Q: How would it be possible to deal with our common Bhagavad Gita in terms of Advaita Vedanta?
A (Ramesam): Please appreciate that Bhagavad-Gita is not the primary or basic text for Advaita. Though many of the verses in it are almost exact mantras from various Upanishads, prior to Sankara (8th Century A.D), Bhagavad-Gita was not perhaps as popular a scriptural text for teaching Vedanta as it is today. It was a part of the mythological story, Mahabharata. Some people hold that the Bhagavad-Gita of Mahabhrata contained 745 verses. Some others opine that the original Gita was much smaller and it was Sankara who compiled the present Gita putting together diverse verses from different sources. None of these opinions, however, have any credible supporting evidence. The first extant gloss on the Gita is by Sankara and it contains 700 verses (one or two verses are still disputed and said to have been later insertions).
The genuine question then would be, if Bhagavad-Gita is not the primary source, what is its place in Advaita? What is its importance?
Following the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the teaching and realizational understanding of Advaita can be said to happen in three stages. The three stages are:
Shravana (Listening to (learning from) the scriptures the basic message of Advaita).
Manana (Reflection on what is heard/learnt so that not even an iota of doubt is left about the teaching and thus arrive at an understanding of Absolute Oneness (Brahman)).
Nididhyaasana (Deep contemplative meditation until one achieves unbroken abidance in and as Brahman).
The three stages can happen concurrently, in serial or in tandem. It is also not necessary that all the three stages have to happen in everyone’s case.
Taking a medial case into consideration, Vedic Pundits and scholars (e.g. Brahmasri Y. Srinivasa Rao) recommend the following curricular texts for each stage:
Shravana — Upanishads with Bhashyas and special Advaitic Monographs, the key teaching to be grokked at this stage being ‘tat tvam asi.’
Manana – Brahmasutra Bhashya and Monographs and Treatises, the key understanding to be arrived at this stage being ‘aham brahmasmi.’
Nididhyaasana – Bhagavad-Gita. The key realization to be achieved is ‘neha naanaasti kincana’ preceded by total ‘padaartha abhaavana’ (non-cognition of objects).
Even after obtaining a clear understanding of the Non-dual teaching in the second phase after a thorough reflection and internal debate, a seeker carries a sense of a body for him. He has also to eke out his living in the world. So the mind keeps coming back to him distracting him from being in continuous thoughts on Brahman out of its sheer habitual pattern of reaction to the worldly events and situations. He often finds himself in dilemma of what to be done and what not to be done in the course of his daily life and activities. The mind will also be vulnerable to temptations because of the residual sensations of being a separate individual occurring as feelings at the bodily level. Further, the mind may feel desperate sometimes and seek a perch to hang on to or surrender all its cares to a higher power. The seeker could find himself directionless and adrift. In all such situations, he looks for a guidepost and a friend lovingly to hold hands and steer him through the complex paradoxes. In short he needs a “Life Strategy Manual.”
And precisely, that is the role Bhagavad-Gita plays – a Life Strategy Manual – sometimes cajoling, sometimes consoling, sometimes chastising, sometimes remonstrating, sometimes educating, sometimes arguing, sometimes explicating but always cheering and encouraging and assuring a helping hand. Gita is at once a mix of Psychology, Psychiatry, Social Engineering, Relationship Management, Philosophy and Vedanta.
Because it talks of so many different things, Gita has become amenable for many interpretations – people selectively choosing what suits them.
No wonder the Dualists, the Qualified Non-dualists, the Bhakti cults and even Jet set Management Gurus have their own theories on what Gita teaches! Added to that ever since the spread of Mono-theistic religions, which cite a single book as the authority to bow down to and to swear by for their faith, Bhagavad-Gita has acquired the stature of a mascot for Hindu religion. Emulating people of other religions, Bhagavad-Gita is now adopted as the holy book for taking oath of office by dignitaries.
The true Advaitic teaching is contained in the aranyaka parts of the Vedas, at their very end, the Upanishads. Though it is not the primary source for Advaita, Bhagavad-Gita is a manual of guidance that helps a seeker in staying his course in attaining the Supreme Knowledge during the important nididhyaasana phase.
Q: It seems to me as being evident that paramatman–the utter Self in the understanding of Advaita Vedanta–must be seen as dwelling in an highest impersonal state of absoluteness. But, looking to the Bhagavad Gita (the XVth chapter, ‘Yoga of the Supreme Spirit – Purushottama) I reckognized Shri Krishna as transcending by himself any duality of kshara and akshara purusha or of the personal and the impersonal in God. Which would be your solution of this problem?
A (Ramesam): I do not understand your question fully from the way you formulated it. So I am responding in a general way explaining the background of Chapter XV of Bhagavad-Gita based on which you have raised the question. Hope the answer for your doubt will get covered within the broad contours I am drawing in my reply.
The entire teaching of Gita is spelt out in the second chapter itself. The subsequent chapters are only amplifications on that basic theme. Some commentators consider that the teaching is completed by the 12th chapter and the remaining six chapters are a repetition of what was taught. Yet another view is that the last six chapters stress on Knowledge path in the realization of Brahman. Taken from any angle, it can be said that the later chapters do not contain any new material and they explain the already propounded philosophy from different perspectives. While doing so, some of the concepts and models of Sankhya, Yoga, Bhakti etc. used in the earlier chapters are further expanded and a deeper meaning is provided in the chapters from 13th to the 18th – a profoundly deeper meaning pointing to the ineffable Absolute Oneness.
For ease of understanding by the seeker, Sage Vyasa presented the teaching of Vedanta as if Brahman Itself has come as a person and delivered the sermon. Krishna is the personification of Brahman.
The 15th chapter opens with a comparison of the phenomenal world to a peepul tree. We normally see the trees with roots down under the ground and the branches growing up above into free space. But the ever expanding growth of the world is into more bondage and not freedom. So the creation and growth of the world are figuratively a downward movement and not upwards. In fact it can be called a negative growth. The world (samsara) has its origin in Brahman up above and goes down to be a mere phantasmagoria.
This process of the development of the world is said to be beginningless and also apparently unending. The origination and development of the world thus seems to be imperishable (akshara). But we see all the things within the world to be constantly changing and hence perishable (kshara). So we have perishable objects (kshara) in an imperishable (akshara) process of creation. The tree to which the world is compared is aswatha. Aswatha word in Sanskrit means that which appears now and is not there later on. Thus there is a subtle implication in the simile to say that the world looks to be everlasting though actually it does not. It is like a running stream. We say that a river exists though the waters are constantly flowing away.
There is a substratum behind the changing objects in the world as well as the continuous process of creation. That substratum is the Absolute Brahman. The Absolute Brahman is given the name of Purushottama – the Supreme Being. Another name is Paramatma (Supreme Self).
As per the Advaita teaching, the Supreme Self does not exist remotely somewhere (“dwelling in an highest impersonal state of absoluteness”) as you seem to imply. What appears as the world with both the perishable and imperishable components is Brahman, for there is no scope for a second thing to exist other than Brahman. It is the Supreme Self alone which takes the form of the world from moment to moment. Hence the fundamental substance with which the world is made up is Brahman. Brahman does not have to transcend any kshara or akshara to be Brahman. He is already Brahman. What Krishna is asking you (the seeker) is to recognize this fact that you are the basic substratum behind everything and do not be carried away thinking that you are either a perishable thing or the imperishable process. The way to this realization is by cutting the growth of the aswatha tree like world right at its root with the sword of dispassion and detachment.