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

Chapter 6: Universal Action

In a single verse which occurs in the fifth chapter of the Bhagavadgita, the gradual stages of the ascent of human perspective are given to us. Yoga-yukto visuddhatma vijitatma jitendriyah, sarvabhuttmabhutatma kurvann api na lipyate. Jitendriyah: ‘One who has restrained the senses.’ This is the definition of a person who has risen above the ordinary prosaic level of attachment to objects. The connection of the senses with objects is so common and apparent that we may almost be said to be living in object-consciousness, and living an object life, a fact that would be obvious. When we analyse our own minds and discover what we are contemplating, all our contemplations are of objects—of this and that and what not. The intention behind this thought of objects is a deluded notion of the senses, that they become enhanced in their dimension by the increase of pleasurable experiences.

The very same chapter in the Gita gives us an insight into the futility of the search for pleasure in objects. Ye hi samsparsaja bhoga duhkha-yonaya eva te, ady-antavantah kaunteya na tesu ramate budhah. There is a beginning and an end for the pleasures of sense. There is anxiety permeating this search for pleasure in objects; anxiety which is equivalent to sorrow, which is present continuously from the beginning to the end in one’s search for pleasure through objects. There is anxiety when the objects are not possessed. Because they are not possessed, there is an anxiety as to when they will be possessed. When they are actually possessed, then there is anxiety as to how long they will be in possession. One would not want to be deprived of this contact, and when there is bereavement of oneself from the objects, one need not explain the grief. Therefore there is grief and sorrow in the beginning, in the middle and in the end. There is no pleasure in the objects, which is practically demonstrated by our daily lives. Wise people do not indulge themselves in this search for object experience. Na tesu ramate budhah: It is the blind senses that, like moths rushing to fire, go headlong into external contact; a contact which they can never establish in this life, for reasons beyond their expectation and knowledge. Hence, it is necessary to control the senses.

Vijitatma jitendriyah: One who has restrained the senses is one who has taken one step towards the goal, risen at least one step above the earth level of object experience, object indulgence and object longing. All spiritual life is a step towards subjectivity of experience, from the externality or objectivity in which we are immersed. Yoga is only this much—a return to subjectivity from objectivity, a subjectivity which will encompass, in the end, all that we regard as the objects of sense. Towards this end the Bhagavadgitaadmonishes us that we have to learn the art of restraining the senses so that we do not live an object life, and we must learn at least the first lesson, the kindergarten lesson, of returning to the subjectivity of experience which is the conditioning factor of all experiences. Jitendriyah, a control over the senses, has to be exercised to the best of one’s possibility. Such a person is called vijitatma, one who has attained self-control.

There is a very marked distinction between these two words used in verse—vijitatma and jitendriyah. On one hand we are told that we have to be controllers of the senses, and then the next step is the control of self—vijitatma. The distinction is very obvious again. The senses are variegated—at least five can be enumerated—but the self is one. Here the ‘self’ referred to is the mind or the psychic apparatus. One who has controlled the senses has to turn back upon the mind and control the mind in its totality, and then he becomes vijitatma. The mind has to be controlled, which is of course more important than a tentative restraint exercised over the independent senses, because the mind is the dynamo which pumps energy into the senses. It is the powerhouse from which proceeds strength to the various centres of cognition. So when there is withdrawal of the energy flowing through the senses by means of sense control, there is an increase in the volume, the content of the energy of the mind.

A self-controlled person is also a sense-controlled person, and vice versa. The one is the same as the other, but the matter is not over here. There is an establishment of the mind in pure sattva when there is the withdrawal of sense energy into the mind by way of consideration and an establishment of oneself in non-distracted attention or concentration. All concentration of sense is distracted attention, but the concentration that we attain to when the senses are withdrawn into the mind is not distracted—it is sattvica. Therefore that state is referred to as visuddhtmta. Visuddhtm vijitatma jitendriyah: We become pure in the literal sense, not only in the ethical or social sense. It is not the ethical righteousness that is spoken of here, but the purity that is of a spiritual character. The resplendence of sattvaguna, the equilibrated condition of the psyche where the Atman within gets reflected as the sun is reflected in a clean mirror, that unity of oneself with one’s own Self is called yoga—yogayuko.

So here, in a half verse, we have a world of significance pumped into our minds, beautifully expressed in pithy language—yogayukto visuddhatma vijitatma jitendriyah. How graduatedly the words are used, systematically. Such a person who has established himself in the Self by means of the withdrawal of the senses from the objects by way of controlling the mind, by means of establishment of oneself in sattva or purity, by getting uniting with the reality within, becomes united with all things in the world.

To be united with your Self is equivalent to uniting with everything else. This is the magnificent outcome of the practice of yoga—to know your Self is to know everybody. This is a wonder indeed, that knowledge which is of the Self—Self-knowledge—is the same as world knowledge. It is equivalent to Universal knowledge. It is brahmasakshatkara. You become sarvabhutatmabhutatma. “He becomes the Self of all beings.” One who has become the Self of one’s own self has, at the same time, become the Self of all beings. To know my Self is to know you and everybody. Such a person acts not while acting, because actions cease to be actions in the case of a person who has ceased to be a person and thereby has ceased to be an agent of action, therefore evoking no consequence of action. This is Universal action; this is the great vision of karma yoga that the Bhagavadgita places before us in a concentrated verse in the fifth chapter.

For this attainment, deep meditation is necessary. The sixth chapter explains to us what meditation is, but prior to that, towards the end of the fifth chapter, we are given a cryptic description of what this yoga is going to be, as it is to be explained in the sixth chapter. Sparsan krtva bahir bhyams caksus caivantare bhruvoh, pranapanau samau krtva nasabhyantara-carinau. Here is a concentrated verse once again. Abandoning all contact that is external, setting aside all externality and freeing the senses and the mind from contamination with externality, fix one’s attention in the middle of the eyebrows. This teaching has, again, invoked many explanations and commentaries. What does it mean to fix the attention in the middle of the eyebrows? Physically, it is very clear. We concentrate psychically on the centre that is between the eyebrows. There are a variety of meanings implied in this instruction. According to the science of the psyche, the seat of the mind is supposed to be the centre described here, as that lying between the two eyebrows, sometimes called the ajnachakra. Here is the seat of the intellect or the reason, and to concentrate on the seat of the intellect is to bring it down under control. The science which expatiates on this theme tells us that the ajnachakra, that point between the eyebrows, is the penultimate point leading up to the crown of the head, which is supposed to be symbolically representative of cosmic experience.

Now, this is an esoteric teaching which has psycho-biological implications, with a spiritual profundity at the background. The various phases of the moon, which are fifteen in number counted through the bright half and the dark half of the lunar month, as we call it, are connected with the various plexuses in the system of the body, and the digits of the moon are regarded as representative of the digits in the psychic body, which are the plexuses or centres, called the chakras. They are not in the physical body, though they have an impact upon the corresponding centres in the physical body. According to this doctrine, the ajnachakra is the location of the blossomed intellect or the mind when it is fully awakened from the slumber of earth-consciousness and is about to wake up into the consciousness of the super-physical. This is perhaps the reason why this point is recommended as suitable for concentration, one having withdrawn the attention from the externals in the earlier stages.

Pranapanau samau krtva—there is another difficult technique. Following this advice, the process of breathing through the nostrils is constituted of the prana and the apana flowing through the nervous system, which is twofold in character, known as ida and pingala. This dual breathing through the two nostrils is the cause of distraction of the mind, swinging the attention from the subject to the object and from object to the subject, an alternate attention being thrust towards the object or the subject at different times on account of the ebb and flow of the prana, like the rise and fall of the waves of the ocean. This has to be curbed by a centralised breathing, which is the equanimity to be established between the two flows of ida and pingala. This equanimous breathing is called is the entry of the prana into the central nervous system, called the sushumna. They are all invisible nervous centres that cannot be seen with the eyes. This central breathing is connected with a central way of thinking, which means thinking neither the subject nor the object. Neither are you to concentrate on your personality, your own body, your own individuality as all in all, nor are you to concentrate on an object outside as if it is everything. The truth is in the middle between subject and object, as sushumna is between ida and pingala.

This equalisation of the breath between the ida and pingala by driving it into the sushumna is called the practice of kumbhaka, a stoppage of the breathing arrived at either by alternate breathing, known usually as sukha purvak pranayama, with which we are already acquainted, or by a sudden stoppage of breath which is called kevala kumbhaka—we neither breathe in nor breathe out. Various types of kumbhaka are mentioned in systems like the sutras of Patanjali, for instance. Either the breath can be held by alternate breathing, or after expulsion, or after inhalation, or suddenly. Generally, the sudden stopping is regarded as the highest type of kumbhaka, where we do not think too much about the breathing process, but hold it by a sudden attention fixed upon the object of our meditation.

So, pranapanau samau krtva nasabhyantara-carinau, yatendriya-mano-buddhir. Here is the masterstroke of yoga, which rises above what I already have said. There has to be a totality of unitedness of the senses, the mind and the intellect. This is very important and hard to comprehend. Like three brothers working in unison in a single family, with one thought though the brothers are three, the senses, the mind and the intellect have to engage themselves in a single practice of absorption of oneself in the object of meditation. When the senses stand together with the mind, and the intellect does not operate, it is called the supreme yoga. When the five senses stand together with the mind, that condition is called pratyahara or the withdrawal of sense energy into the mind. Generally the senses operate independently of the mind, as children working independently of the parents. They are not united with the parents. Pratyahara is the union of the senses in the mind in such a way that it appears that the senses have become the mind itself. There is no distinction between the senses and the mind, and we do not know which is operating at a particular moment. The eyes do not see and the ears do not hear, etc., independently, but they combine to perform a single function of attention through the mind, so that it is the mind that sees and hears, not the eyes and ears. It is a supernormal perception, and the intellect talks from logical deliberations. The intellect ceases from argumentative activity and merges itself in this central function which is the head of all the senses, the mind as well as the intellect. When such unison takes place—yatendriya-mano-buddhir munir moksha-paryanah—one becomes a real muni, a really silent person. The silence of the mind is real mouna, where the mind ceases to think of objects, whereas in ordinary verbal mouna the mind may think of objects; though the speech may not express objects through language, but the mind does think of objects. But the mind has to stop thinking of objects—that is yoga, and that is real mouna. One becomes a real muni when this state is attained; one becomes yatendriya-mano-buddhir munir, restrained in the senses, the mind and the intellect.

Moksha-paryanah—here is another glorious message for us. You have to be yearning for liberation. Your aspiration for moksha is the masterstroke. It is the forte before you in yoga which dissolves the senses, the mind and the intellect at one stroke. As mist dissolves before the sun, the senses, the mind and the intellect dissolve, as it were, in a flow of moksha-consciousness. In this state your soul is surging forth into infinity. Your heart is yearning to attain union with the Absolute, like the calf running to the mother cow that it had lost, like a river rushing towards the ocean, not resting quiet until it reaches the ocean. As you gasp for breath when you are being drowned in water, so is the soul to surge forth to that great destination called moksha, or liberation of the spirit, in the absolute Brahman. This longing is the panacea for all ills of human life. This desire for moksha is the destruction of all desires. It is the self-consummation of oneself, and the consuming of oneself in the fire of longing for that state where all longing ceases. To desire the atman is to end all desires. It burns up every longing which is extraneous. Vigateccha-bhaya-krodho yah sada mukta eva sah: Such a person is automatically freed from likes and dislikes. There is no need of any comment on this subject; it follows spontaneously. Such a person is already liberated even while alive in this world. These two verses are so grand and magnificent before us, occurring towards the end of the fifth chapter of the Gita, introducing us into the larger exposition of the sixth chapter where dhyana yoga or meditation is described.

What is meditation? It is the centring of oneself in one’s Self, the transferring of the object into the Self and the Self into the object, so that the two become one. Sometimes this state is called samadhi. A proper balancing of the subject and the object is samadhi; a complete equilibrium is samadhi. This is attained through meditation, dhyana. For this purpose you have to understand what is the object of dhyana—what meditation is. On what are you going to concentrate? People are very enthusiastic about meditation; they want to meditate, but on what? That is not clear because there are umpteen things in the world on which you can concentrate and absorb yourself. Here, in the language of yoga at least, meditation means meditation on the ultimate reality of things; not on the forms which are passing, not on the shapes of things which come and go, not on the illusory presentation of the phenomena of the world, but on that which lies as the background of phenomena. The noumenom is the object of meditation, not the phenomenon. What is this noumenom? In the language of the Bhagavadgita, the noumenom is referred to as the Atman of things. The selfhood or the being that is at the root of all things is called the Atman. The contemplation or the meditation prescribed in the sixth chapter of the Gita is on the Atman of things, as was mentioned in the earlier verse in the fifth chapter that we spoke about.

Self-knowledge leads to all knowledge. Meditation on the Self does not mean meditation on one’s own self; such a thing is not, because it has been mentioned already that one who has become the Self of one’s own self has also become the Self of all—sarvabhutatmabhutatma. So, to meditate on one’s Self is to meditate on all selves—the totality of selves. But one has to understand what this ‘Self’ is before one can embark on this great adventure of meditation.

Yada hi nendriyarthesu na karmasv anusajjate, sarva-sankalpa-sannyasi yogrudhas tadochyate. In one sense, without going into much detail, the Bhagavadgita tells us in this verse in the sixth chapter that one can be regarded as established in yoga, yogarudha, when certain conditions are fulfilled. A very few but very important of these are mentioned. When one is not attached to or is not clinging to any object of sense or even to the action that one performs, and abandons all initiative whatsoever, either internally or externally—that person can be regarded as having established himself in yoga. So you can imagine what yoga is from this verse, which can be considered as a psychological definition of yoga. The more advanced metaphysical and spiritual definitions will come afterwards. Here we have a purely psychological definition: not to be clinging to objects, not to cling even to karma or the action that one performs, and to also abandon the volition that is behind the mental activity of clinging, whether to objects or to actions.

There are two types of attachments—attachment to objects and attachment to actions. Both of these are taken into consideration here. One is not to be attached to either of these—either to the object or to the action. We have the feeling that a particular object is desirable and a particular action is desirable. Now, this desirability of the object or the action arises on account of a sense of agency in oneself, doership, which is the root ill of the whole of human life. The consciousness of agency or doership is the fear of suffering, because whether it is attachment to objects or attachment to actions, it stands as an attachment, which means to say, a movement of the mind towards some external location other than the Self that is non-externalised. In this externalisation of the mind by way of attachment to objects and actions, there is an automatic reaction set up, because reaction to action is nothing but the corollary that follows from interference with the law of the cosmos. Just as a DC current of electricity can give us a kick when we touch it because there is a repulsion automatically created on account of our contact with the flow of electric energy, for reasons which electrical engineers know very well—the law of electricity is such—likewise, there is a system that is operating in the cosmos, a system which is known as rita, in the language of the Vedas. The dharma which we usually speak of, the great righteousness of the cosmos, the virtue that we are acquainted with, the goodness that we are speaking of, whatever it is—the great principle of rectitude which operates in an equilibrated manner throughout the universe is interfered with when there is self-affirmation by way of consciousness of agency in action and consciousness of a desire for objects outside. This interference is paid back in its own coin by the karmaphala, or the nemesis, as we call it.

So when this ceases, one becomes a super-individual person. No individual can escape the consequence of action, inasmuch as to be conscious of individuality is also to be conscious of agency of action. So to withdraw oneself from the consciousness of agency in action is to rise above the consciousness of individuality itself. It follows that when there is no individual volition, sarva-sankalpa-sannyasi takes place. Such a person is established in yoga—yogarudhas tadochyate. Here is the initial instruction on the practice of meditation in the sixth chapter of the Bhagavadgita.