Reflected Sun in Shankara’s Bhagavad Gita commentary

The verse references are to the commentary on chapter XIII of the Bhagavad  Gita unless otherwise stated.

Sankara several times compares the Jiva or individual life to the reflection of the sun in water. He gives the example of water pots where there seem to be many suns. The individual soul is given life by the reflection, so to say, of the sun of Brahman in the Buddhi. In verse 1 he calls this reflection the Knower of the Field and also the inmost self, pratyag-atman. It is clear that this pratyag-atman inmost self is to be regarded as in the body-mind complex, as is specifically stated by him (15), “within the envelope of the skin”. The Field-Knower lightens up (30) everything in the field (5,6) which includes love and hate and all the other mental and physical dispositions.
Sankara states clearly (VIII.3) that the supreme Self, Brahman, is first realised as in the individual body but in its fulfilment it is the universal Self.

So the process is first to locate in actual meditation-experience the reflection of the supreme Self in the body-mind. The way to do this is to locate and then realise the light that lights up the mind and its passions. There is within us something which is not afraid when we are afraid, which is not excited when we are excited, which is not led astray when we are led astray, which is not struck down when we are struck down; it calmly sees all these things but is unaffected. It sees the battle of the guna qualities: the running fights between tamas (darkness and inertia), rajas (passion struggle) and sattva (luminous consciousness). The more clearly it is perceived the more sattvic becomes the Field.

It is astonishing to find that in an untitled drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, the situation is vividly shown.

At the top of the picture is the sun, with stylised lines radiating from it to show that it cannot be actually looked at. Its rays however go to the mirror held by the serene philosopher seated on a rock, and the sun is reflected in the mirror. The reflected beams light up a sort of cave, in which mythical animals are fighting. The great winged dragon is devouring a lioness, but in turn is being attacked by what looks like a bear while another lioness is about to spring. At the left of the picture a unicorn is entering the fray; in Leonardo’s time this creature symbolised sublimation of the sex urge, and purity in general. In yogic terms it would stand for sattva. Further back a boar, perhaps standing for ignorant greed, is just rounding the corner.

There is little evidence that Leonardo had access to Indian thought but echoes of it may have come across through the Greeks and later with the numerals which we call Arabic but which are still Indian in their basic form. Leonardo drew pictures of men in turbans but open interest in Indian ideas might have been quite dangerous because of the Inquisition. He was, unusually for his time, a vegetarian and even more unusually a life-long brahmachari or celibate. There are allusions to this in his notebooks and drawings.

It may well be that this wonderful man realised in his meditations the same truths about the relations between Man and God that Sankara had so beautifully set out in his Gita commentary, seven hundred years before. The sun of Brahman is reflected in the pure mirror held by the philosopher-yogi, and its reflected rays illumine the whole Field of the ceaselessly agitated region called Jagat, or the Moving Thing. This is shown strikingly on the Leonardo drawing. The catalogues can make nothing of it, and class it simply as an Allegory. But with the key of Yoga it can be interpreted, and its full beauty and meaning appreciated.

© Trevor Leggett

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