Vedantic And Mystical Interpretations of the Bhagavadgita

A Talk by Ashwini Mokashi, Ph.D. ©

Namaste everyone! Thank you again for joining us today! We will discuss the second part of Gurudev R. D. Ranade’s book of ‘The Bhagavad-Gita – as a Philosophy of God-Realization’. These are the notes of the talk and the talk is available on the Gurudev Ranade Facebook Group. We will start with the prayer.

Introduction

As you may know, this book was compiled from the lectures of Gurudev Ranade delivered on the Bhagavad-Gita at Nagpur University in 1928. These lectures were put together in book format subsequently and published in 1959 (and not during his lifetime, as previously stated). The book has the finesse of a writing material, but since these were lectures to begin with – they also give us the feeling of being spoken to.

For those reading Gurudev Ranade for the first time, it might be helpful to also refer to a couple of his other books. One is the most fascinating  ‘Constructive Survey of the Upanishadic Philosophy’ and another is titled ‘Vedanta – the Culmination of Indian Thought’. Anyone wanting a better understanding of the history of the ancient period, might enjoy reading the book Gurudev co-authored with Prof. S K Belvalkar called ‘History of Indian Philosophy’. This last book is more historical in nature, but also discusses philosophical aspects of various ancient texts. The books on the Vedanta and the Upanishads are totally devoted to the philosophical understanding of those texts with a superb creative and independent analysis by Gurudev. The book on the Upanishads is not only favored by the sadhakas and readers of the Upanishads, but also by the academic scholars of Indology or Philosophy or Religion, who rank it as one of the greatest analyses of the Upanishads.

Recap

Today, we will first start with a quick recap of the last talk. In the first part of the book on the Gita, Gurudev analyses the influences on the Gita from the ancient texts of the Upanishads, Samkhya-Yoga philosophy and the Brahmasutras. All these ancient texts were written prior to the Gita, which is indebted to them for providing a theoretical and philosophical background to its philosophy and we see that the Gita summarizes the arguments of the various Upanishads in a very compact format and provides clear and precise guidelines about how to attain Moksha (or liberation from the cycles of births-rebirths). We also saw various similarities and differences between these texts and the Gita, and also noticed that some common concepts were interpreted differently, like the illustration of the ashvattha tree.

One of those concepts that we touched on briefly  is that of Vishwarupa Darshan of Krishna, and we will talk more about that today, referring to the Vedanta, Jnaneshwari, Nimbal sampradaya and also the life of Gurudev. We will also talk about the background of the Vedantic school of philosophy and  discuss its concept of ‘maya or illusion’, which constitutes the essence of  Vedantic Philosophy.

In her book ‘Jaisi Ganga Wahe’, Mrs. Vijaya Apte (Gurudev’s daughter  and popularly known as Shakutai) mentions that her mother Shrimati Kakusaheb Ranade also had the mystical experience of Vishwarupa Darshan of God, and Gurudev was present at that time. Kakusaheb narrated the experience to him and to a few others who were in Nimbal at that time. Gurudev had realized that she was having this experience. The fact that she had this mystical experience also implies that all our Gurus had this mystical experience, since these experiences are passed on from the Guru to their disciples. It also gives us hope that when we are at that level of spiritual development, we may be able to experience that as well. Gurudev’s book also discusses how Narad Muni had the same mystical experience of Vishwaraupa Darshan. So we see how these mystical experiences are real for those who are at that stage of spiritual development. In this book, Gurudev keeps referring to this experience in many different conversations. In fact, for religious scholars of the Gita, chapter 11 of Vishwarupa Darshan really constitutes the essence of the Gita, along with the last chapter of the Moksha-Sannyasa Yoga.

As you may know, Gurudev’s books are extremely insightful, and his scholarship is very deep. He says about his work on the Vedanta, that he spent 25 years thinking about what to say in that book, and what fresh and independent thinking he could add to the concepts of the Vedanta. Thus the book may appear to be rather small, but it is mostly about what he is adding to current thinking. Gurudev’s books always assume that readers are knowledgeable about the philosophies under discussion. So for any new reader it becomes a challenge to understand his writings. On the other hand, Gurudev’s books are a source of tremendous intellectual pleasure for scholars who are familiar with the underlying philosophical concepts. My task here is to provide enough background for these philosophies and a summary of what Gurudev is saying in this book, so that new readers might find it easier to follow.

I was also asked to elaborate Gurudev’s views on the Gita or on other texts. So to clarify, the structure of these talks is totally based on the book of ‘Bhagavadgita As A Philosophy of God-Realisation’ by Gurudev Ranade. Whatever similarities and differences we have shown are all from Gurudev’s point of view. Also the conclusion of the book which we will discuss in the fourth talk elaborates his views and his interpretation of the Gita. For spiritual seekers like all members of the Gurudev Sampradaya, it boils down to the truth that meditation alone is what takes us to Moksha, along with the grace of the Spiritual Guru. We will talk more about this, when we discuss the philosophy of the Jnaneshwari.

Vedanta School of Philosophy

Every school of philosophy is built round some major concept. For example, the Samkhya school which talked about the creation of the world  tried to put consciousness at the center of their philosophical understanding and marked consciousness or purusha as the most important aspect of this world. Vedanta  considers Brahman to be the most important and recommends that our life should be devoted to the pursuit of Brahman through meditation. But since we don’t perceive the Brahman though our senses we get confused as to whether we should believe in it. What we see around us is what the samkhyas call prakriti or nature and the Vedantins call ‘maya’ or illusion. For the Vedantins, the whole world is nothing but maya. The world is illusory as it is impermanent, temporary, constantly changing and is not the truth. The real truth lies in the Brahman.

The idea of the Brahman or Ultimate Reality as modern philosophers describe it, is also known as the Universal Self. Each one of us is part of it through our soul, also known as the atman or individual self. So we have here two entities: one, an individual self, jiva or ‘atman’ and the other, the universal self, Ishwara or ‘Brahman’. They have the same essence or substance. Our life is a journey of the individual becoming one with the universal self, for which human birth is a vehicle. So when the Vedantinsthink that these are two different entities, atman as one and the Brahman as the other, they are then called ‘dvaita-vadins’ or dualists. When the Vedantins think that both the atman and the Brahman are essentially the same and there is no difference, they are called ‘advaita-vadins’ or non-dualists. But both agree on the reality of atman and the Brahman. They have no doubt about the existence of these metaphysical entities. They also agree on the existence of the world, or prakriti (in the terminology of the Samkhya), or samsara (in the terminology of the Gita).

Gurudev refers to four Vedantic scholars, so we will limit our conversation only to these four. Among them, Adi Shankaracharya, who lived in the 8th century AD is the most famous Advaitin scholar. Ramanuja is a Vishisthadvaitin and lived at the turn of the 10th century AD. Madhvacharya was a Dvaitin scholar from 13th century Karnataka, Vallabhacharya a shuddhadvaitin scholar from as late as the 16th century, living in Varanasi.

Absolutistic Reality (same as Absolute Reality)

Having covered some background, we will now look at the points that Gurudev wants to discuss regarding the Gita and Vedantic interpretations. The first point is about the Absolutistic Reality. In the 13th chapter, verse 13, God is said to have hands, legs, eyes, heads and faces everywhere. He pervades everything.

सर्वतः पाणिपादं तत्सर्वतोऽक्षिशिरोमुखम्।
सर्वतः श्रुतिमल्लोके सर्वमावृत्य तिष्ठति।।13.14।।

Both Shankara and Ramanuja believe this is unreal. But Shankara says that something unreal might be the cause of something real. So there may not be an actual entity with such giant features, but there might still be an entity we call God.

Gurudev says that Arjuna saw God with hands and feet everywhere, but this is a mystical manifestation. The verse quoted is from the chapter on the vishwarupa-darshan 11.16.

अनेकबाहूदरवक्त्रनेत्रं पश्यामि त्वां सर्वतोऽनन्तरूपम् |
नान्तं न मध्यं न पुनस्तवादिं पश्यामि विश्वेश्वर विश्वरूप || 16||

Personalistic Reality (same as Personal Reality)

The second point Gurudev makes is about Personalistic Reality, indicating the importance given to the personality. The 15th chapter of the Gita describes two kinds of people, kshara (perishable) purusha and akshara (imperishable) purusha. So the entire manifestation including the sun, moon, stars, human beings et al are all perishable; but the akshara purushas though imperishable, are really an illusion or the maya of the Vedanta. So basically neither kshara nor akshara are real purusha. The real purusha is the uttam purusha. He is the transcendental self and the Ishwara.

द्वाविमौ पुरुषौ लोके क्षरश्चाक्षर एव च ।

क्षरः सर्वाणि भूतानि कूटस्थोऽक्षर उच्यते ।।15.16

उत्तमः पुरुषस्त्वन्यः परमात्मेत्युदाहृतः ।

यो लोकत्रयमाविश्य बिभर्त्यव्यय ईश्वरः ।। 15.17

Again in the Gita 8.22, it says and Gurudev points out, that the purusha can only be known through devotion.

पुरुष: स पर: पार्थ भक्त्या लभ्यस्त्वनन्यया |
यस्यान्त:स्थानि भूतानि येन सर्वमिदं ततम् || 8.22||

Shankara and Ramanuja are both in agreement that the Uttama purusha is the paramatman, even though they have different interpretations on the kshara and akshara purusha definitions, according to Gurudev Ranade.

Asat – not-being

The next point Gurudev discusses is the concept of asat or not-being. Gurudev considers verse number 2.16, which says that non-reality does not exist and reality never ceases.

नासतो विद्यते भावो नाभावो विद्यते सत: |
उभयोरपि दृष्टोऽन्तस्त्वनयोस्तत्त्वदर्शिभि: || 2.16||

Madhva had trouble with this verse, because he believed that both prakriti and purusha, or the world and the consciousness always exist. Gurudev tried to defend him by saying that perhaps Madhva meant asat and maya (and not asat and sat). Vallabhacharya says that reality is beyond sat and asat and is incomprehensible. Gurudev returns to this question later in the book.

Nature of the Self

Gurudev points to Badarayana who says that God is present in the universe, in all animate and inanimate objects. In his Vedanta book he also discusses Jiva in detail, which is a part of God, – either an image, an illusion or a limitation of God.

Naishkarmya

Naishkarmya is going beyond Karma. From the word itself, it may seem to mean a denial of Karma, but that is not the case. What this means is the control of our sense organs to go beyond Karma. If we control the mind and do not fall into the trap of satisfying every mental and psychic urge, this is what it looks like. For example, let us say we are at a dinner party where we really want to eat shrikhand but say no thank you, when offered to us, wanting to practice the principle of  detachment. But then we spend our entire evening thinking about the shrikhand and get very restless. So that is not an example of sense-control. Sense control is effected when we actually give up wanting to eat shrikhand, which is not easy.

We know from Gurudev’s life that he rarely ate much. He would always take a look at the food, bless it and make sure that the family and guests ate well. But he himself rarely ate much, just enough to survive. Nor did he spend time thinking about food. Instead, he focused on his meditation. That is the example of naishkarmya.

Now a karma-yogi transcends his or her actions by non-attachment to them.  A bhakti-yogi will transcend actions by surrendering their emotions/actions to God. Shankaracharya and Ramanuja believe that when all actions are attributed to God, then we are only nimitta, (more like an excuse or an instrument) to carry out God’s desire, so we don’t attribute the actions to ourselves. For example, Arjuna is only a ‘nimitta’ of the Mahabharata war. The results of the war are already predetermined according to the Gita. Sri Krishna had already designated him to be the hero of the war and for the enemies to die, which Arjun gets to see for himself in the experience of Vishwarupa Darshan.  

Another point of the Gita mentioned by Gurudev is ‘Sarvadharman parityajya mamekam sharanam vraja’ BG  18.66

सर्वधर्मान्परित्यज्य मामेकं शरणं व्रज |
अहं त्वां सर्वपापेभ्यो मोक्षयिष्यामि मा शुच: ||18.66||

This verse advocates going beyond religious rituals, and taking refuge in God alone. Gurudev thinks that Shankara and Vallabha along with Aurobindo Ghosh would interpret the statement as surrendering into God.

Liberation

The last point here is Liberation and there are three Vedantic views.

  • Sadharmya: when a person rules everything, animate or inanimate. (We see an example of this in the legend of Sri Jnaneshwara, when he asks the wall or a building block to take him to meet Changadev.)
  • Brahmabhuyaya: when a person lives in God. (An example would be from the legend of Saint Tukaram, when God comes to meet him to take him to the heaven.)
  • Vishate: when a person enters into the Brahman. (The legens of Saint Meerabai, when she ends her life by entereing into the statue of Krishna in the Krishna temple)

Whether we believe in these legends or not, they provide us an example to understand these metaphysical concepts.

Gurudev says at such a point a person not only becomes Brahman but also takes part in the parmananda, or notion of Bliss – in simple terms the self- realized person enjoys happiness.

We conclude our discussion of the Vedanta and the Gita at this point. As I said, we can only do so much justice to these great philosophies given limitations of our time and understanding. But this is a short introduction to the chapter on this topic. Now we move to another major topic of Saint Jnaneshwara and his mystical interpretation of the Gita, according to Gurudev Ranade.

Mystical Interpretation of the Gita by Shri Jnaneshwar Maharaj

Jnaneshwar Maharaj lived in Maharashtra in the 13th century, from 1275-1296 i.e., for about 21 years. He is roughly contemporaneous with other well-known Vedantic scholars: we know that Madhva flourished in the 13th century and Vallabha as late as the 16th century. Gurudev described him as ‘the last of the Romans’, meaning the last of the Vedantic scholars. Yet there is a sea-change in attitudes. With Jnaneshwar Maharaj, we see the birth of the Varakari Sampradaya, the beginnings of the Bhakti movement, continuation of the Natha Sampradaya. Bhagavan Krishna is worshipped as Vithoba and the temple at Pandharpur was erected sometime in the 12th or 13th century, before the birth of Saint Jnaneshwara.

The Vedantic scholars were mostly intellectual giants who spoke from platforms and podiums, but just a few centuries after Shankaracharya we see Jnaneshwar Maharaj mingling with the people, advising them to practice Bhakti, concerned about bringing the knowledge of the Gita into the vernacular, meeting with people, spreading philosophical tenets amongst all and sundry, while also instructing them about meditation and Bhakti. His interpretation of the Gita is totally mystical according to Gurudev Ranade. He also thinks that Jnaneshwari was perhaps the best interpretation of the Gita in any language. So Gurudev has a tremendous respect for this work. Another book by Gurudev called Jnaneshwara Vachanamruta, gives Gurudev’s views on the philosophy of Jnaneshwara Maharaj. The interpretation of Jnaneshwari in Gurudev’s book covers the following points:

Concept of Chitsurya, a Spiritual Sun

First, the concept of Chitsurya – which is the mystical experience of the spiritual sun. Gurudev briefly mentions the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic, (book 7) and how the cave-people who can only see shadowy reflections are liberated, when they finally emerge from the cave and see the sun. That is their great accomplishment because there is nothing greater than the sun, which represents real knowledge or wisdom of the most excellent kind. Likewise the idea of chitsurya is also connected to knowledge. Jnaneshwar Maharaj says that once the chitsurya shines, people’s ignorance just goes away. Just as the physical sun shines brighter than the stars and the moon, likewise the spiritual sun shines brighter and removes all ignorance, or avidya. Anyone who has seen the spiritual sun is known as a Jnani.

Cosmology

Jnaneshwara says that God is the primary mover of the world. He orders the sun, the moon and the earth to move in a certain way. He orders the mountains to remain motionless and the ocean to stay within its boundaries. Gurudev interprets this to mean that God is the sum-total of all forces of nature. According to Jnaneshwara, God is omnipotent, and for Gurudev Ranade that becomes the cosmological argument for the existence of God.

Mayanadi – Flood of Illusion

Gurudev says that the concept of Maya, first enunciated by Shankara, finds its best poetic expression in Jnaneshwari. Jnaneshwar Maharaj talks about Mayanadi –the flood of illusion in which we swim with all the shadripus. The philosophical pramanas also swim in it. Rational people using reason or buddhi-pramana are not able to swim through these floods, and they sink due to their self-conceit. Likewise, people who refer to scriptures for their defense can also fail thanks to their intellectual arrogance. So only those can swim through the floods and cross the river, who have the following three protections: one, a spiritual guru, two, devotion and three, mystical experiences. The most wonderful thing is that the moment we have put it all together and are ready to battle the floods, they disappear. Gurudev says, just as when the spiritual sun rises, ignorance disappears, the mayanadi disappears, when the mystical experiences, bhakti and the grace of Guru becomes prominent. In other words, when we are well-prepared to fight the battle of life, our problems vanish.

Miseries

Saint Jnaneshwara’s description of miseries is another way of guiding people towards Bhakti, and Gurudev is reminded of Kabir’s song ‘re dil gaphil, gaphalat mat kar, ek din jam tera awega’. Jnaneshwar Maharaj says that histories and mythologies are merely stories of death. As the moon and stars decline and vanish, so does a human body. So why look for temporary happiness through the sense-organs? Instead, ‘O Arjuna, go by the path of Bhakti, so that you may reach my immaculate home’ translates Gurudev Ranade from owi 516 in the chapter 11 of Jnaneshwari. The famous owi says ‘tari zadazadoni wahila nigh, iye bhaktichiye wate laga, jiya pawasi avyanga, nijadhama maze’.

What Saint Kabir and Saint Jnaneshwar are pointing out here is that one of these days, death is going to come calling for you. When that happens, this life will come to an end. This life is the only opportunity available for us to complete our journey to Moksha. Hence while we have the life, it is best to keep trying. It is these miseries, the fear of death, which ultimately turn people towards Bhakti.

Ashta-sattvika-bhava

In chapter 11 Vishwarupa darshan, owi 245-252, Jnaneshwar Maharaj describes Arjun’s eight mystical emotions on seeing the virata-rupa of Shri Krishna, – these are part of a person’s spiritual development. The description given by Jnaneshwara Maharaj is of great poetic beauty. He talks about the composed mind, the feeling of joy, the fading of limbs, tears of joy, sweat and shaking, and surges of emotion. As Gurudev describes in his book, the mind of the mystic is seated on a throne of beatific joy.

Unison (same as Union)

Jnaneshwar Maharaj talks about surrender to God as a way to unite with  God. This refers to the same verse in the Gita – sarvadharman parityajya, mam ekam sharanam vraja. Gurudev points out that the way Jnaneshwar Maharaj has described the surrender is scientific, material, psychological and moral. A couple of the illustrations from the Jnaneshwari are ghatakash – how the sky inside the pot, when broken, merges with and becomes one with the sky outside the pot; or how dreams pass into wakefulness and lose their feeling of reality. When union takes place, differences go away and the self sees the self. Gurudev gives the example of two mirrors placed against each other in which we see an infinite number of reflections. In devotional union, a devotee sees God everywhere and in mystical union, a devotee sees their achievement in the growth of their mystical experiences.

Asymptotic Realization

Gurudev credits Jnaneshwar Maharaj with an original contribution to the philosophy of mysticism which he calls the doctrine of asymptotism. Probably the term is an original contribution of Gurudev Ranade to the scholarship of mysticism and philosophy. The original theory of asymptotes comes from mathematics, where a curve and an axis infinitely approach each other and meet at infinity. Likewise a devotee gets closer and closer to God and as time goes on, becomes one with the God. As long as a devotee is in the body, he/she will fall short of divine attainment. Jnaneshwar Maharaj says in chapter 7, owi 114 – jaisa wara ka gagani wire… (how wind becomes one with the sky). Jnaneshwar Maharaj also talks about the big time gap between initiation and realization. Just as the Gods had to put in continuous effort to get realization, so also we by constant striving can achieve something over a period of time. Here he gives the example of Sri Shankara, who did tapasya for many years.

Spiritual Victory

Nevertheless, spiritual warriors will gain the final spiritual victory, as Gurudev says. The battlefield for these warriors is life. Their weapons are Raja-yoga, dispassion (vairagya), and concentration (meditation). They fight the shadripus (kama, krodha, mada, matsara, lobha, moha) and win the battle. Once the battle is won and they have achieved liberation, they travel with their retinue –i.e., all the virtues – they are filled with joy and their banner is ‘Self-Identity’, which is identity with the Brahman. They are showered with flowers by all the Gods in the heavens and are crowned kings and queens on the throne of spiritual experience!

Gurudev Ranade concludes here his discussion of Saint Jnaneshwar’s interpretation of the Gita and so we conclude our discussion of the Gita and Jnaneshwari.

In the next talk, we will discuss some modern interpretations of the Gita, discussed by Gurudev Ranade in the part 3 of his book ‘The Bhagavadgita As A Philosophy of God-Realisation’. [1]

Thank you![2][3]


[1] I am very much indebted to Mr. Chinmay Dharwadkar for inviting me to the Gurudev Ranade Facebook Group to deliver this talk and giving me a chance to connect with the members of the group.

[2] I am very thankful to Mrs. Madhuri Sondhi and Mr. Amol Ghatpande for their editorial input and review of these notes.

[3] I am very grateful to Prof. Shivaji Sondhi for his help with the mathematical concepts and with the sound system and technological support for this talk.

Published by ashwinimokashi

Ashwini Mokashi's book 'Sapiens and Sthitaprajna' is on Comparative Philosophy on the concept of the wise person in Stoic Seneca and the Gita. The book talks about how wisdom leads to happiness. This book is now also recognized by the American Philosophical Practitioners Association from New York. Her next book, a work in progress, is an account of a meditational community in India. Her broad interest is in synthesizing wisdom from various ancient traditions in the context of modern challenges.

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