The Philosophy of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 5: The Mortal and the Immortal

The First Chapter of the Bhagavadgita pinpoints the basic difficulties which a spiritual seeker may face in the long run, in spite of the preparations that he might have made with all his logical conclusions and sincerity of purpose. In the earlier stages of our aspirations we do not fully realise the problems that are hidden deep, invisibly, beneath the outer layers of our personality, not directly connected with our daily life. We have an unconscious personality apart from the conscious one limited to this bodily existence, and this unconscious level of ours is larger in its content than the little expression of it we visualise outside as the body and its sensory relations.

There are fears of various types which keep us secretly unhappy, and many of the activities of life in the conscious level are attempts to brush aside these fears; and then we imagine that they do not exist at all. We occupy ourselves so busily with works of various types as a kind of outlet or counteracting power against these fears, usually known in the language of psychology as defence mechanisms. We protect ourselves by certain psychic mechanisms which we have formed within ourselves as a kind of self-deception, we may say, finally. This is the attitude of the ostrich which is said to bury its head in the sand when it is threatened with any kind of fear outside. It hides its head in the sand so that it cannot see things outside, and when nothing is seen outside, it thinks that nothing exists outside. This is not merely the ostrich’s way but, perhaps, the attitude of every human being when he is faced with insoluble difficulties.

The problems are mostly in the unconscious level; they are not always on the conscious surface. It may not appear to us that they exist at all. We are comfortably placed in a sensory world wherein the senses are fed to surfeit, and they keep us completely ignorant of the dangerous abyss through which we may have to pass in the future stages of our life. We are brainwashed by the impetuous activities of the senses to such an extent that we cannot be aware of what is ahead of us, what may happen tomorrow, because if we can be awakened to the fact of all things that are to be faced in the future, we may perish just now with a fear of it, and Nature does not want anybody to die like that, as it would defeat its purpose. Nature keeps everything as a secret and lets the cat out of the bag only when necessary.

Now, when the tremendous confrontation of the Mahabharata battle was there staring at the face of the otherwise heroic Arjuna, what was unconsciously present in the human being that he was came off and spoke in its own voice. Fears which were otherwise unknown and undreamt of manifested themselves as the only realities and gripped Arjuna with such power that his personality changed completely, and he was not the man that he was before. We can suddenly become different persons in a moment if serious conditions overtake us. Just a second is enough to transform one into a different personality altogether, and one can be a personality of any type, because we are everything inside us. Everything that is anywhere exists also within us, and anything can come out under a given condition. It all depends upon the particular button that is pushed, and there you have the genius coming up, as if we have rubbed the lamp of Alladin, which you hear in the stories of the Arabian Knights.

Great fears overpowered Arjuna’s mind like serious diseases. Doubts of various kinds harass our minds when we begin to tread the path of the spirit because of a basic misconstruing of the very meaning of the path chosen, which mistake we commit due to a lack of proper training in the art of living the spiritual life. An emotional stirring up of oneself into the enthusiasm of love of God, due to the study of scriptures or mystical texts, or listening to the sermon of a master, cannot be regarded as a reliable support for all time to come. There must be a conviction which must go deep into the heart, and as long as the head and heart stand apart like the two poles of the earth, there is the likelihood of the psychic apparatus getting out of order and throwing us in different directions as scattered pieces of our personality, so that we may lose even the little that we had earlier. This is what they call the ‘fall’ in the language of mysticism, religion and spirituality. This happens because we are not studying ourselves properly and we had a wrong notion of ourselves based upon what we know through sense perceptions, social relationships, and so on.

The doubts that arise in the mind later on, when we advance sufficiently on the path, can be many, but those that are recorded in the First Chapter of the Gita, as those that occurred to the mind of Arjuna, are a few. He had a few serious difficulties which he posed before Krishna. All this is the preparation for the war, the battle in which the seeking spirit is confronting Nature as a whole and the society outside. “Can this adventure be a mistake on our part?” “Have I committed a blunder with no proper thought?” When we grow older in age, these doubts can come to the mind. “Is there not something different from what I am seeking just now? I have made an evaluation of human society, my relationship with human society, and the world as a whole, and have come to a conclusion that they are to be faced in a storm if it becomes necessary. They are to be subdued and thrown out, abandoned, put down for the purpose of the achievement of spiritual victory. But is this a proper attitude? Shall we face in a war those things, those persons, who have been our support and in regard to whom we are certainly required to perform certain obligations? There is what is called ethics and morality, there is an etiquette and a goodness, a charitable feeling, all of which is quite different from the spirit of battle or war with the atmosphere outside. Are we to consider it friendly and accommodate it with our relationships in the world of sense? Or, are we to fight with everything? What should be our spirit, our attitude in relation to the world and human society? A spirit of accommodation is one thing, and a spirit of war is another thing. Are things to be completely put down with the power of our arms? Or, can this attitude be an error on our side?”

Arjuna puts this question: “Is this not a mistake? Are we expected to face our brethren, our nephews, our relations, our grandsire, our teachers as if they are our opponents? Is the world our enemy? Are we to confront society as an unfriendly environment? This is one difficulty. Secondly, if we set this example before other people, naturally, we expect others also to follow the same thing as a permissible attitude. The world will follow suit along this line, which will end in a chaos of the entire society, a destruction of all human values, and a defeat of the very purpose of creation. Is this not a sin that we commit? Are we to create disorder in human society in the name of a so-called victory, in the name of an idea that we have placed before ourselves, calling it dharma or justice? But, there is another difficulty, yet. Is it certain that we are going to win victory in this battle? The world is mighty enough, and human society is very complicated in its makeup. Are we sure that we are to be the winners, or can it be the other way round? We may be overpowered by the powers of Nature or we may be destroyed by the ethics of society. Considering all these aspects of the situation it appears to me that all these engagements of ours are a futile attempt. We have to think thrice before we take a step. To me, at least, it appears that there is a basic error in the entire outlook with which we have embarked upon this war. I shall do nothing,” says Arjuna, and throws down the weapon of all effort, enthusiasm and aspiration, and reverts to the level of the ordinary human being of sentiments and sense-ridden satisfaction.

The difficulties mentioned, in a few words, in the First Chapter of the Bhagavadgita are not ordinary jokes or mere stories told to us for our cajolement. These things are the difficulties of human nature as such. It is not just my difficulty or your difficulty. Anyone who is human shall have to pass through these stages. Who can ever gainsay that one does not think in terms of gains and losses, in the light of one’s relationship with the world outside and human society externally. We love and hate, and have our ways in this complex of relationship in the world and in all human affairs. Where does God come in here into this picture?

The notion of God has also been a frightening factor many a time in the history of human thought. And there have been as many ideas of God as there are people in this world. There are those who denied the very existence of such a thing as God, because of the fact that there are no proofs adequate enough to convince us of God’s existence. All our arguments are sensory in the end; the logic of philosophy is a phenomenal argument and it cannot touch what we imagine to be the noumenon, or a transcendent Being, because the substantiation of the existence of anything transcendent cannot be achieved through the instrument of phenomenal reason. There are people who have been totally agnostic. God may be, or may not be. Even if He is there, it is all something impossible for us to understand with the faculties with which we are endowed at present.

But more serious difficulties are those which faced Arjuna’s mind, and which gradually creep into our own minds, and keep us inwardly insecure and anxious. The anxiety of a spiritual seeker is due to doubts as to the possibility of success in the spiritual path, doubts concerning the correctness of the approach which one has launched, doubts as to the duties one owes to the world and to human society, and finally, doubts even concerning what will happen to oneself, taking for granted that this realisation takes place. These doubts are not ordinary ones. They are present, perhaps, in every one of us, in some measure, in some proportion. And nothing can be more frightening to the ego of the human being than to be told that God is All-Power and the experience of God means an abolition of individuality. No one expects this, and one keeps that situation as far away from oneself as possible, postpones it to an indefinite future and closes one’s eyes to such a possibility at all. What can be a greater fear than that of losing oneself, even if it be in the ocean of God Himself? We would not want to be drowned even if it be in a sea of nectar.

Now, the sum and substance of the First Chapter of the Bhagavadgita is this much: a relinquishment of all effort, which originally was the spring of action of the seeking state. After years of spiritual practice one may content oneself with being the very same person that one was many years back and lead the little life of the man of the street either due to incapacity or due to a total disillusionment here. There are several types of spiritual seekers who may have to face the same problems, no doubt, but who will be taken along different paths on account of the varying extent of the clarity of their spirits and the sincerity of purpose with which they have started the adventure of spiritual life.

When our search is sincere and hundred percent genuine, notwithstanding the fact that we have not understood things entirely, we will be taken care of by the powers of the world and we will see light rising in the horizon, and a Guru, or a teacher, or a master like Krishna, will be there in front of us, and we will be placed in the context or juxtaposition of such a master by the nature of the universe, by the very law of creation, by the justice of God. In the earlier stages one may be reluctant even to receive the advice of the master fully. Even when one is face to face with a competent teacher, one may not be prepared to act upon the teaching entirely. This happened to Arjuna also by a circumstance described in the very beginning of the Second Chapter. The great teacher told him, “This is an unworthy and unbecoming attitude on your part at this crucial moment of time.” The retort of Arjuna was, “I am sorry. However, I have decided that I am not going to take up arms. What is the good of all this bloody warfare whereby everything is going to be destroyed? Everything is to be swallowed up by the gaping mouths of doom.”

Then a necessity arises for the teacher to take the disciple along the proper course and lead him up, stage by stage. A competent teacher understands the level of the mind of the student, and takes his stand on that level, which is sometimes called the Socratic method of teaching. The teacher does not impose himself upon the student, because a flowering of the bud of the mind of the student is essential. We cannot forcefully open it, for, if it is done, there would not be a blossomed flower. “All right,” says Krishna, “I understand what you say. You have a fear that you may not win victory. You may have other difficulties apart from this, namely, the social catastrophe that may follow the destruction.”

Any argument or logical approach should take into consideration what is called the ‘universe of discourse’. One must know the field in which the reason is operating at any given moment of time. One cannot jump into another field altogether different from the one in which the reason operates. We argue as a citizen of the world, a unit in human society, or we argue on the basis of our being a metaphysical unit. A metaphysical argument should not be employed to solve problems which are purely social and personal, too intimate perhaps, material or physical. Similarly, purely social and economic arguments should not be used in the description or understanding of metaphysical realities. Everything has to be taken at the level in which it is. And Arjuna made a mistake of mixing up his arguments. He was on the one hand fear-struck with the possibility of death and destruction in the war, he might die and he might lose everything; and the question of success or victory in war does not arise if that predicament takes place. On the other hand, he had a fear from society, the fear of committing sin by way of destruction of values conducive to social solidarity. And he did not understand what would happen to him as a result of these errors that he might commit in the name of war.

The metaphysical side of human nature is, in a peculiar manner, connected with the empirical features. In the very beginning of the Second Chapter, Krishna resorts to the principle of the immortality of the soul. Do we die, really? The phenomenon of death is analysed threadbare. Who dies? And what is the meaning of death? Death is generally regarded as destruction. Does it stand to reason to say that anything can be totally destroyed? Is there a real destruction of anything?

Now, destruction is the total negation of what is, and what is, is called the real. When something really exists, it cannot be called a phenomenon or a passing phase. A real thing cannot pass away, and that which passes away cannot be called the real. The real has to ‘be’, and, therefore, it is called the real. The unreal cannot be, and there is no necessity to entertain any kind of fear or doubt in regard to it. Either that which dies is real or it is unreal. We cannot have a third alternative to imagine. Something dies, or someone dies. Is that thing or that person real, or unreal? We have to be clear in our minds when we consider this process of arguing. If we say that the thing that has died was real, then we are contradicting ourselves, because, if it had been real, it could not be destroyed; there is no death for it. It is already declared that it is real, and the real cannot not be, and the unreal cannot be. Thus, that which is, that which is real, cannot be regarded as destructible. If we say that the thing that has died is not real, that it is unreal, then there is no question of its death; it has already been dubbed as unreal. The destruction of a non-existent thing is unthinkable. And a destruction of an existent thing, also, is equally unthinkable because that which is existent cannot be destroyed, and that which can be destroyed cannot be regarded as existent. Then, what is it that dies?

The phenomenon of death is visible before our eyes because of a mixing up of standpoints. This mixing up is called adhyasa in philosophic language, a superimposition of one thing on another thing. We read one meaning in another and that meaning in this, and so on. That which exists is not that which dies. And that which does not exist is not that which dies. Therefore, one cannot say what dies. The process of death is one of transition, and is not a ‘destruction’ of anything. A change of condition is what we call death, which is a change that is required by the law of the evolution of the universe.

In fact, we die every moment. Every cell of our body changes constantly, and it is opined by biologists that after every seven years we become entirely changed personalities, physically. All the cells of the body renew themselves in such a manner that we are new beings after many years. Not merely that, every day there is transformation as we grow. We have grown from babyhood to this adulthood of today. But we have never seen how we have grown. This process of growing was imperceptible. And, if growth is nothing but change, how is it that it could not be perceived? We never knew that we are becoming something else every moment. All change is perceptible, visible, recognisable. But in our own case of growth, for instance, we never knew, we never recognised, we never felt that we are changing; all this because there is something in us which does not change. That character of this mysterious entity in us which does not change is the real reason behind the fear of death and the love of life.

Change is only a condition, and not a substance; it is not a thing. It is, therefore, not a reality. But it appears as if some tremendous event takes place at the time of death, for all our practical purposes. We are horrified at the very name of death. The horrific nature of death is due to the identification of characters belonging to two levels of our being, the spiritual or the metaphysical getting transferred to the temporal or the transitional, and vice versa. We see two things at the same time, imagining that it is one thing and that the experience is not constituted of two different things. There is a procession of events, a continuous change of process charged with a unitary invisibility of being which is our basic essentiality. We call it the Atman, the soul, the self, consciousness, etc. There is an indestructible element in us, and that has got mixed with the condition of change which infects everything that is finite. We are imbued with the world of finites, of the bodily individuality of ours, and even the psychic isolation of ours is a character of our finitude. The finite struggles to align itself with the Infinite, to which it really belongs, and this struggle of the finite to move towards the Infinite is the whole story of evolution.

Any change, any transformation, any movement whatsoever, anywhere in this world, at any time, is a consequence of this impulse from the finite in the direction of the Infinite; and no one can remain for ever as a finite, inasmuch as the finitude of being is an unnatural state of being. The unnatural cannot always be; it tries to overcome and transcend itself and expand itself into the higher stage which moves gradually towards an infinitude of realisation.

This tendency of the finitude in us towards the Infinite that is really there is the reason behind transmigration, birth and death. What we call birth and death, or rebirth, transmigration, metempsychosis, etc., is a necessary obligation on the part of everything that is finite in the light of the all-comprehensiveness of the Infinite. We cannot maintain our individual personalities continuously intact. As a matter of fact, we cannot be the same individuals even for two seconds together. Every moment we change and move and urge in the direction of a larger achievement. But, because of the fact that our consciousness is tethered, somehow, to the finitude of body and mind, it appears as if the whole of our ‘being’ has changed. And when the change becomes so intense as to make it impossible for the mind to contain it within itself, when the change that is to take place for this purpose becomes marked in the sense of a total change in the form of this finitude, it appears as if our essential being itself has undergone a process of destruction.

There are two kinds of change: that particular series of changes which we pass through every day as in the case of our growth, for instance, from baby-hood to adulthood, etc., and the other one which we usually call death. While the constituents of our finitude change in the manner of a growth in a new form, we do not feel this transformation or change in a marked manner because this complex we call the body in this space-time world somehow maintains its particular form of complexity, and as we are living in a world of senses, and the senses regard this body as the self, we do not feel that anything serious has taken place to us in this frame of space-time. As long as this form is maintained we feel ourselves intact, but when the conditions of the process of evolution require a change in the very form of this finitude, and we are to be shifted from one space-time order to another space-time realm, it appears that there is a total annihilation of personality.

Death is a transformation of ourselves from one space-time order to another space-time structure. We move from one continuum of space-time to another continuum. It does not mean that the universe is made up of one type of space-time only. The present system is one particular arrangement of space-time, and this particular body of ours is in consonance with the requirements of the order of space-time in which we are at present. When the time series and the spatial order changes in the higher ascent of ourselves, the whole physical form has to be shed completely and a new form has to be assumed for this purpose. But inasmuch as our consciousness, the soul, is connected with this particular bodily complex, we imagine that this transformation of ourselves from one space-time order to another is a destruction of ourselves, and as destruction is fearsome, we hate death.

Now, therefore, the fear of death is due to a misconception in our minds on account of a lack of understanding of what the universe requires from us. We are not punished by death. We are only educated by it. And the Bhagavadgita gives a simple analogy to explain what actually happens in the process of death. We cast off one garment when it is worn out, and put on another which is new. When we throw off old clothes and put on new ones, we do not imagine that we have lost something valuable. Likewise is the change of body, so we should not imagine that there is a real loss in death, this process being a necessity, and also because of the fact that we are entering into a new life altogether in the direction of a personal transvaluation of values for the growth of our personalities, because the justice of God shall reign supreme finally, and the truth of the universe shall assert itself eternally. The assertions of the universe in experience are the various series of phenomena to be seen in the world. All change, whatever be its nature, throughout human history, is a requirement of the assertion of the cosmic justice, and birth and death are part of this requirement.

So, “Arjuna, you are unnecessarily weeping over something in regard to which wise ones will not grieve. Birth and death do not become the causes of sorrow to people who are endowed with wisdom, who can see through things and not confine their vision merely to the outer form of the events of the universe. Your sorrow is because of the fact that your vision is limited to your senses merely, and you are unable to think in the light of the higher requirement of the law of the cosmos. Thus, your argument that death is an undesirable consequence that follows the battle of life is fallacious.” And the knowledge that is positive in the light of the ultimate reality of things will follow.