Having been told that Krishna had taught Yoga to the most ancient of human beings:
Arjuna said: Your birth was later, and Vivaswat’s birth was earlier. How then should I understand that you taught this in the beginning? (4:4)
Krishna replies most directly and simply:
The Holy Lord said: Many of my births have passed away, and also yours. I know them all; you do not know them (4:5).
Buddha taught that remembrance of all our past lives occurs at the time of enlightenment. However, some believe that recall of all previous lives can occur even before that. Whichever it might be, the idea is that every moment of our previous lives remains embedded in our subtle bodies and can influence and even determine our present lives.
Coming into “being”
Yet, we are something more than a story–we are Being itself, waves of the ocean of Infinite Being. Krishna, speaking as that Being, begins telling Arjuna of what he really is, and the truth of his relation to the world:
Although birthless and imperishable, although the Lord of all beings, controlling my own prakriti, I come into manifested being by my own power of maya (4:6).
Being completely outside of time, space, and all relativity, God (Brahman) is beyond birth and death, and any change whatsoever. The rest of us come and go, come and go, but Brahman abides forever; there is no coming or going for him. Never must we consider God as being conditioned in any way by relativity. This is not easy for us in the West who have lived from birth in an assumption that God perpetually reacts to us–that it is we who determine the state of God far more than he determines our state–and that we can control God’s “moods.” We have thought that our words, thoughts, and deeds will determine God’s relation to us and how he thinks of us and cares or does not care about us. This is a tremendous error. However choppy the waves may be, the ocean remains stable and constant. It is the same with our tiny, tempestuous minds and lives in contrast to the utter Changelessness of God.
Yet, he has the most intimate connection/relation with us as our Lord (Ishwara), our inmost Self (Antaratman) and Ruler (Antaryamin). How can this seeming contradiction be? The illusive power known as Maya. Therefore Krishna continues:
Whenever dharma decreases and there is the arising of adharma, then do I manifest myself. For protection of the righteous and destruction of evildoers, for the establishing of dharma, I manifest myself from age to age (4:7-8).
Whenever dharma decreases and anti-dharma rises up, Ishwara manifests himself through a liberated master, who is an avatar, an incarnation of divine consciousness. Why? Paritranaya means “for giving refuge,” “for protecting,” “for preservation,” and “for the deliverance”–all that. And for whom? For the righteous–those that seek the Real, the True: Brahman. Krishna means this in the sense of anyone who pursues Brahmajnana, such as the yogis who seek union with Brahman. There is an implication here, then, that dharma is essentially–even exclusively–the seeking for God, the living of the yoga life.
But others are involved here: dushkritam, the doers of evil. His plan for them is vinashaya, “for the destruction,” of the evildoers. When this is done, dharma is reestablished on a solid basis and the righteous can pursue their aims in the right way in a harmonious and conducive environment. And this is done yuge yuge–from age to age. Whether Krishna is referring to the concept of ascending and descending ages (yugas) as is current now, or whether he just means eras of human history cannot be known for sure. The important idea here is that whenever there is a need there is a manifestation of the Divine.
Because of the present-day obsession with gods and avatars, it is assumed in India that Krishna is speaking of yugavatars–avatars of the age–that appear rather like the figures in mechanical clocks, every hour on the hour. However that may be, the idea is that God does something at times of spiritual crisis. It is commonly assumed that God is born on earth at those times, but sambhavani means “I come into being,” or “I originate myself.” Now there is no place in Sanatana Dharma for the idea that God comes into being at a point in time, or somehow creates himself. Consequently, “I manifest” is the safest translation. Although there can be no argument against births of perfected beings (siddhas) that are in a very real sense incarnations of God Consciousness, divine manifestations can take place in many ways to awaken straying humanity. I know of situations where the people of entire countries had profound spiritual awakening while the rest of the world snored away. Such an event was the Welsh Revival at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Ramakrishna Mission, inspired by Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, was the impetus for a powerful movement whose effect is felt throughout the world even now. Nearer our time, the arising of the Thai Forest Tradition in Thailand was a miraculous, spontaneous awakening that is still bearing fruit.
We must not forget that Krishna says this happens through his Maya, not through Shakti. So the creative power (prakriti) of God is not the deceiver it is always being claimed to be. Maya just means that the whole creation and what takes place therein is an illusion, like a motion picture. Only the consciousnesses, the spirits, that are witnessing the movie as though they were inside it and part of it, are real.
God is “born” in his creation, yet he is not born at all. Rather, through his power of Maya, he “dreams” creation and shows those dreams to us, enabling us to enter into his dream and dream along with him the dreams that will culminate in our awakening into his own Consciousness and Being, nevermore to forget ourselves in a dream body in a dream world. We, too, are ever unborn, though dreaming innumerable births and deaths.
Why? Because each life we dream is an exercise in consciousness, a means of developing (evolving) our scope of consciousness and understanding (jnana). We suffer because the dreams get out of our control, but once we master our dreaming all confusion, doubt, weakness, and ignorance will cease and we will be “born again” into perfect spiritual awareness, into the ultimate liberation for which we were destined before we first entered into relative existence–or appeared to enter, for it was all a series of educational dream-movies in the cosmic school of God Consciousness.
From age to age, and in every age, we see the advent of divine consciousness in the world. Sometimes this takes place in the form of spiritual revelation to purified individuals who can perceive the divine revelation and convey it to others. But sometimes beings of such high consciousness and power come among us that they are truly manifestations of God himself. Whether these Great Ones are direct manifestations of God in human form, or are perfect, liberated beings who have long ago transcended the human condition and evolved upward unto total unity/identity with God, really has no relevance to us. What matters is the light they shed into our darkness and their teachings which, backed by infinite will, are truly “spirit and life” (John 6:63). Our obligation is not to define these holy messengers, but to carefully follow their teachings. “Whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19. See Matthew 7:21; Luke 6:46). For they lead unerringly to the kingdom of infinite life.
We also, through our personal prakriti, our own maya, come back in each life to purify and evolve ourselves, to reveal that which is holy and innate in us, and to dispel the sin and ignorance into which we have strayed, finally establishing our consciousness in the Consciousness with which it has ever been one. Here, too, it is a sleeping and a forgetting until we awaken, remember, and say with the Psalmist: “When I awake, I am still with thee” (Psalms 139:18). The dream of separation and limitation is over forever. The purpose of life is liberation.
He who knows in truth my divine birth and action, leaving the body is not born again: he comes to me. Free from greed, fear and anger, absorbed in me, holding fast to me, purified by knowledge-based tapasya, many have attained my state of being (4:9-10).
Knowing that the advent or “birth” of Divine Light in the world–and in our own individual consciousness–has our enlightenment as its sole purpose, we can intelligently move toward freedom from rebirth. If we live accordingly we shall transcend the need for birth in any relative world and live in God fully. Rising above all passions rooted in the ego–and above the ego itself–we stand forth in the purity of being that is God.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: The Path