Let us get back to the Bhagavad-gītā. There are so many punaruktis (repetitions); upamāna-upameyas (comparisons in a simile) and paradoxes. Our attention should be on their purport. When prosaic speech does not suffice and figurative expressions are resorted to even while describing commonplace incidents and worldly experiences, how else could the mind of the philosopher expressing thoughts about the supernatural reveal itself to us without figurative language? Consequently, there is quite a bit of symbolism in the Veda especially in the matter of the Ātman (Self).
ahaṁ vṛkṣasya rerivā |
I am the controller of the tree (of saṁsāra)
kīrtiḥ pṛṣṭhaṁ gireriva |
My fame is like the peak of a mountain
ūrdhvapavitro vājinīva svamṛtamasmi |
I, pure because of the High One, am Immortal like the one in the Sun
tasya madhye vahniśikhā aṇīyordhvā vyavasthitaḥ |
In the middle of That abides the Crest of Fire as the Supreme among all that is minute.
nīlatoyadamadhyasthād-vidullekheva bhāsvarā |
Brilliant like a streak of lightning in the middle of dark rain giving clouds.
nīvārashūkavattanvī pītā bhāsvatyaṇūpamā ||
Slender like the awn of paddy, yellow or gold in colour, as infinitesimal as an atom, this flame shines.
The puruṣa-sūkta is a large allegory. When such language is encountered, the mind must not focus on the literal meaning but on the purport. In the statement
does not mean that the virāṭ-puruṣa (the Cosmic Being) has one head more than 999 or one head less than 1001. ‘Sahasra’ just signifies innumerable. That is the substance.
The Bhagavad-gītā has the same words repeated. The same matter is conveyed in different words.
nityaḥ sarvagataḥ sthāṇuḥ acalo’yaṃ sanātanaḥ ।
He is Eternal, Omnipresent, Fixed, Motionless and Everlasting
Here both sthāṇu and acala mean the same. What does nitya and sanātana mean? Both mean the same. Is it not a fault when the text is repetitive to express the same thing in three different words? It is not so here. It is rather advantageous here and much needed from our perspective. For, when the instruction does not come in a flood of words but in subtle and terse letters, it might not catch the mind of a dull or a careless learner. If, however, it is repeated in many words, the fear of such a loss is lessened. The effectiveness of a sentence is not only gained from its inner strength but also from its external size. Experienced teachers know that in a school, children are taught the same concepts – even easy ones – by revising it multiple times. While dealing with an extremely subtle and deep topic, the instruction might not be understood or even misunderstood if terse language is used. Therefore a little repetition is not a defect but a blessing. Names of trees occur as if in a catalogue during descriptions of forests in the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata. The names of a hundred persons are encountered when an āśrama is being described. Are we botanists or anthropologists that we need these catalogues? The answer is that this description of a multitude has an impact on our mind. It is required for increased impact in the depiction of the object.
Descriptions of such collections are encountered in the tenth and eleventh chapters of the Bhagavad-gītā. We have to comprehend the meaning of the flow there. A significant opinion or instruction flows out in multiple streams. In the vibhūti-yoga, for instance.
ādityānāmahaṃ viṣṇuḥ jyotiṣāṃ raviraṃśumān।
marīcirmarutāmasmi nakṣatrāṇāmahaṃ śaśī॥ 10.21
vedānāṃ sāmavedo'smi devānāmasmi vāsavaḥ।
indriyāṇāṃ manaścāsmi bhūtānāmasmi cetanā॥ 10.22
In the Viśvarūpa chapter, we see these verses –
paśyāmi tvāṃ sarvato'nantarūpam।
nāntaṃ na madhyaṃ na punastavādiṃ
paśyāmi viśveśvara viśvarūpa॥ 11.16
tvamakṣaraṃ paramaṃ veditavyaṃ
tvamasya viśvasya paraṃ nidhānam।
sanātanastvaṃ puruṣo mato me॥ 11.18
If we have to truly appreciate the specialty of the Gītā’s style of instruction, we must bring the style of the sūtra to mind:
sūtraṃ sūtravido viduḥ॥
An economical word arrangement in which no word required to elucidate its meaning is left out, no superfluous word is added, and in which any movement or transposition of letters results in a greater, lesser or completely different meaning is known as a sūtra. Let us look at an example from the Brahma-sūtra –
The above sūtra has four words:
asya = of this world
janma = origin
ādi = etcetera (preservation, dissolution)
yataḥ = from which proceed
Brahman has to be supplied to complete this sūtra, i.e., “(Brahman is that) from which proceed the origin &c. (preservation and dissolution) of this world.”
The above sūtra is explained in the Upaniṣad thus –
yato vā imāni bhūtāni jāyante।
yena jātāni jīvanti।
The Brahma-sūtra conveys in four words what the Upaniṣad takes fifteen words to do. The presence of the conjunction ‘ca’ conveys a special meaning in the sūtra; the absence of it conveys yet another meaning; similarly with ‘tu.’ The style of the sūtra befits experienced scholars; and gives an opportunity for their logic and arguments. The author of the Gītā did not follow the rule of aphorism. His style is one of poetry. His admirable goal is to explain uncommon subjects with common words. Therefore we do not have to sift through every letter of the Gītā. The holistic vision is appropriate here. Our goal is not the word to word meaning of an instruction but the essence of the flow of thoughts – the general drift or tenor of the words used. This, if remembered, will bring several controversies about the teaching of the Gītā to rest.
The story aspect of the Gītā is in a poetic form. Poetry attempts to convey the subject matter in a way that is impactful to the mind. That kind of an attempt makes imperative several figures of speech such as the hyperbole. This is something even we are aware of. During the education of children, we use exclamations like “Bravo!” whenever a child solves a problem correctly. When it is two – we use expressions like “Awesome!” If there are a couple of children there, we begin to think on how it would be possible to convey a unique phrase of encouragement. For one, we may use “Smooth!” and for the other, we may use “Incredible!” We might use “Unbelievable!” for the third one. We do not use the literal meanings of these words when we convey our appreciation. We do not weigh the implications of the usage of such words. Such an examination of exact word meaning is unnecessary for our use and may even be detrimental. Encouraging students is our only goal. If we weigh our words carefully much like an apothecary weighing his medicines, and try to state the exact intended meaning, the effect on the students might be more discouraging than encouraging. Therefore it is proper to grasp the meaning of God’s words after considering His intent.
Arjuna was crestfallen. He was out of his wits. The intent of the Lord was to infuse enthusiasm and confidence in him and make him surge forward.
The poet uses a few extra words to ensure that the meaning sticks to the mind. This is a literary device that is seen employed even in the Veda.
The Veda’s chief goal is one of vidhi (injunction); to decide dharma. Are then all those Vedic passages injunctions? No. Should not the propitiated deity be invoked during the yajña? There are mantras for those known as stāvakas (hymns of praise). These praise Deities thus – “You are the greatest among the great! You created all of us! You are the one who existed before us!” – in a variety of ways. It is but natural to use many words when praising anybody. We see that even in the world. Can a minister be praised with the words, “You have an LLB degree! You have two ears!” and so forth? Does that even count as praise? If, however, the minister is praised with words like: “You are the avatāra of Bṛhaspati!” &c., there is a good chance of getting our work done. When it is so in the mundane world, can Yajñeśvara (Lord Agni) be propitiated with “You burn!”, “If you are controlled, you give us happiness. Please restrict yourself!” and so forth? Will Agni give us what we desire? Therefore a plethora of stāvakas are necessary. The pragmatic view is that this is a device to get the favour of the deity. The Absolute or philosophical perspective is that since Para-brahman is the final destination, we arrogate all its qualities on all the devatās.
There is another class of Vedic passages known as arthavāda. The arthavāda informs us that one would get certain fruits on the completion of certain rites. In everyday language, this could be termed an advertisement.
There are several such Vedic passages included to stimulate (prarocana). The stimulation is for the performance of certain rites and subsequently achieve interest in them and prosperity.
annavānannādo bhavati। mahān bhavati
The above is the praise of food. Food has to be acquired in plenty. The one with food eats abundantly. He becomes great. He begets progeny, bovine wealth, Brāhmic effulgence, and extensive fame. What is the intent behind such praise? For man to work and earn his living. To work for a living is not something debased but the best among duties. It is needed even to realise Brahman. By stating all this, the maharṣis desire to infuse a sense of importance with faith and enthusiasm even during common everyday tasks. When the Veda says, “Mahān bhavati,” the intent is not to convey that the one eating will put on weight and become a wrestler but to insist that such a person would become great in quality and influence.
Similarly in the Gītā, one finds enough passages of upadeśa (instruction) as well as for clarification. There are even more passages to generate interest. So, it would be instructive for the reader to observe how certain passages convey the overall meaning of the Gītā and in what way. When this is done, the harmony among various parts of the text becomes evident.
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.