A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

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

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

The earliest and most recondite treatment regarding the nature and existence of God and His relation to man is to be found in the Gītā. The starting-point of the Gītā theism may be traced as far back as the Puruṣa-sūkta, where it is said that the one quarter of the puruṣa has spread out as the cosmic universe and its living beings, while its other three-quarters are in the immortal heavens[1]. This passage is repeated in Chāndogya, ill. 12. 6 and in Maitrāyaṇī, vi. 4, where it is said that the three-quarter Brahman sits root upward above (ūrdhva-mūlaṃ tripād Brahma). This idea, in a slightly modified form, appears in the Katha Upaniṣad, vi. 1, where it is said that this universe is the eternal Aśvattha tree which has its root high up and its branches downwards (ūrdhva-mūlo ’vāk-śākhaḥ).

The Gītā borrows this idea and says,

“This is called the eternal Aśvattha (pipul tree) with its roots high up and branches downwards, the leaves of which are the Vedas; and he who knows this, he knows the Vedas”

(xv. i).

Again it is said,

“Its branches spread high and low,its leaves of sense-objects are nourished by the guṇas, its roots are spread downwards, tied with the knots of karma, the human world”

(xv. 2);

and in the next verse, it is said,

“In this world its true nature is not perceived; its beginning, its end, and the nature of its subsistence, remain unknown; it is only by cutting this firmly rooted Aśvattha tree with the strong axe of unattachment (asaṅga-śastreṇa) that one has to seek that state from which, when once achieved, no one returns.”

It is clear from the above three passages that the Gītā has elaborated here the simile of the Aśvattha tree of the Katha Upaniṣad. The Gītā accepts this simile of God, but elaborates it by supposing that these branches have further leaves and other roots, which take their sap from the ground of human beings, to which they are attached by the knots of karma. This means a duplication of the Aśvattha tree, the main and the subsidiary. The subsidiary one is an overgrowth, which has proceeded out of the main one and has to be cut into pieces before one can reach that. The principal idea underlying this simile throws a flood of light on the Gītā conception of God, which is an elaboration of the idea of the Puruṣa-sūkta passage already referred to. God is not only immanent, but transcendent as well. The immanent part, which forms the cosmic universe, is no illusion or māyā: it is an .emanation, a development, from God.

The good and the evil, the moral and the immoral of this world, are all from Him and in Him. The stuff of this world and its manifestations have their basis, an essence, in Him, and are upheld by Him. The transcendent part, which may be said to be the root high up, and the basis of all that has grown in this lower world, is itself the differenceless reality—the Brahman. But, though the Brahman is again and again referred to as the highest abode and the ultimate realization, the absolute essence, yet God in His super-personality transcends even Brahman, in the sense that Brahman, however great it may be, is only a constitutive essence in the complex personality of God.

The cosmic universe, the guṇas, the puruṣas , the mind-structure composed of buddhi, ahaṃkāra, etc., and the Brahman, are all constituents of God, having their separate functions and mental relations; but God in His super-personality transcends them all and upholds them all. There is, however, one important point in which the Gītā differs from the Upaniṣads—this is, its introduction of the idea that God takes birth on earth as man.

Thus in the Gītā , iv. 6 and iv. 7, it is said that

“whenever there is a disturbance of dharma and the rise of adharma, I create myself; though I am unborn, of immortal self and the lord of all beings, yet by virtue of my own nature {prakṛti ) I take birth through my own māyā (blinding power of the guṇas)

This doctrine of the incarnation of God, though not dealt with in any of the purely speculative systems, yet forms the corner-stone of most systems of religious philosophy and religion, and the Gītā is probably the earliest work available to us in which this doctrine is found. The effect of its introduction and of the dialogue form of the Gītā, in which the man-god Kṛṣṇa instructs Arjuna in the philosophy of life and conduct, is that the instruction regarding the personality of God becomes concrete and living.

As will be evident in the course of this section, the Gītā is not a treatise of systematic philosophy, but a practical course of introduction to life and conduct, conveyed by God Himself in the form of Kṛṣṇa to His devotee, Arjuna. In the Gītā abstract philosophy melts down to an insight into the nature of practical life and conduct, as discussed with all the intimacy of the personal relation between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna, which suggests a similar personal relation between God and man. For the God in the Gītā is not a God of abstract philosophy or theology, but a God who could be a man and be capable of all personal relations.

The all-pervasive nature of God and the fact that He is the essence and upholder of all things in the world is again and again in various ways emphasized in the Gītā.

Thus Kṛṣṇa says,

“There is nothing greater than I, all things are held in me, like pearls in the thread of a pearl garland; I am the liquidity in water, the light of the sun and the moon, manhood (pauruṣa) in man; good smell in earth, the heat of the sun, intelligence in the intelligent, heroism in the heroes, strength in the strong, and I am also the desires which do not transgress the path of virtue[2].”

Again, it is said that

“in my unmanifested (avyakta) form I pervade the whole world; all beings exist completely in me, but I am not exhausted in them; yet so do I transcend them that none of the beings exist in me—I am the upholder of all beings, I do not exist in them and yet I am their procreator[3].”

In both these passages the riddle of God’s relation with man, by which He exists in us and yet does not exist in us and is not limited by us, is explained by the fact of the threefold nature of God; there is a part of Him which has been manifested as inanimate nature and also as the animate world of living beings.

It is with reference to this all-pervasive nature of God that it is said that

“as the air in the sky pervades the whole world, so are all beings in ‘me’ (God). At the end of each cycle (kalpa) all beings enter into my nature (prakṛtiṃ yānti māmikām), and again at the beginning of a cycle I create them. I create again and again through my nature (prakrti) ; the totality of all living beings is helplessly dependent on prakṛti?[4].”

The three prakṛtis have already been referred to in the previous sections— prakṛti of God as cosmic matter, prakṛti as the nature of God from which all life and spirit have emanated, and prakṛti as māyā , or the power of God from which the three guṇas have emanated. It is with reference to the operation of these prakṛtis that the cosmic world and the world of life and spirit may be said to be existent in God. But there is the other form of God, as the transcendent Brahman, and, so far as this form is concerned, God transcends the sphere of the universe of matter and life. But in another aspect of God, in His totality and superpersonality, He remains unexhausted in all, and the creator and upholder of all, though it is out of a part of Him that the world has come into being.

The aspect of God’s identity with, and the aspect of His transcendence and nature as the father, mother and supporter of the universe, are not separated in the Gītā , and both the aspects are described often in one and the same passage.

Thus it is said,

“I am the father, mother, upholder and grandfather of this world, and I am the sacred syllable OM, the three Vedas, Rk, Sāman and Yajus; I am the sacrifice, the oblations and the fire, and yet I am the master and the enjoyer of all sacrifices. I am the final destiny, upholder, matter, the passive illuminator, the rest, support, friend, the origin, the final dissolution, the place, the receptacle and the immortal seed. I produce heat and shower, I destroy and create, I am both death and the deathless, the good and the bad[5].”

With reference to His transcendent part it is said,

“The sun, the moon and fire do not illuminate it—it is my final abode, from which, when once achieved, no one returns[6].”

And again, immediately after, it is said,

“It is my part that forms the eternal soul-principle (jīva-bhūta) in the living, which attracts the five senses and the manas which lie buried in prakṛti , and which takes the body and goes out of it with the six senses, just as air takes out fragrance from the flowers[7].”

And then God is said to be the controlling agent of all operations in this world. Thus it is said,

“By my energy I uphold the world and all living beings and fill all crops with their specific juices; as fire in the bodies of living beings, and aided by the biomotor prāṇa functions, I digest the four kinds of food; I am the light in the sun, the moon and fire.”

Again it is said,

“I reside in the hearts of all; knowledge, forgetfulness and memory all come from me; I alone am to be known by the Vedas; I alone know the Vedas, and I alone am the author of the Vedānta[8].”

From these examples it is evident that the Gītā does not know that pantheism and deism and theism cannot well be jumbled up into one as a consistent philosophic creed. And it does not attempt to answer any objections that may be made against the combination of such opposite views. The Gītā not only asserts that all is God, but it also again and again repeats that God transcends all and is simultaneously transcendent and immanent in the world. The answer apparently implied in the Gītā to all objections to the apparently different views of the nature of God is that transcendentalism, immanentalism and pantheism lose their distinctive and opposite characters in the melting whole of the super-personality of God. Sometimes in the same passage, and sometimes in passages of the same context, the Gītā talks in a pantheistic, a transcendental or a theistic vein, and this seems to imply that there is no contradiction in the different aspects of God as preserver and controller of the world, as the substance of the world, life and soul, and as the transcendent substratum underlying them all. In order to emphasize the fact that all that exists and all that is worthy of existence or all that has a superlative existence in good or bad are God’s manifestation, the Gītā is never tired of repeating that whatever is highest, best or even worst in things is God or God’s manifestation.

Thus it is said,

“I am the gambling of dice in all deceptive operations, I am victory in all endeavours, heroism of the heroes and the moral qualities (sattva) of all moral men (sattvavatām)”;

and after enumerating a number of such instances Kṛṣṇa says that, wherever there are special gifts or powers or excellence of any kind, they are to be regarded as the special manifestation of God[9]. The idea that God holds within Himself the entire manifold universe is graphically emphasized in a fabulous form, when Kṛṣṇa gives Arjuna the divine eye of wisdom and Arjuna sees Kṛṣṇa in his resplendent divine form, shining as thousands of suns burning together, with thousands of eyes, faces and ornaments, pervading the heavens and the earth, with neither beginning nor end, as the great cosmic person into whose mouths all the great heroes of Kurukṣetra field had entered, like rivers into the ocean.

Kṛṣṇa, after showing Arjuna his universal form, says,

“I am time (kāla), the great destroyer of the world, and I am engaged in collecting the harvest of human lives, and all that will die in this great battle of Kurukṣetra have already been killed by me; you will be merely an instrument in this great destruction of the mighty battle of Kurukṣetra. So you can fight, destroy your enemies, attain fame and enjoy the sovereignty without any compunction that you have destroyed the lives of your kinsmen.”

The main purport of the Gītā view of God seems to be that ultimately there is no responsibility for good or evil and that good and evil, high and low, great and small have all emerged from God and are upheld in Him. When a man understands the nature and reality of his own self and its agency, and his relation with God, both in his transcendent and cosmic nature, and the universe around him and the guṇas of attachment, etc., which bind him to his worldly desires, he is said to have the true knowledge. There is no opposition between the path of this true knowledge (jñāna-yoga) and the path of duties; for true knowledge supports and is supported by right performance of duties. The path of knowledge is praised in the Gītā in several passages. Thus it is said, that just as fire bums up the wood, so does knowledge reduce all actions to ashes. There is nothing so pure as knowledge. He who has true faith is attached to God, and he who has controlled his senses, attains knowledge, and having attained it, secures peace. He who is foolish, an unbeliever, and full of doubts, is destroyed. He who is always doubting has neither this world, nor the other, nor does he enjoy any happiness. Even the worst sinner can hope to cross the sea of sins in the boat of knowledge[10].

In the Gītā , iv. 42, Kṛṣṇa says to Arjuna,

“Therefore, having destroyed the ignorance of your heart by the sword of knowledge, and having cut asunder all doubts, raise yourself up.”

But what is this knowledge? In the Gītā, iv. 36, in the same context, this knowledge is defined to be that view of things by which all beings are perceived in this self or God. The true knowledge of God destroys all karma in the sense that he who has perceived and realized the true nature of all things in God cannot be attached to his passions and desires as an ignorant man would be. In another passage, already referred to, it is said that the roots of the worldly Aśvattha tree are to be cut by the sword of unattachment. The confusion into which Arjuna falls in the Gītā, m. 1 and 2, regarding the relative excellence of the path of karma and the path of knowledge is wholly unfounded. Kṛṣṇa points out in the Gītā, 111.3, that there are two paths, the path of knowledge and the path of duties (jñāna-yoga and karma-yoga). The confusion had arisen from the fact that Kṛṣṇa had described the immortality of soul and the undesirability of Vedic actions done with a motive, and had also asked Arjuna to fight and yet remain unattached and perform his duty for the sake of duty.

The purpose of the Gītā was to bring about a reconciliation between these two paths, and to show that the path of knowledge leads to the path of duties by liberating it from the bonds of attachment; for all attachment is due to ignorance, and ignorance is removed by true knowledge. But the true knowledge of God may be of a twofold nature. One may attain a knowledge of God in His transcendence as Brahman, and attain the philosophic wisdom of the foundation of all things in Brahman as the ultimate substance and source of all manifestation and appearance. There is another way of clinging to God as a super-person, in a personal relation of intimacy, friendship and dependence. The Gītā admits that both these ways may lead us to the attainment of our highest realization. But it is the latter which the Gītā prefers and considers easier. Thus the Gītā says (xii. 3-5) that those who adore the indefinable, unchangeable, omnipresent, unthinkable, and the unmanifested, controlling all their senses, with equal eyes for all and engaged in the good of all, by this course attain Him. Those who fix their mind on the unmanifested (avyakta) find this course very hard. But those who dedicate all their actions to God and, clinging to Him as their only support, are devoted to Him in constant communion, them He saves soon from the sea of death and rebirth[11].

The most important point in which the Gītā differs from the Upaniṣads is that the Gītā very strongly emphasizes the fact that the best course for attaining our highest realization is to dedicate all our actions to God, to cling to Him as our nearest and dearest, and always to be in communion with Him. The Gītā draws many of its ideas from the Upaniṣads and looks to them with respect. It accepts the idea of Brahman as a part of the essence of God, and agrees that those who fix their mind on Brahman as their ideal also attain the high ideal of realizing God. But this is only a compromise; for the Gītā emphasizes the necessity of a personal relation with God, whom we can love and adore. The beginning of our association with God must be made by dedicating the fruits of all our actions to God, by being a friend of all and sympathetic to all, by being self-controlled, the same in sorrow or happiness, self-contented, and in a state of perfect equanimity and equilibrium. It is through such a moral elevation that a man becomes apt in steadying his mind on God and ultimately in fixing his mind on God. In the Gītā Kṛṣṇa as God asks Arjuna to give up all ceremonials or religious courses and to cling to God as the only protector, and He promises that because of that God will liberate him[12]. Again, it is said that it is by devotion that a man knows what God is in reality and, thus knowing Him truly as He is, enters into Him. It is by seeking entire protection in God that one can attain his eternal state[13].

But, though in order to attain the height at which it is possible to fix one’s mind on God, one should first acquire the preliminary qualification of detaching oneself from the bonds of passions and desires, yet it is sometimes possible to reverse the situation. The Gītā thus holds that those whose minds and souls are full of God’s love, who delight in constantly talking and thinking of God and always adore God with love, are dear to Him, and God, through His great mercy and kindness, grants them the proper wisdom and destroys the darkness of their ignorance by the light of knowledge[14]. In the Gītā, xviii. 57-58, Kṛṣṇa as God asks Arjuna to leave all fruits of actions to God and to fill his mind with God, and He assures him that He will then, by His divine grace, save him from all sorrows, troubles or difficulties. Again, in ix. 30-32 it is said that, even if a man is extremely wicked, if he adores God devotedly, he becomes a saint; for he has adopted the right course, and he soon becomes religious and attains eternal peace of mind. Even sinner’s, women, Vaiśyas and Śūdras who cling to God for support, are emancipated.

Kṛṣṇa as God assures Arjuna that a devotee (bhakta) of God can never be lost[15]. If a man clings to God, no matter whether he has understood Him rightly or not, no matter whether he has taken the right course of approaching Him or not, God accepts him in whichever way he clings to Him. No one can be lost. In whichever way one may be seeking God, one is always in God’s path[16]. If a man, prompted by diverse desires, takes to wrong gods, then even unto those gods God grants him true devotion, with which he follows his worship of those gods, and, even through such worship, grants him his desires[17].

God is the Lord of all and the friend of all beings. It is only great-souled men who with complete constancy of mind worship God, and with firm devotion repeat the name of God, and, being always in communion with Him, adore Him with devotion. God is easily accessible to those who always think of God with inalienable attachment[18]. In another passage (vii. 16, 17) it is said that there are four classes of people who adore God: those who are enquiring, those who are in trouble, those who wish to attain some desired things, and those who are wise. Of these the wise (jñānin), who are always in communion with Him and who are devoted to Him alone, are superior; the wise are dear to Him and He is dear to them.

In this passage it has been suggested that true wisdom consists in the habit of living in communion with God and in being in constant devotion to God. The path of bhakti, or devotion, is thus praised in the Gītā as being the best. For the Gītā holds that, even if a man cannot proceed in the normal path of self-elevation and detach himself from passions and desires and establish himself in equanimity, he may still, simply by clinging to God and by firm devotion to Him, bring himself within the sphere of His grace, and by grace alone acquire true wisdom and achieve that moral elevation, with little or no struggle, which is attained with so much difficulty by others. The path of bhakti is thus introduced in the Gītā , for the first time, as an independent path side by side with the path of wisdom and knowledge of the Upaniṣads and with the path of austere self-discipline.

Moral elevation, self-control, etc. are indeed regarded as an indispensable preliminary to any kind of true self-realization. But the advantage of the path of devotion (bhakti) consists in this, that, while some seekers have to work hard on the path of self-control and austere self-discipline, either by constant practice or by the aid of philosophic wisdom, the devotee makes an easy ascent to a high elevation—not because he is more energetic and better equipped than his fellow-workers in other paths, but because he has resigned himself completely to God; and God, being pleased with his devotees who cling fast to Him and know nothing else, grants them wisdom and raises them up through higher and higher stages of self-elevation, self-realization and bliss. Arjuna treated Kṛṣṇa, the incarnation of God on earth, as his friend, and Kṛṣṇa in the role of God exhorted him to depend entirely on Him and assured him that He would liberate him—He was asking him to give up everything else and cling to Him as his only support. The Gītā lays down for the first time the corner-stone of the teachings of the Bhāgavata-purāṇa and of the later systems of Vaiṣṇava thought, which elaborated the theory of bhakti and described it as the principal method of self-elevation and self-realization.

Another important feature of the Gītā doctrine of devotion consists in the fact that, as, on the one hand, God is contemplated by His devotees in the intimate personal relation of a father, teacher, master and friend, with a full consciousness of His divinity and His nature as the substratum and the upholder of the entire animate and inanimate cosmic universe, so, on the other hand, the transcendent personality of God is realized not only as the culmination of spiritual greatness and the ultimate reconciliation of all relative differences, of high and low, good and bad, but as the great deity, with a physical, adorable form, whom the devotee can worship not only mentally and spiritually, but also externally, with holy offerings of flowers and leaves. The transcendent God is not only immanent in the universe, but also present before the devotee in the form of a great deity resplendent with brightness, or in the personal form of the man-god Kṛṣṇa, in whom God incarnated Himself. The Gītā combines together different conceptions of God without feeling the necessity of reconciling the oppositions or contradictions involved in them. It does not seem to be aware of the philosophical difficulty of combining the concept of God as the unmanifested, differenceless entity with the notion of Him as the super-person Who incarnates Himself on earth in the human form and behaves in the human manner.

It is not aware of the difficulty that, if all good and evil should have emanated from God, and if there be ultimately no moral responsibility, and if everything in the world should have the same place in God, there is no reason why God should trouble to incarnate Himself as man, when there is a disturbance of the Vedic dharma. If God is impartial to all, and if He is absolutely unperturbed, why should He favour the man who clings to Him, and why, for his sake, overrule the world-order of events and in his favour suspend the law of karma ? It is only by constant endeavours and practice that one can cut asunder the bonds of karma. Why should it be made so easy for even a wicked man who clings to God to release himself from the bonds of attachment and karma, without any effort on his part? Again, the Gītā does not attempt to reconcile the disparate parts which constitute the complex super-personality of God.

How are the unmanifested or avyakta part as Brahman, the avyakta part as the cosmic substratum of the universe, the prakṛti part as the producer of the guṇas , and the prakṛti part as the jīvas or individual selves, to be combined and melted together to form a complex personality ? If the unmanifested nature is the ultimate abode (paraṃdhāma) of God, how can God as a person, who cannot be regarded as a manifestation of this ultimate reality, be considered to be transcendent? How can there be a relation between God as a person and His diverse nature as the cosmic universe, jīva and the guṇas ? In a system like that of Śaṅkara Brahman and Īśvara, one and the many could be combined together in one scheme, by holding Brahman as real and Īśvara and the many as unreal and illusory, produced by reflection of Brahman in the māyā, the principle of illusoriness. But, howsoever Śaṅkara might interpret the Gītā , it does not seem that it considered Īśvara or the world as in the least degree illusory. In the Upaniṣads also the notion of Īśvara and the notion of Brahman are sometimes found side by side. As regards God as Īśvara, the Gītā not only does not think him to be illusory, but considers him the highest truth and reality. Thus there is no way of escaping from any of the categories of reality— the two azyaktas, prakṛti, jīva and the super-personality of Īśvara comprehending and transcending them all.

The concepts of Brahman, jīva , the unmanifested category from which the world proceeds, and the guṇas are all found in the Upaniṣads in passages which are probably mostly unrelated. But the Gītā seems to take them all together, and to consider them as constituents of Īśvara, which are also upheld by Him in His superior form, in which He transcends and controls them all. In the Upaniṣads the doctrine of bhakti can hardly be found, though here and there faint traces of it may be perceived. If the Upaniṣads ever speak of Īśvara, it is only to show His great majesty, power and glory, as the controller and upholder of all. But the Gītā is steeped in the mystic consciousness of an intimate personal relation with God, not only as the majestic super-person, but as a friend who incarnates Himself for the good of man and shares his joys and sorrows with him, and to whom a man could cling for support in troubles and difficulties and even appeal for earthly goods. He is the great teacher, with whom one can associate oneself for acquisition of wisdom and the light of knowledge. But He could be more than all this.

He could be the dearest of the dear and the nearest of the near, and could be felt as being so intimate, that a man could live simply for the joy of his love for Him; he could cling to Him as the one dear friend, his highest goal, and leave everything else for Him; he could consider, in his deep love for Him, all his other religious duties and works of life as being relatively unimportant; he could thus constantly talk of Him, think of Him, and live in Him. This is the path of bhakti or devotion, and the Gītā assures us that, whatever may be the hindrances and whatever may be the difficulties, the bhakta (devotee) of God cannot be lost. It is from the point of view of this mystic consciousness that the Gītā seems to reconcile the apparently philosophically irreconcilable elements. The Gītā was probably written at a time when philosophical views had not definitely crystallized into hard-and-fast systems of thought, and when the distinguishing philosophical niceties, scholarly disputations, the dictates of argument, had not come into fashion. The Gītā , therefore, is not to be looked upon as a properly schemed system of philosophy, but as a manual of right conduct and right perspective of things in the light of a mystical approach to God in self-resignation, devotion, friendship and humility.

Footnotes and references:


pādo ’sya viśvā bhūtāni
tripād asyāmṛtaṃ divi.


Gītā, vii. 7-11.


Gītā , IX. 3-5.


Ibid. IX. 6-8.


Ibid. ix. 16-19, 24.


Gītā , xv. 6.


Ibid. xv. 7 and 8 . It is curious that here the word Īśvara is used as an epithet of jīva.


Ibid. xv. 8, 12, 13, 14, 15.


Gītā, x. 36-41.


Gītā, IV. 37-41.


Gītā, XII. 6, 7.


Ibid. XVIII. 66.


Ibid. XVIII. 55, 62.


Ibid. X. 9-11.


Gītā, IX. 30-32.


Ibid. IV. 11.


Ibid. VII. 20-22.


Ibid. IV. 13-15; V. 29; VII. 14.

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