The Occult Significance of the Bhagavad Gita
1 June 1913, Helsingfors
If we would penetrate into the mysteries of human life we must fix our attention on a great law of existence, I mean what is called the cyclic law. As a rule it is better to explain and describe than to define. In this case also I prefer to explain by definite concepts what is meant by the cyclic course of life, for alongside the actual reality a definition must always appear scanty and lacking in substance. A philosophic school in Greece, wishing to gain insight into the nature of definitions, once set out to give a definition of man. As you know, definitions are intended to provide concepts corresponding to the phenomena of experience, but those having logical insight cannot help feeling the poverty and unfruitfulness of this process. The members of the Greek school eventually agreed to define man as a featherless biped. While this particular definition sounds rather like a silly epigram it does represent the nature of man in certain respects. The next day one of the members of this school brought in a plucked hen and said to the company, “According to your definition this is a man.” A silly way to show the unreality of attempts to define things. Being concerned with realities we will proceed then to describe things in their essential characteristics.
To begin, we will consider a cycle familiar in everyday life, that of our waking and sleeping. What does it really signify? We can only understand the nature of sleep if we realize that in the present epoch the soul activity of man's waking life brings about a continual destruction of delicate structures in the nervous system. With our every thought and with every impulse of will that arises in us under the stimulus of the outside world, we are destroying delicate forms in our brain. In the near future it will more and more be realized how sleep has to supplement our waking day life. We are approaching the point where natural science will join with spiritual science in these matters. Natural science has already produced more than one theory to the effect that our waking life brings a kind of destructive process to nerves and brain. Owing to this fact we have to allow the corresponding reverse process, the compensation, to take place during sleep.
While we are asleep forces are at work in us that do not otherwise manifest themselves, of which we remain unconscious. They are busy reconstructing the finer nerve structures of our brain. Now it is this very destruction that enables us to have processes of thought, and to acquire knowledge. Ordinary knowledge would not be possible if processes of disintegration did not take place in us during our waking hours. Thus, two opposite processes are at work in our nervous system — while we are awake a process of destruction, during sleep a repairing process. Since it is to the destructive process that we owe our consciousness, it is that process we perceive. Our waking life consists in perceiving disintegrating processes. During sleep we are not conscious because no destructive process is at work in us. The force, which at other times creates our consciousness, is in sleep used up in constructive work. There you have a cycle.
Let us now consider what happens during sleep. Because of this alternating cycle of build-up and break-down processes we see why it is so dangerous to health to go without proper sleep. Certainly man's life is so arranged that the danger is not immediately apparent, because what is present in him at any one time has been built up in him for a considerable time before. Thus, the abnormal processes cannot affect his nature as deeply as we might imagine. We could expect people who suffer from sleeplessness to go to pieces quickly, but they do not collapse nearly so quickly. The reason for this is the same as that which holds for people both blind and deaf, like the famous Helen Keller, whose intellect can nevertheless be developed. In the present age this should theoretically be impossible, for what constitutes the greater part of our intelligence enters the brain through eyes and ears. The reason for Miss Keller's intellectual development is that, though the portals of her senses are closed, she has inherited a brain that has the potentiality for development. If man were not an hereditary being such a case as hers would not be possible. Which is to say, if man did not have a much healthier brain through heredity than we generally give him credit for, sleeplessness would in a very short time completely undermine his health. But people mostly have so much inherited strength that insomnia can persist for a long time without seriously injuring them. It remains true, however, that the cycle of construction with its resulting unconsciousness in sleep, and destruction with its consciousness in waking life, fundamentally takes place.
In the totality of human life we perceive not only these smaller cycles but larger ones as well. Here I will call your attention to a cycle I have often mentioned before. Anyone who follows the course of life in the Western world will observe a quite definite configuration of the spiritual life of mankind in the period from the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to the last third of the nineteenth. In ordinary life these developments are observed much too vaguely and inaccurately, but if we look into them deeply enough we shall see how, in all directions since the last third of the nineteenth century, there have been signs of an altogether different form of Western spiritual life. Of course, we are at the beginning of this new trend so people do not notice it in its full significance. Just imagine someone trying to speak before such an audience as this, say for instance in the 40's or 50's of the nineteenth century, about the same things I am putting before you here. It is quite unthinkable. It would be absurd. It would have been out of the question to speak of these things as we do now, at any time from the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to the last third of the nineteenth. This was the period when the natural scientific mode of thought, the way of thinking that produced the great materialistic achievements, reached its height. The stragglers of scientific intellectualism will go on adhering to it for some time to come, but the actual epoch of materialism is past.
Just as the era of scientific thought began about the fifteenth century, so the era of spiritual thought is now beginning. These two sharply differentiated epochs meet in the very time in which we are living. It will more and more become evident how the new mode of thought has to come in touch with the reality of things. Thought will become very different from the thought of the last four centuries, though the latter had to be so in its time. During this period man's gaze had to be directed outward into the far spaces of the universe. I have often spoken of the great significance for Western spiritual evolution of that moment when Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Giordano Bruno together burst open the blue vault of heaven. Until their time it was believed that the blue cup of the heavens was suspended over our earth. These great thinkers declared that this hollow cup did not really exist. They taught mankind to look out into the infinite distances of cosmic space.
Now what was it that was so significant about Bruno's deed in explaining to men how the blue sphere they had set as the boundary of their power of sight was not really there; when he said, “You have only to realize that it is you yourselves who project it out into space?” The important point was that it marked the beginning of an epoch, which came to an end with the discovery that by means of the spectroscope one could investigate the material composition of the farthest heavenly bodies. A marvelous epoch, this epoch of materialism! Now we are at the starting point of another epoch, one that has its origin in the same laws of growth as the preceding one but that nevertheless is to be the epoch of spirituality. Just as the epoch of natural science was prepared by Bruno's work in breaking through the limits of space, so will the firmament of time be broken through in the age now beginning. Mankind, imagining life to be enclosed between birth and death, or conception and death, will learn that these are only boundaries set by the human soul itself. Just as in earlier times men had themselves set as the boundary of their senses a blue sphere above them, and then of a sudden their vision expanded into the infinite spheres of space, so will the boundaries of time be broken through, those of birth and death. Set free of these there will lie before man's gaze in the infinite sea of time all the changes in the kernel of man's being as he follows it through its repeated incarnations. Thus a new age is beginning, the age of spiritual thought.
Now if we can recognize the occult basis of these transitions from one age to another, where shall we see the cause of this change in human thought? It is not anything that philosophy or external physiology or anatomy can find of their own accord. Yet it is true that forces that have entered the active souls of men and are being used today to gather spiritual knowledge — these same forces, during the last four centuries, have been working at man's organism as constructive forces. Throughout the period from Copernicus to the last third of the nineteenth century mysterious forces were at work in man's bodily organism just as constructive forces work in his nervous system during sleep. These forces were building up a definite structure in certain parts of the brain. The brains of Western people are different from what they were five centuries ago. What is under man's skull today does not have the same appearance as it had then, for a delicate organ has been formed which was not there before. Even though this cannot be proved externally, it is true. Under the human forehead a delicate organ has developed, and the forces building it have now fulfilled their task. In the coming cycle of history we are now approaching it will become evident in more and more people. Now that it is there, the forces that built it are liberated. With these very forces Western humanity will be gaining spiritual knowledge. Here we have the occult physiological foundation of the matter. Already we are beginning to work with these forces that men could not use during the last four hundred years because they were spent in building up the organ needed to allow spiritual knowledge to take its place in the world.
Let us imagine a man of the seventeenth or eighteenth century. As he stands there before us we know that certain occult forces are at work behind his forehead, transforming his brain. These forces were perpetually at work in all the people of the West. Now let us assume that this man had managed to suspend these forces for a moment, made them cease their work. The same thing would have happened to him — and it did happen in certain cases — as takes place when in the middle of his sleep a man suspends the forces that ordinarily work at building up the nerve structures of the brain; he lets them run loose. It is possible to experience moments when we seem to waken in sleep, and yet do not waken, for we remain motionless, we cannot move our limbs, we have no external perception. But we are awake. In the moments of free play of those regenerating forces we can use them for clairvoyant vision; we can see into the spiritual worlds. A similar thing happened if a man two hundred years ago suspended the constructive activity on his brain. From the fifteenth to the nineteenth century he saw what was working into his brain from the spiritual worlds, so that from the twentieth century onward men might raise themselves to spiritual vision.
There were always isolated persons who had such experiences; experiences of truly catastrophic force, indescribably impressive. There were always people who for moments lived in what was working in from the super-sensible to bring forth in the sense world what did not exist in former cycles of evolution, the finer organ in the frontal cavity. Such men saw the Gods; spiritual beings at work in the building process of the human organism. In this we see clairvoyance described from a fresh aspect. We can bring about such moments during sleep by practicing the exercises I have given in my book, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment, and thereby gain glimpses of spiritual life such as are described in my book, A Road to Self-Knowledge. Thus it is possible during a given cycle of evolution for the forces at work preparing the future to become free for a moment and become clairvoyantly visible.
We may give a name to these forces — for what are names? We can call them the forces of Gabriel. But the point is to gain a moment's insight into the super-sensible where we perceive a spiritual Being working from those worlds into the human organism. A sum of forces, in fact, directed by a Being, Gabriel, of the hierarchy of the Archangels. From the fifteenth to the last third of the nineteenth century the Gabriel force was at work on man's organism, and because of this the power to understand the spiritual slept for awhile. It was this sleep of spiritual understanding that brought forth the great triumphs of natural science. Now this force is awakened. The spiritual has done its work; the Gabriel forces have been liberated. We can now use them, for they have become forces of the soul. Here we have a cycle of somewhat greater significance than that of waking and sleeping.
There are, however, even mightier cycles in human evolution. We may note how self-consciousness, the pride of mankind in this era of our post-Atlantean age, was not always there but had to be developed gradually. Today the word evolution is often heard, but people seldom take it in real earnest. We can sometimes have strange experiences of people's naïveté in regard to what surrounds them, so simply do they allow many things to play up from their subconsciousness into their conscious life and do not easily reach the point of attributing a super-sensible origin to what enters their known world from the unknown. In the last few days I have again come across a curious instance of the logic that stops halfway. We can well understand why the anthroposophical outlook meets with so much resistance when we bear in mind that a certain special habit of thought is needed to understand anthroposophy. I mean the habit of never stopping halfway along any line of thinking. I have here a Freethinker's Calendar, published in Germany. The first edition came out last year. In it a perfectly sincere person attacks the custom of teaching children religious ideas. He points out that this is contrary to the child's nature, since he himself has observed that when children are allowed to grow up on their own they develop no religious ideas. Therefore it is unnatural to inculcate these ideas into children. Now we can be certain that this Calendar will reach hundreds of people who will imagine that they understand how senseless it is to teach children religion. There are many such arguments today, and people never notice their complete lack of logic. In reply we need only ask, “If children for some reason have lived all their lives on an island alone and have not learned to speak, ought we therefore to refrain from teaching them to speak?” That would be the same kind of logic. Of course, people will not admit it is the same since they found it so profound in the first instance. It is curious to observe things like this on the broad horizon of external life today; things that represent some after-play from the materialist age that is passing.
I have here another example, some remarkable essays recently published by Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States of America. There is one on the laws of human progress. He points out how men are influenced by the dominant thought of their age; how in Newton's time, when everything was permeated with the idea of gravity, the effects of Newton's theories could be felt in social concepts, even in political terminology, though actually these theories are only applicable to the heavenly bodies. The idea of gravity was especially extended in its influence. All this is true. We need only read the literature of Newton's time to find everywhere words like “attraction” and “repulsion.” Wilson develops this point very ingeniously. He says how unsatisfactory it is to apply purely mechanical concepts, as of celestial mechanism, to human life and conditions. He shows how human life at that time was completely imbedded in these ideas and how widely they influenced political and social affairs, and he rightly denounces this application of purely mechanical laws in an age when Newtonism drew all thought under its yoke. “We must think along different lines,” says Wilson, and then proceeds to construct his own concept of the state. Now he does it in such a way that, after all he has said about Newtonism, he himself allows Darwinism to speak through every page of his writing. In fact, he is naive enough to admit it. He says the Newtonian concepts were not sufficient, we must apply the Darwinian laws of the organism. Here we have a living instance of the way people march through the world today with half thought-out logic because in reality the laws derived purely from the living organism are also insufficient. We need laws of the soul and spirit. Thus we understand how objections are piled up against anthroposophical thought, for this requires an all-pervading thinking, a logic that penetrates to the core and does not stop halfway. This is just the virtue of the anthroposophical outlook. It forces its devotees to think in an orderly manner.
So we must think of evolution in the spiritual sense, not in Wilson's Darwinistic sense. We must realize that the self-consciousness that today is the essential characteristic of mankind, this firm rooting in the ego, has only gradually developed. This too had to be prepared, just as our spiritual thinking was being prepared in the last four centuries. Spiritual forces had to work down from the super-sensible worlds in order to develop what afterward found expression in the self-conscious life of men. In this connection we can speak of a break in evolution, with a preceding and a succeeding epoch. We will call the latter the age of self-consciousness.
This period is preceded in the cyclic interchange by one in which the organ of self-consciousness was being built into man from the super-sensible worlds. What now works as a soul force in self-consciousness was then working unrecognizably in the depths of human nature. The junction of these two great epochs is an important point in evolution. Before this time most people had no self-consciousness at all. Even in the most advanced it was comparatively weak. People then did not think as they do today, with the awareness, “I am thinking this thought.” Their thoughts rose up like living dreams. Nor did their impulses of will and feeling enter their consciousness as they do today. They lived more of an instinctive life in their souls. From the spiritual worlds, however, beings were working into man's organism, preparing it for a later time when it would be capable of self-consciousness. Meanwhile people had to live quite differently then, even as external experience is quite different between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries A.D. from what it will become later on. So we must say that until the period when self-consciousness entered the human soul everything that could prepare the way for it had been flowing into the life of man.
Thus, for example, in the region where self-consciousness was first to make its appearance, men were strictly divided into castes. They respected this division. A man born in a lower caste felt it as his highest endeavor so to order his life within that caste that he might raise himself in later incarnations into higher ones. It was a mighty driving force in the evolution of the human soul. Men knew that by developing their soul forces they were making themselves fit to rise into a higher caste in their next life. So too they looked up to their ancestors and saw in them what is not bound to the physical body. They revered their ancestors, feeling that although they had died their spiritual part remained, working on spiritually after death. This ancestor worship was a good preparation for the mighty goal of human nature because in it they could see what is now living already in us — the self-conscious soul, which is not bound to the physical body and passes through the gates of death into the spiritual worlds.
Just as during four centuries the kind of education that forced men to think out natural science was the best education toward spirituality, so in that ancient time mankind was best educated by the inspiration of great reverence for their castes and their ancestors. Men developed a strong liking for the system of castes. In that pious reverence they had something that worked into their lives with great power and deeply affected them. Spiritual beings were working into it, preparing for the future possibility for a man to say with every thought, “I think,” with every feeling, “I feel,” with every impulse of will, “I will.”
Now let us imagine that toward the end of that ancient epoch some mighty shock or upheaval in a man's life caused all the forces active then to suddenly cease binding him, suspending their action for a moment. Then he would experience what we can experience in sleep when for a moment we withdraw the constructive forces and become clairvoyant. Or what men of the eighteenth century could experience by suspending the forces then at work on their brain structure. If in that ancient time a man withdrew his understanding and feeling for the fires of sacrifice and reverence for his ancestors, if he experienced such a shock, he could for a moment use those forces to gaze into the super-sensible worlds. He could then see how the self-consciousness of man was being prepared from the spiritual world. This is what Arjuna did when at the moment of battle he experienced such a shock. The usually constructive forces stood still in him, and he could look upward to the divine being who was preparing the way for self-consciousness. This divinity was Krishna.
Krishna then is that being who has worked through centuries and centuries on the human organism, to make man capable — from the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. onward — of entering gradually the epoch of self-consciousness. What kind of impression does he make, this master-builder of the human ego-nature? He has to speak to Arjuna in words saturated through and through with self-consciousness.
Thus from another side we understand Krishna as the divine architect of what prepared and brought about self-consciousness in man. The Bhagavad Gita tells us how under special circumstances a man could come into the presence of this divine builder of his nature. There we have one aspect of Krishna's nature. In the succeeding lectures we shall learn to know yet another aspect.