A friend of mine used to tell people: “You will only get what you settle for.” He meant that if you will settle for little, that is what you will get. But if you will settle only for much, that will come to you. Apparently Arjuna held this same philosophy, for now he is going to ask some very vast questions. But Krishna will easily answer all these things in terms that millions throughout the ages will understand.
Arjuna said: O Supreme Spirit [Purushottama]: What is Brahman? What is the Primal Self [Adhyatma]? What is action? What is the Primal Being? What is the Primal God? What, and in what way, is the Primal Sacrifice here in this body? And how are you to be known at the time of death by the self-controlled ones? (8:1-2).
Krishna will answer these, but here are the definitions of all the technical terms in this verse as found in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary:
Brahman: The Absolute Reality; the Truth proclaimed in the Upanishads; the Supreme Reality that is one and indivisible, infinite, and eternal; all-pervading, changeless Existence; Existence-knowledge-bliss Absolute (Satchidananda); Absolute Consciousness; it is not only all-powerful but all-power itself; not only all-knowing and blissful but all-knowledge and all-bliss itself.
Adhyatma: The individual Self; the supreme Self; spirit.
Karma: Karma, derived from the Sanskrit root kri, which means to act, do, or make, means any kind of action, including thought and feeling. It also means the effects of action. Karma is both action and reaction, the metaphysical equivalent of the principle: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” It is karma operating through the law of cause and effect that binds the jiva or the individual soul to the wheel of birth and death.
Purushottama: The Supreme Person; Supreme Purusha. Purusha: “Person” in the sense of a conscious spirit. Both God and the individual spirits are purushas, but God is the Adi (Original, Archetypal) Purusha, Parama (Highest) Purusha, and the Purushottama (Highest or Best of the Purushas).
Adhibhuta: Primal Being; Primal Element; Primordial Matter. Also: Supreme Being and Supreme Element.
Adhidaiva: Primal God; Supreme God.
Adhiyajna: Primal Sacrifice; Supreme Sacrifice.
Brahman, Adhyatma, and karma
The Holy Lord said: The Imperishable is the Supreme Brahman. Its dwelling in each individual body is called the Primal Self; the offering in sacrifice which causes the genesis and support of beings is called Karma (8:3).
Brahman is the supreme, unchanging Being, the eternal Fact of existence itself, the First to which all else is second. Since nothing can really be said about the transcendent Brahman, Krishna quickly passes on to that which we can comprehend, at least to some degree.
Adhyatma firstly is the principle of the indwelling Brahman in all beings as their Eternal Witness. But it is also the principle of the individual spirit’s eternal distinction from Brahman which enables it to manifest and dwell in many forms in succession. The power which brings this embodiment about is karma in its fundamental nature. So from this we see that karma is not only a reaction, but the action that originates our coming into relative existence. Karma both initiates and maintains the rebirth process.
World, man, and God
Primal Being is perishable existence; the Primal God is the Supreme Divine Being; and I myself am the Primal Sacrifice (8:4).
I have pointed out previously that the Bhagavad Gita is an exposition of the Sankhya philosophy. Sankhya postulates the existence of three eternal entities: God, the individual spirit, and the Divine Creative Power within which the individual evolves. This verse is about them. The Primal Element, the Adhibhuta, is Parashakti, the Supreme Energy which manifests as the entire range of relative being, including all the forms assumed by sentient beings in their evolutionary pilgrimage within itself. The Primal Deity is the individual divine Self, the jivatman, the purusha which is moving up the ladder of Adhibhuta. The Adhiyajna, the Primal Sacrifice is Brahman itself, dwelling in the body [dehe dehabhritam] along with the individual Self.
The new idea presented in this verse is the concept that by entering into all beings as their Indweller God has become the Primal Sacrifice. Interestingly, the best elucidation of this idea is to be found in an esoteric Christian ritual–the Mass rite formulated by Bishop James I. Wedgwood, founder of the Liberal Catholic Church. As referred to previously, in one of the prayers God is addressed as him “Who, abiding unchangeable within Thyself, didst nevertheless in the mystery of Thy boundless love and Thine eternal Sacrifice breathe forth Thine own divine life into Thy universe…. Omnipotent, all-pervading, by that self-same Sacrifice Thou dost continually uphold all creation, resting not by night or day, working evermore through that… enduring Sacrifice by which the world is nourished and sustained.”
God does not only sacrifice himself by entering into limited modes of being, he also does so by willingly experiencing all the attendant changes and states of mind and body inherent in those conditions. Many people ask how God can allow people to suffer, not realizing that he is experiencing every pain and sorrow that all sentient beings–not just humans–are enduring. A dying person only experiences the suffering and death of a single body, while God is experiencing the suffering and death of an almost infinite number of bodies, all at the same time. There is no nuance of struggle or suffering that God does not undergo right with us. Is this not a sacrifice beyond all conception? The sufferings we undergo are for our eventual benefit; they are necessary for us. Yet God, who certainly needs no such, agrees to live in us and experience all that we experience. There could be no greater sacrifice, no greater mercy, no greater love. So the next time we feel like complaining about our “fate” let us remember that God is enduring the same fate right along with us.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: The Sure Way To Realize God