Since the tenth and eleventh chapters of the Gita dealt with divine manifestations, and the eleventh described an actual vision of divinity as the cosmos, the next subject is how the yogi should think of–conceive of–God as he attempts to fix his mind upon him.
Saguna or Nirguna?
Through the ages a philosophical tug-of-war has gone on between those who prefer to consider God as possessing limitless, divine qualities, and those who prefer to think of God as being unthinkable, utterly beyond anything that can be conceptualized or spoken. These two aspects are called Saguna (with qualities) and Nirguna (without qualities). The yogi knows that both are true, but many philosophers insist on holding to one and rejecting the other, or declaring one to be higher or more accurate than the other. Consequently Vyasa has this twelfth chapter open with these words:
Arjuna said: The constantly steadfast who worship you with devotion, and those who worship the eternal Unmanifest–which of them has the better understanding of yoga? (12:1).
Arjuna addresses Krishna as the Saguna Brahman, since he is communicating with Arjuna as a conditioned being.
The Holy Lord said: Those who are ever steadfast, who worship me, fixing their minds on me, endowed with supreme faith, I consider them to be the best versed in yoga (12:2).
This is extremely clear, at least as far as the traits of those who have a better grasp of yoga is concerned. But why is their grasp better? Because they are able to focus their intention on a concept of the Divine that is not only within the scope of their intellect, it is a concept that inspires their seeking, for it is based on love which, as Swami Sriyukteswar points out in The Holy Science, is in its essential nature a magnetic force that unites the seeker with the object of the seeking. The path of devotion (bhakti) is as pragmatic as the path of knowledge (jnana).
The path of the formless
But those who worship the Imperishable, the Undefinable, the Unmanifested, the All-pervading, Inconceivable, Unchanging, Unmoving, the Constant– (12:3).
None of these qualities are within the range of our experience, not even from eternity. So how can we begin to conceive of them? For example, in the West it is thought that “eternal” means that which is without end, but in reality it means that which has neither beginning nor end–that which is absolutely outside the realm of time, space, or relativity. Can we think the unthinkable? Can we conceive the inconceivable? Of course not–its very nature makes it impossible for us. So how, then, can Nirguna Brahman be approached, much less known? Krishna tells us.
Controlling all the senses, even-minded everywhere, happy in the welfare of all beings–they attain to me also (12:4).
The final clause is heartening, but consider what is required of those that really seek the formless and qualitiless Absolute.
Controlling all the senses. Samniyamyendriyagramam means both subduing and controlling–that is, disciplining–the senses and powers of the body and mind (indriyas). Asceticism is the key trait of those that seek God, either saguna or nirguna. But they do not consider themselves as being in any way self-denying. Just the opposite: they see their way of life as real freedom from the bondages so avidly sought and cherished by the world. They do not grin and bear it; they rejoice with thankful hearts that they have found the key to a wider and freer life.
In The Scent of Water, Elizabeth Goodge wrote about a medieval thief who reformed and became a hermit. He helped build a church and did all the woodcarving. At the back of the church in an obscure place he carved his self-portrait showing himself wearing a crown of thorns. But the observant saw that there was a gap between the thorns and the surface of the carving, and when they put their fingers inside, by touch they could tell that beneath the crown of thorns he was really wearing a crown of roses. That was his secret. The world saw him as penitent and self-denying, but in reality he was crowned with joy.
Even-minded everywhere. Sarvatra samabuddhaya means everywhere and at all times to be even-minded, undisturbed by anything–neither repelled nor attracted, but ever centered in the unmoving, witnessing consciousness that is the Self.
Happy in the welfare of all beings. Sarvabhutahite ratah means to be rejoicing in the welfare of all beings–not just human beings, but every living thing. It is very important that Krishna lists this trait, as jnanis are usually thought to be antiseptic, uncaring, and outright incompassionate people who are indifferent to the world and all that goes on in it. Rather, as Krishna has already said in the sixth chapter regarding the jnani: “He who is steadfast in yoga [yoga-yukta] at all times sees the Self present in all beings and all beings present in the Self. He who sees me everywhere, and sees all things in me–I am not lost to him, and he is not lost to me. He, established in unity, worships me dwelling in all things; whatever be his mode of life, that yogi ever abides in me. He who judges pleasure or pain by the same standard everywhere that he applies unto himself, that yogi is deemed the highest” (6:29-32).
What a marvelous, positive picture. I can tell you this is no abstract ideal, but a very accurate picture of a Brahman-knower, for I have seen it myself in the great yogis I met in India, especially Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh. Every saint I met in India was lovingly intent on the welfare of others–and I do not mean they were obsessed with promoting an organization or traveling around gathering admirers (and contributors). In fact, nearly every holy person I encountered usually stayed in one place and devoted their life to the upliftment of those who came seeking refuge from the fire of this haywire, material world. They lived in tranquility as Krishna says, and true hearts were drawn to them as the bee to the fragrant flower. They were always available, for their life, like that of God, was one of loving service to all.
This is indeed a beautiful image, yet Krishna goes on to say:
Greater is the effort of those whose minds are set on the Unmanifest, for the Unmanifest as a goal is truly difficult for the embodied ones to reach (12:5).
Actually, I have already explained the “why” of this.
The way of Form (Saguna Brahman)
Now Krishna expounds the way of those who devote themselves to the attainment of Saguna Brahman.
But those who, renouncing all actions in me, intent on me as the highest goal worship me, meditating on me with single-minded Yoga–of those whose consciousness has entered into me, I am soon the deliverer from the ocean of mortal samsara (12:6-7).
This, too, merits close scrutiny.
Renouncing all actions in me. There are many people wandering around India pretending to be monks and excusing their indolence and worthlessness as “renunciation of action.” But Krishna indicates that renunciation must only take place in the state of God-consciousness–that mere abstention from action to supposedly free or purify the mind is meaningless and worthless, a delusion based on ignorance and laziness. It is utterly mistaken to think that withdrawal from action will free our minds to seek God. That is getting the order completely turned around. First we must establish ourselves in at least a practical degree of spiritual awareness before we can think of stopping action.
Sri Ramakrishna said: “There is a kind of renunciation called ‘monkey renunciation.’ A man tormented by the troubles of the world goes to Benares wearing an ocher robe. No news of him for days. Then comes a letter, ‘You should not worry. I have got a job.’” In the same way when people do not get a job for a long time or feel intimidated by the thought of steady work, want out of a difficult financial situation, are discontented with their family life or faced with another year of a college education, they begin making noises about taking up monastic life and write to us inquiring as to whether we have “room for a hermit” in our ashram. In other words, they want to come and sit around in one place with no obligations until they get bored and get the revelation that they can serve God better in the world–as if they would have ever left it!
Intent on me as the highest [goal]. This has two aspects: 1) regarding God as the Supreme to such a degree that nothing else occupies our mind or is valued by us, and 2) regarding Saguna Brahman as the Absolute–not a lesser or lower aspect of God. For there is only Brahman; the distinction of saguna and nirguna is from our side alone.
Worship me, meditating on me with single-minded Yoga. Unwavering meditation on God is the worship of God. This really should be kept in mind whenever in the Gita we are told to worship God. When Krishna was speaking to Arjuna there was no such thing as a Hindu temple in the entire world. Followers of Vedic religion only adopted image worship and temple ritual after having been influenced by the Greeks who settled in Kashmir. It is the same with Buddhism. For centuries in India there were no images or temples of Buddha, only dharma halls with a dharma chakra (wheel of dharma) on the front wall.
Whose consciousness has entered into me. The consciousness must not just be directed to God or concentrated on God–it must enter into God. The yogi’s consciousness must be merged into the Consciousness that is God.
I am soon the deliverer from the ocean of mortal samsara. It will not take dozens of lives. Those who are real yogis will soon arrive at the goal. For them the heaving sea of constant birth and death is no more.
Keep your mind on me alone, causing your intellect to enter into me. Thenceforward, without doubt, you shall dwell in me (12:8).
That is certainly clear. It is a simple matter of cause and effect. Those who keep their minds absorbed in God already begin living in God and shall become perfectly united with God both in this world and in the next.
If you are unable to fix your mind on me steadily, then seek to attain me by the constant practice of yoga. Even by performing actions for my sake, you shall attain perfection. If you are unable to do even this, then relying upon my yoga power, relinquishing all the fruits of action, act with self-restraint. Knowledge is indeed better than practice; meditation is superior to knowledge; renunciation of the fruit of action is better than meditation; peace immediately follows renunciation (12:9-12).
This does not mean that yoga is not necessary, but rather that sometimes we have to work backwards. Tyaga, the word translated “renunciation” literally means “abandonment,” and in the Gita means the relinquishment of the fruit of action. Anxiety about results can torment even the yogi, so at the very beginning we must put aside any motives but devotion to God. Actually, God must be the only aim of our life, not just our formal yoga practice. As the prophet Isaiah said: “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee” (Isaiah 26:3).
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Right Conduct