From Mortal Nature to Immortal Being

Many translations of the Bhagavad Gita into English stumble over the subtlety and power of the descriptions found in the 13th chapter. They get bogged down in obscure philosophical statements when they are really very direct and clear. Sri Aurobindo’s translation of certain key verses appears in Essays on the Gita at this point and can be used as a touchstone for comparing Gita translations.

The section relates to the Reality of the Eternal Being as the sole existent and actor in the universe: “He becomes all that is in the universe; that which is in us is he and all that we experience outside ourselves is he. The inward and the outward, the far and the near, the moving and the unmoving, all this he is at once. He is the subtlety of the subtle which is beyond our knowledge, even as he is the density of force and substance which offers itself to the grasp of our minds. He is indivisible and the One, but seems to divide himself in forms and creatures and appears as all these separate existences. All things can get back in him, can return in the Spirit to the indivisible unity of their self-existence. All is eternally born from him, upborne in his eternity, taken eternally back into his oneness. He is the light of all lights and luminous beyond all the darkness of our ignorance. he is knowledge and the object of knowledge….This eternal Light is in the heart of every being; it is he who is the secret knower of the field…, and presides as the Lord in the heart of things over this province and over all these kingdoms of his manifested becoming and action.”

“When man sees this eternal and universal Godhead within himself, when he becomes aware of the soul in all things and discovers the spirit in Nature, when he feels all the universe as a wave mounting in this Eternity and all that is as the one existence, he puts on the light of Godhead and stands free in the midst of the worlds of Nature. A divine knowledge and a perfect turning with adoration to this Divine is the secret of the great spiritual liberation. Freedom, love and spiritual knowledge raise us from mortal nature to immortal being.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 13, The Field and Its Knower, pp. 402-403

The Universal Being In Whose Embrace We Live

Eventually, the crux of the change brought about by the spiritual consciousness is the release of the focus and concern for the outward forms and forces at work in the world, and a reorientation that moves the awareness to that of the Eternal which resides behind and above all the changes and modifications we see in outer things. The Shwetashwatara Upanishad has an extensive section devoted to the recognition that all that exists, all the forms we see, all the experiences we undergo, are the One Eternal Brahman. It then goes on to show the necessity for detachment to gain understanding of the Truth: “Two winged birds cling about a common tree, comrades, yoke-fellows; and one eats the sweet fruit of the tree, the other eats not, but watches. The Soul upon a common tree is absorbed and because he is not lord, grieves and is bewildered; but when he sees and cleaves to that other who is the Lord, he knows that all is His greatness and his sorrow passes away from him.”

Sri Aurobindo amplifies this: “The soul when it allows itself to be tyrannised over by the appearances of Nature, misses itself and goes whirling about in the cycle of the births and deaths of its bodies. There, passionately following without end the mutations of personality and its interests, it cannot draw back to the possession of its impersonal and unborn self-existence. To be able to do that is to find oneself and get back to one’s true being, that which assumes these births but does not perish with the perishing of its forms. To enjoy the eternity to which birth and life are only outward circumstances, is the soul’s true immortality and transcendence. That Eternal or that Eternity is the Brahman.”

The Brahman: “…a bodiless and million-bodied spirit whose hands of strength and feet of swiftness are on every side of us, whose heads and eyes and faces are those innumerable visages which we see wherever we turn, whose ear is everywhere listening to the silence of eternity and the music of the worlds, is the universal Being in whose embrace we live.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 13, The Field and Its Knower, pp. 401-402

and Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Shwetashwatara Upanishad, Chapter IV, verses 6-7, page 370

The Characteristics of a Sage

We tend to try to value people by outward characteristics, and we thereby tend to attribute wisdom to people who either have university degrees, or a large amount of money, or other “signs” of success in the world. But worldly success is not correlated to true wisdom; rather, it can be a major distraction which actually reduces the opportunity for the successful individual to achieve wisdom.

Sri Aurobindo provides us therefore an overview of the chief characteristics that identify the sage: “…his strong turning away of the heart from attachment to outward and worldly things, his inward and brooding spirit, his steady mind and calm equality, the settled fixity of his thought and will upon the greatest inmost truths, upon the things that are real and eternal.”

The sage also will tend to exhibit a high sattwic temperament, with “…a total absence of worldly pride and arrogance, a candid soul, a tolerant, long-suffering and benignant heart, purity of mind and body, tranquil firmness and steadfastness, self-control and a masterful government of the lower nature and the heart’s worship given to the Teacher, whether to the divine Teacher within or to the human Master in whom the divine wisdom is embodied….”

The sage naturally loosens the bonds of the ego and does not guide his actions by achievement of the fruits normally associated with action in the world, the aggrandisement of the ego in all manner of ways. The sage recognises further the inadequacy of a life focused solely on personal success, the family, and worldly goals, and he is able to recognise the emptiness of a life caught up in the chain of cause and effect and a life of suffering, disease, old age and death (as the Buddha stated the issue).

“Finally, there is a strong turn within towards the things that really matter, a philosophic perception of the true sense and large principles of existence, a tranquil continuity of inner spiritual knowledge and light, the Yoga of an unswerving devotion, love of God, the heart’s deep and constant adoration of the universal and eternal Presence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 13, The Field and Its Knower, pp. 400-401

The Real Illumination and the Only Wisdom

Sri Aurobindo reminds us that, while we delve into the details of the field of action, that the knowledge gained and applied here is limited and does not represent the entirety of knowledge. The sages of the Upanishads sought “that by knowing which all is known”, the unifying and comprehensive knowledge which reconciled Spirit and Nature. They repeatedly indicated to us “not this, not that” so that we would not become fixated on the limited focus on the world to the exclusion of the true wisdom that transcended the world. Sri Aurobindo describes it thus: “There is something beyond to be known…, and it is when the knower of the field turns from the field itself to learn of himself within it and of all that is behind its appearances that real knowledge begins, jnanam,–the true knowledge of the field no less than of the knower. That turning inward alone delivers from ignorance. For the farther we go inward, the more we seize on greater and fuller realities of things and grasp the complete truth both of God and the soul and of the world and its movements. Therefore, says the divine Teacher, it is the knowledge at once of the field and its knower…which is the real illumination and the only wisdom.”

The knowledge of the field, of the world of action is incomplete without the knowledge of the consciousness that is the “knower of the field”. “For both soul and nature are the Brahman, but the true truth of the world of Nature can only be discovered by the liberated sage who possesses also the truth of the spirit. One Brahman, one reality in Self and Nature is the object of all knowledge.”

Recognition of the various Upanishadic truths, held, not as opposites or conflicting principles, but as complementary concepts that help us to unify in our minds what is unified in reality: “One without a second” stands concurrently with “Not this, not that” and “All this is the Brahman.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 13, The Field and Its Knower, pp. 399-400

The Fundamental Nature and Characteristics of the Field of Action

The Gita does not try to recapitulate the detailed, extensive descriptions of the creation of the universe and the forces that are operative within it. These descriptions, set forth at great length in various Vedic and Upanishadic texts, are worthy of review in and of themselves, but the information they contain is not immediately pertinent to Sri Krishna’s teaching within the context of Arjuna’s crisis on the battlefield! Rather, the Gita provides a quick summary of the essential points in order to provide a basis for the active understanding required by Arjuna to implement the teaching.

Sri Aurobindo describes the Gita’s view of the constitution of the field of action, which is grounded in the Sankhya philosophical statement: “First there comes the indiscriminate unmanifest Energy; out of that has come the objective evolution of the five elemental states of matter; as also the subjective evolution of the senses, intelligence and ego; there are too five objects of the senses, or rather five different ways of sense cognizance of the world, powers evolved by the universal energy in order to deal with all the forms of things she has created from the five elemental states assumed by her original objective substance,–organic relations by which the ego endowed with intelligence and sense acts on the formations of the cosmos….”

The powers operative in the field of action are as follows: “…a general consciousness that first informs and then illumines the Energy in its works; there is a faculty of that consciousness by which the Energy holds together the relations of objects; there is too a continuity, a persistence of the subjective and objective relations of our consciousness with its objects….all these are common and universal powers at once of the mental, vital and physical Nature.”

The dualities arise as what are called “deformations” of the original Energy. “From the Vedantic point of view we may say that pleasure and pain are the vital or sensational deformations given by the lower energy to the spontaneous Ananda or delight of the spirit when brought into contact with her workings. And we may say from the same viewpoint that liking and disliking are the corresponding mental deformations given by her to the reactive Will of the spirit that determines its response to her contacts. These dualities are the positive and negative terms in which the ego-soul of the lower nature enjoys the universe.” The dualities, both positive and negative are limiting factors that restrict the free flow and enjoyment of that original Energy and are “…at the best insufficient and in character inferior to those of the true spiritual experience.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 13, The Field and Its Knower, pp. 398-399

The Field of Action of the Embodied Spirit

The Gita begins its detailed review of the relation of Purusha, the witness consciousness and Prakriti, the active Nature, by defining and describing the field of action within which the Purusha exists, perceives, supports and causes action to occur.

Each of us experiences the world starting from a limited being conscious within a complex body that exists within a larger biosphere and ecosphere of the world and universe at large. Our immediate attention however is generally focused on the limited “self” that we perceive as separated and defined within our scope of immediate awareness. The Gita however, while acknowledging and starting from this point, does not in fact limit its definition of the “field” to the individual, but clearly includes the larger frame as part of the “field”. Thus, it is Prakriti that is the focus of attention when we describe the field of action.

Sri Aurobindo outlines the Gita’s view on this aspect: “…the whole of existence must be regarded as a field of the soul’s construction and action in the midst of Nature. The Gita explains the ksetram, field, by saying that it is this body which is called the field of the spirit, and in this body there is someone who takes cognizance of the field, ksetrajna, the knower of Nature.”

“It is evident, however, from the definitions that succeed that it is not the physical body alone which is the field, but all too that the body supports, the working of nature, the mentality, the natural action of the objectivity and subjectivity of our being. This wider body too is only the individual field; there is a larger, a universal, a world-body, a world-field of the same knower.”

“…physically, it is a microcosm in a macrocosm, and the macrocosm too, the large world too, is a body and field inhabited by the spiritual knower.”

The triple status of the Purusha, the “knower of the field”, involves initially an identification with the apparently separated being active in the world, and everything is evaluated and perceived from that standpoint. This awareness can expand to take in the wider scope of Nature under various circumstances of conscious growth and spiritual development. The second status provides a separation from the entire world of Nature, and takes the standpoint of an uninvolved, aloof, unmoving and unmoved Purusha. The third status holds both of these opposite standpoints together in one unified whole.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 13, The Field and Its Knower, pg. 398

Summary of the Multiple Statuses of the Soul and Nature

Before proceeding to the detail level of interaction between the soul and nature, Sri Aurobindo provides us a quick summary of the Gita’s view on the triple status of the soul and the dual status of nature and the primary aspects of their interaction with one another. While this is ground previously covered, given the immediate relevancy to understand the granular level of detail that is about to begin, it is very useful to summarize this information once more before proceeding:

“The Soul which finds itself here embodied in Nature has a triple reality to its own self-experience. First, it is a spiritual being apparently subjected by ignorance to the outward workings of Prakriti and represented in her mobility as an acting, thinking, mutable personality, a creature of Nature, an ego.”

“Next when it gets behind all this action and motion, it finds its own higher reality to be an eternal and impersonal self and immutable spirit which has no other share in the action and movement than to support it by its presence and regard it as an undisturbed equal witness.”

“And, last, when it looks beyond these two opposite selves, it discovers a greater ineffable Reality from which both proceed, the Eternal who is Self of the self and the Master of all Nature and all action, and not only the Master, but the origin and the spiritual support and scene of these workings of his own energy in cosmos, and not only the origin and spiritual container, but the spiritual inhabitant in all forces, in all things and in all beings, and not only the inhabitant but, by the developments of this eternal energy of his being which we call Nature, himself all energies and forces, all things and all beings.”

Thus, the triple status of the soul. Turning then to the dual status of Nature: “This Nature itself is of two kinds, one derived and inferior, another original and supreme. There is a lower nature of the cosmic mechanism by association with which the soul in Prakriti lives in a certain ignorance born of Maya…, conceives of itself as an ego of embodied mind and life, works under the power of the modes of Nature, thinks itself bound, suffering, limited by personality, chained to the obligation of birth and the wheel of action, a thing of desires, transient, mortal, a slave of its own nature.”

“Above this inferior power of existence there is a higher divine and spiritual nature of its own true being in which this soul is for ever a conscious portion of the Eternal and Divine, blissful, free, superior to its mask of becoming, immortal, imperishable, a power of the Godhead.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 13, The Field and Its Knower, pp. 396-397