Madhusudana Sarasvati’s introduction to the Bhagavad Gita9 min read

Madhusudana Sarasvati is one of the greatest lights of the school of non-duality, famous not only for his skill as a philosopher but also as a devotee. He lived in the sixteenth century, under the emperor Akbar, but almost nothing is known about his personal life; he scarcely refers to himself in all his works. In his time the school of non-duality, which had been revived so powerfully by the great Shankara in the eighth century, was becoming intellectually discredited as a result of a series of attacks by the sect of Logicians, armed with a new dialectic. Madhusudana completely mastered the new logic, and re-established non-duality on an unassailable basis.

Unlike some other intellectual giants, he was never indifferent to religious devotion, and he is quoted as an example of the fact that non-duality fully realized need not impede devotion to the Lord in practical life. There is a tradition that he was a friend of Tulsidas, the great poet of the Ramayana. In this emphasis on devotion, Madhusudana revives the true spirit of Shankara himself; in Shankara’s writings the word `God’ is very frequent, and very infrequent in the writings of some of his followers. But in Madhusudana the impulse to devotion again blazes up.

Madhusudana in his long Gita commentary divides the Gita’s eighteen chapters into three, and he says that the main reference of the classic is to realization of the famous Upanishadic sentence THAT THOU ART. It will be seen that he allocates the first six chapters to THOU, the second six to THAT, and the last six to the whole sentence. But this is only a broad indication to the general drift of the Gita and certainly not exclusive-for instance he says in the body of his commentary that the whole Gita truth is set out in Chapter II, and again in Chapter XVIII.

It is also noteworthy that he assigns great importance to the meditation Yoga system of Patanjali in realizing the Pure Self which is the true meaning of the word THOU. The Patanjali Yoga aims only at this: there is no creator-Lord, nor is the Pure Self identical with the Lord who is merely the controller of the universe. Almost the whole of Madhusudana’s commentary on Chapter VI is concerned with an exposition of the Gita verses in terms of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. He says in his Gita Introduction that the Yoga system finds its fulfilment in Chapter VI of the Gita, but `goes no further’, after the Pure Self has been known. The Gita however goes on to describe and realize the Lord Universal who creates the universe, and finally to realize identity of Pure Self with the Lord.

Madhusudana uses some other concepts in his interpretation of the Gita, some of them taken from the Mahabharata epic of which the Gita is a part. He mentions the triad truth- knowledge, mind-dissolution, and vasana-destruction. A Western reader is inclined to suppose there could be no knowledge of truth without thoughts. In Vedanta however awareness is not the same as thought, but is the continuum in which thought takes place; awareness is to be disentangled from thought. Vasana-destruction means attenuation and finally transcendence of what the West postulates under the name of Unconscious-it is the mass of `instinctive’ convictions as to the reality of individuality and the world-process.

Madhusudana also adopts some ideas of the Yoga- Vasishtha, for instance in his remarks about the final samadhic absorption of the liberated-while-living. At first he comes out from the samadhi of his own accord, then only when roused by another, usually a disciple. In the final stage-the seventh stage given by Vasishtha-he never returns to empirical consciousness. The Lord no longer manifests through that particular mask.

He refers to the Patanjali technique again in speaking of dissolution of prarabdha-karma; here the technique of meditation is applied to the ultimate truth of Vedanta THAT THOU ART, to which the Patanjali system itself did not penetrate. As Shankara says on the point, the Patanjali system is authoritative as to meditation on the Pure Self, but when the Upanishads speak of Yoga they mean meditation not merely on the Pure Self but on the Universal Self, to which Patanjali’s system did not reach.

The object of Madhusudana’s personal devotion was the child Krishna, and the verses of his Introduction give a good idea how he blended devotion to the Lord with the intellectual and meditative investigation. In this translation the attempt is made to follow his verses.

1 Long intent on the commentary of holy Shankara, now I write this “Lamp Of The Gita Secret” to explain its every word.

2 The Gita points to the highest good of man, final cessation of the world-wheel (sansara) and its cause.

3 The supreme divine state is that Whole, existence-consciousness-bliss; to attain that, men engage in the three paths of the Vedas

4 which are Action (karma), Worship (bhakti) and Knowledge (jnana). The Gita’s eighteen chapters are likewise divided into three sections

5 each of six chapters. The first is the path of Action (karma-nishtha), the last the Knowledge path (jnananishtha),

6 and as these are too different to go together between them is extolled devotion to Worship (bhakti-nishtha) to the Lord

7 which goes with each of them, for it is the remover of all obstacles. It is three-fold: blended-with-Action, pure, and blended-with-Knowledge.

8 In the first six chapters of the Gita, by means of Action and its renunciation, what is indicated by THOU is shown to be a Pure Self.

9 In the second six chapters, through devotion to Worship, what is indicated by THAT is ascertained to be the Lord, supreme bliss.

10 And in the third six chapters, how these two are one is clearly shown to be the meaning of the sentence THAT THOU ART. This is how the three sections are related to each other.

11 Particular applications will be shown in the appropriate places-here what is being explained is freedom and the means to it as the purpose of the classic as a whole.

12 Giving up selfish actions and sins, one engages in unselfish action, its highest form being glorifying God through his Name and in other ways.

13 When mind becomes purified of sin it becomes able to distinguish firmly the difference between what is eternal and what passes away.

14 Then comes what is called (by Patanjali) Mastery-detachment from any object here or hereafter; then with the set-of-qualities beginning with control (inner and outer, withdrawal, endurance, samadhi, faith) his renunciation becomes firmly established.

15 From renunciation of everything, a firm desire arises to be free; then approach to a teacher, then grasping his instructions,

16 then the path of Knowledge is entered on, which begins with hearing the Vedanta texts and reasoning on them to resolve inner questionings,

17 then with maturity of that, application to meditation on their truth: now the teachings of the Yoga classics are worked right through.

18 In a mind thus freed from defect, from the Sentence (THAT THOU ART) arises conviction of the truth; direct perception without mental operations arises from the Sentence alone.

19 As Knowledge rises, ignorance ceases; with destruction of the veil, error and doubt are destroyed.

20 Karmas which have not yet begun to manifest perish altogether; by force of knowledge of truth, no new ones are created;

21 But the latent impulse (vasana) from projection by the karma-already-in-operation (prarabdha) does not perish. It is finally pacified through powerful sanyama

22 which is the triad concentration (dharana), contemplation (dhyana) and samadhi. It follows on the discipline of restraints, observances, posture, pranayama and withdrawal of the senses (as given by Patanjali).

23 `From surrender to the Lord, perfection in samadhi’ (Patanjali), and quickly; then alone can there be dissolution of mentation (mano-nasha) and destruction of vasana.

24 ‘Truth-knowledge, mind-dissolution and vasana-destruction’-from practice of the three together, liberation-while-living (jivanmukti) becomes firm.

25 This is why scripture speaks of renunciation by the enlightened one. Whatever part of the whole discipline remains undone, let him try to practise it.

26 First mind is restrained by samadhi-with-mentation (sa-vikalpa samadhi), and then samadhi-without-mentation (nirvikalpa samadhi) comes. In it there are three stages:

27 In the first, he comes out from samadhi of his own accord, in the second only when aroused by another, and in the final stage he does not turn away but is ever one with it.

28 A seeker of Brahman who has become That is the best of the followers of Brahman; he is said to be beyond the gunas, one whose wisdom is established, a devotee of the Lord,

29 beyond class or stage of life, liberated while living, one rejoicing in the Self. He has done what was to be done, so the Vedas have no more concern for him.

30 `Whose devotion to God is supreme, and to his teacher as to God-from such a Mahatma all this shines forth’

31 From scriptural passages like this, we know that devotion to the Lord in body, mind and word is to be done at all stages.

32 Devotion done in the previous stage is what ushers in the following one; obstacles are many, and without continuing devotion, success is hardly to be had.

33 `By his former practice is he borne on, even against his will: after many births is he perfected’, so says the Lord in the Gita.

34 The resultant of sanskaras (dynamic latent impressions) from previous births can never be reckoned, so it may be that a man becomes “one who has achieved all that was to be achieved” unexpectedly like a windfall, without having gone through previous stages.

35 The directions of scripture are not for him, as he has already attained his goal. Hard to fathom is the grace of the Lord.

36 Though some stage has been attained, still in each further stage devotion to the Lord is to be done. Without devotion he does not succeed.

37 In the liberated-while-living stage there is no expectation of results of devotion. Worship is natural to them, possessed as they are of absence-of-hatred and the other qualities (given in Ch. XII).

38 The glory of the Lord is such that the sages spontaneously worship him, rejoicing in the Self, free from ties.

39 `Of them all the knower of truth (jnani), ever engaged in Yoga, devoted to the One, is the best’-in such Gita passages it is shown that such a loving devotee is highest.

40 All this is made clear by the Lord in the Gita classic, and I have a strong inner impulse to make a commentary on it.

41 Undertaking disinterested action is praised as the root of liberation; the barrier to it is the sin of grief and hatred, of the nature of demons,

42 through which one falls away from his own duty or takes to what is forbidden to him, or else his action becomes egoistic, calculating the consequences to himself.

43 That soul is always possessed by the demoniacal sin; he cannot attain the goal of man and is ever in pain.

44 None in this world likes pain; sorrowing and delusion are always to be given up, for they are the way to pain.

45 Implanted as they are from previous lives without beginning, givers of pain yet hard to abandon, by what means are they to be escaped?

46 To awaken one who is thus searching, intent on man’s true goal, the Lord speaks out this highest classic the Gita.

Translated by Trevor Leggett