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The Teachings of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 3: Samkhya – Right Understanding

The second chapter of the Bhagavadgita deals with what is known as Samkhya Yoga, which is the yoga of understanding – an understanding which was not adequately present in the mind of Arjuna at the time when he was very much confused as to the duty to which he was obliged under the circumstance in which he was placed.

One cannot know what one has to do unless one's position in this world is known to one's self. Your duty, your attitude, the functions that you have to perform – all these are determined by the location of your personality in a given atmosphere. Thus, the concept of duty may be regarded as something relative, and not absolute. You cannot prescribe one particular function as the duty of a person forever and ever till eternity. The person we are speaking of, or referring to, is to a large extent identical with what we would call the 'individual' – the so-called 'me', 'you', etc. Our duty in this world, what the world expects from us, is dependent upon what we are, what we know, what we are capable of – and again, all these things depend upon where we are placed.

Last time, I tried to state briefly the outline of the cosmological process described in the Samkhya philosophy, to which reference is made in the Bhagavadgita. The study of cosmology is an important part of philosophical studies, because there are levels of understanding, and, at least from the point of view of one level in which the understanding operates, there seems to be a gradational relationship obtaining between the individual and his environment. I am using the word 'environment' purposely, suggesting that it is what you consider to be around you, though there may be other things around you whose existence may not be known to you, of which you may not be aware, though they may be there. People complain of the atmosphere, environment, etc., sometimes by limiting the concept of this environment to sociological or social conditions in life mostly, though the environment in which we are living is not necessarily restricted to human society. We are living in human society no doubt, but we are living also in a larger atmosphere than can be covered or even conceived by human society.

One of the problems that arose in the mind of Arjuna was the limiting of his notions to his social relations, which means to say, the relations with other people. Mostly, perhaps always, we are likely to think only in terms of other people in this world, which is called 'sociological thinking'. It appears from this limited view of thinking that the world consists of nothing but human beings; there is nothing anywhere in all creation except men and women – human beings. If it is true that we are mostly concerned with human affairs, and perhaps we are not concerned with any other affair anywhere, this was a question which troubled the mind of Arjuna and troubles the mind of everybody, even this moment here. But the 'world', using this word in a very, very large, expanded form of its meaning, is not exhausted by humanity only. Science, which is mostly physical, chemical and biological, has tried to lift the conceptualisations of mankind beyond mere political and sociological thinking, and demonstrated before man that there are laws and powers and systems of operation which cannot be exhausted by politics and sociology. The life on earth is not completely decided by what other people are thinking, or all people are thinking. The life of the earth, or life in general, is vaster than the concept you call political, social, communal – or, in any sense of the term, social. But there is a defect which infects human nature and infects every species you may say, dragging it to the level of that species only, and it cannot think in terms of any other species of existence – neither we are bothered about subhuman existences, nor superhuman levels of being. Let anything happen in the angel's kingdom, we are not bothered; we are also not worried about what happened in jungles, or in areas where humanity does not reside.

This is not a charitable way of thinking, to put it very politely. Even to be a little good, and charitable in our feelings, we must be considerate enough to accept that the world contains more things than man. However, the effect or the impact of human relationship upon the human mind is such that it will not permit the operation of higher laws in the present state of human thinking. This was the point made out by Bhagavan Sri Krishna when he said, "Arjuna, you lack samkhya – right understanding." From the point of view of a philosopher of history or a metaphysician of the process of human history, a pure political reading of human affairs may look merely puerile and almost childish. The process of human history is not the coming and going of kings and queens, or the wars that are waged, the births and deaths of people – this is not human history, from the point of view of a deeper study of the very process that underlies the current you call 'human evolution through history'. Likewise, from the point of view of an astronomer and a physicist, or even a scientist of any nature, political thinking will look very poor. It is not to the point, because the world is guided by forces which are not necessarily political or sociological.

Now, we are lifted to a higher level of thinking when the word 'samkhya' is used in the second chapter of the Bhagavadgita, meaning thereby an understanding of the true relationship that obtains between you and everything that is around you, and not merely that which appears to be around you. Though it may appear that there is nothing around you except people to whom you are concerned positively or negatively, by means of like and dislike, etc., there are more important things that condition our existence than the existence of other people like us. This was revealed to us to some extent by our study of the cosmology of the Samkhya. The very existence of human beings as individuals or isolated personalities is due to an event that has perhaps taken place in the process of the creational or the evolutionary activity of the whole structure of the universe.

You may have to remember what I told you last time; I need not repeat it once again. The individuality, the so-called 'me', is the subjective side that has arisen as a result of the split of the cosmic ahamkara – these terms you may remember for purpose of understanding what is going to follow further on. A cosmic self-consciousness is called ahamkara – not the ahamkara or the ego of man, but an impersonal metaphysical reality, which is the "I Am What I Am" of mysticism and religion that manifested itself, as it were, as the objective universe of perception and the subjective individuality which are the jivas, in the Sanskrit language. That which beholds the world as something outside is the jiva or the individual; it may be human or even superhuman, or otherwise. That which looks at the world as an external something is called the jiva. This jiva, this individual, is constituted of certain building bricks, which I narrated last time as the bodily structure of five elements: earth, water, fire, air, ether; and the internal components: the pranas, the senses, the mind, the intellect and the large reservoir of what we call the 'unconscious' in the English language, but something larger than what the psychologists call 'unconscious' – the potentiality of every future eventuality, and even rebirth, that is there at the root of our individuality. Transcendent to all these layers of our individuality is the 'Light Supernal' which is the Absolute peeping through our reason, through our mind and even the senses, and animating every cell of our body, making us feel "We are", "I am", etc.

Now, the second chapter and the third chapter have some sort of relationship from the point of view of the theme discussed. It is merely pointed out in the second chapter that right understanding is necessary, and only an introductory remark is made as to what samkhya means, so far as the second chapter goes. Right from the beginning till the end of the second chapter, the word samkhya is used in many, many places, suggesting that samkhya is the knowledge of the harmony that is there among all things – samatva – the equanimous, organisational, cooperative feature operating between one and another, thus cementing all particularities or individuals into a sort of cosmic organisation or universal society. This is the suggestion of the second chapter when it says: Samatvaṁ yoga ucyate (Gita 2.48): Equanimity is yoga, balance is yoga, harmony is yoga, cooperation is yoga – not competition, not battle, not war, not exploitation, not animosity, not hatred. Also, a very subtle and potent, meaningful word is used in the very same chapter, connecting this principle of harmony or equanimity operating in all creation with the duties of man in the world, when it says yogaḥ karmasu kauśalam (2.50): Yoga is expertness in action. This is a very pithy statement; no commentary is given here. We are not told as to what this expertness means, though we may impliedly take it to mean that harmony or balance of attitude should be the pre-condition of any kind of adventure or project in life. Every activity should be conditioned by a poised nature of the mind. You should not enter into activity of any kind with disturbed emotions or an axe to grind; there should be no selfishness. The words 'samatva' and 'kausala', used in the second chapter of the Gita, exhaust, perhaps, what the Gita intends to tell us. But they are so difficult to understand because the word used is very subtle in its connotation, though we can extract lot of meaning from it by going into the context in which it is used. The necessity for maintaining a balanced attitude in mind, in our general attitude, while we perform works expertly, arises because of the fact of our location in this universe, which will devolve automatically from your knowledge of the very nature of our individuality in the light of the cosmological process described.

The world is not disassociated from us, because originally we were all united in the Cosmic Self – the universal ahamkara. The world is not an object of the senses, truly speaking. Thus, the reports of the senses may not be considered as a final, reliable information given to us. There is an error sometimes involved mostly in sense perception, because there is an insistence on the part of the senses to consider the world as a total foreigner, without which concept we cannot deal with things in the way we are doing now in our daily life. We are suspicious of the world. Here is the root of all our troubles. We are afraid of the world, and our loves and hatreds for things of the world, including persons, are explainable only on the basis of our erroneous concept that the world is not vitally connected with us. It is not possible to hug onto, or crave for any object which is vitally, organically related to me, nor can I hate it for the same reason. Loves and hatreds in life seem to be out of point, totally, in the light of an understanding of our position, as we know, from a study of the cosmological process. There is lot of teaching in the religions of the world that love and hatred are not good things. Desire is not right – it is an improper attitude of the mind. Everyone says this, in all religions and philosophies. But why is desire bad? Why are loves and hatreds not considered as proper on our part? Because this attitude of like and dislike, love and hatred, implies a total misconception of our connection with the world. So, in a way we may say that our political philosophies, as they are working today at least, though they may not be always so, and our social concepts are totally misplaced, which perhaps explains the turmoil we are passing through in our lives, and the troubles of our psyche, the sorrows of our existence, and the insecurities we are facing from moment to moment. This was troubling Arjuna, and we are the same Arjuna seated here today, in the field of the Mahabharata of this world where Sri Krishna has to come to guide us – which is nothing but the Light of God, the Light of the World.

Now, without going in large details of everything that is told us in the second chapter, I will take your mind to the true meaning of this samkhya, which perhaps was in the mind of Sri Krishna when he used this word for rectifying the erroneous thinking of Arjuna. "What do you mean by this right understanding? I cannot know what you are speaking," cried out Arjuna at the beginning of the third chapter. "You have confused me completely by telling so many things, nothing of which is clear to me." Here is a troubled mind speaking once again, at the very beginning of the commencement of the third chapter. "Is my relationship to the world a total unity, in which case I have to do nothing? Or, is it total separation, in which case also I have to do nothing? The question of duty does not arise in this world if I have a relationship which is totally organic or totally isolated. So my mind is confused about what you are speaking. Be more explicit, please," so speaks Arjuna. "What is it that you are expecting me to do by asking me to have samkhya, right understanding, poised mind, calm attitude, expertness in action? I cannot understand the meaning behind these terms you are using."

The third chapter is a very important section of the Bhagavadgita. It is perhaps the whole gospel of human action. There are certain chapters which sum up the very principles of the entire teaching of the Bhagavadgita, one of them being the third chapter. There is no necessity for me to dilate upon this theme in a very large measure inasmuch as I endeavoured to explain this theme of the third chapter in some detail in an earlier discourse I gave, and which has been printed fortunately, and it is available for you in the text called The Philosophy of the Bhagavadgita. It is a larger series of lectures than the one I am giving you now, so I don't think you will be at a loss if I am a little brief in my discourses here, especially as we have to conclude by next month, and also because there is already something that I have told on this theme in the form of a ready textbook. The third chapter of the Bhagavadgita is called Karma Yoga – the yoga of right action, or action as such in the light of correct understanding.

Now, again I come to the point of cosmology, which explains our relationship with the world with everything that is around us. From this narration of the story of the descent of man from the higher realms, right from mahat and ahamkara, we learn that our personality – this individuality – is constitutionally not separate from the structure of the world or the universe outside. The substance out of which our individuality is made is not different from the substance of which the world outside is made. Bring back to your memories these principles of descent I mentioned to you – I will repeat it once again if you have not been able to note down these. There is the mulaprakriti, the original material out of which the whole cosmos was formed, something like the space-time of modern physics – or something subtler even than that – from which descended the tanmatras: sabda, sparsa, rupa, rasa, gandha – the principles of sound, touch, colour, taste and smell, which concretised themselves into a greater density of substance by a sort of permutation and combination, and became the solid substances you see here as the five elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether. These things are the building bricks of the cosmos, physically speaking – everything material is nothing but a formation of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, ether – this body, this building, this tree, this everything.

Now, here is an introduction given to right understanding. The mulaprakriti that I mentioned is constituted of three forces called sattva, rajas and tamas. We have heard in modern science words like ' statics' and 'kinetics', 'inertia' and 'action'. What you call ' statics' is something like inertia; we may equate it with tamas, non-action – and kinetics is rajas, movement, distraction, etc. But there is no such thing as sattva in the scientific language of modern times. There is either statics or kinetics – there is nothing else. But there is a third thing which is the balancing of the two. That is called sattva in the language of Indian philosophy; the condition of true being is called sattva. In Sanskrit, 'sat' means existence, being; and the condition of being is called sattva. The characteristic of being is sattva, and the characteristic of being is equanimity – not isolation, distraction and separation.

So, the nature of reality or true being is neither inert existence and loss or absence of consciousness, nor is it activity in the sense of distraction. Pure being, sattvaguna, is not rajas; it is not also tamas. This sattva is a power that connects the two extremes of inertia and activity – rajas and tamas; and the whole of the world is nothing but this threefold activity of nature – sattva, rajas and tamas – which is the structure, the constitution, the basic substance of the tanmatras, the five elements, this body, and all things in the world. This means that our body, this prana, the senses, the mind, the intellect, etc. are all somehow or the other manufactured, in some way, by an admixture of these forces – sattva, rajas, and tamas in some proportion – and by another admixture, in another way, the world outside is made. We are made as the final substance, as subjects, as individuals perceiving the world, identical with the substance of the world outside. When the senses perceive the world, the gunas move among gunas, prakriti contacts prakriti – it is the right hand touching the left hand, as it were, of the same body, perhaps more intimately and vitally than merely a contact of one limb of the body with another limb of the body. In the third chapter, this point is brought out. In all perception, the individual is not contacting a foreign element like the world outside, but 'one's own mother' is embraced by the child – not an ordinary embrace but a longing for union with 'That' from which it has been isolated, from which it has fallen. So, in all sense-perception there is an internal craving to unite with things on account of the fact being that the substance of the perceiver is the same as the substance of that which is perceived – so there is a philosophy behind desire, and there is also an error involved in the desire.

The justification and the philosophical implication of the manifestation or the working of human desire in the form of sense activity and perception is that we are basically one with all things. This is the reason we are impetuously pulled in the direction of the things of the world. The error of our desires is that they insist on convincing themselves that the world is a foreigner, it is outside. There is a double activity going on in our mind in every perception. On the one hand, a love for things is impossible unless we are united with things. You cannot desire a thing which is totally isolated from you. All desire implies a basic unity with all things, and also at the same time, all desire implies that the world is outside of oneself. Thus every desire is a contradiction, a psychic schizophrenia in a philosophical sense at least. There is a morbidity, there is an un-justification finally, an inscrutability in the activity of every desire which acts on one side as an indication of the basic unity of things, and on the other side performs the opposite function of insisting on the duality, the separation, and the isolation of the subject from the object. So we are living in a world of contradiction, psychologically speaking, and every desire is a psychic contradiction. This is the reason why great questions of life cannot be answered by an intellect which is subservient to the emotions, which again work in the light of the knowledge received through the senses, which, to repeat again, are not reliable for reasons already mentioned.