Lecture Six: Witnesses 6.6

6.6 Devotion and dispassion

Kriṣṇa’s point is further expanded and refined in the remainder of his discussion (chapters 4 and 5).  He then returns to the sort of meditative practice that is required to fully uphold his teaching. As mentioned, dispassion towards the results of action demands mind-restraint, and this in turn leads to anaesthetic trance. Kriṣṇa thus expands (chapter 6) on a number of techniques that can be used by the yogin for this purpose. But faced with this task, Arjuna acknowledges its difficulty:

This Yoga which has been proclaimed by You [to be achieved] through sameness, Madhusūdana [Kriṣṇa]–I cannot see a steady state [by which it could be realized], because of [the mind’s] fickleness.

The mind is indeed fickle, o Krishna, impetuous, strong, and obstinate. Its control, I think, is very-difficult-to-achieve, like [that of] of the wind. (Bhagavad-Gītā VI.33-34, trad. Feuerstein 2014, 165)

In his reply, Kriṣṇa reassures and encourages Arjuna. On the one hand, Kriṣṇa confirms that the path of ascetism (the one that Arjuna seems willing to take by giving up his duty to fight) is very difficult to travel, although not impossible. On the other hand, Kriṣṇa introduces something different: faith in him. He exclaims:

The yogin is greater than ascetics. [He is] thought even greater than knowers, and the yogin is greater than the performers-of-ritual-actions. Therefore, be a yogin, o Arjuna!

Of all the yogins, moreover, he who worships Me [endowed] with faith, [and whose] inner self is absorbed in Me, is deemed [to be] most yoked to Me. (Bhagavad-Gītā VI.46-47, trad. Feuerstein 2014, 169)

Kriṣṇa subordinates traditional ascetism and ritual performances to the specific form of discipline (yoga) prescribed by him, the discipline of action. In doing so, Kriṣṇa is clearly proselyting towards Arjuna. Kriṣṇa already hinted at the possibility of steadying the mind by keeping it fixed on him (Kriṣṇa himself). This may have seemed odd in the moment, but now Kriṣṇa begins to reveal who he really is. From this point onwards, the Bhagavad-Gītā runs as the progressive epiphany of the true nature of Kriṣṇa, his revelation to Arjuna in an increasingly subtler, deeper and increasingly unbearable form. The human form that Arjuna recognises as Kriṣṇa is nothing but a sheer appearance of what is described as the absolute ground of the whole reality, something which is explicitly presented as lying beyond brahman itself. The climax of this revelation comes when Arjuna, after having heard a teaching about Kriṣṇa’s true nature, ask for a direct vision of that nature and is satisfied (chapter 11).

Here, the Bhagavad-Gītā resorts to a trope that emerges powerfully in the g-veda, in creation hymns like X.81 and X.90, which envision the original creator-man as endowed with many eyes, mouths, and limbs. This trope resurfaces in some of the classical Upaniṣads, especially when they bend to monistic and theistic forms. The relatively late Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad is perhaps the most explicit in taking up this convention and arguably closer in view to the doctrine exposed in the Bhagavad-Gītā.[1] Doris Meth Srinivasan, in her Many Heads, Arms, and Eyes. Origin, Meaning, and Form of Multiplicity in Indian Art (1997) provided a fascinating study in how this theological trope shaped and was articulated in ancient Indian arts. For our purposes, we can simply mention that the underpinning idea is that of expressing how the multiplicity of the world is embedded in a unified creator principle, who brings that multiplicity forth and spreads it out in the created world through a primeval action akin to parturition (although often accomplished by a male creator).

In the passage that follows, Kriṣṇa reveals himself to Arjuna (the epiphany is described in third person by a narrator, since Arjuna is absorbed in it, speechless):

[His form has] many mouths and eyes, many wondrous appearances (darshana), many divine adornments, many divine upraised weapons, wearing divine garlands and garments, anointed with divine fragrances, all-wonderful. [Behold] God, infinite [and] omnipresent.

If the splendor of a thousand suns were to arise at once in the sky (div), that would be like the splendor of that Great Self.

Then the son-of-Pandu saw the whole universe, divided manifold, abiding in the One, there in the body of the God of gods. (Bhagavad-Gītā XI.10-13, trad. Feuerstein 2014, 223).

Arjuna now realizes that Kriṣṇa is the unitarian principle beyond the whole world of multiplicity, and that all the various and diverse manifestations of various gods and phenomena are nothing but Kriṣṇa’s cloths. And yet, this vision is also profoundly scarring. Arjuna thus exclaims:

Beholding [that] great form of Yours, [with its] many mouths and eyes, o mighty-armed [Krishna], [its] many arms, thighs, feet, many bellies, many formidable fangs-the worlds shudder; so [do] I.

Touching the world-sky, flaming many-colored, [with] gaping mouths and flaming vast eyes-beholding You [thus], [my] inmost self quakes, and I [can] find no fortitude or tranquility, O Vishnu.

And seeing Your [many] mouths [studded with] formidable fangs resembling the fire [at the end] of time, I know not where-to-turn, and I find no shelter. Be gracious [unto me], o Lord of the gods, o Horne of the universe! […]

As many rivers and water torrents flow headlong into the ocean, so do these heroes of the world of men enter Your flaming mouths.

As moths in profuse streams enter a blazing flame to [their own] destruction, so do the worlds in profuse streams enter Your mouths for [their utter] destruction.

With flaming mouths, You lick up, devouring, all the worlds entirely. Filling the entire universe with [Your] brilliance, Your dreadful rays scorch [all], o Vishnu.

Tell me who You are of dreadful form. May salutation be to You! o Best of gods, have mercy! I wish to know You [as You were in] the beginning. For I [do] not comprehend Your [divine] creativity. (Bhagavad-Gītā XI.23-31, trad. Feuerstein 2014, 229-233).

Kriṣṇa’s epiphany is not just the revelation of the unitarian principle beyond all phenomenal diversity. This is only half of Kriṣṇa’s nature. In being the creator of the whole universe, Kriṣṇa is also the destroyer of all. Things emerge and return to the same ground, hence Kriṣṇa gives birth and devours his creatures at the same time. Creation and destruction, birth and death, are inextricably interwoven. This is the great mystery that Arjuna can no longer withstand; he thus prays Kriṣṇa to take on, once  again, his more bearable human semblance.

This epiphany is not only a spectacular literary climax in the Bhagavad-Gītā, but it also serves Kriṣṇa’s argumentative strategy. The ascetic’s aim is to achieve a unification with the ultimate ground of reality by knowing the true Self. Well, there are two difficulties with this path. The first has been mentioned already: the sort of disciplined practice required for anaesthetic trance is extremely demanding, and Arjuna easily admits that he seems unable to carry it through. He wants to play by the law of another (he wants to be an ascetic rather than a warrior) but he is confronted with the utter difficulty of this task. But there is a second, further difficulty. Even if one were able to have a direct vision of the absolute reality, that vision would be difficult to bear. The absolute is not just the ground of the whole of reality, but it is also the domain in which the whole of reality is devoured and destroyed, like the offering in the sacrificial fire. Notice the play of metaphors: ultimate reality is an intransitive experience devoid of any specific content, hence it can be understood as the ground in which all phenomenal diversity is destroyed, burned down, and dissolved. The epistemic description (intransitive experience) gives rise to vision (a thousand-fold cosmic mouth devouring all beings), and vice versa.

The play with metaphors and homologies is extremely powerful and pervasive at this point, and the Bhagavad-Gītā proceeds in a cloud of traditional overtones that both enact and reshape received meaning in a true new masterpiece of thinking art. How does one come to see the real absolute ground of reality, the true Self? Through anaesthetic practice, by progressively switching off sensory perception. The closer one gets to the true Self, the more the world recedes from experience, as if it were swallowed up by brahman. The Bhagavad-Gītā gives visionary power to this idea, by recasting the traditional trope of the many-limbed creator god as also a destructor god. In a sense, this is a way of picturing how the ascetic path must inevitably burn the world, consume it, destroy it, in order to transcend it. Arjuna initially envisages to move towards ascetism, for the sake of avoiding any harm to all living beings. But now he realizes that really fulfilling the ascetic ideal is also a way of fully experiencing how the whole world is destroyed in the same principle from which it originates. By seeking another’s law from his own, Arjuna is doomed to fear what the path of ascetism is going to reveal. Earlier, we mentioned the issues of inauthenticity and the impostor syndrome that seem associated with the choice of following the law of another. Kriṣṇa’s epiphany adds a new layer of meaning to that discussion by revealing how ascetism cannot be chosen at all as a way of avoiding the duty of action and confronting the fact that all creation also entails destruction. Arjuna cannot flee his dilemma by becoming an ascetic, he must fight as his duty requires.

Kriṣṇa’s teaching has shown that the ascetic path is difficult, perhaps too difficult for Arjuna, and not even necessary, since in the end it will entail coming face to face with the process of cosmic destruction that Arjuna wanted to escape. Arjuna is thus cornered, and now Kriṣṇa introduces a conciliatory solution: devotion (bhakti). If the deontological account presented earlier relies on some form of knowledge, but this knowledge is difficult to attain (through meditation) and ultimately unbearable and terrifying (as revealed by Kriṣṇa’s epiphany), the middle path would consist in gaining what William James (Lecture Four) named a ‘faith-state.’ Kriṣṇa has repeatedly hinted at this state already as the state in which the mind is fully focused on Kriṣṇa itself, on the very idea of acting and serving what is known and acknowledged to be the ultimate ground, God.

In virtue of remaining fully focused on Kriṣṇa (God), one foregoes one’s own individuality and recognizes how one’s own birth comes with duties. Instead of seeking ways of steering one’s nature towards some other goal (and thus acting according to a law that is not one’s own), one will rather acknowledge how the action in conformity with one’s own law is the supreme goal for one’s current life. Concentration on Kriṣṇa ensures that individualist deviations will not subvert this resolve, and thus will allow one to act for the sake of duty, by remaining free from attachment and dispassionate with respect to all results that may ensue.

In the closing of his discussion, Kriṣṇa gives an explicit social declension to this doctrine, by referring to the tradition four classes (varṇa) in which Indian society is divided:

The actions of priests, warriors, merchants, and serfs are apportioned, o Paramtapa, [according] to the primary qualities arising [in their] own-being.

Calm, restraint, austerity, purity, patience, and uprightness, [real] knowledge [and] worldly-knowledge, piety–[these are] the behavior (karman) of a priest, born of [his] own-being.

Courage, vigor, steadfastness, resourcefulness, and also an unwillingness-to-flee in battle, generosity, and a regal disposition–[these are] the behavior of a warrior, born of [his] own-being.

Agriculture, cattle-tending, [and] trade–[these are] the behavior of a merchant, born of [his] own-being. Moreover, behavior of the nature of service is born of the own-being of a serf.

Content each in his own action, a man gains [spiritual] consummation. Hear [next] how he finds success [by being] content in [his] own [appropriate] action. (Bhagavad-Gītā XVIII.41-45, trad. Feuerstein 2014, 311).

Here, we return, full circle, to the departing tenet of Kriṣṇa’s teaching: acting out of duty towards one’s own nature or law (dharma) is the true and surest path for full realization. One’s own law is defined in terms of the proper function of the class of people within which one is born. Although the varṇa system is based on distinct social functions of large groups and should not be conflated with the caste (jāti) system (which divides individuals based on the tribe and clan in which they are born), the two tended to be systematically related, both conceptually and historically. What Kriṣṇa adds here is the linkage between the social structure and its onto-theological justification, now based on devotion rather than direct experience of the divine. As he states:

‘Me-minded, you will transcend all difficulties by My grace. But if out of ego-sense you will not listen [to Me], you will Perish’ (Bhagavad-Gītā XVIII.58, trad. Feuerstein 2014, 317).

Compare this solution to the paradox of mastery with that offered by the āśrama system, considered in its normative and ideal dimension. As mentioned, the main issue is the conflict between household life and ascetic life. Household life upholds the value of consociation for addressing the needs of embodiment, while ascetic life is based on the realization that consociated life cannot address these needs, and the only way of mastering uncertainty is by actually transcending embodiment and consociation altogether. While this clash is potentially threatening for the whole social order, the āśrama system tries to recompose it, either by presenting different ways of life in terms of an option, or by including them all in one single ideal progression through which all individuals (of certain groups at least) should pass through. In this latter case, free choice is replaced by an obligation, which has a twofold nature: all are obliged to act in accordance with, for some time, both conflicting principles: household life and ascetism.

In the Bhagavad-Gītā we are confronted again with the same clash between traditional social values (Arjuna and his duty as a royal warrior) and the choice of an ascetic life, seemingly free from action. Kriṣṇa then shows that a proper and profound knowledge of the ultimate goal of ascetic life demonstrates that the best way of living is by upholding one’s own (social) nature and law (svadharma) and fulfilling it out of duty, for its own sake, whichever that is. What was supposed to disrupt the social order (the ideal of ascetism, and the practice anaesthetic trance) ends up providing an onto-theological justification for it. Moreover, through devotional practice, any deviant individual tendencies that could lead one astray from the tenets of one’s own social function can be subdued and neutralized. Once again, choice is no longer possible, but this is not due to the fact that (like in the classical āśrama scheme) one will must try out all the ways of life temporarily, but rather the fact that the dichotomy has been fully re-adsorbed within a superior unity. The true ascetic, paradoxically, is the one who performs their (socially defined) function for the sake of fulfilling their duty. Freedom is no longer freedom to choose, but rather freedom of acting on the basis of one’s own law. Kriṣṇa’s deontological turn is very much a plea for autonomy, since one’s law is not invented by the individual considered in its uniqueness or particularity, but rather derived from the way in which the individual is embedded in the social structure from (and through) birth, and this structure is presented a having a universal validity.

However, in providing a justification for the social order, Kriṣṇa also posits himself beyond and above it, in compliance with how the true Self or brahman was conceived by the sages of the classical Upaniṣads. He shows that accepting this ultimate principle poses no threat to society, and thus can be recognized as its true and genuine ruler and ultimate sovereign. After all, one can fully endorse one’s own social function because one knows (either directly, or more likely because of one’s devotional faith) that all social roles are nothing but different cloths of the same ultimate reality. Hence, it does not really matter what specific social function one is called on to perform, since they are all rooted in the same principle, which transcends them all. Ultimately, one is neither a priest, nor a warrior, nor a commoner, nor a servant. Ultimately, one is only the true Self, immutable, eternal, beyond all diversity. In this respect, Kriṣṇa’s teaching preserves a core element of the doctrine of the Upaniṣads, while also presenting it as fully compatible with social life. This is a hermeneutic tour de force, which ends up shifting the way the Bhagavad-Gītā addresses the paradox of mastery. Instead of keeping the opposing ways of life relatively apart and preserve their own independence within a broader scheme (like in the āśrama system), the tension is handled by establishing a hierarchy among the conflicting forces (in which all forms of diversity are subordinated to an underpinning metaphysical unity). This hierarchy is not intended to dissolve one of the opposing elements, but rather to solve the tension through subordination of one to the other.

Does this hierarchical turn provide a working solution to the paradox of mastery? If it does, the solution does not sound any less paradoxical, since it could be stated as follows: since one’s ultimate nature is completely beyond any specific condition (including social functions), one’s realization consists in fulfilling one’s specific condition and its inherent law out of pure duty. The need and value of consociation is both asserted and denied, and the same individual is invited to strive for both social embodiment and devotional disembodiment.

  1. Cf. Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, III.3-5, trad. Olivelle 1992, 257: ‘Eyes everywhere and face everywhere, arms everywhere and feet everywhere, he forges with his two hands, he forges with the wings, producing the heaven and earth, the one God. Who, as the source and origin of the gods and the ruler over them all, as the god Rudra, and as the great seer, in the beginning created Hiranyagarbha—may he furnish us with lucid intelligence. That form of yours, O Rudra, which is benign and not terrifying, which is not sinister-looking—with that most auspicious form of yours, O Mountain-dweller, look upon us.’ Notice here how the trope is associated with Rudra, a relatively minor god in the Ṛg-veda, the embodiment of wilderness, hence potentially dangerous or disruptive, which later gained wider prominence as Śiva (who can be compared with the Greek Dionysos).


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