The Problem of the Self-Body in the Bhagavadgita:
The Problem of Meaning
by Antonio T. de Nicolas, PhD
The completely irreligious mind is, it seems to me,
the unreal mind, the tense, void, abstracted mind that does not even see
the things that grow out of the earth or feel glad about them: it knows
the world only through prices and figures and statistics. For when the
world is reduced to number and measure you can indeed be irreligious,
unless your numbers turn out to be implicated in music or astronomy, and
then the fatal drive to adoration begins again!
The numbers that are germane to music and astronomy
are implicated in the magic of seasons and harvests. And there, in spite
of yourself, you recapture something of the hidden and forgotten atavistic
joy of those Neolithic peoples who, for whole millennia, were quiet and
human. Thomas Merton
Western scholarship has been familiar with the Bhagavadgita for
approximately a hundred years. The least that can be said on the side
of the scholarship is that the indecision with regard to the meaning of
the text is inevitable. The most that we can attempt at this time is to
point out the problems left unsolved.
The problems I have in mind are obviously philosophical and are so linked
to one another that to isolate any one of them, such as the self-body
problem, is of necessity to challenge the meaning of the entire text as
well as to question our method of regarding it as a unified text.
To be succinct I am forced to focus on language models as sources of
meaning in order to achieve a full reading of the Gita. In recent
years, philosophers have tended to emphasize the virtues of precision
rather than those of suggestiveness, and the importance of investigating
constructed theories rather than methods which lead to their construction.
This may be the reason why the subject of models has not received the
attention it deserves.
In order to explain the facts, predict and control them more effectively,
to induce attitudes, or to inculcate ways of behavior, artists, philosophers,
theologians, and scientists have used various devices. An extraordinarily
successful one is the model. Its use involves the pretense that something
is the case when it is not. Hobbes pretended that the state was a many-jointed
monster or leviathan; Shakespeare likened it to a hive of honey bees.
Descartes pretended that the mind in its body was the pilot of a ship;
Locke suggested that it was a slate, empty at birth but full later; and
Hume maintained that it was a theatre. Theologians have pretended that
the relation between God and man is that of father to son. Optical theorists
have pretended that we see by geometry (and we ended up seeing only geometry).
Physicists make believe that at times light moves in waves, and at other
times that it consists of corpuscles, in order to account for different
observable facts in the motion of light (on this point, see Colin Murray
Turbayne, The Myth of Metaphor [Chapel Hill, University of South
Carolina Press, 1970]).
Just as often, however, the pretense has been dropped, either by the
pretenders or by their followers. A few models, however, have remained
in use. In fact, all too often the origins of models as models are forgotten
and they are acted upon literally through language, emotion, and action.
This article is concerned with these latter kinds of models.
Our knowledge is not only conditioned but also conditioning. Knowledge
is conditioned by the form in which it is originally made possible by
the arbitrary pretense of its model. What originally started as a bundle
of beliefs, presuppositions, and criteria to build the conditions for
knowing eventually became the world reified as itself and a language which
ran around the frame of the model claims it to be the picture of reality.
Ultimately language follows literally the determination of the model and
the determination of the model becomes the confines of a culture.
In reading the Gita one has to become aware of the following three
conditioning models of language: Language as sign. Samjaya, the narrator
of the Gita, and the reader him/herself, are conditioned by this
model. There is a great difference however between Samjaya and the reader
of the book. What Samjaya points to and what the reader of the book reads
may be two completely different texts. If we were not aware of models,
the reader of the book would be reading the Gita according to a
model of language which takes sight as primary (see Descartes' Discourse
on Optics) and would be forced to ride on the hidden horses that accompany
most Western traditions, for example: the appropriation by names, empirically
known by way of quantifiable sense-data, of qualities or characteristics
clustered around them; the theory of abstract concepts which the mind
applies correctly to things or those names; subjects facing objects; things
moving in space and linear time; thinking substances facing matter; fallen
bodies facing heaven; what is and what ought to be. In fact, unbeknownst
to the reader, he is forced to read into the Gita a "geometrical
model" which started with Euclid and became systematized by Descartes
and Newton. Deduction, extension, motion (as a mode of extention), space
(as distance), and time (as duration) are all features of the model and
of the language repeating it and not of reality or of anything else. Yet
this is what readers of the Gita have persistently read.
I will try to show in this article that the Gita can be read according
to other models of language. In fact, what Samjaya designates for us as
the world of the Gita is a world embedded in sound, mounted on
the wheel of sound and ruled by its criteria. The whole "body"
of the Gita stretches as far as its sound can be heard. Notice
how the Gita begins amidst noise and a chaos of sound and how,
from a distance, Samjaya is able to "pick out" the dialogue
between Krsna and Arjuna. Notice also how Arjuna concludes by following
out Krsna's "word," a word which has been moving among confused
sounding noises, yet remains always clear throughout. Notice also that
the cultural ground from which Arjuna and Krsna emerge is a world of "sounding
silence," the original rhythmic impulse which keeps sending beings
and worlds without ever being exhausted. By which criteria do these sounds
become the language of the Gita?
Besides the model of language as sign that the reader carries with him/her,
there are, I believe, two other models of language which are the source
of meaning for the statements of the Gita: (A) the language of
karman, or the proposition that sensation is a language, and, (B)
the language of dharma (fields). Both these languages are conditioned
according to the criteria of sound.
We will focus our inquiry on Arjuna's concrete situation in the Bhagavad-Gita
a concrete human situation in which a man, to survive as man, must
take stock of his own convictions. We will divide this inquiry into three
I. The self-body of crisis: language of karman (primacy of sensation,
II. The self-body of recovery: language of dharma (primacy of fields).
Ill. The self-body of emancipation: (primacy of movement, detachment,
embodiment; model of language by the criteria of sound.)
I. The Self-Body of Crisis: Language of Karman (Primacy of Sensation,
According to the Gita, Arjuna, as a Hindu warrior, should know
not only to act (fight) without regard to the consequences of his action
according to his condition, (XVIII. 45), but he should also know how to
act without any doubt (IV. 40; VI. 39; VIII. 7) and with an unshakable
judgment (XVIII. 49). Arjuna, however, collapses in the battlefield unable
to balance the terror of being a man with the decision to be a man. The
terror is grounded on the belief that there is a natural condition of
man, a natural self-body, which naturally and blindly is forced toward
the reproduction of social action. Arjuna's liberating decision will be
his ability to recover the cultural condition of man: man having to cope
with a multiplicity of predetermined worlds (karmic laws) of which
he can not only sketch the profile (dharma, horizon, context),
but must also make his self-body coincide with its directions and demarcations.
To follow systematically this journey from the space and self-body of
crisis to the spaces and self-bodies of liberation, let us summarize here
the programmatic moves of Krsna/Arjuna.
(1) Arjuna's arguments for inaction in his present situation are futile
once he is in that present situation in the field of battle (dharmaksetre)
(2) These arguments veil a belief in a natural, raw, barbarian state
within which man may try to hide, as it were, neutral and unaware of ontological
and epistemological presuppositions: the slave of karmic laws.
(3) This false situation of Arjuna is held together (epistemologically
and ontologically) by the bewitchment of language in the form of the ahamkara
(I-maker or sense of I) and its subsequent epistemological and ontological
appropriations or identifications. A linguistic space is thus absolutized
into a universal human space reducing all human acting and human self-body
to only one possible interpretation.
Situation as Determined Action
Krsna shows Arjuna that his arguments for not doing anything while facing
the battlefield are useless and ineffective. He shows him that to fight
(act) is inevitable. He points out that according to the Ksatriya tradition
fighting is in keeping with the noble traditions of the royal sages; it
is also virtuous, enough to lead to heaven, and it is glorious enough
to establish fame on the earth. Thus it is emphasized that this line of
action has come down through tradition (IV. 2). Winning or losing, participation
in war would accomplish good in either case (II. 37), and Arjuna is therefore
clearly told: "But if you will not engage in this righteous battle,
then having forsaken your own particular dharma as well as glory,
you will incur sin" (II. 33).
In his further attempt to show Arjuna the emptiness of his arguments
not to fight, Krsna, as one who has the whole culture at a glance, reveals
before him the destiny of the people assembled there for the battle and
points out that it is futile on his part to think that merely on account
of his desisting from fighting, the battle would be avoided and the lives
of these people would be saved. In keeping with the line of argument that
the evil-doers are killed by their own outrageous conduct and the man
who is merely instrumental in their killing is not guilty of the sin,
Krsna exhorts Arjuna to follow his duty and earn the glory of a true warrior
(XI. 32-33). Arjuna is told to be wise enough to realize the true duty
of a Ksatriya, with the natural endowment of which he is born, and not
to allow his I-maker (ahamkara) and attachment to get the better
of him (III. 30).
Had Arjuna minded the tradition, and remembered even a bit of its intentionality,
he could have avoided this impasse (II. 40). Arjuna's condition as a warrior
is grounded on "heroism, energy, firmness, resourcefulness and not
fleeing in battle; generosity and lordliness
" (XVIII. 43),
and in a "battle situation" there is nothing else he can choose.
Despite this, Arjuna, even in his despair, realizes that human acting
is decision-making, a decision in relation to a radical orientation of
knowledge in which the whole body participates, a judgment at every step
of the way without questions, doubts, or hesitations. He wishes he knew
how to be a man of asaktabuddhi (firm knowledge-wisdom) (XVIII.
49; II. 41; II. 54).
Krsna promises him no less.2 But first Arjuna must realize
and transcend the muddy space in which he is trapped. The important point
to be made, however, is that a rationalization of inaction (or of whatever
action man performs) is always an interpretation radical and sufficient
or dogmatic and insufficient of a man's orientation to life.
The Relation Dharma-Karman and Yoga
The first chapter of the Gita places man in the midst of his own
authentic reality: despair, anxiety, inaction.
The second chapter shows the ground on which man (Arjuna) stood all his
life: a theoretic consciousness of his culture and the actions and roles
he was determined to play and for which he was trained by the culture.
Now that this ground is no longer under Arjuna's feet, what is he to do?
Chapter three offers the first solution: Arjuna must recover his lost
memories, all he has forgotten: the kind of knowledge that created the
culture in the first place, and the kind of knowledge that, if sought
diligently, will help Arjuna save himself and his circumstance. The relation
dharma-karman and yoga is the root relation which Arjuna
must discover to lead him to freedom.
The first line of the Gita identifies for us the human problem
of Arjuna. The "field of battle" and the "field of dharma"
are the same: "dharmaksetre kuruksetre." In the field
of the Kurus, in the field of dharma, the crisis of Arjuna unfolds.
What is at stake in Arjuna's mind is not the battle alone, but his whole
social and conceptual scheme, his whole life: every action from fighting
in battle to eating leftovers. He has literally no ground to stand on
(I. 40-44). The root of the word dharma, dhr, means to support,
sustain, hold together; that is, dharma is the general or particular
context and structure which holds together certain objects with definite
and determined programs of action.
What constitutes, in the Gita, the basic element of our
or Arjuna's creatureliness, our historical ground, is karman:
"Karman is the creative force that causes creatures to exist
(as creatures)."3 The word karman is a noun meaning
action, from the root kr, "doing, acting, performing."
The significant point of the Gita, however, is not so much to stress
this obvious fact of man having to act, but rather the fact, as in Arjuna's
case, that acting enslaves, if karmic acting brings along karmic thinking
and its point of view on the world. Karmic thinking in this case consists
in Arjuna or anyone thinking that he is the agent;4 that is,
he deludes himself into thinking linearly by causally uniting action after
action and ontologically linking them with himself. In this view action,
self, and body are unified ontologically; fear, anxiety, despair, agitation,
inaction follow. Negatively the Gita says: "He who thinks
himself the agent is wrong" (XVIII. 16). There are five factors which
are the causes of action (XVIII. 15), and, prakrti (as well as
the gunas) are bound to lead you to action (XVIII. 59). Under karmic
law man has no other alternative but to act. This sounds like sheer determination
and it is. And although prakrti and the gunas may explain
the human fact that man, whatever his nature, tamasic, rajasic, or sattvic,
has to act, they also put man in the midst of his own existential anguish
that he is determined to act, trapped in action. Add to this inescapable
fact man's own decision to identify himself with his actions and you have
the impossible aporia, problem, non-exit of Arjuna. His solution,
obviously, is not in action but in the viewing it is grounded on. The
starting point of Arjuna's liberation is the understanding of dharma.
Krsna, addressing Arjuna, reminds him that his conduct does not become
him (II. 3) and Arjuna confesses plainly that he is confused about his
dharma (II. 7), and in typical karmic-value thinking asks the question
(determined in the answer): "which would be better, tell me decisively
(to fight or not to fight)" (II. 7); he sees no other possible avenue
All actions are action, and actions are of value, because they came so
ordered in a concrete contextual-structure or dharma.5
Looking at the actions alone, one is determined; knowing the dharma
one is free. If we look directly at the Gita we find that Arjuna's
joumey into his own culture from chapters II through X is a journey of
the relation between karman-dharma, action-context: cultural
man and his multiple embodiments begin to emerge.
If we were to read chapter I of the Gita by the conditioning of
a model of language that takes language as a sign, we would then of necessity
focus on Arjuna's body as a substance to which the attributes of sin,
guilt, fear, despair must be ascribed. This self-body, moreover, will
remain constant. This reading will force us to feel the weight of all
the names, discreet noises, entities, in chapter I of the Gita,
and in general believe that each self-body is already endowed with agency
There is, however, another possible reading of the same chapter. When
we see Arjuna's limbs become weak, his mouth dry up, his body tremble,
his hair stand on end, and the like, we are seeing a self-embodied theory
collapsing. Agency and finality belong to this theory, not Arjuna. Arjuna's
body is the occasion for the appearance of such theory. What appears through
Arjuna's body is a theory made flesh which collapses because it does not
account for the whole situation. The theory appears insufficient in the
field of battle through Arjuna's self-body. This is the yoga of crisis
in chapter I of the Gita.
Methodologically the two readings are incompatible. The first one takes
a theory which is historically public and posterior to the Gita
and universalizes itself to reduce the world to linguistic uniformity.
On the other hand, the second reading proceeds by squeezing out of a particular
and historical human flesh and circumstance the theory by which it becomes
such flesh. Flesh and theory are inseparable like Arjuna and Krsna in
the yoga of crisis of chapter I in the Gita. Sensation is a language.
II. The Self-Body of Recovery: Language of Dharma (Primacy of Fields)
When a man is in the midst of a crisis, like Arjuna's, things must first
get worse before they get better. The crisis must reach bottom before
it is resolved. Arjuna realizes in the midst of his impotence that his
crisis is about knowledge: "Why is it not wise for us, O Janardana
(Krsna)" (I. 39). Arjuna realizes so vividly that his crisis lies
in his position about knowledge that he is ready to give up victory, pleasures,
his kingdom, and even his own life for the sake of the knowledge that
will take him away from his crisis.
Arjuna shares with his enemies the same theory of knowledge for which
he blames them. Like the Kauravas, he does not see how things hang together
on account of the greed of his mind for his own way of knowing (I. 38).
Like them, he does not give up this delusion (II. 52; VI. 13) and the
desire (II. 55; III. 37) born of this attachment. Attachment, fear, anger
(II. 56) and hatred (XVIII. 51) are all born of desire which is ontologically
linked to a theory of knowledge which can only function through self-identification
and appropriation (II. 62; III. 37, 38). Both Arjuna and his enemies are
ignorant of the fact that desire ontologically links man to the dualities:
cold and heat, pleasure and pain, happiness and grief, knowledge and ignorance
(II. 14, 15), good and evil (II. 57), and this they presuppose to be the
knowledge of how things really are. The Gita, however, points out
that this position is deluded since it is a knowledge covered by ignorance
(V. 15), and in general it functions through the belief that an individual
(Arjuna) is the doer of the action (XVIII. 17; III. 27). In contrast,
knowledge, according to the Gita, should produce evenmindedness
in pain and pleasure,6 in honor and dishonor (XII. 18), in
blame and praise (XII. 19), equality to friends and foes (XIV. 25), and
in general a man without doubt and of firm judgment (II. 58).
By way of the radical thinking we have set before us, we find ourselves
from the beginning of the Gita facing moving bodies and structures:
each structure a rhythm through which a body-world appears, revealing
as it appears a background of living beings together with the glory and
terrors of their life. It is against this cultural horizon that the moving
bodies of Arjuna and Krsna speak out and make present their world. Their
movement in the Gita is the movement and opposition of the gunas.
It is the movement and complementarity of prakrti and purusa.
It is also their parity and dependence. Arjuna and Krsna are like two
halves of an orange belonging to a common origin which negates and reconciles
the parts in every movement. Yet, having this in mind, we may speak of
Arjuna and Krsna as if the two halves were really independent. When Arjuna
moves Krsna moves, and if Arjuna stands still so does Krsna.
One must not forget that Arjuna is a warrior, used to living dangerously,
with death stalking him at every step. Yet it is this same Arjuna who
is now in the grips of a crisis so severe that his limbs tremble, his
skin is feverish, his weapons fall from his hands, and he can hardly move;
the man has frozen. This is the problem which the Gita is "set"
to solve. It is a controlled experiment with sickness, diagnosis, medication,
cure, and rehabilitation, all in seven hundred verses, all in one song-poem.
If Arjuna's point of view depends for its survival on the objects and
the senses as appropriated by the ahamkdra and himself, the whole
program of the Gita will be a program to desensitize such a world-view
from its absolutized directions: to detach the senses from one absolute
form of sensing and feeling the world. A man, to be a man, has to be able
to move without touch, smell, taste, sight, noise; to be able to move
up and down, backwards and forwards, in and out the corridors of his own
emptiness into the throbbing light, the sustaining ground, by his own
impulse. Man can only know his bearings if he himself becomes those bearings.
Arjuna's initial condition in the Gita is a complete blank. He
is tamas, dullness and inertia. It is not the case that Arjuna
"feels" low. Rather it is the case that Arjuna is the
whole tamasic condition, not only in his mind but in his whole body-feelings-sensation.
Man is viewpoint. Structure is the viewpoint made flesh. Arjuna is tamas
and prakrti in chapter I of the Bhagavad Gita.
If Arjuna had been able, in his moment of crisis, to realize that his
body was as large as his tamasic condition, that is, if he had been able
to realize the dependence of body-feelings on perspective and realize
also this ontological unity, then the subsequent journey of the Gita
would have been superfluous. But Arjuna settles instead for a crisis and
the Gita's wheel moves on.
The structure of the journey between chapters II and X of the Gita
is again a structure to be "seen" in order to be understood.
It shares the same kind of ontological union-viewpoint dependence as the
structure of crisis. Through the mediation of memory the lived
memories of Arjuna's past, the imaginative variations of a life lived
and forgotten Arjuna is able in these chapters to refeel his body
as it felt and thought in different contexts: samkhyayoga (II);
karmayoga (III): the yoga of action; jnanayoga (IV): the
yoga of knowledge; karmasamnyasayoga (V): the yoga of renunciation
of actions; dhydnayoga (VI): the yoga of meditation; janavijanayoga
(Vll): the yoga of wisdom and understanding; aksarabrahmayoga (Vlll):
the yoga of the imperishable Brahman; rajavidyarajaguhyayoga (IX):
the yoga of sovereign knowledge and sovereign secret; and vibhutiyoga
(X): the yoga of manifestations. Within each one of these contexts, world-body-feelings
are different; the intentionality of the context determines actions and
the way these actions world-body-feel. This long journey of lost memories
is a journey of reembodirnent. It demands an ontological reduction grounded
on the realization of the nonexistence of any reference for language,
perception, or experience in general. But the conclusion of such a reembodiment
shows the futility of trying to grasp substances or anything permanent.
Chapter XI of the Gita shows the finality, dissolution, and despair
of any world grounded on permanence; yet it remains a world and a body
alive (XI. 23-30).
This is the end of Arjuna's moves through the first eleven chapters of
the Gita. What we see in this journey of Arjuna is that the memories
he reembodies are lived memories. Arjuna himself has gone through them
and therefore knows how they world-body-feel. Arjuna is able to body-feel
his own body while travelling the corridors of his memories. He is able
to body-feel other body-feelings he himself was when those memories were
not memories but a living body. He knows of other world-unions which are
possible through himself or that he himself has been. But again, as phenomenology
reminds body (XIV-XVIII) will emerge as a radical embodied unity, which
appears as a multiplicity of body-feelings-sensations, complete each time
it acts, in every action, in every social situation. But to retrain the
body to "think itself up" every time it acts, requires not only
time but also the constant effort and habit of learning how to shift perspectives,
progressing from the perspective of chapter I to the perspective of chapter
This simply means that from now on we cannot read the Gita without
simultaneously reading the movement of the three gunas and the
simultaneity of both prakrti-purusa, Arjuna-Krsna.
The strangeness of the new situation demands a critical change not only
in conceptual structures, but also a relearning of the new process of
body-feelings, a reeducation of the muscular and nervous systems, and
above all a change in conceptual structure to account for the new situation.
This is the change during which a whole new style of embodied interpretation
is assembled, but this is not achieved without an intellectual bereavement
which can only proceed to relearn its own process of formation step by
step, action by action. It is for this reason that chapters XIV to XVIII
are fundamental to the Gita, for they are the chapters which show
the "rehabilitation" process of a man who has seen the emptiness
behind his own old structure of meaning and does not yet know how to proceed
in the integration of the new.
What Krsna proposes to Arjuna from the start of chapter XII is that for
Arjuna, who has already seen, every action is "dangerous," for
each one contains the creation and dissolution of the world. The creation
of the new world is accomplished if in every action Arjuna orients himself
through the buddhi-interpretation of action. The world will destroy itself
if in every action Arjuna orients himself through the interpretation of
the manas. But this program of living is only for one who has "held
to this wisdom (Krsna's) and become the likeness of my own state of being
(XIV. 2)." For these are the people who "are not born even at
creation, nor are they destroyed at dissolution (XIV. 2)." They are
humans who have learned to transcend the gunas of prakrti (XIV.
From now on, Arjuna the warrior has to tread carefully, for every step
is dangerous, every step in his world is explosive. In no way can Arjuna,
the warrior, abandon himself in any action, not even those full of sattva
Arjuna, obviously is bewildered and lost while trying to give body-shape
to his new vision (XIV. 21), but Krsna states simply the absolute, criterion
for knowledge, solely by realizing that it is only the gunas which act
when we witness activity, by remaining as if unconcerned without attributing
or appropriating pleasure or pain to oneself, that one may stand apart
and remain firm, without doubt (XIV. 23-25).
Arjuna has to learn that in every action, every step he takes, the whole
creation is present. It is the upturned peepal tree, with its branches
below, its roots above. The branches stretch below and above, nourished
by the gunas; us, these body-unions are problematic. One may decide
to ascribe all these memories, all these imaginative variations, to the
same constant body; that is, one may decide to ascribe them to a body
which remains constant through all these variations and to whom memories
(imaginative variations) are never recoverable as embodied, but are only
possible as embodied attributes from a logical world to a logical subject.
This union is a precarious one, a theoretic unity to which different sensations,
different body-feelings, may be ascribed or may be denied. Man can never
find himself at home in such a body, and the only way out for man is either
to declare himself in crisis or diligently dedicate himself to the task
of finding his own emancipation.
The Problem of Reading
If we take language as a sign, and then read from chapters II through
XI of the Gita, our reading will of necessity be blind, like the
King of the Kurus. Each chapter is a field, a yoga, or dharma,
and the entities within each chapter arise and collapse with each chapter.7
No entity, theory or body carries over from chapter to chapter, even if
the names do. Each field arises by cancelling the previous one and each
self-body, Arjuna-Krsna, prakrti-purusa, body-perspective arises
anew within the boundaries of each chapter with which it shares its dimensions
and demarcations. Furthermore, the movement of the fields cancels out
the movement and continuity of any entity or substance. Time cannot be
read as duration, nothing lasts; but as chapter XI clearly states, time
is the movement of one self-body perspective to another, the shift of
the perspective of one field to the perspective of another field. And
space cannot be read as distance, but as the rising or falling of two
simultaneous perspectives, Arjuna's-Krsna's. Both these perspectives are
complementary yet contradictory; what can truly be said in one cannot
be truly said in the other. Finally the duration of any one life or self-body
lasts as long as a field and rises and dies with it. But the question
remains: by which grammar are we going to read this text? Or, more precisely,
by which conditioning model of language was the text composed?
III. The Self-Body of Emancipation: Primacy of Movement, Detachment,
Embodiment (Model of Language by the Criteria of Sound)
Taking our clue from the Gita 's insistence that sensation is
a language, we find ourselves forced to establish also that perspective
is also sensation, or reality. Arjuna's body in chapter I is both body-perspective,
prakrti-purusa, Arjuna-Krsna, and so is his body in chapter XI.
But by then everything has changed. Faith (XII) is no longer any thing
or any god, but rather a space beyond any god. Knowledge (XIII) is no
longer the absolutized universal knowledge that led him into crisis, but
rather: "Know me, O Bharata, to be the knower of the field in all
fields; the knowledge of the field and of the knower of the field: This
I hold to be (real) knowledge (XIII. 2)." And its sprouts are the
sense objects. When this tree reaches the world of men, it spreads out
its roots that results in action (XV. 1-2). But men do not see how their
actions are so umbilically joined to the whole world. They do not comprehend
its form, nor its end, nor its beginning, nor its foundation. Their only
release is to cut this firmly rooted tree with the weapon of nonattachment
The patient waiting for the right conditions to see, or give embodied
shape to the new vision which Arjuna has just touched in chapter XI should
be nothing new to Arjuna the warrior. Take a piece of land and there will
be as many perspectives as men passing through it. But for a warrior every
piece of land is all the life there is. The discipline of his own training
as a warrior has, in many ways, prepared Arjuna already for detachment,
and for the silent lust for life, and for each of the things of life.
His disciplined training as a warrior has already prepared him to immerse
himself in every action without fully surrendering to it. His ear is always
cocked to anticipate any danger, even while immersed in every action.
In fact, there is only every single action for him to count on
as "his life" as a, warrior, and it is in every action that
he will have to throw himself with the full power of his decisions.
Arjuna's conclusion at the end of his long journey, in terms of a philosophy
which would give shape to his vision of chapter XI, is obviously a coincidence
with Krsna: to realize his own emancipation through the action facing
him by reading the conditioning of all life. Through that action Krsna,
Arjuna, purusa, prakrti and their foundation coincide. For emancipation
to be possible, however, Arjuna's will (body-self) has to coincide with
the original cultural will of which both Krsna and Arjuna are the
bodies. But this realization could not have been mediated had Arjuna not
been able to "body-think himself up" (XVIII. 73) and share with
its cultural orientation its dimensions and demarcations.
The Model of Language According to the Criteria of Sound)
"The Truth is in the String." Taking our clue from Plato, we
have, at this time, to end this the way he ends the Symposium,
"by letting the band of musicians and clowns in and spoil the order
of the banquet." No Western philosopher since Plato has taken the
model of music with its "aural" directions and "context
dependency" as a model of rationality. This is precisely what we
claim is the case if we are going to understand radically the basic orientation
of the Gita.
It is obvious that the Bhagavadgita is an aural/oral document
from an aural/oral culture. We claim its model of language to be ruled
by sound criteria. This is all we need to assume for what follows. These
criteria are apriori for any knowledge of the Gita to be
No later than the third millennium B.C., and probably more than a thousand
years earlier, man discovered that the intervals between the tones could
be defined by the ratios of the lengths of pipes and strings which sounded
them. It was the ear that made ratios invariant; by its vivid memory of
the simpler intervals, the ear made the development of a science of pure
relations possible within the theory of numbers, the tone-field being
isomorphic with the number field. From this musicalized number theory,
which we know as "ratio theory," but which the ancients simply
called "music," man began his model building. The ratios of
the first six integers defined the primary building blocks: the octave
1:2, the fifth 2:3, the fourth 3:4, the major third 4:5, and the minor
third 5:6. From these first six integers, functioning as multiples and
sub-multiples of any reference unit ("I") of length or frequency,
a numerological cosmology was developed throughout the Near and Far East.
The ultimate source of this "Pythagorean" development is unknown.
The hymns of the Rgveda, the Gita, Buddhism, and so on,
resound with the evidence that their authors were fully aware of or conditioned
by this science and alive to the variety of models it could provide.
Tones recur cyclically at every doubling or halving of frequency
or wavelength and they are reciprocal: vrtra-agni; prakrti-purusa;
Arjuna-Krsna; samsara-nirvana: thus the "basic miracle of
music." From this acoustical phenomenon, the number 2 acquires its
"female" status; it defines invariantly the octave matrix within
which all tones come to birth. Here, in this initial identification of
the octave with the ratio 1: 2, is the root of all the problems which
haunt the acoustical theorist, problems which the ancient theorist conceived
as symbolizing the imperfection and disorder of the universe, and also
its renewal through new tones, new births, new songs, new gods. The octave
refuses to be subdivided into subordinate cycles by the only language
ancient man knew the language of natural number, or integers, and
the rational numbers derived from them. It is a simple arithmetical fact
that the higher powers of three and five which define subordinate intervals
of music never agree with higher powers of two which define octave cycles.
It is man's yearning for this impossible agreement which introduced a
hierarchy of values into the number field. For our ancestors, the
essence of the world and of the numbers which interpreted that
world was sound, not substance, and that world was rife with disagreement
among an endless number of possible structures and possible worlds. The
epistemological field of sound, however, remained invariant.
Therefore, from a linguistic and cultural perspective, we have to be
aware that we are dealing with languages where tonal and arithematic relations
establish the epistemological invariances. Invariance was not physical,
but epistemological. Ratio theory was a science of pure relations; its
fixed elements came from the recognition of the octave, fifth, and derivative
tonal relations which made ratio concrete. The divorce of music from mathematics
came later. Language grounded in music is grounded thereby on context
dependency; any tone can have any possible relation to other tones,
and the shift from one tone to another, which alone makes melody possible,
is a shift in perspective which the musician himself embodies.
Any perspective (tone) must be "sacrificed" for a new one to
come into being; the song is a radical activity which requires
innovation while maintaining continuity, and the "world"
is the creation of the singer, who shares its dimensions with the song.
The octave remained the epistemological invariant, "Mother-Earth,"
of which all these worlds are the offspring.
Tuning theory establishes for us certain epistemological criteria which
we need bear in mind if any meaning is to be derived from any culture
which takes tone as the ground of language: (a) it is not the case that
numbers or ratios control movement, but it is the case that movement
may be ordered according to certain ratios; we are not, watching
the movement of certain sounds, but rather, we are watching how movement
becomes certain sounds; (b) tones may be generated by numbers; this generation
does not give us isolated elements, but rather constellations of
elements in which each tone is context and structure dependent; (c) within
the matrix of the octave any tonal pattern may rise or fall, hence opposite
or reciprocal possibilities are equally relevent, both in the sense of
time (shift of key-modulation) and space (rising-falling);
(d) any perspective remains just one out of a group of equally valid perspectives,
and the variety of possible perspectives from which to view any set of
tones is apparently inexhaustible; any realization (that is, any song)
excludes all other possibilities while it is sounding, but no song has
so universal an appeal that it terminates the invention of new ones; (e)
linguistic statements remain structure and context dependent, and the
function of any language is to make clear its own dependence on, and reference
to, other linguistic systems; a model based on the primacy of sound is
not based on the reality of substance. Whereas the eye fastens on what
is fixed, the ear is open to the world of movement in which "existence"
(sat) and "nonexistence" (asat), Arjuna-Krsna,
prakrti-purusa are locked in an eternal and present absence/presence.
Music is a field of aural dimensions where the only substance is its
own structure plus the dynamic movement which carves it out from the reverberant
sphere of silent potentiality. There are no lasting invariants
the form of the construction and the "rules of the game" last
only as long as the duration of the piece. Each tone is subject to redefinition
and shifts in perspective as soon as a piece is completed. Unlike an architectural
(that is, spatial) construction, which once completed remains static,
its elements forever locked into a set pattern, a musical piece comes
and goes. It is called and recalled into existence any number of times,
during which it exists as concretely as any visual or tactile construction.
Each time a piece is played, it is carved anew out of an infinite source
of sound possibility, and each subsequent playing is an act of creation.
Each act of creating, though physically/aurally separate, is connected
to each and every other act of creation by a continuous path of memory
and movement, lending as much "concreteness" to a musical world
as notions of metric distance lend to a visual/tactile world.
It is precisely its transience which gives a sound-universe its dimensions.
By its continual motion and the possibility of superimposing perspectives,
either literally or through memory, music functions within a field which
transcends three-dimensional static space. Each note springs forth from
a sort of infinite-dimensional musical manifold, an unbounded space of
shifting tonal possibilities.
A form, or song, born of this space becomes one possibility manifest,
one possibility existing at the temporary sacrifice of all other possibilities.
A choice must be made for existence to be. A song can be sung in only
one key at a time to be recognizable as a coherent form/song, and for
this choice of key, tuning system, interpretation, and the like, to be
made, is to sacrifice all other possibilities for the duration of the
piece's performance. But since a musical creation' can be called and recalled
into being any number of times, the "sacrifice" is not a dogmatic
No choice, however, is an absolute in the field of time, for perspectives
can change, either after a piece is completed or within its own structure,
in the form of modulation to another gravitational center. But modulation
is not a random jump. There is always the linking factor of memory. Modulation
has no meaning without the memory of where the song came from and where
it is going. Each movement is glued together by a memory which flows in
a continuous omni-directional path. Direction and intent in music are
based on a memory of the immediately preceding events but also on an image
of the construction in its entirety. It is this continuity of memory which
determines the forward motion of the piece and the meaning of each tone
when it is recalled in subsequent playings the tones have no choice
but to slide along the path already charted by memory.
Had we not removed music from the curriculum we might not have so much
difficulty in understanding oral cultures, and therefore in recovering
our own memories. For this reason any one construction of these cultures
is simultaneously a deconstruction. We are forced to cross a sound barrier
which we did not know existed and which originally was taken for granted
or was slowly being forgotten. Sound gave birth to symbol, but we cannot
exalt the offspring without killing the mother. Thus, it is obvious that
statements from oral cultures will remain unintelligible as long as they
are not read against the background model which generate them; the model
of music as model of language.
It should also be amply clear that it is only through such radical activity
that our rationality can know itself as rational by embodying other peoples'
rationality, rather than colonizing them into our own decisions about
Our problem as interpreters lies in the fact that we share with Western
philosophy an almost complete absence of cultural perspective; that is,
the ability to save other peoples' reason without reducing it to ours.
The capital sin of our philosophical past has been to submerge a whole
people and its diversity into a single vision, a single personality. Underlying
our philosophical activity there has remained a constant radical need
of Western man for self-identification. An identity-making decision, however,
has no one factual answer, but rather depends on a great variety of criteria
for determining personal (or any other) identity. Statements about identity
in any language are language-bound; it is not merely trival to say that
statements about identity do not always refer to the same subject or object.
In truth, such statements do not necessarily refer to any subject
or object at all, though at times they may do so. Self or other identification
terms, in any language, do not prescribe the criteria for their use. It
is up to everyone who uses language and only to him to choose
the type of identification game he is going to play with respect, for
example, to sensation or any other term, so that he may decide even while
suffering, enjoying, acting and the like, which kind of "candidate"
he wishes to have as "sensation-owner," to paraphrase Wittgenstein.
It is obvious, therefore, that we have to mediate man through culture
if we are going to uncover the possibilities of man as realized by man.
Language is the main empirical evidence of what we call a culture. Language
takes into account not only the external tokens of sound, gesture, and
word, but also the internal tokens of intentionality, conceptualization,
and purposive action. Language, however, is not only conditioning, as
it repeats for us a picture of the world, but it is also conditioned,
it is grounded on a host of presuppositions and criteria, hidden to the
language user. In any case, language is primarily conditioned by a model
which determines, for language and its users, the possible moves to be
We have identified three models of language implied and conditioning
the reading of the Gita. These three models function simultaneously,
like the three gunas, at any one point, word, or sentence in the
Gita. It is only the model of language by the criteria of sound
that may give us a complete reading of the whole test. This reading implies
not only the ability to construct the whole text of the Gita, by
the criteria of its own original construction, but also to deconstruct
and cancel out completely its original conditioning, our own as readers,
and the world of sensation appropriated by us through any of those conditionings.
The text of the Gita is, therefore, not a liberating knowledge
nor does it advocate abstinence and renunciation. It is rather a text
showing the conditioning of all knowledge, and offers us the way of emancipation
or detachment from the fruits of action. Detachment in this sense is the
ability to make the self-body coincide with the dimensions and demarcations
of a whole cultural conditioning. This coincidence of the self-body with
the limits may lead to emancipation. The knowledge of such limits is only
the knowledge of conditioning, not liberation. The Gita ultimately
offers only one exit out of this bondage of knowledge: bhakti,
love, devotion, dedication. But this love is not of any knowledge, principle,
theory or idea, but belongs to the embodied flesh facing us and through
which we may transcend the limits of our own conditioning. Our possibilities
are again conditioned by the immediate flesh facing us. Of this conditioning
is freedom made.
1. The translations from the Sanskrit are my own. Philosophy as radical
activity is developed in my book: Avatdra: The Humanization of Philosophy
Through the Bhagavad Gita (New York: Nicolas Hays Ltd., 1976). The
model of language by the criteria of sound is fully developed in my book:
Meditations Through the Rg Veda: Four Dimensional Man (New York:
Shambhala/Random House, 1978), and this language is verified by Ernest
G. McClain in his book: The Myth of Invariance: The Origin of the Gods,
Mathematics and Music From the Rg Veda to Plato (New York: Shambhala/Random
2. See II.67, 71; 73; XII.8; IX.34; IX. 1; III.32; IV.40; VI.39; VIl.21;
3. See VIll.3; in other contexts, see also B.G.II.42-43;II.47-57;III.4-9;III.14-15;III.19-20;
III.22-25; IV. 14-24; IV. 32-33; V 1-14; XVIII.2-25.
4. III.27; this in contrast to XIII.29.
5. V. 15; XVI. 19; IX. 16, 24.
6. See II. 15,56; XII. 13,18; XIV.24.
7. The greatest linguistic sin in the Gita is the ahamkara,
literally the 'I-maker' (X.42). The most favored modality of seeing oneself
in the world is the anahamvadin, literally 'not "I" speaking'
"Aham" emphasizes the agent in an artificial way for
the simple reason that the personal suffix to the verb alone suffices
to specify the agent. The reason for the use of aham has been more
concerned with the partial aspect of momentary interest, on the emphasis
placed on individuation for the sake of clarification: aham yaje
(It is I who sacrifices as opposed to yaje, I-sacrificing). Indian
philosophy has made extensive use of what in Sanskrit is called ahamkara,
literally "the I-maker." It is understood as a principle of
artificial individuation of any and all particulars. However, by using
aham the speaker would be committed to a way of speaking which would "create
the impression that" (or talk "as if") the individual had
an ultimate ontological identity with the activity-whole.
The Bhagavadgita portrays three basic types of agency in chapter
XVIII, verses 19-40, which can be explained in terms of these modalities,
ahamkara, and anahamvadin.
Instrumental agency is paradigmatic of the "agent" of "light"
(sattvika) who allows the cosmic ritual of karman, samsara,
and dharma to play itself out or appear through the body (XVIII.23).
Here the "agent" in the instrumental case is on a par with the
body or material instrument through which an interpretation appears (111.27);
the efficient cause is not to be distinguished from the cause of the movement
or interpretation made flesh through the material cause or body.
Dative agency is paradigmatic of the "agent" or "passion"
(rajasa), who is accordingly disparaged in Indian culture, for
he continues ignorantly to bind himself to the wheel of samsara and to
accumulate karma-phala (fruits of action) (XVIII.24).
Dative agency is also typical of the "agency" of ignorance
and darkness (tamasa) who is even worse off than the "agent"
of passion, for he acts blindly, with no knowledge of dharma or
how things "hang together" (XVIII.25).
Thus, if the individual subject were to be understood as material instrument
through which the movement appeared, he was expressed in the instrumental
case. If he were to be understood as a partaker of the action and vitally
interested in the outcome as to whether it might be of benefit or disadvantage
to him, he was expressed in the dative case. The most highly modality
of dwelling in the world is characterized by anahamvadin (not the
Antonio T. de Nicolas was educated in Spain, India and the United
States, and received his Ph.D. in philosophy at Fordham University in
New York. He is Professor Emeritus of philosophy at the State University
of New York at Stony Brook.
Dr. de Nicolas is the author of some twenty- seven books, including Avatara:
The Humanization of Philosophy through the Bhagavad Gita,a classic
in the field of Indic studies; and Habits of Mind, a criticism
of higher education, whose framework has recently been adopted as the
educational system for the new Russia. He is also known for his acclaimed
translations of the poetry of the Nobel Prize-winning author,Juan Ramon
Jimenez, and of the mystical writings of St. Ignatius de Loyola and St.
John of the Cross.
A philosopher by profession, Dr. de Nicolas confesses that his most abiding
philosophical concern is the act of imagining, which he has pursued in
his studies of the Spanish mystics, Eastern classical texts, and most
recently, in his own poetry.
His books of poetry: Remembering the God to Come, The Sea Tug
Elegies, Of Angels and Women, Mostly, and Moksha Smith:
Agni's Warrior-Sage. An Epic of the Immortal Fire, have received wide
acclaim. Critical reviewers of these works have offered the following
from, Choice: "...these poems could not have been produced by
a mainstream American. They are illuminated from within by a gift, a
skill, a mission...unlike the critico-prosaic American norm..."
from The Baltimore Sun: "Steeped as they are in mythology and
philosophy these are not easy poems. Nor is de Nicolas an easy poet.
He confronts us with the necessity to remake our lives...his poems ...show
us that we are not bound by rules. Nor are we bound by mysteries. We
are bound by love. And therefore, we are boundless"
from William Packard, editor of the New York Quarterly: " This
is the kind of poetry that Plato was describing in his dialogues, and
the kind of poetry that Nietzsche was calling for in Zarathustra."
Professor de Nicolas is presently a Director of the Biocultural Research
Institute, located in Florida.
This article was published in Philosophy East and West 29, no. 2, April
1979. By The University Press of Hawaii.