Concept of the Human in Hinduism
Professor: William Chittick
February 26, 2018
The opening scene of the Bhagavad Gita is a dramatic manifestation of the human soul and its whirlwind of emotions, thoughts, and uncertainties. Arjuna is about to charge into battle, fighting against his own relatives, until he comes to a sudden pause to reflect. His fears and uncertainties surface to his mind and become vocalized in his speech. He is worried about the consequences of his actions, and the morality of the war. His thoughts and emotions mirror the impending battle scene in front of him, and they wage war within. Arjuna breaks down into tears, when he can no longer contain his composure. Lord Krishna, who epitomizes Brahman and acts as a guide, begins to console Arjuna and helps him strategize amidst the conflict of his inward world.
This scene is captivating, powerful, and universally felt by all readers. The human experience is that we will all, at one point in our lives, lose sense and understanding of our outer world due to the battle within our inward human soul. The forces of desire, anger, passion, attachment, the uncontrolled mind, and the ego will compete against the higher spiritual realities of the human and its yearn for its Source. In the Hindu tradition, the source is Brahman, the ultimate reality that gives birth to all other multiple realities in the universe. The goal of the human, therefore, is to attain calmness in the heart and bring a cessation to this inward war. To be human is to undertake this journey of finding inner peace, to find liberation (moksha) from the law of cause and effect (karma) that guides the universe (samsara), and to unite with Brahman. To be human is to escape from the prison of the sensory and thought attachments and ascend to the pure consciousness and intellect that is discovered through union with the Divine. The human strives in a conscious effort to ascend higher in the spiritual realm until he/she can be acted through by the Divine Realities themselves. When all experiences are filtered through the Divine, the human (united with Brahman) is acting in accordance with the Dharma-the true understanding of reality and the correct way that all beings must interact.
The Samkhya philosophy in Hinduism lays out a path of differentiation and descent from the First Highest Reality to the multiple realities and realms that constitute the human soul. The complementary philosophy of Yoga aims to ascend this hierarchy of stages (yoke) in order to achieve human perfection and union with its Highest Self, Brahman. The lowest realm in this journey is the sensory realm, and the objects of the sense faculties. The Bhagavad Gita strongly highlights the inevitable destruction of the human soul that is attached to these faculties and their motivational drivers (desire, greed, passion, etc.). Above the sensory realm is the realm of thought and mind (manas). Humans are constantly barraged with a myriad of competing ideas and thoughts that enter the mind and pull them into a multitude of directions. This is how Arjuna feels in the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna attempts to help him integrate his thoughts and resolve them appropriately according to the way of Dharma. Above the level of the mind is the realm of ahamkara (the egoic self, the small atman). In this stage, men may act appropriately, but may be doing their actions for the rewards that they gain from them. The next realm (buddhi) is the realm of the pure consciousness and intellect of the human soul that is untainted from the egoic self. Beyond this level the human ascends higher until ultimately they become a portal of Divine manifestation and perception in the sensory world. The wise man who has attained this level of Supreme Spirit (adhi-atman), acts in the world but perceives and interacts with it in the correct way. His/her actions are not driven by the fruit (reward) of the action. They have a controlled mind, and are unattached to the objects of the sense perception. This person has actualized the reality of Purusha. Purusha is the principle of consciousness and animation that works together with Prakriti (formless, undifferentiated matter) to make all things arise in the universe, including the human. It is the interaction of these two realities that manifest the multiplicity of forms.
The Journey of the Human Soul
The Bhagavad Gita is an effective dialogue between two individuals that indirectly guides humanity on the path of liberation. Every human can relate to Arjuna, and every human gains consolation and wisdom from a guide (Krishna) who helps lead followers to the enlightenment of their souls. There are several themes on this path to moksha within the Bhagavad Gita that will be discussed in this paper. They can be viewed as stepping stones or ascending rungs on the spiritual ladder of the human soul. However, many times they are overlapping and can be worked on simultaneously.
Abandoning the Objects of the Sense Perceptions
The Hindu tradition states that there are “nine gates” in the human that open up to the sensory and material world. These are the two eyes, the two nostrils, the two ears, the mouth, and the organs of excretion and generation (reproduction). Krishna advises Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita to avoid the objects that these gates yearn for in order to decrease desire and calm the over-stimulation of the sense faculties. “And when he withdraws completely the senses from the objects of the senses, as a tortoise withdraws its limbs into its shell, his wisdom stands firm” (BG II: 58). The analogy of a tortoise is powerful, because the tortoise remains unmoved and firm once its limbs have been withdrawn beneath itself. The tortoise itself can be likened to the wisdom of the human soul, which remains steadfast once it is not distracted by the infinite forms of sensory pleasures. Krishna also reminds Arjuna that the physical sensations (pain, pleasure, heat, cold) are fleeting and temporary, unlike the shell of the tortoise which is unmoved and constant. Immortality can only be attained once the temporary sensations have been abandoned: “Indeed, the man whom these (i.e. the sensations) do not afflict, O Arjuna, the wise one … is ready for immortality” (BG II: 14-15).
Disregarding the objects of the sense perceptions is not enough to attain true knowledge and discernment. The mind can still dwell on the sense objects, and this in turn breeds attachments which result in desire, anger, passion, and delusion. Only when one has tasted the experience of union with the imperishable Brahman do they truly lose the taste and desire for sense objects: “Sense objects turn away from the abstinent man, but the taste for them remains; but the taste also turns away from him who has seen the Supreme” (BG II:59). Passion is like an insatiable fire that obscures the intellect from functioning as dust obscures a mirror from its purpose of giving reflection. Krishna directs Arjuna to “kill this evil demon which destroys knowledge and discrimination” (BG III: 41). Krishna also refers to the desires of greed and passion as enemies to the soul. Thus, the goal of the human is to abandon the objects of sense perception as well as the desire and yearning for them. Indifference to possessions, (when gold is perceived the same as copper), allows the intellect of the human to rise and recover true insight and discernment. When one finds happiness in the higher Self, rather than in the sense objects, this is the realm of imperishable happiness: “He whose self is unattached to external sensations, who finds happiness in the Self, whose Self is united with Brahman through yoga, reaches imperishable happiness” (BG 5:21).
Disciplining the Uncontrolled Mind
“The mind, indeed, is unstable, Krishna, turbulent, powerful and obstinate; I think it is as difficult to control as the wind.” (BG VI: 34)
“There is no wisdom in him who is uncontrolled, and there is likewise no concentration in him who is uncontrolled, and in him who does not concentrate, there is no peace. How can there be happiness for him who is not peaceful?” (BG II: 56)
The controlled mind, unaffected by the multitude of ideas and images that enter it daily, is crucial to obtain on the path of liberation from samsara. The Bhagavad Gita compares the still mind to an ocean, which receives rivers and waters from a variety of locations, and yet remains unmoved. Disciplining the mind to focus on the Supreme Self and be indifferent to thought distractions is an arduous struggle, but with tremendous rewards: “The sage whose highest aim is release; whose senses, mind and intellect are controlled; from whom desire, fear and anger have departed, is forever liberated” (BG V:28). The sage is the liberated one whose mind is unmoved by the arrival of misfortunes, and unaffected by the desires of the nine gates. Whether pleasure (sukha) or suffering (dukkha) arrive, the sage perceives them both to be the same. He has successfully escaped from the realm of duality. He is impartial to friend and enemy, and neutral towards the righteous and the rebellious. “He whose mind is not agitated in misfortune, whose desire for pleasures has disappeared…and whose meditation is steady, is said to be a sage” (BG II: 56). The one whose mind is subdued and free from attachment, is receptive and ready for the divine penetration of Brahman. He/she stands as a ruler within the city of the nine gates.
Detachment from the Fruit of Action
Humans act based on a plethora of motives and desires. They may desire an increase in reputation, fame, wealth, reciprocation in love, and to garner allies. When one does not receive the expected reward for an action, he/she may fall into sorrow, suffering, and anger, and thus bury their souls deeper in the realm of samsara. To act based on what one will receive in return is to be imprisoned to the results of an action, and therefore stuck in the realm of rebirth. Rebirth, which is guided by karma, is when humans will be reincarnated into a new state that reflects the purity of their previous state. Krishna advises Arjuna repeatedly throughout the Bhagavad Gita to act without attachment to the results (fruit) of the action. This is the only effective way to escape suffering and to arrive at moksha. “Your right is to action alone; never to its fruits at any time. Never should the fruits of action be your motive; never let there be attachment to inaction in you” (BG II: 47).
When the human performs actions with the body alone, without any motives of acquisition, he incurs no evil on his path and is unbound to the law of karma. This enlightened one is content with any result that approaches him/her, whether pain or pleasure, praise or criticism, success or failure. This wise one has transcended the realm of duality and attained the station of true peace.
The Acquisition of Wisdom
“Better than the sacrifice of material possessions is the wisdom sacrifice, Arjuna; all action without exception, Arjuna, is fully comprehended in wisdom.” (BG IV: 33)
Krishna emphasizes to Arjuna throughout the Bhagavad Gita the importance of wisdom on the journey to Ultimate Reality. One may abandon one’s desires, abandon the fruit of action, and control the mind, but the supreme goal is to understand the value of these disciplines, and to see the source underlying these realities to be Brahman Himself. The understanding and conformity to dharma is crucial in allowing oneself to be receptive to Divine penetration: “Knowing that, you shall not again fall into delusion, Arjuna; and by that knowledge you shall see all beings in yourself, and also in Me” (BG IV: 35). It is the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom that enables one to successfully tame the mind, become indifferent to the sense pleasures, and perform action without any selfish motives: “He who has excluded desire and motive from all his enterprises, and has consumed his karma in the fire of knowledge, him the wise men call a sage” (BG IV:19). Krishna informs Arjuna that there are four types of worshippers: the distressed, those who desire wealth, those who desire knowledge, and the man of wisdom. Krishna proclaims that it is the man of wisdom that is perpetually firm and devoted, and thus distinguished from the rest: “Of them the man of wisdom, eternally steadfast, devoted to the One alone, is preeminent. I am indeed exceedingly fond of the man of wisdom, and he is fond of Me” (BG VII: 16-17).
The Self as Brahman (Adhi-Atman)
“He who sees Me everywhere, and sees all things in Me; I am not lost to him, And he is not lost to Me.” (BG VI: 29-30)
“I am that which is the seed of all creatures, Arjuna; there is nothing that could exist without Existing through Me, whether moving or not moving.” (BG X: 39)
Krishna tells Arjuna to become an instrument of the Ultimate Reality at the end of the Bhagavad Gita. This is the highest station and the complete liberation from the law of karma. The one that acts as an instrument of Divine Manifestation interacts with the realms of sense objects, actions, and thoughts, but perceives the source of their interaction to be Brahman Himself. At this stage, in the state of moksha, the self (atman) has united with Brahman. The atman departs from the realm of rebirth and becomes constant and imperishable as Brahman is. The human soul has embraced its origin and celestial nature. The atman becomes unborn, all pervading, and recognizes itself in the forms in the universe. All things are merely manifestations of Brahman, the supreme abode. Krishna informs Arjuna that it is not through the study of the Vedas, austerities, and sacrifices, that results in union with Brahman, it is Brahman that has united with Himself. Otherwise, to think that one’s human self has reached the state of Brahman is to be attached to the fruit of the action. Rather, the human self has been completely emptied of its egoic nature, thus allowing the Divine Penetration to permeate through its cleansed soul. “Brahman is the offering, Brahman is the oblation poured out by Brahman into the fire of Brahman, Brahman is to be attained by him who always sees Brahman in action” (BG IV: 24). Contemplating and meditating on Brahman will direct one’s mind to His ultimate reality and make union easier: “He who does all work for Me, considers Me as the Supreme, is devoted to Me, abandons all attachment, and is free from enmity toward any being, comes to Me, Arjuna” (BG XI:55).
Svadharma and the Three Gunas
Every person is born with his and her own svadharma, the right and correct way of doing things and understanding reality according to the constitution of his/her nature and the caste with which he/she was placed into. Due to the differing temperaments of human nature, there are multiple paths to spiritual realization. Those who are inclined to be active are drawn to the path of action (Karma yoga). Those who are reflective are drawn to the path of knowledge (Jñana yoga). Those who are deeply engaged with their feelings are drawn to the path of devotion (Bhakti yoga). Lastly, those who are experimental and curious are drawn to the Way of Meditation (Raja yoga). Every person will incline to a unique composition of the four paths that is effective for his/her innate disposition.
The three gunas (qualities) that are derived from the concept of prakriti in Hinduism are helpful in understanding the make-up of each human soul. Prakriti is the potential and undifferentiated nature from which the three gunas are derived and measured out to each soul. Humans have a combination of sattva (illumination, discernment, truth), rajas (passion, desire), and tamas (ignorance, darkness, sloth). Every human contains them in differing proportions, but the goal of all humanity is to align their svadharma with the light of sattva, and to prevent their rajas and tamas from devouring their sattvic nature. Ultimately, when the atman unites with Brahman, the atman breaks free from the three qualities since Brahman is not dependent on them, though He is their source.
“That which in the beginning is like poison but in the end like nectar; that happiness, born from the tranquility of one’s own mind, is declared to be sattvic. That which in the beginning, through contact between the senses and their objects, is like nectar, and in the end like poison; that happiness is declared to be rajasic. That happiness which both in the beginning and afterwards deludes the self, arising from sleep, indolence, and negligence, is declared to be tamasic.” (BG XVIII: 37-39)
The beginning of the path of refinement of the human soul is certainly difficult and arduous (thus described as poison), but will eventually result in everlasting bliss. This occurs when the sattvic nature of the human soul is dominant over the others: rajasic and tamasic. A dominant rajasic nature will result in short term pleasures and rewards, which is why it begins with appealing nectar but ends with poison. Those whose natures are dominated by tamas will be deluded into thinking they are happy, when in fact they are lost, confused, and dwelling in compound ignorance.
“To those ascetics who have cast aside desire and anger, whose thought is controlled, who are knowers of the Self, the bliss of Brahman exists everywhere.” (BG V: 26)
The goal and path of the human is to achieve union with the perpetual and primeval Reality Brahman, which inevitably allows one to escape from the realm of samsara and the law of karma which governs it. Only those who have freed the mind from the clutter of distracting thoughts, the nine gates of the body from sensory pleasures, and human action from selfish motives, can be receptive to penetration from the Divine. At this stage of moksha, they experience the senses and qualities of the world, but are in eternal bliss because they are unattached, non-dependent, and free from the qualities’ bondage: “Shining by the function of the senses, yet freed from all the senses, unattached yet maintaining all, free from the qualities yet experiencing the qualities” (BG XIII: 14). This man has achieved perfection, and the perfection originates from Brahman Himself. This adhi-atman is content and balanced, disinterested in motive and desire, and aligned with dharma.
Sargeant, Winthrop. The Bhagavad Gita. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009.