This series on the Bhagavad Gita is part of a larger series of articles which examine the important question: Is caste-based discrimination in Hindu society an intrinsic part of Hinduism? Is it sanctioned in Hindu scripture? Or is it simply a social custom arrived at by distorting the scriptures?
A key attendant question is: Is caste, according to Hindu scripture, a rigid status that accrues to an individual only by virtue of birth in that caste, and hence unchangeable during that person's life? Or, is it a more fluid descriptor of a person that can change during a person's lifetime? In other words, is caste birth-based, or can it be earned?
To examine this question, I investigated every verse in the Bhagavad Gita that has any relationship to the issue of varNa, the overarching concept that contains the concept of caste, and subjected each of these verses to a detailed analysis, using both the literal meaning of the Sanskrit shlOkas as well as the commentaries of highly respected commentators on these verses. I viewed the verses both in isolation and in the overall context of the Bhagavad Gita, as well as in the overall context of Hindu theology and philosophy. The results of my study are presented in this seven-part series (BG1 to BG7), which is part of my larger series on caste in Hinduism.
I conclude that caste and caste-based discrimination are fundamental to the very foundation of Hinduism as expressed in the Bhagavad Gita.
They are not a distortion of the scriptures of Hinduism. Far from being an added social custom, the birth-based caste system is at the very basis of Hindu thought.
The caste system, as seen today, is largely a faithful representation of Lord Krishna’s words and intended meaning in the Bhagavad Gita. The central arguments in the Bhagavad Gita itself would collapse without the support of caste-based discrimination. The system, therefore, is expressly sanctioned in the Bhagavad Gita.
In this seven-part series, I present the original Sanskrit text of each verse discussed, its transliteration, its word-by-word meaning, its free translation, and the commentaries of six major interpreters of the Gita: Adi Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, Shridhara Swami, Acharya Keshava Kashmiri, and Sant Jnaneshwar. Based on all these, I draw overall meanings for each verse, and overall conclusions for each group of verses. Finally, I draw overall conclusions on the scriptural sanction for caste-based discrimination in the Bhagavad Gita.
A concise summary of the ideas in the Gita discussed in this seven-part series can be found in BG0 (Part II of the larger series.)
In the present article, BG6, I present the “other side of the coin” – verses in the Gita that speak to a higher and more enlightened plane. In these verses, Krishna teaches Arjuna that one who has realized the truth about life understands and can perceive the Supreme Soul, the brahman, in every living being equally, whether that be himself; a high-born Brahmin; a low-born outcaste, such as a shvapAka; or even an animal such as a cow, an elephant, or a dog.
These verses are often quoted by those who wish to defend the Bhagavad Gita and Hinduism against charges of caste-based discrimination.
While these verses do offer a more enlightened view – the view that God is present in every living thing – they do not, unfortunately, change the lot of those in the lower castes, because the theology of the Gita holds that those who obtain low births do so because of the sins committed in millions of previous births, and must pay the price for their misdeeds. The one who has attained mOksha may see God in the soul of the shvapAka, but he also recognizes that that same soul has to pay the price in this birth for the sins of past births, and therefore must undergo the punishment of a low birth in this life, including the ostracization, humiliation, and exploitation that it entails – because that is the law of the Universe.
Sources, Methodology, Transliteration Scheme, and Numbering Scheme
Verses: Seeing the Universal Consciousness in All Life
Overall Conclusions: Seeing the Universal Consciousness in All Life
Chapter 5, Verse 18
Original Sanskrit Shloka
Chapter 6, Verse 29
Original Sanskrit Shloka
Chapter 6, Verse 32
Original Sanskrit Shloka
Chapter 13, Verse 29
Original Sanskrit Shloka
Chapter 13, Verse 31
Original Sanskrit Shloka
Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism - The Full Series
The methodology and sources used for the analysis of the verses in the Bhagavad Gita have been already presented in Part III, including brief backgrounds of the commentators and their philosophical leanings. The overall framework of this entire series has been presented in Part I of this series. The transliteration scheme used here can be seen in Part II of the series. A Glossary can also be found in Part II.
The overall conclusion for this set of verses is first presented, followed by a discussion of individual verses and their meanings.
The numbering scheme followed in this entire "Caste Discrimination in Hinduism" series is that each article has an number in the overall sequence of articles in the "Caste Discrimination in Hinduism" series, represented by Roman numerals. Within the larger series, individual series articles, dealing with individual scriptures, are numbered using scripture initials and Arabic numerals. For instance, the articles in the Bhagavad Gita series are numbered as BGN, where N is the number of the article in the Bhagavad Gita series.
Many people consider the verses presented here as the most important in the Bhagavad Gita, because they speak to the omnipresence of God in all living creatures. This is particularly important for followers of the Advaita philosophy. The verses have an uplifting character, as they talk about how the same God is present in a Brahmin or a low-caste person. Hence it is important to mention them in an analysis of caste-based discrimination in the Gita, for completeness.
Thus, one who is enlightened and has achieved mOksha, while he or she can see the Supreme Soul, the paramAtmA, in those who have not, still understands that the unenlightened have to pay for the sins they have committed in their previous births.
Their present births as lower-caste persons have only occurred because their AtmAs are chained to their body and their guNas; and as long as their guNas are rajas- and tamas-dominated, they have to endure the consequences of those guNas.
The five verses quoted reinforce each other, and are different ways of saying the same thing: by seeing the same universal spirit, the Ultimate Consciousness, the paramAtmA, in each and every living thing – which, of course, includes every human being, but also includes animals, such as dogs, elephants, and cows – one attains mOksha, or the liberation from the cycle of birth and death. This is the ultimate truth in the world. One of the verses specifically names the dog-eating shvapAka caste, whose function it is to guard over the dead, and are considered extremely impure.
How does one reconcile these apparently enlightened verses with so much else in the Gita (as discussed in this article) that encourage caste-discrimination?
The answer is that these verses are not actually contradictory. Even though they testify to the omnipresence of the paramAtmA, they do not speak against caste discrimination.
The explanation is in the Gita itself. AtmAs are born again and again because they have not achieved mOksha. Their attachment to the material body and the senses attached to the body clouds their ability to see that their true self is not the jIva, it is the AtmA within. The soul fails to realize itself, and so performs actions that go further and further away from sattva, and deeper and deeper into rajas and tamas. Because of the guNas attached to their souls, they are born into lower births, such as Shudra births, or even lower, as animals, and have to suffer the indignities associated with that birth.
Thus, one who is enlightened and has achieved mOksha, while he or she can see the Supreme Soul, the paramAtmA, in those who have not, still understands that the unenlightened have to pay for the sins they have committed in their previous births. Their present births as lower-caste persons have only occurred because their AtmAs are chained to their body and their guNas; and as long as their guNas are rajas- and tamas-dominated, they have to endure the consequences of those guNas.
As evidence of this interpretation, note that 5-18 (vidyA-vinaya-sampannE brAhmaNE gavi hastini; shuni caiva shvapAkE ca paNDitAha sama-darshinaha) only says that an enlightened person should be able to discern paramAtmA in both these categories: a high-born Brahmin as well as an untouchable (Dalit) shvapAka (dog-eater). It does not ask the enlightened one to ask why the shvapAka person has to lead such a miserable life (guarding over dead bodies in a crematorium), or to pull that person out of such an existence where he has to eat dogs to survive. It is sufficient for the enlightened one to see that brahman exists even in the shvapAka. The plight of the shvapAka is sad, no doubt, but it is the result of his sins in his past lives, and so the enlightened one cannot help him. People have to pay for their past behavior.
… an enlightened being would recognize even the lowest caste person as having brahman within him – but because of his crimes in millions of births (as is believed), this low-caste jIva with an immortal AtmA within, although a part of the paramAtmA itself, still has to undergo the humiliation that comes with being born in a low varNa.
The difference is that we today punish people for crimes that are clearly seen to be done; the only visible crime of the low-caste person in Hinduism is to be born in a low varNa.
The essential point is that these enlightened verses do not present a contradiction to the other discriminatory verses, and do not negate them.
When Krishna himself says in 4-13 that He cannot be blamed for which varNa someone is born in – that such a birth is simply a consequence of a person’s past karmas and the resultant guNas his/her soul is imprinted with, what can be said then of an ordinary human being, albeit an enlightened one? Such a person can see that a Shudra or a shvapAka has the same paramAtmA in him, but unless that AtmA of the Shudra or the shvapAka is able to see through the mists of illusion and rise up, the enlightened one cannot help him. He (the Shudra or the shvapAka) must endure the punishment for his past karmas.
It is no different from how we think of criminals today in our relatively enlightened and more humane world. In the modern world, we respect every human being, and believe every human being has a right to dignity. However, when someone commits a crime, we do not hesitate to punish him, deprive him of his liberty, and sometimes even award him capital punishment – for, while we do respect the person as a human being, we believe he has to pay for his crimes. The same is true in Hinduism as well – an enlightened being would recognize even the lowest caste person as having brahman within him – but because of his sins in millions of births (as is believed), this jIva with an immortal AtmA within, although a part of the paramAtmA itself, still has to undergo the humiliation that comes with being born in a low varNa. The difference is that we today punish people for crimes that are clearly seen to be done; the only visible crime of the low-caste person in Hinduism is to be born in a low varNa.
One might ask, then, what the meaning of Madhvacharya's commentary on 6-32 (AtmaupamyEna sarvatra samam pashyati yo Arjuna; sukham vA yadi duhkham saha yOgI paramO mataha) is, when he says,
Those who are devotees of the Supreme Lord treat everyone as they would treat themselves.
The answer to this question, again, can be seen from the same morality we apply in today's world. If someone were to say that "any law-abiding citizen must treat everyone as he would treat himself," what does that mean when that person himself commits a crime? If this person is truly honest and law-abiding, then he must be willing to undergo punishment for the crime he has committed, even though he himself will suffer. So it is with the Gita. An enlightened soul understands that every person's misfortune or fortune in his present life is a consequence of good or bad deeds done in past lives, and so such a person would (or at least, should) accept the consequences of those actions in his present birth. Therefore, by discriminating against someone else who is low-born, they are not treating him any differently than they would treat themselves, for all are accountable to the divine Law.
The essential point is that these enlightened verses do not present a contradiction to the other discriminatory verses, and do not negate them.
विद्याविनयसंपन्ने ब्राह्मणे गवि हस्तिनि।
शुनि चैव श्वपाके च पण्डिताः समदर्शिनः।।
vidyA-vinaya-sampannE brAhmaNE gavi hastini
shuni caiva shvapAkE ca paNDitAha sama-darshinaha
sama-darshinaha Eva – only those who see with equal vision the Ultimate Truth; brAhmaNE – in a Brahmana; vidyA-vinaya-sampannE – endowed with Vedic knowledge and humility; gavi – in a cow; hastini – in an elephant; shuni – in a dog; ca – and; shvapAkE – in the lower animal-eating members of humanity; paNDitAha – learned in genuine wisdom.
Only those who see with equal vision the Ultimate Truth in a Brahmana, endowed with Vedic knowledge and humility; in a cow; in an elephant; in a dog; and in the lower animal-eating members of humanity, are learned in genuine wisdom.
Now the question may arise: what kind of persons are those who achieve mOksha, or liberation? Lord Krishna uses the word panDitaha or the wise. Who are the wise? Those with the inner eye of wisdom, who perceive the brahman, or spiritual substratum pervading all existence, in things that appear dissimilar. The example of a humble, learned Brahmin, and an outcaste dogeater shows dissimilarity in conduct; and the examples of a cow and an elephant show dissimilarity in species; but the spiritually awakened sees all with equal vision.
Due to this supra-conscious awareness illuminating one's intelligence, Atma tattva, or realization of the soul, is attained, and once this happens, then one realises the soul as a manifestation of the Supreme Lord, existing equally in all living beings. This is purport Lord Krishna is giving in this verse.
Now begins the summation.
Even though there are external differences in the forms among embodied beings including humans, aquatics, animals and plants, the Supreme Lord Krishna is ever present in each and every being as a witness, energizing them all as the Supreme Soul, from which a minuscule portion comprises the eternal individual soul.
The name Brahmana refers to the saintly and spiritual class in India, possessed of moral conduct and Vedic knowledge. The mention along with them of a cow, an elephant, a dog, and an outcaste person who eats dogs, is to illustrate the great differences in the physical bodies of all the various species of life in which the embodied AtmA, or soul, resides in. The variegated appearances of different species of life is due to prakRuti, or material nature, not the AtmA. The compound word sama-darshinaha, meaning equal vision, is how those in AtmA tattva, or soul realization, regard all the AtmAs residing in unlimited bodies as being equal, due to the AtmA’s essential nature of being eternal and of being an infinitesimal part of the Supreme Lord Krishna.
Lord Krishna uses the word panDitaha, meaning wise or learned, for those who perceive the reality as it is, and behold the nature of the AtmA, or soul, equally in all beings. From a Brahmin, endowed with spiritual knowledge, and a cow, the best of all animals, both being in the mode of goodness; as well as a dog and an outcaste person of the lowest order, all are seen with an equal vision. The purport is that the apparent unevenness between the highest and the lowest is the characteristics of their bodily designation, which is the product of material nature, but never reflective of the eternal, pure state of the AtmA. Such a wise being always perceives the intrinsic nature of the soul as it is, unaffected by the degradation of any bodily conception.
Humility is tranquillity, the condition of a well-disciplined soul. Of the creatures mentioned, the highest is the Brahmana, who is spiritually regenerated and highly sAttvik. Next comes the cow, not spiritually regenerated, and rAjasik. Last come the elephant, etc., which are purely tAmasik. In all of them, the sages see the same – the One who is immutable in Himself and quite untouched by sattva and other energies, or by the tendencies born of those energies, whether sAttvik, rAjasik, or tAmasik.
How could then there exist within them (those with genuine wisdom) any distinction such as a fly against an elephant; or an untouchable against the twice-born; or a stranger against one's own kith and kin; or a cow against a dog; or a big thing against a small one; and, apart from all these, could there be anything like a dream to one fully awake? Distinctions would be seen only if there would exist any sense of separate egoistic individuality in them; but having already gotten rid of that, how could there remain any distinction?
सर्वभूतस्थमात्मानं सर्वभूतानि चात्मनि।
ईक्षते योगयुक्तात्मा सर्वत्र समदर्शनः।।
sarva-bhUta-stham AtmAnam sarva-bhUtAni cAtmani
IkshatE yOga-yukta-AtmA sarvatra sama-darshanaha
yOga-yukta-AtmA – one perfectly realized and perfected in the science of uniting the individual consciousness with the Ultimate Consciousness; sarvatra sama-darshanaha – identifying with this consciousness everywhere and in everything; IkshatE – perceives; AtmAnam – the realized self; sarva-bhUta-stham – situated in all living entities; ca – and; sarva-bhUtAni – all living entities; Atmani – in the realized self.
One perfectly realized and perfected in the science of uniting the individual consciousness with the Ultimate Consciousness, identifying with this consciousness everywhere and in everything, perceives the realized self situated in all living entities and all living entities in the realized self.
The necessity of realization of the brahman, or the spiritual substratum pervading all existence, is being given by Lord Krishna. The mature yOgI, whose mind is spiritually enlightened by the practice of yOga, or the science of the individual consciousness attaining communion with the ultimate consciousness by dhyAna, or meditation, perceives the brahman everywhere, and sees omniscience and omnipresence of the AtmA, or soul, without any limitations, equally existing in all beings, from the highest demigod to an inanimate tree; such a person realizes the Supreme Being existing within himself, and himself existing within the Supreme Being.
The objective and goal to be gained is given here by Lord Krishna. The AtmA, or eternal soul residing within all beings, is the omnipresent and omniscient Supreme Lord. All creatures also exist within the Supreme Lord as the AtmA. One who perceives this, sees the Supreme Lord equally in everything from a blade of grass to the brahman, or spiritual substratum pervading all existence. Therefore it has been said that one sees the Supreme Lord abiding in all creatures and all creatures abiding in the Supreme Lord.
Now begins the summation.The Supreme Lord abides in equal measure in all beings along with the AtmA, or soul, and is known as paramAtmA, the Supreme Soul.
The words sarvatra sama-darshanaha means equal vision everywhere. This means realising that the AtmA, or soul that abides in oneself and abides in other beings is of the same transcendental essence in all beings equally. This is perceived by spiritual consciousness, and this transcendental essence is an attribute equally present in all AtmAs. The equality, sameness and luminosity of the AtmA has been perceived by those recipients of mOksha, or liberation, when the AtmA is divested of its connection with the physical body and material nature. Inequality, as well as indifference and indolence, arise from designating the AtmA as not being different from the myriads of multifarious physical manifestations the AtmA is embodied by. The yOgI, or one perfecting the science of the individual consciousness with the ultimate consciousness, who is mature in dhyAna, or meditation, and has achieved Atma tattva, or realization of the soul, does not discern any differences in the myriad of multifarious physical manifestations but perceives the AtmA, wherever it may reside, and in whatever physical or subtle body it manifests in. This is perceived by the AtmA's inherent and essential attribute of transcendental consciousness, existing equally in all beings. Such is actual equal vision. One who perceives that the AtmA abiding within oneself is of exactly the same essence, nature and quality as the AtmA perceived to be abiding in other beings realises that such beings are equal in this respect. The conclusion of what Lord Krishna is stating is that all AtmAs are eternal, from one eternal essence, and that when one's own AtmA has been realised and perceived, then every being’s AtmA is realised and be perceived.
Now Lord Krishna presents the four-fold divisions of the subsequent results of such a firmly established yOgI, or one perfected in the science of the individual consciousness attaining communion with the ultimate consciousness. Such an advanced being has become united with the AtmA, or soul, thus perceiving the AtmA in all beings of multifarious, diverse natures and variegated physical and subtle bodies. This applies from the highest demigod, known as Brahma, down to an inanimate tree. How can such a yOgI perceive his AtmA existing in all beings, and all beings existing in his AtmA? The words yOga-yuktAtmA means united with the nature of the brahman, or the spiritual substratum pervading all existence. One sees all things with equal vision, without any distinction between them, knowing that all forms are veritable products of prakRuti, or material nature. The purport is that such a yOgI sees all forms, even his own, as manifestation of the brahman, and therefore there is no distinctive difference in his AtmA and the AtmA of others. The AtmA is eternal and pure, and distinctly different from the physical body. So, firmly adhering to self-realization, such a yOgI becomes enlightened in all respects. Yet, even the different physical bodies are equal, as they all manifest from the same primordial matter and all have a beginning and an end. In this way, there is no contradiction if the yOgI perceives his AtmA existing in all beings and all beings existing in his AtmA.
He sees all beings—from Brahma, the Creator, down to a clump of grass—as one with the Self; and in all the different beings—from Brahma, the Creator, down to inanimate objects—he sees the same; i.e., he sees that the Self and brahman (the Absolute) are one.
आत्मौपम्येन सर्वत्र समं पश्यति योऽर्जुन।
सुखं वा यदि वा दुःखं सः योगी परमो मतः।।
AtmaupamyEna sarvatra samam pashyati yo Arjuna
sukham vA yadi duhkham saha yOgI paramO mataha
arjuna – O Arjuna; yaha – one who; pashyati – perceives; aupamyEna – in comparison; Atma – with the self; sarvatra – all beings; samam – equally; sukham vA yadi vA duhkham – in happiness or in sorrow; saha yOgI – such a person, perfected in the science of uniting the individual consciousness with the Ultimate Consciousness; mataha – is considered; paramaha – the highest.
O Arjuna, one who perceives, in comparison with the self, all living entities equally, in happiness or in sorrow; such a person, perfected in the science of uniting the individual consciousness with the Ultimate Consciousness, is considered the highest.
Lord Krishna specifies that, among the different yOgIs, or those perfecting the science of the individual consciousness attaining communion with the ultimate consciousness, those who worship the Supreme Lord, and who are compassionate to all living entities, are the most exalted. Such a yOgI empathises with all living entities, regarding them as oneself and, by this vision, wishes only the best for all created beings.
Lord Krishna here explains equal vision differently then He did in previous verses.
Now begins the summation.
Those who are devotees of the Supreme Lord treat everyone as they would treat themselves.
One advanced in yOga, or the science of the individual consciousness attaining communion with the ultimate consciousness by dhyAna or meditation, realises the intrinsic uniqueness and sublime sameness of all AtmAs, or souls; and as having the nature of omniscience and omnipresence, although residing in unlimited variegated physical and subtle bodies. Fully comprehending that the AtmA has no connection with material nature, the yOgI looks upon all dualities, such as happiness and affliction, as alike; and this applies whether circumstances befall unto such a yOgI or befall unto others, such as the happiness of an infant being born, or the affliction of a parent dying. This means that it is one and the same for such a yOgI regarding their own offspring and parents as it is regarding other people’s offspring and parents. Such a yOgI, who is so far advanced as to regard both happiness and affliction equally with the same sublime indifference, is qualified to be known as the best of yOgIs.
Now Lord Krishna speaks of the most exalted yOgIs, who perceive the AtmA in all created beings and view them as not different from themselves. Just as a person does not like to create difficulties for themselves, and at all times wish the best for themselves; in the same way, such a yOgI does not want difficulties created for any being, and at all times wishes the best for all beings. Such a yOgI is completely free from passion and desire, and is the most exalted of all yOgIs. All persons, due to their previous actions, are caught in the current of reactions of merits and demerits, which create obstacles in achieving communion with the Supreme Lord. Those whose knowledge is veiled by nescience, birth after birth since time immemorial, have no idea that the highest goal of human existence is first Atma tattva, or realization of the soul, within the etheric heart, and second, the perception of the AtmA, or soul, in all created beings, and the ultimate unity of all created beings. This unity is absolute inseparable unity with the Supreme Lord.
By chance, a fortunate individual receives the unconditional mercy of the Supreme Lord, reflects on the purpose of human existence and, gaining the association of pious people, comes into contact with a qualified spiritual preceptor; and, following their instructions concerning realization of the AtmA, and the path to mOksha, or liberation from the material existence, they purify their mind and very existence. Then, such a person engages themselves wholeheartedly in the practice of meditation, which culminates into realization of the embodied self, being the AtmA or soul, and paramAtmA, the Supreme Soul, both residing within the etheric heart. From this time on, one only experiences the actions dictated by destiny until all past accumulated reactions are finished. One comprehends that both happiness and unhappiness are temporary, and caused by the merits and demerits from past actions, and present obstacles on the path to mOksha, or liberation to the Supreme Lord. Just as those fettered in golden chains or iron chains are both in bondage, and both feel the same type of relief when released and freed – in the same way, the pleasure one receives from obstacles due to merits, and the pain one receives from obstacles due to demerits, both have the same effect of relief when they are finally exhausted, and a person is set free by achieving mOksha. This mentality one applies also to all created beings, because one sees everything with the same vision as one perceives themselves.
He sees that whatever is pleasant to himself is pleasant to all creatures, and that whatever is painful to himself is painful to all beings. Thus seeing that what is pleasure or pain to himself is alike pleasure or pain to all beings, he causes pain to no being; he is harmless. Doing no harm, and devoted to right knowledge, he is regarded as the highest among all yOgIs.
He who ever views the entire universe, including all moveables and immoveables, as himself; whose mind never makes any distinctions, such as pain and pleasure, or actions auspicious and inauspicious; to whose intellect, all the three worlds appear to be his own form; such a person, even though possessing a body, and considered in the worldly affairs as subject to pleasure and pain, according to the respective occasions, still is really the very form of the essence of Supreme brahman.
Therefore, O Arjuna, you should develop in yourself such evenness of temper that you do view the entire universe within yourself, and be yourself the entire universe. I have repeatedly been preaching this to you with the sole object being to show that there is nothing beyond evenness of temper to attain in this universe. It is the only Supreme thing to be attained.
समं पश्यन्हि सर्वत्र समवस्थितमीश्वरम्।
न हिनस्त्यात्मनाऽऽत्मानं ततो याति परां गतिम्।।
samam pashyan hi sarvatra samavasthitam Ishvaram
na hinasti AtmAnAtmAnam tatO yAti parAm gatim
pashyAn hi – by seeing; Ishvaram – the Ultimate Consciousness; samam – equally; sarvatra – everywhere; samavasthitam – impartially situated; na hinasti – does not degrade; AtmAnam – the embodied self; AtmAnA – by the self; tataha – thus; yAti – reaching; param gatim – the supreme goal.
By seeing the Ultimate Consciousness equally everywhere, impartially situated, one does not degrade the embodied self, by the self; therefore reaching the supreme goal.
Why is an enlightened person said to see samam or equally? This is being explained by Lord Krishna. By seeing the resplendent Supreme Lord everywhere, within oneself, within all beings and within all things, one does not perform any activity that will degrade the AtmA, or immortal soul, of themselves, nor degrade the AtmA of others. This means they have recognised the Supreme Being within all beings, and do not deny, through capriciousness or ignorance, the presence of paramAtmA, or the Supreme immortal soul, whose very nature is sat, or eternal existence, cit, or unlimited consciousness, and Ananda, or never-ending bliss. Such an enlightened being is qualified to achieve mOksha, or liberation from material existence, and attain the eternal spiritual worlds which are param gati, the supreme destination. But one who is unable to see equally in this manner, erroneously looks upon their physical body as being the same as the AtmA, thinking that when the physical body perishes, the AtmA perishes with it. The Isha Upanishad, verse III, says, beginning with “asurya nAma tE lOkA andhEna,” meaning: The demoniac and the demons degrade the AtmA, totally ignorant of its eternal divine nature and are forced to enter the dark, gloomy hellish worlds in their next life.
Lord Krishna is explaining that one who perceives and recognises the Supreme Being in every being is one who actually sees reality. The jIva, or embodied being, practically witnesses death and destruction in material existence everyday, along with its associated misery. The Padma Purana states that, as a form of misery, the jIva sees itself; yet, devoid of misery is the Supreme Lord residing within every jIva, equally from Brahma, the highest material being, down to an ant. The Supreme Lord’s expansion as paramAtmA, or the Supreme Soul, is present within all jIvas throughout all dimensions of creation, and does not diminish or degrade His transcendental position whatsoever, whether abiding in a demigod, human, animal etc. Perceiving the reality of the Supreme Lord in this way, one is not subject to illusion.
The Supreme Lord Krishna, known as Ishvara, is residing samam, equally, and sarvatra, within all beings. This includes demigods, humans, animals, etc. The word pashyati here, meaning perceives, denotes that the AtmA, or immortal soul, is recognised wherever it may abide. By thus comprehending the actual nature of the AtmA, one never degrades themselves, and na hinasti, never causes harm to oneself. Contrarily, if one insists on identifying the AtmA as the physical body in the differentiating light of unlimited bodily forms, one injures and degrades their eternal self. This understanding saves one from acquiring karma, or reactions to actions, which is the main cause of confinement to samsAra, or the perpetual cycle of birth and death. By gaining this basic realization, one achieves the goal of Atma tattva, or soul realization, and then becomes eligible for param gatim, the supreme destination and highest attainment.
Lord Krishna now presents the results of the afore-stated realizations, viz., of perceiving the Supreme Lord present within all bodies, demigod, human, animal, etc.; and of perceiving His imperishable nature everywhere. Such a jIva, or embodied being, “na hinasti,” never degrades, “Atmanam,” their immortal soul, by being attached to material desire, and prolonging their imprisonment in material existence. The essence is that one who sees created beings separate from the Supreme Lord, and separate from themselves, will be compelled to revolve in samsAra, the perpetual cycle of birth and death in the material existence, and continue to perform sinful and degraded activities that keep them shackled permanently in the prison of material existence. This is corroborated by Shakuntala's statement in Moksha Dharma: “Such a person, who has not realised the AtmA, or immortal soul, inherent within all beings – what sinful activity would such a self-deluder deign not to commit? The Isha Upanishad, verse III, reveals the resultant consequence due to the greatest ignorance for those that degrade their own AtmA, and the soul of other living entities, by engaging in evil activities of unrighteousness beginning: “asurya nAma tE lokA andhEna,” meaning such sinful demons, oblivious of their inherent divine nature, enter the dark, gloomy, hellish planets when their life has ended.
prakRuti is the Lord's mAyA, composed of the three guNas. So the mantra reads,
Let him know that mAyA is the prakRuti, and that the Great Lord is the possessor of mAyA. (Svetasvatara Upanishad 4-10.)
By prakRuti, i.e., mAyA, the shakti, or inherent energy of the Lord – not the other, i.e., not the (pradhAna, the self-existent) prakRuti (of the sAnkhyas) described as transforming itself into causes and effects such as the mahat — are done all sorts of actions, whether done in speech, thought, or deed. He sees, who realises this truth, and also the truth that the Self (kshEtrajna) is devoid of all upAdhis or conditions – he sees the Supreme Truth. There is no evidence to show that there is any variety in Him who is non-agent, unconditioned, and free from all specialities, just as there is no variety in the akAsha (sky).
He truly perceives, who realises that the various actions are all performed by prakRuti, through the agency of the mind, intellect and the organs of actions. It is the occupants of a house that move about in the house, the house itself doing nothing; so also, the clouds run about in the sky, while the sky itself remains inactive. In the same way, prakRuti, enlightened by the soul, and with the help of the guNas, plays all these games, the soul remaining firm like a pillar, in no way knowing the games played by prakRuti. One in whom there has arisen the Light of Knowledge of these decisions, has truly perceived the theory of the soul being the non-agent.
तत एव च विस्तारं ब्रह्म सम्पद्यते तदा।।
yadA bhUta-pRuthag-bhAvam Eka-stham anupashyati
tata Eva ca vistAram brahmA sampadyatE tadA
yadA – when; anupashyati – (one) actually perceives; vistAram – the expansion; ca – and; bhUta-pRuthak-bhAvam – diversity of all life forms; Eka-stham – as situated in the unity of material nature; tataha Eva – thereafter; tadA – at that time; brahmA – the Ultimate Truth; sampadyate – is attained.
When one actually perceives the expansion and diversity of all life forms as situated in the unity of material nature – thereafter, at that time, the Ultimate Truth is attained.
Since all jIvas, or embodied beings, emanate from prakRuti, or the material substratum pervading physical existence, there is no difference between them in substance at the root level. Therefore, there is absolutely no difference between AtmAs as the AtmA precedes this root level. One who perceives this inherent non-difference between AtmAs, regardless of diversity of form, achieves the realization of the brahman, or the spiritual substratum pervading all existence. This inherent non-difference applies to all things in creation, animate and inanimate, which manifest again after the pralaya, or periodic universal dissolution, as they were before, and commence their emanation into prakRuti once more. Realising this, one realises the brahman.
The word Eka-stham, meaning situated in the single material nature, is singular, and denotes the Supreme Lord Krishna, because He is all pervading throughout all creation. One who sees all jIvas, or embodied beings, regardless of form or species, as being part of prakRuti, or the material substratum pervading physical existence, which is a modification of the Supreme Lord; and can realise the difference and gradation between all three; such a person experiences direct realization of the brahman, or spiritual substratum pervading all existence.
Lord Krishna is stating that one must realize that the diversity of forms throughout creation is manifested by the medium of prakRuti, or the material substratum pervading physical existence, which gives rise to unlimited bodies and their correlating senses. All jIvas, or embodied beings, whether demigods, humans or animals, are constituted of the dual natures of purusha, the supreme spirit, and prakRuti. The compound word Eka-stham, meaning situated in one, refers to the singularity of prakRuti, which the kshEtra, or sphere of activity, exists within. The word vistAram, meaning expansion, refers to the variegated myriads of differentiated existences in successive form manifestations such as children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, all uniquely emanating from the same principle of prakRuti.
Whosoever understands that all external appearing differences have their origin in prakRuti; and not in purusha, or the supreme spirit; nor paramAtmA, the supreme soul; such a person attains the realization of the brahman, or spiritual substratum pervading all existence.
Thus, by irrefutably establishing the fact of the AtmA, or immortal soul, as existing equally within the etheric heart of each and every living entity; and the reality that paramAtmA, or the Supreme Soul, is residing equally within the etheric heart of all living entities simultaneously; Lord Krishna categorically refutes any and all conceptions that different shapes and forms of the physical body are relevant to the AtmA. Now He confirms that prakRuti, or the material substratum pervading physical existence, is the source of all variegated species and forms of the physical bodies of the jIvas, or embodied beings. When one can see and understand that all jIvas in material existence are in possession of the AtmA, whether they are demigods, human, animal, etc., and are all rooted in the same absolute reality, and appear only as different manifestations of the same absolute nature, expanded at the commencement of creation; then one achieves infinite knowledge and realization of the brahman, or the spiritual substratum pervading all existence.
The Self has no beginning, no cause. That which has a cause perishes by itself, whereas this (Self) does not perish, because, having no cause, He is without parts. Further, He does not perish because He is without qualities; for that which has qualities perishes by loss of qualities; whereas the Self does not perish, because He is devoid of qualities. Thus the Supreme Self is imperishable. He suffers no destruction. Therefore, though dwelling in the body — the Self is said to dwell in the body because the Self is manifested in the body — yet He does not act.
Because He does not act, He is not affected by the results of acts. The meaning is this: He that is an agent is affected by the fruit of the act; but this (the Self) is a non-agent, and is therefore not tainted by the fruit of action.
Objection: Who, then, in the bodies, acts and is tainted? If, on the one hand, an embodied self, distinct from the Supreme Self, acts and is tainted, then the identity of kshEtrajna with the Ishvara spoken of in such places as 13-2 would be inexplicable. If, on the other hand, there be no embodied self distinct from the Ishvara, then tell me who acts and is tainted; or say that the Ishvara is not Supreme.
On the ground that the doctrine of the Upanishads taught by the Lord is thus in every way difficult to understand and difficult to explain, it has been abandoned by the Vaiseshikas, as well as by the Sankhyas, the Arhatas, and the Buddhists.
(Answer): As regards this objection, the following answer has been afforded by the Lord Himself. “It is Nature that acts.” (13-2). The idea that there is one who acts and is tainted is a mere illusion (avidyA) and nothing else. Action does not really exist in the Supreme Self. It has, for this very reason, been pointed out by the Lord here and there that there is no necessity of performing works (karma) for those devotees of Wisdom, for the order of paramahamsa-parivrajakas, who adhere to this doctrine of Supreme Truth (paramArtha-sAnkhya-darshana) and have risen above avidyA and vyavahAra, nescience and all experience (due to avidyA).
What is called Supreme Soul is like the sun, who is not covered with water (even when it is reflected in it). The sun has already been in existence, O Arjuna, both before and after (his) reflection; he only appears to others reflected in water between these two stages.
In the same way, it is not true to say that the soul exists in the body. He is permanently there where he is all by himself. Just as what appears in the mirror as a face is only its reflection there, in the same way is the habitation of the soul in the body. It is a meaningless talk to affirm that the body and soul meet each other. Could the sand and wind ever meet together? How could fire and cotton be inwoven on a thread?
How could the sky and earth be joined together? This connection (between the soul and the body) is like the meeting together of two persons, one going to the East and the other to the West. The relationship between the soul and the body is that existing between light and darkness, or between a dead and a living (standing) body. The same relationship exists between the two (soul and body) as that existing between the night and the day or between gold and cotton. The body is formed of the five gross elements and is tied with the rope or thread in the form of actions (of the previous and present lives), and is ever revolving on the wheel of births and deaths. It (body) is (like) a small lump of butter placed in the mouth of the fire in the form of time (spirit – mahAkAla) where it is consumed in a trice, in that duration of time as is taken by a fly for shaking its wings. This body, if it perchance falls into a fire will be reduced to ashes; but if it gets into the jaws of a dog, it will be transformed into dung. Escaping both these fates, it will get reduced to a cluster of germs and insects — in short, whatever end it may meet with, would be quite repulsive. Such is the condition of the body; while the soul is such that being beginning-less, he is eternal and self-same. (He) is neither possessed of quality nor is quality-less, and is neither lean nor fat. He is neither felt nor unfelt, neither luminous nor non-luminous, neither minute nor extensive, and he transcends form. He is neither empty nor full, neither alone nor in company, neither with form nor without form and abides in the zero (void) state (which is the negation of all attributes). He is neither joyous nor joyless, neither singular nor plural, neither free nor fettered, and exists as self-same. He is neither “this much” nor “that much,” neither self-made nor made by any body else, neither talkative nor dumb, and is above any characteristic mark. He is neither created along with the universe nor is he exhausted (finished) with the end of the world, and is himself the constituent ground and source of both existence and non-existence. He can neither be measured nor described, he neither increases nor decreases, and neither fades nor is finished, being immutable. Such is the aspect of the soul; and those that say, Oh dear, that he dwells in the body, talk of the sky as having the dimensions (as seen through) of a hut (hermitage).
Thus his (the soul’s) all-pervading nature makes the creation and the end of different bodies possible, but he remains unaffected by their varying conditions; he exists (intact) as he is. The day and the night rotate in the sky, and in the same way, bodies come and go under the supremacy of the soul. Therefore, even while abiding in the body, he neither acts nor causes (any one) to act; nor does he take upon himself the responsibility of any actions confronting him, remaining quite neutral.
Consequently, there is no change in his aspect; and even though abiding in the body, he is not affected by bodily attributes.
I would first and foremost like to thank my wife, Sandhya Srinivasan, for giving me unstinting support in the many months and years it has taken me to do the research for this article series and write it, even though it took me away from her and our daughter for extended periods. Without her constant, unwavering, and enthusiastic support, this series would not have been possible.
I also owe thanks to Sandhya for being a strong intellectual partner in this endeavor. She has been very kind to spare time from her busy schedule to read every word of every article that I have ever written for my blog, and offer careful, considered, and critical feedback on them. Her inputs on this caste-discrimination series in the form of feedback and suggestions have been invaluable.
One friend without whom this series would not have been possible is Ganesh Prasad. He has been a source of constant encouragement, and his unflagging enthusiasm for the project allowed me to continue with it even at times when I started to wonder if the effort was at all worth it. In addition, Ganesh has been very patient and thorough in proofreading every line of every article in the series, and offering extremely valuable feedback that has greatly improved the series, from as far back as 4 years ago when he read the first draft of this series, to the final posted articles now. I owe him a debt of gratitude.
I would like to thank Dileepan Raghunathan for his help in understanding some passages in the Gita. I would also like to thank Ramdas Menon for helpful comments and feedback on the articles in this series, and for his strong encouragement and support of this series in particular, and my writing in general.
Lastly, I would like to thank the many people with whom I have had vigorous arguments on this topic, on Facebook and WhatsApp. Some of those arguments took up entire weekends, but they ended up clarifying my thinking immensely and helped me sharpen my positions.
Any errors or mistakes in this article, however, should not be attributed to any of these people, for such errors and mistakes are entirely my own fault. The contributions of my kind and patient friends and family have been only to enhance this humble work.
This is an evolving list. More titles will be added as they are published. This list is the current list of published articles.