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The Teachings of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 2: The Difficulties of the Spiritual Seeker

Spiritual life is the greatest of adventures. In that way we can compare it to a battle. It involves careful preparation, as in a war. And, when you engage yourself in a war you do not go there merely to get defeated and thrown out; the intention is to win victory. So the practice of yoga, which is the greatest project that a person can embark upon in life, is in a way comparable to a battle or an encounter, for the purpose of which one has to make an almost infinite set of preparations – for days and months and years perhaps – as a culmination of one's existence here, as the fruit of the tree of one's whole life in this world. Hence, great care and caution has to be exercised. In a hurry, in a bustle and in a state of emotional enthusiasm, we are not supposed to enter into this field called 'life spiritual'. It is not an entering into a new way of life; rather it is an embracing of all life together in your own life. You are not going to live an isolated, queer type of cave life psychologically, but you are going to broaden your outlook and your vision of things, so that all life is included in your own life and your life becomes commensurate with every other kind of living.

You have heard that yoga is a union with something. It is a union no doubt, but with what? There are endless answers to this question. With what are you going to unite yourself in that you call yoga? The difficulty in answering this question arises due to a misrepresentation of facts by our senses, which indoctrinate us into the belief that we are independent contents of this world – each person is independent and perhaps one has nothing to do with the other, finally. I have touched upon this theme to some extent yesterday. But the truth is that you are not so independent as you imagine yourself to be. You have a freedom which is constrained by the operation of a universal law. A kind of violation of this universal principle is perpetrated every day in our life when we cling to things as externals, either in love or in hatred. Whether you like a thing or dislike a thing, your attitude towards the thing is almost identical from the point of view of pure psychology. Like and dislike are two aspects of a single attitude which is totally erroneous. Life is a continuity and is not constituted of bits or shreds, with no connection with one another. It is impossible to define life, because it is itself a definition of itself. There are certain things which cannot be defined in words other than the ones we use to designate them or indicate them – 'life', 'consciousness', even 'mind' are indefinable peculiarities.

When we take to the path of the spirit, tread the way of yoga or in the true sense of the term we become religious, we do not shrink, but expand; we do not lose, but gain; we do not become disassociated but get more and more associated in a vital, true manner. Religion has many a time, through the process of history, been described as a passage to the other world, so that this world has no connection with religion, yoga, spirituality, or even God Himself. This interpretation of the religious outlook as an 'other-worldly affair' has insinuated itself into the blood of people, to such an extent that it has not left us even till this moment. There is always a tendency to look up to the skies when we pray to God as disassociated from our brethren around us and unconnected with the footstool of the earth. Why we are made to think in this manner is a question which takes us to psychology, perhaps psychoanalysis. We are born and bred in an atmosphere which, perhaps, we carry through many lives that we have passed through; and in addition to the atmospheric influence of society, the type of life of the parents, the kind of education we are imparted – in addition to all these, we also carry certain impressions of previous lives when we are born into this world. All these put together, errors piled over errors, prevent us from freeing ourselves from this common notion that the creator is an extra-cosmic existence and therefore life – spiritual, religious, or of yoga – has also to be extra-cosmic. This error is to be rooted out, and the Bhagavadgita has no other purpose to achieve. It is a recipe, like a medical prescription, and it is not merely a holy book that you have simply to worship every day. You do not simply worship a medical prescription – it has to be taken into action for the purpose it is intended for.

The yoga of the Bhagavadgita is a complete prescription for the maladies of life. It is a total panacea that we are provided with by means of a vision which we can best describe as cosmic. The one who imparted this knowledge and the one who received this knowledge were en rapport with each other; and the Guru-disciple relationship is precisely this much. It is the capacity of the receiver to raise himself to the level of the height from which this knowledge descends, or oftentimes the other way around – the Guru may have to come down to the level of the receptive capacity of the disciple, as it becomes necessary in the process of teaching in schools and colleges. You cannot always be on a high pedestal and look down upon the student, because the student will receive nothing when you are speaking from a higher level. So, the relationship between Guru and disciple is a mysterious one. We cannot easily say whether the Guru comes down or the disciple goes up. It is a miracle that is taking place. The Guru is a miracle, the disciple also is a miracle, who is able to receive this knowledge, and the process of this communication also is a wonder. Āścaryavat paśyati kaścid enam āścaryavad vadati tathaiva cānyaḥ (Gita 2.29) – says the Bhagavadgita. It is all a miracle! All great things in the world are wonders. They are not equations that you can solve almost instantaneously by calculus. Anything that you try to know deeply and carry it to the logical limits of its understanding – anything of this sort will elude your grasp because all our endowments of grasping are empirical, sensory, and even what we call logical understanding is conditioned by sensory operations.

Thus, Arjuna was confounded, as any one of us can be. In this adventure of spiritual life, which is metaphorically presented before us in the form of the Mahabharata, we are likely to be faced with certain doubts and difficulties. While in the earlier stages it may appear that the whole sky is very clear, when you move onwards you'll find that heavy, thick clouds are hanging above your heads, and there is darkness in the front. This is the darkness of the spiritual aspiration. The first chapter of the Bhagavadgita is a chapter of sorrow of the seeker – Arjuna Vishada Yoga. It is the weeping of the seeking individual. However, you will be surprised to note that the colophon or the concluding line of the first chapter is designated Arjuna Vishada Yoga. It is a yoga, and not merely a weeping after a bereavement or a loss. A crying and a weeping, despondency and a melancholy mood cannot be called yoga in any sense of the term. A confounding of the mind is not yoga; but the Bhagavadgita ends with this term 'yoga' even in regard to the first chapter, which is nothing but the weeping of Arjuna and a presentation of various kinds of doubts and difficulties which seem to harass his mind. Why is it called yoga? Why is such a sanctified name attached to this melancholy chapter, the first one in the Bhagavadgita? This is something which is important for us to understand. You know medical men give vaccination to prevent you from having an illness, and you are in a state of temporary illness after the vaccination. If you are given an anti-illness injection, that injection itself will produce a sort of illness. Notwithstanding the fact that the inoculation or the vaccination produces a sort of sure temperature or illness in your body, it has to be considered a process of cure and it is not to be considered an illness really in the true sense of the term – otherwise, you would have had a real illness which would have been more devastating.

The complacency of a happy person in this world is really a danger to the individual. This was the complacency of Arjuna and the foolhardy heroism that he manifested before he entered the battlefield. A person who may be appearing to be healthy and very pleasant in his life may be attacked by an epidemic tomorrow, and this possibility cannot be prevented merely by a precedent happiness a day earlier. The tentative illness that you seem to be in, psychologically, when you tread the path of yoga is the one in which many of us find ourselves – a sense of having lost oneself and a feeling that one does not know where one is standing, which feeling you would not have had before you took to the spiritual way of living or the path of yoga. People are happy in this world. They are travelling all directions and eat well, sleep well, they go to clubs – there is no trouble with anybody in the world. But the trouble arises the moment you turn to the spirit and take to a religious life or what you call yoga. You are confounded in a new manner altogether, a confusion which might not have presented itself before you when you were a happy bird in the free world outside. Why is this? How are you going to explain this new difficulty that you are facing when you are moving in the direction of God, even if you are to be honest in this pursuit? Every spiritual seeker may be said to be uniformly in this condition of difficulty – a kind of reaction that is set up by the very idea of taking to yoga.

The first chapter, which is a yoga no doubt, is yoga in a very, very specific sense. Difficulties and doubts of the type expressed in the first chapter are not likely to arise in the minds of people who are normally happy in the work-a-day world. When you investigate deeply, philosophically, into the structure of things, you'll have doubts which would not have occurred to your mind normally. Nobody bothers about how the world came in, why the sun is rising always in the east, and where does it go in the night. These questions do not arise in the minds of anybody; everything is taken for granted. But when you start probing into these difficulties, mysteries – why the planets are going round the sun, and what is it that is happening when we have seasons and when we are feeling heat in summer and cold in winter – though these questions are never put by anybody and they are all taken for granted, yet when you put these questions you have to scratch your head three times before you answer them. "What is happening? Why is it cold in one place and hot in another place even in the same season?" etc., etc. These are to give you only some gross instances of problems that you may have to face when you question anything; otherwise, everything is fine.

Without going into large details, since we have not much time before us, I sum up this principle of a problem arising before a spiritual seeker as put forth by Arjuna in his own words in the first chapter. When you take to the path of yoga, certain difficulties will arise in your mind. Some questions will arise. One: "Is it really going to be a successful adventure on my side? Am I really going to get anything, or am I a fool?" This question will not arise in the beginning. These questions will arise after some time, after years of practice, because you will find that you have achieved nothing, for some obvious reasons. Then the question will arise, "Is this a profitable adventure or is it merely a will-o'-the-wisp that I am pursuing? There is no surety that I'm going to succeed when I've achieved nothing for the last many years. If for the last twenty years I have achieved nothing, what is the certainty that I'm going to achieve anything in the future, tomorrow onwards?" This question arose in the mind of Arjuna: "Is it certain that I will win victory, or will the other side win victory? Am I going to conquer the world, or will the world conquer me? Is it wisdom on my part to face this world, or will I return shamefaced?" This is a question which will harass your minds. The other question is, "What will be the consequence of my having achieved a success in this adventure – even if it be a success? If I attain to the heights of spirituality, what happens afterwards? What is the consequence? What for is this pursuit? If the pursuit of yoga implies a disassociation from sense contact, an involvement in things of the world, and a restraint upon the usual social attitude of the mind – namely, like and dislike, etc. – when I restrain myself in this manner, by the senses as well as by the mind, I may lose all the values and the pleasures of this world. I will have no connection with anything, which is tantamount to saying that I have lost everything. What is the use of going to the kingdom of heaven, even if it be a possibility, by losing all the wonders and the beauties and the pleasures of life? What am I going to eat in the kingdom of heaven, if all things that we have here are to be abandoned in the name of God? If all the army of the Kauravas is going to be destroyed, and all my kith and kin are not to be here, what for is this success even if I am going to win victory in this battle? If everybody dies in the name of justice, what for is this justice – for whose purpose?"

These questions are justifiable questions that may arise in the minds of every seeker. "What happens to this world when I reach God?" Even the most intelligent person cannot answer this question. Not even the best exponent will be able to express himself in answering this pose, "What happens to the world when you go to God? What happens to your bank balance?" It's a terror to hear that you lose it, and you will get nothing to eat, nothing to drink, and nothing to possess – 'pauper of the first water' when you enter the kingdom of God. This doubt may harass us, "Is it going to be like this?" Even sincere seekers feel many a time, "What am I supposed to do after reaching God? I go on looking at Him for eternity, by eating nothing, sleeping nowhere, and having nothing to do. What a drab kind of life!" This is also a very serious point that may arise even in the best of us, what to talk about novitiates, because the thing you call God is not so easy to understand. It is not supposed to be understood at all under the circumstances we are placed, rationally or psychologically.

Hence, now comes a very important conclusion. "Under these circumstances of a doubtful background of my very idea of taking to this path, I think I have to think thrice before taking a step in this direction. I shall do nothing; it is enough," said Arjuna and he threw his weapon down, giving up all effort whatsoever in the direction of doing what he was expected to do. Now the question arises: What is it that you are expected to do, which frightens you so much, as it frightened Arjuna? The battle that we speak of in the epic is only a metaphor; it is an insignia of the conditions of life as a whole. Every question is a battle; you have to face it in order to answer it. Every moment of our life there is a question before us: What am I to do, and in what manner have I to do, and for what purpose have I to do, etc.? There was a great thinker in the West who wrote a large thesis in answer to three questions: What can we know, what are we to do, and what can we hope for in this world? These are three questions before us, and the great thinker wrote three books in answer to these three questions. What can we know finally in this world, which also implies what we cannot know? What are we supposed to do here? What can we expect finally here in this world? These are philosophical questions – you may say spiritual questions – because what you have to do as a duty is connected with what you can know, and if your knowledge is tarnished by the error of a contamination of sense activity, to that extent your knowledge of what you have to do in this world also will be contaminated. Your idea of duty will be inadequate to the extent of your inadequacy of the understanding of life itself. So Arjuna did not know what he was supposed to do, as he had decided in a wrong manner not to do, since to do would mean a great suffering to himself as well as to others. To reach God, to enter the kingdom of heaven is a suffering to you in one way, and also is a suffering to others with whom you are related in this world; and you know very well why it is and why it should be so.

This difficulty arises on account of a lack of sufficient understanding, and understanding is called samkhya in the language of the Bhagavadgita. "Arjuna, you have no samkhya-buddhi," says Sri Krishna. "You are unable to discriminate between the real and the unreal, the true and the false, which means to say you have no right understanding, and samkhya is right understanding." The word 'samkhya' is used in the Bhagavadgita in a different sense from the way you are likely to understand it in the schools of thought. Here the samkhya word does not necessarily mean the jargon of the traditional school which goes by the name of Samkhya, propounded by a sage called Kapila, as one of the six systems of thought in India. Though it has some connection with what the Bhagavadgita is telling us, it is not identical with the meaning of the word 'samkhya' as it is used in the Bhagavadgita. In a general way we may say that samkhya means right knowledge. It is not easy to have right knowledge when we are not having sufficient information regarding things, and the information conveyed to us by the senses is not ultimately reliable. We cannot wholly rely upon what the senses are telling us. Therefore, the knowledge which is based on these reports of the senses may not be entirely reliable. Hence, our understanding of the world may not be regarded as adequate to the purpose. Thus it follows that we cannot know what we are supposed to do in this world. One cannot know what one's duty is because knowledge of things is based on understanding, which we lack, since we are sensorily conditioned and not so very rational, purely, as we may sometimes imagine ourselves to be. So samkhya was not there in the mind of Arjuna; right understanding was not coming forth. I am now slowly entering into the second chapter of the Bhagavadgita which is called Samkhya Yoga. The difficulty, the melancholy, the despondency, the fear which was the subject of the first chapter arises on account of a lack of samkhya. What is samkhya? What is knowledge? What is right understanding? Before I touch upon the core of the meaning of the term 'samkhya' as used in the Bhagavadgita, I would give, in a few words, the way in which the cosmological principles are described in the school going by the name of Samkhya, under the authorship of Kapila. As I mentioned, though it has no direct relevance to the Bhagavadgita, it would be profitable for you to know what it actually means, and how it differs from the samkhya of the Bhagavadgita.

The whole of the Samkhya philosophy is a system of cosmology; it is a description of the way in which things evolve from the Ultimate Reality. Now I am speaking to you the classical Samkhya of Kapila, which is in some respects acceptable to the other schools of thought also, though not entirely. I will tell you in what way they are acceptable and in what way they are not acceptable. The Supreme Being is called purusha in the Samkhya. The essential nature of this purusha is pure consciousness, awareness, brilliance, light, intelligence, self-awareness. The purusha is an Infinite Being, and not something that is in some place; it is not an individual person. Creation takes place by the coming in contact, in a novel way, of this pure spirit, purusha, consciousness, with cosmic matter, called prakriti. So, there are two realities: consciousness and matter – the subject and the object, as you sometimes call them. When the subject comes in contact with the object, there is knowledge of the object. So knowledge is a product. Knowledge in the sense of knowledge of objects is a product of the coming together of consciousness with this principal material-stuff called prakriti. It is an indeterminate, all-pervasive principle called prakriti; actually the word prakriti in Sanskrit means 'the origin of materiality'. The original ethereal form of matter, the finest condition of matter, is called prakriti. The natural state of affairs is prakriti. When this Infinite Consciousness, purusha, comes in contact with the infinite prakriti, there is a consciousness of one's being there as an "I am that I am". There is no consciousness of an individual object outside, because it has not yet been manifested – it is to take place further on. There is a universal feeling of "I am" – so, the feeling "I am", even in universal sense, is a step down in the process of creation, while the pure purusha is not even an "I am". It is something more than that – indescribable 'That Which Is'. This cosmic "I am" is, in its general form, called mahat; and in a more particularised, emphasised form is called ahamkara. So, we have purusha, prakriti, mahat, and ahamkara. These are cosmical levels.

Now, you have to listen to me more carefully, because something happens – the real creation starts now onwards. This concretised, universal self-consciousness, known as ahamkara, is split into the objective side and the subjective side by some miracle of the creative will. Thus it is that we are seeing a world outside, as if it is totally external. Space and time introduce themselves. So, the first conceivable form of the world may be said to be what you call 'space and time', or in modern language you may say 'space-time complex'. It is a condition of further creation. There cannot be creation unless there is space-time; it is an antecedent to every concept of evolution in any manner whatsoever. When space-time is manifest or evolved by the will, as you may say of this cosmic self-consciousness, ahamkara, there is a further condensation into greater grossness, into more concrete vibrations which you call sensations of sound, of touch, of colour, of taste, and of smell. These principles which are behind these five sensations are called tanmatras in the Sanskrit language. A word used in Sanskrit, tanmatra, means the fundamental characteristic of all things in this world. Basically they are only sensations, which is what modern science also is telling us finally – the whole world is nothing but a huge bundle of sensations. The solidity is not the truth of things.

Now, there is a further condensation by a mixing up of these cosmical principles called tanmatras in certain proportions, and as a mixture is produced by an apothecary or a doctor by combining chemical products in some proportion and it becomes a medical mixture; in such a way or in some such manner these principles, these tanmatras, got combined and became gross elements in what are called ether, air, fire, water, and earth. These five gross elements are the whole world. In this world you will see nothing except these five elements – ether, air, fire, water, earth. Even this physical body of ours and everything that is physical and material in this world, all these are constituted of these five elements only. Here is the objective world before us, according to the Samkhya cosmological evolutionary process.

Subjectively, we are individuals looking at the world. We – not merely humans, everything that is capable of visualising the world as an external something – is a subject, even if it be subhuman or even superhuman. As this cosmical outward world is constituted in this manner described, the individual also is constituted in some way. The physical body of organic as well as inorganic beings is made up of the same five elements – earth, water, fire, air, and ether. But inside the body there are other things, deeper layers, internal and more pervasive, more ethereal – like electric energy you may say – than the physical body outside. We have the pranas inside. A prana is a vibratory motion of an energy which sustains us, and due to which we feel strength in our system. Internal to the pranas is the mind, which thinks. The senses – hearing, seeing, etc. – are intermediary operations between the prana and the mind. They are connecting links between the prana and the mind; they can be associated with the prana or associated with the mind as you like, or perhaps both. But internal to the mind is understanding or the intellect, the reason which does not merely think in an indeterminate manner but determinately decides, judges, understands, and comes to a conclusion; that is reason – intellect. These layers mentioned are called, in Sanskrit, the koshas. Kosha means a cover, an investiture, an encasement. The physical body is called annamaya kosha because it is actually made up of the stuff of food that is taken inside. The pranas are called the pranamaya kosha. Internally we have got the manomaya kosha or the mind, then the vijnanamaya kosha or the intellect. Then there is a fifth one which is a causal condition, you call sometimes the unconscious level in psychology. It is something more than what you call the unconscious in ordinary psychology – it is the repository of all the conditions necessary for further reincarnations, into which you descend in deep sleep. Beyond that is the Atman, the pure spirit which is illuminating everything, whose reflection it is that is enabling the intellect to understand. So this is the subjective side, we may say – the subjective world.

The operation of this subjective world through the instrument of the mind, the intellect, and the senses, in contact with the objective world described, is what we call human experience as far as we are concerned. All of our experiences, desirable or undesirable, are the outcome of a peculiar coming in contact of the subjective world with the objective world. The reason behind this contact, and the nature of this contact was not clear to the mind of Arjuna, and is not clear to the mind of any one of us. This knowledge is called samkhya – right understanding.