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

Chapter 19: True Knowledge

The meaning of the thirteenth chapter of the Bhagavadgita is the subject of our discussion now. While all the eighteen chapters of the Gita touch upon almost all themes in the practice of yoga, there is a special emphasis laid on action in the third chapter, on meditation in the sixth chapter, on devotion in the eleventh chapter and on knowledge in the thirteenth chapter—corresponding to the faculties of cognition, volition, emotion and reason. There is a special importance attached to the subject of the thirteenth chapter, inasmuch as it analyses the Samkhya principles or categories of cosmic evolution in the light of the supremacy of Brahman, the Absolute. The Samkhya philosophy distinguishes between prakriti and purusha, or the field and the knower of the field, as they are designated here in this chapter. Matter and consciousness are, we may say, the object and the pure subject. In this chapter, at the very outset, we are told that there are two principles—the field and the knower of the field. “Know Me as the knower in all the fields—sarva-ksetresu,” says the great Eternity which speaks through the gospel of the Gita. In this simple hint that is given to the effect that the pure subject or the knower of the field is equally present in all the fields, this particular specialty of teaching here takes us beyond the classical Samkhya, which draws a distinction between prakriti and purusha, making out thereby that God is transcendent and superior to matter and consciousness as we know it. The Absolute is superior both to the object and the subject.

Now in this connection we have to go into some detail as to the nature of the object, the subject, and that which reigns supreme beyond both—this is the principal subject of this chapter. The so-called object of knowledge is a vast panorama of experience. The whole astronomical universe is constituted of the five gross elements—earth, water, fire, air and ether—which form the entire world of physicality. The causative factor of these five elements, known in the Samkhya language as the tanmatras, is on the objective side. From the side of the experiencer there is the jiva—the individual with sense organs, mind and intellect—lodged in the body complex, operating through love and hatred and filled with the notion of egoity, cutting itself off from the object, but nevertheless a part of the object world.

It is strange and very interesting to note that in this delineation of the character of the object, even the so-called individual is included. We are all objects in the true sense of the term. We can see our own bodies. This body is an object of sense perception, and it is constituted of the same matter as everything else in this world. The pure subject is invisible—though it is embedded in us, we are unconscious of its existence. We live in a world of objects. We have befriended objects, converted ourselves into objects, and we treat ourselves as objects rather than as pure subjects. Hence the characteristics of objects infect us, and we suffer the pains of life due to the objectivity that is present in us. The sorrows through which we have to pass in our lives are not the consequences of the subjectivity that is in us, but rather of the objectivity in which we are involved and which we, however wrongly, identify with our true being. Heat and cold, hunger and thirst, pleasure and pain—even birth and death should be considered as characteristics of objectivity rather than the subjectivity of experience.

Thus it is that whatever we regard ourselves to be in an empirical sense goes with the world of objects. Therefore, in this characterisation or categorisation of the object universe in these verses of the thirteenth chapter, everything is rolled up in an omnibus. Whatever we know is the world of objects. That which becomes the instrument in cognising the presence of the object is knowledge. Knowledge is either lower or higher. Perceptive knowledge or sensory knowledge is a lower knowledge whereby we acquire a sort of acquaintance with the objects, but not a true knowledge of things. We come in contact sensorily and psychologically with the name and form of the things of the world in a mediate manner of space-time contact, but we never enter into the being of anything. Really we have no knowledge of anything ultimately. We have only an acquaintance with the name and form of objects, not an insight into the nature of anything.

But what is true knowledge? This is described in a few verses in this very chapter. While, finally, true knowledge has to be identified with actual realisation of existence in its pristine purity, anything that is contributory to the acquisition of this knowledge is also regarded as knowledge, so that righteousness, virtues and those qualities that we consider as praiseworthy are also regarded as knowledge. Humility, though it cannot be identified with knowledge as such, is associated with knowledge. Unpretentiousness and straightforwardness of behaviour cannot be identified with knowledge as such, but it is a reflection of true knowledge. It indicates true knowledge and contributes to the acquirement of true knowledge; and so are other virtues, such as non-violence and love, servicefulness, charitable feeling, detachment and freedom from every kind of clinging, whether to the senses or the mind. The capacity to contemplate on the transitoriness of all things, the recognition of the phenomenal character of the universe, an awareness of the presence of a Supreme Reality beyond the transitory universe, and a sincere aspiration for this realisation—all these go to constitute what is known as right knowledge.

We have usually been identifying knowledge with learning—the academic acquisition of information regarding the various objects of the world. But spiritual wisdom is the same as insight, known also as intuition, whereby the object of knowledge is possessed in completeness and does not any more remain as an extraneous something. Knowledge is power, and where power is lacking in respect of the object of knowledge, it can be safely said that right knowledge of that object also is comparatively lacking. Knowledge of an object is not merely the observation of an object in a scientific manner; it is a complete grasp of the secrets of that object, whereby it becomes a content of one's knowledge in an inseparable manner. Therefore it is that it acquires complete control over the object—mastery over things—so that the apotheosis of knowledge is omniscience, which cannot be separated from omnipotence. So knowledge is power, knowledge is also righteousness, and knowledge is at the same time happiness. Wherever there is right knowledge, there should be power of some kind—capacity and energy. Wherever there is right knowledge, there is also automatically felt the presence of virtue and righteousness; and wherever there is knowledge, there is also the experience of happiness. If these results are not seen even in a meager measure, one should conclude that the knowledge is defective. Knowledge is not book-learning, and is not the acquisition of a certificate from an academy. Knowledge is actual communion with things, gradually, by appreciation of the character of things—an approximation of oneself to the nature of things with the intention finally of abolishing the distinction between oneself and the objects of knowledge.

What is the supreme object of knowledge then, whose experience abolishes the distinction between the subject and object? That is Brahman, according to the Bhagavadgita. Inasmuch as it includes within its Being both the objective universe and the subjective faculties, we cannot designate it as either being or non-being—na sat tan nasad ucyate. It is neither sat nor asat, in the sense we understand these two terms. We cannot say whether it is something that is existent, or that which is non-existent. We consider the existence of a thing as a content of sensory experience. When we say that something exists, we mean that it is perceptible or cognisable. We generally associate existence with objects, as a quality or an attribute of the object. When we say a table exists or a tree exists or something exists, we immediately regard this existence as a predicate of that which we regard as the nominative or the substantive, the pure subject. The tree is important—the existence is only an attribute. The existence of the tree is regarded as a quality of the tree; but, unfortunately, existence is not a quality of anything. That 'thinghood' rather, which we perceive through the senses, is the attribute of existence. The tree is not the nominative—the existence is the nominative.

But we cannot understand this because of the defect of our language and the way in which we usually define things. Therefore, because of the fact that we wrongly understand the nature of existence, we cannot consider Brahman, the Absolute, as existence in the sense that we interpret it. Brahman is also not non-existence, because it is the supreme existence. It non-existence to the senses, but it is the precondition of the existence of everything else. It appears to be non-existent because it is the subject of experience. Who can know the subject; who can know the knower? All things are known by the subject, but who can then know the subject? It remains always an unknowable, indescribable mystery. No one can know the subject, because it refuses to convert itself into an object.

Who can know the knower of things? Thus the supreme knower of all things, the omniscient Absolute, is a non-existent something to the senses, the mind and the intellect which expect everything existent to be outward in space and in time. It has neither beginning nor end, but it exists everywhere. That which exists everywhere appears to be nowhere. For us, to be existent is to be somewhere, and we cannot imagine a state of affairs where things can be existing everywhere, because perception is impossible if the object is spread out everywhere uniformly or equally. If perception is not possible, knowledge of it is also not possible. When knowledge does not recognise the presence of a thing, it dubs it as non-existent. But here is the mystery of mysteries, the miracle of all miracles, which is the Supreme Godhead of the universe that grasps everything without limbs, sees all things without eyes, hears everything without ears, moves everywhere without feet, and speaks in every language, through all tongues.

The human mind is not made in a way to understand this mystery, because the uniformity of existence is something not seen anywhere in this world. Nothing is uniformly present anywhere. Everything is somewhere, in some form, but not everywhere, in every way. But That which is everywhere, at every time, in every form, is an object of stories and fables for us—we cannot conceive it even with the farthest stretch of our imagination. All eyes, all ears, all feet, all heads, all limbs is this Supreme Being. Every part of it can perform every function. This is not so in the case of individuals like us, where some organ, some limb, some faculty can perform only some function allotted to it, and not all things. Our minds become stupefied by even thinking such a supreme fact of facts. We go giddy, our heads begin to reel, or the mind finds it is better to go to sleep rather than contemplate mighty mysteries of this nature. It envelops all things. Not merely does it envelop in the sense of covering things, but it is the indweller of all beings. It is not merely outside things as their cover, but it is also inside things. It is not merely outside things and inside things, but it is also the substance and constitution of all things. It is not merely the efficient cause, the Creator of things, but it is also the material cause or the substance of things.

How is it possible? We have never seen anywhere in this world an efficient or instrumental cause being the same thing as the material cause or the substantial cause. But here is a wonder again. It has no sense organs, but every sense organ operates through its presence. The light and the force that is emanated by this Being is the source of the energy of the various faculties of perception and cognition. When it operates through the eyeballs, we call it seeing; when it operates through the eardrums, we call it hearing, and so on. It is all existence, all knowledge, all perfection, all freedom, and all happiness. The content of anything is everywhere in its original perfection. The supreme Brahman or the Absolute is the originality of all things, while what we see in this world is the reflection of all things. We only perceive the shadows of things in this world, whereas the original is somewhere else—beyond our grasp, beyond our understanding, and beyond the reach of anything that we have as our endowments. We live in a world of shadows—so much credit for us. We perceive the will-o'-the-wisp.

That is why it is said that we live in a world of maya—phantasm, illusion, phantasmagoria—and we pass for realities and judge all things as if they are ultimate realities, while the so-called reality that we seem to recognise in these reflected forms is a faint distraction of the original which is operating through them. Reality is visible in appearance, just as in the famous Vedantic analogy we have the silver appearing in the oyster shell, or the snake appearing in the rope. The substantiality of the snake is the rope. The 'this-ness', the reality, the substantiality, the visibility of the so-called snake is the rope there underneath. But we perceive the snake rather than the rope on account of a distortion of our vision. So is the case with every kind of perception of anything in this world. The substantiality, the solidity, the value that we attach to things is the 'rope-ness' that is behind the 'snake-ness' of these forms. Hence we are in a wonderful world of drama that is played by names and forms, behind which is the Supreme Director of the cosmos—Brahman or the Absolute. It is undivided everywhere but appears to be divided, just as the ocean is undivided in itself but appears to be divided through its waves which differentiate themselves one from the other.

We are sitting here as people in a hall, one different from the other, one having no connection with the other. But there is an undercurrent of immanence even in the midst of the so-called diversities of people sitting here. On account of this universal immanence, we are able to cognise one another, see each other and understand each other. Even the knowledge that we have of each other is due to the universal principle that is present in the midst this diversity of people that we are. So nothing can be without it. Even the grossest error is charged with this universal reality of the Absolute. It is the light of all lights—jyotisam api taj jyotis tamasah param uchyate. Beyond the darkness of the ignorance of this sense perception is this transcendent blaze of the supernal sun of the Absolute, and it is in one's own heart; it is not somewhere far off. This blazing sun of wisdom is not in the distant heavens—it is in the deepest recesses of your own heart. We are carrying it wherever we go, as a vessel carries space wherever it is moved. It is the heart of all beings, the Self of everything. This is the supreme object of knowledge and this is the only thing that we have to know in this world—there is nothing else to know. What is the use of knowing merely the 'snakes' that are not there; we have to see the 'rope' behind the appearance.

Thus it is that we are told that this is the object of knowledge. We would be wondering how only this can be called the object of knowledge as if there is nothing else. We have the various sciences and arts in this world—are they not objects of knowledge? They are the 'snakes'; here is the 'rope'. And so, this alone is the supreme object of knowledge, and when this is known, everything else is known automatically. When this One Thing is known, all the multifarious variety in the form of this creation is at once known instantly.

Now, towards this end, the analysis of purusha and prakriti is made again in this very chapter. The purusha and prakriti stand as consciousness and its object. The whole of philosophy, whether in the East or in the West, is an analysis of this relationship between consciousness and its object, and it is not an easy thing to understand this relation. However much we may rack our brains, the object stands apart from consciousness. Not merely that, sometimes the object has the audacity to assert its supremacy over consciousness, and materialism supervenes, concluding that even consciousness is an offshoot, a gradation of matter, as if the subject does not exist at all—the cart has come before the horse. This is the lowest condition of experience, where we lodge ourselves in the objects, lose ourselves completely in things, kill ourselves, as the Isavasya Upanishad puts it—commit suicide in the midst of these objects, drown ourselves in objectivity and completely destroy our subjectivity wholly; and then that is called hell, the inferno as called in theology.

The more we move towards subjectivity, the more we are tracing our steps in the direction of paradise, heaven, the region of angels, or God experience. The more we move towards objects and external comforts and involve ourselves in sensory things, the more we head towards the hell of religions. Hell is objectivity and paradise is subjectivity, so that, when supreme subjectivity is realised as the All-in-All Being, we have attained liberation or moksha. All this, though it appears to be a little bit clear to us for the time being, is beyond the grasp of ordinary reason. Always the objects stand before us, staring at us as reality, and prakriti tries to grapple with purusha as a contending party trying to defeat it, swallow it and absorb it into itself, so that oftentimes we are led to the erroneous conclusion that the world of matter is the only reality. Consciousness is swallowed by matter; purusha is lost in prakriti. This is what has happened to us these days, so that we think only of the world, only of things, only of objects, only of physical comfort—nothing else. This is the fate of consciousness when it befriends matter to such an extent that it cannot anymore exist as an independent reality or value.

But the Samkhya analysis distinguishes consciousness from matter. That the knower cannot be the known is a crux of philosophical analysis, and the known cannot be the knower. Kshetrajna and kshetra are two different things. If the known is the knower, or the knower is the known, the whole language is tautological and loses its meaning. If the known is the knower, or the knower is the known, we do not know what we are saying. The two are distinct, and this drawing the distinction between the knowing consciousness and the known objectivity is the Samkhya. But, this distinction is tentative and relative, because even the distinction between two things cannot be known, unless there is a transcendent comprehensibility of the so-called knower and the known. How do we know that 'A' is different from 'B' unless we are more than 'A' and 'B'? Here is a victorious note struck by the Vedanta philosophy, which rises above the Samkhya distinction of prakriti and purusha.

That peculiar mystery which eludes the grasp of the senses and the mind, but which knows the distinction between the subject and the object, which is that which tells us that prakriti is different from purusha—that thing is the object to be known. Who tells us that prakriti is different from purusha? Know that. That is the supreme object of knowledge. As the sun illuminates all things with its brilliant light, so does this supreme kshetrajna illumine all things. If all light is extinguished, this light will remain. As the Upanishad puts it: “When the sun has set, the moon will shine; when the moon is not there, the stars will shine; when the stars are not there, the fire will shed light for us; but if that goes out, what remains? Your own Self remains.” We may grope in darkness, but we are aware that we grope in darkness—that is the Light behind us. Even when we are ignorant, we know that we are ignorant. That is the Light behind this darkness of ignorance, and it cannot be extinguished. So this supreme existence can never be abolished; it can never become non-existent ultimately. Know this.

So here is a grand exposition of the nature of the object, the nature of true knowledge and the nature of That which is ultimately to be known. This is the subject of the thirteenth chapter of the Bhagavadgita, which gives us a comprehensive description of the highest Knowledge.