There is an element of truth that escapes words and can be discerned only through inner experience. That is the secret. Contemplation via considered reflection is the only way to unravel the secret of Brahman. If the study has to be beneficial, it must follow the path of reflection.
There is an anecdote in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka-upaniṣad. In the court of King Janaka, Gārgī asks the ṛṣi Yājñavalkya about the structure of the earth and the structure of its warp and woof. Yājñavalkya, in turn, describes the structure of the worlds from here to Brahma-loka stage by stage. At that time, Gārgī questions him about the structure of Brahma-loka, who then cautions her with:
“Do not over question!”
Questions and answers are fine until a point, after which they become meaningless. This is because what exists beyond a certain point is beyond words as well. Experience is the only way out after that. Thence the path through reflection and meditation.
Reflection is primarily an intellectual activity. One could call it the maturation of śraddhā or faith. Faith in instruction has been ordained for the disciple. Faith is belief. If belief already exists, the question arises as to what the need for the intellect would be. The rule of manana shows that a need for the intellect co-exists with the presence of śraddhā. Manana clarifies the word-meaning of the instruction, analyses its purport, validates the message, and firms up our conviction. What we have in the beginning is incomplete knowledge or jñānābhāsa – a semblance of knowledge. This apparent meaning is refined through manana to get the accurate import. Thus the role of the intellect is critical in the study of the scriptures. Śravaṇa—listening or reading—is the first stage in knowledge acquisition. Nididhyāsana—meditation—is the last. The bridge between the two stages is manana—reflection—which requires a meticulous use of the intellect.
The Nature of Dharma
Constantly paying attention to the principle and adhering to it during various activities of life is the application or practice of dharma. The four main indicators of dharma are as follows –
- The remembrance of the greatness of the Divine.
- Renouncing one’s ego.
- Reducing the feeling of ‘me’ and ‘mine.’
- Applying one’s own capabilities for the benefit of others.
Such a dharma takes multiple forms such as kuṭumba-dharma (dharma towards one’s family), kula-dharma, (dharma towards one’s clan), janapada-dharma (dharma towards one’s nation), and others. Only if the practice of the Gītā-principles occurs across these dharmas can a faraway glimpse of the Divine be achieved. That is experience. The three main methods of dharma has been delineated by the Gītācārya himself.
phalaṃ yajña tapaḥ-kriyāḥ।
Yajña, dāna, and tapas are the three paths to attain Divine experience. Yajña is worship of the Divine. Dāna is service to society. Tapas is educating or refining oneself. These three form the path to elevate one’s life.
The Bhagavad-gītā expounds upon dharma as much as it instructs about mokṣa.
Śrī Śaṅkarācārya clarifies this in his introduction to the Gītā.
dvi-vidho hi vedokto dharmaḥ, pravṛtti-lakṣaṇo nivṛtti-lakṣaṇaś-ca, jagataḥ sthiti-kāraṇam। prāṇināṃ sākṣād-abhyudaya-niḥśreyasa-hetur-yaḥ sa dharmo brāhmaṇādyair-varṇibhir-āśramibhiś-ca śreyorthibhiḥ anuṣṭhīyamānaḥ| …
Vedic dharma is two-fold – one of activity (pravṛtti) and the other of renunciation (nivṛtti) – and is responsible for the maintenance of order in the world. This dharma, which gives both worldly welfare as well as mokṣa, has been practised by the brāhmaṇas and other varṇas who are desirous of welfare.
abhyudayārtho’pi yaḥ pravṛtti-lakṣaṇo dharmo varṇān-āśramāṃś-coddiśya vihitaḥ, sa devādi-sthāna-prāpti-hetur-api san, īśvarārpaṇa-buddhyā anuṣṭhīyamānaḥ sattva-śuddhaye bhavati phalābhisandhi-varjitaḥ| …
Although this dharma of action is a means to worldly prosperity and is prescribed for different varṇas, and is capable of achieving the regions of the devas, if practised with submission to the Supreme with no regard towards the results of the work, it is conducive to the purification of the mind.
The opinions of Rāmānujācārya and Madhvācārya are not different in this matter. All the three ācāryas say the same.
No Distinction of Religious Doctrine in Dharma
The difference of opinion amongst the ācāryas is not with respect to the dharma portion of the work but with the aspects pertaining to philosophy or tattva – the nature of reality. The reason is that the philosophical aspects deal with the final questions about the nature of mokṣa. The ācāryas greatly developed the topic of philosophical inquiry and extensively discussed the exalted condition or state of the jīva. This resulted in the Gītā being thought of as mainly dealing with mokṣa and that the question of dharma was subsidiary to it. That is not quite correct. For common people, practice or the application of dharma is primary.
There is yet another reason. Śruti (Vedas), Smṛti, Purāṇas, and Itihāsas as well as long-standing traditions have the same opinion about dharma. Dharma is principally an external practice. Therefore, authority or testimony, conclusion, what is right and what is not – are all topics available to most people. It is easier to achieve unanimity in this regard. Because it is clearly observable in the world, there is not much dissent in the matter. Mokṣa, however, is an internal state wherein external testimony is insufficient. While the opinions of the world have achieved near unanimity vis-à-vis dharma, the same has not been achievable when it comes to jīvātman and paramātman. It is not possible either. There is scope for debate and analysis in this regard. It is possible for one to analyse or critique another’s theory. With the growth of polemical works, the focus has been more on tattva and mokṣa, which has distracted people from the practice of dharma.
The Position of Tarka (Logical Reasoning)
There are hundreds of commentaries and glosses on the Bhagavad-Gītā. As far as we know, it is the commentary of Śrī Śaṅkarācārya that is the oldest. He gave more attention to tattva and so his adversaries had to follow suit. We need to understand why Śrī Śaṅkarācārya gave more importance to the philosophical portion.
Śrī Śaṅkarācārya set forth to establish pristine Vedānta by showing the defects in the philosophical schools of his day. The three main rival schools were – 1. Buddhism, 2. The Doctrine of Karma, and 3. Sāṅkhya.
Buddhism was non-Vedic and had four sub-schools. We don’t need to delve into their details now. Suffice it to say that they did not accept the Divine principle.
The Doctrine of Karma, propounded by Kumārila and others of the Pūrva-mīmāṃsā school, holds that the karma portion of the Vedas is the primary one and that yajñas and other Vedic rituals comprised dharma, which resulted in the final human goal. The third group—Sāṅkhya—is also a Vedic philosophy. They held that there were numerous fundamental constituents of the universe and the relation between cause and effect is established via two principles known as prakṛti and puruṣa.
These three schools of philosophy were in vogue during Śrī Śaṅkara’s time. All the three were philosophical in nature. It was then the duty of Śrī Śaṅkara to refute these three schools and establish his own school of philosophy of the One Self through testimony and reasoning. Therefore we find analyses of philosophy and examinations and refutations of reasoning in his works. As a result, those that came after him had to further develop dialectical approaches in their works. Due to historical factors and development of various philosophical schools, commentaries on the Gītā have concentrated more on tarka while the aspect of dharma was sidelined. I feel that an abundance of tarka is unnecessary in our times and that the benefit from hashing out the same issues repeatedly is probably less than looking at the work from a contemporary perspective. I do not deny the commentaries of our ancient teachers. Those commentaries show us the way. We need them. Without them, we might lose our way. But we need a present-day viewpoint as well. There will not be any contradiction to existing schools of thought. Our thought has to be harmonised with that of our ancients. That is the way of progress. The history of man has to flow unimpeded and unbroken like the flow of the Gaṅgā and other great rivers. Our new thoughts and interpretations have to similarly continue from that of our predecessors.
To be continued…
The present series is a modern English translation of DVG’s Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award-winning work, Bhagavad-gītā-tātparya or Jīvana-dharma-yoga. The translators wish to express their thanks to Śatāvadhāni R Ganesh for his valuable feedback and to Hari Ravikumar for his astute edits.