The Philosophy of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 16: The Supreme Person

The Fifteenth Chapter of the Bhagavadgita is a very important one in its own way. It commences with a description of the universe, comparing it to a vastly spread-out tree sprouting forth from the root, which is Brahman. Curiously enough, the analogy of the tree is brought out in a way which is novel, unique and highly instructive. To give us an idea of the transcendence of the Supreme Creative Principle, ranging beyond all perceptible phenomena, the Gita compares this root to something that is beyond and above, from which emanates the tree of the universe spreading its branches downwards in the form of the varieties of objects perceived by the senses and cognised by the mind, and the experiences everyone undergoes in life. Even as the whole tree is contained in the seed, the entire universe is in the Absolute in an undifferentiated manner, originally. The roots of the universe are above and the branches are below. In this respect this tree is different in its manifestation from the trees that we see here on earth, who have their roots below and the branches shooting forth above towards the sun and the sky.

We always look up above into the skies when we think of God or offer our prayers to the Almighty. This is a sentiment of every individual mind. We look outward, we look inward and we look above. These are the ways in which we can cast our outlook in the envisagement of values. When everything appears mysterious and confounding, we look up in awe and consternation, expressing our inability to grasp the mystery, or the secret of things. All this universe, whatever be the variety contained in it, is an offshoot of the One, Indivisible Presence, the Supreme Brahman. Everything that we see or sense in any manner has proceeded from that one root. Even as the various branches, the twigs, the leaves and the flowers and the fruits of a tree can be said to be present hiddenly in a minute and invisible form in the seed, the universe, whatever be its variety and extent, has to be there in Brahman, because it cannot come from anywhere else.

To us, who are parts of this manifestation, who are perching like birds on this tree of the cosmos, everything looks mysterious. This comparison of the universe to a tree is not an innovation of the Bhagavadgita by itself. This image occurs also in the Kathopanishad, where almost the same words are used for the description of the tree of the universe. And even in the Veda, as far as the Rigveda itself, some sort of reference can be found to this tree of the cosmos. We are told that there are two birds living in a single tree. Though in the Gita no mention is made of the birds living in the tree, there is a description of this tree standing for this wide-spread manifestation before us.

The universe is a multitudinous variety scattered into particulars appearing to be different from one another in every way, and yet connected and related together by the organic grasp of the Supreme Presence of the seed of this tree. As in the seeds that we see in this world we cannot locate the pervasive character of the seed through the branches, etc., notwithstanding the fact that we have to infer this essence in every part of the tree, we see only the tree and not the seed; likewise, we see only the universe and not the root of it. Yet, this original seed is omnipresently pervading every bit of this tree, and the manifestations or the varieties are the ramifications of the essence of this root, this seed, Brahman, the Absolute.

But to us, it is all a mystery. We do not know where it begins and where it ends. We cannot know the origin of it, we cannot know the culmination of it, and we cannot know the middle of it. Infinite is this universe, and the infinite universe emanates from the infinite Brahman. Infinite are also the varieties it manifests before us, and infinite is even the mystery that is hidden in the way in which it expresses itself. The whole process of creation is a marvel, and is not capable of being understood by any individual, at any time. Not one can say that he can comprehend the mystery of the cosmos. All knowledge, all activity, everything objective, is within this tree of the universe, and whatever we are and whatever we know is phenomenal, relative and is conditioned by the growth of this tree. Hence, we are not in a position to grasp its super-phenomenal Source, the Creator.

Referring to the image of the birds, I mentioned a description that occurs in the Veda and in the Upanishad. The birds that are supposed to be living on the branches of this tree are God and the individual. These birds are of different categories altogether. Generally, the birds sitting on the tree are eager to eat the fruit of the tree. We have seen parrots jumping from one branch to another in a tree in search of fruits which they want to eat with avidity. There are two birds living in a nest, in the same tree, and one of the birds is busy eating the fruits of this tree of the universe. So much busy is it that it cannot even be conscious of anything else; it is not even aware that there is another friend sitting near. When we are treated to a delicacy in a gorgeous meal or a feast, we are likely to forget even the next person near us because the concentration is wholly on the food that we eat. Such is the attraction that the senses have for their objects. So, the bird of the individual is wholly engrossed in the enjoyment of the sweet fruits of life, is unconscious totally of the other bird which simply gazes at everything without involving itself in any form, sweet or otherwise.

These two birds, God and the individual, are in the same place. And this tree can be the cosmos; it can be this body; it can be the society of people; it can be even an atom. Every little thing in the universe has the characteristic of everything else. So, God and the individual as essentially different principles are present in every speck of space and every item of the universe. The bondage of the individual is in the engrossment of it in the eating of the fruit of life, and the liberation of the individual is in its becoming conscious of the other bird that is sitting near it—God. The one that merely gazes on without enjoying anything but is present immanently in all things is the liberated spirit. The other one is the bound soul. Both these are in this body. God is within us, and we are also here. The two are present everywhere in the whole creation. The eating of this forbidden fruit is the entanglement of the individual. And as long as the tree is visible, the fruits are also there, and the desire for the fruits cannot be avoided wholly.

The Bhagavadgita admonishes us that this tree has to be felled down by cutting it at its root with the axe of non-attachment. The tree grows by attachment, and it withers away by detachment. The universe is a bundle of egoisms, centres of self-affirmation, which well up into avid activity and strength by the fulfilment of desire through the indulgence thereof. And when desire dries up, the universe also is parched out, and it cannot exist any more, even as when the threads of the cloth are pulled out the cloth also ceases to be.

The universe, ultimately, is not made up of substances, but of desires. The warp and woof of this universe are the desires of the individuals that constitute it. In a way we may say that the universe does not stand outside the individuals, even as the cloth does not stand outside the threads of which it is constituted or formed.

To cut at the root of the universe is not an easy task. It requires a great understanding of the structure of the universe. It would mean that to cut at the root of phenomena would be to cut at our own roots, to fell the tree of ego, and nothing can be a harder job than to deal with one’s own self. We cannot tackle our own selves because we are not any more an object to ourselves. We are accustomed to deal with things and objects, but we do not regard ourselves as objects or things, and therefore we are incapable of handling or dealing in any way. We remain a hard-boiled indescribable something, and the source of our sorrows are our own selves. Nobody causes grief to us. We tie ourselves up like silkworms in a cocoon by our own desires which wind themselves around the centre, which is the ego. And, unless there is the wisdom of the creative God surging forth in our souls, this detachment is impossible.

Viveka, or discrimination, is a precedent requisite for vairagya, or non-attachment. One cannot detach oneself from anything unless there is an understanding of the nature of the relationship of that thing with oneself. Both attachment and detachment are difficult things to understand, because the relationship between the two terms of experience is also difficult to decipher. One clings to an object or is averse towards something on account of a lack of understanding of the mutual relationship between the two attitudes. When knowledge dawns, there is a spontaneous dropping out of all relationship. And the highest form of detachment is not a sundering of oneself from anything existent, but the raising of oneself to a consciousness of the pervasive character of the Reality that exists equally in the subject and the object, as well as in between the two.

The great non-attachment which the Bhagavadgita speaks of is anasakti—not an ordinary austere attitude of the individual, but a flowering of wisdom in the form of the recognition of the omnipresence of the Supreme Creator, which is at once a deathblow dealt at all desires, whereby further effort in that direction is not called for, even as when we wake up from dream into a consciousness of the world outside us, our so-called anguishes and desires of the dream world vanish of their own accord without any need on our part to exert in the direction of removing them. We have not to struggle to get over the problems of our dream world when we wake up into the reality of this world because we have a higher knowledge when we have woken up from the dream. The very knowledge itself is the panacea for the evils of dream experience, and there is no need for any extraneous effort on our part to get over the difficulties of the dream world. The desires and aversions of dream melt away in the knowledge of waking, and so do the problems of life melt away in the presence of God; and what detachment can be greater than this experience? Here is an automatic rising of the soul to an awareness where desires have no significance whatsoever. The Bhagavadgita, when it speaks of the need to employ the axe of detachment for felling the tree of bondage, actually refers to the knowledge of God, attaining which, experiencing which, there is no return to mortal existence.

Supreme is that Abode where the sun shines not, nor the moon, nor the stars, nor anything that we call light here. The supernal divine effulgence overshadows the brightest of lights that we can think of in this world. Reaching it, we do not come back. We shall not have any more rebirth, or transmigratory life. We shall not reap the fruit of sorrow any more; we shall be pervasive realities. We shall be immortalised for ever and ever. We shall not return to this world. Once we have woken up from dream, we have not to return to the dream world for any purpose or engagement, and we do not have a desire to go back to the dream to finish some work or task which had been left unfulfilled there. All our pleasures, all our engagements, even our debts in the dream world are paid at once merely by the fact of waking, and we have not got to pay our creditor from whom we have borrowed in the dream world. The payment is the knowledge, and knowledge is the payment of all dues. So, too, the question of returning to the world does not arise, once we attain the Absolute. We have not got to come back to this world, even as a waking person has no need to go back to the dream world. Such is the glory and the magnificence and the majesty of the Almighty. This is the implication of the stimulating words that we read at the commencement of the Fifteenth Chapter.

The Supreme Godhead is Purushottama, in the language of the Bhagavadgita. The purusha is consciousness, the principle with which we are acquainted in terms of the Samkhya philosophy, the seeing and knowing subject that is apparently counterpoised with prakriti, or the world of matter. There are two realities, or two principles, normally considered by us as existing by themselves: the purusha and the prakriti, the Knower and the Known, consciousness and matter, the observer and the whole universe outside, called respectively here as the akshara or the imperishable, and the kshara or the perishable. But, transcending both, and comprehending both, absorbing both in itself, is the  Purushottama, the Supreme  Purusha above the purushas or empirical consciousness that are visible here as the isolated individuals in the form of yourself, myself and everybody. All this universe is pervaded by the  Purushottama. There is, finally, only one  Purusha in the whole universe, whose heads are all the heads, whose eyes are all the eyes, and whose ears are all the ears. Everyone’s head is his head, all thoughts are his thoughts, all deeds are his deeds. No one does anything other than he, and no one can think, or even exist, except this marvellous Being. “Whatever was, whatever is, and whatever shall be, whatever can be anywhere under any circumstance is the  Purusha alone,” is the ancient and eternal proclamation of the Seer of the Veda. Into it all other purushas melt as rivers join the ocean, and there is neither the individual nor the world of matter, neither the subject nor the object in that All-Being. There is the one indivisible, oceanic experience of all-comprehensive existence. One who knows this  Purushottama is liberated at once. And knowledge is the same as liberation.

It is difficult to know what kind of knowledge it is that we are referring to here. When we speak of knowledge, generally, we are likely to identify it with learning, with the sciences and the arts of the world, with literature, with music, with mathematics, with physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy. These are the types of knowledge we are acquainted with in this world. But these are only names given to mysterious realities that are hidden behind these forms of learning. All learning is only an acquaintance that we try to develop with the forms outside. The things, as they are in themselves, are outside our comprehension, and therefore, our knowledge is a shell rather than a fact. We catch the husk, and call it the wisdom of the world. We have only a phenomenal contact with the outer forms of ‘something’ which seems to be there, but of which we have no correct grasp, and into which we cannot enter in reality.

Even the formal knowledge we have of the things of the world is not a reliable knowledge. Firstly, we do not have the knowledge of the thing-in-itself. We have only an acquaintance with the form, the name and the complex, or the bundle of relationships of which the external features of an object are composed. But even this acquaintance is, in the end, fallible, because it is conditioned by the structural patterns of our sense organs, the mind and the intellect, and so even this formal knowledge is inadequate. Thus, we can be safely said to have no knowledge at all of anything worth the while. We grope in darkness, in utter ignorance, imagining that we are worldly-wise, but knowing nothing at all. And this is not the knowledge we are speaking of when it is said that knowledge is liberation or freedom of the spirit.

Knowledge is the same as the knowledge of God. Knowledge is being, as such. It is the entry of our true nature into the being of all things. There is the union of the seer and the seen in such a manner that the being of the seer is the same as the being of the seen, and vice versa. God enters us, and we enter God, as the rivers enter the ocean, and the ocean embraces rivers, so that one cannot know which is the river and which is the ocean. Such is the destination of the soul when it reaches the  Purushottama, the Supreme Person above all personalities and forms. Knowing this, one is liberated forever. There is no chance, or trace, of bondage any more.