July 12, 2023

Bhagavad Gita and the Illusion of Duality

Unlike Abrahamic religions, Sanatan Dharma is mature enough to handle both heresy and blasphemy, and this gives us the right and liberty to question certain perspectives that lie at the core of what is referred to as Hinduism. Of late, a certain minor operative of ISKCON has been very critical of Vivekananda and Ramakrishna but on enquiring further I realised the ISKCON boss himself, Prabhupada, had referred to both Vivekananda and Aurobindo as rascals. To understand this behaviour, I delved further and realised that what I was reading today was in fact bending back to what a school friend of mine had once told me: that the Bhagavad Gita reads like a marketing pitch -- believe in me or you are doomed.

An image of a woman seen in the reflection on
 the pupil of one eye of another woman. digital art.

Many well-known and supposedly erudite people have sung paeans to the glory of the Gita that was delivered 'directly by God' on the battlefield of the Mahabharat. But it has some obvious problems. First there is the immense chasm of duality that separates ME from the GOD, and the god is obviously far, far superior to what I, me, am and it is only he who can save me. This is no different from the Abrahamic texts like the Bible and the Quran. No wonder, people who have been brought up in the Judeo-Christian tradition love this perspective. For them it is a simple switch from the Almighty GOD to Almighty Vishnu and everything else falls in place with the chanting, the dancing and the fellowship. Only the Hallelujah is replaced with Hare Krishna. Which is why Prabhupada, the shrewd marketer that he was, used this tool to sell Hinduism in the West. That is the language they understood very easily. On the other hand, Vivekananda, with his vast intellectual bandwidth, was far ahead of Prabhupada in terms of both his intuitive and cognitive abilities. But he also had the intellectual honesty to portray Sanatan Dharma as it truly is and not the ersatz, Abrahamic, version that Prabhupada peddled to the non-Indians.

Sanatan Dharma -- the perennial philosophy of the Indic realm -- is based on the Vedas and the Upanishads and not just the Itihas of the Mahabharat of which the Bhagavad Gita is but an appendix. Sanatan Dharma looks at the universe with a far more open and questioning mind. This begins with, among other things, the Nasadiya Sukta of the Rig Veda that asks "But, after all, who knows, and who can say Whence it all came, and how creation happened? the gods themselves are later than creation, so who knows truly whence it has arisen?" Then it looks deeper, and we realise that this duality of me and the god that we worship is an error forced upon us by the illusory Maya. Both Sankara and his modern avatar Vivekananda tells us there is no duality -- of me and my god, but only the singularity (or non-duality, Adwaita) of man and the Universal Consciousness of Brahman (different from Brahma, the Vedic deity).

The phenomenal world that we perceive around us, that is me, myself and all that I can see and touch around me, are but an illusory image -- an incomplete reflection, a pale shadow-- created in, by and through the Maya or illusion caused by the Prakriti that emanates out of the primordial Consciousness, the Brahman, when he desires to engage in his lilā. But what is it a reflection or image of? It is a reflection of the Purusha, a derivative of the Brahman that is seen through the fog of the Prakriti that was derived simultaneously.  Eventually -- once the lilā is over -- the reflection, the image (the phenomenal world) in Prakriti dissolves back, or converges, into the Purusha through the process of a Yogic union and recovers its state primordial singularity of the Brahman, which is pure consciousness, without form, shape or qualities. That is why Yoga is so central to Sanatan Dharma. It is not merely a set of physical exercises that keep the body healthy; the exercises are a good by-product. Yoga is the convergence of the subject, the object and the action itself -- for example, the food, the eater and the act of eating. Or as in this case, the merger of an object, its reflected image and the medium where the reflection happens.

Vivekananda simplified this concept of non-dual Advaita in the image of Shiva as a calm ocean of pure knowledge on the surface of which individual identities are whipped up by the power of Shakti -- Shiva's passion or desire -- as ripples or waves that rise out of deep and then after a while merge back into the depths of great ocean, once again. The ocean when it is calm is Shiva. The same ocean when it is turbulent with waves, is Shakti. Eventually Shakti will and does merge back into the calmness of Shiva in the process of Yog.

This perspective is so vast, so profound, so eclectic and so alive with potential that anything else pales into insignificance before its grand effulgence. Viewed against the backdrop of this magnificent vision, the imagery that is rendered through the Gita -- where the man, Arjun, is simply subservient to the god, Krishna and must obey his commands -- sounds downright juvenile and fit only for simple, immature minds. What is hilarious is that even with these commands, God fails to convince Man of his greatness and when his logic fails, he has to use the magic of Chapter 11, to stun him into an acceptance of his greatness. This is the really, really disappointing part of this very popular text.  

But for the advaitins this is a very minor issue. Sanatan Dharma is so very generous and inclusive that it does not deny or denigrate the duality, or Dwaita, based bhakti of the Bhagavad Gita. To remove the illusory Maya and experience the union, or Yog, of the individual and the Brahman, it says, that one can follow any one, or even more than one, of the four paths, namely, of knowledge, of duty, of bhakti (as advocated in the Bhagavad Gita) and the esoteric path -- RajYog -- known only to its adepts. That is why, Sankara, the greatest advaitin of them all, had no hesitation in adoring both Govinda as well as the Divine Mother whom he regarded as the Purusha and the Prakriti, and celebrating their union in the imagery of the SriYantra.

Unfortunately, the ISKCON-wallahs would not see things this way, and like their Abrahamic cousins, will not allow even others to see things this way. For them, it is my way or the highway, except that the ISKCON-vaishnavs have not yet descended to the level of murder and mayhem so beloved of their Abrahamic cousins.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

Very well written Prithwis