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Commentary on the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 3: The Second Chapter Begins – Sanhkya Yoga

We look at the world only with our eyes, and judge things according to the report that is provided through the medium of the senses. All the information that we get of the world through the sense organs is therefore galvanised, and in many ways distorted. It is assumed that a person, as an individual, has to do something with this world. The business of life is, practically, an attempt to handle this world in some way—to harness it, and utilise it for one's own purpose.

Here is the essential point. We have to use the world for our purposes. Through scientific advancement and technological discoveries and inventions, we seem to be trying to use the world more and more for our utility. It is an object; it is a thing; it is a tool which has to be used for an externalised purpose—not for the benefit of the world, but for the benefit of another, who calls himself the human individual. Do we not mostly judge things in this manner? Everything has to be cast into the mould of our sensory and physical needs. We make remarks about things: “It is like this and it is like that.” These remarks are judgments that we pass on the things in the world based on evidence provided by the sense organs, which are entirely unreliable on account of their impetuosity. Due to this, the thinking mind, or the consciousness that is aware, is pulled out of its own roots. The activity of the sense organs plucks us, as it were, from ourselves, and throws us into the winds of the outside world. We are distressed from morning to evening on account of a loss of self that we undergo, even when we do not actually know what is happening to us.

Every perception is a movement of the self towards an object. The consciousness has to charge the mind with an intelligence that peeps through the sense organs and locates objects, the world in front, in a particular juxtaposed manner. So our conclusion that we know something—we know the world or we know whatever it is—is triply conditioned: firstly, by it having to pass through the mentation, the psychic organ, the antahkarana; secondly, by the mind having to think only through the sense organs; and thirdly, by the sense organs having to visualise things as located in space and time. Thus, there is a threefold defect in human perception, which includes social relations and everything that we regard as ours or not ours. Due to this purely personal judgment born of human sentiment, Arjuna turned the tables around, and made an unexpected gesture of putting down his weapons. He said, “I shall not embark upon this otherwise well-praised adventure of a war with the Kurus.”

I hinted yesterday that the spiritual seeker mostly finds himself in this predicament when he cannot handle the world properly. In one condition of the mind, the world is an object of delight and enjoyment—as a property. In another condition of the mind, it looks like an obstacle from which the earlier we extricate ourselves, the better. We wish to free ourselves from all our entanglements in the world. But a third stage comes when the world reacts in an adverse manner upon the mind that has thought it to be a redundant tail, as it were, of its perception. Then it is that there is actually a humiliating coming down of the aspiring consciousness, and a last moment's feeling that perhaps everything is over and nothing is possible. It appears that even the great Buddha had this experience the day before his enlightenment. It was all dark. There was no light on the horizon. After years of austerity, he was crawling on all fours due to the weakness of the body. He thought the tapas was over and he had achieved nothing. There was a complete dejection of the spirit.

This predominantly spiritual despondency of a spiritual seeker is also called yoga. The First Chapter, which is nothing but a description of the weeping of Arjuna, is called Visada Yoga: the yoga of the dejection of the spirit. This dejection is not a morbid, melancholy mood of the spiritual seeker. It is a healthy realisation of the impossibility of an individual being to face this world of values alone, and the need felt for a higher assistance. It may be a Guru for one person; it may be God Himself for another. Therefore, in the utter helplessness of not being able to know what actually is to be done, Arjuna asked what was his duty par excellence. What was his duty in this world? This was the question of Arjuna, which he couched in various styles of expression according to the tradition of that time.

The answer of Sri Krishna is that all this is a kind of blabber which an ignorant mind resorts to for self-justification, under the impression that ignorance is bliss. “Neither do you know what you are, nor do you know what the world is. How do you make judgments of this kind, that you shall do or you shall not do? On what grounds do you make a statement that this has to be done and this should not be done? What is the rationale behind the ethics, morality, and the justification for any kind of action in this world? What is the ground on which you base your argument for embarking upon a particular project of this type or that type? Is it merely an impulse of the instinct, or the force of the sense organs, or the appetite of the biological organ? Or is it a well-reasoned-out structure that you philosophically constructed for the purpose of rising high into the sphere of a spiritual conclusion? Neither do you know yourself, nor do you know the world, Arjuna; yet, you speak as if you are a wise person: prajñāvādāṁś ca bhāṣase.”

This wisdom that Arjuna seemed to lack, due to which he wrongly judged the situation that he was facing, is called sankhya, which is a well-known term in philosophical circles. “You lack sankhya—that is, the wisdom of life. This is your malady and, therefore, everything that you have said is all a medley of chaos. Your arguments are not couched in a proper logical style, and your conclusions are not drawn from valid premises. Your premise itself is wrong. The premise is nothing but the report of the sense organs and the demand of the instinct, which is conditioned by love and hatred. From this you have to rise through sankhya.”

There is a philosophical doctrine called Sankhya, which counts the categories which constitute this world. It is derived from the word ‘sankhya', which means computerising, counting, calculating and methodologically coming to a conclusion as to the number of principles that constitute this world. What is this building? We look at it, and it seems to be a mass indivisibly presented before us. But it is not an indivisible structure. It is made up of small constituents—brick and mortar, and steel and whatnot. The world is not as it appears to the eyes; it is a whitewash that we see, as the inside bricks and the cement are not visible to the outer perception. Sankhya goes deep into the categorisation of the principles of the universe, and starts its argument from the very consciousness that tries to make any investigation at all: Who is it that is trying to make an investigation into the nature of the world? Who is it that wants to know anything at all? It is me. Now, what kind of me is it?

Without going into further details of this complex subject, we may conclude that we are essentially consciousness. This consciousness is the chaitanya shakti, or the chaitanya purusha, which is indivisibly present, and not divisible under any circumstance. The Sankhya takes up the stand on the presence of an indivisible consciousness it calls purusha in its own terminology. The essence of the matter is that consciousness is indivisible, and it cannot be cut into pieces. There cannot be a fraction of consciousness, because any assumption of it being possible to divide consciousness into parts would imply the introduction of a consciousness even to know that such a division has been made. Consciousness has to be there even between the two parts, which is to say that consciousness is everywhere. This is the fundamental principle beyond which we cannot go, and deeper than which there is nothing. Sā kāṣṭhā sā parā gatiḥ (Katha 1.3.11): This is the end and the substance of all arguments, whether philosophical or empirical. But, Sankhya has a point in regard to our obstinate feeling that there is a world outside us. Even if a person is paranoiac and wrongly conceives things and sees things which are not there, it is not enough if we simply dub the person as sick. A practical method has to be adopted in treating the mind and setting it right for the purpose of correct perception. So the world may be there in this manner or in that manner, that is a different matter. Our perceptions may be wrong, and we may not be able to understand the world correctly—granted. But what is it that we are seeing in front of us?

Sankhya calls the objective character of perception as prakriti, and the subjective consciousness which perceives is called purusha. So the Sankhya divides reality into two phases, or blocks of power—consciousness and matter, subject and object, purusha and prakriti. Experience is supposed to be engendered by a contact of consciousness with prakriti. Purusha comes in contact with prakriti. It is very interesting to notice here that there can be contact between two dissimilar things. Consciousness is never an object; prakriti is never a subject. The contradiction between these two principles is obvious. How can we bring about a rapprochement between the subject and the object, which stand poles apart? How does the mind, or the individual consciousness, experience that such and such thing is there, or the world is there?

The analogy of the Sankhya is well known. Consciousness never becomes an object. It never actually enters the object. It appears to perceive as if there is some object—such as, a crystal that is perfectly pure looks as if it is coloured when a coloured object is brought near it. Pure crystal is colourless. It is resplendent pure light, as it were; and if a red flower, for instance, is brought near it, it will appear as if the whole crystal is red. It looks as if the crystal has become red. This analogy from the Sankhya extends to the field of the explanation of human perception—how the world is seen as such by the individual consciousness. The world is never correctly known at any time, just as there is always a dissimilarity between the coloured flower and the crystal, notwithstanding the fact that the crystal has apparently assumed the character of the object. A red-hot iron rod looks like fire, not like iron. It is glowing white with heat, yet that glow which is white heat is the fire; and there is something there which is not the fire—namely, the iron rod. The impact of the heat on the iron rod is such that the rod has ceased to be there practically, though it is there really. In a similar manner, objects assume a reality, as it were, though there is no reality in them; they are pure transitoriness.

The world is movement. It is a fluxation. It is a continuity of bits of force tending in some direction, and never does a single bit of matter rest in itself as an undivided something. Prakriti continuously changes its characteristics. It is a continuity that is a flow consisting of three strands—namely, sattva, rajas and tamas. Like a wheel that moves when the car moves, there is a cyclic movement of prakriti through the gunas of sattva, rajas and tamas, and it is not a solid object. There is no such thing as solid objects in this world; there is only fluxation. A person may appear on a screen, while the person is not really there. Thousands of small frames of film have moved with such rapidity that the movement could not be caught by the eye. The speed of the movement exceeds the capacity of the eye to perceive the individual frames, and so we see someone there, and not the individual frames that have passed at the rate of about sixteen pictures in one second.

Likewise, we see that we are solid objects—the building is solid, the earth is solid, I am solid, you are solid—but the apparent solidity is just like the solidity of a person on the screen, while the person is not really there. It is a continuous rapid movement of frames that gives the illusion of a solid person standing there, the illusion arising on account of the incapacity of the eyes to catch the movement. High-frequency radio waves are moving right here, but our ears cannot hear them. The rapidity of the movement of the waves cannot be caught by the crudeness of the eardrums; therefore, even if television waves and radio waves are dashing upon us just now, we can see nothing and hear nothing.

Similarly, consciousness makes a mistake even in the perception of prakriti, which is otherwise just a movement. The apparent solidity or the stability of a particular object, which the consciousness takes for granted, is due to the consciousness itself entering into the fluxation, as it were, for the time being. And a limited piece of this large flux of matter appears as this solid entity, the solidity actually coming from consciousness itself which is the real solidity, which is indivisible. Therefore, the perception of the world as a solid thing is a total illusion.

Prakriti, which is the objectivity of the purusha, that is, consciousness, is constituted of three properties, called sattva, rajas and tamas. Tamas is inertia, pure inactivity; rajas is dynamism, distraction and action; and sattva is balance and harmony. The permutation and combination of these three gunas are the very substance of prakriti. The redness of a flower is a quality of the flower, but the redness itself is not the flower, whereas the three strands of a rope are not the quality of the rope, the strands themselves are the rope. In the same way, the three gunas that are mentioned—sattva, rajas and tamas—are the very substance of prakriti, and they are the very essence of movement in this world. These three gunas, by permutation and combination, create a situation of transparency in the cosmos, and the indivisible consciousness gets reflected, as it were, in this transparency, which is suddha tattva. It is the beginning of the process of the creation of the universe. It is a dream condition, as it were, where sketches of the future creation are drawn on the canvas of the mind itself. Thus, from the point of view of Vedanta terminology, there is a coming down of consciousness, which is Absolute, to the state of Ishvara, Hiranyagarbha and Virat, or in the language of Sankhya, prakriti becomes mahat, and mahat becomes ahamkara. Up to this level, from the top level to the Virat, or from the level of consciousness to ahamkara, there is a universal awareness. Virat is universally aware. Hiranyagarbha and Ishvara are universally aware. Mahat is universally aware. The ahamkara that is spoken of in Sankhya parlance is not the egoism of the human individual. It is the Self-consciousness of the cosmos itself.

Now, a tragic event takes place. The one indivisible ahamkara, or Virat, gets divided into a three-partite state, as it were—the object, the subject, and the connecting link between the object and the subject. These are known as the adhibhuta, adhyatma and adhidaiva. Thus, we see there is a world outside on account of the division that has taken place, and we are set aside as subjects perceiving the object outside, not being aware that there is a connecting link between the object and the subject, which is called the adhidaiva. Then there is a continuous solidification of this objectivity into tanmatras, called sabda, sparsha, rupa, rasa, gandha, and the five elements, called prithvi, apa, teja, vayu, akasha; and we have come down into the solidity which is this earth.

The individual, who is the perceiver of this so-called external world, is also constituted only of the three gunas. The bricks out of which the world is made are the very bricks that also make our body. The mind is subtle matter and the physical body is gross matter, and this grossness and subtlety depend upon the extent of the rarefication of the gunas of prakriti that have gone into the composition of this body. Nevertheless, whatever is in the world outside is also within us. So there is an organic connection between the subject and the object, and therefore, our judgments about things will not be finally tenable if we do not take into consideration our own involvement in the process of judgment. The mind of the judge plays an important role in making judgments. What kind of mind does that person have? Whether it is a disturbed mind, an emotional mind, a prejudiced mind, an impartial mind or a conditioned mind, it will determine what kind of judgment can be expected.

In a similar manner, this perception by the subject of the object varies from person to person, from individual to individual, among the eighty-four lakhs of species of creation, as they say. An ant's perception may not be the same as an elephant's perception, and so on. The judgment of values varies in accordance with the capacity to perceive in the case of different species of creation. The human being is one species, and he cannot take upon himself the privilege of knowing everything as if he is omniscient. He has only human eyes, and therefore, he sees only human values, and can see nothing else in this world.

“So, Arjuna, you have made a mistake by not counting yourself as one of the persons in this world. The people in the world are not only outside; you are also one of the persons in this world. Hence, your judgment of people in the world includes judgment of yourself also, which you are not doing. You think the world is constituted of people who are totally cut off from you,” said Sri Krishna.

Ten people crossed a river, and the water was neck-deep. With great difficulty they waded across. After reaching the other side, they wanted to check whether or not all of them had crossed, so one of them started counting.

He said, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Only nine are here.”

The others said, “How is it possible? Has one of us drowned? Oh, count again.”

Another said, “You stand there. I'll count.”

Again only nine people were counted. Every time they counted, they found that one man was missing. They started beating their chests and crying that one of them had been drowned in the water.

A passer-by saw this and asked, “Why are you all crying?”

“Oh, one of us has drowned,” they replied.

“How many were you?”


“But you are ten,” he said.

“Where are the ten? No, there are only nine. See!” He counted again, and again counted nine.

“You are the tenth!”

“Oh, I see! I am the person that is responsible for all these troubles,” exclaimed the man.

The world is not the maker of our troubles. Modern science, in its profound discoveries, has now come to the conclusion that scientific observations are conditioned by the instruments that are used in science, and even by the structure of the scientist's eye; and, therefore, all scientific perceptions are conditioned. Unconditioned knowledge of the world is not possible even for the best of scientists.

Thus, the movement of prakriti within itself in the form of the sense organs and the mind on the one hand, and the objects on the other hand, are taken by us as two different activities taking place. Actually, prakriti is cognising prakritiguṇā guṇeṣu vartanta iti matvā na sajjate (3.28). One wave is dashing against another wave in the ocean, and two persons are not actually involved there. The structure of the sense organs and the mind is responsible for the kind of consciousness that is passing through that particular structure, and yet we should not forget that the sense organs and the mind are composed of the very same gunas of prakritisattva, rajas and tamas—and, in different permutations and combinations, the objects are constituted of the very same three gunas. So when something is known, when we cognise or perceive an object, it is prakriti that is colliding with prakriti. Therefore, we are not doing anything. But we think that we are isolated individuals, sitting and judging things. No judgment is possible, individually. Therefore, nobody does any action, ultimately.

Sri Krishna's philosophy, finally, is that no individual action is possible. All action is cosmic action, as the very concept of individuality is ruled out in the light of this predicament of all perception being only a collision of the subjective side of prakriti with its objective side. Hence, who does anything in this world? It is prakriti doing within itself whatever it wants to do, as the rumbling within the bowels of the ocean may rise up as billowing waves on the surface, yet it is one activity taking place. If something is happening in the Atlantic Ocean, it can be felt in the Arabian Sea, and we cannot say that there are two different seas working. It is one impulse working through different areas.

All perception—finally, all knowledge—is a conditioned observation of things through the mind and the sense organs on account of prakriti conditioning things subjectively on the one hand and objectively on the other hand. Thus, sensory perception cannot be regarded as correct perception. Even pure mental cogitation cannot be regarded as correct perception, because the externality characterising the object vitiates the validity of any perception. The error of perception of any kind is the introduction of space and time in the midst of the otherwise indivisible movement of prakriti—subjectively as gunas, and also objectively as gunas. Between two waves in the ocean there are gaps, but the gaps are filled with a basic fundament of the very same substance of the wave, and two waves which are different from each other are connected by a basic ocean. In a similar manner, individual perceptions in respect of objects outside are actually a dancing of the waves of the gunas of prakriti within themselves. The whole universe is a dance of prakriti. Neither you do anything, nor I do anything.

“So, Arjuna, you are unnecessarily racking your brain by trying to tell Me whether the war is to be undertaken or not, and what kind of consequence will follow, etc. How do you draw these conclusions, and on what grounds have you drawn these conclusions, not knowing the fact that your judgment in respect of the Kauravas, or the world as a whole, is misconstrued on account of your standing outside?” It is like the tenth man not counting himself, and therefore always finding that there is one person less.

The world is defective on account of our not being able to isolate and identify ourselves with the world structure. There is no harmony between ourselves and the world of objects. There is a tension between the subject and object. The tension is caused by the vitiating habit of love and hatred, because the limited mind cannot love all things in the world, nor can it hate all things in the world. It is impossible. The mind works in fractions. A little bit of thought, of cogitation, arranges itself into a particular pattern at some time, and classifies objects as desirable or undesirable according to the condition through which the body and the mind pass. Therefore, the whole of perception is not given to the mind. We neither like the whole world nor hate the whole world. Thus, neither of these attitudes of ours can be regarded as finally tenable.

Psychological judgment charged with sentiment is no judgment. It should be a super-rational judgment arisen on account of the inference that the reason can draw on the basis of a universal substance that is there. The premise has to be universality, and from there we can deduce particularity. But we cannot rise from particularity to universality, because particulars cannot tell us that there is a Universal.

All logic in India is deductive in the sense that it takes its stand on the Supreme Reality first, as Sankhya has taken. The essence of thinking is consciousness; it has to be indivisible and, therefore, it should be Universal. So, there is a distinction between the approach of Western philosophers and Indian philosophers. The empiricists, such as Bacon and others, count things: “The sun rises in the east. The sun rose in the east yesterday, the sun rose in the east today. Millions of times the sun has risen in the east and, therefore, it must always rise in the east.” This kind of conclusion is called induction. From many particulars, we gather a generalisation. But it may not be a correct conclusion because even if the sun has been rising in the east for millions of years, one day it may not rise in the east. For some reason the whole thing may change, and it may rise in the west. Therefore, induction is not correct. Indian philosophy never relies on induction. It relies on deduction. The fundamental reality has to be ascertained first, and that is possible only by an investigation of the investigator himself. As Ramana Maharshi was fond of saying, “Whenever you put a question, tell me who is putting the question.” Therefore, go deep into yourself.

Arjuna could not do this. Sankhya is the knowledge of the structure of the world as it is really constituted, inclusive of the perceiving individual, on account of which fact there is no such thing as individual action at all. Therefore, there is no individual judgment either. Hence, whatever Arjuna had been saying was gibberish; it was nonsense. Now Arjuna says, “Please lead me onto the right path of action in this world, in the light of this great knowledge that you have given to me.”

“I have told you Sankhya, now I shall tell you yoga,” replies Sri Krishna. Eṣā te'bhihitā sāṅkhye buddhir yoge tvimāṁ śṛṇu (2.39): “All that I have been telling you up to this time is the wisdom of the Sankhya, which is the knowledge of the structure of the universe as it is in itself, including you. Now I shall tell you how to live in this world—how to live in this kind of world in which you are also involved—and how to act in an impersonal manner, and not in a personal manner.” That is the yoga of action, which Sri Krishna subsequently gives.