The Circumstance of the Teaching of the Gita

To gain a true appreciation for the uniqueness of the Bhagavad Gita, it is helpful to reflect on the background and circumstance of this teaching. The identity of teacher, the role of the recipient of the teaching and the event within which the teaching has been given are three important aspects that create the context for what the Gita is communicating.

Sri Aurobindo addresses these three points: “There are indeed three things in the Gita which are spiritually significant, almost symbolic, typical of the profoundest relations and problems of the spiritual life and of human existence at its roots; they are the divine personality of the Teacher, his characteristic relations with his disciple and the occasion of his teaching.”

The teacher is the Divine manifested in the world. The student is the evolved human soul representing the aspiration and developed powers of humanity at a critical point in the active life of that soul. The event is a cataclysmic battle in which friends and relations are on both sides, a civil war that not only is tearing apart the society, but which also has clear implications for the evolutionary progress of humanity and the battle between the forces of light and growth versus the forces that are trying to hold back, impede and destroy the forward progress in order to hold onto their power and control. Innocent, even revered souls are caught up in a conflict of values, with issues of honor, loyalty and duty ranging people who would ordinarily support one another onto the opposing sides.

We see here not only conflicting emotions but also conflicting sets of values that appear to be irreconcilable. It is at this juncture that the Divine Teacher has to step in to help humanity advance and find a new principle that can enlighten and guide action for the leading edge of human development.

The situation “….raises the whole question of the meaning of God in the world and the goal and drift and sense of human life and conduct.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 2, The Divine Teacher, pp. 9-10,

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The Spiritual Need of the Modern Age

We live in a time of extreme challenge where the entire fate of humanity, and of the planet we live on, is at risk. We have explored in every possible direction and created thereby the ultimate fragmentation, pitting every religion, philosophy and creed against one another in a battle for the hearts and minds of people everywhere. At the same time we have, through modern technology and communication, brought the entire world together and thereby accentuated the clash of ideologies. We find however no solution and no satisfaction in the doctrines of the past. The flood of information and knowledge gained through the intensive scrutiny provided by science and technology has created new challenges that force us to look at the very essence of why we are alive and what we have to do here. At the same time, we are confronted with the enhanced power of each past line of development to communicate its message and command adherents.

Sri Aurobindo points out that, having taken the capacities of analysis and exclusive concentration to their ultimate point, we stand in need of a new synthesis which will build upon the spiritual foundations of the past, but not remain fixed there; rather, this new synthesis must be one that is dynamic and comprehensive enough to take up the challenges of the modern day and provide us the guidance we need, not only for survival, but for development of our spiritual destiny.

“We do not belong to the past dawns, but to the noons of the future. A mass of new material is flowing into us; we have not only to assimilate the influences of the great theistic religions of India and of the world and a recovered sense of the meaning of Buddhism, but to take full account of the potent though limited revelations of modern knowledge and seeking…”

“All this points to a new, a very rich, a very vast synthesis; a fresh and widely embracing harmonisation of our gains is both an intellectual and a spiritual necessity of the future.”

“Our object, then, in studying the Gita will not be a scholastic or academical scrutiny of its thought, nor to place its philosophy in the history of metaphysical speculation, nor shall we deal with it in the manner of the analytical dialectician. We approach it for help and light and our aim must be to distinguish its essential and living message, that in it on which humanity has to seize for its perfection and its highest spiritual welfare.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 1, Our Demand and Need from the Gita, pg. 8,

Four Great Syntheses of Indian Spirituality

Humanity goes through successive periods of analysis and synthesis, fragmentation and unification. During periods of fragmentation, the focus is on concentrating in on particular directions, to the exclusion of others, and we find in these cases oftentimes a large number of competing or apparently conflicting directions being advanced by various people. During periods of synthesis, we find the tendency of taking the numerous divergent strands and bringing them together in an emphasis on their underlying unity.

Sri Aurobindo outlines 4 periods of synthesis that mark the history of the spiritual development. These are the Vedic times, the Upanishads, The Bhagavad Gita, and the Tantric synthesis. Each of these represents an especially fruitful period in the progress of humanity toward integrating spirituality into life. The emphasis of each one was based on the needs of the time in which it occurred.

“We start with the Vedic synthesis of the psychological being of man in its highest flights and widest rangings of divine knowledge, power, joy, life and glory with the cosmic existence of the gods, pursued behind the symbols of the material universe into those superior planes which are hidden from the physical sense and the material mentality.”

“The Upanishads…draw together into a great harmony all that had been seen and experienced by the inspired and liberated knowers of the Eternal throughout a great and fruitful period of spiritual seeking.”

“The Gita starts from this Vedantic synthesis and upon the basis of its essential ideas builds another harmony of the three great means and powers, Love, Knowledge and Works, through which the soul of man can directly approach and cast itself into the Eternal.”

“The Tantric…brings forward into the foreground along with divine knowledge, divine works and an enriched devotion of divine Love, the secrets also of the Hatha and Raja Yogas, the use of the body and of mental askesis for the opening up of the divine life on all its planes…. Moreover, it grasps at that idea of the divine perfectibility of man, possessed by the Vedic Rishis but thrown into the background by the intermediate ages, which is destined to fill so large a place in any future synthesis of human thought, experience and aspiration.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 1, Our Demand and Need from the Gita, pp. 7-8,

The Wide-Ranging Synthesis of the Gita

One of the unique aspects of the Bhagavad Gita is that people approach it from their own viewpoint and find their particular path supported. The Gita, with its embracing approach, lends itself to being seen through numerous lenses, although in reality, it is none of them and all of them at the same time. As we move systematically through the Gita, we shall find passages that appear to be Vedantic, Vaishnava, or Theistic. It is therefore also essential that we understand the movement of the Gita through these various aspects not as a doctrinaire approach of one or another philosophical or religious viewpoint, but as a spotlight on each successive aspect of a more comprehensive understanding of life’s meaning and purpose. What we see is a sequencing through time of a unifying vision and experience. This sequencing takes the form of linear expression in language in successive segments.

Sri Aurobindo clarifies this issue: “The thought of the Gita is not pure Monism although it sees in one unchanging, pure, eternal Self the foundation of all cosmic existence, nor Mayavada although it speaks of Maya of the three modes of Prakriti omnipresent in the created world; …..nor is it Sankhya although it explains the created world by the double principle of Purusha and Prakriti; nor is it Vaishnava Theism although it presents to us Krishna, who is the Avatar of Vishnu according to the Puranas, as the supreme Deity….”

“The Gita is not a weapon for dialectical warfare; it is a gate opening on the whole world of spiritual truth and experience and the view it gives us embraces all the provinces of that supreme region. It maps out, but it does not cut up or build walls or hedges to confine our vision.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 1, Our Demand and Need from the Gita, pg. 6,

Philosophical Synthesis

While it uses a philosophical framework, and the language of philosophical systems current at the time, the Gita represents a unique, wide-ranging and encompassing vision that seeks to unify rather than divide. The normal tendency of the human mind, which is generally visible in philosophical disputations, is to separate, analyse, distinguish and divide. The Gita’s approach, on the contrary, is to sweep up various different philosophical positions and knit them together into a more unified whole of which each one is an essential part.

In order to accomplish this, the Gita does not rely on fine points of philosophical difference, but on a spiritual vision that can see the essential truth behind each of the philosophies. The goal of the Gita is not to create a system of thought or religion, but to reveal a living and vibrant spiritual reality that can impact our lives in a meaningful and real way.

Sri Aurobindo clarifies the sense of the terms Sankhya and Yoga, as used by the Gita: “When the Gita speaks of Sankhya and Yoga, we shall not discuss beyond the limits of what is just essential for our statement, the relations of the Sankhya of the Gita with its one Purusha and strong Vedantic colouring to the non-theistic or “atheistic” Sankhya that has come down to us bringing with it its scheme of many Purushas and one Prakriti, nor of the Yoga of the Gita, many-sided, subtle, rich and flexible to the theistic doctrine and the fixed, scientific, rigorously defined and graded system of the Yoga of Patanjali. In the Gita the Sankhya and Yoga are evidently only two convergent parts of the same Vedantic truth or rather two concurrent ways of approaching its realisation, the one philosophical, intellectual, analytic, the other intuitional, devotional, practical, ethical, synthetic, reaching knowledge through experience. The Gita recognises no real difference in their teachings.”

Sri Aurobindo concludes: “Its teaching is universal whatever may have been its origins.” The question in the end is not about philosophy. “…they are not merely the luminous ideas or striking speculations of a philosophic intellect, but rather enduring truths of spiritual experience, verifiable facts of our highest psychological possibilities which no attempt to read deeply the mystery of existence can afford to neglect.”

“The language of the Gita, the structure of thought, the combination and balancing of ideas belong neither to the temper of a sectarian teacher nor to the spirit of a rigorous analytical dialectics cutting off one angle of the truth to exclude all the others; but rather there is a wide, undulating, encircling movement of ideas which is the manifestation of a vast synthetic mind and a rich synthetic experience.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 1, Our Demand and Need from the Gita, pp. 5-6,

The Universal Spirit of the Gita’s Teachings

Sri Aurobindo’s approach to the Bhagavad Gita is an attempt to go beyond scholarly analysis to reach the inner sense and spirit of the teaching conveyed therein. “….if we steep ourselves in the spirit of this great Scripture and, above all, if we have tried to live in that spirit, we may be sure of finding in it as much real truth as we are capable of receiving as well as the spiritual influence and actual help that, personally, we were intended to derive from it. And that is after all what Scriptures were written to give; the rest is academical disputation or theological dogma.”

The importance then of a Scripture is its ability to convey that inner spiritual energy that vivified it initially, across time and to people with different circumstances than were prevalent at the time the teaching was given. The outer clothing of that teaching from its time and situation is less important and we need not try to recreate, which is anyway not really possible, an understanding of the text from a literal sense based on the conditions of its creation.

The Gita has throughout a very broad universal sweep to its teachings and is not tied down to much that is temporary or local in nature. Even when it does address the local circumstance, it provides an impetus to a wider, more general understanding and application. “For we shall find always that the deeper truth and principle is implied in the grain of the thought even when it is not expressly stated in the language.”

Sri Aurobindo calls upon the reader to do more than a mental analysis. He indicates that we must attempt to understand with our deepest inner being, not just our minds, and attempt to live out the teaching, in order to truly gain an understanding of it. The approach taken in his text is tailored to this methodology.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 1, Our Demand and Need from the Gita, pp. 3-5,

Distinguishing Temporal and Eternal Truths

Every scripture, whether sacred or secular, will necessarily contain within it certain Truths or at least aspects of the Truth, which represent part of the universally available experience of mankind. At the same time, the specific circumstances, details, form of language and assumptions made in the expression take on the cloak of the specific period and situation in which it was brought forth. It is important, when trying to obtain any deeper sense or value from any scriptural text, to be able to distinguish between the “eternal” and the “temporal” aspects of the teaching. The eternal portions can have value and provide guidance to people of virtually any period or circumstance, and they tend also to harmonise well with the universal truths expounded in other scriptures. The temporal portions, being necessarily circumscribed and limited, will tend to be less applicable and less able to be understood by others, whether separated by time, space or circumstance.

Sri Aurobindo emphasizes the focus on the eternal aspect: “…there is undoubtedly a Truth one and eternal which we are seeking, from which all other truth derives, by the light of which all other truth finds its right place, explanation and relation to the scheme of knowledge. But precisely for that reason it cannot be shut up in a single trenchant formula, it is not likely to be found in its entirety or in all its bearings in any single philosophy or Scripture or uttered altogether and for ever by any one teacher, thinker, prophet or Avatar. Nor has it been wholly found by us if our view of it necessitates the intolerant exclusion of the truth underlying other systems….”

The real goal, therefore, in studying any scripture, including the Bhagavad Gita must be understood: “What is of entirely permanent value is that which besides being universal has been experienced, lived and seen with a higher than the intellectual vision.”

Sri Aurobindo sets here therefore a measuring rod that takes us beyond the divisions of the mind and the disputes that are engendered by the intellect. It is necessary to find that which originates in higher levels of consciousness and which therefore has the capacity to unify the apparently conflicting aspects we find at the mental level.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 1, Our Demand and Need from the Gita, pp. 2-3,