Notes on the Bhagavad-Gītā: chapter 7, part 2 (Paramahamsa Vijñāna Yoga – The Yoga of Knowledge and Realization)

2 April 2013

This the eleventh post in a series that memorialize a study by a friend and me of multiple translations of the Bhagavad-Gītā­ (including Prabhupāda’s As It Is edition and commentary)[1]. This is a partial (and the second) commentary on chapter 7.

Other resources for chapter 7 may be found here, along with the following summary of the chapter:

In chapter seven Lord Krishna gives concrete knowledge of the absolute reality as well as the opulence of divinity. He describes His illusory energy in the material existence called Maya and declares how extremely difficult it is to surmount it. He also describes the four types of people attracted to divinity and the four types of people who are opposed to divinity. In conclusion He reveals that one in spiritual intelligence takes exclusive refuge of the Lord without reservation in devotional service. Thus this chapter is entitled: Knowledge of the Ultimate Truth.


Knowing and Realization

ganapatixSatchidananda (1988)[2] names this chapter “The Yoga of Knowledge and Realization”; the online resource note above titles this chapter the “Knowledge of the Ultimate Truth”. Since these titles are not a part of the Bhagavad-Gītā itself, but represent an accretion of tradition or an interpretive gesture on the part of those encountering the text, there is no question of who is right. It is, rather, a question of which such tag more adequately fits the content of the chapter as a description.[3]

Satchidananda distinguishes between knowledge and realization. This is not the distinction between knowing and doing, whether by that is meant knowing (what the right thing to do is) and (actually) doing it, or the difference between book learning (as an intellectual or learned knowledge) and the practical knowledge actually used in the accomplishment of whatever it is one has learned. I may read a book on carpentry, but this does not yet make me a carpenter. The distinction between knowledge and realization, rather, is between understanding something to be the case and the lived, actual experience of that knowledge.

In Jung’s (1956)[4] Mysterium Coniunctionis, the closing two sections are particularly devoted to emphasizing the central difference between knowing something to be the case and actually experiencing (realizing) that knowledge.

The word realization is key. Etymologically and literally, it means “making real”. Conventionally, we take it in the sense of something dawning on us, of an idea or thought coming into being or consciousness. A moment ago, it was not; and now it is—it has been real-ized. With that sense of “dawning on us,” typically comes some kind of affective response, or at least some immediate and felt consequence of that made-realness. We do not simply “know” that our spouse has been unfaithful, but we “realize” it. In a psychoanalytic setting, we can see the kind of opposite form of this: a patient may be suffering from a phobia of some sort, and for all that the therapist points out—and for all that the patient acknowledges—that this is an irrational, unfounded fear, simply knowing that fails to dislodge the phobia. We’ve all experienced this frustration with friends as well who are in the grip of some mood; for all that we unambiguously demonstrate that he’s a dog or she’s no goo, for all that our sad friend admits this is the case, nonetheless “but I love him” and “I love her” &c.

996StandingVisnuIn this distinction, knowing is a piece of reflection. First we realize something, and then we know it (as we reflect on it). Obviously, one might immediately insist that we know first and realize second; so mote it be—what the two terms are identifying, as an experiential distinction in human being, is between directly experienced or nonmediated or not-reflected-upon knowledge (as realization) and the subsequent reflected or named or identified knowledge (as knowing). This is important because insofar as one frequently encounters—including in this chapter—the command or suggestion to realize meditative knowledge, not merely to know it, this then makes it seem that you have to struggle or somehow change one’s experience—Internet meme: cheese, you’re doing it wrong. Well, how am I supposed to do it right, then? After all, knowing is an experience every bit as much as realization.

The next chapter addresses itself to the seeming problem this raises, i.e., if the command or recommendation is to realize things (whether avatars of transcendent ideas or otherwise) rather than only to know them, then how may this be done. Under a rubric of realizing and knowing point as actually experienced cognitive moments for human beings, then one has to admit that all knowing necessarily proceeds from some prior realization, so the complaint that those who dwell “too much” in knowing are somehow living at second-hand from “reality” is unfair. There are very wide swaths of culture where those with a “reflective” bent get berated for this kind of thing. In Dostoevsky’s (1864) Notes from the Underground, his agonizing contrast between the doer and the dreamer (constructed from the standpoint of a dreamer) excellently embodies this. In section III, for the doer:

Such a gentleman simply dashes straight for his object like an infuriated bull with its horns down, and nothing but a wall will stop him. (By the way: facing the wall, such gentlemen–that is, the “direct” persons and men of action–are genuinely nonplussed. For them a wall is not an evasion, as for us people who think and consequently do nothing; it is not an excuse for turning aside, an excuse for which we are always very glad, though we scarcely believe in it ourselves, as a rule. No, they are nonplussed in all sincerity. The wall has for them something tranquillising, morally soothing, final–maybe even something mysterious)

But for the dreamer:

Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength. ¶ As though such a stone wall really were a consolation, and really did contain some word of conciliation, simply because it is as true as twice two makes four. Oh, absurdity of absurdities! How much better it is to understand it all, to recognise it all, all the impossibilities and the stone wall; not to be reconciled to one of those impossibilities and stone walls if it disgusts you to be reconciled to it; by the way of the most inevitable, logical combinations to reach the most revolting conclusions on the everlasting theme, that even for the stone wall you are yourself somehow to blame, though again it is as clear as day you are not to blame in the least, and therefore grinding your teeth in silent impotence to sink into luxurious inertia, brooding on the fact that there is no one even for you to feel vindictive against, that you have not, and perhaps never will have, an object for your spite, that it is a sleight of hand, a bit of juggling, a card-sharper’s trick, that it is simply a mess, no knowing what and no knowing who, but in spite of all these uncertainties and jugglings, still there is an ache in you, and the more you do not know, the worse the ache.

An answer to this dilemma is proposed in the next chapter and next post in this series.

Attraction and Aversion

KrishnaKṛṣṇa remarks: “People are deluded by attraction and aversion, which spawn all the pairs of opposites. These dualities, Arjuna, subject all to maya at birth” (VII.27). Maya, as I understand it from the Śivasūtrāṇi (the Śiva-Sutras), points to the illusion of distinctions—familiarly played with verbally in the opening lyrics to the Beatles “I Am The Walrus”: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” A most fundamental (illusory) distinction in this obtains between the limited human form (of me) and the neither unlimited nor not unlimited Brahman (the Inconceivable). As when the aspirant approaches the guru saying, “Guru, I wish to be enlightened” and receives the answer, “Marvelous, you already are,” then this immediately brings to the fore the fact that the aspirant is not experiencing a sense of enlightenment; to which the guru responds, “No, of course not, due to karma (the consequences of the past), maya (the illusion of distinctions), and ajñana (an only partial understanding of enlightenment).”

This being so, it still takes a bit of unpacking to get all of the issues involved here in a clear order, and I am grateful to my co-reader for helping to sort this out.

It seems perfectly rational that one would “reach for the good” but Satchidananda emphasizes that in the very act of determining something to be good (and thus good to reach), the distinction of that which is not-good is created as well. Prabhupāda (1972) puts it more bluntly:

The real constitutional position of the living entity is that of subordination to the Supreme Lord, who is pure knowledge. When one is deluded into separation from this pure knowledge, he becomes controlled by illusory energy and cannot understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The illusory energy is manifested in the duality of desire and hate. Due to desire and hate, the ignorant person wants to become one with the Supreme Lord and envies Kṛṣṇa as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Pure devotees, who are not deluded or contaminated by desire and hate, can understand that Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa appears by His internal potencies, but those who are deluded by duality and nescience think that the Supreme Personality of Godhead is created by material energies. This is their misfortune. Such deluded persons, symptomatically, dwell in dualities of dishonor and honor, misery and happiness, woman and man, good and bad, pleasure and pain, etc., thinking, “This is my wife; this is my house; I am the master of this house; I am the husband of this wife.” These are the dualities of delusion. Those who are so deluded by dualities are completely foolish and therefore cannot understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead” (Purport to VII.27, p. 489).

Here, then, in the most general form is that which is attractive and aversive, that which we might reach for and that which we would not reach for. And it is the delusion of this, Kṛṣṇa says, that spawns all the pairs of opposites.

Right off the bat, it seems like this might be backwards; that, rather, because there are opposites, we then decide which amongst those opposites are good (and reach for those) while being aversive to the rest. But that is not the claim being made.  Attraction and aversion point to the desirable and the nondesirable, so we might remember from earlier: “from brooding on sense objects, attachment to them arises. Out of that attachment, personal desire is born. And from desire, anger appears” (II.62). In Hesiod’s Theogony similarly out of Chaos emerges first Gaia (the Earth) and the Eros (desire). Or in the much older Hymn of Creation from the Rig Veda (10.129), desire follows upon chaos and heat:

Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness
this All was indiscriminated chaos.
All that existed then was void and form less:
by the great power of Warmth was born that One.
Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire,
the primal seed and germ of Spirit.[5]

lakshmiSo, more generally, desire itself spawns the illusion of distinctions and is even, as the hymn of creation shows, the reason for the manifest universe all around us. From this, one needn’t conclude that the delusion of distinction is inherently evil; there is no need to resort to a Manichean heresy that all of material existence is necessarily fallen or inferior to its contrasted spirit. Such a valorization (of spirit) would be a delusion of attraction for the good of spirit over against an aversion to the evil of matter, and this delusion will surely condemn one to rebirth while also creating a more hellish world for the rest of us: “others still allow person desires to led astray their good judgment; thus they follow their lower nature and worship lesser gods for their blessings” (VII.20).

That desire as attraction and aversion provides the source of the problem—“ from brooding on sense objects, attachment to them arises. Out of that attachment, personal desire is born” (II.62)—Kṛṣṇa elaborates on this in Satchidananda’s (1988) translation:

The qualities of nature (the guṇas) come out of me; they are my manifestations. Yet I am not contained in them. Most people fail to look beyond the three qualities of my [nature].[6] People see only these changing qualities, and don’t see me, the transcendent One. In the midst of all that changes, I am what doesn’t change. No doubt it is hard to see through this, my divine illusion (maya), comprised of the guṇas. But those who take refuge in my absolutely pass over this illusion (VII.12–14).

Thus, the attachment resulting from brooding on sense-objects (the manifestations of Kṛṣṇa’s prakriti, or the guṇas as the qualities of nature) generates personal desire. Consequently, “others, still deluded by maya, lose their discrimination (viveka) and sink to their lower nature” (VII.15).

So what is at work here is a change of seeing, or perception more generally. Instead of looking beyond the qualities of nature in all of its changeableness (to sense the unchanging ground upon which all of those changes occur), we brood on those qualities as sense-objects, and thus lose our discrimination and sink into our less optimal natures. This is the point of the otherwise poetic seeming assertions like:

I am the fragrance of the earth, the brilliance in fire, the life in all beings, and the purifying force in austerity … I am intelligence in those who are wise, and splendor in all that is beautiful. I am the power in strength that is untainted by passion or personal desire. In fact, I am the desire in all beings, Arjuna, when desire is in accord with dharma (VII.9–11).

One often encounters the poeticism of rhetoric like “the king of kings” or “the ancient of ancients”. Generally, this is akin to Randle Patrick McMurphy’s claim in Kesey’s (1962)[7] One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to being the “bull-goose loony”—the biggest cheese of the big cheeses, the biggest wig of the bigwigs. That is not the claim being made here—in a statement like “I am the intelligence of the intelligent” or “I am the strength of the strong,” this points to the (hypothetical, if you will) basis for all manifestations of any given phenomenon in the first place. There’s a Stevie Ray Vaughn lyric somewhere where he says he’s as close to his gal as cold is to ice that gets at this idea. One might call this a Platonic idea if Plato hadn’t been anticipated in the notion by thousands of years by any number of previous cultures and thinkers. And the notion appears in Jung[8] as the (precisely hypothetical) notion of archetypes. It’s very important at this juncture to repeat a repeated emphasis he makes about this. He perpetually insists that any notion of archetypes is of course and can only be hypothetical, since if they “exist” at all, it is only in the unconscious, which itself must (by definition) be hypothetical because any consciousness of it cannot be consciousness of it. But if this seems all balled up in paradoxes, which it is not, he equally stresses the completely empirical experience of archetypal material as it manifests in consciousness. He is not, here, involved in any speculation whatsoever but is pointing to the incontestable experience that human beings have of stuff he calls archetypal material and which others have called visions, dreams, the products of daydreams and fantasies, and the like. In other words, this is exactly the realization (an experience) of archetypal material. As Jung (1977) notes:

yinYangThe division into two was necessary[9] in order to bring the ‘one’ world out of the state of potential into reality. Reality consists of a multiplicity of things. But one is not a number; the first number is two, and with it multiplicity and reality begin (Mysterium Coniunctionis, ¶659).

Jung here is arguing for a necessity for what if applied to the Bhagavad-Gītā would be the manifestations of Kṛṣṇa, the qualities of nature or guṇas, and thus the circumstance that “not everyone can see me as I truly am, because I veil myself in maya” (VII.25). We would certainly be right to wonder about the necessity of this,[10] but in the context of this chapter, the answer is to change how one looks at the world, i.e., to see in the strong the strength in it, to see the fire in fire, the desire in desire, &c. Or even more exactly, to realize the strength in strength.

One might summarize this: how you see the problem is the problem; one might locate the concept in its form as cognitive-behavior therapy which, generally adopting its approach from cybernetics without giving due credit to it, operates from the premise: if you change your thinking, your behavior will change. The Vietnamese Buddhist Thích Nhất Hạnh describes looking deeply, whereby one sees not an object but all of the human beings who have been involved in its creation, all of the materials that went into it—thus creating a vast, interconnected network for (quite literally) everything and everyone in our life. This comes together elegantly in the Buddhist grace he recites: “this food is a gift of the sky and the earth and a lot of hard work; may I be worthy to receive it”. This notion of interconnectedness, which needn’t be insisted upon as a fact but is simply a (cognitive) alternative to thinking of objects as stand-alone things that emerge out of nowhere and that we may use in whatever way we want, is an important notion to include in any sense of “cognitive-behavior therapy,” because it tends to be explicitly individualistic in its assumptions and aims. Cybernetics, by contrast, has been described by Larry Richards (e.g., here) as “ways of thinking about thinking, of which it is one”.

Multiple examples make more readily clear the exemplar; thus the multiplicity Jung underscores made an intuition of One possible. One cannot, by definition, conceive of the Inconceivable, the unconscious, the archetype, the infinite—but in multiple embodiments of this, one may have the experience (not just knowledge of) orienting toward the Inconceivable, the unconscious, the archetype. The Śivasūtrāṇi describe three “methods” of obtaining enlightenment. The first is through grace; some just seem inherently disposed to “get it” but the composer of the Śivasūtrāṇi admits this is very rare. In the second form, one meditates on ultimate reality, so to speak, by continuously rejecting the limited notions of the Inconceivable one encounters. Still some will find this objectless meditation too difficult, and in this case one may select an object—it may be anything—as use that as a concentration of focus. In principle, one might gradually be weaned of the third method to the second, and from the second to the first, but this needn’t necessarily be the case. Thus even here, the purposiveness of multiplicity, as a scaffold toward changing how one realizes (experiences) life makes itself apparent.

In this light, the prohibition on graven images or depictions of the prophet presents a very problematic gesture. The two primary upsides to the gesture are: (1) it avoids the sort of gross conventionality that tends to drag an idea down into kitsch that can make it lose its compelling symbolism or value;[11] and (2) it actually allows the maximum creation of graven images or depictions of the prophet because each person comes up with her or his own image. Both of these are powerfully beneficial for the institution of the religion that imposes these prohibitions. And I would add that the history of Christianity has demonstrated that the threat of point (1) may be overstated, because amongst those for whom a “living Jesus” is a real and compelling idea or symbol, it is so because a (selfish) inwardly generated image is what sustains them, rather than any image encountered in a conventionalized Jesus image.

Kali_by_nosveAnd this adjective “selfish” is the primary, even fundamental, downside to the prohibition of images or depictions of the prophet. Whatever human intolerance we want to impute to the culture of India—and patriarchy is grossly rampant in all kinds of unappealing ways—the absolute embrace of embodying “the supreme” in imagery—that is, embodying the One in a virtually limitless array of multiple examples—seems more to have forced Indian culture to acknowledge, however grudgingly at times, that behind all of these examples is (or must be) an exemplar. This means, however one might not like it, the “religious reality” of other people cannot be subjected to the sort of intolerant monotheism characteristic of elsewhere. More specifically, the depiction of images of the divine literally makes this multiplicity culturally visible and thus an unavoidable part of the social fabric of life. One does not have the liberty, except by sheer bigotry, of asserting that any image of the divine one encounters is a false idol. There is a radical selfishness, a titanic egotism at work, that allows one to “secretly” carry around a personal image of the divine as if it is the one guiding truth of your life. It means that that image is never subject to qualification, is never challenged—not in its truth, because how can it be anything but true, but simply in its adequacy even for you in your own life. Once again, those who worship little gods get little things; while others, “still deluded by maya, lose their discrimination and sink to their lower nature. Thus, they do evil things” (VII.15).

“From the brooding on sense objects, attachment to them arises. Out of that attachment, personal desire is born. And from desire, anger appears” (II.62, emphasis added).

The prohibition on imagery does not suppress the manifestation of sense-objects, here in the “form of god” (or the prophet) that the individual concocts for herself or himself. Out of that, personal desire is born, i.e., not a social desire, not a desire for the well-being of the social, but an egotistical, selfish desire. And from that desire, anger appears, when others contradict that desire, and especially when they live an example according to different goods or gods. The current obvious example in US culture includes the hyperbigotry of religious sentiment opposed to marriage equality. In the argument on behalf of Prop 8 before the Supreme Court, its lawyer advanced in all seriousness that marriage is fundamentally for the purpose of procreation. Justice Kagan asked on this point if the proponent would oppose granting marriage licenses to those who were past the age of procreation, and of course he said, “No.” Because marriage is not only, or even primarily, about procreation. As Kṛṣṇa continues, “Anger confuses the thinking process, which, in turn, disturbs memory.  When memory fails, reasoning is ruined. And when reason is gone, one is lost” (II.63).

mandalasUltimately, the prohibition on imagery—as most forms of prohibition in general—is based on a kind of cowardice, on a lack of trust in one’s fellow human beings, but especially then a projected fear for oneself. As gets pointed out all the time, because two guys want to shack up and fuck each other, what threat does this propose for your family. If someone else wants to drink a fifth of Scotch, and doesn’t go out into the public square on a rampage, then what threat does them drinking alcohol pose to you. If someone else is having sex, why does that drive you batty? If someone else is doing heroin, what is preventing you from not? The prohibition on divine imagery may give you your own little god to jack-off to spiritually—hence it gratifies the ego of those in the religions that demand this—but what threat to your faith does my Gaṇeśa T-shirt propose? Is it so weak, that shown even a glimpse of an alternative it will drain away from you like flushed toilet water? What threat even does atheism then propose?

At root, the transformation proposed by this chapter involves orienting to (not perceiving) the unity one may intuit behind the multiplicity. The social problem of how to address the fat that in the pursuit of your little gods you want to exterminate other people—or simply prevent them from living—cannot be completely ignored, but this doesn’t annul the basic point proposed in this chapter: to know what we realize and realize what we know.


[1] All references to this commentary will refer henceforth to the online PDF of the text and commentary found at

[2] Satchidananda (1988). The living Gita: the complete Bhagavad Gita, Buckingham, VA: Integral Yoga Publications.

[3] However: in the present case it seems unconvincing and untenable to insist that the titles should be read as synonymous. In practice, as those who experience the material under either heading may—or even will—arrive at a similar end, this reprises the main theme of the chapter that the label we give to the Inconceivable is not what matters—whether you worship the Inconceivable as Kṛṣṇa (as the supreme avatar of Viṣṇu) or Gaṇeśa (in the form of a lump of cow dung) or Śiva (through an offering of pork)—but the steadiness of one’s devotion. Analogously, one may worship the “idea” of this in its avatar as “The Knowledge of the Ultimate truth” or its avatar as “The Yoga of Knowledge and Realization”. The point I want to emphasize in this is that the two avatars—the two different incarnations of the idea, or one’s approach to the idea of this chapter—are not commensurable or even analogous with one another. They would be different forms of understanding (worship), just as honoring Lakṣmī or Kṛṣṇa are different.

[4] Jung, CG (1977). Mysterium coniunctionis: an inquiry into the separation and synthesis of psychic opposites in alchemy. 2d ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[5] The logic of the entire hymn is worth keeping in mind:

THEN was not non-existent nor existent:
there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.
What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter?
Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?
Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal:
no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider.
That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature:
apart from it was nothing whatsoever.
Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness
this All was indiscriminated chaos.
All that existed then was void and form less:
by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.
Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning,
Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit.
Sages who searched with their heart’s thought
discovered the existent’s kinship in the non-existent.
Transversely was their severing line extended:
what was above it then, and what below it?
There were begetters, there were mighty forces,
free action here and energy up yonder
Who verily knows and who can here declare it,
whence it was born and whence comes this creation?
The Gods are later than this world’s production.
Who knows then whence it first came into being?
He, the first origin of this creation,
whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven,
he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.

[6] The actual word in the text here is prakriti, by which Kṛṣṇa means earth, water, fire, air, akasha (or ether), mind, intellect, an ego. “Even these eight (including the more subtle manifestations) are gross, Arjuna, when compared to my higher prakriti which gives life to all the universe. Everything originates out of these two aspects of my prakriti” (VII.5–6). Without getting into the considerable technicalities involved in this claim, the main point is to illuminate that “everything originates out of” Kṛṣṇa’s nature, not that visible reality is Kṛṣṇa per se. All that we might perceive, and much more besides, is a manifestation of his nature. Or, as he states, “The qualities of nature (the guṇas) come out of me; they are my manifestations. Yet I am not contained in them” (VII.12). Mistaking these manifestations for the actuality of “reality” becomes the originating error, i.e., the attachment resulting from brooding on sense-objects (the manifestations of Kṛṣṇa’s prakriti) generates personal desire.

[7] Kesey, K. (2002). One flew over the cuckoo’s nest. 40th anniversary ed. New York: Viking.

[8] As also in any number of other 20th century thinkers, as in Frye’s (1957) Anatomy of Criticism.

[9] We can quibble about the “necessity” of this as Jung calls it, but one may also say that whether it was necessary or not, that seems to be the way things have worked out.

[10] This actually proposes a fairly serious ethical problem—why does the Supreme Personality of Godhead veil himself in maya—that Prabhupāda more deftly handles that Satchidananda, but I don’t want to engage that particular problem in this particular post.

[11] This is rather obvious in the case of Jesus imagery; whatever “living quality” of Jesus one may experience, it is generally not present when one encounters conventionalized depictions of Jesus.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: