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The Spiritual Import of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 3: The World is the Face of God

In the journey of spiritual practice, there are many halting places on the way. It is not a direct flight without any stop in-between. At the very inception of this endeavour known as spiritual sadhana, there is an upheaval of the powers of aspiration, an innocent longing for God and a confidence that one would reach God—perhaps the same kind of confidence that a child has in catching the moon. The innocence and the credulity do not permit the acceptance of the difficulties involved in this pursuit. There is simplicity, sincerity and honesty coupled with ignorance, and this is practically the circumstance of every spiritual seeker. There is a humble innocence, very praiseworthy, but it is also attended with ignorance of the problems on the path and the difficulties of attaining God. The innocence of childhood is simplicity incarnate. Everyone loves a simple, innocent child, and everyone is happy about a simple, innocent seeker of truth. The Pandavas—we are studying certain implications of the Mahabharata—were innocent children playing with their own cousins, the Kauravas, and they would never have dreamt, even with the farthest stretch of their imaginations, of the forthcoming catastrophes in the life to come.

There is a peculiar circumstance in which the seeker finds himself at the outset, and there is a tentative picture presented before the mind of a seeker of great success. The intense austerity that we practise—the japa, the studies, the prayers, the worships—attract attention from everyone, and we become an object of adoration. Yudhishthira was crowned with the rajasuya sacrifice; it was a great glory indeed. The world begins to know us as a great austere seeker and a man of God; but the vision of people is different from the vision of God. It is inscrutable, and no one can say what the way of God is. The most compassionate conceivable and the hardest nut to crack—all combined in one, as it were, appears to be the attitude of God. Great difficulty, hardship and judicial strictness coupled with parental affection is the characteristic that is generally attributed to God. Law and love combined together; justice and affection both seem to be blended in Him. We cannot understand how these go together, but they do go, and perhaps they have to be together in a mysterious manner which the human mind cannot grasp. The justice of God is not contrary to the response that is evinced from Him by the affection that the seeker develops in respect of God. The love that is divine is compatible with law that is justice.

But the human concept of law and the human concept of love both require emendation. There is a cosmical interpretation and a standpoint taken on the basis of an interdependence of things, when things are looked at from the point of view of God. But human minds are not made in that manner. The interdependence or the interconnectedness of things in a universal manner is a theoretical concept which surpasses the imagination of the individual, and in practice it escapes notice wholly. We take an individualistic view of things, a finite attitude towards objects, bifurcating the relationship of one with the other, and therefore unexpected consequences follow from our attitude to things. Our satisfaction need not necessarily to be taken as a sign of success, because our satisfaction is that which satisfies our individuality. The satisfaction of an individual is not really a genuine and a permanent satisfaction. It flies away like the wind, and it moves as the individual moves.

In the process of evolution there is a transfiguration of the structure of individuality. The individuality transforms itself in the process of evolution, and simultaneously with this transformation, the notions, the ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, pleasure and pain also change. What is pleasant today need not be pleasant even to me, myself tomorrow, on account of the change of my attitude to things due to a shift of emphasis in the process of evolution. This is commonplace and does not require much commentary. Hence we should not be under the erroneous notion that a jubilant feeling within us is a sign of spiritual vision, since our jubilation is somehow or other connected with the nature of our own personality. The likes and dislikes of the mind of an individual are reactions set up by the structure of the mind of that individual. The structure of the mind is responsible for the particular type of satisfaction that it feels, and the particular type of dissatisfaction also, which follows automatically from this structure. So what I like need not be your liking, it follows, because of the simple fact that minds are not made in the same manner. Hence, a particular sense of elation within oneself can be a great credit to the capacity to achieve in one's own individual mind that which one seeks as something pleasant. But we are told again and again that the pleasant need not necessarily be the good, and the good need not necessarily be the pleasant, although the good can also be the pleasant. Hence the mass of votes poured upon Yudhishthira in the form of the rajasuya sacrifice, culminating in his coronation through the rajasuya, struck at the same time a note of retrogression by ways and means which were unthinkable; and this elation, and the rising to the throne after the rajasuya, ended in the banishment of the very same empire and emperor to the grief-stricken life of the wilderness of the jungles in the Aranyapurva.

The life of a saint is a mystic Mahabharata itself. Every sage or saint has passed through all the stages of the Mahabharata conflict. No one lived as a great saint without passing through untold hardships, and no one ever left this world with the feeling that it is all milk and honey flowing. The truth of the world becomes evident to the eyes that are about to close to this world; the untutored mind takes it for what it is not. Hence the glory of the royal coronation and success ended in untold grief, because of a negative aspect that was hidden in the joy of the coronation. There was something lacking. It was a glory that was bestowed upon Yudhishthira by the power of people, like the ascent of a person to the throne of a ministry by the raising of hands of the vast public. But the hands can drop down tomorrow; they need not always be standing erect. There is always an unpredictable uncertainty about mob psychology, and therefore a dependent success cannot be called a success. If I have become great due to your goodness, that would not be real greatness, because your goodness can be withdrawn. If the greatness is at the mercy of another's opinion or power, it falls.

People cannot help us, because people are like us. Everyone is made of the same character, a chip off the same block, as they say, and so the help that we receive from people of our own type will be as fallible and unreliable as the passing clouds in the sky. The realities of life started to stare glaringly at the faces of the Pandavas, and they began to realise that there is a gap between the hopes of the mind and the joys that it had experienced earlier. It is not always the playful innocent joy of a child that will pursue us throughout our life. The pains of life are hidden like knives under the armpits of thieves, and they are unleashed at the opportune moment. Every dog has his day, as they say; everything has its own time.

Individual strength is no strength; our efforts cannot be regarded as ultimately adequate to the task. We have observed that the world is too vast for us. It is mighty enough—it is all-mighty, we may say. Who can touch the stars, the sun and the moon with the fingers of one's hand? The strength is inexorable; the law is very precise and unrelenting upon people, like the law of gravitation which has no pity for any person. Such being the world, such being the universe, such being the law of things, our endeavours, our efforts on the path of the spirit have to become reoriented according to the needs of the case. There is suffering on account of not knowing what to do. We are helpless—we have been thrown out of the chair and no one is going to look at our face. This is not a circumstance which can escape the experience of any individual. One day or the other we will be in the pit, and everyone has fallen into the pit and then got out. This was the case with mighty heroes of the past, what to say of the credulous masses who are walking the stereotyped path of the blind leading the blind.

But suffering is also a kind of catharsis that is administered to the soul to purge its sins. It is not a curse that has descended upon us. Suffering is not a curse. It is a cleansing process, like a fever that comes to clean the system and throw out the toxic matter from the body. We suffer due to certain automatic reactions that are set up by certain actions. Actions are performed by people without the knowledge of the nature of the consequences that these actions would produce, because the consequences are conditioned by factors beyond one's thought. We have some idea as to what we are capable of doing, but we cannot have a complete idea of what we fall on, because the effects are determined by various factors other than merely the idea about it in the mind of the doer of the action.

So, unforeseen consequences retaliate upon the individual; they are called sorrows. They are called sorrows because they are not in conformity with the likes or the desires of the individual at that given moment of time. If we are thrown into the Ganga and feel chilled inside, that would be a sorrow indeed; but if a fish is thrown into the Ganga, that would not be a sorrow for it. So it is the condition of the individual that determines a particular experience to be either pleasant or otherwise. Ultimately there is no such a thing as absolute pleasure or absolute pain—they do not exist. They are always relative to the nature of the individual experiencing them. However, such consequences, when they rebound upon the individual, become sources of pain on account of one's not being prepared for them. Such are the sorrows of the spiritual seeker also, because of his immature efforts in the direction of God-realisation, not knowing his true relationship to God, because there is a powerful world between us and God. This should not be forgotten. There is something between the seeker and that which we seek, and if we completely ignore the presence of that which is between, it would be a mistake. The God which we seek cannot be directly seen except through the spectacles of the world.

In the Ramayana, Tulsidas gives a beautiful description of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana walking, with Sita in the middle, and gives the image by saying that Sita was there as maya between brahma and jiva. Likewise, there is this world before us, which we are likely to unintelligently ignore in our enthusiastic aspiration for God. The world is the face of God; it is the fingers of the hands of God Himself moving, and the so-called appearance of the world is rooted in the reality of the Absolute. There is a very unfortunate aftermath of this interesting analysis, namely, we ourselves are a part of this appearance, and to put on the unwarranted status of the reality in ourselves, while we are looked at as appearance, would be to disregard the law that operates in the realm in which we are placed. Appearance is, after all, an appearance of reality—it is not an appearance of nothing. If it had been nothing, the appearance itself would not be there. Inasmuch as the appearance is of reality, it borrows the sense of reality. The snake is in the rope, yes, but we must know that the rope is not absent. Though the way in which the rope is seen may be an erroneous perception, the fact of the rope being there cannot be ignored—that is the reason why the snake is seen at all. If the rope is not there, even the snake would not be there. It is the reality of the Absolute, the presence of God that is responsible for the appearance of the world.

So, there is some mystery in this world. We can call God only as a mystery, and nothing else; and we are involved in this world of appearances. We are a part of this world; therefore it is not given to us to completely reject the law of the world. A complete carelessness towards the rules that are prevailing in the cosmos would be to the doom of the individual, and that foolhardy aspiration for God would be paid back in its own coin as sorrow. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa used to say that the devotee of God is not a foolish man; he is a devotee, but he is not foolish—he is wise. What is wisdom? Wisdom is nothing but an understanding of the nature of life. To understand what life is would be wisdom, and to mistake life for what it is not would be unwisdom.

Religions often have made the mistake of a transcendent ascent of the religious spirit, overcoming the laws of the world, facing God in the high heavens and preaching a renunciation of the things of the world to the extreme point, the breaking point we may say, until it would be not tolerated by the laws of the world. The person who renounces the world is a part of the world—we forget that, and there lies the mistake. The suffering of the seeker is due to a mistaken notion of himself in relation to the world outside. He has not yet become a part of God, though he is aspiring to be such, and the hands of God work through the forms of the world—that cannot be forgotten. Just as the power of the president or the prime minister may work through a small official, and we cannot ignore this official merely by saying that we are not concerned with him in any manner inasmuch as we are somehow or other placed in an atmosphere over which he has jurisdiction, the world has jurisdiction over our individuality.

The world is made up of several grades of density, to which we have already made reference. There are the various lokas—bhu-loka, bhuvar-loka, suvar-loka, mahar-loka, jana-loka, tapo-loka and satya-loka. The ascent of the spirit is through the ascent of these various densities of manifestation, the lokas; and we are in the physical realm, not in other realms. We are not in jana-loka, tapo-loka, satya-loka—we are in bhu-loka. The earth pulls us by its gravitation—water can drown us, fire can burn us, air can blow us, which means to say we are strongly conditioned by the physical world. In passing, I may mention the various samadhis mentioned by Patanjali in his sutras—savitarka, nirvitarka, etc. are nothing but the ascent of the soul through these lokas, savitarka being the ascent of the soul from the physical realm. How difficult it is to overcome the clutches of the physical world can be gathered from the importance that Patanjali gives in his Yoga Sutras to the preparations that have to be made for reaching the state of the first ascent of the soul. The first step in the ascent of the soul, which is savitarka, is the real beginning of the divine ascent, for which so much preparation—yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana and dhyana—has been made. We are not suddenly jumping to the skies, and any mistake in the understanding of these intricacies would be to our ruin and grief.

So we pass our life in Aranykapurva for years in search of light; but the honesty, the sincerity, the asking is paid its due. Though God enforces discipline upon the individual, He does not forget to reward him for having passed through the difficulties. Reward comes. Devas—Indra, Varuna, Rudra and others—take pity on the Pandavas, and unasked help comes. Rudra gives pashupata, Indra gives his vajra, Varuna gave pasha, and Agni his agneya,and what not. The powers of the Pandavas get enhanced by the help they receive from the gods.

The gods are watching us. They are seeing us even now. They are not non-existent myths, as people may imagine. They are as real as hard brick before us, and the Yoga Vasishtha tells us in a beautiful verse that when a person becomes completely surrendered to the law of the world—he is egoless, in other words—it becomes the duty of the rulers of the cosmos to take care and protect this individual. As the divinities take care of all the quarters of the cosmos, so the seeker is protected by all the angels in the heavens—gods in swarga, divinities all over, to whom we have paid scant respect earlier due to the affirmation of our ego. God Himself descends in a magnificent form, and to recollect what we have studied earlier in the Udyogaparva of the Mahabharata, divine forces get gathered for the help of the Pandavas.

Yet everything has not been done, and everything has not been said. There is much more to be done, much more to be said. We know very well that the great glory in which the Pandavas found themselves in the midst of powers like Sri Krishna in the Udyogaparva was not the end of all things. There was suffering yet to come because, again to recall to memory the samadhis of Patanjali—savitarka, nirvitarka, savichar, nirvichar—they are not enough. There is great struggling on the path; every moment there is an encounter. At every moment, at every step, there is a power that is facing us as an opposite, as an object. The object opposes the subject at every level, and objects change their colours every moment, at every stage, like a chameleon. If today people are the objects, tomorrow the five elements are the objects, and they stand before us. What will we do to them? It is in the savitarka process of Patanjali that we encounter the five elements. The people have already gone; we do not have any more trouble with people afterwards. The dealings with people are over in the earlier stages of yama, niyama, etc. We have no fears from human beings or any other living beings; we have fear only from the five elements, and we do not imagine that they can give any trouble to us. Really speaking, they are the masters. The five elements are the rulers, and we can do nothing to them. We cannot please them easily, because to comply with the law of physical nature is hard enough.

So it is naturally a surprise to the unsuspecting seeker to be faced with such realities, and to be terrorised once again in the same manner as before by forces unseen and unexpected. When we face in battle any power, it pushes forth all its energies to the maximum extent. Our energies come to the forefront only when we are opposed; otherwise no one can know what one's strength is. When everything is failing and our last resort is to save ourselves, then we unleash all our strength. So it is that the Pandavas had to face a set of forces which encountered them with all their might and main. At that time there is a peculiar sorrow of the soul, which catches it by the neck, as it were, and the soul retaliates. “Not this, and it is not for me,” says the soul.

Here we find Arjuna at the very beginning of the Bhagavadgita. All the supports and all the weapons that we have in our hands do not seem to be sufficient to meet the powers that are arrayed before us in battle. The soul recoils from the fact of its having to come in opposition to the powers of the world which are vastly arrayed before it. Then doubts arise. I mentioned to you something about the nature of the havoc that doubt can play in our minds, and doubts will not leave us till the last moment of our lives. There are varieties of doubts; when one doubt goes, another one comes that was not there previously. Doubts shake us from the root, and we become diffident at that moment. Perhaps there is a mistake—this is what we begin to feel. Various arguments were thrust forward by Arjuna to discount the justice of the war. “What is the point in facing Bhishma, Drona and others who are our venerable ancestors?” The regard for elders, the regard for people, love and affection for kith and kin is so strong that a violation of this law is usually regarded in society as an unpardonable mistake. He becomes a renegade in society. “Is this practical, and is this ethically permissible?” is the query of Arjuna. “No, not permissible,” he himself gives the answer. “To cut the throat of those people who have taken care of me from childhood, from whose hands I have eaten food, to strike a blow at their own heads would be a heinous sin,” says the ethics of the world. This would not be permitted. The other argument is: “Where is the guarantee that this battle is going to end with success on our side? May be somebody will win—may be the other side. Why should it be only this side? And all our efforts will be in vain. We will be doomed and destroyed, and will be seeing only bloodshed. What will be the fate of those people who we have harnessed for battle and who have dedicated their lives for our sake, and who have left their mortal coil in our name?” This is another argument—there is no certainty of the consequences of war apart from the fact that there is a mistake in encountering people who are our own. Thirdly, there is a doubt: “The world is not as bad as it appears, and there is something worthwhile in it.” The rejection of the world for the sake of God is involved in a subtle error of not recognising the values that are present in life.

These questions are the sum and substance of the first chapter of the Bhagavadgita. Doubts and doubts and doubts—at least three different doubts are mentioned. The retort of Sri Krishna to it, in the second chapter, is that we have no correct understanding of the matter. We have no samkhya buddhi. Samkhya buddhi is correct understanding; that Arjuna lacked. These are the words that Sri Krishna utters: “All this logic, ethics and morals that you spoke of in favour of the world and against the justice of the war—all this that you have said is an outcome of a lack of understanding. You have not understood what Truth is. There is a necessity for clarity of the power of reasoning before you begin to reason. A muddled reason cannot bring correct results. Therefore samkhya, understanding, is the first thing that you have to strive for, and not merely employ this ruptured weapon of unintelligent reason to justify erroneous notions.”

“Well, is it so?” says Arjuna. “Am I mistaken? There is diffidence in my heart. I cannot face this world, and there is a sense of the human in me which always speaks its own language, and the human sense cannot always reconcile itself with what the battle of the spirit expects it to.” We are human and think human, but Sri Krishna wants us to be divine. How is it possible for a human being to be divine? That is possible only if there is the capacity in the individual to rise to the understanding that is equivalent to the character of the spirit. That understanding, which is the light of the spirit, is samkhya buddhi; that is the higher reason, the higher self also, in this way. “What is this samkhya, what is this higher understanding which I lack? Why is it that you say I have no samkhya buddhi, that I am faulty in my arguments? What is wrong?” This will be taken up in further chapters.