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

Chapter 12: The Entry of the Soul into the Supreme Being

If we can recollect the procedure that we have been following in our studies, we will remember that the sociological situation in which the individual finds himself becomes the foremost subject for study and consideration. The very first chapter of the Bhagavadgita places us in a sociological complex with which the human being is confronted in many ways. The involvement of the individual in society is so complete that our thoughts are practically sociological, and the aims and objectives of the individual get merged in the complexity of sociological demands. It happened to Arjuna. His personality was lost completely in the tremendous panorama of social conflict that was presented before him, and whatever he spoke was from the point of view of society and the relationship of individuals in light of what we call human society. There is no mention of the higher type of welfare of the individual as such. We have dealt with this subject in some detail in our earlier studies, and I am mentioning it only as a kind of recapitulation of this theme for the purpose of following the thread of the argument of the eighteen chapters of the Bhagavadgita.

From the immense involvement of the individual in the requirements of the social structure, portrayed before us in a picturesque manner in the first chapter of the Gita, we are led along the other chapters, beginning from the second onwards, where the emphasis is on the individual rather than society, because the confrontation of the individual in respect of society has much to do with the internal structure of the individual himself. What we call human society is a kind of mutual individualistic reactions among human units, and these reactions are nothing else but projections of the human psyche in different ways. The study of society cannot be independent of the study of the human individual in its internal characteristics or components. So the emphasis, right up from society in the first chapter, is towards the individual essence known as the Atman, which is taken into consideration for discussion from the second chapter onwards. But the Atman is not brought to the light of day at the very commencement. There is a gradual extrication of the individual from the clutches of society. It is not done immediately and at once, as a sort of wrenching of the individual from the atmosphere of social relationship; there is no question of 'wrenching' in the practice of yoga. Everything is a very harmonious, gradational and healthy movement, as in the growth of an individual from babyhood into adulthood, etc. We do not jump to the sky in the practice of yoga. There is no revolution of any kind. There is an imperceptible, gradational, organismic rise from the lower stage to the higher stage.

So even in the second chapter of the Gita, where we are led away from the social complex mentioned in the first chapter, an aroma of society is present, by which the argument which was to counteract the misgivings of Arjuna takes into consideration the reaction of the individual upon society once again—such as prestige, one's own duty in society, etc. This theme was touched upon in the second chapter also, notwithstanding the fact that the intention of the second chapter is to raise the individual from externalised relationships of every kind to the internal structure of the individual. We have now gradually moved onwards from the first chapter, wherein we have followed the method of the great Teacher of the Bhagavadgita for the purpose of a complete integration of the individual, which is the highlight of the sixth chapter. The meditation or dhyana, which is the subject of the sixth chapter, is nothing but the theme of the mustering in of all the forces constituting the individual, so that they form one whole compound and not a complex of diverse constituents. There is no mention of the Creator or God up to the sixth chapter. It is all society and the individual—nothing but that. A great psychologist indeed is the Teacher of the Gita, and no better psychologist can be found. We should not thrust God into the minds of people when they are not ready for it. The great Master knows the needs of the various layers of the human personality, and so layer after layer has to be peeled off until the internal kernel is reached. We have to find out, gradually, what that kernel is, as we proceed further.

While it is true that society is constituted of individuals, and there is an inviolable and inextricable relationship of the individual with what is known as society, the individual is not complete and is not the apex of creation. Man is not the final end result in the chain of the development of the cosmos known as evolution, and many a time we make the mistake of imagining that we have reached the end of evolution—man is the crowning edifice of the whole of this universe. It is a mistaken notion of man. The individual is related to the cosmos in a more tangible and meaningful manner than the individual is related to society. This subject has to be taken up for discussion when the individual is ready for it, and not before that. To say anything at the wrong hour, even if it is the right thing, becomes the wrong thing. Even the right thing cannot be said at the wrong hour—that is not the proper way of teaching.

It is true that God exists and the universe is a vast field of completion, but this cannot be told at a wrong moment when there is no receptive capacity in the individual. Now the individual will be ready to receive the lesson on account of the collectedness of the various ingredients of the personality, which has been effected by the practice of yoga, known as dhyana, meditation, that has been propounded, elucidated in the sixth chapter. The cosmological principles, the creational process are discussed in the seventh chapter. The very idea of creation implies the idea of a Creator. There cannot be a creation without a maker of the creation, and therefore we are told that the Creator projected the universe of the five elements by the power of His own Being. The idea of the Creator is the beginning of religion. Devotion to God is the immediate consequence of the very recognition of the existence of a Creator above the whole of creation. While up to this time it was all psychology and psychoanalysis, if we would like to call it so, now we are entering into cosmology and the deeper implications of philosophy, metaphysics, or what nowadays people call ontology, etc. The Creator cannot be regarded as identical with creation, on account of the concept involved in the confrontation of the universe by the individual. We always imagine that the cause is different from the effect. The very term 'cause' implies its distinctiveness from the effect which it produces.

When we speak of God as the Creator of the universe we do not imagine, even with the farthest stretch of our minds, that God does not retain His transcendentalness. So in the seventh chapter, and even in the eighth chapter, and to some extent in the ninth chapter, the transcendent aspect of God is maintained—God is above the universe. He is an unreachable magnificence, a tremendous force that attracts our awe and admiration, and frightens us with its might and greatness. We are afraid of God in the beginning. The very idea of God frightens us because of the force, the power and the immensity that is associated with God's existence. There are two kinds of devotion—aishwarya pradhana bhakti and madhurya pradhana bhakti. Devotion that is associated with a sense of awe, admiration and fear is known as aishvarya pradhana bhakti. We admire God, we fear God, and we adore God because of His largeness, His greatness, His magnificence, His transcendentalness, and the tremendous difference between Him and ourselves, which is automatically accepted by our finitude and His infinitude. If this is the case, how can we reach God? Here is the central theme of the eighth chapter, which we have been discussing for some time. The cosmology is continued in the eighth chapter also, in the earlier verses, which we have discussed previously. God created the world and He is immensely present in the various facets of creation—as adhyatma, as adhibhuta, as adhyajna, as adhidaiva, and everything connected with these concepts. The destiny of the soul seems to be very precarious and awe-inspiring. There is a fear in us—what will happen to us after we shed this body?

It is very clear to every finite human being that God is unreachable for all practical purposes, because of the transcendentalness which is implied in His existence. He is far above the whole of creation. The arms of man cannot touch His Being. But, if this is the circumstance in which the finite individual is placed, it is really a matter of concern for everyone. So the eighth chapter retains the transcendentalness of God, but does not discourage us with any kind of negative philosophy or theology, as if we are damned forever. There is a hope for even the finite individual. God can be reached after the shedding of this body by deep concentration, and the last thought is supposed to be the force that decides the nature of the experiences of the soul in the hereafter.

Now, the passage of the soul after the disassociation of itself from this body is the subject of various branches in philosophy. “One who is wholly absorbed in the thought of God reaches God,” says the eighth chapter. Anta-kale ca mam eva smaran muktva kalevaram, yah prayati sa mad-bhavam yati nasty atra samsayah. Om ity ekaksaram brahma-vyaharan mam anusmaran, yah prayati tyajan deham sa yati paramam gatim. The supreme stage is reached by that individual or soul who is enabled to entertain the thought of the Supreme Being. Kavim puranam anusasitaram anor aniyamsam anusmared yah, sarvasya dhataram achintya-rupam aditya-varnam tamasah parastat.A glorious description of the Supreme Being, shining like the sun beyond the darkness of ignorance. If such meditations would be possible at the last moment, as the result of our devout life that we have led in this sojourn on earth, the attainment of God is certain. There is no doubt about this. If that is not to be attained, if there is any obstacle, if for some reason or the other it has not become possible for an individual to retain the thought of God, because it is not possible for everyone to retain the thought of God at the moment of passing—what happens to such a person? Such a person will be involved in the lower planes of existence, from which there is a reversion into the level from which one has risen. There is temporality infecting every layer of the cosmos. There is only one timeless existence, the supreme Absolute, and whoever finds it difficult to reach this state of timeless eternity, which is God-Being, finds himself in the process of time. Abrahma-bhuvanal lokah punar avartino'rjuna, mam upetya tu kaunteya punar janma na vidyate: One may reach any plane of existence, even if it be higher than the earthly one—that cannot be regarded as the salvation of the soul. Wherever there is a compulsion exerted upon us by a procession of powers or forces, where the evolutionary urge pulls and pushes us in the direction in which it moves, we remain not a master of ourself. One who is not a master of himself is not an independent person, and one who is not independent has not attained freedom, and freedom is salvation. So whoever is involved in the process of the universe cannot be regarded as a liberated spirit.

There are various layers of the cosmos, just as there are layers of the individual inside. We call them five koshas—annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya, anandamaya—the physical sheath, the vital sheath, the mental sheath, the intellectual sheath and the casual sheath. Corresponding to these sheaths there are the planes of existence—outwardly, cosmicly, universally—and these are the lokas or the regions into which the soul enters as a denizen thereof. Rebirth need not necessarily mean coming back to this world. Rebirth is a compulsion to take a form and the inability to exist as the formless Absolute. The necessity to enter into a form arises on account of the impulsions of desire which are the forces that constitute the individuality of a person. A desire is a power or force which asserts the need to retain individuality in some manner or other. The individuality need not necessarily be of a physical type. There are various degrees of individuality—nevertheless they are individualities, and the degrees vary according to the degree of the particular plane of existence into which the individual is thrown by the power of the evolutionary process itself, which is called rebirth. So rebirth is not necessarily a coming back to this world. It may be that, or it may not be that. It can be a higher ascent also, but even then it is rebirth. Anything is rebirth if it is short of God-realisation, and so the verse of the Bhagavadgita here says: Abrahma-bhuvanal lokah punar avartino'rjuna. Even if one reaches the highest seventh plane of the cosmos, which here is called the region of the Creator, there is a necessity to come back.

Theological interpreters and exponents have many things to say about these passages of the soul, especially in connection with the status of the soul in brahma-loka. Is there a possibility of coming back, or is it only a penultimate step to reach the supreme Absolute? The Bhagavadgita does not throw any light on this difficulty. It is very short and pithy; it merely makes a statement of this kind and leaves us to consider its meaning in any way we like. But great thinkers, scholars, saints and sages who have pondered over this subject tell us that the region called brahma-loka, or the region of the Creator, is to be distinguished from the nature of the Absolute. Generally we do not make this distinction when we speak of God the Creator. In ordinary religious parlance the two are identified. When we speak of God as the Creator of the universe, we do not imagine or imply thereby that there is something superior to this concept of Creator. For the purposes of popular religion, they are the same.

But a distinction is drawn. Metaphysical and philosophical definitions are given in respect of these stages, into the details of which we need not enter here. The sum and substance of the opinions of these exponents is that there are two kinds of people who reside in brahma-loka,just as there can be two kinds of people living in a country—citizens and visa holders, for instance. Citizens of a country are of one kind, and visa holders are of a different type. Both live in the same country, and perhaps they have all the facilities that are available in this country—they can travel in the same coach, they can eat the same food, they can breathe the same air—they are practically the same in every respect. But their visas can expire, whereas citizens have no such problem of expiry of their tenure of stay in the country.

This distinction is drawn by exponents of this particular subject of the status of souls in brahma-loka. Commentators on the Gita, like Madhusudan Saraswati for instance, tell us that upasakas or worshippers who perform meditation unselfishly, without any kind of desire, do not come back, though they may reach brahma-loka and pass through that stage as a necessary condition of the further attainment of utter immortality, about which we shall speak a little later. But there are residents in brahma-loka like Sanaka, Sanatana, Santakumara, Narada, etc.—they are not visa holders. They have not migrated from one country to another and they have not risen from one level to another. They were there right from the time of creation itself and they have no such fear of coming back.

Also there is no fear of coming back in respect of those souls who have unselfishly meditated or performed upasana, even with the acceptance of the transcendentalness of God. The whole difficulty arises on account of this peculiar thought in our minds, namely, the transcendentalness of God, the other-worldliness of God and the immensity of God as contradistinguished from the finitude of the individual who performs the worship or devotion. This difficulty is overcome in the coming chapters—in the tenth and eleventh especially, about which we will speak later on.

The departure of the soul is the main subject of the eighth chapter, and the eighth chapter does not tell us that it is possible to attain God in this life, because it does not want to tell us everything at the same time. It wants to go stage by stage, taking us by the hand from one level to the other without frightening us in any manner. The soul's departure is immediately decided when there is disassociation of consciousness from the material body, and in a way we may say it is decided even now. Teachers like Patanjali tell us that even when we are born, what will happen to us in the future is already written on our souls. Even the time of our death is already decided when we are still in the womb of our mother. The conditions through which we have to pass in our life also are already stated and decided, and the circumstances into which we are born in this world are also decided. Jati, ayu, bhoga—these three things have already been decided even when we are inside the womb of the mother. This means to say that the termination of our life has also been decided, which indirectly implies that what will happen to us later on has already been decided. Everything seems to be contained in the Will of God in a cosmical manner. Wonderful it is to think of.

The departure of the soul, therefore, is through various passages. Particular mention is made in the eighth chapter of what are commonly known as the devayana and the pitriyana margas, the Northern Path as it is called, or the Southern Path—the path of light, and the path of smoke or the path of darkness. There is departure, which means to say there is movement. The necessity for movement of the soul arises on account of the distance that exists between itself and the destination that it has to reach. If we accept that there is such a thing called distance, space and time, we also have to accept the necessity for travel. We already take for granted that there is such a thing called space, and therefore we have to also accept what is called distance. Space is distance, dimension, and measure, and all of us here perhaps have faith and the need to accept the distance of God from us in some way. It may differ from one person to another person, as far as the nature of the concept is concerned, but we accept that there is some sort of a difference and distance between ourselves and the Supreme Being, whether it is a qualitative distance or difference, or it is a quantitative one—sometimes it is both. Our conviction and acceptance of the fact that there is a distance between us and God is the reason for the departure of the soul from the body in some direction, and the direction that it takes depends upon the thoughts it entertained in this life. Generally, the deciding factor is the nature of the desire. Yam yam vapi smaran bhavam tyajaty ante kalevaram, tam tam evaiti kaunteya sada tad-bhava-bhavitah.

No desire can go unfulfilled—that is the law of desire. Strong or weak, it does not matter. Whatever form you contemplate in your mind as the objective of your desire, that you shall reach, attain, enjoy and possess—if not in this life then in the next life. No desire can be destroyed. It is an energy, and the principle of conservation of energy will tell you that desire cannot be destroyed. If desires and hopes cannot be destroyed, they should be regarded as immortal, at least in a relative sense. They are immortal as long as they are not fulfilled. Just as the creditor is always there as long as you cannot pay your debts, the desires pursue you wherever you go. You may reach the seventh heaven, but before you reach there the desire is already waiting for you. “What do you say about me,” it will ask you. And so you are gravitated automatically, by the pull of this catapult of your desires, to the point or place where alone it is possible for you to fulfil your desires. There is no dearth of resources in the universe. It is immensely rich and can fulfil any desire of any person. It will never say 'no' to any individual. It will not say, “I am sorry, I have not got it.” Whatever you ask for is present in the universe. As a matter of fact, you cannot think of anything that is not in the universe. So all your desires concern what is present in the universe somewhere or the other—it may be in this plane or in another plane.

So you will be suddenly taken like a rocket, as it were—a tremendous force, and the energy that drives that rocket is desire itself. The rocket is your own subtle body, and you are driven to that place where you will fulfil your desire, either fully or partially, according to the intensity of the desire. If the desire is intense—positive or negative—sometimes the fulfilment is seen in this very birth. In this very life you can fulfil your desires, provided the desire is terrific, uncontrollable, immense and it has overwhelmed you and inundated you. If the desire is so intense, whether it is virtuous or otherwise, you will see the consequence of it in this very birth. But if it is not so strong, you will reap the fruit thereof later on, in some other plane of existence, some other kind of circumstance where the conditions will be favourable for the fructification of this desire. Great souls, pious persons, devotees of God who have retained the concepts of the transcendenality of God, the other-worldliness of God in one sense, to put it more precisely, will reach God through the various stages of the ascent which are described in the scriptures such as the Upanishads and expounded in the Brahma Sutras, etc. They go from one light to another light, from dimmer light to brighter light, until the brightest light of the highest heaven is reached.

Unselfish devotees do not come back, but those who have desires of some type or other will have to be retained in that condition until their desires are fulfilled. Often our devotions to God are connected with some ulterior desires. Many of us will be finding it difficult to imagine what unselfish devotion to God can be. We may accept theoretically that unselfish devotion to God is the only real and true devotion. But our mind is so made that it cannot understand what unselfishness is, because there cannot be any kind of effort without an intention behind it, and this intention decides whether it is unselfish or otherwise. To seek something from God is the essence of the principle of selfishness that enters into the devotion to God. All prayers to God in all the religions have something to tell God. We convey a message to God. The necessity to convey a message to God again implies our suspicion that He is away from us, distant and transcendent still, and He requires to be told that something has to be done. That is the meaning of prayer.

But that need not necessarily be the meaning of prayer. Prayer can be an overwhelming, indwelling of God Himself in our soul—the soul getting invaded by the presence of God. The soul getting possessed by the omnipresence of God can also be devotion, and there one cannot expect anything from God other than the presence of God Himself. We are used to expecting things, and therefore we are also used to utilising persons and things as means for the fulfilment of our expectations. So the very defect in which the human mind is involved transfers its usual ways of the envisagement of values even to God Himself, and while it asks for small things from small persons, it asks for large things from God. The highest devotion is not an asking of anything from God. Then, any kind of ulterior asking ceases in the processes of the mind—it becomes totally selfless. The abolition of individual selfhood in gradual stages is the rise of devotion from the lower level to the higher level, called parabhakti or supreme devotion to God, which is identical with the wisdom of God—inseparable ultimately from the realisation of God Himself.

So the Bhagavadgita here tells us that there are two passages of the soul—the light and the smoke. There is a possibility of going up gradually with no return, and there is also an ascent for the purpose of returning. The soul reaches regions higher and higher until it becomes impossible for it to retain its individuality. That is the way to moksha or salvation by the progressive method of ascent, known as kramamukti. But those souls who are involved a in life of activity for the purpose of profit of one kind or the other, who are not devotees in a truly religious sense but participants in religion for the purpose of attaining earthly goods and recognition of some type or other, will have this desire fulfiled and they will revert to the place from where they started. The Upanishads have given us more details about these paths than we find in the Bhagavadgita, and there are possibilities of the soul getting into different kinds of involvement even after the shedding of this body. There need not be only two paths; there can be many other wanderings of the soul in various other fields of experience due to the complexity of desires. All desires have to end if God is to be reached finally.

That ending of desire is the immediate salvation of the soul. This is what is known as sadyomukti or the entry of the soul into the Supreme Being at once, here itself. There is no travel, no passage of the soul after death, and no reincarnation, nothing of this kind—no rebirth because the soul is immortal and is not conditioned by the process of the material evolution. The power of the universe does not affect it any more, because its experience is not involved in space, time and causation. There is no externalisation of the consciousness of the spirit; there is only a universalisation of it and not externalisation. This attainment of the universality of spirit is known as sadyomukti or immediate salvation. It is immediate because the Universal is present everywhere. There is no need to travel to the Universal, because no concepts of space and time are there. Even the concepts of space and time are involved in Universality, and are swallowed by it. Those who have attuned themselves to the Universal, whose lives are in harmony with the requirements of the law of the Universal, are liberated here itself. One need not wait for liberation after death.

This point will be taken up for consideration in the coming chapters—ninth, tenth and eleventh. In the eighth chapter we are only taken up to the level of the transcendence of God and the possibility of the departure of the soul in the fields to come, above the earth. It is only in the ninth chapter that we will receive a greater consolation by being told that God is not so far away as we were told earlier. His hands operate in this world just now, and devotion becomes an immediate activity of our day-to-day existence, and not merely a performance in a temple or church. Our whole life gets transformed into religion and spirituality when we are told that the law of God rules even this material earth. Towards this end we shall be taken in the coming chapters.