by Swami Krishnananda
The meaning of the thirteenth chapter of the Bhagavadgita is the subject of our discussion now. While all the eighteen chapters of the Gita touch upon almost all themes in the practice of yoga, there is a special emphasis laid on action in the third chapter, on meditation in the sixth chapter, on devotion in the eleventh chapter and on knowledge in the thirteenth chapter—corresponding to the faculties of cognition, volition, emotion and reason. There is a special importance attached to the subject of the thirteenth chapter, inasmuch as it analyses the Samkhya principles or categories of cosmic evolution in the light of the supremacy of Brahman, the Absolute. The Samkhya philosophy distinguishes between prakriti and purusha, or the field and the knower of the field, as they are designated here in this chapter. Matter and consciousness are, we may say, the object and the pure subject. In this chapter, at the very outset, we are told that there are two principles—the field and the knower of the field. “Know Me as the knower in all the fields—sarva-ksetresu,” says the great Eternity which speaks through the gospel of the Gita. In this simple hint that is given to the effect that the pure subject or the knower of the field is equally present in all the fields, this particular specialty of teaching here takes us beyond the classical Samkhya, which draws a distinction between prakriti and purusha, making out thereby that God is transcendent and superior to matter and consciousness as we know it. The Absolute is superior both to the object and the subject.
Now in this connection we have to go into some detail as to the nature of the object, the subject, and that which reigns supreme beyond both—this is the principal subject of this chapter. The so-called object of knowledge is a vast panorama of experience. The whole astronomical universe is constituted of the five gross elements—earth, water, fire, air and ether—which form the entire world of physicality. The causative factor of these five elements, known in the Samkhya language as the tanmatras, is on the objective side. From the side of the experiencer there is the jiva—the individual with sense organs, mind and intellect—lodged in the body complex, operating through love and hatred and filled with the notion of egoity, cutting itself off from the object, but nevertheless a part of the object world.
It is strange and very interesting to note that in this delineation of the character of the object, even the so-called individual is included. We are all objects in the true sense of the term. We can see our own bodies. This body is an object of sense perception, and it is constituted of the same matter as everything else in this world. The pure subject is invisible—though it is embedded in us, we are unconscious of its existence. We live in a world of objects. We have befriended objects, converted ourselves into objects, and we treat ourselves as objects rather than as pure subjects. Hence the characteristics of objects infect us, and we suffer the pains of life due to the objectivity that is present in us. The sorrows through which we have to pass in our lives are not the consequences of the subjectivity that is in us, but rather of the objectivity in which we are involved and which we, however wrongly, identify with our true being. Heat and cold, hunger and thirst, pleasure and pain—even birth and death should be considered as characteristics of objectivity rather than the subjectivity of experience.
Thus it is that whatever we regard ourselves to be in an empirical sense goes with the world of objects. Therefore, in this characterisation or categorisation of the object universe in these verses of the thirteenth chapter, everything is rolled up in an omnibus. Whatever we know is the world of objects. That which becomes the instrument in cognising the presence of the object is knowledge. Knowledge is either lower or higher. Perceptive knowledge or sensory knowledge is a lower knowledge whereby we acquire a sort of acquaintance with the objects, but not a true knowledge of things. We come in contact sensorily and psychologically with the name and form of the things of the world in a mediate manner of space-time contact, but we never enter into the being of anything. Really we have no knowledge of anything ultimately. We have only an acquaintance with the name and form of objects, not an insight into the nature of anything.
But what is true knowledge? This is described in a few verses in this very chapter. While, finally, true knowledge has to be identified with actual realisation of existence in its pristine purity, anything that is contributory to the acquisition of this knowledge is also regarded as knowledge, so that righteousness, virtues and those qualities that we consider as praiseworthy are also regarded as knowledge. Humility, though it cannot be identified with knowledge as such, is associated with knowledge. Unpretentiousness and straightforwardness of behaviour cannot be identified with knowledge as such, but it is a reflection of true knowledge. It indicates true knowledge and contributes to the acquirement of true knowledge; and so are other virtues, such as non-violence and love, servicefulness, charitable feeling, detachment and freedom from every kind of clinging, whether to the senses or the mind. The capacity to contemplate on the transitoriness of all things, the recognition of the phenomenal character of the universe, an awareness of the presence of a Supreme Reality beyond the transitory universe, and a sincere aspiration for this realisation—all these go to constitute what is known as right knowledge.
We have usually been identifying knowledge with learning—the academic acquisition of information regarding the various objects of the world. But spiritual wisdom is the same as insight, known also as intuition, whereby the object of knowledge is possessed in completeness and does not any more remain as an extraneous something. Knowledge is power, and where power is lacking in respect of the object of knowledge, it can be safely said that right knowledge of that object also is comparatively lacking. Knowledge of an object is not merely the observation of an object in a scientific manner; it is a complete grasp of the secrets of that object, whereby it becomes a content of one’s knowledge in an inseparable manner. Therefore it is that it acquires complete control over the object—mastery over things—so that the apotheosis of knowledge is omniscience, which cannot be separated from omnipotence. So knowledge is power, knowledge is also righteousness, and knowledge is at the same time happiness. Wherever there is right knowledge, there should be power of some kind—capacity and energy. Wherever there is right knowledge, there is also automatically felt the presence of virtue and righteousness; and wherever there is knowledge, there is also the experience of happiness. If these results are not seen even in a meager measure, one should conclude that the knowledge is defective. Knowledge is not book-learning, and is not the acquisition of a certificate from an academy. Knowledge is actual communion with things, gradually, by appreciation of the character of things—an approximation of oneself to the nature of things with the intention finally of abolishing the distinction between oneself and the objects of knowledge.
What is the supreme object of knowledge then, whose experience abolishes the distinction between the subject and object? That is Brahman, according to the Bhagavadgita. Inasmuch as it includes within its Being both the objective universe and the subjective faculties, we cannot designate it as either being or non-being—na sat tan nasad ucyate. It is neither sat nor asat, in the sense we understand these two terms. We cannot say whether it is something that is existent, or that which is non-existent. We consider the existence of a thing as a content of sensory experience. When we say that something exists, we mean that it is perceptible or cognisable. We generally associate existence with objects, as a quality or an attribute of the object. When we say a table exists or a tree exists or something exists, we immediately regard this existence as a predicate of that which we regard as the nominative or the substantive, the pure subject. The tree is important—the existence is only an attribute. The existence of the tree is regarded as a quality of the tree; but, unfortunately, existence is not a quality of anything. That ‘thinghood’ rather, which we perceive through the senses, is the attribute of existence. The tree is not the nominative—the existence is the nominative.
But we cannot understand this because of the defect of our language and the way in which we usually define things. Therefore, because of the fact that we wrongly understand the nature of existence, we cannot consider Brahman, the Absolute, as existence in the sense that we interpret it. Brahman is also not non-existence, because it is the supreme existence. It non-existence to the senses, but it is the precondition of the existence of everything else. It appears to be non-existent because it is the subject of experience. Who can know the subject; who can know the knower? All things are known by the subject, but who can then know the subject? It remains always an unknowable, indescribable mystery. No one can know the subject, because it refuses to convert itself into an object.
Who can know the knower of things? Thus the supreme knower of all things, the omniscient Absolute, is a non-existent something to the senses, the mind and the intellect which expect everything existent to be outward in space and in time. It has neither beginning nor end, but it exists everywhere. That which exists everywhere appears to be nowhere. For us, to be existent is to be somewhere, and we cannot imagine a state of affairs where things can be existing everywhere, because perception is impossible if the object is spread out everywhere uniformly or equally. If perception is not possible, knowledge of it is also not possible. When knowledge does not recognise the presence of a thing, it dubs it as non-existent. But here is the mystery of mysteries, the miracle of all miracles, which is the Supreme Godhead of the universe that grasps everything without limbs, sees all things without eyes, hears everything without ears, moves everywhere without feet, and speaks in every language, through all tongues.