Commentary on the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 42: The Fifteenth Chapter Begins – The World as an Inverted Tree

We are now face to face with a very important section of the Bhagavadgita, known as the Purana Purushottama Yoga Chapter, the Fifteenth Chapter. It is considered very sacred, and people chant it every day before they take their lunch because it glorifies God. It describes what God is in respect of this world and individuals, how we are related to the world, and related to God, finally. This subject is briefly touched upon in a very short chapter of only twenty verses, but these twenty verses are very, very important.

This world, this creation is, to put it in modern language, something like the a force running away from its centre to its circumference, or periphery, and becoming less and less connected to the centre. It loses its soul, as it were, more and more as it runs away from the centre, until it reaches the very edge of the periphery and remains like a rock, without any sensation whatsoever. Inanimate life is the lowest category of existence that we can conceive. But as the movement is in the other direction, from the periphery to the centre, there is greater and greater consciousness of one’s Selfhood. As one realises one’s greater and greater nearness to the centre, there is also a larger comprehension of the dimension of one’s being.

This world is a topsy-turvy presentation, as it were, like an inverted tree. The manner in which souls descend from the highest region of Godhood is compared to an inverted tree; the sap of the inverted tree moves downward from its root through the trunk, branches, twigs, leaves, flowers, etc., and the lower the sap goes, the greater is the ramification of its movement. That is to say, this sap, the vitality of the tree, is highly concentrated in the root, slightly diffused in the trunk, diversified in the branches, and becomes more adulterated as it gets subdivided further into the minor branches, reaching the little tendrils and leaves, where only a modicum of the vital essence of the tree remains.

Ūrdhvamūlam adhaḥśākham aśvatthaṁ prāhur avyayam (15.1): This vast creation, this whole world, is like a peepul tree which has its roots above and branches below. The downward gravitational pull of space and time is the reason for the externalisation and the ramification of the original power, original vitality, which is the root of creation. The root contains everything that the tree has, but the tree’s branches do not have everything that the root contains. A little bit of the essence of the original root is distributed in different proportions among the branches, which are thick or thin, as the case may be.

This world is like an inverted asvattha tree, or any kind of tree, as the word ‘asvattha’ may be construed to mean ‘not lasting for long’. Na svatthamasvattham: It will not endure even until tomorrow. Svastha means ‘that which can continue and last until tomorrow’—that is, it will live in the future. But this will not live in the future; its nature is perishable. It is not permanent and, therefore, it is asvattha. That is one etymological meaning of the word asvattha: it does not last long. The world will not be there for all times; therefore, it is asvattha. Or we may say that the world is like an asvattha tree—that is, a peepul tree.

Its root is an imperishable, inconceivable essence; and it is above. The aboveness is to be understood very carefully because we may be under the impression that for a thing to be above, it has to be distant in space in terms of so many kilometres or light years because we can conceive of above and below only in terms of spatial expanse. But that is not actually the meaning of the aboveness of God. As the root of this tree is God Himself, it cannot be regarded as being above in a spatial sense. He is above in the quality of manifestation, above in a logical sense, above in the comprehensiveness and inclusiveness of spirit. It is more a conceptual transcendence, and not a physical aboveness like the stars in the sky.

The distance between the world and God is not actually measurable as we can measure the distance between the root of a real tree and its branches. Here is a tree whose length cannot be measured by any yardstick of the world, in the same way as we cannot measure the distance between childhood and old age. There is a distance, of course, between the time when a person is a little baby and the time when he becomes old, but we cannot take a ruler and measure the length of the period that has been covered, because it is a time process that is responsible for the concept of distance between childhood and old age. There is a distance between the knowledge of a little child in kindergarten and a person studying in higher classes, but it is not measurable by a ruler or a yardstick. It is a conceptual distance, a logical distance, a very important distance indeed—more important than a measurable distance. We may say that such distance is the distance between us and God. He is very far, and yet that far distance which appears to be there between us and God is not in any way comparable to spatial measurement or even to temporal measurement of duration.

Otherwise, it is very frightening to conclude that millions of light years may be the distance between us and God and we do not have the appurtenances to reach Him at all, while the fact is that God is so close to us that there is absolutely no spatial distance at all. It is an immediate experience. Hence, some distinction must be made in understanding the analogy of the inverted tree in this sloka. It is an analogy, and we should not stretch any analogy to the breaking point. It should be taken in its spirit.

Chandāṁsi yasya parṇāni: All the values of life, including the Vedas and all knowledge, are hanging, as it were, like the leaves and the flowers of this tree. The Veda is considered to be the highest knowledge, and it is given a place among the leaves—not the trunk or the root. Yas taṁ veda sa vedavit: Whoever has an insight into the mystery or meaning behind this analogy knows what the Veda really is. Ūrdhvamūlam adhaḥśākham aśvatthaṁ prāhur avyam, chandāṁsi yasya parṇāni yastaṁ veda sa vedavit.

The tree of life has its root upwards in the unmanifest, which is rooted in the Divine Being, with its branches spread below as the manifested universe. This tree is inclusive of great misery like birth, old age, grief, and death. It appears to be of a different nature every moment. It is now seen, and now not seen—like the illusion of water in a mirage or a city in the clouds.

It can be felled like a tree, and it has a beginning and an end like a tree. It is essenceless, like the sapless plantain tree. It is the cause of great doubts and confusion in the minds of the non-discriminating. Its true nature is not ascertained even by aspirants of knowledge. Its true meaning is found in the original essence of Brahman, which is ascertained in the Vedanta Shastra. This tree is born out of the potency of ignorance, desire and action. It is born out of the sprout of Hiranyagarbha, who combines in Himself cosmic knowledge and action. The branches of this tree consist of the various subtle bodies of individuals. It has become proud due to being watered by the desires and cravings of individuals. Its buds consist of the objects of the mind and the senses. Its leaves consist of knowledge from the scriptures, tradition, logic, and learning. Its flowers are the impulses for sacrifice, charity, austerity, etc. Its essence is the experience of pleasure and pain. Its root is fastened tightly because of the constant watering through the intense longing for the different objects on which all individuals depend. It is inhabited by several birds, called individuals—from Brahma, the Creator, down to inanimate matter. It is full of tumultuous noises like those of weeping, shouting, playing, joking, singing, dancing, running, and such other sounds created by the experiences of exhilaration and grief, giving rise to pleasure and pain.

This tree can be cut down with the strong weapon of detachment, consequent upon the realisation of the identity of the self with Brahman, through hearing the Vedanta texts, contemplating upon their meaning, and profound meditation thereon. This tree shakes, being blown by the wind of various desires and actions of the individual. Its various parts are the different worlds inhabited by celestial beings, human beings, beasts, demons, etc.

The beginning of this tree is not known. It extends everywhere, and its form is incomprehensible. This tree is ultimately based on the pure essence of self-luminous consciousness. The enigmatic character of this tree is accounted for by the incomprehensible nature of Brahman itself, in which it is rooted. This tree is essentially unreal, because it is experienced as a modification. The Sruti says that all modification is only a play of speech—a mere name—and, therefore, false. This Brahman, which is the reality behind this universal tree, is transcended by nothing; and other than it, there is no reality.

This whole universe works systematically, being controlled by the supreme life-principle—Brahman. Mahad bhayaṁ vajram udyatam (Katha 2.3.2): This Brahman is like a great terror, like an uplifted thunderbolt. Acharya Sankara has given an elaborate commentary on this verse of the Kathopanishad.

Adhaś cordhvaṁ prasṛtās tasya śākhā guṇapravṛddhā viṣayapravālāḥ, adhaś ca mūlānyanusaṁtatāni karmānu-bandhīni manuṣyaloke (15.2): The branches of this tree are spread out in all directions, both above and below, and these branches have become very stout, being fed with the food of the three gunas of prakritisattva, rajas and tamas, which are the diet for this tree; and all the fine leaves which are shining at the end of these branches, which are attractive to the senses, are the objects of perception: viṣayapravālāḥ.

Adhaś ca mūlānyanusaṁtatāni karmānubandhīni manuṣ-yaloke: At the base of this manifested form, as the branches spread out everywhere originating from the root, which is above, there are the individuals on this earth plane of human beings, manuṣyaloke, who are bound by the cord of karma. The farther one moves from the root, the more is one bound. The gunas of prakriti bind more and more tightly as consciousness moves further and further from the root.

Na rūpam asyeha tathopalabhyate (15.3): We cannot have a clear concept of the form of this tree. It is so widespread and so large in its dimension that our two eyes cannot actually see its extent. We see only a little bit of this vast universal tree, the whole of which nobody can see because of our limited perceptive faculties.

It has no beginning, and no end. We cannot know from where this tree has started, and we cannot know where it ends, because it spreads itself in all directions throughout space. Its origin, its sustenance, is also something very indescribable. Nānto na cādir na ca saṁpratiṣṭhā: Nothing about it can be known. It exists like a chronic disease whose origin is not easy to detect but is known to exist on account of the trouble it creates.

Aśvattham enaṁ suvirūḍhamūlaṁ asaṅgaśastreṇa dṛḍhena chittvā (15.3); tataḥ padaṁ tatparimārgitavyaṁ (15.4): This kind of tree, terrible as it looks, though imperceptible to the eyes, beginningless and endless though it may seem, has to be felled with the axe of detachment. If we are not attached to the manifestations of this tree, then the qualities, or the gunas of prakriti, that are feeding this tree through its branches will not affect us.

This point is similar to the other well-known analogy of two birds perched on a single tree. This analogy is in the Veda and also in the Upanishad. Dvā suparṇā sayujā sakhāyā samānaṁ vṛkṣam pariṣasvajāte, tayor anyaḥ pippalaṁ svādv attyanaśnann anyo’bhicakaśīti (M.U. 3.1.1): On this large tree, two birds are perched. One of the birds is busy eating the sweet berries, the fruits that are yielded by this wonderful tree, but, unfortunately, these are forbidden fruit. So delicious is this fruit, so rapidly is the bird gulping the fruit, so insatiable is the desire to eat it, and so endlessly is this activity of eating going on, that it has lost consciousness that there is another bird sitting by its side. If we are at a large luncheon and are given delicious dishes, we may not notice the person sitting next to us because of our enchantment by the food. The bird that is by the side of this indulging bird is not eating anything. It is just sitting there and gazing at all the wonders of this manifestation of the tree, knowing everything about it, root and branch, but not concerned with either the majesty of the tree, the size of the tree, or the beauty of its product, the fruit. The bird that is eating the fruit of this tree is attached. The bird that is unconcerned and is just looking at the tree is detached. The tree cannot affect the bird that is detached, but the bird that is attached is bound hand and foot. When the eating is over and it is satiated, and cannot eat any more, the bird looks around and sees another bird sitting by its side. The moment it looks at that other bird sitting there, this bird attains liberation. By the mere consciousness of the existence of that bird, without having to do anything at all with it other than the mere awareness of it being there, liberation is attained.

There is no necessity to deal with God. The only thing that is required is to be aware that such a thing called God exists. The mere awareness of the existence of such a thing called God is sufficient for the liberation of the soul, and no activity is called for here. The unconsciousness of there being such a thing called God is the reason why we are indulging in all the wondrous binding activities of the world and are busy eating the delicacies which this world is yielding for us.

This tree, which is otherwise very deeply rooted, is of course perishable in its nature. One of the meanings of the word asvattha is that it will not last even till tomorrow. It is a very perishable, transient thing. Though it is suvirūḍhamūlaṁ—it looks unshakeable in its root—yet it has aspects which are perishable and, therefore, it can be shaken completely from its very root by only one weapon: asaṅgaśastreṇa, the weapon of detachment. We should have no emotional concern with anything that we see with our eyes; we should be detached. The bird that is not interested in the glory of the tree’s manifestation also sees this wondrous tree—this world, this creation. We also can see this wonderful world; there is no objection to mere seeing. We can see the mystery, the majesty and the enigmatic character of the working of the whole universe. There is no harm in seeing it like the movement of film in a cinema, but we should not say “It is mine; I want it” with ahamta, or self-consciousness, causing thereby a desire to possess certain attractive things like the fruit of the tree.

With a powerful cut at the tree with the axe of detachment, felling it down in this manner and throwing it on the ground, root and branch, what then happens? We have to aspire for that great Abode, reaching which people do not come back. Tataḥ padaṁ tatparimārgitavyaṁ yasmin gatā na nivartanti bhūyaḥ (15.4): After having achieved this almost impossible feat of non-attachment to things in this world, one should cast one’s gaze above this world and seek that transcendent Eternal Bliss, having attained and enjoyed which, no one will come back.

The prayer is: I aspire to attain that glorious Purusha. Let there be this prayer in our hearts every day: tameva cādyaṁ puruṣaṁ prapadye yataḥ pravṛttiḥ prasṛtā purāṇī. The prayer of the seeker is: I humbly seek to reach and attain that Purusha, from whom emanates the large tree of samsara. Go on repeating this mantra: tameva cādyaṁ puruṣaṁ prapadye yataḥ pravṛttiḥ prasṛtā purāṇī. This is actually a mantra, an inward prayer of a spiritual seeker, making out that one wants nothing but that which is above the three gunas of prakriti, which causes the tree to manifest.

Nirmānamohā jitasaṅgadoṣā adhyātmanityā vinivṛtta- kāmāḥ, dvandvair vimuktāḥ sukhaduḥkhasaṁjñair gacchantyamūḍhāḥ padam avyayaṁ tat (15.5). There are certain conditions that we have to fulfil so that our aspiration for the attainment of this great goal may be fulfilled. What are these qualities? Nirmāna: Not respecting oneself as an independently existing and very important individual. Recognising in oneself nothing so valuable as to distinguish oneself from other people, because self-respect has many ramifications. It leads to pride, arrogance, conflict, domination, tyranny and despotism. All kinds of things arise from the seed of self-respect. Nirmānamohā: Without this egoism called self-respect, and without any kind of attachment, which is moha. Jitasaṅgadoṣā: Free from the evil of longing for contact with things. Adhyātmanityā: Continuously resorting to the knowledge of the Atman. Vinivṛttakāmāḥ: Free from all longing for attractive things in the world, from objects of sense. Dvandvair vimuktāḥ: Free from the pairs of opposites such as raga and dvesha, like and dislike, and pleasure and pain. Dvandvair vimuktāḥ sukhaduḥkhasaṁjñaiḥ: Pairs of opposites known as pleasure and pain, leading to raga-dvesha, or like and dislike. Amūḍhāḥ: Free from these pairs of opposites, great purified souls, undeluded in their nature; gacchantyamūḍhāḥ padam avyayaṁ tat: Reach that Imperishable Abode.

Na tad bhāsayate sūryaḥ (15.6): This glorious sun, with so much brilliance, does not shine there. Na tatra sūryo bhāti, na candra-tārakam (Katha 2.2.15): There is no sun, no moon, no stars; what to talk of the fire of this world—kuto’yam agniḥ. Tam eva bhāntam anubhāti sarvaṁ: The sun shines, the moon shines, stars shine, fire blazes forth due to borrowing the radiance of another thing altogether, which is not of this world. Na tad bhāsayate sūryaḥ: The sun does not shine there, because the light of the sun is like darkness before that radiance. Na śaśāṅkaḥ: Not even the moon is there. Na pāvakaḥ: The radiance of the earth, which is born of the fire and heat, that too is not there to illumine.

The same point is again emphasised. Yad gatvā na nivartante: Having reached which, we will not come back. How many of us are prepared not to come back? Because it is a frightening thing, we have to think thrice before saying yes or no to it. Yad gatvā na nivartante tad dhāma paramaṁ mama. Because of the impurities in the mind, we cannot understand the meaning of ‘not coming back’. So the great Vedanta Shastras—the Upanishads, Bhagavadgita, etc., are not supposed to be studied by impure minds who are attached to family, things, and the value of the earth—minds who consider this earth as very solid and who think that there are values here which are permanent in their nature.

Na tad bhāsayate sūryo na śaśāṅko na pāvakaḥ, yad gatvā na nivartante tad dhāma paramaṁ mama: “My abode is that, after having attained which, you will not return to this world of sorrow.”

We may put a question: “After reaching that state, what will I do there?” Many people ask this question: “What shall I do there, after reaching that place? You don’t want me to come back, so will I sit there gazing at the face of God? But how long I will gaze? I will be tired.”

To remove this fear, the Vaishnava theology tells us that we will have a glorious feast, with rice made of gold. And the kshira-sagara, whose waves are dashing hither and thither, throwing little sprinkles of milk on the body of Narayana, shining thereby tenfold, a hundredfold, will attract our attention, and we will be very happy even to behold Him. There will be singing and dancing by the Parsadas, and we will also be one of the Parsadas. We will have no limitation of time or of space. There will be rejoicing, endless rejoicing. These kinds of illustrations are found in certain writings of acharyas like Ramanuja, who wrote one particular essay called Vaikuntha Gadyam—a prose essay on Vaikuntha, where gold paddy can be seen growing on all sides. But we are happy to hear that rice made of gold, emerald or diamond will be cooked and eaten.

There is no necessity to have fear of this kind, and it is impossible to describe in words why it is not good to come back, and why it is good to be there. By any kind of logic or scriptural quotation, one cannot be convinced as to why that attainment, from where there is no return, is necessary.

Some people try to give examples to convince us in some way, in a feeble manner. It is like going to the waking condition from the dream world. Would we like to go back to the dream world once again? Yesterday we had a good dream or a bad dream, and then we woke up. Now we have a very clear waking consciousness. Do we grieve that we have woken up from that dream, that we have lost our dream kingdom? We were Akbar Badshah or Caesar in the dream world, and now we have woken up as ordinary mortals. Which is better—being Caesar in the dream world or this perspicacious consciousness of waking?

This waking consciousness includes everything that we saw in dream. Not only the dream perceiver, not only the seer or the observer of the dream, but the entire space, time and objects—the whole universe of dream—are contained in the waking mind. That is to say, this wondrous universe to which we are so attached, from which we are afraid of leaving, is contained in that thing which we are attaining and from which there is no point in returning—as there is no point in returning from waking to dream once again.

We may say, “There are so many people in this world. Am I to leave them here and go alone, as a selfish man, to the abode of that from where I will not come back? What about other people in the world? Millions of mortals are suffering. Do you want me to go alone to the Eternal Abode? Is it not an act of selfishness?” The same analogy applies here. Did we not see many people in dream? We were fathers, we were mothers, we had children and family, and there was a big society of people. Why did we wake up, leaving them all in the dream world? We could have waited until all of them had woken up. We suddenly woke up, leaving all the family, etc., in the dream world. What happened to those many individuals whom we saw in dream? And the whole dream world with which we were concerned so much—what happened to it now that we have left it and, like a selfish person, have woken up into waking consciousness? These are some illustrations that will clear the cobweb of our mind and make us feel inwardly convinced that it is good to reach God, and it is not good to come back from That. Yad gatvā na nivartante: “After having reached That, you will not come back.” Tad dhāma paramaṁ mama: “That is My Abode.”

Mamaivāṁśo jīvaloke jīvabhūtaḥ sanātanaḥ (15.7): “This jiva, this ‘me’ or ‘you’ etc., these individuals, these eighty-four lakhs (8,400,000) of species of manifestation throughout the fourteen realms of creation—all these are My aspects, My parts, as it were, a little fraction.” Viṣṭabhyāham idaṁ kṛtsnam ekāṁśena sthito jagat (10.42); pādo’sya viśvā bhūtāni tripādasyā’mṛtaṁ div (P.S. 2): “In this world of manifestations of individuals, I support these individuals by a little fraction of Myself. They are only part of Me. I support this world of creation by pervading the whole of creation as the vitality thereof, and I do not exhaust Myself entirely.”

There is a kind of theory called pantheism, which says that God is totally exhausted in this world—as milk is exhausted when it becomes curd and it cannot become milk once again. The point here is quite different. God does not convert Himself into the world by a modification of Himself as milk modifies itself into curd, and God is not exhausted entirely in this world as milk is exhausted in curd. There is no exhaustion at all. The transcendent Being remains unaffected, even as our waking mind is not at all affected by what we saw in the dream world. Again, the same analogy is very apt here.

“This jivaloka, this world of individuals, is sustained by Me, by a little fraction of Myself as the vitality of creation. What happens to these individuals that are so created with a part of Me? They are pulled by the sense organs, which are five in number.” Śrotraṁ cakṣuḥ sparśanaṁ ca rasanaṁ ghrāṇam eva ca (15.9): These are the sense organs, including the mind, which is also considered as an organ of perception. The mind is the internal sense, and the other five—hearing, sight, touch, taste and smell—are external senses; so the five plus the mind totals six. Manaḥṣaṣṭhānī: The six senses, including the mind, are rooted in the powers of nature, which are the three gunas, due to which they are helplessly dragged hither and thither on account of the mutation of the gunas of prakritiprakṛtisthāni karṣati.

Śarīraṁ yad avāpnoti yac cāpyutkrāmatīśvaraḥ, gṛhitvaitāni saṁyāti vāyur gandhān ivāśayāt (15.8): If there is a fragrance somewhere, when the wind blows the fragrance also is wafted up and the fragrance is carried by the wind in whatever direction it blows. In a similar manner, when an individual—a jiva, or a soul—leaves this particular body and endeavours to enter another body, the mind and the senses are taken together with it: gṛhitvaitāni saṁyāti. The body is left here, but our main treasure trove—the mind with which we think, and the sense organs, which are the causes of our attachment—they, in a subtle potential form, get attached to the subtle body which is actually reincarnating. The jiva does not die while the body is apparently dead.

Śrotraṁ cakṣuḥ sparśanaṁ ca rasanaṁ ghrāṇam eva ca (15.9): Basing themselves on the mind which cognises, these five senses of hearing, seeing, touching, tasting and smelling enjoy the objects outside—viṣayān upasevate.