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

Chapter 20: We are the Fruits and Leaves of the Cosmic Tree

In the process of the creation of the universe, three powerful forces emanate from God, and these forces constitute the stuff of the whole of creation. It is, as it were, three arms of God projecting themselves outwardly in cosmic space and time and enacting this drama of life in all the planes of existence. God plays the role of the actor in this drama, as well as the director and the witness thereof. These three forces, which proceed from the Supreme Being like rays from the sun, are known as sattva, rajas and tamas. They are known as the gunas or the properties of that original condition which is responsible for the entire panorama of creation. On the one hand there is the vast world of varieties of material objects, all constituted of the basic elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether, which constitute or are formed of the tamas portion of this original emanation from God. One would wonder how tamas can be in God, because it is regarded as darkness, a screening out of the light, which cannot be reconciled with the blaze and the glory of the light of the Creator. This is a point which requires consideration and understanding. Another aspect rushes forth simultaneously and divides this creation into various isolated bodies known as jivas,individuals, you and I and everything that we see as the units of creation—this is the work of rajas. The dividing factor in creation is called rajas, and the material substance of creation is called tamas.

Now, life cannot go on with merely a dividing factor and a material substance, because neither of these have a sustaining capacity. The material object is like dead matter, almost equated with a state of unconsciousness, such as a stone, a brick wall, or what we call the inorganic field, and the force of division, again, cannot be regarded as an intelligent power. Neither the energy that rushes forth into division nor the energy that condenses or solidifies itself into matter can be regarded as intelligent purposive organisers of creation. So God remains as the ordainer of the law of unity even in the midst of this diversity. This function of the prevalence of the unifying factor in the midst of this dividing activity of rajas, together with the inert substantiality of the material cosmos, is known as sattva.

God’s actions are simultaneous and cannot be said to proceed one after the other. Everything happens at the same time—a miraculous instantaneity is the characteristic of God’s activity. He does not work as we do, doing one thing after another. “Now I am doing this and I will do another thing later on.” There is no succession of actions or functions in the realm of the universal creation. These universal forces are impersonal in their nature. These terms, sattva, rajas and tamas, used here in the context of the creation of the cosmos, are forces which are not human. That peculiar feature we call the human element is completely absent in the level of cosmic existence, because it has not yet originated. There is no distinction in this classification of what we call human, subhuman, etc., though these qualities have an individualised form or nature also. The very same sattva, rajas and tamas begin functioning in a topsy-turvy manner when there is isolation or the dividing of individuals, just as the reflection of the sun in shaky, muddy water, or the reflection of one’s own body in a pool or a mass of water looks topsy-turvily reflected.

In this isolation of the individual, which is the consequence of the dividing work of rajas, a great calamity befalls everyone. This is the origin of the story of the fall of the spirit from the angelic Garden of Eden in biblical mythology and in the mythologies of all creational doctrines. A consciousness of personality consequent upon an unconsciousness of one’s relation to God’s universality is the beginning of the catastrophe of human suffering. There is an unconsciousness preceding our present state of intellectual, rational, personal consciousness. We cannot be individually conscious unless we are at the same time unconscious of universality. There is a veiling power operating at the base of this multitudinous variety of creation. We are very highly evolved intellectuals and rational individuals, as we imagine ourselves to be, but we are reflected intelligences, cut off from the source and divested of the consciousness of our universal relevance to God’s omnipotent and omnipresent Being.

There was a great philosopher called Schopenhauer in Germany who propounded a doctrine which is revolting to ordinary understanding, though it has some connection with what I am saying now. The whole universe is a drama of the devilish will, says he, which projects or creates this intellect we call the prerogative of the human being. The point made out here is that there is a cosmic unconsciousness, a screening out, a clouding, an eclipsing of the reality before the individual affirmation or assertion commences. We cannot be aware of ourselves unless we forget God at the same time—the two things cannot go together. For the person to know that he is Mr. John, at the same time he must be totally oblivious of his relationship to God. So this oblivion is the preceding factor; it conditions the very existence of the so-called intellectual consciousness of one’s individuality. Therefore we are far from being as great as we imagine ourselves to be.

In this distortion and separation of the individual by the work of rajas, something very unfortunate has been done. Nothing can be more unfortunate than to forget the truth and to cling to untruth. We are the untruths appearing here as so-called individuals, having no connection of one with the other. The truth is that we are basically united. As I mentioned originally, God in His sattva aspect cosmically exists even now, just as we as individuals exist even in deep sleep where we are practically unconscious of our own being. That is why, in spite of all our self-affirmation and clinging to personalities and things of the world, we also have a subtle impulse from within us to unite ourselves into a body, an organisation and a friendly community of people. Even rustics and boors and very crude intelligences that are undeveloped and are comparable to the apish type of humanity have this group mentality. Even monkeys and cattle have this sense to group themselves into bodies or species or types, which is a very faint reflection of the necessity for garnering such a thing called the unity behind the diversity, or the division worked out by rajas.

So God exists even in the world, even in this variety of the cosmos. This is the great philosophical basis that is described in a psychological manner in the fourteenth chapter of the Bhagavadgita—the division of the three gunas into sattva, rajas and tamas. The universe, formed in this manner and consisting of these varieties, is compared to a vast, widespread tree whose roots are above and branches are below. We all are like the leaves and the fruits, and are sometimes compared to the birds perching on this tree, and so on. The roots of the tree are invisible, in the high heavens, because they are the imperceptible unity that is pervading the variety we call creation. Hence it is that we cannot see God. Not merely that—we cannot be even aware of the existence of God due to the intellect being conditioned to this body and our isolatedness, which asserts itself so vehemently that it will not permit the awareness of that vast universality called God. Neither can we see God, nor can we understand God—what could be a greater sorrow for us then this?

But the great panacea is described in this great gospel, which speaks of this comparison of the universe as a tree spreading forth downwards through the branches and getting itself rooted in the supreme Absolute. We are caught up in this variety on account of clinging to particulars—bodies, our own as well as those connected with us through social relationship. That this has to be severed is the great teaching. The art of detachment is the most difficult thing to understand, because we are accustomed to see union and separation of bodies. By the term ‘detachment’ we are likely to imagine that a body has to be physically separated from another body, because we think only in terms of bodies. For a small child studying in kindergarten, to be taught that one and one make two, one object has to be placed before it in juxtaposition with another object, physically. The teacher may put a finger on a solid object and say, “Here is one object and there is another object, and they make two objects.” The baby, in that condition, cannot understand abstract thinking. Likewise an abstract, spiritual concept of detachment is outside the reach of the mind of the individual who is accustomed only to think in terms of solid bodies. So when we think of spiritual detachment, renunciation, we think in particular of a cutting off of bodies, whereas the great teachings of the spiritual adepts is the disassociation of consciousness from its association with objectivity of every kind. It is not objects that bind us, but objectivity of consciousness. The insistence of consciousness that things exist outside it is the attachment and the detachment.

All these concepts are not a part and parcel of the education of the ordinary human being. We are brought up in families and societies and atmospheres which are given to the technique of physically counting things and associating particulars in solid manners and not abstract, philosophical ways. But when the Ultimate Being, God Himself, is finally equivalent to the supreme state of consciousness, chaitanya, and His sole existence cannot permit the externality of any object outside Him, it amounts to saying that any kind of detachment to be practiced as a yoga for the purpose of the realisation of God should be a tendency of consciousness to withdraw from the insistence that objects are outside. Here is a divine element that is introduced into the practice of yoga, apart from its physical aspects or psychological manouevers. The sum and substance of the significance that seems to be hidden behind this great analogy of the tree as the creation, in toto, seems to be this much.

It was mentioned that God, the Supreme Being, operates in three ways—sattva, rajas and tamas. This point is brought up again in the fifteenth chapter of the Gita, where it is stated that God, as purushottama, is superior and transcendent to kshara and akshara prakritis. The perishable and the imperishable are both like the arms, again to use the same comparison, of the one indivisible God. He is the supreme purusha, consciousness par excellence—purushottama.The so-called jiva, the individual, and the world outside are both included within the all-pervading Being of God, and at the same time God is transcendent. So we as persons here, human beings, are therefore finally inextricable in our relationship with the world outside, and both these are inviolably related to God’s super-personal purushottama state. The state of purushottama is often compared to the jivanmukta condition by many interpreters of the Bhagavadgita, though it is difficult to say whether that is the intention of the Gita when it speaks of the purushottama, because God’s personality seems to be emphasised here for the purpose of contemplation and meditation.

The term purusha is used in a highly philosophical sense, and not in the sense of any gender. It is intended to express the characteristic of the ruling consciousness, and not of the ruled object. Thus it is that wherever two people sit together, there is a third person between them. Purushottama is between kshara and akshara. When one whispers into the ear of another, there is a third one seeing what is going on and listening to what is spoken, and there is no chance of two people existing without a third being there at the same time. These two persons do not necessarily mean two human beings. It is only a way of indicating the presence of a supreme principle operating between the subjective individual and the objective atmosphere, whatever be its nature. It may be a person, it may be things, and it may be mere space and time—whatever it is. So we cannot escape God’s hands. Wherever we go—even if we fly to heaven or descend to the nether regions—there we find the great Being Himself greeting us. The glory of God and the omnipresence of His Being are such that we cannot go outside the boundary of His existence. Whatever be the power of our wings and the speed with which we fly, even before we reach our destination He is already there to greet us.

This purushottama is not a person, like a judge in the court or a head of a country governing subjects, but is a pervasive power, an omnipresent reality, and is inescapably present in every little nook and cranny of the world. The implication of this is not visible in the words of the verses of the Bhagavadgita, but if we read between the lines we will find the glorious message that is embedded within these verses, in the midst of these words, as a string passing through various pearls or gems.

This Supreme Master of the cosmos, the Soul of the universe, rules and operates through these properties of sattva, rajas and tamas; yet the Bhagavadgita wants to awaken us to another fact—that God is not actually threefold. This threefold activity can be boiled down or reduced to a twofold activity of the positive and the negative powers. We need not call them by the terms sattva, rajas and tamas. They are only, to put it in the language of the Gita itself, the divine and undivine forces, which is another way of saying consciousness which moves us towards unity of comprehension, and that which moves us towards diversity, dissention and separation of one from the other.

Both these tendencies are present in everyone, and we as human beings are particularly concerned with our own state of affairs. We are urged in two ways—inwardly and outwardly. We have a loving, sympathetic, affectionate core within us, and also a devilish, separating nature. Both are working within us at different times—we are good people and bad people at the same time. Any one particular characteristic can be evoked from us by the operating of a particular pattern in our personalities. Thus it is that we are god and devil at the same time, as it were, and any person can behave either way under different conditions. There is no absolutely good person in the world, and also no absolutely bad person. Both these characteristics are mixed up in human individuals in certain proportions, and they are evoked by certain circumstances that take place outside.

Thus, finally, it can be said that there are two forces—daiva and asura. These are only theological terms representing the highly incomprehensible activity of the cosmos by which it evolves and involves itself in the process of creation, preservation and transformation, sometimes called destruction. This cyclic movement of all things stands before us as a mighty mystery that we cannot understand. Thus, to put it concisely before you, it may be said that the whole universe is a drama, an interesting enactment of various dramatic personae coming in, and leaving when the curtain drops and the scene is over. No dramatic persona is indispensable throughout the play, while everyone is necessary at the particular time when that personality is to be projected in the scene. So nothing is necessary, and nothing is totally unnecessary in this universe. This puts the characteristic of impersonality and universality of operation in the hands of God.

All things in the world are divinely ordained. This is the great message that comes forth from these mighty verses of the Bhagavadgita. God plays the drama within Himself—He does not create a world outside, as if there is matter external to Him. It is a scene and a performance that is going on eternally, as it were, within His Being, and He Himself is the witness thereof, while it can be said that He Himself is the actor in the drama. Mystery is the name of this creation, and wonder is the way in which things operate, even in the least of circumstances. The mystery that is hidden within a little grain of sand on the shore of the ocean is cosmically significant. The great mystery that throbs through the orb of the sun in that resplendent supernatural transcendence that we see in the sky can also be seen in the little, insignificant sand particle. In the little ant that crawls in one’s kitchen, one can see the great glory of Brahma, the Creator Himself. Such is the prevalence and the pervasive character of the universal in all the little particulars—purushottama operating through kshara and akshara. The more we contemplate these mysteries, the more our sins will be discharged and burned up.

The fire of knowledge burns ignorance, burns all impressions of past karmas, and blazes forth into a luminance of awakening where we do not any more exist as persons, but move in this world as citizens of the universe, belonging to all and living as if all things also belong to us. Such is the mighty superman demonstrated in the personality of Bhagavan Sri Krishna, the citizen of all the worlds at the same time, and a friend and well-wisher of all beings in this world—belonging to all and yet belonging to nobody. So, in these few remarks I cited from one or two chapters of the Bhagavadgita, we have a great message before us which is worthwhile for us to contemplate every day for our own welfare. God bless you.