Introduction to Srimad Bhagavad Gita
An introduction based on the Sankara’s introduction to his Gita Bhaasya
Pranaams to the devotees of the Lord.
Bharat Churiwalaji, a devotee of Ramakrishna Math, Mumbai, asked me to start a series on a sort of systematic study of the Gita in the email@example.com mailing list. This is a collection of the postings that were mailed to the list. Whatever I have learnt is from the illustrious monks of different Orders that I have had the good fortune to come in touch with. Of special mention are Swami Swayambodhanandaji, Swami Paramarthanandaji and Swami Paramasukhanandaji.
The main references I used were these:
1. “Srimad Bhagavad Gita – The Scripture of Mankind” by Swami Tapasyananda published by Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai.
You can find the chapter summaries from the book at http://www.geocities.com/gokulmuthu/gita_full.txt
This book is very good for a serious study of the Gita. It has chapter summaries, verse in devanagari, English transliteration, split-up of the sandhis, word by word meaning, verse meaning, chapter summaries and detailed notes wherever needed.
2. “Bhagavad Gita Bhasya of Sankaracharya” translated by Dr. A.G. Krishna Warrior published by Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai.
This book is a boon to people who are not very familiar with Sanskrit, but want to read Sankara Bhasya in its original. It has the original text in devanagari and also an English translation.
3. “Sankara and Gita” – A three part audio lecture series by Swami Paramarthananda
This three part series of lectures of 90 minutes each is an excellent introduction and summary of the Gita as explained by Sankaracharya. It gives deep insight into the mind of Sankara when he wrote the Bhaasya.
4. “Gita Summary” – A nineteen part audio lecture series by Swami Paramarthananda
This lecture series gives an overview of each chapter of the Gita. This is a good prelude before an in-depth verse-by-verse study of the Gita. It also gives an excellent essence of the message of the Gita. This can be bought from http://www.sastraprakasika.org/
5. “Gita (Verse by verse)” – A two hundred and fifty part audio lecture series by Swami Paramarthananda
This lecture series gives a detailed explanation of each verse of the Gita. This is a good in-depth verse-by-verse study of the Gita. These are available for download at http://www.archive.org/search.php?query=paramarthananda. This can be bought from http://www.sastraprakasika.org/
6. “Geeta Vaatika” – A software on Swami Chinmayananda’s commentary on the Gita. It has excellent search facilities. It can be downloaded from http://www.chinmayauk.org/Resources/Downloads.htm. This is a boon to any Gita enthusiast who has a computer.
Sankara’s introduction to his Bhagavad Gitaa Bhaashya is a good way to look at an overview of the Gita.
Vedaas and Gita
Vedaas are an ocean. Srimad Bhagavad Gita is its essence.
Vedaas have been grouped into four by Veda Vyaasa – Rig, Yajur, Saama and Atharvana. This grouping is to enable different people to focus and master a part of the entire Vedaas. Each Veda has four parts – Samhita, Braahmana, Aaranyaka and Upanisad. Samhitaas are invocation to the Lord to give us the right understanding and inclination. Braahmanaas describe external rituals, which when done without desire for the results, free us from likes and dislikes. Aaranyakaas describe internal meditations, which make us introvert and calm, and thus prepare the mind for enquiry into the Truth. Upanisads talk about the Ultimate Truth, which is the identity of the Jivaatman and the Paramaatman (Jiva Ishwara Aikyam).
Bhagavad Gita is a summary of the Vedaas. Thus studying the Gita is considered as studying the Vedaas. Krishna tells at several places that what He is telling in the Gita is not something new. He says that He gave this teaching to Surya in olden days. At several places, Krishna says “The wise people say so”, “The learned people consider so”, etc. Thus Krishna emphasizes that there is no contradiction or difference between what He says and what the Vedaas have told.
The traditional study of the Gita starts with nine “dhyaana slokas”. In the Gita also, Arjuna extols the glories of the Lord at several places. The Lord also describes His glories. These are equivalent to the Mantra portion of the Vedaas. Gita talks about Karma, its effects, and about Karma Yoga in detail. These cover the Braahmana portion of the Vedaas. Gita talks about several internal disciplines of dhyaana, japa, etc. Also, the glories of the Lord described to help in meditation on the Lord. These cover the Aaranyaka portion of the Vedaas. Gita talks about the Ultimate Truth of Advaita in several places. This covers the Upanisad portion of the Vedaas.
The first three parts of the Vedaas are called Karma Khaanda. The Upanisad part of the Vedaas is called Jnaana Khaanda. They are also called Pravritti Maarga and Nivritti Maarga. The aim of the Karma Khaanda is to prepare the aspirant towards Jnaana Khaanda. The Karma Khaanda is called Yogashaastra. The Jnaana Khaanda is called Brahmavidya. To emphasize that Gita covers both these, at the end of every chapter, it is mentioned “Iti Srimad Bhagavad Gitaasu, Upanisadsu, Brahmavidyaayaam, Yogashaastre, Sri Krishna Arjuna Samvaade, …”
In this discussion, we will stick to Sankara’s interpretation of the Gita as per Advaita Vedanta. Advaita Vedanta accepts nothing less than the absolute Truth of “Jiva Ishwara Aikyam” as the Ultimate Truth. However, the views of other philosophies are accepted as the means and different stages to the Ultimate Truth. When other philosophies have progressed and stopped at various stages on the way to the Ultimate Truth, Advaita Vedanta has taken the quest of Truth to its last word.
Sankara’s introduction to his Bhagavad Gitaa Bhaashya is a masterpiece in itself. He brings out the summary of the Gita very beautifully. Studying this introduction in detail will enable us to understand the Gita in the right perspective. It has six paragraphs. This translation of it is based on Dr.A.G.Krishna Warrior’s translation from the book published by Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai.
Having created the cosmos and seeking to ensure its existence, the Lord brought forth in the beginning the Prajaapatis (progenitors) – Marichi and the rest. Then he imparted to them the Vedic path of work – pravritti lakshanam dharmam (Karma Yoga). Later, bringing forth the Kumaras – Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanaatana and Sanatkumaara, He imparted to them the path of renunciation of work – nivritti lakshanam dharmam (Jnaana Yoga), marked by jnaana (knowledge) and vairaagya (renunciation). This two-fold path (dharma) of the Vedaas makes for the world’s stability. For prosperity and emancipation, people of different natures should follow this path with faith according to their varna (role in society) and aashrama (stage in life).
Due to the lapse of long periods of time, the practitioners of the dharma came to be dominated by cravings. By the lack of discriminative knowledge, adharma (lawlessness) came to dominate dharma (righteousness). Therefore, with a view to ensuring the well being of the world, the primal and all-pervading Agent, celebrated as a Naaraayana, is held to have born of Vasudeva from Devaki’s womb by an aspect of Himself as Krishna in order to safeguard the spiritual power in the world. Once the dominance of spirituality is assured, the survival of the Vedic dharma is guaranteed, which is supported by people doing their duties according to their varna (role in society) and aashrama (stage in life).
Varna should not be confused with the jaati (caste based on birth) of today. Krishna tells “chaatur varnyam mayaa strustam guna karma vibhaagasaha” (4.13). Varna is based on guna (inner nature) and karma (work or role in society). He also describes how the four varnas have been allocated different works based on their inner nature in 18.41. This is not jaati.
A part of the society lives by the active performance of work. People who are calm, introvert and thoughtful by nature become Braahmanaas. Braahmanaas play the role of repositories of knowledge. They collect, develop and distribute knowledge in the society. People who are aggressive and full of valor naturally become Kshatriyaas. Kshatriyaas handle power and provide security to the society from internal and external disturbing forces. People who are industrious and have a lot of skill and ingenuity become Vaisyaas. Vaisyaas create wealth in the society by agriculture, industry and trade. People who are unskilled but full of loyalty, who need assistance from others by means of direction of what to do, form the Sudraas. They work under the leadership and guidance of Braahmanaas, Kshatriyaas and Vaisyaas. This division was purely based on inner nature and external role in the society. Later it tended towards heredity and slowly petrified to today’s status.
Sri Krishna (and thus the Gita and the Vedaas) does not condemn the pravritti maarga (way of active performance of work) or the nivritti maarga (way of renunciation of work). Both are needed for the functioning of the society. They contribute to prosperity and emancipation of the society respectively. However for an individual, these are considered as stages in the spiritual path.
Everyone seeks happiness by means of three things in life – security, pleasure and peace. The innate urge to exist and not to die is expressed in various ways as the sense of security. This is called artha. The innate urge to enjoy sense objects is expressed as a seeking after pleasure. This is called kaama. Unbridled pursuit of artha and kaama by every individual in the society will create two problems. One person’s pursuit of artha and kaama will interfere with another’s. Also, the individual’s excessive pursuit and indulgence can become unsustainable to himself. To avoid these two problems, restrictions are brought in. This restriction to the pursuit and indulgence of artha and kaama, to ensure fair share and sustainability to everyone, is called dharma. Dharma results in peace.
But does a person attain unconditional and permanent happiness by these pursuits? By experience, he will come to a firm conclusion in the negative. The reality is that happiness is our true inner nature. It does not come from outside. Outside agents are only catalysts to happiness. The happiness comes from within only. It is always present within. It is covered by three layers of obstructions. They are aavarna (ignorance), vikshepa (turbulence) and malam (bias). The first layer to be handled is bias. We are driven by likes and dislikes. These make us run here and there. This obstruction can be removed by doing external work without worrying about the results. This is called Karma Yoga. The second layer is turbulence. This has two factors – wavering and extrovertedness. These have to be removed by japa, meditation, etc. This is called Upaasana Yoga. The third layer is ignorance. This can be removed by hearing the Truth (sravana), removing all the doubts (manana) and applying the knowledge in everyday life (nididhyaasana). This is called Jnaana Yoga. By these, the person realizes unconditional, unshakable, permanent happiness. Thus true happiness does not come from artha, kaama and dharma. It comes only from freedom (moksha). The person who has realized this in his life is called a Jivanmukta. These four – dharma, artha, kaama and moksha – are called “human goals” (purushaarthaa) by the Vedaas.
A few years after birth, a person starts his life as a Brahmachari. He goes to a school run by a Braahmin on public funds. There he gets basic secular and spiritual education. He is taught various ritualistic puja, japa, meditation, etc. Then he marries and settles down to become a Grihasta, to take up a role in the society that suits him best based on the varna classification. The couple beget children and grow them in a responsible manner. They do ritualistic puja as prescribed. After a few years, when the children have become Grihastas, the man stops working and the couple become Vaanaprasta. They spend more time on japa, meditation, puja, etc. The spiritual disciplines followed are more internal than external. After a few years, the couple separate by taking Sannyaas and study the scriptures under the guidance of a Guru and realize God. Some people may take to Sannyaas Aashrama directly after Brahmacharya Aashrama.
Brahmacharya Aashrama is a period of learning of the Vedic way of life. Following that comes the implementation of it. Grihasta Aashrama is a period of Karma Yoga. By the end of Grihasta Aashrama, the person is expected to have become mostly free from likes and dislikes. Vaanaprasta Aashrama is a period of Upaasana Yoga. By the end of Vaanaprasta Aashrama, the person is expected to have become introvert and calm. Sanyaasa Aashrama is a period of Jnaana Yoga. In Sannyaasa Aashrama, the person hears the Truth, reflects on it, clears all his doubts and lives the rest of his life abiding by it as a Jivanmukta.
The Braahmana part of the Vedaas guide the person in Grihasta Aashrama. The Aaranyaka part of the Vedaas guide the person in Vaanaprasta Aashrama. The Upanisad part of the Vedaas guide the person in the Sanyaasa Aashrama.
The Karma Yoga and Upaasana Yoga are also called Kaayika Karma Yoga and Maanasa Karma Yoga, respectively. The first one involves external physical work. The second one involves internal mental work. Sometimes both these together are called Karma Yoga. These both together form the pravritti maarga. The last one, the Jnaana Yoga forms the nivritti maarga.
This is the Vedic vision of life based on purushaartha, varna and aashrama. This is the Sanaathana Dharma.
Due to long lapse of time, this Vedic vision of life was lost. The Bhagavad Gita is presented to re-establish this vision. This is applicable very much today, as it was when Sri Krishna taught it.
Thus, the Vedic vision of life is based on the four Purushaarthas – dharma, artha, kaama and moksha. The fundamental search for unconditional happiness can be achieved only by moksha (freedom). This can be achieved only by renunciation and knowledge (nivritti maarga). As a preparation to nivritti maarga, the person has to first proceed towards dharma, artha and kaama (pravritti maarga) to purify the mind by Karma Yoga, and make it calm and introvert by Upaasana Yoga. To enable people to smoothly follow these, Vedas prescribe the institutions of varna (role in society) and aashrama (stage in life). Whenever this Vedic vision is lost due to passage of time, the Lord incarnates on the Earth to re-establish it.
One question that naturally arises here is, “How applicable are varna and aashrama concepts in today’s society?” When we say re-establishing varna and aashrama, do we understand it as to re-establish the Vedic society based on elaborate rituals, gurukulas, kingdoms, forest retreats, etc? Will this not be a regression in material development? Should we give up institutions like scientific school education, democracy, open market, etc? The answer is “no”.
Interestingly, Gita throws light on all these. Krishna brings out the spirit of the varna and aashrama system. He brings out the essence of Vedic rituals. He denounces blind practice of the Vedic rituals without understanding the spirit behind them. He describes how new practices can be developed around the spirit of the Vedic rituals. He even talks about specifics like how worship of Vedic deities like Indra, Agni, Varuna, etc can be replaced by a more advanced concept of God, how elaborate rituals can be simplified by still keeping the spirit of them intact, how to get the same benefit of the Vedic rituals by doing the everyday secular activities with the right attitude, etc. The entire ninth chapter for example is extremely revolutionary if read in the context of the society in the times of Krishna and even now. Reading the ninth chapter closely will easily bring out Krishna as a great religious and social reformer. This way, Gita is a practical guide to understand the spirit of the Vedic vision and follow it with a modern approach.
At the same time, Gita does not deviate from the Vedas. All the concepts in the Gita are in the Vedas. Several slokas in the Gita are partly verbatim quotes from different Upanisads, especially Katha Upanisad. Thus Krishna actually quotes from the Vedas. Gita is a beautiful example of constructive reform while keeping the essence intact.
Now coming back to varna and aashrama, how can they be applied to today?
First let us understand the concept of varna.
Man has six psychological defects – desire for sense pleasure (kaama), greed for possessions (lobha), pride (madha), anger (krodha), jealousy (maatsarya) and delusion (moha). The first three – kaama, lobha and madha – are basic defects arising from identification with the body, mind and ego. The last three – krodha, maatsarya and moha – arise from non-fulfillment or excessive indulgence in the basic defects, and so are secondary defects. So, if the basic defects are solved, the secondary defects will be solved automatically.
Another way of looking at these six defects is this: moha (delusion) is the basic confusion about the real nature of the self – the entity referred to as “I”. Identification with the body-mind complex gives rise to a sense of unfulfillment, which results in kaama (desire). When desire is fulfilled, there is a desire for more, which results in lobha (greed). Also, when desire is fulfilled, there arises a sense of achievement, which results in madha (pride). When desire is not fulfilled, there arises krodha (anger). Seeing other’s desires are fulfilled results in maatsarya (jealousy). These result in another kind of moha (delusion), where the person loses the his capacity to correctly identify right from wrong.
A person who is predominantly governed by desire for sense pleasure is a sudra. His primary identification is with the body and the senses. He is typically lazy and does not want to exert himself physically. For such a person, the Vedic vision prescribes physical labour under the guidance of others. This will help him overcome this defect.
A person who is predominantly governed by greed for possessions is a vaishya. His primary identification is with the mind. The sense of possession is a function of the mind. For him, the Vedic vision prescribes businesses like agriculture, trade and industry. His duty is to earn wealth for the society. Thus his personal defect is made into a fruitful quality for the society. However, there are restrictions put to him in the form of business ethics. For example, he can compete with other businessmen, but should never compromise on the quality and quantity of the products and services that he provides to his customers. A vaishya is a person who has mostly overcome the defect of the sudra. He is naturally willing to toil to earn money.
A person who is predominantly governed by ego is a kshatriya. His primary identification is with the limited ego. He seeks name, fame and power. For him, the Vedic vision prescribes governance of the society, providing security, policy making, law and its enforcement. Thus his natural tendency to dominate and rule over others is utilized for the good of the society. Restrictions are put for him also. He is given the duty and freedom to check the integrity and righteousness of all rulers everywhere. He should take to task the violators of code of conduct among all classes in his jurisdiction. At the same time, he is bound to protect people and their trades. He is not allowed to harm the non-kshatriyas anywhere. All war should be limited to battle fields and not in civilian areas. The enemy’s military capability can be attacked, but not civilian industries and agricultural lands. A kshatriya is a person who has mostly overcome the defect of the sudra and the vaishya. He is willing to even physically get hurt or even give his life for his duty. He does not have any personal belongings. Everything that he has belongs to the country and the country belongs to him. He is above all concepts of personal possession.
A person who has mostly overcome all the three primary defects, and thus naturally the secondary defects also, is a braahmana. For him, the Vedic vision prescribes learning and teaching. His duty is to collect, develop and spread knowledge. He can be consulted for any advice. He is supposed to give unbiased opinions based on his knowledge and experience. He is also ready to put down his life for his duty. He does not have any possessions. He also lives on public funds like the kshatriya. Also, he does not wield any power. Humility is his ornament.
Thus the varnas are based on the nature of the person. The professions of today also can be easily classified into these four varnas. Based on the person’s nature, if the right profession is chosen, it will help the fast inner growth of the person. This is what is meant when Krishna says, “One’s own duty even performed not to perfection is better than the duty of another done to perfection.” The objective is personal spiritual and psychological growth. The duty is only a means. Krishna gives details of these varnas, their nature and their duties.
As we have seen, the aashramas of Brahmacharya, Grihasta, Vaanaprasta and Sannyaasa correspond to Studentship, Karma Yoga, Upaasana Yoga and Jnaana Yoga. In today’s society, typically, 25 years of studentship as Brahmachari, 25 years of professional and active family life as Grihasta and the rest of the life as a retired introverted life purely for spiritual pursuits as Vaanaprasta and Sannyaasi are suitable. The internal state of the mind is much more important than the external adherence in the aashramas.
A person can wind up Grihasta life sooner if the social and financial environment is conducive. Also, a person can progressively move to Upaasana Yoga and Jnaana Yoga during Grihasta Aashrama. Vaanaprasta and Sannyaasa can be purely internal also. Surely some people in the society have to take external Sannyaas also, to remind the society constantly of the ideal of renunciation and service. Also, it is always better that Sannyaasins are teachers of religion and spirituality, so that the people are able to externally see clearly the renunciation that is being taught. External Sannyaas can be taken from Brahmacharya, Grihasta or Vaanaprasta Aashramas, whenever the person is ready. Also, in today’s society, as Swami Vivekananda points out, it is better for Sannyasins to live together within easy access by the society and do social service than move about and live by begging like in olden days. Of course, there is no change in the spiritual and scriptural responsibilities of a Sannyaasi.
Thus the spirit of the varna and aashrama schemes of the Vedic vision can be applied in today’s society.
In this paragraph, Sankara introduces the Bhagavad Gita in particular.
The Lord is in eternal possession of knowledge, lordliness, executive power, strength, energy and splendor. He has under His control His all-pervasive Maaya (Illusive Power) or material Nature, whose essence is the three constituents. Thus, though unborn, immutable, Lord of beings, and, in essence, eternally pure, conscious and free, He appears, by virtue of His Maaya, to be embodied and born as man, for ensuring the welfare of the world. Though he has no private end of His own to promote, in order to further the wellbeing of all living beings, He imparted to Arjuna, submerged in a sea of grief and delusion, the two-fold Vedic Dharma; for, when espoused and practised by men rich in excellence, it is bound to flourish. The Vedic Dharma, as it was imparted by the Lord, has been set forth by the omniscient and venerable Vedavyaasa in seven hundred verses, celebrated as the Gitaa.
Here Sankara introduces the concept of Ishwara – God as the Supreme Person. To understand Ishwara, one has to first understand the concept of Brahman and Maaya.
Brahman is the Absolute Infinite Conscious Existence. Brahman is beyond all duality. However, the very concept of Infinitude implied a negation of finitude. The very concept of Consciousness implies the negation of unconsciousness. The very concept of Existence implies the negation of non-existence. This implied negation of Brahman is Maaya. Brahman is of the nature of Sat-Chit-Aananda (Existence, Consciousness and Infinite). Negating these three, Maaya is of the nature of Aavarna-Vikshepa-Malam. Aavarna is hiding the existence of Brahman and creating an impression of its non-existence. Viksepa is misleading that the unconscious is substantial. Malam is creating a sense of finitude and limitation. Aavarna expresses as ignorance. Vikshepa expresses as mental disturbances. Malam creates likes and dislikes, which result in sorrow. To remove Malam, Vikshepa and Aavarna, we saw that Karma Yoga, Upaasana Yoga and Jnaana Yoga are the means respectively.
Thus, Maaya is just a negation of Brahman. It is just a shadow. Maaya does not have real existence. Just as absence of light is called darkness, absence of the knowledge of Brahman expresses as Maaya. Only Brahman is real. Maaya exists only in relation to Brahman.
This entire world is nothing but a picture drawn with the paints of rupa (physical properties of objects) and naama (mental concept of objects) on the canvas of Brahman. If you look beyond naama and rupa, there is only Infinite Existence. There is no differentiation. All differentiation exists because of Maaya. Thus Brahman is the substratum and Maaya provides the colors and the painting of this world appears.
Maaya operates in three modes (gunaas) – inertness (tamas), unbalanced activity (rajas) and dynamic balance (sattva). These three can be found everywhere in nature. Krishna gives detailed elaboration of how these three natures are found in various ways in nature. Interestingly, the very familiar three laws of motion of Newton in Physics are these same three concepts in the same order.
Brahman when thus has manifested the world by Maaya is called Ishwara. There are millions of cells in the body of a human being. Each cell is a living organism, which has its own birth, growth, death, purpose, etc. However, we attribute an identity to the human being as a person also. We also attribute a mind to the person. When the person dissociates himself from the mind, he realizes himself as the Atman. Similarly, when we attribute an identity to the collection of everything that exists, it is called Ishwara. Maaya is the mind of Ishwara. Ishwara, when dissociated from Maaya, is pure Brahman.
Just as a person takes birth and dies, the physical Universe also comes into existence (kalpa) and dissolves into non-existence (pralaya). Just as the jiva (Atman + mind) is the continuing entity across births, the Ishwara (Brahman + maaya) is the continuing entity across creations. In every cycle of creation, the jivas which have not realized are given a chance to evolve and realize the Truth. If a jiva realizes the Truth, it disidentifies itself with the mind and becomes non-differentiated from Brahman and thus merges with Brahman. As long as the identification with the mind and body exists, the jiva is given several chances birth after birth in each cycle of creation and across cycles of creation also. Ishwara is the entity which causes this creation (shrishti), sustenance (stiti) and dissolution (laya) of the creation, for the benefit of the jivas. Ishwara also oversees the right distribution of the fruits of action of the jivas (karma phala daata).
Now a question arises – “What is the position of Ishwara from the stand point of Advaita?” The answer is “The concept of Ishwara is applicable as long as a person recognizes his own body and mind.” When there is an individual, there should be a collection of individuals. From the point of view of Advaita, where individuality does not exist, Maaya also does not exist. Only Brahman remains. The concept of Ishwara is not applicable. As long as there is duality, Ishwara has to be accepted.
Ishwara always knows His true nature as Brahman. Thus Ishwara has all the characteristics of a Jivanmukta (realized person). Thus Ishwara does not gain or lose anything by individual jivas realizing the Truth or not. It is purely out of compassion for the suffering jivas that Ishwara does everything. At times of need, He even disguises Himself as a jiva and appears in the midst of other jivas as an avataara (Incarnation) to lead them in the right direction towards freedom.
Suffering of jivas is because of three things – attachment (raaga), sorrow (shoka) and delusion (moha). Attachment causes sorrow. Sorrow clouds the intellect and creates delusion. By delusion, a person loses the capacity to distinguish the right from the wrong, which leads to more attachment and more sorrow. This is a vicious cycle. In the beginning of Gita, Arjuna is exactly in this state. All his words in the first chapter of the Gita indicate this.
The first step out of the situation is to recognize the problem. The second step is to acknowledge that external help is needed. The third step is to approach a competent person with humility and request for help. This is what Arjuna does.
A record of the counseling session between Arjuna and Krishna is what we have as the Bhagavad Gita. Through the Gita, the Ishwara talks to his beloved jivas purely out of compassion.
Krishna tells very clearly right at the beginning in the main opening sloka in chapter 2 sloka 11 the objective of Gita – “na anusochanti panditaaha” (wise men don’t grieve). Thus the core objective of Gita is to solve the problem of sorrow in human life by means of spiritual wisdom.
This science of the Gita is the quintessence of all that goes under the name of the Vedaas, but its sense is difficult to grasp. Many have striven to elucidate its words, their imports, and their totality as a reasoned treatise. Men in general, however, have got it as a mass of self-contradictory ideas. Noting this predicament, I shall set forth its contents, briefly explicating the text with due discrimination.
As we discussed in the first part of this series, Gita is the essence of the Vedas. Sankara says “samasta veda saara sangraha bhutam”.
Another thing to note from Sankara’s words is that he is not the first one to comment on the Gita. Though none of them are currently available, Sankara indicates that there have been several commentaries before Sankara’s Bhaasya.
One reason why people have found interpreting the Gita difficult is because of the usage of words. For example, the word “aatman” is used to mean body, mind, jiva, Self, etc in different places. The same is the problem with the Upanisads too. The commentators come up with the right meaning to be taken at each place. Sankara has provided his commentary with quotations from different texts like the Vedaas and Mahaabhaarata to support his interpretation. Also, Sankara himself raises the different questions that may arise in the mind of the reader and answers them.
One interesting topic that can be discussed here is “What is the quintessence of the Gita in the words of the Gita?” Ramana Maharishi and several others point out chapter 10 sloka 20 as the essence.
aham aatmaa gudaakesha sarva bhutaashaya sthitaha
aham aadisca madhyam ca bhutaanaam anta eva ca
I am the Self (the Subject), resident in the inner sense of all beings.
I am the beginning (origin), the middle (sustenance) and the end (dissolution) of all the beings.
The first part indicates that the Lord resides in all beings. The second part indicates that all the beings reside in the Lord. The mahaavaakya (great words that indicate the central teaching) of the Vedas, “Tat Tvam Asi” (You are That), indicates the identity of the essence of the self and the essence of the world. The essence of the individual is the Subject, which is the essence of Ishwara (the Lord, here represented as Sri Krishna). The essence of the World (sum total of all objective existence) is the Lord, the Ishwara again. Thus this sloka brings about the essential identity of Jiva (self), Jagat (world) and Ishwara (God). Thus, this sloka is an explanation of the mahaavaakya of the Vedas.
Krishna addresses Arjuna as “gudaakesha”, one who has overcome sleep. Thus, if we all wake up from our sleep of ignorance, open our eyes of knowledge and see, we can see the reality of this teaching.
This sloka also gives a beautiful definition for the Self and the World. The Self is the innermost sense of self-identity. It is the Subject, which can never be objectified (aprameya). The World is the entity where all living and non-living things originate, stay and dissolve. If we consider our physical body, it is born out of a combination of elements from the physical universe. For a short period of time in the long life of the universe, the body exists as an individual entity. When the body dies, the elements go back to the universe to recombine as the constituents of several different entities. At no time was the physical body separated from the physical universe. It is forever a part of the physical universe. For a short period of time, there is a name given to a collection of elements. Beyond that, there is no distinction at all. Similar is the case with the mind. No thought is original. Each thought is based on the thoughts of different people of different times. We read about different things written by different people and develop a combination of them and say “This is what I think”. But if we analyze it, there is nothing outside the mental universe. Just as physical elements constantly combine and recombine in different ways to form different physical entities, ideas constantly combine and recombine in different ways to form different mental entities. By putting all that exists – physical, mental and everything beyond them also – into one combined universe we get the World. This is the origin, sustenance and dissolution of every object, being, idea, event, etc.
In the Gita, Krishna talks of these two – Subject and Object – as His two natures. The Subject, which is conscious is called the higher nature (paraa) and the Object, which is not conscious is called the lower nature (aparaa). The fundamental identity of both as the Lord Himself is the essence of the Gita and the essence of the Vedaas. This sloka of the Gita can be considered as the fundamental teaching of the Vedaas.
Now, another question is, “Is there a sloka in the Gita that summarizes the entire Gita?” The answer to this is the chapter 5 sloka 7.
yoga yukto vishuddhaatmaa vijitaatmaa jitenriyaha
sarva bhutaatma bhutaatmaa kurvan api na lipyate
He who by following Yoga, has purified the mind, has controlled the mind, has controlled the senses,
Sees his own Self in all beings, does not get tainted even if he does work.
Four things are achieved by Yoga.
1. Purification of the mind, which implies freedom from likes (raaga) and dislikes (dvesha)
2. Control of the mind, which implies that the mind is calm and free from turbulence
3. Control of the senses, which implies that the mind is introvert without seeking external objects
4. Realization that his own Self is the Self of all beings and that all being exist in his own Self only, which implies that the individual identity has vanished
The first one is achieved by Karma Yoga. The second two are by Upaasana Yoga. The last one is by Jnaana Yoga. Thus a person becomes a Jivanmukta. Now, what does a Jivanmukta do? He goes about doing work for the benefit of others without getting attached to the work, its fruits or the doership. The best example of such a person is Sri Krishna Himself.
This sloka thus sweeps through the entire Gita and gives a summary.
Succinctly, the purpose of the science of the Gita is to set forth the summum bonum, which consists in the total cessation of transmigratory existence (samsaara) and its causes. This is brought about by the discipline of Self-knowledge, preceded by the renunciation of all works. Pointing to this sense of the Gita – the law of life which it inculcates – the Lord Himself has declared in Anugita: “This discipline is indeed adequate to lead one to the status of Brahman” (Mahabharata Asvamedha Parva 16.12). In the same context He says: “Neither pursuing Dharma nor Adharma, neither good nor evil.” (Ibid 19.17); “Whoever is quiescent, firmly seated, silent, not thinking any thought.” (Ibid 19.1); also, “Knowledge marked by renunciation” (Ibid. 43.25). In the Gita itself, at the end, Arjuna is bidden: “Giving up all dharma, seek refuge in Me alone” (18.66).
The first part of this paragraph talks about the essence of the Gita. The essence of Gita is freedom from samsaara.
Samsaara is the cycle of birth and death.
Life is like a dream. We dream about things that we have liked and disliked during our waking hours. This embodied existence has come forth induced by a bundle of likes and dislikes. If there are likes and dislikes left at the end of this life, it will induce another embodied existence. This cycle of life after life, again and again, is called samsaara. The wick, which soaks with the oil of likes and dislikes for the flame of samsaara to burn, is the individual identity.
Whenever we do an action,
1. a part of the momentum of the action transforms into the immediate visible effect (drishta phala)
2. a part of the momentum of the action is latent to manifest the effect later (adrishta phala or aagaami karma)
3. tendency to perform or avoid the same action based on the like or dislike of the effect of the action (samskaara)
Some of the latent momentum manifests in the same life. The balance will manifest in some future life. Whenever a jiva is born, out of the accumulated store of momentum of past actions (sanchita karma), a part is taken for manifesting in that life (praarabda karma). At the end of the life, if there is no individuality (and so no tendencies), then there is no more birth. This is called “freedom upon death” (videha mukti). If the individuality (and so tendencies) drops while living, it is called “freedom while living” (jivan mukti).
We had discussed earlier about the unity of the “origin, sustenance and dissolution” of all objective existence. All physical existence is one whole. What we call as our body is merely a temporary collection of some parts of the physical universe. Same is the case with the individual mind. It is just a temporary collection of thoughts. Thus there is no real permanent individual identity. Individual identity is merely an illusion. It does not exist in reality. There is only one infinite conscious existence, which reflects as the sum total of all existence. This is knowledge (jnaana).
But knowledge does not take effect if there is a gap between intellect and implementation. We know so many people who know smoking is bad, but cannot give up smoking. This gap is a psychological defect. In case of spirituality, this gap makes the knowledge of the Truth ineffective. If the conviction of the reality and utility of the world is strong, there will be a great dependence on it. Freedom from this psychological dependence on world, its objects, people, living things, action, fruits of action, etc is called renunciation (sannyaasa). Unless there is a conviction that the world has no ultimate reality and utility, the person cannot imbibe the knowledge about the Truth. For this reason, Sankara always insists that knowledge should be preceded by renunciation.
Internal renunciation of all sense of ownership and controllership is mandatory. There should not be any expectation of or dependence on the fruits of action in this life or in the hereafter. There should be a firm conviction that this world has no ultimate reality or utility. External formal renunciation is optional. But internal renunciation is essential. Without this, even if the person intellectually understands the concepts of Atman, Brahman, Jiva, Jagat and Ishwara and also accepts their identity based on logic or faith, it will not free the person from individuality. Without this effective knowledge he cannot be a Self-realized person (jivanmukta).
Thus, renunciation is a pre-requisite for knowledge. Now there is a question. Is it renunciation of work or renunciation of attachment to the fruits of work?
Krishna defines renunciation very clearly in chapter 6 verse 1.
anaashrita karma phalam kaaryam karma karoti yah
sa sannyaasi ca yogi ca na niragnir na ca akriyaha
One who does not depend on the fruits of action but does the work which is his duty
He is a sannyaasi and also a yogi, not the one who has renounced fire (rituals) and not one who (merely) does nothing.
Thus it is clear that Krishna in the Gita does not mean giving up of duties. It is the attachment to the fruits of action that has to be primarily given up. So the modern commentators interpret “all work” as said by Sankara as “all external religious rituals”, which are given up when a person takes up formal external sannyaasa.
There is another controversy whether a realized person does any work. Sankara says that a jnaani does not do any work. A realized person is internally a sannyaasi and a yogi. So the verse 6.1 also should apply to him. A realized person has given up his limited identity. When a person has given up his individuality, naturally there is no work done by him from his point of view. So, though to the external observer, it may seem that he does work, his identity has so much merged with the Whole that he does not think he is doing any work at all. Several verses of the Gita support this point. For example, there are two beautiful verses in chapter 3 – verses 27 and 28 – which say:
prakriteh kriyamaanaani gunaihi karmaani sarvasah
ahamkaara vimoodaatmaa kartaaham iti manyate
tatva vittu mahaabaaho gunakarma vibhaagayoho
gunaa guneshu vartanta iti matvaa na sajjate
It is the body-mind complex, which is a product of Nature that does all the actions in all the ways.
The person who is deluded identifies himself with the body-mind and thinks, “I am the doer”.
He, who knows the truth about the body-mind complex, actions and their different types,
Knowing that it is just interplay of the body and mind in the world of matter and thought never gets attached.
For a person with this understanding, there is no action done by him at all. This way, Sankara’s argument holds good here. From his point of view, he does not do any action. But from the point of view of others, he does action. This is because his body-mind complex does action, but he does not identify himself with the body and mind. So he is not the doer.
Whenever we read the Gita, we should keep in mind that Krishna Himself is the ideal person that He describes in the Gita. Any interpretation of the description of a sannyaasi, yogi or jnaani is acceptable only if it can be applied on Krishna Himself.
The process of acquiring knowedge is called the path of knowledge (“nivritti maarga” or “Jnaana Yoga”). The process of acquiring the renunciation, which is its prerequisite, is called the path of action (“pravritti maarga” or “Karma Yoga”). Thus the objective of following the path of action is to develop renunciation. If the person who performs action in the world is observant and introspective, he will see the absence of ultimate reality and utility of the world, and thus develop renunciation (vairaagya).
This Karma Yoga is the topic of the next paragraph of Sankara’s introduction to his Bhagavad Gita Bhaasya.
The Vedic Dharma, promoting prosperity in the world, and enjoined on the classes (varna) and life-stations (aashrama), promotes the purification of the mind when it is observed with a sense of dedication to God and without expectation of rewards. When done with desire for fruits, it leads its practitioners to the higher stations of heavenly beings and so forth. It also, indirectly, subserves the attainment of emancipation (when performed without desire for fruits), since such work purifies the mind and the purified mind becomes fit for practicing the discipline of knowledge that, in due course, generates the liberating knowledge itself. Keeping this idea in mind, the Lord declares in the Gita 5.10 and 5.11: “The Yogins work without attachment for purifying the mind.”
When a person does his duties as per his aashrama and varna it promotes prosperity, which is the attainment of wealth (artha) and experiencing the pleasure (kaama). Thus the Vedas do not ask everyone to lead an ascetic life. In fact, the prayers in the Vedas address to the Lord like “Let the trees yield us plenty of fruits. Let the clouds give plenty of rain. Let the cows give plenty of milk. etc” The pravritti maarga as envisioned in the Vedas is a life of plenty.
The Vedas promise fruits like a life of plenty in a heavenly abode in a disease free body, etc for the rituals. However, it makes it clear that this heaven is not a permanent place. When the person has exhausted the merits of action that took him there, he falls back to life in the world of mortals. This is explained clearly in the Gita in chapter 9 sloka 20 and 21. The same idea is mentioned in the Upanisads like Katha and Mundaka. This is a never-ending cycle.
Thus the Vedas encourage people, who are by nature lazy and lack motivation, to work for prosperity in this world. It also shows a fruit of heaven to encourage the novices. At the same time, it also describes the impermanence of the life in heavenly abodes to encourage the more advanced people to think ahead. To people, who are free from attachments to fruits of action, the Vedas talk about the knowledge of Brahman. This way, with great love and wisdom, the Vedas lead people with different levels of maturity towards the highest.
The Vedas don’t condemn desires. It only puts three restrictions on desires and the pursuit of their fulfillment.
- The desire should be legitimate and ethical (Dharmic). Restrictions and regulations on the pursuit of wealth and pleasure are prescribed with a view of fairness and sustainability. Both the desire and the means of fulfillment should be legitimate and ethical.
- The desire should be moderate. In pursuing the desire, a person should not forego his regular individual and social duties, and his saadhana towards his spiritual development.
- The desire should be non-binding. Whether the desire is fulfilled or not depends on several unseen and uncontrollable factors. So the person should not be too much attached to the fruits that he becomes greedy and proud if he gets it, or becomes angry, jealous and depressed if he does not get it. Strong likes and dislikes should be converted into mere preferences.
When a person does his duties without desire for fruits here and hereafter, as an offering to the Lord, the result is purification of the mind. This purification of mind is the pre-requisite for the next step – Jnaana Yoga. This process of purification of mind is Karma Yoga. Doing one’s duty is a way to worship the Lord. Krishna gives a beautiful logic of why this is worship. In chapter 18 verse 46 Krishna says
yatah pravriter bhutaanaam yena sarvam idam tatam
svakarmanaa tam abhyarchya siddhim vindati maanavah
Him from whom the world has arisen, Him by whom everything here is filled
By worshipping Him by doing one’s duty, man attains perfection.
The first half of the first line talks about the transcendent aspect of the Lord. The second half of the first line talks about the immanent aspect of the Lord. Thus these two cover the two parts of the verse 20 of chapter 10, which we saw is the essence of the Gita. Thus the world is covered by the Lord outside and inside. It is the Lord Himself who has manifested as the world and its living beings. It is the Lord, as the bestower of the fruits of one’s own action (karma phala daata), who has placed the spiritual aspirant in the current situation. Now, what better way can be there to worship such a Lord than to do full justice to the current situation by doing the duty? By doing one’s duty, the person becomes eligible for Jnaana Yoga.
Krishna describes Karma Yoga to have three parts. Paying back the debt we already owe to different constituents of Nature is called Yagna (sacrifice). Giving with humility to a needy person who has no means to reciprocate in any manner is called Daana (charity). Following discipline to bring to light our limitations, to work on them and to overcome them consciously is called Tapas (austerity). These are the three primary means to move forward in spiritual life. These have to be done as an offering to the Lord. Then the mind will get purified. In chapter 9 verses 27 and 28 Krishna says
yat karoshi yad ashnaasi yajjuhoshi dadaasi yat
yat tapasyasi kaunteya tat kurushva mad arpanam
shubha ashubha phalair evam mokshyase karma bandhanaihi
sannyaasa yoga yuktaatmaa vimukto maam upaishyasi
Whatever you contribute, whatever you consume, whatever you sacrifice or give in charity
Whatever austerities you undertake, Arjuna, do as an offering to Me.
Thus you will be freed from the bonds of work and their good and bad fruits.
Then following Sannyaasa (Jnaana) Yoga, you will be liberated and come to Me.
In chapter 17, Krishna gives a detailed analysis of how to do and how not to do yagna, daana and tapas. In chapter 18, He says in verse 5
yagno daanam tapas ca eva paavanaani manishinaam
Sacrifice, charity and austerity purify the wise (who expect no rewards)
One common question asked by people here is “How one can work without expecting results? What is the motivation to work if not the results?” The idea is this. Every work yields two results – external fruit and internal development of the doer. For example, if a student studies for an examination, the external fruit is good marks and the internal development is gaining of knowledge. The external fruit is always uncertain and temporary. It depends on so many other factors. The person who corrects the answer sheet may not be in a good mood. Thus the result is uncertain. The mark is valid only for that year. Thus the result is temporary. The internal development is always certain and much more long-lasting. The knowledge gained when preparing for the exam is certain and has a much longer value than the marks. The technique of Karma Yoga merely suggests that we shift our primary attention to the internal development. The external result can be a by-product, but never the goal. This way, irrespective of the success or failure of the activity, there is always positive development in the doer. Also, if the aim is development, there is no scope for irregularities and shortcuts. The means becomes more important than the goal. Thus, it is not that action is performed aimlessly. The aim is shifted to long term internal development.
Thus Karma Yoga (pravritti maarga) leads to purification of the mind and thus prepares it for Jnaana Yoga.
The discussion of the paths given in Bhagavad Gita will not be complete without talking about Bhakti. Most of the ideas about Bhakti in the discussion below is based on the lecture “Bhakti in the Gita” by Swami Paramarthanandaji.
Bhakti comes from the root “bhaj”, which has several meanings. In the Gita also, Krishna uses the word Bhakti in a number of contexts. Mainly, Bhakti is used to denote two things – devotion to God and worship of God. The former is about attitude and the latter is about spiritual practice.
First let us see love in general. There are three levels of love – lower (manda), medium (madhyama) and higher (uttama). The primary direction of love is towards one’s self. This is the greatest because it is uncultivated and natural. It is also unconditional. The second direction of love is towards what we want to possess or accomplish.This love for objects is cultivated and is conditional. The third direction of love is towards the means of accomplishment. Though it does not directly deserve love, as it yields an object of love, it is sought after.
In the initial stages of spiritual development, God is introduced as a means to attain worldly prosperity. This is manda bhakti. God is used as a means. On realizing that worldly gains are ephemeral, God becomes the goal. The world becomes the means. This is madhyama bhakti. God is the objective. When the devotee enquires into the nature of the Lord, he realizes that the Lord is the Self. Lord is the inner most core of his own existence and consciousness. He realizes that the Lord is not an object. The Lord is the Subject. Love for God becomes Self love. Thus it becomes uncultivated, natural and unconditional. This is uttama bhakti.
Krishna expresses this idea in chapter 7 verse 16.
chatur vidhaa bhajante maam janaah sukritinah arjuna
aarto jignaasur arthaarthii jnaani ca bharata rishabha
Arjuna! Men of righteous acts who resort to me are four-fold.
Best of Bhaarataas! They are the afflicted, knowledge seeker, wealth seeker and the knower.
The afflicted people love the Lord as a means of getting free from the suffering. The seekers of wealth love the Lord as a provider of worldly prosperity. Both these are the lower type of devotees. The seeker of knowledge seeks the truth of the Lord. He is the medium type. The God-realized person knows the truth about the Lord as his own Self. The Lord says in the next verse, “I am dear to the jnaani and he is dear to Me.” This love is the highest.
Worship of the Lord also has three grades or types.
1. Worship by work (karma yoga bhakti)
2. Worship by meditation (upaasana yoga bhakti)
3. Worship by enquiry (jnaana yoga bhakti)
Dedicating all our actions as offerings to the Lord is worshipping by work. As we saw in chapter 18 verse 46, Krishna says “sva karmanaa tam abhyarchya” “Worship Him by doing your duty”. There is no distinction between secular activity and spiritual activity. Every action is a spiritual practice. The consequence of the action has to be accepted as the Lord’s prasaada.
Meditation on the Lord is another form of worship. Here there are two options given – Meditation on a particular form (eka rupa upaasana) and mediation on the Universal form (vishwa rupa upaasana). For meditation on particular form there are several forms given. Krishna gives several ways of worshipping Him when describing His glories in the Vibhuti Yoga (chapter 10). He can be worshipped as the natural elements like fire, natural objects like Himaalayaas, mantraas like Pranava, deities like Indra, saints like Naarada, incarnations like Raama, Krishna, etc.
Enquiry into the Upanisads to understand the true nature of the Lord is the highest form of worship of the Lord. Knowledge of the Lord is the culmination of all forms of worship. Krishna tells in chapter 4 verse 33:
shreyaan dravyamayaat yagnaat jnaana yagnanah parantapa
sarvam karmaakhilam paartha jnaane pari samaapyate
O scourge of foes! Better than sacrifice done with materials is the sacrifice done as knowledge.
Paartha! Without exception, all action culminates in knowledge.
Krishna tells in chapter 18 verse 70 that study of the Gita itself is a Jnaana Yagna.
A person has to start with karma bhakti, move to upaasana bhakti and culminate in jnaana bhakti. Even during the course of the day, depending upon the current activity, the action can be treated as one of the three. Thus one can be in constant worship of the Lord.
The science of the Gita, thus elucidating especially the two-fold dharma of the Vedas, is aimed at emancipation; also, it sets forth the ultimate Truth that is synonymous with Vaasudeva, the content of Supreme Brahman. Hence it is equipped with a specific goal, relation and content. Since its mastery yields all the values of life (purushaartha), I am endeavouring to explicate it.
Traditionally the introduction of any book should talk about the subject matter (visaya), necessity for its study (prayojana), competency of the student (adhikaari) and the connection of the subject matter with the book (sambandha). Hence Sankara summarizes the introduction to make clear that all these topics have been covered.
Also, here Sankara declares the identity of Vaasudeva with the Brahman as the goal to be acheived. In the Gita, Krishna expresses the Truth in the words of the devotee as “Everything is Vaasudeva alone” in chapter 7 verse 19.
bahunaam janmanaam ante jnaanavaan maam prapadyate
vaasudevah sarvam iti sa mahaatmaa sa durlabhah
After the end of several births, the man of wisdom directly reaches Me
realizing “Vaasudeva is all”. Such a magnanimous person is rare.
This way, bhakti and jnaana lead to the same Truth. There is no difference in the ultimate result.
Frequently Asked Questions
Now that we have discussed Karma Yoga, Upaasana Yoga, Jnaana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga, we can raise some questions and try to find answers to them.
Swami Vivekananda’s four Yogaas
Swami Vivekananda talks about these four Yogaas as parallel paths. Whereas the traditional approach is that Karma, Upaasana and Jnaana are sequential. Bhakti is a flavor of the three paths and can go along with the three paths. How can this be reconciled? Surely, Swamiji is a great admirer and follower of Sankara Bhaasya. Then why did he talk about four paths on an equal footing?
The traditional approach of teaching was to first judge the student where he stands in the spiritual path. Depending on his level of development, the most appropriate means was prescribed. This approach needs two things. Firstly, the person must have a clear stance. Secondly, there should be a knowledgeable and reliable person to judge and guide the person. Today, both these are not possible.
Every person is multifaceted with dexterity, intellect and emotions developed in different levels. The weakening of desire for sense pleasure, desire for wealth and desire for fame do not strictly happen in that order. Also, it is not possible for a person to be fully free from likes and dislikes before starting to do Upaasana Yoga. It is not possible for a person to have fully controlled the mind before starting Jnaana Yoga. There are no clear demarcations these days – neither in aashrama nor in varna.
These days, it is difficult to find a personal spiritual guide, who can judge correctly and advise on a particular path. The freedom and responsibility that was given to the upper classes to judge the others have been grossly misused. In the name of privilege, the masses have been totally denied of any spiritual guidance. True spirituality almost retreated from the common people. It was kept alive only in some genuine traditional ashrams.
This was the situation when Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda came into the picture. Their approach was totally different. They just brought out the spiritual treasures and made all of them available to everyone. Let people pick up and start with whatever appeals most to them. That would be in most of the cases the best thing for them. Ultimately, the Lord alone is the Teacher. The Lord, from inside, makes the sincere aspirant come across and pick the right guidance from various sources. Swamiji just made everything available outside so that the Guru within can guide the aspirant. So Swamiji presented the four Yogaas as parallel paths. The aspirant will pick up the Yoga that suits him best at that time. As the aspirant matures, automatically a different one will appeal best to him and he will pick that up. Also, when describing each of the Yogaas, Swamiji has brought in a tinge of the other Yogaas also. This way, the aspirant is naturally exposed to the other paths and gets a chance to easily move from one to the other or even combine two or more. This is expressed in Swamiji’s famous saying which forms a part of his commentary of chapter 2 verse 25 of Patanjali Yoga Sutras.
Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within, by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy — by one, or more, or all of these — and BE FREE. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms are but secondary details.
Thus, Swami Vivekananda’s presentation of the four paths is the best adaptation for today’s society.
What is the position of Patanjali’s ashtaanga yoga in the Gita?
From the technical point of view, Gita belongs to the Vedanta school of thought. Patanjali’s ashtaanga yoga belongs to the Yoga school of thought. Patanjali describes the goal of ashtaanga yoga as “chitta vritti nirodhaha” – cessation of all modifications of the mind. Vedanta accepts this as a milestone and means in the spiritual path, but not as the end.
The first four stages – yamaa, niyamaa, aasanaa and praanaayaama are considered as a part of Karma Yoga. They help the person to become free from likes and dislikes. They help the person to move away from identification with the physical body (stula sariira). The second four stages – pratyaahaara, dhaarana, dhyaana and samaadhi are considered as a part of Upaasana Yoga. They help the person to become introvert and help to calm the mind. They help the person to move away from identification with the subtle body (shukshma sariira). At the peak of ashtaanga yoga, the identification is with the causal body (kaarana sariira). It does not take the person beyond that.
The only way to go beyond this is enquiry (vichaara). Thus Patanjali stops before Jnaana Yoga. Only Vedanta goes through Jnaana Yoga and helps the person to disidentify even from the causal body and releases the person from all bondage. So Gita does not reject Patanjali’s ashtaanga yoga. Gita calls it “samaadhi yoga”. It is considered not as the end, but as the means to attain the eligibility for Jnaana Yoga.
Doesn’t Krishna promote violence by telling the soul never dies and asking Arjuna not to hesitate from killing people in the war?
We should remember that Krishna is talking to a soldier and He is asking him to do his duty. And, Krishna makes it clear that Arjuna is fighting a war to establish righteousness. The aim of Arjuna in fighting the war is not be to gain the kingdom back, but to punish the violators of social code of conduct. Being a Kshatriya, who has been given this duty and trained by the society for this, it will be wrong on his part to refuse to do his duty.
We should read the message as that we should also do our duty. We should not shy away from what the society has trained us to do. We need to pay back to the society by serving it. It should not be with an eye on the wealth or fame that it may bring. It should be done as a duty.
Krishna talks about non-violence in several places. For example, in chapter 12 verse 13 Krishna describes one of the qualities as this.
adveshta sarva bhutaanaam maitrah karuna eva ca
He (the ideal devotee) hates no beings. He is friendly and compassionate.
When Krishna talks about austerity, in chapter 18 verses 14, 15 and 16, at the level of body, speech and mind respectively, non-violence is one of the main points at all three levels.
deva dwija guru praajna pujanam soucham aarjavam
brahmacharyam ahimsaa ca shariiram tapa ucyate
Reverence to Devaas, Brahmins, teachers and wise scholars, cleanliness, guilelessness,
continence and non-violence – these constitute the penance of the body.
anudvegakaram vaakyam satyam priya hitam ca yat
svaadhyaaya abhyasanam ca eva vaangmayam tapa ucyate
Speaking that which is non-offensive, truthful, pleasing and beneficial,
habitual study of the scriptures – these constitute the penance of the speech.
manah prasaadah soumyatvam mounam aatmavinigrahah
bhaava samshuddhir ityetat tapo maanasam ucyate
Mental calmness, gentleness, silence, self-control,
extreme emotional purity – these constitute the penance of the mind.
Reading these verses, one should understand that Gita does not advocate violence in general. Violence is clearly unacceptable for the sake for material gains. But to establish righteousness in the society, the people who have the duty to maintain righteousness should resort to violence if other methods have failed.
What does Gita say about the popular (and semitic) ideas of heaven? What happens after death?
It has to be understood first that this world, heaven, etc are all states of the mind, just like waking and dreaming. What goes by the names of different regions (loka) are nothing but mental states. These are driven by desires. Thus what happens to a person after death depends on the remnant unfulfilled desires in the conscious and sub-conscious of the person and what the person deserves.
Based on desires, a person can be categorized into three – worldly (loukika), aspirant (jijnaasu) and realized (jivanmukta).
When a worldly person dies, he will have desires for heavenly and earthly enjoyments. So he goes to heaven, enjoys the merits there and when they are exhausted, falls back to earth and is born in a mortal body. If he deserves demerits, he may be born in lower regions and as animals, etc before being born as a human being again.
When an aspirant who is not fully free from worldly desires dies, he is born as an aspirant in a good family with all the support for continuing his spiritual pursuit.
When an aspirant of moksha, who worshipped the Lord with a particular form, and is totally free from all heavenly and worldly desires dies, he enters into a state from where he does not return back to mortal life. This state is variously described as Brahmaloka, Kailasa, Vaikunta, Goloka, etc. After gaining aatmajnaana in this state, at the end of the cycle during pralaya, they are liberated fully. This is called krama mukti.
When an aspirant attains Knowledge and becomes liberated when alive, he continues to live in the world without any desires. He has no identification with the body and mind. When the body dies, even the small distinction that existed because of the body and mind also vanishes. The identity is totally dissolved in the Whole. He does not go anywhere.
The concept of krama mukti is identical to the goal of the Dualists and Qualified-non-dualists. This is also very similar to the goal of the Semitic religions. Thus, when other religions and paths strive for liberation after death, Advaita Vedaanta strives for liberation while living. In Advaita Vedaanta, the jivanmukta enjoys liberation “here and now”.
What position does Gita give to a Guru? Is a Guru needed for spiritual realization?
All ordinary learning happens through observation and inference. Observation can be first hand or second hand. Inference can be arrived at by oneself or induced by another person. Even when logic is followed strictly, the same observation can give different inferences based on the path of logic taken. When it is shown that worms die when put into a glass of liquor, an observer can conclude liquor as good for health or bad for health depending upon the path of logic taken. So, it is important that the right direction is set by another person who is more knowledgeable. Thus right self-learning by inference can happen only when the person has previous knowledge to an extent. Thus a teacher is essential even for ordinary knowledge.
The Ultimate Truth of identity of the Individual and the Whole (Jiva Ishwara Aikyam), though does not contradict logic, can never be deduced purely by logic alone. Every inference by the mind, based on the observations in the world of the senses and mind, can be limited only to the world of the senses and mind. As long as one is within the limits of the mind, there is no way a person can know by himself about the unreality of the world. A person who is dreaming can never know that it is a dream unless he wakes up. The only way to know about the Ultimate Truth is to hear about it from someone or from some book. The Vedas are the fundamental source of this knowledge to people and other books.
This knowledge is so subtle that it can be understood correctly only by direct contact with another realized person. This is like the story of ten people crossing a river, in which, when they count themselves to check if everyone has crossed safely, each one misses himself and so counts only nine. When such an error has crept in, only an onlooker who is free from the error can fix the situation. The problem of ignorance is very similar. The ignorant person looks at everything outside, except himself. He searches for security, happiness and peace everywhere in vain, except within himself, where alone it is present. Thus, the only source of Truth is a person who is free from ignorance himself and has the vocabulary and methodology of the Vedas to communicate to others. Such a person is called a Guru.
In chapter 4 verse 34, Gita asks the aspirant to approach a wise person with humility, serve him and learn about the Truth by dialogue.
There are instances of people like Sri Ramana Maharshi, who attained knowledge first and then found it conforming to the scriptures. These cases are traditionally explained as the fructification of teachings received from a Guru in a previous birth. There are stories like that of Jadabharata in Srimad Bhaagavata where the person attains knowledge in a particular birth without a Guru, due to the teachings received in a previous birth.
The real Guru is the Lord Himself. He teaches the earnest disciple through different sources. The primary source of teaching is the personal Guru.
Krishna emphasizes that doing one’s own duty is better than doing someone else’s duty. What is one’s own duty and what is the duty of someone else?
As we had discussed, the primary factor that determines the duty is the primary aim. If the primary aim is physical pleasure, the duties of a sudra are the best for the spiritual growth of the person. These are duties which involve much physical work, which is typically done under the direction and guidance of someone else. Service in industries like hospitality, logistics, marketing, etc where typically nothing physical is produced or modified also come under this. If the primary aim of the person is to manage wealth, the duties of a vaishya are the best suited. Creativity, enterprise, trade, manufacturing, agriculture, etc are vaishya duties. If the primary aim of the person is to wield power, the duties of a kshatriya are the best suited. Administration, bureaucracy, law, politics, policy management, planning, banking, police, military office, etc are the duties of a kshatriya. If the a person is so mature that he does not have any of the three aims, the duties of a braahmana are best suited for him. Acquiring, developing, consolidating and distributing knowledge by doing research and teaching are duties of a braahmana.
It is possible that the same person moves to different duties as he matures in life. For example, an person may join a company as an employee and work under the direction of the owner. At this stage, he is a sudra. When he learns the work and sets up his own company, he becomes a vaishya. When he has earned a lot of wealth and respect in the community of businessmen, and gives up his company to become a part of the government regulatory and policy panel, he becomes a kshatriya. When he starts teaching others about the business and gives ideas to everyone on how to do it more efficiently, he becomes a braahmana.
Thus, varna and swadharma can keep changing as the person matures. It should be primarily decided by attachment to pleasure, possession and power. The objective is to outgrow these attachments. Depending on where there is most attachment, if the person chooses the work, it will lead to quick progress.
What is the difference between Saankhya Yoga of Gita and Jnana Yoga?
Both are the same. Krishna tells in chapter 3 verse 3:
lokesmin dvividhaa nishthaa puraa proktaa mayaanagha
jnaana yogena saankhyaanaam karma yogena yoginaam
O sinless one, two kinds of disciplines in this world were set forth by Me in ancient times
the discipline of knowledge for Saankhyaas and that of work for (karma) Yogins.
Here we end the introduction to the Bhagavad Gita.