Madhusudan on the Bhagavad Gita

The lecture this evening is on Madhusudan on the Bhagavad Gita. Madhusudan was one of the last great, the very great saints and philosophers of the Advaita Vedanta of Classical times. Our teacher said he stands unsurpassed, not only as a philosopher, but is one who had fully realized the Truth.  He wrote a commentary on the Gita, which has not yet been translated; but some few bits by the kindness of an expert have been translated. I would read you first his introduction to the Gita, which is in 40 verses.

He says, “Having studied with great care, the meaning of the commentary of Shankaracharya, I proceed to write this commentary, the lamp of the Gita’s mystic meaning which illumines almost every word.  The supreme end of man, of the nature of complete cessation of the condition of samsara, the world process, is the object declared by the Gita. That whole of the form of existence, consciousness, bliss is the highest state of the Lord, for attainment of which are undertaken the studies of the Vedas.

“Karma, action; bhakti, devotion; and jnana, knowledge – are the three successive paths and the Gita, with its 18 chapters, is in three parts accordingly. Each group of six chapters forms one section. The first is said to deal with the path of action, the last with the path of knowledge, and as these cannot be combined, being incompatible with each other, between them devotion to the Lord is proclaimed, which is compatible with both of them and is the remover of obstacles. It is of three kinds accompanied with karma, pure; accompanied with jnana, knowledge.

“In the first section of six chapters, the pure Self, Atman, is taught with reasoning as the meaning of the word, ‘Thou’ in the great sentence, ‘Thou Art That’. It is taught by the route of action and its renunciation.  In the second section, the Lord, the highest bliss, is shown to be the meaning of the word, ‘That’ in the great statement, ‘That Thou Art’, by the method of describing the path of devotion to the Lord.  In the third section, the identity of the two, ‘Thou’ and ‘That’ is clearly described as the final meaning of the sentence ‘That Thou Art’. This is the mutual interrelation of the three paths.  The particular application of it will be explained here and there, as we go along in each chapter of the Gita. What is now being explained is the analysis of the path of discipline for liberation as the final teaching of the Gita Shastra.

“First, application to unselfish action through renunciation of selfish action and forbidden acts. The highest forms of dharma, right action, must be carried out; recitation of the mantra, praise of the Lord. When the purified mind-stuff becomes fit for discrimination, then a very firm discrimination between what is eternal and what is not eternal is produced. Vairagya, indifference for objects in this world and the next, is the next stage, which is called by Patanjali, ‘vashita’.  Then, with the set of qualities – inner and outer control, endurance, contemplation, and faith – he’s able to engage in renunciation. From tyaga, renunciation of results of everything, a firm desire for liberation is born. Then approach to a teacher, then grasping the instruction. Then, for removal of doubts, the Vedantic shravana, hearing; manana, cogitation; and nididhyasana, meditation, is to be done.  Then by maturity of that, the Yoga teaching of Patanjali is fulfilled and completed here. Then, in that mind-stuff, free from defect, from the great sentence, ‘That Thou Art’, the conviction of tattva – truth about ‘That’, and ‘Thou’ – will come to be. A direct perception without mentation, nirvikalpa, arises from that scriptural word.

“On the rise of Knowledge, cessation of ignorance will follow. With the destruction of veiling, are destroyed error and doubt. The karmas, the actions and their dynamic seed impressions, which have not yet begun manifestation, perish altogether. As the result of knowledge of Truth, no future ones are created. But the impulse, vasana, from the projection by prarabda, the actions that have already been begun, does not perish. That is completely brought to rest by powerful samyam, being dharana, concentration; dhyana, contemplation; and samadhi, identity of contemplation.

“The fivefold discipline is prerequisite to its application. ‘From surrender to the Lord comes perfection in samadhi’, says Patanjali, ‘and quickly’. Then there can be the transcendence of the mind and of the latent impulses. Truth-knowledge, transcendence of mind, and of the latent impulses from the practice of these three simultaneously, jivan-mukti – liberation while living – becomes firm.

“It is for the sake of this, that the scripture mentions renunciation. Let there be effort to fulfil whatever path is incomplete. In the mind, first checked by savikalpa samadhi, samadhi with a mental operation, then will come nirvikalpa samadhi, samadhi without a mental operation.  Here, there are three stages. In the first stage, one breaks samadhi of his own accord; in the second, only when awoken from it by another; in the final stage, he does not turn away, but is ever engaged in it.

“He who has become That is the most excellent of the followers of Brahman. He is called One who has transcended the gunas, one established in wisdom, a devotee of the Lord, one who has transcended the stages of life, a jivanmukta, one rejoicing in the Self.  Because of his now having done all that was to be done, he is not under the authority of any shastra, scripture. He, whose devotion to God is supreme and to his teacher as to God, the things we have declared are achieved by that Mahatma and shine forth.

“Through the authority of the scriptural passages, we know that devotion to the Lord in body, mind and word is to be done at all the stages. The devotion which was done in the previous stage is what ushers in the next stage. Otherwise, from abundance of obstacles, the fruit of success is hardly to be had.  Says the Gita, ‘By that form of practice, he is borne on, even unwillingly. After many births, he is perfected.’ This is the Word of the Lord.

“Because the samskaras, impressions resulting from previous births are incalculable, it may be that someone becomes ‘one who has achieved all that is needed’ before completing all this discipline, unexpectedly. If so, because he has gained all that is needed by the grace of the Lord, it is admitted that the scripture is not intended for him. That would merely involve the practice of means to goals he had already attained.

“Hard to fathom is the grace of the Lord. Even when a previous stage has been obtained, for each later stage successively, devotion to the Lord is to be done. Without it, he does not succeed. In the liberated-while-living, jivan-mukti, state there is no expectancy of results of devotion. Their natural character, possessed of friendliness and the other qualities, is worship of the Lord. The munis rejoicing in their Self, free from ties, perform disinterested devotion to the Lord. Such are the virtues of the Lord. Of these the jnani, the knower, ever engaged in Yoga, devoted to the One, excels.  In such passages it is stated that such a loving devotee as this is the best.

“All this is made clear by the Lord, through the Gita’s scripture; therefore, I have a powerful impulse to make a commentary on it. Unselfish action is proclaimed to be the fundamental basis of liberation.  The asuric, demoniac, grief, and the others is a sin, an obstacle. From that grief comes falling away from one’s own duty and practise of what is forbidden. Action becomes preceded by planning for results and is done with egoism. The soul is possessed by sin. Unfit for attaining the end of humanity, he is visited by continuous suffering. Pain is naturally disliked by all beings in this world. Hence, sorrow and delusion are to be abandoned always, as leading to it. How can one get rid of this grief and delusion so hard to give up, which are the cause of pain and have been implanted by a beginningless series of births? Desiring to enlighten the man who has been seized by a desire of this kind and is intent on his true goal, the Lord has spoken out this supreme classic, the Gita.”

Then just in the planned form, I’ve written a summary of what was read. There are 18 chapters of the Gita, and although the whole truth is given in each chapter, traditionally, there is a main division intersection and the first six chapters, the main stress, says Shri Shankara and Shri Madhusudan following him, is on the karma-nishta – the man who takes his stand on action, who is devoted to act. This karma-yoga, this devotion to action, is described when it first appears in the commentary on Chapter 2, verse 39 as consisting of four elements.  It is worship of the Lord. It is killing the pairs of opposites – being dominated and demoralized by the pairs of opposites, such as heat and cold, pleasure and pain. Worship, killing the opposites, the third is unselfish work, and the fourth is practice of samadhi.  The other references where it’s also described in Chapter 4, verse 38, Chapter 12, verse 12, and sometimes in the 18th chapter.

This, then, is the first section of the Gita as described by Madhusudan. He says that in chapter 6, the vision of the pure Self, the tvam, Thou, the true nature of Thou, is achieved.  He describes it in terms of meditation according to Patanjali’s yoga, through the yogic process of meditation, preceded by unselfish service and worship. That leads finally to a perception of the pure Self, untouched by any of the attributes of body, mind, or matter or the world.  Pure Self as described by him is given as the Self, which is at the heart of every man, which is untouched and witnesses the movements of the body, of the vital forces of the mind, of the higher intellect. It witnesses them and defines something which is motionless and unmoving in the constant movement. The soul is pure and a witness, but Shri Shankara says, this is not the final illumination of Vedanta. This is what the yoga of Patanjali and the Sankhya aim at, to know a pure and unmoved witness in each man.

But Shri Shankara says in his Brahma Sutra commentary (2; 2; 7), “In Sankhya, the soul is pure and a witness, but that soul cannot put forth any energy; but in Vedanta, on the other hand, the highest Self is characterized by non-activity inherent in its own nature, but at the same time, by moving power inherent in maya.” This seems to be a contradiction. It is a contradiction, “characterized by non-activity inherent in its own nature, but at the same time, by moving power inherent in maya.”  The perception, ‘the direct vision’, Madhusudan calls it, “is nothing indirect, but a direct vision of the Thou.”

Then in the next section, he quotes Patanjali, “… or by devotion to the Lord.” Patanjali three times says the whole process for which he gives such elaborate instructions, and which is a graded discipline, “From devotion to the Lord comes perfection in this samadhi.”  Madhusudan quoted it in this introduction, “… or by devotion to the Lord.”  “The whole process can be achieved,” he says, “by the devotion done in one stage, the succeeding stage is ushered in. Without constant devotion, success is hardly to be had.” This then is the section on Bhakti, on devotion to the Lord. It culminates in Chapter 11 with a vision of the universal Lord, and this is the knowledge and direct vision of the true essence of the ‘That’.  That which is the Lord, which is the reality behind the Universe, hardly to be described in terms which our mind can understand.

Then third section is a unity of those two, the Tat’ and ‘Tvat’, the ‘That’ and the ‘Thou’, the pure Self, which seems to be within each man, but is in fact universal.  When those apparent limitations are discarded, he is one with the Lord who has been known by devotion. There’s an inquiry into the true essence and when that is known, the Yoga is characterized by the unity of jiva and paramatman. Unlimited direct perception arises out of the sentence, ‘That Thou Art’.

In his commentary on Chapter 2, 53, he says, “When a detachment from the world has arisen through purity of the mind – his intellect perplexed, by the various kinds of results from scriptures, whose true purport has not been well considered, distracted by contradiction of many doubts at a time – when, by perception of the defect, which is produced by discrimination born of purity, then you will come to give up your distraction. And then in samadhi – in the higher self, your intellect, buddhi – having left the distraction of waking and dreaming and having left the function of laya, of deep sleep or states of inertia: free from those three, waking, dream, or deep sleep or inertia, having given up these defects, then it will be in samadhi, and only then you will attain the unity of jiva, the individual, and paramatman, the supreme Self.

When your intellect becomes motionless – that is, loses its incredulity about false conceptions and has applied itself for long to the Self with acts of worship associated with reverence, continuity and active love – then it is no longer tainted by thoughts of anything else. It is established in the Self, motionless like a lamp in a windless place. At that time, you will attain the unity with the supreme Self.”

“This,” Shri Madhusudan says, “is based on Shri Shankara.”  We may say, “Well, in the yoga of Patanjali, three times it comes in here.”  But if we look carefully at the commentary of Shri Shankara, we’ll see 40 times in the Gita he refers to the practice of samadhi. Not once or twice or six times, but 40 times he explains Yoga, and its different grammatical forms, by samadhi and its different forms. And he actively defines Karma Yoga as four elements, one of which is practice of Samadhi. So Madhusudan, he is following his great teacher.

He says there must be a devotion to Tat, to That, as well as a discrimination of the pure witness. He says that the yoga of Patanjali only goes as far as discriminating the pure witness.  In the Brahma Sutra (2; 1; 3), Shankara says, “In spite of this part of the Yoga shastra being authoritative, there’s disagreement on other subjects and those other subjects are the universal Self – the unity of the essence of the individual self with the Universal Self – which Patanjali does not teach.  In the Vedanta, the soul enters into unity with the Infinite. On the doctrine of the non-difference of the essence of the individual soul and the highest Lord, the Vedanta texts insist again and again.”

Then in this section, Madhusudan says that this is devotion, and the essential point of devotion is that the mind should melt.  He gives eleven stages – a service of the great, of God and of the Lord’s devotees. Two, acquiring the grace of those great Ones.  Three, finding a taste for spiritual practice – he says there will be a taste, an inner delight in spiritual practice.  Then, practice of devotion – and then the mind will melt, but that melting must be in a state free from agitation and inertia.  The mind must melt, which means that the fixed habits and conceptions, which we have of ourselves will melt, so that changes can take place.

On the sixth stage, realization of the true nature of the individual, the true nature as distinguished from the gross and subtle bodies.  Next realization of identity between the true nature of jiva and the universal Self.  Then, beyond that realization, divine love is manifested in ever-increasing intensity, a direct revelation of the Lord, total absorption of the devotee in the Lord.  And then, manifestation of the majesty of the Lord in the devotee.  He says, “At the beginning of devotion, the form of the Lord of the mind remains indirect or rather suppressed, but gradually, through the intensity of practice, it comes up to the conscious mind and finally becomes directly manifested. While manifested, the form of the Lord completely destroys, from the mind, the forms of other objects.”

Now it’s often objected within this doctrine of devotion to the Lord as possessed of the many great attributes of glory, omniscience and love, that Shri Shankara contradicts himself, when he says that the reality, the ultimate reality, is free from all attributes. It’s been said that Shri Shankara should say that Brahman, the Supreme Reality associated with attributes, is the Lord; but the real nature of Brahman is free from all attributes. A thing cannot both have attributes and not have attributes. So Shankara was involved in a contradiction, which he tries desperately to reconcile.

Then, I think, in his carelessness, he repeatedly says that it is the Highest Brahman, which is indicated by the attributes of having true desires, having true purposes. There’s a good deal of dry humour among the western scholars at the inconsistency and contradictions of Shri Shankara and these same contradictions appear in Madhusudan.

If we read now an American scholar on Shri Shankara, “There are several points on which Shankara seems not to come to any firm conclusion. It may be that his failure to give a clear account of these problems is not a result of failing to see them, but rather a deliberate decision to avoid them. Sometimes he advocates, what the Hindus call, ‘nothing is ever caused’, since Brahman, properly considered, is completely unaffected by anything, it cannot create. On the other hand, in hundreds of pages of his commentary of the Brahma Sutra, Shankara speaks as if he were quite willing to commit himself to Brahman as a cause.

“It would seem either Shankara failed to see the contradiction in the different portions of his writings, or else he didn’t care. But there’s another possibility. Shankara’s interested not in Truth, but in the importance of the seekers believing a particular account. ‘No theory of causation or relations is true’, he may be saying; but the reason why it’s important not to believe what those other fellows, Buddhists, Nayayikas and the rest, believe is because such beliefs block liberation.  The belief about causation, which doesn’t block liberation, is just the belief that everything, the world, selves, depends on Brahman. It doesn’t matter what logical thoughts one may find in this belief, believe it anyway.  It’s better for you if you do, and – in interpretation, make Shankara out to emphasize non-rational intuition or faith, while ignoring the logical defect in his own theory.”

But Shankara seems to say these things fairly definitely – and if we put it in colloquial words, perhaps he’s saying something like this, “Your experience with things that you have seen before is incomplete. It’s different here from anything that you have known about. The difficulty really is psychological, and exists in a perpetual torment that results from your saying to yourself, ‘But how can it be like that?’ This is a reflection of uncontrolled, but utterly vain, desire to see it in terms of something familiar. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that?’ because you will get into a blind alley. Nobody knows how it can be like that.”

This is very obscure because, as a matter of fact, although our western logicians would sneer at it, it was said not by Shankara or any of his disciples, but by Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winner for physics, who in some lectures in 1965 spoke on the character of physical law. You can find it in his book. He was selected in the recent BBC programme on ‘Mind’, to speak on scientific inspiration.

[TPL represents two diagrams given by Feynman which demonstrate the contradictory nature of the movements of photons and electrons.]

The electrons and the photons are contradictory, completely contradictory; so he says, “Don’t torture yourself by thinking, ‘How can it be like that?’  That results from your saying to yourself, ‘I want to explain it in terms of something familiar.’ Don’t keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, ‘How can it be like that?’ You’ll get into a blind alley.  What can I call it?  If I say they behave like particles, I give the wrong impression. Also, if I say they behave like waves, they behave in their own inimitable way, like nothing you can ever see or think.”  Well, if you read the rest of the book, he’s pretty logical. But once he gets on to these experiments, he begins talking nonsense. He says that, himself; that’s to say, he’s bound by his texts, so to say. When he’s not bound by these experiments, then he talks very logically and clear.

If we like, we can think of Shri Shankara. The critics say that the texts on which he commented were contradictory; but to Shri Shankara, it wasn’t that he was trying to wriggle out of them. Those texts were like the results of the experiments and he commented on them. To say he was bound unwillingly to his text is quite wrong. He willingly commented on those texts because they were, so to say, the experiments of the rishis, and the sages of the upanishads, and they gave their results. With one particular experimental setup, the electrons behave in one way, with another setup, they behave in another way.  In the same way, the texts of the upanishads do contradict in a formal sense, but that’s because we try to think that the reality must conform to something in our experience so far. As Feynman is saying, even in physics, your experience with things you have seen before is incomplete. It is different here from anything you have known about.

Well, it looks as though, perhaps, either Feynman doesn’t see the contradiction in the different portions of his writings; or, perhaps, he fails to see it; or, perhaps, he deliberately says, “Well, believe this is not true, but it will do you good as a scientist, if you believe it.” No, it’s not like that. What he’s doing is explaining something which doesn’t fit in with our preconceptions.  In his book there are many contradictions. “A physicist says, ‘In this given condition, I’ll tell you what happens next.’” (That’s page 114).  On page 146, “Physics has given up, if the original purpose was, and everyone thought it was, to know enough so that, given the circumstances, we can predict what will happen next.”

So we can see that the truth may not fit in with our childish ideas of what can happen, and what can exist and not exist. He speaks in the book – and it’s worth quoting, because Madhusudan, following Shri Shankara says, that in meditation, the truth will come – he says, “Even the truths about the things of the world will come in meditation.”  But this meditation is not the Vedantic meditation, which is on ultimate Truth. Still, one of the interesting things in Feynman’s book is that he gives an account of the great advances in his own sphere. He constantly uses the word “guess” and Yoga would use the word “inspiration.”

In 1933, Dirac had discovered the correct laws for relativity quantum mechanics by guessing the equation. The method of guessing the equation seems to be a pretty effective way of guessing new laws. In Einstein’s theory of gravitation, he guessed, on top of all the other principles, the principle that corresponded to the idea that the forces are always proportional to the masses. He guessed the principle that if you are in an accelerating car, you cannot distinguish that from being in a gravitational field. Then, by adding that principle to all the other principles he had guessed, he was able to deduce the correct laws of gravitation.

Some people have said, “It’s true in cases like Maxwell’s equations, ‘Never mind the philosophy. Never mind that – just guess the equations. That’s good in the sense that if you only guess at the equation, you’re not prejudicing yourself. On the other hand, maybe the philosophy helps you to guess, it is very hard to say.”  Yukawa guessed the idea for the nuclear forces in 1934, but nobody could compute the consequences because the mathematics was too difficult. They couldn’t compare his idea with experiment.

Madhusudan is following his teacher, Shankara, even when it seems to be contradictory, that the ultimate Truth can be attributeless and yet be the Lord. In the middle section of the Gita, he is explaining with ‘Tat’ as the Lord.  He says the whole process can be accomplished by devotion to the Lord. He is following Shri Shankara there, and Shankaracharya in his commentaries explained that the bhagavata theory, the theory of devotion to the Lord, is not contrary to the Vedanta; that the Lord as the creator of the Universe is accepted by Vedanta; that the inculcation of constant meditation and worship of the Lord is accepted by Vedanta – he only differs from them on some of the philosophical points.

Creation is a tremendously important point for Shri Shankara. He devotes hundreds of pages of commentary to the doctrine of creation – not to the details of creation, but to the fact that creation is a conscious process. Four times in his Brahma Sutra, at great length, he refutes the idea that matter is inert and goes its own way, and consciousness is simply separate from it. He wants to show that creation is a conscious process.  We can say, “Well, what difference does it make?”  It makes a great difference. It makes a great difference in this world, if we know that a thing has been created or not.

To give a very simple example, there’s a famous chess position with only two pawns left. It’s quite clear that Black must win, because he can capture White’s pawn, and White can’t capture his pawn. So he gets a Queen and, when that happens in a game (and this position can happen quite often), one player immediately resigns, because it’s so obvious.  If you see this in a book of chess problems, you look at it and think, “It’s ridiculous. It’s obvious who must win.”  But it says underneath, “What is the result?”  Now, because you know this position has been created, you know there will be a solution. Sometimes it takes even quite a good player some hours to work it out. If he didn’t know that position was created, he would never look at it twice, because the result is so obvious; but because he knows it has been created, he knows there’s an inner purpose. He knows that the obvious answer can’t be the right one. He spends the hours and finally he discovers it. Well, in the same way, our teacher told us that the creation is conscious, there is a conscious plan and if we know that, we will look with sufficient attention to discover it.

Then Madhusudan, the end of his commentary, explains that, in the enlightened man, what was the individual self has entered the Lord, is now the Lord. He says the Lord looks after the welfare of that being, and the Lord manifests Himself through that being. His final stage of devotion is a manifestation of the Lord through that man.  It may not be an externally very great manifestation, it manifests in the tiniest thing, but there’s an inspiration.

One of the traditions of Muhammad is that a mother brought her child to him. At that time, there was a bad habit of eating that very sweet, sticky molasses. Many of the Arabs did, although it was known to be very bad for the health. This child was beginning to eat them secretly, and the mother wanted it stopped. She said to him, “I have asked the uncle, and even some of the great men of the tribe, and they’ve told him to stop, but he won’t stop.”  Then Muhammad looked at the boy and he said, “Well, come back in a fortnight.” The mother brought the boy back in a fortnight. Muhammad looked at him and said, “My boy, for your sake of your health, don’t eat molasses.”  The boy went away and later the mother said, “He stopped completely. I’m so grateful to you. What all the others said had no effect; but why did you wait a fortnight?”

Muhammad said, “Because I myself was eating molasses and I stopped. When I had stopped, then I could speak to him effectively.” This is an example of inspiration. All the threats and the bribes of the great men had no effect, because they themselves were eating molasses. Muhammad had his inspiration, he changed and then he was able to change the boy.

Our teacher told us, in the smallest things, the inspiration will come. He said in one of his lectures, summing up the yogic practice, the special practice, “Go into relaxation. When the water is agitated, one cannot see the bottom. When the heart is agitated, it is not in a fit state to receive truth.  Relax yourselves.  Take seven deep breaths, and with each breath, take the name of God, ‘OM’. Go into relaxation, as though the body had no vitality, this creates an inner vacuum. Fill this vacuum with the name of God, then you will extract from the universe, the divine life which drives out worries and makes the mind immune to anxieties.

“This outline of thought, the result of studying with people who have verified it, will be found common to all systems. The author of the universe is not a blind force. The universe is a product of will and imagination of a supra-cosmic force, God, planned on patterns of beauty and meant to manifest harmoniously.

“The mind is divided into many compartments, and some are not working now. Those which register the finest vibrations which come from Spirit, that bliss which needs no effort at all on the part of man to enjoy, those compartments are not registered. How to open those compartments of the mind into which the blessings of God are being poured, that is the problem of Yoga.  Mind has in it universal properties of knowledge. What Plato knew, everyone present knows, but it is dormant because the instrument through which it is expressed is latent.”