The Tree of Life
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 2: The Search For Wholeness

The mystery of life is explained, as we noted yesterday, in the first five verses of the Fifteenth Chapter of the Bhagavadgita. The mystery lies primarily in the fact that the way in which this tree of life grows is a little different from the way in which human minds work. This is the reason why human comprehension cannot fathom the depths of the extendedness and the functioning of the movements of this cosmic tree. Just as the branching of the various limbs of the tree is conditioned by the power that is inherent in the seed which gives birth to the tree, all knowledge and work in this world is preordained and channelised in a given shape by the Original Will which is the seed of this cosmic tree.

The world experience is knowledge and action combined. The whole of life can be summed up in knowledge and activity, the understanding and the putting of it into practice in the daily vocations of people. The outlook of life is the knowledge that is behind the way in which people work. A very significant word is used: chandāṁsi yasya parṇāni (B.G. 15.2). The leaves of this cosmic tree are the Vedas, or to put it in a more general manner, all knowledge in its extendedness. Many a time the word chandas is understood to be the knowledge of the Veda, and a significant note is struck by this particular kind of analogy in this verse.

The knowledge that operates in this world has a twofold feature embedded in it. It is outwardly limited to the form in which it is expressed by way of perceptions, cognitions, etc., through the mind and the senses. Our knowledge is limited in the sense of the ocean waters getting limited when they are channelised through a river or a canal, etc. The vast oceanic expanse can be conditioned by a canal, through which it can be diverted in any given direction. The ocean gets conditioned because of the limitation of the banks of the canal through which the water, the ocean, flows. Likewise, the cosmic urge, which is present in the seed of the tree of life, gets channelised through the senses and the mental operations of individuals whether they are subhuman, human or superhuman.

But this water that flows through the canal is the ocean water, and not anything else. The conditioned character of the water of the ocean is due to the limitation of the bank of the canal through which it flows, but the force with which the water flows belongs to the ocean itself. The pressure of the water comes from the ocean, but the limited way in which this pressure moves is because of the limitation of the banks.

Some such thing can be taken as the analogy of human experience. We are on Earth and in heaven at the same time. This is the reason for the mystery of life. If we had been totally on Earth and stuck to the ground with our feet, with nothing of the heavenly in us, that would have been something to our satisfaction, at least empirically. But we can never be satisfied with anything in this world. Though we are conditioned entirely by whatever the world gives us, we are not wholly in this world. That particular aspect of our being, or that part of our personality which lifts us above the Earth, keeps us restless and unhappy. That which we have gained may make us happy, but that which we have yet to attain keeps us unhappy.

It is not true that we have gained everything that we require. Our needs are endless and as vast as the expansion of the tree of life. What we see with our eyes is far less in expanse than what we are unable to see with our eyes. The waters in the canal are very meagre in their extent compared to the expanse of the ocean which flows through the canal. Our happiness, whatever be the character of it in this world, is due to the sensation of having acquired what we need. But a simultaneous undercurrent of unhappiness at the back of it is due to a suspicion that there are many more things that we have yet to gain. So there is the dashing of the waters of this ocean of life against both the banks of this river of experience—on one side in the direction of a tentative happiness due to the feeling of having gained what we need, and on the other side in another direction, making us conscious that we have not yet obtained what we really need.

Our needs are incalculable and non-computable. No human being can say what he or she needs. Our ideas of our needs are foolish at the very core because of our mistaking appearances for realities. The knowledge of the world that is at the back of our activities in life has, again, a twofold character, which is perhaps the reason why the Bhagavadgita brings in the analogy of the chandas, or the Veda, which is knowledge temporal and knowledge spiritual at the same time. The wisdom in the Veda is not merely supernatural; it is also natural. Modern explorations into the regions of the Veda have revealed the fact that empirical sciences are also explained in the mantras of the Veda. The Vedas do not speak merely of God and His creation; they are said to explain even such mechanical devices as making an airplane. Mathematics, differential calculus, and such other scientific approaches are also the content of the Vedas, so that the knowledge which the Vedas contain and speak of and present before us is as vast as the tree of life which has its roots above in the eternal Absolute, but whose branches extend towards the lowest Earth and the deepest nether regions.

The Vedic knowledge, therefore, is rooted in the Supreme Brahman, the Absolute, but it expands itself also to the minutest details of relative experience, so when we touch any part of the tree of life we have touched everything conceivable, everything that exists, and we are part and parcel of the ramifications of this tree of life. We, everyone here seated in this hall, are expressions of this tree of life; it may be leaves, it may be flowers, it may be fruits, it may be anything belonging to this tree as its vital essence. To touch any part of this tree is to touch the whole of the tree, so every one of us is everything, and not merely something.

This is the mystery of our lives, which is the mystery of all life. We are all mysteries seated here. Every one of us is a tremendous mystery in one’s own self. Neither can I know the mystery within me, nor can any one of you know the mystery within you. This inexplicable mystery that is in each one of us is explicable only by the recognition of the presence of the totality of the whole of the tree of life in each manifestation in the form of each one of us. Every leaf of the tree has the power of the whole tree within itself. Every little cell in every little leaf of a tree has a wireless communication with every other part of the whole tree. If we touch any cell of any leaf in the tree, we have touched the whole tree. The sensation will be carried through the entire manifestation of the tree, up to the very root.

So every one of us is a cosmic atom, and every thought, every idea and every impulse that arises in our mind has the power of the ocean of the Supreme Being, whose will works as the seed of the manifestation of this tree of life. We can appreciate to some extent how wondrous we all are, each one of us. We are not ordinary men, women, children, officers, subordinates, clerks—nothing of the kind. This is an illusion that is before our eyes. Unfortunately, we are content with being individuals in a family, citizens of a country, human beings on this Earth, masters and servants, wealthy and poor. All these are the delusions cast by the mind as a web before our eyes, succeeding to completely keep us out of touch with the realities of life, so that our sorrows are endless because our ignorance is abysmal. We are Masters of Arts in the field of ignorance, and this darkness of ignorance manifests itself in a worse form when we begin to perceive an external world. “While men of ignorance go to darkness, men of knowledge go to greater darkness,” says the Isavasya Upanishad. We will be surprised how it is possible that men of knowledge go to greater darkness. It is because the knowledge that we have in this world is an expression worse than the ignorance of reality. Not to know a thing is ignorance enough, and to know a thing which is not there is a worse form of ignorance.

The avarana, as it is called in Vedantic parlance, is a screen over the reality which keeps us out of touch with it. That is what is known as ignorance. We are not only screened away from what is there but are presented with what is not there, so that we are made a double fool. Not only are we ignorant of the presence of God, but we are conscious of the presence of a world outside, so we are deceived in two ways. There is a double deception taking place at the same time. Not only are we completely cut off from the vital root essence, the parent of all things, which is sustaining us here—mātā dhātā pitāmahaḥ (B.G. 9.17)—but we are completely forgetful of this great sustaining power. Well, that one thing is bad enough; but a worse thing is that we are clinging to what is not there, an externalisation of that which is universal.

The tree of life is a universal manifestation and not an externalised form, as it may be made to appear before us. The world is not an object, but it presents itself as an object. Na rūpam asyeha tathopalabhyate nānto na cādir na ca saṁpratiṣṭhā (B.G. 15.3): It has no form whatsoever, but we see the world as if it has a form. The power of the senses is such that they give a form to what is formless, just as a sculptor can give shape to a shapeless block of stone. The visualisation of the pattern of the statue inside the block of stone is in the idea of the sculptor. He can see the required form of the statue within the block of stone, out of which any form can be engraved or carved out. But the block of stone itself is not a form, although any form can be extracted out of it by the manipulation of the idea of the sculptor.

The tree of life is not like the tree that we see in front of us. Therefore, a magnificent, uncanny, veiled comparison is chalked out in the expression of the verses of the Bhagavadgita here. Adhaś cordhvaṁ prasṛtāstasya (B.G. 15.2); na rūpam asyeha tathopalabhyate (B.G. 15.3): It is there, above and below; it is in all directions everywhere. Because it is everywhere, it cannot have a form. To have a form is to be in some place, and to be everywhere is naturally not to have any form. But the senses carve out the figure of a form as the sculptor carves out a figure from a block of stone. The ink and the canvas have no picturesque conditioned form, but a form is given by the painter who utilises the ink which he splashes over the canvas according to the manner of the working of his mind.

The mind and the senses work together in collaboration to picture a formless being as a formed content of human experience. The world that we see, the various objects, men and various other things, are carved-out figures from the figureless block of stone of the ocean of life. In the Yoga Vasishtha life is compared to a block of stone, from which any form can be taken out by the power of the mind which seeks expression in a particular form. The forms of life, which are the contents of experience, are the carved-out figures extracted by the mind of an individual from the unconditioned block which is the whole of mulaprakriti constituted of a vast expanse of sattva, rajas and tamas. The mind not only carves out a form from this formless unmanifest being, but also projects it externally in what we call space and time.

Now we are entering into a new section of analysis of this totality of experience called the tree of life. Yesterday we had occasion to observe that the sap of the tree of life grows in the form of the tree, and the seed will not be content to remain as a seed. The baby grows into the adult, etc. We were wondering why this expression should be there at all. Why should there be growth and evolution and movement in any direction? It is the intention of the Original Will to find itself as the one in the many. The oneness is present, and the manyness is also there. The presence of the oneness of the Original Will of the seed of life keeps these varieties of forms in unison, in collaboration with one another, just as the comprehensiveness of the tree keeps all the branches and the leaves, etc., in collaboration one with the other.

The variety and the multitudinousness of the leaves of a tree, for instance, is no bar to the relatedness among themselves in the form of this tree. So is this variety of life. The division and the difference, the gulf and the variety in the form of experience of objects, do not deter us from asking for a unity behind them. That is the reason why we ask for collaboration, unity, solidarity of people. We are urged towards working for a commonness of purpose. We do service, we have a feeling of affection, we feel for other people, we extend ourselves into another, all which can be explained only by the fact of the presence of an inexplicable oneness that is at the back of this apparent multiplicity of personality, objects and things. In the same way as a wholeness called the tree is present in the variety we call leaves, etc., God is present in the world. “He became the many, and He entered into every part of it,” says the Upanishad.

But we have to pursue this nature of the mystery of life still further so that the purpose that is behind the expression of this mystery may be clear to our minds. The knowledge of this tree is supposed to be true knowledge: yastaṁ veda sa vedavit (B.G. 15.1). If you know the whole of this tree, you are said to have true knowledge. But we do not have knowledge of the whole of this tree. We see only one leaf, or half a leaf, just as we look at some object or a group of objects in front of us.

Who can know the whole of this Earth, what to speak of other things beyond the Earth? No one can imagine what is in the skies and above. We are very much conditioned to this little place, Muni-ki-reti or Rishikesh; or the farthest expansion of our mind may be to India or the Earth. This is not to look at the whole of the tree but to see only a little of it—and that, too, wrongly, as an externalised form. Even this little knowledge that we seem to have is erroneous knowledge and wrongly directed. But the mystery creeps into this horrid picture of life because of the presence of the great unifying absolute power of God. This unifying presence keeps us somehow or other hoping for the best, happy under every condition, and seeking to save ourselves even in the midst of the ocean in which we are being drowned. We try to catch a little straw in the flooded river, hoping that we can be saved. That hopefulness of continued existence and the seeking of significance in existence is due to the presence of God in us, the presence of the vitality of the seed in every part of the tree of life.

The mystery is here, that God in His unified comprehensiveness is in us; He is wholly present, not only partially, in spite of the fact that we are partial expressions. The part contains the whole in wholeness. This is the mystery. We cannot understand how the wholeness of the whole can be in a part. We never see such a feature anywhere in this world. No drop in the ocean can contain the whole ocean. But the whole of us is present in every cell of our body, though biologically, physically, physiologically, anatomically, each cell is only a part of the whole of the body. The body that we speak of is a comprehensive, living, vital power. That comprehensiveness of the vitality in us is present in each cell of the body, so that by seeing one cell we can know the whole person. So is the completeness of perfection present in the partial limitedness of forms. That is why we are hoping for God-realisation as a possibility, a practicability and a surety. We are not weeping as though nothing is possible and everything has gone mad. Thus, there is a double feature in human experience, a complete chaotic presentation of an apparent externality of experience which keeps us restless and unhappy, simultaneously with a hope for ultimate perfection and a capacity in us to achieve it.

This tree of life is, therefore, a beautiful analogy. But the Bhagavadgita gives us a caution at the end of this analogy that we should not be busy eating the fruits of this tree, an analogy going further into a mantra in the Veda and a passage in the Upanishad where it is said that in this vast tree two birds are perched, perhaps on different branches. One bird is enjoying the beautiful berries, the fruits of this forbidden tree, and is sorrow-ridden, while the other bird is merely looking at the beauties of the various fruits of this tree and eating not. The mantra of the Veda says the blessedness of this indulgent fruit-eating bird lies in the turning of its attention towards the other bird—merely looking at it, gazing at the presence of the bird which eats not, participates not, does nothing whatsoever, but merely is. To give another analogy, it is just as the success, greatness and power of Arjuna lay merely in being conscious that Krishna was seated there in the chariot; but if Arjuna were to forget it, woe unto him.

There is also another beautiful analogy which might have missed the attention of readers of the Srimad Bhagavata. In the great story of Daksha Yajna, which occurs in the Fourth Skanda of the Srimad Bhagavata, Virabhadra is said to have rushed to the sacrificial ground of Daksha and attacked him, wanting to sever his head, but he could not do it. However much he tried, he found that it was not possible for him to sever the head of Daksha. Then he remembered Lord Siva who sent him, and at once he succeeded. There was an individuality-consciousness, as it were, a confidence in his own power, which defeated the very purpose for which he had gone.

The whole secret of the success in life seems to be in the knowledge of the presence of something which is behind the varieties of the world experience, and not in the foolhardy pursuit of our intention to eat the fruits which the tree of life yields. The various experiences of pleasure, satisfaction, and grasping by the senses are the bondages of the individual. That is the bird. Every one of us is this bird.

Ishvara and jiva, God and the individual, are both seated on the same tree. This tree is this body, our family, our community, our nation; this tree is the whole of mankind, the whole universe. All these are but the same tree manifesting itself in various degrees of expression. There are not many trees; the tree is one, but the degree of its expression varies according to the stages of the development of experience. The whole is present in every degree, in every stage. I have been saying again and again that the whole human being is present in the baby, in the adolescent, in the adult, and in the mature person. In every stage there is a wholeness of the human being. Likewise, the whole tree is present in the seed, in the tendril, in the plant, and in its vast expanded maturity. The whole is present everywhere in every degree, only in different degrees of expression, so that the whole of God is present in us; but it is only in one degree, which is not sufficient or adequate.

Because of the inadequacy of the consciousness of the presence of this wholeness in us, we are pursuing the experience of this wholeness according to the knowledge with which we are endowed. Action is preceded by knowledge. Knowledge comes first, action comes afterwards. We have already an idea of what to do, and then only we start doing it merely as an outward implementation of this idea that is contained inside. We will never do anything without having an idea of it. First we think, and then we act. So the action is nothing but the form of the thought that is in our mind.

Hence, the search for wholeness, which can be equated with the search for happiness, is manifest in our lives as a search for an external object. The tree moves up in the direction of the sun in the high sky for this purpose alone. It seeks completeness of its life and imagines that this completeness can be experienced only by manifesting itself through an outward ramification in space and time.

What is it that we are seeking in life? Salary, high status, long life, soft beds, big buildings, large areas of land—are these the things that we are asking for? No. These are definitely not the things that we are asking for. When we are presented with a bundle of currency notes we feel happy, as if we are possessing something worthwhile, but we know very well we are not going to eat these currency notes. They cannot do anything except act as a means of getting something else which is our requirement. Nobody wants currency notes or coins. We need these as instruments for procuring something else. So our desire is not for money in the form of notes and coins, but for something else which we imagine can be acquired through this instrumentality. If we go further, we will find even that second thing is not our aim. That also is an instrument for a third thing which we are actually wanting. So on it goes, further and further, until we realise, to our horror, that we are asking for something which is beyond human comprehension through the instrumentalities of these little visible finite expressions of life.

What is it that we are asking for, if not all these things? We are asking for a relief of all tension, which is equivalent to happiness as we conceive it. Happiness is the release of all tensions—nervous, muscular and psychological—and our personality is in a state of tenseness because of some kind of pressure which is exerted upon our personality by something over which we evidently have no control, and over which we have no knowledge.

The pressure is something very interesting. From where does this pressure come? It comes from the ocean of life which seeks fullest expression through the limitation of our finite personality. The ocean wants to find itself in the river, in the pond. This little experience of ours through the senses and the mind is sought for as an instrument for the fullest expression of the whole power that is behind the tree of life. Any kind of completeness of experience is the same as happiness. When we search for objects in this world, we are trying to search for a type of conscious experience which will introduce into ourselves a wholeness of being. We are now partial expressions. When the object we need is outside us, that unity of feeling is absent. We are unhappy because a part of our life is outside us. It may be a visible object or merely a conception. A concept of an externalised situation or a visible object outside may be the cause of our unhappiness. Physical objects such as houses and land may keep us restless and unhappy because they have not become part of ourselves. Or merely conceptual notions such as status in human society can keep us unhappy. Status in human society is not a visible object. It is visible only to the mental eye, and when it is imagined to be a circumstance which is outside our mind, it becomes a psychological object that can keep us unhappy.

But when does this unhappiness leave us so that we become happy? It is when this object is united with us, when the percentage of ourselves which is apparently the object outside, whether physical or psychological, joins with us and becomes a part of us so that we become one hundred percent. When we become one hundred percent, we become happy. If there is even one percent outside us as a visible or conceptual object, we are in a state of unhappiness.

Now, this wholeness or hundred percent of being is a state of mind. It is an awareness, it is a thought, it is a consciousness. We must be convinced in our consciousness that we have obtained a hundred percent of all the values of life. A leaf in a tree should be aware that it is a part of the whole tree, and the whole tree is in it. A finger of the body is healthy and seems to be contented because the whole of the body is associated with it and it has a subtle experience within itself of its being sustained by the whole body and of its being a vital, inseparable part of the whole body. The health of a personality and the happiness of a person depend upon this consciousness of wholeness which is what we are seeking in life, and we are not seeking anything else—and ‘not anything else’ is to be underlined again and again.

So when we are told that we have to be aware of the whole tree of life in order to be perfect in our lives, we are asked to go into the nature of the higher knowledge in which the tree of life is rooted. In the Upanishad especially, we are told that we should have the knowledge of the whole tree. The knowledge of this tree is liberation. But the Bhagavadgita says something quite different. Our salvation lies in our ability to cut at the very root of this tree by the axe of detachment: asaṅgaśastreṇa dṛḍhena chittvā (B.G. 15.3). Both these terms of advice have a meaning in themselves.

As I endeavoured to point out, this tree of life has a twofold feature, namely, rootedness in the Absolute and manifestation in space and time. The aspect of its rootedness in God is what requires us to know the whole of this tree, and the aspect of its expression in space and time is that which is to be cut by the axe of detachment. The knowledge of this tree is our source attachment to God, and our detachment from the externalised form of this tree consists in our withdrawal of our external consciousness and the centring of it in our universality of being.