Who am I? This is the Primeval Question, the sign that true consciousness is at last dawning in the evolving entity. Until this arises, the side queries such as: Where did I come from?… Where am I?… Where am I going?… and such like will result in very little. For it is the knowledge of Who I Am that alone illuminates them. Without this self-knowledge nothing else can really be known. Because of this Krishna opens his instructions to Arjuna with an exposition of the nature of the Self and the effect of self-knowledge on the individual, even though the subject at hand is why Arjuna should fight rather than abandon the battlefield.
This bears out the veracity of what I just said about self-knowledge being necessary for the right understanding of anything. It also demonstrates that those who promote study of scriptures, development of devotion to God or engagement in good works as the paramount factor in human life are far from being disciples of Krishna however much they may cite the Gita and profess an emotional devotion to him. “Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46) is still a relevant question.
Having spoken of cosmic reality and relative unreality, Krishna returns to a more personal aspect, continuing:
These bodies inhabited by the eternal, indestructible, immeasurable, embodied Self are said to come to an end. Therefore, fight! (2:18).
Bodies are said to die
Since Krishna has assured Arjuna that the unreal cannot come into being and that the real cannot go out of existence, he obviously cannot state that death really occurs. Therefore he says: “These bodies are said to come to an end”–to die. They do not die for two reasons. The obvious one is that birth and death are mere appearances. Having never been born in reality how could the body die? However, the appearances of birth and death are part of the cosmic drama, part of the Divine Dream known as Pradhana or Prakriti. And interestingly, physics has demonstrated that absolutely not even a particle of an atom is ever destroyed; that every bit that existed/appeared in the beginning exists right now–only the arrangements of the particles have changed. This would have to be so. Since the Dreamer is eternal and outside of time, so also must the Dream be in its ultimate reality–for can anything of the Divine be unreal?
The dream occurs in the Eternal Now which is the abode of the Dreamer. This is why Sankhya philosophy, the philosophy espoused and expounded by Krishna, postulates that Prakriti is eternal. When we understand its nature as a mere dream, a thought, this is the only possible conclusion. It is when we think of it as an actual substance that can come into being and go out of being that we become entangled in error. And it is this error which the Vedantists deny, the seeming conflict between Sankhya and Vedanta on this point only occurring in the minds of those who have not experienced the vision behind both philosophies, themselves known as darshanas (viewings).
It is necessary for the serious student of Indian philosophy, Sanatana Dharma, to understand that the six orthodox systems (darshanas) of Hinduism are all equally true–otherwise they would not be orthodox. Rather, they represent different viewpoints or attitudes toward the same Reality, differing in emphasis, but never in substance. The preference for one over the others should be understood as a manifestation of personal nature (guna and karma–just as with caste) only and not evidence of one being true (or more true) and the others false (or less true).
But That which possesses the body is eternal
The famous baby doctor, Dr. Spock, opened his book on caring for infants with a statement that astounded everyone. Addressing the mothers reading the book he said: “You know more than you know you do.” And urged them to rely on that knowledge. What he was saying, actually, was that they possessed “mother’s intuition” and should learn to tap it and act on it. Even the most esoterically and philosophically unsophisticated people continually use expressions that show a subliminal knowledge far beyond their conscious awareness. One thing is the universal habit of referring to our bodies as “mine.” “I broke my leg,” we say, not: “I broke myself.” We all know instinctively that we possess our body, that it is separate from us and is being used only as an instrument. Yes, we identify with it and say things like: “He hit me” when the body was struck, but usually we speak of the body as “mine” rather than “me.” Or we even speak of it in a strange combination such as: “He hit me on the arm.” However mixed these signals may be, the underlying consciousness is that of our being the owner of the body and not the body itself. Yet when we consciously identify ourselves and others with the temporary and the perishable, like Arjuna, we cannot help but be fearful and confused. But the truth is quite different: we are eternal, not just long-lasting. Moreover, what overwhelms us is really meant to be ruled by us.
It cannot be limited, or destroyed
We are tossed about and drowned in the ocean that we are meant to sail over unruffled and unaffected by wind or wave. See what Krishna says: We cannot be either limited or destroyed. This is incredible to us who are entrenched in the hypnosis called Maya. But the challenge is inescapable: this truth must be consciously experienced and permanently established in us. How to accomplish this is the message of the whole Gita.
Let us look at the implications of this. If we are in any way limited it is a result of our blindness. Remove the blindness and the limitations vanish. They need not be overcome but seen through as the mirages they really are.
If we think that we can die or be annihilated, we are deluded to the point of spiritual psychosis. For what can we do, then, but live in continual fear and despair? Just look at the death and burial customs of the world’s religions, except for Hinduism. They affirm the immortality of the individual and assure those who remain behind that “they are in a better place.” It is only natural to feel grief at losing the presence of those who are loved, but see how the bereaved act. Not only is there a sense of hopelessness at the inevitability of death, the bodies are treated as though they are the departed person. In the West we dress them up, put makeup on them, style their hair, and put them in metal boxes with innerspring mattresses. (“So they will rest easy,” explained one mortician to a friend of mine.) Grave sites are often chosen with a view the departed (?) will be sure to like. And after burial they are “visited,” given flowers, and often spoken to. In some cultures the families put food on the graves and even have a picnic there to share a meal with the dead. In Cairo, when you go to the pyramids you pass through a vast section of the city that is the City of the Dead, composed of small houses set along a labyrinth of streets. Each house is a tomb. On Fridays and holidays the families visit these houses and have lunch with the dead, who their religion says are not there at all but in another plane of existence altogether. This is craziness.
On the other hand, in India the body is wrapped in bright-colored cloth and borne through the streets as the bearers chant over and over: Rama Nama satya hai–the Name of God is real–or a similar affirmation that spirit is real and death is an illusion. Reaching the crematory ground, scriptural passages affirming the immortality of the spirit are recited as the fire is kindled. When the ceremony is finished the bearers walk away without a backward look. A television documentary entitled Forest of Bliss, showing a day at the burning ground of Varanasi (Benares) is worth viewing as it shows belief in immortality being lived out.
The key thing in all this is actual realization of our immortality, not just a hope or belief. And this is a matter of spiritual practice, as Krishna will inform Arjuna.
Something must be done. We must enter the dharma-field of our inner awareness and do the needful. “For protection of the righteous and destruction of evildoers, for the establishing of dharma, I manifest myself from age to age” (4:8). Like Krishna we must release the holiness of our spirit and annihilate the delusion of sin. Then we will be righteous. Like Arjuna we may shrink back, get confused, and try to abandon our duty. But if, also like Arjuna, we make spirit-consciousness our charioteer we will come out all right, victorious and wise.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Know the Atman!