The Field Bhagavad Gita Chapter 13
Chapter XIII The Field
Chapter XIII is said by Śaṅkara to be mainly a Knowledge-chapter. It begins with the knowledge of the Field (body, mind, also the deep causal layer that holds them together) and the Field-knower, which is the witness-consciousness that sees and is not affected or bound by what it sees. The Gītā itself states that this doctrine comes from the Upaniṣad-s: ‘set out in the sūtra-s on Brahman, well reasoned and definite’ As in many Upanisad-s, the world is first taken as provisionally real, but ultimately with no independent existence of its own.
This chapter elaborates the brief description of the Self in Chapter II.
II.17 But know: that is indestructible by which this all is pervaded;
This imperishable one, nothing can destroy.
24 Neither can He be cut nor burnt, nor wetted nor dried;
Eternal, present everywhere, fixed, immovable, everlasting is He.
25 Unmanifest is He, unthinkable is He,
Unchangeable – so is He declared to be.
This had no effect then on Arjuna, who still felt himself an absolutely separate individual.
In Chapter XII the same Self spoke again through the mouth of the Lord:
XII.3 But those who revere the Imperishable, the Indefinable, Unmanifest,
Omnipresent and Unthinkable, the
Immovable, Unchanging, Fixed,
XII.4 Restraining the sense-currents, treating all alike, –
They reach none but Me, delighting in the welfare of all beings.
The Self in both these places was spoken of as unthinkable; it is not an emptiness, which after all is definable. Again, it was said to be present everywhere, so some appearance of a world, a ‘where’, has been allowed. Now in this Chapter XIII, the Field, individual and cosmic both, is briefly described:
XIII.5 The physical elements, I-ness, the higher mind (buddhi) and the unmanifest (causal),
The ten senses plus one (lower mind), the five objects of the senses,
6 Desire, aversion, pleasure, pain, association, intellect, self-preservation –
Such briefly is the Field with its modifications.
A crucial point, made several times already in the Gītā, is that mental faculties like ‘I-ness’, and activities like self-preservation, are part of the Field. They do not inhere in the Field-knower. There is often a tendency among modern readers to suppose that knowledge of the Self is somehow knowledge of an object, in other words, a mental operation. Provided external circumstances hold up reasonably well, the mental conviction ‘I know the Self’ can hold up too. But it is still something within the Field, and if the Field gets too disturbed, the seeming conviction may be shattered. After some such an experience, a would-be yogin can sometimes end up sceptical, even hostile to the whole idea of yoga.
The programme of the chapter is: (1) declaration of a Field-knower apart from Fields (verses 1 and 2); the Field-knower is also called Field- owner (verse 33); (2) a roughly ascending scale of spiritual practices ending with jñāna-niṣthā, clearing away the last obstructions to Self- knowledge; (3) declaration of the Universal Self, seemingly associated with but really free from, all worldly associations. So from verse 7 follows a list of twenty things to be practised, beginning with Humility. The Gītā calls them Knowledge. Śaṅkara points out that Humility itself cannot be equated with Knowledge: it is called Knowledge because it is a means to Knowledge. The first nine refer to behaviour in general:
7 Humility, honesty, harmlessness, patience, uprightness,
Service of a teacher, purity, firmness, self-control;
Then come qualities centred round detachment. It is to be noted that some aspirants may be in the householder role:
XIII.8 Turning away from sense objects, absence of egoism,
Seeing clearly the painful restriction of birth, death, age, disease, and sorrow;
9 Absence of attachment and clinging to sons, wife, property and the like:
Constant evenness of mind in the face of events desirable or undesirable.
Now follows meditation, the immediate precursor of the rise of Knowledge:
10 Unwavering devotion to Me in single-minded yoga;
Cultivation of solitude and distaste for society;
Verse 11, the last verse of the passage, shows that Knowledge having arisen must be steady, and that it has a goal, namely release.
11 Constancy in Knowledge of the Self,
Keeping in view the purpose of that Knowledge of truth –
The foregoing qualities are themselves called Knowledge: everything else is Ignorance.
The above list of twenty qualities, from Humility to Keeping in View the Purpose of Knowledge, is regarded by Śaṅkara as central. He quotes it in other major works, and here, in his summing up in the commentary to XVIII.55, he refers to it in the standard Sanskrit style as ‘Humility and the others’. But to translate this as ‘qualities like humility’ is not faithful to his text or his thought. It means ‘the twenty qualities beginning with Humility down to Keeping in View the Purpose of Knowledge of Truth.’ The practice of the last two qualities is based on Knowledge, so that the whole group can be loosely called Knowledge.
The next section, verses 12–17, describes what is to be Known. It is the Self absolute, but includes the world-appearance manifested by the māyā trick-of-illusion. So there are apparent contradictions between the level of truth and the level of appearances, as there are contradictions between the world of the stage drama and the world of the actors who project it:
XIII.12 I will declare what is to be known, whose Knowledge gives immortality:
It is the beginningless supreme Brahman, definable neither as existent nor non-existent.
13 With hands and feet on all sides, and eyes, heads and mouths on all sides;
With hearing everywhere, It stands unmoved, ever encompassing all.
14 Seeming to have sense qualities, yet free from all senses,
Apart, yet supporting everything; free from guṇa-s, yet experiencing guṇa-s.
15 Outside of beings, and within them; unmoving, and yet moving;
Subtle and so, hard to realize; both far away and near It is.
16 Undivided, It stands seemingly divided in beings;
It should be known as supporting the beings, and as their consumer and originator.
17 Light of lights, It is said to be beyond darkness: Knowledge, the object of Knowledge, and the goal of Knowledge, It abides in the heart of all.
The contradictory statements bring out the illusory character of the world: ‘unmoving, yet moving’, ‘apart, yet supporting everything’.
There is no direct connection between the world of Elsinore, and the world of the theatre which produces Hamlet. The theatre is not in the same world as the play, yet it supports it. The hero dies, yet does not die. The audience has come to appreciate the acting and suffer a little at the tragedy, yet not so much that it is taken as real. This is the knowledge on which the performance rests.
The Lord sums up in verse 18:
Thus the Field, and also Knowledge, and the object of Knowledge have been briefly declared:
My devotee, on realizing this, becomes what I am.
The final phrase, ‘what I am’, represents the Sanskrit mad-bhāvam, literally ‘my being’. Both here and in other places in the Gītā, Dr Shastri translated this as ‘what I am’. This follows Śaṅkara’s strong assertion that the essence of the individual self is the supreme Lord, ‘as is so clearly taught in the Gītā and all the Upaniṣad-s’.
After this declaration of the final truth, and the means to it, the Gītā comes down to a lower level for those who cannot manage to incorporate it into their experience. It provisionally allows the reality of what happens in the world: Puruṣa the spirit is entangled in Nature, the Field- knower is caught up into attachment for the Field which he experiences.
XIII.21 The spirit, standing in Nature, experiences the guṇa-s born of Nature;
Attachment to the guṇa-s causes his birth into good and evil wombs.
This lower truth is presented by the Gītā in the technical concepts and terms of an early school; for the reader today, there is no advantage in analysing them. It is temporarily accepted that the experiences, and the attachment, really happen; the way out of them is purification of the basis of the mind by meditation, deep introspection, yogic action without making claims on the results, hearing the truth with reverence. Such actions lead to vision of the all-pervading Lord.
27 He sees, who sees the supreme Lord standing equally in all beings,
The undying in the dying.
28 For seeing the same Lord established in all,
He kills not the Self by the self; then he goes to the highest goal.
When the Lord becomes apparent as his own Self, and also apparent in the seeming others, then that individual body-mind Field will never impede the progress towards Self-realization of others. That would be to kill the Self in them, though only for a time it is true.
The chapter returns to the higher truth that there is no real entanglement of the Self in Nature; it only seems to be located in a body because of its manifestation there. Śaṅkara gives the example of the moon, which when reflected in puddles seems to be divided, located in many places, and dirty or actively disturbed according to the condition of the puddle surface. In fact none of these things is true of the moon.
31 This supreme imperishable Self, beginningless and free from guṇa-s,
Even abiding in the body, neither acts nor is tainted.
XIII.33 As the sun, shining alone, illumines the whole world,
So the Field-owner illumines the whole Field.
34 Those who with the eye of Knowledge can distinguish the Knower from its Field.
And realize freedom from Nature – they go to the highest.
At the end of this chapter on Knowledge, it must be recalled that the pure Knowledge is not an idea. Ideas are the business of the Field, not of the Field-knower. The pure focussed mind gets glimpses of the reflection of the sun of the Field-knower, but in final liberation mind is absorbed in the sun. It is Being absolute, and not knowledge of an object.
Looking steadily into themselves with the ‘eye of Knowledge’ in the stillness of focussed meditation on the truths of the teaching, they dimly make out something unmoving in the moving mind, something undying in the ever-dying thoughts and experiences, something infinite in the apparent restrictions. If this is not disturbed by the restless wavering mind which tries to preserve its limited interests, the horizons of freedom open out