A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1932 | 241,887 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of avyakta and brahman: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the fifth part in the series called the “the philosophy of the bhagavad-gita”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

The word avyakta is primarily used in the Gītā in the sense of “the unmanifested.” Etymologically the word consists of two parts, the negative particle a meaning “negation,” and vyakta meaning “manifested,” “differentiated” or “revealed.” In this sense the word is used as an adjective. There is another use of the word in the neuter gender (avyaktam), in the sense of a category. As an illustration of the first sense, one may refer to the Gītā, 11. 25 or viii. 21. Thus in 11. 25 the self is described as the unmanifested; unthinkable and unchangeable.

In the Upaniṣads, however, it is very unusual to characterize the self as avyakta or unmanifested; for the self there is pure consciousness and self-manifested. In all later Vedāntic works the self is described as anubhūti-svabhāva, or as being always immediately intuited. But in the Gītā the most prominent characteristic of the self is that it is changeless and deathless; next to this, it is unmanifested and unthinkable. But it does not seem that the Gītā describes the self as pure consciousness. Not only does it characterize the self as avyakta or unmanifested, but it does not seem anywhere to refer to it as a self-conscious principle.

The word cetanā, which probably means consciousness, is described in the Gītā as being a part of the changeable kṣetra, and not the kṣetra-jña[1]. It may naturally be asked how, if the self was not a conscious principle, could it be described as kṣetra-jña (that which knows the kṣetra)? But it may well be replied that the self here is called kṣetra-jña only in relation to its kṣetra , and the implication would be that the self becomes a conscious principle not by virtue of its own inherent principle of consciousness, but by virtue of the principle of consciousness reflected or offered to it by the complex entity of the kṣetra. The kṣetra contains within it the conscious principle known as cetanā , and it is by virtue of its association with the self that the self appears as kṣetra-jña or the knower.

It may not be out of place here to mention that the term kṣetra is never found in the Upaniṣads in the technical sense in which it is used in the Gītā. The term kṣetra-jña , however, appears in Śvetāśvatara, vi. 16 and Maitrāyaṇa, 11. 5 in the sense of puruṣa, as in the Gītā. The term kṣetra, however, as used in the Gītā, has more or less the same sense that it has in Caraka’s account of Sāṃkhya in the Caraka-saṃhitā, ill. 1.61-63. In Caraka, however, avyakta is excluded from the complex constituent kṣetra, though in the Gītā it is included within the constituents of kṣetra. Caraka again considers avyakta (by which term he means both the Sāṃkhya prakṛti and the puruṣa) as kṣetra-jña, whereas the Gītā takes only the puruṣa as kṣetra-jña. The puruṣa of the Gītā is further characterized as the life-principle (jīva-bhūta, VII. 5 and XV. 7) by which the whole world is upheld.

The Gītā does not, however, describe in what particular way the life-principle upholds the world. In Caraka’s account also the ātman is referred to as the life-principle, and it is held there that it is the principle which holds together the buddhi, the senses, the mind and the objects—it is also the principle for which good, bad, pleasure, pain, bondage, liberation, and in fact the whole world-process happens. In the Caraka-saṃhitā puruṣa is regarded as cetanā-dhātu , or the upholder of consciousness ; yet it is not regarded as conscious by itself. Consciousness only comes to it as a result of the joint operation of manas, the senses, the objects, etc. In the Gītā puruṣa is not regarded as the cetanā-dhātu, but cetanā or consciousness is regarded as being a constituent of the kṣetra over which the puruṣa presides. Thus knowledge can accrue to puruṣa as kṣetra-jña, only in association with its ksetra. It may well be supposed that puruṣa as kṣetra-jña and as a life-principle upholds the constituents of the kṣetra , and it is probable that the puruṣa’ś position as a cognizer or knower depends upon this intimate association between itself and the kṣetra.

Another relevant point is suggested along with the considerations of the nature of the puruṣa as the cognizer, namely, the consideration of the nature of puruṣa as an agent (kartṛ). It will be pointed out in another section that the fruition of actions is rendered possible by the combined operations of adhiṣṭhāna , kartṛ , kāraṇa , ceṣṭā and daiva , and this doctrine has been regarded as being a Sāṃkhya doctrine, though it has been interpreted by Śaṅkara as being a Vedāntic view. But both Sāṃkhya and the Vedānta theories are explicitly of the sat-kārya-vāda type. According to the sat-kārya-vāda of the traditional Sāṃkhya philosophy the fruition of actions is the natural result of a course of unfolding evolution, consisting in the actualization of what was already potentially present. On the Vedāntic sat-kārya-vāda view all operations are but mere appearances, and the cause alone is true. Neither of these doctrines would seem to approve of a theory of causation which would imply that anything could be the result of the joint operation of a number of factors. That which is not cannot be produced by the joint operation of a collocation of causes. It may be remembered, however, that the Gītā explicitly formulates the basic principle of sat-kārya-vāda , that what exists cannot be destroyed and that what does not exist cannot ctime into being.

This principle was applied for proving the deathless character of the self. It is bound to strike anyone as very surprising that the Gītā should accept the sat-kārya-vāda doctrine in establishing the immortality of the self and should assume the a-sat-kārya-vāda doctrine regarding the production of action. It is curious, however, to note that a similar view regarding the production of action is to be found in Caraka’s account of Sāṃkhya, where it is said that all actions are produced as a result of a collocation of causes— that actions are the results of the collocation of other entities writh the agent (kartṛ)[2].

The word avyakta is also used in the sense of “unknowability” or “disappearance” in the Gītā , n. 28, where it is said that the beginnings of all beings are invisible and unknown; it is only in the middle that they are known, and in death also they disappear and become unknown. But the word avyakta in the neuter gender means a category which is a part of God Himself and from which all the manifested manifold world has come into being. This avyakta is also referred to as a prakṛti or nature of God, which, under His superintendence, produces the moving and the unmoved—the entire universe[3]. But God Himself is sometimes referred to as being avyakta (probably because He cannot be grasped by any of our senses), as an existence superior to the avyakta , which is described as a part of His nature, and as a category from which all things have come into being[4]. This avyakta which is identical with God is also called akṣara , or the immortal, and is regarded as the last resort of all beings who attain their highest and most perfect realization. Thus there is a superior avyakta , which represents the highest essence of God, and an inferior avyakta, from which the world is produced. Side by side with these two avyaktas there is also the prakṛti, which is sometimes described as a coexistent principle and as the māyā or the blinding power of God, from which the guṇas are produced.

The word “Brahman” is used in at least two or three different senses. Thus in one sense it means prakṛti, from which the guṇas are produced. In another sense it is used as an essential nature of God. In another sense it means the Vedas. Thus in the Gītā, III. i 5, it is said that the sacrificial duties are derived from Brahman (Vedas). Brahman is derived from the eternal; therefore the omnipresent Brahman is always established in the sacrifices[5]. The idea here is that, since the Vedas have sprung from the eternal Brahman, its eternal and omnipresent character is transmitted to the sacrifices also. The word “omnipresent” (sarva-gata) is probably used in reference to the sacrifices on account of the diverse and manifold ways in which the sacrifices are supposed to benefit those who perform them.

In the Gītā, IV. 32, also the word “Brahman” in Brahmaṇo rnukhe is used to denote the Vedas. But in iv. 24 and 25, where it is said that all sacrifices are to be made with the Brahman as the object and that the sacrificial materials, sacrificial fire, etc. are to be looked upon as being Brahman, the word “Brahman” is in all probability used in the sense of God[6]. In v. 6, 10, 19 also the word “Brahman” is used in the sense of God or Īśvara; and in most of the other cases the word is used in the sense of God. But according to the Gītā the personal God as īśvara is the supreme principle, and Brahman, in the sense of a qualityless, undifferentiated ultimate principle as taught in the Upaniṣads, is a principle which, though great in itself and representing the ultimate essence of God, is nevertheless upheld by the personal God or īśvara. Thus, though in viii. 3 and x. 12 Brahman is referred to as the differenceless ultimate principle, yet in xiv. 27 it is said that God is the support of even this ultimate principle, Brahman. In many places we also hear of the attainment of Brahmahood (brahma-bhūta, v. 24, vi. 27, xvm. 54, or brahma-bhūya, xiv. 26), and also of the attainment of the ultimate bliss of Brahman (Brahma-Nirvāṇa, 11. 72, v. 24, 25, 26). The word brahma-bhūta does not in the Gītā mean the differenceless merging into oneness, as in the Vedānta of Śaṅkara. It is wrong to think that the term “Brahman” is always used in the same sense in which Śaṅkara used it.

The word “Brahman” is used in the sense of an ultimate differenceless principle in the Upaniṣads, and the Upaniṣads were apprized by all systems of Hindu thought as the repository of all sacred knowledge. Most systems regarded the attainment of a changeless eternal state as the final goal of realization. As an illustration, I may refer to the account of Sāṃkhya given by Caraka, in which it is said that, when a man gives up all attachment and mental and physical actions, all feelings and knowledge ultimately and absolutely cease. At this stage he is reduced to Brahmahood (brahma-bhūta), and the self is no longer manifested. It is a stage which is beyond all existence and which has no connotation, characteristic or mark[7]. This state is almost like a state of annihilation, and yet it is described as a state of Brahmahood.

The word “Brahman” was appropriated from the Upaniṣads and was used to denote an ultimate superior state of realization, the exact nature of which differed with the different systems. In the Gītā also we find the word “Brahman” signifying a high state of self-realization in which, through a complete detachment from all passions, a man is self-contented within himself and his mind is in a perfect state of equilibrium. In the Gītā, v. 19, Brahman is defined as the faultless state of equilibrium (nirdoṣaṃ hi samaṃ brahma), and in all the verses of that context the sage who is in a state of equanimity and equilibrium through detachment and passionlessness is said to be by virtue thereof in Brahman; for Brahman means a state of equanimity. In the Gītā, xm. 13, Brahman is described as the ultimate object of knowledge, which is beginningless, and cannot be said to be either existent or non-existent (na sat tan nāsad ucyate).

It is said that this Brahman has His hands and feet, eyes, head, mouth and ears everywhere in the world, and that He envelopes all. He is without senses, but He illuminates all sense-qualities; Himself unattached and the upholder of all, beyond the guṇas , He is also the enjoyer of the guṇas. He is both inside and outside of all living beings, of all that is moving and that is unmoved. He is both near and far, but unknowable on account of His subtle nature. Being one in many, yet appearing as many, the upholder of all living beings, the devourer and overpowerer of all, He is the light of all light, beyond all darkness, He is both knowledge and the object of knowledge, residing in the heart of all. It is easy to see that the whole concept of Brahman, as herein stated, is directly borrowed from the Upaniṣads. Towards the end of this chapter it is said that he who perceives the many living beings as being in one, and realizes everything as an emanation or elaboration from that, becomes Brahman.

But in the next chapter Kṛṣṇa as God says,

“I am the upholder of the immortal and imperishable Brahman of absolute bliss and of the eternal dharma .”

In the Gītā, xiv. 26, it is said that

“he who worships me unflinchingly through devotion, transcends all guṇas and becomes Brahman.”

It has just been remarked that the Gītā recognizes two different kinds of avyaktas. It is the lower avyakta nature of God which has manifested itself as the universe; but there is a higher avyakta, which is beyond it as the eternal and unchangeable basis of all. It seems very probable, therefore, that Brahman is identical with this higher avyakta. But, though this higher avyakta is regarded as the highest essence of God, yet, together with the lower avyakta and the selves, it is upheld in the super-personality of God.

The question whether the Gītā is a Sāṃkhya or a Vedānta work, or originally a Sāṃkhya work which was later on revised, changed, or enlarged from a Vedānta point of view, need not be elaborately discussed here. For, if the interpretation of the Gītā , as given herein, be accepted, then it will be evident that the Gītā is neither a Sāṃkhya work nor a Vedānta work. It has been pointed out that the word sāṃkhya , in the Gītā , does not mean the traditional Sāṃkhya philosophy, as found in īśvarakṛṣṇa’s Kārikā. But there are, no doubt, here the scattered elements of an older philosophy, from which not only the Sāṃkhya of īśvarakṛṣṇa or the Saṣṭi-tantra (of which īśvarakṛṣṇa’s work was a summary) developed, but even its earlier version, as found in Caraka’s account, could be considered to have developed. There is no doubt that the Gītā’s account of Sāṃkhya differs materially from the Sāṃkhya of the Saṣṭi-tantra or of īśvarakṛṣṇa, from the Sāṃkhya of Caraka, from the Sāṃkhya of Pañcaśikha in the Mahā-bhārata and from the Sāṃkhya of Patañjali and the Vyāsa-bhāṣya.

Ordinarily the Sāṃkhya of Patañjali is described as a theistic Sāṃkhya (seśvara-sāṃkhya) ; but the īśvara of Patañjali is but loosely attached to the system of Sāṃkhya thought as expounded in Yoga. The īśvara there appears only as a supernormal, perfect being, who by his permanent will removes the barriers in the path of the evolution of prakṛti in accordance with the law of karma. He thus merely helps the fulfilment of the teleology of the blind prakṛti. But in the Gītā both the puruṣas and the root of the cosmic nature are but parts of God, the super-person {puruṣottama ). The prakṛti, from which the guṇas which have only subjectivistic characteristics are derived, is described as the māyā power of God, or like a consort to Him, who, being fertilized by His energies, produces the guṇas.

The difference of the philosophy of the Gītā from the various schools of Sāṃkhya is very evident. Instead of the one prakṛti of Sāṃkhya we have here the three prakṛtis of God. The guṇas here are subjectivistic or psychical, and not cosmical. It is because the Gītā admits a prakṛti which produces the subjectivistic guṇas by which the puruṣas are bound with ties of attachment to their experiences, that such a prakṛti could fitly be described as guṇamayī māyā (māyā consisting of guṇas). The puruṣas , again, though they are many, are on the whole but emanations from a specific prakṛti (divine nature) of God. The puruṣas are not stated in the Gītā to be of the nature of pure intelligence, as in the Sāṃkhya; but the cognizing element of consciousness (cetanā) is derived from another prakṛti of God, which is associated with the puruṣa. It has also been pointed out that the Gītā admits the sat-kārya-vāda doctrine with reference to immortality of the self, but not with reference to the fruition of actions or the rise of consciousness. The Sāṃkhya category of tan-mātra is missing in the Gītā , and the general teleology of the prakṛti of the Sāṃkhya is replaced by the super-person of God, who by his will gives a unity and a purpose to all the different elements that are upheld within Him.

Both the Sāṃkhya of Kapila and that of Patañjali aim at securing, either through knowledge or through Yoga practices, the final loneliness of the translucent puruṣas. The Gītā , however, is anxious to secure the saintly equanimity and a perfect, unperturbed nature by the practice of detachment of the mind from passions and desires. When such a saintly equanimity and self-contentedness is achieved, the sage is said to be in a state of liberation from the bondage of ^wwa-attachments, or to be in a state of Brahmahood in God. The philosophy of the Gītā thus differs materially from the traditional Sāṃkhya philosophy on almost every point. On some minor points (e.g. the absence of tan-mātras , the nature of the production of knowledge and action, etc.) the Gītā philosophy has some similarities with the account of the Sāṃkhya given in the Caraka-saṃhitā, iv. i, as already described in the first volume of this work[8].

The question whether the Gītā was written under a Vedāntic influence cannot be answered, unless one understands what is exactly meant by this Vedāntic influence; if by Vedāntic influence one means the influence of the Upaniṣads, then the Gītā must plainly be admitted to have borrowed very freely from the Upaniṣads, which from the earliest times had been revered for their wisdom. If, however, by Vedāntic influence one means the philosophy of Vedānta as taught by Śaṅkara and his followers, then it must be said that the Gītā philosophy is largely different therefrom. It has already been pointed out that, though Brahman is often described in Upaniṣadic language as the highest essence of God, it is in reality a part of the super-personality of God. The Gītā, moreover, does not assert anywhere that Brahman is the only reality and all else that appears is false and unreal. The word māyā is, no doubt, used in the Gītā in three passages; but its meaning is not what Śaṅkara ascribes to it in his famous interpretation of Vedāntic thought. Thus in the Gītā , vii. 14, māyā is described as being of the nature of guṇas , and it is said that he who clings to God escapes the grip of the māyā or of the guṇas.

In the Gītā , vii. 15, the word māyā is also probably used in the same sense, since it is said that it is ignorant and sinful men who, through demoniac ideas, lose their right wisdom under the influence of māyā and do not cling to God. In all probability, here also māyā means the influence of rajas and tamas ; for it has been repeatedly said in the Gītā that demoniac tendencies are generated under the preponderating influence of rajas and tamas. In the Gītā , xvm. 61, it is said that God resides in the heart of all living beings and moves them by māyā , like dolls on a machine. It has been pointed out that the psychical tendencies and moral or immoral propensities which move all men to action are produced under the influence of the guṇas , and that God is the ultimate generator of the guṇas from the prakṛti. The māyā , therefore, may well be taken here to mean guṇas , as in the Gītā , vii. 14. Śrīdhara takes it to mean the power of God. The guṇas are, no doubt, in a remote sense, powers of God. But Śaṅkara’s paraphrasing of it as deception (chadmanā) is quite inappropriate.

Thus it is evident that the Gītā does not know the view that the world may be regarded as a manifestation of māyā or illusion. It has also been pointed out that the word “Brahman” is used in the Gītā in the sense of the Vedas, of faultless equanimity, of supreme essence and of prakrti, which shows that it had no such crystallized technical sense as in the philosophy of Śaṅkara. The word had in the Gītā all the looseness of Upaniṣadic usage. In the Gītā the word avidyā, so famous in Śaṅkara’s philosophy of the Vedānta, is nowhere used. The word ajñāna is used several times (v. 15, 16; x. 11; xm. 11; xiv. 8, 16, 17; xvi. 4); but it has no special technical sense in any of these passages. It has the sense of “ignorance” or “misconception,” which is produced by tamas (ajñānam tamasaḥ phalam, xiv. 16) and which in its turn produces tamas (tamas tv ajñāna-jaṃ viddhi, xiv. 8).

Footnotes and references:


Gītā, XIII. 7.


Caraka-saṃhitā, iv. i. 54.


mayādhyakṣeṇa prakṛtiḥ sūyate sacarācaram.
ix. 10


Ibid. viii. 20 and viii. 21; also ix. 4, where it is said,

“All the world is pervaded over by me in my form as avyakta; all things and all living beings are in me, but I am not exhausted in them.”


Gītā, iii. 15.


Śrīdhara, in interpreting this verse (iv. 24), explains it by saying,

tad evam parameśvarārādhana-lakṣaṇaṃ karma jñāna-hetutvena bandhakatvābhāvād akar-maiva.


niḥsṛtaḥ sarva-bhavebḥyaś cihnaṃ yasya na vidyate.
iv. 1. 153.


A History of Indian Philosophy, vol. 1, 1922, pp. 213-222.

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