Important Terms in the Bhagavad Gita
October 09, 2020, 11:46 AM IST
A synopsis of the entire Bhagavad Gita is beyond the scope of this introduction, firstly because it will preempt your reading pleasure in discovering it for yourself, and secondly because it is impossible to summarize everything that Lord Krishna has said in it. However, a few common terms in the Bhagavad Gita and the rest of the Vedic literature are explained here, to help the reader easily grasp the concepts presented therein. God (Bhagavān): In the Vedic scriptures, including the Bhagavad Gita, God refers to the one Supreme Entity. He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and omnipresent. He is the Creator, Maintainer, and Dissolver of this creation. He possesses innumerable contradictory attributes at the same time. Thus, He is near and yet far, big and yet small, formless and yet possessing a form, without qualities and yet possessing innumerable qualities. People approach the Supreme Entity in three ways. Some relate to Him in His formless all-pervading aspect, which is called Brahman. Others choose to worship Him as the Paramātmā, who is seated within the hearts of all living beings. Yet others seek to worship Him in His personal form, as Bhagavān. All these three—Brahman, Paramātmā, and Bhagavān—are different aspects of the one Ultimate Being. Occasionally, out of His causeless grace, God descends upon the earth and engages in divine Pastimes to uplift the souls. Such a descension is called an Avatar. Shree Ram and Shree Krishna are both Avatars of the Supreme Divine Personality. Since God is all-powerful, He is not limited to one form; He can manifest in innumerable forms. But we must remember that all these are different forms of the one Divine Lord, and not different Gods. Soul (ātmā): The individual soul is a tiny fragmental part of God. It is spiritual in nature, and hence distinct from the material body. The presence of the soul imparts consciousness to the body, which is made from insentient matter. When the soul leaves, the body becomes dead matter again. The body is perishable, while the soul is eternal. This is a bit different from the Abrahamic concept of new souls being created with each birth of a human being upon the earth. According to the Vedic understanding, the soul is without beginning or end; it neither originated on birth nor will it be destroyed when the body dies. What we term as death in worldly parlance is merely the soul changing bodies. The Bhagavad Gita likens this to a person changing clothes to put on new ones. The soul is not free to choose its next birth, which is decided by God based upon the Law of Karma. Why has the material energy enveloped us in the first place? This is because we have turned our backs toward God. God is of the nature of light, while the material energy is of the nature of darkness. One who turns away from the light is naturally overcome by darkness. Likewise, the souls who have turned their backs toward Him have been covered by the material energy. Understanding the Vedic terminology regarding the word ātmā will be helpful. The soul that is in the embodied state is called jīvātmā because it keeps the body alive (jīvit). These words ātmā and jīvātmā are interchangeably used while referring to souls in the material realm. Along with the individual soul (jīvātmā), God is also seated within the body. He is called Paramātmā (Supreme Soul). He accompanies the jīvātmā life after life, into whichever bodily form it goes. The Paramātmā does not interfere with the activities of the living entity, but remains as a silent Witness. The jīvātmā is forgetful of its eternal friend and is struggling to enjoy the material energy. The word ātmā, which literally means soul, occurs regularly in the Gita, for a variety of usages. In some places, ātmā is used to refer to the jīvātmā (individual soul), without including the body, mind, and intellect (e.g. verse 6.20). At times, it refers to the entire personality of the living being, including the soul and the body, mind, intellect (e.g. verse 6.20). Occasionally, ātmā refers to the mind (e.g. verse 6.5); in a couple of places, ātmā is used for the intellect (e.g. verse 5.7). And in some places, it is used for Paramātmā (Supreme Soul/God, e.g. verse 6.29). Material Nature (Prakṛiti or Maya): The material energy, called prakṛiti, is not antithetical to God; rather it is one of His innumerable powers. At the time of dissolution, prakṛiti remains latent within the being of God. When He wishes to create the world, He glances at it, and it begins to unwind from its latent state. It then manifests the various gross and subtle elements of creation. While one aspect of the material energy, Maya, is responsible for creating the world, its second aspect is instrumental in keeping the souls bound to the samsara of life and death. Maya makes us forget our identity as divine souls, and puts us under the illusion of being the material body. Hence we pursue bodily pleasures in the world. After innumerable lifetimes of endeavoring in the material realm, the soul comes to the realization that the infinite divine bliss it seeks will not be attained from the world, but from God. Then, it must follow the path of Yog to reach the stage of perfection. When the soul achieves perfect union with God, it becomes liberated from the clutches of the material energy. Modes of Nature (Guṇas): The material energy has three constituent modes: sattva guṇa (mode of goodness), rajo guṇa (mode of passion), tamo guṇa (mode of ignorance). These guṇas exist in varying proportions in our personality and influence us. The mode of ignorance induces laziness, stupor, ignorance, anger, violence, and addiction. Thereby, it pulls the soul deeper into the darkness of material illusion. The mode of passion inflames the desires of the mind and senses, and induces one to endeavor passionately for fulfilling worldly ambitions. The mode of goodness illumines a person with knowledge and nourishes virtuous qualities, such as kindness, patience, and tolerance. It makes the mind peaceful and suitable for spiritual practice. A sādhak (spiritual practitioner) must strive to reduce the modes of ignorance and passion by cultivating the mode of goodness, and then transcend even sattva guṇa. God is transcendental to the three guṇas; by attaching the mind to Him we too can ascend to the transcendental platform. Yajña (Sacrifice): Generally, the term yajña refers to fire sacrifice. In the Bhagavad Gita, yajña includes all the prescribed actions laid down in the scriptures, when they are done as an offering to the Supreme. The elements of nature are integral parts of the system of God’s creation. All parts of the system naturally draw from and give back to the whole. The sun lends stability to the earth and provides heat and light necessary for life to exist. Earth creates food from its soil for our nourishment and also holds essential minerals in its womb for a civilized lifestyle. The air moves the life force in our body and enables transmission of sound energy. We humans too are an integral part of the entire system of God’s creation. The air that we breathe, the earth that we walk upon, the water that we drink, and the light that illumines our day, are all gifts of creation to us. While we partake of these gifts to sustain our lives, we also have our duties toward the integral system. The Bhagavad Gita states that we are obligated to participate with the creative force of nature by performing our prescribed duties in the service of God. That is the yajña God expects from us. Consider the example of a hand. It is an integral part of the body. It receives its nourishment—blood, oxygen, nutrients, etc.—from the body, and in turn, it performs necessary functions for the body. If the hand looks on this service as burdensome, and decides to get severed from the body, it cannot sustain itself for even a few minutes. It is in the performance of its yajña toward the body that the self-interest of the hand is also fulfilled. Similarly, we individual souls are tiny parts of the Supreme and we all have our role to play in the grand scheme of things. When we perform our yajña toward Him, our self-interest is naturally satiated. Sacrifice, or yajña, should be performed in divine consciousness as an offering to the Supreme Lord. However, people vary in their understanding, and hence perform sacrifice in different manners with dissimilar consciousness. Persons with lesser understanding, and wanting material rewards, make offerings to the celestial gods. Devatā (Celestial gods): These are beings that live in the higher planes of existence within this material world, called Swarg (the celestial abodes). These celestial beings (devatās) are not God. They are souls like us. They occupy specific positions in the system of God’s administration and oversee specific aspects of the material world. Consider the Federal government of a country. There is a Secretary of State, a Finance Secretary, a Secretary of Commerce, an Agriculture Secretary, and so on. These are positions, and select people occupy these positions for a limited tenure. At the end of its tenure, the government changes, all the post-holders change too. The positions remain but the persons holding those positions change. Similarly, in the governance of the affairs of the world, there are positions such as Agni Dev (the god of fire), Vāyu Dev (the god of the wind), Varuṇ Dev (the god of the ocean), Indra Dev (the king of the celestial gods), etc. Souls selected by virtue of their deeds in past lives occupy these seats for a certain amount of time. Then they fall from their position and others occupy these seat. Thus, souls become celestial gods only temporarily and, as a result, we cannot compare them to the Supreme Lord. Many people worship the celestial gods for material rewards. However, we must remember that these devatās cannot grant either liberation from material bondage or God-realization. Even if they do bestow material benefits, it is only by the powers they have received from God. Hence, the Bhagavad Gita repeatedly discourages people from worshipping the celestial gods and states that those who are situated in knowledge worship the Supreme Lord. Divine Abode of God: This material realm including, all the celestial abodes, the earth planet, and the hellish planes of existence, is only one-fourth of God’s entire creation. It is for those souls who have not yet attained spiritual perfection. Here, we experience suffering in various forms, such as birth, disease, old-age, and death. Beyond this entire material realm is the spiritual dimension consisting of three-fourths of God’s creation. It contains innumerable divine Abodes of God that are referred to in Vedic literature as Saket Lok (the abode of Lord Ram), Golok (the abode of Lord Krishna), Vaikunth Lok (the abode of Lord Narayan), Shiv Lok (the abode of Lord Shiv), Devi Lok (the abode of Mother Durga), etc. The Bhagavad Gita repeatedly mentions that one who attains God-realization goes to the divine Abodes of God and does not return to cycle of life and death in the material world again. Śharaṇāgati (Surrender): God is divine and cannot be comprehended by our material intellect. Similarly, He cannot be perceived by our material senses—the eyes cannot see Him, the ears cannot hear Him, etc. However, if He decides to bestow His grace upon some living being, He grants His divine energy upon that fortunate soul. On receiving His divine grace, one can see Him, know Him, and attain Him. This grace of God is not a whimsical act from His side. He bestows His divine grace upon those who surrender to Him. Thus, the Bhagavad Gita emphasizes that the soul must learn the secret of surrendering to the Supreme Lord. Yog: The word Yog has been used in the Gita in almost one hundred fifty places, for multiple purposes. It is formed from the root yuj, which means “to unite.” From the spiritual perspective, the union of the individual soul with the God is called Yog (e.g. verse 5.21). However, the science of accomplishing that union is also called Yog (e.g. verse 4.1). Again, the state of perfection achieved through the process is also referred to as Yog (e.g. 6.18). Union with God naturally disentangles one from misery born of contact with material nature. Hence, the state of freedom from suffering is referred to as Yog as well (verse 6.23). Since perfection is accompanied by evenness of mind, such equanimity has also been called Yog (verse 2.48). One who is in the state of Yog performs all activities perfectly, in a spirit of devotion to God, and hence dexterity at work is also referred to as Yog (verse 2.50). One may ask why Yog is necessary. The answer is that searching for happiness in the material world is like chasing a mirage in the desert. The nature of material desires is such that fulfilling them is like quenching a fire by pouring oil on it. For a moment the fire is subdued, but then it flares up with an even greater intensity. Similarly, fulfilling the desires of the mind and senses leads to greed. But obstructing them is also detrimental because it leads to anger. We must thus understand the root cause of why desires arise and then seek to address that. It all begins when we contemplate that there is happiness in some person or object. Repeated contemplation results in attachment of the mind, and attachment gives rise to desire. So if we can firmly decide that the divine bliss the soul is seeking is not in material objects, these desires will stop arising. However, the desire for happiness is intrinsic to the nature of the soul because it is a tiny part of the infinite ocean of divine bliss. This nature can only be satisfied when the soul attains the infinite bliss of God. Hence, knowingly or unknowingly, every soul is struggling to reach that state of divine consciousness, or Yog. The various paths of achieving union with God are referred to as different systems of Yog, such as karm-yog, jñāna-yog, aṣhṭāṅg-yog, and bhakti-yog. Thus spiritual practitioners are in general called yogis (e.g. verse 4.25), or sādhaks. Occasionally, the word Yog refers specifically to the process of aṣhṭāṅg-yog (e.g. verse 4.28). In such instances, yogi denotes specifically the practitioner of aṣhṭāṅg-yog. Jñāna Yog (Path of Knowledge): In this system of Yog, the emphasis is on self-knowledge. The Gita occasionally mentions it as sānkhya yog as well. Through the practice of intellectual discrimination, the jñānī focusses on realizing the self, which is distinct from all bodily designations and contaminations. Self-realization is considered as the ultimate goal of perfection. The practice of jñāna-yog is based on self-effort, without support of the grace of God. Hence, it is a difficult path and there is danger of downfall at every step. Aṣhṭāṅg Yog (The eight-fold path): It involves a gradual process of purification beginning with mechanical practices and progressing to the control of the mind. In it, the life force is raised through the suṣhumṇā channel in the spinal column. It is brought between the eyebrows, which is the region of the third eye (the inner eye). It is then made to focus on the Supreme Lord with great devotion. This process was presented in a structured system of practice containing eight stages by Maharshi Patanjali in the famous text written by him, called Yog Sūtras. Thereby, it came to be known as aṣhṭāṅg-yog or the eight-fold system of Yog. A variation of this is haṭha-yog, in which the emphasis is on austerities. The haṭha yogi strives to gain mastery over the mind and senses by exercising the force of will power. In many places, the Vedic literature also states that there are only three paths to God-realization—karm-yog, jñāna-yog, and bhakti-yog. In such a classification, aṣhṭāṅg-yog is included in jñāna-yog. Bhakti Yog (Path of Devotion): This path involves attaching the mind to the Names, Forms, Virtues, Pastimes, etc. of God through selfless and exclusive love. One develops a loving relationship with God by seeing Him as the eternal Father, Mother, Friend, Master, and soul-beloved. By surrendering to Him and uniting the individual will with the divine will, the devotee attracts the grace of God and achieves the goal of spiritual perfection more easily than by the other paths. Although the Bhagavad Gita embraces all the systems of Yog, it consistently emphasizes the path of bhakti as the superior system of Yog. This repeated pronouncement by Shree Krishna that He can only be known through bhakti is highlighted in the commentary to dispel the misconception amongst some about bhakti being an inferior system of Yog. Karm Yog (Path of Action): Karm refers to performing one’s worldly obligations and responsibilities, while Yog refers to union with God. So the practice of uniting the mind with God even while doing one’s obligatory duties in the world is karm-yog. This requires detaching the mind from the fruits of actions, by developing a resolute decision of the intellect that all work is meant solely for the pleasure of God. Thus, the Gita occasionally refers to it as buddhi-yog, or the Yog of the intellect. Since most people practice spirituality while living in household life and discharging their worldly duties, karm-yog becomes necessary for them alongside with any other system of Yog they may pursue. With this brief explanation of some important terms, I now leave it to the reader to go through the “Song of God” and discover first-hand the wonderful divine wisdom offered by the Supreme Lord Shree Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.