Originally presented to the Committee on the Study of Religion, at the University of California at Los Angeles.


I ATTEMPT IN THIS PAPER to clarify certain essential teachings of the Bhagavad-gita that are traditionally "zones of puzzlement" among scholars. These concern a single point: the nature and status of God, Krsna, according to the Gita. My strong conviction is that the Gita itself is a lucid, self-explanatory work, and therefore the occasional practice of commentators to force on it extraneous doctrines often renders the text obscure where it is bright, esoteric where it is literal, and impersonal where it is intensely personal. I am operating here on an ancient principle which holds that certain Vedic  (I use Vedic here in the widespread Indian sense to mean the original Vedas, Brahmanas, and Upanisads, as well as the religiously authoritative classic literature such as the Puranas and Itihasas.) literatures are svatah-pramanyam, literally "evident in or by themselves." As stated in the Bhavisya-purana, "The Rg Veda, Sama Veda, Atharva Veda, Mahabharata, Pancaratra, and original Ramayana are all considered by authorities to be Veda. The knowers also know that those Puranas dedicated to Lord Visnu enjoy the same status. These literatures are self-evident, and there is nothing at all to speculate about them."  (rg-yajuh-samatharvas ca bharatam pancaratrakam mula-ramayanam caiva veda ity eva sabditah puranani ca yaniha vaisnavani vido viduh svatah-pramanyam etesam natra kincid vicaryate (Vedanta-sutra 2.1.6) puranani ca yaniha vaisnavani vido viduh svatah-pramanyam etesam natra kincid vicaryate)


I should note at once that this principle does not do away with intellectual response to the scriptures. Rather it is a call for sober practices for understanding, in which we first struggle to comprehend a scriptural message on its own terms, through careful study of its internal structures of meaning.

We get some historical flavor of this methodology by turning to a fascinating theological debate that took place almost five hundred years ago in Benares between Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of Gaudiya Vaisnavism, and Prakasananda Sarasvati, a leading Sankarite sannyasi of the time. After hearing Prakasananda's interpretation of Vedanta-sutra, Sri Caitanya Mahapra-bhu replied, "The Veda is evident by itself. It is the crown jewel of all evidence. When it is interpreted, the self-evident quality is lost."  (svatah-pramana veda pramana-siromani laksana karile svatah-pramanata-hani (Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi-lila, 7.132))

The quality of self-evidence mentioned here is especially apparent, in my view, in the Bhagavad-gita, which is part of the Mahabharata. I have therefore selected five specific areas, vital to the Gita's message, that are especially prone to misinterpretation, and I have attempted to demonstrate from the Gita itself the consistent and self-evident view of the speaker, Lord Sri Krsna, especially as He describes Himself.

The first topic is the Gita's strong monotheism, in which the many gods of the Hindu pantheon are sharply relegated to the status of subordinate servitors to the Supreme Lord. The second topic is that of the separate individuality of Krsna as God, distinct from, and transcendental to, the individual entities, who are tiny expansions of the Lord. Third is Krsna's standing as the supreme controller. The fourth subject is the delicate issue of monism. I show that despite certain statements in the Gita to the effect that "Krsna is everything," there is nothing like a bald monistic doctrine in the Gita. Finally, fifth, I argue from the Bhagavad-gita itself that Krsna comes to this world in a spiritual, eternal form, and not a material body, such as those we inhabit.

As mentioned above, these five topics ineluctably lead to a single conclusion: that the real and final topic of the Bhagavad-gita is Krsna Himself, who is inseparably related, and yet eternally transcendental, to the individual souls, of whom we are specimens. This doctrine of bhedabheda-tattva, or the inconceivable, simultaneous difference and nondifference of the Lord and the individual souls, is Sri Caitanya's reading of theBhagavad-gita, and Vedic literature in general.

I have included the topic that Krsna is the controller to drive home the point that the Godhead being talked about in the Bhagavad-gita is not a vague, wispy Deity whose true ineffable status is but indirectly hinted at by the hierarchical language of mortals. Completely to the contrary, we have in the Gita a full-blown expression of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent Supreme Lord, commanding, and even poignantly entreating, the individual souls enmeshed in maya to return to Him in His divine abode.

I call this paper "The Start of an Exploration of Meaning" because the constraints of time and space have permitted only an introductory statement about the Godhead as He is conceived in the Bhagavad-gita. In fact, the points I make here are amplified by the rest of the Bhagavad-gita. At the very least, I hope this paper will stimulate the reader to investigate the Gita as far as possible on its own terms. There are certainly esoteric passages in religious scriptures, including the Vedic books. But the guiding Vedic principle is that we should interpret only that which is ambiguous, that which plainly calls for explication of hidden meanings. There are many such statements in the Sanskrit scriptures, but the fundamental message, the central theme is generally clear.

The verses quoted here are all my own translations, unless otherwise indicated, and I have given great stress on literal accuracy in their rendering. I have endeavored to avoid, thereby, unfounded flights of poetic inspiration, and dubious constructions devised to legitimate tentative insights. My conclusions reflect what I have learned from the Bhagavad-gita As It Is (The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, Los Angeles, 1989), whose translation and purports are the unique devotional scholarship of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

The point of view here is clearly in the tradition of Sripada Madhvacarya, Sripada Ramanujacarya, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, and other illustrious Vaisnava scholars, who opposed the monistic interpretation of Sripada Sankaracarya and those in his line. In a sense, one gets here a glimpse of a millennial theological debate in action.

1. There Is One God

In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krsna declares Himself to be the Supreme Godhead, and He specifically asserts His supremacy over the well-known gods or demigods of the Vedic and Hindu pantheon. Indeed, Krsna is the source of all the other gods that inhabit the cosmos,  (aham adir hi devanam (10.2)) for He is the source of all that exists.  (aham sarvasya prabhavah (10.8)) Thus those who worship other gods are ultimately worshiping Krsna, the source and sustainer of those gods.  (ye 'py anya-devata-bhakta yajante sraddhayanvitah te 'pi mam eva kaunteya yajanty avidhi-purvakam (9.23)) Similarly, although the gods may accept offerings from their worshipers, the gods themselves are acting as mere agents of the Supreme God who is the ultimate enjoyer of all types of sacrifice.  (aham hi sarva-yajnanam bhokta ca prabhur eva ca (9.24)) An ignorant worshiper of the demigods who does not clearly recognize this supremacy of the Godhead falls to a lower status of life.  (na tu mam abhijananti tattvenatas cyavanti te (9.24))

The demigods cannot award ultimate liberation, since those who attain to their worlds fall again to the mortal earthly realm when their pious merit is exhausted.  (te tam bhuktva svarga-lokam visalam ksine punye martya-lokam visanti (9.21)) This impermanence holds true not only for the planet of Indra, surendra-loka (9.20), or svarga-loka (9.21), but indeed for all the worlds within the material cosmos, including that of the creator, Brahma.  (a-brahma-bhuvanal lokah punar-avartino 'rjuna (8.16)) It is only in the world of the Supreme God, Krsna, that one finds the eternal abode, going to which one never returns to take birth in the material world.  (yad gatva na nivartante tad dhama paramam mama (15.6) yam prapya na nivartante tad dhama paramam mama (8.21) mam upetya tu kaunteya punar janma na vidyate (8.16))

Further evidence of the temporary position of the gods is given in the eleventh chapter of the Gita. The cosmic form, which the Lord therein displays, is revealed to be Krsna's form and power of Time  (kalo 'smi (11.32)) and even the hosts of gods, are overwhelmed and astonished, and enter within Time's destructive power. (11.21-22)

Lord Krsna is also absolutely superior to the gods in cognitive powers. In all respects, Krsna is the origin of the gods. Hence they cannot understand Krsna's origin.  (na me viduh sura-ganah prabhavam na maharsayah aham adir hi devanam maharsinam ca sarvasah (10.2)) Indeed, He is beginningless. Not only the gods but the entire universe is bewildered by the modes of nature and thus does not recognize or understand Krsna, who is beyond those modes.  (tribhir guna-mayair bhavair ebhih sarvam idam jagat mohitam nabhijanati mam ebhyah param avyayam (7.13)) It is only because of the bewildering influence of the material modes upon the conditioned souls that they worship other gods at all.  (yajante sattvika devan yaksa-raksamsi rajasah pretan bhuta-ganams canye yajante tamasa janah (17.4))

The omniscience of Krsna is superlatively causal, since Krsna is the source of everyone's memory, knowledge, and forgetting.  (sarvasya caham hrdi sannivisto mattah smrtir jnanam apohanam ca (15.15)) Indeed Krsna knows the past, present, and future of all beings, but no one, in the material world, knows Him in truth.  (vedaham samatitani vartamanani carjuna bhavisyani ca bhutani mam tu veda na kascana (7.26)) In fact, so much are the living beings dependent on Krsna, that even their faith in other gods must be supplied by Krsna.  (yo yo yam yam tanum bhaktah sraddhayarcitum icchati tasya tasyacalam sraddham tam eva vidadhamy aham (7.21)) And the results awarded by those gods are actually given by Krsna alone, of whom the gods are but agents.  (labhate ca tatah kaman mayaiva vihitan hi tan (7.22))

As Krsna is prior to the gods and absolutely superior in powers of being and cognition, so too is the result of worshiping Him eternal life in the Lord's abode, clearly distinguished from the temporary results derived from worshiping all other powerful beings: "Men of small intelligence worship the demigods, and their fruits are limited and temporary. Those who worship the demigods go to the demigods, but My devotees come to Me."  (antavat tu phalam tesam tad bhavaty alpa-medhasam devan deva-yajo yanti mad-bhakta yanti mam api (7.23)) Similarly: "Those sworn to the gods go to the gods; those sworn to the forefathers go to the forefathers; worshipers of ghostly spirits go to such spirits; but those who worship Me go to Me."  (yanti deva-vrata devan pitrn yanti pitr-vratah bhutani yanti bhutejya yanti mad-yajino 'pi mam (9.25))

In view of this fundamental distinction between Krsna and the gods, and their respective powers to reward their worshipers, only those whose intelligence is stolen by lust worship the gods and neglect the Supreme Godhead.  (kamais tais tair hrta-jnanah prapadyante 'nya-devatah (7.20)) And as stated above, even the temporary fruits awarded by the gods are really provided by Krsna alone. (labhate ca tatah kaman mayaiva vihitan hi tan (7.22))

Thus there is nothing at all beyond Krsna;  (mattah parataram nanyat kincid asti dhananjaya (7.7)) He is the great Lord of all the worlds;  (sarva-loka-mahesvaram (5.29)) and He is the creator and sustainer of everything.  (sarvasya dhataram (8.9)) Within the Gita, Arjuna glorifies Krsna as the Supreme Brahman, the Supreme Abode, the Supreme Purifier, the Supreme Divine Person.  (param brahma param dhama pavitram paramam bhavan purusam sasvatam divyam … (10.12)) Krsna is the God of the gods,  (deva-deva (10.15)) and He is the origin of the gods.  (adi-devam (10.12) tvam adi-devah (11.38)) Krsna is the primeval Person.  (purusah puranah (11.38)) Arjuna further affirms that no one is equal to or greater than Krsna.  (na tvat-samo 'sty abhaydhikah kuto anyah (11.43))

The Lord ends His teaching in the Gita by urging Arjuna to abandon all other duties (dharman) and take shelter of Krsna alone: sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja. (18.66) Thus the monotheistic thrust of the Gita is neither vague nor occasional, and, as shown later in this paper, apparent suggestions of monism do not compromise the overwhelming conclusion: the absolute supremacy of Krsna.

Arjuna certainly understands Krsna to be the Supreme Lord. When asked if he has understood the Lord's teachings, he replies: "My illusion is gone … I shall execute Your instructions."  (nasto mohah … karisye vacanam tava (18.73))

2. Krsna And The Individual Souls Are Distinct Entities

As Lord Krsna is eternally the Supreme Person, so the individual souls are, of logical necessity, eternally distinct from and subordinate to the Lord:

"Never did I not exist, nor you, nor all these kings. Nor shall we not exist, all of us, for ever after."  (na tv evaham jatu nasam na tvam neme janadhipah na caiva na bhavisyamah sarve vayam atah param (2.12))

Here Krsna clearly states that "all of us" (sarve vayam) He, Arjuna, and all the assembled kings will exist forever, just as they always existed at all times in the past. Indeed, never was there a time when we did not exist. In the previous verse, Krsna chided Arjuna for taking the body to be the self. Similarly, in the verse immediately following, Krsna will describe the soul as dehi, the owner of the body, different from deha, the body. Indeed the entire first half of the second chapter of the Bhagavad-gita makes it clear that our real identity is eternal soul and not the body. Thus, having said that a learned person (pandita) sees the soul, and not the body, as primary, surely Krsna is speaking of the real person, the soul, as He begins to explain to Arjuna the fundamental nature of the world. After all, how can the Lord be apandita, or foolish? Thus it is the real Krsna, the eternal Krsna, and the real Arjuna, the eternal Arjuna, who have always existed and always will exist. And all of us, says Krsna, will continue to exist in the future.

Similarly, later in the Gita, we find the following:

"There are two [classes of] beings in this world, the perishable and the imperishable. All created forms are perishable, but a soul who stands at the summit is imperishable.

"The Supreme Person, however, is another, and He is declared to be the Supersoul. It is that inexhaustible Lord who has entered the three worlds and sustains them.

"Because I am beyond the perishable beings, and greater even than the imperishable, I am thus celebrated in this world, and in the Vedas, as the Supreme Person. One who knows Me in this way to be the Supreme Person is a knower of everything, and he worships Me with all his heart." (15.16-19)

These four verses of the Gita offer many significant lessons. Krsna has defined the term purusottama to mean the Supreme Person who stands beyond the conditioned souls entangled in the snare of maya and even beyond the highest soul (that is, beyond the liberated soul who stands at the highest point of spiritual perfection). Indeed Monier-Williams in his Oxford Sanskrit dictionary describes kuta-sthah as the pure soul standing on the unchanging, spiritual platform. Since Krsna emphatically declares that the purusottama is beyond even the liberated soul, we can hardly translate purusa here as "man" or anything indicative of a material position, since this would not even apply to the kuta-sthah or the liberated soul, and what to speak of the Supreme Person who stands far beyond such a pure soul. Krsna uses the word api, "even," to make explicit that He is "beyond even the liberated soul." In other words, it is not the Gita's philosophy that one becomes Krsna, or equal to Krsna, by spiritual liberation. A normal reader would not question that Krsna is beyond the conditioned soul, but here the Lord emphasizes by the world api that He is beyond even the liberated soul who stands at the summit of spiritual perfection.

The finality of this understanding of the supreme personal individuality of Krsna is confirmed at 15.19, wherein Krsna states that one who understands Him in this way (evam) as the Supreme Person (purusottama) is the knower of everything (sarva-vit) and worships the Lord with all his heart.  (… bhajati mam sarva-bhavena bharata (15.19)) In other words, Krsna explicitly rejects the notion that realization of the personal feature of the Lord is a mere prelude to an eventual impersonal understanding.

Earlier in the fifteenth chapter, Krsna states that the living being in this world is eternally a fragmental part (amsa) of the Lord.  (mamaivamso jiva-loke jiva-bhutah sanatanah (15.7)) The soul is further said to be indivisible  (acchedyo 'yam (2.24)) and so the fragmental status is not effectuated in time, but is a pre-eternal, never-ending fact. (na tv evaham jatu nasam na tvam neme janadhipah na caiva na bhavisyamah sarve vayam atah param (2.12)) As Lord Krsna simply puts it, God is not one of the ordinary living beings, nor even one of the liberated souls, rather, "the Supreme Person is someone else. … "  (uttamah purusas tv anyah (15.17))

We have already demonstrated that Krsna claims to be absolutely cognizant and the source of all other cognition. He makes the same claim in the thirteenth chapter, where He introduces the terms ksetra, "the field" (i.e. the body) and ksetra-jna, "the knower of the field" (i.e. the soul who is conscious of the body). The Lord concludes this discourse by asserting that although each soul is the knower of his field, i.e. his particular body, "I am the knower of all fields," meaning all bodies.  (ksetra-jnam capi mam viddhi sarva-ksetresu bharata (13.3))

In the same thirteenth chapter, Krsna describes both the individual soul and the Lord as purusa persons but the contrast is striking. The individual soul is a purusa, but he is (a) "situated in material nature," (b) "trying to enjoy the material qualities," and thus (c) compelled by his attachments to those qualities to take birth in high and low species of bodily encagement.  (purusah prakrti-stho hi bhunkte prakrti-jan gunan karanam guna-sango 'sya sad-asad-yoni-janmasu (13.22)) (40)

In the very next verse, the Lord describes Himself also as purusa, but the difference between the two purusas could not be more clear, for Krsna is said to be the supreme or transcendental purusah (purusah parah). The use of the adjective parah to denote the supreme purusa is significant, for this word not only entails the notion of supremacy, but also a strong sense of "the other." Indeed, para is often used in Sanskrit to indicate the opposite of atma- or sva-, both of which indicate "self" or "one's own." In fact, atma in Sanskrit is the simple reflexive pronoun. In other words, para has the unequivocal sense here of the wholly other who is supreme. In this same verse, Lord Krsna also uses the term paramatma, describing Himself thus as the "Supreme Soul."

It should be noted that the adjective parama (used with atma to form paramatma), is almost identical to para in conveying supremacy, but that parama does not convey the sense of being the "other" in contrast to one's self. It is this wider term para that Krsna employs to distinguish Himself, as purusa, from the ordinary purusa who is struggling vainly to exploit the Lord's material creation. Thus the Gita's claim that the individual soul is eternally distinct from the Supreme Soul is a strong one, and not a vague or esoteric articulation.

The Lord is also said to be the maintainer of the living beings.  (sarva-bhrc caiva (13.15)) It is natural that the Lord maintain the living beings, for they are stated in the Gita to be the Lord's own energy: "Besides the material nature, there is another superior energy of Mine. Know it to be the living being … "  (apareyam itas tv anyam prakrtim viddhi me param jiva-bhutam … (7.5)) The living being trapped in the clutches of maya, the Lord's illusory material energy, can escape her control only by surrendering to the Lord. He cannot escape by his own autonomous decision or endeavor.  (daivi hy esa guna-mayi mama maya duratyaya mam eva ye prapadyante mayam etam taranti te (7.14))

(Continued in the next issue.)