Spiritual teaching, if it is authentic, always has a markedly practical effect. So here at the beginning of the eleventh chapter of the Gita Arjuna tells Krishna:
Arjuna said: As a kindness to me you spoke the Supreme Secret that is known as the Supreme Self. By this my confusion is gone (11:1).
Amazing words! But nonetheless absolutely true.
First, knowledge about the Self and the Supreme Self come to the evolving spirit directly from God in a deeply personal manner, from Friend to friend. We must never lose sight of this. However high we may soar in ideas about the transcendent aspect of God, we must never lose sight of the fact that God is a Person relating to persons. Both God and we are fundamentally persons–purushas–and spiritual life must always be conducted in this perspective.
Second, the knowledge of God is the ultimate knowing. Beyond it there is nothing, for it embraces all things, God being infinite.
Thirdly, those who possess this knowing are freed absolutely from all delusion–it melts away like mist before the rays of the sun and is found no more.
Seeing comes from believing
It is exactly in the right order of things that after the seeker hears the truth and recognizes it by the intuition awakened by meditation, he would want to progress further by actually seeing/experiencing that which he now knows through intuition. For direct experience is the final step in our evolution. Therefore Arjuna now says:
The origin and dissolution of beings has been heard by me in detail from you, and your eternal greatness. Thus, as you have described yourself, O Supreme Lord, I wish to behold your Ishwara Form, O Purushottama. If you think it is possible for me to see it, O Lord of Yogis, then show to me your eternal Self [Being] (11:2-4).
There is one point that is worthy of note in the fourth verse: “If you think it is possible for me to see it….” It has nothing to do with God’s attitude toward us or a judgment as to our worthiness. It is simply a matter of capability. As Yogananda said in one of his talks, if you expand your consciousness sufficiently, “then God will automatically get into you.” The English may be a bit novel, but the idea is clear. This is what yoga is all about: preparing us for the Divine Vision.
In response Krishna says:
Behold my forms a hundredfold–rather, a thousandfold–various, divine, and of many colors and shapes. Behold the Adityas, the Vasus, the Rudras, the two Ashwins, and the Maruts. Behold many wonders never seen before. See now present here in this my body the whole universe–both the animate and the inanimate–and whatever else you desire to see. But you are not able to see me with your own eyes. I give to you the divine eye: behold my Ishwara Power.
Sanjaya said: Then, having thus spoken, O King, Krishna, the Great Lord of Yoga, showed unto Arjuna his supreme Ishwara Form: (11:5-9).
As in the previous chapter, there is a tremendous amount of lists of things seen by Arjuna, many of them relating to Hindu cosmology. As before, I will only comment on those points that have a practical meaning for the yogi.
With many mouths and eyes, with many wondrous aspects, with many divine ornaments, with many divine weapons upraised, wearing divine garlands and clothing, with divine perfumes and ointments; embodying all wonders, the Infinite, Omniscient [Facing In All Directions]. If a thousand suns should rise together in the sky, such splendor would be like the brilliance of that Great Being. There, together in the body of the God of gods, Arjuna saw the entire universe present, though of many divisions.
Then Arjuna, filled with astonishment and with his hair standing on end, bowing his head to the Divine Being, with joined palms said: O God, I behold all the gods and all kinds of beings together in your body: Lord Brahma seated upon the lotus, and all the rishis and celestial serpents. I see you in every direction in infinite form, with many arms, stomachs, faces and eyes. Neither end, nor middle, nor beginning of you do I see, O Lord of All, whose form is the universe. I see you crowned, armed with a mace and a discus; a mass of radiance shining everywhere, very hard to look at, all around blazing like burning fire and the sun–beyond measure. You are the Unchanging, the supreme object of knowledge, you are the ultimate resting-place of all; you are the imperishable defender of Eternal Dharma, you are the Primal Purusha, I now realize (11:10-18).
The new idea introduced here is that Brahman is itself the defender/protector/preserver of eternal dharma. This is because dharma is the very nature of Brahman. Sanatana Dharma is not a matter of the will or whim of a deity, but Reality in demonstration. This is how yoga can be the science of the Divine. Praying, praising, serving, believing, and all such–none of this has any ultimate reality. This should be no surprise, for all along we have known that Brahman alone is real.
“Armed with a mace and a discus” indicates the form of Vishnu, and Krishna as the incarnation of that aspect of God known as Vishnu.
You are without beginning, middle, or end, of infinite power, with innumerable arms; the sun and moon your eyes; blazing, consuming fire your mouth; consuming the universe with your brilliance. This space between heaven and earth, and all the directions are filled by you alone. Seeing this, your marvelous and awesome form, the three worlds are trembling, O Exalted One. There, truly, into you enter the throngs of gods, some of which extol you in fear with joined palms, crying “Hail!” The assemblages of great Rishis and Siddhas extol you with abundant praises. The Rudras, Adityas, Vasus, Sadhyas, and Vishwa-Devas, the two Ashwins, Maruts, Ushmapas, throngs of Gandharvas, Yakshas, Asuras, and Siddhas: all behold you, overcome. Having seen your great form with many mouths, eyes, many arms, many thighs and many feet, many stomachs, having many terrible tusks, the worlds are quaking, and so also am I. Truly, having seen you touching the sky, blazing, many-colored, with gaping mouths, with large and fiery eyes: I am trembling in my inmost heart, and find neither courage nor calm. Having seen your dreadful mouths, gaping with tusks, blazing like Pralaya-fires, I have no sense of direction or place of refuge. Have mercy, O Lord of Gods, Abode of the universe. And there all the sons of Dhritarashtra along with the throngs of kings, Bhishma, Drona, and Karna, with our chief warriors, enter precipitately into your mouths, terrible, gaping with tusks and fearful to behold. Some are found sticking in the gaps between your teeth, and some with their heads completely pulverized. As the torrents of many rivers flow towards the ocean, so these heroes of the world of men now enter into your flaming mouths. As moths precipitately rush into a blazing fire to destruction, in like manner so do these worlds also rush into your mouths to their destruction. You lick up and swallow all the worlds on every side with your flaming mouths. Filling the whole world with radiance, your fierce rays are consuming it, O Vishnu. (11:19-30)
I have been amazed through the years that this picture is not cited by the Christian missionaries as proof that the God of the Hindus is “the Devil.” I am equally amazed by the fact that I, with only a fundamentalist Protestant background, read this account and was thrilled by it, realizing that it was the nearest to an accurate description of the Divine in Its aspect as all-devouring Time as possible, a description of the indescribable. It all seemed normal to me, and still does.
Brahmacharini Mildred, one of Yogananda’s disciples, told me: “Master said there is an aspect of God that would drive you insane if you saw it.” I suspect he was referring to this aspect which Vyasa has so amazingly presented. I am glad to say that Vyasa’s version “drove me sane” and made me a Sanatana Dharmi.
Aspiring to know
We have all heard that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but lack of knowledge can be more dangerous, especially in spiritual life. So Arjuna tells Krishna:
Tell me who you are: you of terrible form. Salutations to you, O Best of Gods, be merciful. I desire to comprehend you, O Primal One. I wish to understand your intent (11:31).
As much as we can, we need to intellectually grasp What/Who God is, and what is his “intention” or purpose for us. Otherwise we can never know what/who we are, and what we are supposed to be doing here, or anywhere, for that matter. True religion is not satisfied with groveling and slavish obeying: it seeks to turn unknowers into knowers, into worthy seers and siddhas.
The Holy Lord said: I am mighty world-destroying Time, here made manifest to annihilate the worlds. Even without you, none of the warriors here arrayed within the hostile armies shall live. Therefore do you arise and acquire glory. Having conquered the enemies, enjoy thriving domain. These have already been struck down by me. Be merely an instrument. Drona, Bhishma, Jayadratha, Karna, and other battle heroes, already killed by me, do you kill. Do not hesitate. Fight. You shall conquer the adversaries in battle (32-34).
Sanjaya said: Having heard this speech of Krishna, Arjuna with joined palms and trembling, bowing down, addressed Krishna in a faltering voice, overwhelmed with fear.
Arjuna said: Rightly the world is delighted and rejoices in your renown. The demons, terrified, flee in all directions, and the throngs of siddhas bow to you in adoration (11:35-36).
Authentic reverence of God is not just sentimentality or begging. Rather, it strengthens and moves forward the machinery of the universe, purifying, elevating, and stimulating it. And it does the same to those who are the Godwards. But demons in human form revolt and flee when confronted with the Divine or what truly relates to or reveals the Divine. I have witnessed this many times. They also protest when anything of a spiritual nature is brought even peripherally into their environment. They howl in many ways: some quite sophisticated and intellectual, and some in overt hatred and spite. But the wellsprings are the same: inner evil. On the other hand, the Godwards joyfully reverence God, bowing down before him, thankful to be able to do so. This is a special trait of Eastern religion: Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, and Eastern Christian. What joy they receive!
A new point
Now we move ahead:
And why should they not bow to you, O Great One, Primal Creator greater than Brahma, Infinite Lord of Gods, Abode of the Universe, you the eternal, the truly existing, the non-existent, and That which is beyond both (11:37).
Here, too, there is one point that is relatively new to our study: “You… the truly existing, the non-existent, and That which is beyond both.” It is not hard to figure that God encompasses all that exists, but how can Brahman also be what is not? “What is not” has three aspects: 1) what is not because it exists only in a potential form–as does the entire field of relative existence when it is withdrawn after a creation cycle; 2) that which has never so far existed, but which Brahman in its limitless creative power could bring into existence; and finally 3) everything that “is,” simply because nothing relative ever really exists at any time, but is only an idea in the individual and the divine minds. Since “is” and “is not” is a dwandwa, a pair of dualities, it is obvious that for Brahman, being beyond duality, such distinctions cannot exist. That which transcends “is” and “is not” is Brahman itself. In this context, “is” is no more real than “is not.”
You are the Primal God, the Ancient Purusha; you the supreme resting-place of all this universe. You are the knower, that which is to be known and the supreme dwelling state of consciousness and being. By you is the whole universe pervaded, O you of infinite forms (11:38).
That which is known is also the knower. Such a concept seems beyond our comprehension until we realize that everything “known” is just an idea in our mind, and that is us. A perception is only a modification of the mind-substance (chitta) itself, and has no objective reality. So the object is really the subject all the time.
You are Vayu, Yama, Agni, Varuna, Chandra, Prajapati, and the Great-grandfather, Brahma. I bow, yea, I bow to you a thousand times, again and again I bow, I bow to you. Salutation to you before and behind; salutation on every side, O All! You are infinite valor and boundless might. You pervade all–therefore you are All (11:39-40).
Those who see and know in the divine realms worship, bowing again and again with both body and mind. Krishna is showing us that jnana leads to bhakti, and bhakti leads to jnana. For they have the same object and purpose.
History is filled with examples of people who have been kind or unkind to someone only to discover that the “someone” was a person of great prominence unrecognized by them. Arjuna finds himself in this situation. In India, to touch someone even unintentionally with the foot is considered great carelessness and rudeness. When that happens, the offender touches the feet of the person and begs their pardon. To touch them with the foot deliberately, and kick them (even gently) is a cardinal insult. Yet, very dear and close friends sometimes do such things in jest as sign of intimacy and camaraderie. We are told that often when resting together, if Krishna was lying near, Arjuna would push at him with his foot and tell him to move over. We are also told that if Krishna remarked that it was going to rain, and then it did not, Arjuna would say: “What a prophet you are! How wise! How all-knowing!” and mock him. He would also address him familiarly, leaving aside Krishna’s royal and spiritual status. (Everyone knew Krishna was Yogeshwara, the Lord of Yoga).
Having now witnessed the real nature of Krishna as Infinite Being, Arjuna pleads:
Whatever I have said impetuously as in ordinary friendship: “O Krishna, O Yadava, O Comrade,” unconscious of your greatness, through ignorance though with affection, and, as if joking, disrespectfully treated you, in play, lying down, sitting or while eating, alone or with others, O Imperishable One, for that I ask pardon of you, O Boundless One. You are the Father of the world, of the animate and inanimate, you who are to be revered, you are the worshipful Guru. There is no one your equal in the three worlds. Who can excel you, O you of Incomparable Glory? Therefore, bowing down in prostration, I ask forgiveness of you, O Lord, who are worthy of honor. As a father to a son, a friend to a friend, a dear one to a beloved: O God, be merciful (11:41-44).
In The Night of the Iguana, one of the characters refers to “man’s inhumanity to God.” When we really grasp that all along we have been dealing with Absolute Divinity itself–ignoring, lying to, trying to fool, denying, and avoiding it–we are overcome with regret and dismay. How could we have done that? Like Arjuna we may try to find consolation in the idea that God is friend, father, and beloved, but in the long run that will not avail. Real peace will only come to us when we realize that God is our ultimate Self, that we are absolutely one with him–so how can he be either pleased or displeased with us? In fact, all those unworthy things we were doing to God we were really doing to our own selves as well.
But there is more. In the religious lore of the ages we find instances in which a face-to-face encounter with Reality virtually incapacitates the beholder, that it overstrains the still-evolving mind, as it is beyond its ability to take in and yet keep on functioning normally. God knows what he is doing. The eucharist of the Liberal Catholic Church speaks of “the limitations of time and space, wherewith it is Thy will to veil our earthly eyes from the excess of Thy glory,” because at its present level of development the human mind cannot cope with its fullness. Arjuna experiences this, too, and therefore says:
I am delighted at having seen that which has never before been seen, and yet my mind trembles with fear. Show me in mercy, O Lord, your previous form, O Lord of gods, abode of the universe. I want to see you as before: wearing a crown, armed with a mace, holding a discus. Appear in that four-armed form, O you of a thousand arms, who are embodied in all the forms in the universe (11:45-46).
Sometimes we have to settle for the veil rather than what is being veiled–at least for a while longer. In the same way, Arjuna asks to see the soothing form of Vishnu, the Preserver, in order to settle and reassure his mind.
How it comes about
What brings about the cosmic vision?
The Holy Lord said: By my grace toward you this supreme Form has been shown to you by my own power: this form of mine made of radiant splendor, universal, unbounded and primal, which has not been seen before by aught but you. Not by Vedic sacrifice or study, not by gifts, not by rites, nor by severe austerities can I be seen in such a form in the world of men, by any other than you. Be not afraid or bewildered, having seen this awesome form of mine. With your fears dispelled and with your heart gladdened, see once again this former form of mine.
Sanjaya said: Having thus spoken to Arjuna, Krishna showed once again his usual form. Thus the Great-souled One, having resumed his gentle, wondrous form, pacified the frightened one.
Arjuna said: Seeing your gentle human form, now I am composed and my mind is restored to normal (11:47-51).
The final assurance
Krishna sums up all the implications of Arjuna’s experience in words that apply to us who seek the divine union:
The Holy Lord said: Difficult to see is this form of mine which you have seen. Even the gods ever long to behold this form. Not by Vedic study, not by tapasya, not by charitable gifts, and not by sacrifice can I be seen as you have seen me. By single-minded devotion alone can I be known and truly seen in this manner and entered into. He who engages in action, holding me as the highest aim, devoted, abandoning attachment, free from enmity to all beings, comes to me (11:52-55).
May we pursue this without delay.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: The Wisdom of Devotion