The Essence & The Real

Upon first encounter, the Bhagavad-Gita struck a chord of prepossessing harmony within the score of my mystical understanding—I was entranced by the lucidly profound explication of divine spirit and infinite being—it deciphers into such simple terms what has notoriously been the most complex of subjects: the ‘embodied self’ and its relationship with the ‘Endless-Nameless’ (my preferred term for the infinite-unknowable being--thanks Kurt-- a different spin on Brahman). Imagine my surprise when unexpectedly, in delving back into the ‘Song of the Lord’ for a second time, I discovered a bitter taste developing in my mouth.

It’s true that I absorbed the first ten teachings with an ease more pleasurable and sweet the second time around; and the lessons therein proved to be incredibly insightful. But, in my confrontation with the external implications of the eleventh teaching, “The Vision of Krishna’s Totality,” A ringing caught my ear, a familiar, yet cracked, religious bell—this turns out to be my detrimental dilemma of unforeseen discord.

After a brief meditative period of intense evaluation, my dilemma’s origin revealed itself as the ‘Totality’ teaching’s notion of specificity that crept into my understanding of the text’s deeper philosophical meaning. Previous to my perplexity, I saw the Bhagavad-Gita as a work of pure philosophical beauty, unsurpassed in both its purposefully general and perfectly detailed description of my understanding of the Endless-Nameless, especially in its relation to universal reality and all the existent beings therein: as the divine cause and the karma-dharma creator.

If this, my intuition, about the inherent nature of the text is valid, then I had, and have, a few burning questions to ask (and will do my best to answer later on). First of all, how can Krishna, as the supreme and infinite being, “the life force that sustains the universe”(7:5), be both “beyond {the universe and its creatures} and unchanging”(7:13) and at the same time have a specified name? Still further, how can Krishna, who sustains the world with only “a fragment of {his} being”(10:42), be described with any cohesion? And if the description of Krishna carries more weight than specious poetic justice, doesn’t it mean that Krishna’s image is no longer indefinite and his characteristics are no longer undetermined? Wouldn’t that make him an indoctrinated figure? And henceforth an imagined determinant, a reified entity that can be easily attached to (in a philosophical system that consecrates detachment)? How can Krishna possibly “remain detached” and stand apart from his creation, as he says he does (9:9), and yet still be an iconic deity?

Should I not be even more perplexed by Arjuna’s communication with such an ineffable superior so beyond and so detached from the universe? If Arjuna could ascend to the Infinite height beyond and have the “Shelter of All That Is”(11:37) revealed to him exclusively, might Arjuna then just be another example of human par excellence, a quasi-Christ figure, who has the chance to view and be absorbed by Krishna only because of his most perfect, pure devotion? As Krishna himself says, “by devotion alone\ can I, as I really am,\ be known and seen\ and entered into, Arjuna”(11:54), and “{Not by any practice} can I be seen in this form\ in the world of men\ by anyone but you, Great Hero”(11:48). At first glance it most assuredly seems that their relationship is an exclusive one.

The reason I was torn so deeply (now known as temporarily) by these questions: I understood that if Krishna and Arjuna are specific entities with specific traits inherently recognized by beings of a specific cultural region in a privatized manner, the Bhagavad-Gita is no more encompassing and universal than the Western traditions I have studied (and willfully rebelled against in hopes of discovering something more encompassing and satisfying), which means, on the whole, no better. Each of these religions is justified by its individual universal “truth,” which, respectively, is universally equal in their unverifiability. Blame my high hopes on lofty optimism.

Or perhaps it is my own naïveté—or just plain wishful thinking—but the truths expressed by the Gita struck such a pleasant chord my first time through, I believed that any person, with enough gumption, could penetrate into its depths. Regardless of from where or at what time period, if a reader approaches the Bhagavad-Gita, she should be able to attain both knowledge and understanding beyond what she knew and understood of reality before hearing Krishna’s counsel. For me, then, it is needless to say, even on the brink of the despair brought on by my dilemma—still frustrated with shattered expectations—I managed to remain devoted to the joy of possibility that could be seen in the Bhagavad-Gita; I had enough discipline to detach from my opinions, consider their inevitable bias, relinquish, and accept the fact that I had thought them.

I forged ahead and finished the intense dialogue, semi-willfully concentrating on different aspects of the text than I did previously, resulting in a fresh outlook and what seemed to be a much more comprehensive understanding of the philosophical masterwork. Now what deeper, more unifying understanding I procured remains to be seen, and will surely follow this lengthy and circuitous introduction which I will do my best to recapitulate for you now.


At first glance, I believed that the Bhagavad-Gita was an amazing philosophical achievement, as close to perfect that I have read in a text that confronts such a complex issue. Then I was confronted by an acrimonious thought: that the Gita’s religious philosophy was no more than Christian theology with Eastern spices—quite a devastating blow. I have thought about the issue even more and as I hinted at earlier, have come up with a few answers to those questions along with additional questions concerning those answers. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines—‘for what is past is prologue.’

As I mentioned in my first sentence heretofore, the language of the Gita is ‘lucidly profound.’ Here I might show a few examples of what exactly made me fall in love with this text so quickly, to better show the degree of devastation from whence I detected it as all for nought. But this I cannot do. The brilliant truths I thought I had gleaned, about such things as the true nature of the embodied self; the attainability of freedom from desire and suffering; the Divine relationships between the ‘Endless-Nameless,’ Humanity, the Universe, its Creatures, and Nature; each one of these truths cannot be elucidated unless I am able to overrule my objections concerning the ‘Total Vision of Krishna.’

Why is this?

The veritability of the dialogue evolves from a few simple facts: the fact that what is being said by Krishna has the true nature of revelation; the fact that Krishna can be known with certainty to be the embodiment of “the universal father”(9:17) as well as “the origin of creatures”(9:13); the fact that Krishna is also the deity beyond the universe; beyond being and non-being; and beyond immortality and death. How can we know that these things are true when we consider my pre-noted dilemma? It actually turns out to be pretty simple, and I felt a little embarrassed after I finally figured it out, but I know I am better off having confronted the issue head on.

In Teaching Thirteen,Knowing the Field, it is revealed that “it {the field} is called the supreme infinite spirit,\ beginningless, neither being nor nonbeing”(13:12) and it is “outside and within all creatures”(13:15). When I read this, I was like, hey, wait a minute! How can the field be called the same thing as Krishna? What then needs to be subtly conferred on to Krishna himself is not that he is the Infinite Spirit as must be understood up until that chapter—for he claims it to be so repeatedly—but the Infinite Spirit is actually the Field, which is also referred to as the Great Lord, or just Lord (hence the title ‘Song of the Lord’). Krishna, then it turns out, is not the ‘Endless-Nameless,’ but instead is the embodiment of the knowledge of infinite spirit; as Krishna declares, “so, in summary I have explained\ the field {infinite spirit} and knowledge of it;\ a man devoted to me, knowing this,\ enters into my being.” (13:18).

It is only through knowledge of the infinite spirit that one enters into Krishna’s being, literally by ‘attained knowledge.’

In actuality, it is not the entity Krishna that is the supreme infinite being speaking throughout the dialogue, but Krishna as the human embodiment of the highest attained knowledge of the infinite (but more on this later). His role in reality and existence is best elucidated by the climax of the section titled ‘The True Spirit of Man,’ “I dwell deep\ in the heart of everyone;\ memory, knowledge,\ and reasoning come from me;\ I am the object to be known\through all sacred lore;\ and I am its knower,\ the creator of its final truth”(15:15). Krishna is embodiment of the pure and supreme human self: that which knows; is known; reasons; and remembers.

We have cleared up the issue of how it is possible for the ‘Endless-Nameless’ supreme being to be described: He (or She or It) isn’t being characterized at all. Krishna is the one described, but not as the actual entity of the infinite spirit. When he is described it as the embodiment of attained knowledge of what it means for there to be the Infinite Spirit and all the understanding and wisdom that comes with that knowledge. Not the infinite spirit itself, but the essence of the Infinite Spirit. But we still haven’t answered the question of whether giving Krishna a name essentially privatizes the philosophical truth of the Bhagavad-Gita to a particular region and culture.

The simplest answer is: yes and no. Yes because Krishna is a culmination of sorts of Indian religious tradition, his myth is founded there, his existence as a historical fact is bound there—just as Jesus or Abraham is a Hebrew name; Mohammed or Hakeem is an Islamic name—Krishna is a Hindi name. Moreover, the answer is also no. What makes the Bhagavad-Gita so beautiful, from a modern perspective, all you need is that philosophical truth of the Supreme and Infinite being. Nothing less, nothing more. There is no matter in what you call it, only in how you approach it. As long as its purpose is understood and meaningfully developed, you can call it anything you like.

Finally, all that’s left to explain is the matter of Arjuna’s ascension. Why was it necessary, and was it in effect a trick by Krishna in order to put Arjuna in a state of awe, humility, to instill a bit of fear, and obeisance? Arjuna is tricked, whether that was the intention or not. He refers to Krishna as the “Lord of All”(11:16) and as “supreme eternity” (11:18); what Arjuna does not know is that it isn’t the Infinite Supreme Lord of All Eternity into which his eyes are looking and body is absorbed, but only the attained knowledge, the essence of just such a being. This is like saying I have attained knowledge of how a car engine works, I can even draw you a picture demonstrating step by step how the engine runs, and you could perfectly understand from my drawings how the car engine I have drawn for you works, and even understand how car engines work in an actual car rather than just a drawing, but you cannot say that you have actually seen and known a car engine work; the knowledge you have is attained through the knowledge of someone else, not direct experience. What you have learned is the essence of the workings of a car engine, not the real workings of the car engine itself. And so it is with what is known of Krishna and the Infinite spirit. Which brings up the next question, how did Krishna attain his knowledge? But before we address this question, let’s give a reply to the final query from earlier, on the comparison of Arjuna to Christ.

Arjuna is an example of a human par excellence, just as Jesus is, the only difference being that in Christianity, Jesus is the one and only example of this, and the example he left for humanity is a declarative unattainable (hooray for original sin!!!). Arjuna on the other hand is both a model of attainable “perfect joy”(14:23) through purest devotion to attained knowledge of the disembodied Infinite Spirit, or “eternal sacred duty”(Ibid), as well as attained “refuge in the original spirit of man”(15:4) or the ‘supreme self’ or the ‘king of the embodied self’ by “reaching the realm beyond change” from which they do not return. This is achieved if, as Krishna declares, “He really sees who sees\ that all actions are performed\ by nature alone and that the self\ is not the actor”(13:29). These are just two of the basic concepts towards achieving ‘attainment’ in the Bhagavad-Gita, from them (and the rest of the text) it can be inferred that with the correct balance of devotion, disciplined action, and relinquishment, the attainment of ‘perfect joy’ is most definitely possible. It is Krishna’s divine principle that is the embodied ‘supreme self,’ which is itself “the basis of eternal sacred duty\ and of perfect joy”(14:27) and not some disembodied divine principle infinitely unreachable like the trinity of Christ.

That leaves me with only one unanswered question. If all that is known of the ‘Endless Nameless’ is the essence, or a perfectly scaled drawing of it, how is it that Krishna came to know as much as he claims? I am not sure that I am qualified to answer this one, and I am not sure if anyone is. I know I can’t even be sure that Krishna’s knowledge of the ‘Endless-Nameless’ is wholly true (healthy skepticism), but however he came about the knowledge of his particular essence I am sure it had to do with karma, dharma, yoga, sraddha, prasada, jnana, purusa, smrti, prakrti, tyaga, cetas, yajna, buddhi, and perhaps most importantly, bhakti.

This material is copyrighted ©2004