The principle of the Self decides everything
The teaching of the Gītā begins from the second chapter in which Bhagavān classifies the entire Universe into the body and the embodied, and explains that while the body is subject to modification and destruction, the embodied Self consciousness is immutable, eternal, of one form and without any divisions.
The Self is eternal, omnipresent, immutable, without beginning and end. What is the reason behind delving deep into this principle right at the beginning of the teaching? The answer is that all questions of life can be decided only from the perspective of the Self.
Several aspects have come together into forming a human being - organs of action such as hands and legs; sensory organs such as the eyes, ears, nose, skin and tongue; the mental apparatus comprising the psyche, intellect and other components; the remnants of karma that come from previous births, and the debts and relations therein as well as tendencies towards specific activities with merits and demerits; the jīva who experiences pain and pleasure in this multifarious vessel and finally - the Self who is untouched by all this. In this complex of myriad parts, the Self is the only permanent thing while others are subject to growth, contraction, modifications. Therefore, it is our first duty to discern the Self from the non-Self. The Gītā’s essence is that all goals of life and suitability or otherwise of any action in life should be decided from the Self’s perspective. With this it becomes possible to know what results in welfare and what does not. Arjuna’s question was about dharma
pṛcchāmi tvāṃ dharmasammūḍhacetāḥ || (BG 2.7)
Bhagavān’s answer was mostly about mokṣa. This is consistent with the teaching.
“A tree is known by its fruit” - goes the English proverb. Dharma and mokṣa are two parts of the same tree. While dharma is its root, mokṣa is its fruit. So, if a question were to arise whether an act was in consonance with dharma or not, the answer would be to check if it helped attain mokṣa or not. The thoughts we think, the words we utter, and our behaviours constitute dharma only if they help lead us to mokṣa now or later. If not, it is adharma. As such is the relationship between dharma and mokṣa, it became necessary to demonstrate that the instruction given to Arjuna was in fact conducive to the attainment of mokṣa and not unfavourable to it. Therefore, reflection upon the nature of mokṣa became imperative. From this reflection came deliberation upon the Self, jīva, prakṛti, the Supreme Self and the way of worship.
Arjuna needed to understand this distinction. Though his natural unrefined qualities were “good”, his mind underwent delusion as it was not refined by an analysis of reality. He could not come to a firm conclusion. The knowledge of reality is the root of knowledge of dharma. Thence the greatness of this treatise.
ಥಾರ್ಥ್ಯವ ತಿಳಿವದರೊಳಿಹುದು ಧರ್ಮದ ಬೀಜಂ ।
ತತ್ತ್ವವ ನೋಡೆಂಬುದು ದ್ವಿತೀಯಾಧ್ಯಾಯಮ್ ॥
Knowledge of reality comes from its analysis.
The seed of dharma lies therein.
For an understanding of what to do and what not to do
look at the principle (underlying it). This is (the gist of) the second chapter.
Appendix 1. What is tattva (Reality) ?
We stated earlier that the determination of what is dharma and what is adharma i.e., deciding what should be done and what should not be done has to be made based on an understanding of tattva (Reality or Truth (lit. the essence of Reality) and not based on our prejudices or existing beliefs. Tattva is the foundation of dharma. What then is tattva?
Tattva (tat + tva) is literally the state of a thing being itself. The quality or characteristic by which a thing is that thing and not something else is the thing’s tattva. The true nature of a thing or a thing’s own innate form is its tattva.
There are two forms of anything in this world. One is its innate or true form. The other is what is seen. The true form is reality or tattva. The appearance is known as pratīti (phenomenal appearance).
The earth is a thing. We see it in various forms as mud, sand, or rocks. This is perception. The earth is seen in pits, mounds, buildings, canals, and other forms. This is perception that is apprehended or experienced by our eyes, hands, and other sensory organs. The state of the earth as-is when sensory perception is excluded is its tattva or reality.
The world and the jīva are objects seen or experienced by our eyes, ears, tongue in myriad ways. This is appearance, not reality. The capacity for knowledge of our sense organs is limited. Therefore, all aspects of a thing may not be felt or known by our eyes and other sense organs. Only a little of it might have been comprehended. Our sense organs might be confused because of disease. It is not uncommon for appearance to be accompanied by such lacunae. Therefore, experience only through sense organs might not constitute the complete truth. Tattva or reality is the complete truth about the thing in question.
The question or tattva under inquiry in the Gītā is that of dharma and adharma. In other words - what kind of relation between the individual (jīva) and the world (jagat) is conducive to welfare? To decide upon this, it becomes imperative to reflect upon the true nature of the world and the individual jīva. Are the world and the individual two different things? What is their relationship? When this is analysed, the answer should include both the individual and the world. This quote from the Muṇḍakopaniṣad defines tattva as follows.
kasminnu vijñāte sarvamidaṃ vijñātaṃ bhavati? Muṇḍakopaniṣad 1.1.3
“What is it upon knowing which all this becomes known?”
A statement expounding a thing’s tattva should be able to answer all questions about the thing.
The one thing knowing which all of what we need to know becomes known is Brahma or ParaBrahma (Supreme Brahma). If we were to understand a bit of the nature of Brahma, it would be possible to satisfactorily answer several questions about the world, Īśvara, jīva and dharma. The fount of knowledge that gives us understanding of Brahma, the origin of everything, is the Veda that states the following about Brahma.
sarvaṃ khalvidaṃ brahma ॥ Chāndogya Upaniṣad, 3.14.1
(All this is Brahma)
satyaṃ jñānamanantaṃ brahma ॥ Taittirīya Upaniṣad 2.1.1
(Truth, Knowledge and Infinity are Brahma)
ayamātmā brahma ॥ Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad 2
(This Self is Brahma)
ātmaivedagṃ sarvam ॥ Chāndogya Upaniṣad, 7.25.2
(All of this is the Self)
The votaries of the Veda take the above statements to be self-evident truths. It would be beneficial even for those who do not believe in the Veda to accept the above as hypotheses. When accepting a few statements (theorems) as truths makes it possible to get consistent and satisfactory answers to the problems under question, and not accepting them leads to no such answers, such statements form a hypothesis.
If Vedic and Vedāntic statements on Brahma were to be accepted, it becomes possible to find sound solutions to all our questions about the jagat, jīva and other topics. Therefore we can accept the Veda as the Great Hypothesis. This is why the Supreme Brahma becomes the fundamental tattva for all inquiries.
What then are the topics relevant to the discussion between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna?
1. Jīva (the individual)
2. Ātmā (the Self)
3. Jagat (the world)
4. Īśvara (the Supreme Ruler/Master)
5. Dharma and adharma.
6. Svarga and naraka
7. Transmigratory existence (Janmāntarya)
8. Mokṣa (final liberation)
The foundational field to answer questions and sub-questions about the preceding eight topics is Brahma. These eight aspects are lessons that expand upon the greatness of Brahma. By knowing the nature, form, intelligence, and greatness of Brahma, it becomes possible to understand the true nature of the world, the individual and dharma. Thus Brahma is the ultimate tattva.
kasminnu vijñāte sarvamidaṃ vijñātaṃ bhavati? - Muṇḍakopaniṣad 1.1.3
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.