by Swami Krishnananda
In the Thirteenth Chapter of the Bhagavadgita, we have covered the theme which touched upon the kshetra and the kshetrajna, individually as well as cosmically, and the relationship between the individual and the cosmic. We also went through the list of virtues, qualities that characterise a spiritual seeker – amanitvam, adambhitvam, etc. Then there was a grand description of the Supreme Brahman – anadimatparam brahma: the Supreme Absolute pervades all things, existing everywhere, and also existing as the heart and the soul and the self of everybody.
Iti kshetram tatha jnanam jneyam choktam samasatah (13.18): “So now I have told you everything that is required to be known – the object which is the kshetra, the pure Universal Subject that is the jneya, paramatman, Brahman, and the knowledge amanitvam, adabhitvam, etc. Briefly I have told you of kshetra, jnana, and jneya. After knowing this thoroughly and establishing oneself in the practice of these great truths delineated in the verses mentioned, one gets established in Me: mad-bhakta etad vijnaya mad-bhavayopapadyate. One becomes fit for entry into Me after having known this in Truth – known it not merely as scriptural knowledge, not linguistic or verbal knowledge, but knowledge that has become part and parcel of one’s own being.”
This great knowledge, which is the subject of the first sixteen or seventeen verses, is the quintessence of every kind of wisdom; and the life of a person has to be a manifestation of this wisdom. This knowledge is not something that is understood by the intellect. It is something that has become an insight into the nature of truth, and the whole personality scintillates with the radiance of this knowledge.
Here, in the context of spiritual experience, knowing and being are one and the same, whereas in ordinary secular knowledge, in the arts and the sciences, being is different from knowing. A professor of philosophy has his knowledge in the books and in the college, but his personal life has no connection with this knowledge. His being is different from the knowledge that he has got; but here, that is not the case. The being of a person is identical with the knowledge of that person, so that one can say the person himself or herself is knowledge. After having known this in this fashion, one becomes fit for entry into God’s Being: mad-bhakta etad vijnaya mad-bhavayopapadyate.
The verse that follows is controversial. Prakritim purusham chaiva viddhyanadi ubhav api, vikarams cha gunams chaiva viddhi prakriti-sambhavan (13.19). The literal translation of it is: Know that prakriti and purusha are beginningless, and their modifications and their qualities originate, manifest, from prakriti.
The doctrine of the classical Sankhya says that prakriti and purusha are beginningless and infinite in their nature. They cannot merge into each other. The doctrine of the Bhagavadgita does not regard prakriti and purusha as totally independent contending parties; and that they are aspects of the Supreme Purusha or Purushottama will be told to us in the Fifteenth Chapter. While commenting on the meaning of this verse, Sankaracharya does not seem to be very eager to say anything specific to clear our doubts. He simply says that prakriti and purusha should be there always to limit the operation of God; otherwise, there will be an infinite operation of God. He does not feel that there is any meaning in an infinite operation because creation would be perpetually going on and never come to an end, inasmuch as God is infinite; therefore, there would be only creation for ever and ever. There is no cessation for action proceeding from that which is there always. But creation is a limited manifestation. We cannot say that the world is infinite, or even that the universe is infinite. “The limitation required for the manifestation of a universe calls for the limiting principles of prakriti and purusha.” Saying this much, Sankaracharya keeps quiet.
Regarding this commentary, I feel that there is some difficulty in entirely accepting what Sankaracharya says, because it implies that God does not properly understand what creation is, so He requires a police guard to restrain Him so that He may not go on creating infinitely. That meaning does not seem to be applicable, and is not satisfying. Others feel that the point made out here is that prakriti and purusha are beginningless, and they should be taken in the sense of the infinity of God’s powers. In the West, there was a philosopher called Spinoza. Just as the transcending principle is referred to as Purushottama in the Fifteenth Chapter of the Gita, Spinoza uses the word ‘substance’ to designate the Absolute Reality; and the qualities of this substance are like the two wings of a bird. Space and time, extension and duration, are regarded as the operative media of this Supreme Substance. If we are to take the verses that come in the Fifteenth Chapter literally, it is possible to consider purusha as akshara and prakriti as kshara, and Purushottama transcends both kshara and akshara. I am not going into that subject now. It comes in the Fifteenth Chapter.
The only way we can escape unnecessary entanglement in the jumble of words explaining this verse is by understanding prakriti and purusha to be two properties, as it were, of the Supreme Being. On the one hand, the spatial extension of the Supreme Being is prakriti; on the other hand, it is Omniscience acting, which is purusha. There seems to be a sound explanation, because the Vedanta doctrine also holds that the process of creation begins with Isvara and becomes more and more perspicacious from Hiranyagarbha and Virat onwards. That is, the infinte Brahman limits Itself in a particular manner, not by force of the operation of something external, but by Its own deliberate will. It wills, and that will is called Isvara, so this will is a delimitation imposed by Itself on Itself. That is, it contemplates the particular type of universe that is to be manifested.
Infinity does not contemplate infinity. It contemplates a limited manifestation, because the characteristic of limitation in creation arises on account of the fact that the universe to be created has some relevance to the jivas who are going to inhabit that universe – the jivas who lay in a sleeping condition in the previous cycle at the time of dissolution – and the universe is created merely as a field for experience by these endless number of jivas who were withdrawn into prakriti at the time of dissolution of the previous cycle. When they germinate into action at the commencement of the new creation, they have to be provided with an atmosphere commensurate with their potencies. That is to say, an individual who can have the experience of the manifestation of his/her/its potencies on earth, or in the world, cannot be taken to heaven, because there the experience will not be possible; or those who are to experience their potencies in a realm like heaven should not be brought to the earth, inasmuch as the nature of the world is exactly in a state of harmony with the inhabitants thereof, and not with the inhabitants of other realms. In this light, creation does not seem to be an unnecessary action of God. It is a very, very, necessary manifestation of a big field of experience where it is possible for the jivas inhabiting that universe to fructify their karmas and enjoy or suffer as the consequences their deeds.
Hence, this delimitation of Brahman in the form of Isvara as a central will is a universal delimitation. It is not limitation exercised by a prakriti outside, unless of course we call this will itself as prakriti. The consciousness that is of Isvara may be regarded as the Supreme Purusha of the Sankhya, and the objective principle which is the will contemplating a possible universe may be considered as prakriti – in which case prakriti and purusha are not two different wings, but are something like the soul and the body. We cannot distinguish between the soul and the body. The soul contemplates the body and manifests itself in accordance with its own potential desire, and we cannot say that the body is compelling the soul to act in a particular manner. The question of compulsion does not arise, because the body is manifest exactly according to the needs of the soul as manifest in the sukshma sarira.
Prakriti and purusha may be said to be anadi, or beginningless, if we are to go according to the original doctrine of the Bhagavadgita which does not expect us to think of purusha and prakriti as two different things but as potencies, powers, or manners of working of God Himself – Isvara, Purushottama. On the one hand, prakriti is extension, space-time; and on the other hand, there is purusha, or consciousness. Consciousness and extension constitute the principle of the immanence of God in the universe. I am going a little ahead of the ordinary commentaries on this verse, which are very brief – not to contradict them, but to elucidate them a little more. My intuitive insight, as it were, makes me feel that prakriti and purusha can be beginningless in the same sense as God is beginningless, because of the fact that they are powers of God: vikarams cha gunams chaiva viddhi prakriti-sambhavan.
Karya-karana-kartrtve hetuh prakritir uchyate (13.20): Prakriti is the cause of the origin of the causal chain. The cause-and-effect relationship is operative only in the realm of prakriti, whereas pain and pleasure are experienced by purusha: purushah sukha-duhkhanam bhoktrtve hetur uchyate. The contact of purusha with prakriti is the reason behind the experience of pleasure and pain. Experience is not possible unless there is consciousness, and consciousness is available only in the purusha. Purusha is inactive consciousness, whereas prakriti is blind activity. They somehow get juxtaposed, and it appears as if there is conscious activity. When we walk, when we do anything, it appears that we are consciously acting. Actually, there is no conscious action. Action is always unconscious, because it is connected with the movement of the gunas of prakriti, who have no self-consciousness. But the purusha does not act; it is conscious. So there is a peculiar jumble – a juxtaposition of the consciousness that does not act with the prakriti which acts but does not know – and this results in the appearance of conscious activity. For instance, we seem to be doing something consciously. This ‘seeming to be doing consciously’ is due to a mix-up of the purusha and prakriti principles in us – our body being the prakriti, and our Atman being the purusha.
Purushah prakriti-stho hi bhunkte prakrti-jan gunan, karanam guna-sango’sya sad-asad-yoni-janmasu (13.21): Purusha located or lodged in the prakriti appears to enjoy the qualities of prakriti. When water moves, the sun that is reflected in it also appears to move. When the water is stable, the reflection of the sun in it appears to be stable; and if the water is turbid, the reflection appears to be turbid. But really, the sun, which is the cause of this reflection in the water, is not affected in any way whatsoever. The sun does not shake, and does not get turbid. Similarly, this contact of consciousness with matter – purusha with prakriti – makes it appear that there is enjoyment, and that there is an agency in action. Purusha does not enjoy, because it itself is bliss; but the sorrow that is the fate of the purusha seems to be the outcome of its contact with prakriti.
Here again, we have to bring the analogy of the Sankhya that a pure crystal appears to be coloured or disfigured by the colour of the object that is brought near it. Thus, one enjoys, one suffers. Really, consciousness does not enjoy and does not suffer. But the movements of prakriti in this manner or that manner – as sattva or rajas or tamas – makes the consciousness, the purusha, feel as if it is transparent and happy when it is in contact with the sattva of prakriti; it is disturbed, agitated, angry and passionate when it appears to be reflecting through the rajoguna of prakriti, and very, very slothful, lethargic and static when it is in contact with the tamasic quality of prakriti.