The Occult Significance of the Bhagavad Gita
29 May 1913, Helsingfors
The more deeply we penetrate into the occult records of the various ages and peoples, that is to say, into the truly occult records, the more we are struck by one feature of them which meets us again and again. I have already indicated it in discussing the Gospel of St. John, and again on a later occasion in speaking of the Gospel of St. Mark. I refer to the fact that on looking deeply into any such occult record it becomes ever clearer that it is really most wonderfully composed, that it forms an artistic whole. I could show, for instance, how St. John's Gospel, when we penetrate into its depths, reveals a wonderful, artistic composition. With remarkable dramatic power the story is carried up stage by stage to a great climax, and then continues from this point onward with a kind of renewal of dramatic power to the end. You can study this in the lectures I gave at Cassel on St. John's Gospel in relation to the three other Gospels, especially to that according to St. Luke.
Most impressive is the gradual enhancement of the whole composition while the super-sensible is placed before us in the so-called miracles and signs; each working up in ever-increasing wonder to the sign that meets us in the initiation of Lazarus. It makes us realize how we can always find artistic beauty at the foundation of these occult records. I could show the same for the structure of St. Mark's Gospel. When we regard such records in their beauty of form and their dramatic power, we can indeed conclude that just because they are true such records cannot be other than artistically, beautifully composed, in the deepest sense of the word. For the moment we will only indicate this fact, as we may come back to it in the course of these lectures.
Now it is remarkable that the same thing meets us again in the Bhagavad Gita. There is a wonderful intensification of the narrative, one might say, a hidden artistic beauty in the song, so that if nothing else were to touch the soul of one studying this sublime Gita, he still could not help being impressed by its marvelous composition. Let us begin by indicating a few of the outstanding points — and we will confine ourselves today to the first four discourses — because these points are important both for the artistic structure and the deep occult truths that it contains.
First of all Arjuna meets us. Facing the bloodshed in which he is to take part, he grows weak. He sees all that is to take place as a battle of brothers against brothers, his blood relations. He shrinks back. He will not fight against them. While fear and terror come over him and he is horror-stricken, his charioteer suddenly appears as the instrument through which Krishna, God, is to speak to him. Here in this first episode we already have a moment of great intensity and also an indication of deep occult truth. Anyone who finds the way, by whatever path, into the spiritual worlds, even though he may have gone only a few steps — or even had only a dim presentiment of the way to be experienced — such a person will be aware of the deep significance of this moment.
As a rule we cannot enter the spiritual worlds without passing through a deep upheaval in our souls. We have to experience something which disturbs and shakes all our forces, filling us with intense feeling. Emotions that are generally spread out over many moments, over long periods of living, whose permanent effect on the soul is therefore weaker — such feelings are concentrated in a single moment and storm through us with tremendous force when we enter the occult worlds. Then we experience a kind of inner shattering, which can indeed be compared to fear, terror and anxiety, as though we were shrinking back from something almost with horror. Such experiences belong to the initial stages of occult development, to entering the spiritual worlds. It is just for this reason that such great care must be taken to give the right advice to those who would enter the spiritual worlds through occult training. Such a person must be prepared so that he may experience this upheaval as a necessary event in his soul life without its encroaching on his bodily life and health, because his body must not suffer a like upheaval. That is the essential thing. We must learn to suffer the convulsions of our soul with outward equanimity and calm.
This is true not only for our bodily processes. The soul forces we need for everyday living, our ordinary intellectual powers, even those of imagination, of feeling and will — these too must not be allowed to become unbalanced. The upheaval that may be the starting-point for occult life must take place in far deeper layers of the soul, so that we go through our external life as before, without anything being noticed in us outwardly, while within we may be living through whole worlds of shattering soul-experience. That is what it means to be ripe for occult development: To be able to experience such inward convulsions without losing one's outer balance and calm. To this end a person who is striving to become ripe for occult development must widen the circle of his interests beyond his everyday life. He must get away from that to which he is ordinarily attached from morning to night, and reach out to interests that move on the great horizon of the world.
We must be able to undergo the experience of doubting all truth and all knowledge. We must have the power to do this with the same intensity of feeling people generally have only where their everyday interests are concerned. We must be able to feel with the destiny of all mankind, with as much interest as we usually feel in our own destiny, or perhaps in that of our nearest connections of family, nation, or race. If we cannot do this, we are not yet completely ready for occult development.
For this reason modern anthroposophy, if pursued earnestly and worthily, is the right preparation in our age for a true occult development. Let those who are absorbed in the petty material interests of the immediate present, who cannot find sufficient interest to follow the anthroposophist in looking out over world and planetary destinies, over the historical epochs and races of mankind — let them scoff if they will! One who would prepare himself for an occult development must lift up his eyes to the heights where the interests of mankind, of the earth, of the whole planetary system become his own. When a person's interests are gradually sharpened and widened through the study of anthroposophy, which leads even without occult training to an understanding of occult truths, then he is being rightly prepared for an occult path.
In our time there are many who have such interests for the whole of mankind. More often they are not to be found among the intellectuals but are people who appear to lead quite simple lives. Yes, there are many today who have a humble place in life and as if by natural instinct feel this interest in the whole of mankind. That is why anthroposophy is in such harmony with the spirit of our age.
First, then, we must learn of the mighty upheaval of the soul that has to come at the beginning of occult experience. With wonderful truth the Bhagavad Gita sets such a moment of upheaval at the starting-point of Arjuna's experience, only he does not go through an occult training but is placed into this moment by his destiny. He is placed into the battle without being able to recognize its necessity, its purpose, or its aim. All he sees is that blood relations are about to fight against each other. Such a soul as Arjuna can be shaken by that to its innermost core, for he has to say to himself, “Brother fights against brother. Surely then all the tribal customs will be shaken and then the tribe itself will wither away and be destroyed, and all its morality fall into decay! Those laws will be shaken that in accordance with an eternal destiny place men into castes; and then will everything be imperiled — man himself, the law, the whole world. The whole significance of mankind will be in the balance.” Such is his feeling. It is as though the ground were about to sink from under his feet, as though an abyss were opening up before him.
Arjuna was a man who had received into his feeling something that the man of today no longer knows, but that in those ancient times was a primeval teaching of tradition. He knew that what is handed on from generation to generation in mankind is bound up with the woman nature; while the individual, personal qualities whereby a man stands out from his blood connections and his family line are bound up with the man nature. What a man inherits as common, generic qualities is handed on to the descendants by the woman, whereas what forms him into a unique, individual being, tearing him out of the generic succession, is the part he receives from his father. “Must it not then have an evil effect on the laws that rule woman's nature,” says Arjuna to himself, “if blood fights against blood?”
There is another feeling that Arjuna has absorbed, on which for him the whole well-being of human evolution depends. He feels that the forefathers of the tribe, the ancestors, are worthy of honor. He feels that their souls watch over the succeeding generations. For him it is a sublime service to offer up fires of sacrifice to the Manes, to the holy souls of the ancestors. But now what must he see? Instead of altars with sacrificial fires burning on them for the ancestors, he sees those who should join in kindling such fires assailing one another in battle. If we would understand a human soul we must penetrate into its thoughts. Above all we must enter deeply into its feelings because it is in feeling that the soul is intimately bound up with its very life. Now think of the great contrast between all that Arjuna would naturally feel, and the bloody battle of brother against brother that is actually about to take place. Destiny is hammering at Arjuna's soul, shaking it to its very depths. It is as though he had to gaze down into a terrible abyss. Such an upheaval awakens the forces of the soul and brings it to a vision of occult realities that at other times are hidden as behind a veil. That is what gives such dramatic intensity to the Bhagavad Gita. The ensuing discourse is thus placed before us with wonderful power, as developing of necessity out of Arjuna's destiny, instead of being given us merely as an academic, pedantic course of instruction in occultism.
Now that Arjuna has been rightly prepared for the birth of the deeper forces of his soul, now that he can see these forces in inward vision, there happens what everyone who has the power to behold it will understand: His charioteer becomes the instrument through which the god Krishna speaks to him. In the first four discourses we observe three successive stages, each higher than the last, each one introducing something new. Here in these very first discourses we find an accent that is wonderful in its dramatic art, apart from the fact that it corresponds to a deep occult truth. The first stage is a teaching that might appear even trivial to many Westerners in its given form. Let us admit that at once. (Here I should like to remark, especially for the benefit of my dear friends here in Finland, that I mean by “Western” all that lies to the west of the Ural Mountains, the Volga, the Caspian Sea and Asia Minor — in fact the whole of Europe. What is to be called Eastern land belongs essentially in Asia. Of course, America too forms part of the West.)
To begin with then we find a teaching that might easily appear trivial, especially to a philosophical mind. For what is the first thing that Krishna says to Arjuna as a word of exhortation for the battle? “Look there,” he says, “at those who are to be killed by you; those in your own ranks who are to be killed and those who are to remain behind, and consider well this one thing. What dies and what remains alive in your ranks and in those of the enemy is but the outer physical body. The spirit is eternal. If your warriors slay those in the ranks over there they are but slaying the outer body, they are not killing the spirit, which is eternal. The spirit goes from change to change, from incarnation to incarnation. It is eternal. This deepest being of man is not affected in this battle. Rise, Arjuna, rise to the spiritual standpoint, then you can go and give yourself up to your duty. You need not shudder nor be sad at heart, for in killing your enemies you are not killing their essential being.”
Thus speaks Krishna, and at first hearing his words are in a sense trivial, though in a special way. In many respects the Westerner is short-sighted in his thinking and consciousness. He never stops to consider that everything is evolving. If he says that Krishna's exhortation, as I have expressed it, is trivial, it is as though one were to say, “Why do they honor Pythagoras as such a great man when every schoolboy and girl knows his theorem?” It would be stupid to conclude that Pythagoras was not a great man in having discovered his theorem just because every schoolboy understands it! We see how stupid this is, but we do not notice when we fail to realize that what any Western philosopher may repeat by rote as the wisdom of Krishna — that the spirit is eternal, immortal — was a sublime wisdom at the time Krishna revealed it. Souls like Arjuna did indeed feel that blood-relations ought not to fight. They still felt the common blood that flowed in a group of people. To hear it said that “the spirit is eternal” (spirit in the sense of what is generally conceived, abstractly, as the center of man's being) — the spirit is eternal and undergoes transformations, passing from incarnation to incarnation — this stated in abstract and intellectual terms was something absolutely new and epoch-making in its newness when it resounded in Arjuna's soul through Krishna's words. All the people in Arjuna's environment believed definitely in reincarnation, but as Krishna taught it, as a general and abstract idea, it was new, especially in regard to Arjuna's situation. This is one reason why we had to say that such a truth can only be called “trivial” in a special sense. That holds true in another respect as well. Our abstract thought, which we use even in the pursuit of popular science, which we regard today as quite natural — this thinking activity was by no means always so natural and simple.
In order to illustrate what I say, let me give you a radical example. You will think it strange that while for all of you it is quite natural to speak of a “fish,” it was by no means natural for primitive peoples to do so. Primitive peoples are acquainted with trout and salmon, cod and herring, but “fish” they do not know. They have no such word as “fish,” because their thought does not extend to such abstract generalization. They know individual trees, but “tree” they do not know. Thinking in such general concepts is by no means natural to primitive races even in the present time. This mode of thinking has indeed only entered humanity in the course of its evolution. In fact, one who considers why it was that logic first began in the time of ancient Greece, could scarcely be surprised when the statement is made on occult grounds that logical thinking has only existed since the period that followed the original composition of the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna impels Arjuna to logical thought, to thinking in abstractions, as if to a new thing that is only now to enter humanity.
But this activity of thought that man has developed and takes quite for granted today, people have the most distorted and unnatural notions about. Western philosophers in particular have most distorted ideas about thought, for they generally take it to be merely a photographic reproduction of external sense reality. They imagine that concepts and ideas and the whole inner thinking of man simply arises in him out of the external physical world. While libraries of philosophical words have been written in the West to prove that thought is merely something having its origin in the stimulus of the external physical world, it is only in our time that thought will be valued for what it really is.
Here I reach a point that is most important for those who would undergo an occult development in their own souls. I want to make every effort to get this point clear. The medieval alchemists used to say — I cannot now discuss what they really meant by it — that gold could be made from all metals, gold in any desired amount, but that one must first have a minute quantity of it. Without that one could not make gold. Whether or not this is true of gold, it is certainly true of clairvoyance. No man could actually attain clairvoyance if he did not have a tiny amount of it already in his soul. It is generally supposed that men as they are, are not clairvoyant. If that were true they could never become clairvoyant at all, because just as the alchemist thought that one must have a little gold to conjure forth large quantities, so must one already be a little clairvoyant in order to be able to develop and extend it more and more. Now you may see two alternatives here and ask, “Do you think then that we all are clairvoyant, if only slightly, or, do you think that those of us who are not clairvoyant can never become so?” This is just the point. It is most important to understand that there is really no one among you who does not have this starting-point of clairvoyance, though you may not be conscious of it. All of you have it. None of you is lacking in it. What is this that all possess? It is something not generally regarded or valued as clairvoyance. Let me make a rather crude comparison.
If a pearl is lying in the roadway and a chicken finds it, the chicken does not value the pearl. Most men and women today are chickens in this respect. They do not value the pearl that lies there in full view before them. What they value is something quite different. They value their concepts and ideas, but no one could think abstractly, could have thoughts and ideas, if he were not clairvoyant. In our ordinary thinking the pearl of clairvoyance is contained from the start. Ideas arise in the soul through exactly the same process as what gives rise to its highest powers. It is immensely important to learn to understand that clairvoyance begins in something common and everyday. We only have to recognize the super-sensible nature of our concepts and ideas. We must realize that these come to us from the super-sensible worlds; only then can we look at the matter rightly.
When I tell you of the higher hierarchies, of Seraphim and Cherubim and Thrones, right down to Archangels and Angels, these are beings who must speak to the human soul from higher spiritual worlds. It is from those worlds that concepts and ideas come into the human soul, not from the world of the senses. In the 18th century what was considered a great word was uttered by a pioneer of thinking, “O, Man, make bold to use thy power of reason!” Today a great word must resound in men's souls, “O, Man, make bold to claim thy concepts and ideas as the beginning of thy clairvoyance.” What I have just expressed I said many years ago, publicly in my books Truth and Science and The Philosophy of Freedom, where I showed that human ideas come from super-sensible, spiritual knowledge. It was not understood at the time, and no wonder, for those who should have understood it were — well, like the chickens! We must realize that at the moment when Krishna stands before Arjuna and gives him the power of abstract judgment, he is thereby giving him, for the first time in the whole of evolution, the starting-point for the knowledge of higher worlds. The spirit can be seen on the very surface of the changes that take place within the external world of sense. Bodies die; the spirit, the abstract, the essential being, is eternal. The spiritual can be seen playing on the surface of phenomena. This is what Krishna would reveal to Arjuna as the beginning of a new clairvoyance for men.
One thing is necessary for men of today if they would attain to an inwardly-experienced truth. They must have once passed through the feeling of the fleeting nature of all outer transformations. They must have experienced the mood of infinite sadness, of infinite tragedy, and at the same time the exultation of joy. They must have felt the breath of the ephemeral that streams out from all things. They must have been able to fix their interest on this coming forth and passing away again, the transitoriness of the world of sense. Then, when they have been able to feel the deepest pain and the fullest delight in the external world, they must once have been absolutely alone — alone with their concepts and ideas. They must have had the feeling, “In these concepts I grasp the mystery of the worlds; I take hold of the outer edge of cosmic being,” — the very expression I once used in my The Philosophy of Freedom! This must be experienced, not merely understood intellectually, and if you would experience it, it must be in deepest loneliness. Then you have another feeling. On the one hand you experience the majesty of the world of ideas that is spread out over the All. On the other hand you experience with the deepest bitterness that you have to separate yourself from space and time in order to be together with your concepts and ideas. Loneliness! It is the icy cold of loneliness. Furthermore, it comes to you that the world of ideas has now drawn together as in a single point of this loneliness. Now you say, I am alone with my world of ideas. You become utterly bewildered in your world of ideas, an experience that stirs you to the depths of your soul. At length you say to yourself, “Perhaps all this is only I myself; perhaps the only truth about these laws is that they exist in the point of my own loneliness.” Thus you experience, infinitely enhanced, utter doubt in all existence.
When you have this experience in your world of ideas, when the full cup of doubt in all existence has been poured out with pain and bitterness over your soul, then only are you ripe to understand how, after all, it is not the infinite spaces and periods of time of the physical world from which your ideas have come. Now only, after the bitterness of doubt, you open yourself to the regions of the spiritual and know that your doubt was justified, and in what sense it was justified. For it had to be, since you imagined that the ideas had come into your soul from the times and spaces of the physical world. How do you now feel your world of ideas having experienced its origin in the spiritual worlds? Now for the first time you feel yourself inspired. Before, you were feeling the infinite void spread around you like a dark abyss. Now you begin to feel that you are standing on a rock that rises up out of the abyss. You know with certainty, “Now I am connected with the spiritual worlds. They, not the world of sense, have bestowed on me my world of ideas.”
This is the next stage for the evolving soul. It is the stage where man begins to be deeply in earnest with what has today come to be a trivial, commonplace truth. To bear this feeling in your heart will prepare you to receive in a true way the first truth that Krishna gives to Arjuna after the mighty upheaval and convulsion in his soul: The truth of the eternal spirit living through outer transformations. To abstract understanding we speak in concepts and ideas. Krishna speaks to Arjuna's heart. What may be trivial and commonplace for the understanding is infinitely deep and sublime to the heart of man.
We see how the first stage shows itself at once as a necessary consequence of the deeply moving experience that is presented to us at the start of the Bhagavad Gita. Now the next stage.
It is easy to speak of what is often called dogma in occultism — something that is accepted in blind faith and given out as gospel truth. Let me suggest to you that it would be quite simple for someone to come forward and say, “This fellow has published a book on Occult Science, speaking in it about Saturn, Sun and Moon evolutions, and there is no way of controlling these statements. They can only be accepted as dogma.” I could understand such a thing being said, because it corresponds to the superficial nature of our age; and there is no getting away from it, our age is superficial. Indeed, under certain conditions this objection would not be without foundation. It would be justified, for example, if you were to tear out of the book all the pages that precede the chapter on the Saturn evolution. If anyone were to begin reading the book at this chapter it would be nothing but dogma. If, however, the author prefaces it with the other chapters, he is by no means a dogmatist because he shows what paths the soul has to go through in order to reach such conceptions. That is the point, that it has been shown in the book how every individual man, if he reaches into the depths of his soul, is bound to come to such conceptions. Herein all dogmatism ceases.
Thus we can feel it natural that Krishna, having brought Arjuna into the world of ideas and wishing to lead him on into the occult world, now goes on to show him the next stage, how every soul can reach that higher world if it finds the right starting-point. Krishna then must begin by rejecting every form of dogmatism, and he does so radically. Here we come up against a hard saying by Krishna. He absolutely rejects what for centuries had been most holy to the highest men of that age — the contents of the Vedas. He says, “Hold not to the Vedas, nor to the word of the Vedas. Hold fast to Yoga!” That is to say, “Hold fast to what is within thine own soul!”
Let us grasp what Krishna means by this exhortation. He does not mean that the contents of the Vedas are untrue. He does not want Arjuna to accept what is given in the Vedas dogmatically as the disciples of the Veda teaching do. He wants to inspire him to take his start from the very first original point whence the human soul evolves. For this purpose all dogmatic wisdom must be laid aside. We can imagine Krishna saying to himself that even though Arjuna will in the end reach the very same wisdom that is contained in the Vedas, still he must be drawn away from them, for he must go his own way, beginning with the sources in his own soul. Krishna rejects the Vedas, whether their content is true or untrue. Arjuna's path must start from himself, through his own inwardness he must come to recognize Krishna. Arjuna must be assumed to have in himself what a man can and must have if he is really to enter into the concrete truths of the super-sensible worlds. Krishna has called Arjuna's attention to something that from then onward is a common attribute of humanity. Having led him to this point he must lead him further and bring him to recognize what he is to achieve through Yoga. Thus, Arjuna must first undergo Yoga. Here the poem rises to another level.
In this second stage we see how the Bhagavad Gita goes on through the first four discourses with ever-increasing dramatic impulse, coming at length to what is most individual of all. Krishna describes the path of Yoga to Arjuna. We shall speak of this more in detail tomorrow. He describes the path that Arjuna must take in order to pass from the everyday clairvoyance of concepts and ideas to what can only be attained through Yoga. Concepts only require to be placed in the right light; but Arjuna has to be guided to Yoga. This is the second stage.
The third stage shows once more an enhancement of dramatic power, and again comes the expression of a deep occult truth. Let us assume that someone really takes the Yoga path. He will rise at length from his ordinary consciousness to a higher state of consciousness, which includes not only the ego that lies between the limits of birth and death but what passes from one incarnation to the next. The soul wakens to know itself in an expanded ego. It grows into a wider consciousness. The soul goes through a process that is essentially an everyday process but that is not experienced fully in our everyday life because man goes to sleep every night. The sense world fades out around him and he becomes unconscious of it. Now for every human soul the possibility exists of letting this world of sense vanish from his consciousness as it does when he goes to sleep, and then to live in higher worlds as in an absolute reality. Thereby man rises to a high level of consciousness. We shall still have to speak of Yoga, and also of the modern exercises that make this possible. But when man gradually attains to where he no longer, consciously, lives and feels and knows in himself, but lives and feels and knows together with the whole earth, then he grows into a higher level of consciousness where the things of the sense world vanish for him as they do in sleep.
However, before man can attain this level he must be able to identify himself with the soul of his planet, earth. We shall see that this is possible. We know that man not only experiences the rhythm of sleeping and waking but other rhythms of the earth as well — of summer and winter. When one follows the path of Yoga or goes through a modern occult training, he can lift himself above the ordinary consciousness that experiences the cycles of sleeping and waking, summer and winter. He can learn to look at himself from outside. He becomes aware of being able to look back at himself just as he ordinarily looks at things outside himself. Now he observes the things, the cycles in external life. He sees alternating conditions. He realizes how his body, so long as he is outside himself, takes on a form similar to that of the earth in summer with all its vegetation. What material science discovers and calls nerves he begins to perceive as a sprouting forth of something plant-like at the time of going to sleep, and when he returns again into everyday consciousness he feels how this plant-like life shrinks together again and becomes the instrument for thinking, feeling and willing in his waking consciousness. He feels his going out from the body and returning into it analogous to the alternation of summer and winter on the earth. In effect he feels something summer-like in going to sleep and something winter-like in waking up — not as one might imagine, the opposite way round. From this moment onward he learns to understand what the spirit of the earth is, and how it is asleep in summer and awake in winter, not vice versa. He realizes the wonderful experience of identifying himself with the spirit of the earth. From this moment he says to himself, “I live not only inside my skin, but as a cell lives in my bodily organism so do I live in the organism of the earth. The earth is asleep in summer and awake in winter as I am asleep and awake in the alternation of night and day. And as the cell is to my consciousness, so am I to the consciousness of the earth.”
The path of Yoga, especially in its modern sense, leads to this expansion of consciousness, to the identification of our own being with a more comprehensive being. We feel ourselves interwoven with the whole earth. Then as men we no longer feel ourselves bound to a particular time and place, but we feel our humanity such as it has developed from the very beginning of the earth. We feel the age-long succession of our evolutions through the course of the evolution of the earth. Thus Yoga leads us on to feel our atonement with what goes from one incarnation to another in the earth's evolution. That is the third stage.
This is the reason for the great beauty in the artistic composition of the Bhagavad Gita. In its climaxes, its inner artistic form, it reflects deep occult truths. Beginning with an instruction in the ordinary concepts of our thinking it goes on to an indication of the path of Yoga. Then at the third stage to a description of the marvelous expansion of man's horizon over the whole earth, where Krishna awakens in Arjuna the idea, “All that lives in your soul has lived often before, only you know nothing of it. But I have this consciousness in myself when I look back on all the transformations through which I have lived, and I will lead you up so that you may learn to feel yourself as I feel myself.” A new moment of dramatic force as beautiful as it is deeply and occultly true!
Thus we come to see the evolution of mankind from out of its everyday consciousness, from the pearl in the roadway that only needs to be recognized, from the particular world of thoughts and concepts that are a matter of everyday life in any one age, up to the point from where we can look out over all that we really have in us, which lives on from incarnation to incarnation on the earth.