Vedantic Sanskrit words, kalpanam does not have equivalent English word, but kalpanam is the process by which a deeper meaning is explained by a simple story.

Pakshi Kalpanam is in Vedanta; does it mean it is in one of the Upanishads?

Pakshi Kalpanam is known to more people from Mundaka Upanishads, but it first appeared in Rig Veda. In Rig Veda, the Pakshi Kalpanam is in the 20th, 21st and 23rd mantras of 164th Sukta, First Mandala and in Mundaka Upanishad it is the first three mantras of the first section of the third chapter.

What is the meaning of those verses?

In a tree there are two birds. One bird keep eating the fruits of the tree while the other bird, sitting on a higher branch, does not eat the fruit, but just watches the other bird eat.

That is all?

Yes, the synopsis of the three verses are just that. But when this is seen as a Vedantic study, the meaning is more profound.
In Vedantic interpretaion, the tree represents samsara (the life), the higher bird represents Paramatma and lower bird represents jivatma or the higher bird as atma, the witness and lower bird as the body or anatma, experiencing the fruits of life – both bitter and sweet.

What is the translation of these verses?

I will give you translation by scholars and authorities.
Translation of the verses of Rig Veda (by Dayananda Saraswathi and Ralph Griffith):
Like two birds of beautiful wings, there are two spirits – the finite and the supreme or the individual soul or supreme soul. And they both are knit together in the relation of pervaded and pervader but with bonds of friendship. Like the birds, the soul and the Great Soul reside on the same tree – the matter. One of the birds – the finite spirit or individual soul enjoys the sweet and ripe fruits of karma produced by its actions, whereas the other bird – the Supreme Sprit simply observes without enjoying the fruits.

Where the blessed souls of noble action sing and celebrate their share of immortal joy in holy voice, I pray the constant imperishable noble soul, the protector and sustainer of the entire universe to give me the strength to be absorbed to him.

To that tree over and above the mortal world whereon the super-souls of beautiful wings of blessed action nestle in a state of consecration and taste the nectar honey of divine joy, whose taste of the fruit the ancients describe as super-sweet, to that tree of immortal taste and bliss they do not attain who do not know the father.

Translation of Mundaka Upanishad verses by Swami Paramarthananda:
Two birds with beautiful wings, which are close friends, cling to the same tree. Of them, one eats the fruits with relish. The other looks on without eating.

­Being deluded (and) completely immersed in the very same body, a person grieves helplessly. When one sees the other, the adored Lord, (and) His Glory as (one’s own), (one becomes) free from grief.

When the wise seer see Brahman which is ever effulgent like gold, which is the creator, which is the Lord, and which is the cause of Hiranyagarbha, then, he gives up all punya and papa. Free from impurities, (he) attains total identity (with Brahman)

The tree whereon the fine Birds eat the sweetness, where they all rest and procreate their offspring, — upon its top they say the fig is luscious: none gaineth it who knoweth not the Father.

Vedantic philosophy includes advaidam (non-dualistic principle), visishtadhvaidham (qualified dualistic principle) and Dwaidam (dualistic principle).  Which one of these principles does Pakshi Kalpanam indicate?

One can interpret Pakshi Kalpanam as any one of the three principles.

Swami Vivekananda‘s Interpreted Pakshi Kalpanam from the Vishishtadwaidam philosophy in the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume-1 Lectures & Discourses:
Two birds of beautiful plumage, inseparable companions, sat upon the same tree, one on the top and one below. The beautiful bird below was eating the fruits of the tree, sweet and bitter, one moment a sweet one and another a bitter. The moment he ate a bitter fruit, he was sorry, but after a while he ate another and when it too was bitter, he looked up and saw the other bird who ate neither the sweet nor the bitter, but was calm and majestic, immersed in his own glory. And then the poor lower bird forgot and went on eating the sweet and bitter fruits again, until at last he ate one that was extremely bitter; and then he stopped again and once more looked up at the glorious bird above. Then he came nearer and nearer to the other bird; and when he had come near enough, rays of light shone upon him and enveloped him, and he saw he was transformed into the higher bird. He became calm, majestic, free, and found that there had been but one bird all the time on the tree. The lower bird was but the reflection of the one above. So we are in reality one with the Lord, but the reflection makes us seem many, as when the one sun reflects in a million dew-drops and seems a million tiny suns. The reflection must vanish if we are to identify ourselves with our real nature which is divine.

Rabindranath Tagore Interpreted this imagery as Advadiam:
“In the Upanishad it is said in a parable that there are two birds sitting, on the same bough, one of which feeds and the other looks on. This is an image of mutual relationship of the infinite being and the finite self. The delight of the bird which looks on is great, for it is pure and free delight. There are both of these birds in man himself, the objective one with its business of life, the subjective one with its disinterested joy of vision.”

Rabindranath Tagore seems to tell us that the act of seeing is more imaginative, more creative, and more real than the act of knowing. The delight of the bird that looks on is greater than that of the bird that is busy with the facts of life. For a child, a tiger in the story narrated by his grandmother is, being a creative imagination, more intimate and concretely living than the one he comes across as a beast of prey in the book of natural history that is just loaded with facts.

Sri Aurobindo‘s Interpreted this imagery as Dwaidam:
“Two birds, beautiful of wings, close companions, cling to one common tree: of the two one eats the sweet fruit of the tree, the other eats not but watches his fellow. The soul is the bird that sits immersed on the one common tree; but because he is not lord he is bewildered and has sorrow. But when he sees that other who is the Lord and beloved, he knows that all is His greatness and his sorrow passes away from him. When, a seer, he sees the Golden-hued, the maker, the Lord, the Spirit who is the source of Brahman, then he becomes the knower and shake from his wings sin and virtue; pure of all stain he reaches the supreme identity.”