Rudolf Steiner, June 4, 1913:
If we want to approach such a creation as the sublime Bhagavad Gita with full understanding it is necessary for us to attune our souls to it, so to say; bring them into that manner of thought and feeling that really lies at the basis of such a work. This is especially true for people who, through their situation and circumstances, are as far removed from this great poem as are the people of the West. It is natural for us to make a contemporary work our own without much difficulty. It is also natural that those who belong to a certain nation should always have an immediate feeling for a work that has sprung directly out of the substance of that nation, even though it might belong to a previous age. The population of the West (not those of southern Asia), however, is altogether remote in sentiment and feeling from the Bhagavad Gita.
If we would approach it then with understanding we must prepare ourselves for the very different mood of soul, the different spirit, that pervades it. Such appalling misunderstandings can arise when people imagine they can approach this poem without first working on their own souls. A creation coming over to us from a strange race, from the ninth or tenth century before the foundation of Christianity, cannot be understood as directly by the people of the West as, say, the Kalevala by the Finnish people, or the Homeric poems by the Greeks. If we would enter into the matter further we must once more bring together different materials that can show us the way to enter into the spirit of this wonderful poem.
Here I would above all draw attention to one thing. The summits of spiritual life have at all times been concealed from the wide plain of human intelligence. So it has remained, in a certain sense, right up to our present age. It is true that one of the characteristics of our age, which is only now dawning and which we have somewhat described, will be that certain things hitherto kept secret and really known to but very few will be spread abroad into large circles. That is the reason why you are present here, because our movement is the beginning of this spreading abroad of facts that until now have remained secret from the masses. Perhaps some subconscious reason that brought you to the anthroposophical view of the world and into this spiritual movement came precisely from the feeling that certain secrets must today be poured out into all people. Until our time, however, these facts remained secret not because they were deliberately kept so, but because it lay in the natural course of man's development that they had to remain secret. It is said that the secrets of the old Mysteries were protected from the profane by certain definite, strictly observed rules. Far more than by rule, these secrets were protected by a fundamental characteristic of mankind in olden times, namely, that they simply could not have understood these secrets. This fact was a much more powerful protection than any external rule could be.
This has been, for certain facts, especially the case during the materialistic age. What I am about to say is extreme heresy from the point of view of our time. For example, there is nothing better protected in the regions of Central Europe than Fichte's philosophy. Not that it is kept secret, for his teachings are printed and are read. But they are not understood. They remain secrets. In this way much that will have to enter the general development of mankind will remain occult knowledge though it is published and revealed in the light of day.
Not only in this sense but in a rather different one too, there is a peculiarity of human evolution that is important concerning those ideas we must have in order to understand the Bhagavad Gita. Everything we may call the mood, the mode of feeling, the mental habit of ancient India from which the Gita sprang, was also in its full spirituality accessible to the understanding of only a few. What one age has produced by the activity of a few, remains secret in regard to its real depth, even afterward when it passes over and becomes the property of a whole people. Again, this is a peculiar trait in the evolution of man, which is full of wisdom though it may at first seem paradoxical. Even for the contemporaries of the Bhagavad Gita and for their followers, for the whole race to which this summit of spiritual achievement belongs, and for its posterity, its teaching remained a secret. The people who came later did not know the real depth of this spiritual current. It is true that in the centuries following there grew up a certain religious belief in its teachings, combined with great fervor of feeling, but with this there was no deepening of perception. Neither the contemporaries nor those who followed developed a really penetrating understanding of this poem. In the time between then and now there were only a few who really understood it.
Thus it comes about that in the judgment of posterity what was once present as a strong and special spiritual movement is greatly distorted and falsified. As a rule we cannot find the way to come near to an understanding of some reality by studying the judgments of the descendants of the race that produced it. So, in the deep sentiments and feelings of the people of India today we will not find real understanding for the spiritual tendency that in the deepest sense permeates the Bhagavad Gita. We will find enthusiasm, strong feeling, and fervent belief in abundance, but not a deep perception of its meaning. This is especially true of the age just passed, from the fourteenth and fifteenth to the nineteenth century. As a matter of fact, it is most especially true for the people who confess that religion. There is one anecdote that like many others reveals a deep truth — how a great European thinker said on his deathbed, “Only one person understood me, and he misunderstood me.”
It can also be said of this age that has just run its course, that it contained some spiritual substance that represents a great height of achievement but in the widest circles has remained unknown as to its real nature, even to its contemporaries. Here is something to which I would like to draw your attention. Without doubt, among the present people of the East, and of India, some exceptionally clever people can be found. By the whole configuration of their mind and soul, however, they are already far from understanding those feelings poured out in the Bhagavad Gita. Consider how these people receive from Western civilization a way of thought that does not reach to the depths but is merely superficial understanding. This has a twofold result. For one, it is easy for the Eastern peoples, particularly for the descendants of the Bhagavad Gita people, to develop something that may easily make them feel how far behind a superficial Western culture is in relation to what has already been given by their great poem. In effect they still have more ways of approach to the meaning of that poem than to the deeper contents of Western spiritual and intellectual life. Then there are others in India who would gladly be ready to receive such spiritual substance as is contained, let us say, in the works of Solovieff, Hegel, and Fichte, to mention a few of many spiritualized thinkers. Many Indian thinkers would like to make these ideas their own.
I once experienced something of this kind. At the beginning of our founding of the German Section in our movement an Indian thinker sent me a dissertation. He sent it to many other Europeans besides. In this he tried to combine what Indian philosophy can give with important European concepts, such as might be gained in real truth — so he implied — if one entered deeply into Hegel and Fichte. In spite of the person's honest effort the whole essay was of no use whatever. I do not mean to say anything against it, rather I would praise his effort, but the fact is, what this man produced could only appear utter dilettantism to anyone who had access to the real concepts of Fichte and Hegel. There was nothing to be done with the whole thing.
Here we have a person who honestly endeavors to penetrate a later spiritual stream altogether different from his own point of view, but he cannot get through the hindrances that time and evolution put in his way. Nevertheless, when he attempts to penetrate them, untrue and impossible stuff is the result. Later I heard a lecture by another person, who does not know what European spiritual evolution really is, and what its depths contain. He lectured in support of the same Indian thinker. He was a European who had learned the arguments of the Indian thinker and was bringing them forward as spiritual wisdom before his followers. They too of course were ignorant of the fact that they were listening to something which rested on a wrong kind of intellectual basis. For one who could look keenly into what the European gave out, it was simply terrible. If you will forgive the expression, it was enough to give one the creeps. It was one misunderstanding grafted onto another misunderstanding. So difficult is it to comprehend all that the human soul can produce. We must make it our ideal to truly understand all the masterpieces of the human spirit. If we feel this ideal through and through and consider what has just been said, we shall gain a ray of light to show us how difficult of access the Bhagavad Gita really is. Also, we shall realize how untold misunderstandings are possible, and how harmful they can be.
We in the West can well understand how the people of the East can look up to the old creative spirits of earlier times, whose activity flows through the Vedantic philosophy and permeates the Sankhya philosophy with its deep meaning. We can understand how the Eastern man looks up with reverence to that climax of spiritual achievement that appears in Shankaracharya seven or eight centuries after the foundation of Christianity. All this we can realize, but we must think of it in another way also if we want to attain a really deep understanding. To do so we must set up something as a kind of hypothesis, for it has not yet been realized in evolution.
Let us imagine that those who were the creators of that sublime spirituality that permeates the Vedas, the Vedantic literature, and the philosophy of Shankaracharya were to appear again in our time with the same spiritual faculty, the same keenness of perception they had when they were in the world in that ancient epoch. They would have come in touch with spiritual creations like those of Solovieff, Hegel, and Fichte. What would they have said? We are supposing it does not concern us what the adherents of those ancient philosophies say, but what those spirits themselves would say. I am aware that I am going to say something paradoxical, but we must think of what Schopenhauer once said. “There is no getting away from it, it is the sad fate of truth that it must always become paradoxical in the world. Truth is not able to sit on the throne of error, therefore it sits on the throne of time, and appeals to the guardian angel of time. So great, however, is the spread of that angel's mighty wings that the individual dies within a single beat.” So we must not shrink from the fact that truth must needs appear paradoxical. The following does also, but it is true.
If the poets of the Vedas, the founders of Sankhya philosophy, even Shankaracharya himself, had come again in the nineteenth century and had seen the creations of Solovieff, Hegel, and Fichte, all those great men would have said, “What we were striving for back in that era, what we hoped our gift of spiritual vision would reveal to us, these three men have achieved by the very quality and tenor of their minds. We thought we must rise into heights of clairvoyant vision, then on these heights there would appear before us what permeates the souls of these nineteenth century men quite naturally, almost as a matter of course!”
This sounds paradoxical to those Western people who in childlike unconsciousness look to the people of the East, comparing themselves with them, and all the while quite misunderstanding what the West actually contains. A peculiarly grotesque picture. We imagine those founders of Indian philosophy looking up fervently to Fichte and other Western thinkers; and along with them we see a number of people today who do not value the spiritual substance of Europe but grovel in the dust before Shankaracharya and those before him while they themselves are not concerned with the achievements of such as Hegel, Fichte. and Solovieff. Why is this so? Only by such a hypothesis can we understand all the facts history presents to us.
We shall understand this if we look up into those times from which the spiritual substance of the Bhagavad Gita flowed. Let us imagine the man of that period somewhat as follows. What appears to a person today in varied ways in his dream-consciousness — the pictorial imagination of dream-life — was in that ancient time the normal content of man's soul, his everyday consciousness. His was a dreamlike picture consciousness, by no means the same as it was in the Old Moon epoch but much more evolved. This was the condition out of which men's souls were passing on in the descending line of evolution. Still earlier was what we call sleep-consciousness, a state wholly closed to us today, from which a kind of inspiration, dream-like, came to men. It was the state closed to us today during our sleep. As dream-consciousness is for us, so was this sleep-consciousness for those ancient men. It found its way into their normal picture-consciousness much as dream-consciousness does for us, but more rarely. In another respect also it was somewhat different in those times. Our dream-consciousness today generally brings up recollections of our ordinary life. Then, when sleep-consciousness could still penetrate the higher worlds, it gave men recollections of those spiritual worlds. Then gradually this consciousness descended lower and lower.
Anyone who at that time was striving as we do today in our occult education, aimed for something quite different. When we today go through our occult development we are aware that we have gone downhill to our everyday consciousness and are now striving upward. Those seekers were also striving upward, from their everyday dream-consciousness. What was it then that they attained? With all their pains it was something altogether different from what we are trying to attain. If someone had offered those men my book Knowledge of the Higher Worlds they would have had no use for it at all. What it contains would have been foolishness for that ancient time; it has sense only for mankind today. Then, everything those men did with their Yoga and Sankhya was a striving toward a height that we have reached in the most profound works of our time, in those of the three European thinkers I have mentioned. They were striving to grasp the world in ideas and concepts. Therefore, one who really penetrates the matter finds no difference — apart from differences of time, mood, form, and quality of feeling — between our three thinkers and the Vedantic philosophy. At that time the Vedantic philosophy was that to which men were striving upward; today it has come down and is accessible to everyday consciousness.
If we would describe the condition of our souls in this connection we may say to begin with that we have a sleep-consciousness that for us is closed but for the ancient people of India was still permeated by the light of spiritual vision. What we are now striving for lay hidden in the depths of the future for them. I mean what we call Imaginative Knowledge, fully conscious picture-consciousness, permeated by the sense of the ego; fully conscious Imagination as it is described in Knowledge of the Higher Worlds. So much for the technical point that should be inserted here. In these abstract technicalities lies something far more important: that if the man of today will only vigorously make use of the forces present in his soul, what the men of the Bhagavad Gita era strove for with all their might lies right at his hand. It really does, even if only for a Solovieff, a Fichte, or a Hegel. There is something more. What today can be found right at hand was in those ancient times attained by application of all the keenness of vision of Sankhya, and the deep penetration of Yoga. It was attained by effort and pain, by sublime effort to lift the mind.
Now imagine how different the situation is for a man who, for example, lives at the top of a mountain, has his house there and is continually enjoying the magnificent view, from that of a man who has never once seen the view but has to toil upward with trouble and pain from the valley. If you have the view every day you get accustomed to it. It is not in the concepts, in their content, that the achievements of Shankaracharya, of the Vedic poets, and of their successors are different from those of Hegel and Fichte. The difference lies in the fact that Shankaracharya's predecessors were striving upward from the valley to the summit; that it was their keenness of mind in Sankhya philosophy, their deepening of soul in Yoga, that led them there. It was in this work, this overcoming of the soul, that the experience lay. It is the experience, not the content of thought, that is important here.
This is the immensely significant thing, something from which we may in a certain sense derive comfort because the European does not value what we can find right at hand. Europeans prefer the form in which it meets them in Vedantic and Sankhya philosophies, because there, without knowing it, they value the great efforts that achieved it. That is the personal side of the matter. It makes a difference whether you find a certain content of thought here or there, or whether you attain it by the severest effort of the soul. It is the soul's work that gives a thing its life. This we must take into account. What was once attained alone by Shankaracharya and by the deep training of Yoga can be found today right at hand, even if only by men like those we have named.
This is not a matter for abstract commentaries. We only need the power to transplant ourselves into the living feelings of that time. Then we begin to understand that the external expressions themselves, the outer forms of the ideas, were experienced quite differently by the men of that era from the way we can experience them. We must study those forms of expression that belong to the feeling, the mood, the mental habit of a human soul in the time of the Gita, who might live through what that great poem contains. We must study it not in an external philological sense, not in order to give academic commentaries, but to show how different is the whole configuration of feeling and idea in that poem from what we have now. Although the conceptual explanation of the world — which today, to use a graphic term, lies below and then lay above — though the content of thought is the same, the form of expression is different. Whoever would stop with the abstract contents of these thoughts may find them easy to understand, but whoever would work his way through to the real, living experience will not find it easy. It will cost him some pains to go this way again and feel with the ancient man of India because it was by this way that such concepts first arose as those that flowed out into the words sattwa, rajas, tamas. I do not attach importance to the ideal concepts these words imply in the Bhagavad Gita, but indeed we today are inclined to take them much too easily, thinking we understand them.
What is it that actually lies in these words? Without a living sympathy with what was felt in them we cannot follow a single line of the poem with the right quality of feeling, particularly in its later sections. At a higher stage, our inability to feel our way into these concepts is something like trying to read a book in a language that is not understood. For such a person there would be no question of seeking out the meaning of concepts in commentaries. He would just set to work to learn the language. So here it is not a matter of interpreting and commenting on the words sattwa, rajas, tamas in an academic way. In them lies the feeling of the whole period of the Gita, something of immense significance because it led men to an understanding of the world and its phenomena. If we would describe the way they were led we must first free ourselves from many things that are not to be found in such men as Solovieff, Hegel, and Fichte yet lie in the widespread, fossilized thinking of the West. By sattwa, rajas, tamas is meant a certain kind of living one's way into the different conditions of universal life, in its most varied kingdoms. It would be abstract and wrong to interpret these words simply on the basis of the ancient Indian quality of thought and feeling. It is easier to take them in the true sense of the life of that time but to interpret them as much as possible through our own life. It is better to choose the external contour and coloring of these conceptions freely out of our own experience.
Let us consider the way man experiences nature when he enters intelligently into the three kingdoms that surround him. His mode and quality of knowledge is different in the case of each. I am not trying to make you understand sattwa, rajas, and tamas exhaustively. I only want to help you to come a little nearer to an idea of their meaning. When man today approaches the mineral kingdom he feels he can penetrate it and its laws with his thinking, can in a certain sense live together with it. This kind of understanding at the time of the Gita would have been called a sattwa understanding of the mineral kingdom. In the plant kingdom we always encounter an obstacle: namely, that with our present intelligence we cannot penetrate life. The ideal now is to investigate and analyze nature from a physical-chemical standpoint, and to comprehend it in this manner. In fact some scientists spin their threads of thought so far as to imagine they have come nearer to the idea of life by producing external forms that imitate as closely as possible the appearance of the generative process. This is idle fantasy. In his pursuit of knowledge man does not penetrate the plant kingdom as far as he does the mineral. All he can do is to observe plant life. Now what one can only observe, not enter with intellectual understanding, is rajas-understanding. When we come to the animal kingdom, its form of consciousness escapes our everyday intelligence far more than does the life of a plant. We do not perceive what the animal actually lives and experiences. What man with his science today can understand about the animal kingdom is a tamas-understanding.
We may add something further. We shall never reach an understanding beyond the limits of abstract concepts if we consider only the concepts of science regarding the activity of living beings. Sleep, for example, is not the same for man and animal. Simply to define sleep would be like defining a knife as the same thing whether used for shaving or cutting meat. If we would keep an open mind and approach the concepts of tamas, rajas, and sattwa once more from a different aspect we can add something else taken from our present-day life.
Man today nourishes himself with various substances: animal, plant, and mineral. These foods of course have different effects on his constitution. When he eats plants he permeates himself with sattwa conditions. When he tries to understand them they are for him a rajas condition. Nourishment from the assimilation of mineral substance — salts and the like — represents a condition of rajas; that brought about by eating meat represents tamas. Notice that we cannot keep the same order of sequence as if we were starting from an abstract definition. We have to keep our concepts mobile. I have not told you this to inspire horror in those who feel bound to eating meat. In a moment I shall mention another matter where the connection is again different.
Let us imagine that a man is trying to assimilate the outer world not through ordinary science but by that kind of clairvoyance that is legitimate for our age. Suppose that he now brings the facts and phenomena of the surrounding world into his clairvoyant consciousness. All this will call forth a certain condition in him, just as for ordinary understanding the three kingdoms of nature call forth conditions of sattwa, rajas, and tamas. In effect what can enter the purest form of clairvoyant perception corresponding to purified clairvoyance calls forth the condition of tamas. (I use the word “purified” not in the moral sense.) A man who would truly see spiritual facts objectively with that clairvoyance that we can attain today must by this activity bring about in himself the condition of tamas. Then when he returns into the ordinary world where he immediately forgets his clairvoyant knowledge, he feels that with his ordinary mode of knowledge he enters a new condition, a new relation to knowledge, namely, the sattwa condition. Thus, in our present age everyday knowledge is the sattwa condition. In the intermediate stage of belief, of faith that builds on authority, we are in the rajas condition.
Knowledge in the higher worlds brings about the condition of tamas in the souls of men. Knowledge in our everyday environment is the condition of sattwa; while faith, religious belief resting on authority, brings about the condition of rajas. So you see, those whose constitution compels them to eat meat need not be horrified because meat puts them in a condition of tamas because the same condition is brought about by purified clairvoyance. It is that condition of an external thing when by some natural process it is most detached from the spiritual. If we call the spirit “light” then the tamas condition is devoid of light. It is “darkness.” So long as our organism is permeated by the spirit in the normal way we are in the sattwa condition, that of our ordinary perception of the external world. When we are asleep we are in tamas. We have to bring about this condition in sleep in order that our spirit may leave our body and enter the higher spirituality around us. If we would reach the higher worlds — and the Evangelist already tells us what man's darkness is — our human nature must be in the condition of tamas. Since man is in the condition of sattwa, not of tamas, which is darkness, the words of the Evangelist, “The light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not,” can be rendered somewhat as follows, “The higher light penetrated as far as man, but he was filled by a natural sattwa that he would not give up.” Thus the higher light could not find entrance because it can only shine in darkness.
If we are seeking knowledge of such living concepts as sattwa, rajas, and tamas we must get accustomed to not taking them in an absolute sense. They are always, so to say, turning this way and that. For a right concept of the world there is no absolute higher or lower, only in a relative sense. A European professor took objection to this. He translated sattwa as “goodness” and objected to another man who translated it as “light,” though he translated tamas as “darkness.” Such things truly express the source of all misunderstanding. When man is in the condition of tamas — whether by sleep or clairvoyant perception, to take only these two cases — then in effect he is in darkness as far as external man is concerned. So ancient Indian thought was right, yet it could not use a word like “light” in place of the word sattwa. Tamas may always be translated “darkness” but for the external world the sattwa condition could not always be simply interpreted as “light.”
Suppose we are describing light. It is entirely correct to call the light colors — red, orange, yellow — in the sense of Sankhya philosophy the sattwa colors. In this sense too green must be called a rajas color; blue, indigo, violet, tamas colors. One may say effects of light and of clairvoyance in general fall under the concept of sattwa. Under the same concept we must also place, for example, goodness, kindness, loving behavior by man. It is true that light falls under the concept of sattwa, but this concept is broader; light is not really identical with it. Therefore it is wrong to translate sattwa as “light” though it is quite possible to translate tamas as “darkness.” Nor is it correct to say that “light” does not convey the idea of sattwa.
The criticism that the professor made of a man who may have been well aware of this is also not quite justified, for the simple reason that if someone said “Here is a lion” nobody would attempt to correct him by saying “No, here is a beast of prey.” Both are correct. This comparison hits the nail right on the head. As regards external appearance it is correct to associate sattwa with what is full of light, but it is wrong to say sattwa is only of light. It is a more general concept than light, just as beast of prey is more general than lion.
A similar thing is not true of darkness for the reason that in tamas things that in rajas and sattwa are different and specific merge into something more general. After all, a lamb and a lion are two very different creatures. If I would describe them as to their sattwa characters — the form that the natural element of life and force and spirit takes in lambs and lions — I would describe them very differently. But if I would describe them in the condition of tamas the differences do not come into consideration because we have the tamas condition when the lamb or lion is simply lying lazily on the ground. In the sattwa condition lambs and lions are very different, but for cosmic understanding the indolence of both is after all one and the same.