“Action Cleaves Not To a Man”

Those who recognise the illusory nature of the forms, forces and actions in the world and wish to find salvation through identification with the Supreme, have often resorted to the simplest response; namely, abandon life and action and the working of desire, focus on the silent, immutable Self of existence, and essentially “cut the knot” of the problem. This approach is the basis of the various meditation or retreat based paths toward salvation.

Others take the approach that action of some sort is necessary, but that there are those actions that are to be considered better than others, and in particular certain types of action, such as undertaking warfare, are to be strictly avoided. Within the context of this implied hierarchy of action, salvation is possible. This is the path that is generally considered to be salvation through “good works”.

The Gita takes an approach that avoids both of these limitations, starting from the standpoint of the Divine purpose in the world rather than from the limited human interpretation of that purpose. In that sense, the Gita amplifies the statement of the Isha Upanishad: “Doing verily works in this world one should wish to live a hundred years. Thus it is in thee and not otherwise than this; action cleaves not to a man.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, pg. 19, Isha Upanishad, v. 2)

The Gita makes it clear that Arjuna must act, and that it is not out of personal desire or personal aggrandizement that he must act, but as an instrument of a larger Divine Purpose. As Sri Aurobindo explains: “A violent crisis in the destinies of the race has been brought about not by any blind motion of forces or solely by the confused clash of human ideas, interests, passions, egoisms, but by a Will which is behind these outward appearances. This truth Arjuna must be brought to see; he must learn to act impersonally, imperturbably as the instrument not of his little personal desires and weak human shrinkings, but of a vaster and more luminous Power, a greater all-wise divine and universal Will. He must act impersonally and universally in a high union of his soul with the inner and outer Godhead…, in a calm Yoga with his own supreme Self and the informing Self of the universe.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 16, The Fullness of Spiritual Action, pp. 436-437

Seeking a New Standard of Conduct and Action

For most people, the path of one’s life is laid out based on various standards or rules that create a framework within which we are comfortable to act. For some, this is a particular career based on natural propensities or family focus. For some the rule of life is simply one of basic survival, while for others there are questions of carrying out a duty, to one’s family, one’s country, one’s religion, etc. Some people have developed a set of principles which they treat as a duty, in terms of the manner in which they relate to others or treat the work before them. An example of this is the dictum of the Dalai Lama who asks us to live a life of benevolent compassion towards others.

Individuals judge their success and value in their own lives based on how well they carry out their own standard. Those who see a patriotic duty to support and protect one’s country place their lives in jeopardy, yet they do so with a will and a sense of moral “rightness” about their actions.

In the case of Arjuna, his moral crisis came about because he suddenly awakened to conflicting principles and “dharmas” that gave him no clear line of action. He had set about being the protagonist in the war to uphold honor, protect family and society; yet he was faced with a circumstance where his action would destroy his extended family and all those for whom one would wish to fight, elders, teachers, respected leaders of society. He could not, at that moment, reconcile the need to destroy the family and society in order to protect the family and society! At that moment, he also became acutely aware of the higher dharma of non-violence and harmlessness practiced by the sages, and conflating this with the conflict he had already recognized, he stated “I will not fight”. Sri Aurobindo points out: “Nor will the rule of Dharma, of ethical right, serve any better; for there is here a conflict of Dharmas.”

It is actually in times of internal conflict, when we see a breakdown of the clear-cut sense of values, when we experience the need for a new standard, a new direction, a new teaching, that individuals can progress to a new, higher standard. Arjuna is in just such a situation and thus, he is ready for the teaching that Sri Krishna is prepared to provide.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 16, The Fullness of Spiritual Action, pg. 436

The Gita’s Solution to Achieving Liberation While Doing Work In the World

The consistent focus of the Gita, regardless of the various issues it has taken up and woven into its line of development, is the reconciliation of works with liberation, the unification of the spiritual consciousness separated from the life effort and that effort itself. The Gita began with the crisis faced by Arjuna as he was psychologically and emotionally overpowered by the intensity of the realisation that he was about to go into battle and have to destroy the lives of family, friends, respected teachers, leaders and elders. Sri Krishna set himself the task of both liberating Arjuna from the anguish and psychological paralysis he was experiencing, while concurrently providing him a basis upon which he could act and carry out his mission. Along the way, Arjuna was provided insight into the true nature of existence, the reconciling principle that united the silent and uninvolved principle that was the basis of the realisation of the renunciates with the involved, active consciousness that participated in the life of the world.

Solutions to the problem that were current at the time had to be reviewed and addressed, as they colored Arjuna’s reaction to the situation. Having renounced the idea of fighting and killing for the sake of fame, kingdom, wealth, power, Arjuna determined that he should not fight, but should rather allow himself to be killed if it came to that. He understood for a moment the insight that the ascetics and renunciates recognize, that the fruits of action in the world are transitory, painful and illusory. Sri Krishna therefore had to take up the question and show Arjuna that the true liberation is not dependent on abandonment of one’s destined work.

Sri Aurobindo summarizes the approach the Gita proposes: “To live inwardly calm, detached, silent in the silence of the impersonal and universal Self and yet do dynamically the works of dynamic Nature, and more largely, to be one with the Eternal within us and to do all the will of the Eternal in the world expressed through a sublimated force, a divine height of the personal nature uplifted, liberated, universalised, made one with God-nature,–this is the Gita’s solution.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 16, The Fullness of Spiritual Action, pp. 435-436

The Integral Non-Dualism of the Gita

Sri Aurobindo, in his magnum opus The Life Divine resolves the contradiction between the way of the ascetic and the creed of the materialist by declaring that the Truth of existence incorporates the ideals sought by each in a unifed whole which he called “Reality Omnipresent”.

There are certain traditions in the Buddhists Tantra, particularly the Mahamudra, Dzogchen, the “great symbol” that recognize that Samsara, the world of multiplicity, the illusory world operating on the principle of desire, and Nirvana, the world of unity and absence of desire, are both present “here”.

The Gita itself integrates the Upanishadic dicta of “One Without a Second” and “All This is the Brahman” by its unwavering focus on the Oneness of all existence. The Gita does not recognize the apparent duality as being ultimately real. Whatever the apparent differences, the Divine Spirit occupies the world, makes up the entire multiplicity of forms and forces while at the same time it is the immobile, the silent, the uninvolved witness of existence. The “two birds” of the Upanishads, one eating the fruit of the tree, the other observing unmoved are ONE existence to the Gita.

Sri Aurobindo describes the Gita’s view: “This utmost undividing Monism sees the one as the one even in the multiplicities of Nature, in all aspects, as much in the reality of self and of cosmos as in that greatest reality of the supracosmic which is the source of self and the truth of the cosmos and is not bound either by any affirmation of universal becoming or by any universal or absolute negation.”

For the Gita, this is not a truth of philosophy, but a truth to be lived, experienced and understood with all the faculties. The truth is not something of the mind, but of the being. “Absolutely to know it, to seize it in knowledge and feeling and force and experience is to be perfected in the transformed understanding, divinely satisfied in heart and successful in the supreme sense and objective of all will and action and works. It is the way to be immortal to rise towards the highest divine nature and to assume the eternal Dharma.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pg. 434

The Gita’s Way of Salvation

Some individuals are drawn toward the immobile, silent Akshara Purusha, and they pursue a path through renunciation of the world and silent absorption intended to bring them to a state of union with that aspect of the divine existence. Others are fully involved in the life of the world and try to find their fulfilment of the Kshara Purusha within the scope and based on the terms of that life. Each tends to hold the other as following an illusory option. The Gita’s position that the Purushottama is greater than each of them and reconciles their apparent opposition implies that neither of these, with their focus on one aspect or the other, is able to fully provide the salvation the Gita asks us to seek .

It can be noted that the theme of an integrated realisation incorporating two types of knowledge arises already in the Upanishads. The Isha Upanishad in particular makes this point clear: “Into a blind darkness they enter who follow after the Ignorance, they as if into a greater darkness who devote themselves to the Knowledge alone….He who knows That as both in one, the Knowledge and the Ignorance, by the Ignorance crosses beyond death and by the Knowledge enjoys Immortality.” (Isha Upanishad, v. 9, 11)

“Into a blind darkness they enter who follow after the Non-Birth, they as if into a greater darkness who devote themselves to the Birth alone….He who know That as both in one, the Birth and the dissolution of Birth, by the dissolution crosses beyond death and by the Birth enjoys Immortality.” (Isha Upanishad v. 12, 14)

Sri Aurobindo takes up the point of the Gita: “But the Divine is neither wholly the Kshara, nor wholly the Akshara. He is greater than the immutable Self and he is much greater than the Soul of mutable things. If he is capable of being both at once, it is because he is other than they…, the Purushottama above all cosmos and yet extended in the world and extended in the Veda, in self-knowledge and in cosmic experience. And whoever thus knows and sees him as the Purushottama, is no longer bewildered whether by the world-appearance or by the separate attraction of these two apparent contraries.”

The knowledge which unites the two aspects, “…restores the integral reality of the Divine.” “Divine in the equality of his imperturbable self-existence, one in it with all objects and creatures, he brings that boundless equality, that deep oneness down into his mind and heart and life and body and founds on it in an indivisible integrality the trinity of divine love, divine works and divine knowledge. This is the Gita’s way of salvation.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 433-434

and Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, pp. 21-23, Isha Upanishad

The Divine Soul In All Existence

There is a proverb that illustrates the principle that exclusive concentration on details does not allow us to see the larger sense: “Cannot see the forest for the trees.” Similarly, the soul living in the world of manifestation sees all the different forms and does not see or recognize the divine Spirit that has entered into all of them, created them, and joined them together in Oneness.

A first step is to begin to recognize that the entire manifestation is bound together and each element depends on the others. We see that changes in climate affect various forms of life, and that disruption in one area harms another. Predators, for instance, depend for their health and survival on a healthy and abundant population of their prey. A change in sea temperature that kills off the plankton, for instance, would have a cascading effect on the food chain in the oceans. We see plants that only survive due to pollination of a particular type of butterfly. Everywhere the “eye that sees” can identify the inherent Oneness of the creation. This vision prepares us then for the next step, to recognize the Divine Spirit inherent in the entire creation and One beyond the individual “details”.

Sri Aurobindo discusses the issue: “But the identity of the Lord and the soul in mutable Nature is hidden from us by outward appearance and lost in the crowding mobile deceptions of that Nature. And those who allow themselves to be governed by the figures of Nature, the figure of humanity or any other form, will never see it, but will ignore and despise the Divine lodged in the human body. Their ignorance cannot perceive him in his coming in and his going forth or in his staying and enjoying and assumption of quality, but sees only what is there visible to the mind and senses, not the greater truth which can only be glimpsed by the eye of knowledge. Never can they have sight of him, even if they strive to do so, until they learn to put away the limitations of the outward consciousness and build in themselves their spiritual being, create for it, as it were, a form in their nature.”

“It is the Divine who has entered into this form of earth and is the spirit of its material force and sustains by his might these multitudes.”

“In other words, the Divine is at once the Soul of matter and the Soul of life and the Soul of mind as well as the Soul of the supramental light that is beyond mind and its limited reasoning intelligence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 431-432

The Eternal Principle of the Multiplicity

The method of cutting the knot of desire and entering into a silent, immobile awareness to escape the bondage of the manifestation does not represent the complete picture. If it had done so, then the approach recommended by the renunciates who abandon all action in the world would be the preferred and direct method of liberation. The Gita, however, while admitting the validity of this line of approach, does not accept it as the sole, or even the most preferable method. The reason is that it does not take into account the reality and purpose of the manifested creation; treating it rather as something of an illusion or a lesser reality.

The Gita recognizes that there is a Truth, and not a lesser Truth, in the manifested universe, the world of the multiplicity. Sri Aurobindo explains the Gita’s view: “And what then is this soul in Nature? This spirit, too, this Kshara, this enjoyer of our mutable existence is the Purushottama; it is he in his eternal multiplicity, that is the Gita’s answer.” “It is an eternal portion of Me that becomes the Jiva in a world of Jivas.”

“…it means that each soul, each being in its spiritual reality is the very Divine, however partial its actual manifestation of him in Nature. And it means too, if words have any sense, that each manifesting spirit, each of the many, is an eternal individual, an eternal unborn undying power of the one Existence. We call this manifesting spirit the Jiva, because it appears here as if a living creature in a world of living creatures, and we speak of this spirit in man as the human soul and think of it in the terms of humanity only. But in truth it is something greater than its present appearance and not bound to its humanity: it was a lesser manifestation than the human in its past, it can become something much greater than mental man in its future.”

“The individual spirit exists and ever existed beyond in the Eternal, for it is itself everlasting….”

“…this much is clear that there is an eternal, a real and not only an illusive principle of multiplicity in the spiritual being of the one divine Existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 430-431

The Eternal Ashwattha Tree and the Status of the Purushottama

The image of the Ashwattha tree is one which frequently recurs in the spiritual tradition of India, including the Bhagavad Gita. The physical Ashwattha, also known as the Banyan tree by some translators (or the Peepul Tree by others–both trees of the family Ficus), has a unique growing habit that makes it an excellent metaphor for the manifestation of the universe. The tree has deep roots, lush and ever-expanding branches and foliage, and sends down aerial roots from the branches as the tree expands its scope.

The expanding universe is pictured in this image as the eternal Ashwattha tree. Sri Aurobindo describes the eternal Ashwattha tree: “This tree of cosmic existence has no beginning and no end…, in space or in time; for it is eternal and imperishable…. The real form of it cannot be perceived by us in this material world of man’s embodiment, nor has it any apparent lasting foundation here; it is an infinite movement and its foundation is above in the supreme of the Infinite. Its principle is the ancient sempiternal urge to action, pravritti, which for ever proceeds without beginning or end from the original Soul of all existence…. Therefore its original source is above, beyond Time in the Eternal, but its branches stretch down below and it extends and plunges its other roots, well-fixed and clinging roots of attachment and desire with their consequences of more and more desire and an endlessly developing action, plunges them downward here into the world of men.” “The branches of this cosmic tree extend both below and above, below in the material, above in the supraphysical planes; they grow by the Gunas of Nature…. Man…so long as he enjoys the play of the Gunas and is attached to desire, is held in the coils of Pravritti, in the movement of birth and action, turns about constantly between the earth and the middle planes and the heavens and is unable to get back to his supreme spiritual infinitudes.”

The sages, the seekers of liberation, found a path to liberation by undertaking to break the rhythm of the urge to action, through cessation of the force of desire. “But for this purpose it is necessary to cut these long-fixed roots of desire by the strong sword of detachment and then to seek for that highest goal whence, once having reached it, there is no compulsion of return to mortal life. To be free from the bewilderment of this lower Maya, without egoism, the great fault of attachment conquered, all desires stilled, the duality of joy and grief cast away, always to be fixed in a pure spiritual consciousness, these are the steps of the way to that supreme Infinite.” “that is the highest status of the Purushottama, his supracosmic existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 429-430

The Single and Perfect Way To the Supreme Perfection

The Gita, in trying to deal with complex subjects and numerous questions raised by the mind of man when confronted with the meaning of life and the role of man in the world, has necessarily had to delve into a number of topics and look at things from a number of different angles. We can however, on the subject of how to achieve the perfect realisation and state of existence that the Gita sets as its goal, simplify matters quite a bit.

We all start from the human perspective and thus, with involvement in the standpoint of the Kshara Purusha dealing with the manifested world and the action of the Gunas of Nature. The Gita essentially tells us that we need to find a point of separation from our bondage or involvement in Nature so that we can gain some perspective and thereby move beyond subjection to the Gunas. Thus, the Gita proposes a methodology that should bring us to the realisation of the Akshara Purusha, uninvolved, silent and separate. The next step is to re-integrate the two standpoints in the higher synthesis provided by the Purushottama. This is done through the subsequent realisation that the manifestation is One with the Lord of the Creation, that there is also a personal aspect to balance the impersonal, and that devotion and the path of love therefore need to be combined with the equality and impersonality achieved in the first step to truly resolve the apparent conflict and bring about the supreme state of Oneness that can hold both the personal and the impersonal together at one time as one existence.

Sri Aurobindo describes the two steps: “To ascend into the divine nature…one must first fix oneself in a perfect spiritual equality and rise above the lower nature of the three Gunas. Thus transcending the lower Prakriti we fix ourselves in the impersonality, the imperturbable superiority to all action, the purity from all definition and limitation by quality which is one side of the manifested nature of the Purushottama.”


The Infinite has an eternal power, an unbeginning and unending action of his divine Nature, and in that action the miracle of soul personality emerges from a play of apparently impersonal forces…. This is possible because personality too is a character of the Divine and finds in the Infinite its highest spiritual truth and meaning. But the Person in the Infinite is not the egoistic, separative, oblivious personality of the lower Prakriti; it is something exalted, universal and transcendent, immortal and divine. That mystery of the supreme Person is the secret of love and devotion….The completeness of knowledge finds itself in this self-offering, this uplifting of our personal nature by love and adoration to the ineffable Master of our personality and its acts….”

“And having so stated this double requisite, equality in the one self , adoration of the one Lord, …the Gita proceeds now to unite the personal and the impersonal in the Purushottama and to define their relations. For the object of the Gita is to get rid of exclusions and separative exaggerations and fuse these two sides of knowledge and spiritual experience into a single and perfect way to the supreme perfection.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 427-429

The Purushottama Reconciles the Akshara and the Kshara Purusha Aspects

The Gita applies the paradigm of thesis–antithesis–synthesis in addressing the apparent contradictions between the status of the Akshara Purusha, silent, immobile, unaffected by life in the world, and that of the Kshara Purusha, involved in the activities of Nature, and apparently bound by desire and the action o the Gunas and suffering as a result. The Gita proposes another status, called the Purushottama, which incorporates both that of the Akshara and the Kshara, and finds in that new status the reconciling principle that allows them to be seen as complementary aspects, not contradictory and irreconcilable opposites.

As long as the soul is totally immersed in and involved in the actions of the Gunas of Nature, it cannot attain to the status of the Purushottama which would liberate it from its bondage to nature. Those who recognize this have tended in the past to focus on attainment of the status of the Akshara Purusha through abandonment of an active life and the fulfillment of desires. This method has the advantage of at least providing the soul some amount of distance from the day to day activities and thus, the potential to achieve a higher status. But attainment of the Akshara status does not address the other side of the manifestation, the world, the actions and forces and forms and the status of mastery within the world, which the Purushottama aspect adds to that of the Akshara.

Sri Aurobindo discusses the issue: “But yet is he more even than a highest unmanifest Akshara, more than any negative Absolute, neti, neti, because he is to be known also as the supreme Purusha who extends this whole universe in his own existence. He is a supreme mysterious All, an ineffable positive Absolute of all things here. He is the Lord in the Kshara, Purushottama not only there, but here in the heart of every creature, Ishwara….It is by knowing him at once in the Akshara and the Kshara, it is by knowing him as the Unborn who partially manifests himself in birth and even himself descends as the constant Avatar, it is by knowing him in his entirety…that the soul is easily released from the appearances of the lower Nature and returns by a vast sudden growth and broad immeasurable ascension into the divine being and supreme Nature. For the truth of the Kshara too is a truth of the Purushottama. The Purushottama is in the heart of every creature and is manifested in his countless Vibhutis; the Purushottama is the cosmic spirit in Time and it is he that gives the command to the divine action of the liberated human spirit. He is both Akshara and Kshara, and yet he is other because he is more and greater than either of these opposites.”

“But other than these two is the highest spirit called the supreme Self, who enters the three worlds and upbears them, the imperishable Lord.” “This verse is the keyword of the Gita’s reconciliation of these two apparently opposite aspects of our existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 426-427