Thursday, June 18, 2009

Work and Love in the Bhagavad Gita

I spoke at the meeting of SHEN to a group of about 40-50 people at the University of Waterloo on June 17. I used Powerpoint to help organize my ideas, many of which have previously been jotted down in these blog. It was nice to condense and clarify them in a public setting and the presentation was well received. I have tried to put it down here, but of course, it is still a condensation as many of the ideas are in need of elaboration.

1. Prema Prayojana

The inspiration for this talk comes from Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the incarnation of divine love, who appeared in Bengal in the 15th century and inspired this movement of bhakti devotion. I have posted a statement attributed to him:

সন্ন্যাস মোর কিবা কাজ, আমার প্রেম প্রয়োজন
sannyāsa mora kibā kāja ? āmāra prema prayojana !

"What need have I of the renounced order of life? What I need is prema !"

The expression prema prayojana really has a double meaning: On the one hand, perhaps Mahaprabhu was channeling John Lennon hundreds of years before his time to say, "All you need is love!" Which is true and in keeping with the overall philosophy of his school. On the other, the clear meaning of his statement is that the ultimate prayojana or end goal of life is love of God, Krishna. The two go together as impetus and attainment.

Now the famous Christian saying, “God is Love” (John I, 4.8) does not have a clear parallel anywhere in the Bhagavad-gītā. We can look back to the Upaniṣads and other Vedic revelations and perhaps find statements that foreshadow this idea of divine love, but they are not explicit. The explicit development of a theology of love is a much later development in Hinduism. Nevertheless, I am going to try to show its basis in the Bhagavad-gītā.

2. Influences on this presentation

Although I have been reading and studying the Gītā for forty years and have been strongly influenced by many Vaishnava commentators, I recently read two important modern commentaries, one written by Bal Gangadhar Tilak (left) in 1919, Gītā-rahasya (which though written in Marathi, is available in Hindi and English), and the Bhagavad-gītā in Bengali by Jagadish Chandra Ghosh (right), which first came out in 1927. Both these authors gave helpful pieces of the puzzle that help fill out the picture I am trying to present.

3. Historical Background
There are just a few points about the historical context of the Gītā that need to be understood properly in order to improve one's feel for the text. Those who think the Gītā was spoken 5,000 years ago, before many other historical developments, particularly the advent of Buddhism, are going to get a somewhat distorted perspective.

  1. The Gītā [and Mahābhārata] is a product of the Bhāgavata (theistic) school.
    Because of the popularity of the advaita doctrine in India, Śaṅkara's commentary is generally accepted as authoritative. Indeed, since nearly all Hindus revere the Gītā and use it to put forth their own doctrines, there is some confusion about the original intent of the text. If one recognizes its historical origins in the Bhāgavata tradition, some of the mystery dissipates.

    This has been pointed out by Tilak and demonstrated rather authoritatively, with ample proofs from beginning, middle and end of the Mahābhārata. Tilak also shows very nicely how the Gītā is the centerpiece of the Mahābhārata. He shows how the Mahābhārata is full of practical examples of ethical quandaries and dilemmas, but the archetypal dilemma, the global approach to all ethical quandaries, is found in Arjuna's reluctance to fight the battle of Kurukshetra. The entire Mahābhārata can be seen as leading to or from this event.

    As such, it is to be noted also that though various Hindu gods are honored in the Mahābhārata, in beginning, middle and end, Lord Hari, Vishnu, Narayan and his incarnation Krishna are accepted as supreme. The Bhāgavata religion is the one that worships Bhagavān. Bhagavān refers specifically to the human incarnation of God, Krishna. Therefore, significance has been given to the words śrībhagavān uvaca when Krishna first begins instructing Arjuna.

    In other words, the Gītā and the Mahābhārata, to whatever extent they are indebted to the Upaniṣads (and the Gītā is known as Gītopanishad), are primarily theistic texts, and any attempt to diminish the theistic slant of the Gītā will necessarily disturb getting a clear understanding of it.
  2. In the historical context, it is a response to the post-Buddhist and likely post-Sūtra (Vedānta, Sāṅkhya, Yoga) period.

    Although there would not be much agreement in scholarly circles to the above statement, at least the teachings of these various schools were in sufficient ascendancy to merit either dismissal or synthesis. If one cannot see that the Gītā is responding to certain ideas that it does not agree with and others it finds useful, it does not make sense.

    I remember when I went to university, one of my professors, Robert Stevenson, who had done his PhD on the Gītā at Harvard, told me frankly that he thought that the Gītā was a hodgepodge of conflicting ideas, which different commentators had taken advantage of in order to preach their own doctrines. Tilak has masterfully shown how this is not the case, and it makes me wonder if Stevenson had actually read his Gītā. I seem to recall that his thesis did make use of it, so he must have disagreed with him.
  3. The Gītā is primarily taking a position against the sannyāsa or renunciate school.

    This, of course, is Tilak's main thesis and is followed by Ghosh and almost all influential 19th and 20th century interpreters of the Gītā. Śaṅkara in his upodghāṭa takes the position that the pravṛtti and nivṛtti margs are both taught in the Gītā, but that liberation comes from jñāna alone, at which point the karma mārga, which was only necessary for self-purification, can be entirely discarded.

    Śaṅkara there makes it clear that the karma-jñāna-samuccaya doctrine, i.e., the idea that both jñāna and karma together are the teaching of the Gītā, was the dominant interpretation of the Gītā at the time Śaṅkara wrote. Once his interpretation became normative, however, the previous commentaries were lost. Tilak argues that this was the correct interpretation and shows both from the Gītā's internal evidence and the surrounding statements referring to the Gītā elsewhere in the Mahābhārata how this is so.
  4. At the same time, it is a reconciliation of the two apparently conflicting ideas.

    Confusion arises because of the way that the Gītā approaches the subject matter. For the most part it equates the attainments of renunciation with those of action, but it inevitably comes down on the side of action, stating that action is superior as a means of purification, that it is easier, that action is impossible to avoid, that one should not recommend that people give it up, that one should continue action even after being situated in knowledge, etc.

4. Two niṣṭhās

Now, it may be said that the entire Gītā deals with the above question and its implications. In particular, its first six chapters deal openly with the apparent conflict between knowledge and renunciation on the one hand, and action and duty on the other. A significant verse is the following, Gītā 3.3:

Now Tilak in particular makes a big deal of the fact that bhakti is not included in this dualistic schema, because ultimately, despite his emphasis on karma, he is a monist and gives prominence to the non-dual aspect of the Supreme. (And that in spite of his Vaishnava tilak.)

Let us begin looking at it, however, from the Upaniṣadic point of view. The essence, it may be said, of the Upaniṣadic seers' inspiration was that what lies without, in the furthest infinite reaches of creation, the brihattama or Brahman, and that which lies in the very essence of one's own being, the self or Atma, are one and the same. We can diagram this as follows:

Bahirmukha means extroverted and antarmukha means introverted. A couple of verses from the Katha Upaniṣad are relevant here:

parāñci khāni vyatṛṇat svayambhūs
tasmāt parāṅ paśyati nāntarātman
kaścid dhīraḥ pratyag-ātmānam aikṣad
āvṛtta-cakṣur amṛtatvam icchan
The Self-born Creator pierced holes [in the body] facing outward; therefore, men look outward and do not see the Soul within. Desiring immortality, some wise men turn their eyes inward and see the indwelling Atman. (KaU 2.1.1)
Clearly, without introspection and meditation, the process of spiritual realization is impossible. On the other hand, Yamaraj also says to Nachiketas:

jānāmy ahaṁ śevadhir ity anityaṁ
na hy adhruvaiḥ prāpyate hi dhruvaṁ tat
tato mayā nāciketaś cito’gnir
anityair dravyaiḥ prāptavān asmi nityam
I know that what we call "treasure" is really perishable; we cannot attain the permanent through impermanent things. For this reason, O Nachiketa, I built up the fire, and through impermanent things, I attained the permanent. (KaU 1.2.10)
This verse could be considered a key verse for understanding how the extraverted yajña concept is spiritualized as karma-yoga, the very idea that is developed in the Gītā's first six chapters.

The terms sāṅkhya and yoga are used as basic terms in the Gītā to describe the two general attitudes, which I try to summarize in the following table:

Via negativaVia positiva
World is false (Māyā)World is real
Absolute Truth without attributesAbsolute Truth is Personal
Monism : KevalādvaitaTheism: Viśiṣṭādvaita, etc.

We may even extrapolate to the spirituality/religion divide. "Spirituality" is solitary and "religion" is social. The point of the Gītā is that the two are not divorced from one another, and indeed both are necessary vantage points that must be assimilated and synthesized. What I would like to draw attention to here is that:

(1) Karma-yoga, by its acceptance of phenomena, includes the idea of God. In pure monism, God and the individual merge into one undifferentiated state of being. Śaṅkara, therefore, subordinates karma to jñāna.

(2) In the karma-jñāna-samuccaya-vāda promoted by Tilak [which we agree is the teaching of the Gītā if we understand that the two can only be synthesized in bhakti], where both are held in equibalance; the very acceptance of plurality means that one is accepting the reality of the Personal Deity, even in the state of knowledge.

(3) Furthermore, in any vision that gives transcendent meaning to the "world" (for devotees one should understand the pluralistic or variegated "energy," as this is usually discussed in relation to the concept of śakti) automatically, by the very fact of its acceptance, gives precedence to the plurality and the Theistic concept, but not without the monistic element. In other words, acintya-bhedābheda.

Another way of looking at the two niṣṭhās is slightly different. In the following diagram, the bhakti element has been added.

Jiva Goswami points out in Bhagavat-sandarbha that although the Bhāgavata states that the one undivided Truth is known under three principal nomenclatures--Brahman, Paramātmā and Bhagavān--the two latter concepts are both theistic. One, however, is confined to the external creation (eka-pād-vibhūti), the other to the internal (tripād-vibhūti). This distinction is particularly significant for our understanding.

Madhusudana Saraswati, who seems to be the originator of the three divisions idea of the Gītā (karma, bhakti, jñāna), says that bhakti is in the middle to form a bridge between karma and jñāna. This seems appropriate, and that is what the above diagram seems to support, but it ultimately fails to properly understand the transcendental nature of bhakti. Bhakti itself has an internal and external aspect, which might best be described as vaidhī and rāgānugā.

On one level, it may be said that karma or dutiful work, even karma that is totally unconscious of its relation to God, is somehow serving God. But that God is, of necessity, the God of "this world," i.e., of the material creation. At a somewhat more conscious level, it becomes varṇāśrama-dharma, which is acknowledged even in Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu as the outermost limits of bhakti. But as bhakti becomes interiorized and transforms the devotee's inner world, in particular the ego, even on the level of intention, that bhakti becomes rāgānugā. On the broadest level, vaidhī bhakti leads to Narayan, who always remains an aiśvarya mūrti, i.e., a form of Paramātmā. Only rāgānugā bhakti can reveal the mādhurya mūrti.

Put another way, wherever there is a predominance of aiśvarya, that is pretty much always going to be a manifestation of Paramātmā, since the creative power of aiśvarya is most fully manifest in the creation of the material world. In the innermost realms of the spiritual world, mādhurya is predominant. Mādhurya is prema. Mādhurya is the ānandam brahma.

What does this mean in terms of sādhanā?

In this diagram shows how the bhakti path views the difference between bhakti on the lower level compared to bhakti on the transcendental level. bhaktyā sañjātayā bhaktyā. Although bhakti does not need jñāna or karma, knowledge and activity in themselves are a part of bhakti. With only external devotional activities lacking proper knowledge (innate, even if unconscious) of the inherent oneness of God and the devotee, bhakti will never reach the stage of mādhurya, which I have here designated as the higher stage of Bhagavān realization. The lower level is that experienced by the beginner in devotional service.

Much of this latter portion of the argument is taken from other sources than the Gītā. But Gītā 18.55 states that one must be brahma-bhūta to attain the highest realms of devotion. This remains unexplained in detail, so I am filling this in from Bhāgavatam and other material.


The basic idea, then, is that the state of pure love is of necessity a state of simultaneous oneness and difference. The goal to achieve is fullness in both. Balancing the two is the real art of sādhanā.

The main point I am making here is that love of God is not a purely other-worldly exercise. It is my feeling that the nivṛtti-pradhana approach to spiritual life has infected Vaishnavism, and has failed to recognize the primarily pravṛtti-based nature of devotion.

Bhakti straddles both karma and jñāna. It is not just work based on material identifications like karma, but vaidhī bhakti has much in common with karmas, i.e., the ritual end of karma. One must remember that karma is a whole spectrum, but that the yajña concept is what connects all activities to bhakti.)

As bhakti becomes progressively interiorized in sādhanā, emphasis is shifted to an inner state of consciousness, i.e., jñāna. But it never loses its relation to external activities. In the siddha state, in the state of love, karma and jñāna take the respective forms of (1) service and (2) rasa-āsvādana. This can also be seen or interpreted as sacrifice and enjoyment. The two are inseparable.

Those who are predominantly nivṛtti oriented often recognize the service aspect of bhakti, but they have difficulty dealing with enjoyment or pleasure. But if the world is real, then this aspect of experience must also be realized as not only real and relevant to our spiritual culture of prema-bhakti, but essential to it.

It must be purified, cultured appropriately according to the same principles as other aspects of the devotional path, but not excised entirely. Which is what people have been doing for far too long.

This is, I believe, the essential difference between my sahajiya approach and that of the most "orthodox" schools. I put orthodox in quote marks here to show that I reject their overarching authority or claim to be genuine representatives of the Bhagavata teaching.


visnudas said...

Enjoying, enjoying this post. Thank you for thinking and writing about this.

Anonymous said...


one issue i wanted to look into myself though no access to libraries - is about in alberuni's india the verses given from gita are different then the current. the book dont give the verses and says that verses can be found in encyclopedia indica in gita topic

Jagat said...

As far as I know, Alberuni does not go into detailed analysis of the puranas. He is used as an early datable mention of the Bhagavatam. He does not say anything much about the content.