How to read the Gita (6)
- READ COMPARATIVELY, ANALYTICALLY:
In the case of the Gita, you do not need to only rely on translations, there are numerous dictionaries and guidebooks, in print and online. Take a verse that you really want to grasp deeply, and go through it, word by word. Then compare a handful of translations, and you begin to understand the range of error and accuracy, as well as get to know the verse very well. Here is one example of textual analysis.
aśocyān anvaśocas tvaṃ prajñāvādāṃś ca bhāṣase
gatāsūn agatāsūṃś ca nānuśocanti paṇḍitāḥ
śrībhagavān uvāca—Sri Bhagavan said; aśocyān—not to be mourned; anvaśocas—have mourned; tvaṃ—you; prajñāvādāṃś—wisdom words; ca—and; bhāṣase—you speak; gatā—gone; āsūn—breath; agatā—not gone; āsūṃś–breath; ca—and; na—not; anuśocanti—they mourn; paṇḍitāḥ—the wise (masc).
The Sanskrit repeats the word for “mourn” in different forms, and pairs the “dead” and the living relative to breath that has gone and not gone—“gatāsūn” and “agatāsūn.” The living and the dead are similar, the presence of the prefix “a” makes all the difference. The tone is somewhat mocking. Literally, the words mean: “those in whom breath/life has gone,” and “those in whom breath/life has not gone.” The person is unaffected, immortal.
Your words are wise, Arjuna, but your sorrow is for nothing. The truly wise mourn neither for the living nor for the dead.
Punditah has been translated as “the truly wise,” this brings out the contrast to Arjuna, who is only apparently wise. The prose has a rhythm to it, and includes the neither-nor pairing of living-dead. Literalisms are avoided, and “those who cannot be lamented” is summed up as its outcome, “for nothing.” In the original, the word for “living” is the opposite of “dead,” or “gone,” and this play or juxtaposition is missing in the translation. Prabhavanda/Isherwood’s nouns “living” and “dead” have a finality to them which is not how it is in the Sanskrit Gita.
Thy tears are for those beyond tears; and are thy words of wisdom? The wise grieve not for those who live; and they grieve not for those who die – for life and death shall pass away.
Although Mascaro tries to convey the idea that there is no need to feel sorry for “those beyond tears” because they do not need the tears, the combination of words makes no sense—it is as if the objects of Arjuna’s sympathy have transcended their own tears, rather than them not needing Arjuna’s tears. Mascaro achieves some rhythm by repeating “not for,” instead of translating as “do not grieve for,” and this double-negative is not in the original—but it is a shift that helps the meaning. It is towards the end of the verse that Mascaro nails the content, that the person does not ‘pass’, it is life and death that are transient.
The Blessed Lord said: While speaking learned words, you are mourning for what is not worthy of grief. Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor the dead.
“Blessed” and “Lord” are ways of conveying “Sri Bhagavan” – but blessedness is an obvious addition. “Not worthy of grief” overly reduces the status of those who should not be grieved for, it is as if the people who must not be grieved for deserve to be treated indifferently, rather than that the grief itself is irrelevant. Bhaktivedanta’s purport attached to the translation discusses the jibe in Krishna’s words, but the translation itself does not capture it. “While speaking” suggests simultaneity, as if Arjuna was half-lamenting and half-speaking; the accurate construction would have been “you speak…but.” This translation does not convey the idea of the passage of life and death.
The Beloved Lord said :
You have grieved for that
which is not worthy of grief
and yet you speak words
of profound knowledge.
The learned grieve
neither for those
who have passed on,
nor for those
who have not departed.
How does one summarise such a comparison? If the passage of life and death is considered the invariant core of the meaning, Prabhavanda / Isherwood and Bhaktivedanta miss it, Mascaro catches it. All three interpret “punditah” (priest, scholar) as “wise” (rather than learned). This kind of comparative analysis not only helps us understand the interpretive lenses of the translators, but also our own. Reflecting over how others have understood the meanings of words, we begin to think about how we understand them for ourselves.
How to Read the Gita (1-5)
In 1945, nuclear physicist Robert J Oppenheimer compared the totalizing destruction of the atomic bomb with the vision of Krishna as the all-powerful divine in Chapter 11. At the Trinity test site in Los Alamos New Mexico, looking at the ﬁreball of the atomic bomb explosion, he recalled the Bhagavad Gita: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
In the 2012 U.S. elections, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard took her oath on the Bhagavat Gita. Gabbard served with Hawaii’s National Guard, and during her time in Iraq, she drew strength from the teachings of the Gita, in particular, about the eternality of the soul.
In The Guardian on 14th September 2014, musician and rock star Chrissy Hynde called it her favorite book. “My favourite book is the Bhagavad Gita. It’s a 700-verse Hindu scripture and I love the verse that says your mind can be your best friend or your worst enemy. You can either pull yourself down or lift yourself up.”
Each of these news items tells the reader something different about the Gita. It is through a series of second-hand reports like these that most people construct their understandings of the Gita. Taking the leap from that to actually reading it, calls for more than just idle curiosity.
Some verses of the Gita are popular, and a part of school lessons. There is Karmaṇye Vādhikāraste Ma Phaleṣu Kadācana… that tells you to do your work or duty without thinking of the results. There is Yadā Yadā Hi Dharmasya Ghlānirbhavati Bhārate.. tells you that Krishna/Viṣṇu/God incarnates in India when dharma is endangered. Vāsāṃsi Jīrṇāni Yathā Vihāya … and the couple of stanzas that follow it say that you are eternal and indestructible. For most people, the entire Gita is represented by these few stanzas.
The Gītopadeśa scene where Krishna advises Arjuna in the middle of the two armies is a part of the décor in homes and even in hotel rooms. The Gita is quoted frequently in the media, by swamis and politicians. There are talks on Gita in ashrams and temples. That still does not push us to read it.
In September 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented copies of the Gita to the Japanese government. In December 2014, minister Sushma Swaraj proposed declaring the Gita a national book. And yet, on 19th December 2014, the Scroll reports, “National Book or not, what’s the Bhagavad Gita all about?” A surprising headline for an Indian news daily, and suggesting that the Gita is a celebrity, a book more famous than read. The Gita’s popularity is easily understood with an internet search, bookseller Amazon lists over 6000 different entries from translations and commentaries to dictionaries and music disks. But—buying a book does not mean reading that book.
When we pick up a CD with a recitation of the Gita, we find that every verse is sung in the same tune. The apparent monotony is more evident in visualisations of the work. In the Peter Brooks’ Mahabharata, the subtitle of the Gita section says: “Where’s the action?” The form of the Gita promises to be dull— 700 stanzas long, no real action, no change of scene, the entire text really a monolog posing as a dialog. Although Arjuna’s dilemma is the trigger for the Gita, he does not get to say very much. His main speech is in the first chapter where he explains his quandary, and after that, in the 11th chapter, when he is overwhelmed by the vision of Krishna; in many other chapters, he only gets to speak a single verse which serves as a prompt.
Some people are attracted to the Gita because they think it a religious text. Others are put off by just that. Some appreciate it because it is in Sanskrit, others hate just that, they think Sanskrit an oppressive language dominated by Brahmin culture. Some find the Gita open-minded, it presents a multiplicity of paths of ways to improve one’s life. Others hate just that, they find it indeterminate and confusing. Does Krishna ask Arjuna to kill people, and is this the message? But Krishna also tells Arjuna that non-violence is the sattvic path. Which message is valid? Krishna says that the four ‘varnas’ sorted by traits and tasks are issued by him, and that seems anti-egalitarian. But then Krishna also says all devotees matter equally to him. How then can we reconcile the two statements?
For one reason or the other, because we think we know it, because it seems offensive, because it seems confusing, because it seems dull, many of us do not actually read the entire Gita.
- READ IT.
- READ IT AS A CONTINUOUS TEXT.
One of the conventional ways to assimilate the message of the Gita is to study it thematically. For Karma Yoga we tend to turn to Chapter 3, for Gyana Yoga (jñāna yoga) we go to Chapter 4, and for Bhakti Yoga we go to Chapter 12. The commentarial tradition reinforces this practice; often, a spiritual leader gives a discourse on one chapter this year, and a different chapter the next year. Even in recitations, the reciter announces the chapter division: ‘Athaḥ dvitīyo’adhyāyaḥ.’ But if we really consider the Gita a speech or message from Krishna to Arjuna on a battlefield, we cannot but reconsider the chapter divisions as editorial interventions. Consider the content of the chapters, and we see much repetitions and overlap. Chapter 2 functions more or less as a summary of the entire Gita. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 really ought to be studied together. Even though Chapter 12 has much about devotion, Chapter 9 has the well-known verse about how Krishna accepts devotion even in the simple form of a flower, fruit, water, leaf.
Another convention, is to study a verse a day. It is true that some verses stand on their own, these are the verses that tend to be popular, and are memorized. Within the narrative and teaching of the Gita, separating a verse from the verses before and after it would be like plucking a sentence out of a paragraph. In the Gita, sometimes, the cognitive unit – i.e., the unit of comprehension – extends across several verses. 12.13 to 12.20 is one section, describing the qualities of a devotee. 10.12-10.18 is another section, where Arjuna addresses Krishna’s glory, and 10.20 to 10.32 is a list of comparisons that help us understand Krishna’s position in the universe. A collection of verses sometimes functions as a “scene.”
Taking an approach like this is most helpful in isolating the poetics of the Gita. For instance, from 11.14, Arjuna uses the verb “see” in every single verse until 11.19. The reader is keenly aware that this is a spectacle, an extraordinary sight. In 11.22, the same sight is also seen by the Adityas, Rudras, Vasus and Sadhyas and all the deities of the universe— Krishna now becomes the center of every gaze in the universe. 7.06 to 7.11 has a word that is repeated, it dominates the stage – asmi, I am. In these ways, we find that the Gita is made of dramatic units and scenes, not verses and chapters.
- READ TEXT, AND CONTEXT.
Often it is the context that tells us how to understand the meaning of a verse. 3.01 can be confusing, it is a verse which act as transitions between topics. Up until then, Krishna has been explaining to Arjuna the kind of person who can maintain equanimity. Arjuna misunderstands him, and asks, if you really think that the way of “buddhi” is better than “karma” why do you ask me to fight? Thus, 3.01 must be seen in the context of 3.02. And how does Krishna use the word ‘yoga’ in 3.02? For that, we need to look at 3.03.
2.16 is a good example of what happens when the verses are translated or commented upon without taking the context into consideration. Many translations are obstruse on this particular verse, they try to translate the terms ‘sat’ and ‘asat’ as abstract terms.
nāsato vidyate bhāvo nābhāvo vidyate sataḥ
ubhayor api dṛṣṭo.antas tv anayos tattvadarśibhiḥ
na—not; asatah—of the nonexistent/of the nonreal; vidyate—it is found; bhāvas—being, coming to be, becoming. na—not; abhāvah—not being, not existing, not becoming; vidyate—it is found; satah—of the real/true/existent; ubhayoh—of both; api—indeed, surely, also, even; dṛṣṭah—seen, perceived, discerned; antah—certainty, conclusion, end; tu—indeed, but; anayoh–of these two; tattva—truth, reality, thatness; darśibhiḥ—by the seers/perceivers/discerners/knowers.
The symmetry of this verse cannot be missed. The sound pairs of “nāsato” “sataḥ” and “bhāvo” “nābhāvo” are not just the rhythm, but the message that contrasts truth with delusion. The first part of the verse is complex—what “is” and what “is not” could refer to anything—living/non-living, animate/inanimate, fact/lie. From the materialist perspective, the physical world “is” and the “spiritual” world is conjecture, and the translation could be understood as a confirmation of materialism. Besides, it seems unsurprising for that which is non-existent to be non-existent.
But it is in the context of 2.15 that we must read 2.16. We then realize that ‘asat’ refers to the transient, and ‘sat’ to the not-transient. Alertness to the context resolves many confusions about the message of the Gita. Does the Gita downplay vedic rituals, or uphold them? Some may say that the Gita puts down the veda (see 2.41-2.42) but in fact, it is only selfish rituals that are being critiqued.
- WHICH GITA TO READ?
You may be familiar with ‘many Ramayanas’ generated in the itihāsa-purāṇa oral tradition, with numerous narrators and versions of the storyline. By contrast, the Gita seems an invariable source. In fact, the Gita is a highly mediated source, usually studied with the help of a teacher, commentator, or translator. Its tradition is that a commentator explains how to understand the Gita. The Gita is a tradition, a palimpsest, with layers of voices, voices that are lenses. Each commentary and translation becomes a part of the tradition for the next commentary and translation. The Bhagavad Gita is not only God’s Song, it is also the Guru’s Gita, Commentator’s Gita, and the Translator’s Gita.
The translation and the commentary you read will necessarily have an interpretation, you cannot do away with it. A simple example can help illustrate this point. What is “karma”? For Bhaktivedanta, karma yoga means devotion. For a vedic priest, vedic rituals constitute karma. For Mahatma Gandhi, service is karma. Those who want to get deep into the Gita ought to pick up one of the numerous guides and go through it, verse by verse. I suggest you read a few Gitas. As you do so, also try to decipher the interpretive stance of the Gita you are reading. Firstly, it means you need to understand how words mean what they say. When a book promises to be “Gita As It Is” you need to become alert, that the author of this line means that other Gita commentators are distorting their presentations, and his own version will act as a corrective. Awareness of such an agenda also implies an aggressive input from the commentator. Once you become alert to triggers and signals of interpretation, you will find yourself thinking, even as you read someone else’s interpretation. Please see in this book an example of how to do a textual analysis.
Additionally, even when we (think we) read the original Gita verses directly, we already have a lot of preconceptions in our mind which have formed by centuries of commentaries and mediation. Even when we embark on a direct study of the Gita verses, we deal with our own distortions, for we have own philosophy and preferences, perceptions and attitudes, that color our understanding. And we have centuries of commentary that has insinuated itself in our memories, without our sharp awareness. A simple example: we think that Krishna speaks about the “ātman” (“self” or “soul”) in Chapter 2. Does he?
- READ CLOSELY.
DOES KRISHNA SAY ‘ATMAN’ IN VERSES 2.13 – 2.27?
Krishna informs Arjuna in verses 2.13 to 2.27 that ātman (soul/self) is indestructible, and permanent. Or does he? Krishna refers to a dehin and śarīrin, or ‘that which has a body’. It is we readers who have read the Gita along with memories of translations and commentaries and who assume that these verses are about the ātman/soul/self.
Why does Krishna not use the term ‘ātman’ when explaining the concept to Arjuna? Possibly, because Dehin and ‘śarīrin’ are descriptive terms, ‘ātman’ denotes oneself. Arjuna does not know about ātman the way Krishna wants him to understand it. Had Krishna explained the concept using the term ‘ātman’, Arjuna might get confused, especially if he already understands the term ātman as a pronoun, referring to his body or personality… and Krishna has to first destabilize these very notions.
Let’s say, that what Arjuna knows is body, deha. It would be logical then, for Krishna to begin his persuasive argument with that. And where is Arjuna? On the battlefield—Krishna begins there too.
In 2.11, Krishna tells Arjuna that a wise person does not mourn for those whose breath has gone, and for those whose breath has not gone. What a shocking statement. Is that all then, the difference between the dead and the living? Imagine all the breathing soldiers in the battlefield around Arjuna, just one breath away from death.
In 2.12, Krishna makes a big claim, he says that there was never a time when he was not, and never a time when he won’t be, and even more flabbergasting, he includes Arjuna and the warriors in the statement — I, you, and these leaders. The verse begins with Krishna speaking about himself; it is somewhat easier for Arjuna to understand Krishna’s presence stretching into the past and the future beyond the present life, and that becomes the leaping point for the other incredible idea, that everyone is eternally present.
Identity has to be the next topic, logically, because Krishna’s claim is far-fetched. It is the ‘dehin’ or ‘that which has the body’ experiences childhood, youth and age in the body, and then acquires another body. Krishna uses locative ‘dehe’ – ‘in/at the body.’ He positions the body as a site, rather than the experiencer.
In 2.14 we learn something about what happens at this site, sensations come and go, they are transient. 2.15 then advises us that equanimity is the apt response to something transient. It is in the context of 2.15 that we must read 2.16. That which is asat – sensations — have no reality/being/existence. Arjuna can begin to understand what kind of attitude he ought to have towards transient phenomena. Thus far, he knows about body, and sensations. He has been given one glimpse, a possibility, that there is more to life than transient physical life. Many translations are obstruse on this particular verse, they try to translate the terms literally, and without any connection to the context. It is in the commentaries that we gain an understanding. ‘Sat’ and ‘asat’ make most sense as theorization of the particular example about the transience and unreality of sensations. Additionally, 2.17 begins with the word ‘avinaśi’ (indestructible), that (yaḥ, yena) by which the physical world is pervaded and woven. 2.18 continues this contrasting theme, the dehin is anāśinaḥ aprameyaḥ (indestructible, immeasurable). This verse is like a summary of the last three verses, it tells us the contrasting outcomes of both—the physical body ends, that which has the physical body, the sārīrin, is indestructible and immeasurable.
2.19 brings the topic back to culpability, framing the discussion in Arjuna’s immediate context about the responsibility and guilt of war and killing, and notice how Krishna refers to the ‘dehin’ here as ‘enam,’ or ‘this.’ Again, in 2.20, a well-known stanza, Krishna refers to ‘dehin’ as ‘ayam’ or ‘this.’ Stanza 2.21 has ‘enam,’ 2.22 has dehin, 2.23 has ‘enam,’ 2.24 has ‘ayam’ 2.25 has ‘ayam,’ and 2.26 has ‘enam.’ From 2.21, Krishna goes through the parts of the puzzle again. In 2.21, a speculation—the person who knows about the quality of the dehin, how can he consider himself the killer?
2.22 then presents exactly who is the doer, it is the dehin. There is a parallel established between the person or naraḥ and the dehin, but notice the big difference in their personalities. The first two lines use the verb for grab, sieze, or hold— ‘gṛhṇāti’ and the next couplet uses the verb for meet, or encounter– ‘saṃyāti.’ People have hands, so they can hold, and the ‘dehin’ … encounters/meets! This verb does not have sensory or tactile aspects. And with the very next two verses 2.23 and 2.24, we see how nothing sensory occurs to the dehin, it is out of this range.
At 2.22 we understand how we wear and discard clothes, and we can project a similar action on to what the śarīrin does. Notice how the second couplet does not actually mention ‘bodies’, the meaning is implied. It is we readers who have to make the connection of equivalence between the ‘new ones’ of the first couplet and the ‘new ones’ of the second couplet.
Interestingly, 2.23 and 2.24 make the same point, but with different emphases. In 2.23 the focus is on the action, and in 2.24 the focus is the indestructible, unchangeable object, ‘this’ ‘enam.’
Verse 2.24 is conclusive on the subject of immutability, and wraps up the point by linking back to verse 2.12. Dehin, or you, are also nityah and sanatanah— eternal, and primordial/ancient/old. This repeats the idea of verse 2.12 where Krishna has talked about himself, Arjuna and the warriors, there was never a time when they were not, and there will never be a time when they will not be. Life as it is manifest in the body is just the middle part. By the time Krishna sings verse 2.24, Arjuna has understood that this dehin is who he really is.
And so what? It means that the dehin is not just fixed (sthāṇur) and unmoving (acalaḥ), but also powerful, able to go anywhere (sarvagataḥ). Because lines 3 and 4 of 2.24 present some unfathomable concepts about the embodied, and so it is time for 2.25 to explain why. Also, because it is so potent, verse 2.25 explains, there’s no need to feel sad. The last line of verse 2.25 is repeated as the last line of verse 2.26, and again in 2.27, it is a refrain: nānuśocitum arhasi. Why the emphasis on arhat? Even though Arjuna is really the dehin, he is nothing compared to the awesome power of the dehin, and it is not his place, or role, or business, to be sentimental and sorry about the dehin. What Krishna reports about the dehin is beyond Arjuna’s comprehension. No matter how he thinks about dehin (2.26), anyway he doesn’t need to mourn for it. The stanza puts Arjuna in his place. Verse 2.27 insists that death is only certain for those that are born, and birth is certain for the dead. Arjuna now knows that neither of these happen to dehin. Mourning becomes irrelevant for dehin; on the other hand, since the deha has to die anyway, mourning is anyway irrelevant. 2.28 asks, again, what’s there to cry? Tatra kā paridevanā?
Having heard something so bizarre, we can imagine that perhaps Arjuna wonders, am I the first to know about this? Krishna says everyone’s surprised to hear about this, but no one comprehends it, knows it (śṛutvā na enam veda). In verse 2.30, Krishna repeats, the dehī is in everyone, so there’s no need to mourn at all. In less than twenty verses, Krishna has explained two subjects. The first, the physical, is delimited to the world of change. As for the second, we get some inkling that it is ungraspable.
Even up until this point, there is no mention of ātman. Here is a synopsis:
2.12: aham I / tvam you / ime janādhipāḥ these leaders (always were and will be)
2.13 dehin embodied (takes on infancy youth old age – takes on other bodies)
2.14 (physical – sensations – transient)
2.15 (therefore equanimity in joy and sorrow)
2.16 (sat and asat or reality and non-reality)
2.18 sarīrin embodied (eternal)
2.19 enam this (doesn’t kill can’t be killed)
2.20 ayam this (never born never dies ..)
2.21. enam this (if you know, who do you kill or cause to)
2.22. dehin embodied (old clothes – old bodies)
2.23. enam this (weapons don’t pierce – etc)
2.24. ayam this (unpiercable etc)
2.25. ayam this (invisible unthinkable etc)
2.26. enam this (if born and dies again and again, why lament)
2.27. (death certain for the born, birth for those who die)
2.28 (beginning and ends not manifest, middle manifest)
2.29 enam this (surprised some see some hear ..)
2.30 dehin embodied (always un-slayable)
Now, I ask, why must we assume that ‘dehin’and ‘śarīrin’ are equivalent to ‘ātman’? If ātman is only a personal pronoun, then perhaps the point is to understand that the dehin is ātman. And who or what is ‘dehin’? Could it, for example, be Krishna? Or Brahman? That which has the body does not have to be the self. While we accept the wisdom and guidance of commentaries, we must think about the text based on what it actually says. Read the Gita. When ‘ātman’ does come up later in the Gita, Krishna is referring to you, and sometimes to the ungendered, immortal, indestructible it, who you really, really are. The explanation we have got used to is that ‘Krishna tells Arjuna that the soul is indestructible.’ We could revisit the text and understand something quite different.
The words ‘soul’ and ‘self’ do not help at all when translating these verses, nor do ‘inner self’ or [self] or other combinations. ‘Soul’ is a safe, familiar word, but vague, for we do not know what exactly it refers to, and ‘self’ is a concept understood in different ways. When we read, thus, something we already think we know about the soul, we don’t know any better. Instead, if we unlearn this assumption, put ourselves in Arjuna’s shoes, and listen carefully to the argument, verse after verse, we arrive at a deeper understanding of the concept (even though we may eventually choose to refer to it as ‘ātman’). We understand the dehī /dehin/ ātman in terms of the deha. And our meaning of ātman, of our self, changes, we are no longer only whom we thought we were.
Find out when Krishna first uses the term ‘ātman’ and what does it mean there?
 Jungk, R. (1958). Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists. Tr. James Cleugh. London: V.Gollancz. p.8.
 Huffington Post, 11 February 2012
Line 1, Verse 1 of Iśāvāsya Upaniṣad.
Īśāvāsyamidam sarvam yatkiñca jagatyām jagat
A parable describes a conversation between two babies in a womb. Said one to the other, ‘I think this story about ‘Mother’ is fictitious. I don’t see anyone. Maybe there is no one out there.’ As we smile at this sceptical baby, we also see ourselves in a similar position, asking after the address and even the existence of ‘God.’
We may think of God as within us, or what we are within. Iśāvāsya Upaniṣad lets us know that ‘all this’ is the house of the divine. One of the most lyrical and intriguing Upaniṣads, the Iśāvāsya is named after its very first word. Its main reference is not to the usual Upaniṣadic impersonal term for the divine, ‘brahman,’ nor to any specific deity; instead, it talks about an Īśā. If this name or reference is considered a descriptor, Īśā is someone who rules, for the verb ‘Īś’ means to own, to possess, to be master of, in Hindi we are familiar with the word ‘Īśvar.’
Next, there is a hinge or a relationship between the two deceptively simple words, ‘idam’ and ‘Sarvam.’ ‘Idam’ means ‘this’ and ‘sarvam’ means everything, so that may be everything you see, or know or even imagine, but the Upaniṣad qualifies ‘sarvam’ with ‘idam’ which means ‘all this’ – rather than ‘all that’ – a sense of immediacy and relevance comes into the assessment, we are asked to consider ‘all ‘this,’ and also ‘all’ as ‘this,’ but also, ‘this’ is ‘all’? Think no further than what is right here, I, you, we, this world.
The very next step is with ‘yat kiṃca jagatyāṃ jagat’ – ‘whatever world is in the world,’ reminding us there are many worlds in any world, and they are all residences of Īśā. ‘This’ is you and me, and we are the house of Īśā.
And if we are not? Can that be so? There are two meanings for Vāsya, and in one of them ‘Vāsyam’ is not just in the present tense, the form of the word means ‘to be lived in.’ Whatever world is in this world is to be Īśā’s residence. Therefore I hint at this caveat when I translate the last line, it is not just any life but what’s alive in life, that is Īśā’s. Vāsya is also to be covered, or enveloped, and that gives the translation its title, ‘Covered in Īśā.’ We are the house of Īśā, and Īśā is our home.
In all this
In all this
Whatever’s alive in life
It’s all God’s
oṃ pūrṇam adaḥ pūrṇam idaṃ pūrṇāt pūrṇam udacyate.
The invocation that begins the Iśāvāsya Upaniṣad seems a baffling equation: oṃ pūrṇam adaḥ pūrṇam idaṃpūrṇāt pūrṇam udacyate.
Pūrṇam is usually translated as full, whole, or complete.
That is full, this is full, from full comes full.
The next line says: pūrṇasya pūrṇam ādāya pūrṇam evāvaśiṣyate
If you take this out of that, what’s left is but full.
Full is an opposite of empty. The glass is full. My stomach is full. What a full life you have! Sorry, the flight is full. Such other equivalents as ‘whole’ and ‘complete’ also make the verse enigmatic. Full, whole and complete are quantitative words.
Therefore I think about the usages of the Sanskrit word ‘pūrṇa.’ In pūrṇimā, a word referring to the full moon, it means the moon has reached its maximum potential of visibility. ‘Pūrṇagarbha’ means pregnant, ready to bring forth. Pūrṇnakāma is one whose wishes are fulfilled, satisfied. That also makes the statement less baffling. And what can I find in English that helps me understand this description as a state of quality rather than that of quantity? Syllables ‘p’ and ‘r’ in pūrṇa come to the rescue and the word arrives at once … ‘perfect’! Hence, in my translation:
That’s perfect Creator
This’ perfect Creation From perfection can only come perfection
‘Adas’ is the pronoun for ‘he’ or ‘that’ at a distance.
Idam is ‘this,’ or ‘that’ neuter gender, distance not specified.
I interpret that and this as ‘creator’ and ‘creation.’
Asato mā sadgamaya
Tamaso mā jyotirgamaya
Mrutyor mā amritam gamaya
— Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad. 1.iii.28
This popular hymn is found in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (1.iii.28), where the speaker asks for an improvement in his or her own self or situation. There are many commentaries about the meanings and implications of asat and sat, tamas and jyotiḥ, and mṛutyu and amṛtam, and obviously, these concepts are worthy of reflection. Instead, I focus on some curious aspects of the language and structure of this hymn, and see if that also gives some insights.
A single word repeats three times in this hymn, gamaya. Gamaya is a causative form of the verb gam ‘to go’, it means, ‘make me go.’ Why does the speaker ask to be forced to go, does she not want to go of her own free will? Or is this is a way of saying, that on my own I tend to gravitate to everywhere else but truth and light, therefore give me no choice, ‘make me go.’ Or, my own drive and will-power is weak, please reinforce that and ‘make me go’ towards better conditions. By saying ‘make me go,’ the speaker gives permission to whomsoever she is addressing to take matters out of her hands, to stop her own resistance to improvement. The statements give permission to be directed, even coerced and given no choice.
Next, consider the literal translation. For the moment, I consider the meanings of sat, tamas and mṛtyu as truth, darkness and mortality. Precisely what the terms mean does not quite matter here, whether sat means ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ does not matter here, it is the syntax we examine right now.
Not to not-truth but to truth, make me go.
Not to darkness but to light, make me go.
Not to mortality, but to not-mortality, make me go.
Why the double negative in the first line? Perhaps there are many opposites and alternatives to truth, untruth is just one of them. It seems to me that in this line, the speaker is rejecting all alternatives to truth including distortions, half-truths, misunderstandings, etc. If truth has many opposites and alternatives, the speaker accepts none of them. By contrast, in the second line, the speaker seems more definite, seems to know what is tamas, and how jyotiḥ is the desirable goal. The third line reverses the template. Here, the negative is not applied to the starting point but to the end-goal. Not to death but to not-death make me go. The petitioner has some idea of what is truth and light, so she can ask for it, but she has no clue to what might be the alternative to death, so she has to ask for it in the negative: amṛtam.
It is interesting when we see how the verse has been explained in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (henceforth, BaU). In the BaU, the mantra is quoted and then explained, but as an integral whole rather than as a collection of three distinct wishes, the first two lines are explained in terms of the third line. I use Patrick Olivelle’s translation here— Olivelle translates asat and sat as ‘unreal’ and ‘real,’ and tamas and jytotiḥ as ‘darkness’ and ‘light.’
“The unreal is death, and the real is immortality— so, when he says, “From the unreal lead me to the real,” what he is really saying is: “From death lead me to immortality,” in other words, “Make me immortal.” Darkness is death, and light is immortality— so when he says, “From the darkness lead me to thelight,” what he is really saying is: “From death lead me to immortality,” inother words, “Make me immortal.” In the statement, “From death lead me to immortality,” there is nothing obscure.” (45)
When we read the BaU,we also realize that this is a time and age where sat (whether real/truth/existence), and jyotiḥ (light) require explanation, but amṛtam (deathlessness? not-mortality? immortality? ambrosia?) does not, it seems to be a particular world or known state.
The next paragraph makes it even more clear that amṛtam is an assured location. Today, we may think of death as giving up a location, but in the paragraph that follows, we will see how amṛtam becomes an alternative location, another world. Here is Olivelle’s translation (and note, an Udgātṛ priest is one who sings the Sāmaveda).
“He may, further, procure a supply of food for himself by singing the remaining lauds. When he is singing them, therefore,he should choose as a reward anything he may desire. An Udgātṛ priest who has this knowledge is able to procure by his singing whatever he desires, either for himself or for the patron of the sacrifice. Now this is true world conquest. When a man knows that Sāman in this way, there is no fear of his being left without a world.” (45)
Today, explanations of this verse tend to present the three lines as three distinct requests: ‘From ignorance, lead me to truth. From darkness, lead me to light. From death, lead me to immortality. Oṃ peace, peace, peace.’ On the Amritapuri website, each of these lines is referred to as a mantra: “first mantra,” “second mantra,” and “third mantra,” and the distinctions between the lines do not matter: “The essence of each of these three mantras is the same.” Instead, when we go back to the BaU we see how it explains each of the lines in terms of the final line, and the abstract ideas of the first two lines are anchored to the concrete location of the world of amṛtam.
Oṃ shantiḥ shantiḥ shantiḥ
- Olivelle, Patrick. The Early Upaniṣads—Annotated Text and Translation. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
- Amritapuri official website. Accessed 9th September 2015. <http://www.amritapuri.org/3731/asatoma.aum>