Notes of a Discussion on the Bhagavad-Gita - James A. Long, Chairman

Chapter 11

Our Heritage of Compassion

Bhagavad-Gita, Chapter 4
(From Sunrise, January 1962)

Chairman -- This evening we begin chapter 4, called Jnana-yoga -- jnana meaning "wisdom" or the higher "knowledge" as well as the intellectual pathway of discipline and devotion enabling one to discriminate between what is essentially true and what only seems so, between the reality of a thing and its maya or "appearance." It is another of the several "ways" or margas by which truth may be sought, Krishna's effort up to now having been to arouse in Arjuna a more conscious awareness of his "indwelling spirit" which neither birth nor death can touch. Whatever way he will eventually choose, Arjuna must "arise and fight" and engage wholeheartedly in the age-old battle of self-conquest. In chapter 3, Krishna has stressed the path of action, karma-yoga: all beings are forever acting, making karma, for that is the mode of growth; "action is superior to inaction." But, he reminds him, if he would free himself from the binding chains of selfish motive, Arjuna must offer his every thought and act as a "sacrifice." So that he may do so intelligently and joyously, Krishna hints of the compassionate structure of nature and of the divine sacrifice that he, as the Supreme, is constantly making: "Were I not indefatigable in action," the world and all creatures in it, mankind included, would perish.

Here, in this fourth discourse, the note of compassion is clearly sounded, Krishna revealing some of the most beautiful and significant facets of this sacred and imperishable doctrine which at one time he imparted to the sun and which, even now, during these eighteen days on the plain of the Kurus he is sharing with his "devotee and friend." Louise, would you read the first paragraph? Don't worry about the difficult names, as we'll come to them later.

Louise -- I'll do my best, but I know I can't pronounce them correctly.

This exhaustless doctrine of Yoga I formerly taught unto Vivasvat; Vivasvat communicated it to Manu and Manu made it known unto Ikshvaku; and being thus transmitted from one unto another it was studied by the Rajarshis, until at length in the course of time the mighty art was lost, O harasser of thy foes!
It is even the same exhaustless, secret, eternal doctrine I have this day communicated unto thee because thou art my devotee and my friend.

In the footnotes, Vivasvat is defined as "the sun, first manifestation of divine wisdom at the beginning of evolution"; Manu, "a generic title for the reigning spirit of the sensuous universe; the present one being Vaivasvata Manu"; Ikshvaku, "the founder of the Indian solar dynasty," while Rajarshis means "royal sages."

Chairman -- In other words Vivasvat, meaning the "shining or brilliant one," was one of the many names given to the solar deity whose vital energies keep our solar system moving along its destined course; Manu Vaivasvata (literally "son of Vivasvat," or Manu, son of the Sun) was the Seventh of the fourteen mythological progenitors or "fathers" of mankind, and as such the special protector and guardian of our humanity, each of these Manus being said to rule from the beginning to the end of his cycle or manvantara (manu-antara); while Ikshvaku, Manu's son, became the founder of the Indian solar dynasty of kings, reigning during the second yuga or age of earth. The Rajarshis or "kingly sages" were those wise and noble princes of archaic times who imbodied and thus taught the highest jnana or "wisdom."

So much for a brief summary. The names in themselves are not important to remember; but we should keep in mind that all ancient peoples, including the Hindus, regarded the universe as a living and intelligently-guided organism. They looked upon the sun, moon, and stars as gods -- divine beings respectively fulfilling their celestial roles while remaining closely linked with earth and its inhabitants. Human beings were truly the offspring of "heaven and earth," the gods their benefactors; and thus they believed in a continuous interchange of spiritual and physical life-force between mankind and the sun and, indeed, the whole of nature.

Tom -- It's an inspiring thought, and reminds me of Greek mythology which includes a kind of graduated scale of gods and demigods and heroes living among the early races and teaching them the ways of proper livelihood; and, if we can judge by the numerous corn-goddesses, when to sow their wheat and to harvest it, etc.

Stephen -- I read a wonderful passage somewhere about there once having been actual planetary spirits, I think they were called, who appeared at the beginning of every manvantara; their purpose, it said, was to stay by the new humanity until certain basic ideas were so firmly impressed that future races would never entirely forget.

Hazel -- Isn't that what Plato means when he speaks of divine Ideas being inherent in the soul?

Frank -- Well, Socrates uses the phrase "I know with my soul," meaning that something inside of ourselves does have "certain knowledge" of what is true and good as well as their opposites, and that it is useless to argue against such knowledge. And in Meno, I believe it is, he refers to his "favorite doctrine of recollection," by which he explains that the soul has the power, even at this late date, to recall at will the knowledge that belongs to it.

Chairman -- All this is excellent, because if we relate it to the Gita we find Krishna's whole endeavor is to awaken in Arjuna a fuller remembrance of his innate knowledge which, during his past experience he has enriched and made his own, but which in this life, overwhelmed by doubt of himself, he has seemingly forgotten. Krishna now directs his appeal to Arjuna's noblest intuitive feeling. He traces the spiritual descent of this "exhaustless doctrine" from the Sun through the planetary guardian of earth and its humanities on down through a line of royal sages, and in so doing testifies to a succession of god-humans living and working among the early humanities in order to implant deep within human consciousness a lasting knowledge of these sacred truths. There could be no transmission of the Word without transmitters. However, after many cycles and the rise and fall of numerous civilizations, the "mighty art" was lost. Even so, this very teaching which he proclaimed ages ago to Vivasvat, he is this day imparting to Arjuna.

Louise -- Arjuna then asks the very question that crossed my own mind: how Krishna, who obviously was born thousands, probably millions of years later than the sun, could have been "the teacher of this doctrine" way back in the beginning of time.

Ellen -- That's what I was thinking, as Krishna's death was supposed to have ushered in our present Age of Darkness or Kali-Yuga and which, according to Hindu reckoning, started only about 5000 years ago and has still quite a stretch to run, as there are said to be some 432,000 years in all.

Louise -- But Krishna has a ready answer: both he and Arjuna have had many previous births: "Mine are known unto me, but thou knowest not of thine." And he goes on . . .

Chairman -- Do you remember the reply Jesus gave -- "Before Abraham was, I am"? It's in John where Jesus had that rather long conversation with the Jews in which among other things he told them that those who followed his teaching "shall never taste of death." How is this possible, they asked, when "our father Abraham" and the prophets are all dead? Did Jesus claim to be greater than they? And when Jesus said that the Father whom they honored was their God though they did not know him, but "I know him and keep his saying," they countered that Jesus wasn't yet fifty years old, so how could he have seen Abraham! And then that cryptic reply: Before Abraham was, I am -- saying in essence just what Krishna did, that his former lives were known to him, though Arjuna didn't remember his.

Dan -- I never would have thought of that, but I can see now how both Jesus and Krishna here are speaking of reincarnation. Only Krishna is more direct about it.

Marie -- Well, it wasn't a new thought either to the Jews or to Arjuna, as the Oriental peoples have believed always in some kind of rebirth.

Ben -- I think it's important to explain what is meant by the term, because a lot of folks think the Hindus believe in a kind of transmigration, that we come back as animals.

Chairman -- That's very true, Ben, though it is gratifying to find that along with this distorted notion a more mature understanding of this archaic doctrine is gradually gaining ground. Serious books on the subject are being published, quoting from both ancient and modern sources in support of man's cyclic need to be reborn as a human being until he has perfected himself here on earth.

Louise -- Shall I read Krishna's answer again and then go on?

Both I and thou have passed through many births. Mine are known unto me, but thou knowest not of thine.
Even though myself unborn, of changeless essence, and the lord of all existence, yet in presiding over nature -- which is mine -- I am born but through my own maya (the mystic power of self-ideation, the eternal thought in the eternal mind).
I produce myself among creatures, O son of Bharata, whenever there is a decline of virtue and an insurrection of vice and injustice in the world; and thus I incarnate from age to age for the preservation of the just, the destruction of the wicked, and the establishment of righteousness.
Whoever, O Arjuna, knoweth my divine birth and actions to be even so doth not upon quitting his mortal frame enter into another, for he entereth into me.

Chairman -- The note of compassion is now openly declared in Krishna's reference to the beautiful doctrine of the Avataras -- those periodic "descents" on earth of a divine influence for the purpose of overthrowing evil and reaffirming the ancient spiritual values. "Whenever there is a decline of dharma and an increase in a-dharma, I produce a self" -- a temporary vehicle for a particular use. "I am born but through my own maya"-- maya meaning "illusion" and here standing for the veil or veils of illusory matter which Divinity uses for its work in the world.

These few verses are packed with significance, much of which is beyond our comprehension. The broad principle, however, is not so difficult; in fact, it is not at all foreign to our Christian tradition, for there is a genuine identity of . . .

Jack -- I can see that, because Christ and Krishna are both incarnations of Deity.

Chairman -- Exactly, and . . .

Dan -- But Christ is supposed to be a unique manifestation of Godhood, the "only begotten son," whereas Krishna says outright that he "incarnates from age to age."

Chairman -- From yuga to yuga are the exact words. But go on, don't let me interrupt.

Paul -- Are you implying then that Christ was a kind of Avatar?

Marie -- But if Jesus was the only Son of Cod, as it says in the Gospels, how can we reconcile this with the idea of a number of Divine Incarnations?

Wilbur -- I have recently read a couple of new books on Tibet, and the Buddhists there have a similar tradition in their succession of Living Buddhas. They believe that a ray from the highest Buddha links itself with the soul of a certain child from his early years, or perhaps from infancy, and that once it has chosen him, that individual becomes more or less an imbodiment of the divine energy emanating from the supreme source of wisdom and light.

Chairman -- It is indeed a surprise to many to discover that for thousands of years prior to the coming of Jesus other peoples have lived with the inspiring thought that at regular intervals in human history a Divine Incarnation would manifest. But that is the plain fact. Today with the growing interest in the world's several living religions, we do well to familiarize ourselves with the spiritual ideals of others. If we can connect these various traditions with the Gospel story, I think we will see the one wisdom-teaching running through all of them.

Elmer -- I'm sorry, but I'm getting confused. Someone earlier this evening asked if Christ was an Avatara. I feel if I could get a simple explanation of the term, I might then be able to compare it with what we know about Christ.

Chairman -- Good, Elmer; that's just what we needed to bring our thinking into focus. In the first place, avatara is a Sanskrit word meaning "descent," from ava, down and tri, to cross over, i.e. "to descend." Incidentally, in its Anglicized form as Avatar, it is defined in Webster's dictionary as follows: "In Hindu religion, Incarnation of a deity -- chiefly associated with Vishnu; also embodiment, manifestation." Vishnu, as some of you may know, is the second divinity of the Hindu Trinity formed of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva,* but we'll pass over this for the moment except to say that in the Mahabharata ten Avataras are spoken of as having been sent forth from the god Vishnu.

* It may be of help to add a brief note of explanation on the Hindu Triad or Trimurti -- literally "three faces": Brahma, the personification of Brahman or the Supreme, whose "outbreathing" and "inbreathing" are his "Days" and "Nights,' is considered the creator or progenitor of the universe and of all living beings therein; Vishnu is the preserver or adjuster, he who maintains harmony and the cosmic order; he is said periodically to emanate from himself certain divine energies which find imbodiment on earth as Avataras; and Siva, the third member of the Triad, is the destroyer; but inasmuch as he overturns only that which is worn out in order that Brahma who is ever moved to create and re-create may initiate a fresh impetus for growth, Siva is likewise regarded as a beneficent force and called the "regenerator." -- Ed.

Now then, let us see if we cannot relate this more pointedly to the Christ story. Take the Gospel according to St. John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" -- the Word that was the Light to which Jesus bore witness, "the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world." "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us," even as the Supreme through Krishna revealed to Arjuna the same ageless truths. We could take verse after verse of chapter 3, but it isn't really necessary as the Avatara role is beautifully depicted as Jesus strikes the identic chord of compassion for the fate of man that Krishna does:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, . . . that the world through him might be saved.
He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, . . .
And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, . . .

Elmer -- I find this very helpful. I see now that John is saying in his way what Krishna did, that God "descended" through Christ into Jesus -- and that's what you mean by an Avatara. Too bad we have had such a limited interpretation given us.

Chairman -- A few of the most enlightened divines are beginning to suggest that Krishna is a Hindu Christ, but not so many care to consider Christ a Western Krishna! Nevertheless, the leaven of understanding is at work, and by the close of the twentieth century I dare say we will be astounded at how many theological barriers will have been toppled. Let's be careful ourselves that in clinging so rigidly to whatever new light we may discover we don't build new barriers which future generations will have to break down! We can see that this particular passage, when properly interpreted, and in fact the entire story of the Christ, is a lofty example of a Divinity imbodying a portion of its Essence for the same merciful purpose as Krishna describes: in order once again to bring to mankind the saving light of truth.

Paul -- There are several places in the New Testament that hint of a "second coming" of Christ, though much nonsense has been written in this regard, in attempting to predict the end of the world and the Judgment Day, etc. There's also a prophecy in one of the epistles of Peter, to the effect that "the heavens will pass away with a great noise," and we will have to look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness has sway.

Martha -- That's reminiscent of Revelation, where John witnesses the opening of heaven and the figure on a white horse called Faithful and True, who would judge the nations. It also states that hell would give up its dead so that each and every person would be judged "according to their works." I find that last phrase most significant.

Hazel -- The Parsis have a tradition, dating back to the time of Zoroaster, that in some future period another Savior whom they call Sosiosh, would appear, also on a white horse and with the same beneficent purpose in view.

Ernest -- This puts me in mind of the time many years ago when I was stationed in Burma. I took the opportunity to look into the field of Buddhist thought, particularly their art, and there was current among the people there a feeling that another Buddha would come in the future. They called him Maitreya, and they had numerous statues carved in his honor as they held him as the special Friend of Man.

Ellen -- Could we go back now to the Avataras of Vishnu and his ten or more incarnations? I think this is very interesting. I don't remember them all, but I think he appeared as a fish and a tortoise, and only later took various human forms. His eighth imbodiment was Krishna, and the ninth Gautama Buddha I believe.

Tom -- That seems rather odd, not only because of the antagonism the Buddha aroused among some of the Brahmans on account of his frank teaching of certain of their doctrines, but because I have never thought of Gautama as an avataric incarnation of Vishnu or of any other god for that matter. Buddha was a historic figure, the main events of his life having been well attested to, and the fact that he attained his lofty spiritual stature on his own I find very inspiring. Well, most of these stories are only half-truths, I guess.

Chairman -- In all these matters we have to search behind the colorful paraphernalia if we would get at the truth. If we are to credit the Jataka-tales, for example, which purport to describe the Buddha's "previous births," we would find that only very recently, comparatively speaking, he was born as an animal! Which is preposterous, of course, for it takes ages and ages to produce a human being able to achieve "enlightenment" or Buddhahood! Obviously all of these stories, when not outright imagination, are symbolic and as such contain genuine elements of fact.

As for Gautama not being a true Avatara, in the sense that Krishna and the Christ were, you're quite right. According to what I have been able to grasp of this very profound theme, a genuine Avatara is the "descent" of a Divinity into and a becoming one with a Jesus or a Krishna, whereas a Bodhisattva or a Buddha, such as Gautama, is the result of an illumined and strengthened human soul self-consciously making the "ascent" towards union with its own inner Divinity. Nevertheless, and this is where we can take courage and strength from this: every human being, because of his link with his immortal Self, represents a minor avataric "descent" in that the Divine within does, in spite of our human failings, find periodic imbodiment through us. And as we aspire toward the highest we can conceive of, we are step by step making the very "ascent" which culminated in Gautama's triumph under the Bo-tree. It will take us many, many lifetimes to understand the full implications, but even now, as Socrates would say, our soul knows.

Betty -- I wonder who the tenth Avatara was, if Buddha was the ninth one.

Ellen -- He hasn't come yet, but he's called the Kalki-avatara, and he also is to appear mounted on a white steed, with sword flashing fire, to effect the destruction of the world and its renewal.

Chairman -- There does indeed seem to be a universal acceptance among all ancient peoples that at the close of our present age another Hero or Savior will appear. Frank, did you locate that passage from one of the Puranas where it mentions the coming Avatara that is due at the end of the Kali-yuga? Good. Before you read it, I might explain that the Brahmans divide the cycles of human experience into four main ages or yugas, the first being the most spiritual, with the longest number of years in it, and each succeeding yuga decreasing one fourth in spirituality and in length, until our present age called Kali-yuga, or the "Black age." You will note that these yugas correspond fairly accurately, in quality at least if not exact years, to the four Ages of Man which the Greek poet Hesiod characterized respectively as Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron.

Martha -- That's rather thought-provoking, because in the Old Testament I believe we find a similar imagery used by Daniel when he relates the vision he had in the night "when the light dwelleth" with him. He beheld a great image whose head was of fine gold, the breast and arms were of silver, belly and thighs of brass, the legs of iron while the feet were a mixture of iron and clay! This would seem to suggest the same descent of inner power.

Chairman -- Thanks, Martha. All right Frank, let us have the passage now about the Kalki-avatara.

Frank -- It's taken from the fourth book of the Vishnu-Purana:

When the practices taught by the Vedas and the Books of Laws shall have almost ceased, and the end of the Kali-yuga shall be nigh, a portion of the divinity which lives in its own spiritual nature in the state of Brahman, and which is the beginning and end [of all things] and which comprehends everything, shall appear on this earth, and will take birth in the family of an eminent Brahman of Sambhala village, called Vishnu-Yasas, as the Kalki-avatara . . .
By his irresistible power he will overthrow . . . all whose minds are devoted to iniquity. Then he will re-establish right-doing on earth; and the minds of them who live at the end of the Kali-yuga shall be as pellucid as crystal. The men thus changed by the influences of that exceptional period shall be the seeds of human beings to come, and shall grow into a race which will follow the duties and laws of the Krita-yuga [the first yuga or Age of Purity].

Betty -- That is a most arresting selection. After hearing it, it seems even more peculiar that we have been led to believe that Jesus was the one and only manifestation of Deity; or at least that he was so very much more spiritual than all previous world teachers.

Dick -- I don't consider that Jesus ever thought of himself in that way, though the Gospels do have him say he was the "only begotten Son." Still it is my feeling that there is some explanation we don't have. In a certain way every human being is unique because we each have to grow in our own way, even if it means we have to suffer a lot; we have to feel inside what is true in our own consciousness, and not just take someone else's say-so.

Chairman-- We cannot say why our theology, which has so clouded the pure message of the Christ, should have persistently emphasized the uniqueness rather than the universal aspect of his coming. One thing we do know: just as the counterfeit attests to the true coin, so every dogma contains within it an underlying truth. Dick, I feel you have given us a real key here. Now if we could expand our thought to embrace the full quality of Divinity, we would perceive that each "incarnation" or "descent" of a Divine influence is, and indeed must be, "only-begotten," "virgin-born," in that it is a unique fusion of certain facets of consciousness which have been drawn together for a sublime purpose, and which may never again be so fused in that particular manner!

That is what makes the manifestation of the Christs and Avataras so beautiful. We haven't begun to understand more than the surface of this truly sacred mystery -- the mystery of Divinity remaining transcendent, "unborn, of changeless essence," yet out of love for mankind emanating a portion of Itself that it may find imbodiment in a noble individual dedicated to quickening the divine seed of aspiration in expectant human hearts. No wonder such an event is celebrated as a "sacred birth" -- it is indeed such, and foreshadows what can and may happen in the course of time to any man or woman who will undertake to follow the "still, small path."

It has grown late, and in all the welter of details which we have touched upon, let us hold to this one grand thought: there is a body if truths, whose custodians have been and are the Buddhas and Saviors, the Avataras and Christs of all ages; an "imperishable doctrine," the knowledge of which every individual by right of his divine origin has the power and the responsibility to recall at will.

When the need is crucial enough and men and women want spiritual guidance more than all else, there is the promise of another Incarnation, for compassion is as rooted in Divinity as is the law of harmony and justice.