The Bhagavad Gita consists of seven hundred verses. Out of these, a massive 574 have been uttered by Krishna himself, giving us an unparalleled insight into the true nature of divinity. The title of the poem too suggests this, meaning the song (Gita) of God (Bhagavat).
Seshashyai Vishnu (With Chromatic Aberration)
For example, at one point Krishna says:'Amongst the great sages (maharishis) I am present as Bhrigu.' (10.25)Now this sage named Bhrigu has an interesting history. Once, in order to test Vishnu's greatness, he charged up to the latter's abode and found him resting (as usual), on the coils of a venomous snake, with his wife Lakshmi lovingly massaging his feet.Incensed that the Lord did not get up to welcome him, the saint mounted the serpent and planted a strong kick on Vishnu's chest. Bhrigu's temerity in doing so is however eclipsed by Vishnu's own reaction: He immediately got up and softly rubbed the aggressor's heels, saying: "O dear sir, my chest is hard and your legs soft. I hope I did not hurt you. I am blessed to have been so honored by your lotus feet whose imprint will always remain on my body." To this day, Vishnu carries on his chest this mark, known in popular parlance as the Shrivatsa. (Bhagavata Purana 10.89)It is well established that Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu; in fact, in many instances, they are indistinguishable. As for Bhrigu, he is venerated in ancient texts as a guru who exposes his disciples to torment and suffering, making them resilient and amenable to the inevitable ups and downs of life.Thus does God inspire us to maintain equanimity in the face of adversity, saying:"The calm man is completely composed in heat and cold, pleasure and pain, honor and dishonor." (6.7)"One who deals equally with friend and foe, who is free from attachment, he who takes praise and reproach alike, is silent and content with his lot (santushta), without a sense of ownership (for his house etc), and of a steady mind, such a devotee (bhaktiman) is dear to Me." (12.18-19)"He who regards a clod of earth, a stone and gold as being of equal worth, is wise and views censure and praise as alike.." (14.24)Why does Krishna have to subject himself to this apparent insult? To set an example, because:"Whatever the best one does, that others also do. Whatever standards he sets, the world follows. For me, in all the three worlds, there is nothing that I lack. Yet I am ever engaged in action (karma). For if I did not continue to work with alertness, humans would in every way follow my example. If I did not perform karma, these worlds would be ruined.." (3.21-24)Here it needs to be observed that in the above narrative, God is both the tormentor (Bhrigu) and the tormented (Vishnu).
Krishna's autobiographical intent is not restricted to a specific humiliating circumstance. His wish is to encompass the entire spectrum of human suffering:"Among the Rudras, I am Shankara." (10.23)
Shankara is a synonym for Shiva, who is the God of destruction in the Hindu pantheon. Rudras are the class of deities responsible for making humanity grieve (rud: weep). Shankara is their leader and his name literally means one who grants welfare (sham). This verse is illustrative of the Hindu penchant for glorifying the enriching potential of suffering and indicates that adverse circumstances in life are as much a gift of God as are favorable ones. In fact, the philosophers of yore stated that it was only those who were his favorite did God thus bless, much like a mother who knows when it is best to shower her child with affection and when to yield the stick, both of which are necessary for the potential flowering of the infant's character. Only she knows when to apply which principle. She may distribute sweets equally to all children playing in a group; but will not chastise them in equal measure when they misbehave. Only her own beloved child has a right over her rod. Thus does Krishna also ensure our lasting welfare (Shankara), by exposing us to the rudras of life.
Significantly, Vishnu (Krishna) here identifies himself with Shiva. This seems a contradiction in terms since the former is credited with the creation of the world and the latter with its destruction (death). However, God clarifies matters:"I am immortality (amrita) as well as death (mrityu)." (9.19)"I am the all-depriving death and also the source of all future beings." (10.34)In Indian philosophy, death is not the opposite of life but its timely fulfillment. Destruction is not the end of creation, but the beginning of a fresh cycle.
Later, Krishna identifies himself with another, slightly different instrument of destruction:"Of weapons I am the thunderbolt (vajra)." (10.28)The vajra is no ordinary weapon, having being created when all other means failed to restrain the forces of evil wreaking havoc on the world. It was carved out of the bones of the celebrated saint Dadhichi, who readily gave up his mortal form for the divine cause. As the king of the positive forces in the world, it was the privilege of Indra to wield the thunderbolt.
In fact, God also says:Amongst the demigods "I am Indra" (10.22) and "amongst the finest of elephants (gajendera) I am Airavata" (10.27). The latter was recovered when the demons and gods churned the ocean together to retrieve the nectar of immortality. It was later handed over to Indra as his mount. Not surprisingly, there is a marked preference for Indra, whose name literally means 'one who has conquered the sense organs (indriya)', an attribute which God immensely appreciates:"One who has controlled the sensory organs is superior." (3.7)
What however, about the question of evil? Krishna states: "Everything is God" (Vaasudev Sarvam 7.19).Hence, whatever is present in this world is charged with God's own dynamism and the latter has no qualms about declaring:"Of the demons (rakshasas) and yakshas I am Kuvera (Vittesh)." (10.23)
A rakshasa is someone who protects (raksha: protection). Here, Krishna is referring to those of us who lord over our wealth, jealously guarding it with our lives, inhibiting its circulation. A yaksha is one who is not of a clenched fist, but nevertheless uses money solely for his or her own consumption, without any intention of sharing it. In the latter case, though there is a flow of prosperity, since one man's expense is another's gain, nevertheless, because of the absence of altruistic intentions it lacks in spiritual merit (punya). Indeed, money can have only one of the following three kinds of mobility (it cannot remain immobile):1). Charity (daana)2). Selfish pleasure (bhoga), or3). Dissolution (naash).It would have been hardly surprising if Krishna had identified himself with the first characteristic. He however, speaks otherwise, saying that he is present in those individuals who consume money selfishly and also those of us who do not let a penny escape, thus affecting the dynamics of nature adversely, ultimately leading to the annihilation of wealth.
Kuvera Kushana period, 2nd century ADSandstone, 96 X 45 X 35 cm
The name Kuvera literally means one who has an ugly (ku) body (vera). Legend has it that he was born extremely poor but by extreme penance managed to please Lord Shiva who made him the guardian of the world's wealth. Our prosperity too is a boon of God and we may justify our conduct taking cue from Krishna above. It must be remembered however that the result is obvious for all of us to see. True to their names, Kuvera (and the yakshas), have been given grotesque horrifying forms in the Indian art tradition.
"Among deceitful practices I am dicing (gambling)." (10.36)The Bhagavad Gita is presented in the form of a dialogue between Krishna and his friend cum disciple Arjuna. The latter had suffered lifelong due to his elder brother's irresistible urge to indulge the dice. Thus Krishna here has a chosen a particularly potent metaphor, lightening the serious mood of philosophical discourse with the warmth of human interaction. This was one evil element Arjuna could easily relate to. Though he and his brothers lost their kingdom because of the deception of the group playing opposite, the end result was the destruction of the villains, the establishment of dharma, and the icing on the cake - a pertinent opportunity for God to deliver the discourse of the Gita.Truly God is present in all that is good and bad. The choice however remains ours. Being subject to the inexorable laws of karma, we will reap what we choose to sow. That is the reason he points out to us various specific and temporal manifestations of his otherwise endless and eternal glory. By following their biographical narratives to their logical conclusions, expressed through an autobiographical discourse in God's own voice, we gain a clearer roadmap for identifying, and making the correct choices in our own lives.
"In women, I am virtuous reputation (kirti), fortune (Shri), speech (vak), memory (smriti), ability to imbibe things (medha), constancy (dhrti) and forgiveness (kshama)." (10.34)A well-known piece of humor has it that we can get a taste of heaven on earth if we have the following:1). An American salary to take home.2). Chinese food to eat.3). A British home to live in, and,4). An Indian wife to go home to.It is perhaps this fame of the virtuous Indian woman that Krishna is talking about. The reasons are not far to seek. When the Gita itself says that God resides in the steadfast woman, who lets only one man live in her memory (smriti), much like the goddess Shri (Lakshmi), the prosperity of one who has her for a consort is assured. Indeed, it is a belief in India that when a man and woman are bound in holy matrimony, it is a conjoining of their fortunes, and all sin (paap) and merit (punya) acquired by either is shared equally between the two. The lips of such a woman speak (vak) of no other than the one she has chosen to give herself up completely to. Since her very childhood it has been imbibed in her to remain committed to one only, till this chaste ideal becomes as integral a part of her character as much as her breath is to her physical existence. It is her infinite capacity to forgive and the forbearance inherent in womanhood that lets such a divine relationship blossom on earth.
In the tenth chapter God says:"In the tribe called Vrishni, I am Krishna and amongst the five Pandava brothers, I am Arjuna." (37)Meaning, the one narrating the Bhagavad Gita (Krishna), is also the one listening to it, namely Arjuna.
"Amongst alphabets, I am the letter A, and of the different kinds of compounds in grammar, I am the copulative compound." (10.33)'A', pronounced as the first sound in the word 'amuse', is the immediate sound that springs from the mouth as soon as it is opened, even though it comes from the deepest levels in the throat. It is hence naturally the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet and is a grammatical reminder that God is the origin of all.The second part of the statement refers to the fondness of the Sanskrit writer to make new, bigger words, by fusing together two or more of them. These combinations are of four types:1). Avyayibhava (Adverbial compounds): In this fusion, the first word retains its primary importance, while the latter may be reduced to a prefix. For example:vanasya (forest) samipam (near) becomes upvanam.
2). Bahuvrihi (Possessive): None of the original words remain important, but a new one emerges, meaning something other than the constituents:neelam (blue) kanttham (throat) yasya (one who possesses) becomes Neelkanth (Lord Shiva) 3). Tatpurusha (Determinative): The second word retains primacy:rashtrasya (of nation) pati (lord) becomes rashtrapati4). Dvandva (Copulative): Both the constituents retain equal primacy.Ram and Lakshman becomes Ramlakshmanau (au denotes duality).Evidently, the copulative compound in Sanskrit is also the most democratic, giving equal weightage to both its constituents, knitting them together in one 'advaita' identity, without destroying their individuality.
"I am fire" (9.16)"Know the fieriness of fire to be mine." (15.12)"Abiding in all living beings as the fire of life, conjoined with the two kinds of breaths (inhalation and exhalation), I digest the four kinds of food." (15.14)Ancient philosophy divides food (anna), into four categories; namely that one can chew, drink, swallow or lick. In all cases it is God, existing in our body as the warmth of life, generating the metabolic heat digesting it. He carries out this task not only in humans, but in every being (praninam).All fire needs air for ignition. Likewise, inflamed by the incoming breath (apana), and the other, which is expelled (prana), flushing out the residue from the furnace, the fire of life continues to pulsate in us.Truly, we have to be very careful with what we eat. It is not ourselves but God we are feeding, who consumes what we intake, much as the fire in the Vedic sacrifice devours the sacred fuel nourishing it.
"Of all trees I am the banyan (peepal)." (10.26).Krishna mentions the banyan tree again:
The Inverted Tree
"The wise speak of the imperishable banyan tree (ashvattha), which has its roots above and branches below. Its leaves are the Vedas and he who knows this is the knower of the Vedas. Its branches extend all about; nourished by the three attributes of nature (luminescence, mobility and lethargy), the sensory objects are its shoots and below, in the world of men, its secondary roots stretch forth, binding them in karma. Its real form (rupa) is not perceived here, nor its end nor beginning nor its foundation. Let man first hew down this firm rooted banyan tree with the strong weapon of detachment." (15.1-3)
The Banyan Tree with Secondary (Aerial) Roots
The banyan tree is unusual in that it can send forth from its branches secondary roots, often reaching down to the ground.This is a daring, almost surrealistic metaphor - a tree with roots above and branches below. At the top of such a tree resides God and in the trunk is Brahma, responsible for the creation of all manifested existence. We are however accustomed to a very different kind of tree, exactly the opposite of the one thus described. Hence are appearances deceptive. Things are not what they seem at first sight. The richest are the poorest inside. Those who are seen smiling outside, feel terrible within, and the one successful is only sitting over his mound of failures. Once we gain this discriminating vision, what Krishna calls the "divya chakshuh" (11.8), only then can we see through appearances and perceive the root cause common to all - God.The farther we move (evolve) away from the top of the cosmic tree, the more distant we are from God himself and what we normally feel to be progression is in spiritual terms regression. Nevertheless, even though the branches and leaves may spread out far and wide, they are always joined to their root cause (mula), and therefore never separated from God, although perhaps at a remote distance from him.What we are able to see in the world is in truth the exact opposite of how things actually are. Conforming to this flawed vision our priorities too have become inverted. For example, spiritual activity is thought to be the opposite of worldliness. For those of us who have understood the true nature of the tree of life, living life inside out is the correct way to progress on the spiritual path. God acknowledges this when He says:"What is night for all beings is the time of waking for the disciplined soul; and what is the time of waking for all is night for the sage with vision." (2.69)How can we gain this vision? By standing detached from the world, very much like a person on the moon, who would perceive all the trees of the world to be hanging upside down, as they actually are, only because he stands apart from it all. Somewhat like Archimedes, when he said: "Give me a firm spot on which to stand, and I will move the earth." The eagerly sought spot is however not a geographical location separate from where we already are. It is the mental condition of unattached (asanga) equanimity, with which we need to cleave the flawed tree of our distorted perception.
"In things mysterious, I am silence." (10.38)"The silent one (mauni) is dear to me." (12.19)"Silence is the penance of mind." (17.16)A typical malady of the modern era is mankind's inner turmoil, the offshoot of an unnaturally fast pace of life. Silence (maun), means quietening this turbulence by withdrawing from activity and turning all effort inwards. The internal dialogue quietens gradually; and then, when the silence becomes profound, the voice of God speaks.Thus, the more we come near to hearing God's own voice, entering the ultimate of mysteries, our own need to speak becomes lesser. Shri Ramakrishna compared this to the honeybee, which hums only while hovering over a flower. No sooner than it lands and begins to suck the nectar, all humming ceases.
"Among snakes (sarpas), I am Vasuki." (10.28)."Among serpents (nagas), I am Ananta." (10.29)In consecutive verses, Krishna identifies himself with two different serpents. There is a fine distinction between them. While the sarpas are single-hooded and live on land, the multi-headed nagas dwell in water.Specifically, Vasuki adorns Lord Shiva's finger as a ring and served as a rope during the churning of the ocean. Ananta is the serpent on whom Vishnu reclines during his yoga-nidra (sleep).Metaphysically, Ananta represents the infinite potential energy lying dormant in us (Kundalini); and Vasuki, with one head, its singular uncoiling.
The Bhagavad Gita is in many ways God's picture album filled with self-portraits. However, his voice is different from ours, and identification with one is not the negation of the other. When he says, "In the rivers I am Ganga" or "amongst birds I am Garuda", it is the underlying qualities making these manifestations special that he is calling to attention. The Great Teacher knows that human intellect is but naturally attracted to what it perceives to be extraordinary. This is made explicit when he defines himself to be "the brilliance of all that is brilliant and the splendor of all that is splendid." He is the invisible infinite, whose essence permeates all finite things, much as "gems beaded on a string" (7.7), poetically revealed as "the flavor (rasa) of water" (7.8).
(This article is dedicated to the memory of Swami Ramsukhdas, who was never photographed and whom the author never met. He died early this year.)
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