Two Great Truths of Absolute and Relative Reality


In my volatile teens, I was struck by the poignant beauty of an ancient metaphor (contained within the Mundaka Upanishad) that speaks of two birds perched on the branch of a tree: one bird eats the fruit of the tree while the other watches.

The first bird represents the individual self/soul; distracted by the fruits (signifying sensual pleasures), she forgets her lord and lover and tries to enjoy the fruit independent of him. (This separating amnesia is known in Sanskrit as maha-maya or enthrallment; it results in the plunge of the individual into the ephemeral realm of birth and death.) As for the second bird, it is an aspect of the Divine/Self that rests in every heart—and which remains forever constant even as the individual soul is bedazzled by the material world.

This teaching implies that it is ignorance of our true nature that creates a vicious cycle: the individual, being blinded by the illusion of existing as a separate entity, has no option but to act—and therefore fresh misery is piled on the old. But the Absolute is whole and free of illusion; performing no actions it is not bound by karma. 


In the grip of maya/illusion, the individual is subject to confused behavior (the classical definition of “karma” or “doing” is the movement of the mind and what it produces in terms of speech and action). Unable to put a halt to its own wretched trajectory, the individual soul passes through several kinds of wombs in accordance with its actions—but when it finally recognizes the other bird (the Divine) as its eternal Self, the veil of delusion is removed and bliss takes the place of sorrow.

Scholarly interpretations of this verse abound and you can investigate them quite easily. For me, however,it provided a golden key to understanding the link between Infinite Being and the finite self, helping me “see” both my inner world and my surroundings with fresh eyes.

SHIVA IN RAINBOW COLORSMy own journey accelerated when, as a mutinous teen, I picked up a book from my father’s revolving rosewood bookcase—a green paperback with a yogi sitting motionless beneath a tree on the cover. Something both splendid and terrible arose within me at the sight of him, and I knew this would be the path I would choose to make sense of what then appeared to be a cruel and senseless world.

As the years flew past, I teetered between agnosticism and atheism, railing against a supposedly benevolent Creator God who could create a world rife with seemingly meaningless pain and confusion.

DSC02390Then, during my later years of study with the Mahayana Buddhists, I encountered The Two Truths: a metaphysical metaphor concerning the soul that first appears in Vedic scriptures (Rig Veda, Mundaka and Svetasvatara Upanisads). It was this powerful teaching that brought back to me the Upanishadic tale of the two birds: one representing the Relative, the other the Absolute.

Thanks to excellent gurus, I did not fall into the trap of using the Two Truths to create a true-false dichotomy, whereby the Absolute is true reality and the Relative is false reality; both Absolute and Relative Reality are truths. Secondly, Absolute and Relative are often described as different levels of reality—but the two are intertwined; seen through realized eyes, the two are an undivided whole.

The path up the mountain of pure consciousness can be a treacherous one and those who do not meticulously prepare for this most magnificent hike of all are liable to get lost. Each of us must discover for ourselves what needs to be done in order to realize the Self; since the goal is to know oneself as pure blissful consciousness, permanently free of desire and fear, blazing with light, the true seeker does whatever is necessary to scale this crystal mountain.

The quest deepens when we teach ourselves to distinguish between Real and Unreal (Absolute and Relative). The Real, according to Advaita, is that which does not come and goand the only thing that fits this definition is our primal consciousness, and what precedes it: the Absolute Unmanifest.

RAMANA 4Today I am committed to the path to freedom that Ramana Maharshi revealed: Atma-Vichara/Self-Investigation/the Direct Path. Atma-Vichara is simple but not easy and the way I approach it hinges on the critical distinction made clear to me by both the Upanishadic metaphor as well as the Two TruthsAs I walk this jewel-strewn way, I am grateful to those who cared enough to share their amazing insights with us.


Greetings from Arunachala, the sacred mountain known to be the great God Shiva himself, and who helps the committed seeker destroy the Unreal so we can experience our Self as immortal bliss!

If you’ve enjoyed reading my posts, please also check out my BOOKS.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Click the buttons below to SHARE if you liked this post.
Note: The REBLOG option is available only when viewing the post in full. Click on the post-title above if don’t see the REBLOG button below.

33 thoughts on “Two Great Truths of Absolute and Relative Reality

  1. Thank you for sharing your journey and insights, Mira. I never really studied much of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I stopped when I reached the 4th… “Yoga is the calming of the thought-waves in the mind.” Yoga; or ‘union’, as it has been described is reached when we are no longer subject to the distractions the mind constantly produces. When we reach that State, we are at rest like the bird who witnesses. Until then, Maya offers plenty of lessons that await as we continue to flutter around. Om Namah Sivaaya!

  2. I note that I liked it before but did not comment then – I do not know why. It is very good to now have another opportunity to comment Mira so I want to say thank you. Written in your beautifully crystal clear way. Thank you ..

  3. Beautifully written!

    You may consider another approach. According to Upanishads nothing is unreal. One is perennial, birthless, changeless, immortal. The other is perishable, variable. Both birds are real.

    We are writing, reading these thoughts as the birds enjoying the fruits. We are going to breath till the very end, no?

    So we have constant and variable. If we relieve ourselves of our perception of being variable we regain what we originally are- constant, immortal.

    • Thank you, Anahata. Whatever works for each person is the best way to go. This works for me and the knowing deepens with practice. Yes, both birds are real in samsaric terms, but not in Advaitic terms – because “real” in Advaita means “that which is permanent and lasting” and the relative bird is constantly in flux. As for “regaining” our Self, we do not have to do that because the Self is our substratum, existence-consciousness and bliss – all we have to do is return to that which we are. Om!

  4. Pingback: Smorgasbord Open House – Author Mira Prabhu | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  5. Thanks for sharing this enlightening post with me Mira. I refer to you as the ‘wise one’ because you’re so well-versed in spirituality, and you have a gift with words when you share with others. I think you’re fascinating Miraji. ❤

  6. Reblogged this on TINA FRISCO and commented:
    What is real and what is unreal? So many of us think the daily life we lead is reality. And relatively speaking ~ Mother Earth being a schoolhouse and our reason for incarnating ~ this is true. But what gives the body life? The spirit? The soul? The Divine Absolute? Mira Prabhu discusses Realtive and Absolute Reality within the metaphor of two birds perched on the branch of a tree: one eats the fruit while the other watches. Which is relative and which is absolute? Could it be that The Dream is reality and the wakeful state is an illusion?

  7. Thank you for directing me to this article. I am understanding better now and the story of the two birds has made sense to me and made me feel a lot better about the reality thing. I have saved this to my bookmarks so I can read it again. x

  8. also beautifully crystallized by Nagarjuna as conventional and ultimate reality. The latter deoendently arising from the former or as the middle way between the extremes of existence and non existence. Fascinating how all Dharmas flow towards, and arise from One source

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s