The Philosophy of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 12: God and the Universe

By the time we reach the Seventh Chapter of the Bhagavadgita we are touching a new realm of being, and the whole perspective that was presented before us in the course of the earlier six chapters suddenly changes, as if a curtain has been lifted in the dramatic portrayal of the Gospel. There is an introduction of the soul of the seeker to the empyrean of the Creator, a subject which has not been adequately touched upon during the earlier course of the studies.

There has been a particular emphasis laid in the first six chapters upon the individual, the duty of the person, the integration of the psychophysical complex. There has been an admonition in the earlier chapters to the individual, or man as such, in his capacity as a soul which aspires for the realisation of higher values, so that this task of self-integration gets completed when we reach the theme of the Sixth Chapter, wherein we place ourselves in the context of a total preparation of ourselves to leap into the beyond.

The individual is suddenly set in tune with the universal in the Seventh Chapter. The great Master tells at the commencement of this section that this aspiration is a great blessing. And very few in this world can have the satisfaction of having received this divine blessing, viz., love of God, and a complete preparation of oneself in the direction of God. It is not that everyone will be fit even to contain the idea of the Absolute in one’s mind, let alone have a direct contact with it or an experience of it. Even the entertaining of the notion of the Absolute is a grand achievement. It is a great achievement indeed if any one of us can satisfactorily contain in our minds the nature or structure of the Supreme Being. That shall be regarded as an attainment in the practice of Yoga. A whole-souled aspiration for God even in its initial stage is superior to all verbal knowledge, intellectual acumen, or scriptural learning.

Very few will be inclined to turn to God. Most people are distracted in the direction of the objects of the senses. People are in search of satisfaction which is empirical, physical and egoistic. The bliss of God is not the concern of the ordinary man; it is impossible even for thinking and understanding. Not many have this endowment by which the mind will agree to turn to God in His reality. But even among those who are truly aspiring for the realisation of God, only some will really succeed in the attempt. It does not mean that everyone who files an application will be chosen, because success in this path of the Spirit is hard to attain in the case of the individual who is lodged in the body and limited to the empirical categories of the mind.

With this cautious introduction the Teacher of the Bhagavadgita takes us to a picture of the cosmos, which is concisely explained in a few words. The whole universe is constituted of the five elements and certain phases of the universal consciousness, the elements being grosser than the latter—earth, water, fire, air and ether—the mind, intellect, ego. Here the teaching resembles, to a large extent, the cosmological explanation offered by the Samkhya system. We have touched upon this theme earlier on some occasion.

The lowest category of reality that we observe is the earth plane, physical matter, solid substance, gross objects, all which can be grouped under the category of the mahabhutas, or the five elements. Anything that is perceptible to the senses is regarded as material. The five elements, so-called, are not five different substances as we might have heard it said earlier. These elements are rather five degrees of the density of the cosmic substance. It does not mean that there is a total distinction of one from the other. According to the cosmology of the Samkhya, and also Vedanta, the effect can be resolved into the cause, so that, ultimately, it can be safely said that space is the container or the bosom of all things. These physical elements—earth, water, fire, air and ether—therefore, form the sum and substance of the physical universe.

But there are subtler realities which are not accessible to the senses of the individual. The higher we go, the more imperceptible does the object become because of the rarefaction of its constituents. The Samkhya tells us that beyond the five elements, subtler than the five elements, are what are called the tanmatras, the subtle essences of the five elements. They are something like the electrical constitution of gross objects, though this analogy is not complete; only we cannot explain it in a better manner. The substantiality of the gross objects loses its accepted significance when we view it as an eddy of electrical force, or energy, which is co-extensive with the other parts of the universe, which are also constituted of similar waves of force. Thus, there being only a continuum of energy, we are bordering upon what the Samkhya calls prakriti. All these details are not in the verses of the Bhagavadgita, but the reference made is certainly to these principles.

Above the five gross elements, beyond the tanmatras or the subtle essences, behind all these is the Cosmic Thinking Principle. This is something which we cannot conceive and cannot perceive. From the practical point of view, the Cosmic Reality beyond the elements can only be an object of direct realisation and experience, and it can never become a spatiotemporal object. But we can infer the presence of the Cosmic Mind, by logical deduction from facts of present experience. It is certain that the mind conditions the objects in some manner. But it is not proper to say that an individual mind can condition the objects, though it is true that a large contribution is made by the mental structure in the perception of an object, so that it can be said that no object is seen as it is in itself. Yet, at the same time, we cannot be sure that any individual mind is the creator or a total conditioner of the object of perception. There is some sort of a reality in the object, notwithstanding the fact that there is a conditioning of the object by the perceiving subject.

What sort of subject is it that conditions the object? It is not ‘my’ mind or ‘your’ mind, and there seems to be a Total Mind which extends far beyond the ken of the individual minds, not only in quantity but even in quality—a subject which is outside the scope of our present studies. This is referred to in the verses of the Bhagavadgita when the word ‘manah’ or the ‘mind’ is mentioned in this context. The mind is superior to the physical elements. We would be surprised to hear that the mind is superior to the elements. And a little common sense will tell us that it cannot be ‘our’ mind that is mentioned here, because nobody can say that our mind is superior to the whole physical cosmos. Naturally, we have to identify this ‘mind’ with the Cosmic Mind. There is, then, the buddhi, the Cosmic Intellect, known also as the mahat in the Samkhya.

There is, again, the ahamkara, the Cosmic Self-Sense. The mahat, the Cosmic Understanding, or Intelligence, is above the ahamkara, according to the Samkhya, and beyond that the indescribable continuum, the avyakta, as it is called, the prakriti of the Samkhya, beyond all which is the Supreme Resplendence of the Absolute—call it purusha or by any other name according to the schools of thought. These are, broadly speaking, the constituents of the entire layers of the cosmos. These are the eight forms of prakriti, according to the Bhagavadgita, though the Samkhya classification differs here in the manner of the gradations and specifications of these principles.

Beyond all these forms of prakriti there is a Higher Element which regulates the operation of these lower elements, which is the Principle of God Himself working in a mysterious manner. Though everything is caused by the permutation and combination of these principles mentioned already, they are regulated and operated by the will of a Superior Principle, which, in religious or theological parlance, we call the Power of God; the Shakti of the Creator, Preserver and Destroyer, the Energy of the Absolute. Nothing outside this Being can ever be. Everything is subsumed under this Great Reality, so that the Samkhya of the Bhagavadgita overcomes the difficulties of the dualism of the classical Samkhya. The purusha and the prakriti of the Samkhya are subsidiary to the Supreme Being of the Bhagavadgita. They are like the Attributes mentioned by Spinoza in his metaphysical theology of the Supreme Substance. They are spiritual categories and not merely qualities in the ordinary empirical sense. This is the All-in-All Being.

The “I-Am-What-I-Am” is God in Himself, and not God as He appears to us. He cannot appear to anybody because He is not an object of anybody’s cognition or perception. The Bhagavadgita is emphatic that God is all-in-all and He is not limited in any manner whatsoever by anything outside Him, because nothing can ever be outside God. The movement of the soul towards God, therefore, becomes an inexplicable process under the circumstances of this superior definition of God. The idea of movement gets ruled out in the context of the Omnipresence of the Supreme Being, and yet it has to be explained. It does not appear that the movement of the aspiration is in a horizontal manner through space or even in time. It is not a covering of distance as on a road; it is, rather, an ascent from the lower degrees of concept and being to the higher ones. When we travel from dream to waking, we are not moving on a road by sitting in a vehicle, yet we travel; it is true. The travel is a psychological movement, more properly explicable as an ascent or rising from the lower to the higher than a travel or movement in a particular direction in space.

Describing the possible character of the movement of the soul towards God, we are told that there are four types of aspiring souls, all these aspirations being regarded as worthwhile and very valuable in their own way. Our love for God is variegated in its motivation. And the more perfect is the love or aspiration, the greater is the chance of one’s realisation of God, experience of the Absolute. The more we try to consider God as an outside object, even in a philosophical sense, the more is the difficulty that we will encounter on the path, because God resents any kind of a relinquishment of Him to the limbo of an objectivity of perception. If God tolerates not anything at all, it is our attitude towards Him as if He is an object outside. And if God is the Soul of the Cosmos, the Atman of all this consciousness behind every experience, it should be impossible, even with the farthest stretch of our imagination, to conceive Him as an object and to regard Him as being away from us even by the distance of an inch. If God is not an object, what should be our attitude towards God? All attitudes are objective and are movements of the psyche. And if God is expected to be a Cosmic Soul, the Self of all beings, it is impossible to speak of any ‘attitude’ or an ulteriorly motivated aspiration towards Him. Yet, people belong to various categories and degrees of evolution and experience.

There are people, mostly, who turn to God in times of distress, when they are in agony or sorrow, and when there seems to be no help coming from anyone, from anywhere in the world, they cry out, “God, help me.” The asking for God’s Presence is because of the pain through which they are passing, and the lacuna that they feel in their selves (arta). The anguish that is tearing our hearts and the inadequacy that we feel everywhere, within as well as without, summons God for help. This is one sort of love for God: a devotion, a religion, of course. Everything is religious if it is charged by the touch of God-consciousness in some way. But what is the quality, the intensity, of this aspiration, is a matter to think. Bhagavan Sri Krishna, as a Teacher of Yoga, tells us that these are types of devotees, great indeed in their own way, because they turn to God, whatever be their motive.

There are others who seek knowledge, wisdom, enlightenment, and not any material favour. Not redress from sorrow or grief, not long life, not anything that human beings will regard as ordinarily acceptable or valuable is their aim. They require illumination, understanding, and blessing which will take them to an entry into Truth (jijnasu).

There is a third category, in whose connection the term used in the Bhagavadgita is artharthi, those who seek  artha, or an objective. Usually the word ‘artha’ is translated as ‘object’ of ‘material need’. Most commentators tell us that the third category mentioned is that of the devotee who turns to God for material prosperity of some kind. But there are others who think that it is not proper to imagine the third category as in any way inferior to the second. There is some sort of a logic, it appears, in the arrangement of these devotees as arta, jijnasu, artharthi and jnani, inasmuch as the last one is proclaimed to be the most superior as contrasted with the earlier ones. And the second one is certainly superior to the first one. It is accepted, therefore, by implication, that the third is superior to the first and the second. So, there are those interpreters of the Gita who say that here ‘artha’ should not be taken to mean material or physical property, but the fulfilment of the aims of life which are known as the purusharthas. This is a novel interpretation given by some teachers. The aims of existence are the objects aspired for by these devotees who are considered here as artharthis, seeking those things which are the supreme objects, not the lower ones which are physical.

But the greatest devotee of God is he who asks for nothing from God—not even knowledge, not even enlightenment, not even freedom from suffering—and such devotees are rare to find. The mind is made in such a way that it has always a need of some kind or other. And to imagine a condition of the mind where it has no need whatsoever is difficult. The highest devotion asks for God alone, and not anything through God, or from God. The superiority of this sort of devotion should become obvious to any thinking mind, because to ask for anything from God, or to utilise God as an instrument in the acquisition of anything exterior to God, would be to reduce God to a category inferior to that which one is asking for through the devotion. If God is an instrument in the fulfilment of desires, He ceases to be the Supreme Being, or the Ultimate Reality. That would suggest that the thing we are asking for is better than God Himself! And one who knows that God is superior—the cause is superior to all its effects, and the one who gives is more than what is given—that God is the Absolute All-in-All, is the jnani. If our heart can accept this truth, that the Being of God is greater than anything that can emanate from God, then we shall absorb ourselves in a type of devotion which is identical with being itself. Knowledge becomes being. When knowledge is inseparable from being, we are supposed to be in a state of realisation, which is the highest type of spiritual experience.

“All these are wonderful devotees,” the Teacher says, “but I consider the jnani, the wisdom-devotee, as the supreme, for he has become My very Self.” One who is immensely delighted at the very thought of the Omnipresence of God, who is in ecstasies even at the idea of the Supreme Absoluteness of God’s Being, has attained everything in one moment, nay, instantaneously. He is flooded with the very being of God, and not with the objects that one considers as one’s accessories in life.

The cosmological approaches to the existence of God as the Creator of the universe, these explanations which are offered in the Seventh Chapter, somehow keep God at an awful distance from us, in spite of the proclamation that the supreme concept of God is that of the identity of all beings with the being of God. Curiously, we begin to feel that God is some tremendous, fearsome, cosmic force, and our love for God is simultaneously attended with the fear of God. We are wonderstruck. We feel it is impossible for us even to face the presence of such a Mighty Being. In love there is no fear, and the school of Bhakti, or devotion, has classified it into two categories: the one considering God as the Supreme Master, or Father, who demands an awe-striking superiority over everything, and the other regarding Him as the most Beloved.

God has created and maintains a sort of distance from all the objects which are controlled by Him as His creations. The fear of God is due to the power of God. We have a fear of the ocean, and we would not like to go near it. The reason is the magnitude and the expanse that is there, in front of which we look like puny nothings. We are frightened when we look at the skies above. The expanse seems to be so impossible of even thinking that for a long time we cannot gaze at the distance and be at peace with ourselves. We are also frightened at the distance of the Sun from ourselves and the largeness of the astronomical universe that is gigantically staring at us as an awesome something. So is the concept of God in one type of devotion, which goes by the name of asvarya-pradhana-bhakti, devotion where the predominant feature is the feeling of the glory, the might and the magnificence of God—His greatness.

But there is another kind of love which regards God as the reality within one’s own heart, incapable of separation from one’s own self, as the dearest of all dear ones, and the most loveable of all the loved objects, and the sweetest conceivable thing ever. Such a devotion is categorised in the Bhakti schools under the name madhurya-pradhana-bhakti, where the soul surges forth to God in a melting love and affection which is ordinarily difficult to entertain in respect of an almighty power before which we are just nothing, as it were. Yet, when God is understood in His proper form and relationship with us, we cannot but love Him as our own soul. Often we feel that He is not our own soul, as we are small individuals. And, therefore, we are afraid of God. But if we are also convinced that it is impossible for us to be without Him, and our existence itself is His existence and our soul is He, our love for Him would be identical with our own self, which excels every other kind of love. The sweetness of devotion automatically follows from our acceptance of the inseparability of God from our own Self, or soul—from everything. These are the implied suggestive aspects of the teachings of the few verses of the Gita concerning the four types of devotees.

The distance between man and God becomes less as one rises higher in love and devotion, and finally the distance gets abolished altogether, so that the Supreme Object which is God becomes the Supreme Subject which is the Soul of the cosmos. The fearsome distance of God from us gets gradually diminished as we proceed further through the chapters of the Gita, onwards, right from the Seventh. A time will come when we will see nothing but God, and we would be nowhere there, and that time has to come. Are we fit to realise God in this life? Can anyone touch one’s own heart and say, “Yes, in this very birth, I am going to be absorbed in God’s Being,” or do we have a suspicion, “Well, this is not for me”?

This difficulty is taken up in a very beautiful manner at the commencement of the Eighth Chapter. Most of us would feel diffident even about the entertaining of the idea of this all-consuming Absolute. We are terrorised even by the very thought itself. It would mean that we may pass away from this world without having any contact with this mighty Reality. What will happen to us when we die? What are the chances available to us in this great path of the soul towards God? Is it possible for us to have at least a hope of the possibility of such a realisation, or contact with God? Or, are we to die like flies or moths with no hope whatsoever?

Before answering this question, the Teacher introduces us into another set of cosmological ideals. The direct answer does not come forth immediately. The introduction to the theme comes from the mouth of Arjuna himself, who puts the question as to what all these mean, taking the hint from the suggestive words of the Teacher towards the end of the Seventh Chapter.

What is Brahman? What is the Absolute? What is the universe? What is the individual? What is the relationship between these, and what is the way that we are to adopt in order that we may contact Reality at least after the leaving of the body in this life, if it is not possible in this life? The points touched in the query sweep over almost every philosophical principle. We have no hopes of seeing God in this life; it is an absolutely hopeless affair. Well, then, even afterwards, is it such a hopeless matter? Is there a chance of our beholding God’s glory or contacting Him at least after death? Or, are we to be a miserable specimen even after quitting this physical body here? All these are the suggestions behind Arjuna’s questions at the beginning of the Eighth Chapter; and we have to take a little time to understand the answer that Krishna gives to these basic issues.