It may be apt to recall the maxim of the English philosopher John Stuart Mill. It is not enough if one person forms an opinion or follows a certain set of actions because of faith in the words of others’ words. One should yearn to understand the exact reasons why a certain thing is good through one’s own analysis. Then the thing becomes truly beneficial. A belief that arises from blind faith may not be as fruitful.
The same words are stated by the Vedas that are thousands of years old –
yad-eva vidyayā karoti…
tad-eva vīryavattaraṃ bhavati॥
(Whatever one does with knowledge, that becomes efficacious)
vijñānaṃ yajñaṃ tanute॥
(Knowledge from analysis accomplishes an activity)
Vidyā refers to knowledge – the knowledge of a thing, knowledge that rises from deliberation on cause and effect. The knowledge that is produced from analysis is vijñāna. Action becomes meaningful only when accompanied by knowledge borne out of reasoning and discernment. Arjuna did not possess that clarity of thought. His fear of pāpa was not the result of his own analysis. It was based on what others said. His compassion was because of unrefined mental impressions and it lacked the refinement of analysis. It belonged to the feeling heart, not to the thinking mind. His dispassion similarly lacked consideration. It came from momentary distress and not as a result of discernment between the eternal and the ephemeral. The householder, encountering some disorderly conduct or arrogant behavior in his house, laments, “I will exit all of this and go elsewhere,” or bawls, “Who cares if something happens to me? I can’t deal with all this!” In the next moment, he tries to fix the problem. Arjuna’s feeling of renunciation was like that – a renunciation that was not hardened by discretion but one assumed in a hurry. His tendency towards virtue was of the same kind – one that came from worldly convention and not from a fundamental knowledge of dharma. He agreed that he did not comprehend the true nature of dharma.
pṛcchāmi tvāṃ dharma-sammūḍha-cetāḥ॥ (BG 2.7)
(With a mind confused about dharma, I ask you)
When Kṛṣṇa began answering Arjuna’s questions it is evident from the following words that the latter was ridiculed – ‘prahasanniva’ (as if laughing), ‘prajñāvādāṃśca bhāṣase’ (you seem to speak words of wisdom). Arjuna’s knowledge was born out of confusion and not true wisdom. He uttered weighty words of wisdom such as pāpa, puṇya, vairāgya, dharma – like a scholar. He did not understand anything about the origin of these wise words or their inner meaning or the depth of its meaning. That was what was derided by Bhagavān as ‘seeming words of wisdom.’ Bhagavān’s duty, then, was to disabuse Arjuna of this confusion.
“Arjuna, you are endowed with a keen faith towards dharma. Saying ‘utsādyante jāti-dharmāḥ kula-dharmāś-ca śāśvatāḥ’ (transgressed are the age-old ways of the clans and jātis) – you expressed anxiety and sorrow. Do you, however, know what the duty of your class is? Recall it! Is parroting ‘Dharma, dharma’ the same as knowing its true nature?”
The crux of all of Arjuna’s questions was the matter of the ātmā (the Self). The relationship with the world, compassion, puṇya, pāpa, and dharma – are all matters pertaining to the jīva. As the jīva is a manifestation of the Self, the answers to all other questions become evident only after having known the true nature of the Self. Thus it is imperative to know what the Self is.
Dharma and adharma cannot be determined merely by our natural impulses or by worldly convention. The compassion in Arjuna’s mind was a transformation of the mind that happened naturally rather than arising out of an examined consideration. The opinions he had of puṇya and pāpa were created by what people spoke of and lacked any solid proof or testimony. dharma has to be decided based upon the nature of reality. The nature of reality has to be determined from śāstra (scriptural exposition). The nature of reality is something beyond the empirical and unavailable to the senses. Hence it has to be determined only by the Vedas and other scriptural testimony. Therefore, Bhagavān has declared in the sixteenth chapter –
tasmāccāstraṃ pramāṇaṃ te|| (BG 16.24)
(Therefore, śāstra is your means to knowledge.)
Dharma can be determined only by understanding the nature of reality, which in turn is determined from the śāstras.
Nityānityaviveka – Discernment between Eternal and Non-eternal
We see two kinds of objects in our experiential world.
A few objects constantly change and undergo growth, decline, and other modifications. These are non-eternal. This constitutes the majority of the experienced world. But doesn’t the experienced world exist at least for a little while? From where does its ephemeral existence arise? Doesn’t this experienced world act even in its limited condition? From where does its power of animation arise? Who gave it its form? Who changes it? The root of this power of the world is eternal – Brahman. The sentience that acts behind and inside all objects is Brahman. Thus the experienced universe comprises two substances – the impermanent world and the eternal Brahman.
The world is asat – i.e., lacks an independent existence. Brahman has existence and it is this existence that is the basis of this world.
Now, Bhagavān expounds on the relationship between these two substances because the answer to Arjuna’s question had to originate from this bifurcation of the world into the eternal and the non-eternal. The act of war is related to the non-eternal.
From these words,
nāsato vidyate bhāvo nābhāvo vidyate sataḥ |
ubhayor-api dṛṣṭo’ntas-tv-anayos-tattva-darśibhiḥ || (BG 2.16)
“Sat (existence) is not born from Asat (non-existence). What does not exist is not born from what exists. (i.e., the non-existent is never born and the existent never dies). They are the wise who have realized the essence of the existent and the non-existent.”
Did not Arjuna’s doubt arise from his concern over killing sentient beings? Killing is that which makes something non-existent. What is ‘being’ or ‘non-being’? Let us first understand their nature – says Kṛṣṇa. What things are apt to be denoted as ‘existent’ or by the verb ‘is’? Whatever cannot be destroyed and whatever remains unchanged is aptly denoted by the words – ‘sat,’ ‘sattā,’ or ‘satya.’ Such an unchanged and undestroyed thing is Brahman.
avināśi tu tad-viddhi yena sarvam-idaṃ tatam |
vināśam-avyayasyāsya na kaścit kartum-arhati || (BG 2.17)
“Whatever permeates all of this – understand that to be indestructible. None can destroy this, which has no decline.”
antavanta ime dehāḥ nityasyoktāḥ śarīriṇaḥ |
anāśino’prameyasya tasmād-yudhyasva bhārata || (BG 2.18)
“These bodies you see are perishable; however the Principle that nourishes them is eternal; imperishable; and beyond all measure. Arjuna, your arrow and sword cannot harm It. Therefore, arise and fight!”
When the reality is thus, if anyone said that you were a killer and another is killed, that person would be ignorant of reality. There is none killed here and no one is the killer. The Self has no birth or death. It does not have any divisions of time such as the past, present or the future. That is forever immutable.
ajo nityaḥ śāśvato’yaṃ purāṇo
na hanyate hanyamāne śarīre॥ (BG 2.20)
Birthless, Eternal, the Ancient One is not killed even if the body is killed.
nityaḥ sarvagataḥ sthāṇur-acalo’yaṃ sanātanaḥ॥ (BG 2.24)
(He is Eternal, Omnipresent, Immovable, Firm, Ancient)
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.