W – Wise Questions (Verses 1-7) – Arjuna asks Krishna to define
six subjects: prakrti (nature), purusa (the enjoyer), ksetra (the field
of activities), ksetra-jna (the knower of the field), jnanam (knowledge
and the process of knowing), and jneyam (the object of knowledge).
These subjects are key constituents of Vedic philosophy and Krishna
therefore spends the entire chapter defining and discussing them.
Arjuna, although an established transcendentalist, plays the part of a
materially entangled individual so he can pose questions for the benefit of humanity. His astute enquiries create the opportunity for Krishna to offer answers to life’s most profound mysteries. Krishna begins by defining ksetra and the ksetra-jna.
I – Items of knowledge (Verses 8-12) – These verses describe how the
ksetra-jna (spirit soul) can disentangle himself from the ksetra (body)
by cultivating jnana (knowledge). Since true knowledge is revealed
within the heart of a deserving person, the real method of acquiring
knowledge is the cultivation of divine qualities, of which humility is
foremost. Knowledge is not about information and memorisation, but rather about exemplary personal character and practical behaviour. One who nurtures a saintly disposition experiences a change of heart which disentangles the eternal soul from its deep rooted identification with the body – its temporary dress.
S – Soul & Supersoul (Verses 13-19) – Having described the ksetra,
ksetra-jna and jnanam, Krishna now describes jneyam, the object of
knowledge. The purpose of knowledge is to realize the soul and the
Supersoul, who are eternally individual but at the same time intimately connected. It is the prerogative of the soul to understand the Supersoul, but the Supersoul is sometimes described as avijneyam, or unknowable. How to reconcile this? Empirical researchers who try to fathom the Supreme using mundane logic and material sense perception are invariably baffled, and the Supersoul within remains unknowable to them. However, those who approach the subject matter with the proper attitude, ready and willing to gain insight through the eyes of great teachers, can surely realise the Supersoul, the object of all knowledge.
E – Enjoyer (Verses 20-35) – The chapter concludes with descriptions of the final two terms – prakrti and purusa. The conditioned soul desires to control and enjoy matter (prakrti) and it is this enjoying spirit that binds him to the material world. The Supersoul, however, is the actual enjoyer (purusa) and everything (material nature and the individual souls) is ultimately meant for His enjoyment. Just as pouring water over the root of a tree energizes the trunk, branches, and twigs, similarly, offering worship and service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead for his pleasure and satisfaction, automatically brings satisfaction to all living entities, including ourselves.
T – Three Modes (Verses 1-9) – “Mode” is a translation of the Sanskrit word guna, which literally means thread or rope. The three modes influence a person’s character, behaviour and approach to life. For example, if Goodness (sattva) predominates, one will aspire for (and generally achieve) long-term happiness even if one experiences
temporary inconveniences. The person overtaken by Passion (rajas)
frantically seeks immediate short-term gain and doesn’t expect much
more out of life. On the other hand, the person dominated by Ignorance (tamas) rarely achieves happiness at all. In this way the material world is populated by living entities in different conditions of life.
R – Race for prominence (Verses 10-13) – The modes compete with one another for supremacy within an individual. In the cycle of a single day, different modes may achieve prominence at different times. In general, Goodness clarifies and pacifies the individual since it motivates joy, wisdom, altruism and kindness. Passion is said to confuse and provoke the individual, invoking qualities of greed, anger and frustration. Ignorance is said to obscure and impede one’s life, often resulting in over-sleep, indifference, laziness and inertia.
A – Actions in the modes (Verses 14-18) – Reincarnation is the
process by which a soul receives a new material body on the basis of
activities performed in the present body. Our activities are a result of
the decisions we make, and our decisions are ultimately based on the
modes which we are being influenced by. Thus, Krishna predicts the
future destination of an individual based on the predominant mode
in their life. In short, those situated in Goodness go upward to the
higher planets; those in Passion live on the earthly planets; and those in Ignorance go down to the hellish worlds.
P – Pure Life (Verses 19-27) – Through these various descriptions we
can approximate what combination of the modes we are personally
affected by. The chapter concludes by explaining the ideal state that
ensures a successful human life and after-life. Although Goodness is
said to be the most progressive of the three, it still implicates one in
the law of karma. To become completely free of karmic reactions one
must transcend even the mode of Goodness, and become situated on
the spiritual platform. This is only possible by engaging in bhakti-yoga with unflinching determination, taking inspiration and support from those who have already transcended the three modes. Krishna explains the character of such perfected transcendentalists who enjoy nectar even in this life.
H – Home or Hotel? (Verses 1-5) – Just as a banyan tree has a reflection in water, the spiritual world also has its reflection – the material world. While they may look similar from a distance, the spiritual world is where reality, substance and true satisfaction is found. On the other hand, the reflected tree of the material world is complicated, intricate and completely topsy-turvy since the roots are upwards and the branches downwards. Bird-like individuals frantically search for juicy fruits on the reflected tree, but the substance which brings satisfaction seems to be lacking. Krishna urges the reader to cut down this illusorytree with the weapon of detachment and end the futile endeavours for permanent fulfilment in the temporary phantasmagoria.
O – On and On, Over and Over again (Verses 6-11) – Krishna then gives a glimpse of the spiritual world, showing how its nature is perfect, complete and fully satisfying to all. Once having gone there, one never returns to this world. Here in the material realm, an individual hops from tree to tree, acquiring various material bodies based on the worldly desires they cultivate throughout life. At the time of death, through the subtle workings of reincarnation, one receives a body which is tailormade to facilitate such desires. Man proposes, God disposes. Thus, different life situations are meant to teach us a simple lesson – we are looking for the right thing (happiness), but we are looking in the wrong
M – Maintainer of body, mind, soul (Verses 12-15) – One who is
entangled within the reflected tree of material existence can develop
his Krishna consciousness by appreciating Krishna as the maintainer
on all levels. Krishna maintains our gross physical body by arranging
fundamental resources that provide the energy of life. He also maintains our subtle capacities by facilitating knowledge, remembrance and forgetfulness. And finally, perhaps most importantly, Krishna maintains our spirituality by offering ways and means to achieve self-realisation and escape the dangerous cycle of repeated birth and death.
E – Essence in 3 verses (Verses 16-18) – Previously Krishna summarized the Bhagavad-gita in four verses, and now He again summarises the teachings in three verses. Fallible living entities (ksara) have dropped into the tree of material existence due to an independent desire to enjoy. These are different from infallible living entities (aksara) who never leave the spiritual realm due to their undeviated desire to be with the Lord. Beyond both entities is the Supreme Lord. Thus, in yet another passage, Krishna reinforces that the living entity never becomes God, since even liberated souls have their separate identity in the spiritual world.
D – Divine or Demoniac (Verses 1-6) – On the “tree of the material
world”, divine qualities are said to elevate us whereas demoniac
qualities result in degradation. These are the result of nature and
nurture. While we undoubtedly carry impressions from previous lives, our willpower, determination and activities in this life can significantly alter that nature. Krishna describes 26 divine qualities and the six major demoniac qualities.
O – Opinions & Outlook of Demons (Verses 7-20) – To reassure
Arjuna that he is of divine nature, Krishna distinguishes the activities,
mentality and qualities of one who has demoniac propensities. Such
miscreants are cast into repeated births in undeveloped, lower species of life. While this may sound like the harsh and judgmental God of dogmatic religion, Krishna explains how such treatment is the most progressive course of action to gradually uplift such individuals.
Demoniac philosophy, mentality and activities generate immeasurable anxiety for the individual and cause great disruption in the wider society. It is a case of hate the disease not the diseased.
G – Gates to hell (verses 21-24) – Krishna warns that lust, anger and
greed are the three root qualities that lead one to hell. Such hellish
planets are not eternal prisons for the errant soul, but places of
reformation where stern lessons help one to realign their vision. For
one who wants to avoid such shock treatment, the scriptures act as
a guidebook for gradual purification and ultimate perfection. They
recommend a regulated lifestyle by which one can easily transform
selfishness to selflessness, lust to love and quarrel into cooperation.
F – Faith (Verses 1-7) – Although religious people are often referred
to as “people of faith”, the reality is that everyone has faith. We all
put faith in traffic lights, doctors, and even banks to name but a few –
without faith you couldn’t function in this world! To have faith means
to see opportunity, reward and value in something even though it may not be immediately experienced. Therefore, according to one’s faith one identifies objects of adoration and reverence and begins to worship them in different ways. In accordance to this, individuals adopt worldviews, lifestyles and character traits. Krishna begins a discussion of this by giving examples of diet and sacrifices.
A – Austerities (Verses 14-19) – In order to achieve anything in this
world, one must undergo some austerity. We sacrifice immediate
pleasure and comfort for the purpose of long-term benefit. People who place faith in different things, perform different austerities in life.
Krishna explains beneficial austerities pertaining to the body, mind and words, and also the varying motivations with which one may perform them.
C – Charity (verses 20-22) – The innate quality of the soul is to serve
and thus we find a charitable disposition within everyone to a greater
or lesser extent. According to one’s own faith, they make efforts to help others. Krishna discusses the different types of charity and explains that to truly benefit people, charity must be performed within certain parameters.
E – Enjoyer of everything (Verses 23-28) – Throughout this chapter
Krishna discusses all His themes with reference to the modes of nature. It is essential to understand that all activities, even those performed in Goodness, will always yield karmic reactions to the performer and thus bind him to repeated existence in this world. But is there a way out? In Vedic hymns, God is defined as the supreme enjoyer by the three words om tat sat. Thus, if our sacrifices, penance, and austerities are dedicated to the Supreme, done for His pleasure and favour, then such activities yield permanent benefit and ultimate freedom. With this kind of transcendental aim all our activities become liberating instead of entangling.
S – Summary of Karma-yoga (Verses 1-18) – The Eighteenth chapter
begins by addressing the “frequently asked question” that seems to pop up again and again. If working in this world seems to attract karmic reaction and implicates us in a web of worldly complexity, is it not safer that we give up work altogether? Krishna disagrees and reiterates that activity is not bad per se. The root of entanglement is the false ego with which we perform the activity, thinking ourselves the controller and enjoyer. In reality, there are five causes which bring success to any activity – the individual soul, the body, the senses, the endeavour, and ultimately the Supersoul. Since we are only one of the five we should never have an over-valued estimation of ourselves. Thus, by working in a spirit of detachment, offering the fruits of labour towards a transcendental goal, one can function in this world and simultaneously remain completely aloof.
M – Modes of nature (Verses 19-40) – Looking around us, the reality
is that most people are deeply engrossed within this material world.
Krishna pins this down to the modes of material nature that entangle
each person according to their individual mentality. He explains how
the modes influence our knowledge, our actions, our understanding,
our determination and ultimately our sense of happiness.
I – Ideal Worker (Verses 41-55) – So what is the solution? On one hand we are expected to be aloof and unattached workers but in reality we have a conditioned nature influenced by the modes, which implicates us in worldly life. Krishna therefore explains the system of varnasrama, where one engages their inherent nature in different types of work. Four divisions are outlined – the brahmana (intelligent class), ksatriya (martial class), vaisya (mercantile class) and sudra (labourer class). One need not artificially imitate another man’s duty, but rather embrace what is natural and inborn. By engaging our nature and discharging work in a spirit of God consciousness, we purify ourselves of material propensities and live a happy and peaceful life.
L – Love of God (Verses 56-66) – In conclusion, all the activities,
practices and elements of spirituality, are ultimately aimed at achieving pure love of God. The highest realisation in transcendental knowledge is to re-establish one’s eternal loving relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Srila Prabhupada wonderfully sums this up in his purport to 18.65: “The most confidential part of knowledge is that one should become a pure devotee of Krishna and always think of Him and act for Him. One should not become an official meditator. Life should be so moulded that one will always have the chance to think of Krishna. One should always act in such a way that all his daily activities are in connection with Krishna. He should arrange his life in such a way that throughout the twenty four hours he cannot help but think of Krishna. And the Lord’s promise is that anyone who is in such pure Krishna consciousness will certainly return to the abode of Krishna, where he will be engaged in the association of Krishna face to face.”
E – End Result (Verses 67-78) – Knowledge and understanding of the
Bhagavad-gita is dependent upon one’s consciousness. Only one who
approaches these sacred teachings with proper mood and lifestyle will be able to fully comprehend the deep and profound meanings. By hearing and studying this conversation with such favourable temperament, one perceives the spiritual dimension as a tangible reality and his life becomes exciting and wondrous at every step. Thus, to share this wisdom with society at large constitutes the greatest welfare work in the entire universe.