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 suchlike 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, the indestructible, the immeasurable [illimitable] embodied Self, are said to come to an end, therefore fight, Arjuna!” (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 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 to understand that the six orthodox systems (darshanas) 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. For a person to understand, all six philosophies must be studied. The preference for one over the others should be understood as a manifestation of personal nature 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
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 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 alone 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 cremation 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 the protection of the good and the destruction of evil doers, for the sake of establishing righteousness [dharma], I am born in every 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 will often 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!
Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:
- The Battlefield of the Mind
- On the Field of Dharma
- Taking Stock
- The Smile of Krishna
- Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
- Experiencing the Unreal
- The Unreal and the Real
- The Body and the Spirit
- Know the Atman!
- Practical Self-Knowledge
- Perspective on Birth and Death
- The Wonder of the Atman
- The Indestructible Self
- “Happy the Warrior”
- Buddhi Yoga
- Religiosity Versus Religion
- Perspective on Scriptures
- How Not To Act
- How To Act
- Right Perspective
- Wisdom About the Wise
- Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
- The Way of Peace
- Calming the Storm
- First Steps in Karma Yoga
- From the Beginning to the End
- The Real “Doers”
- Our Spiritual Marching Orders
- Freedom From Karma
- In the Grip of the Monster
- Devotee and Friend
- The Eternal Being
- The Path
- Caste and Karma
- Action–Divine and Human
- The Mystery of Action and Inaction
- The Wise in Action
- Sacrificial Offerings
- The Worship of Brahman
- Action–Renounced and Performed
- Freedom (Moksha)
- The Brahman-Knower
- The Goal of Karma Yoga
- Getting There
- The Yogi’s Retreat
- The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
- Union With Brahman
- The Yogi’s Future
- Success in Yoga
- The Net and Its Weaver
- Those Who Seek God
- Those Who Worship God and the Gods
- The Veil in the Mind
- The Big Picture
- The Sure Way To Realize God
- Day, Night, and the Two Paths
- The Supreme Knowledge
- Universal Being
- Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
- Worshipping the One
- Going To God
- Wisdom and Knowing
- Going To The Source
- From Hearing To Seeing
- The Wisdom of Devotion
- Right Conduct
- The Field and Its Knower
- Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
- Seeing the One Within the All
- The Three Gunas
- The Cosmic Tree
- The All-pervading Reality
- The Divine and the Demonic
- Faith and the Three Gunas
- Food and the Three Gunas
- Religion and the Three Gunas
- Tapasya and the Three Gunas
- Charity and the Three Gunas
- Sannyasa and Tyaga
- Deeper Insights On Action
- Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
- The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
- The Three Kinds of Happiness
- The Great Devotee
- The Final Words
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Read the Maharshi Gita, an arrangement of verses of the Bhagavad Gita made by Sri Ramana Maharshi that gives an overview of the essential message of the Gita.
Read The Bhagavad Gita (arranged in verses for singing) by Abbot George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri).
Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary