Tag Archives: Yoga

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Ten

Continued from Part Nine


Levels of speech

The various ancient texts speak of the levels of speech, which, generally, are taken to be four. Each School – Grammarians, Mimamsa, Upanishads, Tantra, Yoga, mythology etc – offers its own understanding and explanation of the four levels of speech. These levels are variously explained  as the varieties of  speech  that are said to be  spoken either in four regions of  the universe;  or spoken by divine beings and humans ; or as speech of the  humans , animals, birds and creatures .  These four are even explained as four levels of consciousness.

For our limited purpose, let us briefly scan through other interpretations, before we discuss  the Grammarians’ views and their explanations of the four levels of speech.


The Asya-vamiya – sukta  (Rig Veda: 1.140- 164) which is one the most philosophical , but  rather enigmatic Suktas (hymns) of Rig Veda, ascribed to Rishi Dīrghatamas  Aucathya  (son of  Ucathya  ),  who was  also called as Mamateya (son of Mamata) ,  mentions  about the levels of speech, among many other things.

According to Rishi Dīrghatamas, there are four levels of speech. Only the wise who are well trained, endowed with intelligence and understanding know them all. As for the rest; the three levels remain concealed and motionless. Mortals know  only  the fourth.

Chatvaari vaak parimitaa padaani / taani vidur braahmaanaa ye manishinaah. Guhaa trini nihita nengayanti / turiyam vaacho manushyaa vadanti. (Rigveda Samhita – 1.164.45)

But, he does not specify what those four levels of speech are.


The notion that there are four quarters or  four levels of existence ; and of which, only  one quarter is within the experience of mortals also appears in the Purusha-sukta  (Rig-Veda 10.90.3) ascribed to Rishi Narayana – Paadosya Vishva Bhutaani Tri-Paada-Asya-Amrtam Divi .

There are similar notions with regard to Pranava Om where the three syllables A, Vu, and Ma are normally visible. But it is its fourth element the Anusvara (Brahma-bindu) that leads from being to non-being; and , from the word to the silence beyond it.

svarena samdhayed yogam asvaram bhävayet param asvarena hi bhävena bhävo näbhäva  isyate– Brahmabindu Upanishad

And, there is also the Turiya paada (Chaturtha or Fourth) the fourth line of the Gayatri mantra. It is said; while the traditional three lines of Gayatri mantra can be grasped by reason, the fourth line, which is mystical in its import, and can be comprehended only through intuition. The fourth line (Turiya paada) which reads ‘paro rajas ya tapati’ is said to be hidden (darshatasya) or un-manifest (apad); beyond intellect; resplendendent, shining beyond the worlds known; and , which is the support of the Gayatri itself and of the Universe.


That idea of four quarters  is extended to speech as well. The texts of several traditions speak of four levels of speech. For instance :

The Maitrayaniya (Maitri) Upanishad (1, 11.5), of Krishna Yajur-Veda, mentions the four quarters of speech as those belonging:  to the upper region – the heavens (Divi); to the intermediate space (Antariksha); and, to the region of earth (Prithvi) as spoken by the humans (Manusi); and, to the animals (Pashu).

The Atmavadins (mainly those belonging to Nyaya and Vaisesika Schools) say: the four fold speech can be found in the animals; in musical instruments (such a flute); in the beasts ; and,  in the individuals (Atmani)

–  pasusu tunavesu mrgesu atmani ca iti atmavadinah

The Satapatha Brahmana (1.3.16) categorizes the speech into four kinds: as that of the humans; of animals and birds (vayamsi); of reptiles (snakes); and, of small creeping things (kshudram sarisrpam)

– varā vā ia iti hi varā io yadida kudra sarīspa

Similarly, those who believe in myths and legends say that – the serpents; birds; evil creatures; as also the humans in their dealings with the rest of the world – all use speech of their own.

Sarpanam vagvayasam ksudrasarispasya ca caturthi vyavaharika-ityaitihasikah 

The Jaiminiya-Upanishad-Brahmana (1.40.1)  deals with the four levels of speech in a little more detail. In a verse that is almost identical to the one appearing in Rig-Veda Samhita – 1.164.45, it mentions that the discriminating wise know of four quarters of speech.  Three of these remain hidden; while the fourth is what people ordinarily speak.

Chatvaari vaak parimitaa padaani / taani vidur braahmaanaa ye manishinaah. Guhaa trini nihita nengayanti / turiyam vaacho manushyaa vadanti //

Then, the text goes on to explain that of the four quarters of speech: mind is a quarter, sight is another quarter, hearing is the third quarter; and, speech itself is the fourth quarter. 

 tasya etasyai vaco manah padas caksuh padas srotram pado vag eca caturtah padah

Further, it says: what he thinks with the mind, that he speaks with speech; what he sees with the sight, that he speaks with the speech; and, what he hears with hearing, that he speaks with speech.

 tad yad vai manasa dyayanti tad vaco vadati; yac caksus pasyati tad vaca vadati; yac srotrena srunoti tad vaco vadati/

Thus, finally, all activities of senses unite (Sam) into speech. Therefore speech is the Saman.

Nageshabhatta (Ca. between 1670 and 1750), in his commentary on Patanjali’s Mahabhashya, accepts the four forms of Vac; and, explains the expression ‘Catvari padjatani namakhyato-upasargani-patah ‘as referring to Para, Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari :

 Bhashya padajatani Para-Pashyanti-Madhyama- Vaikhari rupani / ata evagre nipatah  ceti cakarah sangacchate


In the later Upanishads, speech is said to be assimilated with consciousness. The four divisions of speech are explained as four states of consciousness. For instance; Sri Gauda-Paada, the Parama-Guru of Sri Sankara (the teacher of his teacher) , in his celebrated commentary (Gaudapada-karika) on the Mandukya Upanishad while explaining his concept of Asparsha Yoga or pure knowledge,  identifies the four levels of speech with the four states of consciousness : Vishva or Vaisvanara in wakeful state (Jagrat); Taijasa in dream state (Svapna); Prajna in deep-sleep (Shushupti); and, Pranava AUM with Turiya, the fourth, the Absolute state which transcends all the three states and represents Ultimate Reality .


Explanations offered by Sri Sayana

Sri Sayana in his Rg-Bhashya   deals with the subject of four levels of speech in a little more detail. He says, people use speech in a variety of ways to fulfil their roles and responsibilities in life. And, similarly, the animals, birds, creatures and objects in nature do use their own sort of speech to serve their needs.  He  then , while explaining these four levels or quarters of speech (ani tani catwari ityatra bahavah) , remarks that  each School  offers explanations  (bahudha  varnayanti ) according to its own  tenets  (sva- sva-mantanu-rodhena). He, next, briefly mentions what those explanations are:

: – According to Vedantins, the four levels of speech could be the Pranava (Aum) – which is the sum and substance of all the Vedic terms (sarva-vaidika-vag-jalasaya), followed by three Vyahritis (Bhu, Bhuh and Suvah). Thus the Pranava along with three Vyahritis form the four quarters of speech.

: – According to Nirukta (Etymology), the language of the three Vedas (Rik, Yajus and  Saman ) and the speech commonly used  for dealings in the world , together make the four quarters of speech– (Rg-yajuh-samani-caturdhi vyavharikiti nairuktah )

: – The four levels of speech could also be related to four regions representing four deities : on the Earth as Agni (yo prthivyam sa-agnau); in the mid-air as Vayu (Ya-antarikshe sa vayau); and, in the upper regions as Aditya (Ya divi saditye). And whatever that remains and transcends the other three is in Brahman (Tasya-mad-brahmana).

: – The speech, though it is truly indivisible, is measured out or analyzed in the Grammar as of four kinds or four parts-of-speech (akhandayah krtsnaya vacah caturvidha vyakrtattvat).  Accordingly, the four divisions of speech are named by the followers of the various Schools of Grammar (vyakarana-matanus-arino) as: Naaman (Nouns), Akhyata (Verbs), Upasarga (prepositions or prefixes) and Nipata (particles)

:-  According to the wise who are capable of exercising control over their mind; the Yogis who have realized Sabdabrahman; and, others of the Mantra (Tantra) School,  these four levels of speech (Evam catvari vacah padani parimitani)  are classified as : Para, Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari.

Manisinah manasah svaminah svadhinamanaska brahmana vacyasya sabdabrahmani dhigantaro yoginah paradicatvari padani viduh jananti 

Apare mantrkah parkarantarena pratipadanti Para, Pasyanti, Madhyama   Vaikhariti catvariti 


The power of the spoken word

In the Indian traditions, it is believed that it is only  in its oral form that the language becomes fully alive and reveals  its true nature , provided it is spoken properly.  For Indian thinkers, language was  primarily the spoken word or speaking itself (vac); while the written word, as a secondary aid, was only a coded-representation of the spoken word; but, without its nuances. Perhaps the most salient feature of ancient Indian linguistic culture was its concern for preserving the purity of the spoken word.

It was the speech, the spoken word not the written letter that is at the base of the Sanskrit grammar. All speculations and practices are concerned with the oral. Panini’s Astadhyayi is also based on the sounds of spoken Sanskrit. The spoken language in Sanskrit was/is the real language.

Therefore, right from the earliest period, the study of speech has been one of the major concerns of various Schools of Indian traditions. The power of the spoken word or still more of the potent un-spoken sound was well recognized.


Levels of awareness and speech

The notion of various levels of awareness and speech is accepted and discussed in almost all the Schools of Indian philosophy and Grammar. Although numerous meanings are read into the term catvari vak (four kinds or levels of speech), the one that is commonly understood and commented upon by most Grammarians and philosophers is the classification of speech into four strata: Para; Pashyanti; Madhyama; and, Vaikhari.

The entire system of such classification is rooted in the faith that at the top of this language hierarchy, there is only One-indivisible (ekameva) Reality; and, it transforms itself (Vivarta), manifests itself , resulting (Parinama) in  variety of  sounds,  word, sentence etc.

The theory underlying the evolution of speech is an extension of that faith; and it asserts, though there are several levels in the hierarchy of language, they all emanate from one indivisible reality Sabdabrahman. And again, the Sabdabrahman is identified with Para Brahman, the Absolute.

The principle that is involved here is also based in the dictum that diversity essentially pre-supposes an underlying unity (abedha-purvaka hi bhedah).  In other words, it says, where there is difference or division there must be a fundamental identity underneath it ; else, each cannot relate to the other; and , each object in the world would be independent of , or unconnected to  every other thing in existence.

This concept provides the foundation for treating all forms of speech as emanating from a single source. The various levels of language from the most subtle to the gross are, therefore, treated as hierarchy or the levels of a unitary language-system. Most of the philosophical speculations on the process of manifestation of language; and, the discussions upon its various stages – from the subtlest (Para) to the most explicit (Vaikhari) – are based in that principle.


Grammarians’ view

Each of the major schools of Indian philosophy and Grammar tried to explain the origin and nature of the Universe by exploring the nature and manifestations of the sound. They built elaborate philosophical edifices around the concepts they evolved during that process. Those traditions considered sound as one of the most important principles of existence; as the source of matter ; and , also the key to be free from it. They described Sound as the thread-like link connecting  the material and spiritual realms.

The analysis of the speech by the Grammarians is not merely an intellectual exercise, but is also a philosophical quest in an attempt to identify all forms of speech as originating from Sabda-Brahman, the ultimate ground of all speech phenomena. The study of Grammar was itself looked upon as a means or as a right-royal-path to liberation (moksha-manamam ajihma raja-paddhatih).


Speech was  regarded as the verbal expression of a thought that arises in a person’s consciousness. If there is no consciousness, there would be no speech. Speech (Vac) is indeed an outward form of consciousness (chetana). Vac is the word principle that gives expression to the latent or unmanifest thoughts and feelings.

That was meant to say; thinking is, in fact, a sort of internal speaking. Such inaudible speech was regarded the seed or the potent form of explicit speech that is heard by others. It was also said; all knowledge is interpreted in terms of words; and, it is quite not possible to have any sort of cognition that is free from words (Vakyapadiya: 1.123)

The process of transformation of a thought or an impulse arising in ones consciousness into a cognizable, explicit speech is said to resemble the evolution of the Universe from the un-manifest (A-vyakta) to the manifest (Vyakta) material world.

Such process of unfolding is said to take place, at least, in two stages. The first one is the thought that flashes and takes a form within. And, the other is that which comes out as audible speech riding the vehicle of words and sentences; attempting to convey the idea that arose within.  The former is intuition that springs up; and, the latter is the effort that is exerted, both internally and externally, to put it out.

Here, the latent, unspoken form of thought that instinctively springs up and is visualised, within one’s self, is called Pashyanti Vak (thought visualized). The Pashyanti, which also suggests the visual image of the word, is indivisible and without inner-sequence; in the sense, that the origin and destination of speech are one. Here, the ‘internal speech’ or ‘thought’ stands for what is intended to be conveyed. That intention is instinctive (prathibha) and immediate; and, it does not involve stages such as: analysis, speculation, drawing inferences and so on. At the level of Pashyanti Vak, there is no distinction between word and meaning. And, there is also no temporal sequence.

The Pashyanti Vak thereafter transforms into an intellectual process, the level of thought (Buddhi), during which the speaker looks for and identifies appropriate words, phrases, and their sequence, which are capable of conveying his intention candidly. That sequence of thoughts results in definite and clear array of words. As that cognition arises and takes a form within, he grasps it. This is the intermediate stage – The Madhyama vak, a sequenced but a pre-vocal thought – described as the voice of silence; perhaps best understood as internal speaking. Here, there is no perceptible sound (Nada). The Madhyama vak is in an inaudible wave or vibratory (spandana) form.

And, the Madhyama, when it is put out explicitly through uttered words and sentences; and, when it comes out of the speaker’s mouth in sequenced and verbalized speech-form, it is called Vaikhari Vak. For the purpose of putting out the Vaikhari Vac, the speaker employs a sentence comprising words uttered in a sequence. The word itself comprises letters or syllables (varnas) that follow one after the other in space and time.

Thus, the Vaikhari is the articulated speech, which, as sound waves, reaches the ears of the listener and then on to her/his intellect.  The Vaikhari is the physical or gross form of the subtle thought or is the outward expression of the intention of the speaker. And, when it emerges as the spoken-word, it is the one that is heard and apprehended by the listener, in a flash of understanding (Sphota). 

 [The process of Hearing, that is what is heard and grasped by the listener, of course, operates in the reverse direction.]

The spoken word comes out of one’s mouth, no doubt. However, it needs the assistance of breath and of several body parts in order to manifest itself (Vikhara literally means body; and, Vaikhari is that which employs bodily organs). The head, throat, tongue, palate, teeth, lips, nose, root of the tongue and bosom are said to be the eight places which assist  the sounds of the letters to become audible and explicit.

When a person wills to express a thought orally, the air (Prana) inside his body spurs and moves up. Sabda or the Vac (speech or utterance) then manifests through Dhvani (sound patterns), with the assistance of appropriate organs.

[The King Pratardana of Kasi (Kasi-rajah-Pratardanaha), in the Kausitaki Upanishad, makes an interesting observation that one cannot breathe and speak at the same time (‘when a man speaks he cannot breathe; and when he breaths he cannot speak’- kau.Up.2.5).

Yavadvai purusho bhasate na tavat-pranitum shaknoti pranam …. Yavadvai purushah praniti na tavat-bhashitum shaknoti vacam-kau.Up.2.5]

Thus, the transformation of a thought into spoken-words involves two kinds of effort: the internal process (abhyantara prayatna) and the external effort (bahya prayatna). The former is classified into two kinds (Pashyanti and Madhyama), while the latter (the external) is said to be of eleven kinds.

And, of the three levels or stages of speech, Pashyanti is regarded the subtle forms of Vac; while Madhyama and Vaikhari are its gross forms.

The chief characteristic of Vaikhari Vak is that it has a fully developed temporal sequence. At this level, the speaker’s individual peculiarities (such as accent, voice modulation etc) are present, along with relevant parts of speech. Though the Vaikhari gives expression to subtler forms of Vac, it is not considered as the’ ultimate’.


The ancient Grammarians went to great lengths, systematically, to trace the origination of each letter, its appropriate sound; the intricacies and efforts involved in producing them. (Please see the Note * below)


[* In the Sanskrit, the vowels and consonants sounds are classified and arranged dependent on their origin (pronunciation) in different parts of mouth, such as throat, palate, teeth or lips.

The vowels and consonants are so arranged that those emanating from the throat come first. These are followed by those pronounced through tongue; the palate; teeth and the lips. All sounds are arranged as those from the inside of the mouth proceeding outwards, in that order. No other ancient system of writing seems to have been so systematically thought out.

The vowels (Svara-s) , alternating long and short, come first : अ(a)  (aa)  इ(i)   ई(ee)  उ(u)  ऊ(oo)  ऋ(r)  ॠ(r)  लृ(lr)  ए(e)  ऐ(ai)  ओ(o)  and औ(au)

The commencing vowels अ(a) and  (aa)  are pronounced in the throat – Kantya  (कण्ठ्य). They are followed by vowels इ(i) and  ई(ee) produced by the tongue touching the base of the teeth ,Taalavya (तालव्य). The vowels उ(u)  and ऊ(oo)  are produced using the lips making a rounded opening – Oshtya (ओष्ठ्य).  The vowels ऋ(r) and ॠ(r) are produced by the tip of the tongue curling back against the roof of the mouth- Murdhanya (मूर्धन्य). The vowel लृ(lr) is produced by the tongue touching the upper teeth – Dantya (दंत्य).  The vowels ए (e) and ऐ (ai)   are produced near the throat by the tongue touching the bottom of the teeth and sucking in the air – Kanta-taalavya (कंटतालव्य).  The vowels  (o) and औ (au) produced near the throat by the rounding of the lips are called Kantoshtya (कंटोष्ठ्य).

The two ornamental nasal (Anusvara) letters अं (am) and  अः (aha ) ,which are used to decorate the vowels, are called the Visarga , meaning  sending forth . These sounds, which are neither consonants nor vowels, add a softening short burst effect at the end.  These are usually listed as a part of the vowel -group; but are shown at the end.

Similar is the emanation of the consonants – from throat outwards to the lips .

The set of consonants – क(ka) , ख(kha) , ग(ga) , घ(gha) , and ङ(nga) – are guttural (throaty) consonants – Kantya  (कण्ठ्य). Then the consonants – च(cha) , छ(chha) , ज(ja) , झ(jha) , and ञ(nja)- are pronounced on the palate- Taalavya (तालव्य). The next set of consonants –  ट(ta)  ,ठ(tha) , ड(da) , ढ(dha)  and ण(na) – is  produced by the tip of the tongue curling back against the roof of the mouthMurdhanya (मूर्धन्य). Next are  those on the teeth (दन्त्य), like – त(ta) , थ(tha) , द(da) , ध(dha) and  न(na) . And last come those on the lips प(pa)  फ(pha)  ब(ba)  भ(bha)  and म(ma) – (ओष्ठ्य). Oshtya (ओष्ठ्य).

The list is rounded off with semi-consonants like – य(ya) , र(ra) , ल(la)  and व(va) ; and the aspirated and sibilant sounds like श(sha)  ष(sha) ,  स(sh)  and ह (ha ).

Such unique organization of the alphabet underlines the attention paid to the patterns of articulated sound; points  of its location; and , to degree of resonance,  in a way that has not been attempted in any other language]

[ Abhinavagupta offers a mystic explanation of the arrangement of the Sanskrit alphabets, which are placed in between A and Ha. According to him, in the Sanskrit alphabet, the very first letter A stands for Shiva, the primal source of all existence. A is the initial emergence of all the other letters; and hence is Anuttara, the absolute. And, A not only represents the origin of the language; but, also the expansion of consciousness.

If A  the first letter represents Shiva the transcendent source, then Ha the final letter of the alphabet represents the point of completion when all the letters have emerged. If A is Shiva, Ha the last letter is Shakthi, His cosmic outpouring that flows back into Him.

Again, the vowels (Bija – the seed) are identified with Shiva; and, the consonants are Yoni identified with Shakthi. The intertwined vowels and consonants in a language are thus the union of Shiva and Shakthi.

Thus, the sequence of A to Ha contains within itself not only all the letters of the Alphabets, but also every phase of consciousness, both transcendental and universal.

The entire sequence of alphabets, according to Abhinavagupta, represents the state in which all the elements of experience, in the inner and the outer worlds, are fully displayed.]


Philosophers’ view

In the ancient traditions of India, the Grammar, the philosophy of Grammar and the Philosophy run into one another. At times, it is hard to separate them.

While the Grammarians, generally, speak about three levels of speech, the philosophers identify four levels or stages of speech (Vac): Para, Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari.  Of these four forms of Vac, Para and Pashyanti are the subtle forms of Vac; while Madhyama and Vaikhari are its gross forms.

The explanations of the Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari are almost the same as offered by the Grammarians; however, their interpretations and connotations differ slightly.


It is said; the sound has four divisions:  Para manifested in Prana (vital energy); Pashyanti manifested in the mind (Manas); Madhyama manifested in the senses (Indriyani); and, Vaikhari manifested in articulate expressions (Vac).

Para Vac is the ultimate and unmanifest principle of speech, the Sabda-tattva (Sabdasya tattvam or Sabda eva tattvam), where there is no subject-object distinction; and, is of the nature of the Absolute (vag vai Brahmeti).

Para vac is identified with Pranava (Aum), the primordial speech-sound from which all forms of speech emanated. It transforms or manifests (Vivarta or parinama) as all forms of sounds, speech etc.


According to Abhinavagupta, word is a symbol. The four stage of Vac: Para, Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari represent its four phases of evolution and also of absorption; the ascent or descent from the undifferentiated to the gross.

It is explained; Para Vac as Sabda-Brahman is the creative energy (Shakthi) that brings forth all existence. It is also the consciousness (chit, samvid), vital energy (prana shakthi) that vibrates (spanda) and enlivens.

While Para Vac is pure consciousness; the three other forms are its transformations. The three lower forms of speech viz. Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari which correspond to intention, formulation and expression are said to represent ts powers , such as :  iccha-shakthi (power of intent or will) , jnana-shakthi (power of knowledge) and the power of becoming (bhuti sakti) or the power of action (Kriya shakthi  ). Thus, out of the transcendent Para, the three phases of its power (Shakthi) emanate.

The urge to communicate or the spontaneous evolution of Para into Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari   epitomizes the Cosmic act of One becoming many; and, the subtle energy transforming into a less- subtle matter.

Thus, the speech, each time it emanates, is an enactment, in miniature, of the unfolding (Vimarsa) of the One into many.  And each time, when that speech is grasped by the listener and each time it merges into her/his intellect, it re-enacts the process of absorption (Samhara) of the many into One.

The process of manifestation of speech is, thus, compared to the evolution of the Universe. And, that process is said to take place in four stages. First, in the undifferentiated substratum of thought, an intention appears. This first impulse, the self-radiant consciousness is Para-vac (the voice beyond).  This latent, un-spoken, un-manifest, silent thought (Para) unfolds itself in the next three stages as Pashyanti (thought visualized), Madhyama (intermediate)   and as Vaikhari  (explicit) speech).

In its second stage, the subtle thought visualised (pashyanthi-vak) is yet to acquire a verbal form. It is the first sprout of an invisible seed (Bija); and, is the second stage in the manifestation of thought or intention. Then the potential sound, the vehicle of the thought, materializes finding   words suitable to express the idea. This transformation of thought into words, in the silence of the mind (Buddhi), is the third or the intermediate stage of Vac (Madhyama-vak). From this non-vocal or un-voiced thought, emerges the fourth stage – the audible sound patterns. It is in that fourth stage, the ideas acquire cognizable forms of speech; and, are transmitted through articulated audible syllables (vaikhari-vak).  These four stages are the four forms of the speech.



The three- Pashyanthi, Madhyama and Vaikhari – are construed as the three sides of the triangle at the centre of which is the dot-point (Bindu) representing the undifferentiated notion of Para-Vak. The triangle with the Bindu at its centre suggests the idea of Isvara the divinity conceived as non-dual Shiva-Shakti.

In the traditions of Tantra, the process of evolution of the principle of speech (Sabda Brahman) from its most subtle and soundless state of sound – consciousness (Para), in successive stages, into the gross physical speech (Vaikhari) is explained through the principle underling the structure of Sri Chakra.


Sri Yantra is a ‘Cosmogram’ – a graphic representation of the processes of evolution (Sristi) of the Universe emanating from its core; and, re-absorption (Samhara) of the created existence back into itself. And, at the very core or the centre of the Sri Chakra is the Bindu, the dimensionless point about to expand immensely. The Bindu denotes what is hidden; the subtle and the most sensitive.

It is said; the true nature of the Supreme Goddess is beyond mind and matter. She is limitless and formless. She is Arupa. But, when She takes a form, the Bindu is her intense representation. The Bindu symbolizes Her most subtle micro form as the Universal Mother, womb, yoni, creator, retainer as also the receiver of the created universe. It is this Bindu that is, in reality, the Sri Chakra; and, everything else is an expansion and manifestation of its aspects.

The Sri Vidya texts call the Bindu also as Sarva-ananda-maya (all blissful); and, the transcendental power (Para Shakthi). It denotes the absolute harmony (saamarasya) between Shiva and Shakthi; as the immense potential of the non-dual Shiva-Shakthi, the union of Purusha and Prakriti.

The evolution (shristi) from the primary state into the mundane level is said to be the apparent separation of Shiva and Shakthi (avarohana karma). And, the reverse process of re-absorption or withdrawal from the gross to the very subtle state is termed Samhara karma.

According to Sri Vidya ideology, in the process of evolution (Vimarsa), that is in the process of shristi or the outward movement or descending arc of creative activity, the speech proceeds from the creative consciousness pulsations (spanda) of the Devi as Para-Vac, the most subtle and silent form of speech-consciousness. And, in successive stages or forms,  it moves on to more cognizable forms as : Pashyanti (Vak-shakthi, going forth as seeing, ready to create in which there is no difference between Vachya– object and Vachaka-word); Madhyama (the speech in its subtle form as existing in the anthahkarana prior to manifestation); and, Vaikhari (as articulated gross physical speech).

If the Bindu represents the Para-Vac, its immediate expanded form, the triangle formed by three points, represents the Pashyanti, the second stage of the sound (Nada). The enclosure next to this, the eight sided figure (ashta kona chakra) is the Madhyama or the third stage in the development of sound. The rest of the Chakra represents the physical or the phenomenal stage, the Vaikhari, which is the manifest and articulate form of sound. The Vaikhari form is represented by the fifty letters of the alphabet, called Matrka-s or the source of all transactions and existence.

Thus, in the process of Sristi, in the outward movement from the centre of Reality to the periphery, from the most sublime to the ordinary, the Para assumes different forms, in successive stages. All these four forms, apparently different, are indeed the manifestations of Para Vac which pervades the entire structure of speech and consciousness, in all their levels – from the highest to the lowest; and, it transforms (Vivarta) projects itself in various forms (Parinama).  

 (Abhinavagupta treats these aspects in a very elaborate manner. We shall talk about the explanations provided by Abhinavagupta and Bhartrhari in the next part.)



 The Tantra explains the concept of Mantra and Japa in a similar manner.

Mantra is said to connect, in a very special way, the objective and subjective aspects of reality. The Mantra, in its sublime form, is rooted in pure consciousness. The Shaiva text Shiva Sutra describes Mantras as the unity of Vac and consciousness: Vac chittam (Shiva Sutra: 2.1). It is the living sound, transcending beyond the mental plane; the indistinct or undefined speech (anirukta) having immense potential.  In its next stage, it unites harmoniously with the mind. Here, it is union of mind (Manas) and word (Vac).  That is followed by the Mantra repeated in the silence of one’s heart (tushnim). The silent form of mantra is said to be superior to the whispered (upamasu) utterance.

[When one utters a deity’s Mantra, one is not naming the deity, but is evoking its power as a means to open oneself to it. It is said; mantra gives expression to the identity of the name (abhidana) with the object of contemplation (abhideya). Therefore, some describe mantra as a catalyst that’ allows the potential to become a reality’. It is both the means (upaya) and the end (upeya).]

The reverse is said to be the process of Japa (reciting or muttering the mantra). It moves from Vaikhari through Madhyama towards Pashyanti and ideally, and in very cases, to Para vak.

Ordinarily, Japa starts in Vaikhari form (vocal, muttering). The efficacy of the Japa does depend on the will, the dedication and the attentiveness of the person performing the Japa. After long years of constant practice, done with devotion and commitment, an extraordinary thing happens. Now, the Japa no longer depends on the will or the state of activity of the practitioner. It seeps into his consciousness; and, it goes on automatically, ceaselessly and inwardly without any effort of the person, whether he is awake or asleep. Such instinctive and continuous recitation is called Ajapa-japa. When this proceeds for a long-time, it is said; the consciousness moves upward (uccharana) and becomes one with the object of her or his devotion.

[The term Ajapa-japa is also explained in another manner. A person exhales with the sound ‘Sa’; and, she/he inhales with the sound ‘Ha’. This virtually becomes Ham-sa mantra ( I am He; I am Shiva). A person is said to inhale and exhale 21,600 times during a day and night. Thus, the Hamsa mantra is repeated (Japa) by everyone, each day, continuously, spontaneously without any effort, with every round of breathing in and out. And, this also is called Ajapa-japa.]



The system of Yoga also accepts and speaks in terms of Para, Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari. Here, those terms are meant to denote different sounds (Nada) or the stages of consciousness. It is explained:

: – Para is the most subtle form of sound, not audible; and, in its un-manifest (Avyakta) form resides as Nada at the base (Karana-bindu) in the centre of the Muladhara-chakra, solar plexus (Ekaiva nadatmika vak muladharadudita sati Para ityucyate)


: – And, with the ascent of Prana (vital energy) it moves up to Manipuraka-chakra in the region of navel; and, it is transformed to Pashyanti when it enters the heart-region (hradayakhya) and becomes visible to the Yogis (hradayakhya udiyamanatvat)


The Pashyanti (radiant) stage is compared to a well nourished seed (Bija) which sprouts into two leaves. it, then, acquires the qualities of subtle sound ( which is not audible to the physical ear) , and hue of colour (varna) which can be seen (Pashyan).

: – The Pashyanti, moving up and enters the mind (Buddhi) with a desire or the urge to express itself (Saiva buddhim gata vivaksam prapta madhyama ityucyate). And, on reaching the Anahata–chakra in the region of the heart, it is transformed into Madhyama Vac.  Anahata literally means un-struck. Here; the subtle sound (Nada) at the level of the mind is like ‘internal-speech’ which is heard, internally, by the Yogi.


[It is said; the Vac which sprouts in Para gives forth leaves in Pashyanti; buds forth in Madhyama; and, it blossoms in Vaikhari.]

: – When the Madhyama moves up further from heart-region to throat, tongue and mouth it becomes articulate (Vyakta) sound, clearly audible to the external ear at the Vishudhi -chakra. This is Vaikhari, the last stage of sound or speech when it emerges out of the mouth with the help of syllables, words etc and is heard by the listener. And, Vaikhari is the intended speech that comes out clearly through the mouth with the assistance of tongue, lips, teeth and the breath


(Atha yada saiva vaktre sthita talvosthadivyaparena bahirnirgacchati tada vaikhari ityuchyate)

Nageshabhatta in his Parama-laghu-manjusha also   describes the four forms of Vac (Para-Pashyanti-Madhyama- Vaikhari), in terms of the Yoga, as those arising from Muladhara, Nabi (navel); Hridaya (heart region) and Kanta (throat)



Other explanations

Various other interpretations are also imposed on these four terms.

It is said;   Para represents transcendental consciousness; Pashyanti the intellectual consciousness; Madhyama the cerebral consciousness; and, Vaikhari the physical consciousness.

Further, these levels of consciousness are said to correspond with varying levels of awareness:  Turia (the fourth, the transcendental or the one-beyond); Shushupti (deep sleep); Svapna (dream state) ; and Jagrat ( wakeful state) , in that order.

And again, these states of consciousness are said to relate to different states of being (bodies). Para which is referred to as the Supreme form; the first form; the pure and resplendent Highest-light etc, is indeed beyond all forms (Turiya); and it is formless. The sphere of consciousness at Pashyanti is said to be the causal body (Karana-sarira); at Madhyama, the subtle or psychic body (Sukshma-sarira); and at Vaikhari, the physical body (Sthula-sarira).

While Para is pure consciousness, the other three are said to be its powers through which it differentiates as its power of will (iccha shakthi) at the subtle level of Pashyanti; as the power of discrimination or knowledge (Jnana shakthi) at the mental level of Madhyama; and, as its power of action (Kriya Shakthi) at the physical  level of Vaikhari.


In the next part, let’s talk about the theories expounded and the explanations offered by two of the great thinkers – Abhinavagupta and Bhartrhari- on the subject.

Buddha Meditation Song




The next part

Sources and References

Ritam “The Word in the Rig-Veda and in Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem Savitri

.Vedic river and Hindu civilization; edited by Dr. S. Kalyanaraman

Original Sanskrit Texts on the Origin and History of the People of India…Edited by John Muir

Devata Rupa-Mala(Part Two) by Prof. SK Ramachandra Rao

The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5 edited by Harold G. Coward, K. Kunjunni Raja, Karl H



Posted by on April 8, 2017 in Artha-Meaning, Bhartrhari, Sanskrit


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Bhagavad-Gita Multiple interpretations- Part One



Bhagavad-Gita, by all accounts, is rather an unusual text.

Bhagavad-Gita, is revered as one among the exalted triad of the fundamental philosophical texts (Prasthana traya) of the Sanatana Dharma; the other two being the principal Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra which is the condensed essence of Upanishads . The Gita is accorded the position of Sadhana Prasthana (practical text); and, is regarded as the starting point of remembered tradition the Smriti Prasthāna.

[Sruti is the directly perceived truth, hence more authoritative. Smriti is the heard or meditated upon tradition that follows the Sruti.]

: – And yet; the Bhagavad-Gita is located within the Mahabharata, an Epic which is classified as Ithihasa, a narration of the past events. The Gita is conceived and developed as a solution to the climax of a Dharmic dilemma that emerges during the course of the Epic. As van Buitenen said; it was not an independent text that somehow wandered into the epic.  Mahabharata as Ithihasa is classified as Smriti, while the Bhagavad-Gita imbedded within it is assigned a superior and an exclusive position of a Sruti, though it deviates, in some respects, from the traditional Sruti format.

[However, the famous philosopher Dr. Surendranath Dasgupta in his monumental History of Indian philosophy makes an interesting observation. In the Rig Veda, he observes, Vishnu is called as Gopa, Sipivishta, Urukrama, etc., but not as Narayana. Then he goes on to say, similarly, Bhagavad Gita does not use the term Narayana; but, the Mahabharata identifies Narayana with Vishnu. This, according to him, could show that Bhagavad Gita was composed much before Mahabharata tale was reduced to writing. He opines, Bhagavad Gita was composed when Narayana was yet to be equated with Vishnu.

In contrast to that, Eknath Easwaran asserts that the Gita was composed much later under the realities of a new age. It ‘is not an integral part of the Mahabharata. It is essentially an Upanishad, and my conjecture is that it was set down by an inspired seer and inserted into the epic (later).’]

: – Though Bhagavad-Gita appears as a part of the Mahabharata, it is studied and commented upon as an independent text, complete in itself. All the Acharyas who wrote Bhashya-s (commentary) on the Gita regarded it as a Sruti; and a source text of valid knowledge.  It was even considered as the fifth Veda (Panchama Veda); and, cited as a Pramana (a text of undisputed authority) on a range of questions.

: – The conversation (Samvada) that takes place in the Gita is not very lengthy, not exceeding 700 verses; and yet, it caused thousands of commentaries over the centuries.

[The Gita of about 700 verses appears in the third section of the Sixth Parva – the Bhishma Parva spread over 117 Chapters – ‘A little shrine within a vast temple’.]

:-  Gita regards the Absolute Reality  as Brahman to which nothing can be attributed ; as well as Saguna Brahman , a divinity with most adorable qualities; and also as an ideal human being in the form of Krishna, the manifest Brahman. Gita refers to all the three forms without contradictions. They all are viewed as the different aspects of the One or THAT which is beyond –Tat Param

[Gita does not mention the term Avatar at all. Perhaps the concept of Avatar was then yet to be evolved. But, the seeds of an idea of a God who descends and takes forms on earth are present- sambhavami  yuge-yuge.]

: – As a philosophical text, Bhagavad-Gita is a part of the basic source-book of the Vedanta which speaks in terms of Brahman, the Absolute, infinite and eternal. But as a religious Book, it could even be reckoned as a Vaishnava text, since it regards Vishnu (Krishna) as the Supreme Lord of the Universe. And, it is closely associated with the Srimad-Bhagavata and related traditions of Vaishnava doctrine. Thus, Bhagavad-Gita is not only the revelation by Krishna, but also the revelation of Krishna as the Supreme Being.

 [However , the scholars of the Kashmir Shaiva School, such as Rajanak Ramkanth (Sarvatobhadra – 850 AD); Bhatta Bhaskara (Bhagavad-Gita Tika – 900 AD); and, Abhinavgupta (Bhagavadgitarth Samgraha – 950 to 1050AD) interpreted Bhagavad-Gita from the Shaiva point of view and regard it as the one among the Shaiva-Agama class of texts.]

: – At another level, the Gita could even be seen as a personal god in conversation with a human being. The involvement of a divine being (as an inspiring leader) on an earthly battlefield and asking the warrior to carry on the fight is truly interesting. It, somehow, seems to mark the limits of the human; and , to point to the nature of war, prompted by god, as an avoidable necessity for restoration of moral order (Dharma) on the earth.

This view, needless to say, is highly debatable.

[The Samkhya concept of the Purusha and Parakrti; the passive and the active; the   inspirer and the doer, runs throughout the Indian texts in one form or the other.  The Nara-Narayana is the classic model of this concept. Here too, Krishna (Narayana) does not fight; but, motivates Arjuna (Nara) the warrior to carry on the fight. Krishna is the awakener (the Sun).]

:-  The  religion , which for whatever reasons,  is known as ‘Hinduism’ does not have a Book  per se;   but therein , the Gita has come to be recognized as a Holy Book upon which one swears to ’tell the truth , the whole truth and nothing but truth’.

: – Further, while the other ancient Indian texts are gradually fading out of the discussions among the common people, the Bhagavad-Gita and its ‘message’ is still being debated, with some fervor . And, no other Sanskrit work approaches the Bhagavad-Gita in the influence it has exerted in the West as the chief philosophical statement of Hinduism.

: – The narrative structure of the Gita is rather peculiar, as the scholar Devdutt Pattanaik points out in his My Gita:

dritharastra-sanjayaWe never actually hear what Krishna told Arjuna. We simply overhear what Sanjaya transmitted faithfully to the blind king Dhritarashtra in the comforts of the palace, having witnessed all that occurred on the distant battlefield, thanks to his telepathic sight. The Gita we overhear is essentially that which is narrated by a man with no authority but with a distant sight (Sanjaya) to a man with no sight but with full authority (Dhritarashtra). This peculiar structure of the narrative draws attention to the vast gap between what is told and what is heard.

Krishna and Sanjaya may speak exactly the same words, but while Krishna knows what he is talking about, Sanjaya does not. Krishna is the source, while Sanjaya is merely a transmitter. Likewise, what Sanjaya hears is different from what Arjuna hears and what Dhritarashtra hears.

Sanjaya hears the words, but does not bother with the meaning. Arjuna is a seeker and so he de-codes what he hears in order to find a solution to his problem. Arjuna, during the ‘conversation’, asks many questions and clarifications’, to ensure that the he properly understands the purport of the ‘discourse’.

 In contrast, Dhritarashtra remains silent throughout. In fact, Dhritarashtra is not interested in what Krishna has to say; but is rather fearful of what Krishna might do to his children, the Kauravas.

: – As regards the treatment of its subjects, the Bhagavad-Gita describes itself as the essence of all the Upanishads. The Upanishads by their very nature are philosophical speculations transcending the physical world. The Gita on the other hand teaches about living a worthwhile, meaningful life in the world among fellow beings – Jivana- Dharma – Yoga.

:- Further, the Upanishads which aspire to understand the essential nature of all things in the Universe and in the individual, as also the relation between the two , emphasize the superiority of knowledge (Jnana) over action (karma). In the Gita, Krishna on the other hand, asks Arjuna to follow the path of action and to act decisively. The confused Arjuna, naturally, queries Krishna for a clear direction: ’Oh, Janardhana, if you consider Knowledge (Jnana) to be superior to action, why then do you instruct me to perform this terrible act?’   (BG.  3. 1 – 2).

The Gita does not seem to favor renunciation or total withdrawal from the world resulting in inactivity, nivritti. Instead the Gita teaches a sort of Jnana that endorses renunciation of desires, of fruits of action. It advocates activity pravritti with the renunciation of the fruits of action. Gita terms it as ‘inaction in action and action in inaction’ (4.18). That is, performing acts according to ones calling, with equanimity; and, relinquishing the fruits of one’s actions.

anaashrita karma phalam kaaryam karma karoti yah
sa sannyaasi ca yogi ca na niragnir na ca akriyaha

One who does not depend on the fruits of action but does the work which is his duty. He is a sanyaasi and also a yogi, not the one who has renounced fire (rituals) and not one who (merely) does nothing (Bg. 6.1)

yoga yukto vishuddhaatmaa vijitaatmaa jitenriyaha
sarva bhutaatma bhutaatmaa kurvan api na lipyate

He who  by following Yoga, has purified the mind; has controlled the mind;  has controlled the senses; sees his own Self in all beings; and, does not get tainted even if he does work (Bg. 5.7)

 [Krishna, of course, succeeds in reconciling the deep chasm between the two paths or approaches (Jnana and karma) by introducing the unique concept of internal renunciation, as opposed to external renunciation.

By reconciling otherwise two contradictory ideas, Krishna offers a realistic system which intertwines performance of one’s responsibilities in life without getting too attached to it. It cautions that an un-restrained desire for the fruits of one’s action, more often than not, leads to major blunders in decision making, both in personal and social life.

In this way, the Bhagavad-Gita adheres to both the ideals. It supports involvement in the performance of one’s social and moral responsibilities according to ones Dharma in life; and, at the same time it endorses the Upanishad ideal of self-realization which leads to liberation from confines of relative existence.  ]


Manifold paths

The Gita begins with a response to Arjuna entering a state of despondency just at the time when he was required to perform. This is the initial problem of the Gita. Krishna’s teaching will, in later stages, cover several other paths or approaches to life; but, the initial focus is on the problem of action, with Karma Yoga as the solution. It is self-less performance with equanimity; equal acceptance of pleasure and pain; and, renouncing fruits of one’s action.

Jnana Yoga is the discipline of knowledge of Self; recognizing ones true identity. It also means knowing clearly; realizing one’s own divinity; and, also seeing the divine in human and the earthly.

The first-half of the Gita essentially teaches a combination of Karma-yoga and Jnana-yoga – to act selflessly with true knowledge of the reality. Here, Equanimity serves as a foundation standing upon which one can look beyond and reach for a reality that is totally different, the Absolute.

Though the wise one fights battles, he does it with composure and with lack of enmity or hate or self-interest. The enemy, after all, is as much a manifestation of God as the warrior is.

The Bhakti-yoga is the path of love, complete surrender in guileless faith, and absolute devotion to the divine. It aims to experience the splendor of the divine in all its manifestations (Lila), and immerse in its delight (Ananda).

The Dhyana–yoga or Raja-yoga, the Royal way, is the discipline of meditation, withdrawing the senses, calming the mind and clearing it of confusions and other delusions. It seems to be based in the eight-fold (Astanga) Yoga system of the Sage Patanjali, though there are no explicit references to  it; and, there are also no separate verses or chapters devoted to this discipline

Arjuna begins in bewilderment and depression; and at the end, stands up to fight his cousins with composure.

[One of the commentators observes: assuming that the Gita was an insertion into the Epic; and, given the fact that the great battle did eventually take place, the outcome of the Gita could not have been different. Arjuna had to fight, in any case.]



It appears that the Bhagavad-Gita was composed during a vibrant period when growing verities of options for attaining liberation (Moksha) from confines of human limitations were hotly debated and ardently explored.

Bhagavad-Gita frequently refers to the fundamental philosophical concepts of Smakhya and Yoga Darshana-s. It is also based in many Upanishads providing verities of solutions to human predicaments, as also suggesting pointers to the understanding of the Universe, the individual and the relation that  exists between the two. The Bhagavad-Gita, in that process, draws upon many sources.

In that progression, the Bhagavad-Gita elaborates on the varied disciplines and paths of Jnana (knowledge), Karma (action), and Bhakti (devotion) as also Yoga for attainment of the highest good. The text calls itself Yoga-shastra – the science and knowledge of Yoga.   The term Yoga is used in Gita in a variety of senses. And, Yoga here also stands for Marga, the path; be it the path of knowledge (Jnana-yoga), devotion (Bhakthi-yoga) or the path of action (Karma-yoga). In all these paths, the essential message of renouncing the fruits of action is stressed. The Gita does not explicitly support one Yoga over the other. It rather extols one Yoga then another or a combination of Yogas. It is to be understood as a many-sided system with various elements harmonized.

Does not seem to favor a particular path

The discourse on those subjects, however, is not arranged in a systematic manner. The Gita gathers and combines different trains of ideas just as it finds them in traditionally accepted Schools, without much effort to harmonize them. The text does not seem to hold up a single discipline or path as its ‘true message’. And, such ambiguity in its ‘message’ or the adaptability of ‘its message’  to different Schools of Philosophy and to the circumstances in life  has led to plethora of interpretations, each claiming that it has certainly grasped the ‘true message ‘of the Bhagavad-Gita.

One can even say that the scope for deriving varied types of  interpretations becomes possible mainly because of the unique virtue of the Gita which allows each reader  to discover its essence, in his or her own manner, at his or her own pace and terms.

Deciphering its meaning and its ‘true’ philosophical intent is neither easy nor simple. Some of the greatest minds have grappled with the philosophical problems present in it.


The ways of reading the Gita

There are several ways of reading Bhagavad-Gita. It can be read as a literary work or poetry of merit with allegorical imagery; it can be read as a part of Oriental studies; and, it can also be read as a philosophical work.

As a work of literature, its literary or poetical aspects would be discussed and the allegories would be highlighted. As a work of Indology, its historical background and linguistic aspects would be examined. Such a scrutiny would focus on the date of its composition; on speculations about its plausible author or author/s; or on the question of its relation to the context of the Mahabharata-events. 

But, it is the study and explanations of Gita’s philosophical outlook, its conceptual structure and speculations about its ‘true message’ that has given rise to diverse stand points and multiple interpretations. Such interpretations over the centuries have been so diverse and   so complicated, one wonders whether they all were referring to one and the same text.

The Gita’s adaptability to different kinds of philosophical interpretation is partly caused by the effort of its composer/s to bind within it the tenets of several philosophical schools (Darshana-s) including Samkhya, Yoga and the devotional aspects of the then emerging Bhakthi traditions. That, to an extent, injected ambiguities and incompatibilities in reading and interpreting the text.

The phenomenon of multiple interpretations of the Gita has continued over the long centuries. At different times or phases in the history, fresh interpretations of the ‘true message ‘of the Gita sprang up, each in the context of its own times, environment and preferred attitudes. Each successive interpretation of the Gita was at variance with its previous one.  And yet, what is most amazing is that each of those varied interpretations is valid in its own context.

That is to say; each commentator has diligently gone about in putting forth his honest understanding of the ‘true message’ of the Gita. Each commentary of the Gita is thus a subjective view of the text. The ‘message of the Gita’ might indeed be all of those assorted interpretations; and, even be more.

The quest for objective truth or the real truth of the Gita is still very much on, even thousands of years after it was uttered on a distant battle field, amidst two huge armies raring to go at each other.


Quest for objective truth

The quest for objective truth – (what did Krishna say, exactly?) – is another cause for emergence of multiple interpretations and countless number of commentaries. In the zeal to uphold his own interpretation as the objective truth of the Bhagavad-Gita, each commentator, somehow, seemed to get intolerant of the ones that differed from his own. That, in a way, is rather uncharacteristic of the Indian tradition which accommodates within itself and harmonizes various seemingly contrary positions.

All the branches of Indian traditions, notably the Jain, have always tried to adopt the concept of Anekāntavāda which, essentially, is a principle that encourages acceptance of multiple or plural views on a given subject. The Buddha too said that merely judging the issue from individual (separate) stand points of view would lead to wrong conclusions; it would be prudent to approach each issue from more than one point of view (aneka-amsika).

[Devadatta Kali (David Nelson) in the introduction to his very well written work Svetasvataropanisad: the Knowledge That Liberates writes:

Although the Indian thinkers are not immune to disputation , by and large , their culture has valued the principle of accommodation and acceptance…Throughout the centuries of Indian philosophical traditions , the differing views have often been seen as just that – as differing views of a single reality that lies beyond human power of articulation. The tendency has often been to harmonize opposing views as distinct parts of a larger whole whose fullness lies well beyond the reach of mere perception or reason. It needs to be stressed that the primary purpose of sacred literature is to impart spiritual knowledge, not to fuel intellectual or sectarian debate – or to create confusion.]

The basic idea here is that the reality could be perceived differently from diverse points of view; and, that no single point of view should be taken to be the complete truth, to the exclusion of all others. The varied views could either be taken together to comprise the complete truth or as different dimensions of a single reality.

Bhagavad-Gita is a multi-layered text with many avenues for exploration.  I, therefore, reckon that an Anekāntavāda approach would be more appropriate in understanding its manifold message, rather than steam- pressing it into a particular mold.


Is there a need to seek for the ‘objective-truth?’

That again begs the question: is there a need to seek for the ‘objective-truth’ of the Gita? Because, there is a danger that such monolithic one’s own ‘objective–truth’ might shut out the options of myriad other plausible meanings. Thus, a purely objective view, despite its merit, seems to limit itself to a particular slot.

There is, therefore, surely some merit in subjective approach to the study and understanding of the Gita. In fact, some have suggested that each could try to compose his own Gita according to her/his own understanding and inclination. As Shri Devdutt Pattanaik observes: The quest for subjective truth (how does The Gita make sense to me?) allows each (after listening to the various Gita-s around him/her) to discover one’s own Gita at his or her own pace, on his or her own terms.

The Gita itself seems to advocate subjectivity. Bhagavad-Gita in its structure and narration adopts the idea of free-will.   At the conclusion of his discourse, Krishna counsels Arjuna to reflect on what has been said, and then do as he rightly feels.

For instance; Krishna says that his teaching can be perceived directly (Pratyaksha-avagamam) according to one’s understanding (BG.9.2)

And again, in Chapter 12 of the Gita, Krishna counsels:

Fix your mind on me alone, and absorb your consciousness in me; thus you shall surely abide in me. If you cannot fix your consciousness steadily upon me, then aspire to reach me through repeated yoga practice. O Dhananjaya, if you are incapable of even that, embrace the path of action, for which I am the highest goal, since by acting for me you shall attain perfection. But if you are unable to follow even that path of refuge in me through acts devoted to me, then give up the fruits of all your actions, thus restraining yourself. Knowledge is superior to practice; meditation is superior to knowledge; and, relinquishing the fruits of action is higher than meditation, as tranquility soon follows such relinquishment.

What really is the true vision or Darshana of this ancient, sacred and marvelous treatise named Bhagavad-Gita, the song celestial?


Pluralism of the Gita

The multiple interpretations or pluralisms of approaches in understanding the Bhagavad-Gita have an extensive and illustrious history. During that long period, different aspects of the Gita came into the fore; new meanings were read into its passages; and attempts were made to adopt its ‘message’ to suit new or emerging situations.

The history of the interpretations of the Gita can broadly be considered under the following heads:

: – The Acharyas

The medieval period starting with Sri Sankara ( 8th century)  followed by  the  Bhashyas of Sri Ramanuja , Sri Madhwa and other Acharyas as also  that of Abhinavagupta analyzed and commented upon the Gita in terms of the traditional Vedanta concepts of Advaita, Visistadavaita and Davaita;   and assigned primacy either to Jnana (knowledge) or to  Bhakti ( devotion) or to Karma ( action) . Each scholar went  according to the  principal philosophical precept of his School of thought , while sidelining the other plausible interpretations .

Santa Jnanesvar or Jnanadeva (1274-1297) of Maharashtra in his celebrated rendition of the Bhagavad-Gita – Jnaneshwari (Bhavarth Deepika) – taught  the path of loving and guileless devotion (Akritrim Bhakthi) and self-less action as the true way. He said that everyone should perform his/her duty lovingly as a Yajna and offer his or her actions as flowers at the feet of the Lord. According to Jnanadeva; it is through such Bhakthi and Bhakthi alone that the Supreme Reality can be realized


: – The Colonial period

The period starting with the middle of the 18th Century when the English, German and French translations of the Bhagavad-Gita , captured the attention of the intellectuals as also that of the general-readers, widened the range of its readership as also the scope for its varied interpretations. Initially, Bhagavad-Gita gained publicity mainly as a rare cultural object retrieved from the unknown past of the distant East; and , in particular , as ’a curious specimen of mythology and an authentic standard of the faith and religious opinions of the Hindoos’.

: – That was followed by study of the Gita as a literary work. It proved to be a major influence on Romantic literature in Europe and Britain.

: – And, to the intellectuals and philosophers in the West, the Gita provided a perceptive view of the Hindu philosophy.  Among the scholars, the linguistic study of the Sanskrit text of the Gita; the historicity of the Mahabharata event; the questions of its authenticity and its date; the enquiry into its plausible author /authors and so on were widely discussed.

:-  The Gita evoked a different sort of reaction among the Christian Missionaries , They saw in it a possibility ’ to encourage a form of monotheist ‘Unitarianism’ ; to draw Hinduism away from the polytheism  ascribed to the Vedas’;  and,  to pave  way to spread Christianity in India.

:-  As the English and French translations of the Gita began to gather attention from among the educated class of the Colonial India of the 19th Century , it led to review and re-assessment of the principles of the Hindu philosophy and the practices of its faiths . The Western educated intellectuals and social reformers such as Raja Ram Mohun Roy regarded it as the essence of all Shastrus; and. interpreted Gita as a message for self-less action.

Though the Brahmo Samaj did not seem to have got the Gita translated , Debendranath Tagore tried interpreting Gita , in the Biblical mode,  as a sort of allegory depicting  the final battle (Armageddon) between the forces of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

: – The Western scholars

Following its translations into European languages, the Gita gained a sort of territorial transcendence, spreading its influence beyond Asia. The Gita came to be regarded by the western scholars as a universally acclaimed text.

Among the Western scholars, the Bhagavad-Gita came to be looked upon as the authentic essence of Hinduism. And, and it became the most influential work on Indian thought. The German philosopher William Von Humboldt called Gita: the most beautiful, perhaps the only true philosophical song existing in any known language –the deepest and most elevated text the world has ever seen.  He was fascinated by its concept of Dharma delineated in various layers.    Similarly, TH Griffith saw Yoga taught in the Gita as the discipline of life, giving a deep insight into the ebb and flow of human desires and aspirations. And, the German Indologist JW Huer described Gita as a ‘work of imperishable significance’ calling upon people to ‘master the riddle of life’.

Max Muller too believed ‘that textual authority of Gita should have pride of place in official knowledge about India’; but, he placed Gita next to Vedas in its authority and importance.


: – The Theosophists

The Theosophists recognized the Bhagavad-Gita as one of the major spiritual texts of the world.  Among the Theosophists, the allegorical approach with its esoteric and philosophical interpretations gained more importance. The historical and mythological context was kept in the background just to explain the context of the Gita. According to them, Krishna in the Gita represented Logos the objective expression of the Absolute; while Arjuna represented the Monad, Nara, the whole of mankind rather than as a single person.

They explained life as an evolutionary process in which an individual evolves from lower to higher, from grosser physical forms to subtle spiritual forms of beings. The Gita, according to Theosophists is a framework for such a progression.

Theosophists interpreted the concept of one’s duty in terms of the Sva-dharma. They presented the world as a conditioned reality similar   to a huge game in which each piece must move in accordance with the rules governing its movements in order to keep the game going.

: – Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda while in the West compared Krishna’s teachings to that of Jesus. And, while at Home   he spoke about the inner battles in human heart and mind. And he also described Krishna and Arjuna as men of action who could provide inspiration to reform and rejuvenate the Indian society that was fast degenerating into chaos and confusion. He also called for resistance against British oppression.

While laying more importance on the Gita’s larger allegorical meaning, Swami Vivekananda acknowledged the validity of historical research. But, he also said that mere discussion on   the historical aspects of the Gita cannot help one in acquisition of dharma, or moral righteousness’. The idea is: the Bhagavad-Gita is not merely a historically specific conversation; but, it is an ongoing teaching that has universal relevance. It is a process taking place all the times in each ones heart.

 He remarked:

 “One thing should be especially remembered here, that there is no connection between these historical researches and our real aim, which is the knowledge that leads to the acquirement of Dharma. Even if the historicity of the whole thing is proved to be absolutely false today, it will not in the least be any loss to us. Then what is the use of so much historical research, you may ask. It has its use, because we have to get at the truth; it will not do for us to remain bound by wrong ideas born of ignorance.”

: – The Nationalists in the Freedom movement

While the Theosophists tried to provide allegorical and esoteric interpretations of Gita as spiritual struggles, the Nationalists in the Colonial India of the 19th and early 20th century mainly from Bengal and Maharashtra saw it in quite another manner.

The freedom movement gave a great impetus to the study of Gita. Many saw it as national symbol that held within its bosom answers to the burning questions of colonial India. The Key word from the Gita taken by the nationalists was Loka-sangraha – welfare or involvement in the world. That phrase occurs only two times in the Gita (3.20, 25). Then,  there also came into use an  expression that is not found in the Gita . It gained much currency in the 20th century – Nish-Kama-karma, self-less action. Linking of these concepts with national movement for Independence and social reforms did much to bring forth Gita into popular debates. The nationalists promoted Gita as a central work of a rising Indian national ethos.

It is indeed remarkable that so many of India’s political and intellectual leaders of the last century and a half wrote detailed and extensive commentaries on the Gita. There were two broad categories of interpretations. One; as a sort of romantic allegorical  visions of the battle against forces of lower tendencies such as greed, ego, selfishness etc; and, the other, as an authentic source of state craft that prompted to reconsider the nature of politics itself . The latter, led to gathering support for reform efforts and for justifying a fight against the British rule for attaining independence.

Among the former category, Bamkim Chandra Chattopadyaya (1836-1894) provided great inspiration for the National movement, giving impetus to the concept of Motherland as the Goddess India, Mother India. He also depicted Krishna as the ideal person who exemplifies human virtues – a god-like person who was earthly wise and sublimely spiritual in his core. He projected Gita as an answer to West’s technological domination; and as India’s stand  asserting  the merits of  ancient wisdom in the face of colonial oppression.

Sri Aurobindo, who followed Bamkim Chandra, regarded Gita as an absolutely splendid revelation holding forth a Universal message.  He advised that Gita should be approached by forgetting all the religious and academic arguments that highlight or decry one Yoga (paths) or the other. The integrated vision of the Gita, he said, transcends all such limited interpretations.  He envisioned  Gita as a divine action, where the battle field (Krukshetra) is in the heart and soul of every human being. Each one of us, potentially brave, fights in his or her own way with the confronting doubts, desperation, fears and frustrations. Krishna is the one, hidden behind the veils of our psyche and mind, who reveals the mysteries of life. Sri Aurobindo stressed that in the present age it was necessary to understand the Dharma, Karma and Yogas in contemporary sense.

The more militant among the Indian nationalists projected India as the Motherland and Krishna as Avatar who rescued the nation from jaws of A-dharma and to establish Dharma. They accepted the call of the Gita for righteous struggle for national independence, even if it might require violence.  The new battlefield, according to them, was the British Raj; and , they found in Gita a strong support for engaged social and political action, the karma yoga.

Lokamanya Bal Gangaadhar Tilak, who at that time was imprisoned in Burma, presented Gita as an allegory for fighting a just war that historical circumstances had forced upon Indian nation and Indian people.

Even  while calling for a just war (Dharma-yuddha), these commentaries  did maintain a sense of composure and detachment. Just as Arjuna did not regard his warring cousins as foes, the British were also  not targeted as the ‘enemy’; not because of fear but in the interest of generating a broad theoretical principle for establishing a basis  for their political ideology and its strategy. Such an approach allowed Indian leaders to outline a political framework that would serve them well even beyond and after imperialism.

At the same time, at the ground level, there were also groups, organized or otherwise, that believed in disruptive violence as the effective means for overthrowing the alien imperialist power. 

In either case, the Gita provided a stable point of conceptual references, even while there was a range of multiple interpretations on the related issues.

: – Gandhi

Though all the nationalist leaders agreed that purposeful action was needed to attain independence, the form that such action should take, however, remained a point of heated contention. This is where the faith and the views of Mohandas Gandhi become very significant.

Gandhi called the Bhagavad-Gita his ‘dictionary of daily reference’ and his ‘Mother.’ He spoke and wrote widely on it throughout his career. Gandhi, in contrast to other major nationalist leaders, held no commitment more important than his principle of non-violence. But, he ran into a serious interpretive problem because in the course of the Gita Krishna persuades the reluctant warrior Arjuna to take part in an internecine disastrous battle.

Gandhi believed that the message of the Mahabharata itself was the virtues of non-violence; and, the Gita which was but a small segment of it carried a similar message. He wrote:

the author of the Mahabharata has not established the necessity of physical warfare; on the contrary he has proved its futility. He made the victors shed tears of sorrow and repentance; and has left them nothing but legacy of misery.

The question whether the true teaching of the Gita favors violence or non-violence became vitally important to Gandhi. He needed a clear , firm and an honest answer to anchor his faith in his struggle for India’s freedom ; to provide a principled public resistance; and, above all to ensure the authenticity of his inner spiritual life. The Gita, as he understood and practiced, was the foundation of his struggle without hatred, without passion (Nish-Kama-karma) with the attitude ‘mine is but to fight for my meaning, no matter whether I win or lose.’

And, that led Gandhi to offer a particularly distinct interpretation of the Bhagavad-Gita, where Krishna instead of asking Arjuna to fight the war, instructs him to ‘fight the battle within the self; to battle passion and selfishness’.

According to Gandhi, Gita demonstrates the futility of violence; and its true message is non-violence and peace. At the end of the Mahabharata, nearly everyone on both sides is killed. Supporting  Gandhi’s view, ‘The epic’, writes Amartya Sen, ‘ends largely as a tragedy, with a lamentation about death and carnage, and there is anguish and grief … It is hard not to see in this something of a vindication of Arjuna’s profound doubts.’

The battlefield, Gandhi argued, must be taken as an interior one, where the forces of good and evil are locked in never-ending struggle.  The Bhagavad-Gita, he said, is not about the battle that is waged on the field of dirt soaked in blood; but, it is about the ever going conflict within the human heart between the forces of good and evil.

Gandhi said; when Krishna asked to fight, he meant fighting ones lower impulses and not to cling to its rewards; to overcome any self-interested inclinations; and,  to carry out his own righteous duty. One must be equally disposed to ones enemy as to oneself.

Gandhi based his own authority as an interpreter of the Gita on his personal endeavor “to enforce the meaning in my own conduct for an unbroken period of forty years.” Gandhi also claimed that the Gita was not a Hindu work, but rather one of “pure ethics,” which a person of any faith might read and follow.

Gandhi firmly believed that complete renunciation is not possible without total observance of Ahimsa (non-violence) in every form and shape.

Gandhi said that if one has to fight, one should fight non-violently.  Thus, Violence and denial of violence became major issues for debate and action.

Gandhi’s faith in Ahimsa as the core of the Gita gave rise to Satyagraha as an effective means to express one’s protest and to offer resistance without indulging in violence. According to him, a Satyagrahi should be willing to die like a soldier (Kshatriya) for the cause of India’s independence. Satyagraha was Gandhi’s unique contribution to fight against oppression and injustice.

This was in sharp contrast to the interpretation offered by the leaders of India’s nationalist movement such as Sri Aurobindo and others to fight a just war for liberating the Motherland. In fact, during Second War Sri Aurobindo called on Indian people to support the British in its war efforts and fight along with the British against fascist Germany.

: – Aldous Huxley

Similarly, in Aldous Huxley’s famous introduction to the translation of the Gita by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood (The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita, Hollywood: M. Rodd Co., 1944) which was published just after the end of World War II, the questions of war, violence gained special significance. Writing in the midst of a war of destruction and violence on an unprecedented scale, Huxley re-read and re-imagined the Gita in a mode which rejected the utter need to kill. He, like Gandhi, emphasized that the true message of the Gita is not violence; but, on the contrary, the futility and uselessness of violence, self-destruction; and, the harm it can bring upon whole generations.


: – Allegorical Interpretations

Since the early periods the allegorical interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita have been in vogue, by looking upon Kurukshetra as not a mere geographical region or historic battle.

Abhinavagupta, in his Gitartha-sangraha, a commentary on Bhagavad-Gita, refers to a tradition of interpreting Kurushetra as zone of war that takes place between the righteous and un-righteous tendencies within the human body.  According to him, Kurushetra is something more than a geographical venue where a battle took place among the cousins and their supporters.

Similar allegorical interpretations of the Gita became quite a regular feature by the turn of the nineteenth century; and it has been carried forward ever since. Such interpretations fall in to two broad categories: One, to battle against forces of lower tendencies such as greed, ego, selfishness etc; and, the other, to gather support for reform efforts and for justifying a fight against the British rule for attaining independence.

For Sri Aurobindo, ‘the physical fact of war is only an outward manifestation of a general principle of life. The war symbolizes all aspects of struggle that takes place all the time, both in our inner and outer living.. Life is a battle and a field of death; this is Kurukshetra’.

For Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Kurushetra signified Dharmakshetra, a just war against oppressive foreign rule.

Edwin Arnold too referred to Kurukshetra as human body, the field where Life disports.

Gandhi followed Arnold’s interpretation that Kurukshetra is where an eternal struggle is taking place within us.


The present-day

In the present day, the discussions about Bhagavad-Gita in terms of Advaita – Dvaita; or Jnana-Karma-Bhakti have become very rare. The focus is now more on Gita’s stand on the question of violence; whether it advocates or shuns violence; the efficacy or the moral justification for resorting to violence as a vehicle for expressing one’s protest against the establishment.

There are a notable few who adopted the Gandhian method of Ahimsa to fight against oppression. The celebrated ones among such votaries of non-violence are:  the HH the Dalai Lama the spiritual leader of the displaced Tibetans who firmly believes that the all-embracing ‘concept’ of Ahimsa is the proper solution for any human conflict; Dr. Martin Lather King who led the civil disobedience movement against racial discrimination; and, Aung San Suu Kyi the Burmese nationalist leader who influenced by the philosophy of non-violence of the Buddha and of Gandhi chose non-violence as an expedient political tool in her struggle for democracy and human rights.

In India, we have the dauntless lady Irom Sharmila from Manipur who during August 2016 quit  her 16 long years of fast demanding repealing of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.  We also have Anna Hazare who largely adopted non-violent protests and hunger strikes (a la Gandhi)   in his struggles to promote rural development, to increase government transparency, and to investigate and punish corruption in public life etc.  And, there is Medha Patkar, the resolute social activist and social reformer, ever engaged in various protests.  These and such other well-meaning protesters, sadly, have not met with much success.

Apart from these and few others there is hardly any who has earnestly adopted Ahimhsa in her/his struggle against injustice. The Gandhian way seems to be losing its ground in India. This seems to reflect the state of our being; the times we live in; and, the values we cherish.

Let’s take, for instance, the Indian situation.

The India of the present-day is no longer under foreign rule. It is now governed by the political parties elected by the Indian citizens. The question is:  whether one is entitled or justified for expressing dissent in a violent manner. The question was answered by a resounding YES by the Naxalite and such other militant groups. They sought to find moral justification for taking up arms by quoting Bhagavad-Gita.

A similar justification is made out by the Jihadist terrorist groups who, strangely, also quote the Gita for carrying out their violent attacks.

Even the protests involving inter state river-water disputes, social injustice etc is marked by violence and vandalism destroying public property.

: – There are also those who denounce the ‘message of the Gita’ for various reasons.

For instance:

 Mahatma Jotiba Phule (1827-1890) who was a pioneer in raising awareness of the rights of the Shudras and Ati-shudras (OBC and SC, as classified now) regarded Manu Smruti and the Gita as signs of slavery (Gulamgiri).

Dr. BR Ambedkar, in his essay, Krishna and His Gita, wrote, ‘The philosophic defense offered by the Bhagavad Gita of the Kshatriya’s duty to kill is, to say the least, puerile.’

The infamous Wendy Doniger has said: “The Bhagavad-Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think. Throughout the Mahabharata, Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviors such as war. The Gita is a dishonest book.”

And, Meghnad Desai, economist and politician, in his Who wrote Bhagavad-Gita, declared the Gita as ‘unsuitable to modern India’ whose Constitution commits it to ‘a world of social equity and democratic freedoms. The Kurukshetra war was fought over land dispute and Krishna’s sermon to Arjuna to fulfill his caste obligation. The message of the Gita is casteist and misogynist and as such profoundly in opposition to the spirit of modern India.’


: – The other views

There have, therefore, been many intellectuals who condemn what is presumed to be ‘the message of the Gita’.

They question:  how can a spiritual being command one to wage a war knowing well the disaster that a war would bring upon the society at large and on the women and children in particular?

As regards the question of Nishkama karma (selfless action), as the scholar Easwaran writes:

the Gita’s focus is relentlessly on the doer’s attitude while he dispenses his Dharmic duty, not on what he actually does to others and its human impact. Krishna is thus able to ask Arjuna to perform ‘all actions for my sake, completely absorbed in the Self, and without expectations, fight!’

As VR Narla put it, ‘while action without seeking some personal gain can be noble, action without any care for its evil consequences to other men [is] reprehensible, even diabolical.

In The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen too finds this problematic: ‘Krishna argues that Arjuna must do his duty, come what may, and in this case he has a duty to fight, no matter what results from it … Why should we want only to “fare forward” and not also “fare well”?

Many wonder, how could the essential teaching of the great scripture be as simple and blatant as to favor war and violence? These wise scholars sought to encourage the readers/listeners to look beyond the obvious; to delve deep; and , to un-fathom its metaphorical allegorical message.

Such bewilderment stems essentially from anxiety, dilemma and loss of direction; but not necessarily from fear or cowardice.


Apart from the questions of violence and war, the Gita is of much  significance to the present-day world – a reflective person cannot act confidently without a thorough knowledge of the rightness of the motive and effect. Action and knowledge are very efficacious when combined with love or devotion.       

 [Abhinavagupta in his Bhagavadgitarth Samgraha asserts that Jana and karma are not two things.]


The Dynamic way

Whichever way you look at it, the Gita is admirably amenable to multiple interpretations.   Its ‘real meaning’ (whatever be it) need not be restricted to either Jnana or Karma or Bhakti or even to violence or non-violence. The Gita could very well be read without imposing upon it one’s own interpretations. One needs:  to be aware of; to recognize; and, to acknowledge its various other plausible interpretations.

Laurie L .Patton in her essay: The failure of the Allegory – Notes on Textual Violence in Bhagavad Gita ( see under section titled  Beyond Allegory: Toward a Dynamic Interpretation of the Exhortation to Fight) included in the book Fighting Words: Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts edited by John Renard , speaks about a ‘dynamic way of reading ’ where one would be constantly aware of the other plausible interpretations  as one chooses a particular interpretation. She concludes her very scholarly discussion on varied interpretations of the Gita with the words:

Read in this way, one can engage many possible meanings of the Gita within the clear boundaries of the verse. However, a reader would not be obsessed with the “real” meaning, nor would she be trapped by the literal meaning or the spiritual meaning, or any other possible meaning in between.


The Bhagavad-Gita is not an abstract theological valuable story, but is a discourse through which are woven many insights, allegories and directions which provide a broader and a meaningful vision of life. It is particularly relevant when one is placed in the very cauldron of life; facing conflicting situations; and when one is confronted with multiple choices.

 When a society enters chaos it does not usually return to its earlier status; but, will re-invent itself; and, ushers in a new society with its own moral, cultural and social references.

In the next segment of this article, let us discus in fair detail each of the above streams of the interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita.


Continued in Part Two

References and sources

  1. Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and Images of the Hindu Tradition: by Catherine A. Robinson
  2. The Bhagavad Gita and the West: The Esoteric Significance of the Bhagavad-Gita by Rudolf Steiner
  3. Exploring the Bhagavad Gitā: Philosophy, Structure, and Meaning by Ithamar Theodor
  4. The Bhagavad Gita: A Text and Commentary for Students by Jeaneane D. Fowler
  5. Fighting Words: Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts by John Renard
  6. The Failure of Allegory: Notes on Textual Violence and the Bhagavad Gita by Laurie L. Patton
  7. A Comparative Study of the Commentaries on The Bhagavadgītā by T. G. Mainkar
  8. Bhagavad-Gita in Mahabharata Translated and Edited by J. A. B. van Buitenen
  9. My Gitaby Devdutt Pattanaik
  10. The Bhagavad-Gita and modern thought introduction by Shruti Kapila and Faisal Devji
  1. The quest for objective truth – Modern Indian Interpreters of the Bhagavad Gita Edited by Robert Neil Minor
  2. Who Wrote Bhagavad-Gita by Meghnad Desai
  3. Da’ud ibn Tamam ibn Ibrahim al-Shawn – The Bhagavad Gita interpreted – Edited by Daud Shawni
  4. A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 2 by Dr. Surendranath Dasgupta



Posted by on October 14, 2016 in Bhagavad-Gita, General Interest


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Samkhya: Part One: The Beginnings

[I am posting a series of about four articles on the Samkhya School of thought with particular reference to Samkhya Karika, a text dated around the second century. These articles are in honor of my friend Shri DSampath, a teacher well versed in Samkhya; as a token of friendship and appreciation of a good person. I trust he will find these readable .

I have written as I have understood the Samkhya. I am aware there are various versions and traditions of the Samkhya; and my rendering may not please all. And therefore, it is open to attacks. I accept that position.]

A. The Early stages

The Origins

1.1. Samkhya is regarded the most ancient of the Indian Schools of thought. Many scholars believe the beginnings of the Samkhya pre-date the Vedas and Upanishads. That might be so; but it is rather difficult to pinpoint its origin. The Samkhya concepts might have emerged over a long period of time and been in circulation as streams of speculative intuitions. The origins of certain terms which later played a significant role in the unfolding of the Samkhya traditions, according to some, can even be traced back to an ancient group of wandering or itinerant ascetics, known as Vratyas who perhaps were pre-Vedic and chose to disassociate from the ritualistic aspects of the Vedic tradition.

1.2. It is generally accepted that Samkhya and Yoga sprang from a common nucleus. Both had their origins outside the Vedic fold. But, in terms of chronology, it is likely Samkhya as a collection of concepts was older than Yoga as a set of disciplines. It is often said that Yoga is indebted to Samkhya; because, Yoga in its early phase represented the ascetic practices (karma) of the ancient Vratyas; and, had its theoretical foundations in Samkhya (jnana). The two systems were fused together for a very long period. Mahabharata described the two as ’ancient twins’ (sanatane dve).

Bhagavad-Gita (5.4-5) declares: “The ignorant differentiate between Samkhya and Yoga; not the wise. He who considers the two as integrated has the right insight. He who applies himself well to one will reap the fruits of both.” But, in the context of the Bhagavad-Gita, Samkhya stands for renunciation (samnyasa) which has its roots in knowledge (jnana) and is basically withdrawal from action (nivrtti).Yoga, here stands for performance (pravrtti) of actions (karma).

Even after they were segregated and systematized into two distinct streams of thought (darshana) they continued to be mentioned in one breath as Samkhya-Yoga; and treated virtually as one. For instance, as late as in the fourteenth century, Madhava in his Sarva-darshana-sangraha described Yoga as Patanjala-Samkhya (the Samkhya of Patanjali) and also as Sesvara-Samkhya (theistic Samkhya). The philosophical Yoga is at times called Samkhya-pravachana an explanation of the Samkhya.

1.3. An attempt to trace the origin of Samkhya – Yoga to any one group or to any one tradition would be rather naive or simplistic. These two systems emerged from a churning of variety of traditions, speculations, concepts and practices. They later evolved, modified and were absorbed into various other traditions. After they were synthesized or absorbed, they acquired the hues, textures and cantors of the host traditions. As a result of that, it is very difficult now to specify and pinpoint an origin or a pristine form of Samkhya or Yoga. The true form of these systems is shrouded in a mist of myths, speculations and varied practices.

The Beginnings

2.1. Samkhya sprang out from a variety of traditions, both orthodox and heterodox. And, all those traditions attempted to find the ultimate or the inner-most essence of man. There might have been a number of tentative beginnings to classify and put together those diffusive, speculative streams of thought. It was only at a much later period that the many motifs, trends and ideas from a variety of contexts got assimilated into a composite system, which came to be known as Samkhya traditions or the Samkhya School of thought.

3.1. One may come across mention of Samkhya-like terms such as Pradhana (RV: 10.82.06) and Tamas (RV 10.129.03)    in Rig Veda.  Among the Upanishads: the Chandogya mentions the Gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas) which perhaps originated as Samkhya concepts; the Katha Upanishad refers to categories of matter as they would appear in Samkhya; and, Svetasvatara refers to term  Samkhya and its principal figure Kapila by name (6.13). It also mentions number of Samkhya terms, such as: vyakta, a-vyakta, and Jna (1.8) as also Pradhana, Prakrti and Guna (1-10; 4-10; and 1-13).

3.2. Srimad-Bhagavata-purana (11.22) as also Mahabharata (12: 203-204; 219) discusses certain Samkhya concepts, but with significant variations (we shall come to those variations later). Bhagavad-Gita too picks up some basic aspects of Samkhya, and discusses those at various places, but, again, with its own variations and connotations. Mahabharata in fact remarks there is no knowledge like Samkhya; and no power like the Yoga (MB-Shanthiparva: 316-02).

4.1. However, what is significant is that all those references to Samkhya-like terms in the Vedas, the Bhagavad-Gita, the epics and other texts,  including the Svetasvatara Upanishad,  were meant largely as metaphysical idioms or spiritual methodologies, but not as philosophical positions of a system titled Samkhya. Such terms were employed by the texts in their own context, carrying their own undertones. It is also likely that such terms or trends of thought or concepts later got assimilated into what came to be known as Samkhya system. Such processes perhaps suggest that monistic trends in Vedic thought and dualistic concepts of Samkhya had common origins.

4.2. Similarly, references to Yoga-like terms in those texts do not imply existence of a classical Yoga system as of Patanjali. But, those references were meant to suggest a cluster of practices and attitudes which emphasize importance of self-discipline, meditation and concentration in order to attain salvation.

4.3. In addition, there are no references in Vedas to the typical Samkhya concept of Dukkha being the nature of life, or to reliance on karma; as also to the doctrines of cause and effect (satkarya-vada), un-manifest matter (mula-prakrti) and the evolution or transformation of matter (tattva-vikara).More importantly, the notions of treating the Man as the focal interest of the world, or to examine the world from the point of view of Man’s consciousness do not find place in the orthodox texts. It is therefore apparent that during the Vedic and Upanishad times, Samkhya had not yet emerged as an independent cognizable system of thought. And, it is also likely that an independent tradition of non-theism was taking shape during the Mahabharata era.

It seems likely that the basic Samkhya doctrines crystallized during the period between the late Upanishads and the emergence of Buddhism (6th century BC).

B. Vedas and Samkhya

5.1. Among the systems that took shape in the Indian traditions, Samkhya was perhaps the first to be systematized; and, that marked an important watershed in history of Indian thought. Samkhya was perhaps the first attempt to present a philosophical position in a cohesive and a persuasive manner.

Kautilya refers to Samkhya as one of the forms of anviksiki. The concept of anviksiki in the ancient context refers to an analytical method of explaining or delineating a subject by a systematic enumeration and reasoning. The practice of anviksiki may not strictly be called a ‘philosophy’; but, it is a sort of enquiry through systematic enumeration of the basic principles. Such enumeration was employed in various field of study such as phonology, grammar, state-craft, medicine, law, iconography etc. Sometimes, such enumerations also came to be called as Tantra, meaning a systematic method (or a shastra or Vidya). The method employed certain devices (Yukthi) in order to elaborate on the subject. For instance; a brief statement of purpose (uddeshya) was followed by a lengthy exposition of the position (nirdesha), an etymological explanation (nirvachana), the proper order or sequence in enumerating the subject (vidhana) and so forth. Arthashatra   as also the Samhitas of Charaka and Sushruta provide a list of such methods and devices. (Perhaps it is because Samkhya followed the anviksiki , its texts  came to be known as Tantra)

The Samkhya depiction is characterized by its concern for the means of knowing (pramana); care to define its technical terms; putting forward an argument cogently; and to  project a consistent system of thought. In contrast to that, one can describe the philosophical gleanings that one comes across in the earlier texts — Vedas and Upanishads – as speculative intuitions having the sanction of authority; they are not well structured into arguments putting forward coherent systems of philosophies.

5.2. There are other distinguishing factors as well between the Vedas and the Samkhya. Vedas are expansive in their attitude, picturesque in depiction; and speculate on the nature of god, the human spirit; relation between the human and the universe; and, oneness of human spirit with the all-compassing cosmic principle. It aimed to communicate with the natural forces symbolized into deities through the medium of elaborate rituals; and to find long lasting happiness in heavens in the company of gods and ancestors. The Vedic poets were highly dexterous users of the words; gifted with the superb ability to express human ideals and aspirations in pristine poetry truly remarkable for its literary virtuosity.

5.3. The early Samkhya, in sharp contrast, refused to speculate on god and rejected the scriptures and rituals as means for human attainments. It stepped aside cosmological explanations or implications.  It affirmed the existence of the objective-world; emphasized the world has to be understood in the context of human existence; and said the world is inextricably wound up with the presence of human existence. One has to therefore deal with the world positively.

Samkhya attention was confined to human situation, particularly to the elimination of human suffering. Samkhya view of human existence marked a departure from the Vedic view. It gave credence to distinguishing characteristics of each individual; and recognized that each person is unique and operates within his or her own sphere of action, influenced by one’s own tendencies and urges. Samkhya was the first system to focus on the nature of Dukkha and on the study of consciousness.

It set its objective as release of Man from Dukkha suffering. It considered human being as a psycho-physical unity.  It examined the human body-mind complex from the point of view of consciousness. The question framed by Samkhya is: How to understand the various forms of experience, including that of the objective world, with reference to the consciousness of man?  Samkhya kept away from idealism; its approach was rather unemotional, clinical and analytical. Its account was pragmatic and terse, rather too terse. The stringent economy in use of words sadly lent scope to multiple interpretations, a result not surely intended by the Samkhya teachers.

5.4. The early Samkhya was uniquely human. Yoga and Samkhya each in its early phase: emphasized reliance on human effort; treated Man as the focal interest of the world; kept gods out of the scheme of things; did not even mention divine grace; believed that the man’s place in this world depends upon his inclinations and the becoming of a man is determined by his fundamental strivings which reside in him; stressed human striving as vital to eliminate suffering; and, asserted that it is possible to attain that goal within one’s lifetime, within human framework and experience. Samkhya said, the means of release from suffering is ‘effective discrimination’ which enables to understand the distinction between the seer (drastr) and the seen; and separates consciousness from everything else; and Yoga attempted to provide techniques that help attaining the objective.

That is to say; while sämkhya is the intellectual or reasoning method, Yoga is the method of spiritual discipline and ascetic practices. The follower of sämkhya is one who reasons or discriminates properly, one whose spiritual discipline is meditative reasoning (sämkhya-yoga-adhigamya).

6.1. Every School of philosophy reacted with Samkhya. Almost all the Schools employed the terms and concepts generated by Samkhya (e.g. guna, vyakta, avyakta etc), but in their own context, with their own variations; and not necessarily as references to the Samkhya system. Almost all the major Schools discussed the Samkhya streams of thought; some agreed with Samkhya, but a lot others found fault with its assumptions and carried on fierce intellectual battles attacking Samkhya. But, none ignored the Samkhya.


Continued– Next: Samkhya Teachers–

References and Sources

Early Indian Thought by Prof.SK Ramachandra Rao

Classical Samkhya by Gerald James Larson

Samkhya Karika by Swami Virupakshananada

The Samkhya Karika


Posted by on October 3, 2012 in Samkhya


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