Chapter II Supreme Self
The Gītā is a poem, which sets out the practice for realization of the Supreme Self. That Self is all-pervading, one, unchanging, imperishable, and beyond the grasp of thought. Though it is ever-present, man clings to personal identity, namely restrictions which he thinks are his self. Clinging to limited personality obstructs awareness of the universal Self.
Sometimes it is supposed that a poem, however beautiful, can do little more than create a mood; it cannot give accurate information. This is not so. To take a example from the West: a few years ago, a meteorologist analysed Shelley’s poetic masterpiece ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and concluded that it gave an accurate account of a storm in the Alps, which his own science could not better.
Most of the Gītā consists of instructions given by Kṛṣṇa, who in the fourth chapter – but not at first – declares himself an incarnation of the Creator-Lord. Later, in the eleventh chapter, this becomes an actual revelation seen by two persons, Sañjaya and Arjuna. It is no mere wish- fulfilment, for it has a shattering effect on Arjuna.
Traditionally, the verses are held to be divinely inspired. Details and even contradictions are not poetic licence, but riddles; deeper truths are found by one-pointed meditation on them.
The order of chapters, and the presentation of instruction, is not casual. A special technique is being used, which can be called Teaching Down. This kind of teaching is the opposite of building up a body of information and methods of applying it. Teaching Down is concerned with removing illusions. The method is, that the final truth is declared first. If the pupil can ‘see’ it, and actually embody it, further instruction is needless. If he does not ‘see’ it, an additional pointer is given, and if necessary further and further indications.
Chapter II, where the teaching begins, is an illustration. The teacher declares the final truth: the one all-pervading, eternal, immutable, fathomless Self. He introduces it with a reference to reincarnation, but makes it clear that it is not a question of a number of individual limited selves being re-born and dying. It is the one Self which is thought to be re-bom and die, in many bodies and minds. So how could that eternal changeless One either kill or be killed? Obviously he could not.
II.12 Never did I not exist, nor you, nor these great men, Nor shall we ever cease to be, any of us, in the future.
16 What is not, never comes to be; and what is, never ceases to be;
Those who see the distinction between these two, are seers of the truth.
The doctrine of Illusion (māyā) which plays a big part in later sections of the Gītā, is an expansion of this famous verse (II.16), which is quoted in Sankara’s other works also. What does not exist can never come to exist: if it appears, it is an illusion. The illusion may have beauty and meaning, like a picture or stage play, but not if it is taken as absolutely real.
17 But know: that is indestructible by which this all is pervaded. That 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.
Arjuna hears all this, but he only half believes it, and the Lord goes on in verse 29:
As a wonder one may see Him, and as a wonder another declare Him,
And as a wonder another might hear of Him; – but mere hearers do not know Him at all.
An analogy can be a help, though analogies must not be pressed beyond the single point. Imagine a windy day with many moving clouds, and occasional gaps through which the blue sky appears. Small children look at a blue gap and suppose it is a thing, which moves, grows larger or smaller, becomes ragged, is cut in two, or destroyed. In fact this is an illusion caused by the movements of the clouds. The sky does not move. Even when the clouds seem to destroy it, in fact they themselves are visible only because of the light of the sky behind them. In the same way the Self appears to be limited by the clouds of the body-mind complexes: it seems to be many, growing larger or smaller, being wounded or killed, disappearing or being born again. In fact these are movements of the mind: the Self is infinite and does not move or change. Meditation on the blue sky is a great yogic means.
Verse 30 completes the indications of the Self. There has been no reaction from Arjuna: in fact he does not believe it, as his question at the beginning of Chapter IV will show. Arjuna feels himself to be a defined personality, and Kṛṣṇa for the moment provisionally accepts this; he speaks of honour and glory, as if rallying the fighting spirit in a temporarily depressed warrior.
But Arjuna does not become fired by the reminders about his honour and ambition: he is becoming more than an ambitious warrior. So Kṛṣṇa goes on to explain briefly something about karma-yoga, the path for those feeling themselves no more than individuals.