The Status of Nirvana In the Yoga of the Gita

A great deal of confusion of meaning occurs through the use of terms that have varying meanings based on context. One such term is “nirvana”. The primary sense of this word has been developed through the use of it in the Buddhist tradition. In both cases, it implies a status of conscious awareness that is separated from involvement with the senses, the objects of the senses and the human ego-sense and intellect attached to and acting up (and being acted upon) the objects of the senses. Whether or not we have correctly understood and applied the term in the actual sense meant by those practitioners who experienced and reported those states of consciousness, we do get a general sense that the status of nirvana is one that is different than and opposed to our normal human way of relating to our existence.

It is therefore somewhat confusing to us to find an extensive section of the Gita devoted to attainment of “nirvana” by the seeker practicing yoga, as it appears to directly contradict and conflict with the Gita’s emphasis on continued action, and eventually the application and integration of the path of works and the path of devotion. Sri Aurobindo has taken up this apparent contradiction: “The mark of this status is the supreme peace of a calm self-extinction….and, as if to make it quite clear that it is not the Buddhist’s Nirvana in a blissful negation of being, but the Vedantic loss of a partial in a perfect being that it intends, the Gita uses always the phrase brahma-nirvana, extinction in the Brahman; and the Brahman here certainly seems to mean the Immutable, to denote primarily at least the inner timeless Self withdrawn from active participation even though immanent in the externality of Nature.”

The Gita cannot be appreciated in its integrative viewpoint if we pick it apart and focus on just one section or passage. It is clear that the ability to shift the standpoint away from fixation on the manifestation, the Kshara Purusha’s standpoint, to the separated and uninvolved standpoint of the Akshara Purusha is an essential step in the process of liberation that allows us to transcend our bondage to the Gunas of Nature; however, achievement of this shift is not the end-goal, but a milepost along the way toward that greater consciousness that can hold both inaction and action together without opposition and without conflict in the awareness of the Purushottama.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 23, Nirvana and Works in the World, pg. 224