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A Short History of Religious and Philosophic Thought in India
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 4: The Bhagavadgita

The Context of the Gospel

The central philosophical thesis of the Mahabharata is contained in the famous song of the Lord, the Bhagavadgita. Arjuna, at the commencement of the Mahabharata war, shows signs of bewilderment and mental confusion and refuses to take up arms even after having undertaken this task after great deliberation earlier. Having engaged himself in a duty befitting his position in society, he withdrew himself from discharging an obligation, which was really more than a question of personal prestige and etiquette, for it involved a principle transcending a simple option on his part. Human weakness overcame the powerful hero, and Arjuna succumbed to the temptations of love and hatred and an eye to the coveted result of action. This condition of the mind of Arjuna raised a universal question, that of duty in the human world. An event in the battle opened the portals of the larger problem of life. Arjuna's predicament became a human situation, for the problem of Arjuna was the problem of man. And the answer of Krishna to the query of Arjuna is the gospel of God to humanity as a whole.

A peculiar human difficulty evoked an astounding reaction from Krishna. The Bhagavadgita commences with a dramatic setting described in its first chapter, wherein the spiritually blind Dhritarashtra's question is followed by the entry of the proud Duryodhana into the scene of the battlefield. The self-aggrandising boast of the Kaurava king revealed his secret anxieties over the result of war and he was suspicious over the qualitative strength of his quantitatively larger army. He had invincible but unwilling fighters like Bhishma, mighty but unscrupulous warriors like Drona, and reliable but disabled friends like Karna. On the other hand, the Pandavas had whole-hearted supporters like Krishna and the blessings of the gods who were eager for the victory of the Pandavas. Notwithstanding that destiny seemed to favour the Pandava forces the man in Arjuna disclosed his foibles before the Divinity in Krishna, when Arjuna's heart sunk in grief over the inevitable destruction of his loved relations, the uncertainty of victory and the social usability which, he thought, was to be the outcome of mass-scale destruction of people. These reasons were enough for Arjuna to make up his mind not to fight. Krishna's answer to Arjuna's question is the eternal gospel.

The Immortality of the Soul

Krishna commences his teaching with a declaration of the indestructibility of the Soul and the futility of grief over the death of what cannot die. The birth and death of the Soul are like the changing of one's clothes while the person in essence undergoes no change in the process. All experience of change like pleasure and pain is the consequence of the contact of the elements with the essential consciousness projected through the mind and the senses. The contact, naturally, is impermanent and hence its reactions are to be endured with fortitude. The unreal cannot be, and the real cannot not be. The Soul is real. The contacts are not real. No one can destroy the indestructible Soul. The argument of Arjuna against destruction of life is answered by the doctrine of the deathlessness of the Spirit behind all life, but the essence of the gospel of Krishna is something more than this, for it is centred upon the Absoluteness of God.

God, the Almighty

The ultimate reality is God, who is Absolute. He is the supreme Brahman which cannot be designated either as being or non-being, from the human standpoint. It has hands and feet everywhere; eyes, ears and faces everywhere; and it exists enveloping everything. It has the characteristics of the percepts of all senses, but it is itself devoid of the senses of perception. Though it is unattached to external objects, it is the basis for everything. Though without descriptive qualities or epithets, it is the reservoir of all of them. Being inside and outside all things, it may be said to be both moving and unmoving. On account of its subtlety it is not visible to the eyes. Being infinite, it looks at if it is far, but being the Self of everyone, it is very near. Though it appears divided among the divided bodies, it is really undivided like the ocean beneath the waves. It is the absorber and releaser of everything, the Light of all lights, beyond the darkness of ignorance. Such is the description of the Absolute given in the Bhagavadgita.

The Absolute appears as the universal Virat when it is regarded as the support of the Universe. In the eleventh chapter of the gospel is sung a description of the Universal Being. The form of this Divinity is incapable of being visualised by the transitory mind of the mortal individual, for all thoughts and acts, whether of mind or of body, have objectives in space and time as their ends, while the Divine Being is above space and time. To understand (Jnatum), to see (Drashtum) and to enter (Praveshtum) into Reality, a transcendence of individuality in a state of universal transfiguration of personality is necessary. God in His form as the Universal Maker of things determines the course of events in His cosmic scheme of creation, and it is the duty of the individual to act merely as His instrument and not assume a false responsibility of doership and enjoyership in life, which belongs to God alone. This perception of truth requires the development of a spiritual vision (Divya-Chakshus) and it cannot be comprehended by the senses or even the logical intellect. The Universal Form which Krishna assumed stunned the egoistic individuality of Arjuna, and in a thrill it looked as if his very being would evaporate in those dizzy heights of that blazing eternal form, which, with its supernal radiance, darkened the lights of thousands of suns. The descriptive powers of the poet reach their summit here in this apotheosis of human language.

There is no place where God is not, and no object in which he is not present. His glory is seen in high relief in everything which exhibits an intensified type of power in any manner. No one who looks to him for solace does ever perish or come to sorrow. Whoever, in undivided contemplation, resorts to him as the final refuge, to such a person he provides all needs and affords protection at all times. God does not need any rich offerings from man; he is satisfied with a dedicated feeling of devotion which can be conveyed through even a leaf that may be consecrated to him. God has neither friend nor foe and he is not concerned either with the good or the bad action of the individual. Krishna declares, as the God of the Universe: "I am the sacrifice and the offering. I am the mantra and the ritual, the oblation, the fire and what is offered in the sacrifice. I am the Father of the Universe, the Mother, the Grandfather and the protector of all. I am the goal, the support, the Lord, the witness, the abode, the refuge, the friend, the origin, the desolation, the substratum, the reservoir, the seed indestructible. As the sun, I give heat; I withhold and send forth rain; I am immortality and also death; I am existence and also non-existence. O Arjuna."

God can be approached in any way suited to one's temperament and capacity. He does not belong to any creed, cult or religion. He is accessible to everyone, whether man, woman or child, whether learned or ignorant, whether high or low, in society. What is needed is undivided devotion, unflinching love for Him. The way out of all sorrows is to take refuge in Him, to the exclusion of all earthly aids. This devotion, however, is not easy to acquire. It comes by cultivation of it in many lives through which one has to pass, and it is difficult to find one who realises that God is all.

The Incarnations of God

God incarnates himself in the world, whenever there is decline of righteousness and rise of unrighteousness, for the purpose of the protection of the good, the vanquishing of the wicked and establishment of justice in every age.

The theory of divine incarnation has been a controversial issue in the philosophy of religion and has been one of the intriguing questions in theology. It is impossible metaphysically to interpret to the mind of man the divine secret of the movement of spiritual force in the world. When a solution is attempted, the Avatara reveals itself as the answer of God to the needs of man. There is an internal bond of inseparable relation between the relative and the Absolute, and the descent of God on earth is the pressure of the power of truth forcing itself into the realm of the relative when the harmony of this bond and relation gets dissipated by centrifugal psychic energies that seem to run counter to the integrating centripetal call of God to all manifestation. The descent of God as the Avatara is said to be for the ascent of man to his divine home. As the health-giving forces of harmony in the body perpetually wage a war with the disease-producing toxins, the universal balancing power of the Absolute introduces itself as a corrective element amidst the disturbing forces of darkness. The Avatara is a perpetual activity of God who manifests himself at every juncture or critical situation (Yuge, Yuge) in the life of the world. The Avatara is the recurring reminder of God to man that it is impossible for the undivine to triumph over the essential goodness and divinity immanent in creation.

The Secret of Right Action

The Bhagavadgita is the classic treatise on the science of right activity, called karma yoga. Krishna exhorts Arjuna to engage himself in the performance of duty, by regarding pleasure and pain as well as success and failure as equal, for the purpose of rightly directed work is not the achieving of any result for oneself but discharging the duty of cooperation with the law of the Universe. The merit that a right action produces never perishes in time, however small it be, and even the least effort done in the direction of righteousness is capable of saving one from the danger of falling into the bondage of life. One should, for this purpose, go beyond the pairs of opposites like pleasure and pain, by centring oneself in purity of thought achieved through a care-free life of the establishment of consciousness in the Universal Self.

One's duty is only to act and not covet the fruit of action. The secret of right action is in so conducting oneself that there is neither regard for the result of the action nor is there total abstinence from action. But the non-regard to the fruit of action is not to be interpreted as callousness to the performance of duty and a carelessness towards its method and purpose - that would be another form of selfishness - for karma yoga is 'dexterity in execution' and 'balance of mind' in the performance of action. Lest this science of action should be mistaken for mere prudence of behaviour and shrewdness in conduct, Krishna adds that all action is to be done after fixing oneself in yoga and detaching oneself from any ulterior motive behind it. And yoga is the equanimous settling of oneself in the consciousness of God.

No one would gain anything by trying to cease from action, because no one can remain without action even for a moment, as everyone is forcibly driven to it by the properties of Prakriti whose very nature is to evolve increasingly into higher levels of being. There is no point in maintaining an inactivity of the body while the mind and the senses are engaged in the quest of their objects. It is true karma yoga when one engages oneself in outward action in keeping with the way of the world, while the mind and the senses are under perfect control. The purpose of work is not the achievement of any selfish end but participation in the cooperative activity of creation. Society everywhere lives on cooperation, the mechanism of the body works on cooperation, the world is an embodiment of mutual cooperation, the solar and stellar systems have their meaning in cooperation, the universe with all its contents is a dramatic scene of an all-round cooperative process. This marvellous system of the universal government becomes intelligible in the concept of the Virat-Purusha or God as the Cosmic Person described in the Purusha-Sukta of the Veda and the Vishvarupadarsana of the Gita.

The responsibility to work is said to cease only in the case of him who is satisfied with the Self and delights in the Self and is contented with the Self. For him there is nothing to achieve and it is immaterial whether he does anything or not, as he has absolutely no dependence on anything in the world. This extraordinary condition of non-action propounded in the Gita is not to be taken as a licence for inactivity of any kind. For the so-called inaction of the knower of the Self is the highest form of action. Noteworthy is the qualification 'he has absolutely no dependence'. It is humanly impossible for anyone not to depend on the world for something or the other, and man depends on society for his sustenance, on his relations for timely help, on the government for his protection, and on the bounties of Nature for his very existence. The state of consciousness to which Krishna refers in this description of the sage delighting in the Self is not any conceivable bodily condition, but is the state of the transcendence of individuality in Universal Being. Naturally, work ceases to have meaning in Universal Consciousness. But work cannot cease in the case of anyone who feels that he exists in a world.

The great wisdom of action is expressed in the immortal enunciation of its technique that the wise one should engage himself in action outside without attachment inside, in the same way as the ignorant one does it with attachment; nor should the wise one condemn the erroneous acts of the ignorant, because such condemnation would, instead of educating them, mislead them into a state of dispiritedness and lack of zest in life. The duty of the wise is to encourage the ignorant and not to rob them of their faith, for the educative process is a rise from the lower to the higher understanding and not an outward compulsion. What mars the spirit of right action is selfishness in the form of passion, anger and greed. Freedom from these psychological diseases is real spiritual health. Real action is not bodily movement but inner volition born of desire. One who is freed from it does no action, though he is apparently engaged in it in the ordinary sense. The action which tends to the consuming of individuality in the sacrifice of God-consciousness melts away and does not bind the doer thereof. When one beholds the diversity of beings as rooted in the One, he attains to the Absolute, then and there.

Universal Religion

The religion of the Gita is not a sectarian doctrine relegated to a section of humanity but a call of the One God to all humanity. While there are those who worship Him in erroneous ways by limiting symbols, they too shall reach Him, if their devotion to the ideals they have set up is exclusive in the sense that it can accommodate or harbour no other thought. Fanaticism in religion arises when there is devotion to one's ideal with hatred for the ideals of others. But this, according to the Gita, is not the way to God, since, thereby, selfishness would stultify the very purpose of religious worship. While the universal religion promises fulfilment of the aspirations of the followers of all paths, it recommends worship of the Universal God, as the ultimate salvation lies in this realisation alone. There is no need to worry about accumulating rich articles for gorgeous rituals, for God is pleased not with the objects offered but with the heart which makes the offering. God is satisfied even with a leaf or flower or a small measure of water offered as token of true devotion unto Him. The duty of the devotee is therefore to dedicate all his actions to God, whether the actions are physical or mental. The God of the Gita declares that He is the same to all in His dealings and even the sinner and the fallen can reach Him with devotion. This is the great gospel of God to man, the religion of man in general, for the sake of the experience of freedom which is immortal.


In two terse verses, the Gita, at the end of its fifth chapter, says: "Shutting out all external objects; fixing the gaze between the eyebrows; regulating the harmonised currents of prana and apana within the nostrils; the senses, mind and intellect restrained; with moksha as the supreme Goal; free from desire, fear and anger;-such a man of meditation is verily liberated for ever."

The sixth chapter is like a commentary on this aphoristic teaching. In its details, it is declared that no one will become a Yogi who has not renounced the desireful will. Though action is the means for one wishing self-purification leading to the state of meditation, the higher inaction of tranquillity of mind is the means to him who has attained to yoga. He is said to be established in yoga, who has no attachment either to sense-objects or to actions, and has no purpose to serve anywhere, being rid of all volitional motive. The Yogi should practise meditation on the Atman, retiring into solitude, with mind and senses subdued, and free from ambition and possessions. Having established a seat on a clean spot and placing oneself on it, making the mind one-pointed and subduing its activity and the rovings of the senses, let one practise yoga for the purification of oneself. Let him firmly hold his body, head and neck erect and still, with gaze inwardly fixed and looking as if at the tip of his nose, and not glancing around. Fearless, being firm in the vow of Brahmacharya, the Yogi, always steadfast in meditation, attains to the peace residing in God, the peace which is at-one with final liberation. Yoga is not for him who eats too much or too little, not for him who sleeps too much or too little. Yoga comes to him who is moderate in eating and in recreation, in work, sleep and wakefulness. Establishment in the consciousness of the Atman is yoga. This obviously implies freedom from all desires.

As the flame of a lamp in a windless place flickers not, so steady is the mind of the Yogi practising meditation. Where the mind, completely restrained through the practice of meditation, attains quietude, and where seeing the Atman by the Atman, one is satisfied in the Atman; where one feels that infinite bliss, which is super-sensuous and is capable of being comprehended only by the higher understanding; established wherein one does not move even a bit; having obtained which one considers no other gain as superior to that; and wherein established one is not shaken even by heavy sorrow;-that state is to be known as yoga, a state of severance from all pain. This yoga has to be practised with determination, undisturbed by despondency or depression of spirit. When the mind moves away from the ideal for any reason, let it be brought under subjugation, gradually by bringing it back to the Atman, from whatever object it may be thinking. It is here that the Yogi beholds the Atman in all beings and all beings in the Atman.

It is, however, to be reiterated that control of the mind is not so easy as one would imagine in a state of initial enthusiasm. It is turbulent, fickle, powerful and unyielding. It will not listen to threats and cannot be brought round by cajoling. Hard indeed is the task of the Yogi. But by practice (Abhyasa) and dispassion (Vairagya) it is possible to bring it to concentration on the Atman. An undisciplined and unprincipled person cannot hope to achieve success in yoga. One who strives to practise yoga is never a loser, but always a gainer, and even if he dies in his attempt, he will be reborn under conditions suitable for the continuance of the practice left unfinished in the previous life.

It is the opinion of Krishna that even a student of yoga is superior to an expert in theoretical knowledge of the performance of outward ritual. Though it may take, at times, several lives for one to reach the Goal of yoga, there is no doubt that it is possible for everyone without distinction.

The Liberated Sage

The sage with spiritual wisdom, who is liberated from bondage is a Sthitaprajna (established in understanding), Gunatita (risen above the strands of Nature) and a Yogi (unified with the Absolute). He is not depressed in grief or exhilarated in joy, for he is free from desire, fear and anger, due to his understanding being fixed in God. Being devoid of personal love for anything, he neither welcomes nor abhors things when he comes in contact with them in the course of life. While his eyes are fixed on the world, his mind is fixed in God. In ordinary persons, the taste for objects persists though they may be physically absent in his presence; but in him, who has tasted the delight of the Supreme Reality, the taste for objects spontaneously vanishes. The senses, however, are powerful and they drag impetuously even a wise man's mind towards objects. It is necessary, therefore, to be perpetually vigilant in subduing the powers of the senses in contemplation on God. This is the condition of settled understanding. As rivers get merged in the ocean, desires get absorbed in a sublimation of the mind in Divine meditation. It is this inner state of composure that is called moksha or liberation from the thraldom of mortal life. With their intellects fixed in That, with their being absorbed in That, with their life dedicated to That, and depending on That alone, those, whose defects have been removed by the cleansing work of knowledge, reach the Eternal Reality. Seeing the diversity of characters, whether in a learned savant or a low-caste, a cow, a dog or an elephant, the sage of equal vision recognises the Divine Presence in them all, without disturbing the course of life based on such difference. Liberation is the attainment of equilibrium of consciousness and it can be realised even here, for Brahman is everything, and is everywhere. The pleasures born of contacts are wombs of pain; they are transient, and hence the wise one does not delight in them. One who has become Brahman attains to the beatitude of Brahman. He is the real Yogi, with inner delight and inner illumination, which lights up all the Universe.

The sage is without hatred, and loves all. Firm in his resolution, he is yet possessed of the tenderest compassion. While wanting nothing for himself, he gives joy to all. He does not shrink away from anything, nor does he cause the world to shrink away from him. While doing all actions, he refrains from taking initiatives, for this is the business of God. Equal to friend and foe, in respect and censure, in heat and cold, pleasure and pain, attached to nothing in the world, speaking little, satisfied with anything that comes of its own accord, having nothing to call his own, steady in meditation on God - he is the sage who is freed for ever.

Death and After

The Lord assures that one who leaves this world, thinking of Him alone, reaches Him, in the end. One's future is governed by one's last thought, at the time of death. As this thought is, however, the cumulative result of what one has been thinking throughout one's life, it is to be understood that one's future life is determined by the nature of the present life taken as a whole. As a bitter tree does not bear a sweet fruit, one's last thought cannot be expected to be a divine one, if the life that precedes it is one of error and wickedness. By its fruit, we know the tree. Whatever one has been contemplating in one's life, that becomes the last thought which fixes the nature of the future life. Whatever one thinks deeply at the time of death, that one becomes in the next life. He who, by the practice of yoga, meditates, in an undivided consciousness, on the Supreme Purusha, resplendent like the Sun, and thinks of Him at the time of his death, with deep concentration, devotion and power of aspiration, reaches Him, the Divine Being. In a concise statement, the Gita says that, by controlling all the senses, by centring the mind in the heart, by drawing the prana to the head, engaged in the practice of yoga, uttering the monosyllable - Om the Brahman - and meditating on Him, he who departs hence, attains the Supreme Goal. There is no return to the consciousness of mortality (samsara) and pain after attaining the Divine Purusha.

The Gita confirms the two paths of the departed soul mentioned in the Upanishads - the northern and the southern - in a more pithy statement of this route. The blessed soul moving towards its salvation is said to course through the Deities of Fire, Light, Day, the bright half of the lunar month and the six months of the northern motion of the Sun. The soul that is destined to return to rebirth passes through the presiding powers of the Smoke, Night, the dark half of the lunar month and the six months of the southern motion of the Sun. The Gita does not throw light on the apparently intricate meaning of these stages of the soul's movement after its departure from the world, and we are left in the same position as in the Upanishads on the subject. In all probability the Northern Path (archiradimarga) and the Southern Path (dhumamarga) are certain mystical experiences of the Soul in the subtler layers of the Cosmos, through which it traverses, determined by the spiritual and non-spiritual tendencies in it, respectively.

In its classification of the three natures of the individual, the Gita makes mention of the fate of the soul in accordance with the predominance of the qualities of Prakriti operating in it. When, through every sensation or perception in the body or personality, the light of intelligence gets radiated, it is to be understood that Sattva is predominant in the person, and meeting death in that condition, one attains to the shining regions attained by those who are knowers of the highest Reality. When greed, restless activity, impulse to undertake initiatives, distraction and longing are seen in a person, it is to be understood that Rajas is predominant, and meeting death in that condition, one is born among those who are attached to activity. When ignorance, inertia, heedlessness and delusion are seen in a person, it is to be understood that Tamas is predominant, and meeting death in that condition, one is born in the wombs of the deluded and the irrational. Those who die in the state of Sattva go to the higher worlds of light, in Rajas to the middle world of action, and in Tamas to the lower world of darkness.

But, when one beholds no agent of activity other than the properties of Prakriti, and knows That which is above the Gunas of Prakriti, one attains to 'My Being', says the Lord in the Gita.

The Spirit of the Bhagavadgita

The Gospel which Krishna bequeaths to humanity is not a cult, religion, or secret creed of any particular faith or community. It concerns not merely some remote otherworldly life, unconnected with practical activity here, but the whole range of experience, and lays down rules for systematic discipline. No aspect or phase of existence is excluded from the scope of the teaching of the Gita. Life is a process which is mysteriously connected with the Universe in all its planes of manifestation. The greatness of the Gita is in the integrality of its approach, the universality of its teaching and the all-comprehensiveness of its theme. The perfect person gives the perfect science of the perfect life. In this conversation between man and God, the hidden relations between them get unravelled and the glorious destiny of man revealed before his eyes.

The Gita discloses the fact that the primary cause of the troubles in which man finds himself is the erroneous notion which he has about his relations with the body and the world, and in the end, with God. The perishable nature of the body, the changing character of the world and the immortal essence of consciousness are forgotten and man clings to the reverse of this truth, thinking that the body and the objects amidst which he is placed have a permanent value and that the Self is a dependent entity entwined in interrelations with things that seem to sustain it. Affection for the objects of the world strikes at the root of the peace that the soul is really seeking, for these loves of the world are false evaluations springing from ignorance. Buddhi or the higher reason should be used in distinguishing the truth and falsehood of experience. Often the reason in the human being is seen to work in cooperation with the senses and becomes their tool, carrying out the function of transmitting to the soul the characteristics of the objects as interpreted by the senses in terms of space, time and externality and degrading experience into body-consciousness. All judgment passed in this fashion is erroneous, as it does not take into consideration the fact of there being a unifying reality transcending objectivity. The higher knowledge comes to the aid of the human reason when the latter is purified by freedom from the shackles of the senses. The reason which reflects sense-experience is different from the reason which draws sustenance from the Atman within and commands the sense-powers, independent of spatial and temporal relations. Discrimination between the real and the apparent is possible only when the light of understanding is thrown on the facts and events which become its contents in experience.

Cessation from physical action is not non-action, for one can be physically inactive and yet be performing actions in a different sense. Vital, emotional and intellectual action is real action. Cessation from actions like these would be real inaction. But man has no freedom to do this. Action is the law of all individual life. One is forced to act by the very nature of one's being. To maintain equanimity in the midst of such activity, one should work in a spirit of self-sacrifice, self-surrender, self-restraint and self-knowledge. The Universe is a living organism and every element in it tends to fulfil the law of its unitariness. The duty of everyone, therefore, is to be conscious of this organic structure of the cosmos and attune oneself to its way of working. The yoga which Krishna teaches is spontaneous action based on the consciousness of the absoluteness of God, the surrender of oneself to God, or one's steadfast concentration on God. Negation of action is not possible, but one can neutralise the effects of action by transmuting it into Yoga. The benefits that one enjoys in life are the products of cooperative action from all things in the Universe and one cannot, therefore, afford to appropriate anything for one's own personal satisfaction.

When knowledge and action blend into a single stream of concentrated force, when Krishna and Arjuna drive forward in unison, seated in one chariot, there are prosperity, victory, happiness and steady polity.