One of my favourite spiritual books is the Bhagavad Gita. It, perhaps, is the reason I stumbled into my love of what could be called Eastern Spirituality or Eastern Mysticism, and the Gita was one of the first few holy texts I read. It contains a number of different but intricately related teachings that, together, knit the fabric for a beautiful teaching. It also has an epic and somewhat unusual setting, for a spiritual text at least, namely the battleground of Kurukshetra in which Arjuna is seeking advice prior to going into battle from his charioteer, Krishna. It just so happens that Krishna is in fact God incarnate, and so a wonderful dialogue and spiritual discourse commences.
I do not consider the Gita to be a perfect text, for a number of reasons which I will not delve into in this post, but for many years it has seemed to me that there is a glaring error in its current format, one that I have not heard much of, and one that can be easily rectified. In fact, when this error is seen and rectified, the Gita, in my opinion, is much more satisfying to read, albeit still with its imperfections.
What is the error? It is that Chapters 3 and 4 are the wrong way round. It took me a while to figure this out, and I wonder if this idea has occurred to other people too? A quick google search has not revealed to me that other people have noticed this. However, surely for any discerning reader, the transition from Chapter 2 to Chapter 3 is jarring in the very least. I remember feeling this jarring sensation when I first read the Gita, but as I said, it took me a while to figure out its resolution.
Let me explain:
Chapter 1 sets the scene of the ensuing battle, and it is in Chapter 2 that the main spiritual teaching begins. After Arjuna collapses in a fit of despair, panic and disillusionment and asks Krishna for help, Krishna gives a broad outline of the main teachings of the Gita. Krishna tells Arjuna that he need not fear, that the essence of him is eternal and indestructible, and that he should perform his noble duty with honour. Krishna, still in Chapter 2, then goes on to describe the path to spiritual liberation, the path of yoga in which one should be equanimous of mind amidst daily life and also practice withdrawing the senses and enter into a meditative samadhi in which the mind is controlled and allowed to become still, unphased by sense-objects and desires. Krishna spends a considerable number of verses on this theme, finally stating that this will lead to the attainment of Brahman, or the Absolute or God, in which there is no suffering or delusion.
However, when we come to chapter 3, seemingly oblivious to what Krishna has just instructed him, Arjuna asks him a completely unrelated question:
3.1 O Krishna, if you say that knowledge is superior to action, why ask me to fight in this terrible battle?
Krishna has not spoken in any great length about knowledge thus far, the main emphasis of the teaching being on yoga and meditative samadhi. Krishna has also not explicitly said that knowledge is superior to action, something that comes later in chapter 4 (4.33, see below). Admittedly, in the next verse of chapter 3 Arjuna does say he is confused:
3.2 My mind is confused, your words seem contradictory. Please clarify to me which path will lead me to the greatest good?
If we take the question at face value, Arjuna is implying that Krishna has taught two seemingly opposed teachings and Arjuna is unsure of how these can be reconciled. However, thus far, there has not been any substantive conflicting teaching given. Of course, all these issues are easily and happily resolved when we simply switch the position of Chapters 3 and 4. Before we look at how this resolution occurs, lets see Krishna’s response to Arjuna, still in Chapter 3:
3.3 Krishna said: Arjuna, as I have told you before, there are two paths of faith: the path of knowledge (Jnana Yoga) for the philosophically inclined, and the path of action (Karma Yoga) for the active.
Without swapping Chapters 3 and 4 around, this verse makes little sense. Krishna has not yet outlined two yogas, that of Jnana Yoga and Karma Yoga. He does, however, outline these in Chapter 4.
Let us now look at Chapter 4 – what I think should actually be Chapter 3. If we recall, Chapter 2 ends with Krishna speaking at length on the path of meditative yoga in which the senses should be withdrawn, the mind controlled and stilled, and desires for sense-pleasures effaced. This, Krishna says, will lead to Brahman, or God. Chapter 4 opens as follows, logically continuing from this conclusion in Chapter 2:
4.1 Krishna said: I taught this eternal yoga to Vivasvan [the sun god]; Vivasvan taught it to Manu [the father of humanity]; Manu passed it to King Iksvaku
This makes complete sense as the start of Chapter 3 and would avoid the jarring switch to Arjuna’s question about the two paths that are not described until later on in the current text. What Krishna explains in Chapter 4 is a logical continuance of explaining the origins of the yoga described in the latter part of Chapter 2.
In Chapter 4, Krishna goes on to reveal to Arjuna that he, Krishna, is not merely a trusted friend and charioteer, but actually God-incarnate who manifests in every age when he is needed to impart spiritual wisdom to humanity. He briefly describes the benefits of worshipping Him and other Gods, and introduces and explains the teaching on the path of action or Karma Yoga starting at around verse 4.14 to around 4.32.
Then, starting at verse 4.33 through to the last verse 4.42, Krishna introduces and explains the path of knowledge (Jnana). Verse 4.33 is particularly important, as it implies that Jnana is a higher path than that of Karma:
4.33 Better than sacrifice of material goods is sacrifice in Jnana, for action culminates in Jnana
This now makes sense of Arjuna’s question in 3.1 when he states that Krishna has placed knowledge higher than action. The last two verses of the chapter, verses 4.41 and 4.42, are also potentially quite confusing, as 4.41 states that action should be renounced, while 4.42 encourages Arjuna to stand and fight:
4.41 One who has given up action through yoga, and has dispelled doubts by knowledge, one who lives in the Self, is not bound by action (karma).
4.42 Therefore, Arjuna, with the sword of knowledge (jnana) remove the doubts in yourself, and taking refuge in yoga, stand and fight.
Given this context, with Krishna having just explained the two seemingly different paths of karma yoga and jnana yoga, and then ended his discourse by stating actions are to be renounced (4.41), and then to stand and fight (4.42), it is completely understandable that Arjuna is confused. His questions in verses 3.1 and 3.2 (see above) make complete sense now and we lose that jarring sensation that was previously present when we go from Chapter 2 to Chapter 3. Krishna’s response in 3.3 also makes more sense in this context, as if we switch chapters 3 and 4, Krishna has just told Arjuna of the two paths: ‘Arjuna, as I have told you before, there are two paths…jnana yoga…and karma yoga..’.
Chapter 3 (what should in my view be Chapter 4) then explains and extols the virtues and benefits the path of karma yoga more fully.
At the start of Chapter 5 Arjuna continues along this line of questioning, asking Krishna:
5.1 First you recommend giving up work [ie. chapter 2 in which sense withdrawal is advocated] and then you recommend work in yoga [ie. chapter 3 in which karma yoga is advocated]. Please tell me clearly which path is best.
Again, this makes more sense if Chapter 3 was actually Chapter 4 – otherwise why wait a whole chapter before asking this question? The whole thing flows much more like a normal conversation with Chapters 3 and 4 swapped around. Chapter 5 then says how both paths lead to the same goal, but that the path of action/Karma Yoga is superior.
Only at the end of Chapter 5 is the topic of meditation and withdrawal of the senses from the sense objects again taken up in verse 5.26-5.28.
Chapter 6 then goes on to explain how both paths end up with the mind being stilled, and that to start off with, the path is yoga in action, but the path ends with stillness of mind (verse 6.3). The rest of Chapter 6 is devoted to the path of meditation and stillness of mind, with a few verses now introducing the teachings of Bhakti (devotion to or love of God) in verses 6.29-6.32.
With just the simple swapping around of chapters 3 and 4, in my view the potency and philosophical narrative of the Bhagavad Gita greatly enhanced. Themes are introduced in a wonderfully natural and logical way, with one theme leading into another – a beautiful and coherent development of ideas, as follows: from an overview of the teachings in Chapter 2, to an introduction to the two main paths in Chapter 4, then firstly focussing on the path of action in Chapters 3 and 5, and then to the more advanced path of meditation in Chapter 6, and then the introduction to Bhakti, a theme that is progressively developed in the next 6 chapters (chapters 7 to 12).
So my suggested order is as follows:
- Chapter 1: the battle scene is set and Arjuna falls into panic and despair at the thought of going to war.
- Chapter 2: reassurance given to Arjuna by Krisha who also gives an overview of the path, with a large focus on the yoga of renunciation, stillness of mind and meditation in the latter part of the chapter.
- Chapter 4: Krishna explains how this yoga has been taught to previous generations and then introduces the two paths of Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga.
- Chapter 3: Arjuna asks which of these two paths is superior. Krishna explains the value of Karma Yoga and explains this more fully.
- Chapter 5: Arjuna persists with his question about which path is better, and Krishna states both paths lead to the same goal, but Karma Yoga is better.
- Chapter 6: Krishna then states that beginners start with Karma yoga, but as one advances stillness of mind and the yoga of meditation becomes more important. Themes of Bhakti are introduced.
- Chapter 7-12: The theme of Bhakti is further introduced and the nature of God and devotional worship is elaborated upon.
- Chapters 13-18: the path of knowledge, special or specific teachings, and concluding instructions are given.
So, what do you think? Is the way I am looking at it correct? Even though I have been reading and studying these texts for over 20 years, I do not consider myself to be an expert and I am not a sanskrit scholar either. My suggestion is to simply swap around chapters 3 and 4 when you read the Bhagavad Gita. Please let me know your views in the comments.
Namaste and Hare Krishna!
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti!
When you take yourself to be real, the world also seems real. Then problems too seem to exist, and with it suffering.
Please know this directly: all this is empty, all this is zero. Just like a dream, there is only You, so there is nothing to fear.
God, guru, and the apparent world – all these are You.
Your nature is peace, love and happiness. You need nothing. You are ever-whole, ever-complete, ever-undefiled.
Your nature is naturally unattached, without desire, unchanging and at peace.
So don’t take this body-mind-world to be real (they will take care of themselves). Instead be what you are: be at peace, be happy and rest naturally, ever-unchanging and unattached.
Praise to Sri Shankara!
Praise to those custodians of this wonderful knowledge and teaching!
Praise to the Self,
One and supreme in all its effulgent glory!
May we all be happy and free!
May we all realise the Self!
In his text Vivekachudamani Shankara writes 18 verses describing the Jnani (literally ‘knower’ or ‘one who knows’) or perfected sage, starting at verse 535. My comments are in blue throughout.
Unattached and self-satisfied:
In these first few of these verses, the theme is a lack of attachment to the phenomenal world. Shankara uses phrases such as ‘he is neither grieved nor elated by sense objects’…’neither attached nor adverse to them [sense objects]… ‘without anxiety or humiliation’…’without fear’…’unattached to external things’…’experiences all sorts of sense objects as they come’. We can see that while the sage is (naturally) unattached, there is also no attempt to be detached either (which would actually be a form of attachment or striving).
Often detachment from sense-objects is emphasised at the level of a seeker engaging in sadhana (spiritual practice), but now there is no ignorance, there is no need to emphasise either detachment or attachment. A natural state of balance has been naturally achieved now the distorting/unbalancing effect of ignorance is no longer at play:
535. Satisfied with undiluted, constant Bliss, he is neither grieved nor elated by sense-objects, is neither attached nor averse to them, but always disports with the Self and takes pleasure therein.
536. A child plays with its toys forgetting hunger and bodily pains; exactly so does the man of realisation take pleasure in the Reality, without ideas of “I” or “mine”, and is happy.
In these above 2 verses, it is interesting to note that the flip-side of natural detachment is a natural resting in the ‘undiluted, constant Bliss’ of the Self. The Sage, completely satisfied by the self, does not notice or mind the suffering of the body. The resultant natural side effect of this is lack of both attachment and aversion to sense objects. Note that this means there is no need for supression of emotions or feelings or fear of any other phenomena.
The next 2 verses comment on the free-living aspect of the Jnani. The jnani is without self-image and finds the earth to be their home. Being without self-image, they do not necessarily dress or look a certain way (‘wears no outward mark’), and they allow what comes to come, and what goes to go. This last point is the same as stating there is no attachment or aversion to sense objects, and in verse 538 it is compared to the innocence of a child:
537. Men of realisation have their food without anxiety or humiliation by begging, and their drink from the water of rivers; they live freely and independently, and sleep without fear in cremation grounds or forests; their clothing may be the quarters themselves, which need no washing and drying, or any bark etc., the earth is their bed; they roam in the avenue of the Vedanta; while their pastime is in the Supreme Brahman.
538. The knower of the Atman, who wears no outward mark and is unattached to external things, rests on this body without identification, and experiences all sorts of sense-objects as they come, through others’ wish, like a child.
You can’t tell a jnani by clothes, behaviour, sex or age:
539. Established in the ethereal plane of Absolute Knowledge, he wanders in the world, sometimes like a madman, sometimes like a child and at other times like a ghoul, having no other clothes on his person except the quarters, or sometimes wearing clothes, or perhaps skins at other times.
The sage can enjoy sense objects, but fundamentally cares not for them:
540. The sage, living alone, enjoys the sense-objects, being the very embodiment of desirelessness – always satisfied with his own Self, and himself present at the All.
The many appearances of a Jnani:
Not caring one iota for self-image, the Jnani may appear in multiple forms, but cares not about whether they are a king or a pauper, well revered or despised:
541. Sometimes a fool, sometimes a sage, sometimes possessed of regal splendour; sometimes wandering, sometimes behaving like a motionless python, sometimes wearing a benignant expression; sometimes honoured, sometimes insulted, sometimes unknown – thus lives the man of realisation, ever happy with Supreme Bliss.
542. Though without riches, yet ever content; though helpless, yet very powerful, though not enjoying the sense-objects, yet eternally satisfied; though without an exemplar, yet looking upon all with an eye of equality.
The ‘eye of equality’ naturally arises when one does not prefer one set of sense-objects (ie. experiences) over another set. This lack of preference naturally occurs when one realises the Self and is satisfied as the Self.
The next verse juxtaposes the relative (doing, experiencing, possessing a body, limited) with the absolute (inactive, untouched, unidentified, omnipresent), indicating that we can speak of reality using either set of langauge:
543. Though doing, yet inactive; though experiencing fruits of past actions, yet untouched by them; though possessed of a body, yet without identification with it; though limited, yet omnipresent is he.
The next verse goes one step further, showing that in truth the Jnani is nothing but the absolute in which there is not even the idea of a body, despite the appearance of one appearing:
544. Neither pleasure nor pain, nor good nor evil, ever touches this knower of Brahman, who always lives without the body-idea.
545. Pleasure or pain, or good or evil, affects only him who has connections with the gross body etc., and identifies himself with these. How can good or evil, or their effects, touch the sage who has identified himself with the Reality and thereby shattered his bondage ?
Just as the sun appears to be ‘swallowed’ and destroyed when it sets, a jnani appears to have a body and act. In reality, just as the sun is not ‘swallowed’ or destroyed at sunset, the jnani is ever-bodiless, as are all of us. It is only ignorance that makes us believe otherwise:
546. The sun which appears to be, but is not actually, swallowed by Rahu, is said to be swallowed, on account of delusion, by people, not knowing the real nature of the sun.
547. Similarly, ignorant people look upon the perfect knower of Brahman, who is wholly rid of bondages of the body etc., as possessed of the body, seeing but an appearance of it.
549. As a piece of wood is borne by the current to a high or low ground, so is his body carried on by the momentum of past actions to the varied experience of their fruits, as these present themselves in due course.
This next verse employs the beautiful imagery of comparing the Self to a pivot on a potter’s wheel. Whilst the pedal on moved, the pivot remains stationary, just as the two ends of a sea-saw move, but the pivot remains still amidst the movement. Similarly, whilst this world-appearance seems to be full of motion, the Self/Jnani is eternally still, at peace and free:
550. The man of realisation, bereft of the body-idea, moves amid sense-enjoyments like a man subject to transmigration, through desires engendered by the Prarabdha work. He himself, however, lives unmoved in the body, like a witness, free from mental oscillations, like the pivot of the potter’s wheel.
Next the imagery of a passive witness or ‘unconcerned spectator’ is utilised. This is to convey the point that the jnani is without egoic or volitional desire (‘unconcerned’, without ‘the least regard’) but is aware (‘spectator’):
551. He neither directs the sense-organs to their objects nor detaches them from these, but stays like an unconcerned spectator. And he has not the least regard for the fruits of actions, his mind being thoroughly inebriated with drinking the undiluted elixir of the Bliss of the Atman.
The Jnani cares not about meditation or any other sadhana. The Jnani has transcended ignorance, meditation and sadhana only being required as a remedy for ignorance. When ignorance is no longer present (ie. seen to never have been real), and when the egoic tendencies (vasanas) to identify as a ‘me’ or body-mind have gone, then what need is there for meditation? Just as what need is there to prepare and implement a cure when the disease has now gone?
552. He who, giving up all considerations of the fitness or otherwise of objects of meditation, lives as the Absolute Atman, is verily Shiva Himself, and he is the best among the knowers of Brahman.
The Jnani is only ever Brahman (there is only Brahman), regardless of appearances that may suggest otherwise:
553. As an actor, when he puts on the dress of his role, or when he does not, is always a man, so the perfect knower of Brahman is always Brahman and nothing else.
For the entire text of Vivekachudamani click here.
Praise to Sri Shankara!
Praise to those custodians of this wonderful knowledge and teaching!
Praise to the Self,
One and supreme in all its effulgent glory!
May we all be happy and free!
May we all realise the Self!
Q. Hi Tom, who do you think is the best spiritual teacher, or could you name some teachers you respect?
A. There is only One Teacher.
Q. Hi Tom, it’s been said that only a jnani* can tell if someone else is a true jnani. Is this true in your experience?
A. There are no jnanis, only jnana*
*Jnani refers to an enlightened person – the word literally means ‘one who knows’. Jnana literally means knowledge, and in this context means spiritual enlightenment or liberation.
Sometimes, when the firm understanding of no-self first comes upon you, it can unleash a vast reservoir of energy, especially if this understanding has dawned in a non-traditional context ie. without preparation of the body-mind.
That energy comes into and animates the body-mind, and energises it.
Sometimes negative, destructive, addictive and hedonistic habitual tendencies (vasanas) can be enhanced due to that injection of energy. We may feel negative or even euphoric, depending on the pre-existing conditioning.
Beware of this. Here the teachings on dispassion (vairagya) become more important than the insight (into no-self) teachings which have already begun to hit home.
Remember not to get involved or get carried away by such thoughts, desires, feelings and behaviours. Do not indulge in this (ego-) energy. The old ignorant habitual tendencies are still at play even though insight (into no-self) is here, and the suffering and potential destructiveness caused by them still has not been eradicated.
Instead continue to take up and press on with your sadhana: relax, remain calm, be still, allow all to come and go, be unattached, be as you are, until all the vasanas have gone. Then the sadhana will also go.
(please note, the title of this post is meant to be ironic!)
Bow to life,
Feel gratitude for the gifts God gives us,
And everything that comes our way
Is a gift from Him
And fall in love,
Fall in love with Life,
Allow Her to take you,
And show you Her treasures.
Allow life to make you whole,
Make you clean,
Clean from outside through to within.
Bow to life,
Gratitude pouring in,
Taking you over,
One with Him,
Purging you of negativity
Ridding you of illusion,
as Love takes over.
Now Love takes over,
It compels you to bow,
And delights you,
Moves you this way and that,
A willing servitude,
All a gift,
Flowing with gratitude,
Flowing with bliss,
Now where are you?
Where are you to be found?
At first you were the lover
-that (subject) which was loving,
But now, where are you?
Where have you gone?
Where is the lover?
Where is the loved?
The distinctions have been lost:
We were once thrown and tossed by the oceans,
This way and that,
But now there is only Ocean,
This way and that.
We were once the Lover,
But now there is only Him,
And Still and Unmoving,
How can I bow to Him,
When there is no me,
and no Him?
How can I love life,
when there is no love,
and no life?
I bow deeply