The Philosophy of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 17: The Play of the Cosmic Powers

As the teachings of the Bhagavadgita proceed on, they begin to unravel different types of mysteries. We have studied the Third Chapter, where reference was made to the gunas of prakriti, and we were told that there are three properties—sattva, rajas and tamas. And we shall be told further that the universe can be boiled down to a still fewer number of powers or forces.

The dialectical processes of what we know as the thesis and the antithesis, the position and the opposition of a thing, are the only things we see anywhere. These two aspects of a single force appearing as conflicting parties are known as the ‘Daiva’ and the  ‘Asura’ tendencies in the cosmos, one moving towards the Centre and the other urging externally towards the periphery of names and forms—the centripetal and the centrifugal powers.

There are two impulses within us: to go in, and to go out. We have a desire to enter into the centre of all things and grasp the best of things in the world, the essence of everything. That is why we have a curiosity to know all things, an unquenchable thirst and a longing for more and more, endlessly. Our love for knowledge is infinite; it never gets satiated. We wish to go deeper and deeper into the mystery of all things, and freedom is what we ask for, finally. We seek freedom, and nothing else. But we work for bondage vigorously, at the same time, because the other urge also is there working with equal power, in the other direction. We are like a person whose legs are pulled both ways. It is difficult to say which is more powerful, for we are caught between the devil and the deep sea. There is a perpetual battle going on, a war that is being waged everywhere between these two powers, the Daiva and the  Asura, the divine and the undivine, as they are usually known. The universal power of Self-integration driving the soul towards the Absolute, and the psychic, the intellectual, the rational and sensory powers urging themselves forward outwardly towards the objects of perception and indulgence—this is the Mahabharata, this is the Ramayana, this is the conflict, this is the friction, this is the skirmish, this is the little fight that we see in the shops and in the streets and in the houses and everywhere. These are the propellers of the wars and crusades of history, these the stupendous meanings behind evolution as a whole. The powers struggle one against the other, and the history of the cosmos is the witness to the success or failure of either of these forces.

The Sixteenth Chapter of the Bhagavadgita tells us that it is our duty to work in cooperation with the universal power of integration—the Daiva, and not the  Asura. The  Asura, or the devilish, the demonical power, is that which pulls us out of ourselves, drives us away from the Self, takes us away from our own Centre, makes the Self the non-self, and converts us into objects, while we are the Subject in ourselves. This is the dark power that works in a mysterious manner, moving earth and heaven, to transform everything into an object rather than the subject with a status of its own.

The soul within is the representative of the Universal in us; and everything else that is in the form of a vesture covering the soul is a representative of the phenomenal complex of names and forms. We should not underrate the powers of the cosmos with the impression that we are souls, because the cosmos derives its energy from the Universal itself. Just as a mirror which does not shine by itself can draw sustenance from the light of the Sun and appear as if it is also brilliant, so do our senses deceive us, distract us and tantalise us by appearing to offer us a satisfaction which they really cannot give. Here, in this awful struggle between these two forces, we are caught in the middle, and it is difficult with the strength of our arms and feet to get over this mire of being pulled equally in two different directions. It is necessary to have the blessings of the Guru. In one place, the Gita itself tells us that the only alternative available for a seeker is to approach a competent guide on this path, and by questioning and self-surrender and service and intimate communion with him, attain wisdom. The Grace of God simultaneously works in the case of every seeking spirit which ardently longs for this enlightenment.

Reference was made to the three gunas of prakriti, in the Third Chapter of the Gita, and these gunas, or properties, are mentioned frequently in the course of the teaching. By the time we reach the Sixteenth Chapter, we come to a novel revelation that the whole universe is a play of two forces, the ingoing and the outgoing, powers that urge themselves forward in the direction of the Centre of the cosmos and those that rush outwardly in the direction of space, time and objectivity.

The traditional names given to these forces of inward and outward movement, Daiva and  Asura, allow themselves to be translated as the divine and the undivine, the godly and the demoniacal impulses. Now, the terms good and evil, divine and undivine are normally associated with ethical values and the moral assessments in life. But the Gita here rises above the ordinary human concepts of good and evil, or even ethics and morality, and takes its stand on a highly philosophical or metaphysical ground, so that what we call good and evil or right and wrong, etc., become the human readings of meaning into the great drama enacted in the cosmos by these impersonal powers which alternately move inward and outward and compel everything, everywhere, to work according to their intentions, as if everything is a puppet in their hands.

Everyone and everything has, thus, a twofold urge within itself. Often, we are inspired and roused into a feeling of self transcendence, a movement towards a comprehensive grasp and a total experience, by an entry into the centre of things. At other times we are also impelled by the other urge, the desire which speaks to us in the language of sense objects, fulfilment or indulgence of passions, working through the sense organs, rather than the power of intuition, running away from the essence to the forms outside, so that the more we move externally, the greater is our involvement in names and forms; and the farther we are from the centre of the universe, the greater also is the sorrow that follows as a consequence. The more we move away from the centre, the more are we heading towards what we call hell, in the language of the religions; and the heavenly regions are those stages of experience which tend towards the Centre rather than the circumference and the space-time objectivity.

These forces work perpetually, without a beginning and an end, and they work everywhere, so that nothing is free from their operations. The evolution and the involution of the universe are the working of these two urges, and no one can humanly understand as to how and why they are operating in this manner. It is a mystery transcending human comprehension, because human beings are already involved in the working of these forces, and how can they understand their intentions? They range above the human intellect and the capacity of the individual in any manner.

But, the Bhagavadgita emphasises that it is the duty of everyone to get out of the clutches of these outward going urges which lodge the consciousness in name and form, and to endeavour to the best of one’s capacity to move towards the Centre which is one’s essentiality, rather than the name and the form. The more we go towards the Centre—and this Centre is everywhere—the less is the involvement of consciousness in the name-form complex, so that, in the ultimate reality of the universe there is no name and form.

This Centre of the universe is not a point as the centre of a circle in geometry. These are words we use for the purpose of human understanding, but because our language is limited, words are feeble, they cannot convey the inner significance of these diviner messages. Great mystics run into raptures and go beyond the significance of ordinary language when they say, for instance, that this Centre is everywhere with its circumference nowhere. When it is said that we have to move towards the Centre of the universe, it means we have to move to That which is everywhere, a thing which is enough to make us go crazy, because, what on earth does one mean by saying that the Centre is everywhere? How could a centre be everywhere? It is an absurd statement for all practical purposes. But here is a deep secret which is beyond human grasp and capable of appreciation with a little exertion on the part of our endowments.

To move towards the Centre which is everywhere is to merge oneself in all things, to get united with the whole of creation. By the Centre, here, we mean the Self, the Rootedness of all things in the All. The quintessential essence is the Centre. Do not we all regard ourselves as the centre of evaluations in life? Do not we consider, somehow, overtly or covertly, that the whole world is an accessory to our own self? Though we are afraid to speak in this manner, lest it should be interpreted as a gospel of utter selfishness, this so-called selfish, distorted interpretation of our own self as the centre of all things is a reflection of a greater meaning which is hidden in ourselves, viz., the universality of these particular centres we call the selves.

This little self of ours, which arrogantly asserts itself as the all-in-all in this world, is an upstart child of a larger significance which it carries within its own bosom, but which it cannot understand. It is like an ass carrying a treasure on its back, not knowing its worth! Our individual self is like a donkey, but it carries a tremendously weighty wealth of universal meaning and connotation, so that, even on the back of this donkey, we will find something important, and perhaps all that is important. Here, in our own little self, we have the secret of the cosmos; the key to unlock the mysteries of the universe lies within our own selves, within our own hearts, notwithstanding the fact that we are behaving like fools and wrongly consider our own psychophysical individuality as the centre of all interpretation and evaluation. So, there is the devil and the divine essence working together within our own being. The two urges are working together, one competing with the other.

The practice of Yoga is not, therefore, a simple affair. It is hard, because we have to move in the midst of two opposing currents of power, and with whatever understanding we have, it is necessary for us to free ourselves from involvement in the outward-going impulses. The effort of consciousness to move in harmony with the inward-going urges, tending towards the Centre which is everywhere, which is what we call God, the Absolute, is Yoga proper.

In a traditional and epic manner, the Sixteenth Chapter of the Gita speaks of these two powers, the demoniacal and the divine, with this philosophical and spiritual background of its message. It is, ordinarily, not easy to go with the current of the inward-moving powers. We are, for all practical purposes, phenomenal individuals, with a little touch of the noumenal reality in us. It may be that everyone in the world is not in the same stage of evolution, and each one of us is a judge for one’s own self in discovering as to where we stand in the process of evolution. Our own heart is our judge, and no one else can judge us.

The difficulty in the understanding of the nature of the stage in which one is placed at any given moment of time is great indeed, and towards the end of the chapter, the great Teacher tells us that our guide on this path is the scripture, the revelation, the intuition of the sages. It is not easy for us to understand what is the means of right knowledge. Philosophers have been struggling since ages to discover the means of knowledge or a proper understanding of things as they are in themselves. Is it sensory perception? Is it logical deduction, inference? Is it comparison of one thing with another thing? Is it apprehension? Or is it scriptural testimony? What is the way of knowledge? Religions have held that the authority is scripture and no other thing can be ultimately reliable. By scripture, what is meant is not merely a printed book, but the weight which revelation has. Again, by revelation we mean an intuitional flash whereby the whole truth is revealed to a faculty which rises as the total substance of our personality. One cannot easily reject the authority of the scriptures, for reason is often unbridled and can be susceptible to prejudice.

But a doubt arises in the mind of Arjuna. “Well, sir, it is true that revelation is the supreme authority. But is there any value in faith by which the heart longs for a certain achievement or a meaning, though it is not based on any kind of scriptural revelation?”

It appears from what we gather in the Seventeenth Chapter that the mysterious thing we call faith has a great part to play in our walks of life. We do not always refer to scriptures when we work in the world. We are people belonging to various professions and vocations, having many types of duty to perform, and when we choose the kind of duty that we have to execute in life, or do anything for the matter of that, we do not go to the Sermon on the Mount, the Upanishads or the Bhagavadgita for consultation, though these are great authorities, indeed. We have something in us which seems to guide us, independent of any scripture. That is the faith that we have in our own selves, a confidence that we entertain in our own capacities, the conscience, as it is usually called.

Yes, Krishna tells that faith is a great criterion and standard of judgement indeed, but there are faiths and faiths. All created beings have some sort of an instinct, and they have their own methods of evaluation of things. There is a subhuman level, there is a human understanding, and there is a superhuman faculty of knowing. So, when we speak of faith, we do not refer merely to any sudden impulse which rises on the spur of a moment, but to a considered judgement which springs from the whole nature of our being. Our nature decides the kind of faith that we entertain in our life. And natures, again, are classified as threefold: sattvika, rajasika and tamasika. Every one of us has some kind of confidence, faith and understanding and feeling. Everybody believes in something. But that belief varies in quality, character and intensity in accordance with the root from which it arises: sattva, or rajas, or tamas.

The world of the tiger is different from the world of a human being. The instinct which impels the beast in the jungle is qualitatively different from the judgement that operates in a sage. The gunas of prakriti operate in different intensities, in different levels of evolution. The law of the jungle operates according to one level in which the gunas manifest themselves, and the law of human society works in another level. The law that reigns in the world of angels is based on a different standard altogether, which rises from a still higher stage of the evolution of the gunas. Tamas is the lowest level, and rajas is higher, but sattva is the highest.

The reason why we regard these three gunas as higher and lower is due to the amount of reality which they express through their media. In tamas, reality is not expressed in its essentiality, in rajas it is expressed, no doubt, but in a distracted and distorted form, whereas in sattva there is perspicuity of the expression of reality. When sunlight falls on dark pitch, we know what sort of expression of the light can be there. And the very same light can be reflected through turbid water shaking in its contents. This light can be expressed through a clean glass or crystal clear water. One can see the difference. So is the way in which reality is expressed through the gunas of prakriti. In sattva, which is perfect equilibrium and freedom from distraction, there is no direct contact with reality, of course; yet there is a complete reflection thereby, even as clean glass may permit the entry of sunlight entirely, though the glass acts as an obstacle, an obstruction standing between the perceiver and the perceived. But in shaky water which is also muddy, the reflection is inadequate, and we do not see things properly. And in opaque objects no reflection is possible. Tamas is an inert something which completely screens off experience of Truth. In rajas there is some sort of an entry of reality into experience, but it is no good for practical purposes. It is only sattva that permits a clear picture of things.

In our faiths, in our beliefs, we are either tamasika, or rajasika or sattvika. We may have the faith of an animal or the faith of a highly prejudiced person, or the faith of one who is enlightened and has a direct grasp of truth by an intuition of the nature of things. This belief, this faith, decides practically everything we do in this world. Our political life, our social relationships, our personal conduct, our religious practices, even our idea of God and the aim of life—all these are determined by the kind of guna that operates in us, in any measure. If we are tamasika, lowest in the rung of evolution, we have the world view of an animal, which, too, has a philosophy of its own, according to which it works. We can think like insects, reptiles, lions and tigers, or we can think of the world from a point of view which today we sometimes call humanitarian, or we can think in a divine way which surpasses all human judgements.

It is this background upon which the Seventeenth Chapter is based, which describes three types of faith that propel the conduct and the activity of people in the world. The food that we eat, the way in which we speak, the kind of relationship that we maintain with others, the religious practices in which we engage ourselves, are all rooted in, and defined by the belief or faith that we entertain as a philosophy of our lives. Suffice it to say that it is up to us to move from tamas to rajas, and from rajas to sattva, and put forth effort to transform ourselves into diviner beings rising above even the human level of understanding. Each one is a judge for one’s own self. We know where we stand, with some exercise of good reason. By a measure of sensible impersonality and discriminative effort, we will be able to decide the stage in which we are.

Any kind of retributive or animalistic behaviour where values are wrested out of things and centred in one’s own self, where people and objects of the world are treated as nothings in comparison with one’s self, where we become the sole standard of judgement and everyone else a tool to ourselves, where such is the outlook of our life, we can imagine that tamas is predominant in us. When we want to exploit the world for the satisfaction of our own so-called outlook of life, we are in tamas. When we give equal value to others as we give to ourselves, we are on a higher level of human appreciation. We do not feel it proper for us, then, to transform everything into an instrument for our satisfaction. We become humanistic, charitable, sociable, polite and good-natured.

But when we rise higher still to the diviner level where sattva predominates, we do not regard others as ‘others’ at all. They are not others, they are just one being appearing in this multifaceted form of ourselves and others; for in the divine level there are no objects. There are only subjects appearing in all forms. In the animal level it is purely the objectivity of things that is taken into consideration. In the human level the subject and the object are taken on a par, as on an equal footing. In the divine level the distinction between the subject and the object is transcended, and everyone reflects everyone else. This is the spiritual realm of Truth, the golden age, or the millennium that people speak of and hope to see with their eyes. When dharma prevails and reigns supreme in the world, where governments are not necessary, when there is no necessity for external mandate or compulsive rule, when everyone reflects truth wholly in oneself, when everyone reflects everyone else as if mirrors are placed one in front of the other, such is the divine realm of  Brahma-loka, the Kingdom of God, which is within everyone. This is the world of sattva, utter purity.

Towards the end of the Seventeenth Chapter we are given the cryptic message of ‘Om Tat Sat’, a term with which we are all familiar, but the meaning of which is not always so clear. It is said that this is a very holy expression and it has to be employed in every religious performance. We conclude all pious acts with the utterance  Om Tat Sat, which appears to be an invocation of God at the end of a performance. The meaning of these words is not clear, and no commentary on the Gita will perhaps be an aid to us in understanding what these three terms actually signify. We merely say  Om Tat Sat. We do not know what it means.

Well, we may go a little deep into its significance from the point of view of the Bhagavadgita itself, in the light of the great message that has been given to us through its various chapters. And in this light if we look at these terms, it would appear that the three seeds, Om,  Tat, and  Sat signify the total comprehensiveness of the nature of Brahman, ranging beyond the concepts of Reality in the form of transcendence and immanence.

Generally, a remote thing is referred to as Tat, in the Sanskrit language. ‘That’ is  Tat. We refer to God as  Tat,  It, etc., as a super-transcendent inaccessible something.  Sat is the very same transcendent Reality that is hidden and present as the Divine immanence in all things. God is transcendent and also immanent. He is above us; He is also within us. He is far, and he is near; he is outside, and he is inside. Now, these ideas of transcendence and immanence— Tat Sat, the notions of God being outside as well as inside— are also to be transcended in a larger grasp, which is Om.

Here, in this mystical significance of the well-known symbol of Om, we are given a further transcendence of both the transcendent aspect and the immanent aspect of the Absolute. It is, in the language of the Upanishad, the  Bhuma, or the Plenum, the completeness whereby we cannot look upon it either as something above us or as something within us. To that supreme completeness, there are no outward and inward differences. There is no such thing as going above and being within, because it is everywhere, at all times, without the limitations of space, time and objectivity. Such an incomprehensible significance is embedded in this mystical formula of  Om. Naturally, it is a holy expression, which is unutterable, beyond understanding but signifying everything that is blessed and supreme. Such is  Om, which grasps within itself all that is real everywhere, the transcendent and the immanent.

So, God is all, the Absolute is everything. The invocation of this Symbol, Om Tat Sat, in our experience, in our own consciousness, a remembrance of it at the sacred conclusion of any kind of performance, religious or otherwise, is regarded as a completion of that performance. God completes everything, and everything is incomplete where God is absent. The only thing that is full is God, and so He has to be invoked always.