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

Chapter 17: The Vision of God

We have to retrace the steps of our thinking from where we commenced at the very initial chapter of the Bhagavadgita, in which was described the great complexity of the social approach to things. From that point there was a gradual withdrawal of consciousness tending towards the integration of the whole individual, with a further purpose of tuning the integrated individual to the set-up of the whole universe. These were practically the stages of the development of thought through the various chapters of the Bhagavadgita, right from the first chapter until the commencement of the seventh. Then there was an intensification of the idea that God indwells the created universe in a transcendent manner—unreachable, inaccessible and capable of attainment only after the shedding of the mortal coil. Thereafter we were told that, together with the transcendence of God, He also maintains an immanence of His presence throughout creation in various degrees of manifestation. These degrees were further explained in the tenth chapter, whereby we were given to understand that superb excellences of any kind, genius of any type, or an excess of knowledge or power visible in the world anywhere, at any time, under any condition, may be considered to be a ray of God’s glory.

But that God is more than all this is yet to be told. The curiosity of the seeker is stirred up when he is told that, the omnipresence of God notwithstanding, His presence is capable of being recognised and felt only in superior excellences of manifestation. But the character of omnipresence remains to be explained. That which is equanimously present everywhere is certainly existent not merely in the superior manifestations of visible glory, but also in invisible forms which may lie at the background of these particularised manifestations of superior glory. The consciousness of the seeker is yet to be awakened to a height of consternation where it should become impossible for the knowing subject to comprehend this all-inclusive object, namely, the Supreme Godhead. Up to this time God was somehow or other kept at arm’s length in spite of the acceptance by the subject of the all-inclusiveness of the Almighty, the omnipresence of God, and the impossibility of anything existing without the background of God’s existence. There was a little bit of theoretical acquiescence, together with a practical need felt to keep God at a distance from one’s own self, which is mostly the compromise which consciousness makes even in high forms of religious practice. The love of the self is the greatest of loves, and nothing can equal it. Thus, as long as the self is maintained as an isolated reality, the love for it also remains isolated from the love of God—whatever be the extent of our acceptance of the fact of God’s all-inclusive omnipresence. It is finally not acceptable to the root of the ego to be told that it should exist no more in order that God may exist. This sort of sermon would be the last thing that the ego of man can accept. Who would be pleased to be told that he is going to be shattered to pieces, even if the destruction of the personality be by a hailstorm of divine grace?

The human element in Arjuna was partially awakened to a curious, inquisitive mood when the glories of God were delineated in the tenth chapter. The great Master, as a divine incarnation, said that all glorious elements, wherever present, are to be adored as His manifestations in one form or the other. The curiosity consists in the desire to visualise this omnipresent form; otherwise it remains merely as a kind of acceptance, and not a vision and an attainment or a possession.

Whereas up to this time the gospel went on along the lines of instruction and enlightenment of the reason and the highest individual faculties available, now the religious consciousness gets roused up, which surpasses the rationality of the individual in many respects. The intuitive faculty is to be splashed forth, wherein the individual faculties of perception, cognition, emotion, volition and the like are to be brought together into a totality and a blend, and made to work in such a way that they cease to be independent faculties. The vision of the One is not possible through means that are distracted or diversified—the intellect working in one direction, the emotions in another direction, the social consciousness in a third direction, the physical appetites in a fourth direction, and so on. The aloneness of the individual alone can confront the aloneness of God. This solitariness of consciousness is to be awakened in order that the solitary Absolute can be encountered. The psychic faculties are to be melted in the stream of the intuitive cognitive faculty.

The vision of God is the intuition of the supreme Absolute. It is not a perception; it is not seen as we see an object. God is not seen with open eyes, and not heard with the ears. These sense organs, which give knowledge of things, diversify the objects and cut off colour from sound and sound from color, smell from taste, and so on, whereas in the vision of God all sense faculties join together, so that it is taste, smell, sound, colour—everything. It is not merely a colour that we see when we see God, not merely a sound that we hear, not merely a taste, not a smell. It is also not merely a total of these perceptions. We are incapable of even imagining what sort of experience it would be, if all the senses simultaneously act at one stroke. That means to say, if we were to be endowed with a faculty which is sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch altogether, what would be the kind of feeling in us? At present our sensations come in succession. We see and hear and smell and taste and touch, one after the other, and they are not commingled in one single act of awareness. Hence, we cannot even imagine what God-consciousness can be.

The awakening of the self to Godhood is not only to be understood in the sense of a total action of all sense perceptions at one instantaneous moment, but also the joining together of the thinking faculty, the rationality, the feeling and the volition all together. Not all together like a multitude of people or an isolated totality of individual particularities, but a blend of a mass of honey wherein the pollen of different flowers cannot be singly perceived or isolated one from the other. We have a condensed mass of sweetness in the honey where we do not know the constituents of which the honey has been manufactured by the bees. Likewise is God-experience. It is not thinking and reasoning and feeling and seeing and hearing, etc., one after the other coming in succession. It is an instantaneous, timeless awakening into a cognition which is the same as the experience of Being.

All this will be only a jumble of words for us, without any meaning and substance, because we are not accustomed to think along these lines. All this remains merely as a theory, a kind of textbook lecture or a scriptural gospel for us. Yet, the awakening has to take place, and everyone is after that. So, the faculties of the individual, Arjuna, were awakened up to the borderline of the perception of the Absolute through the intuition of the soul. The soul knowing things is called intuition—we do not call it perception or sensation or cognition and the like. The word ‘intuition’ is used in a very special sense and not in a Western psychological sense. It is immediate awareness, or as they sometimes say, non-mediate awareness. No mediation of the senses is necessary there. There is no need of the mediation even of the mind, and no need of the mediation of the intellect or reason—we have not to exert through the faculties of knowledge. All exertion ceases, and the whole personality gets gathered up. This happens at the time of death, in swoon, in deep sleep and in God-vision. At all other times we are distracted.

Having been stirred up into the height of curiosity to know this invisible Almighty, Arjuna, in glorifying Him, requests the great Master of the Bhagavadgita to bestow upon him this blessing of the vision of That about which so much has been told up to this time. “Am I fit to have the vision of this glorious Almighty? If, O Blessed One, you deem it proper that I be brought face to face with this solacing eternity, I shall regard myself as highly blessed indeed.” Now, this is a condition where the properties of prakriti, to which reference was made in earlier chapters of the Gita, work in a curious manner. The distracting force of prakriti known as rajas, and the stultifying power known as tamas are completely overcome; they are subdued by the force of sattva, which is transparent like a clean glass through which light passes in such a way that one cannot even perceive the existence of this reflecting media. Intuition is not the same as identity with the Absolute. The sattva of the mind is still supposed to be present. While we can behold the sun through a clean glass, the glass is still there, no doubt, as a kind of obstruction, notwithstanding the fact that it is a transparent medium through which the whole object can be seen as if it is not obstructed in any manner. The whole person is bathed in the light of the object.

Then, at the request of this prepared aspirant in the highly purified individuality of Arjuna, the glorious vision splashes forth—that is the subject of the eleventh chapter. The whole description in this chapter is poetic, because there is no other way of explaining this vision. Whatever be the power of our expression, we will fail in our attempt to properly express the significance of this divine vision. Hence there is only an outline or an indication thereof given to us by mighty images and glorious poetic expressions, thrilling feelings conveyed through the vehicle of language, which is mightily done in the eleventh chapter by the great author. Suddenly there is a transfiguration, and the Krishna who spoke vanishes, as it were, from the sight of the beholding Arjuna. There is a waking up from dream, as it were; a shaking up of oneself from the sleep of the ego, and Arjuna begins to hear voices from all sides: “Look at me.” This “look at me” expression comes from every nook and corner of all places, and he does not know who is speaking from which side.

Mighty-faced forms reveal themselves in every atom of space. Solar rays, as it were, burst forth through every speck of the atmosphere, and the poet tells us that it is difficult to say what sort of light it was. It was not like the light we have ever seen or can imagine in our minds. Well, the most brilliant light that we can think of in this world is sunlight; we do not know any light which is superior to sunlight. So, to drive home into our minds the infinite superiority of this divine light, the author tells us to imagine the extent of the brilliance of a thousand suns rising at once in the sky. Can we imagine what it could be—thousands of suns rising suddenly in the sky at one stroke? If we can imagine such a glare and brilliance, that perhaps can be an apology of comparison to this brilliant light that splashed forth before the intuitive perception of Arjuna, the seeker. He is told that with these eyes he cannot behold this. The physical eyes are shut and an integrated vision begins to operate as the blessing of God Himself. Divyam dadami te caksuh pasya me yogam aisvaram: Look at this glory, the yoga of the mighty Absolute, through the faculty which is of the soul and not merely of the mind or the reason.

The whole universe was there in a comprehensive totality as a minute fraction, as it were, of this immense infinitude. This unthinkable vastness of the cosmos, which can frighten us even by the thought of it, was there to be beheld as a minute fraction of the glorious immensity of the divine. In a few verses the great Lord Himself is made to explain what that magnificence is. But it comes to us in the words of Sanjaya, who tells Dhritarashtra what it was that Arjuna beheld. The poet’s intention seems to be to make our hair stand on end, and therefore he uses the best of expressions possible. When he says that faces were everywhere, eyes were everywhere, hands were everywhere, feet were everywhere and everything was everywhere, what else can we say except to describe it in this poetic manner? How could it be possible that eyes are everywhere and legs are everywhere at the same time? Can we imagine two things being at the same place? But here were eyes, and ears, and feet, and hands, and mouths, and teeth and what not—all everywhere. Everything, everywhere, in every form could be visualised, so that one cannot say what is where. The self is possessed and inundated and invaded by the Absolute. It is shaken from its very roots, and the death knell is struck when the Absolute reveals Itself to the ego of the individual. Fear takes possession of the human individual. There is a cry of agony as if one’s throat is being choked, or the god of death has caught hold of a person and he is going to be annihilated in a moment. The agony of the possibility of self-annihilation is unthinkable, though it is to be succeeded by a glory that is to pass all human understanding.

At this moment of the vision of the Almighty, the soul is made to sing a hymn, not in the words of human language, but in the surge of the spirit in the language of the soul, which cannot be expressed in words, of course. And yet it had to be told to us in some way or the other, and therefore the poet goes on with the great hymnology of Arjuna, which is not Arjuna speaking any more. He melted away into this omniform, and we do not know who was speaking there, in regard to which object. In a particular place the soul is made to say: Nantam na madhyam na punas tavadim pasyami. “I cannot see where this begins, where this ends or where its middle is.” That form had no beginning, no end, and no middle. It was a formless mainfestation, told to us only in the language of forms. It is the height of mystical vision, not to be attained by any kind of human effort. Oftentimes we are told that only the grace of God is the means to this cognition of the Absolute. No teacher of religion, no spiritual genius has been able to explain to us satisfactorily as to how this vision comes at all. We stumble on this theory and that theory, and finally are forced to come to the conclusion that perhaps it is not the consequence of any effort on our part, though it appears as if we have struggled hard to achieve this great attainment.

We shall be told by the great Lord Himself that this vision cannot be had by any kind of human effort, because the finite cannot manufacture the Infinite. A cause that is finite cannot have an infinite result or effect. If the vision of the Absolute is to be the effect or the consequence of an effort, how could that effort be an emanation from the finite who is the individual? How could I or you, as finite individuals, be the producers of this vision which is infinite and surpasses the cause? The cause is supposed to be larger than its effect in its comprehension. The effect cannot be more minute, and if the effect is infinitude of experience, how could the cause be finitude? Hence it is said that no activity of any kind, no effort of any sort, nothing that anyone does in any manner whatsoever can be regarded as adequate for the purpose. Na veda-yajnadhyayanair na danair na ca kiryabhir na tapobhir ugraih: Even the highest incalculable intensities of austerity and asceticism cannot be adequate for the purpose. Any mortification of the flesh, in any way whatsoever, cannot be regarded as a means to the attainment of the Absolute. It is God that beholds God—not a man seeing God. Such a thing does not exist.

Wonderful indeed is this vision! How could God see God, and where are we at that moment—we cease to be. We are not even earlier, and we shall not be at the time of the vision. That which was not, will be revealed to be non-existent. Even a semblance of the ego of human individuality will not be there. It was not there even earlier, and even now we do not exist, really speaking. Our non-existence will be revealed in its glory when we are awakened to that higher wakefulness, wherein the whole universe will appear as a dream object. The dream objects do not exist; we know that very well. They are phantasms, but they appear to be hard, concretised objects when we are in the state of dream. They are as hard as stone or flint, but when we wake up, they appear to vaporise into nothingness. So shall be the fate of this universe of hardness, concreteness and substantiality when God-vision is attained. The so-called solidity of the universal will melt away as if it has been cast into a melting crucible. Together with the melting of objects, the perceiver also melts away, so that in this infinitude of object experience, the subject vanishes into the object. This is called samadhi in the language of yoga, especially of Patanjali, for instance, where there is a coming together of the subject and the object. The object assumes an infinitude of comprehension, says Patanjali in one of his sutras. The infinitude of comprehension or the comprehensiveness of the object is such that the subject cannot be there any more, because the Infinite includes everything and anything. So, even the perceiver or cogniser should be inside the object.

Jnanasya anantyat jneyam alpam, says the sutra of Patanjali. Knowledge becomes all-inclusive, so that externality ceases totally, together with which the externality of the perceiving individual also goes. Hence, human effort of any kind appears to be a semblance of a necessity at the earlier stages, but later on we are taken away by the current of a higher law which operates in a totally different manner altogether. The gravitational pull of the Absolute takes up the whole matter in its hand, and as stones fall down to the earth automatically on account of the earth’s gravitational pull, we are rocketed up, as it were, to the Absolute, by the force with which it draws the soul when it crosses the barrier of the earth’s pull due to the melting away of human desires. It is for this reason we are told that all human effort is only an apology finally—it is no more a reality. The reality is Grace. Bhaktya tu ananyaya sakya: Only by utter surrender and devotion can this attainment be possible, and not any kind of effort in the sense of a personal agency in action.

Sudurdarsam idam rupam drstavan asi yan mama: Most difficult is this form to be perceived. It is hard to attain this vision. Not even the gods or the angels in heaven can perceive this, because they are still individuals though ethereal and fiery in body. What good is it to be in paradise if we are still to maintain our individuality and isolatedness and enjoy the pleasures of sense in a heightened form? So not even the angels in heaven can have this vision, is the declaration. Deva apy asya rupasya nityam darsana-kanksinah: Even the gods are yearning, as it were, to behold this form. The same thing is told to us in the Katha Upanishad: “Even gods are racking their heads to understand what this can be.” Subtle is this vision, difficult it is to understand, and harder it is to have the attainment of it.

But a whole-souled devotion, which implies an utter dedication of oneself to the last remnant of one’s personality, becomes the means to this attainment. Jnatum drastum ca tattvena pravestum ca parantapa: The vision has to be experienced in stages—it has to be known, it has to be seen and it has to be entered into. Arjuna did not enter this vision. He came back, repelled from that Form. He had the glorious vision, no doubt, and he was also given the knowledge thereof. Jnana and darshana were there, but not pravesha—he did not dissolve himself in the Absolute. He was impeded from that melting away of himself into the universal vision.

So there was a terrifying experience where the vision is had but the entry is not permitted, and that strikes like a thunderbolt on the very head of the ego. The soul cries, “Enough of this vision! May I be brought down once again to the level of ordinary knowledge and empirical consciousness.” The fear is such and so awful, so inexplicable and frightening that we have enough of it. We have enough of even God-vision if it is to strike like a thunderbolt on the ego. So the vision is made to vanish, giving a taste of the experience, allowing a remainder of the memory of this experience in the mind of the experiencer with a final message: “One cannot easily have this vision except by a special Grace.” One cannot know how this Grace descends. It is a mystery, it is an ascharya, it is a wonder, a miracle by itself. One who works in this world for the sake of God, one who considers God as the supreme aim of life, one who wholly surrenders oneself to God, one who is not attached to anything in this world, one who has no love or hatred for anything—such a person is fit to attain God. This is the culminating message of the eleventh chapter.