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I Fly Away

Urban Sadhu Exploration March 2024

bōdhi rupam bōdhi-sattvam, bōdhi-gamyam anamayam param-satyam param-shantam, param-brahma parat-param

-       Composed and interpreted by Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati

Meaning: It is the form and essence of intelligence and it is experienced through intuition. It is pure, simple, and transcendental. It is ultimate reality, ultimate Truth, and ultimate tranquility, which is called Brahman. It is smaller than the nucleus and greater than the greatest.

The Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.1-2 states: dvā suparṇā sayujā sakhāyā samānaṃ vṛkṣaṃ pariṣasvajāte tayoranyaḥ pippalaṃ svādvattyanaśnannanyo abhicākaśīti, or “Two birds, deepest of friends, live on the same tree. One eats and eats the sweet fruit from the tree. The other, without eating, watches”.  


In the Mundaka Upanishad the two birds are shown living in the same tree. One eats what the tree has to offer and the other watches its mate eating the fruit. The bird that eats the fruit is the Jivatman, the individual soul who in the physical state of material existence has a body (that applies to humans, but could include other species). The bird that acts as the onlooker is the Paramatman, the absolute supreme Self or Self beyond the experience of the physical body. The tree is Maya, the phenomenal world within which the Jivatman experiences the cycle of life and death with all its karmic actions in between. The tree’s sweet fruit is a metaphor for the karma that feed the cycle of Samsara. The Jivatman is attached to the sweet fruit that hangs and grows on the tree of life; the Paramatman is detached from the fruit that the tree bears.


Within most spiritual traditions birds are used as metaphors to express deep transcendental wisdom. Unlike humans, birds soar through the air, moving upward to rise above earthly concerns into a higher spiritual realm. This has inspired humans throughout history. Birds were the first angels in history, spiritual messengers from the heavens; this is why later angels are shown with the wings of birds. And birds, like angels, were able to take messages from earthbound humans to the gods on high.


Birds can have contrasting spiritual meanings: some birds are good omens (white doves, bluebirds, peacocks, and robins) while others are foretellers of bad fortune and hardships (crows, ravens, vultures, and even the poor small sparrows).  But good or bad, birds have been seen as messengers from beyond this physical plane.


Just as they can be seen as good or bad omens, birds have been labeled as smart or dumb. On one hand, you have the image of the wise old owl and on the other hand you have the “bird brain.” In truth, birds’ intelligence comes in many forms and levels just like the many forms of human intelligence. Science is finding that many species of birds exhibit intelligence equal to that of some mammals, apes, and even humans. Parrots are able to solve problems, form emotional bonds, mimic people, and understand basic grammar. Some species can work together as a collective, for example the wild turkey. The crow can remember human faces, knowing the face of someone who will feed it or someone who throws a rock at it. The bald eagle has also been known to problem-solve, using its strong beak to break the ice so it can hunt for fish below the ice’s surface.


Humans have not always been so kind to birds. According to an article in Forbes  titled “Humans Behind Extinctions of Hundreds of Bird Species Over the Last 50,000 Years (David Bressan, August 2021), “A new study from Tel Aviv University and the Swiss Weizmann Institute revealed that over the last 20,000-50,000 years birds have undergone a major extinction event, inflicted chiefly by humans, which caused the disappearance of 469 species -- about 10 to 20 percent of all known avian species. According to the researchers, the vast majority of the extinct species shared several features: they were large, they lived on islands, and many of them were flightless -- like the famous Dodo Bird.” One has to ask why humans set out to destroy and eliminate another species that they venerate spiritually. It’s a bit puzzling.


When humans are not killing birds with bows and arrows or guns, they spread out and take over their habitat. Millions of acres of bird habitat are lost or degraded every year due to development, animal agriculture, and deforestation. This is a crisis that is echoed around the globe. The loss of grasslands, forest, and wetlands is accompanied by vast losses of insect species that the birds need for food.


Imagine what our world would be like without birds. A student goes to a yoga class and the teacher calls out Krounchasana, Heron Seat, and a student looks up to ask, “What’s a heron?” This has happened to me in class while teaching Krounchasana – I had to pull up a photo on my iPhone to show the student what a heron looks like. “I have never seen one of those,” was the response to the photo. Is that the world we want, one where our only connection to nature and other species is through a photo posted on Pinterest?


The practice of yoga asana is a practice of reconnecting to nature and the beings found in nature. Asana means “seat”: a seat is a connection, and when the seat is steady and joyful the connections are mutually beneficial to all. The yoga asana practice has many sentient beings in its canon, but the bird asana holds a special place spiritually. The energetics of the bird asanas allow us to tap into the energetics of others and eliminate otherness. We become a peacock, an eagle, a crane, a crow, a rooster, or a swan, experiencing each bird’s lightness and its spiritual majestic energy; but most of all, for a moment we are able experience the soul of a bird.

Austin Sanderson – Urban Sadhu


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