The Development of Religious Consciousness
by Swami Krishnananda

The Ascent of Religious Consciousness in the Bhagavadgita

There are three things always which need deep consideration. Firstly, we are here as ourselves. Secondly, there is something which we consider as other than ourselves. Thirdly, there is another thing which we regard as above ourselves. We are daily pitted against the world as an ‘other than ourselves’. The world includes all people, all things—every living creature, with whom we cannot identify ourselves. There is an ‘other’ everywhere. The whole problem of life is this ‘otherness’, whose meaning is never clear to the human mind.

What makes anything appear as an ‘other’ than one’s own self? The otherness also implies a kind of inscrutable relationship between one’s own self and what we call the ‘other’. This relationship is inscrutable and inexplicable without admitting another thing altogether, namely, the ‘above’—that which is above ourselves, as well as that which we regard as other than ourselves.

In the context of the ascent of the religious consciousness, we may consider the Bhagavadgita as the crowning edifice among the documents on this great subject. It would be interesting to note that the first six chapters of the Gita are concerned with ourselves—the ‘I’, the ‘me’, the individual. The next six chapters are concerned with the other than what we are—the whole world outside. The last three chapters are related to what is above both the ‘I’ and the ‘other than what is I’. Those who have studied the Bhagavadgita would have observed that a gradual ascent of the process of self-discipline is inculcated in the verses of the first six chapters, commencing with utter turmoil, chaos, and social and political confusion, as depicted in the first chapter.

Everything is odd. This is what one may remark about things in the world, and about people anywhere. Everything is at sixes and sevens. Nothing is in the proper place. All things are out of context. Life is a misery. It cannot be understood. It is a suffering imposed upon oneself and everyone by something whose nature is inscrutable. All life is misery. It is utter sorrow and suffering.

Any kind of attempt at understanding this problem is self-defeating. This was the condition in which Arjuna found himself—a great warrior, an indomitable generalissimo in the army whom nobody could face, as we read in the documentation of his exploits in the Mahabharata. He could conquer the gods, but now he was faced with his own self. You can conquer the whole world, but when it comes to yourself you will find that you are our own greatest enemy and an incomprehensible opponent of yourself. Chaos was the first chapter.

When a person is honestly and sincerely determined in seeking an answer to this problem which is otherwise yawning before oneself in everyday life, the light within lights itself up and show the path. Sri Krishna of the Bhagavadgita is this light. Arjuna is the human individual. Whatever be the vainglorious feeling of the importance of a human individual, when it is faced with the realities of life it behaves like the famous Uttara Kumara in the Virat Parva of the Mahabharata—all boast and patting oneself on the back. We are not able to face even a mouse if it starts jumping on us.

What we learn from the predicament described in the first chapter is that the importance of the human individual is a chimera. But the more inscrutable element, known as egoism in human nature, does not permit the acceptance of the fact that the self-esteem associated with the human individual is a phantasm. Human individuality is constituted of various factors, as a house is made up of small elements such as bricks and mortar, cement and steel, etc. There is no such thing as a house by itself; it is a shape that is taken in the spatio-temporal context by the elements which are other than the house itself.

So is the case with the human individual. Incalculable factors beyond the comprehension of human understanding contribute to bring about a cohesion of factors into the form of the human individuality, as a house built with material not belonging to the house itself. Even the rays of the stars contribute a large percentage of our constitutional makeup. The winds and the waters, the Sun and the Moon and the stars, and earth, water, fire, air and ether all join together in different proportions in order to make up this peculiar setup of the human individual. By itself, it does not exist.

This is the reason why many thinkers have told us that life is a fluxation rather than a being by itself. It is a movement, not an existence. We flow, rather than exist as self-identical entities. There is so much confusion in the mind because the mind is itself a part of this chaotic conglomeration of particulars which make up the human individuality appearing to be a solid person, a permanent entity.

I am not going to comment on the Bhagavadgita here, but am just introducing the process of the development of thought in the different chapters of the first section of the Gita, until it reaches its pinnacle in the sixth chapter, where self-discipline becomes complete. Every kind of discipline is a process of self-integration. Our thoughts, our mannerisms, our behaviours, the way in which we speak, and our activities dissect our personalities. They dismember us and convert us into shreds and fragments of isolated particulars, and we feel that we are somewhere else, other than in our own selves.

The bringing together of these shreds of components into a focusing attention of indivisibility is what we call integration of personality. The social impetus, the physical impulses, the mental distractions, the intellectual vagaries, and many other subconscious pressures, all speaking in their own language at different times, for different purposes, as it were, have to be boiled down into the menstruum of a single cementing factor which converts human individuality into an indivisible being and not a complex of structural individualities of various other elements, as they appear to be.

Whenever we think anything, we go out of ourselves. Unless we, as a centre of awareness, mentation, and consciousness, reach out external to our own selves to a thing which is the object of our awareness, we would not know that the thing exists at all. So, in every perception of an object, whatever it be, there is an alienation of self-consciousness. We become other than what we are and, therefore, every perception of any kind of object is a delimitation of the integrated indivisibility of self-consciousness.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras we find that every vritti, which is the attempt of the mind to know what is outside, is an obstacle in yoga. We should not imagine that the perception of an object like a tree, or anything whatsoever, is a harmless action taking place in the mind. “I am looking at the tree. What does it matter? All is well with me.” We cannot know that there is a tree unless we have moved towards the tree, entered the tree, made our consciousness part of the tree, and to that extent, diminished our integration of personality. The more we think of things outside, the less are we integrated inside. So, Bhagavan Sri Krishna, especially in the sixth chapter, highlights the importance of meditation. Ātmasaṁsthaṁ manaḥ kṛtvā na kiṁcid api cintayet: having centralising the consciousness in itself. Tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe avasthānam is the relevant sutra of Patanjali here: centralisation of consciousness in itself is the art of self-integration.

Here is a great point before us. How would we centralise consciousness in itself unless we know where consciousness lies? Consciousness by its very nature is to be considered indivisible. The division of consciousness is unthinkable. If we imagine that consciousness can be divided into parts, the division of two parts cannot be known except by consciousness itself. Even the isolation of one part of consciousness from another part—imagined, for practical purposes—is inadmissible inasmuch as the separating gap cannot exist unless it becomes a content of consciousness, which proves the fact that consciousness is universally pervasive. Thus, self-integration in the context of meditation would mean finally an attempt at centralising consciousness in its own universal context. Here, we conclude the sixth chapter.

Then there is a leap, like the leap of Hanuman across the sea to the other shore. The ‘other’, which is the world, has to be explained and made one’s own. We cannot be safe and comfortable in life as long as there is an ‘other’ in front of us. Dvitīyād vai bhayaṁ bhavati, says the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Whenever there is another beside you, you are frightened, because you do not know what that other will do to you. Unless you are reconciled to the so-called other, life will end in misery. The other is anything conceivable. It may be a human being, or it may be a thing; it may be the whole world, and the Sun and the Moon and the stars.

The reconciliation of oneself with this otherness of the large expanse of the universe before us again highlights the necessity of finding our own universal centre in everything that is apparently outside. The outsideness is not permissible, because in order that one thing be outside, there must be someone to know that something is outside. And who will know that, except our own selves? So we have to become the outside first, in order to know that there is something outside. Is this not a self-contradiction? How could there be an other than ourself, while we cannot know that such a thing exists at all until we have become that which is other than ourself? Every day we are bungling in our very thinking itself.

To bridge the gulf between the individual and the Cosmic Substance, Bhagavan Sri Krishna introduces the seventh chapter, where the whole cosmology of existence is described, until the great apocalypse, the Vishwarupa, concludes the great message. Many interpreters and commentators of the Gita think that the Gita really ends with the eleventh chapter, and there is nothing more to be said. Matkarmakṛn matparamo madbhaktaḥ saṅgavarjitaḥ, nirvairaḥ sarvabhūteṣu yaḥ sa mām eti pāṇḍava is the last verse of the eleventh chapter. Acharya Sankara says in his commentary that this is the final word and there is nothing more to be said.

But, it appears that there is also something else to be told. There is something which remains. What is the something that remains? You have seen the Vishwarupa, and what else do you want? There is some subtle thing which escapes notice. Bhagavan Sri Krishna mentions in a few words in the eleventh chapter: jñātuṁ draṣṭuṁ ca tattvena praveṣṭuṁ ca paraṁtapa. You must be capable of jnatum, drastum and pravestum: to know, to visualise, and to enter into. The Vishwarupa has been seen; it has been known, to some extent. It has been visualised, but it has not been entered into.

Arjuna never entered into the Vishwarupa. He was beholding it as a great wonder, so there was a kind of ‘otherness’ here, also—the great ‘otherness’ of God Almighty, as the Creator of the universe. We always say that God is in heaven. Here is the ‘otherness’ of not merely the world, but of the Almighty God Himself. He is an ‘other’ to ourselves; and, again, we have to bridge the gulf between ourselves and God. This is an endless exercise. It will never end.

Briefly stated, the concluding six chapters are an answer to this problem of the otherness that seems to be persisting even after beholding the Vishwarupa, or even accepting the existence of a Creator of the universe. God is in the high heaven; we cannot say that God is sitting on our nose. Nobody says that, though there is nothing wrong even in accepting that. But we reject every idea, repel every thought of the excessive intimacy and nearness of God to our own selves, because there is a fright which is indescribable. This gulf has to be bridged.

Thus, the first six chapters are a process of self-discipline. In the next six chapters we have the bridging of the gulf between one’s own self and the otherness of the universe. The last six chapters deal with the bridging of the gulf between not only ourselves and the otherness of the world, but between ourselves, the world, and the Almighty Himself, so that the One Alone remains. Ekam sad vipraha, bahudha vadanti. One Alone remains; and who knows that One? We do not know that One because if we say, “I know that One,” we create a gulf between ourselves and the One by which is the object of our awareness. The One knows Itself as the only That-Which-Is.

Here is the great purnavati of this little series of discourses I gave to you on the Development of the religious consciousness in human history, which you please keep in your mind for your future guidance so that you may make your life blessed.