The Gita’s Solution to the Apparent Contradictions Between Soul and Nature

The Gita does not attempt to cut the knot of the difficulty of the apparent irreconcilable nature of Spirit and the manifested world of Nature. It does not accept that the world is an illusion, maya, and that therefore the solution would be to abandon it to live in the eternal silence and stillness of the Spirit. Nor does it accept the idea that the abstract life of the uninvolved soul is better or higher than the life of participation in the world. The Gita’s stance rather is that when we achieve the integrative standpoint, the manifested life and the spirit are seen and experienced as one “omnipresent reality” as Sri Aurobindo has elsewhere named it.

It is interesting to note that some Buddhist commentaries hold that samsara and nirvana are both “here” and “present” at the same time; it is a matter of standpoint. These commentaries essentially recognize that the consciousness that integrates and unifies does not create a duality from which we need to escape.

The Isha Upanishad in verse 7 sums it up: “He in whom it is the Self-Being that has become all existences that are Becomings, for he has the perfect knowledge, how shall he be deluded, whence shall he have grief who sees everywhere oneness?” (Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, pg. 21, Isha Upanishad, v. 7)

Sri Aurobindo explains the Gita’s position thus: “When we transcend this Maya, the world does not disappear, it only changes its whole heart of meaning. In the spiritual vision we find not that all this does not really exist, but rather that all is, but with a sense quite other than its present mistaken significance: all is self and soul and nature of the Godhead, all is Vasudeva. The world for the Gita is real, a creation of the Lord, a power of the Eternal, a manifestation from the Parabrahman, and even this lower nature of the triple Maya is a derivation from the supreme divine Nature.”

“…the Gita insists that we can and should, while we live, be conscious in the self and its silence and yet act with power in the world of Nature. And it gives the example of the Divine himself who is not bound by necessity of birth, but free, superior to the cosmos, and yet abides eternally in action….”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 425-426

Practical and Logical Contradictions To Oneness

In all aspects of our daily life we are met with apparent contradictions. When we wake in the morning and see the sunrise, or watch a sunset in the evening, we are faced with one of the most obvious examples of a contradiction that opposes our visual experience to what our logical intellect, tutored by scientific observation, tells us is taking place. Similarly, for countless centuries human beings have considered the world to be flat, based on what they could observe, and until it was proven otherwise, they felt that we would simply fall off the edge if we went too far. It is a contradiction that bodies heavier than water can float, or that they can fly in the air, but somehow science tells us that our own logical inference and normal observation notwithstanding, these things are possible, and today we take them for granted as the basis of our ability to travel the world.

So it is no surprise that when we come to the question of the relation of the two aspects of the Purusha, the Akshara and the Kshara, we are faced with similar contradictions that treat them as if they are irreconcilable opposites, and the only solution to their relation is to accept either one, or the other, as real, and treat the opposite one as unreal, an illusion, a dream, or some kind of imaginary experience. Sri Aurobindo addresses this: “The Eternal is other than this mobile subjective and objective experience, there is a greater consciousness…:and yet at the same time all this is the Eternal, all this is the perennial self-seeing of the Self…. The Eternal has become all existences…; as the Swetaswatara puts it, ‘Thou art this boy and yonder girl and that old man walking supported on his staff,’–even as in the Gita the Divine says that he is Krishna and Arjuna and Vyasa and Ushanas, and the lion and the Ashwattha tree, and consciousness and intelligence and all qualities and the self of all creatures. But how are these two the same, when they seem not only so opposite in nature, but so difficult to unify in experience? For when we live in the mobility of the becoming, we may be aware of but hardly live in the immortality of timeless self-existence. And when we fix ourselves in timeless being, Time and Space and circumstance fall away from us and begin to appear as a troubled dream in the Infinite.”

The limited mental solution, which wants “either/or” answers, has most often decided that the world is an illusion, essentially unreal and transitory, and needs to be abandoned to attain the Eternal. This is not the solution that the Gita is willing to accept.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 424-425

Reconciling the Mobile and the Immobile

The Gita diverges from the Sankyha at this point, and it is an important distinction. The Sankhya holds that there is a duality between Purusha and Prakriti; one is either involved with Nature, or separated into a transcending consciousness of the pure silent witness. Thus, one is either fully involved in the manifested world and its beings, forces and actions, in the standpoint of the Kshara Purusha; or else, one abandons this whirl of existence to experience the silence, immutability, and eternity of the Akshara Purusha. This concept led eventually to what Sri Aurobindo calls ‘the refusal of the ascetic’, and the tendency among spiritually moved individuals throughout the world and throughout history to step back from the world, enter the cave, the desert or the monastery and concentrate on achieving the standpoint of the silent, immobile Self.

Sri Aurobindo reminds us that the Isha Upanishad (and others) provided a path to reconcile and harmonize the two statuses of consciousness. The Gita picks up on this unifying line of understanding and recognizes that a true understanding accepts the Oneness of both aspects. “But after all, the final experience is that of a unity of all beings which is not merely a community of experience, a common subjection to one force of Nature, but a oneness in the spirit, a vast identity of conscious being beyond all this endless variety of determination, behind all this apparent separativism of relative existence.”

“…it affirms with a strong insistence that the Akshara is the one self of all these many souls, and it is therefore evident that these two spirits are a dual status of one eternal and universal existence.”

“…the Isha tells us that Brahman is both the mobile and the immobile, is the One and the Many, is the Self and all existences…, is the Knowledge and the Ignorance, is the eternal unborn status and also the birth of existences, and that to dwell only on one of these things to the rejection of its eternal counterpart is a darkness of exclusive knowledge or a darkness of ignorance. It too insists like the Gita that man must know and must embrace both and learn of the Supreme in his entirety…, in order to enjoy immortality and live in the Eternal.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 423-424

The Relation of the Kshara to the Akshara Purusha

The relation of the Kshara Purusha and the Akshara Purusha is described by Sri Aurobindo through a comparison with the elements of the natural world. The power of wind moves and pervades the element of ether. Similarly, the Kshara Purusha, manifest, mobile and active pervades the Akshara Purusha, unmanifest, unmoving and inactive. These are not two separate and independent beings, but two aspects of one being, with the motion taking place against the unmoving background that is always there but not always perceptible by us because our view is oriented outwards and distracted by the motion, action and forms of the manifested world.

“The Kshara spirit visible to us as all natural existence and the totality of all existences moves and acts pervadingly in the immobile and eternal Akshara. This mobile Power of Self acts in that fundamental stability of Self….”

The Akshara “…in its highest status… is an unmanifest beyond even the unmanifest principle of the original cosmic Prakriti, Avyakta, and, if the soul turns to this Immutable, the hold of cosmos and Nature falls away from it and it passes beyond birth to an unchanging eternal existence.”

“These two then are the two spirits we see in the world; one emerges in front in its action, the other remains behind it steadfast in that perpetual silence from which the action comes and in which all actions cease and disappear into timeless being, Nirvana.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pg. 423

The Immobile Spirit Outside of Nature (Akshara Purusha)

While one bird eats the fruit of the true, the other one stays unattached, uninvolved and unmoved. This is the Akshara Purusha. Sri Aurobindo describes this aspect of the Self: “This Spirit is eternal, always the same, never changed or affected by manifestation, the one, the stable, a self-existence undivided and not even seemingly divided by the division of things and powers in Nature, inactive in her action, immobile in her motion. It is the Self of all and yet unmoved, indifferent, intangible, as if all these things which depend upon it were not-self, not its own results and powers and consequences, but a drama of action developed before the eye of an unmoved unparticipating spectator. For the mind that stages and shares in the drama is other than the Self which indifferently contains the actin. This spirit is timeless, though we see it in Time; it is unextended in Space, though we see it as if pervading space. We become aware of it in proportion as we draw back from out inward, or look behind the action and motion for something that is eternal and stable, or get away from time and its creation to the uncreated, away from phenomenon to being, from the personal to impersonality, from becoming to unalterable self-existence. This is the Akshara, the immutable in the mutable, the immobile in the mobile, the imperishable in things perishable. Or rather, since there is only an appearance of pervasion, it is the immutable, immobile and imperishable in which proceeds all the mobility of mutable and perishable things.”

The call of the ascetic, the abandonment of life, action and the fruits of desire, is validated by the overwhelming experience if once the Soul comes in contact with this Akshara Purusha. At once, the world of action is convicted of a lesser, unreal status in the face of that experience. This the foundation of the Truth of the anchorite seeking realisation and liberation in silent deep meditation. While we may recognize this as a partial and incomplete Truth that does not account for the world and its manifestation, we can at least appreciate that those who get a taste of this experience are responding to something real and palpable that is an aspect of the Truth and the Reality that we deny at our own peril.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 422-423

The Soul Active In Nature (Kshara Purusha)

The Gita proposes that there is a triple status of the soul. The Kshara Purusha is the soul involved in the activities of Nature. The Akshara Purusha is the soul in the status of being uninvolved, detached and unchanged by the activities of Nature. The Purushottama, the Supreme Soul, is the all-encompassing and overarching status that holds both of the others within itself in harmony, while exceeding them in its embracing Oneness.

The Upanishads refer to the “two birds” sitting on the common tree, one of which eats the sweet fruit, while the other looks on without eating. This image represents the statuses of the Kshara and the Akshara Purushas.

In order to truly understand how this triple status actually works, Sri Aurobindo takes them up serially, starting with the Kshara Purusha, the soul active in Nature. We see in Nature the manifestation of an Eternal, Supernal Being or Consciousness that manifests itself through all the forms, forces, actions, and through Time, Space and Circumstance, while still being beyond and above and Master of this all. The consciousness we recognize in Nature is the soul becoming self-aware because in reality, it is, as with all Nature, a portion of the Eternal, representing the Supreme Consciousness manifested and experiencing the forms and actions. “The inherent Power in her is yet other than what it thus seems to be; for, hidden in its truth, manifest in its appearances, it is the Kshara, the universal Soul, the spirit in the mutability of cosmic phenomenon and becoming, one with the Immutable and the Supreme. We have to arrive at the hidden truth behind its manifest appearances; we have to discover the Spirit behind these veils and to see all as the One, …individual, universal, transcendent. But this is a thing impossible to achieve with any completeness of inner reality, so long as we live concentrated in the inferior Nature. For in this lesser movement Nature is an ignorance, a Maya; she shelters the Divine within its folds and conceals him from herself and her creatures.”

“In the Kshara taken alone as a thing in itself, the mutable universe apart from the undivided Immutable and the Transcendent, there is no completeness of knowledge, no completeness of our being and therefore no liberation.”

The ability of the Divine to manifest a creation that is One and yet can be experienced from numerous individual standpoints “as if they are separate” is the sense of the play that brings about the Kshara Purusha. It is a form of exclusive concentration that sees the details without paying attention to the larger Existence.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 421-422

Achieving a Status Beyond the Gunas

The problem with the concept that we are either involved and bound by the action of the Gunas in the world-action; or else, we achieve liberation by a renunciation of the world and its activities, is that it requires us to accept a duality with an unbridgeable gulf. While the limited mentality may feel at home with the idea of this opposition and duality, the spiritual vision that sees everywhere oneness cannot possibly accept this as a final credible solution.

Western philosophers, at least from the time of Hegel, have been abandoning the notion that there are such irreconcilable opposites. They posit a “thesis” and an “antithesis” as the two aspects that appear to be opposites, but then search for the larger “synthesis” that reconciles the two smaller terms into a unified field that incorporates both.

The Gita, long before Western philosophy sorted out this question, provided the larger “synthesis” that unifies the silent, unmoving, uninvolved Akshara Purusha with the involved, bound and active Kshara Purusha, and it named this higher term the Purushottama, or, generally translated “the highest or supreme Purusha.” It is this status that allows the soul to partake of both aspects without having to abandon either one entirely.

Sri Aurobindo cites the Gita: “…for the Gita says at the close, always returning to this one final note, ‘He also who loves and strives after Me with an undeviating love and adoration, passes beyond the three Gunas and he too is prepared for becoming the Brahman.’ This ‘I’ is the Purushottama who is the foundation of the silent Brahman and of immortality and imperishable spiritual existence and of the eternal Dharma and of an utter bliss of happiness. There is a status then which is greater than the peace of the Akshara as it watches unmoved the strife of the Gunas. There is a highest spiritual experience and foundation above the immutability of the Brahman, there is an eternal Dharma greater than the rajasic impulsion to works…, there is an absolute delight which is untouched by rajasic suffering and beyond the sattwic happiness, and these things are found and possessed by dwelling in the being an dpower of the Purushottama. But since it is acquired by Bhakti, its status must be that divine delight, Ananda, in which is experienced the union of utter love and possessing oneness, the crown of Bhakti. And to rise into that Ananda, into that inexpressible oneness must be the completion of spiritual perfection and the fulfilment of the eternal immortalising Dharma.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 14, Above the Gunas, pp. 419-420

The Signs of the Liberated Man

Liberation in the Gita’s view is an inward state of awareness that is above the action of the Gunas, not bound by them, although the individual still participates in their action in the world. Arjuna therefore wants to know how one can recognize such an individual. What is the distinguishing set of characteristics that signify someone who is “above the Gunas” as opposed to someone who remains bound by their action.

As could be expected, Sri Krishna does not provide outward signs, but inward indications, as Sri Aurobindo recounts: “The sign, says Krishna, is that equality of which I have so constantly spoken; the sign is that inwardly he regards happiness and suffering alike, gold and mud and stone as of equal value and that to him the pleasant and the unpleasant, praise and blame, honour and insult, the faction of his friends and the faction of his enemies are equal things. He is steadfast in a wise imperturbable and immutable inner calm and quietude. He initiates no action, but leaves all works to be done by the Gunas of Nature. Sattwa, Rajas or Tamas may rise or cease in his outer mentality and his physical movements with their results of enlightenment, of impulsion to works or of inaction and the clouding over of the mental and nervous being, but he does not rejoice when this comes or that ceases, nor on the other hand does he abhor or shrink from the operation or the cessation of these things. He has seated himself in the conscious light of another principle than the nature of the Gunas and that greater consciousness remains steadfast in him, above these powers and unshaken by their motions like the sun above clouds to one who has risen into a higher atmosphere. He from that height sees that it is the Gunas that are in process of action and that their storm and calm are not himself but only a movement of Prakriti; his self is immovable above and his spirit does not participate in that shifting mutability of things unstable. This is the impersonality of the Brahmic status; for that higher principle, that greater wide high-seated consciousness…, is the immutable Brahman.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 14, Above the Gunas, pp. 418-419

Attaining Liberation From the Bondage to the Modes Of Nature

The limiting mind which tries to see everything in black and white will take the Gita’s statement that we must obtain liberation from our bondage to the action of the three Gunas, and, combining it with the statement that the entire development and activity of the world of nature is under the control of the action of the Gunas, determine that we must therefore abandon all life and works in order to achieve liberation. And in fact, this approach has been widely seen and adopted in the past as the path to liberation, leading to what Sri Aurobindo elsewhere has called “the refusal of the ascetic”. There is of course a potent rationale behind this approach, but in the end, it is not the approach recommended by the Gita! Arjuna has raised this option and been told to remain in the world and carry out his destined tasks.

As we have seen, the Gita relies on achievement of the synthesizing standpoint that can harmonize and reconcile the apparent contradictions faced by the mental consciousness. It is from this standpoint, then that we find the clue to achieving liberation from bondage while remaining active in the field within which all action is controlled by the Gunas. The solution lies, not in abandoning the Gunas, but in achieving a standpoint that allows the soul to be free from their bondage. Sri Aurobindo explains: “Here comes in the importance of its insistence on the abandonment of the fruits; for it is the desire of the fruits which is the most potent cause of the soul’s bondage and by abandoning it the soul can be free in action. Ignorance is the result of tamasic action, pain the consequence of rajasic works, pain of reaction, disappointment, dissatisfaction or transience, and therefore in attachment to the fruits of this kind of activity attended as they are with these undesirable accompaniments there is no profit. But of works rightly done the fruit is pure and sattwic, the inner result is knowledge and happiness. Yet attachment even to these pleasurable things must be entirely abandoned, first, because in the mind they are limited and limiting forms and, secondly, because, since Sattwa is constantly entangled with and besieged by Rajas and Tamas which may at any moment overcome it, there is a perpetual insecurity in their tenure.”

The Gita recommends further that it is not enough to give up the fruits of one’s work, although that is the powerful first step. One must eventually be able to give up even the attachment to the work itself, whether from motivations that are virtuous or uplifting, or not, and “give up the action itself to the Lord of works and be only a desireless and equal-minded instrument of his will.”

“To see that the modes of Nature are the whole agency and cause of our works and to know and turn to that which is supreme above the Gunas, is the way to rise above the lower nature. Only so can we attain to the movement and status of the Divine, madbhava, by which free from subjection to birth and death and their concomitants, decay, old age and suffering, the liberated soul shall enjoy in the end immortality and all that is eternal.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 14, Above the Gunas, pp. 417-418

The Bondage of the Soul To the Lower Nature

The question arises as to how the eternal Soul of existence can become bound in the lower nature and its activities. When we look at the original Sat-Chit-Ananda we see infinite Existence, Consciousness and Bliss. The question really can only be answered if we look at the process of differentiation and the creation of forms that takes place to achieve the manifestation of the world in the first place. As an intermediate phase, there is the level of the Gnosis or, as the Upanishads name it, the Vijnana. This level retains the full awareness and knowledge of the Oneness, while at the same time developing the multitude of forms and forces and setting each one in motion to carry out its own characteristic action within the larger play that is being created. The process of this creation leads to the development of first, the “overmental” state of consciousness in which the power of exclusive concentration becomes possible, and then the world consisting of the interplay of mind, life and matter which we inhabit, where exclusive concentration is perfected in an ultimate form of self-involvement and “ignorance” that makes up the state of dense Matter.

As we tend to live primarily in the consciousness of mind-life-matter, we identify ourselves with that state of existence, and through the process of exclusive concentration, we lose contact with and awareness of our true spiritual, eternal and infinite nature.

As we become involved in these forms, we become “attached”. This is what leads to bondage, as Sri Aurobindo describes the Gita’s view on this: “The reason, says the Gita, is our attachment to the Gunas and to the result of their workings. Sattwa, it says, attaches to happiness, Rajas attaches to action, Tamas covers up the knowledge and attaches to negligence of error and inaction.”

“…the soul, by attachment to the enjoyment of the Gunas and their results concentrates its consciousness on the lower and outward action of life, mind and body in Nature, imprisons itself in the form of these things and becomes oblivious of its own greater consciousness behind in the spirit, unaware of the free power and scope of the liberating Purusha. Evidently, in order to be liberated and perfect we must get back from these things, away from the Gunas and above them and return to the power of that free spiritual consciousness above Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 14, Above the Gunas, pp. 417