Shri Shankara’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita7 min read

The Bhagavad Gītā (Song of the Lord) is an ancient Indian mystical poem, declaring that the world-process is a divine trick-of-illusion, into which the Lord himself has entered as the inner light of consciousness seemingly held fast in each individual self. He has set himself the problem of struggling free into his universal nature. The Gītā is a revelation from the Lord-in-freedom to the Lords-in-bondage, expounding the truth, and giving the practices for returning to freedom.

The earliest surviving texts are the Upaniad-s, some of them pre-600 BC. They declare the divine origin of the world, its illusory character, the divine manifestation in every element of it, the apparent bondage of the soul, and the methods for attaining freedom. These last are mainly independence of entanglements, search for the divine, leading to profound meditation, then transcendence of the mind in God-realization, culminating in freedom.

The Upaniadic sages were experts in practice; they did not fall away into mere theorizing about the Absolute. Ultimately, mental concepts had to be transcended. ‘If you think that you know It well/ says the teacher to an over-confident disciple, ‘little indeed you know.’ The disciple goes into profound meditation again.

He returns and says: ‘I do not think that I know it well. But it is not that I do not know. He among us who understands when I say that I do not think I know It well, yet it is not that I do not know It, he too knows It.’ This is a riddle, and a springboard.

The teachings of the Upaniad-s are generally given by Brahmins, the highest class of men whose main duty was to devote themselves to religion, and in some cases to the search for what lies behind religious practice. Still, in even the oldest Upaniad-s, the highest teachings are sometimes given by kings to Brahmins who do not know them. That such texts, which show Brahmins as spiritually inferior, were nevertheless faithfully transmitted by them, is a tribute to their integrity. Even when it is a king speaking, however, the situation is one of calm search for truth.

It should be mentioned that traditionally the king was the hardest- working man in the kingdom: his day was divided into eight periods of three hours each. One was for sleep, one for recreation; the rest was for duties – judicial, military, and executive generally. As the Gītā says: ‘Of men, the best is the king.’

The profundities of the Upaniad-s were put into the verses of the Gītā by an incarnation of the Lord, Ksna or Vāsudeva, for the benefit of those still engaged in an active life in society. The formal title of the Gītā is ‘The Upaniad-s Sung (gītā) by the Lord.’ As against the calm atmosphere of the Upaniad settings, it is given on a battlefield to a reluctant combatant by another warrior, his non-combatant charioteer. It is not a text of argument, but of revelation and practical instruction.

The date of the Gītā cannot be established in the light of surviving historical evidence: some Western analysts believe it is a composite work, because there are contradictions in it. However, the passages adjudged contradictory are often deliberately juxtaposed. They are contradictory only in terms of the pre-suppositions of analysts.

But they are also thought to show that the doctrines are valueless. The point will be looked at later. It is an example of the Fallacy of Fluctuating Rigour: to take contradictions here as proof of falsity, while perforce accepting them for over sixty years at the heart of physics.

There is evidence that in very ancient times, the god Vāsudeva (Ka) and the warrior prince Arjuna were exemplars of a relation of reverence and love – bhakti. In the great Sanskrit grammar of Pānini, about 400 BC, there is a sūtra (IV.3.98) to the effect that the suffix -ka indicates devotion in the case of Vāsudeva-and-Arjuna. In theory this might mean that a worshipper of Vāsudeva was a Vāsudeva-ka, and a worshipper of Arjuna was an Arjuna-ka. (Like a Buddhist or a Christian.)

They could each be a separate object of devotion to others. But according to another sutra of Pāini (II.2.34), in a compound of two such words, the one with fewer vowels is to be placed first. The word Arjuna has three vowels, while Vāsudeva has four. The fact that Vāsudeva is placed in the leading position, contrary to grammatical usage, shows that the names are not on an equal footing. Vāsudeva is the object of reverence to Arjuna.

It may be mentioned that the early work of grammarians like Pāini were masterpieces of analysis, hardly surpassed today. It is a unique phenomenon in cultural history. The Greeks did not make a grammar of their own language till they began to teach foreigners, about AD 100. Nor did it occur to the Chinese to make a grammar; the first was made by the Jesuits, and the same is true of Japanese.

They lacked the passionate interest in analysis of the Indians. (The same was true to some extent of logic. The Chinese translated the main Buddhist texts, and produced many of their own. But they translated comparatively few of the Indian textbooks on logic. They did not believe in exclusive yes-or-no; their outlook was empirical.)

This little grammatical interlude is put in here because it shows the love of precision and subtle corollaries characteristic of the Indian intellectual tradition. The commentators on the ecstatic utterances of the Upaniad-s or the Gītā explained every word, and its placing in the sentence, in minute detail. Their ideal was to use words, within their sphere, exactly and logically.

If they had not done this, their works would not have been accepted. They recognized that verbal structures are in a sense self-created and self-creating, and not based on truth. Nevertheless, present life is based on them; it is like an immense edifice of credit. The whole business of the world’, says Śakara, ‘is based on the prestige of words.’ And an ancient Upaniadic teacher told the most learned man of his time: ‘All the knowledge you have mastered is only a name.’

Śakara explains the revelatory flashes of the Gītā by putting them side by side with Upaniadic texts and with each other. He presents a system which is internally consistent, and which resolves the apparent contradictions of some of the texts. In the end, the system has to be confirmed by practice; it is not a dogma. There has to be enough faith in it to carry out the outer and inner training.

Śakara expects his readers to have a good memory. The traditional method of the commentator was to give an analysis of each word of each verse, and then to show the place of the verse in the whole system. Occasionally he will sum up a particular theme in a long exposition, far beyond the surface meaning of the verse he is commenting on.

Some of the comments, and expositions, are to meet objections by adherents of other schools of thought of his time, for instance Buddhists who held there was no Self, or ritualists. Most of those schools do not exist today, and the arguments and counter-arguments are meaningless for a modern reader. In the Indian tradition of Śakara’s time, it was necessary to justify mystical practices by presenting them logically as far as possible. This is much less true of other cultures today. The present book aims to set out the parallels used by teachers, including Śakara, to help and encourage those who wish to train.

© Trevor Leggett