Translation with Tantric Commentary (Draft)
by Swami Mahavirananda (a.k.a. Brother William)
The Bhagavad-Gita, “The Song of God,” is sometimes called the “Bible of Hinduism” because of its central importance as a source of so much of what we mean when we talk about Hindu philosophy and religion. Any school of Hinduism to be considered orthodox must show that its teachings are consistent with the Gita, which has also been called a distillation of the Upanishads, the section of Veda concerned with philosophy and the science of Self-realization and the body of scripture considered most authoritative in Vedanta, i.e., Hindu philosophy. The Gita consists of eighteen chapters written in metered verse that are embedded in the epic Sanskrit poem called the Mahābhārata.
The Gita also includes information about Yoga philosophy and practice, specifically meditation. It also gives doctrinal and practical bases for devotional approaches to Self-realization and introduces the concept of the Incarnation of God. Each chapter is entitled a different Yoga. The word “yoga” here should be understood in the broad meaning of any spiritual practice undertaken for the sake of Self-realization. Reading the Gita, therefore, should be considered part of Yoga practice, broadly defined, and even more so putting what you read into practice.
Although the Gita is set on a battlefield between two opposing armies, the historicity of the personalities and events is unimportant to most Hindus who view the teachings as timeless and just as relevant today as they were whenever they were composed. For the sake of simplicity and clarity I have replaced most epithets for Krishna and Arjuna, the principal characters, with just their names. Krishna is an Incarnation of God, and Arjuna, a warrior prince, is his friend and disciple.
The conversation—actually literally a song because it is written in poetic verse—takes place in Arjuna’s chariot on the brink of a fratricidal war. Arjuna balks at killing kinsmen, but Krishna tells him to stand up, fight, and do his duty. Many consider the battlefield an allegory of our daily lives in which we have to battle inner foes, mental restlessness. laziness, and seemingly endless desires for sense experience, intent on robbing us of our spiritual heritage. Arjuna represents the ego personality, the small self, and Krishna represents the higher Self. The chariot is a symbol of the body and its five horses are the five senses. It is the nature of the senses to be restless and outgoing, but with patience and determination, and with consistent practice and dispassion the horses can be controlled and made to serve our purpose.
I offer here my own translation with a commentary based in the non-dualistic Tantric Doctrine of Shakti as an explanation for why the One Non-dual Consciousness appears as many. I have consulted Abhinavagupta’s commentary in the course of this work, but the commentary I provide is all mine unless otherwise indicated. Abhinavagupta wrote for a very different audience in ninth century Kashmir, and a modern commentary based in the Doctrine of Shakti (śaktivāda) is long overdue. The teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and his disciple Swami Vivekananda, modern exponents of the Doctrine of Shakti, inform my commentary throughout.
Each chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita is called a “Yoga.” The word in this usage means a spiritual practice or means to achieve Self-realization and liberation. The root meaning is that which “joins” the individual to God/dess. However, the implication of the word in classical Patanjali Yoga is learning to separate the essential Consciousness (Purusha) from Prakriti, which in Tantra is considered the same as Shakti, the Power that manifests all phenomena. In Tantra the aspirant learns to distinguish between Purusha-Shiva and Shakti, though in the ultimate reduction these are realized as One.
But the question remains: How can dejection be considered a “Yoga”? As we will see, Arjuna comes to the battle full of a warrior’s bravado. But seeing so many beloved and honored kinsmen and teachers in the enemy ranks, compelled to choose that side by the bonds of honor, he loses heart and doubts his purpose. It is only then that he turns to his Guru and friend, Krishna, the Incarnation of God, in humility and respect and asks how he should proceed. Thus Arjuna’s dejection leads him from a prideful state of mind to the humble state of mind necessary for real spiritual life to begin. It is only when we are ready to ask the Guru in all humility for guidance that we are ready to receive the teaching.
Dhritarashtra is a blind king whose attendant, Sanjaya, was given the powers of clairvoyance and clairaudience by Vyasa the sage so that Sanjaya can relate what happens in this important war between the rival clans. Dhritarashtra and Pandu were brothers, and their sons have come to the point of battle because of a dispute over land. The delightful story is recounted in detail in the epic poem entitled the Mahabharata, of which the Gita is a part, and I will not retell it here. It is only necessary to understand for the purposes of this translation that Dhritarashtra’s sons, the Kauravas, acted immorally, against dharma, in this instance best translated as “righteousness,” while Pandu’s sons, the Pandavas, though not without human faults, acted in accordance with dharma.
The word “field” here is used both metaphorically and literally. Kurukshetra, the “Field of the Kurus,” is the physical place where the battle takes place. It is said to be located in India near modern-day New Delhi. But the Gita says this field is also dharma-kshetra, the field of dharma. In Chapter 13 Sri Krishna equates the “field” to the human body and everything that can be experienced with it. Therefore, what is about to happen on “the field of dharma” can be understood to mean what happens within the human heart and mind. Thus, in the first verse we are invited to understand the Kurukshetra war as an inner struggle between opposing forces in our own psyches.
In the following verses, until Arjuna first speaks, we get a description of the chief players in this drama, the kings and warriors arrayed on the battlefield, ready to fight. Duryodhana is Dhritarashtra’s eldest son, the chief general of the Kaurava army. Dhrishtadyumna is the eldest son of Drupada and the chief general of the Pandava army. He is also the brother of Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas. Some translations omit this portion of the Gita because it merely sets the stage for the spiritual discourse that follows. I include it so that this may be a complete translation of the text.
The martial-arts teacher of both Duryodhana and Arjuna is the master archer Drona. Archery, the art of hitting a distant target accurately with an arrow, can be understood as a metaphor for a person’s purpose in life. The target or goal of life is Self-realization that liberates one from bondage to action and its results, i.e., karma, which is responsible for the cycle of life-death-and-rebirth. The calm focus needed to succeed in archery is often used as a metaphor for meditation. In the Mundaka Upanishad we read “The target is the Imperishable; the Upanishad is the bow. Use the arrow of the intellect, sharpened by steadfast devotion [to the Ideal]; fix the mind on the supreme; Hit the target.! Om is the bow. The self is the arrow and Brahman is the mark [to be hit by the arrow]. One is to be absorbed in That as the arrow vanishes into the target.” (2:3-4) The person who teaches the way to the Goal is the Guru, and s/he is to be treated with utmost respect.
In this one verse Duryodhana reveals his character by making a barbed comment to Drona, implying that it is in part his teacher’s fault that the Kauravas are now facing deadly enemies trained by Drona. Showing such disrespect to his teacher exposes Duryodhana’s unrighteous character.
Note Arjuna’s certainty in this verse that his enemies serve an evil-minded leader. This is important to a honorable warrior who should only fight for a just cause in a war that serves to re-establish dharma, righteousness. It is common to begin life with simplistic, idealistic notions of good and evil, but real life is rarely so black-and-white. Contrast Arjuna’s certainty in this verse with his attitude a short time later.
The Sanskrit title of this chapter is Sāṃkhya Yoga. I translate sāṃkhya as “reason” because it implies intelligence applied to a problem, as in the acts of counting or distinguishing one thing from another, which are other meanings of the word. Dualistic Sāṃkhya Philosophy employs reason specifically to separate Puruṣa from Prakṛti, as in the ascetic withdrawal of Yoga meditation, but non-dualistic Tantra goes one step further and reunites Śiva and Śakti as One in essence to bring one to “freedom while living” by making enlightenment an unbroken experience with eyes closed in meditation or with eyes open interacting with the perceived world.
Krishna first appeals to Arjuna’s pride as a nobleman and warrior, for whom glory on earth or immortality in heaven would normally be the reasons given to justify war. Arjuna is one of the great warrior-kings of his age, and accusing him of weakness ought to provoke a response.
klaibyam, that I translate as “cowardice” can also mean “unmanliness.” Krishna is in effect saying, “Don’t be a cowardly sissy, Arjuna” a taunt to which any true warrior should feel compelled to respond forcefully. Arjuna has been overwhelmed by tamas that produces inertia and confusion. Krishna is trying to arouse Arjuna’s rajas, dynamism, by which he may overcome tamas and rise above his depressed state. Tantra values rajas used for this purpose. Stimulating Arjuna’s pride, for instance, can get him out of his stuck place to begin taking effective action. The rajo-guna can work both for and against a spiritual aspirant. When it helps one overcome laziness or confusion, transforming tamas into sattva, it is helpful. When it disrupts mental equilibrium and leads to exhaustion, transforming sattva into tamas, it is harmful. Intention plays a key role in the transformational action of rajas.
Tantra teaches that the Guru should be revered as God. To kill one’s Guru, therefore, would normally be a great sin. Arjuna seems to be making a strong case here for withdrawing from this fight. How could fighting against one’s Gurus and other revered elders ever be considered righteous? Dharma requires even warriors to refrain from unrighteous warfare.
Arjuna now admits he does not know which is better, to fight and win or to lose and suffer defeat. The warrior-prince has already abandoned the certainty of the previous verse and admitted doubt. As long as the disciple thinks s/he knows something, there is no space left in understanding for what is unknown; there is not yet readiness to receive instruction. But when s/he acknowledges his or her ignorance humbly, then only can real instruction begin. “Only the empty cup may be filled.”
Arjuna has lived his entire life as a warrior-prince; that is his true nature. It is the duty of warriors to wage war to defend the innocent and helpless. A true warrior cannot allow ordinary notions of pity to cloud his judgement when the time to fight has come, but Arjuna realizes that is what has happened here. He admits he no longer knows what his duty is in this situation, and therefore he turns to his Guru and Friend for guidance.
In tantric practice there are many ways an aspirant may stray from the path. Simple spiritual instructions sometimes get elaborated through the disciple’s imagination in ways that are not spiritually fruitful. The Guru’s clear guidance, “Do it this way, not that way,” can help the disciple progress more rapidly. But to be ready to receive the Guru’s guidance the disciple must first acknowledge s/he does not know the best way. The Guru must respond to any disciple who acknowledges doubt or ignorance and makes a sincere request for guidance.
At this dramatic moment, when the fate of the known world seems to hang in the balance, Krishna smiles as if he is about to burst out laughing. What could he find so funny right now? The text introduces this bit of levity here, foreshadowing the instruction that follows that will put everything in perspective. Although Arjuna has taken refuge in Krishna and asked for his instruction, he nevertheless makes the absolute declaration, “I will not fight.” Krishna by smiling as if says, “We shall see about that.”
Disciples often hold back their full surrender even when asking for instruction. They may not believe the Guru can truly help them. They may not fully believe in the spiritual Goal, or their ability to attain it. The Guru does not require blind faith, but just the minimum faith needed for the disciple to give his or her instructions a good try before casting judgement.
Krishna begins by reminding Arjuna that life and death and the many changes we experience as embodied beings form an endless chain of existences stretching into the distant past and unknown future. When we get so focused on the details of our daily lives, we easily lose sight of the larger perspective. This is not to trivialize the real crises we may experience in life but to remind us that “This, too, shall pass.” Keeping in mind the larger perspective can help us develop forbearance in the face of life’s changes.
The senses and their objects are non-eternal in contrast to the true Self that is eternal. Krishna invites Arjuna and all of us to seek that which is eternal and avoid grieving for or fretting about what passes away naturally in the course of life. Suffering occurs when we attempt to deny or escape from, rather than confront honestly, the many hardships of living.
Although Krishna seems to be advocating a type of stoicism here, in fact he is describing the experience of the enlightened person who has known from first-hand experience that One Consciousness has become the phenomenal world. The tantric spiritual aspirant in the Bhuta-Shuddhi ritual practices tracing the source of each sensation back to its Source in Pure Consciousness. Through this practice s/he develops the ability to view all types of sense experiences equally. This is not to say the aspirant no longer feels pain or experiences pleasure. Rather s/he learns to experience the same Essence in both. When this practice blossoms into full realization, the aspirant, having become the deity worshipped, experiences the world through the form and senses of the deity, knowing Bliss everywhere.
Krishna again describes the experience of the enlightened person who has seen that the Essence alone abides while names and forms that make up phenomenal existence come and go. The “real” here means that which abides in the past, present, and future. The “unreal” means that which is transient or imaginary. In Tantra even the imaginary has some existence as imaginary, yet another manifestation of Consciousness. The point is to look beyond the appearance to the Essence.
Krishna urges Arjuna to realize that his grief over the impending deaths of his foes is misplaced. Nothing essential is ever lost or destroyed even when the body falls.
Spiritual aspirants should impress upon their minds both the transience of the world of appearances and the permanence of the Essence, for from this type of meditation comes a deep conviction in the importance of spiritual practice. Tantric practitioners have been known to meditate on a corpse or in cremation grounds to nurture a reality-based understanding of the transience of human life. The reality is all things must pass, and the more we live in awareness of that reality, the closer we are to truth.
In the Mahabharata we find the story of Arjuna’s encounter with a Sphinx who requires him to answer a riddle to save the lives of his brothers. The riddle question was, “What is the most amazing thing in the world?” The correct answer is that humans everywhere see other humans dying every day, yet no one believes s/he will die. [needs reference]
Note that bodies is plural while the dweller is singular. One Self dwells in all bodies as Consciousness vivifying them and making them aware. Bodies here refers not only to the physical body but also to the subtle body, the repository of mind and karma that gives rise to new incarnations. Though more durable than the physical body, the subtle body, too, is non-eternal. The answer to Arjuna’s dilemma once again is to look beyond the surface appearance to the inner Essence that does not perish. There is no reason for grief or for shirking his duty to fight. This is true wisdom.
The truly wise person, the Self-realized, knows that the Self remains unaffected by any changes in the phenomenal world. Identified with this Self, a person cannot be said to be the cause of karma, which operates only within the phenomenal world. This would seem an impractical teaching for a man on the verge of battle, but it lays the groundwork for Krishna’s teachings that follow how to make every action part of one’s spiritual practice. It is necessary to understand the eternal, unmoving ground of existence to know how to act in the world in a way that frees one from bondage to karma.
This description of the Self can help one begin to imagine the nature of Pure Consciousness. This is useful in meditation and also in understanding how phenomena arising from Consciousness nevertheless do not change its essential nature.
This marks the end of Krishna’s argument based on metaphysics. It refutes Arjuna’s suggestion that a wise or righteous man should avoid this battle because killing kinsmen is a sin. Krishna defines wisdom as Self-knowledge, from the standpoint of which no one is ever born or dies.
This verse concisely delineates different classes of knowledge. The highest class of knowledge is “seeing,” i.e., direct experience, or unmediated experience. This experience of Self is called unmediated because it does not involve the physical senses or individual mind. Knowledge derived through the senses and mind is at best partial and subject to distortion or deception. This highest class of knowledge occurs in superconscious vision sometimes called samadhi. In the highest tantric realization the aspirant merges in the Supreme Self and sees the world through the eyes of God/dess, as it were. Thus s/he experiences the one Self both with eyes closed and with eyes open.
Those who speak of the Self may be spiritual teachers with direct knowledge who transmit this knowledge to others. Not all enlightened souls teach others, however. Some quietly live their lives as hidden yogis, silently blessing all they meet by their mere presence and the force of their thoughts that radiate good will to all.
Those spiritual aspirants who listen to the words of the enlightened with humility and respect hear of the Self and internalize the teachings, using them to as guides to spiritual practice and inspiration to keep struggling until realization.
And there are some who may hear the truth a thousand times and fail to grasp its import.
The word “astonishing” perfectly captures the emotional impact of the enlightenment experience. One is literally astonished to experience the phenomenal personality, the individual body and mind, dissolve into Oneness and the realization that God/dess alone exists. It is also astonishing when the individual reconstitutes after samadhi, knowing oneself without doubt to be “no-thing” as an individual and everything as Self.
This verse ends the section that delineates the reasons Arjuna should not grieve. Anticipating that this philosophical argument alone might be inadequate to convince the warrior-prince, Krishna switches another line of argumentation likely to appeal to a warrior’s pride and sense of honor.
The idea of a righteous war may seem quaint in our modern world, but we do distinguish “wars of necessity” from “wars of choice.” A righteous warrior should never shirk his duty to defend the defenseless and preserve the social order, but he should never initiate a war for unrighteous reasons.
This verse expresses the radical shift in attitude that Krishna teaches as Karma Yoga, a method for making any action, not only warfare, a spiritual practice. To view all possible outcomes as the same shifts one’s attention and intention away from the results of one’s actions toward the spiritual reality that underlies all things where all is truly One. This is not mere stoicism, restraining one’s reactions to stimuli, but a profound shift in identity to the indwelling Self that is unaffected by any action.
The word “Yoga” here refers to Karma Yoga, the main topic of the Gita. Arjuna expressed uncertainty about his duty in the face of the impending war that pits relatives, friends, and beloved teachers against one another. He offered some arguments for why he perhaps should not fight, but Krishna has refuted all of them.
Now Krishna shifts from trying to convince Arjuna to fight to teaching him how to make his actions into spiritual practice. The rest of the Gita teaches various approaches to spiritual practice, affirming that liberation or enlightenment is the overriding goal of human life, while victory or defeat are relatively unimportant concerns. Delivering this teaching in the midst of a battlefield makes a powerful statement about making our spiritual goal paramount no matter what our duties in life.
Action in a spiritual context typically refers to ritual, and in the time of the Gita this meant Vedic ritual. Such rituals required strict adherence to ritual rules, and only brahmans could perform them. If the priest made a mistake, the effort would be wasted, or worse, the ritual might yield the opposite of what it was intended to do. Krishna explains that in Karma Yoga every act becomes equivalent to sacred ritual but without the dangers inherent in Vedic rituals.
Krishna teaches this yoga saves one from great fear, by which he means fear of what? Without further explanation it would appear the meaning should be obvious. The greatest fear of any person is fear of death of oneself and one’s loved ones. And it is precisely this fear that caused Arjuna to doubt his duty. The purpose of Karma Yoga is liberation, the same as other yogas. Liberation from identification with any body-mind identity frees one from the fear of death. It also frees one from the fear of isolation and meaninglessness, the other existential conditions of human life.
Arjuna asked his Guru, Krishna, to tell him what he should do. But the more fundamental question is, What is Arjuna’s goal in life? For it is only by understanding one’s goal that one may understand the way to achieve it. Arjuna and his brothers ostensibly have come to the battlefield to regain their kingdom and reestablish righteousness. But Krishna urges Arjuna to look beyond this worldly goal to the greater goal of Self-realization and spiritual liberation. From the point of view of the liberated soul winning or losing the war is the same. By focusing Arjuna’s mind on this transcendent spiritual goal Krishna cuts through the confusion and doubt about what should be done. Arjuna’s warrior nature will compel him to fight. His duty compels him to fight. But how he fights will determine if he remains bound or gets liberated in the process. By keeping his higher goal in mind he can act with resolution and without fear of the outcome.
Hindus once widely believed Vedic rituals could compel the gods to grant worldly rewards and earn a higher place in heaven. One could, theoretically, even attain the status of Indra, king of the gods. Such rewards are necessarily temporary since the actions performed to gain them are finite. After enjoying the pleasures of heaven the righteous soul gets reborn as a human being, and s/he is back on the wheel of birth, death, and rebirth. Only liberation can produce enlightenment and freedom from the wheel of rebirth. Those whose energies are focused on gaining rewards in this life and in heaven have not the requisite intention and focus to attain samadhi, the state of one-pointed absorption that produces Self-Knowledge and liberation.
The Tantras teach that an individual must pass through many types of worldly and heavenly enjoyment before s/he will be ready for liberation. Outer renunciation of the world will not work unless the inner desire for experience gets exhausted. Karma Yoga enables a spiritual aspirant to continue exhausting desires for worldly experience while developing the detachment needed to transcend the world. As Swami Vivekananda told his disciple Sarat Chandra Chakravarty, “When one is satiated with Bhoga [worldly experience, enjoyment], then it is that one will listen to and understand the teachings on Yoga.” (Complete Works, Volume 5, “Conversations and Dialogues.”)
The phenomenal universe, according to Hindu metaphysics, consists of three qualities, tamas, inertia, rajas, dynamism, and sattva, equanimity. Collectively these compose Prakṛti, nature, the material universe. Vedic rituals, having worldly and heavenly gain as their object, deal with the world of the three gunas. Krishna exhorts Arjuna to transcend this limited world and become established in the Self that is non-dual, peaceful, satisfied in the Self, and Self aware.
The direct knowledge of Brahman/Self is more comprehensive than knowledge contained in books or even in thought. There is no substitute for direct knowledge. As Sri Ramakrishna said, Knowledge of Brahman has never been defiled by the tongue because it cannot be expressed in words.
This oft-quoted verse reads somewhat like a riddle or a Zen koan. Krishna says we have the right to action, but only if we act without motivation or hope for a result. If there were no motivation at all, then why would anyone move to do anything at all? The text challenges us to question who we are and not merely what we should or should not do. What is the meaning of action or inaction in relationship to the Self? If the Self does not act and is unaffected by action, then who does act?
This is the beginning of the discussion of Shiva and Shakti, to use tantric terminology. Shiva is inactive and Shakti is all-active. Both are Consciousness. It will be in part by learning to distinguish these two within ourselves that we learn to fulfill Krishna’s command in this verse.
Yoga here refers to Karma Yoga, the performance of action while mindful of one’s true nature. Evenness here means the calm, mindful state of mind that enables one to see failure and success as equal manifestations of the one Consciousness. Krishna challenges Arjuna to practice this Yoga in the midst of battle, when the mind and senses will be highly active. It requires skill like surfing, the ability to keep one’s balance even while riding a powerful wave that may be crashing at your heels.
The word buddhi in the original text I translate as “awakening.” It comes from a root that means “be awake, awaken.” The idea is to cultivate the calm alertness of the archer poised to shoot his arrow. Once released the arrow follows its own course, subject to wind and moving objects that may deflect it. The archer in the moment before releasing the arrow is unconcerned with what s/he cannot control. His or her attention remains on the present moment, finding through visual and kinetic senses when and where s/he should release the shot. That moment of poised awareness is every moment of life lived awake. The archer whose mind leaves the moment to seek the course of the arrow misses the mark. Entangled in desires and the limited identity that spawns them, a person falls into the net of karma and gets bound.
Buddhi, awakening, is that place in Consciousness where Shiva meets Shakti, where Consciousness as Witness beholds Consciousness in action. It is the act of beholding, the Self-luminous Consciousness revealing itself in motion.
To forsake that which is well or poorly done here does not mean giving up action altogether. Rather, it means shifting attention away from the results of action to the action itself as Yoga. It means remaining awake in the moment, identifying with the Self or Paramashiva witnessing the wondrous activities of Shakti.
“What is to be heard” and “what has been heard” refers to the teachings of scriptures, especially the Upanishads. Krishna states that direct spiritual experience takes one beyond what is merely heard or written into realization of oneself as the essence of all things. That mystical awakening reveals much more than what has been passed down orally and later in writing through generations. This teaching applies to the enlightened only, as others may still require the guidance of Shruti, revealed scripture, to walk the path correctly. However, as Sri Ramakrishna said, scriptures are like a shopping list. Once you have obtained the items on the list, the list may be discarded.
Scriptures alone may be inadequate to provide all the guidance needed to reach the Goal of life. For this reason the Tantras insist that the guidance of an enlightened Guru is necessary. One who has not walked the path cannot advise anyone with authority about the path.
Through correct application of the Guru’s teachings, the disciple learns to merge in the Primal Consciousness that fills one with the Light of penetrating understanding. After this experience the enlightened one knows without doubt that everything that exists or can exist is a manifestation of Consciousness that is the real Self. As this awareness
becomes habitual, one attains the state of equanimity Krishna calls Yoga.
Krishna begins answering Arjuna’s question by defining his terms. A person of steady wisdom is one who has conquered desires and is satisfied in and by the Self. Desire is always for something “not-self,” something other than what we have or are. Self-realization reveals the Self as all things entirely, and desire therefore becomes superfluous. To conquer desire, therefore, means discovering our Reality-based relationship to desire: desire rises in the mind naturally and spontaneously as waves on the ocean without changing the fundamental nature of the ocean. It does not mean an enlightened person necessarily sits like a lump on a log, utterly unmotivated by desire. Enlightenment does not make one less of a person, incapable of human experiences and feelings, but more. The enlightened person knows him- or herself apart from the natural desires that pass through the mind. One sees these as just another aspect of Consciousness, that is the essence of Self. The enlightened may or may not act upon any of these desires. What is missing in most cases is any sense of compulsion.
I say “in most cases” because we see in the lives of great souls, even of Incarnations of God/dess like Ramakrishna, what appears like compulsion. During his period of spiritual struggle, he would be seized by a desire to experience God/dess in one or another way, and nothing would placate him until he had fulfilled that desire. St. Therese of Lisieux used to say that God gave her the desire for spiritual blessings she was about to receive from Him. In another place Krishna says, “I am in all beings desire unopposed to dharma.” (7:11) Such desire—what we might call spiritual desire—is not harmful, of course. So, Krishna is not telling us that a liberated person becomes a plaster-cast saint or a stone statue. The tantric holy person “eats, drinks, and makes merry,” but ever knowing that Consciousness alone plays in all these ways. In the radical non-dualism of Tantra even “bad” desires are known to be just another aspect of the Dark Goddess.
This raises the difficult question of the ethics of liberation. Although the practice of non-injury and truthfulness are prescribed as means to the attainment of Self-knowledge, and although “non-injury” is said in Tantra to be the highest dharma, in the blazing fire of Knowledge even virtue and its opposite get burned away, leaving only Pure Consciousness. Some have argued that the enlightened person is incapable of doing evil. This could mean that what an enlightened person does is by definition good. A seemingly evil, hurtful action may have beneficial consequences we cannot see, so it is impossible to judge any act in isolation as necessarily or purely good or evil.
The tough answer is that liberation confers freedom, and this freedom does not constrain the enlightened person in any way. Such a person cares little for the judgements of the unenlightened, incapable of seeing the bigger picture. The enlightened may adhere to social ethics to avoid confusing people, as Krishna says he does, or the enlightened may follow the mysterious currents of Consciousness into dark places and deeds that brand him or her outcast from society. As Ramakrishna used to say, the Self-realized person may appear mad, inert, or utterly disregard society’s notions of purity and piety, as he himself did at one time when he ate the leftovers of a jackal he fed.
The unenlightened, however, must not think that by abandoning conventional morality they are becoming more like the enlightened. That way, the demonic path, leads only to more darkness, delusion, and pain.
The enlightened person experiences joys and sorrows, as all people do. But mental waves that manifest as sorrows do not consume this person because s/he knows the Self that is beyond all sorrow, that is present even in sorrow. The liberated person feels all the joys of life but clings to nothing and to no one because s/he knows intimately that waves of joy come and go; the enlightened observe these manifestation of Self swirl through the infinite space Consciousness like colorful patterns on the surface of a soap bubble. Trying to cling to the bubble only hastens its demise.
The enlightened may manifest attachment, fear, and anger at times, appearing like an ordinary person, but at a deep level s/he knows this is mere play acting. These apparent defects of character do not bind or taint the liberated one. The liberated one knows that there is nothing to seek and nothing to avoid. It is all blissful Consciousness at play.
The events of everyday life pass through the enlightened mind as clouds across the sky. which remains unaffected. At the deep level of Self all dualities, pleasant/unpleasant, auspicious/inauspicious, holy/unholy, good/evil (which are all possible translations for the words śubha/aśubha that occur in the text I translated as “favorable or unfavorable”) merge into one Consciousness. The enlightened may involve themselves in life’s dramas or remain aloof. Knowing that any outcome is possible and one no better than any other, the enlightened may fight or strive passionately for a cause. No matter the outcome, the enlightened know that the enduring Self remain unaffected.
This verse describes the power of Yoga, the ability to withdraw attention from the outer world and focus it at will within. This is a powerful technique for piercing to the core of Reality. It is employed in tantric ritual in the process of Bhūta-śuddhi, when the tantrika ritually dissolves each sense organ into its Source in Prakṛti, burning the body and individual identity in the fire of Kundalini, and then unites with Parama-Shiva in the Thousand-petaled lotus, i.e, Pure Consciousness. After that, however, the tantrika creates a divine body from mantra through which to experience the transformed world as a manifestation of the same Consciousness. Withdrawal is necessary as a first step toward realizing the essential Truth, i.e., Oneness, but then the task is taking that same realization into ordinary life with the senses functioning. Then only can a person’s spiritual purpose be fulfilled.
The enlightened see the world of the senses as a manifestation of Consciousness, so in that sense they disappear as sense objects, leaving only their essence, i.e., Consciousness.
Sense objects also get left behind in deep meditation and samadhi. This only happens when the world of the senses cease to be alluring, when the person no longer desires or seeks any experience in the phenomenal world.
The word translated here as “taste,” rasa, also means “juice.” It implies deep enjoyment of anything in its essence. Enjoyment requires three things, an enjoyer, the object of enjoyment, and the act of enjoyment. So long as there is any ego remaining, the deep enjoyment of the essential Consciousness also remains. When the ego dissolves in the vision of Pure Consciousness, even that distinction dissolves along with it, and the enjoyer, enjoyed, and act of enjoyment become One.
Control of the senses can be accomplished using two, different, complementary methods. The ascetic method prescribes the practice of withdrawing the senses from sense objects and placing the attention repeatedly on Krishna, here representing the Ishta-devata, the Chosen Deity, or Parama-Shiva, the Supreme Self. The ecstatic method, which complements the ascetic, involves affirming the one Consciousness manifested as the sensory world. Combining these two methods, yogic meditation with mindful engagement with the world, the yogi can succeed at conquering the senses through patient, persistent practice and detachment, developed through remembrance of the transience of sense objects.
Thinking repeatedly about sense objects merely as sense objects—rather than as manifestations of Consciousness—leads to attachment, desire to experience the objects, and frustrated anger, if the desire is not fulfilled. Anger disrupts the mind, generating delusion, i.e., disconnection from reality. The lessons of the past get forgotten, and one’s ability to know what is important spiritually gets lost. When that happens the person is spiritually lost.
The danger of the tantric path occurs when desirable objects (especially persons) get incorporated in practice. It can be all too easy to forget one’s spiritual purpose in the sensual enjoyment of a sexy partner. For this reason traditional Tantra prescribes ritual processes that pointedly diminish the sense of the materiality of the ritual objects (including tantric partners) and develop remembrance of the spiritual substratum, Pure Consciousness, that manifests in as sense objects. These processes too often get omitted in Neo-Tantra, leading to greater delusion and attachment rather than to Liberation.
Not everyone can accomplish all types of tantric practice from the outset. Most need to start with less overwhelming sense experiences than sexual intercourse to begin to develop the ability to connect sense experience with Consciousness. Tantra utilizes other types of pleasing sense objects, e.g., sweets-smelling flowers and perfumes, delicious foods, beautiful fabrics, graceful yak-tail fans, and lovely, deliciously scented butter lamps. More elaborate rituals incorporate dance, song, cannabis, wine, and after-meal mouth fresheners or tobacco. All of these enjoyable objects get pointedly converted through ritual into manifestations of Consciousness before the practitioner actually enjoys them as such. This same practice may be generalized to all of waking life, and that is, indeed, the purpose of the formal rituals. But trying to jump to the spontaneous experience of One Consciousness manifesting as the phenomenal world without undergoing the requisite disciplines and training to generate this experience through the transformation of one’s own identity into the Divine Being results in spiritual delusion.
The tantric aspirant must train the senses through inner and outer ritual to perceive the One Consciousness that manifests as the sensory world. Accomplishing this, the person neither gets attached to pleasant experiences nor allows unpleasant experiences to unsettle the mind, as both are seen as the same in essence. Such a one attains the serenity of same-sightedness. Even when this person outwardly seems to delight or grieve, inwardly s/he knows the stillness of Pure Consciousness.
I like to compare this method of encountering sense objects to surfing. The skilled surfer has learned to maintain a dynamic balance on the surfboard while powerful waves form, propel him swiftly and gracefully toward shore, and crash around him. The untrained swimmer who braves the waves will get tumbled or even drowned. Through practice with small waves, however, even a neophyte with a normal sense of balance can learn the basics and prepare himself for more difficult challenges. So, also, a new tantric practitioner should train his senses through ritual with relatively less-overwhelming objects before trying to tackle life’s most overwhelming sense experiences.
The previous verses provide a context for understanding the words yukta and ayukta, “joined” and “disjoined,” that occur frequently in the text to mean here “disciplined” and “undisciplined,” respectively. Tantric disciplines generally fall into either of two categories, ascetic or ecstatic. Ascetic disciplines involve restraining or shutting off sensory input, and ecstatic disciplines train the senses to remain mindful of our spiritual Essence while fully functioning. Silent meditation is an ascetic discipline, because it requires one to sit still and withdraw attention from the external world to focus on an object or process. Tantra utilizes the inner senses, i.e., imagination, to create appealing, divine objects of devotion that help us learn to steady and calm our minds and develop devotion. Ritual worship is mostly an ectatic practice, requiring one to engage in a variety of pleasing, sensory tasks in a context that relates every action to remembrance of the divine.
Krishna states unequivocally that discipline is required, but he also promises a great reward: happiness.
Being lead by the senses like a bullock by a ring in its nose is not Tantra but hedonism. Tantra teaches training the senses, so that the senses follow the mind rather than the mind follows the senses. The Bhūta-śuddhi exercise trains the mind to trace each sense impression back to its Source in Pure Consciousness. The spiritual aspirant engages the sensory world after dissolving the individual body and mind into Pure Consciousness and then remaking a divine body from mantra, which is yet another form of Consciousness. When successful, the aspirant experiences the world through the senses of God/dess, seeing everything shining with the Light of Consciousness.
Ascetic and ecstatic practices form the in-breath and out-breath of spiritual life. Both are required to gain control over the senses and mind. A tantric aspirant has achieved the goal when sense experiences carry him or her to remembrance and experience of the divine substratum.
Nighttime here is a metaphor for the darkness of spiritual ignorance, the inability to see the One underlying the many. Lacking this vision the unenlightened pursue various sense objects as if their lives depended on it. The sage who sees the One within the many enjoys the world as a manifestation of Consciousness. The enlightened, free from slavery to desire, may not strive for worldly gain or experiences, and so their motives appear disconnected from the reality of the unenlightened. Some sages appear to live normal lives in the world, however, and only they see the connection between everyday actions and the underlying Reality.
Tantric rituals that transgress against conventional morality are traditionally performed at night, and so this verse can also refer to secret, ritual practices involving the consumption of otherwise-forbidden meat, fish, wine, aphrodisiacal grains, and sex done out of the sight of the uninitiated.
On the cusp of enlightenment the spiritual aspirant may be filled with energies that preclude sleep, and so s/he may stay up at night in meditation while the world sleeps.
Though rivers pour continuously in the ocean, it remains undisturbed and unchanged. So also desires enter the mind of the enlightened, but that one remains detached and undisturbed by them, having realized his/her essential Oneness with the Source of all things, the Ocean of Consciousness that underlies all existence. The enlightened knows desire as just another manifestation of Consciousness.
Those ignorant of the true nature of desire run after non-eternal objects of the senses seeking satisfaction that can only be realized in the vision of the One behind the many. A tantric aspirant enjoys sense objects as manifestations of Consciousness, knowing the objects as objects cannot give lasting enjoyment. Thus the aspirant exhausts the energy of desire quickly, burning everything in the fire of the knowledge of Oneness.
As the previous verse explained, desire enters the mind of the enlightened just as it does the ordinary person, but the enlightened one does not identify with desire, and therefore is free of bondage to desire. The key is detachment. As Ramakrishna taught, a maidservant in a rich man’s house cares for his children, calling them “My Hari,” “My Ram,” but in her heart she knows they are not her own. She has her children back in her village, and if she is fired, she will have to leave without taking anything with her, not even a worthless mangowood box. Just so, spiritual aspirants live in the world, perhaps appearing as ordinary people who speak of this or that person or thing as their own, but the spiritual aspirant knows it is all transient, that death may take everything away at any moment, and that the real home is the Eternal Self.
The expression “without ego” does not mean there is no sense of individual identity in the normal, waking state. As Ramakrishna taught, even the great world teachers like Shankaracarya and Sukhdeva retained a shadow of ego in order to be able to function in the world and deliver their teachings. The tantric adept knows this ego, that Ramakrishna compared to a burnt string, is also a manifestation of the One Consciousness. The adept plays in the world, as Ramakrishna said, “eating, drinking, and making merry,” but without attachment or the false idea that s/he does anything. It is all the play of the Goddess. The key insight of enlightenment is that the individual self, or jīva, is no-thing, only a dynamic pattern of functions, while the Self is everything.
The word I translate as “bliss” in this passage, nirvāṇa, in its primary meaning denotes “blown out,” as a flame gets extinguished. It can also mean “perfect calm.” So the full meaning involves extinction of individual identity, calm, and bliss. The notion of individual identity gets blown to pieces in the Light of realization, and only the blissful, tranquil Ocean of Consciousness remains. When the enlightened return to normal consciousness, the ego begins to function again, but the memory of the experience remains. At death the enlightened merge with the Light.
The word translated here as “skillful means” is niṣṭhā, “state, condition, position” that also implies “steadiness, devotion, and skill.” Any spiritual practice to be successful must be performed with steadiness, devotion, and skill, a dynamic state of total commitment to the task.
The word translated here as “sinless” can also mean “handsome,” but sinless seems most appropriate in this context, as Krishna states clearly he considers his student a man of virtue, and thus worthy to receive spiritual instruction.
Sāṃkhya and Yoga are two of the six orthodox philosophies of Hinduism. One stresses reason as a spiritual method and other stresses mental training, primarily meditation, as a spiritual method. However, in this verse Yoga means Karma Yoga, the way of mindful action or ritualized action.
Arjuna had suggested in Chapter One he should renounce his role as warrior, and retire to the forest to become a renunciate or sannyāsī. Krishna tells him that is not the way to attain the perfection he seeks. In Tantra there is no need to renounce anything, because everything is Consciousness. Remembrance of this truth in the midst of action is the way, not mere avoidance of action.
Prakṛti is a technical term from Sāṃkhya philosophy that refers to the the primal material of manifestation. It consists of three “threads,” or guṇas, sattva, rajas, and tamas. Sattva tends toward equilibrium, rajas toward activity, and tamas toward inertia. As any one or the other guṇa predominates in any being at any given time, that being will be inclined to one of the three states.
In Sāṃkhya prakṛti is inert matter, but in Tantra prakṛti gets personified as Śakti or Māyā-Śakti, the Goddess, Consciousness in the mode of manifestation. Śakti “plays” in and as the world through the three guṇas that are never static but always combining and recombining in infinite forms. Thus creatures evolve and grow, abide, and decay through the ceaseless play of Śakti. Their inner natures, determined by the predominant gunas, force beings to act without ceasing. The idea is that Śakti alone acts in the universe, saṃsāra, “the flow.” Beings only imagine they do anything of their own accord.
The organs of action are the hands, feet, tongue, anus, and sex organs. It is through these organs one interacts with the world. Mere restraint of the organs by force of will is not enough if the mind still runs after sense experiences.
It is best to engage the senses, trained through ritual, to exhaust desires in various actions, remembering that Consciousness alone plays as all these.
The word I translated as “ever,” niyatam, can also mean “proper, customary” so that sentence could also read, “Perform the action prescribed by your station in life.” In either meaning, Krishna clearly recommends action over inaction for Arjuna, whose station in life is warrior-prince. Arjuna’s role is not merely determined by birth but also by Arjuna’s inner nature. He is a man of action by temperament. For him now, in the face of war, to think of leaving it all and retiring to the forest is out of character for him and unrealistic.
Throughout the Gita the word “karma” can be understood to mean “ritualized action.” In some places it refers to actual Vedic ritual sacrifice, the primary form of religious practice at that time, as far as we know. But Krishna introduces the idea that any action may acquire the liberating power of formal ritual by performing the action in a ritual frame of mind, what I call mindfulness. There are other aspects to this ritual frame of mind that Krishna mentions next.
The phrase “for that” refers to ritual worship, yajña, “sacrifice.” Krishna instructs Arjuna to perform his duty ritualistically, and he adds the injunction to be “free of attachment.” Ordinary Vedic rituals may be performed for a specific worldly or other-worldly goal, e.g., to gain progeny or to secure a place in heaven. Attachment to or hankering after specific results creates karma that keeps a person bound. That is not the kind of ritual action Krishna means when he says ritual actions are not bound by the laws of karma.
To be conducive to liberation actions must be performed mindfully, and without attachment to the results. Being free from attachment to results may make no sense at first glance, because no one acts, it seems, unless motivated by the desire for a specific outcome. Krishna will elaborate on these themes as we go through the text, specifically defining ritualized or mindful action and also how to act without attachment.
Prajāpati, the Lord of Creatures, is the Creator God Brahmā, who is also the author of the Vedas, which prescribe the rules and procedures of ritual sacrifice. These fire rituals took place on specially constructed altars made of bricks whose precise dimensions are given in the texts. It was believed that Vedic rituals, properly performed, could compel the demigods in heaven to fulfill desires.
The tantric ideal is to ritualize all of life, i.e., seeing the One Brahman within all things and within all actions. Although this verse sounds rather severe, the true import of it is to make even seemingly insignificant, everyday tasks like preparing and eating food part of one’s spiritual practice. The following verse explains the ancient Vedic concept of how rain and crops were linked to functions of Vedic gods. Tantric rituals often include worship of minor deities, such as the deity of the floor (Vastupuruṣa) as a way to train the mind to see Consciousness everywhere.
Krishna thus traces all actions and their results back to Brahman, i.e., Pure Consciousness, the Source of all being. To keep actions from creating binding karma, therefore, a person must keep in mind the true Source of existence and remain detached from any particular result, acknowledging that the Power (Śakti) that creates beings, impels their actions, and produces various results is the true Doer. We are only instruments of that Power.
Vedic rituals, however, are not appropriate in the Kali Yuga, our present Iron Age. In this age the rituals prescribed by the Tantras hold sway, being tailored to the needs of people whose lives are short and who may find it difficult to hold to virtue. Although the present age may breed spiritual darkness, it is nevertheless easier now to attain liberation, if one employs effective means.
Sense experience alone, without awareness of the Source, leads to greater delusion and a spiritually fruitless life. This has always been the warning of the Tantras to those who imagine its use of the senses in ritual invites one to hedonistic indulgence. Senses trained through ritual enable actions that free one from the bonds of karma and open the door to enlightenment.
Although Krishna references Vedic sacrificial ritual in these verses—rites only performed by members of the brāhmaṇa caste—he uses it as a metaphor for the universally applicable ritualization of all action that he is teaching Arjuna, whose challenge is to remember Brahman/Śiva, the Ground of Being, behind every action as he engages in fierce battle and to accept victory or defeat as the same fromt the point of view of Pure Consciousness.
The word kāryam, “what should be done,” I translate here as “obligatory action,” a reference to actions prescribed by Hindu laws to specific castes. Arjuna’s duty is to defend the righteous and preserve order in society by force, if necessary, and Krishna uses this argument initially to try to convince his disciple and friend to shake off his hesitation to fight. But in this verse he points to a higher goal, liberation, in which the individual is no longer subject to any such laws. Krishna is not saying Arjuna should not fight; rather, he is saying he should fight fully identified with the Atman, the higher Self, free from the compulsions of his station in life.
Ordinary persons act or decline to act directed by desires for specific outcomes or to impress people. The liberated person, identified with Pure Consciousness, has none of these compulsions. Such a one knows Śakti alone acts in the world. The Self is the Witness.
Janaka was the king of Videha and the father of Sītā, who became Rāma’s wife. Janaka was known as a brahma-jñānī, a “knower of Brahman.” The reference is apt here, since Arjuna is also royalty, and they both had the duty of the warrior-caste to protect their realms. But Janaka ruled knowing that the Self is the Witness and all actions proceed from Śakti. This is the secret for converting ordinary action into a spiritually potent practice.
Outwardly, the wise and the unwise may appear alike in their actions, but inwardly there is a world of difference between actions performed with attachment versus actions performed with detachment. The former binds the individual to the cycle of birth-death-rebirth, while the latter frees one from bondage. To “desire the welfare of the world” means to act without causing harm, unless harm is needed to reestablish righteousness, as in the Kurukṣetra war.
The Self, Paramaśiva or Paramapuruṣa, by its very nature is actionless, unmoving, and unchanging. Action proceeds from Śakti alone, which is here called Prakṛti, the efficient and material cause of the universe. Individuals ignorant of their true nature assume they alone act out of their own free will. Ramakrishna used to compare them to vegetables jumping about in a boiling pot imagining they jump under their own power.
This teaching must be especially challenging to Arjuna who believed he came to the battle of his own free will and also declined to fight the same way. Krishna reminds his disciple and friend that what we normally think of as “self” is merely a dynamic pattern of psychophysical functions, themselves products of the three guṇas, which are the substance of Prakṛti. Ahaṃkāra, “ego,” is the I-making function that arrogates various experiences to a single center of Consciousness. Ego creates the sense of being a separate entity operating under its own power, but deeper analysis and direct experience refute this version of reality, revealing the more abiding truth that all actions occur of themselves, governed by Śakti, whose playful will is the only element of freedom in this process.
To realize this deeper truth one must disidentify from the psychophysical organism and shift identity into Pure Consciousness, the Witness of all these actions. In ascetic meditation this involves withdrawing attention from the observable universe, but in ecstatic practice it means affirming the presence of Consciousness in everything. A step in this direction is acknowledging the actions of deities, which are Consciousness personified. In the ultimate reduction, even these deities merge in the One, but as long as an individual operates through ahaṃkāra, individual identity, so long will these other personifications of Consciousness continue to have relevance for practice.
Detachment in the midst of action can be achieved by recognizing that all actions are the work of Prakṛti alone. This includes the actions of the senses, mind, and body. Krishna here describes a profound detachment from the body-mind complex and identity with the Witness Consciousness. Just as Śiva lies like a corpse under the feet of Kālī, serenely watching her dance of creation, sustenance, and destruction, the knower of Truth watches the dance of the organs of knowledge and the organs of action in concert with the elements of external world. Regardless of the results, the knower remains serene in the Self-knowledge.
If those who have realized the Self, and thus have realized they are not the Doer of action, withdraw from the world and fail to do their duty, as Arjuna is here being asked to do, they will confuse those whose way to spiritual freedom lies through the performance of selfless, detached action. Arjuna should rather do his duty with detachment, as previously described, and thus he will serve as a model for others less enlightened.
It is all too easy to spout high philosophy as an excuse to avoid unpleasant duties. There are few fit actually to live the philosophy they espouse. Ramakrishna said it was easy to reason away the thorns on a tree as ultimately insubstantial, but quite another to prick one’s finger on them. They do not seem so insubstantial then.
The true non-dualist must be ready to see the same Truth in pain as well as pleasure. Tantra intentionally uses abhorrent substances and actions in ritual to train the mind to see the same Consciousness in all. Those who imagine they will only take the fun sexual ritual, wine, and cannabis, and avoid encountering the unpleasantness of life do not understand the true spirit of Tantra at all. They are hedonists, not tāntrikas, no matter how much that say, “Tantra, Tantra.” Ramakrishna touched his tongue both to sandal paste and to excrement and found them the same from the point of view of Pure Consciousness. He perceived both were equally products of the guṇas of Prakṛti.
But those of animal natures (paśus), unable to understand how pleasure and pain can be equal, must begin spiritual life from where they are. They will use only beautiful and pleasing articles in worship, taking care to observe conventional rules of purity and morality. By this path they will progress quickly. To attempt a practice beyond one’s capacity invites spiritual ruin.
Ramakrishna used to say, “God alone is the Doer.” Consciousness acts through an individual body-mind, but if the individual takes no possession of these acts, attributing them to Prakṛti while shedding hope for a particular outcome, then the acts do not create further karmic consequences, i.e., they do not bind.
The word translated as “Supreme” (adhyātmā) can also mean the “Spiritual Self” or just the “Self.” In Tantra this would normally be personified as a particular deity such as Kṛṣṇa or Kālī. The personification of the Supreme Consciousness aids in meditation and enables the establishment of human-like relationships that nurture devotion. In relationship with the deity one may perform actions as an offering to the deity, ideally keeping the deity in mind during the performance of the actions.
The effective practice of Karma Yoga requires both faith and the resolution of ill feelings, whatever they may be. It is normal for spiritual aspirants to have doubts. These may be doubts about one’s ability to gain liberation, doubts about the suitability of one’s practice, or doubts about the knowledge of the teacher. These doubts need to be addressed and at least suspended, if not dispelled, before one will be ready to undertake the practice with full and sincere attention. Sometimes the practice may seem too simple, or sometimes it may seem too difficult. In either case patient persistence is needed to overcome the psychological obstacles to deeper awareness, and patience is born from faith.
This faith should not be blind. The aspirant receives instruction, and through sincere practice gets some results. These tangible results help grow faith more. Faith acts as a living, dynamic force, fed by practice and experience, and nurtured by seemingly external forces that feel like divine grace. Even when practice becomes dry and seemingly unproductive, faith acts like a beacon in the darkness to guide the aspirant onward.
The word translated here as “faith’ is śraddhā. Swami Vivekananda taught that śraddhā begins with faith oneself, in one’s ability to achieve what countless humans throughout history in various spiritual traditions have achieved, whether you call it “enlightenment,” “liberation,” or the “beatific vision.” The Divine Being is the “heart of the heart,” and the “mind of the mind.” It is not something exterior but rather one’s very Self. As one cultivates awareness of this inner mystery, faith grows, and the individual realizes that he or she can depend on this inner Truth and strength when the path seems dark and difficult.
What the body-mind does will continue to affect the body-mind. The Self remains unaffected. It is by realizing this essential Self that one gets freed from actions and their effects, which include being subjected to the process of birth, death, and rebirth in unpredictable and inevitably painful circumstances that attend the restriction of consciousness to an egocentric perspective.
Even when spiritual instruction is simple and clear, students often complain about practice that may seem at times hopelessly difficult. Students should voice their doubts and concerns to their teacher, and then apply what they are told with sincere faith. When complaining becomes a substitute for practice, however, delusion, mental darkness, and the destruction of one’s spiritual practice will follow.
The notion of free will perpetuates the illusion that we have infinite choices in our behavior. In fact our freedom of choice is seriously limited by the circumstances of our birth and genetic heritage. Arjuna, shocked by the prospect of fighting people he respects, may dream of going to the forest to live the life of a monk, but his warrior nature has brought him to the moment of battle, and all his training, both moral and physical impels him to fulfill his duty.
Modern spiritual aspirants may not easily gain such a clear understanding of their nature. Experimentation and self-awareness can enable one to discover one’s path in life. It is not that one path is superior to another, but our own path will always be better for us than the path of another. Humans by their human birth become qualified for liberation. However, past actions, even those from past lives, will largely determine one’s circumstances and direct one’s choices. Sri Krishna teaches us how to work within our natures to achieve the greatest goal in life. We do not need to become like Arjuna or like any saint or teacher from the past. We need only understand our own nature and work with that to detach ourselves from actions and their results.
It is natural to find some sense experiences attractive and other repulsive. It is striving to maximize the pleasant and minimize the painful that leads to bondage. The secret of Karma Yoga is to view all sense input as equal, the same Consciousness appearing in different forms.
The objections arises: “But shouldn’t we learn from our mistakes and avoid painful actions?”
And the common-sense answer is “Yes. Of course. Learn from mistakes, but leave the results of actions to God/dess.”
Although in more extreme and advanced forms of tāntrika practice spiritual aspirants seek truly unpleasant sense experiences and learn to overcome the aversion, but for most it is enough to practice accepting the unpleasant with the pleasant with equanimity. Just working with the concept that love and hatred are obstacles to be overcome can be elevating. Love here means the limited, ego-centric love that expresses as attachment and possessiveness, not the liberating universal love that awakens with higher spiritual knowledge.
Dharma is often translated as “duty.” That is certainly one meaning of the term as it is used here. However, the word implies much more than that. One’s dharma is one’s inner propensity toward enlightenment. It is the force of Truth within that keeps us from feeling fully satisfied with anything short of our true nature, i.e, Infinite Consciousness. It is our path to perfection, the road to personal and transpersonal fulfillment. It is that, by doing which, we ascend on the ladder of spiritual evolution. As such, it is our religion, our personal spiritual path, distinct from all others.
Tantra teaches that spiritual aspirants are either on pravṛtti mārga, “the path of going forth,” or nivṛtti mārga, “the path of return.” The first path leads to greater and greater involvement in the world and ever increasing bondage. The second path leads to less and less involvement in the world, and ever increasing effort to attain liberation. Tantra also categorizes spiritual aspirants according to their spiritual aptitude. The two main types are paśu and vīra, “animal” and “hero,” respectively. (There is also a third category, divya, “divine,” but that is reserved for exceptional persons of spiritual attainment.) The animal person’s dharma is much like that taught in every religion, a life of self-control, conventional morality, purity, and devotion. The hero person’s dharma requires him or her to challenge conventional notions of purity and piety to find the divine in things that most people would find abhorrent or at least not what most would consider spiritual.
Those of the animal nature who attempt spiritual practices that are beyond their capacity, e.g., sexual ritual, will not progress spiritually, but rather will become further ensnared in māyā, and delusion. Those of the heroic nature who fail to follow their inner propensity to seek the divine in all things without distinction will find themselves stalled in spiritual life.
Frustrated desire turns to anger, and anger impels people to sinful actions. In this case the guṇa rajas disrupts mental poise and drags the individual toward tamas and destructive actions. The same guṇa, rajas, when used to overcome the lethargy of tamas raises an individual toward sattva, the guṇa of equanimity and mental poise. Krishna advises Arjuna here not to fight out of anger. He must rise above the desire for kingdom and victory, and set his sights on liberation. He must overcome the tamas that caused his dejection and confusion but avoid losing his mental poise in desire for victory and anger at his foes.
Desires impel us to act to try to fulfill them, but Karma Yoga requires us to act without desire for a specific result. The energy of desire will still be there, but how we use that energy determines if we will retain or lose our mental poise.
Three degrees of hiding occur here. Smoke is relatively easy to dispel. Just a gust of air will do. Cleaning dust off a mirror requires more effort. A fetus must come to term before getting revealed. Delusion is not equal for all in all cases. Some will have to work harder to cut through the layers of darkness and ignorance that obscure the truth. Anger is especially destructive to spiritual discernment.
However, my guru used to advise us to utilize all feelings, even anger, in our spiritual struggle. Be angry at your restless mind and laziness. Ramakrishna used to say it is good to get angry with God/dess and demand that S/He appear to you. Use that energy to intensify practice. When anger is related to God/dess, then it no longer harms us.
Tantra teaches us to turn all our desires toward God/dess. As my guru used to say, lust for God. Eat to Him. Drink to Him. Do everything in remembrance of God/dess. Realize that anything we desire is attractive because of the presence of God/dess in that thing. In this way desire, which normally leads an aspirant into deeper delusion and attachment, serves to liberate the one who knows how to understand and use the energy of desire.
Without spiritual discernment the quest to satisfy desires can serve only to increase the delusion born of desire, like trying to put out a fire by pouring butter oil on it. In this sense desire can be like an insatiable fire.
The Self, which is Pure Consciousness, assumes the identity of an individual when filtered through the mind and body. The individual, therefore, takes this identification as a real experience of self. Why the One should wish manifest as the many is an eternal question. Some say for fun, to play through all the forms, dramas, tragedies, and joys, and sorrows of sense life. The way back to self is through disentangling one’s identity from the phenomenal self and discovering the essential Self.
Tantra accomplishes this one way through the ritual of bhūta-śuddhi, “purification of the elements.” Our experience as individuals in the world derives from five modalities of sense perception driven by a mind, the functions of which include cogitation, memory, imagination, ahaṃkāra, the “I-maker,” the function that arrogates all experiences to a single center of consciousness, and the intellect. In the bhūta-śuddhi ritual the aspirant focuses on each sense modality separately, beginning with smell and proceeding through taste, sight, touch, and sound. Real-time sense experience is traced back through the mind and from there to Pure Consciousness behind the mind, witnessing all these phenomena. Next the practitioner focuses on mental content, tracing that also back to Pure Consciousness. When this process works as intended, the individual merges in Pure Consciousness with the distinct feeling of coming home to the true Self. The mantra so’ham, “I am He,” is the affirmation of this experiences.
Restraint of the senses, etc., in Tantra means training them as described above. Desire, which Krishna exhorts Arjuna to slay, gets directed to God/dess, the symbol of the Self, and ultimately merges and finds fulfillment in That.
The spatial metaphor of relative height is used here to describe layers of identity, with the Self as the ultimate identity. Identification with the Self is the first part of bhūta-śuddhi, but the next part is constructing a divine body from mantra through which to experience the body-mind and the world as a manifestation of the same Self, the same Consciousness. Realizing the Self is jnāna, “knowledge,” but realizing the world as the Self is vijñāna, “Wisdom.”
Through Self-knowledge desire is known to be desire for the One only. When there is only the One, then desire gets fulfilled in That. So long a single thread of desire for worldly experience remains, one cannot merge in the Self. Absolute detachment is required. That need not be permanent, however. Desire may reemerge after samādhi, but then it is known that desire ultimately can only be for the One, for that is all that is.
The term rājarṣi, “royal sages,” is significant here. These sages, such as Janaka, were kings, married, active men, involved in the affairs of the world, just like Arjuna, yet they were also knowers of Brahman. They were not the retiring, forest-dwelling sages like the brahmarṣi, or “brahmaṇa sages.” Nor were they sannyāsis, monks. This teaching was specifically taught to highly active people, a point that is quite relevant to a man about to engage in warfare.
Krishna speaks here as Iśvara, Lord of the worlds, the first teacher of the first teachers of humans. Sat-Cit-Ānanda is ultimately the Guru of all. The eternal Truth lies within us. It prompts us in time to reconnect with the deep, inner Self, by doing which alone our lives will be fulfilled. Although the teaching is not new, and although the Truth is always within us, a teacher is required in each case to pass on the Truth in a way that it can be assimilated and realized in each generation. Sat-Cit-Ānanda is the Guru, but human gurus are still needed to act as windows on that Truth.
Krishna asserts that Arjuna is both a devotee and a friend. In tāntrika devotional practice the devotee cultivates one or another personal relationship with God/dess. Nevermind that God/dess and devotee in the final analysis are one Being. As long as ego operates, the feeling of separateness remains, and the devotee remains in one of the five devotional modes, śānta, “peaceful,” dāsya, “servant,” “child,” “slave,” “pet,” sakhya, “friend,” vātsalya, “parent,” madhūra, “lover.” Each successive mode contains all the characteristics of the previous modes. So a lover of God/dess may at times feel a peaceful relationship, or feel like serving the lover as Master, Father/Mother, or feel friendly with the lover, or like a parent caring for the lover as a child, or in the most intense erotic relationship. Krishna’s point is that these relationships are real, not imaginary. It will be through relationship that the individual progresses toward union.
Krishna begins here to explain the mystery of the Incarnation of God/dess. In Tantra Māyā is personified as the Goddess who manifests the world by assuming all its forms. Through this power of concealment and projection Krishna, the Supreme Consciousness, is able to hide his formless, unchanging Self and hide the power and glory of being the Lord of all things to appear in human form.
It is significant that Krishna states both that he is the Self and the Lord of creatures. All beings are in essence the same Self. But only Iśvara can be called Lord of creatures, who possesses the six divine powers—absolute overlordship, power, wealth, dispassion, fame, and knowledge —that make him Bhagavān. While ordinary individuals are forced to take human birth by their karma, Bhagavān is born of his own free will, free of the compulsion of karma.
Non-dualistic Vedānta as taught by Śaṅkara does not admit the existence of the Incarnation of God. Nevertheless, there are distinctions of power made among enlightened individuals. All are truly the Self in the ultimate sense, and they realize that in the enlightenment experience, yet some manifest more power to enlighten and teach than do others. Tantra generally accepts Incarnation theory, and in this regard it is more in line with the orthodox teachings of the Gītā and mainstream Hindu thought than is Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta.
In the Purāṇas ten primary Incarnations of Viṣṇu are listed, four of which are non-human forms. The ten in order are Matsya, “fish,” Kūrma, “tortoise,” Varāha, “boar,” Narasiṃha, “man-lion,” Vāmana, “dwarf,” Paraśurāma, Rāma, Kṛṣṇa, Buddha and Kalki. These verses in the Gītā imply there is no finite number of Incarnations, that Bhagavān incarnates or manifests himself whenever that is necessary due to an increase in unrighteousness and a decrease in righteousness. This doctrine allows for Incarnations to be born anywhere, and for this reason Hindus generally accept Jesus as an Incarnation of God, too. Some separate Incarnations into “full” and “partial” categories. The primary ten are sometimes considered full Incarnations and others may be partial, but this is not a universal belief. The first eight Incarnations of the ten are ahistorical or prehistoric. Buddha is the only one for which there is ample historical evidence, though it is likely he himself would have denied being an Incarnation of God. Kalki has not yet been born.
Within relatively recent history Sri Chaitanya (1486-1534) is believed among Gauḍīya Vaishnavas and also among tantric Vaishnavas to be an Incarnation of Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa, the equivalent of Śakti-Śiva in tantric Vaishnavism, Consciousness both as manifestation and as Witness, respectively, personified.
Sri Ramakrishna (1836 [?]-1886) even during his lifetime was regarded by his tantric guru, by some scholars, and by his disciples as an Incarnation of Sri Chaitanya. Swami Vivekananda quoted Ramakrishna as saying, “He who was Rāma, and He who was Kṛṣṇa has been born again as Ramakrishna, and not in your Vedantic sense.” This latter qualification is significant for the same reason Krishna’s statement in (4:6) is significant. It would seem he wanted the young Naren to understand he was an Incarnation of God and not an ordinary perfected soul who could assert his essential oneness with the Self.
To know the essence of the Incarnation’s divine birth and action means having the direct experience of God/dess in the Incarnation. The form and name of the Incarnation in Tantra become the Iṣṭha Deva, an object for meditation and ritual. A human form is best for this type of practice, the goal of which is complete identification with the deity. In ritual the aspirant dissolves his phenomenal identity into the identity of the deity, using the deity’s form as a model for constructing a divine body through which to perceive the world revealed both in superconscious vision and with eyes open as Consciousness in manifestation. Incarnations are believed to unleash a wave of salvific grace into the world, making it easier for their devotees to realize God/dess.
Krishna promises that this vision will free one from the compulsion to reincarnate. If the vision is partial, the individual after death goes to Brahma Loka, a high heaven from which s/he will eventually merge in Brahman. There are different sectarian versions of Brahma Loka, e.g., the worshippers of Viṣṇu go to Vaikuṇṭha. The Gauḍīya Vaishnavas go to Goloka, the eternal playground of Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa. Worshippers of Ramakrishna may believe they will go to Ramakrishna Loka.
When realization is total, i.e., non-dualistic, then the individual at death merges with Brahman directly.
Knowledge here means knowledge of non-dual Brahman.
“Filled with me” is a perfect description of the tāntrika who has performed the bhūta-śuddhi ritual successfully, having burnt away the phenomenal identity and inhabiting fully the identity of the deity.
The phrase “having taking refuge in me” refers to those who approach the deity primarily through devotion.
My Guru used to say that when we take one step toward God/dess, S/He takes fifteen steps toward us. Krishna says “I choose those who take refuge in me.” The word I translate as “I choose,” bhajāmi, has a wide range of meanings, including “declare for,” “prefer,” “enjoy,” “love,” “honor,” “serve,” and even “cook.” The point is that the devotee receives the special favor of God/dess. This raises the question, Is God/dess partial? The simple answer is, It seems so. All beings eventually gain liberation, so in this sense God/dess is not partial to anyone. However, those who are nearing liberation, through the grace of God/dess, begin to manifest certain virtues as described above. Ramakrishna compared this to the glow on the horizon that indicates the sun is about to rise. Devotion, dispassion, truthfulness, steadiness in practice, etc., manifest as signs that God/dess is about to be revealed to a devotee.
All paths lead to God/dess, however. Trusting in this principle, the tāntrika follows desire as the surest path to union. For, whatever we may want is only God/dess in one form or another.
Here action means “ritual,” specifically Vedic ritual that was performed to achieve various worldly or other-worldly rewards.
This verse can also be read as a validation of sādhana, spiritual practice, as a means to gain success quickly in spiritual life. Tāntrika practices often utilize deities as the focus of meditation and ritual worship.
Krishna says He created the four castes of the caste system according to the relative preponderance of one or another guṇa in a person’s nature which then determines a person’s mode of living. Brāhmaṇas are those with a preponderance of the guṇa sattva. This predisposes them toward study, meditation, and the performance of rituals. Kṣatriyas are those with a mix of sattva and rajas. This predisposes them toward the maintenance of law and order and the protection of the weak. Vaiśyas are those with a mix of rajas and tamas. This predisposes them toward business and agriculture. And śudras are those with a preponderance of tamas. This predisposes them to manual labor. Caste, therefore, should not be determined by heredity but by one’s nature revealed in one’s actions. Persons of all types are needed in society, and the caste system validates each person’s place in the overall order of things.
Krishna says he is the author, kartā, literally the “Doer” of the castes, but then says he is to be known as the non-Doer, akartā. It looks like a riddle or a koan. However, in the first half of the verse Krishna speaks as Īśvara, the Divine Lord, and in the second half he identifies himself as the unchanging, undecaying Brahman. Acting as Lord Krishna is Śakti in tāntrika terms, Consciousness in manifestation, and as non-acting as Brahman Krishna is Śiva, Consciousness as Witness.
One implication for spiritual practice is to look within for the Source of all that makes us what we are as individuals. The first phase of self-knowledge is understanding ourselves as individuals, but the next phase is looking beyond the phenomenal self to the abiding Self.
To know Brahman is to become Brahman. When a person has known the Self, which is unaffected by any action as the Sun is unaffected by all it illuminates, that person is no longer bound by action. The compulsion to reincarnate ceases, and one is liberated.
The path to liberation for a person of an active nature, such as Arjuna, is to perform one’s duty with mindful detachment. Keeping in mind the true nature of Self, do what is to be done, leaving the results to God/dess.
Action pertains to the phenomenal aspect of being, i.e., to the body-mind. The Self is ever the actionless Witness of phenomena.
As even righteous actions, such as Arjuna’s duty to fight in the war, involves unrighteous deeds, such as killing respected teachers and kinsmen, so also unrighteous actions, such as killing a dangerous person to save someone, may have righteous results. Inaction itself is an action in the sense it is a choice and may also have mixed results. The deeper reality of all this is to be realized directly.
Śiva and Śakti, Pure Consciousness and Consciousness in manifestation, respectively, comprise the nature of Reality. Śakti acts and Śiva observes without acting. Thus action and inaction occur together in one Being, which the enlightened know to be the Self, which is both the actionless Witness and the Doer of all action.
Ramakrishna said that to one climbs to the rooftop of enlightenment only to discover that the stairs to the rooftop are composed of the same brick and mortar as the roof itself. Yet it is necessary to leave the stairs behind to reach the rooftop from which the fuller perspective can be attained. He called climbing to the rooftop jñāna, Knowledge, and realizing the stairs are of the same substance vijñāna, full Knowledge.
The following verses describe how a Self-realized person performs action.
That person “does nothing” even in the midst of doing because s/he has become the Self, Paramaśiva, the Witness of actions.
“whose mind is controlled”—To attain this state requires mental discipline, developed through sādhana, spiritual practice, both ascetic and ecstatic. The mind gets calmed in silent meditation, the primary ascetic discipline, while the senses get trained in ritual, the main ecstatic practice.
Although the above description seems the ideal of hermit ascetics, we have to wonder why Krishna imparts this teaching to Arjuna, who must live in the world engaged in intense action? One hint is the phrase, “whose behavior is sacred ritual.” In every instance Krishna describes a person in action, not ascetics withdrawn from the world. In tāntrika ritual every action is performed either to affirm the One Consciousness behind everything or to become that One Divine Being and act with the perfect detachment of one who lacks nothing. The following verses expand the concept of sacred ritual as a models for detached, dedicated action.
This verse appears in the Mahanirvana Tantra as a mantra to use when sanctifying any action. The verse affirms that Brahman, Consciousness, is every aspect of every action. It uses Vedic fire ritual as the metaphor to describe how every part of an action should be seen as the One Brahman, Consciousness, in different aspects and roles. Monks often chant this mantra before meals, too. However, to get the full benefit of this verse as a mantra, one must do the visualization it prescribe, i.e., think of each part of the action and oneself as manifestation of Consciousness. Performing any action with this kind of mindful remembrance has the same power as performing any formal ritual.
As a mantra before meals, for example, the ritual is the act of eating. The offering is the food eaten. The eater is the one who offers, and the fire is hunger. By affirming Brahman in all these parts of the action, one will ultimately attain Brahman, i.e., realize the Self that is Brahman.
The first part of this verse refers to devotional forms of worship conceived within the metaphor of Vedic ritual. In this case worship is the ritual, ritual offerings are the offerings, God/dess is the fire into which the ritualist makes offerings. But what does it really mean to offer anything to God/dess? Is not everything already his/hers? Here it means remembering that God/dess, the things offered to God/dess, the act of offering, and the person making the offerings are all the one Brahman in different roles, different aspects.
In tāntrika ritual this is accomplished in part by worshipping all the items used in worship, the flowers, water, perfumes, incense, and lights, and even the seat on on which one sits, the door, and the foundation of the building itself as personified deities. By personifying each of these things as a living, conscious deity, one dramatically impresses on one’s mind that each of them is conscious, is Consciousness, and actively participating in receiving the offerings.
This reminds me of Peewee Herman’s Playhouse, in which every ordinary object, chairs, walls, windows, etc., was alive and talked or otherwise interacted with the host and his guests. This was also illustrated in the film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” in which Toontown was inhabited by animated objects, each with a distinct personality. That is precisely the awareness one wants to cultivate in ritual worship, that every aspect of the environment is living and conscious.
Although this starts as a visualization, it is one based on the actual experience of mystics who realize it as literally true. St. Francis of Assisi spoke to animals and other aspects of nature as his brothers and sisters. Ramakrishna, in certain states, could not bear to see someone walk on tender young grass, because he felt the effect on himself. The One Consciousness shines behind and as all things to the mystic who has eyes to see it.
The second part of the verse applies to those whose act of sacrifice is giving up sacrifice. This is literally true of sannyāsis who give up performing Vedic sacrifice as part of their vows of renunciation. But it can also be said of the radical tāntrika yogi who welcomes each moment as a perfect manifestation of Śiva-Śakti, in the sahaja, or natural state of continuous mindfulness without effort. For such a yogi rituals have all been sacrificed into a global perception of Consciousness everywhere always.
In this single verse Krishna summarizes ascetic and ecstatic methods of spiritual practice. Building on the metaphor in 4:24, which asserts Brahman in every aspect of action, Krishna tells us that control of the senses is one kind of practice. In this practice the senses are the offerings in the sacrifice, and the sacrificial fire is restraint of the senses from their objects.
In the second half of the verse Krishna tells us that practice can also be done considering sense objects as the offerings and the senses as the sacrificial fire. In both types of practice effort is required to maintain mindful awareness of the underlying metaphor and its significance, i.e., that Brahman, Consciousness, is the substance of everything.
A perfect illustration of the ecstatic practice is the tantric ritual of ārati, usually performed in the evening. Five different items, each symbolizing one of the five types of sense objects, is offered to the deity while ringing a bell. The deity represents Brahman, the Witness Consciousness. The bell represents the mantra OM, which corresponds to the ajña cakra, the seat of mind, ahaṃkāra, and buddhi, the last step on the way to dissolving the phenomenal world into Consciousness. The ārati ritual is a metaphor for life lived with the senses as sacrificial fires and the sense objects as offerings. As we go about our daily duties the Lord sits within the shrine of the heart. Smells, tastes, sights, touch sensations, and sounds continually enter the sense organs, each an offering to the deity in the heart. The deity quietly accepts each offering, and the whole process reveals the One Consciousness playing in all these forms.
Ascetic practice, in which attention—and with it all the actions of the senses—is withdrawn from the outer world and focused within to pierce to the core of Self, is an effective means for attaining illumination if one is ascetic by temperament and suited to this style of practice. Even those suited to more ecstatic methods will practice in this style some of the time, typically in silent meditation.
Krishna describes different styles of practice that may be combined to form a comprehensive, ascetic practice. External Tantric ritual requires the gathering and offering of various material objects, flowers, water, leaves, sandal paste, scents, fruits and other delectable foods, ganja, wine, and in some cases even fish and animal flesh. These are purified, deified, and offer by the deity to the deity, which is an affirmation of all these as manifestations of the One Consciousness.
At times the tantrika will fast, stay awake at night, go on pilgrimages that may entail physical hardships, and in these ways perform the sacrifice of austerity. The sacrifice of yoga, meaning, the well-regulated life, avoiding extremes, is also a common element of spiritual practice. Study of scriptures is a pillar of any spiritual practice. And the knowledge of sacrifice entails discrimination between the eternal and non-eternal. Our senses naturally lead us toward the non-eternal, so it takes effort to redirect our attention to their eternal Source.
Prāṇāyāma in Tantra involves regulating and holding the breath, often with mantra repetition and visualization. In general it is a means to take control of the energies of the mind by taking control of their grossest expression, the physical act of breathing. When the breath stops, the mind becomes calm and clear. Extreme forms of this practice can be dangerous, however, and should not be practiced without expert guidance. Alternate-nostril breathing without holding the breath, however, is safe and also an effective means to calm the mind.
The various types of sacrifice Krishna describes harken back to verse 4.24 in which he equates all the elements of the sacrifice with Brahman, the universal Pure Consciousness. Whatever methods yogis employ, so long as the elements get divinized, the methods will be efficacious. Sri Ramakrishna used to say that sincerity is the one essential virtue to succeed in spiritual life. “So many opinions, so many paths.” This verse expresses the non-dogmatic character of Tantra and of Hinduism in general.
“their defects destroyed by sacrifice” means that they go beyond karma and its results by realizing they are not the Doer of actions. There is only One, Divine Doer. Realizing this One is the goal of all spiritual paths, whether one knows it or not.
“…those schooled by sacrifice,” i.e., those who perform sacrifice, as broadly defined above by Krishna.
Sacrifice may be performed for worldly gain and for spiritual illumination. Some worldly experience is necessary to be ready for illumination. The Tantras go so far as to say an aspirant must have every type of worldly and heavenly experience before s/he will be ready to let go of this world and the next to merge in Brahman. Therefore, even sacrifice performed for worldly gain with the knowledge that all is transitory moves one along the path. Those who do not perform sacrifice are not fit for this world or any other.
Ordinary karma, “action,” performed from desire binds one to the world. The wise who understand the liberating power of performing actions sacramentally as various forms of sacrifice, affirming the same Brahman in every aspect of the ritual, are freed from the bonds of karma and attain liberation. This is the main theme of the Gita, and it applies as directly to us as to Arjuna, who finds himself engaged in fratricidal war, ostensibly to regain a kingdom lost to greedy and unscrupulous relatives. Krishna reorients Arjuna toward attainment of Brahman rather than mere victory in battle. Arjuna’s nature will impel him to fight, but if he makes every action a sacrifice by affirming the One Brahman in everything, no matter the outcome of the war, he attains the bliss of liberation.
So often in spiritual life, or even in life in general, people ask, “What should I do?” But Krishna tells us deeper spiritual life is not about the “doing” but about knowing, i.e., Knowledge of Self. One’s own nature will dictate what you do, what your path in life will be. To convert ordinary action to a spiritually fruitful spiritual practice requires the effort to affirm the One Brahman in every action. Tantric ritual trains the mind and senses to do just that.
Every type of sacrifice properly performed helps purify the mind, i.e., transform a material consciousness and perception of the world into a spiritual consciousness and perception of the world as Brahman.
The Gita often refers to spiritual Truth simply as “That,” the neuter pronoun in Sanskrit. “That-ness” or Essence is another synonym for the same Truth. Knowing That is not ordinary knowing in which there is a triad of subject, object, and act of knowing. That-ness is never known as an object but only as subject, i.e., one knows it by realizing oneself as That, as in the mahāvākya “You are That.” This is one reason why That can never be adequately expressed in words. It is not because That is so far away from our being, but because That is so near, our very Essence.
A true Guru will gladly teach a worthy disciple, one who proves worthiness by approaching the Guru with respect, humility, and an open, inquiring mind, demonstrated by the willingness to serve. Disciples who come claiming to know already some aspects of the path cannot be taught, for the full vessel will not hold more water. It was only when Arjuna confessed his confusion and humbly asked Krishna to teach him that he was ready to receive instruction. It is only by emptying oneself of every preconception, of every firm conviction, of every illusion of true knowledge that one becomes fit to receive instruction. One of my Gurus advised us to avoid strong opinions. Rather we should keep all our opinions conditional and fluid, subject to change as we continued to learn, grow, and understand more deeply. Better to think we do not know than to rush prematurely to certainty. True faith grows with experience. Blind or rigid faith binds one in a cage of one’s opinions, like a silkworm trapped in its own cocoon.
Self-knowledge brings with it knowledge of the essence of all things and also God-realization. The essential nature of God/dess, humanity and other beings, and the Universe gets revealed in one flash of penetrating insight. This knowledge forever destroys the delusion that these three things are separate.
When the sure Knowledge dawns that there is only One Divine Doer, the notion of individual karma and its fruits no longer applies.
When consciousness of duality and individual identity returns, the notion of cause and effect also returns, and the individual who experiences the self apart from others suffers the fruits of his or her actions as before. However, at death the illumined individual no longer faces rebirth, as the seeds of further births have been burnt in the Fire of Knowledge.
Self-knowledge purifies by revealing the inherent purity of everything as Pure Consciousness. Our minds become impure only through the misperception of the world as inert matter. When the essential nature of the universe is revealed, the seer knows beyond a doubt that everything is a manifestation Consciousness.
This Knowledge is also inherent in the Self. It does not come from outside us. Rather, it is, as it were, remembered in a flash of insight that instantly fills everything within and without with the Light of revelation. The various forms of Yoga all lead to this insight through different means suited to different temperaments, just as all rivers lead to the one Ocean and merge with that, relinquishing their individual identities. (Mundaka Upanishad 2:8)
Honest doubt is normal and natural, and when it leads to deeper inquiry, it is even spiritually productive.
However, habitual doubt that allows no place for faith to grow leads to spiritual destruction. Ramakrishna said that when a seedling is small, it requires a fence around it to prevent wandering goats and cows from eating it. When it has grown into a stout tree, however, you can even tie an elephant to it, and it will not be harmed.
So, also, when we undertake a spiritual practice, it is necessary to seek the company of like-minded souls and spurn those who would denigrate our practice ignorantly. We must do our meditation and ritual daily and diligently, using spare time to study scriptures and the lives of holy persons. When our faith has grown strong through spiritual experience, we can face even the severest critics without danger.
Vedic sannyāsa, a vow of renunciation, requires the renunciate to give up the performance of ritual sacrifices. The sannyāsī then lives as an ascetic in solitude in the forest or in a mountain cave, meditating on one of the Vedic mahāvākyas or “Great Utterances,” e.g., “You are That,” “I am Brahman,” “This Self is Brahman,” and “All this is verily Brahman.” In some sects the renunciate may not even kindle a fire, as that is part of every Vedic ritual.
Krishna praises this extreme way of life but declares Karma Yoga superior. Very few persons in any generation would be able to live the life of a sannyāsī. Most people will live their lives engaged in various actions in the world, as Arjuna does. Therefore, the Yoga that works best for most people is superior to one suited to very few. The Tantras act as Vedas in the present age, the Kali Yuga, i.e., they provide instructions for living a ritualized life suited to the temperament of persons in the modern world. The Tantras are the Karma Yoga manuals for our time.
The Tantric sannyāsī, or dedicated practitioner, learns to see all things as manifestations of the One Consciousness. Established in non-dual realization, s/he neither clings to what is pleasant nor shuns what is unpleasant, because both are seen as equal manifestations of Consciousness.
Ordinary happiness, a temporary mental state, binds with the illusion that it can be perpetuated. The realized soul sees happiness like a delightful soap bubble shining in the sunlight with its rainbow colors swirling in ever-changing patterns. It exists for only moments in time and then pops. If you try to grasp it to possess it, it instantly vanishes. Such is ordinary happiness in life.
The sannyāsī enjoys Bliss, the inherent and eternal nature of Pure Consciousness. Bliss persists through all changes of the body and mind.
From this verse we get a clear definition of what constitutes a true sannyāsī. Renunciation (sannyāsa) is defined as seeing the One in all things and thus passing beyond dualities of attraction and aversion.
In Tantric ritual one traces the source of each sense experience back to its Source in Pure Consciousness. In this process the material gets dematerialized and transformed into Spirit. This process culminates in the affirmation so’ham hamsaḥ, which means “I am That Śiva,” but so’ham also represents the merging of the Kuṇḍālinī with Paramaśiva, i.e., Pure Consciousness, followed by hamsaḥ, the evolution of the world from and as Consciousness. Thus the ritualist realizes him- or herself as the One Consciousness now embodied in a divine form, which may be masculine, feminine, or both, and it is through and as this divine form that the actions (karma) of the worship are performed. There is no point in the ritual where the identification of the ritualist with the deity is withdrawn. Therefore, the ritualist is to continue seeing the world as the deity, and this divine vision reveals everything shining with Consciousness.
Merging into the One is Knowledge (jñāna). Emerging from the One as a divine manifestation of That is Extraordinary Knowledge (vijñāna).
Spiritual children fail to see the interrelation of Knowledge and Mindful Action and so declare them separate, but the wise know them both to be effective methods for realization. In Tantric ritual the two are interwoven seamlessly in one process the culminates in Extraordinary Knowledge.
Krishna emphasizes this point because it is so easy to misperceive the Path of Knowledge, which usually entails an ascetic approach to spiritual practice, diametrically opposed to Karma Yoga, which engages and trains the senses through ritual. Both are integrated in Tantric ritual as explained above. Both approaches have their place.
Ascetic withdrawal, as in silent meditation with eyes closed, only occupies a few hours of the 24-hour day. Karma Yoga, the mindful performance of daily duties as dedicated ritual, provides a spiritual practice for when the eyes are open, and all the senses are engaged with sense objects. Few can spend every waking moment in meditation. The basic needs of the body will force even the most dedicated ascetic to eat, eliminate, bathe, and seek shelter. To be effective a spiritual practice must be doable from the beginning and doable at all times.
In Tantra Yoga the practitioner traces each sense impression back to its Source in Pure Consciousness, and the tantrika’s body and mind are likewise offered as oblations into the Fire of the Self. Then a new, divine body and senses emerge from Consciousness, and acting through that, the Yogi remains untainted by karma.
Identified with the Witness Self, the Yogi merely observes the actions of the sense organs moving among sense objects but without the operation of ahaṃkāra, the “I-maker” arrogating actions to a single center of Consciousness.
Lotus leaves repel water, so water does not stick to them. Likewise actions do not stick to or taint the one who offers actions into the Fire of Brahman, having given up the notion of doership.
The Tantric Yogi shifts identity from the body-mind organism to the essential Self. Then actions get performed only by the body, mind, etc., while the Self remains unattached to actions or the results. In this way the individual self gets purified, i.e., experiences the one Self in and behind every action.
Actions performed out of desire for specific results create bondage. The idea is to make each action an offering to Brahman and let the results be what they may. When desire gets directed toward the Divine, it becomes purifying and liberating. When desire gets directed toward limited objectives, it binds.
The nine gates of the body are the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, mouth, sex organ, and anus. No matter through which “gates” one engages the world, the actions being performed sacramentally do not bind the one who neither seeks nor avoids the results of actions.
It is wrong to blame God for anything that happens. Karma operates autonomically. It is only when one assumes the role of “doer,” seeking specific results, that trouble occurs. When one identifies with God/dess, the world and its many dramas are seen as the play of the elements only.
Ignorance of the true nature of Self is the root of all troubles. God/dess has nothing to do with any of that. It is pointless to worry about God/dess punishing sins or rewarding virtues. The work of spiritual life is removing the ignorant perception that we are limited, embodied beings, slaves to the actions of the body and mind. The fundamental question is not, “What should I do?” Or “What should I avoid doing?” But rather, “Who am I?” Know That, and it does not matter what you do or don’t do. The innate nature of the body-mind organism largely determines that anyway. We imagine we have free will as embodied beings, but that is largely an illusion. Only the Infinite is truly free.
Spiritual illumination occurs in a flash, in the “twinkling of an eye.” The knowledge penetrates all dark, i.e., unknown places, revealing the true nature of God/dess, humanity, and the universe. Light is a common and apt metaphor for spiritual awakening because like physical light the Light of Knowledge instantly removes darkness and simultaneously reveals what is there.
The illumined seer not only gets free of the bondage of karma in this life, s/he is not reborn after death.
The illumined ones see the same Self in all beings, the same Shakti manifesting in various ways. The distinction of sacred and secular vanishes.
A person conquers the world when the world is known to be the one Consciousness in manifestation. Everything everywhere is seen as the same, shining Consciousness. Then the individual merges in Brahman; one’s true nature in a flash of insight dissolves all illusions of separateness or materiality and only the One remains.
The illumined soul may or may not express normal human emotions, depending on what kind of training s/he did in the process of illumination. Ascetics tend toward stoicism, their goal being a stone-like detachment from things of the world. Tantrikas, by contrast, often appear fully human, rejoicing in the happiness of others, and grieving for their losses.Whatever the outward expression, either happiness or sorrow, the inner sight of the Knower of Brahman remains even-sighted in gain or loss, happiness or sorrow, both being equally manifestations of the One Consciousness.
It is not that the Yogi loses the ability to experience life’s ups and downs, but these changes leave no lasting impression, like water rolling off a duck’s back. The illumined one knows that the only lasting happiness is in the Self, and that underlies all types of experiencing, pleasant and unpleasant. As the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad says, “The Knower of Brahman becomes Brahman.” (3.1.2) Through meditation, ritual, holy reading, holy company, and grace the sādhaka realizes the Essential Self in identity with the Universal Self.
It is not that there is no enjoyment in sense experiences, nor is Krishna suggesting we all should become like stone statues, impervious to any external stimuli. The point of this verse is that there is no lasting enjoyment in sense objects, and therefore the spiritual aspirant should seek the source of lasting happiness, i.e., the Self, the One Consciousness behind and within each experience that gives sense experiences a sense of reality and that infuses these experiences with subtle bliss. Sense experience become wombs of sorrow only when one clings to the ephemeral. Sense experiences that are appreciated for the moment and then released, and those within which we perceive the manifestation of Consciousness bring unending joy.
Desire and its byproduct when frustrated, anger, are powerful forces in the human psyche. They can lead us into great danger when they are given free rein. They cloud judgement and can produce ruinous behavior.
Within Tantra, however, desire gets harnessed to help in spiritual practice. By training the senses through ritual to find the One Consciousness behind sense objects, desire is redirected from the non-eternal to the Eternal. Even anger can be used when its energy is harnessed to rouse one from laziness or lack of enthusiasm in practice.
It is not that the Yogi never experiences these feelings, but through steady, consistent practice, the Yogi learns to ride the energy of strong feeling like a surfer rides atop the powerful ocean waves. The surfer falls many times while learning the sport of surfing, but the one who keeps climbing back on the board, learning from more experienced surfers and from their own experience, succeeds.
The distinction of “internal” and “external” occurs so long as one is identified with the body. The quest for Brahman is never for something strange or disconnected from our being; it is rather our very Being. The more we relax into what we truly are, the closer we become to realizing the Self as the Infinite and Eternal Consciousness.
Therefore, one must seek within oneself for the Self. External pleasures beckon, but the sincere spiritual aspirant must strive to understand that what truly attracts us in the external world is the same Light that already exists within. That Light is Pure Awareness, Pure Knowingness. It is like the one Sun that shines on all our experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant, equally, yet never gets tainted by any experiences, no matter how low or degraded they might seem.
One cultivates inner happiness, pleasure, and Light through meditation, ritual, repetition of the Divine Name, and holy company, including holy reading and recitation. These are the pillars of deeper spiritual life.
Duality, the root of all ignorance, must be pierced to realize the One. Doing so requires control of the mind and senses and moral living, especially the practices of non-injury and truthfulness. Meditation and ritual help train the mind and senses, and sacramental service of others can help overcome moral defects and purify one's intentions.
Tantra historically has been associated with practices that may seem to violate traditional notions of purity and piety. But that is only true to the extent that clinging to any limited notion of Self or sense of superiority to others, becomes an impediment to Self-realization.
Ramakrishna spoke of using the thorn of knowledge to remove the thorn of ignorance and then discarding both. Purity and piety serve to bring the mind and senses under control, but once this has been accomplished, they, too, should be abandoned, if they become cages of identity. The Yogi must learn to see the One in all things, not only what is good, pleasant, or beautiful. As Holy Mother said, “Make the whole world your own.”
Those whose minds are under control, who have habituated themselves to training of the senses, become detached from any desire or anger that pass through the mind. When Self-Knowledge dawns, all darkness vanishes, and everywhere and everything vibrates with bliss.
In these verses Krishna introduces the topic of chapter six, the practice of meditation. The details of technique may differ from instructions some receive, but the goal is the same, liberation. Every type of meditation aims to quiet the mind and redirect attention within. Desires and feelings must be bent toward the Goal.
In this verse Krishna speaks as the Universal Self outside history, time, and space, the Goal of all spiritual striving, who right up the last moment before illumination guides and supports beings toward their ultimate destiny, which is union with Him.
In the formal vow of sannyāsa a person theoretically gives up actions motivated by desire for specific results, i.e., the usual occupations of the world. A formal sannyāsī also is forbidden from lighting the sacrificial fires that householders must light to perform the daily rituals required for fulfilling their duties.
In this verse Krishna tells Arjuna that these Vedic formalities are not what is truly essential in spiritual life. One can become a beggar (the usual occupation of formal sannyāsīs in India) and cease performing a householder’s duties, but if one acts with attachment to or desire for the fruits of action, one should not be considered a true sannyāsī or renunciate.
On the other hand, even a householder like Arjuna, who performs his duties without attachment to results, should be considered a true sannyāsī, what Ram Chandra Datta in his biography of Sri Ramakrishna calls a “householder sannyāsī.”
In Tantra the distinction is made not between “householder” and “sannyāsī” but between the those who are not yet dedicated to the spiritual quest for liberation and those who are. Dedication to spiritual practice rather than formal renunciation is the key difference. There are four kinds of dedicated practitioners or sannyāsīs distinguished in Tantra, and of them only one, the Paramahamsas, are celibate, and that by nature not by mandate. Sri Ramakrishna, though technically married, was a Paramahamsa by nature, and so he remained celibate his whole life.
A Tantric sannyāsī, therefore, is one who makes his actions sacramental through mindful detachment from results.
Desires for more experiences in the world are the strings that bind one to embodied existence, like strings that hold a helium balloon in one’s hand. When these strings break, one rises above the world like that balloon broken free from its bonds. Karma Yoga, the mindful, sacramental performance of action without attachment to results, helps break the strings of desire. As the individual rises above the world, the limitations of form break like the balloon itself, and the helium within merges with the infinite sky.
Ritualized action, i.e., Karma Yoga, is the principal means for attaining Self-realization, for the world will force one to act, if only to maintain the body. The idea is to convert action to a spiritual practice through mindfulness and detachment from the results.
For the illumined seer serene detachment is the natural state, though the seer may manifest all kinds of seemingly ordinary behaviors for the sake of concealing his or her state from unsympathetic persons and for helping others.
Through ritual training the Tantric Yogi learns to discover the One Consciousness behind every sensation. Actions performed identified with the Deity cause no bondage. Having achieved the pinnacle of all desires in the Self, the Yogi has no lingering wish or desire for any experience in the world.
There are two meanings of “self” in this passage. The higher Self, the Ātman, is the essential Self, One with the Universal Self, Brahman. In Tantra this is also sometimes called Paramaśiva. The other meaning of self in this passage is the individual self, called jīvātman or jīvaśiva in Tantra. The individual self consists of a pattern of functions illuminated from within by the Self. As long as one remains identified with the functions, i.e., the body-mind organism, so long one remains bound. Tantra teaches detachment from the body-mind through identification with the Self visualized initially as the Chosen Deity.
It is relatively easy for one identified with a body-mind to identify with a higher being similarly embodied. The deity has a head, hands, and feet just like us, and this enable us to merge our identity with the deity like butter fed into a sacrificial fire. Having accomplished this, one discovers that the essential Self of the deity is the very same Self within us.
Only the Self can uplift us, and no one but the deluded self that can bring one down to spiritual disaster. Tantra provides means for anyone at any level of understanding to begin ascending to the state of Yoga, to Self-realization. God/dess does not care about anyone’s sin or good deeds. (5.15) As Sri Ramakrishna used to say, telling yourself you are a “sinner” will make you a sinner. Telling yourself that you are the Infinite Self or a devotee, the child, friend, parent, or lover of God/dess, will enable you to rise to the realization of That.
Clearly, Krishna, as the Guru, is encouraging Arjuna, his disciple, to rouse his higher nature to overcome his hesitation to do his duty. This is a clear example of the Guru’s help in spiritual life. Although Krishna’s goading and encouragement are important factors here, it is Arjuna himself who must grab his bow and arrows and stand up to fight for the battle to begin.
येन अात्मना अात्मा एव जितः तस्य अात्मा अात्मनः बन्धुः [अस्ति]
तु अनात्मनः शत्रुवत् अात्मा शत्रुत्वे एव वर्तेत
In these two verses Sri Krishna extols the virtue of self-control. The mind and senses by nature seek experiences in the world of sense objects. (Katha Upanishad, 1:4 पराञ्चि खानि व्यतृणत् स्वयम्भूस्तस्मात्पराङ्पश्यति नान्तरात्मन् । See M-W. पराङ्) Attention can be compared to a stream that flows outward from the core of awareness within. The task of self-control is turning that stream back toward its Source. It is a monumental task. In Tantra self-control is achieved both by ascetic meditation and by ecstatic ritual which breaks down the apparent dualities of “inner” and “outer,” experience and of other apparent opposites, sensory or emotional, revealing all as manifestations of Consciousness.
Attainment occurs when a person through conquest of the senses experiences samādhi, the state of superconscious awareness of Oneness, which grants Knowledge. When the same person sees the same Consciousness shining behind all things with eyes open, that is called Extraordinary Knowledge.
In Tantra one conquers the senses by discovering the One Consciousness behind each sense experience through the ritual of Bhūta-śuddhi, “purification of the elements.” Sacrificing the mind and body to the Chosen Deity, as clarified butter is poured into the sacrificial fire, the worshipper becomes one with the Deity and then through the divine body created through nyāsa experiences the world as the Deity does, shining with Consciousness. Then everything in the world appears One as manifestations Consciousness. This conviction removes all doubts, and so the Yogi becomes steady amidst all kinds of experiences.
This ideal must seem impractical at best for a warrior on the cusp of war. Krishna’s teaching does not imply that Arjuna should not fight; only that he should remain inwardly detached, seeing both enemies and friends as manifestations of the same Consciousness.
It is common in spiritual life to misunderstand spirituality in superficial ways, equating formal politeness or a calm demeanor, for instance, with spiritual attainment. Tantric saints have long been known for outrageous and even offensive behavior. Self-realization may not change one’s outward role in life at all. Sri Ramakrishna compares the transformation that occurs in Self-realization to a sword turned to gold by the touch of the philosopher’s stone. The outward form of the sword remains, but its inner substance is utterly transformed. Krishna teaches the science of Self-realization, but that does not change Arjuna’s duty or role in life.
Sri Ramakrishna advised going into solitude from time-to-time to practice spiritual disciplines free of the common distractions of everyday life. If one does not carve out a time and place for undisturbed practice, spiritual life soon withers away in the heat of thousands of demands on one’s attention from matters both serious and trivial. He said, “In a corner, in the forest, or within one’s own mind,” a sincere spiritual aspirant must retreat from the world to deepen practice.
At the very least one should establish a place in one’s dwelling where one can maintain a simple altar and sit undisturbed for an hour or two each day.
The verse says one should “constantly” strive, meaning spiritual practice should continue through all of one’s activities, not only during silent meditation. Repetition of the mantra or japa can be done throughout the day whenever full attention is not needed for other activities. It is the simplest spiritual practice that can be done immediately by anyone with very little training.
To be “free of longing” one should cultivate detachment and dispassion, a state of acceptance of things as they are without wishing or planning for the future. This detachment should extend to material possessions. Recognize that we are travellers through life, and the possessions and relationships that come our way are our only temporarily. Everything and everyone passes in time. It is this timeless living in the eternal Now without clinging to anyone or anything that enables deep meditation.
The meditation seat should be steady and neither too high or low so that when deep absorption happens, one should not waver or fall over. The materials recommended for the seat are traditional but not essential. Any comfortable seat or even a chair will do.
The type of meditation described here is the classic type taught in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and in Tantra. The aspirant visualizes the form of a deity or an abstract representation of the deity in the form of a yantra. The idea is to bring the mind back to the single thought of the visualization again and again until that thought alone remains in the mind, replacing all other thoughts. Any stray thoughts or sensations are ignored, while attention is brought back to the object of meditation again and again. One should resist the tendency of the mind to create inner movies in memory or imagination by stopping them the moment one becomes aware they are occurring and then bringing attention back to the object of meditation. As the mind becomes calm and one-pointed, the Pure Consciousness behind and animating the mind shines through clearly. This is what is meant by self-purification.
The vow of the brahmacārī is traditionally interpreted as celibacy, an ancient yogic technique for gathering and concentrating the body’s energy to be used for spiritual practice. In the traditional Hindu scheme of things young people remain celibate through a twelve-year period of spiritual study and training prior to marriage, roughly from eight years of age to twenty, for this helps them acquire the discipline needed throughout life for controlling the mind and senses.
The word “brahmacārī, however, means literally, “One who moves in Brahman.” In Tantra this means one who has dedicated oneself to spiritual practice with the goal of God- or Self-realization in this very life. No matter what his or her style of life, the Tantric brahmacārī directs his or her attention and passion to God/dess. It is sincere and total dedication to this goal that matters more than the act of merely abstaining from sex. The Tantric brahmacārī strives to move always in Brahman by training the mind and senses through ritual, holy reading and holy company, japa, and meditation. Celibacy may be embraced at any stage of life when that practice seems most favorable to practice, and it may occur spontaneously just prior to illumination.
Beyond mere focusing the mind on God/dess, one should also cultivate devotion to God/dess, for by harnessing the energy of emotion, the aspirant progresses faster.
The word nirvāṇa means here the dissolution of the body-mind identity and consciousness and merging with the Universal Self. This occurs in samādhi or the superconscious state. The peace of this experience “passeth understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
A well-regulated, mindful way of life conduces to the practice of yoga. Meditation must be scheduled at regular times and done diligently. Actions must be performed mindfully and sacramentally. Eating, sleep, and recreation are all moderated to maximize health and energy. This daily attention to practice in all its details in time effects a profound change within the Yogi.
There is a story about a woman trapped in a high tower. Her lover ties a silk thread to a beetle, placing a drop of honey on the beetle’s nose, and then directing it to crawl up the tower to her window. Once she has hold of the thread, her lover ties a slightly stouter string to the thread, and the woman duly pulls that up. Next the lover ties a cord to the string, and then a small rope to the cord, until at least the woman has a stout rope by which the lover climbs to union with her.
Yoga practice starts with the intention to engage in meditation and mindful ritualized actions. These practices might be quite modest at first. Perhaps one can only sit a few minutes at a time. No problem. As long as one continues striving, gradually increasing one’s efforts as one’s capacity increases, the practice ultimately leads to illumination and the end of sorrow.
The mind, indeed, is as easily disturbed as a candle flame in the wind. The slightest gust causes it to flicker and dance. Sense experiences and desire are the winds that disrupt the serenity of the mind. But when one progressively feels one’s essential Self apart from the mind, senses, and desire, through the practice japa, ritual, and meditation, the mind gradually becomes increasingly transparent, and the Self shines through.
The intellect or buddhi acts like a window on the Self when the mind becomes calm through meditation and other spiritual practices. The senses must be trained through ritual to seek their Source in Pure Consciousness. The happiness of Self-realization exceeds all imagining, arising spontaneously as the Self recognizes the Self behind the intellect, mind, memory, and senses.
Self-realization reveals one’s essence as the entire universe. There is nothing greater to attain, because there is nothing outside or beyond one’s own essential being as Pure Consciousness. Even gods and goddesses bow to the Knower of Brahman, being mere manifestations of That Self.
In the blaze of this revelations death of any one body-mind pattern seems less that insignificant, when countless others are continuously coming into existence, each expressing a unique facet of the sparkling gem that is the Self..
Krishna addresses Arjuna’s mental state, rousing him to throw off his dejection to practice the purification of the senses and mind through mindful Karma Yoga to attain the state of equanimity of Yoga, beyond sorrow.
Krishna here gives detailed and specific instructions for meditation practice. In preparation for meditation one should put aside all planning and concern for any outward activity, making peace with one’s family, friends, enemies, and issues. By sending thoughts of love, peace, and healing to all the world, the aspirant say in effect, “Go in peace, and leave me alone while I practice meditation.”
In silent meditation one’s attention must be entirely inwardly directed, so the senses become quiet from lack of stimulation or interest in the outer world for the time time being.
The intellect, which stands watch over the mind and senses, as it were, must be fortified with steadiness and determination to keep the attention inward. The mind, and with it the senses and individual identity created by its identification with the body, should be dissolved in the Self, i.e., in Pure Consciousness. Remaining in this state largely depends on the degree of lack of ego activation, and that occurs most fully through an act of Divine Grace.
In this type of silent, meditation practice stray thoughts are ignored and attention is brought again and again back to the object of meditation. This is classic meditation as described also in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
The language of this passage, “lead into the Self,” is highly suggestive of the Tantric ritual of Bhūta-śuddhi, in which the mind and senses are offered metaphorically like clarified butter into the fire of the Self.
In Tantra passions are quieted in part by directing them toward God/dess. The ideal is a natural, spontaneous flow of awareness of the Divine Substratum, i.e., Brahman, as one’s essential, blissful nature in which nothing is hidden or denied.
Unifying oneself here means maintaining mindful awareness of the Divine through all activities, whether the senses are withdrawn, as in silent meditation, or fully functioning, as in the ritualized life of action. To become Brahman is to know all this as one Being in various aspects and manifestations, and that Knowledge produces unparallelled happiness.
Sri Ramakrishna saw the Divine Mother manifested all around and within, and so he worshipped a cat he saw in the temple and placed the flowers for offering on his own head.
तस्य—here used in dative sense (Whitney 297 a.)
This verse adds a personal touch to the meaning of Self, equating Self with Krishna or God/dess personified. AS long as awareness of one’s individual identity persists, so long does the Self appear personified, also.
There is, of course, no question of either God/dess or the individual becoming “lost” in any lasting sense. However, the individual can lose sight of God/dess or Self, and then it is as if they are lost to each other. When the inner and outer vision merge in the state of extraordinary Knowledge, then there is continuous awareness of both. The same Consciousness enlivens the individual body-mind and pervades everything beside.
The word translated here as “consistent practice” literally means “repetition.” Even the mighty Arjuna, who mastered the art of archery under the direction of his Guru Droṇa, finds controlling the mind difficult. What to speak of any of us? However, through patient, persistent practice, repeating the mantra and visualization over and over again, combined with dispassion toward experiences and achievements in this world, gradually brings the mind under control enough, calming it so that the Self can shine through.
Sri Ramakrishna used to say that the breeze of divine grace is always blowing, but one must set one’s sail to catch the breeze. Patient, persistent effort is needed to bring the mind under control. An aspirant may strive many years without a subjective feeling of much progress. However, over time progress will manifest as a steadier, calmer mind that recovers more quickly from upsets and defaults to serene equanimity when not otherwise engaged.
Jesus said, “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” (John 15:16) The first stirrings of spiritual awakening come unbidden “like light from a distant star,” (Peter Schneider) without any perceived effort of the individual. Krishna explains this phenomenon as the result of momentum from past lives of striving for Knowledge.
Krishna lauds the practitioner of Inner Yoga over the mere performer of external rites or austerities. Faith in oneself, in the Guru, and in God/dess guide one even when there may be no felt touch of the Divine. The true devotee seeks to merge the self in the Self, like an offering of clarified butter into the sacrificial fire. The inner visualizations of Tantra facilitate this process.
Sri Ramakrishna said that knowledge is like knowing milk exists but that extraordinary knowledge is like drinking that milk and being nourished by it. Knowledge of God/dess/Self happens in the superconscious state called samādhi. But when the mind comes back to world, that vision ceases. However, through the practice of Tantric ritual, particularly the creation of a divine body from mantra, one can see the same vision with eyes closed or open.
To achieve samādhi, Ramakrishna said, it is necessary to discriminate between Self and non-Self, a process he described metaphorically as climbing the stairs to the roof. You have to leave the lower steps to reach the higher ones until you have climbed to the roof itself. Once, there, however, you realize that the steps are made of the same brick and mortar as the roof. This means that the One Shiva Consciousness attained in samādhi is the same Consciousness-Śakti that manifests as the material world. Then the vision is unbroken.
Tantric ritual accomplishes the process of leaving behind the lower steps while climbing toward the roof in the first half of the Bhūta-śuddhi ritual. It then reintegrates this Knowledge into the world of the senses in the second half by the devotee taking refuge in the divine being. When the divine body is created through which to interact with the world, the devotee remains only as a light in the heart of the deity. This is what is meant by “taking refuge” here. One’s individual identity is highly attenuated in this state, replaced by the divine identity. Only a vestige of the devotee remains to witness the divine working through the divine body and senses. It is the divine being that sports even as the devotee. That is why Sri Ramakrishna used to say Bhāgavata-Bhakta-Bhagavān, equating the divine scripture, the devotee, and the deity.
The vast majority of people are too concerned with the many attractions and distractions of life to even wonder about the existence of God/dess or make efforts for what may seem to them to be too distant, impossible, or even fanciful. It is the nature of the mind and senses to seek outward. Rare is the individual who seeks within for meaning and truth. Even among those who seek, many get distracted along the way.
All this is meant to emphasize how rare true spiritual aspirants are, and how difficult their paths can be. It should not be understood as discouraging to the truly faithful, who will seek God/dess/Self no matter what it takes for as many lifetimes as it takes.
All will succeed in time, as the attractions of the world lose their charm. Having experienced every state from the highest to the lowest, the spiritual hero whose heart has been broken enough by the empty promises of the phenomenal world seeks the essence of God/dess as surely as an arrow seeks its target.
Consciousness-Śakti manifests as the five elements of experience and the intra-psychic functions. Each of the five elements corresponds to a sense organ or “organ of knowledge” and a subtle or mental sense organ, and all these along with the intra-psychic functions and five organs of action collectively add up the the 24-Cosmic Principles of Tantra.
Krishna lists them more-or-less in the reverse order in which they manifest, i.e., from grossest to subtlest. Earth represented by the bīja laṃ corresponds to the sense of smell, which corresponds to the nose; water represented by the bīja vaṃ corresponds to the sense of taste, which corresponds with the tongue; fire represented by the bīja raṃ corresponds to the sense of sight, which corresponds with the eyes; wind represented by the bīja yaṃ corresponds with the sense of touch, which corresponds with the skin; space represented by the bīja haṃ corresponds with the sense of hearing, which corresponds with the ears. These five senses are visually represented in the five cakras as bīja or seed mantras from the root cakra to the throat. The sixth cakra between the eyebrows corresponds to mind represented by the bija OM. Beyond the mind there is the I-maker or ego and intellect, the last and subtlest experience short of enlightenment. The intellect is experience apart from the I-maker in the initial moments of waking up when you are aware of existing but not yet aware of who you are. In Vedanta philosophy the order of intellect and I-maker are reversed, but experience shows the Tantric view is actually what we experience.
Consciousness is both the substratum and substance of all things. Consciousness in manifestation is “inferior” only in that the names and forms are temporary, while the underlying Consciousness is eternal.
In this verse the word kāma occurs translated as “lust” in the first line and “desire” in the second, according to the different contexts. Krishna clearly states that He Himself is desire in being unopposed to Dharma, i.e., desire that does not impede an individual’s path to liberation. Desire is not the problem, as some ascetic philosophies maintain. Desire itself is Divine when it is directed toward Self-realization. In Tantra desire guides us through the experiences needed to free ourselves from attachment. In this verse the Divine reveals that it is God/dess as desire that leads the individual to union with the One and liberation.
This has profound and direct application for spiritual practice. Instead of fearing or suppressing legitimate desire, the aspirant should understand that what we truly desire is the Divine Essence that shines through all beings, that subtle thread that connects all experiences together like pearls on a string. We may be attracted to this or that individual, but it is the Divine Presence within each person or thing that actually attracts. By following desires with this understanding, we come to understand that the external forms are temporary but the Divine Essence is eternal. As this certainty settles into the mind, serene detachment from sense objects occurs spontaneously.
The three guṇas, sattva, rajas, and tamas, are the three threads (guṇa) that compose the fabric of Prakṛti-Śakti, the substance of the manifested universe. The Universal Consciousness as Māyā-Śakti playfully manifests the universe from her own substance while the Śiva aspect of Consciousness witnesses this manifestation. Kālī dances on the breast of Śiva. Krishna speaks more in identification with Śiva in this verse.
Enchanted by the dance of the Goddess, the universe and all its beings pay no attention to the Source Consciousness that is the substance of all these manifestations and thus remain deluded regarding their essential nature. To know Śakti properly, one must first realize Śiva. But to realize Śiva requires the grace of Śakti.
A prominent tātrika practice is merging one’s individual identity into the deity being worshipped. This is a step toward merging into the Universal Self. Sri Krishna here asserts this method will enable one thereby to cross over Māyā-Śakti and attain Self-realization.
Mahāmāyā both deludes and frees one of delusion. Evil deeds create a propensity for delusion and ignorance. When the pain of ignorance become too great, even the deluded turn to the Divine. None is lost forever.
The wise seek God/dess, not for any ulterior gain, but because they know there is nothing greater to attain. All other goals are finite. Only attaining the Divine does one attain what is infinite and eternal.
However, others who seek favors from God/dess are also considered devotees. Through worship they in time gain pure devotion and become wise.
The word “worship” here means seeing God/dess in and as everything. Ramakrishna stopped picking flowers for formal worship when he realized that they were already decorating the Universal Form of God/dess. One cannot offer flowers that have already been offered. It is one thing to understand this intellectually, but quite another to have the direct experience of God/dess in and as everything. Then every breath become a prayer, and every sight, an offering.
Those lacking in spiritual understanding pray to have their desires fulfilled. It matters not what divine from they choose for their devotions. The One God/dess give them faith and fulfills their desires. They are called lacking in understanding because what they seek is non-eternal. When spiritual understanding awakens, one realizes that God/dess alone persists in all times, God/dess alone is our refuge and home.
The unenlightened also think of themselves as persons, unaware of their own undecaying, supreme nature as pure Consciousness. They do not know that their personal identity is a composite of patterns of mental and physical functions with no enduring identity or self in the patterns. Their uncritical assumption of themselves as separate individuals results in their seeking to fulfill their various worldly desires through divine intervention, and they actually do achieve these temporary goals, but in doing so miss out on the ultimate goal, which is Self-realization.
Yoga-Māyā, i.e., Māyā-Śakti, like a busy Mother keeps her children busy with the toys of the world, hiding her ultimate nature from them. But when they tire of their toys and call for her alone, then the Mother takes them in her arms and leads them home. The Mother deludes and then the Mother reveals. Everyone and everything in this manifested universe is subject to her playful will.
Krishna speaks as the Supreme Self or Paramaśiva in these last two passages, exhorting us to look beneath surface appearances to realize the Divine Essence within. The first step toward wisdom is recognizing that we are not seeing things as they truly are. Māyā-Śakti deludes, but the same Māyā-Śakti awakens in us the desire for liberation and enlightenment and inspires devotion and dedication to spiritual practices that enable us to remove delusion and reveal the ultimate truth of our nature.
Past, present, and future exist together in the Eternal Now that is the Divine Consciousness. The Self is always the Knower and never the known.
It is natural to seek pleasant experiences and to avoid unpleasant ones, but this natural tendency gives rise to the misperception of the One Consciousness as divided into many. Tantric ritual teaches aspirants to view all sense experiences equally as manifestations of Consciousness. Affirming the one Consciousness behind every experience nurtures detachment and develops devotion to the Unchanging Self behind everything. Just as a thread will not pass through the eye of a needle if a single filament sticks out, so too all desires for worldly experience must cease if one is to realize the Self. This detachment need not be permanent, but it must be absolute for enlightenment to occur.
Morality, especially non-injury and truthfulness, forms the basis of tantric spiritual practice. Tantric ritual worship directly and pointedly trains the aspirant how to overcome the delusion of duality by linking every sense organ and sense experience with the Consciousness that underlies them.
Freedom from old and and death comes with realization of the Self as Brahman. To take refuge in a deity means to practice identification with the deity as a stepping stone toward realizing one’s ultimate identity as pure Consciousness.
The one Consciousness underlies sense objects as Śiva, or Adhidaiva, and again manifests as sense objects as Śakti, or Adhibhūta. Ritual action, Adhiyajña, bridges the two.
Brahman and Adyātman or Ātman are both pure Consciousness, but the term Brahman applies when speaking of Consciousness in its universal aspect, and Ātman applies when speaking of the same Consciousness within the individual. Ritual connects the individual with the universal through offerings, which means connecting the the senses to Consciousness through mindful action.
Śakti manifested as the world is ever-changing, and the names and forms are non-eternal. The Supreme Puruṣa, Śiva, is the unchanging Witness of the manifestations of Śakti. Adhiyajña is Krishna as Viṣṇu, the presiding deity of sacrifice, evoked with the following Vedic mantra at the beginning of every tantric ritual:
“The wise always contemplate the supreme step of Viṣṇu like an eye spread in the sky.” Ṛg Veda 1.22
The supreme or last step of Viṣṇu refers to the Vedic story of the Demon King Bali, who had supplanted the gods in heaven and taken over the earth. Viṣṇu assumed the form of a dwarf (Vāmana) and got Bali to grant him as much territory as he could cover in three steps. Viṣṇu’s first two steps covered earth and heaven, and there was no place to plant his last step, so Bali offered his neck, thus ceding the universe back to Viṣṇu. The supreme step is symbolic of that which transcends heaven and earth, and the image of the “eye spread in the sky” refers to the Sun, a symbol of Consciousness. The Sun image is also evoked in the Ṛg Veda’s Gāyatrī Mantra, a meditation on the deity in the Sun and prayer for awakening of spiritual insight.
The word Puruṣa means “man,” but it is used in Yoga Philosophy to mean pure Consciousness, the equivalent of Śiva or Paramaśiva in Tantra.
Tantric aspirants repeat their mantra, a name of God/dess, continuously through life so that their minds may think of God/dess at the moment of death, thus assuring liberation.
Death represents more a continuation of a person’s state of mind rather than a radical departure from it, as sometimes imagined.
The image evoked here by the word “offered” is a fire sacrifice into which one pours clarified butter. The merging of the individual into the universal Self happens at the moment of enlightenment and at the moment of death. The tantric bhūta-śuddhi ritual enacts this sacrifice of the individual self into the Supreme Self quite pointedly, and so it is a powerful practice not only to attain enlightenment in life but also as preparation for a blessed death.
Pure Consciousness is what is called the imperishable because it is ever the same. The names and forms of the phenomenal world that Consciousness assumes are perishable, but their substratum remains unchanged. “Ascetics” here means persons who practice self-control, specifically directing the energy of desire toward the spiritual goal. Brahmacārya, “walking in Brahman,” refers to directing all of one’s physical and emotional energy toward Self- or God-realization. That can include celibacy.
The word I translate as “step,” pada, can also mean “the space between the eyebrows,” which points back to verse 8.9-10. In this case that space is being equated with the goal itself, which implies meditation on the Formless, i.e., “whose form is unimaginable.” Using the space between the eyebrows as a point of concentration corresponds to the tantric practice of imaging Consciousness congealed into a single, dimensionless point or biṇḍu. It is not to say Consciousness is confined to a point, but by imagining it so, the mind may more easily become concentrated and thus merged with it, which is the import of the word “enter” in this verse. Thus the “space between the eyebrows” or biṇḍu becomes a doorway to enlightenment, not a thing in itself, but a transit point between material and spiritual consciousness.
These are instructions for how to prepare to leave the body at the time of death. A lifetime of practice might be needed to have the presence of mind and self control described here. “In the head” here refers to the point between the eyebrows, the forehead. The bīja mantra OM is often prefixed to a name of God/dess in mantras used for meditation on deities. Sri Krishna alludes to this when he says “remembering Me.”
A person becomes a yogi, i.e., a person with a disciplined mind, by thinking constantly of God/dess through repeating a mantra or name of God/dess every waking moment when attention is not needed elsewhere. This simple spiritual practice works well because anyone can do it right from the beginning, and through practice one can develop the ability to do it constantly. It is useful to remember that Krishna gives this teaching to a man of action, not some hermit sequestered in a cave or forest. Persons who interact in the world need a practice in addition to silent meditation to be able to stay connected to the divine throughout the day.
A person not yet enlightened at death goes to a heavenly or hellish realm depending on the preponderance of their actions in life, good or bad, respectively. The experience in these realms lasts only until the results of the actions have been exhausted, and then the individual returns to earth. Those with equally mixed good and evil actions are quickly reborn on earth. Very virtuous individuals but not yet fully enlightened at death go to Brahma’s realm, a heaven where they remain until the last of their attachments get released and they become enlightened. They do not return to earth. Those who realize the Self in this life and thus become enlightened are not reborn, but merge in the Self.
Verse 15 calls all impermanent realms, even heaven, an abode of sorrow because heavens up to Brahma’s realm are temporary and require rebirth on earth where nothing lasts and everyone is born to die.
Carl Sagan, the astrophysicist, pointed out that among ancient cultures Hindus were the only ones who had anything like a realistic idea about the true age of the universe. Every other culture assumed the earth was at most a few thousand years old. It is interesting to speculate how, without modern scientific equipment, Hindu sages could have figured this out. Some suggest they obtained this knowledge through meditation on the nature of Reality.
At a literal level these verses seem to be describing the Hindu concept of a universe passing through cycles of manifestation and dissolution.
At a metaphorical level they suggest the Tantric practice of the evolution and de-evolution of Consciousness. From the point of view of spiritual practice the evolution of Consciousness is best viewed not merely as some ancient, historical event, but as a dynamic process that occurs at every moment. At every moment all we experience gets generated by the flow of Consciousness through and as the mind and five senses. This outward flow of attention awakens us to the world as the sun awakens the world at daybreak. The mind and senses create a subjective world for us composed of the five elements out of formless Consciousness, the Unmanifest. This includes the mental worlds experienced in dream, dreamless sleep, and imagination.
Through Purification of the Elements the tantric practitioner intentionally awakens and unites with the Kuṇḍaliṇī to dissolve the senses one-by-one back into Pure Consciousness, the Unmanifest. In union with Paramaśiva the devotee merges in samādhi. With a view to experience the world newly transformed from matter to Spirit, the practitioner creates a divine body out of mantra and evokes the deity into that body, reanimating the senses and vital energies. This is the state of liberation while living, seeing the transformed world through the eyes of the deity. This process repeats again and again as the practitioner enters and emerges from the state of superconsciousness or samādhi.
At the time of the dissolution of the universe Cit-Śakti in an unmanifest state remains ready to restart a new cycle of creation.
In Purification of the Elements after uniting with Paramaśiva in the unmanifested state the Kuṇḍalinī Śakti descends via the suṣumnā through the cakras that represent the five senses and their five elements, creating a divine body with a mind, senses, and vital energies, through which the devotee experiences the world as a passenger in the heart of the deity like the light of a candle in a lamp. Even after repeated experiences of samādhi the devotee returns to a natural state of waking consciousness so long as the physical body persists.
Tantric metaphysics maintains those who attain liberation in life, who experience the non-dual Consciousness, are not reborn in this world because there is no further desire for worldly experience. But there are those who do return willingly, the Iśvarakoṭis, or Eternal Companions of God/dess, who incarnate with the desire to save humanity. Ramakrishna identified several of his direct disciples, both monastic and householder, as his Iśvarakoṭis, including the friends, Narendra and Rakhal, who later became Swamis Vivekananda and Brahmananda, the founder and first President, respectively, of the Ramakrishna Order.
The word “supreme” here does not mean there is an end to spiritual experience. Rather, it refers to a threshold, a distinct dividing line between normal and spiritual consciousness. Realizing oneself as the imperishable opens the door to the endless revelations that follow.
Pure Consciousness, the Supreme Puruṣa, is the sum and substance of reality. Beings manifest for a time through the manifesting power of Consciousness (Śakti) and then dissolve through that same power. One-pointed devotion occurs when one realizes that only One Being exists.
Light imagery dominates this verse because physical light, whatever its source, remains the best metaphor for Consciousness, which instantly fills any space and reveals what is there. The knower of Brahman who has merged in Brahman while living does so at death.
A yogi by definition has a disciplined mind, but desire for worldly experience causes the yogi to be reborn. The dark imagery in this verse indicates desire that drags the yogi back to embodied existence. It is only by realizing oneself as Brahman that desire ceases to bind.
To practice Yoga at all times cannot refer to Patanjali’s yoga of withdrawal of attention from the world. In this verse Krishna exhorts Arjuna to convert every action into yoga, i.e., Karma Yoga. Just as actions of the hands, feet, and tongue get converted into worship in a temple, for example, by the context and by the intention of the worshipper, so also similar actions in the larger context of ordinary life can be converted into sacred ritual by the mindful intention and attention of the yogi.
To do this successfully requires one to see the world as sacred in the same way one sees a temple as sacred, as a place where divinity resides and can be encountered directly. It is only by seeing the world in all its dualities as a manifestation of the One Divine Being that one can truly practice Yoga at all times.
The traditional fruit of the study of sacred texts, the performance of rituals, denial of the senses, and charity is a long life of enjoyment in heaven followed by a return to earth when the virtue that led to that reward gets exhausted. What Krishna teaches transcends virtue motivated by desire for its finite rewards. The Karma Yoga Krishna teaches, the divinization of the world and consecration of all one’s actions, leads the practitioner to the primal state, which is the realization of Self as Pure Consciousness.
Krishna promises everything in this verse, both knowledge (jñāna) and full realization (vijnāna). Ramakrishna says knowledge of God/dess is like knowing a substance called “milk” exists. Full realization is drinking the milk and being nourished by it. In yogic terms knowledge is gained by withdrawing identity from the body-mind and the world of the five elements into union with Pure Consciousness, as occurs in the first half of the Purification of the Elements ritual. Full realization occurs in the second half of the ritual when identity gets transferred to the divine body created and infused with the life forces and senses of the deity through which one then experiences a world revealed as a manifestation Consciousness. Withdrawal from the world yields knowledge, but reentering the world with spiritual consciousness requires full realization. The ability to engage the world without losing spiritual perspective is important for a soldier about to fight a battle.
Of all the virtues Krishna might ascribe to Arjuna, “unenvious” begs explanation. Envy makes a person hanker for what is not rightly theirs. Arjuna’s cousins precipitated this fratricidal war by hankering after and ultimately taking through dishonest means what was not rightly theirs. The value of being free from envy from a spiritual perspective is attention undistracted by extraneous and fruitless imagination. Krishna in one word reminds Arjuna that unlike his enemies his cause is just, and that he has the power of concentration needed for spiritual practice and realization.
Arjuna in chapter one had protested that he would incur sin by killing revered teachers and relatives. Krishna promises in this verse that this knowledge and realization he will gain will free him from sin. That in itself is a remarkable promise. How does spiritual knowledge free one from sin? Sin refers to unrighteous conduct, bad karma. Killing human beings would normally produce bad karma, but that does not apply to soldiers fighting in a righteous war for a righteous cause. However, even such soldiers could feel bad about killing, however necessary. Spiritual knowledge strikes at the very root of this feeling by revealing that the killer is in essence no-thing but a temporary form of Consciousness, as are the so-called victims. Krishna uses this concept as a method of persuasion in chapter two, but understanding this intellectually is far from the experience gained in full realization. This teaching is the greatest secret because it cannot be told to those who are not fit to receive it. Ordinary people must feel they are responsible for the consequences of their actions, or great evil will result. Only a person of consummate virtue unenvious of others may be taught this truth and be trusted not to misuse it to do evil.
Extremist Tantric Gurus may engage in transgressive actions to teach or perhaps to rattle the conventionally pious. It has always been a risky strategy, if one may call it one, that predictably evokes condemnation of Tantric practitioners and brings infamy to Tantra in general. For this reason the mainstream tradition prescribes keeping secret teachings secret to protect not only unprepared spiritual aspirants but the community of Tantrics as well.
The adjective “royal” is interesting here. At one level we can understand it as a superlative meaning “best.” But it can also be taken literally to mean a secret knowledge meant for kings and by extension those with the nature of kings. Kings and the warrior caste ideally exhibit integrity and the courage and will to fight as necessary to protect the weak and preserve order. The function of warriors requires a preponderance of the rajoguṇa, the principle of dynamism. Tantra utilizes rajas to overcome tamas, inertia, to attain sattva, equanimity. Arjuna himself is literally a king, and he is aso a warrior by nature. He succumbed to tamas in chapter one, overcome with grief at the prospect of killing beloved teachers and relatives, but Krishna roused him from paralysis by reminding him of his royal duty and shaming him for a lapse into unmanliness. He reminded Arjuna that winning the war was not his goal, but rather enlightenment was.
Spiritual realization purifies by revealing the original purity of the Self. This path is easy to understand and practice because it utilizes the senses to go beyond the senses, i.e., it doesn’t require retiring to an ascetic monastery.
The faith of which Krishna speaks here is not blind belief but rather confidence in one’s own ability to reach enlightenment and in the Guru’s instructions. Those who fail to reach enlightenment in one life get recycled, as it were, into others until the world breaks their hearts enough for them to rouse themselves to the sustained effort needed to shake off delusion.
The metaphor of “shaking off” delusion is probably too dynamic for the actual process that is quiet, subtle, and deep. In the next verses Krishna instructs Arjuna in the royal secret knowledge that can enable him to attain enlightenment.
Pure Consciousness is the fabric of reality, subtle and not manifested to the senses. Krishna, speaking as Pure Consciousness, tells Arjuna that the whole universe is composed of his subtle essence. The spiritual practice implied here is affirming this fact repeatedly until the truth of it gets revealed.
Beings, i.e., Consciousness manifested in name and form, rest on this ocean of essential Consciousness like bubbles on a pond, composed of the same essence yet different, too. We can say that Consciousness is within us, our heart of hearts, but it is not contained or limited by us.
Ramakrishna called the creative divine Consciousness-Śakti “Mother” because it is the source of our being just as our biological mothers are the physical source of our physical bodies. The Divine Mother creates forms from her own being as our own mothers do, so it is a particularly apt metaphor. Birth puts us in an intimate relationship with our mothers, and so also we have an intimate connection to our divine source in Consciousness-Śakti. This relationship does not alter Pure Consciousness that witnesses the Mother’s cyclical process of creation, preservation, and destruction, the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. The process of bubbles rising, persisting for a time, and then popping-merging with the water on a pond does not disturb the pond’s quiet depths.
Krishna in this verse teaches another spiritual practice, meditation upon all the beings in the universe moving within the larger space of Consciousness. The word “space” in Sanskrit implies a fabric, and Tantric ritual literally represents space as a cloth. The image of the wind conveys both the dynamism of Consciousness-Śakti and the relative insubstantiality of the names and forms of the phenomenal world.
The metaphysical history lesson is less important in this verse to a Tantric practitioner than the symbolic representation of the dissolution and creation that occur in the Purification of the Elements ritual. The word translated as “beings,” i.e., bhūta, also means “elements.” So this verse should be read as a general description of the Purification of the Elements ritual (bhūta-śuddhi) in which the mind, senses and all they perceive, the “elements” of experience, first get dissolved into Prakṛti-Śakti and thence into Śiva-Pure Consciousness. This is the end of a kalpa, or the first half of the ritual. At the beginning of the next kalpa, the next half of the ritual, a divine form develops out of mantra flowing like nectar-rain from a full-moon and taking the shape of the desired deity from Pure Consciousness. The senses and life-energies get infused into this divine form, and through it the practitioner experiences the world revealed as composed of blissful Consciousness. The mind, senses, and the world of forms comes flowing back into awareness, now transformed as seen through the eyes of the deity.
This process is precisely how one can realize that Consciousness pervades everything. This is the full realization Krishna promised to teach.
Pure Consciousness lies still while Consciousness as Prakṛti-Śakti brings the world back into being again and again. This happens when the mind and senses alternately merge in non-dual awareness and then return to a transformed awareness of the world. We saw this process vividly illustrated in the life of Ramakrishna, but modern yogīs in their own way have also experienced this alternating awareness. Ramakrishna said Śakti reveals her true nature and then hides again, and he compared this to pond scum being pushed back to reveal clear water beneath only to dance back again when it is released. The great Tantric realization of Ramakrishna’s Vedantic Guru, Tota Puri, was that God/dess controls this process.
In the language of Tantric metaphor Śiva watches impassively as Kālī dances on his breast, creating, preserving, and destroying the worlds. Śiva, Pure Consciousness, underlies Śakti, the Manifesting Consciousness. The word translated “propels” can also mean “creates.”
Taken as the literal words of Krishna, the Incarnation of God/dess, this verse decries the unbelievers and doubters of the mystery of the Incarnation, God/dess made flesh.
But understood in Tantric metaphorical terms, this refers to the mystery of the divine presence within every human body, and ignorance of the divine within is delusion. The human body is the starting place for Tantric spiritual practice, as it is the natural locus of identity. The aspirant overcomes delusion by deconstructing the sensory show of Māyā-Śakti into its elements and discovering the Source in the Great Lord of Beings (bhūta-maheśvara), which can also be translated Great Lord of the Elements. We disrespect the divine within by ignoring it, dazzled by the show of the five senses.
This verse continues the theme of the preceding verse with a description of those with the nature of “rākṣasas and asuras,” materialists and enemies of the gods who seek sense pleasure at the cost of spiritual awareness. Western scholars have translated both words, rākṣasa and asura, as “demon,” but this is inaccurate, as no being in Hinduism is considered exclusively or eternally evil. Actions determine a person’s birth in one form or another, and actions determine one’s nature. The hedonist who denies or ignores the divine within vainly hopes and strives for what is non-eternal. Sensual knowledge alone is insufficient to know the Self.
The Chāndogya Upanishad tells the story of Indra, King of the Gods, and Vairocana, King of the Asuras, both of whom went to Brahmā for instruction about the Self. Brahmā tells them the Self is what is seen when you look at your reflection. Both take that instruction and return to their people to relay the teaching. Vairocana sees his body in the reflection and never again questions the instruction nor thinks any further about the nature of Self. Thus the asuras consider the body and physical pleasure the goal of life. But Indra reasons that the physical body alone cannot be the Self as the body is subject to decay and death, and so he returns to Brahmā for further instruction. Indra questions again and again until he understands that the Self is the unchanging awareness, the light that shines when the sun, moon, stars, and fire do not. This story illustrates the fundamental difference between those with the nature of rākṣasas and asuras versus those with a divine nature.
Again in this verse the word bhūta, “beings,” can also be rendered as “elements.” In this latter meaning the word “worship” points to Tantric ritual and the Purification of the Elements at its heart. A one-pointed mind is necessary to sustain the visualization needed to do the ritual correctly. Furthermore, the aspirant’s intention must be one-pointed, for otherwise lingering desire for worldly experience will derail the process.
The devoted praise God/dess from the reverential adoration that wells up spontaneously in the divine presence. Firm vows protect the devotee from the vagaries of the wandering mind bent upon resisting discipline. True devotion and adoration occur when the aspirant realizes that God/dess alone exists. Whom else to love or adore when the Lover is everywhere and everything? The devotee dissolves the body-mind into Pure Consciousness and then reforms a divine body from mantra. Thenceforth the devotee dwells in the heart of the devotee in union with the Beloved and enjoys the vision of the phenomenal world as Consciousness manifesting in myriad forms. Worship then means attenuating ego as much as possible to enable the unfettered flow of the divine Consciousness through the body-mind.
Through the knowledge-sacrifice, i.e., bhūta-śuddhi, the aspirant deconstructs the world composed of the five elements of experience into their Source in Pure Consciousness, from which the world of multiplicity is again reconstituted out of Consciousness in the form of mantra in all its varieties and endless manifestations. Consciousness is realized facing in all directions, shining as awareness of and as all things.
Krishna analyzes Vedic fire ritual in this verse. At its literal level a priest-officiant typically makes offerings of clarified butter into a consecrated fire, itself a deity believed to carry the offerings to the gods in heaven.
Identifying as Consciousness in manifestation, Krishna affirms that every aspect of ritual is in fact himself.
The herb utilized in Tantric worship is cannabis often mixed with wine. In Vedic ritual the herb was soma, the identity of which is lost in antiquity, though based on descriptions of its effects Terence McKenna and others have postulated it was a psilocybin mushroom. A man I met who studied with a Tantric Guru in Nepal told me they used to imbibe mushrooms for ecstatic ceremonies. They also imbibed a drink he called “soma,” but he did not know its exact ingredients and manner of preparation. Entheogens like psilocybin used in the in the right mindset and setting can induce mystical insights and feelings of bliss. To my understanding these herb-induced experiences fall short of actual mystical awakening, though they point to its possibility. In the radical non-dualism of Tantra bliss is bliss.
Understood as theology, this majestic passage establishes God/dess as the Father, Mother, and ultimate Being responsible for creation, preservation, and destruction of the universe. It mentions the Creator, Brahmā, known as Grandfather, who is said to be the original teacher of humanity through authorship of the Vedas. Deity is the source of all mantras as OM, the ultimate purifier. Various human relationships are mentioned, each a way of approaching deity as a Divine Person, including friend and Lord. The Witness is Parama-Śiva, while Śakti is Consciousness as the devotee’s abode, refuge, and friend. And again the divine shines as the Sun, both withdrawing rain as evaporation and sending it forth again as condensed rain. God/dess is both immortality and death, being and non-being, i.e., everything and whatever else there is or can be or can be conceived.
However, a Tantric reading of this macrocosmic statement reveals an alchemical, microcosmic application. These passages become a dynamic visualization of the Universal Self, a meditation mantra for identifying with the Divine Being. Recited with deep conviction and with the effort to feel each affirmation as a statement of fact, the aspirant identifies with the Universal Krishna as Śiva-Śakti.
It is never the individual self that gets identified with God/dess. Everything that makes up the limited self along with the Sin-Man (Pāpa-puruṣa)—all sins and sinful tendencies personified—gets burned in the fires of Kuṇḍalinī in the Purification of the Elements ritual. Every bit of the jīvātma gets absorbed into Pure Consciousness and only then the divine body gets created from mantra flowing from the font of Consciousness in the Sashasrāra Cakra, The Thousand-Petalled Lotus at the top of the head, symbol of the abode of the formless, infinite Consciousness. The meditation mantra provides a framework for visualization of the divine Being. The anthropomorphic elements in the first verse help anchor the identification, which then proceeds through more abstract concepts and functions.
The old Vedic path provided its followers a way to enjoy boundless pleasures in heaven. This path required spotless moral perfection, one reason it is an impractical path for our present Kali Yuga or Iron Age, in which humans are strongly predisposed to moral weakness. So little of that Vedic old world remains, we do not even know what the Vedic Soma plant was anymore with any certainty. And Vedic sacrifice involved the cruel smothering of animals in sacrificial rites. For all that what was achieved was only temporary in any case, an endless cycle of coming and going to and from heaven back to earth.
The passage, “Thus the followers of the Way of the Three Vedas who desire desires…” needs explanation. Normally one speaks of desiring objects of desire, people, experiences, or sense objects, rather than desiring desires. It suggests an addiction to the cycle of longing for enjoyment that culminates in attaining the person or thing desired in some way, and the disappointment that inevitably comes when the person, experience, or object fails to live up to expectations. When those addicted to this process realize there is “no there, there,” instead of seeking liberation, they reinitiate the cycle. To “desire desires” is to perpetuate addiction to what is non-eternal and ultimately disappointing, for even painful experiences can become addictive when the alternative seems to be bland sameness and futility.
Krishna speaks of two spiritual practices in this verse, worship and remembrance of God/dess. In the Kali Yuga Tantric ritual worship takes the place of Vedic ritual. Tantric ritual aims to convert all daily actions into spiritually potent sādhana, spiritual effort. The mechanism for this is the second spiritual practice described, mindfulness. It is not enough to do rituals mindlessly or mechanically. There must be a connection between the divine and the action (see 4.24). The Lord promises in this age to take care of the devotee who follows the Tantric path.
It is vitally important for an aspirant to understand the purpose of ritual, and to keep that purpose in mind throughout the process. Thus the importance of ritual procedures. Tantric ritual is built on non-dualistic philosophy, that in the ultimate analysis there is only one Substance, i.e., Consciousness. The sacrifice done metaphorically in Purification of the Elements is offering the world of the senses into the senses, the senses into the mind, and the mind into its Source in Consciousness, very much like an oblation of clarified butter into the sacrificial fire of old. To practice with anything short of this awareness is to take the path of return to the world of birth, death, and rebirth. Tantra realizes the path to full acceptance of the non-dual Truth takes time and practice, because individuals start out in various degrees of identification with body-mind patterns and the dualistic worlds they create around themselves. Tantric ritual is in part so effective because it starts by taking the world just as it appears and gradually trains the mind to see what is deeper and more comprehensive. It doesn’t require one to leap to a non-dual conclusion prematurely, as orthodox Advaita Vedanta does. By training the mind to analyze the sensory world into its components, i.e., its elements, and dissolving these elements into their Source, Tantric ritual systematically dematerializes the world, revealing the true, eternal essence behind the names and forms of the world as Consciousness.
The pantheon of gods of ancient Hinduism resemble in some respects the gods of ancient Greece. Indra, the King of the Gods, wields a thunderbolt like Zeus. Kāma like Eros shoots arrows that cause infatuation to swell in the hearts of his victims. Some writers liken the gods to angels. But unlike the Greek gods or even angels, the Hindu gods are not immortal, and their status can be achieved by any human who acquires sufficient merit. Beings who have exhausted the good karma that got them to heaven return to earth to strive again. Vedic rites were designed to create sufficient merit to elevate the worshipper to the status of Indra, for example. The rituals properly performed in impeccable Sanskrit, the Language of the Gods, compelled the gods to fulfill desires.
Formal, ritual veneration of ancestors forms an integral part of an orthodox brahmin’s daily devotions.
Defining “worship” as an intentional direction of attention toward an object with devotion or fascination, modern ghost hunters could be considered worshippers of ghosts.
This oft-quoted verse and the next succinctly express the essential elements of ritual applied to everyday life and thus made accessible to anyone of pure heart.
Krishna addresses Arjuna’s concern about committing sins in the killing of kinsmen, assuring him he will suffer no ill consequences so long as he performs his duty as an offering to God/dess. Although this is an extreme example in the extreme situation of warfare, all of us fight our own battles in life, and they can leave us battered and in doubt. In this context the word saṃnyāsa, “renunciation,” joined with the word yoga, has the special meaning of dedicating each action to God/dess. The renunciation mentioned here is not renunciation of actions or of the world but renunciation of attachment to them.
Verse 27 describes methods of mindfulness. Taking God/dess as the sacrificial flame, one metaphorically offers each action to God/dess through constant remembrance. It reinforces the teaching expressed in 4.24 that provides the template for mindful action both inside and outside the context of formal ritual by joining action to the thought of God/dess. It can also mean performing actions for the sake of God/dess. If we take Krishna as a symbol or embodiment of Brahman, setting aside the personality of deity, the verse can be understood as seeing sense impressions flowing into Consciousness, as rivers flow into the ocean.
Speaking as Consciousness, the Self, Krishna is equally present in all beings. That presence manifests different in different beings according to their actions, but Consciousness is the same, untarnished by action or karma. That said, it seems Krishna, the Incarnation of God, carves out a special place for his devotees. This concept creates an unsolvable paradox, pitting divine impartiality expressed in the first line of the verse against divine favoritism strongly implied in the second line.
No worries. Impossible contradictions can coexist without conflict in the divine being. As Sri Ramakrishna used to say, “Never limit the divine.” The idea that God/dess favors the devotee in any case encourages spiritual aspirants who can tend to get dejected when spiritual practice becomes laborious, and it seems God/dess is far away.
Speaking as Consciousness, however, Krishna asserts the truth of Oneness, in which everything is That. Devotees knowing that Truth become it, so Truth is in the devotee and the devotee is in the Truth.
Realization is permanent. Even when the mind returns to ordinary consciousness, the memory of the Truth remains, and the devotee can never be entirely fooled again.
Birth in a female body brings much hardship even in the modern world—what to speak of prehistoric South Asia—and it was therefore considered a less-desirable birth. Vaiśyas and Śudras are lower castes. In modern terms we can understand these as persons born in any unfavorable circumstances. Realization lifts all to the highest.
The Guru’s teachings imparted with love from a desire to help penetrate deep into the heart of the disciple.
Consciousness exists prior to all manifestations and is the origin and Source of all.
The liberated one is “undeluded” because all mortals begin in the delusion of separation, and Knowledge of the Self erases that delusion. The liberated are also freed from all sin, because they realize that in Truth the patterns of physical and psychic functions they thought they were are entirely controlled by Consciousness, just as vegetables in a pot jump around, energized by the fire heating the pot. God/dess alone is the Doer.
The pairs of opposites included in this list demonstrate that deity originates all the dualities found in the human condition.
The boundary between Pure Consciousness and the beginning of all these manifestation occurs at the level of Prakṛti, another word for Śakti. With the three powers of knowledge, will, and action Śakti transforms herself into all that follows.
Realizing everything as Consciousness the aspirant becomes united with Consciousness.
Deep meditation occurs as one traces all sensations and thoughts back to their Source in Consciousness.
When a person realizes the Self, nothing else remains to think about or to share with others. Contentment becomes the natural state, and Bliss permeates existence.
The moment of liberating enlightenment comes through the grace of God/dess. In that moment the divine hand gets vividly revealed, and one realizes that all one’s efforts got accomplished by God/dess, the only Doer.
This verse clues indicates that what follows may be considered methods of meditating. Each way the divine manifests points to a way to visualize and ultimately realize That.
The words I translate as “courage” of the “courageous” because of the context can also mean “goodness” of the “good.” Or “equanimity” of the “equanimous.” The passage can also mean all these things simultaneously.
Vāsudeva is Krishna. Dhanañjaya is Arjuna. Vyāsa is the author of the Mahābhārta which includes the Bhagavad-Gītā. Uśanas, an ancient seer, is said to be the teacher of the rivals of the gods.
Identified with Consciousness in both aspects, Śiva-Śakti, Krishna reveals himself as the substratum of existence and also as the instrument of of all beings becoming into manifestation, which is an ongoing process rather than a historical event.
In the enlightenment experience one realizes that the visible universe in all its vast diversity exists as if a thin layer of bubbles and flotsam on an infinite ocean of Being.
A shift in consciousness must happen for the divine to be revealed. Superconscious vision comes in an act of grace that instantly shifts not only what you see but also who and what you experience yourself to be.
Divine visions can engage all the five senses. It is known that a divine scent may accompany visions. The narrator, Sanjaya, attempts to describe his multi-dimensional vision in three-dimensional terms and can only resort to hyperbole turned up to eleven in the attempt.
Pure Consciousness is what is to be known to attain liberation and thus it is the supreme object of knowledge. In his Incarnations Krishna re-establishes ways to liberation. The deity remains throughout as the indwelling divine presence or Puruṣa by which people are led to liberation.
Therefore, Arjuna’s suggestion that he drop his bow and retire to the forest to avoid killing is a vain wish.
In the superconscious state one realizes that everything you thought you were is only a pattern of functions illuminated from within by Consciousness. Whatever we seem to do is really done by That. Free will, to the extent it operates at all, is merely the choice to notice that one acts as an instrument of the divine will. That is the essence of spiritual effort, what we actually do in spiritual practice. Otherwise, our belief in free will is like vegetables boiling in a pot imagining they jump around on their own volition.
It is interesting to note that the epithet Krishna uses for Arjuna here, “Ambidextrous Bowman,” implies flexibility. Mental flexibility is needed to comprehend that we act only as instruments.
It is in essence, i.e., Pure Consciousness, that we are One with God/dess. Entering into what we always are essentially is an act of revelation, a shift in consciousness.
This verse contains the outline of a total spiritual life: perform actions mindfully, organize your life around spiritual practice focused on attaining liberation, nurture devotion to the Ideal, free yourself from attachments, cultivate kindness and compassion for all, and not least of all, trust in God/dess and in the Self by whose grace liberation is granted.
Although this dialogue is often translated so that it seems Krishna favors devotion to God/dess with form over approaches utilizing reason that seek the formless, Krishna actually doesn’t answer Arjuna’s question directly, rejecting his simplistic “which is better” frame. Krishna rather asserts that he considers those “more connected,” regardless of their conception of deity, whose minds are centered in the goal with faith and who regularly practice spiritual disciplines. If they are devotees of God/dess with form, they will perform ritual worship and mindful action. If they are devoted to the formless, they will meditate, train the senses, and exercise discrimination between the eternal and non-eternal, and perform mindful action. The essential thing in each case is steadfast performance of spiritual practices.
“Regarding everyplace with an equal eye” means seeing the One Consciousness everywhere manifested as the world. “Devoted to the welfare of all” means harboring no enmity or grudges for anyone, avoiding strong, inflexible opinions, and offering service to those in need without attachment.
Tantra employs images of God/dess and worship as ways to train the mind gradually for realizing the Self as Pure Consciousness. For as as long as one’s identity is strongly rooted in the physical body and individual personality, it is difficult to break free of that all at once by force, as it were. Nor is is necessary to do so. It’s not that either kind of aspirant is better than the other. Rather, one should follow the path appropriate to one’s spiritual condition. The Guru helps in determining this.
In Purification of the Elements the individual mind, along with the senses that together create the experience of being an individual identity, is offered like an oblation into the Ocean of Pure Consciousness. When this process is successful, one’s consciousness gets transformed in an instant, as though a pile of cotton is suddenly consumed by flames. The truth of so’ham haṃsa, “I am That Spirit ” gets revealed in a flash.
Mind, manas, insight, buddhi, together with ego, ahaṃkāra, get merged in Pure Consciousness in Purification of the Elements.
Deep meditation is a difficult, advanced spiritual practice that few can quickly master. You can bring the mind under control over time through patient, persistent practice. The word for practice in Sanskrit, abhyāsa, also means “repetition.”
Action here means ritualized action, i.e., action done without attachment. Tantric ritual trains one to perform action in the mindful, ritualized way that makes action a potent spiritual practice.
In Ramakrishna’s life we find examples of disciples who expressed their inability to live up to his ideal. He told them to give him the “power of attorney.” The Tantric tradition has long prescribed faith in the Guru as fundamental to any spiritual practice.
Mindful action and meditation work together. Through regular meditation an aspirant gains the ability to act mindfully, and through mindful action one’s ability to meditate also improves.
The following verses lay out ideals of mental and moral habits conducive not only to the development of mature devotion, but to the establishment of a stable, deep spiritual practice as well.
The designation of “Yogi” refers to one who lives a well-regulated life of self-control with liberation-enlightenment at the goal, i.e., a sincere spiritual aspirant. In this meaning it could be redundant in this context. The additional implication of the word is one who practices meditation and moral disciplines as described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Although affection is normally considered a virtue, here it refers to inordinate affection for persons or things that distract one from spiritual life. Likewise, giving up all undertakings may seem like a prescription for laziness, but the idea is that one should not go out of the way to disrupt your well-regulated spiritual life in pursuit of goals not directly related to spiritual realization. Obviously, this teaching applies only to those who have reached that stage in their spiritual development, whose desires for worldly experience have withered away like a dead leaf on a palm tree, ready to fall off of its own accord. In Tantra this is called nivṛitti marga, “the path of return.”
Ramana Maharshi said this was his favorite chapter. The first unnumbered verse is often omitted.
In this one terse verse Krishna refers to the two aspects of Consciousness called in Tantra Shakti and Shiva, respectively. The word “Field” here is used for Shakti, Consciousness in manifestation, and “Knower of the Field” (Knower) is used for Shiva, Consciousness as Witness or Pure Consciousness.
The word body in this verse refers not only to the physical body but also to everything that can be experienced by a person both as sense perceptions and as inner emotional and mental states. In short, the “body” mentioned here includes all of phenomenal existence.
Tantra begins with the body because it is the locus of identity at the beginning of spiritual life. But we should not imagine that the boundary of self ends at the boundary of the physical body. Through reason alone we can understand that our bodies exist in a field of existence that includes the air we breathe and the food and water we eat, drink, and excrete, and our bodies exchange molecules with our environment every moment of our lives. There is no separate existence for the body even at the physical level of existence.
Furthermore, what we perceive through our senses as “out there” in fact occurs as mental activity in our brains. We never know so-called external objects in themselves but only the information that our senses feed our brains about them. We don’t “see” an apple but merely the way light reflecting off the apple stimulates the nerves in our retinas that then stimulate nerves in the brain, creating a mental image of what we assume is out there. Under the influence of drugs or other chemical imbalances in the brain, as in psychosis, we can hallucinate objects and persons that may appear quite real to us at the time, even though others cannot see them. Our brains cannot distinguish mental images from so-called sensory images, because both are produced in the brain.
What we call “inner” and “outer” reality, therefore, is merely a convention of thought, although there are practical reasons for thinking this way. (It helps to have some mutually consensual way of interacting with people and things.) For a spiritual aspirant, however, it is useful to realize that both inner and outer reality actually occur in a single field of awareness. What seems like two worlds, an outer physical world and an inner mental world, is actually one mental world as far as what we can actually know.
The wise mentioned in this verse are those with direct experience of non-dual Truth, the fact of ultimate Oneness. Mere intellectual understanding of this philosophy is not enough. Belief in this philosophy is not enough. True wisdom develops as a spiritual aspirant goes beyond mere intellectual, emotional, or even intuitive understanding to experience directly the fact that the Self is the Self of all beings and the Essence of all things. The Self cannot be known as objects are known because it is always the Irreducible Subject, to borrow a term from Robert Thurman, the Buddhist scholar. I call this state Absolute Subjectivity. The wise person becomes Truth in super-conscious vision. As the Brahma Sutra says, “The knower of Brahman becomes Brahman.” (Adhikarana XIII: Sutra 18) Brahman is another term for the Essential Self, but without reference to identity with any body, i.e., formless, infinite, unborn, undying, and undecaying.
The wise first experiences the Knower, the Witness Self, apart from the Field, the manifesting self, but as spiritual knowledge unfolds he realizes that both are One in essence. Ramakrishna called the first stage jñana, “knowledge” and the next stage vijñāna, “full knowledge.” To see the One Consciousness manifesting as the world both in samadhi, one-pointed absorption in Truth, and with eyes open is the goal of Tantric practice.
When Krishna says he is the Knower in all Fields, he is referring to himself in his aspect as the Supreme Self, Paramashiva, as it is known in Tantra, Atman, as known in Vedanta, or also generally as Sat-Cit-Ananda, Being-Consciousness-Bliss. In the non-dual philosophy of Vedanta and Tantra there is only one Self in many beings, one Witness Consciousness that shines through all the changes of the various body-mind beings.
It is common in Tantric meditation to utilize a form of deity as an object of meditation and devotion. Therefore, it is useful for spiritual aspirants to meditate on Krishna, Ramakrishna, or on any other Incarnation of God or divine form, knowing that the deity represents the higher Self.
In Tantra specifically the divine form of the chosen aspect of deity becomes a bridge between the aspirant’s own self-concept as a psycho-physical being to realization of the Self as the divine essence, Pure Consciousness. The form and personality of the deity help the aspirant imagine a state of being greater than our own, as the form of the deity is imagined as composed of condensed Consciousness. In Tantric ritual the aspirant symbolically destroys his own body-mind and replaces that with the body-mind of the deity, fulfilling the Tantric dictum: “Having become God, one should worship God.”
Meditation on a deity with form also engages our human need for emotional connection. Any relationship we can have with a human being we can cultivate with God/dess. As one meditates on the divine form, imagining the deity as living and conscious, feelings of love and attachment grow, adding a sweetness to meditation practice. We feel God’s grace tangibly at times as our efforts yield results far beyond what we have achieved on our own.
The Muṇḍaka and Śvetāshvatāra Upanishads both contain a story about two birds in the same tree. One bird eats of the sweet and bitter fruits of the lower branches, but the other bird sits at the top of the tree, basking in the glorious sunlight, unaffected by anything. When the lower bird eats a bitter fruit, it looks up and briefly contemplates the splendor of the other bird, hopping up one branch closer to the higher bird. Soon, however it forgets and starts eating fruits again. Eventually, the lower bird, tired of eating fruits, approaches nearer the higher bird. But as the lower bird draws nearer and nearer to the higher bird, a wondrous thing happens: the lower bird dissolves into the higher bird, realizing that all his existence was just a shadow and dream of the higher bird. As we meditate on a form of God, at first we imagine we are separate and different. But as meditation practice matures, we discover more and more that what we call self is merely a thought in the mind of God, as it were. In the final moment our sense of self dissolves into the Divine Being, and we know that God, infinite Consciousness in infinite manifestation, alone exists.
Thus the divine being leads us inexorably to union with the divine essence. Krishna considers true or supreme Knowledge the realization that as phenomenal beings we are no-thing, mere dynamic patterns of physical and mental functions, and the divine Self alone exists like the glorious bird sitting in the sunlight, witnessing all the changes of the body-mind and through all the body-minds we may inhabit. This knowledge is the true knowledge because it liberates us from the compulsion to be reborn, burning away all karma, past actions and their results.
Krishna here speaks of the Field both in impersonal and in personal terms, because our phenomenal being has both these aspects. Considered as an amalgam of psycho-physical functions, our being behaves as an impersonal automaton. Even our brains function mostly at an unconscious level, maintaining bodily functions effortlessly and with great efficiency. In his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Pantheon Books, 2011) neuroscientist David Eagleman gives numerous examples of autonomous functioning of the brain, and the first chapter is entitled “There’s Someone in My Head, But It’s Not Me” (nod to Pink Floyd). Even accomplished meditators, he claims, those who can lower their heart rate or blood flow at will, for example, still control only the merest surface of all that is taking place in the brain, and that is a good thing, because it frees the conscious part of the brain to do things it does best.
At the same time we experience ourselves as personal beings with memory, feelings, and imagination. Through these we create and inhabit a conception of self that includes family, friends, and other human relationships. Krishna commands Arjuna to learn from him about the origin of this autonomic phenomenal being, its nature and changes, and also to learn about its personal aspect and abilities.
In this verse Krishna establishes the pedigree of this teaching, confirming that what he is about to say has been taught from time immemorial by seers of Truth and recorded in hymns that have been chanted through the ages. Truth is the very fabric of Reality, and therefore it has no beginning or end. A seer is one who has directly known the Truth of Oneness in superconscious vision, and those with the aptitude to share what they have seen, have recorded this knowledge in metered texts memorized in each generation to preserve the teachings.
Ultimate Truth is trans-rational, being ever the Subject and never the object of knowledge, but it is never irrational. Reason must be satisfied for us to move beyond reason. Reason alone can take us to the doorway of enlightenment by distinguishing the Knower from the Field, the essential Self from the phenomenal self. However, the final step through the door of enlightenment happens by a mysterious act of grace.
In this pithy verse Krishna analyzes the Field, i.e., the phenomenal world, into its 24 component parts, what Ramakrishna called the 24 Cosmic Principles (tattva) or Essences, a core teaching of Tantra (some schools of Tantra count 36, but the essential breakdown is similar). It is important to understand that these components all arise from Consciousness in a process that makes the One appear as many, the very process that creates our own existence as individuals.
The five great elements are metaphorically named earth, water, fire, air, and space, (sometimes called ether). These are not elements of the material world as understood in Western science. Rather, they are psychological categories of subjective experience. Earth represents all experiences possible through the sense of smell. Water represents all experiences possible through the sense of taste. Fire represents all experiences possible through the sense of sight. Air represents all experiences possible through the sense of touch. And space represents all experiences possible through the sense of hearing.
The evolution of these elements from Consciousness is not something we should imagine happened at some time in the distant past. Rather we should understand that this evolution of the elements occurs in each of us at every moment. Here and now we exist as individuals as the result of a dynamic play of Consciousness, and the potential to realize our original nature, infinite Consciousness, is present in every moment if we know how to reverse the evolution in a process called laya, devolution.
In the Bhuta-Shuddhi ritual, the “Purification of the Elements,” the core component of any Tantric ritual, these elements are devolved one-after-the-other back into Pure Consciousness. This is accomplished through a visualization of the spine having five psycho-spiritual centers called cakras “wheels,” imagined as lotus flowers with a specific color and number of petals. The following chart summarizes the cakras and their corresponding element, sense, bija “seed”mantra, lotus petal and color, and location.
base of spine
In this visualization the crown cakra or sahasrāra, is the location of Paramashiva, the ocean of Consciousness in which the individual is dissolved in this ritual like salt in water. In the second stage of the ritual a new, divine body is constructed from mantra, and the deity worshipped is invoked into that body, so that the deity performs the remainder of the ritual.
The next component mentioned in the verse, ahamkara, the “I”-maker, is the mental function that relates experiences to a specific center of consciousness. Sometimes translated as “Ego,” ahamkara is more than just the conscious aspect of personality as conceived in Freudian psychology; it is the function that creates in us our fundamental concept of separate identity. Ramakrishna said, “Ahamkara itself is Maya.” Maya is that which makes the One appear as many and thus blocks knowledge of our true being. The taming or eradication of ahamkara is a primary task of most spiritual paths. In Tantra ahamkara is made to serve our spiritual purpose by placing it in a relationship with God/dess. As Ramakrishna said, “If the bastard must remain, let it be the servant of God, or the friend, parent, or lover of God.”
The next component Krishna lists is buddhi, often translated as “intellect” or “the determinative faculty.” Buddhi is the mental function that enables us to grasp meaning and gain insight. For example, you may be searching for a friend named Tom in a crowded station. At first you can see a detail a or two, perhaps his height, hair color, or an article of clothing, but you are not sure who you are seeing. As you get closer, other details begin to get filled in until the moment when you know that the person you are seeing is truly Tom. That moment of certain recognition, when various details have been amalgamated, analyzed, and finally summed up, is the function of buddhi. When you first awaken quietly and know only that you exist but do not yet remember who you are, that is the functioning of buddhi, the “knowing” function. Tantra includes memory and imagination in the buddhi function.
Buddhi is also the spiritual heart, the center of being. In Tantra buddhi is the doorway to enlightenment, the tiny pinprick in the barrier that separates us from our true nature that admits the Light of Knowingness that is Consciousness. This light animates and illuminates all our thoughts, feelings, and actions. The famous Gayatri Mantra specifically develops the buddhi function that when awakened floods the mind with ineffable light and penetrating understanding, as if your body and the world suddenly became transparent, and all knowledge was present before you for the choosing.
Next Krishna mentions the Unmanifested, an epithet of Prakriti. In this analysis Prakriti is the last evolute of Consciousness prior to the evolution of the five elements, and it is therefore the proximate origin of the elements. Prikriti is the impetus and power to manifest the world. In practical terms Prakriti is the first step in trans-egoic consciousness, the first true experience of self beyond the body-mind but still aware of their existence. In devotion Prakriti is personified as one aspect of the Goddess.
The ten organs listed next consist of the five organs of knowledge and the five organs of action. The organs of knowledge are eyes, ears, skin, nose, and tongue. The organs of action are the hands, feet, sex organ, anus, and larynx. The organs of knowledge provide doorways of experience in the phenomenal world, and the organs of action enable us to interact with this world as driven by desire.
In an important sense our organs of knowledge create the world we experience because of the limited range of their perception. We cannot see ultraviolet light, for example, but pigeons can, and they use it to navigate. Each of our senses detects only the energies or qualities permitted by our biology, yet we know that electromagnetic energy exists in a range far outside the ability of our senses to detect. Therefore, we are blind to them unless we amplify our senses through technology. Some women are born with a genetic mutation that gives them four color sensors--one more than the rest of us--enabling them to detect shades of color the rest of us cannot see. The rest of us are color blind to those distinctions, so we never even notice what we are missing. We generally accept what we experience is reality for everyone, but in fact what we can perceive is only a tiny bit of a much larger reality that we do not perceive, and those with senses different from our own that permit detecting sights, smells, tastes, touch sensations, and sounds beyond the range of our senses certainly experience the world differently than we do.
The next component Krishna calls the “one” in the verse refers to manas, mind. Manas has two meanings. The first meaning is the discrete mental function that weighs and analyzes data obtained through the senses. In our example of trying to find our friend Tom in a crowded station, for example, manas was the faculty gathering mostly visual information about the size, shape, and color of our friend, his style of clothing and way of walking, and analyzing and quantifying this data so that buddhi could make the final determination—There’s Tom!
The other meaning of manas here is the aggregate of all the mental functions, ahamkara, manas, and buddhi, and the five mental senses called tanmatras. The tanmatras are what make dreams, memory, and imagination possible, constructing images in our brains without needing an external stimulus. In this meaning manas is the ultimate sense organ that controls all the others. In the Bhuta-Shuddhi ritual manas is represented in the cakra located between the eyebrows with the mantra OM.
The next component Krishna lists is “all that can be perceived by the five senses.” The idea is that what we can perceive is part of who we are. We exist in and as a single field of awareness with the body as the center. This is what we call reality, even though intellectually we can understand that there is far more to reality than we ordinarily experience. Our reality is uniquely our own, created by our limited senses and individual mind, including our memories, feelings, fantasies, and experiences that further color what we think we know.
To understand anything else we must first understand ourself, and Krishna in this verse sums up the impersonal, mostly autonomic functions. In the next verse he summarizes the personal functions that create the sense of selfhood that we experience.
Krishna in this verse summarizes the personal aspect of what we are as human beings. Desire, aversion, happiness, and sorrow are the primary forces that motivate us through life. Intelligence gives us the ability to understand our world and ourself, and resolution sets us on a course of action. The word I translated here as “resolution,” dhṛti, has a range of meanings that could also fit here, constancy, firmness, courage, will, contentment, satisfaction. In these last meanings the word represents the balance of the opposing forces of desire and aversion, happiness and sorrow. To understand the verse fully think of all these meanings as part of “resolution.” When we live life with the resolution to practice contentment with whatever comes our way, we live life intentionally and fearlessly.
The unusual word Krishna uses for “body” here, sanghāta, literally means “aggregation of physical matter.” It is highly suggestive because this word challenges the reader to think deeply about what the body truly is, a collection of physical matter organized into cells, tissues, and organs. There is no one part that we can call a “self,” and yet put all together we automatically consider this aggregate our self. By meditating on the composite nature of the body self, we can more readily disidentify with it as a step toward discovering our true identity as the Essential Self.
In verses 7- 11 Krishna lists twenty virtues beneficial to cultivate, which he calls collectively “knowledge.”
Humility means acknowledging the value of others, not being a doormat. (Vivekananda) Acting humble sometimes substitutes for true humility, but it is just another form of egotism, a spiritual obstacle. The Sanskrit word translated as humility here implies that a truly humble person is one uninterested in fame or even in making a good impression on others. Holy Mother, Sarada Devi, used to say, “Make the whole world your own.” She advised us look for the good qualities in others and avoid find fault with any. Ramakrishna used to say, “Be the servant of all,” and when anyone would praise him, he said, “I am the dust of the dust of the feet of everyone.” Anytime we imagine we are superior to anyone, we are far from Truth. The more we realize that anything human from the most exalted to the most depraved is possible for us, the closer we are to true humility.
Ramakrishna used to say that sincerity is the one essential thing in spiritual life. The Sanskrit word here literally means “without deceit, guileless.” Ramakrishna was himself a perfect example of childlike guilelessness.
Non-injury is considered the supreme virtue in both Hinduism and Buddhism, even over truthfulness. My Guru used to say, “Speak the truth but never a harsh truth.” On the surface non-injury may seem easy, especially for those of us who consider ourselves moral, we who would never consider striking another in anger or in intentionally hurting the feelings of others. But non-injury is a deep and subtle spiritual practice. As your self-awareness deepens through meditation and other spiritual practices, you become more acutely aware of how harm may come to others through your actions. Is casual sex really harmless when there is always the possibility of disease transmission or emotional harm?
Some question why this virtue is stated in negative terms, non-injury, instead of in positive terms such as helpfulness. This is also a subtle point. Tantra teaches that each person has a personal dharma, a unique propensity and path to enlightenment. The idea is that our dharma propels us through the experiences we need to grow spiritually. We can therefore trust that everyone will come to Truth sooner or later. Knowing this, we should be very careful not to interfere with another person’s dharma in the name of “helpfulness.”
People who meddle in other people’s lives without fully understanding the ramifications of their meddling may do more harm than good. To help someone truly you must both understand the needs of the person and have the skills to help. A good Samaritan finds an accident victim lying unconscious. With the best intentions, but having neither knowledge of the person’s needs nor the skills to help, he tries to pick him up and in the process causes irreversible spinal-cord injury and permanent paralysis. The desire to be helpful in itself is insufficient to avoid harm.
The Sanskrit word I translated as patience, kṣānti, also means forgiveness. To endure the trials and tribulations of life patiently is a great virtue, but without forgiveness as well, the mind is not truly freed of the past. With true forgiveness comes forgetting of past wrongs. So patience occurs in three stages, patient understanding of people and situations that annoy us, forgiveness for any wrongs committed, and letting go of the memory of those wrongs. This process helps keeps the mind free from obstacles to clear thinking and meditation. "Water bears no scars."
Rectitude implies both proper thoughts and proper deeds. A spiritual aspirant in general judges what is good and proper by what advances him toward enlightenment. But rectitude also involves considering what behavior is appropriate in a given situation. Some battles are worth fighting, but others are best avoided for the sake of social harmony. The direct route is not always the best when a circuitous route avoids harm to others and promotes peace.
Service of the teacher can mean direct personal service of the Guru, such as massaging his feet or cleaning his room, and also service through applying the Guru’s teachings in your life. Both kinds of service are good, but not every disciple has the opportunity to serve his teacher in person. A disciple best serves when he becomes so attuned to the Guru’s wants and needs, he does not wait to be asked, but offers service spontaneously. See Slavecraft: Roadmaps for Erotic Servitude (2002, Deadalus Publishing Co.) by “a grateful slave” with Guy Baldwin, M.S., for an in-depth and psychologically sophisticated analysis of the process of developing the true heart of service. The Story of A Soul by St. Therese of Liseaux offers another model of service with valuable lessons on getting along with people you dislike.
Purity means physical cleanliness as well as the cultivation of mental purity. A perfectly pure mind is a mind that contains the single thought of God/Self. Mental purity is cultivated by the daily practice of meditation, japa, i.e., repetition of a mantra given by the Guru, holy reading and recitation, and by visiting holy persons and places. Mindfulness in action, or Karma Yoga, also conduces to the development of mental purity. The idea is to make every action in life informally a sacred ritual.
Purity in Tantric thought also means formal ritual purity. In order to prepare for performance of any Tantric ritual the aspirant must first bathe. He does so by invoking the presence of the seven holy rivers of India in the water used for washing. There is a special mantra and sequence of mudras for this. He can also simply repeat Ganga, Ganga, Ganga, thinking that the water has become the sanctifying water of the Goddess Ganga and imagine as he bathes that his body and mind are becoming pure by her touch.
After bathing the ritualist dons fresh clothing and remains mindful of God/dess while picking flowers and grinding sandalwood paste for worship. He touches ritual items, flowers, incense, etc., only with the thumb and last three fingers of the right hand avoiding the index finger. He avoids speaking during the ritual except to utter the mantras needed for worship. If he must speak, he speaks in Sanskrit, the “language of the Gods,” or if that is not possible, he washes his mouth with Ganga water after speaking and before continuing the worship. Through these meticulous observances the aspirant easily develops mental purity over time.
Steadfastness is essential for success in spiritual practice. Meditation year after year can grow dry and seem unproductive. In fact we ourselves are the least qualified to judge our own spiritual progress, which mostly occurs outside our conscious awareness. Holy Mother used to say spiritual practice is like falling asleep on a cot and then someone picking up the cot and carrying it a long distance. When you awaken, you find you have traveled far, seemingly without effort. Ramakrishna said sincere spiritual aspirants are like hereditary farmers who never think of giving up farming, even if their crops fail certain years. Steadfastness is a sign of mental strength. When you find that you keep up your practice no matter what, even if you seem to get nothing from it, you can know that you have progressed.
Self-control here means primarily control of the senses. Specifically, this means developing the ability in meditation to withdraw attention from external, sensory phenomena and directing it within at will. In a subtler aspect it means withdrawing attention from mental sense objects also and directing attention back to its Source in Pure Consciousness. When we close our eyes, whole worlds of memory and fantasy come alive, and it is all too easy to pass an hour of meditation practice revisiting old pleasures or grievances or imaging anticipated experiences or projects.
We must develop the ability to redirect attention back to the thought of the Ishta, the chosen aspect of the divine, whenever the mind wanders. Ramakrishna exhorts us to “Go deeper” even when, through diligent practice, we have become able to hold the visualization for an extended period. Beyond the form is the formless Essence, from which the form manifests. As the mind becomes relatively uncluttered in visualizing the Ishta, the Essence shines through the form ever more clearly, at first revealing the divine form as living and conscious, and ultimately leading into the deeper aspects of meditation practice where form melts into formlessness.
But self-control also includes our behavior with others. A spiritual aspirant strives to control his speech and conduct to avoid harm to others and to foster mental equanimity. He speaks only when necessary and with economy. He abjures gossip.
In Tantra especially self-control also means training the senses to remain mindful during any type of sense experience. Through the practice of Bhuta-Shuddhi, partially described above, aspirants gain the ability to link input from each sense individually with the presence of God/dess as Consciousness. Practicing this mindfulness while engaged in life’s many seemingly small actions like getting dressed, brushing the teeth, or making coffee is highly beneficial.
Those with the aptitude for pashu bhava, the mode of the animal, should generally avoid experiences that engender mental disquiet or stir passions. Deeply entrenched in dualistic and materialistic thinking, animal types see the world in opposites, male-female, good-evil. Animal types progress best in spiritual life by cultivating virtues collectivity known as conventional morality and piety, respect for living beings, reverence for elders, the holy, and holy places, meticulous adherence to ritual conventions. They may think of their spouses as God/dess embodied, and love and serve them accordingly, but they should limit sex to one partner and moderate their passions.
Those with an aptitude for vira bhava, the mode of the hero, may follow their non-injurious desires while remaining detached. Intellectually convinced of non-dualism, heroes understand that masculine and feminine are two poles of a spectrum, that good and evil are defined in relation to an individual’s desires. He affirms the transience of life even in the midst of sensual enjoyment. He cares nothing for the respect of others. He has attained the humble recognition that all persons are more alike than not, and that he himself is capable of anything that is human. He practices non-injury and truthfulness, but otherwise follows his desires, knowing and trusting that these all lead to Self. As appealing as this may seem in contrast to the mode of the animal, heroic spiritual practice is not for everyone.
It is common for some animal types to imagine they are heroes and rush to engage in advanced spiritual practices such as sexual ritual or the use of intoxicants, but they only thereby degrade themselves spiritually. If a person wants to test if he is fit for heroic forms of practice, I suggest he practice strict celibacy for one year. Anyone who imagines he is fit for heroic practice without the capacity to control his sexual urges is self-deluded. The seeming freedom of the hero is won through hard self-discipline and effort.
Traditional Tantric sexual ritual is not some trendy, kinky twist on sex as those who misuse the term “Tantra” in popular culture would have us believe. It is rather a powerful technology designed in part to harness sexual energy in the quest for enlightenment. We must cultivate the belief that there is nothing in life as important as this quest to develop enough stamina to complete the journey in this life. It is true that everyone eventually will come to Truth, but those who put off the effort now, comforting themselves with the thought that they have lifetimes to complete the quest, are not yet serious about deeper spiritual life. Tantra is not for dilettantes and dabblers, not something to be learned in a weekend workshop. It is a whole-life practice that develops self-control to gather all our faculties, thoughts, words, and deeds, and applies them to the task of Self-realization.
Krishna again and again throughout the Gita urges Arjuna to cultivate dispassion. Arjuna lives a full life in the world with a wife (whom he shares with his four brothers), children, and his responsibilities as a prince and warrior. At the beginning of the dialogue Arjuna suggests he should, perhaps, renounce the world and go live in the forest as a forest ascetic or monk rather than fight and likely kill relatives and others he respects and loves in the war, but Krishna crushes that notion with a variety of arguments in Chapter 2, reminding him that death and rebirth are inevitable for the born, that God alone is the Doer, and that shirking his duty would be viewed as cowardice by society, a judgment that no true warrior could bear.
Arjuna symbolizes all of us who are not ascetic monks, faced with difficult choices, confused about what we should do at times, and laden with responsibilities. Cultivating dispassion rather than renunciation, therefore, is the only practical option if we are serious about deeper spiritual life. Ramakrishna taught householders to live in the world like “a maid-servant in a rich man’s house. “ The maid cares for the rich man’s children saying “My Ram” or “My Hari,” but in her heart she knows her real children and home are in her village far away. If she is fired, she takes nothing with her but the clothes on her back.
The message is to love and experience life, both happiness and sorrow, but to avoid clinging either to pleasure and the things that please us or to pain. Some people define their whole identity around grief or loss, and thus miss what pleasure and happiness they might otherwise experience. Drama can become addictive because at least it reminds us that we are alive. A spiritual aspirant wants to be constantly aware that everything in life, health, family, friends, career, possessions, are transient, here today and gone tomorrow. We take nothing with us at death but whatever lessons we have learned in life. Our true, spiritual home is the Essential Self that seems at present far away, but in fact is always very near, nearer than our own heartbeat. We fail to see it because it is so near and subtle. But through dispassion we develop the readiness to realize the Self.
Lack of egotism is accomplished in Tantra by disidentifying with the body-mind organism, the ever-changing self, and shifting identity to the divine being or Witness Self. The primary ritual for doing this is Bhuta-Shuddhi, purification of the elements. The phenomenal ego identity, what we commonly think of as our personality, is also placed in a relationship with the divine personality, thus engaging feeling and emotion in spiritual practice.
Seeing the disadvantages in the pains of birth, death, old age, and disease means simply seeing life as it is. Buddha said, “Life is suffering, “ though some prefer to translate the saying as, “Life is disappointing.” Even joys contain the seeds of sorrow because the greater the joy, the greater the pain when it comes to an end. Embodiment brings with it inevitably birth, death, old age, and disease. There is no escaping these. Birth is inherently painful because of the traumas of the birth process. Death is painful because of the fear of the unknown and any regrets about what we have left undone. Old age brings creeping decrepitude and loss of physical attractiveness. Diseases of all kinds create innumerable pains.
A spiritual aspirant who has gained the advantage of a human birth and the guidance of an enlightened Guru who deeply contemplates this stark reality of life gains greater enthusiasm for spiritual practice, because he wishes to avoid future rebirths, reentering the uncertainties of the same cycle of rebirth-death-rebirth without even the advantage of past-life recall. Perhaps he will be born with the desires of a prince but in the circumstances of a pauper. Perhaps he may not find an enlightened Guru next time. The thought of suffering the pains of childhood and adolescence again can energize an aspirant’s spiritual practice.
This verse explains specifically what it means to be detached. The idea is to regard all the cherished things of this world with the certain knowledge that all relationships, accomplishments, and possessions are temporary. We are all just travelers in the caravan of life; we pass through varieties of experiences and move on, taking nothing with us but the effects of our actions. Progeny can mean children, projects, or career. Spouse may be a husband, wife, or any domestic partner(s). The phrase "and the like" refers to extended family, friends, work relations, and anyone or anything with which we may make lasting connections.
The phrase "ever even-minded regardless of what happens, desired or undesired" means that a spiritual aspirant or realized soul regards all experiences equally as manifestations of Consciousness. Both desired experiences and undesired experiences can unsettle the mind and perpetuate bondage to ego-bound consciousness by either creating attachment and clinging or by provoking aversion. Some ascetics who call themselves spiritual mistake aversion to sense pleasure as detachment, not realizing that their aversion can bind them as surely as attachment binds the hedonist. It is not that the ascetic has to abandon his asceticism but only his aversion to and negative judgment of the natural enjoyment that comes with some sense experiences. Constructing an identity around asceticism,—as in "I'm a monk!"—can be valuable in the early stages of practice but deadly if monastic practice does not lead to realization of the Essential Self that is much more than that limited identity. A monk or nun who takes pride in asceticism becomes trapped in that attachment as surely as the hedonist who gets trapped in attachment to pleasure.
This is a common theme throughout the Gita, do your duty in the world, fulfill your dharma, and satisfy legitimate, non-injurious desires, but accept whatever comes without overly rejoicing successes and without overly grieving losses. "Evenness is called Yoga," says Krishna (2:48). From the point of view of Pure Consciousness success and failure are the same. The more we identify with the Essential Self, the less we are disturbed by either loss or gain, and the more we appreciate the varied play of the Divine.
“Devoted to me in Yoga and to no other…” means making union with the Supreme Self the central goal of life. Deeper spirituality is not for hobbyists. Spiritual practice, i.e., Yoga broadly defined, becomes the pillar around which the sincere spiritual aspirant organizes all of life. One becomes ready for the transformational revelation of the Essential Self only when one has exhausted desire for any kind of worldly experience. Surrender to the Self comes when you realize finally there is simply no place else to go.
Ramakrishna tells the story of a bird that falls asleep on the mast of a ship in port. While the bird sleeps the ship silently sails out to sea, and when the bird awakens, there is no land in sight. In panic the bird flies in one direction after another, but each time it returns to rest on the mast. Finally, finding no land in any direction, the bird surrenders to the fact that the mast it its only refuge. In the same way we fly in all directions seeking experiences that beckon to us, promising happiness and fulfillment, but always yielding loss and disappointment in the end. Tired of flying about, we return to the Self, now certain that we have no other refuge.
The word Yoga here means all types of spiritual practices, specifically those that utilize reason (Jnana Yoga), feeling (Bhakti Yoga), action (Karma Yoga), and meditation (Raja Yoga). Through reason the yogi discriminates between the phenomenal self, the Field, and the Essential Self, the Knower of the Field. Through feeling the yogi develops a personal relationship with the Divine, channeling human emotions to the Divine Beloved. Through actions, specifically through ritualized or mindful actions, the yogi connects every act to the thought of God/dess. In Tantric ritual extraordinary attention gets generated in every action by the combination of mudra, hand gestures, mantra, names of God/dess or ritual instructions for visualization, and a usefully redundant process of purification, deification, and offerings.
When we speak of purification, it is good to remember that the only truly pure thing is Consciousness, the fabric of Reality. Since this is the ultimate and essential substance of everything, impurity can only mean our imperfect perception that mistakes Pure Consciousness for gross matter. Therefore, when we perform purification rituals, it is to remind ourselves of the original purity of whatever we are purifying, the body, ritual space, image, offerings, etc. We should visualize everything shining with the Light of Consciousness.
In the next step in Tantric ritual, deification, the undifferentiated Consciousness is personified as a deity in each ritual component, the seat, the door, the image, and the offerings. In each instance the deity is acknowledged and worshiped with water, flowers, and sandal paste. Thinking of each physical component of the ritual as living and conscious then worshiping the living deities with actual offerings concretizes the idea that everything is Consciousness. Finally the body and mind of the worshipper are replaced by the Divine body, mind, senses, and life energies. And it is this Divine body that makes the pleasing offerings in the third step of the ritual to the same deity evoked in the image.
About “frequenting uninhabited places…” Ramakrishna recommended that sincere devotees should spend time in “solitude” now and then. Even those with many worldly duties can make time for spiritual practice, if there is the will to do so. Attention is like a fountain, incessantly flowing, but where we direct that flow of attention determines the quality of our lives. Swami Atulananda, a monk of the Ramakrishna Order originally from Austria, revealed in his book, The Atman Alone Abides, that he experienced the most intense meditations while working at an office in New York City. He was always aware of how little time each day he could set aside for meditation practice, and therefore he made the most of the time he had. Later, when he had become a monk of the Order, he found he had plenty of time for practice but felt less urgency than before. Uninhabited places could be an ashram retreat, a day in the mountains or at the sea, or precious hours carved out of a busy working schedule set aside for practice alone in the corner of a room.
“…taking no delight in the society of humans” occurs naturally as one progresses in meditative life. So little of the time we spend with others is truly quality time. Instead we tend to fritter away our attention and energies on gossip or other trivial interactions. The company of other sincere spiritual aspirants or holy persons, on the other hand, can be very beneficial. It is not that we need to become hermits, necessarily, but we should practice economy of speech and talk about spiritual matters with those who share our convictions. Talking with skeptics about spiritual practice is rarely productive and often harmful to faith. There is no need to save the world. Sometimes we have the urge to share something of our spiritual ideas with others, but unless our listener has an open mind, our words fall like seeds on stony ground.
In Tantra dedication to the quest for Self-knowledge is the ideal rather than renunciation of a presumably illusory world. The senses draw our attention outward, no doubt, and we have to learn how to redirect attention back to its Source in the Essential Self. But we cannot meditate 24 hours a day. Tantra provides a methodology for integrating all of our life activities into our spiritual practice. By training the senses individually in the Bhuta-Shuddhi ritual, we learn to see the Consciousness behind every experience, pleasant or unpleasant. what Krishna describes as the “union of Brahman and action.” (4:24). Everything we do daily in life, getting dressed, making coffee, brushing our teeth, bathing, etc., can be done mindfully, thus brining awareness of the Divine into daily life. Mindfulness cultivated in one activity spills automatically into others. The goal is unbroken mindfulness throughout the day.
The knowledge of Essence become the goal of our life when we realize that it is only in that realization that we become whole and fulfilled. It is only when we realize the Essential Self that we truly come home. The Essential Self is all that remains when everything else, relationships, possessions, accomplishments. the physical body and even the mind, are temporary and transient, here today, gone tomorrow, ever changing and ultimately unreliable and disappointing. It’s not that some measure of happiness cannot be had in worldly experience. In fact the Divine assume all the forms of the world to play and experience every type of existence, beautiful and horrific. But the world is best enjoyed like a shiny, iridescent soap bubble. It lasts only a few moments, and if you try to hold it, you destroy it in the process. Suffering occurs due to clinging to things that pass away. When through sufficient suffering we are finally ready to let go, then the Bliss that is the very fabric of Reality wells up and fills us with the sure knowledge that we are one with all that is. Then we know all things in Essence.
Having described the virtues needed to prepare oneself for Self-realization, Krishna in the next verses describes the Divine Being in various aspects, mentioning some of the infinite wonders that may be revealed as we venture ever deeper into the mystery of the
“That which is to be known…” means realization of the Essential Self. This realization is “to be known” because it is inevitable for all individuals eventually. The Essential Self is the Self of all beings, and desire eventually leads to the realization that nothing but the Self affords eternal refuge. Knowledge here is a-logical because the duality of a knower subject and known object do not exist when we realize the Self. Instead we become what we know, as it were. More accurately, we realize we were always That but temporarily forgot due to the bewitching power of Maya-Shakti, the manifesting aspect of Consciousness.
Realization of the Essential Self confers immortality because of disidentification with the the phenomenal self. It is only the body-mind organism that undergoes the states of birth and death. When we know we are in essence the Self of all body-minds, the death of any one becomes a simple fact of life, nothing to grieve over or fear. The Self alone persists through all states of being and states of consciousness, waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. That alone shines in the fourth state, Turiya, when we awaken to our true and original Self.
Krishna begins describing the Supreme Brahman as beginningless. He is talking about existence outside of our normal frame of reference we call time. The Supreme Brahman is Nirguna-Brahman, Brahman without qualities, the Shiva-Shakti-aspect of Consciousness prior to the fundamental distinction between the two, without reference to anything known or knowable in the ordinary sense of knowing. Brahman is the Ground of Being, the fabric of Reality. As such it has no beginning and no end. Our visible universe, that comprises a mere 25% of all the known matter and energy we can detect or infer at our present level of technology, seems to function in dimensions of time, space, and causation. Dark matter and energy, the existence of which we can only infer from their effects, comprise the remaining 75% of the known universe according to our current level of scientific knowledge, and we do not understand what laws of physics might be operative in dark matter and energy. Unlike the physicist who looks outward for answers to the fundamental substance of reality, the mystic gains direct knowledge of the Essence of Reality within in superconscious vision sometimes called samādhi. Brahman is timeless, existing in an eternal NOW. In samādhi the mystic experiences Brahman, realizing that timeless Existence as Self.
“Brahman can neither be said to exist nor not to exist…” because speech and the mental processes that occur prior to speech exist in the universe of time, space, and causation. The existence of Brahman is independent of all things, and therefore the relative dualities of existence and non-existence do not apply to Brahman. Brahman is Existence, Being; it is absurd to say Existence “exists,” because the category or state of existing comes after the fact of Existence. It is equally absurd to say Existence does not exist, because there would be no one to make that assertion if there were no Existence.
In this verse Krishna talks about Saguna-Brahman, Brahman with qualities, the Shakti-manifesting aspect of Consciousness, and he indicates that all beings with their various senses are the many faces of Brahman. In Tantra we say that the Goddess, Shakti, becomes all this, manifesting the universe out of her own being, and then playing in and as the universe of multitudinous forms.
This is the fundamental principle behind Tantric worship of a murti, or image, both living and inanimate. If the universe did not embody the Divine, worshipping images or living bodies would be pointless idolatry. It is precisely because this universe is the body of God/dess that by reminding ourselves of this fact in Tantric ritual we can utilize form as a stairway to the formless.
Saguna-Brahman pervades all, assuming all these forms, and remains as the Nirguna Essence of all. Through worship of any form of God/dess we can realize both the Saguna- and Nirguna-Brahman.
In this verse Krishna presents a riddle that perplexes the ordinary intellect. Describing Brahman in seemingly contradictory ways challenges the mind to transcend our usual, dualistic ways of thinking to comprehend That which is the Source of mind yet not mind itself. Brahman as Consciousness shines through our senses, illuminating the world like the Sun that illuminates the Earth. Although Consciousness is the power by which we see, hear, smell, etc., it itself is never seen, heard, or otherwise sensed because it is always the Subject and never the object of perception. The eye cannot see “seeing.” The Kena Upanishad says, “It is the ear of the ear, the mind of the mind, the speech of the speech, the life of the life, the eye of the eye.” (1:2)
If life is a movie, then the light that projects the movie is Consciousness. Everything in the movie depends on that light for existence, yet the light itself is unaffected by anything that happens in the movie, good or bad. Movie characters move about and interact with one another and their environments due to the light that projects them all, but the light itself has no senses or organs of action. From the point of view of the Light of Consciousness, everything that happens in our movie of life is equal, everything and everyone has a place. The light is detached from the dramas, comedies, horrors, and tragedies that occur in the movie.
The word guna means “thread” or “quality.” In this verse Krishna refers to the three gunas, sattva, equilibrium, rajas, dynamism, and tamas, inertia, that comprise the manifested world. The gunas are the substance of Prakriti, the manifesting aspect of Shakti. It is through these three qualities that Shakti creates, maintains, and destroys the manifested universe. In our movie metaphor the gunas are collectively the film through which the light projects the movie, giving shape and form to that which is essentially formless.
Brahman is said to be Nirguna, without gunas, when we think of it as quiescent Consciousness, the Witness, who simply watches the play of Shakti, like Shiva watching Kali dance on his breast as he lies still beneath her. He is the support of all manifestation, the Ground of Being, as Shiva is the support of the Goddess Shakti, yet he is unattached and uninvolved with all the drama and playful manifestations of the Goddess.
To realize the Essential Self we must first cultivate the quality of equanimity that comes from the preponderance of sattva, overcoming the restlessness of rajas and the lethargy of tamas. But then we we have to detach even from that mental state to gain freedom. Ramakrishna used to compare the gunas to three robbers. Having robbed a man. Tamas says, “Kill him!” Rajas replies, “No, just tie him and leave him here.” Later Sattva comes and unties the man and leads him to the road, pointing the way home saying, “I cannot go farther, or I will be apprehended by the police.” All the three gunas rob us of knowledge of the Essential Self, but sattva can show the way by bringing serenity to the mind.
The terms “outside” and “inside” here refer to the physical body as the locus of identity. The experience of the physical body as the self is where aspirants begin Tantric practice. In the Chandogya Upanishad (8:7:1) we find the story of Indra, king of the gods, and Virochana, king of the asuras, the cousin-enemies of the gods, who both go to Prajapati, the Creator, to learn about the Self. They live with him and serve him as disciples for 32 years, and then Prajãpati tells them to go look at their reflections in water and then return with any questions they may have. Virochana looks at his reflection and concludes that the physical body is the Self. He joyfully returns to the asuras to teach them this.
Indra, too, at first comes to the same conclusion, but then he questions how the physical body can be the Self that is described as “ageless, deathless, free from hunger and thirst, that desires and imagines only Truth…” So he returns to Prajapati for more instruction, and Prajapati tells him that that the self that roams about in dreams is the Self. Again Indra thinks deeply about this teaching, but again he returns to Prajapati for more instruction, dissatisfied with the conclusion that the dream self is the Self. Then Prajapati tells Indra that the self in dreamless sleep is the Self, but again Indra cannot accept that. Finally, Prajapati tells Indra that the mortal body is the vessel of the immortal Self that is formless.
In Tantric ritual the aspirant affirms that the physical body and senses along with the subtle body and mental senses all have their origin in Consciousness. The aspirant merges his identity in the formless Ocean of Consciousness in the first phase of the Bhuta-Shuddi ritual. In the next phase the aspirant creates a divine body from Consciousness, and into this divine body the specific deity being worshiped is evoked. Through this process the aspirant experiences that “inside” and “outside” are merely conventions of thought, that we exist in and as a single field of Consciousness that is the substance of all things animate and inanimate, everyone and everything is alive with Consciousness.
We do not normally perceive the Self, not because it is utterly alien or far away, but because it is so near and so subtle. The very concepts of “far” and “near” imply separation, and there is no separation in the Self. Far and near, like inside and outside, refer to identification with the physical and subtle bodies only. In Self-realization far and near merge into the One.
Brahman is non-dual and therefore essentially undivided, being the unified Ground of Existence, existence itself. Through the action of Maya-Shakti the One appears as many, Consciousness manifesting as all the forms of the visible universe. Consider how in dreams we find ourselves occupying an individual ego identity that may or may not resemble our waking identity and form. Within a dream we experience other beings, people, animals, fantastical creatures, and all the objects of the physical world, buildings, landscapes, mountains, oceans, etc. We can understand how all these forms consist of Consciousness, existing only “in our heads,” so to speak. However, the waking state is not substantially different from the dream state that can seem quite real as long as we are dreaming with no memory of our waking life. In fact the various objects and forms in both states are the product of Consciousness in manifestation. It is not such a stretch to understand that everything we know or can know as individuals occurs entirely as a psychological experience, being filtered through our senses and mind. Our brains run almost entirely on automatic pilot most of the time, filling in the blanks of what we do not perceive with what we assume or expect to be. It is only when we consciously point our attention at something that it comes into focus in detail, and even then what we expect to be there can easily substitute for what is actually there, as demonstrated dramatically in the artistry of illusionists. Illusion, one thing appearing as another, is the very fabric of phenomenal existence. It is only in mystical realization that the underlying Truth is revealed.
Brahman is to be known because it is the ultimate Reality, the Truth of our being and the being of the universe and beyond. Knowing That, a person become enlightened, and the illusion of being merely a limited individual vanishes in an instant, along with the notion that we as individual actually do anything. In that realization Consciousness is known as the support, the substratum of all things, and what we experience as creation and destruction are also known as part of the divine play. The infinite, shoreless, shining Ocean of Consciousness morphs itself into all the forms of the universe in a continuous act of creation in the eternal Now. These forms persist for a time, sustained by their Essence, and then they merge back into the formless Ocean again, as if devoured. Knowing this a person transcends fear and grief and experiences the Essential Bliss that is the All.
In the Puranas we find Consciousness in the role of Creator personified as Brahma-Prajapati. Consciousness in the role of the Sustainer is personified as Vishnu, including his many incarnations, Rama, Krishna, and Ramakrishna, to name a few. Consciousness in the role of Devourer is personified as Rudra or Shiva. One Being with innumerable faces manifests to different cultures in different times in different ways, but the basic themes are the same.
Light is a metaphor for Consciousness. Both light and Consciousness instantly fill any space and reveal what is there. Unlike physical light, however, the Light of Consciousness is living Light that morphs itself willfully into all the forms of the universe. It is said to be beyond darkness, “the light that shines in darkness,” (John 1:5) because Consciousness as Witness exists prior to all objects of perception, including the perception of darkness and also the memory of nothingness, as in dreamless sleep. Consciousness is beyond the darkness of ignorance of the true nature of Self, unaffected by the karma committed in ignorance, good or bad, just as the light that projects a movie is unaffected by anything that happens in the movie.
Knowledge here means Self-knowledge, direct realization of Atman-Brahman, the true Self, that occurs in samadhi, when the ego self gets pushed aside and the real Self shines through, revealing that everything you thought you were as an individual consists merely of patterns of mental and physical functions, while the real Self is infinite Consciousness. What is to be known is the union of Atman and Brahman, that the Self is the Self of all things and all beings. The Goal of Knowledge is liberation from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth into the freedom of Self-realization.
Heart here means the spiritual heart, the Center of being. In Tantra this is often visualized as an eight-petaled golden lotus located just below the anatomical heart, the hridaya-kamala, the “heart lotus.” By directing attention back to its Source in the Center of being, often visualized as a divine being seated on the heart lotus, we can detach our identity from the body-mind functions, shifting identity to the divine being, and then through that divine being discovering the Self that is the Witness of the body, mind, and the world of sense objects. In that super-conscious vision everything is known in essence and the purpose of human life is fulfilled.
In this verse Krishna summarizes the previous verses. In the first stage of Bhuta-Shuddhi the aspirant detaches his identity from the Field, that is, from all the aspects of phenomenal existence that define him as an individual, separate and distinct from others. In the second half of the ritual the aspirant creates a divine body with which to engage the phenomenal world, but with a transformed perspective, seeing the world through the eyes of God/dess, as it were. The Knowledge that the Essential Self is detached from the Field is necessary before the aspirant can realize what is to be known—that ultimately the Field and Knower, Shakti and Shiva, are One in essence, that everything and everyone is divine.
It is easy, of course, to read these words and imagine that you now actually know something. If the Field and the Knower are One, you might conclude, then why bother with all that inconvenient and arduous spiritual practice? Just affirm the One and let it be.
However, the Knowledge Krishna speaks of here is not mere intellectual knowledge, mere words and some kind of understanding of the words. Krishna speaks of direct spiritual realization that occurs in super-conscious vision. To jump from a phenomenal identity to Oneness with All is like jumping from the ground to the roof of a tall building in a single bound. Those who make this attempt without adequate preparation and strength can easily become deluded, imagining themselves great Knowers of Truth while still deeply attached to the body-mind identity. Thus they fall from the path for a time until painful experience wakes them to their folly.
Tantra teaches us to begin spiritual life from where we actually are in terms of our experience of self as a separate body-mind in a world full of material objects. Tantra provides a stairway from this experience, from the ground to the rooftop, from identity with the individual body-mind, through identity with a divine body-mind, such as Krishna himself, to identity with Consciousness itself, the essential Being of God/dess. Thus the devotee in stages attains this essential Being. The devotee as a devotee does not attain the Being of God/dess. But the devotee who, transcending the limitations that define and subscribe individuality, experiences the Essential Self and knows that he is One with God/dess in essence.
Prakriti and Purusha, terms evocative of dualistic Sankhya-Yoga philosophy, are used here in the non-dualistic sense of Shakti and Shiva, respectively. Prakriti is Consciousness in manifestation and Shiva is Consciousness as Witness. They are beginningless because Existence has no beginning and no end. They are the origin of all manifestation, and they remain after dissolution of the universe.
Shakti-Prakriti transforms herself into the manifested universe in an act of playful will, creating all things from her own substance, i.e., the three gunas, sattva, rajas, and tamas. She is thus the origin and substance of all forms. It is necessary to discover the beginningless Essential Self apart from Prakriti, as prescribed in Yoga, however the next step in realization is discovering that same Self manifesting as Prakriti. In Tantra this is accomplished through the Bhuta-Shuddhi ritual.
The idea of “action” presents a challenge for non-dualistic philosophy: If there is only One Being, then who is to act upon what or whom?
In Tantra the active aspect of Consciousness, Shakti, here called Prakriti, is the fundamental cause or source of all aspects of action. Action has three aspects, the action itself, i.e., what is to be done, the instrument of action, i.e., the doing of the action, and the doer of the action. All of these derive from Shakti-Prakriti.
For example, a carpenter decides to build a chair. The project of building the chair is the action, what is to be done. The tools and materials the carpenter employs, including his own body, hands and brain, are the instruments of the doing of the action, and the carpenter experiences himself to be the doer due to the action of the ahamkara function of the mind. Prakriti is really the source and ultimate Doer of all these. “Deluded by ahamkara, a person thinks he is the Doer.” (Gita, 3:27)
But action alone without an Enjoyer, without a Witness, is meaningless. Shiva, here called Purusha, is the principle of Enjoyership, the aspect of Consciousness that watches the manifestations of Shakti. It is Shiva-Purusha within us that gives us the sense that we enjoy or experience things. Through the action of ahamkara, again, we think that our experiences are ours alone. However, Purusha-Shiva is the real source of even the concept of being an enjoyer. In meditation and in ritual we learn to dis-identify with the body-mind pattern of functions that creates the false senses of being a separate enjoyer or doer. Through this process we discover our Essential Self, and ultimately discover that same Self in manifestation everywhere.
Pleasure and pain here represent all the dualities we experience in life, good-evil, happiness-sorrow, light-darkness. From the perspective of Consciousness all these are the same as experience. All experiences contribute to the divine play just as different characters and plots combine to make an entertaining movie.
Krishna describes in this verse the condition of the jivatma, i.e., the individual being that comes into existence when Purusha identifies with the gunas of Prakriti. Consciousness as Witness exists embedded in the psycho-physical organism, the product of Consciousness as Shakti. Identifying with the body-mind and born into either spiritually auspicious or spiritually inauspicious circumstances due to past karma, Consciousness experiences all the experiences possible for embodied beings. Although Consciousness illuminates all these experiences, making them possible, Consciousness itself is unaffected by any of the experiences, pleasant or unpleasant. We who experience ourselves as individuals fully identified with a body-mind self enjoy and suffer, believing due to ahamkara that these experiences are ours alone. But Purusha alone is the Experiencer.
The way out of bondage to a limited ego perspective and the suffering that inevitably goes with it is realization of the Essential Self, Shiva-Purusha, apart from Prakriti.
Krishna in this verse is still speaking about the Field and the Knower, using the terms Prakriti and Purusha instead, but in this verse he explains how the One infinite Being gets divided into individual beings. In Tantra we say the Goddess, Mahamaya, the Great Enchantress, playfully assumes all the forms of the universe, hiding and then revealing herself at her whim, while Shiva observes all this loviningly. Since all manifestation is born of Prakriti, everything we think we are, and everything we can experience is under her control. For this reason Ramakrishna beseeched the Mother for her vision. He used to tell devotees to ask the Mother for pure devotion, and further ask that she never delude them by her world-bewitching maya.
This verse describes the different names and functions of Shiva-Purusha. The Witness is the aspect of Consciousness that watches the content of the mind and observes what the senses perceive. As Permitter Consciousness makes possible all the actions of the mind, senses, and body, and as Support Consciousness underlies every experience making existence possible. As the Enjoyer or Experiencer Consciousness makes possible every kind of experience, and as the Great Lord, Maheshvara, Consciousness ensures that the results of karma are meted out justly.
Personified the Great Lord is the ultimate object of devotion, the highest reading of the Infinite filtered through our mind and senses. By establishing a relationship with him we are able to employ our human feelings in spiritual practice, and we can talk to God/dess as to someone who is our very own, closer than our heartbeat, the most intimate of intimates.
The phrase “in this body” means that all these functions of Consciousness exist within us, and so it is within that we should seek the Supreme Purusha or Great Lord (or Lady).
Those who cannot accept the idea of a personal God/dess seek the Supreme Self within. Although that path is steeper and difficult for the embodied to follow, we follow the path that best suits our inborn nature. The Tantric path, however, utilizes whatever works best in a given situation. The Guru ultimately will guide the disciple in choosing a path that will work best.
The Knowledge of which Krishna speaks is direct realization in super-conscious vision that Purusha is the Essential Self, not mere intellectual understanding of the concepts of Purusha, Prakriti, and the gunas. The mistaken notion, “I am the doer,” caused by ahamkara, which is a manifestation of Prakriti, creates bondage to karma, actions, that keeps the individual bound to the wheel of birth-death-rebirth. When the realization dawns that the Essential Self is merely the Witness of action, the dazzling illusion of personal identity is seen for what it truly is, dissolving into the psycho-physical functions created by Prakriti from the gunas. Body, mind, and senses collectively create the appearance of individuality, but this appearance is a chimera merely, being ever-changing and impermanent.
Tantric saints from Ramprasad to Ramakrishna have sung songs cursing the Goddess for keeping us deluded while acknowledging it is also her grace that frees us. As long as we remain identified with our own human personalities, the divine will also seem to have personality. By cultivating a personal relationship with the divine ahamkara can be transformed from spiritual enemy to friend.
The Essential Self, as we have discussed, is never an object of perception or knowledge but always the Subject, the Knower, and therefore Krishna attempts to express the inexpressible through poetic language that can merely point the way without actually revealing what can only be known in direct experience. The Essential Self, so to speak, remembers its original nature in the super-conscious state of samadhi, when attention is turned on its Source in meditation, and Knower-Knowledge-Known unite.
Some also come to this realization through Sankhya Yoga, another term for Jnana Yoga, the use of reason to discriminate between the Essential Self and Prakriti and thus discover one’s true identity in the Essential Self.
Others come to this realization through Karma Yoga, that is, through sacred ritual or through the transformation of everyday actions into sacred ritual by the practice of mindfulness in action. As Krishna commands Arjuna, “Remember me and fight.” (8:7)
Tantric ritual is an especially efficacious way of learning to connect everyday actions, bathing, cooking, eating, entertaining, into spiritually potent methods of remembering God/dess in the midst of action. The ritual trains the senses to remind the aspirant of the divine instead of being distracting, as they normally would be. This Karma Yoga is the speciality of Tantra, but meditation and discrimination are also employed along with Bhakti Yoga, devotion, to create a spiritual practice that utilizes all of our faculties, reason, emotion, sensuality, and introspection, to attain Self-realization.
There are three steps to Self-realization according to the Upanishads, hearing about the Truth, thinking about the Truth, and meditating deeply on the Truth. Those who, without the benefit of actual spiritual experience devote themselves wholeheartedly to spiritual practice, faithfully following the instructions of the Guru, are sure to succeed in realizing the Essential Self.
To overcome death means to discover your identity in the Essential Self that is unaffected by any change anywhere, including the death of the physical body. It also means to be free from the compulsion to reincarnate.
Shakti and Shiva unite to bring the phenomenal world into existence. Knowing this, we can know that identification with the physical world through a physical form enables experience of the universe from a limited ego perspective. However, this also hides the true nature of the Essential Self. It is only when the varied experiences of the phenomenal world not longer charm that one seeks the Self wholeheartedly.
Consciousness in manifestation as the psycho-physical universe is always in flux, ever-changing. In super-conscious vision the indestructible amidst the destructible is clearly perceived, like a steady light shining and illuminating a whirling mass of particles that temporarily forms itself into a physical body, lives a life for a while, then dissolves back into the Source. Consciousness as Witness observes the dance, the swirling light show, unchanged amidst the changing, eternal amidst the transitory.
The Supreme is equally present in all beings, no doubt, but as Ramakrishna pointed out the manifestation of power is different in different beings. The dangerous animal is surely the Self, but the person who warns you away from the danger is also the Self.
We are to view all beings as manifestations of the divine, never thinking ourselves superior to anyone. The difficult task is to tame the limited self-interest spawned of ahamkara and keep our eyes on the ultimate Goal of life. The more we can develop a relationship with the divine, practicing seeing the divine in all beings, the more ahamkara serves our spiritual goal.
The Self is indestructible, yet it gets seemingly destroyed when the lower self, focused only on worldly interests, ignores the divine within and without. The hero who dedicates his life to spiritual practice, making every act through mindfulness a sacred act, attains the highest.
The Essential Self, Shiva, merely watches as Shakti, the Goddess, dances her dance of creation, preservation, and destruction. The spiritual aspirant who understands that the Essential Self is not affected by any actions, who realizes directly his identity as the Essential Self, experiences directly freedom from the bondage of karma, action, and knows the peace of unfettered freedom.
One technique for detaching from the actions of Prakriti is to imagine the world as a movie. Anything you can see, touch, smell, hear, or taste is part of the movie. Furthermore, anything you can think, remember, or imagine is also part of the movie. Shakti-Prakriti is the substance and cause of the movie of life. In meditation, watch the movie, being the Witness. Sensations and thoughts flow through the mental movie screen. Notice how these arise spontaneously, as if from an unseen place. This is Shakti-Prakriti in action. Know the Essential Self apart from all that, and you know what is worth knowing in spiritual life.
Krishna describes here the state of realization in which all things are experienced as manifestations of the One Consciousness, having there origin in That and resting in That alone. This realization comes when the individual merges in the One Consciousness, becoming one with Brahman.
In trans-egoic mystical states there are relative degrees of detachment from the body-mind perspective. All of them include the clear perception that the Self is no more or less any one body-mind than any other. Nevertheless, there remain remnants of identification with the particular body-mind through which the realization occurs, otherwise there would be no memory of the experience and no coming back to normal consciousness.
Through Tantric ritual, a divine body is created through which one can return from full identity with Brahman to observe and interact with the world. It is as if the deity is walking about experiencing the world with divine vision. The divine “eye” clearly sees the world for what it is, an ocean of Consciousness from which the forms of this world have arisen for a time. Individual beings appear like swirling masses of particles generated and sustained by the Light of Consciousness within them. Everything that makes an individual is seen as ever-changing, while the Light remains unchanged.
Arjuna had thrown down his bow at the outset of the Kurukshetra War, refusing to fight kinsmen, despite circumstances that required him to act to restore righteousness. In our own lives it may seem at times that we face unpleasant choices, and we become dejected and immobilized with doubt and indecision. In these verses Krishna instructs Arjuna and us to view all actions as originating in Shakti-Prakriti while identifying with the Essential Self. Krishna reminds Arjuna that the Essential Self is indestructible, so all the killing that will occur and the results of those actions do not touch the Essential Self.
Even short of the realization of this Truth merely remembering the indestructible Self and cultivating that memory through daily practice can help us face life’s difficulties with more courage and give us hope for the day when we will realize the Essential Self directly.
Krishna again mentions the subtlety of the Self that is not easily known, despite being present in every experience, because it is so near to us. Whether we commit good or evil deeds, these actions do not taint the Self, even though without the presence of the Self these actions would not be possible.
Krishna directs us to seek the Self using the body as the starting point for understanding who and what we are. However, we have to keep pushing our understanding ever deeper to ever subtler layers of being to approach and then realize the Essential Self.
In this verse Krishna uses the word “Field” to mean the body broadly defined as at the beginning of this chapter. The word “Dweller in the body,” kshetri in Sanskrit literally means “one who possesses the Field.”
The Sun shines on all, good, wicked, and indifferent, equally, revealing everything without judgement and without being affected by what is revealed. The Sun is the original source of all energy and thus all life on earth. For these reasons the Sun is often used as a metaphor for the Essential Self that exists equally in all beings, enlivening and animating everyone, yet it remains untouched by the actions of beings.
The Supreme state in Tantra is what Ramakrishna called the vijnana state, the state of extraordinary knowledge, in which a person, having merged in Brahman, reemerges and experiences the world through the eye of Knowledge, seeing everything as a manifestation of the one blissful Consciousness.
But to achieve this Supreme state, a person must first experience the distinction between the Essential Self and the phenomenal world, dissolving the elements of the world into Prakriti, the material cause, and dissolving that into pure Consciousness. In Tantra this process is often described as the union of Shakti with Shiva, when Shakti, as Kundalini, rises from the root cakra and merges with Shiva in the crown cakra. Along the way the Kundalini Shakti dissolves the five elements in turn, earth, water, fire, air, ether, the senses that correspond to the elements, smell, taste, sight, touch, and hearing, and the mental senses, mind, imagination, and memory into the pure Consciousness that is Shiva.
When Kundalini descends, it is to vivify a newly created divine body through which to experience the now-transformed world in the state of vijnana.
Although this verse can be taken as literally referring to creation and dissolution of the universe, in which case it states the liberated soul does not get reborn at the beginning of the new cosmic cycle and does not fear its dissolution, being identified with Pure Consciousness that remains unaffected by these processes.
However, these same processes occur in the moment for one performing Purification of the Elements. The universe for the individual gets dissolved in samādhi and recreated out of mantra at the end of the process. It is not the individual, per se, that gets reborn, but the divine person who takes the body to experience the sensory world now transformed into a “mansion of mirth” composed of blissful Consciousness.
Brahman, Pure Consciousness joined with Śakti, Creative Consciousness, is the womb of all manifestation. Differentiation comes through the combined powers of Knowledge, Will, and Action as Śakti evolves the 24 Cosmic Principles (tattva).
Verse 14.3 begins a concise description of the evolution of Consciousness. Pure Consciousness, Brahman, differentiates into Śiva-Śakti, creating the seed of creation. Śakti, here called Prakṛti, divides into three “threads,” the literal meaning of the technical term, guṇa, from which the fabric of reality is metaphorically woven. In general terms rajas represents dynamism, tamas represents inertia, and sattva represents the equilibrium between the other two. These qualities operate at both mental and physical levels. To give some simplistic illustrations, rajas could be said to predominate in a fighter or in an exploding volcano, tamas in a lazy person or in a boulder, and sattva in a scholar or in a serene, mountain lake. As these qualities combine, they create the diversity of forms and personality types we see in the universe. They seem to bind the infinite, undecaying Self by creating the experience of being a person identified with one, particular body. The Sanskrit word I translated as “embodied” literally means “the one who has a body,” When this term is also described as “imperishable” it refers to the Ātman or Self, i.e., Brahman—when spoken of as the indwelling spiritual essence—which in Tantra is called Supreme Śiva.
The following three verses illustrate the qualities and binding activity associated with each of the three guṇas. Identification with a body, i.e., the state of bondage, occurs through the combined actions of the three.
Sattva reveals by producing a clear, focused mind better capable of perceiving and understanding anything.
Happiness and knowledge are normally considered good things in human life, and so they are. However, attachment to them, clinging to them binds one to a body-mind identity and thus obstructs the experience of the Self. Reading this book, for instance, can impart knowledge useful for spiritual practice, pointing the way to the goal. Remaining self-satisfied with the knowledge without applying it to move beyond it, however, would perpetuate one’s state of bondage.
Tantra values passion, longing, and attachment when directed to God/dess, for they move one quickly along the path to Self-realization.
Each quality affects the body and mind according to its nature. When one quality predominates, the others are suppressed.
The body’s gates here refers to the five senses plus the mind, i.e., the organs of knowledge.
The picture here is a person driven by greed who restlessly initiates projects to acquire wealth or status and who cannot easily sit still. These same qualities, however, can be given a positive turn when this energy is turned toward spiritual practice. Be greedy for God/dess and Self-realization. Perform Tantric rituals, study to acquire knowledge and inspiration, and go on pilgrimages that nurture devotion.
These qualities are typical of the Kali Yuga, the last of the cosmic cycles in which evil masquerades as piety, dishonor as honor, and true spirituality is denigrated.
The time of dissolution means death. It can also mean when the phenomenal self gets dissolved into pure Consciousness in Purification of the Elements.
Illumination, activity, and delusion are the characteristics of the sattva, rajas, and tamas, respectively. A person unattached to these products of the guṇas can be said to have transcended them.
Although Vedas contain all kinds of knowledge (the word Veda means “knowledge”), the portion of Veda referenced here is the ritualistic portion intended to enable humans to attain enjoyments here and hereafter in heaven. These results are all right as far as they go, but they are by nature impermanent. Having reaped the results of good karma, individuals return to human life again when that karma is exhausted. The Gītā is concerned with the highest spiritual knowledge that grants liberation from birth, death, and rebirth. Therefore, it is necessary to cut the root of the tree that keeps one attached to worldly enjoyment in order to attain the state of no return.
Arrogance and delusion arise from a false sense of self importance. The enlightened one knows “self” to be nothing more than a temporary appearance created by patterns of mental and physical functions. Who is to get attached to what when everything is in flux? Within the swirling patterns the Self shines steadily, the one pillar from and around which all manifestation spins, and thus the one Thing that inspires lasting devotion. Desire and the dualities of life appear the same from the perspective of the Self, just aspects of the unending shadow play, while the undecaying state beckons as the ultimate refuge.
Consciousness exists behind and prior to all other lights. It shines and everything is revealed. It can never be known as an object, only as the absolute Subject, the Light that shines even in darkness. One cannot know the Self; one can only realize oneself as the Self.
An individual being (jīva) is here defined as Consciousness associated with a body-mind pattern of functions, the five sense organs plus the mind, which is considered the sixth sense organ. The individual gets defined this way because the senses and mind create the experience of being an individual center of Consciousness apart from Consciousness as such, and this is called bondage. To realize one’s original nature as Pure Consciousness and gain liberation, one must learn to disidentify from the body-mind pattern.
What we normally think of as an individual person is described in this verse as a “mere portion” of the Divine Being enjoying the senses and their objects. To the ordinary perspective the world seems divided into different beings, but to the one in whom true Knowledge has dawned there is only the One. This One has two aspects, the Śiva aspect that enjoys the Śakti aspect manifesting as the guṇas and everything composed of them, i.e., the senses and sense objects, i.e., the phenomenal world.
There is a threshold of realization, a minimal state of higher consciousness, that one must cross before the Truth of the Self is revealed. Not all who strive necessarily cross the threshold in one lifetime. The momentum of effort from lifetimes of striving will in time ready the individual for higher consciousness.
Physical light is a nearly perfect metaphor for the Light of Consciousness, that by which the lights of the Sun, Moon, and fire are known. These sources of natural light become for the striving yogi reminders of the Light of Consciousness that illuminates the whole universe.
The word vaiśvānara, translated here as “fire of digestion,” also means “sunlight” and the collective divine Spirit within all beings. The use of this word points to a metaphorical reading rather than a merely literal description of a concept of digestion. Again, it is the divine spark that animates bodies and their physical functions.
The four kinds of food are what is chewed, sucked, licked, and drunk.
The divine as Consciousness is found in the heart or center of every being. It is the foundation of selfhood, from which mental functions originate. This Self is the ultimate goal of Vedic knowledge. It is the source of the scriptures of self-realization, the Vedānta, and it is the knowingness within that enables one to comprehend the scriptures. It is necessary to forget past lives to make normal life manageable. If we remembered all the relationships we have had in past lives, it might negatively impact our relationship with those individuals in our current life.
The word “Puruṣa” refers to two ways of viewing Māyā-Śakti, the aspect of Consciousness that manifests the world. The imperishable is Śakti itself, while the perishable refers to the names and forms Śakti assumes. Śakti as the manifesting aspect of Consciousness remains even when the names and forms of the universe get dissolved in Self-realization at the end of a cosmic cycle.
Shiva lying under the feet of Kali.
They are all-knowing in the sense that they know the Self that is the essence of all and thus they know what needs to be known. Supreme Purusa, i.e., the ultimate Reality, can also be regarded as the ultimate Man.
The word “demonic” translates a word that more properly means anti-god or enemy of the gods. There is no concept in Hindu philosophy of a being that is purely or eternally evil, as demons are conceived in some other religions. Therefore, the reader should not take the word demonic in that way.
The two approaches to spiritual life are the paths of pravṛtti and nivṛtti. The first leads to liberation through fulfillment of worldly desires while practicing spiritual discrimination and mindfulness in action, and the other leads to liberation through withdrawal from worldly pursuits and total focus on the spiritual goal through meditation, ritual, and service with detachment. Demoniacal persons know nothing of either path, but live only to gratify their senses with no awareness of any goal beyond that. Purity and proper conduct are important in the early stages of spiritual life, and even later it is generally good to maintain them as an example to the ignorant. However, in heroic path purity and propriety may be intentionally violated for the higher goal of overcoming the last vestiges of dualistic thinking.
The divine presence with all beings can reveal the true nature of Self in relation to the ego, mind, and body. This realization is antithetical to one deeply attached to ego and ego-centered indulgences. The realized soul remains satisfied in the Self. This is a direct challenge to the lifestyle of those who crave status and wealth and never feel satisfied no matter what they have or achieve.
The Lord metes out the results of karma, and in this sense causes the birth of the wicked in the wombs of demoniacal types. Properly speaking in Hindu metaphysics each person’s karma determines one’s birth parents and birth circumstances.
The hell experience in Tantric metaphysics is a temporary state caused by unrighteous actions. Inordinate desire or lust, anger, and greed can easily lead to such actions. Krishna is not saying that merely experiencing these feelings will send one to hell, though one could say that a person in the grip of the passions is already in a kind of hell within the mind.
The word here translated as “faith” means more than mere belief. It refers first of all to faith in oneself and one’s ability to achieve whatever any other human being might achieve. It can also mean faith in God/dess or a higher Self that gets confirmed through spiritual practice and realization.
There are practitioners in India who perform extreme austerities even today, such as standing on one foot in ice water or holding one hand in the air until it becomes useless. What they hope to gain by these extreme practices God/dess only knows. They often become curiosities people visit, leaving small donations in hopes of a blessing.
This verse, aside from describing the tendencies of the demoniacal nature, emphasizes that the body is a vessel composed of sense objects rather than a permanent locus of identity.
This and the following two verses reflect the Hindu emphasis on food and its effects on the body and mind. However, as Krishna explains, the food one prefers derives from one's inner nature. Yogis may choose foods they hope will engender a sāttvik state of mind, regardless of their personal preference.
Usually translated as “celibacy,” brahmacārya literally means “walking in Brahman.” In Tantric philosophy it refers to channeling one’s erotic energy toward the divine, which may include heroic ritual sex with a partner in whom the divine presence is first evoked. The idea that all of oneself should be offered to the divine, holding nothing back.
Scriptures may be memorized through repetition, sometimes accompanied by head or hand movements intended as mnemonic devices.
Purity of heart means cultivating a one-pointed state of mind with Self-realization as the goal.
This verse is somewhat obscure in meaning. SAT-śabha yujyate, which I have rendered, “the word ‘SAT’ focuses the mind,” is not a literal translation but rather an interpretation based on the common meaning of the root yuj as it occurs throughout the Gita, meaning a state of focused attention or dedication to the spiritual goal.
SAT means “being, existence.” It is thus a synonym for Brahman. SAT is a mantra, and one important use of mantras is to focus the mind on a spiritual reality. A single syllable mantra has more power practically to concentrate the mind than many syllables. For this reason Ramakrishna used to say that the mantras of daily devotion eventual merge in OM.
SAT also means “Truth.”
This is a key chapter in distinguishing between renunciation, action with detachment, as enjoined in Tantra, versus saṃnyāsa, giving up of actions motivated by desire, as enjoined by ascetic systems. In chapter one Arjuna, overwhelmed with grief in contemplating the destruction that will occur as the result of the fratricidal war he has come to wage, declares it would be better to surrender and become a hermit. In chapter two Krishna firmly rejects this notion and begins Arjuna’s instruction in detachment and the performance of action without seeking specific results. This theme runs throughout the Gita, and it is one basis of the Tantrika’s way of relating all actions to the Consciousness behind them.
The word “action,” which is a direct translation of the word “karma” in the Gita, often refers to Vedic rituals, which were traditionally performed with some worldly or heavenly gain in mind. The formal vow of saṃnyāsa is in part the renunciation of Vedic rituals or actions motivated by desire. Brahmanas becoming saṃnyāsins remove and burn their sacred threads and the śikhā, or tuft of hair on the crown of the head, to symbolize their abandonment of their right and responsibility to perform Vedic rituals. After taking their vows, traditional monks begged cooked food because they had given up the right of using fire, a key element in Vedic ritual. Modern monks rarely adhere to such strict rules, and the vow of renunciation has become more a commitment to celibacy and dedication to Self-realization and service to humanity.
The definition of celibacy, though, may vary from order to order or even from monk to monk. A Tantrika from Nepal told me that all the wandering monks he encountered both in Nepal and in India of every sect and religion, including Buddhists and Hindus, engaged in homosexual sex. The Ramakrishna Order, by contrast, enforces a strict definition of celibacy to include any voluntary sexual activity. However, even there individual monks have violated the rule with both men and women, though these activities are done in secret and with various justifications. As one swami explained, the point of the Order’s celibacy policy was to avoid the entanglements of marriage and the responsibilities of parenting so as to conserve energy and attention for spiritual practice and service. Sex should be done viewing one’s sex partner as a manifestation of God/dess. This explanation expresses Tāntrika teachings.
Vedic rituals in South Asia have been largely replaced by Tāntrika ones in any case. Virtually all temple ritual in India today are based on the Tantras.
The idea that actions bind one to the world operates behind the renunciation of action. Extreme forms of this practice are monks who retire to Himalayan caves and live or die as their basic bodily needs are met or not by their environment. Such extreme practices have become increasingly rare, but many who consider themselves traditional monks still give up what many would consider the pleasures of life, good food, loving companionship, and various forms of entertainment. The idea is to avoid attachment to people, places, or things, so the mind gets deeply attached to God/dess alone or to the quest for Self-realization.
They become spiritual aids when performed without attachment to results. They become spiritual impediments if performed for selfish ends such as to gain respect or “good karma.”
Obligatory actions would be sacrifice, almsgiving, and austerity, for example. The idea is one should not give up righteous actions with the mistaken notion that karma always binds. Performing such actions with detachment and without hankering after results prevent karma from adhering to the individual.
Krishna directly addresses Arjuna’s chief dilemma, his immanent participation in a fratricidal war. It is unpleasant in the extreme to contemplate such a war, yet Arjuna’s duty requires him to fight. Krishna lays out the method for participation without incurring sin or bad karma. It is a tough point for some to swallow, but it is the only way forward for the warrior-prince.
Life often challenges us with difficult choices. Tantra teaches us to look beyond the immediate to the Infinite and do what is right, even when it is unpleasant.
Traditional monastics sometimes make much of the pleasures they give up to live holy lives. Tantra teaches that merely defining oneself by what one renounces misses the point and often becomes yet another form of attachment. True detachment is what is liberating, not merely giving up life’s pleasures and clinging to an ascetic identity.
Although “abode” is rather vague, most commentators interpret it to mean the body, which is the abode of the mere portion of God/dess mentioned first in 15.09 and then referenced afterward as “This.” In this, as in previous verses, Krishna emphasizes the composite nature of the individual self, which is a technique used in Tantra to help shift identity from the body-mind self to the Self within.
The word “doer” is often used as a synonym for God/dess.
The idea of that each sense or body part has a presiding deity is a powerful aid for visualizing Consciousness present in everything. When you imagine there is conscious agency behind each function of the body, which acts mostly autonomously as far as we can tell, is helps concretize the idea of awareness fully present in every detail of experience.
In Tantric ritual the practitioner evokes and worships deity in every aspect of the ritual including the floor, meditation seat, the divine image, the offerings, the door, and especially one’s own body given over to the deity being worshipped. In the process called nyāsa, the ritualist touches the body reciting mantras to affirm the deity present in every part, even in the joints of the fingers. This is repeated several times during the course of the ritual, deeply impressing on the mind the truth: “I am that Haṃsa,” i.e., Śiva.
Any action we do identified as a human being has multiple causes, reasons, and means by which it is accomplished. Some are deliberate and some autonomous. If one considers the question, “What should I do?” as Arjuna does in Chapter Two, one needs to consider the various factors that come to play in answering. In Arjuna’s case, he imagines he can choose to fight or not, but Krishna tells him his very nature will force him to fight. [reference] Given that nothing could be done without the presence of Consciousness, one could say, as Ramakrishna did, that God/dess alone is the doer. [reference] However, enabling action is not the same as compelling it. There remains a little room for something like free will, though not as much as most people imagine they have. Ramakrishna used to say it was like a cow tethered to a post. [reference] Within the reach of the tether, she has freedom to move but not beyond.
It is also noteworthy that Krishna lumps all actions, good or evil, together here. By implication God/dess permits evil action as much as good, and that is correct. This duality is often expressed in Hindu iconography with deity depicted in both benign and horrific aspects. The Divine Play requires all types of actions to play out successfully, and God/dess never takes sides (or only occasionally does so, as when Krishna, sworn to neutrality in the Kurukshetra War, resorted to various tricks during various battles to ensure the Pandavas would win.) The God/dess who created morality is free to violate it at will, though S/He rarely does so to avoid confusing the ignorant. [Gita reference]
This can apply both to actual, direct realization of the One and equally applied to the Tantrika practice of affirming the One within all phenomena.
Krishna is not finding fault with hard work here. If he were, he might have agreed with Arjuna’s proposal to retiree to the forest instead of fighting at the outset of the Gita. The idea is the cost of the exertion should not outweigh the benefit. When accomplishing a goal becomes so obsessive that nothing is too precious to sacrifice, the effort is rājasika. In Tantra, of course, rajas can be valued as means to overcome tamas, inertia and laziness. For a lazy person to exert excessive difficulty could be a positive move toward a more balanced state.
Meditation at times can feel excessively difficult, do in part to the Spoiled-Child Mind (SCM). The SCM can hijack any faculty, mental or physical, to convince us to cut practice short or to abandon discipline altogether. We might feel practice is taking too long, a restless energy in our limbs, a non-specific itch, or drowsiness, though we’ve had enough rest. In the case of SCM resistance to practice, extra effort may need to be exerted to overcome it on the way to cultivating serenity as a mental habit. Sitting that extra five minutes or resisting the urge to scratch that itch will pay ample benefits in reducing the SCM’s demands in the future. Giving in to the SCM invariably encourages it.
The path of going forth, pravṛtti, and the path of return, nivṛtti, are two different approaches to spiritual life and practice. The first involves devoting much of life’s energy to worldly success with liberation placed in the distant future, perhaps before death or in another life. The second involves setting liberation as one’s ultimate goal in this life and devoting most of one’s energy to attainment of that goal. The first is the path of most worldly people, and the second is the path of monastics and others dedicated to Self-realization. It is important to know the two paths so one can make a conscious choice between them.
The knowledge of bondage and liberation is itself a vast topic that occupies the greater part of any spiritual system based in the Upanishads and Gita, including Tantra. A Tantrika sadhu, or dedicated practitioner, rather than renounce the world, strives to make all of life’s actions serve the goal of liberation.
The point is a mind dominated by rajas gets confused.
In Tantric ritual the practitioner directs attention through visualizations that restrain and redirect the mind, vital energies, and senses, both outer and inner. Through this process one cultivates the revealing qualities of sattva that enables transformation of the human individual into a divine being and from there to the realization of Self as infinite Consciousness.
The performance of one’s duty in normal life is considered virtuous. However, clinging to the limited identity that dictates duty becomes an impediment in higher spiritual aspiration. Duty, pleasure, and material wealth, devoid of the liberating insight enlightenment confers, anchor one in a limited experience of self like weights dragging a drowning person to death. Throughout this text Krishna urges Arjuna to do his duty but with detachment, without hankering for specific results. In this way what would normally bind Arjuna to his warrior identity liberates him with the realization of everything as Consciousness.
The implication here is that an unwise person acquiesces to negative mental conditions instead of striving to move through them. One may grow attached even to negative emotions that at least make a person feel something, thus alive, however miserable. Negative life experience and the emotions they may evoke can define a person’s life and thus form the structure for development of a false self.
The word translated as “clarity” also means “grace” or “contentment.” All three meaning are relevant, as Self-realization comes through an act of grace and engenders contentment.
In Tantra sense experiences are analyzed to discover their source in Consciousness, thus breaking the bonds of sense attachment.
The four castes listed here are Brāhmaṇas, priests and philosophers, Kṣatriyas, warriors and administrators, Vaiśyas, merchants and farmers, and Śudras, laborers. These describe in general four major societal roles that must be present for civilization to exist and thrive. The key point here is that the castes are determined by their inborn nature, not necessarily by heredity. Krishna is saying the divisions of labor in society have a natural origin, and everyone has a role to play.
The caste system of Hinduism often offends the sensibilities of those trained to regard all persons created equal. However, as Krishna describe it here it is neither prescriptive nor hereditary, which are the features that make it oppressive in modern practice. The idea is that civilization requires persons to assume different roles, and the most natural roles they play in society arise from their innate natures. We should not think one job is more important than another, but rather appreciate how all together contribute to an orderly society.
A key question for a modern practitioner will be,Where do I fit in this system? These verses give clues to help recognize your tendencies.
Being true to oneself is better than trying to be something you are not, even if you are good at it. The idea that our being is something that can be distinguished from our actions may seem somewhat foreign to the naive notion that we come into the world as a “blank slate.” The idea is that past impressions created by actions in previous lives have resulted in the person we are today. Spiritual success depends on working with what we truly want. Our place of power is “I want” not “I should.”
This is a direct response to Arjuna threat to desist from fighting against evil in a righteous war.
For Arjuna to retreat to the forest would be folly. His nature would never truly allow it, but even if it did, his progress toward liberation would stall in the attempt.
Knowing one’s true nature takes self knowledge, and that usually requires work.
Freedom from action indicates freedom from the consequences of action, the burning up of karma that occurs in the fire of Self-knowledge. (4:37) Freedom from desire means freedom from the compulsion of desire. Desire continues to flow into the mind like rivers into the ocean but the mind of the sage is disturbed. (2:70) Renunciation here means seeing the whole world made of Consciousness.
Perfection may refer to mental control attained through the practice of meditation. By itself mental control may not result in Self-knowledge. Yogis have been known to exhibit extraordinary powers, for example, but such displays may not indicate the highest spiritual realization.
If one performs action mindfully, aware of the presence of Consciousness behind each sensation, one can attain enlightenment. Arjuna’s path is one of action. He must trust that through his actions rightly performed he can attain the goal of life.
The sannyāsa, “renunciation,” of action here is mental only. Arjuna is not to give up all action like a monk. Rather, by the practice of mindfulness in action, he will keep his mind centered in God/dess, exercising his ability to distinguish the eternal from the non-eternal.
Arjuna must fight in this war of cousins, and that will present many difficulties and sorrows. But Krishna promises Arjuna will get past all that, through the Lord’s grace. The word “destroyed” here means slipping from the spiritual path and being compelled to be reborn. The enlightened soul gets liberated from the compulsion to rebirth.
The image suggests human figures like dolls attached to a merry-go-round spinning around under the control of a power they can neither see nor understand. There is scarcely any place for a concept of free will in this depiction. In the enlightenment experience one realizes clearly that everything you thought you were as an individual is nothing but empty patterns of mental and physical functions animated by Consciousness, Iśvara, the Lord within. God/dess as Māyā Śakti alone is the doer of all actions.
Consciousness has no inherent gender yet contains all possibilities of gender expression. Krishna uses a masculine form here, though Māyā Śakti is feminine. One should not take these gender references too literally. The Chosen Deity may be of any gender or even of blended genders.
Having told Arjuna in verses 60 and 61 he has no free will, Krishna now tells him to do what he wants. From Arjuna’s perspective, he still can make choices. Krishna knows that whatever those choices may be, they will not change Arjuna’s destiny. He will fight. To the extent we feel we have free will, we should make right choices. For it is by these that our own destinies will be determined. The higher perspective is that God/dess within alone moves us through life.
 atandrita—not lazy
 Whitney’s Grammar 125-126 bhruvas, f. Loc. dual of bhrū.—eyebrow.
 A yuga is 4,320,000 years.
 A period of 4,320,000,000 years—one day of Brahmā.
 Seven seers—Kasyapa, Atri, Vasistha, Visvamitra, Gotama, Jamadagni and Bharadvaja.
 One Manu, Vaivasvata, is said to have been the great Hindu lawgiver and father of the human race.
 Author of the Ṛg-Veda
 Composer of the Ṛg-Veda
 Original compiler of Vedas
 Dānava, considered enemies of the gods
 Krishna is considered an Incarnation of Viṣṇu
 Seven deities of the heavenly sphere
 Storm gods
 One of the Seven Sages
 The most musical of the Vedas
 Indra, King of the gods
 Supernatural beings like trolls and elves
 Kubera, god of treasure
 God of fire
 Mythical mountain thought to be the center of the world
 A deity who personifies piety and religion
 God of war
 One of the Seven Sages
 Repetition of a name of God/dess or mantra
 Ficus religiosa, a.k.a., bodhi tree, pīpal
 Founder of Sāṃkhya-Yoga philosophy
 Produced at the churning of the ocean of the Nectar of Immortality at the beginning of creation
 Indra’s mount
 Kāma, god of love
 Serpent king
 Vishnu in the form of a snake
 A Vedic god of waters
 Chief of the ancient ancestors
 God of death; Death personified
 Vishnu’s eagle mount, Garuḍa
 A frightening sea monster, sometimes identified as the shark or crocodile
 A type of chant to Indra in the Sārna Veda.
 Solar deities
 Ancient deities
 Gods of violent storms
 The physicians of heaven who appear before dawn in a golden chariot; they bring treasures to men and avert misfortune
 Storm gods
 From here the text changes to the Triṣṭubh meter through verse 51, reflecting Arjuna’s ecstatic feeling
 Vedic god of wind
 God of death
 Vedic god of fire
 Vedic god of the waters
 Brahmā, the Creator
 Arjuna requests Krishna to assume his Vishnu form.