The opening words of the Gita are Dharmakshetre Kurukshetre–The field of Dharma, the field of the Kurus. The entire discourse takes place on the battlefield of Kurukshetra in North India. Naturally the Gita is considered symbolic as well as literal and historical. The first symbol to be considered is “field.” The thirteenth chapter of the Gita is all about that. It opens with questions by Arjuna: “Prakriti and purusha, the field and the knower of the field, knowledge and the knower of knowledge: I wish to know about these.” (This verse is not found in all texts of the Gita.)
As pointed out before in this commentary, the Gita is really an exposition of Sankhya philosophy, the original philosophy of the upanishadic sages. The prime concept of Sankhya is that of the divine duality of purusha and prakriti–matter and spirit, energy and consciousness. This concerns every person looking to understand his present situation and his potential attainment.
It is not without significance that in his question Arjuna puts Prakriti before Purusha. Being a yogi, he knows that we must deal with the material-energy side of things before we can hope to know about spiritual matters. Also, he implies the threefold mystery: knower, knowing, and known. Separating them into their true boundaries is essential for us.
Krishna begins with an overview of the question: “This body is said to be the field. He who knows this is called the knower of the field by those who are wise in such things” (13:1). This is very clear. Because we sow seeds of action in it, and reap their fruits, the body is our field and we, as the experiencer of both sowing and reaping–of karma, in other words–are the knower of the field, though we often fail to understand what we perceive.
“Know also that I am the knower of the field in all fields. Knowledge of the field and of the knower of the field–that is considered by Me to be true knowledge” (13:2).
Know also. It is great wisdom to know that we are an immortal, unchanging consciousness that is witnessing the drama of the mortal and ever-changing field–both the little field of our own body and life-sphere and the greater Field of the cosmos and the cycles of creation/dissolution.
That I am the knower of the field in all fields. It is greater wisdom to know that God is the Knower of all fields, small and great–that God is experiencing our life right along with us. This a great wonder. And so is knowledge of the field and of the knower of the field, for that is considered to be true knowledge.
It is not enough to know the Knower, we must also know the Known. Self-knowledge is not enough–that which is not the Self must also be known. Awareness of the not-Self (anatma) must also be there, as Buddha pointed out. We must learn what is not us and what is. So when we encounter the bewildering vagaries of the field we can be at peace and say: “That is not me.” Identification with the body is one of our greatest errors and must be seen as the phantom it really is. This is why yoga has so much to say about the field. We must recognize and master it so the knower-Self can fully manifest within and through it.
“This field, what it is, and of what kind, what its modification are and whence they come, and who he [the knower of the field] is, and what are his powers, that, in brief, hear from Me. Sages have sung of it in many ways, distinctly, in various sacred hymns and with aphorisms concerning Brahman, full of positive reasoning” (13:3, 4). This great knowledge is completely traditional, and Krishna is reminding Arjuna of this fact. There no new yoga for a new age. Rather there is eternal yoga for the eternal spirit. That is what the Gita is all about.
“The great elements, egoism, intellect and the unmanifest, the senses–ten and one–and the five objects of the senses, desire, aversion, pleasure, pain, the body, intelligence, steadfastness: this briefly is described as the field with its modifications” (13:5, 6). This is certainly complex, but it is also very clear. Basically everything we know in a objective manner is the field. If we can perceive, recall, and name anything–it is part of the field and should be known as such and never identified with. All Krishna has listed is anatma–not-Self.
Preparation for knowledge
There is no need for Krishna to talk about the knower of the field at this point, for it would be mere theory. Instead we must prepare our minds for such knowledge. So Krishna continues: “Absence of pride, freedom from hypocrisy, non-violence, patience, rectitude, resorting to a teacher, purity, constancy, self-restraint, indifference to the objects of sense, and absence of egotism; keeping in view the evils of birth, death, old age, disease, and pain; non-attachment–beginning with absence of clinging to son, wife, home–and constant even-mindedness toward desired and undesired events; and unswerving devotion to Me with single-minded yoga, frequenting secluded places, distaste for crowds of men, constancy in knowledge of the supreme Spirit, observing the goal of knowledge of the truth: this is declared to be true knowledge. Ignorance is what is contrary to this” (13:7-11).
How simple–and what a lifetime project to fulfill! Whatever goes contrary to this is ignorance and must be ruthlessly ejected from our lives and minds.
The knower of the field
Krishna now will describe the cosmic Knower in all fields, but in reading it we must not forget that everything he says applies also in a finite degree to our individual Self, and consciousness of that must be uppermost in our mind.
“I shall declare that which has to be known, knowing which, one attains immortality: it is the beginningless supreme Brahman, which is said to be neither existent nor non-existent” (13:12). “Existent” and “non-existent” are terms proper only to relative existence with its constant change, including the great changes of birth and death. To be eternal is not to exist forever, but to be completely beyond the possibility of either existence or non-existence in relativity. Absoluteness is the goal.
“Having hands and feet everywhere, eyes, heads and faces everywhere, having ears everywhere, That stands, enveloping everything in the world” (13:13). “Having ears everywhere” is a translation of sarvatahshrutimal loke–“having hearing in all the world.” Immediately there comes to mind the meaning of Avalokiteshvara or Kuan Yin: “Hearing the Sounds of the World.” God hears not just the prayers but the words and thoughts of all human beings and the cries of all animals and even plants. However, there is a much more practical and esoteric meaning: shabda–sound in the form of both speech and hearing–is the faculty of omniscience. That is why sound is the basis of meditation.
“Shining by the function of the senses, yet freed from all the senses, unattached yet maintaining all, without gunas [nirguna] yet experiencing the gunas” (13:14). Part of divine omniscience is the experiencing of all things. God is separate, yet He fully experiences everything through everyone. Every sentient being is a door of His perception. He experiences the internal and external sensations and impulses of all sentient beings. Great yogis reflect this to some degree. In the thirty-fifth chapter of his autobiography Yogananda narrates the following about Yogiraj Lahiri Mahasaya:
“The master’s omnipresence was demonstrated one day before a group of disciples who were listening to his exposition of the Bhagavad Gita. As he was explaining the meaning of Kutastha Chaitanya or the Christ Consciousness in all vibratory creation, Lahiri Mahasaya suddenly gasped and cried out:
“‘I am drowning in the bodies of many souls off the coast of Japan!’
“The next morning the chelas read a newspaper account of the death of many people whose ship had foundered the preceding day near Japan.”
Yogananda experienced this himself on a small scale, as he relates in Chapter Thirty of Autobiography of a Yogi:
“I sat one morning in my little attic room in Father’s Gurpar Road home. For months World War I had been raging in Europe; I reflected sadly on the vast toll of death.
“As I closed my eyes in meditation, my consciousness was suddenly transferred to the body of a captain in command of a battleship. The thunder of guns split the air as shots were exchanged between shore batteries and the ship’s cannons. A huge shell hit the powder magazine and tore my ship asunder. I jumped into the water, together with the few sailors who had survived the explosion.
“Heart pounding, I reached the shore safely. But alas! a stray bullet ended its furious flight in my chest. I fell groaning to the ground. My whole body was paralyzed, yet I was aware of possessing it as one is conscious of a leg gone to sleep.
“‘At last the mysterious footstep of Death has caught up with me’ I thought. With a final sigh, I was about to sink into unconsciousness when lo! I found myself seated in the lotus posture in my Gurpar Road room.”
“Outside and inside beings, the animate and the inanimate, because of Its subtlety This is not comprehended. This is far away and also near. Undivided yet remaining as if divided in all beings, this is to be known as the sustainer of beings, their devourer and creator” (13:15, 16). All this is done for the sake of sentient beings–for their evolution in consciousness. Even our bodies are really produced by God for us to inhabit. It is true, however much the philosophically sophisticated may sneer: We are the center of the universe, its purpose for existing. Of course “we” includes all sentient beings, and everything is potentially sentient. From this we see that God is not just Father and Mother, he is also Companion and Servant. Blessed are those that give this God His due: their entire heart and life.
“Also This is said to be the light of lights That is beyond darkness. It is knowledge, the object of knowledge and that which is to be attained through knowledge. It is seated in the hearts of all” (13:17). He is the reality of everything internal and external–the “one thing real” that alone is worthy of our involvement.
“Thus the field, knowledge, and the object of knowledge have been briefly described. My devotee, understanding this, enters into My state of being” (13:18).
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
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