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Commentary on the Bhagavadgita

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Discourse 40: The Thirteenth Chapter Concludes – The Kutastha or Witness; The Fourteenth Chapter Begins – The Characteristics of the Three Gunas

We have already discussed three or four of the themes in the Thirteenth Chapter. Now the Lord refers once again to the kartrtva and akartrtva aspects of the human individual in relation to prakriti’s modes – sattva, rajas and tamas.

Prakrtyaiva cha karmani kriyamanani sarvasah, yah pasyati tathatmanam akartaram sa pasyati (13.29): One will automatically know that one is not the doer of any action, without any difficulty at all in knowing this fact, provided that one clearly sees that all activity is an activity of the three gunas of prakriti, and that consciousness of activity is different from activity itself. We have somehow or the other mixed up consciousness and motion (movement) together. By a mixing up of these two elements by a process called tadatmiya abhyasa – which means the superimposition of one thing on the other in the reverse order, or vice versa – consciousness is made to appear as active, and activity is made to appear as conscious. So we ‘consciously do something’.

The whole point is, ‘consciously doing something’ is a misnomer. Consciousness cannot do anything, and doing cannot be conscious. So, if this knowledge arises in a person that activity is only the movement of prakriti with its three gunas, and the consciousness thereof is totally independent of the gunas, they will not ever feel that they are the doer of action. That is, their consciousness will always be in a state of witness, or detachment, from the process of action. But our body and our consciousness are so intimate that we cannot distinguish one from the other. That is why we feel that we are doing things, while really there is no such thing.

When a red-hot iron rod is placed before us, we do not see the iron rod; we see only fire, though the fire and the iron rod are two different things. And when we touch it, what are we touching? Are we touching the fire, or are we touching the iron rod? We may say that the iron rod burns. The iron rod does not burn; it is the fire that burns. Yet the two have been superimposed on each other in such a way that the rod looks like fire, and the fire appears to have the shape of a lengthy rod. The fire does not have the shape of the rod, and the rod has no heat; but yet, we mix up two aspects and say that the long rod is hot. In a similar manner, we make a mistake in our own selves by imagining this body is conscious.

The body cannot be conscious. Consciousness is different from the body; therefore, when there is bodily action – which is nothing but the action of prakriti, because the body is made up of prakriti’s three gunas – we begin to imagine, “I am doing something. And because I feel ‘I am doing something’, I also expect a result to follow from that action, and I must enjoy the result of that action. I am doing the action and, therefore, the fruit of that action should come to me.” Hence, karmaphala comes as a recompense for the feeling that one is doing. But one who knows that prakriti alone does things and activity is a part of prakriti’s nature and the knower of that is different from the activity, such a person remains as an akarta – a non-doer. Prakrtyaiva cha karmani kriyamanani sarvasah, yah pasyati tathatmanam akartaram sa pasyati.

Yada bhuta-prthag-bhavam eka-stham anupasyati, tata eva cha vistaram brahma sampadyate tada (13.30): We have attained the Supreme Brahman the moment we are able to see with our own eyes the interconnection of the varieties of creation in front of us and their rootedness in a single sea of force which is Brahman. That is to say, we see only wood in all the trees, we see only water in all the ripples and waves, we see only gold only in all the ornaments; and, in a similar manner, we see only Brahman in all the names and forms. Yada bhuta-prthag-bhavam eka-stham anupasyati means that one is able to see the variety of creation as rooted in the One. There may be millions and millions of varieties of living beings or inanimate things, but this multiform creation will not affect us in any way, because they are the various limbs of the one root that is universally spread out everywhere. If we can visualise things in this manner, we have attained Brahman at once. Yada bhuta-prthag-bhavam eka-stham anupasyati, tata eva cha vistaram brahma sampadyate tada: The cosmic all-pervading Brahman is realised at once by entertaining this vision of everything diverse being in rooted in one Universal Existence.

Anaditvan nirgunatvat paramatmayam avyayah, sarira-stho’pi kaunteya na karoti na lipyate (13.31): This Brahman, the universal Atman, has no beginning. Anaditvan: It has no qualities of any kind as we know qualities here. Nirgunatvat avyayah: It is imperishable because He is indestructible. Such Paramatman, the Supreme Self, though existing in this body as the deepest self in us, does not involve itself in any contamination of the gunas of prakriti. Na karoti na lipyate: He neither does anything, nor is He contaminated by the fruits of action.

The kutastha chaitanya, or the witness consciousness in us, is the true self in us. That remains uncontaminated by anything that takes place, just as space inside a vessel cannot become affected by things that we pour into the vessel. If we pour something fragrant into the vessel, the space inside it does not become fragrant; or if we put something bitter into the vessel, the space inside it does not become bitter. It is the content that has the quality; space itself has no quality. In a similar manner, the content – which is the physical, the astral and the causal bodies – has the characteristics of action and the enjoyment of the fruits of action; but the witness, which is the light of the sun in the sky, as it were, is untarnished by anything that may happen to this body in all these three phases.

Though this kutastha chaitanya, this Atman, is responsible for all the activities through this body, it is not in any way contaminated by the activities carried on through the sarirasanandamaya, vijnanamaya, manomaya, pranamaya and annamaya. The physical sheath, the subtle astral sheath and the casual sheath are involved in movement, action and the desire for the fruit of action. Their activity is impossible unless the light of the kutastha, the Atman, is shed on them. In the same manner, nothing in this world can live or act unless the sun shines in the sky. We are alive today because the sun is in the sky. No plant, no living being can survive if the sun in the sky does not blaze forth heat energy. Yet the sun is not in any way responsible for what is happening in the world. Though without it nothing can happen, it is not responsible for anything that is happening. In a similar manner, just because the kutastha – the Self inside – is responsible for the movement of the three bodies in us, it is not connected vitally in any way. It stands above the turmoil of the action of the three bodies, just as the sun transcends all the events taking place in the world. Anaditvan nirgunatvat paramatmayam avyayah, sarira-stho’pi kaunteya na karoti na lipyate.            

Yatha sarva-gatam saukshmyad akasam nopalityate (13.32): Just as space is not contaminated by anything that may be inside it, the all-pervading Being, which is the Supreme Atman, is not in any way affected either by what the body does or by what happens in external society, because it is so subtle. The subtlest reality is consciousness, and all things that are external to it, of which it is conscious, are gross. Everything in the world is gross; therefore, consciousness – which is the subtlest of being – cannot actually get involved in anything in this world, the two being dissimilar in nature. The subtle cannot enter into the gross, and the gross cannot affect the subtle. Because of the subtlety of the Supreme Being and Its all-pervading nature – sarvatravasthita – it is not affected by anything that takes place in creation, either by evolution or involution. Yatha sarvagatam saukshmyadakasam nopalityate, sarvatravasthito dehe tathatma nopalityate .

Yatha prakasayaty ekah krtsnam lokam imam ravih, kshetram kshetri tatha krtsnam prakasayati bharata (13.33): As the sun in the sky illumines the whole world, so does this kshetrajna purusha – this Atman pervading all things – illumine all bodies. Self-consciousness and the desire to survive are implanted in all species in creation by the operation of this all-pervading Universal Consciousness. Consciousness is eternal. That is why there is an instinct in everyone not to die. It is the consciousness inside that is actually responsible for our fear of death, and for our desire to lengthen our life as much as possible. It is an empirical, externalised, distorted form of the eternity of Self. We do not want to perish, because the deepest Self in us cannot perish. But because we have mixed up the eternity in us with the three koshas, including the physical body, we make the mistake of perpetuating this body and wanting to exist as individuals for all time to come. Actually, this instinct for survival and the longing to exist always arise not from the body, but from the Atman inside, which is invisible to us. Its very existence is obliterated from our activity and perception, which is conditioned by the sense organs which always move in an externalised direction. The mind and senses cannot know that there is an Atman at all and, therefore, we are caught up. Yatha prakasayatyekah krtsnam lokamimam ravih, kshetram kshetri tatha krtsnam prakasayati bharata.

The Thirteenth Chapter is very, very important. Just as the Third Chapter sums up the principles of karma yoga, the Sixth Chapter sums up the principles of raja yoga, and the Eleventh Chapter sums up the principles of bhakti yoga, the Thirteenth Chapter sums up the principles of jnana yoga. Hence, we must read at least these four chapters. To know what karma yoga is, we should read the Third Chapter; to know what bhakti yoga is, we should read the Eleventh Chapter; to know what raja yoga is, we should read the Sixth Chapter; and to know what jnana yoga is, we should read the Thirteenth Chapter.

Whoever understands this teaching given in the Thirteenth Chapter will not return to this world. Kshetra-kshetrajnayor evam antaram jnana-chakshusha, bhuta-prakriti-moksham cha ye vidur yanti te param (13.34): Those who are able to distinguish between kshetrajna and kshetra, between purusha and prakriti, between the Self and its object, and between consciousness and matter shall attain the Supreme Abode. If this distinction is clear before us, we will be totally unattached to everything in this world, and we shall not be reborn into this world of prakriti, this world of the three gunas. We will attain the Supreme Abode – param. With this we conclude the great, glorious Thirteenth Chapter.

Lord Krishna is never tired of speaking. He goes on even without being questioned by Arjuna. "Now, listen again! I shall tell you something more." They must have had a good breakfast that morning to go on speaking like this when there was a terrible situation in front! Anyway, Sri Bhagavan now speaks: "I shall now tell you something which is a great secret." He has already told two or three secrets, and now he is telling a fourth secret. Param bhuyah pravakshyami jnananam jnanam uttamam, yaj jnatva munayah sarve param siddhim ito gatah (14.1): "I shall tell you that secret of wisdom, by knowing which, ancient sages and saints have attained perfection."

What is this great knowledge? Idam jnanam upasritya mama sadharmyam agatah (14.2): "People have become almost Me; they have attained My form; they have attained My permanent Eternal Abode; they have practically become Me. How? Because of the knowledge which I am going to describe to you now, they shall not be born at the time of creation: sarge'pi nopajayante. People who know this secret will not be born in the beginning of creation, and they will not be dissolved into prakriti at the time of cosmic dissolution: sarge'pi nopajayante pralaye na vyathanti cha."

When the cosmic pralaya or dissolution takes place, all of us are helplessly driven into the bosom of prakriti's three gunas. In the process of creation and activity as we see before our eyes, the three gunas are in a state of disturbance. The qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas – the properties of prakriti – are not in equal proportion and are not equally distributed. Because of the preponderance of one at the cost of another, we see varieties of things and manifold objects in front of us. At the time of dissolution, the three gunas lie in a state of equilibrium. There is no activity at that time, and even sattva does not operate. It is complete darkness, as it were. There is neither the solar system, nor is there anything else. All the galaxies get dissolved into it. The jivas who have not been liberated at the time of dissolution are thrown into this vast cosmic sea of prakriti, and they remain sleeping – like seeds which have not yet found the opportunity to germinate. They sleep there for as many years as Brahma sleeps when his hundred years of life are over. When a hundred years of Brahma's night are over, Brahma's day dawns. Then gradually, one by one, all those sleeping jivas manifest themselves – as sleeping seeds inside the earth begin to germinate and become tendrils and plants when there is rainfall. But one who knows this truth, this secret wisdom, is not dissolved and is not reborn when creation again begins.

Once again, Lord Krishna emphasises this fact. "I am the source of all things. "The entire universe is originating from Me. I am the abode, the source, the very womb of all things." It is Mahat-brahma. It is called Brahma because it is all-pervading – universal in its nature. It is equal to what is called Hiranyagarbha, wherein all the seeds of creation are potentially lying. In Sankhya parlance, mahat is a condition where the potency for future creation lies in a latent form as very subtle possibilities, not actualised. "The entire Mahat-brahma – that great universal Brahma, through which I generate the entire variety of creation – is my womb, as it were, wherein I place the very seed of manifestation in all its variety through this potential Mahat-tattava, Hiranyagarbha-tattava." Sambhavah sarva-bhutanam tato bhavati bharata (14.3): All beings originate from this seed of all creation.

Sarva-yonishu kaunteya murtayah sambhavanti yah, tasam brahma mahad yonir aham bija-pradah pita (14.4): "Mahat-brahma is the field in which I sow the seed of creation; and I am the father who sows this seed into the Mahat-brahma." That is to say, the field is mulaprakriti itself, which is all-pervading in its nature. Because of the disturbance of the three gunassattva, rajas and tamas – it has the potency to manifest itself into variety. But it cannot act of its own accord. It cannot move, it cannot divide itself into three qualities, unless there is a spirit pushing it forward. That spirit is Supreme Consciousness, which is referred to here by Lord Krishna. Here God is referring to Himself when He says, "I am the Supreme Father that causes the germinating of the seeds of all the jivas through this Mahat-brahma.

There are three gunas. It has been mentioned many a time that there are three gunas, that prakriti has three properties – sattva, rajas and tamas. What are these? Sattvam rajas tama iti gunah prakriti-sambhavah (14.5): These properties are the very constituent elements of prakriti. They are not qualities like the whiteness of a cloth which is different from the cloth, and the blueness of a flower which is different from the flower. That is not the way in which we have to understand the qualities of prakriti. The gunas are qualities of prakriti in the same way as the three strands of a rope are qualities of the rope. We cannot say that the strands are qualities; they are the very substance of the rope. These qualities, these properties, are the very substance, the very stuff, of prakriti; and they cause bondage to the individual – nibadhnanti. Dehe dihinam avyayam nibadhnanti: They bind us.

Rajas cuts one part away from another part. It segments the one universal existence into bits of individualities, and prevents every part from knowing that it has any connection with other parts. The vehemence of rajas is twofold. Firstly, it divides the one universal existence into little bits of individuality, in all the species of creation. Then, secondly, it compels the individual to be conscious only of that location, that little part, and does not permit it to be aware of its having any connection with other individuals. Thus, it gives a double blow when it acts – firstly, it cosmically distinguishes one thing from the other, then it compels the individual to be conscious only of this body and this personality located in one place only. We always feel that we are only in one place, and not in two places. That is because rajas prevents us from knowing that we can also be in other places, by our internal connection with other bodies. It binds us in this manner. Sattvam rajas tama iti gunah prakriti-sambhavah; nibadhnanti maha-baho dehe dehinam avyayam.

Tatra sattvam nirmalatvat prakasakam anamayam, sukha-sangena badhnati jnana-sangena chanagha (14.6): If, by chance, sattva guna preponderates in a person and, by chance, the qualities of rajas and tamas are subjugated and suppressed, then what happens? Because of the purity, the transparency and the perspicuity of sattva guna, it shines like a mirror; immediately, we feel happy. Whenever we are happy, for any reason whatsoever, it is because at that moment rajas has been suppressed by the rise of sattva. But we cannot be happy always, because then rajas immediately rises up into action and suppresses sattva, and after a mood of happiness and elation, we are once again in a mood of anxiety, worry, responsibility and sleeplessness. When we are tired and fatigued of this activity, tamas comes in and makes us go to sleep. Where sattva is predominant, joy, happiness is experienced – sukha-sangena badhnati – and we are full of brilliance, sharpness of understanding, and clarity of perception, which are all qualities of sattva guna.

Rajo ragatmakam viddhi trshna-sanga-samudbhavam (14.7): Desire is the character of rajas. Illumination, knowledge, rationality, perspicuity and happiness are the characteristics of sattva; and desire, distraction, passion and attachment are the qualities of rajas. Sattva makes us calm and quiet, and satisfied with ourselves. Rajas makes us dissatisfied with ourselves, so we run about here and there and purchase appurtenances to make us happy. Trishna is the word for insatiable desire, and it compels us to toil from morning to evening: karma sangena badhnati. People say they have so much work, and they are never in peace.

What is tamas? Tamas tv ajnana-jam viddhi mohanam sarva-dehinam (14.8): Tamas is total ignorance, idiocy, lethargy, fatigue, and a desire to not do anything. It deludes the intellect so that we always confuse one thing with another thing. "Oh! I forgot it. Oh! I did not know it!" is the kind of attitude we develop. An illusion is spread before the mind by tamoguna, and it is deluding in its character as far as the individual is concerned. It causes us to blunder and make mistakes. We make mistakes everywhere, and we cannot even speak a good sentence; everywhere there is some confusion. Also, we are fatigued immediately – alasya nidra pramada. These are some of the results that follow from the preponderance of tamas.

Thus, Lord Krishna describes to Arjuna the specialties of sattvaguna, rajoguna, and tamoguna.