The Occult Significance of the Bhagavad Gita
2 June 1913, Helsingfors
It really is exceedingly difficult in our Western civilization to speak intelligently and intelligibly about such a work as the Bhagavad Gita. This is so because at present there is a dominating tendency to interpret any spiritual work of this kind as a kind of doctrine, an abstract teaching, or a philosophy, that makes it hard for people to come to a sound judgment in such matters. They like to approach such spiritual creations from the ideal or conceptual point of view. Here we touch upon something that makes it most difficult in our time to gain a true judgment about the great historical impulses in mankind's evolution. How often, for instance, it is pointed out that this or that saying occurring in the Gospels as the teaching of Christ Jesus is to be found in some earlier work no less profoundly expressed. Then it is said, “You see, it is the same teaching after all.” Certainly, that is not incorrect because in countless instances it can be shown that the teachings of the Gospels occur in earlier spiritual works. Yet, though such a statement is not incorrect, it may be nonsense from the standpoint of a truly fundamental knowledge of human evolution. People's thinking will have to get accustomed to this and realize that a statement can be perfectly correct and yet nonsense. Not until this is no longer regarded as a contradiction will it be possible to judge certain matters in a really unbiased way.
Suppose, for instance, someone says that he sees in the Bhagavad Gita one of the greatest creations of the human spirit, a creation that has never been surpassed in later times. Suppose further, having said this, he adds, “Nevertheless, what entered the world with the revelation inherent in the Christ Impulse, is something altogether different, something to which the Bhagavad Gita could not attain even if its beauty and greatness were increased a hundred times.” These two statements do not contradict each other. According to the habits of modern abstract thinking, however, we may have a contradiction here. Yet, in no sense is it in truth a contradiction. Indeed one might go further, and ask, “When was that mightiest word spoken that may be regarded as giving the impulse to the human ego, so that it may take its place in the evolution of man?” That significant word was uttered at the moment Krishna spoke to Ar-juna; when he poured into Arjuna’s ears the most powerful, incisive, burning words to quicken the consciousness of self in man. In the whole range of the world’s life there is nothing to be found that kindled the self of man more mightily than the living force of Krishna’s words to Arjuna. Of course, we must not take those words in the way words are so often taken in Western countries where the noblest words are given merely an abstract, philosophic interpretation. In any such we would certainly miss the essence of the Bhagavad Gita. In this way Western scholars today have so outrageously misused and tortured the Bhagavad Gita. They have even gone so far as to dispute whether it is more representative of the Sankhya philosophy or of some other school of thought. In fact, a distinguished scholar, in his edition of this poem, has actually printed certain lines in small type because in his view they ought to be expunged altogether, having crept in by mistake. He thinks nothing is really a part of the Gita except what accords with the Sankhya, or at the most with the Yoga philosophy.
It may be said though that no trace is to be found in this great poem of philosophy as we speak of it today. At most one could say that in ancient India certain basic dispositions of soul developed into certain philosophic tendencies. These really have nothing to do with the Bhagavad Gita, at least not in the sense of being an interpretation or exposition of it. It is altogether unfair to the intellectual and spiritual life of the East to set it side by side with what the West knows as philosophy because there was no philosophy in the East in the same sense there is philosophy in the West. In this respect the spirit of our age, just beginning, is as yet imperfectly understood.
In the last lecture we spoke of things that men still have to learn. Above all we must firmly realize how the human soul, under certain conditions, can actually meet the Being whom we tried to describe from a certain aspect, calling him Krishna. We must realize how Arjuna meets that Spirit who prepared the age of self-consciousness. This knowledge is far more important than any dispute as to whether it is Sankhya or Vedic philosophy that is contained in the Bhagavad Gita. To understand it as a real description of world history — of history and of the color and temper of a particular age in which living, individual beings are placed before us — is the important point. We have tried to describe their natures, speaking of Arjuna’s thoughts and feelings as characteristic of that time, trying to throw light on the new age of self-consciousness, and showing how a creative Spiritual Being preparing for a new age appeared before Arjuna. Now, if we seek a living picture of Spiritual Beings in their relation to each other, we need an all-around point of view to know this Krishna Being more exactly. The following may therefore help us complete our picture of him.
To really penetrate into the region where we can perceive such a mighty being as Krishna one must have progressed far enough to be able to have real perceptions and real experiences in the spiritual world. That may seem obvious. Yet when we consider what people generally expect of the higher worlds the matter is by no means so self-evident. I have often indicated that misunderstandings without number arise from the fact that people wish to lift their lives into the super-sensible world carrying a mass of prejudices with them. They desire to be led along the path into the super-sensible toward something already familiar to them in the sense world. In that higher realm one perceives, for instance, forms, not indeed of gross matter, but forms that appear as forms of light. One finds that he hears sounds like the sounds of the physical world. He does not realize that by expecting such things, by entering the higher world with such preconceived ideas, he is wanting a spiritual world just like the sense world though in a refined form. In our world here man is accustomed to color and brightness, so he imagines he will only reach the higher realities if the Beings there appear to him in the same way. It ought not to be necessary to say all this since the super-sensible beings are far above all attributes of the senses and in their true form do not appear at all with sense qualities because the latter presuppose eyes and ears, that is, sense organs. In the higher worlds, however, we do not perceive by means of sense organs but by soul organs.
What can happen in this connection I can illustrate by a childish comparison. Suppose I am describing something to you, verbally. Then I feel impelled to represent it with a few strokes on the blackboard, thereby materializing what I have expressed in words. No one would dream of taking the diagram for the reality. It is the same when we express what we have experienced supersensibly by giving it form and color and stamping it in words borrowed from the sense world. Only that in doing so we do not use our ordinary intellect, but a higher faculty of feeling that thus translates the super-sensible into sense terms. In such a way our soul lives into invisible worlds, for instance into that of the Krishna Being. Then it feels the need of representing to itself that Being. What it represents, however, is not the Being himself but a kind of sketch, a super-sensible diagram. Such sketches, super-sensible illustrations so to say, are Imaginations. The misunderstanding that so often arises amounts to this, that we sensualize what the higher forces of the soul sketch out before us. By thus interpreting it sensually we lose its real essence. The essence is not contained in these pictures, but through them it must be dimly felt at first, until by slow degrees we actually begin to see it.
I have mentioned among other things the wonderful dramatic composition of the Bhagavad Gita. I tried to give an idea of the form of the first four discourses. This same dramatic impulse increases from one discourse to the next as we penetrate on and on into the realms of occult vision. A sound idea of the artistic composition of this poem may be suggested by looking to see if there is not a central point, a climax to this increase of force and feeling. There are eighteen discourses, therefore we might look for the climax in the ninth. In fact, in the ninth one, that is in the very middle, we read these striking words, “And now, having told thee everything, I will declare to thee the profoundest secret for the human soul.” Here indeed is a strange saying that seems to sound abstract yet has deep significance. Then there follows this most profound mystery. “Understand me well. I am in all beings, yet they are not in me.”
How often men ask today, “What is the judgment of true mystic wisdom about this or that?” They want absolute truths, but actually there are no such truths. There are only truths that hold good in certain contexts, that are true in definite circumstances and under definite conditions. Then they are true. This statement, “I am in all beings but they are not in me,” cannot be taken as an abstractly, absolutely true statement. Yet this was spoken out of the deepest wisdom of Krishna at the time when he stood before Arjuna, and its truth is real and immediate, referring to Him Who is the creator of man’s inmost being, of his consciousness of self.
Thus, through a wonderful approach we are carried on to the central point of the Gita, to the ninth discourse where these words are poured out, to Arjuna. Then, in the eleventh discourse, another element enters. What may we expect here, realizing the artistic form of the poem and the deep occult truths contained in it? When we take up the ninth and tenth discourses, the very middle of the poem, we notice a remarkable thing — a peculiar difficulty in imagining and bringing to life in our souls the ideas presented to us in this part of the song.
As you begin with the first discourse your soul is borne along by the continually increasing current of feeling and idea. First, immortality is the subject. Then you are uplifted and inspired by the concepts awakened through Yoga. All the time your feeling is being borne along by something in which it can feel at home, one may say. We go still further and the poem works up in a wonderful way to the concept of Him Who inspired the age of self-consciousness. Our enthusiasm is kindled as we approach this Being. All this time we are living in definite, familiar feelings. Then comes a still greater climax. We are told how the soul can become ever more free of the outer bodily life. We are led on to the idea, so familiar to the man of India, of how the soul can retire into itself, realizing inaction in the actions the body experiences. The soul can become a complete whole, independent of outer things as it gradually attains Yoga and becomes one with Brahma. In the succeeding discourses we see how our certainty of feeling — the feeling that can still gain nourishment from daily life — gradually vanishes. Then as we approach the ninth discourse our soul seems to rise into giddy heights of unknown experience. If now in these ninth and tenth discourses we try to make the ideas borrowed from ordinary life suffice, we fail, As we reach this part of the song we feel as if we were standing on a summit of mankind’s attainment, born directly out of the occult depths of life. If we are to understand it, we must bring to it something our soul in its development has first to attain by its own effort.
It is remarkable how fine and unerring the composition of the Bhagavad Gita is in this respect. We can get as far as the fifth, sixth, or seventh discourse by developing the concepts given us at the very beginning, in the first discourse. In the second our soul is awakened to realize the presence of the eternal in the ever-changing flow of appearance. Then follows all that passes into the depths of Yoga, from the third song onward. After that an altogether new mood begins to appear. Whereas the first discourses still have an intellectual quality, reminding us at times of the Western philosophic mode of thinking, something enters now that requires Yoga, the devotional mood, for its understanding. As we continue purifying more and more this mood of devotion, our soul rises higher in reverence. The Yoga of the first discourses no longer carries us. It ceases, and an altogether new mood of soul bears us up into the ninth and tenth discourses because the words here spoken are no more than a dry, empty sound echoing in our ear if we approach them intellectually. But they radiate warmth to us if we approach them devotionally. One who would understand this sublime poem may start with intellectual understanding and so follow the opening discourses, but as the song proceeds toward the ninth a deep devotional mood must be awakened in him. Then the words of the mighty Krishna will be like wonderful music echoing and re-echoing in his soul. Whoever reaches this ninth song may feel this devotional mood as if he must take off his shoes before treading on holy ground; there he feels he must walk with reverence. Then follows the eleventh discourse. What can come next, now that we have reached the climax of this devotional mood?
When man has risen to the summit where Krishna has led Arjuna — a height that cannot be attained except in occult vision or in reverent devotion — it can only be the holy and formless, the super-sensible, that appears before him. Then the super-sensible can be poured out into Imagination. Then the uplifted and strengthened soul-force that belongs not to the realm of the intellect but to imaginative perception, can cast into living pictures what in its essential being is without form or likeness. This is what happens at the beginning of the second half of the sublime song — that is to say, about the eleventh discourse. Here, after due preparation, the Krishna Being to whom Arjuna has been led step by step, is conjured up before his soul in Imaginations. This is where the majesty of description in this Eastern poem appears in its fullness, where Krishna finally appears in a picture, in an Imagination.
We may truly say that experiences such as this, which only the innermost power of the human soul can undergo, have almost nowhere else been described in such a wonderful way, so filled with meaning. For those who are able to realize it the Imagination of Krishna as Arjuna now describes it will always be of most profound significance. Up to the tenth discourse we are led on by Krishna as by an inspiring Being. Now the radiant bliss of Arjuna’s opened vision comes before us. Arjuna becomes the narrator, and describes his Imagination in words so wonderful that one fears to reproduce them.
“The Gods do I behold in all thy Frame, O God. Also the hosts of creatures; Brahma the Lord upon His lotus throne; the Rishis all; the Serpent of Heaven. With many arms and with many bodies, with many mouths and many eyes I see Thee, on every side endless in Thy Form. No end, no center, no beginning see I in Thee, O Lord of All! Thou, Whom I behold in every form, I see Thee with diadem, with club and sword, a mountain flaming fire, streaming forth on every side — thus do I behold Thee. Dazzled is my vision. As fire streaming from the radiance of the Sun, immeasurably great art Thou! Lost beyond all thought, unperishing, greatest of all Good, thus dost Thou appear to me in the Heaven’s expanse. Eternal Dharma’s changeless guardian, Thou! Spirit primeval and Eternal, Thou standest before my soul. Neither source, nor midst, nor end; in-. finite in power, infinite in realms of space. Great are Thine eyes like to the Moon; yea, like to the Sun itself. And what streams forth from Thy mouth is as the Fire of Sacrifice. I look upon Thee in Thy glowing Fire; Thy splendor, warming all worlds. All that I can dream of between floor of earth and fields of Heaven, Thy power fills it all. Alone with Thee I stand. And that heavenly universe wherein the three worlds live, that too doth in Thee dwell, when to my gaze is shown Thy wondrous, awesome Form. I see whole hosts of Gods approaching Thee, hymning Thy praise. Stricken with fear I stand before Thee, folding my hands in prayer. ‘Hail to Thee!’ cry all the companies of holy seers and Saints, chanting Thy praises with resounding songs. Filled with wonder stand multitudes beholding Thee. Thy Form stupendous with many mouths, arms, limbs, feet, many bodies, many jaws full of teeth — before it all the universe doth quake, and I with dread am filled. Radiant, Thou shakest Heaven. With many arms I see Thee, and mouth like to vast-flaming eyes. My soul trembles. Nothing firm I find, nor rest, O Mighty Krishna, Who art as Vishnu unto me. I see within Thine awful form, like unto fire itself. I see how Being works, the end of all the ages. Nought know I anywhere; no shelter I find. O, be Thou merciful to me, Thou Lord of all the Gods, refuge of all the worlds!”
Such is the Imagination that Arjuna beholds when his soul has been raised to that height where an Imagination of Krishna is possible. Then we hear what Krishna is echoing across to Arjuna once more as a mighty inspiration. In reality it is as if it were not merely sounding for the spiritual ear of Arjuna, but echoing down through all the ages that followed. At this point we begin dimly to perceive what it really means when a new impulse is given for a new epoch in the world’s history, and when the author of this impulse appears to the clairvoyant gaze of Arjuna. We feel with Arjuna. We remind ourselves that he is in the midst of the turmoil of battle where brother-blood is pitted against its like. We know that what Krishna has to give depends above all upon the old clairvoyant epoch ceasing, together with all that was holy in it, and a new epoch to begin. When we reflect on the impulse of this new epoch that was to begin with fratricide; when we rightly understand the impulse that forced its way in through all the swaying concepts and institutions of the preceding epoch; then we get a correct concept of what Krishna lets Arjuna hear.
“I am time primeval, bringing all worlds to naught, made manifest on earth to slay mankind! And even though thou wilt bring them unto death in battle, without thee hath death taken all the warriors who stand there in their ranks. Therefore arise; arise without fear. Renown shalt thou win, and shalt conquer the foe. Rejoice in thy mastery, and in the victory awaiting thee. It is not thou who wilt have slain them when they fall in battle. By Me already are they slain, e’er thou lay them low. The instrument art thou, nought else than he who fighteth with his arm. The Drona, the Jayandana, the Bhishma, the Karna and the other heroes of the strife I have slain. Already they are slain, now do thou slay, that My work burst forth externally apparent. When they fall dead in Maya, slain by Me, do thou slay them. And what I have done will through thee become perceptible. Tremble not! Thou canst not do what I have not already done. Fight! They whom I have slain will fall beneath thy sword!”
It was not in order to bring to mankind’s ears the voice that should speak of slaying that these words were uttered, but to make them hear the voice that tells that there is a center in man’s being that has to develop in the age to come; that into this center there were focused the highest impulses realizable by man at that time, and that there is nothing in human evolution with which the human ego is not connected. Here we find in the Bhagavad Gita something that lifts us up and sets us on the horizon of the whole of human evolution.
If we let the changing moods of this great poem work upon us we shall gain much more than those who try to read into it pedantic doctrines of Sankhya or Yoga philosophies. If we can only dimly feel the dazzling heights that can be reached through Yoga, we shall begin to lay hold on the meaning and spirit of such a mighty Imagination as that of Arjuna presented to us here. Even as an image it is so sublime and forceful that we are able to form some lofty conception of the creative spirit, which in Krishna is grafted onto the world. The highest impulse that can speak to the individual man speaks through Krishna to Arjuna. The highest to which the individual man can lift himself by raising to their full pitch all the powers that reside within his being — that is Krishna. The highest to which he can soar by training himself and working on himself with wisdom — that is Krishna.
When we think of the evolution of humanity all over the earth, and trace it through as we are able to do by means of what is given, for example, in our occult science; when in this sense we see the earth as the place where man has first been brought to the ego through many different stages following one another and developing from age to age; when we thus follow the course of evolution through the epochs of time; then we may say to ourselves that here then on earth these souls have been planted; the highest they can attain is to become free souls. Free — that is what men will become if they bring to full development all the forces latent within them as individual souls. In order to make this possible Krishna was active, indirectly and almost imperceptibly at first, then ever more definitely, and at last quite directly in the period we have been describing. In all of earthly evolution there is no Being who could give the individual human soul so much as Krishna.
I say expressly the individual soul because — and I say this deliberately — on earth there exists not only the individual human soul but also mankind. Consider this in connection with all I have tried to give about Krishna, because on earth there are all those concerns that do not belong to the individual alone. Imagine a person feeling the inner impulse to perfect himself as far as ever a human soul can. Such might be. Then, each person separately and by himself might go on developing indefinitely. But there is mankind. For this earthly planet there are matters that bring it into connection with the whole universe. With the Krishna Impulse coming into each individual soul, let us assume every soul would have developed in itself a higher impulse; not immediately, nor even up to the present time, but sometime in the future. So that from the age of self-consciousness onward the stream of mankind’s collective evolution would have split up. Individual souls would have progressed and unfolded to the highest point, but separately, dispersed, broken apart from each other. Their paths would have gone further and further apart as the Krishna Impulse worked in each one. Human existence would have been uplifted in the sense that souls individualized themselves and so lifted themselves out of the common current, developing their self-life to the utmost. In this way the ancient time would have shone into the future like many, many rays from a single star. Every one of these rays would have proclaimed the glory of Krishna far into future cosmic eras. This is the path on which mankind was traveling in the sixth or eighth centuries before the foundation of Christianity.
Then from the opposite side something else came in. The Krishna Impulse comes into man’s soul when from the depths of his own inner being he works, creates, and draws forth his powers more and more until he may rise into those realms where he may reach Krishna. But something came toward humanity from outside, which men could never have reached through the forces that lived within themselves; something bending down to each individual one. Thus the souls that were separating and isolating themselves encountered the same Being who came down out of the Cosmic Universe into the age of self-consciousness from outside. It came in such a way that it belonged to the whole of humanity, to all the earth. This other impulse came from the opposite side. It was the Christ.
Though put rather abstractly for the present, we see how a continually increasing individualization was prepared and brought about in mankind, and how then those souls who had the impulse to individualize themselves more and more were met by the Christ Impulse, leading them once more together into a common humanity. What I have tried to indicate has been a rather preliminary description of the two impulses from the Christ and Krishna. I have tried to show how closely the two impulses come together in the age of the mid-point of evolution, even though they come from diametrically opposite directions. We can make very great mistakes by confusing these two revelations. What I have developed today in a rather general way we will make more concrete in the succeeding lectures. But I would close today with a few words that may simply and clearly summarize what these two impulses are — truly the most important in human evolution.
If we look back to all that happened between the tenth century before Christ and the tenth century afterward, we may say that into the universe the Krishna Impulse flowed for every individual human soul, and into the earth the Christ Impulse came for all mankind.
Observe that for those who can think specifically, “all mankind” by no means signifies the same as the mere sum total of all individual human souls.