A Study of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 3: The Transmigration of the Soul

As I mentioned, the eighteen chapters of the Bhagavadgita constitute, in a way, stages of the development of the spirit of man from levels of greater involvement through higher and higher levels of lesser involvement. The worst of involvements is the picture of the war, the scene of the battlefield that is presented in the First Chapter, the Mahabharata context. Nothing can be worse in this world than hatred, and war is the pinnacle of this attitude. You dislike a thing a hundred percent, and more than a hundred percent; then war takes place.

The dislike is the counterpart of what you call ‘like’ for certain things. It is not possible to have only one side of a coin, as you know. Every coin has two sides. Your dislike does not mean that you dislike everything. There is a like which is counter-correlated to that which you do not like. The reason for the development of this dual policy of the psyche, like and dislike, is the structure of the mind itself. Who created this peculiar structure of the mind that it should think only in a parochial manner, and not in a holistic way? It is not easy to understand merely by application of psychological logic, because logic of the mind, whatever be its precision, is again involved in this dual policy of the dichotomy between the subject and the object, as they are called philosophically.

What does logic do, generally? It assumes a difference between the subject and the predicate. “Rishikesh is a holy place.” Gramatically, this sentence has a noun as the subjective side and a predicate as the objective side. The word ‘is’, which is called a copula in a grammatical sense, joins the subjective side and the predicate, or the objective side, and then the sentence appears to be a complete picture. It tells you what Rishikesh is: it is a holy place. Okay. But for the purpose of understanding the meaning of this sentence, you have to dovetail these two aspects of the sentence, the subject and the predicate, which is achieved by the action of the verb, the link between the two parts of the sentence; so without a verb, there cannot be a sentence.

Why should there be a necessity to separate two parts and then bring them together into a whole? A thing that is separated is always separated. It cannot be joined together like pieces of broken glass. There is an artificial attempt made by human logic to bring about a reconciliation of the subjective side and the objective side.

I mentioned to you earlier that the world, including all created beings and humanity, stands before us as a large object, and the perceivers, any one of us, stand in the position of a subject. Our perception of anything in this world is an attempt to bring about a cessation of this so-called clash between the subjective and the objective sides. The world does not find it easy to reconcile itself with our views, whims and fancies. We have seen that the world does not always go with us easily, nor do we find it so easy to harmonise ourselves entirely with the ways of the world. We have our own ways, and the world seems to have its own ways, so there is a dual face that is at the back of this very picture of a harmonised perception of the world. Our knowledge of the world, our knowledge of anything that is external or objective, is this finally futile attempt in bringing about a real harmony between ourselves and the world outside. Two things cannot be harmonised, because they are two things. When we have already assumed that there are two things, bringing them together into a state of absolute harmony or unity is not going to be a successful endeavour.

This is the reason why, in the First Chapter of the Gita, Arjuna found himself in a quandary. He had a subjective attitude and an objective attitude towards the army that was arrayed. He saw the army of his opponents, which is another way of saying that he saw an enemy in the camp. He also saw, at the same time, blood relations in the midst of the army generals, footmen, etc. You like a thing and dislike a thing at the same time. You are at war with your own brother. Because you cannot reconcile yourself with your brother, you are at war with him; but because he is your brother, you also love him. So your relationship with anything in this world is a love and hate complex. Neither do you love a thing really, nor do you hate a thing really. ‘Really’ is the word that you have to underline. A one hundred percent liking for anything is not possible, because there is a rejection of certain facts and factors in that very act of yours. Nor is it possible to hate a thing one hundred percent, because there is an internal connection of that which you hate with your own self. There is an organismic relation of yourself with the structure of the world; therefore, wholesale hatred is not possible. But because of your organic connection with things in the structure of the universe, wholesale love is also not possible due to the factor of alienation of the object from yourself.

This is the reason, we may say, why Arjuna found himself in a difficult situation: to do or not to do – or, as Shakespeare put it, to be or not to be, etc. Arjuna found himself in a situation comparable with Hamlet. Some people say that Hamlet represents thought without action, and Othello represents action without thought. Arjuna found himself in this peculiar situation. He was torn to pieces. He went deep enough to find no ground on which to stand. He expresses his tragic condition: “My mind is reeling, my intellect is not functioning, my hairs stand on end, my skin is burning, my prana is agitated, I am drooping completely.” This is to say, he was drooping in all the five sheaths of his personality. The five sheaths are called Annamaya, Pranamaya, Manomaya, Vijnanamaya and Anandamaya Koshas. The physical body is called the Annamaya Kosha, the vital body is called the Pranamaya Kosha, the mental body is called the Manomaya Kosha, the intellectual body is called the Vijnanamaya Kosha, and the causal body is called the Anandamaya Kosha. All the five sheaths of the spirit of Arjuna were about to crack. They were giving way due to the sorrow in which he found himself. “Therefore, I do not know what my duty is in this predicament.” Though he said that it is not possible to clearly see what his duty is, he had already made a decision within himself not do to anything. Though he was not in a position to decide what to do, he seems to somehow have made an attempt to decide things for himself by saying, “Down with bows and arrows!”: visṛjya saśaraṁ cāpaṁ śokasaṁvignamānasaḥ (Gita 1.47). When you cannot understand a thing, you are not supposed to make a decision on it. A confused state of mind is unfit for making decisions of any kind. He knew that he was confused, and therefore he had no right to come to any conclusion whether to do or not to do.

We are facing the world, this universe of the Mahabharata scripture. The confrontation of the subjective individual with the objective universe is the Mahabharata war. The Bhagavadgita is a spiritual gospel. It is not a historical document, a story of what happened some years back. It is clothed in the garb of a story, as it were, and it appears to be a novel message, a didactic poem; but it is deeply spiritual. As I mentioned to you the other day, it is a gospel of eternity. It is an eternal message for all time, for all people, in every condition. Whatever be your mental condition at any time, you will find some verse or the other about your position.

Sri Krishna was there as Arjuna’s charioteer. This long harangue of Arjuna was received with dismay by Sri Krishna. “At this hour, when you are face to face with a difficulty, you say that there is no difficulty, and you come to the conclusion that the best thing is not to do anything. But you are a hero, and the problem has to be solved. The Mahabharata is a world problem, and when the problem raises itself before you, you are saying, ‘Inasmuch as I cannot understand the meaning of the problem, I will refuse to solve it. I will go by the idea that it does not exist at all.’ Is it all right? What do you say?” In one sentence Sri Krishna rebukes Arjuna and says, “How come this mood has overpowered you in this predicament? Very strange indeed!”

Then Arjuna again speaks, in the beginning of the Second Chapter. “Did I not explain myself properly? My love goes for my own elders on whose lap I sat, and who gave me education and taught me the art of archery. And my own brethren, kinsmen, are arrayed in front of me – the Kurus, whose blood also flows through my veins. What benefit can accrue to me by opposing my own kinsmen, my own well-wishers, my own elders?”

The answer of Sri Krishna is the Second Chapter of the Bhagavadgita, commencing from the eleventh verse. Aśocyān anvaśocas tvaṁ prajñāvādāṁś ca bhāṣase, gatāsūn agatāsūṁś ca nā ’nuśocanti paṇḍitāḥ (Gita 2.11): “You speak as if you know everything. Very wise words you have spoken before me, while actually these are unwise words. You are grieving over the consequence that may follow from engaging yourself in this vast conflict-ridden field. You are taking your stand on an opinion that you hold on the question of life and death itself – whether it is good to live or to die. You are trying to answer this question by your own parochial logic, your limited understanding.”

Birth and death are the scenes through which everything in the world passes. The process of evolution, so-called, is the process of perpetual dying and perpetually being born. Evolution is the requirement on the part of every entity in this world to cease to be what it is at this moment and be another thing after some time. There is a transmutation and a metempsychosis – a transmigration, you may say – of the special conditions under which an individual is living; and even when you appear to be whole and single, a solid individual like any one of us, every cell of your body is transmuting itself every moment. Medical men say that every seven years all the cells of the body renew themselves. So there is a complete cellular transformation of your personality three times by the time you reach twenty-one years, and then it is that you are supposed to be mature.

Apart from that, there is a metabolic process going on in the body. Anyone who knows physiology will know what metabolism is. The anabolic and catabolic processes combined are called metabolism. There is a continuous change taking place in this body. On account of the attachment of consciousness to these processes that are taking place from moment to moment, you are unable to know that these changes are occurring in your body. You now have become something else from the condition in which you were many years back as a little baby or a child. There is a difference between your babyhood long ago and your adulthood just now, but you do not perceive this difference because of the continuity of an undivided consciousness which you really are.

An iron rod is made up of little particles of iron. If it is heated until it becomes red hot, the particles cannot be seen; only the radiance, the red heat, is visible. In a similar manner, every limb of the body, from the fingertips to the toes, appears to be a completeness. The whole body feels the touch of a little toe or a little finger, due to the fact that there is a consciousness pervading this entire organism. If this divisibility of consciousness were not to be there, every part of the body would look disjointed. One hand would not know the existence of the other hand, and one limb would not cooperate with another organ of the body. But every little cell and part of the body, every little limb, goes on working in such system, method and harmony that you feel that you are one integrality, one whole. “I am coming,” you sometimes say. Who is coming? Is the nose coming, are the ears coming, are the legs coming or are the hands coming? Which is coming? It is a consciousness that is actually making this statement: “I am coming.” And the movement of the legs and the seeing of the eyes and other activities of the limbs are effects that follow from the order that is issued by this integral consciousness.

Actually, consciousness cannot die. The concept of the death of consciousness is itself invalid. You can imagine that you are not there, but you cannot imagine that you are not thinking in that fashion. The denial of a thing also implies a consciousness of the denial of that thing. You may abolish the consciousness of anything in this world, but you cannot abolish the consciousness of the fact that you are trying to abolish it. So there is some consciousness at the back of all things.

Sri Krishna starts his gospel by saying the Atman is immortal. Na tv evā ’haṁ jātu nā ’saṁ na tvaṁ neme janādhipāḥ (Gita 2.11): “We were never non-existent at any time – neither you nor I, nor these kinsmen called the Kauravas. They have always existed, and shall ever exist. Non-existence of the basic entity of individuality is unthinkable. The people you refer to, and yourself also, are actually embodiments of consciousness. Consciousness cannot be perishable; it cannot be temporal; it cannot pass through the process of evolution. That is to say, it cannot be one thing now and another thing afterwards.”

I mentioned that evolution implies the cessation of one condition of a thing and the occurrence of another condition of it, the rebirth into a new form of species, as it were, which is the characteristic of the individuality but not the characteristic of consciousness. If you imagine that consciousness also evolves, there will be a cessation of it sometime and a re-emergence of it afterwards. You cannot have a cessation of consciousness because even when you imagine consciousness has ceased, you are aware that you are aware of the cessation of consciousness. So consciousness never ceases. Inasmuch as it does not cease, it is eternal.

When I speak of consciousness, I am actually referring to the Sanskrit word ‘Atman’ because you may be able to understand the meaning of ‘consciousness’ much better than the implications of Atman. Atman, consciousness, cannot perish, because the idea of consciousness perishing is there at the back and will not permit you to even entertain such a thought. Consciousness has to be there at the back of even the attempt to abolish the idea of consciousness. This is one aspect of the matter. Consciousness cannot perish. It is not temporal. It will not die. It is always there. It transcends time. It is conscious of the process of time. Consciousness is conscious of the process of time; therefore, it transcends time. Consciousness is conscious of the extension of space; therefore, it transcends space. The conclusion is that consciousness is neither involved in space, nor is it involved in time; therefore, it is neither finite spatially nor finite temporally. It is infinite and eternal. If that is so, there can be only one consciousness. If there are two consciousnesses, there would be a necessity to bring about a rapprochement of the two states of consciousness, which imagines that there are two, three, or many consciousnesses. There would be the necessity to posit someone who is aware of the existence of multiple consciousnesses. Who is it that is saying that there are three consciousnesses or four consciousnesses? That person, that thing which is aware of three consciousnesses must be above the region of the activity of the three consciousnesses, so it should be only one consciousness appearing. You can imagine what the conclusion is, finally. Consciousness is one only.– It is universal in its nature, eternal, non-spatial, non-temporal. That alone is, and nothing else can be.

Therefore, birth and death, which was the sorrow of Arjuna, constitute not the characteristics of the soul. It cannot be drenched by water, it cannot be burned by fire, it cannot be cut by any kind of weapon. It is unaffected in every way because it is a consciousness that transcends the idea of the duality of subject and object. A condition of being affected by something is the condition of accepting the existence of an object totally different from one’s own self. But, applying the same logic that we were referring to earlier, you will find unless there is a consciousness that is transcendent to both the subjective and the objective side, you will not even know that the world exists. So in your perception of the world which is apparently outside you, you are acting on behalf of a consciousness which is neither you, nor the object.

Three Sanskrit terms will subsequently occur in the Bhagavadgita: adhyatma, adhibhuta and adhidaiva. The perceptive consciousness, your position as a seer of the world, is the state of the adhyatma, or the so-called individuality. Atma is the subjective consciousness. Anything related to the Atman, or subjectivity of consciousness, is the adhyatma. Adhibhuta is the objective side, the entire universe of perception. The whole world of humanity and everything is the external, poised or counterpoised before the perceiving consciousness. Inasmuch as there is a difference between the objective side and the subjective side, there would not be any possibility of the subject knowing that the object is existing at all. As the world is totally outside you – it is not clinging to your skin – how would you know that it exists unless there is a relationship between the subjective side and the objective side? That relationship also has to be conscious. Unconscious connections cannot produce conscious apprehension of the object outside.

In our act of perception of the world in respect of the object or the world outside,–this position that we, as the adhyatma or the subjective side, occupy can be explained by nothing else than an intervention of something between us and the object outside. I cannot know that you are sitting in front of me unless there is a link between us. This link is the adhidaiva consciousness, the superintending divinity. We cannot see it with our eyes. I can see myself and I can see you, but we cannot see anything that is between us, notwithstanding the fact that without the positing of that third thing we cannot explain or account for the act of perception itself.

You may ask me why it is that we are not able to see it. Because it is neither a subject nor an object, no one can see it. It sees only itself; therefore, we call it transcendent. If you understand me and whatever I say has actually entered you, you will have great peace of mind. You will become a different person after one hour if it has entered your bones, because it is something serious, something which affects you every minute, something which will reform you, transmute you, make you super-individuals, divinities – God-men, I may say – if this has actually entered your mind.

So this transcendent consciousness, which is imperative as a correlative link between the subjective and objective sides, is a divinity known as adhidaiva. I mentioned three different words which are in the Eighth Chapter of the Gita – the adhyatma, the adhibhuta, the adhidaiva: the subjective, the objective and the transcendent. Inasmuch as our very perceptive existence is conditioned by a transcendent, deathless consciousness, we may be said to be entirely conditioned by it, and in that sense we are deathless. Our subjectivity is linked to this transcendent element between the subjective and objective sides in the same way as the objective side is also connected with this transcendent. Two sides of the balance are placed in a position of harmony, as it were, by a third thing that is hanging on top. It is like the apex of a triangle which holds in position the two bases.

Therefore, Arjuna, there is no death, finally. Who dies when somebody seems to be dying? It is the same thing that happens in the process of evolution. You cast off the shell in which you are enclosed, which is redundant now, and put on a new coat, as it were, for the purpose of further evolution. Consciousness, which is universal, gets individualised when it becomes a personality, and the impulse behind the entry of a universal into individuality is called a desire.

It is not possible to know why desire arises at all unless we reach the state of the Transcendent Being. We have to take it for granted that desire is the cause of the delimitation of the Universal Consciousness as an individual, so-called, a person. Desire is actually a wish of consciousness to be something and to do something. Inasmuch as something is not everything, it becomes only something for the purpose of achieving something. You are what you are; you cannot be another person. Though the same Universal Consciousness is pervading you and everybody, the wish of that Universal to be only something, for the sake of achieving something, has limited itself to one person, as if there is no connection of one with the other. This is because the wish is for only certain things, for the purpose of achieving certain things only. This limitation of the wish in a guarded fashion cuts off consciousness from its own face on the other side; it forgets its universality, and enters into this darkness of involvement in the predicament of pure individuality, and becomes one person only.

Now, the desire, even if it be for getting involved in one form only, arises from the universality of consciousness, so there is an impossibility of fulfilling any desire. There is a blunder that consciousness seems to be committing in wanting to achieve only something, to the exclusion of something else. All desires arise from the Universal Being but, because of the universality behind this desire, it is impossible to fulfil it. Unless you get everything you want, you will not fulfil your desire. But as you have already counteracted that possibility by wishing to be only something and wanting to do only something, you cannot fulfil your wish.

In this world, therefore, no one can fulfil their wish entirely. No desire of yours can be fully accomplished. There is a basic blunder at the very thought of fulfilling the desire because, on the one hand, it is impossible to fulfil it on account of the universality that is at the back of it; and secondly, there is an insistence of this part of the universality to be only something. So what happens? As this little body that is manufactured by the wish of consciousness to be individual finds it impossible to fulfil all its desires, it is cast off as a worn-out garment. When you find that an instrument is of no longer of any use, you throw it away and get a fresh instrument –to continue your work.

Thus, birth and death actually mean casting off the redundant sheath of the individuality for the sake of assuming a new sheath in order to see if the desire can be fulfilled through the new one, which is rebirth. Hence, rebirth – entering into a new body, the evolutionary process of becoming something else – is, again, a futile attempt to find the universal in the particular. The Universal is universal; the particular is completely different from the universal. Therefore, to be an individual, and wanting to be an individual for all time to come, and yet trying to fulfil all desires universally, is not a worthwhile attempt.

Who dies? This question is answered by the argument that the sheaths of the body are cast off, as the universal desire cannot be fulfilled by any kind of sheath that you put on, and so endless births and deaths take place. Therefore moksha, liberation, complete freedom of the spirit is not possible as long as you wish to be something and do something; but would you like to do everything? Nobody wishes to do everything, and also nobody wishes to be all things – the entire space, time and cosmos. It is not your wish, but this is the only solution. You are free only when you are all things and can do everything. Therefore, as everyone in the world can be something only and not all things, and also do only something, birth and death cannot be avoided.

“So Arjuna,” says Bhagavan Sri Krishna, “the Atman, the consciousness, does not die. Basically, you have passed through many births, as have I. The only difference is that I know the entire series of incarnations through which I have passed, whereas you are not aware of it.” The intensity of attachment of consciousness to the particular body of an individual prevents it from knowing that it has taken previous births. The attachment of your consciousness to this particular body is so vehement that it is severed automatically from any connection or memory of the previous life, so that you cannot know what you were in the previous birth, nor can you know what you will be in the next birth. You know this birth because of terrible attachment to only this body. You do not have attachment to anything else. Sri Krishna says, “I am not so attached. I stand as a transcendent incarnating principle” – a subject which will come in the Fourth Chapter – “and, therefore, when I pass from one incarnation to another, I move, as it were, from one room to another room of a house; and nobody forgets the room from which one has exited and entered. But you are not like that. I know everything, but you know nothing. Now, knowing this, be free from the dread of dying, and also have no love for life.”

The Manu Smriti says you should neither love life nor hate life because both are wrong issues, for the reason already mentioned. “How wonderful, how beautiful is this world, how happy is life!” – do not say that. “How idiotic, how wretched is this world, how bad is life!” – do not say that, either. Neither is this world beautiful and nice, nor is it idiotic and stupid. It has no such characteristics. To put it psychologically, you are foisting, projecting your own psychological circumstance on persons and things outside, and seeing things which are not there.

So Sri Krishna comes to the point that, placed in this situation, what is your duty? “Having told you that the consciousness, which is the Atman, is deathless, universal in its nature, and also having told you what birth and death are, now I am placing before you a little principle of what you are to do.” The Bhagavadgita is an answer to the question of what human duty is. Given a particular certain circumstance and being placed in a condition, what is it that you are supposed to do? The answer does not fully come in the Second Chapter; it will come much later on.

Anyway, Sri Krishna rebuts the arguments of Arjuna by saying, “Your understanding is turbid. There is no prajna in you, really speaking. You lack buddhi-yoga, discriminative understanding.” ‘Sankhya’ is the word used. You lack sankhya-buddhi. Sankhya-buddhi is discriminative knowledge, and the application of it in practical life is called Yoga. Sankhya is the wisdom of life; Yoga is the application of this wisdom in your daily life. Inasmuch as you lack this discriminative faculty and are blabbering something according to your own whim and fancy, you cannot adjust your life harmoniously in this world. You are a disjointed personality.

Sankhya is the wisdom of life. This is a word that philosophers are acquainted with. It is one of the schools of philosophy. Among the six schools – Nyaya, Vaisesika, etc. – Sankhya is one. Now we are entering into a little difficult subject, the principle of Sankhya, which is actually the doctrine of the evolution of the cosmos. Unless you know where you are actually placed in this life, you cannot know what to do in this world. You are standing somewhere. You have to do something – move in this direction, or do something, or speak in a way to somebody – but nothing can be done unless you know where you are standing. Where are you, actually? Unless you know the atmosphere of your location, you will not be able to take even one step in any direction. So duty, the fulfilment of your obligations in this world in any work whatsoever, cannot be attempted unless you know where you are actually placed. The knowledge of your placement in the midst of this cosmos is the Sankhya.

Are you in Rishikesh, are you on the Earth planet, are you in the solar system, are you in the sky? Do you know that you are in a spaceship? This Earth is a spaceship rotating, revolving in space. You are in an airplane, as it were. It is really so. Every second, it covers some thousands of miles. You are thinking you are in Rishikesh, but you are not in Rishikesh. You are in mid-space.

This is the way in which it becomes necessary to know in a larger dimension where we are actually placed. We are in the solar system, not in India, not in Delhi or Rishikesh, or Uttar Pradesh or Dakshin Pradesh. We are in the solar system, conditioned by the great ruling force Suryanarayana, the Sun, and the galaxies, and the entire space-time complex.

Sankhya is the enumeration of the categories of evolution. ‘Sankhya’ is a Sanskrit word which means computation. The computation of the categories of the cosmos is the Sankhya doctrine. Firstly, it has been accepted that there is a consciousness. Whatever I have been telling you up to this time amounts to this: there is a consciousness. And I have been telling you all this time that this consciousness is eternal, the Soul Supreme, infinite, indefinable, indivisible consciousness. The Sankhya calls it Purusha. The supreme directing principle of the whole universe is called Purusha, the Supreme. As it is uncontaminated by externality or relativity, it is Absolute. You can call it Absolute Existence, Absolute Consciousness.

The universal force that causes the delimitation of this Universal Consciousness and entry into a particularity or an individuality is called Prakriti. So there is Purusha and there is Prakriti. This Prakriti is a name that we give to the blending of the three forces called sattva, rajas and tamas. Rajas is kinesis, dynamism, and tamas is stasis. In the language of physics we may call it dynamics and statics, but in science there is no third thing equivalent to sattva. We have only dynamics and statics; there is no equilibrating factor in science. Sattva is the equilibrating force between dynamics and statics, between action and no action, between moving and not moving, between doing and not doing. Between stability, fixity and motion, there is a harmonising element. That is called sattva. These three forces are the constituents of what is known as Prakriti, the cosmical motivation behind the wish of the Universal Consciousness to enter into an individuality.

Today we shall close with this apparently difficult subject.