A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

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

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

The Gītā is probably the earliest document where a definite statement is made regarding the imperishable nature of existent things and the impossibility of that which is non-existent coming into being. It says that what is non-existent cannot come into being, and that what exists cannot cease to be. In modern times we hear of the principle of the conservation of energy and also of the principle of the conservation of mass. The principle of the conservation of energy is distinctly referred to in the Vyāsa-bhāṣya on Patañjali-sūtra, iv. 3, but the idea of the conservation of mass does not seem to have been mentioned definitely anywhere. Both the Vedāntist and the Sāṃkhyist seem to base their philosophies on an ontological principle known as sat-kārya-vāda , which holds that the effect is already existent in the cause.

The Vedānta holds that the effect as such is a mere appearance and has no true existence; the cause alone is truly existent. The Sāṃkhya, on the other hand, holds that the effect is but a modification of the causal substance, and, as such, is not non-existent, but has no existence separate from the cause; the effect may therefore be said to exist in the cause before the starting of the causal operation (kāraṇa-vyāpāra).

Both these systems strongly object to the Buddhist and Nyāya view that the effect came into being out of non-existence, a doctrine known as a-sat-kārya-vāda. Both the Sāṃkhya and the Vedānta tried to prove their theses, but neither of them seems to have realized that their doctrines are based upon an a priori proposition which is the basic principle underlying the principle of the conservation of energy and the conservation of mass, but which is difficult to be proved by reference to a posteriori illustration. Thus, the Sāṃkhya says that the effect exists in the cause, since, had it not been so, there would be no reason why certain kinds of effects, e.g. oil, can be produced only from certain kinds of causes, e.g. sesamum. That certain kinds of effects are produced only from certain kinds of causes does not really prove the doctrine of sat-kārya-vāda , but only implies it; for the doctrine of sat-kārya-vāda rests on an a priori principle such as that formulated in the Gītā —that what exists cannot perish, and that what does not exist cannot come into being[1].

The Gītā does not try to prove this proposition, but takes it as a self-evident principle which no one could challenge. It does not, however, think of applying this principle, which underlies the ontological position of the Sāṃkhya and the Vedānta, in a general way. It seems to apply the principle only to the nature of self (ātman).

Thus it says,

“O Arjuna, that principle by which everything is pervaded is to be regarded as deathless; no one can destroy this imperishable one. The bodies that perish belong to the deathless eternal and unknowable self; therefore thou shouldst fight. He who thinks the self to be destructible, and he who thinks it to be the destroyer, do not know that it can neither destroy nor be destroyed. It is neither born nor does it die, nor, being once what it is, would it ever be again.... Weapons cannot cut it, fire cannot burn it, water cannot dissolve it and air cannot dry it.”

The immortality of self preached in the Gītā seems to have been directly borrowed from the Upaniṣads, and the passages that describe it seem to breathe the spirit of the Upaniṣads not only in idea, but also in the modes and expressions. The ontological principle that what exists cannot die and that what is not cannot come into being does not seem to have been formulated in the Upaniṣads. Its formulation in the Gītā in support of the principle of immortality seems, therefore, to be a distinct advance on the Upaniṣadic philosophy in this direction.

The first argument urged by Kṛṣṇa to persuade Arjuna to fight was that the self was immortal and that it was the body only that could be injured or killed, and that therefore Arjuna need not feel troubled because he was going to kill his kinsmen in the battle of Kurukṣetra. Upon the death of one body the self only changed to another, in which it was reborn, just as a man changed his old clothes for new ones. The body is always changing, and even in youth, middle age and old age, does not remain the same. The change at death is also a change of body, and so there is no intrinsic difference between the changes of the body at different stages of life and the ultimate change that is effected at death, when the old body is forsaken by the spirit and a new body is accepted. Our bodies are always changing, and, though the different stages in this growth in childhood, youth and old age represent comparatively small degrees of change, yet these ought to prepare our minds to realize the fact that death is also a similar change of body only and cannot, therefore, affect the unperturbed nature of the self, which, in spite of all changes of body at successive births and rebirths, remains unchanged in itself. When one is born one must die, and when one dies one must be reborn. Birth necessarily implies death, and death necessarily implies rebirth. There is no escape from this continually revolving cycle of birth and death.

From Brahmā down to all living creatures there is a continuous rotation of birth, death and rebirth. In reply to Arjuna’s questions as to what becomes of the man who, after proceeding a long way on the path of yoga, is somehow through his failings dislodged from it and dies, Kṛṣṇa replies that no good work can be lost and a man who has been once on the path of right cannot suffer; so, when a man who was proceeding on the path of yoga is snatched away by the hand of death, he is born again in a family of pure and prosperous people or in a family of wise yogins; and in this new birth he is associated with his achievements in his last birth and begins anew his onward course of advancement, and the old practice of the previous birth carries him onward, without any effort on his part, in his new line of progress. By his continual efforts through many lives and the cumulative effects of the right endeavours of each life the yogin attains his final realization. Ordinarily the life of a man in each new birth depends upon the desires and ideas that he fixes upon at the time of his death. But those that think of God, the oldest instructor, the seer, the smallest of the small, the upholder of all, shining like the sun beyond all darkness, and fix their life-forces between their eyebrows, and control all the gates of their senses and their mind in their hearts, ultimately attain their highest realization in God.

From the great Lord, the great unmanifested and incomprehensible Lord, proceeds the unmanifested (avyakta), from which come out all manifested things (vyaktayah sarvāḥ), and in time again return to it and again evolve out of it. Thus there are two forms of the unmanifested (avyakta), the unmanifested out of which all the manifested things come, and the unmanifested which is the nature of the eternal Lord from whom the former come[2]. The ideas of deva-yāna and pitṛ-yāna, dakṣiṇāyana and uttarāyaṇa, the black and the white courses as mentioned in the Upaniṣads, are also referred to in the Gītā. Those who go through smoke in the new-moon fortnight and the later six months (when the sun is on the south of the equator), and thus take the black course, return again; but those who take the white course of fire in the full-moon fortnight and the former six months (when the sun is on the north of the equator) do not return again[3].

No very significant meaning can be made out of these doctrines. They seem to be but the perpetuation of the traditional faiths regarding the future courses of the dead, as referred to in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad. The Gītā , again, speaking of others, says that those who follow the sacrificial duties of the Vedas enjoy heavenly pleasures in heaven, and, when their merits are exhausted by the enjoyments of the good fruits of their actions, they come back to earth. Those who follow the path of desires and take to religious duties for the attainment of pleasures must always go to heaven and come back again—they cannot escape this cycle of going and coming.

Again, in the Gītā , xvi. 19, Kṛṣṇa says,

“I make cruel vicious persons again and again take birth as ferocious animals.”

The above summary of the eschatological views of the Gītā shows that it collects together the various traditionally accepted views regarding life after death without trying to harmonize them properly. Firstly, it may be noted that the Gītā believes in the doctrine of karma. Thus in xv. 2 and in tv 9 it is said that the world has grown on the basis of karma , and the Gītā believes that it is the bondage of karma that binds us to this world. The bondage of karma is due to the existence of attachment, passions and desires. But what does the bondage of karma lead to? The reply to such a question, as given by the Gītā , is that it leads to rebirth. When one performs actions in accordance with the Vedic injunctions for the attainment of beneficial fruits, desire for such fruits and attachment to these desirable fruits is the bondage of karma, which naturally leads to rebirth. The proposition definitely pronounced in the Gītā , that birth necessarily means death and death necessarily means birth, reminds us of the first part of the twelvefold causal chaiṇ of the Buddha—“What being, is there death? Birth being, there is death.” It has already been noticed that the attitude of the Gītā towards Vedic performances is merely one of toleration and not one of encouragement.

These are actions which are prompted by desires and, like all other actions similarly prompted, they entail with them the bonds of karma ; and, as soon as the happy effects produced by the merits of these actions are enjoyed and lived through, the performers of these actions come down from heaven to the earth and are reborn and have to pass through the old ordeal of life. The idea that, there being birth, there is death, and that, if there is death there is also rebirth, is the same in the Gītā as in Buddhism;but the Gītā form seems to be very much earlier than the Buddhistic form; for the Buddhistic form relates birth and death through a number of other causal links intimately connected together in an interdependent cycle, of which the Gītā seems to be entirely ignorant. The Gītā does not speak of any causal chain, such as could be conceived to be borrowed from Buddhism. It, of course, knows that attachment is the root of all vice; but it is only by implication that we can know that attachment leads to the bondage of karma and the bondage of karma to rebirth.

The main purpose of the Gītā is not to find out how one can tear asunder the bonds of karma and stop rebirth, but to prescribe the true rule of the performance of one’s duties. It speaks sometimes, no doubt, about cutting asunder the bonds of karma and attaining one’s highest; but instruction as regards the attainment of liberation or a description of the evils of this worldly life does not form any part of the content of the Gītā. The Gītā has no pessimistic tendency. It speaks of the necessary connection of birth and death not in order to show that life is sorrowful and not worth living, but to show that there is no cause of regret in such universal happenings as birth and death. The principal ideas are, no doubt, those of attachment, karma , birth, death and rebirth; but the idea of Buddhism is more complex and more systematized, and is therefore probably a later development at a time when the Gītā discussions on the subject were known. The Buddhist doctrine that there is no self and no individual anywhere is just the opposite of the Gītā doctrine of the immortality of the self.

But the Gītā speaks not only of rebirth, but also of the two courses, the path of smoke and the path of light, which are referred to in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad[4]. The only difference between the Upaniṣad account and that of the Gītā is that there are more details in the Upaniṣad than in the Gītā. But the ideas of deva-yāna and pitṛ-yāna do not seem to fit in quite consistently with the idea of rebirth on earth. The Gītā , however, combines the idea of rebirth on earth with the deva-yāna-pitṛ-yāna idea and also with the idea of ascent to heaven as an effect of the merits accruing from sacrificial performances. Thus the Gītā combines the different trains of ideas just as it finds them traditionally accepted, without trying to harmonize them properly. It does not attempt to discuss the point regarding the power of karma in determining the nature of rebirths, enjoyments and sufferings. From some passages (iv. 9 or vi. 40-45) it might appear that the bonds of karma produced their effects independently by their own powers, and that the arrangement of the world is due to the effect of karma. But there are other passages (xvi. 19) which indicate that karma does not produce its effects by itself, but that God rewards or punishes good and bad deeds by arranging good and bad births associated with joys and sorrows.

In the Gītā , V. 15, it is said that the idea of sins and virtues is due to ignorance, whereas, if we judge rightly, God does not take cognizance either of vices or of virtues. Here again there are two contradictory views of karma: one view in which karma is regarded as the cause which brings about all inequalities in life, and another view which does not attribute any value to good or bad actions. The only way in which the two views can be reconciled in accordance with the spirit of the Gītā is by holding that the Gītā does not believe in the objective truth of virtue or vice (puṇya or pāpa). There is nothing good or bad in the actions themselves. It is only ignorance and foolishness that regards them as good or bad; it is only our desires and attachments which make the actions produce their bad effects with reference to us, and which render them sinful for us. Since the actions themselves are neither good nor bad, the performance of even apparently sinful actions, such as the killing of one’s kinsmen on the battle-field, cannot be regarded as sinful, if they are done from a sense of duty; but the same actions would be regarded as sinful, if they were performed through attachments or desires.

Looked at from this point of view, the idea of morality in the Gītā is essentially of a subjective character. But though morality, virtue and vice, can be regarded from this point of view as subjective, it is not wholly subjective. For morality does not depend upon mere subjective conscience or the subjective notions of good and bad. The caste-duties and other duties of customary morality are definitely fixed, and no one should transgress them. The subjectivity of virtue and vice consists in the fact that they depend entirely on our good or bad actions. If actions are performed from a sense of obedience to scriptural commands, caste-duties or duties of customary morality, then such actions, in spite of their bad consequences, would not be regarded as bad.

Apart from these courses of rebirth and ascent to heaven, the last and best and ultimate course is described as being liberation, which transcends all that can be achieved by all kinds of merits attained by sacrifices, gifts or tapas. He who attains this highest achievement lives in God and is never born again[5]. The highest realization thus consists in being one with God, by which one escapes all sorrows. In the Gītā liberation (mokṣa) means liberation from old age and death. This liberation can be attained by true philosophic knowledge of the nature of kṣetra , or the mind-body whole, and the kṣetra-jña , the perceiving selves, or the nature of what is truly spiritual and what is non-spiritual, and by clinging to God as one’s nearest and dearest[6]. This liberation from old age and death also means liberation from the ties of karma associated with us through the bonds of attachment, desires, etc. It does not come of itself, as the natural result of philosophic knowledge or of devotion to God; but God, as the liberator, grants it to the wise and to those who cling to Him through devotion[7]. But whether it be achieved as the result of philosophic knowledge or as the result of devotion to God, the moral elevation, consisting of dissociation from attachment and the right performance of duties in an unattached manner, is indispensable.

Footnotes and references:


nāsato vidyate bhāvo nābhavo vidyate sataḥ
     Gītā, II. 16.


Gītā, VIII. 16-23.


Gītā, VIII. 24-26.


Chāndogya Upaniṣad, v. 10.


Gītā, viii. 28; ix. 4.


Ibid. vii. 29; xiii. 34


Ibid. xviii. 66.

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