The Spiritual Import of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

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Chapter 4: The Cosmic Manifestation

The turmoil in the mind of Arjuna, described in the first chapter of the Bhagavadgita, is attributed by Bhagavan Sri Krishna to an absence of correct understanding. Every sorrow which sinks the heart is regarded, in the light of higher thinking, as a consequence of inadequate knowledge. Man is not born to suffer; it is joy that is his birthright. It is hammered into our minds again and again that our essential nature is not grief, and therefore to manifest grief cannot be the manifestation of our essential nature. Sorrow is not our birthright; it does not belong to our true substance. What we are really made of is not capable of being affected by sorrow of any kind. There is a deep quintessence in the heart of every person which defies contamination by sorrow of every type. Hence, the great point made out by Bhagavan Sri Krishna is that the sorrow of Arjuna is unbecoming of the knowledge that would be expected of a person of his kind. What is this knowledge that we are lacking, whose absence is the source of our sorrows? Whatever be the nature of sorrow, it is just sorrow—a kind of agony that the individual feels.

This sorrow is due to a lack of knowledge of samkhya, says the second chapter of the Gita. Samkhya is correct understanding. This Arjuna did not have; therefore he was grieving. There is a necessity for enlightening the buddhi or intellect with the wisdom of the Samkhya philosophy. In the ancient Indian system of thinking, samkhya has been considered as knowledge of reality. Knowledge of things as they are is called samkhya. What is this word samkhya? We may have heard words like samkhyatikari in governmental circles. The Auditor General or the chief of the statistics department is called samkhyatikari. Samkhya is a number, calculation, counting, categorising, etc. Perhaps the word samkhya has come from the fact of its having been based on the categories of the items involved in the process of the evolution of what they call prakriti.

The word prakriti occurs for the first time in the third chapter of the Bhagavadgita. To explain what this knowledge or samkhya could be, the Teacher of the Gita introduces us to the principle of what He calls prakriti. It would be worthwhile going into some detail as to what these categories which the samkhya hangs upon are, one of whose principal categories being prakriti itself. The Gita uses the term prakriti oftentimes, and the Samkhya philosophy has the term prakriti as its main principle of exposition. What is prakriti which is the forte of the Samkhya, what are these categorisations of samkhya, the ‘numberings’ from which it has assumed its name? According to the philosophy of the Samkhya, which the Bhagavadgita accepts, in one of its phases prakriti is the substance of the cosmos. The stuff out of which the world is made is called prakriti. It is a general term, designating the matrix of all things. The basic building bricks of the cosmos are variations of prakriti.

We are told by the Samkhya that prakriti is constituted of three sources into which it modifies itself. We do not know how to translate the word guna which appears in the Samkhya system. We can safely say they are powers, forces of nature which is prakriti. These forces or powers are conditions into which prakriti casts itself at the very inception of the process of evolution, and are known as sattva, rajas, and tamas. When there is an equilibration of all forces, these three aspects of prakriti do not reveal themselves independently. This condition where the three exist in harmony is called samyavastha, where one cannot say what is and what is not. Often philosophers compare this cosmic condition of equilibrium of the gunas of prakriti to the deep sleep of the individual. Though in many respects the two are different, in some way we can say they are like the sleep of the individual in the sense that there is an oblivion of everything. Yet a presence of everything is there in seed form. All the activities, all the impulses, all the powers of action of the individual are imbedded in a potential state in the condition of sleep.

Likewise, all that is going to be the universe to come is present in a potential form in the samyavastha, or the equilibrated condition of the cosmos—prakriti- mulaprakriti in its primordial state. Sattva, rajas and tamas in this cosmical sense are different from the ethical qualities to which we attribute these characteristics. We say a person is sattvic or rajasic or tamasic, by which we mean a person is manifesting goodness or distraction or inertia. But in this cosmic sense, sattva, rajas, and tamas are far beyond the human concept. They are not ethical principles. There is no morality in prakriti—it is an impersonal power and it becomes a characteristic of judgment only when it is individualised subsequently. No question of judgment is possible in a cosmic set-up. It is difficult to explain what sattva, rajas and tamas could be in a cosmic state. We can only say they are something like the powers or forces which physics envisage in the modern sense of the term. They are not individuals and cannot be characterised by individual terminology. A condition in which all the forces of nature collaborate into action in a harmonious manner is prakriti.

Now, these cosmic aspects of prakritisattva, rajas, and tamas—further evolve themselves into subsidiary categories. The Vedanta and the Samkhya vary a little bit in their description of this process. However, there is not much of a difference; there is a little difference in their way of interpretation. The very purpose of the segmentation of prakriti into the characteristics of sattva, rajas, and tamas is the separating of the cosmos into the subjective side and the objective side. Creation cannot be meaningful unless there is an experience of an object. Creation begins the moment there is a consciousness of an object in front of the experiencer. When the object is absent, only the subject exists—there is no creation. The very inception of creation is the beginning of the consciousness of an object. The purpose of this categorisation of prakriti into these segmentations of forces is therefore the division in the cosmos into the subjective side and the objective side. The rajas, in its cosmical activity, catalyses the whole substance of prakriti into individualities. These are what are called the jivas. They are of various gradations and they are said to belong to almost an infinite variety of species. It is said there are eighty-four lakhs (8,400,000) of yonis or species of creation of individualities. These individuals are the experiences of the objective universe. The objective universe is also, in substance, the prakriti itself.

It is said that, to speak in the language of the Samkhya, the sattva of prakriti enables the reflection of purusha, or the universal consciousness, through itself. When this universal consciousness of the purusha reflects itself through the cosmic sattva of prakriti, it becomes what the Samkhya calls mahatmahatattva. It is the cosmic intellect. We may compare it with the hiranyagarbha of the Vedanta; we may compare it to Brahma, the Creator, in the language of the Puranas. This cosmic intellect or mahatattva concretises itself further into a cosmic individuality, and that is called ahamkara. It is not the ahamkara that I have or you have. It is a cosmic principle of self-consciousness. It is not the individual self-sense that we are speaking of here. It is an unintelligible cosmic situation where the cosmic intelligence is said to become self-aware—’I am’ or ‘I am that I am’—’aham asmi’. This is the cosmic ahamkara, comparable with the virat of the Vedanta.

Then there is a division. The prakriti, in its tamasic aspect, becomes the cause of what are known as tanmatras—shabda, sparsha, rupa, rasa, ghanda—which means the intangible powers that are behind the sensations of hearing, touching, seeing, tasting and smelling. These are the subtle powers which are behind objects, which elicit reactions from our sense organs in these manners. These tanmatras, by a kind of permutation and combination, become the cause of the five gross elements—earth, water, fire, air, and ether. This process of permutation and combination is called panchikarana, a peculiar term which implies a quintuplication of these tanmatras to constitute five elements.

Now, this objective universe is not completely severed from the subjective experiences, on account of the two being the limbs of prakriti herself. The perception of the objective universe by an individual is made possible by the presence of an intermediary link that is called the presiding deity or the adhidaivata of the mind, intellect, sense organs, etc. Thus, there does not appear that there is a real gulf between the seer and the seen. They are somehow made to appear as if one is different from the other, but the fact of their being children of the same mother, the cosmic prakriti, precludes any idea of their total isolation, one from the other. Not merely that; there is a connecting link between the seer and the seen. The sense organs and the mind also are constituted of these tanmatras, the very same substance of which the physical cosmos is made. These tanmatras again are subdivided into secondary sattva, rajas, and tamas. The sattvic portions of each of the five tanmatras become the causes or substances behind the five senses of knowledge—hearing, seeing, etc. The five put together become the substance of the mind or the antakarana. The rajasic secondary principles of the tanmatras become independently the cause of the five organs of action—grasping, locomotion, etc. Put together they become the pranas—prana, apana, vyana, udana, and samana. And in the tamasic aspect they become this body.

So what is there, in this personality, which is not in the outer world? Whatever the world is made of outwardly is also the substance of this individuality. The gunas, which are the substances of prakriti, are present in the individual experiencer and also in the objects of perception. So the Bhagavadgita says: guna gunesu vartanta—the gunas operate upon the gunas. The eyes see, the ears hear, the tongue tastes, the skin touches, and the nose smells. How it is possible for these senses to function in this manner? The possibility is on account of the fact of the collaboration that already exists basically between the senses and the objects outside, on account of the fact that both are evolutes of the same tanmatrasshabda, sparsha, rupa, rasa and ghanda.

So, the judgment of Arjuna in respect to the world outside, which he declares in the first chapter of the Gita, needs an emendation. What is judgment? It is a reading of meaning into the object by a particular subject; an interpretation of values by investing them with characteristics from outside. But this judgment implies an isolation of the subject from the object. If you are a part of the object itself, the judgment would be difficult. Just as a judge cannot decide in a case if he himself is involved with the parties, if he himself is a client, the judgment of the intellect becomes ultimately untenable. Though acceptable in the beginning stages, ultimately it is not acceptable, because it is impossible to see any meaning in any judgment unless the subject is isolated from the object. But the two are not so isolated; hence there is a mistake committed by every subject in passing judgment on anything. “Judge not lest you be judged.” The cosmos will judge you if you, as an individual, begin to judge objects. Hence Arjuna’s judgment of values was not acceptable to the cosmic sense of Bhagavan Sri Krishna. Prakriti, which is universally spread out everywhere in space and time, is also beyond space and time. It being the sum and substance of both the objective side and the subjective side, there comes about a necessity to see things in a new light altogether. This new light is called samkhya. We have to visualise things as constituents of prakriti, not forgetting the fact that we are also a constituent thereof. This implies a necessity to rise gradually from the individual placement of values to a cosmic placement of values. Every judgment becomes a cosmic judgment.

It is difficult therefore to know anything unless we know everything. To know anything completely would mean to know everything completely. Only the cosmic mind can know all things correctly, and its judgment alone can be called correct. “So Arjuna, your statements are based on your notion that you are a human being belonging to a class and category, an individual among many others, separate entirely from the objective world—which is not true.” Hence, a transvaluation of values becomes necessary. The individual has to rise up to the occasion, and the occasion is the recognition of the involvement of the very judge himself in the circumstance of judgment. Well, if this is the truth, what is the duty of the individual under this condition? One cannot act, one cannot move, one cannot even think perhaps, if it is to be accepted that the thinker is inseparable from that which is thought. The answer of Sri Krishna is, “It is not like that. This again is an individual’s judgment, that in that condition no action is possible.” We are imagining that in a cosmic state of things one would be inert, and no activity of any kind would be possible.

There is a transcendental type of activity which the human mind in its present state cannot understand, and that is the significance behind the great gospel of the karma yoga of the Gita. Karma yoga can be said to be a transcendental action. It is not my action or your action; it is not activity in a commercial sense. It is an activity which is commensurate with the law of the cosmos. It is, again, an activity which is based on samkhyabuddhi—we have not to forget this point. The enlightenment of the samkhya, to which we made reference earlier, is the basis of this action called ‘yoga’ in the Bhagavadgita. The karma yoga of the Gita is therefore divine action, in one sense. It is not human action, because the human sense of values gets overcome, transcended in the visualisation of the involvement of the seer in the seen universe. Every thought becomes a kind of universal interpretation of things, and every action becomes a universal action. That action is divine action, and universal action is God acting—the two are not separate—and this action cannot produce reaction. Therefore there is no bondage in performing this kind of action.

Why does it not produce any reaction? Because the force of action is not separate from the result of the action; it is not even separate from the process of action. Brahmarpanam brahma havir brahmagnau brahmana hutam, brahmaiva tena gantavyam brahma-karma- samadhina: The performer, the process of performance and the aim to which it is directed are basically connected by a link of—we may call it prakriti, we may call it purusha, we may call it Brahman—whatever is the name we give to it, there is a sum and substance which is at the root of all things. So karma yoga is an uplifted action of a highly transformed character based on the visualisation of God Himself, as it were, of the universal nature of the life that we live.

This is a very difficult thing. Anybody would say it is an impossibility, because our desires are so strong. We have impulses in us which tie us down to the body and to the society in which we are living. We have hunger and thirst and the urge to sleep; we are fatigued, we have anger, we have passions, we have jealousies, and we have every blessed thing. These impulses within us, which are inseparable from the nature of our mind itself, prevent us, or certainly hinder us, from contemplating any such possibility along the lines indicated here.

No mind can think in this manner because of the desires that are inside us—intense desire, which also, when it is frustrated, becomes intense anger. Desire and anger—these will not allow us to contemplate in this manner. Either we have desire or we have anger; one of the two is always there. We cannot be free from both. But they are one and the same thing appearing in two ways—anger and desire are not two things. When Arjuna queried, “What is this obstruction to this visualisation that you are proclaiming?” Bhagavan Sri Krishna said, “Desire and anger are the obstacles.” They are all-swallowing, all-devouring, fire-like, and insatiable. They can destroy anything, and as long as these are there it will not be possible for the higher mind to work, because as smoke is able to cover the brilliance of fire, the light of higher reason is clouded by the smoke of these desires and impulses. “Well then, what is the state of the individual? On one side you say this; on the other side you say that. On one side you say there is no alternative but to think in a cosmic manner. On the other hand we are told, at the same time, that these impulses will not allow us to think like this. Is there a remedy?”

There is a remedy, because the locations of these desires are the senses, the mind and the intellect. These are the harbingers of desire and anger. Therefore it is necessary to restrain the senses, the mind and the intellect. Desire is nothing but an urge of the individual to move towards objects. It is like the impulse of the river to move towards something outside, say the ocean which is its object. The individual, in its finitude of consciousness, in its agony of being conditioned to the body, cries to come out of itself; and in its attempt to come out of itself and unite itself with others, hugs objects of sense and runs to them. This urge or impulse of the individual to run to outside objects for the purpose of assimilating them into himself—that is called desire—and these desires are channelised through the sense objects and propelled by the mind, sanctioned by the intellect. So these three are the arch devils, we may say, or arch angels which are behind this activity of desire.

The senses are controlled and directed by the mind, and the mind works according to the understanding of the intellect. The one is higher than the other. Higher than the senses is the mind, and higher than the mind is the intellect. So by the power of the mind, the senses can be restrained. But how can the mind have the power to control the senses, when the intellect passes judgment that such-and-such thing is the proper thing? So the intellect has to be approached, and it has to put a check upon the mind itself; and, sympathetically, the mind puts a check on the senses. But the problem arises—how will the intellect permit this process? It is the intellect that creates this mistake, and yet it is said that the intellect itself should restrain the mind, and the mind has to control the senses. The intellect sees a division between itself and the world outside. It is the creator of logic of every kind, and therefore it sees a gulf between itself and things outside. How will it permit the control of the senses by the mind?

Therefore, the great Teacher of the Gita says: “You have to resort to a higher power.” There is something higher than the intellect, where the subject and the object are cemented together in a complete whole of integration. That is the Atman. The Atman is the purusha of the Samkhya, ultimately. This universal principle, when we resort to it by the power of a higher reason—we have to remember that within us there is a higher reason also, apart from the lower intellect which sees divisions in things—with the help of this higher reason which reflects the universal Atman in us, we can bridge this gulf between subject and object created by the lower intellect. And when this gulf is bridged, the desire for objects of the senses automatically gets sublimated into the higher consciousness of this basic connection between the subject and the object. This is a very difficult practice, but it is a must—the essence of yoga is only this much. Here I have endeavoured to place before you the sum and substance of the third chapter of Bhagavadgita.