Bhagavad Gita Chapter 15 -One and Many11 min read

Chapter XV is a summary presentation of the Gītā teachings, as the chapter itself declares in the last verse. It is also one of the shortest chapters, only twenty verses. Anyone who seriously intends to practise the yoga of the Gītā must learn some central part of it by heart, in order to get some inner resources to meet difficult or bewildering situations. The twenty verses of XV make a firm basis for practice.

It begins with one of the analogies of the world-process, this time as a tree. The analogy of the sacred fig-tree, called in Sanskrit asvattha, like others in the Gītā, is taken from an Upanisad. This time it is the Katha Upanisad, VI. 1. The Lord has already said in Gītā X.26: Among all the trees, I am the sacred aśvattha.

The symbolic tree has its main root in heaven, showing that the world-process is divine in origin. In a living tree, every part is connected with every other part, and this illustrates that the world is an integrated whole. It is, however, a divinely projected illusion, and those who are caught by the belief in its independent reality must cut that down.

XV.1 They tell of the eternal fig-tree, with root above and branches below.

Its leaves are the Vedic hymns; he who knows the truth of it, knows the Veda.

2 Down and up stretch its branches, nourished by the guna-s, and budding out into sense-objects,

Below also stretch forth its secondary roots, resulting in human worldly action.

3 It is not known as such in this world, neither its end nor origin nor basis.

Let one cut down this firmly rooted tree with the stout axe of non-attachment, –

4 And seek out that realm from which no one is forced to return

(Meditating) ‘I resort to that very primal spirit from whom first streamed forth the ancient current.’

As will be shown, this seeking for the unchanging realm, this resorting to the eternal Spirit, is not a question of believing in something in the distant past, or praying to a remote deity now. The realm of immortality, and the eternal Spirit, are behind present human experience of constant change. One way to seek the Spirit which is the root of the magic tree is to sit still, and try to isolate the source of the magic tree of our many-branched thoughts. Without some such yogic practice, as verse 11 will declare, it is not possible to detect him, however much one may believe in and study the holy texts.

5 With no pride or delusion, with attachment conquered, steady in the Self, desires cast off,

Free from pleasure and pain, clear-sighted men go to that eternal place.

6 That needs no sun to light it, nor moon nor fire;

From which none has to return, – that is my supreme state.

In 5 and 6, the Lord has spoken of how to reach the state of transcendence, one with the Lord in his supreme state. But as so often, the Gītā proclaims that the Supreme can also be known in the illusions of māyā. In māyā, the Lord is apparently limited and separated off by body, senses and mind, and karmic connections. The Lord becomes many, and is confused, and broken up, by events of the world. Śakara illustrates by the example of the one sun which is reflected in many puddles; it becomes many, and is sometimes serene, sometimes thrown into waves, and sometimes broken up into disordered fragments, ail according to the passing changes in the water of the puddles. Yet one who has the ‘eye of Knowledge’ sees the sun above, and knows the states of the reflected suns for what they are. Then he can enjoy them.

7 It is a ray of mine alone which in this world becomes the ever-persisting individual soul;

It draws to itself from Nature the senses, with the mind as the sixth.

8 When He takes up a body, and again when He leaves it, the Lord moves taking them with Him,

As the wind takes perfume from flowers.

9 Using hearing, sight and touch, taste and smell,

And the mind, he absorbs himself in objects of sense.

10 Deluded men do not see Him, surrounded by the gua-s, when He goes, or stays, or experiences objects;

Those who have the eye of knowledge, see Him.

11 The yogin-s, sincerely striving, see Him there in the self;

But those who have not thus trained themselves, do not see Him however much they try, dulled as they are.

The strong efforts of the yogin-s are needed, adds Śakara, to get rid of the obstacles to vision of the Self. The vision does not need strengthening or reinforcing; it is a present fact. Under the light of the Self, indeed, the obstacles themselves are perceived as existing independently. They are illusory, but powerful when taken to be self-existent.

What sort of efforts are needed? Imagine a girl brought up since childhood under a dictatorship. She has been told never, never to speak of anything to do with even local government. She has been frightened by stories of terrible unspecified things that can happen to free speakers. Now she comes to the free society, where she hears and sees people making furious criticisms of official actions or lack of them. She is asked for her opinion on desirability of a pedestrian crossing near her home, but avoids answering. She tells her friends: ‘I know it would be all right to speak, but somehow I can’t. I daren’t. A good friend runs over the clear facts with her, but it has no effect. So the friend says: ‘Well, as an exercise, try speaking these words: “They ought to put a crossing there.” ‘ She does it, but cannot stop her voice from trembling. So now the friend allows a sort of provisional reality to her fears, and says: ‘Try reading this critical newspaper editorial aloud to me, in a corner. After all, they are not your words. So you needn’t feel guilty.’ She just manages this. After a few days, in which nothing happens: ‘Now try reading it aloud to a group of us.’ A little more confident this time. ‘Now try saying it in your own words.’ Still better. ‘Good. You are free, you know, free. Now say something of your own, about something you don’t agree with.’ In this way, by patient efforts which involve courage and resolution, the illusion is dissolved. Provisionally taken as real, it is step by step dissipated. But the steps do not correspond to any external reality; the friend must add from time to time: ‘You are quite free, you know, quite free.’ Otherwise shreds of illusion may remain, such as that it is only safe to quote a newspaper, or to speak in a comer, and so on.

Now the Lord declares some of the manifestations in which he can be seen most easily:

12 The splendour of the sun which illuminates the whole world, and that in the moon and in fire,

Know that to be My splendour.

13 Entering into the earth, I support all beings by its strength,

And I nourish all plants as their sacred essence.

14 Becoming the fire set in the body of living beings,

I join with the ascending and descending vital currents,

And digest their food of various kinds.

15 I have entered into the heart of all; from Me come memory, knowledge and their loss.

I alone am to be known from all the Vedas, and I am the author of the Upanisad-s and their knower.

The examples given of the divine manifestations are indications for realization practice; they are not meant to be exclusive. The Lord is more easily seen in the splendour of the sun than in a brick wall, says Sankara: but he is equally present. We recognize the same principle in teaching science: the action of gravity is more easily recognized with small weights dropping in a vacuum than in dried leaves blown about by an autumn gale. But the principle of gravity is equally operative.

‘I have entered into the heart of all’: this is a central principle of yoga metaphysics. ‘From Me come memory, knowledge and their loss’: in accordance with past actions of each being in this and previous lives. Memory and knowledge of spiritual truth come from good karma; their loss comes from bad karma. It is the Lord who joins the cause to the corresponding effect. However, karmic conditions are not absolutely determined and unalterable, since there is always an indefinite amount of unfulfilled past karma from the beginningless series of past lives. There must have been some good actions in those lives, because with the alternation of the guna-s, sometimes sattva is dominant. And in this birth too there are moments of clarity in even the most disturbed and darkened life. Such moments may be very short. If the chance is grasped, the present karma can be modified, especially by recognition of the Lord’s hand in it, and his friendliness to all beings. If He is concentrated on, and worshipped, as the friend of all beings (V.29), even difficult circumstances will be adjusted (not necessary completely removed) to provide spiritual opportunities.

XV.16 Here in this world are two spiritual principles: the perishable, and the imperishable;

The perishable is all beings; the imperishable is the unmoving, the illusion on which they stand.

17 But there is a highest spirit, beyond, which is called the supreme Self;

It is the undying Lord who enters and supports the three worlds.

18 Since I transcend the perishable, and am higher than even the imperishable,

By worldly thinkers and in the scriptures, I am proclaimed to be the highest spirit.

Verse 16 can be a surprise. The very words ‘imperishable’ and ‘unmoving’, which have been repeatedly used for the supreme Spirit, are here demoted, as it were, to apply to the cosmic trick-of-illusion which the Gītā elsewhere calls māyā. Formally it is a contradiction, but it has an important meaning for practice. Words used to point to the transcendent tend gradually to become assimilated to this world. Their provisional nature is forgotten, and they come to represent things. For example, the Lord is taken as more and more human; he is thought to become angry, jealous, partial, or arbitrary. Human-type reasons are proposed for his creation of the universe; human-type criticisms are made for his supposed wastefulness in creating uninhabited galaxies as a background to the human drama. Words like imperishable, unmanifest, or unchanging become peripheral attributes of an omnipotent but somewhat capricious deity.

The Gītā repeatedly cautions against the tendency. Along with positive descriptions like all-pervading, it uses words like ‘unthinkable’, ‘indefinable’; in a main passage on Brahman (XIII. 12) it says: ‘It cannot be said to be.’ In these ways, again and again it warns against taking the Absolute as a thing. The indications are not anything more than pointers; this is one reason why they are sometimes contradicted after having been given. The Lord is called ‘unmanifest’, but in VIII. 18 and 20 unmanifest is lowered in meaning so that it indicates the mayic source of all beings, while the Lord is ‘more unmanifest than the unmanifest’.

In view of the danger of taking words as realities, it might be wondered why they are used at all. Some spiritual teachers have indeed largely rejected words. In one tradition Bodhidharma, who carried Zen Buddhism to China, would not explain in words. The disciple meditated and periodically put forward his view, to which Bodhidharma replied only: ‘No, No!’ This follows the recommendation of one Upanisad: ‘Few words need be used.’ (Mundaka 2.2.5)

But the Gītā believes that for a time words are most useful, in spite of the danger that they will become a substitute for realization. Words like ‘imperishable’ are to be meditated on, and will lead to a flash of awareness of immortality in the meditator, but not if they become conceptual counters in an intellectual game. The signpost, though marked ‘LONDON’, does not mean this is London itself.

19 He who, undeluded, knows Me thus as the supreme Spirit,

He knows everything, and worships Me with his whole being.

20 This most secret teaching has been declared by Me;

One awakened to this, would be truly awakened, and would have done all that he had to do.

To know, without delusion, the Lord as the highest spirit, who has entered and who supports the three worlds, is to awaken to: ‘I am He.’ Before this awakening the Lord is believed to be all-pervading, as the text says, but there is an unspoken qualification: ‘but not here, and not in me.’ When the awakening comes, the remaining thin bonds of restriction to the body-mind complex are dissolved.

What then does it mean to say that he knows everything, and that he worships? There is no separate-seeming self; only the Lord is there, within and without. He, the Lord, knows everything in the sense that he is everything. God does not think or know as a mental operation: there is nothing apart, nothing separate, for him to know as an object. But the surviving body-mind complex, though a mere shadow, can still be referred to as ‘he’; this it is which carries on the jñāna-nihā, divinely inspired and delighting in the welfare of all beings, till its illusory separate existence finally fades away into light.

© trevor Leggett