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 a question.
Arjuna said: Prakriti and Purusha, the Field and the Knower of the Field, knowledge, and that which should be known–I wish to know this, O Krishna.
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.
The Holy Lord said: This body is called the Field, and he who knows this is called the Knower of the Field–so say the knowers of these 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, are the knower of the field, though we often fail to understand what we perceive.
And know me also to be the Knower of the Field in all fields. The knowledge of the Field and the Knower of the Field I consider to be the knowledge (13:2).
Know me also to be the Knower of the Field in all fields. 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. And 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:
The knowledge of the Field and the Knower of the Field I consider to be the 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–it 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.
The Field–what it is and of what kind, what its modifications are, whence they come and what are the Knower’s powers, that hear from me in brief. This has been sung many times by the rishis in many sacred chants, in passages about Brahman [Brahma Sutras], full of convincing reasoning (13:3-4).
This great knowledge is completely traditional, and Krishna is reminding Arjuna of this fact. There is 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, the consciousness of “I” [ahankara], intellect and the unmanifest, the ten senses and one, and the five fields of actions of the senses, desire, aversion, pleasure, pain, the whole organism, consciousness, stability–thus is the Field briefly described, and its aspects (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, harmlessness [ahimsa], fortitude, rectitude, approaching a teacher, purity, constancy and self-control,
detachment from the objects of sense, absence of egotism, keeping in mind the evils of birth, death, old age, disease, and pain, non-attachment, absence of clinging to son, wife, home and suchlike; constant even-mindedness in desired and undesired events, unswerving devotion to me with single-minded yoga, living in secluded places, having distaste for association with many people, establishment in the knowledge of the Supreme Self, keeping in mind the goal of knowledge of the truth–this is said to be true knowledge. The contrary is ignorance (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.
I shall explain that which must be known, knowing which one attains immortality: the beginningless, Supreme Brahman, which is said to be neither being nor non-being [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.
With hands and feet everywhere, eyes, heads and faces everywhere, with ears throughout the universe–THAT stands, enveloping everything (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. This is because God pervades the world and is within all things as their Knower.
Having the appearance of all the qualities of the senses, yet free of all the senses, unattached yet maintaining all, free from the gunas, 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–incomprehensible because of its subtlety, far away and also near, undivided, yet remaining as if divided in beings, this is to be known as the sustainer of beings, their absorber and generator (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, beyond all darkness; knowledge, the to-be-known, the goal of knowledge seated in the heart 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 Field, knowledge and that which must be known has been briefly stated. Comprehending all this, my devotee approaches my state of being (13:18).
So we see how essential this knowledge is, and nothing, including religion, can be substituted for it.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti