The Philosophy of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 13: Cosmology and Eschatology

In the Eighth Chapter of the Bhagavadgita we have an important departure made from the trend followed in the earlier ones, viz., a slight emphasis on the structure of the cosmos, for the purpose of elucidating the fate of the soul after the shedding of the physical body, and also to elucidate the possibility of contacting the Supreme Being in this sojourn of cosmic existence. The questions with which the chapter commences are ushered in by a statement made by Krishna towards the end of the Seventh Chapter itself.

We are supposed to conceive the ultimate Reality in all its facets—the objective, the subjective as well as the universal phases of its manifestation; as adhibhuta, adhyatma, adhidaiva,  Param Brahma, the Absolute-All. One who envisages the Supreme Being as inclusive of everything that is objective, inclusive also of everything that is personal and individual, as well as what is transcendent, and also what is relational, activistic and social—a person who can visualise the Supreme in this manner has really understood it and knows it perfectly. This was the indicative dictum of the last verses of the Seventh Chapter, though mentioned rather casually. This impulsion to greater secrets stirred up a question in the mind of Arjuna, on the details of the suggestion given concerning Brahman, adhibhuta, adhidaiva, adhiyajna, adhyatma and karma, as well as the fate of the soul after the death of the body.

The way in which we visualise any particular thing is the outlook we entertain in respect of that thing. Usually, we do not have a comprehensive idea of anything in this world. When we gaze at an object or think of any particular thing, we regard it with some sort of blinkers limiting our vision of that object, whereby we ignore certain other aspects which also go to constitute its existence. A mother will look upon her child in a particular manner, though that child may be the king of a country. To the mother, the son is not merely a king; there is also some personal relationship there. To a client, a judge in a court is a particular thing, and he is not merely one among the many other human beings. The relationship between the customer and the dealer, and various other kinds of relationship in terms of which we visualise objects, are examples of the conditioning factors in our knowledge.

This limitation that is automatically imposed upon the manner of knowing anything also gets transferred to our idea of God, the Absolute, Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, so that it is not infrequently that we look upon God as a father, a mother, a creator, a preserver, a destroyer, a loving friend, a merciful companion, the liberator, and so on. But God can really be none of these, though he is also, no doubt, the all, everyone and everything. The universe of external experience does not stand outside the existence of God. This world of our experience does not exhaust the being of God. The world cannot contain the whole of God within itself, because it is an effect, and He is the Cause. At the same time, it cannot exist outside Him, for it is inseparably related to Him.

The external world consists of the five elements, which rarely attract our attention in our daily existence. We do not bother much about the five elements, though they are there as a very important thing before us. The world also includes what we call human relationship and activity in the field of the social atmosphere (adhiyajna), and all agency in every enterprise. The world of physical Nature is what is known here as the adhibhuta, the world of the elements, Nature in its completeness.

But, to us, the world of experience is also something else, in addition to the physical elements only. There is a mysterious involvement of ours in our external affairs, and this involvement is something indescribable, which keeps us in anxiety, in a state which is occasioned not merely by the existence of the five elements but by the peculiar attitude of people everywhere, among themselves. If we are today cautious and are aware of world affairs, these concerns that are in our minds are not the products of the five elements. We are not thinking of what the earth will do tomorrow or the water or the fire or the air or the sky will be intending to do the next day. The world of activity and the world of concern is the world of human relationship, adhiyajna,  and this psychological world occasions activity in specialised directions. This is the world of action, the world of adhiyajna, where we sacrifice ourselves for a particular cause. The motive which drives us into activity of any kind and compels us to maintain relationships with other people is comprehended within this restless field of daily sacrifice and mutual adjustment in various ways.

But we have not yet reached the state of understanding the relevance of the five elements to our personal lives. We are too human and too matter-of-fact in our evaluation of things and, for us, the world of experience is the world of human beings and human relationships, which is all that is important. But if we go a little deep into the details of what we have observed earlier on a different occasion, we may remember that any kind of experience by the subject, the individual, of any atmosphere outside, is not possible without the presence of a transcendental element intervening. This Mystery of life is the adhidaiva, the Divinity that shapes our ends, which controls our destinies, which decides every factor everywhere, and which has a say in every matter. It has something to do with every little bit of thing in the world. There is no event taking place anywhere, at any time, without the intervention of this transcendent principle which mysteriously planks itself between the subject and the object, so that, as the great hymn in the Atharva-Veda, addressed to Varuna, says, there is always a secret observer of what transpires between two persons everywhere. One may be in the highest heavens or in the nether regions, one may be in the farthest corner of the earth, it matters not where one is, one’s secret thoughts and transpirations and feelings will be observed by a subtle principle which is pursuing all things wherever anything be. That subtle being is the adhidaiva, God Himself observing all in His own mysterious manner, by the very fact of His being. This is the great Divinity which superintends over all things and all events that happen inwardly as well as outwardly.

Our own self is the adhyatma, the deepest self in us, which, again, is inseparable, ultimately, from the Godhead. It is the essential essence of which everyone is constituted—you, and I, and everybody, and everything. As every little ripple or wave in the ocean is nothing but the vast ocean, the secret hidden at the recess of every individual occasion is the adhyatma, the Atman, the Self in us, which is incapable of further reduction, beyond which one cannot go, and beneath which there is nothing. The deepest and bottommost being of our personality is what is called the Atman; and even as the essence of the wave is the ocean, so is the essence of our own personality the Absolute.

Another mysterious term used here in this connection is karma, a word with which everyone is familiar and which is very much identified with action or the result of action. But here, in this chapter of the Bhagavadgita, it is used in a special sense. The force which causes the emanation of beings is the karma spoken of here, the power which ejects all particulars, every evolute arising from the Central Cause. And all the little karmas that we perform here, your action and my action and anybody’s work, is a reverberation, a sympathetic motivation, a continuation, a reflection or a refraction of this Cosmic Impulse for the great universal purpose. Here is a secret which carries within its bosom an importance of its own. All action is, in the end, a universal action, and it is not ‘your’ action or ‘my’ action. There is, ultimately, no such thing as your activity or my activity. Every rumbling or little noise made by every wave in the ocean is a work of the bowels of the ocean itself. So does the Supreme Will operate through every bit of our actions, and even the winking of our eyes. The little breath that we breathe is nothing but the Cosmic Breath pulsating through our individuality; our intelligence is a faint reflection of the Cosmic Intelligence; our very existence is a part of the Universal Existence.

The Bhagavadgita is driving us into this great gospel of Karma Yoga, a principle which we cannot easily understand unless we know what karma is, and why should it become Yoga, how it can be a divine aspiration. We are all afraid of karma, we are frightened by the very word, because karma binds, and we do not want it, and we want to get rid of it altogether. It is the speciality of the teaching of the Gita that it frees us from this fear of the incubus of karma and tells us that karma cannot bind us, and will not bind, if we know what karma is. The metaphysical significance of karma here inculcated in the Gita is that it is the Will of God operating; it is the creative power of the Absolute that is the visarga, the ejection, the emanation or the proceeding of all things from the Cause of all causes. The answers to the questions raised by Arjuna, stirred by the earlier statement in the Seventh Chapter, are given in these few words at the commencement of the Eighth Chapter.

Now, with this philosophical or cosmical background of our understanding of the entire scheme of creation, we can have some idea as to what will happen to us after our death here. And one of the questions put by Arjuna is: What is the way in which a person has to conduct himself at the time of his departure from this world, for the sake of contacting God? The major part of the Eighth Chapter is taken up with this discussion of the fate of the soul after death. But all this exposition is implicit in this very precise enunciation of the cosmological basis of the whole of the pattern of creation, which involves the pattern of our mutual relationships among ourselves as well as the relation between ourselves and the world of Nature outside.

Whatever we think deeply in our hearts and feel perpetually in our consciousness, throughout our life, as if it is a part of our very existence itself, that shall fructify itself into a form of experience after we leave this world. This is the basic psychology of rebirth, transmigration or metempsychosis. Rebirth is not a punishment that is meted out to a person by God, or the Creator. It is a natural law operating on account of the very finitude of the individual, and also on account of the inseparability of the finite from the Infinite. Transmigration is a blind groping, in darkness, by the individual, in the direction of the Supreme Reality. By fumbling and falling down and getting up several times, one learns by experience the way to God. Birth and death, as a series of experiences, constitute a kind of training given to us by the trial-and-error method, so that we do not immediately learn the wisdom of life even if we take millions of births and die several times, because the trial-and-error method is not always the way of knowledge proper; it is not the way of direct illumination. We fall down several times and then, somehow, gain some idea as to how we have fallen—that is a different matter. But knowledge is an inward enlightenment which prevents us from falling into the pit, rather than the strange thing which expects us to fall down and then learn that we should not fall again.

Whatever we entertain in our hearts, as the dearest of our objectives, that we shall become, that we shall contact, that we shall experience, and that we shall have. Every desire has to be fulfilled, for no desire can go unfulfilled in the inexhaustible scheme of God’s Kingdom. Therefore, every little desire, though it may look small and insignificant on the surface, has the support of the whole cosmos at its back, just as every little drop and ripple in the ocean has the force of the ocean at the base. That is why every desire gets rewarded. It is connected finally with the Fulfiller of all desires. Whatever we ask shall be given to us in this infinite reservoir and resourceful treasury of God’s creation. And if we entertain the thought of the Supreme Absolute, God Himself, at the time of passing, we shall contact Him, and reach Him.

But we should also be careful to note that it is not given to every person to think of God at the time of death, because the last thought is the fruit of the tree of the life that we lived throughout this empirical sojourn. We cannot sow the seed of thistle and thorn and expect apples to come out from that shrub. Whatever we have sown, that we shall reap. This is the law of action and reaction. When we live a life of aspiration for God, we should not go by the theological dogma of it being possible for one to think of God at the time of death, while today one can think anything one likes.

We have to emphasise again that, just as the fruit of a tree is nothing but the essence of the whole tree, and it cannot be anything different from what the tree is in essence, our last thought is the cumulative force with which the whole personality rushes out like a rocket to its destination, as a consequence of what we have thought and felt and done throughout our life. We cannot think something there at the end which we have not at all thought when alive here in our normal life. Just as butter comes out of milk as its cream and essence, the last thought comes as the cream of what we have thought throughout our life. It cannot be entirely different.

So, the idea that we can think of God at the time of death, and Yoga is only for old people, is a stupid notion of those who do not know the law of things, because, firstly, one does not know when that last moment will come. It can be just now, it can be today, it can be tomorrow, and to imagine that it is to come after fifty years is obviously the greatest ignorance one can conceive. Secondly, how could we be sure that we would be thinking of the Absolute when we are passing? Mostly, one will be shocked, the nerves will appear to crack, the mind will become unconscious and the person will be taken unawares; at that time who can think of God?

The practice of Yoga is enjoined upon every seeker throughout his life, for the purpose of entertaining this supreme completeness, which is the cumulative outcome of the whole of thought, feeling and will, a veritable cosmic thought which one has to enshrine in one’s heart as the final goal. Here, again, we have a little philosophy behind the entertaining of thoughts and feelings in our lives, how they have a cosmical significance and decide our future because of their relationship with the total pattern of creation.

What happens to us after we die? Where do we go? To some extent, this question has been answered by what we have said already. Whatever we want, that we shall get; and where we wish to go, there we will be taken; and what we have done here, that will be repaid to us. It is a very terrible law, and yet deeply consoling. It is impartial like justice, and the law of gravitation, or the working of the universe. There are no friends and no foes for this law.

It becomes, therefore, incumbent on every seeker of Truth to be honestly aspiring for God, to live the life of a search for the Spirit, rather than a seeking for material possessions and the pleasure of the senses. The karma that we perform in life has to be set in tune with the great Will of God, a reference to which has already been made earlier. If we regard our actions as our own personal effort directed for an ulterior motive or a little material benefit, that force, that particular action, will recoil upon us as the karmaphala, or the fruit of action.

But, what for is the philosophy of the Bhagavadgita if not to enlighten us on the fact that all action is divine action with a universal motivation? If we can plant ourselves on this knowledge of the cosmicality of all activities that take place in the world, we become instruments in the hands of the Universal Power, and we are no more agents of action but vehicles of action. Then, it is unavoidable on our part to entertain the thought and feeling of God as the supreme Actor or the Agent of everything. A life that is propelled by the principle of Karma Yoga cannot avoid the enshrining of God-Thought throughout its tenure. If we forget the presence of the mighty Absolute even for a moment, action becomes our action, and it rebounds upon us, and we shall be responsible, then, for its consequences. We are, therefore, to perpetually maintain the consciousness of our inseparability from the Supreme Creator. This is a mighty gospel before us of God’s creation, of birth and death, and the fate of the soul after the passing from this body.

Some more explanation is offered in this very chapter on the peculiar courses followed by the soul after death, a subject which is dealt with in detail in the Upanishads but very briefly touched upon in the Bhagavadgita. There are various avenues of exit from this world. And the way in which we shall leave this plane, the path that we shall trek, will depend upon the thoughts that we entertained, once again to repeat the same point. The extent of the unselfishness that motivated our life here will also decide the extent of our success in approximating God-realisation.

The Gita mentions two important paths, known as the Northern and the Southern, or the path of Light and the path of Darkness, as they are usually called. The path of Light is supposed to be that particular way of the ascent of the soul by which it rises from one stage of perception to another, from level to level. These are all mystical steps inexplicable by ordinary language, and unintelligible to the mind. Commentators have gone into great details in the explanation of these paths, but they are all inadequate in the end. No one can know what these mysteries are. But suffice it to say that the path of Light implies a gradually ascending series of movements of the consciousness of the soul in the direction of larger and larger dimensions of experience, until it reaches the consummate position, viz., merger in God, entry into the being of the Absolute. It is available only to those who have practised meditation, throughout their lives, on God, in an unselfish manner, expecting nothing from God, and seeking only union with God.

But the path of Darkness is the path of return. Whatever good we do in this world is repaid in its own coin and our good deeds bear fruit in the afterlife. Just as our bank balance can get exhausted one day if we go on drawing cheques continuously, our good deeds can exhaust themselves by experience; and when the momentum of our good deeds is spent out by experience in our future lives, we are supposed to revert to the condition from where we started.

Hence, actions should not be performed with any personal motivation. Even when we perform a charitable deed, it should not be done as if it is a prerogative of our effort. The great point made out in the statement, “Let not the left hand know what the right hand does,” has a philosophical meaning behind it, apart from its being an injunction on good motivation. Our good deeds are not supposed to be ‘our’ deeds; they do not belong to ‘us’, for no action can belong to us, really. But if we insist, “I have done a good deed, I have performed a charitable act, I have shown mercy,” then we shall reap the fruit of that mercy and good deed, no doubt. When the force of that particular action is over, we are reborn to continue our old work, again. Otherwise, when we do our deeds and works in this world as a vehicle through which God’s Will operates, neither good nor bad will cling to our personality. The good and the bad are words which we use to signify the quality of an action, and when the action is not ours, the quality also does not belong to us, it goes to him who has done it.

All this is difficult for us to contemplate, for we are not made in this way. We cannot think in an impersonal manner. We cannot imagine, even for a moment, that we are not the doers of deeds. We have to be very humble on the spiritual path and cannot imagine that we are on the topmost pedestal. Who can believe, even for a second, that one is not the doer of action? We may not say this in words, but do not we feel in our hearts that we are doers? Well, this is a very serious matter, indeed.

But, if God has taken possession of us, and if we know that these two paths, the Northern and the Southern, or whatever they are, are only the empirical movements of the consciousness lodged in the body, and that no such passage would be necessary for the soul that is united with God, to such a soul that we are to be, liberation is assured, and God becomes the All-in-All, the Friend and Supporter and the Benefactor in every way.

God comes nearer and nearer to us as we proceed through the chapters of the Gita. In the very early chapters, no mention was made, practically, of God. It was all an emphasis on self-discipline and effort for self-integration; then we were introduced into the cosmology and the creative forces that were operating behind things. And then the question was raised as to what happens to one after one leaves the body, and our relationship with God, the Creator, was discussed. The Eighth Chapter somewhat stands midway between the earlier chapters and the later ones, giving us a taste of something of the earlier phases and something of the future ones, also. From the Ninth Chapter onwards, the religious consciousness gets unfolded, whereby to live life would be to live religion, and to exist in the world would mean to live for God.