Definition of Sanskrit Terms
Before reading the Gita, it’s important to understand some of its more important topics. The Gita provides useful advice to all seekers no matter where they are in their journey, but to really understand its essence, it helps to understand some fundamental Sanskrit terms.
In Hindu culture, the word dharma carries many meanings. At the subjective level, it mostly comes down to how one conducts oneself. For the individual, there is universal dharma (universal values, such as “do no harm”), personal dharma (values relative to your nature, such as how you choose to spend your time or choose to work), situational dharma (values dependent on a given situation), everyday dharma (social, political, economic and legal rules), and even body dharma (such as eating the right foods and avoiding the wrong ones). The basic idea is that within the field of experience there exist certain laws that when crossed, inevitably cause pain. Therefore, the premise is simple: to avoid pain and remain safe, follow dharma.
There are three kinds of universal laws for which human beings must abide or feel the unpleasant consequences: physical laws, psychological laws and moral laws. Very early in life, we all learn that we must obey the laws of gravity because falling and getting scraped knees is painful. We also quickly learn that putting a hand near fire burns. Both gravity and fire are just a few of the physical laws that we must abide by in order to avoid feeling pain. We also have psychological laws that govern us, so that sorrow, fear and anger will always feel bad, and security, peace and happiness will always feel good. We know that certain actions cause psychological damage—mostly by being on the giving or receiving end of abuse and injustice—and so we try to avoid them or seek help when needed. Lastly, there are moral laws that generally keep us from causing harm to others—usually in the form of lying, stealing or killing. Moral laws are, in essence, what in the West we refer to as The Golden Rule—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” As intelligent beings, not only do we avoid doing harm to others out of empathy, but we also avoid doing harm in order to protect ourselves from any possible retribution.
For the most part, universal laws needn’t be taught because they are common sense. As beings with an intellect, we’re able to see and evaluate the cause and effect of our actions. While the mind may have likes and dislikes that encourage us to flout the universal laws, a fully functioning intellect is able to discriminate and know that certain actions have the potential to create unpleasant results (if not now, in the near future). In short, dharma helps keep us and everyone else safe. It’s for this reason that it’s important dharma be upheld because without dharma things quickly spin out of control leading to a lack of discrimination, anger, delusion and eventually, a loss of peace and freedom (both individually and collectively).
Dharma isn’t something that can be just written down and kept guarded in a vault somewhere either, because dharma is not a thing, it’s a value. Therefore, it must be part of a culture and exist in the hearts and minds of individuals in order for it to work. When enough of society becomes corrupt with “alternative facts“ or thinking, “A little lying is fine”…”Some cheating is okay”…”But everyone is doing it!” the very fabric that holds society together is placed in jeopardy. For this reason, dharma must be cultivated and protected.
In the case of Arjuna, he is a noble prince and a prestigious member of society’s warrior class, so it’s his duty to defend dharma as it would be for any military leader of his stature. His service isn’t to himself, it’s to the Total. As a defender of dharma, he must constantly make the right decision based on the given situation because dharma isn’t absolute. In other words, like removing a gangrenous limb, sometimes harsh or even violent action is necessary to maintain the well-being of the greater. But often, understanding what the right thing to do is not easy. There is lack of information, lack of knowledge or just plain confusion due to so many forces coming at us at once. How many of us would not feel compassion for friends, family and teachers standing on the enemy’s side as Arjuna did? How many of us would not feel weakened by the predicament of wanting to defend dharma but at the same time, having to risk losing it by killing those who directly or indirectly help preserve it? How many of us would lose our ability to discriminate and in the end, drop our weapon in despair? This is what Arjuna is wrestling with at the beginning of the Gita.
Many people know karma to be short-hand for cause and effect, the accumulation of past actions or its biblical equivalence, “reaping what you sow.” However, it has much more significance. Karma translated is “action” and normally refers to any action. But in scriptural terms, it specifically means “an action or ritual in which there’s an offering.” Thus, in parts of the Gita it has a religious quality. Karma is also described as the cause of rebirth. Through their actions, an individual accumulates both good karma (the fruits of proper action) and bad karma (the fruits of improper action). In this way, karma is accrued like credit. According to scripture, one may gain access to heaven if enough good karma is earned. However, once all their good karma is used up, the being will return to the world once again. An individual’s karma account also determines what kind of womb their rebirth will take place in (person or animal) and what kind of parents they will be afforded. Therefore, if one leads a life of deception, greed and anger, in their next life, they will be born as an animal where they can fully express and begin to exhaust those traits. If one, instead, leads a life of self-mastery and a desire to know the truth, they will be given the right body, parents and circumstances to help them arrive closer to their objective. Thus, according to scripture, karma is closely related to samsara and one’s entrapment in the endless cycle of birth and death.
Like dharma and karma, samsara (bondage) is another Sanskrit word that has become ubiquitous. Because of its soft phonetics and exotic connotation, it’s name is ironically used to promote everything from perfume to health supplements. It’s ironic because with a little insight, one quickly realizes samsara isn’t something you want. Samsara can be described many ways, but one of the more useful is “the belief that joy is in the object.” “Object” means all objects including experiences, people, and relationships. And the problem isn’t so much the objects themselves, as it is the ways in which we become trapped by them.
When you desire an object you create a sort of mental itch—a subtle or not-so-subtle anxiety. The more you think about the object, the more irritable the itch becomes until finally, by acquiring the object of your desire you’re able to scratch. The apparent happiness of getting what you want doesn’t come from the object, it comes from the relief you experience from finally scratching. And once that itch is gone, it’s off to the next one! For most people it becomes a perpetual rash so that their entire lives are just itch-scratch-itch-scratch. Samsara is like a mental rash. Objects don’t make me itch, I make me itch. When you finally become tired of all the scratching, you’re ready to get out of samsara and seek freedom. This is how in Vedanta, they are able to say you are both the problem and the solution.
One of the reasons objects hold so much sway over us is because we tend to filter their negative qualities and only focus on the positive ones. Objects we desire have three overlooked negative qualities. First, is pain. There is pain experienced in acquiring objects, pain in maintaining them, and pain in losing them. To acquire an object of desire we must find it, pursue it, and often, spend money on it. Our constant chasing of objects can be exhausting and even financially ruinous. It can also become painful to maintain objects. Objects need upkeep, they need to be stored and so, have a tendency to take up space, cluttering our lives and causing unwanted distraction. We may also feel pain when we lose an object, particularly if it held a lot of value for us.
The second quality objects bring is dissatisfaction. With sensual objects, enough is never enough because samsara can never satisfy our need to feel whole. No matter how much we already have, we always want more. Billionaires, even with all their wealth, still feel unsatisfied and unhappy with their stake. Objects create dissatisfaction in other ways, as well. For example, objects can hold our attention only for so long until we get bored and wish to be rid of them. From the moment we acquire them, like a slow depleting battery, their pleasure begins to dissipate. Until one day, we discover there’s simply no more juice and the joy is gone.
Third, objects that we are attached to bind us in ways that make us dependent. This dependency has an unpleasant effect due to the fact that as human beings, what we are constantly striving for is freedom from limitations. (In fact, if there’s a single purpose in life, “freedom from limitations” is it.) We know we are dependent on objects when we find ourselves unable to live without them, or when our desire for them makes us impulsive. For example, when we lose our own sense of self-worth as a result of chasing wealth, power or pleasure.
Another way to look at samsara is like a whirlpool. It starts to spins us slowly in the beginning as we enter the outer edges of its vortex. As we move closer to the axis, due to its centrifugal forces, the speed increases to dizzying levels. The centrifugal force is caused by the erroneous belief that by repeating the same experience over and over again we will eventually become satisfied. However, the more we engage in the same action, the stronger the force becomes. Unfortunately, what we are setting ourselves up for is a condition that, like a whirlpool, is difficult or almost impossible to remove ourselves from. This is addiction—one that ultimately, does harm to ourselves and those around us. Duryodhana, in the Mahabharata, can be likened to a whirlpool in the way he is addicted to power and greed and is able to suck in anyone who gets near his vortex. Many of Arjuna’s most respected family members and teachers get pulled in, blinded by their pride and loyalty to a despot. Throughout the Gita, Krishna reminds us to resist our attachments and aversions because they stir the waters and make ultimate freedom, unachievable.
As human beings, we all have similar goals and needs. Beyond the basic physical needs that every individual requires, we can say that all humans seek security, peace and happiness. Even criminals and tyrants who seemingly thrive on chaos seek these (albeit, on their own terms). Scripture describes various ways in which our natural state of being secure, peaceful and happy is covered up. These obstacles are related to the mind and include impurities, disturbance and ignorance.
“Impurities” is six-fold and includes desire, anger, greed, delusion, arrogance/vanity, and jealousy/competitiveness; “disturbance” refers to an extroverted mind which is always restless and wandering; and “ignorance” is the source of the other three rooted in the unknowing that I’m already the security, peace and happiness I seek. In theory, if these obstacles are what cover up our natural state, then all we need to do is remove them. And for that we need, what is called in Sanskrit, a sadhana—a discipline, exercise or practice.
In the Gita, if assimilating the teachings on absolute reality (Brahman) is the end, then yoga is the means to getting there. This is why the Gita is often referred to as both brahma vidya (“the knowledge of what is”), as well as a yoga shastra (“instruction on discipline”). Together, they form the body of knowledge that is the key to liberation.
In the West, yoga is typically associated with hatha yoga which is practiced in studios and gyms around the world using a technique that includes breath control and various stretching poses to develop a sense of calm and physical well-being. The word yoga in Sanskrit has several meanings. One definition is “a means to unite, join or connect with the destination.” Yoga can also be described as "control or mastery of something.” A third meaning is “topic” or subject matter. Each of the chapters of the Gita is traditionally titled in Sanskrit using a compound word that includes yoga, so that, for example, the fifth chapter is called Sannyasa-yoga or “The chapter on the topic of renunciation.”
Vedanta defines spiritual life as two stages: there’s a stage of action (yoga) for doers, and a stage of knowledge (jnana) for inquirers. The former is a preparation for the latter. Thus, all seekers begin looking for freedom as doers. The first stage helps purify the mind and make it more introverted. So, the main topic of the yoga shastra is purification. Each yoga or discipline in the Gita has its particular purifying function. For example, karma yoga helps manage the ego, dhyana yoga helps cultivate focus, and bhakti yoga helps center emotion. While each serves a purpose, the problem is you can’t do your way to freedom because you are already free (you just don’t know it yet). In other words, you can’t become something you already are. Vedanta’s contention—and where it differs from other schools of thought—is that ours isn’t a “doing” problem, it’s a knowledge problem. So while various types of yoga, such as hatha yoga and samadhi yoga (concentration practice), are tools prescribed to prepare for Self-inquiry, they aren’t equal to Self-inquiry. Neither does Vedanta suggest that Self-inquiry is a system where you get to pick and choose your practice based on your personality type—such as bhakti yoga for the heart-feeling emotional types and jnana yoga (pronounced “nyaana”) for the intellectual brainy ones. If freedom is what you’re after, you must eventually go through each of the steps and yogas just like you would in preparation for mastery of any subject that requires much skill and knowledge.
This process of yoga followed by knowledge may be difficult for some seekers to accept who have been taught that by doing certain spiritual practices they will eventually achieve enlightenment or a permanent experience of the “true self.” Vedanta likes to refer to practices such as meditation as a leading error. Because while certain practitioners may carry the belief that through meditation the “small self“ will eventually merge with the “big self,“ by pursuing this connection the seeker will eventually become an inquirer. Nevertheless, many yogis are slow to learn that at some point in their journey they need to graduate from whatever it is they are doing and go for direct knowledge, not just experience.
Jnana yoga (the brahma vidya portion of the Gita) is about realizing Self-knowledge, but more importantly, it’s a direct means to removing ignorance. As often is the case, seekers will ask whether or not a teacher is “enlightened,” for which any Vedanta teacher worth his or her salt will never respond with a simple “yes.” The reason for this is because the teacher knows that enlightenment is the equivalent to knowing that which you already are. Enlightenment is not about spiritual transformation, a special event or ascension. It’s actually quite ordinary, even mundane. It’s about having and applying the knowledge that sets you free from ignorance. There’s nothing to be gained from enlightenment because it’s merely discovering what you’ve always been. In short, it’s simply about removing that which obscures the truth. In this way, ignorance might be likened to having a pebble in your shoe. You can either ignore it and continue to walk in pain, or stop and remove it. However, the pebble didn’t change “you“ in any way before or after removing it, because it was never you in the first place. It was just something you had to remove in order to return to your natural, ordinary, relaxed state of being. So, the vision of the Gita is “I am already free” and can’t be added onto or improved; all that’s necessary is the knowledge and the will to see that it’s so.
Brahman, Atma and the Self
Within the Gita and other Vedanta text, it can often be confusing the way scripture seems to interchangeably use the terms Brahman, atma, and the Self to describe the essence of who/what you are. Things are made even more confusing by defining them abstractly as “the absolute,” “the divine,” or “the ground of the universe.” So without going into much detail, for now let’s say Brahman is limitless, unchanging, attributeless, non-dual awareness; and atma is limitless, unchanging, attributeless, non-dual awareness in association with the individual. The latter is referred to as “embodied“ awareness (atma), while the former is Pure Consciousness (Brahman). Brahman is said to be the ocean, while atma is the wave; but both are of the same essence—water. The Self is simply another term for atma. To make it easy, for now all you need to know is Brahman, atma, and the Self are all referencing the same eternal awareness. It should also be noted that “consciousness” and “awareness” are used interchangeably to mean the same thing.
Jiva, Jagat and Ishvara
No teaching that calls itself a psychology, cosmology and theology is complete without discussion of the individual (jiva), the world (jagat) and God (Ishvara). Vedanta shows that all three play a significant role in our experience and for this reason, it’s important to understand some of their basic attributes as discussed in the Gita.
A jiva is a being, that is, any entity with a body plus consciousness. In short, the jiva is the embodiment of the Self. There are many kinds of jivas including plant jivas, animal jivas and human jivas. However, in most cases, jiva is assumed to mean “person” or the doer/enjoyer. Human jivas are made up of three bodies: a gross body (physical body), a subtle body (combination of mind, intellect, and ego), and a causal body (subconscious). As jivas, we have been conditioned to believe we are all three bodies, and as a result, suffer by identifying with that which is constantly changing. Vedanta’s message is you are not the jiva, you are the Self, and only by meditating on the Self can liberation be gained.
Jagat is another word for world, cosmos or universe (i.e. everything that is). It’s literal meaning in Sanskrit is derived from jan (“to be born”) and gam (“to go”). Thus, we have “that which is born and which then goes.” This is due to the cyclical nature of creation as taught by many Hindu schools of thought. Scripture describes all of existence being made up of three basic constituents or gunas including, sattva (intelligence), rajas (energy) and tamas (matter). You can think of sattva as nature’s blueprint, it’s that which, for example, knows how to change an acorn into a towering oak. While we cannot see sattva, we can infer it by the results. Rajas is the energy required for the acorn to evolve into an oak, it’s the power to transform. Lastly, tamas is the inert matter or material that makes up the physical object. Like a dream, scripture says the world exists within you but you are not the world. This seemingly cryptic statement refers to the non-dual aspect of the teaching that all objects ultimately exist within consciousness as thoughts. In other words, every object is just a thought constructed by data coming in through the sense organs, so that the universe we experience is actually a “thought universe.“
Lastly, Ishvara is another word for “God” or “Creator.” Unlike many religions, Ishvara isn’t perceived as a paternal figure making judgements on the jivas based on their “good” and “bad” actions. Ishvara is the invisible, inherent and intelligent principle by which all things in the world function in harmonious manner. Ishvara is that force which creates, preserves and dissolves the universe; and for the devotee, Ishvara is understood to be the benefactor and giver of the fruits of action. Due to this logical conclusion, the wise don’t say they believe in God, they say they know God—because God is all that is! This knowledge-based relationship with God and the world is one aspect of Vedanta that makes it so unique.
In addition to how jiva can be boiled down to a person plus consciousness, Ishvara can be defined as maya plus consciousness. Maya (“illusion”) is the mysterious creative power associated with consciousness that uses the gunas to make creation possible. Maya is mysterious because even the sages are perplexed to why it exists. Ishvara is often spoken of in affectionate terms out of awe, gratitude, and out of desire to be in union with; whereas maya has the reputation as deceiver and cunning trickster due to its ability to conceal the truth and project the false. In relation to Ishvara, maya is everything in the physical universe. In relation to the jiva, maya is mulavidya, or the fundamental ignorance that keeps us from seeing reality as it is.
It’s important to mention moksha at the beginning because it’s the goal—the end we are trying to achieve. Moksha is everything samsara is not: ultimate freedom from dependence on objects for happiness. Moksha is finding happiness from within where, once understood, it is shown to be constant and never changing.
According to Vedanta, there are four human pursuits sought consciously or unconsciously by all human beings. They are security (artha), pleasure (kama), virtue (dharma), and freedom (moksha). It’s probably no surprise that as humans we seek security first in many ways, whether it be through personal relationships, a career, a bank account, social connections or other. We hope for the best but prepare for the worst knowing that life, at any moment, can take a sudden turn. When we’re not worrying about our own security, we’re worrying about the security of our family, country and that of the planet. For these reasons and many more, security is first and foremost on the list of human pursuits.
Once our basic needs are met and we have some semblance of security, next we go for pleasure. Pleasure isn’t just limited to the senses but also includes anything that connects with the heart or causes appreciation. This means anything from enjoying a sunset and making new friends, to buying a car or traveling the world to exotic places. Even animals seek out pleasure knowing that once they are safe and well-fed, it’s all play.
As beings with an intellect, humans also seek virtue. Most people (even if they don’t always show it) aspire to maintain some kind of decency and integrity. We all want to be respected and feel dignified. Even the homeless person knocked unconscious lying in the gutter wishes things were different and that they had the inner strength to live a more righteous existence. We seek virtue because as difficult as it is to always be “good,“ it’s a beautiful human quality. Devotees also seek virtue in the belief that it’s a prerequisite for reaching heaven and being reborn in better circumstances.
Last of the human pursuits is ultimate liberation or moksha. Although it’s the least obvious pursuit, everyone is pursuing moksha whether they know it or not, because everything we do, we do to gain some freedom. We work to be free from debt, learn to be free from ignorance, and seek a partner to be free from loneliness (to name just a few). Vedanta teaches that the reason we are constantly seeking freedom is because the feeling of being bound is unnatural to us. We scour the earth trying to find objects, people and experiences that will provide us with a sense of satisfaction, only to find out that it’s a never-ending journey that only leads to complete and total exhaustion. And yet, ultimately, what we’re all seeking isn’t more security and satisfaction but freedom from feeling insecure and unsatisfied in the first place. Moksha is the result of assimilating Self-knowledge to the point that you no longer have any doubt about your true nature. This is only possible by the removal of the notion that you are limited in the first place. However, it’s important to understand that moksha isn’t something to be attained as some kind of future event. You already have it, it’s your inner nature. It’s easy to get confused by the idea that the individual must gain knowledge first and then obtain moksha. But all knowledge does is help the seeker see that which was already theirs but made obscure by ignorance.