Commentary on the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 36: The Twelfth Chapter Begins – The Best of Yogins

Arjuna asks: “Are You the Supreme Person? Sometimes You refer to Yourself as Parama-purusha—Supreme Person. Sometimes You say that You are indestructible, transcendent, and impossible even to conceive. In what way are we to worship You, O Lord? There are people who adore You as the Supreme Mahapurusha, Purushottama. With immense devotion they sing of You, they dance in ecstasy by taking Your name, they adore You day in and day out, and glorify You in all ways; but there are others who are unified in their being with Your indestructible Super Being. Between these two great souls, whom do You regard as the best of yogins?”

The Lord gives a reply. Śrībhagavānuvāca
mayyāveśya mano ye māṁ nityayuktā upāsate
śraddhayā parayopetās te me yuktatamā matāḥ
ye tvakṣaram anirdeśyaṁ avyaktaṁ paryupāsate
sarvatragam acintyaṁ ca kūṭasthaṁ acalaṁ dhruvam
sanniyamyendriyagrāmaṁ sarvatra samabuddhayāḥ
te prāpnuvanti mām eva sarvabhūtahite ratāḥ
kleśo’dhikataras teṣāṁ avyaktāsaktacetasām avyaktā
hi gatir duḥkhaṁ dehavadbhir avāpyate
ye tu sarvāṇi karmāṇi mayi sannyasya matparaḥ
ananyenaiva yogena māṁ dhyāyanta upāsate
teṣāṁ ahaṁ samuddhartā mṛtyusaṁsārasāgarāt
bhavāmi nacirāt pārtha mayyāveśitacetasām

The reply is here in six verses. “I consider those people very near to Me and really united with Me whose mind is fixed on Me, who worship Me ever considering Me as their highest beloved, who have faith in Me only, and centre their faith in nothing else. I certainly consider them as united with Me because their mind is wholly centred in Me in their utter devotion. But there are others who are united with Me in a different way.”

The distinction drawn here is between those devotees who worship the Supreme Being as the Parama Purushottama and those who are devoted to the Universal Inclusiveness, outside which even they do not exist. We may call these two ways of approach as bhakti and jnana, if we like; but the jnana referred to here is actually a kind of bhakti in the highest sense. It is called para bhakti, which is the same as jnana.

In religious parlance, the worship of the Supreme Being as a person is the normal way of adoring God. Whether it is Hinduism or any other religion in the world, we see people worshipping God as some concept cast into the mould of an enlarged personality—not simply a person, but the Supreme Person. Whether we call God the Father in heaven, or Allah-hu Akbar, or Purushottama, or Narayana or Siva or Devi or Brahma—whatever be the definition of our ishta devata, we will observe that we are picturing the Supreme Divinity in some form, though that form is highly enlarged and inclusive. Because the heart of the devotee requires a response from someone who knows what we are feeling, it is necessary for us to know that God is responding to our love and devotion.

The God Who cannot respond does not evoke satisfaction in the heart. The God Who includes us, outside Whom we cannot even exist, need not give any response at all. But our heart says: “I love God. Maybe I love Him as an all-pervading essence, but even then I require a response. I should know that He knows that I love Him.” The question of expecting this kind of response from God, blessing from God, grace from God, or protection from God—anything whatsoever from God—cannot arise if the person expecting this response does not stand outside the One from whom the response has to come. This is the difficulty that perhaps was haunting the mind of Arjuna, and haunts every religious seeker, whatever be the vocation of his religion.

Sri Krishna accepts this twofold way of approach to God because He calls Himself Purushottama. Prathitaḥ puruṣottamaḥ (15.18): “I am beyond the kshara-akshara prakriti-purusha and, therefore, I am known as the Supreme Being.” He calls Himself the Supreme Purusha—that is, the Highest Person.

Sri Krishna’s reply is: “Those who devotedly worship Me as the Supreme Person are really united with Me because of their love. What about others? In the case of those others who try to feel the presence of this Imperishable Transcendent Essence by a total withdrawal of all the faculties of psychological perception, even devotion does not arise from the operation of their mind. Mostly, devotion is a kind of feeling that arises from part of their psyche, but in the case of those people whose mind has been restrained perfectly—saṁniyamyendriyagrāmaṁ—who have put an end to the activity of all the sense organs, and see one thing only everywhere—sarvatra samabuddhayāḥ—they also reach Me. They also reach Me who consider Me as the Supreme Person and love Me as the Supreme Person. They also reach Me who consider Me as the All-Inclusive Eternal Transcendent Universal Reality.” But the distinction is this: It is difficult to concentrate the mind on non-externalised Universality. Those who have body-consciousness and know that they also exist even when they are in the height of devotion to God are aware that they are at the height of devotion to God. The devotee loves God, but the devotee knows that he loves God; that is what demarcates him from another who loves God but does not know that he loves God.

There is a difference between knowing that we love God and not knowing that we love God. We have united ourselves with God to such an extent that we cannot know that we are actually having affection for God. But those who know that they love God stand outside the Supreme Person; they can visualise Him, pray to Him in words of language, and they can offer themselves in surrender as if they are something to be offered. But in the case of the others, there is nothing to be offered because that which is to be offered has already become one with that to which it is to be offered. Such a kind of sacrifice is very difficult in this world. Very hard is this practice.

Kleśo’dhikataras teṣāṁ avyaktāsaktacetasām, avyaktā hi gatir duḥkhaṁ dehavadbhir avāpyate. How on earth is it possible not to know that we are devotees of God? How can we forget that we are existing as worshippers and as students of yoga? Can we abolish ourselves? Those who are embodied as a person, those who have a consciousness of this body, and those who know that they exist as individuals cannot practice this yoga of utter unitedness with the Transcendent Essence. Hard is this practice. But those who are conscious that they love God, and are inundated with affection for God, do not have this difficulty because they have annihilated their ego, and the greatest pain is the annihilation of ego.

In the case of ordinarily accepted forms of devotion to God, as long as the personality of the devotee also persists together with the consciousness of the Supreme Personality of God, a little bit of sattvic ahamkara is present in that devotee. We have to use the word ‘ahamkara’ very carefully here in the case of devotees because it does not mean pride. Ahamkara is not to be taken here as garva—arrogance, self-assertion. It is a very, very sattvic, moderate, subdued self-consciousness, which is what distinguishes these devotees from the person whom they worship. But in the case of the others whose practice is considered to be very difficult, even this little sattvic mode of self-affirmation is completely overcome. They do not worship God; they are inseparable from God. They do not have to praise God, because the person who is to praise has gone into the abyss of the Absolute.

“Both are great. I love both these types of devotees equally. But I am mentioning to you that one type of devotion is very difficult and, therefore, people will certainly resort to the easier one. Whoever lovingly surrenders themselves to Me, and worships Me as the Supreme Person, and thinks of nothing except Me—ananyenaiva yogena—I lift them from the mire of samsara.” Teṣāṁ ahaṁ samuddhartā mṛtyusaṁsārasāgarāt: “I raise them above this turmoil of samsara, and I shall be ever at their beck and call for their protection.”

From this answer that Sri Krishna gives, it is not easy for us to know which type of devotee he actually prefers. There may be some subtle touch of preference for the devotee who is non-separate from him because when he referred to four kinds of devotees, he said, “All are equally great and I consider them as worthy of endearment, but yet I consider the jnani as supreme because he has become My very soul. The arta, jijnasu and artharthi are also dear to Me because they are devoted to Me—they think of Me, and worship Me, and praise Me, and want Me only—but I consider the jnani as superior.” So, even when he seems to be saying that both are equally good and all the attributes of goodness are to be seen in both kinds of devotees—both will reach him—we cannot deny that there is a preference for the one whose soul has been united with the Universal Soul, in comparison to the soul that continues to maintain an independent existence in spite of its devotion.

Types of practices are described in the coming verses, almost referring to the four yogas—jnana yoga, raja yoga, bhakti yoga and karma yoga. The first makes reference to the jnana yoga technique. Mayy eva mana ādhatsva (12.8): “Let your mind be fixed on Me”; mayi buddhiṁ niveśaya: “Let your intellect also be rooted in Me”; nivasiṣyasi mayyeva: “You are already in Me”; ata ūrdhvaṁ na saṁśayaḥ: “There is no doubt that you are in Me only, provided that your mind and intellect shake not.”

The same point is also mentioned in the definition of yoga given in the Katha Upanishad. Yadā pañcāvatiṣṭhante jñānāni manasā saha, buddhiś ca na viceṣṭati, tām āhuḥ paramāṁ gatim (Katha 2.3.10): When the mind and the intellect are unified, and they do not stand as separate faculties of observation and perception, and this united psyche gets rooted in God Himself, the abode is immediately reached. But, we may find this difficult.

Sri Krishna anticipates the difficulty of the devotee in continuously establishing the unity of the mind and intellect in God always. “If you cannot do this, I shall prescribe to you a lesser method,” says the Lord. That lesser method is almost the same as the raja yoga or ashtanga yoga technique. Abhyāsa vairāgyābhyāṁ tan nirodhaḥ (Y.S. 1.12) is a sutra of Patanjali. Atha cittaṁ samādhātuṁ na śaknoṣi mayi sthiram, abhyāsayogena tato mām icchāptuṁ dhanañjaya (12.9): “Continued practice at concentration on Me may be attempted if whole-souled fixing of attention on Me is difficult. If you can unite yourself with Me wholly, fine; that should be considered as the jnana yoga technique. But if that is not possible, repeated attempts have to be made in fixing your mind on Me by techniques of daily routine—abhyasa yoga.”

Abhyāse’pyasamartho’si matkarmaparamo bhava, madar-tham api karmāṇi kurvan siddhim avāpsyasi (12.10): “If this is also not possible—neither are you able to completely unite yourself with Me, nor are you able to practise concentration with effort every day—then devote yourself to Me in your daily behaviour.” Here matkarma means ‘all actions devoted to Me’.

The great commentator Madhusudhana Saraswati says that this verse refers to the nine modes of bhakti that are indicated in the Bhagavatam. Śravaṇaṁ kīrtanaṁ viṣṇoḥ smaraṇaṁ pāda-sevanam arcanaṁ vandanaṁ dāsyaṁ sakhyam ātmanivedanam (S.B. 7.5.23). Śravaṇaṁ: always hearing the glories of God through satsanga; kīrtanaṁ: singing the names of God; smaraṇaṁ: always remembering Him; pāda-sevanam: adoring His feet in daily worship; arcanaṁ: worshipping in temples or in our own homes in a ritualistic method by shodashopachara puja, sixteen modes of worship; vandanaṁ: offering prayers through mantras or in our own way; dāsyaṁ: considering ourselves as servants of the Lord Almighty, the Supreme Being, Who is very far away from us because we are servants; sakhyam: considering ourselves as equal to God, as Arjuna considered himself as a friend of Sri Krishna; ātmanivedanam: the final devotion where we do not exist as devotees hearing the glories of God, worshipping God, or chanting His divine name, but we completely offer ourselves to Him.

These kinds of devotion are supposed to be indicated in this tenth verse, where the Lord says that all our offerings should be to him. Madartham api karmāṇi kurvan siddhim avāpsyasi: “You shall attain supreme perfection, or siddhi, by merely devoting yourself to Me in all your deeds or performances, if the repeated practice that is mentioned in the earlier verse is also difficult for you.”

Athaitad apyaśakto’si kartuṁ madyogam āśritaḥ, sarvakarmaphalatyāgaṁ tataḥ kuru yatātmavān (12.11): “If even that is difficult—if you cannot worship Me with devotion, you cannot follow these nine methods of worship, you cannot concentrate on Me by repeated practice every day, you cannot unite your soul with Me—if all these are difficult for you, then what do you do? If all these three methods that I have delineated are also found to be difficult for you, I shall tell you the last method. Do your work as you do. All your duties, all your performances, the daily routines of your life, let them go on. The only thing is, do not expect the fruits of these actions. Do these works that you perform every day as a duty. ‘Duty for duty’s sake; work is worship’ is the motto that you may keep before Me. Do not expect anything from the work that you perform. Let it be an unselfish service that you render to people or to anyone for whose sake you are working.” This is karma yoga: sarvakarmaphalatyāgaṁ tataḥ kuru yatātmavān. Thus, in these four verses we have brief indications of jnana yoga, ashtanga yoga, bhakti yoga and karma yoga.

Therefore, jnana is superior to practice, abhyasa. Now Sri Krishna gives a commentary on what he has said. Śreyo hi jñānam abhyāsāj (12.12): “Jnana, or knowledge of your union with Me, is superior to the practice that you attempt for concentration on Me.” That is, wisdom of God is superior to just daily practice. Jñānād dhyānaṁ viśiṣyate: But jnana does not mean merely knowing in an academic or scriptural sense. We may know God through the study of the Bhagavadgita or the Upanishads. Here, jnana is used in two different senses: the higher knowledge, and the lower knowledge. The higher knowledge is that which has no object in front of it. The lower knowledge is that which is a means of knowing something else, a means to the performance of work, etc. In the case where knowledge is of a lower type which has an object in front of it—it may be scriptural knowledge, academic knowledge, learning, whatever it is—it is inferior to meditation. Direct meditation is superior to knowledge which has an object in front of it. Hence, higher knowledge—knowledge which has no object in front of it—is superior. But if we meditate with a desire for the fruits of our actions, this meditation is inferior to our renouncing the fruits of actions because if we meditate with a love for the fruits of action, our selfishness persists.

“So I consider karmaphalatyāga, the abandoning of fruits, or the result of all that you do, as finally superior even to meditation that is coupled with a desire for the fruits of action. From this kind of renunciation of the fruits of action, you will attain peace.” Tyāgāc chāntir anantaram: “You will get peace with these methods that I mentioned.”

Hence, these verses up to the twelfth are actual practical suggestions on sadhana. We have a brief pithy statement here of what spiritual practice is, what sadhana is, what the four yogas are, and how we have to conduct ourselves with proportionate attention paid to the different yogas, according to our capacity and perhaps our stage of evolution.