Commentary on the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

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Discourse 16: The Sixth Chapter Continues – Meditation on the Ishta Devata

Yadā viniyataṁ cittam: When the mind is settled in its own Self through being perfectly restrained, it is tantamount to its settling itself in the Atman. Yadā viniyataṁ cittam ātmany evāvatiṣṭhate, niḥspṛhaḥ sarvakāmebhyo yukta ity ucyate tadā (6.18): Free from the necessity to allow the mind to work in terms of the sense organs, feeling happy within on account of the proximity of the mind to the Self, one attains to a unity with one’s own Self, which is equal to the unity with the Self of all things.

The meditational process can be carried on in three ways: internally, externally, and universally. The Atman is generally considered to be the Self of an individual. It is the deepest root of any particular person, and the idea that the person is located in some place also gives rise to the idea that the Atman is in one place. People refer to themselves as ‘myself’, ‘my Atman within’. They touch their heart when referring to the Atman and the Self, indicating that the Self is their deepest subjectivity. The Atman, or Self, is a pure subject. The purity of the Self arises on account of it not being contaminated by the desire for objects. The self that desires an object is an impure self—the lower self, the instinctive self, the sensory self. The Self that is not contaminated by any longing for outside things is the purified Self.

This Self, which is generally considered to be dominating the personality of an individual, is also the Self that dominates the personality of any individual anywhere. When it is agreed that my Atman, or Self, is within me, it is also agreed that it is within everyone. The within-ness of the Atman in the case of a particular individual does not preclude the very same Self also being within other persons, other individuals, other beings. Now, if it is within some particular individual and it is within all individuals, it would be equal to saying that it encompasses all things, that it is everywhere. Because of the fact of its being within all things, it has to be understood as being present everywhere, inasmuch as individuals are everywhere. Even in the littlest forms of individuality, the Selfhood can be recognised.

When we investigate into the consequences that follow from agreeing that the Self which is within us is also within all people, the internality of the Self as the Atman becomes the universality of the very same thing as Brahman. Therefore, the Atman is Brahman. The Self within is the Self that is everywhere. The internality of the Self automatically becomes a universalised form of internality, as the Self is not within anything, because to be within only something would be equal to not being within something else. When we accede that the Self is within all things, the within-ness exceeds the limit of its little location of individuality and becomes an all-pervading presence. For example, the space in thousands of pots may look like the individualised contents in those pots. We may say that the space in the pot is the Self, or the Atman, of the pot. But it is present in all the pots. When the dividing factor, which is the bodily egoism, is dispensed with—when the pots are broken—we will find that the very same space which was apparently within the pots is everywhere. It was always everywhere. It appeared to be within only on account of our interpreting it as the presiding principle over individual bodies. This Atman which is within me is also the Atman that is within everyone. Therefore, it is a universal internalising. Universal does not mean an expanse in space and time, because space and time are objects of consciousness. We are aware of there being such a thing as space, and we are aware of there being such a thing as time. Inasmuch as space and time, or even space-time blended together, are objects of consciousness, they cannot be regarded as universal. The consciousness itself is universal. Space and time are not universal, because they are limited objects. Thus, the universality of consciousness is different from the sensorily cognised universality of space, because space can be cognised by the mind and perceived by the eye. The Atman cannot be cognised or perceived, because it is the cogniser and the perceiver. “Who can see the seer? Who can know the knower?” says Yajnavalkya, the great sage in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Vijñātāram are kena vijānīyād (B.U. 2.4.14): He is the knower of all things. Who can know him?

Therefore, it is not a universalisation like an objectivity of space; it is a conscious universality. And inasmuch as consciousness cannot be an object, it is pure subjectivity. It becomes necessary for us to stretch our imagination to some extent in order to accommodate these two thoughts into a single point of concentration. Consciousness—which is the pure subjectivity without any kind of objectivity in it, and yet it is everywhere—is difficult to meditate on. Therefore, people generally do not go to such advanced practices in meditation unless they themselves are advanced and have a purified mind and were born with good samskaras. The initial stages of meditation are not conducted along these lines, which stretch the brain to the breaking point by making it imagine something which cannot be easily imagined.

The earlier stages of meditation are objectively conducted as concentrations on what are called the ishta devatas. An ishta devata is our own God, whom we worship and adore. Now the idea of God being something whom we can worship and adore brings into our minds the idea of His location. Though theoretically it is conceded that God is everywhere, the mind cannot conceive this everywhereness. Even when we agree that God is everywhere, the idea of God being everywhere will be a kind of externalisation of form. Even if we think of God as the universal Virat Himself, when we think of the Virat, He will appear to be an object which we are cognising. The necessity to visualise God as an object, or an ishta devata, arises on account of the difficulty felt by the mind in transcending space and time.

Therefore, this attempt at going beyond space and time should not be worked on or attempted in the earlier stages, because it will be a great strain to the mind. We have an ishta devata. It may be our dear God. It may be Rama or Krishna or Devi or Surya or Jesus Christ or Mohammed, or any incarnation. Whatever be the dearest and the nearest and the best that we can think of, that is our object of meditation.

It is many a time indicated that we can concentrate on anything; we can concentrate on even a pencil or a candle flame or a rose flower. Yes, it is possible for us to concentrate on anything, but this effort at concentrating on such objects as a pencil, etc., will not succeed finally because the emotions will have their say. The emotions will cry out and proclaim that the pencil is not going to bring anything. We cannot love a pencil; we cannot hug it; we cannot consider it as a dear object. At least here, in the case of meditation, the ishta is the dearest and the best that we can think of; and inasmuch as we have conceded that it is the best, there cannot be anything better than that anywhere in the world.

Hence, in meditation the choice of the ishta devata is very important, and it is not all right if we just choose anything for the purpose of practice. We should be clear that we have chosen the best, and there cannot be anything better than that. There cannot be anything better than the best. That is to say, when we have chosen the object as something capable of fulfilling all our desires because it is the dearest and the nearest to us, then the mind in concentration on that ishta devata will not move out in any other direction. The distractions and the oscillations of the mind in meditation—its moving away from the object of concentration to some other thing—are due to a feeling that this ishta devata is not all-in-all, that there are also other things in the world which are dear and which are capable of satisfying the mind. It feels that all satisfaction—the highest satisfaction, and every kind of satisfaction—cannot be expected from this particular object. This is due to a defect in the choice of the ishta devata. If we have not chosen the ishta devata properly, the mind says that there are other things which are also equally good, and so it runs here and there during concentration.

It is not possible to conceive any object in the world which is so dear, because every object in the world has a defect of its own, and we cannot consider anyone or anything as the dearest. Not even jewels, not even diamonds, not even the most glorious valuable objects can be considered as the dearest, because they lose their value under different conditions. The ishta devata becomes, for our purposes, a conceptual ideal that we have placed before us, on which we foist all the greatest qualities of God. We consider the ishta devata as an all-pervading essence concretised in one form, like the sun manifesting one ray. But, one ray is not all rays, and one form is not all forms. Nevertheless, through this one form we can reach all forms because the quality of the ishta devata is something like the quality of the rays of the sun, and one ray is equal to any other ray in its quality.

We must foist all the characteristics of the best of things on our object of meditation. We must think that it is alive, and not dead. If we think that our god is dead, and it is not speaking, that it is only an image, then we will not have any affection for that object. If possible, we should choose an object that is mentally construed as a symbol of all the perfection that we can think of. We should feel that it can connect us to the omniscient and omnipotent Godhead, and it can melt into a universal existence if necessary. We should feel that the ishta devata is an ambassador of God Almighty, and that it has all the powers of the government which has brought it and employed it here, and we can speak to it.

It is true that our ishta devata can speak to us. The lives of saints like Purandaradas, Tukaram, Ekanath, Namdev and such people have illustrated this before us—as Vitthala danced with the devotees. Though for us it is only a stone image, it broke into action. The other day I mentioned to you how the image of Kali broke into action and became alive, as it were, to protect Jada Bharata when dacoits wanted to finish him off. Did not Narasimha come from a brick pillar? Therefore, we should not say that there are only inanimate objects in this world. The idea that our object is an image or a picture or that it is not going to bring us that which we expected should be removed from the mind. The conceptualisation of the ishta devata should be as a specimen of God Almighty Himself.

In the beginning, the ishta devata will look like somebody standing before us. Lord Krishna, Rama or Devi is standing before us. All right, let them be before us. It looks as if they are only in one place. In the earliest stages of meditation, we can feel that God is in front of us—Lord Krishna, Devi, Durga, Surya or whoever it is. Later on, in the advanced stage of meditation, we should be able to recognise that this particular god is present everywhere, as if the ishta devata is filling all space. It is just as when we look at one tree in the forest we will see only that tree and nothing else, but when we notice that this tree is one tree in the forest, we will find that there are only trees everywhere. Hence, the next stage of meditation may be an attempt on the part of our mind to feel the presence of the ishta devata as filling all space so that, as some devotees sing in their poetry, jidhar dekhta hun, udhar tu hi tu: “Wherever I look, I see only you, God.” It appears that Ravana saw Rama everywhere at the last moment; and at one moment in the war, Duryodhana saw Sri Krishna everywhere. Wherever he looked, he saw only Krishna. This kind of expansion of the location of our ishta devata is an advanced stage of meditation, higher than the stage where we saw our god only standing or seated before us. Then, the original location where we thought the ishta devata was gets increased on account of our seeing it everywhere.

There is an even higher stage, where it is not enough if we feel that Lord Krishna is everywhere like there being many trees in a forest. There is only the ishta devata everywhere, and there is nothing else. It is not many Krishnas or many Devis or many Narayanas that we are seeing. It is only one Narayana, just as when we do not see many waves but see only one ocean. The so-called individual conceptual forms of the ishta melt into the larger liquid of the sea in which they exist, which is the substance of these manifested forms. This stage which I am describing is something like savikalpa samadhi, where we see the light everywhere—but we see the light. This is the penultimate stage of an experience that has to transcend itself further on, because we too should melt into the light. When we perceive the light as being everywhere, it is a great thing indeed. It is a great experience. It is the highest form of experience that we can imagine; but we still maintain an individuality of ourselves as a worshipper, an adorer, an onlooker, etc. When we enter into it, that stage becomes nirvikalpa samadhi, the highest union that one attains in meditation.

So from the internality of the Atman, we conceived the universality of the very same Atman as being present in all individuals; and also we felt the necessity to worship an ishta devata through mantra japa, the glorification that we are singing by these mantras, and nama japa. We sing like Hanuman, in great ecstasy. This is a kind of invocation of God. Immense longing for God, which will manifest in the loud chanting of a mantra or in musical songs that we sing, or even dancing in the glorification of God, is supposed to be one of the ecstatic conditions that the devotee reaches in the heights of devotion and communion with his ishta devata.

Thus, internal meditation in the light of the Atman being within us may give way to a larger conceptualisation of the Atman being everywhere. This is the philosophical, Vedantic method of meditation. In the devotional, bhakti method, the ishta devata concept is prescribed; and there also, the ishta devata is a transcendent reality, and not merely an externally existing object. The god who is the ishta devata is not an outside something; it is that which is pervading all things, including ourselves. Therefore, it is able to give us light; and it can also receive light and speak to us. There is nothing in the world which cannot speak. Even a stone, even a leaf in the tree, has a Selfhood of itself; and when our self pervades all things, things assume their Selfhood in themselves, and they react by way of a conscious response. Even the trees responded to the call of Vyasa when he summoned Suka, his son. “Oh my son, where are you?” “I am here, my dear father,” was the response that came from every leaf of every tree. That means Suka was not in one particular place. Therefore, the ishta devata is our God, and becomes the universally inclusive reality which finally inundates us also. Yadā viniyataṁ cittam ātmany evāvatiṣṭhate, niḥspṛhaḥ sarvakāmebhyo yukta ity ucyate tadā (6.18).

Yathā dīpo nivātastho neṅgate sopamā smṛtā, yogino yatacittasya yuñjato yogam ātmanaḥ (6.19): “As a flame, say a candle flame, flickers not when it is burning in a windless place, so will be the mind concentrating, as it were, at the height of absorption in the Atman.” Yathā dīpo nivātasthaḥ: That which is located in a windless place. Neṅgate: Does not flicker. Sopamā smṛtā: That is the illustration that is used here. Yuñjato yogam ātmanaḥ: The Atman reflects itself as an immense steadiness in the mind that is concentrating. The fickleness of the mind, which is otherwise a form of distraction, ceases on account of the entire Atman reflecting itself in this condition of intense concentration.

yatroparamate cittaṁ niruddhaṁ yogasevayā,
yatra caivātmanātmānaṁ paśyann ātmani tuṣyati  (6.20).
sukham ātyantikaṁ yat tad buddhigrāhyam atīndriyam,
vetti yatra na caivāyaṁ sthitaś calati tattvataḥ (6.21).
yaṁ labdhvā cāparaṁ lābhaṁ manyate nādhikaṁ tataḥ,
yasmin sthito na duḥkhena guruṇāpi vicālyate (6.22).

These are some illustrations of the condition of intense concentration of the mind. It flickers not. The mind is not any more distracted, because the steadiness of the Atman is reflected here in this highly concentrated mind. Joy manifests itself from within. The mind ceases.

Uparamate cittaṁ: It melts into the Self, as it were. Niruddhaṁ yogasevayā: Because of the restraint continually exercised on the mind, it melts into the Atman itself. Yatra caivātmanātmānaṁ paśyann ātmani tuṣyati: Where beholding the Self in the self, one delights within oneself. There is no delight that is equal to this delight.

Sukham ātyantikaṁ yat tad: This happiness is absolute happiness. It is not a relative happiness that we gain by the contact of the mind with the objects of desire, because when the object of desire vanishes there is no happiness and, therefore, it is not actual happiness. It is a relatively tantalising form of joy.

Buddhigrāhyam: This happiness can be experienced only by the higher purified reason, and not by the sense organs. The higher purified reason can reflect the highest reality within itself in the same way as it can infer the existence of God Almighty, though usually such a perception is not possible through the sense organs.

We will not be able to arrive at God by an inductive logic of collecting particulars to arrive at generals. No amount of particulars that we collect in this world will make God. Therefore, inductive logic does not help us here. The ancient masters took resort to an intuitive perception by which they started with the universal first, and not with the particular first. Thus, they deduced everything from the Ultimate Reality. That is, we may say they followed a kind of deductive logic, and not the inductive logic of Francis Bacon, etc. The indubitability of the existence of the Universal Reality is established first. That is, the universal is taken for granted in the beginning itself by logic, which we find explained in great detail in commentaries on the Brahma Sutras written by Sankaracharya, etc. The existence of the Universal Reality is established by pure logic, and once this is established as the consequence of the work of the higher reason, everything follows. All creation can be explained in terms of this Universal Reality. It is infinite happiness. All other happiness in this world is relative.

Sukham ātyantikaṁ yat tad buddhigrāhyam atīndriyam, vetti yatra na caivāyaṁ sthitaś calati tattvataḥ: In that state, we will never be shaken even by the winds of the world. Yasmin sthito na duḥkhena guruṇāpi vicālyate: Even the heaviest sorrow cannot shake us from that happiness. Even if the earth cracks and the sun falls on our head, even if such a thing can be imagined, we will not be shaken at that time, because of our entry into the very substance of all things.

Taṁ vidyāddh duḥkhasaṁyogaviyogaṁ yogasaṁjñitam, sa niścayena yoktavyo yogonirviṇṇacetasā (6.23). Anirviṇṇacetas means by a non-despondent mind, by a courageous mind, by a heroic attitude of the spiritual seeker. With this bold attitude of spiritual aspiration, one should seek to attain this union of the self with the Self. Taṁ vidyāddh duḥkhasaṁyogaviyogaṁ: At one stroke, it cuts us off from all sources of pain, and we will no longer know what pain is. Taṁ vidyāddh duḥkhasaṁyogaviyogaṁ yogasaṁjñitam, sa niścayena yoktavyaḥ: That is called yoga which is the separation of consciousness from all sources of pain. We must definitely attain it, and unite ourselves with it—yogonirviṇṇacetasā—by not being despondent, and by total union with the Self, which is the ultimate yoga.