The Philosophy of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 4: The Struggle for the Infinite

Though the Bhagavadgita is regarded as a well-known textbook, it is really not intended for the ordinary man. Its teachings, its ethical principles, its ultimate aims, are all of such a nature that it is difficult to accommodate them into the normal thinking of the human being living in a world of desires, ambitions, prejudices and traditional routines of various types, all which are cut at the very root by the altogether different outlook of life which the Bhagavadgita presents. The more we begin to ponder over its message, the more would we find it difficult to make it a guideline for our day-to-day life, though its purpose is nothing but that.

The arguments of Arjuna in the First Chapter are our arguments. The logic of the human mind takes this body as a final reality and everything connected with it as equally real, and the reports of the senses as wholly valid. The senses, the understanding and the logical reason are the apparatus of our knowledge in this world. These are the things that we employ in the assessment of values, and though it appears that apart from the senses we have the understanding and the reasoning, truly the understanding and reason are the handmaids of the senses, which seem to confirm by their own logic what the senses gather as information through their perception, and they do not give us any new knowledge. Our understanding does not give us a knowledge superior in quality to what the senses provide us by sensations and perceptions. This is why it is said that we are in a phenomenal world and, unfortunately, even our reason, when it is not cautiously exercised with reference to the implications behind its functions, would suddenly join hands with this empirical understanding, and it will amount to an acquiescence in what the senses say. Such were the arguments of Arjuna, and these are the arguments we trot out when our sentiments and emotions are to be justified and are to be fulfilled by hook or crook.

Setting aside for the time being the epic context and the story of the Mahabharata, and taking into consideration the principal spiritual message hidden behind the teaching of the Gita, we observe that the reluctance of Arjuna to take up arms on grounds of his own is the reluctance of the spiritual seeker to grapple with reality in its essentiality. We want a God suited to our senses, sentiments, feelings, traditions and social prejudices. Our reality and goal of life is conditioned by these feelings, and we seem to be living for a purpose which is evaluated in the light of this understanding lit up by the senses. Each one of us has to be a judge for one’s own self in these matters of profound significance. Our aspirations for spiritual ideals, or God-realisation, may not be so well-founded as they appear to be on the surface. The whole edifice of this so-called love of the spiritual ideal may crumble down when the acid test of the superior understanding and the reason is applied, and we would reveal ourselves as poor nothings who have founded our arguments of the spirit on the quicksand of personal desire and ambition.

A love for bodily existence and an affirmation of the ego, a conformity to social relationships connected with the body and the ego, sum up our satisfactions in a nutshell. We are mortal, living in a transitional world which pretends to satisfy our desires, but never does so. But this pretension is taken by us as a reality, and we ground ourselves in the justification of this pretentious promise of the sense-world, and somehow or the other persuade ourselves to be satisfied with whatever is in the world as presented to the senses and whatever the emotions regard as what is ultimately required. Though we are not always emotional and sentimental in an obvious form, we are that basically; and our very root as individuals is unjustifiable finally in the light of the larger setup of things. We have a subtle and secret longing to be independent and satisfied even at the cost of everything in the world. Consciously this does not come to the surface of our mind, but basically human beings are selfish. Not merely in human beings, but perhaps in everything in the world, there is an urge to maintain oneself in a bodily complex, and the fear of death is the greatest of fears; the love of life is the greatest of loves. Between love of one’s own life and fear of one’s own death, the one implies the other, and each one confirms that we regard this body as our entire property, our belonging, nay, as we ourselves. The social relationships are practically physical relationships, accentuated by psychic contact and adjustable with the temporary features which the world of Nature manifests in the process of history. We, somehow, manage to live in this world by a peculiar kind of daily adjustment with the unintelligible processes through which the world passes. We adjust ourselves not merely with the world of Nature every day, but, with a tremendous difficulty and strain on the mind, have to adjust ourselves with people around us. And this strain is a great toil indeed. We are so much accustomed to this strenuous life of adjustment with the outside atmosphere that we have mistaken this effort itself for a kind of joy and satisfaction. The condition of perpetual disease is mistaken for a normal state of health.

Man is never said to be, but is always said to become. We do not remain in ourselves continuously even for a few minutes. As the Buddha said in his wondrous message, everything is transitory, everything is momentary, everything is like a link connecting itself with another link. There is a procession of events, and there is nothing existent. If we are part and parcel of this transitional universe, there can be nothing truly existent in us. This is perhaps the reason why the Buddhist philosophers denied that there is such a thing as the self, by which we have to understand the transitional self, the empirical self which we regard ourselves to be in our poor understanding of the nature of things. We regard ourselves as a psychophysical complex—the body and the mind combined in some manner. And this self certainly cannot be regarded as our real self because it moves with the laws of Nature, and, therefore, it has births and deaths. The process of evolution is a name that we give to the continuous series of births and deaths of all things. A succession of events is another name for the death of one event and the birth of another event, which indicates the finitude of every event and of every object.

Anything that is finite materially or conceptually urges itself forward to overcome its finitude by an entry into another finitude, under the impression that when the finitudes join together they make the Infinite. That is why we love objects with the notion that two objects coming together will abolish the finitude of objects. But that does not happen, because two finites do not make the Infinite. Even a million finites cannot make the Infinite, because the Infinite is a transcendent reality which cannot be described by characters that describe the finite, and it is not a quantity which can be measured by mathematical laws. But our senses work through the space-time mathematics. The argument of logic is mathematical ultimately.

While we are sunk in this mire of phenomenality and this abyss of muddled understanding, we try to entertain a spiritual aspiration, a desire to overcome the world, which is conditioned by the world. Our longing to overcome the finitude of the world, the finitude of life, is directed by the finitude of the world itself. We are moving in a vicious circle, a merry-go-round, coming to the same point again and again, never getting out of the ruts of things. Arjuna’s arguments were arguments in a vicious circle. We love God for a purpose which is connected with this world. The desire to transcend the world of sorrow and to overcome the finitude of bodily existence is at the back of love for the Infinite. We appear to be longing for the Infinite for the sake of the justification of the finite, a confirmation of our longings which the senses regard as real. And social values, psychic and bodily values, become the conditioning factors of even the idea of God-realisation. We seem to be loving God for the sake of people, for the sake of the world of Nature, for the sake of our egoistic satisfactions. Arjuna, in a wondrous manner, desisted from the battle of life, which is nothing but a battle with the world of every kind of relationship, personal or otherwise.

Now, the most difficult thing to understand is the significance of ‘relation’. We are accustomed to this word many a time. “I am related to you, you are related to me, I am your brother, you are my brother.” This is a kind of relationship, indeed, but this is a way of talking and taking things for granted without knowing their true meaning. A relation is difficult to understand because it eludes its connection with the two terms which it relates. If I am related to you, it is difficult for me to explain the meaning of this relation. The relation that we speak of remains merely a word with a grammatical sense, but no philosophical justification. It does not mean that I am identical with you when I say that I am related to you. If A is related to B, even in a most intimate manner, it will not follow that A is identical with B, because the difference between A and B is to be confirmed if there is to be a relation between A and B. If A is not different from B, there cannot be relation, and the two will be one, and we would not be speaking of the two as if they are related. But if they are really different, there cannot, again, be relation. Whether with difference or without it, there cannot be relation. And so relation remains an enigma before us.

The whole world is a mystery because of this fundamental something that is conditioning our life. This is what great philosophers sometimes call maya. We glibly translate it as ‘unreality’ or ‘illusion’, while it is a mystery which cannot be understood, but which controls us to such an extent that we are helpless totally. So the arguments based on this kind of relationship will fail in the end. In the same way as there cannot be an ultimate justification for the principle of relationship between things, there cannot be a justification for the validity of any argument based on relationships. And all logic is nothing but a structure built on relationship between the subject and the predicate in an argument. The subject and the predicate cannot be connected, and if they are not connected there cannot be logic; if there is no logic there is no argument; if there is no argument there is no justification; if there is no justification there is nothing possible in this world. So the whole thing amounts to a chaos finally.

But though we appear to be living in a terribly difficult atmosphere, impossible to understand, and more difficult to live in, there is something in us which compels us to get on in this world, notwithstanding the environment that is around us which threatens us every moment of time with consequences dire. All this does not matter; we, somehow or the other, wish to live, even if it be in hell itself. We wish to live here. The desire to live in hell is to be explained. The explanation comes only from something mysterious within us which does not belong to this phenomenal world, and which we cannot understand with the phenomenal mind, understanding, or reason. We are between the devil and deep sea, pulling us in different directions—something telling us something inside, and something describing another thing altogether in a different manner outside in the world of senses.

The spiritual seeker girding up his loins for God-realisation, for leading a spiritual life, is faced with the complex of the world and the difficulties presented by the social relations. What about my father? What about my mother? What about my sister? What about my relations? What about my disciple? What about my Guru? What about this and what about that? Now, all these are nothing but items of relationship; and the Absolute is non-relational. It is not related to anything, and to aspire for the Absolute would be to aspire for a non-relational existence. But our existence in the relational world is so tight, and we are tethered to the peg of relativity with such strong ropes that we are likely to commit the error of interpreting our aspiration for the Absolute in terms of relations. This is a danger even on the spiritual path. We may like to justify everything—even the aspiration for the Absolute, God-realisation, or moksha—relationally, all of which can be cast into the mould of sense-experience and egoistic pleasure.

The love for immortal existence can be interpreted as a love for existing as ‘this individual’ for an endless period of time. People are frightened by the very idea of the abolition of personality in God-realisation. And there are philosophies which repudiate such a possibility, because if we are abolished, what, then, remains? If the aspirer ceases to be, what is he aspiring for? This frightening situation may shake us from the bottom, and we revert, once again, to the old cocoon of bodily existence and social relationship. And the Mahabharata war would not be!

Arjuna says, “I bid good-bye. Here is my grandsire, Bhishma; here is Drona, my Guru; here are my cousin brothers, all come from the same ancestor; the same blood is flowing through the veins of everyone. What can be a greater sin than to aim an arrow at the venerable Bhishma, on whose lap I sat and listened to stories when I was a child? And what greater sin it could be than to contemplate the destruction of social values, and cause sorrow and pain to those who are related to me and who depended on me for sustenance? Am I to aim against the world which is so beautiful and grand, and which is full of such values?” The human society in which we are living is, indeed, meaningful; and today we cannot see a greater meaning in life than human society. All that we are working for, studying for, day and night, is only for human society. We know that there is nothing else in our minds. Though we may have organisations, we may be spiritual leaders, we may be anything, all this is for human society and not for cats and mice, or for tigers, trees and mountains. We are concerned only with our own species. A frog loves only the frog, and the frogs form a frog united nations organisation, and so on. We are just puny creatures with all our boasted understanding, and Arjuna’s arguments really strike a poor note before the mighty Krishna, who was listening to all this harangue. “What a pity! A hero speaking like this! I thought you are made of a better stuff. At this crucial moment you are failing. Having renounced kith and kin, homestead and chattel, and taken to the path of God-realisation, you are still speaking in terms of humanity, in terms of your personal immortality, and in terms of justification of the values of the world of Nature. You want to have the same earthly satisfaction even in God?”

There is a very interesting story. Narayana and Lakshmi were seated in Vaikuntha. Lakshmi cast a glance over the whole world and saw a pig wallowing in a mire, eating rubbish. She was really sorry. She told Narayana, “What is this creation of yours? If you wish, you can give salvation to anyone in a moment; and this is the compassion that you have! Look at this poor pig. Can you not bring it back to Vaikuntha? Why does it stink in mire?” Narayana said, “It does not want to come. If it does not want to come, what can I do?” “Oh, who will not want to come to Vaikuntha, the glorious paradise?” Lakshmi said. “But I tell you, it does not want to come,” said Narayana. Lakshmi again said, “Impossible! No one with sense will dislike to come to the glorious heaven of Vaikuntha.” Narayana said, “Well, you can send a messenger to the pig and call it to Vaikuntha.”

Narada was sent as a messenger, who spoke to the pig, “Friend, well, Narayana is calling you to Vaikuntha.” The pig said, “Narayana? Which Narayana? Where? And what is this Vaikuntha? And why are you troubling me, disturbing me?” “No, no, no, I am not disturbing you. Why are you suffering here?” “What suffering? I am not suffering, I am happy. I have my family, everything is okay.” “No, in this quagmire, in this dirt, you are living. Narayana’s Vaikuntha is paradise. Immortality is what you gain there. Nectar is what you drink.” “Nectar? What is nectar?” “It is a glorious elixir which will make you deathless.” “I cannot understand anything. I shall ask my Mrs.”

Mr. Pig went to the Mrs. and said, “Somebody has come and he says he is from Narayana in some Vaikuntha, and they want us to go there. They say we will be happy there. What do you say?” “But will we get our food there, the food that we eat every day?” she asked. Mr. Pig came back to Narada and asked, Can we get the daily bread we eat here?” “Oh, horrible!” Narada cried. “You are asking for this dirty stuff in Vaikuntha? Nothing, nothing of the kind. That you cannot have. You shall have the divine elixir.” “Then you mind your business. You cannot give us even our food, and you want us to starve in Vaikuntha? To that place you are taking us! We do not want to come. You go, go, sir.” Narada came back. “I am sorry,” he told Narayana and Lakshmi, “they do not want to come.” And, turning to Lakshmi, Narayana said, “What did I say?”

Well, this is a story about every one of us. It is not merely a tale to hear, it has some connection with all of us. Such is the poor understanding we have of God and such the nature of the moksha that we are thinking of in our minds, in a peculiar manner of our own. Don’t you think that we would like to exist somehow in this very way even in the garden of Eden, in the presence of the Almighty? And would you like to be swallowed up by the lion of God? No, that is a terrible thing! No one can gainsay that there is a basic love for bodily existence, and our idea of immortality is of a long duration of existence in this very state of affairs in which we are living today. Only, we would not like to have the pinpricks of daily life we are trying to get over. We want to have a free hand in everything, but with the justification of this ego’s desires. The attachments which were the basis of the arguments of Arjuna, mentioned in the First Chapter, are the opposite of the spiritual gospel that Krishna gave in the Bhagavadgita. Yes, Arjuna was prepared for renunciation also, if it came to that. He suggested, “I renounce the whole thing and become a mendicant. If that is spiritual life and religion, I am ready.”

Now, we are ready for that, really. Suddenly we say, “We renounce father and mother, renounce every connection with the world. We shall have nothing to do with people. We seek God.” We move from one place to another place in this very world, and satisfy ourselves that the renunciation is complete. The great renunciation which the Bhagavadgita speaks of is not this much merely. It is not just a coming away from California to the Himalayas. It is a different thing altogether, which would not be easy for all people to understand; and if it had been so easy we would not be bungling in our spiritual life in the way we do every day. Arjuna could not grasp it, and how can we probe it? We stumble into the same rut of thinking in spite of all our arguments and abilities and our efforts to get at the significance of true spiritual life.

We cannot properly appreciate the connection that exists between God and the world, between God and ourselves and between one person and another person. And the whole of metaphysical philosophy is supposed to deal with these supreme principles—God, world and soul—an understanding of whose internal relationship is supposed to be philosophy proper ontology, as they call it these days. But these principles elude our grasp because even in our endeavour to grasp the internal relationship among these ultimate principles we commit a basic mistake, an error which worms itself into the very situation of understanding. We remain as justifiable ego-centres, we remain ‘ourselves’, we remain just what we are today. Even a whit of difference does not take place in us, though we are trying to lift ourselves into that status where we can comprehend the cosmic principles that we are discussing in this philosophy. We remain the same Mr. and Mrs., the same boy or girl, the same businessmen, industrialists, thinking of God, world and soul. So our philosophy becomes a jungle of words, a forest of incoherent ideas, tiring and not satisfying, and we get fed up with all philosophy— because we have not been discussing philosophy really, we were justifying our own way or thinking in the name of philosophy and trying to bring down God Himself to this world of our personal egoistic relationships and compelling Him to answer to our needs that are psychological, empirical, relational, whatever they be.

We are these Arjunas, and we cannot face this problem of the spirit finally. If we are cast into the fire ordeal of the requirements of true spiritual living, we would be utter failures and we would feel that none of us is fit for that life. We are just go-lucky people with an inward complacence that we are leading a religious life. But religion does not become religion and the spiritual does not become spirituality unless our outlook in respect of the whole of life gets tuned up to the demands of the nature of God and the internal relationship that subsists among God, world and soul. There should be a harmony between our way of thinking today and the essential nature of the internal relationship of God, world and soul, as it is essentially. Though it may not be an utter harmony that we achieve, there should be at least a tendency of our way of thinking towards that requirement of ultimate harmony. Even the first step taken in this direction is a step in the right direction, and is an admirable achievement indeed.

The universal has to be implanted in the particular. God has to descend into the heart of man. At least as a little iota of reality, a spark of that Fire should be present in us. Then we can be said to be set on the spiritual path. What we call the spiritual way of living is the way of God, the way of the Absolute, the way of the Tao, as they call it. Though we might have not achieved it, contacted it or understood it fully, we should be sure of moving in that direction, rightly. Even if we move only one inch in the direction of Badrinath, it is an achievement in that pilgrimage. But if we move in the direction of Delhi, it cannot be called a movement in the direction of the shrine.

Though it may not be easy to comprehend all the requirements of spiritual life, there should at least be a satisfaction in us that we are after the Goal. It is, therefore, necessary to make a thoroughgoing search of our own psychic nature, the world of desires which has various layers of manifestation, only the uppermost one being visible and intelligible to us in some partial manner. The lower layers are not known to us. Psychologists and psychoanalysts have tried their best to understand the deeper levels of the human psyche. These are the worlds of desires. The predominant desire working in the conscious level may make it appear that the underground world does not exist at all, but it does exist and will thrust forth its tentacles one day, and decide everything.

This is one of the reasons, evidently, why psychoanalysts like Freud thought that the religions of the world are an illusion. If religion is only a complacent attitude manifest by the underground world of desires in its outer form of social piety and external adjustments of values, religion would remain an illusion, no doubt. But if religion means an entry of even the least percentage of the universal into this particular existence of ours as individuals, that would be true religion, and it has no connection with the world of desires or the psyche.

So, there is a popular religion of the masses, the so-called pious that live in the light of human relationships, and there is the true religion of God, which is the subject of the Bhagavadgita. This is the reason which will explain why I said at the beginning that the message of the Gita is not meant for the ordinary man. It requires a great alertness of our personality, the total being, to grasp its message because the message is supposed to have been delivered by the Cosmic Form which included within itself everything existent everywhere, at any time, and we have to tune ourselves to that situation if we are to absorb its implications and its proper significance.