The Actionless Ātmā
The whole of creation is thus created from Brahma’s power, Brahma’s līlā. It is enjoying ānanda (bliss) causing all these actions. Why do we call it ānanda? Ānanda is the nature of Brahma. Difficulty or pain is not in its nature. Even when we experience distress or sorrow, there is definitely an aspect of its līlā in them. To the divine, our laughter and tears are like the laughter and tears of children to adults. Therefore in the Rudrādhyāya the Supreme is praised as “nama ākkhidate ca prakkhidate ca” (Salutations to the one who causes minor as well as major troubles).
na kartṛtvaṃ na karmāṇi lokasya sṛjati prabhuḥ
na karmaphalasaṃyogaṃ svabhāvastu pravartate (BG 5.14)
It cannot be said that since Īśvara has created this world, it is better to let him experience it. None of these affect Īśvara because he is Īśvara (the supreme ruler). The engagements of the world do not affect the Self (ātmā) who is the indweller of the jīva, as the former is an aspect of Īśvara. However, they affect the jīva which is the embodied Self. Even the jīva is the same as the Self, but enveloped by a shroud. The jīva cries out, “My shroud is heavy! It’s heavy!” When experiencing the ‘heaviness’ of the shroud, the Self is known as the jīva. But it becomes light when a knower casts off the covering shroud. This state of the jīva is natural. However, the Self is beyond Nature. Īśvara is neither the doer of worldly activities nor is he the one who established this system of causality. But all fundamental components and energies of these universal laws are but minor aspects of his limitless power. It is their actions that constitute worldly events. The relationship between action and their results does not belong to Īśvara. Doership, enjoyership, creatorship, and cause – are all in the realm of Prakṛti (Primordial Nature). It is prakṛti that makes jīvas dependent upon her to perform their actions. The state of the jīva is something that can be remedied; it is not permanent. Mokṣa is release from the state of the jīva. When something that is not the Self envelops the Self, it becomes a jīva. The non-Self is subject to destruction. It can be removed. We saw in the second chapter:
vāsāṃsi jīrṇāni yathā vihāya
navāni gṛhṇāti naro’parāṇi
tathā śarīrāṇi vihāya jīrṇāni
anyāni saṃyāti navāni dehī (BG 2.22)
Thus, the non-Self can be cast off. The Self, that is the internal sentience of the jīva, has to be released from this shell of the non-Self. The true nature of the ātmā is revealed when this shell is removed. It is thus that Bhagavān said:
navadvāre pure dehī naiva kurvanna kārayan (BG 5.13)
The two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, the mouth, the two nether orifices - together constitute the nine gates (navadvāra). Our body is the city with these nine gates. The lord of the city is seated inside these gates. He does not do anything and is much like the constitutional monarch who has delegated all work to ministers and officials. They conduct all the activities under his rule.
The Extent of Arjuna’s Question
We might think that the topic of this chapter is far removed from Arjuna’s question. Arjuna’s question was whether he should fight or not. In the guise of answering his question, Bhagavān instructed him on various topics such as what Prakṛti is, what Brahma is, what it means to perform action, who the doer is and who the enjoyer is. We feel that this is a digression. When asked about war, Bhagavān talked about the Self and non-Self. How are these even related? The reply is that this particular problem can only be dealt with in this way. There is no foundation other than the discernment between the Self and the non-Self to effectively determine what dharma and adharma are. Arjuna’s question was this – “Is this dharma or adharma? I think this is adharma.” Krishna replied that this was dharma. On what basis could this question have been settled? What is the testimony? The discernment between the Self and the non-Self is the sole testimony. Arjuna somehow asked this question. But he did not realise the root of this query and how far it reached. His query came in the heat of the discussion. The knowledge of the Self is needed to decide what duty is and is not. We have to then accept the verdict of those who are able to discern between the Self and the non-Self.
The Cessation of Ignorance
Jñāna or knowledge is not something extraneous to a jīva but intrinsic to it. The nature of the Self is three-fold – Existence, Knowledge, and Bliss (sat, cit, ānanda respectively). This cit is the seed of knowledge. Cit is knowledge, the process of comprehension, and the action that is inspired. All of these are latent in the jīva from time immemorial. Ignorance masks this knowledge like a wicker-basket (masks a lamp). Because of this, we see the wicker basket and not Brahma.
ajñānenāvṛtaṃ jñānaṃ tena muhyanti jantavaḥ (BG 5.15)
When the cover of ignorance is removed, knowledge arises spontaneously. That is why Bhagavān asks Arjuna to conquer Anger and Desire. The rest happens on its own.
dhūmenāvriyate vahnir-yathādarśo malena ca
yatholbenāvṛto garbhas-tathā tenedamāvṛtam (BG 3.38)
Just as smoke covers burning coal, just as dirt covers a mirror does the natural state of ignorance conceal knowledge. How can we get rid of this ignorance? By practising the presence of the Self (ātma-samakṣatā), which is also the same as practising the presence of the divine.
Samakṣatā refers to something in front of our eyes - presence. We have to experience the presence of the divine by practising it.
Those that have attained the practice of the presence of the Self have been described thus.
gacchanty-apunarāvṛttiṃ jñānanirdhūtakalmaṣāḥ (BG 5.17)
Have we experienced divine presence or not? We can find this out for ourselves. When someone derided as vile or cheap by society comes and sits next to us, what expression does our face take? What does our mind tell us when a person who has wronged us sits next to us? How do we behave when a person of power or fame moves near us? Our mind values all these external distinctions such as status, rank, and prestige. But on the other hand, if all of these persons – who are non-different from the Self – are viewed with the same measure of self-love, we would be practising equality.
All differences must be eschewed. The mind is full of such differences. Whoever realises the presence of the divine has no such differences.
vidyāvinayasaṃpanne brāhmaṇe gavi hastini
śuni caiva śvapāke ca paṇḍitāḥ samadarśinaḥ (BG 5.18)
(The knowers of the Self view with equanimity a Brahmin endowed with learning and humility, a cow, an elephant, a dog and him who eats dog flesh.)
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.