The Occult Significance of the Bhagavad Gita
Lecture 1 of 9
Rudolf Steiner, Helsingsfors, Finland, May 28, 1913:
It is more than a year since I was able to speak here about those things that lie so deeply on our hearts, those things that we believe must enter more and more into human knowledge because, from our time onward, the human soul will feel increasingly that these things belong to its requirements, to its deepest longings. And it is with great pleasure that I greet you here in this place for the second time, along with all those who have traveled here in order to show in your midst how their hearts and souls are dedicated to our sacred work the whole world over.
When I was able to speak to you here last time we let our spiritual gaze journey far into the wide regions of the universe. This time it will be our task to stay more in the regions of earthly evolution. Our thoughts, however, will penetrate to regions that will lead us nonetheless to the portals of the eternal manifestation of the spiritual in the world. We shall speak about a subject that will apparently lead us far away in time and in space from the here and now. It will not on that account lead us less to what lives in the here and now, but rather to what lives just as much in all times and in all the places of the Earth because it will bring us near to the secrets of the eternal in all existence. It will lead us to the ceaseless search of man for the wells of eternity where he may drink for the healing and refreshment of something in him which, ever since they gained understanding of it, men have considered all-powerful in life, namely, love. For wherever we are gathered together we are gathered in the name of the search for wisdom and the search for love. What we seek is extended out into space and can be observed in the far horizon of the Cosmic All, but it can also be observed in the wrestling soul of man wherever he may be. It meets us especially when we turn our gaze to one of those mighty manifestations of the wrestling spirit of man such as are given us in some great work like the one that is to form the basis of our present studies.
We are going to speak of one of the greatest and most penetrating manifestations of the human spirit — the Bhagavad Gita, which, ancient as it is, yet in its foundations comes before us with renewed significance at the present time. A short time ago the peoples of Europe and those of the West generally knew little of the Bhagavad Gita. Only during the last century has the fame of this wonderful poem extended to the West. Only lately have Western peoples become familiar with this marvelous song. But these lectures of ours will show that a real and deep knowledge of this poem, as against mere familiarity with it, can only come when its occult foundations are more and more revealed. For what meets us in the Bhagavad Gita sprang from an age of which we have often spoken in connection with our anthroposophical studies. The mighty sentiments, feelings, and ideas it contains had their origin in an age that was still illumined by what was communicated through the old human clairvoyance. One who tries to feel what this poem breathes forth page by page as it speaks to us will experence, page by page, something like a breath of the ancient clairvoyance humanity possessed.
The Western world's first acquaintance with this poem came in an age in which there was little understanding for the original clairvoyant sources from which it sprang. Nevertheless, this lofty song of the Divine struck like a wonderful flash of lightning into the Western world, so that a man of Central Europe, when he first became acquainted with this Eastern song, said that he must frankly consider himself happy to have lived in a time when he could become acquainted with the wondrous things expressed in it. This man was not one who was unacquainted with the spiritual life of humanity through the centuries, indeed through thousands of years. He was one who looked deeply into spiritual life — Wilhelm von Humboldt, the brother of the celebrated astronomer. Other members of Western civilization, men of widely different tongues, have felt the same. What a wonderful feeling it produces in us when we let this Bhagavad Gita work upon us, even in its opening verses!
It seems that in our circle, my dear friends, perhaps particularly in our circle, we often have to begin by working our way through to a fully unprejudiced position. For in spite of the fact that the Bhagavad Gita has been known for so short a time in the West, yet its holiness has so taken our hearts by storm, so to say, that we are inclined to approach it from the start with this feeling of holiness without making it clear to ourselves what the starting-point of the poem really is. Let us for once place this before us quite dispassionately, perhaps even a little grotesquely.
A poem is here before us that from the very first sets us in the midst of a wild and stormy battle. We are introduced to a scene of action that is hardly less wild than that into which Homer straightway places us in the Iliad. We go further and are confronted in this scene with something which Arjuna — one of the foremost, perhaps the foremost of the personalities in the Song — feels from the start to be a fratricidal conflict. He comes before us as one who is horror-stricken by the battle, for he sees there among the enemy his own blood relations. His bow falls from his grasp when it becomes clear to him that he is to enter a murderous strife with men who are descended from the same ancestors as himself, men in whose veins flows the same blood as his own. We almost begin to sympathize with him when he drops his bow and recoils before the awful battle between brothers.
Then before our gaze arises Krishna, the great spiritual teacher of Arjuna, and a wonderful, sublime teaching is brought before us in vivid colors in such a way that it appears as a teaching given to his pupil. But to what is all this leading? That is the question we must first of all set before us, because it is not enough just to give ourselves up to the holy teaching in the words of Krishna to Arjuna. The circumstances of its giving must also be studied. We must visualize the situation in which Krishna exhorts Arjuna not to quail before this battle with his brothers but take up his bow and hurl himself with all his might into the devastating conflict. Krishna's teachings emerge amid the battle like a cloud of spiritual light that at first is incomprehensible, and they require Arjuna not to recoil but to stand firm and do his duty in it. When we bring this picture before our eyes it is almost as though the teaching becomes transformed by its setting. Then again this setting leads us further into the whole weaving of the Song of the Mahabharata, the mighty song of which the Bhagavad Gita is only a part.
The teaching of Krishna leads us out into the storms of everyday life, into the wild confusion of human battles, errors, and earthly strife. His teaching appears almost like a justification of these human conflicts. If we bring this picture before us quite dispassionately, perhaps the Bhagavad Gita will suggest to us altogether different questions from those that arise when — imagining we can understand them — we alight upon something similar to what we are accustomed to find in ordinary works of literature. So it is perhaps necessary to point first to this setting of the Gita in order to realize its world-historic significance, and then be able to see how it can be of increasing and special significance in our own time.
I have already said that this majestic song came into the Western world as something completely new, and almost equally new were the feelings, perceptions, and thoughts that lie behind it. For what did Western civilization really know of Eastern culture before it became acquainted with the Bhagavad Gita? Apart from various things that have only become known in this last century, very little indeed! If we accept certain movements that remained secret, Western civilization has had no direct knowledge of what is actually the central nerve impulse of the whole of this great poem. When we approach such a thing we feel how little human language, philosophy, ideas, serving for everyday life, are sufficient for it; how little they suffice for describing such heights of the spiritual life of man upon Earth. We need something quite different from ordinary descriptions to give expression to what shines out to us from such a revelation of the spirit of man.
I should like first to place two pictures before you so you may have a foundation for further descriptions. The one is taken from the book itself, the other from the spiritual life of the West. This can be comparatively easily understood, whereas the one from the book appears for the moment quite remote. Beginning then with the latter, we are told how, in the midst of the battle, Krishna appears and unveils before Arjuna cosmic secrets, great immense teachings. Then his pupil is overcome by the strong desire to see the form, the spiritual form of this soul, to have knowledge of him who is speaking such sublime things. He begs Krishna to show himself to him in such manner as he can in his true spirit form. Then Krishna appears to him (later we shall return to this description) in his form — a form that embraces all things, a great, sublime, glorious beauty, a nobility that reveals cosmic mysteries. We shall see there is little in the world to approach the glory of this description of how the sublime spirit form of the teacher is revealed to the clairvoyant eye of his pupil.
Before Arjuna's gaze lies the wild battlefield where much blood will have to flow and where the fratricidal struggle is to develop. The soul of Krishna's disciple is to be wafted away from this battlefield of devastation. It is to perceive and plunge into a world where Krishna lives in his true form. That is a world of holiest blessedness, withdrawn from all strife and conflict, a world where the secrets of existence are unveiled, far removed from everyday affairs. Yet to that world man's soul belongs in its most inward, most essential being. The soul is now to have knowledge of it. Then it will have the possibility of descending again and re-entering the confused and devastating battles of this our world. In truth, as we follow the description of this picture we may ask ourselves what is really taking place in Arjuna's soul. It is as though the raging battle in which it stands were forced upon it because this soul feels itself related to a heavenly world in which there is no human suffering, no battle, no death. It longs to rise into a world of the eternal, but with the inevitable force that can come only from the impulse of so sublime a being as Krishna this soul must be forced downward into the chaotic confusion of the battle. Arjuna would gladly turn away from all this chaos, for the life of Earth around him appears as something strange and far away, altogether unrelated to his soul. We can distinctly feel this soul is still one of those who long for the higher worlds, who would live with the gods, and who feel human life as something foreign and incomprehensible to them. In truth a wondrous picture, containing things of sublime import!
A hero, Arjuna, surrounded by other heroes and by the warrior hosts — a hero who feels all that is spread before him as unfamiliar and remote — and a god, Krishna, who is needed to direct him to this world. He does not understand this world until Krishna makes it comprehensible to him. It may sound paradoxical, but I know that those who can enter into the matter more deeply will understand me when I say that Arjuna stands there like a human soul to whom the earthly side of the world has first to be made comprehensible.
Now this Bhagavad Gita comes to men of the West who undoubtedly have an understanding for earthly things! It comes to men who have attained such a high degree of materialistic civilization that they have a very good understanding for all that is earthly. It has to be understood by souls who are separated by a deep gulf from all that a genuine observation shows Arjuna's soul to be. All that to which Arjuna shows no inclination, needing Krishna to tame him down to earthly things, seems to the Westerner quite intelligible and obvious. The difficulty for him lies rather in being able to lift himself up to Arjuna, to whom has to be imparted an understanding of what is well understood in the West, the sense matters of earthly life. A god, Krishna, must make our civilization and culture intelligible to Arjuna. How easy it is in our time for a person to understand what surrounds him! He needs no Krishna. It is well for once to see clearly the mighty gulfs that can lie between different human natures, and not to think it too easy for a Western soul to understand a nature like that of Krishna or Arjuna. Arjuna is a man, but utterly different from those who have slowly and gradually evolved in Western civilization.
That is one picture I wanted to bring you, for words cannot lead us more than a very little way into these things. Pictures that we can grasp with our souls can do better because they speak not only to understanding but to that in us which on Earth will always be deeper than our understanding — to our power of perception and to our feeling. Now I would like to place another picture before you, one not less sublime than that from the Bhagavad Gita but that stands infinitely nearer to Western culture. Here in the West we have a beautiful, poetic picture that Western man knows and that means much for him. But first let us ask: To what extent does Western mankind really believe that this being of Krishna once appeared before Arjuna and spoke those words? We are now at the starting-point of a concept of the world that will lead us on until this is no mere matter of belief, but of knowledge. We are however only at the beginning of this anthroposophical concept of the world that will lead us to knowledge. The second picture is much nearer to us. It contains something to which Western civilization can respond.
We look back some five centuries before the founding of Christianity to a soul whom one of the greatest spirits of Western lands made the central figure of all his thought and writing. We look back to Socrates. We look to him in the spirit in the hour of his death, even as Plato describes him in the circle of his disciples in the famous discourse on the immortality of the soul. In this picture there are but slight indications of the beyond, represented in the “daimon” who speaks to Socrates.
Now let him stand before us in the hours that preceded his entrance into the spiritual worlds. There he is, surrounded by his disciples, and in the face of death he speaks to them of the immortality of the soul. Many people read this wonderful discourse that Plato has given us in order to describe the scene of his dying teacher. But people in these days read only words, only concepts and ideas. There are even those — I do not mean to censure them — in whom this wonderful scene of Plato arouses questions as to the logical justification of what the dying Socrates sets forth to his disciples. They cannot feel there is something more for the human soul, that something more important lives there, of far greater significance than logical proofs and scientific arguments. Let us imagine all that Socrates says on immortality to be spoken by a man of great culture, depth, and refinement, in the circle of his pupils, but in a different situation from that of Socrates, under different circumstances. Even if the words of this man were a hundred times more logically sound than those of Socrates, in spite of all they will perhaps have a hundred times less value. This will only be fully grasped when people begin to understand that there is something for the human soul of more value, even if less plausible, than the most strictly correct logical demonstrations. If any highly educated and cultured man speaks to his pupils on the immortality of the soul, it can indeed have significance. But its significance is not revealed in what he says — I know I am now saying something paradoxical, but it is true — its significance depends also on the fact that the teacher, having spoken these words to his pupils, passes on to look after the ordinary affairs of life, and his pupils do the same. But Socrates speaks in the hour that immediately precedes his passage through the gates of death. He gives out his teaching in a moment when in the next instant his soul is to be severed from his bodily form.
It is one thing to speak about immortality to the pupils he is leaving behind in the hour of his own death — which does not meet him unexpectedly but as an event predetermined by destiny — and another thing to return after such a discourse to the ordinary business of living. It is not the words of Socrates that should work on us as much as the situation under which he speaks them. Let us take all the power of this scene, all that we receive from Socrates' conversation with his pupils on immortality, the full immediate force of this picture. What do we have before us? It is the world of everyday life in Greek times; the world whose conflicts and struggles led to the result that the best of the country's sons was condemned to drink the hemlock. This noble Greek spoke these last words with the sole intention of bringing the souls of the men around him to believe in what they could no longer have knowledge; believe in what was for them “a beyond,” a spiritual world. That it needs a Socrates to lead the earthly souls until they gain an outlook into the spiritual worlds, that it needs him to do this by means of the strongest proofs, that is, by his deed, is something that is indeed comprehensible to Western souls. They can gain an understanding for the Socratic culture. We only grasp Western civilization in a right sense when we recognize that in this respect it has been a Socratic civilization throughout the centuries.
Now let us think of one of the pupils of Socrates, who could certainly have no doubt of the reality of all that surrounded him, being a Greek, and compare him with Krishna's disciple, Arjuna. Think how the Greek has to be introduced to the supersensible world, and then think of Arjuna who can have no doubt whatever about it but becomes confused instead with the sense-world, almost doubting the possibility of its existence. I know that history, philosophy, and other branches of knowledge may say with apparently good reason, “Yes, but if you will only look at what is written in the Bhagavad Gita, and in Plato's works, it is just as easy to prove the opposite of what you have just said.” I know too that those who speak like this do not want to feel the deeper impulses, the mighty impulses that arise on the one hand from that picture out of the Bhagavad Gita and on the other from that of the dying Socrates as described by Plato. A deep gulf yawns between these two worlds in spite of all the similarity that can be discovered. This is because the Bhagavad Gita marks the end of the age of the ancient clairvoyance. There we can catch the last echo of it; while in the dying Socrates we meet one of the first of those who through thousands of years have wrestled with another kind of human knowledge, with those ideas, thoughts, and feelings that, so to say, were thrown off by the old clairvoyance and have continued to evolve in the intervening time, because they have to prepare the way for a new clairvoyance. Today we are striving toward this new clairvoyance by giving out and receiving what we call the anthroposophical conception of the world. From a certain aspect we may say that no gulf is deeper than the one that opens between Arjuna and a disciple of Socrates.
Now we are living in a time when the souls of men, having gone through manifold transformations and incarnations in the search for life in external knowledge, are now once more seeking to make connection with the spiritual worlds. The fact that you are sitting here is most living proof that your own souls are seeking this reunion. You are seeking the connection that will lead you up in a new way to those worlds so wondrously revealed to us in the words of Krishna to his disciple Arjuna. So there is much in the occult wisdom on which the Bhagavad Gita is founded that resounds to us as something responding to our deepest longings. In ancient times the soul was well aware of the bond that unites it with the spiritual. It was at home in the supersensible. We now are at the beginning of an age wherein men's souls will once more seek access in a new way to the spiritual worlds. We must feel ourselves stimulated to this search when we think of how we once had this access, that it once was there for man. Indeed, we shall find it to an unusual degree in the revelations of the holy song of the East.
As is generally the case with the great works of man, we find the opening words of the Bhagavad Gita full of meaning. (Are not the opening words of the Iliad and the Odyssey most significant?) The story is told by his charioteer to the blind king, the chief of the Kurus who are engaged in fratricidal battle with the Pandavas. A blind chieftain! This already seems symbolical. Men of ancient times had vision into the spiritual worlds. With their whole heart and soul they lived in connection with gods and divine beings. Everything that surrounded them in the earthly sphere was to them in unceasing connection with divine existence. Then came another age, and just as Greek legend depicts Homer as a blind man, so the Gita tells us of the blind chief of the Kurus. It is to him that the discourses of Krishna are narrated in which he instructs Arjuna concerning what goes on in the world of the senses. He must even be told of those things of the sense-world that are projections into it from the spiritual. There is a deeply significant symbol in the fact that old men who looked back with perfect memory and a perfect spiritual connection into a primeval past were blind to the world immediately around them. They were seers in the spirit, seers in the soul. They could experience as though in lofty pictures all that lived as spiritual mysteries. Those who were to understand the events of the world in their spiritual connections were pictured to us in the old songs and legends as blind. Thus we find this same symbol in the Greek singer Homer as in that figure that meets us at the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita. This introduces us to the age of transition from primeval humanity to that of the present day.
Now why is Arjuna so deeply moved by the impending battle of the brothers? We know that the old clairvoyance was in a sense bound up with external blood relationship. The flowing of the same blood in the veins of a number of people was rightly looked upon as something sacred in ancient times because with it was connected the ancient perception of a particular group-soul. Those who not only felt but knew their blood-relationship to one another did not yet have such an ego as lives in men of the present time. Wherever we look in those ancient times we find everywhere groups of people who did not at all feel themselves as having an individual “I” as man does today. Each felt his identity only in the group, in a community based upon the blood-bond.
What does the folk-soul, the nation-soul, signify to a man today? Certainly it is often an object of the greatest enthusiasm. Yet we may say that, compared with the individual “I” of a man, this nation-soul does not really count. This may be a hard saying, but it is true. Once upon a time man did not say “I” to himself but to his tribal or racial group. This group-soul feeling was still living in Arjuna when he saw the fratricidal battle raging around him. That is the reason why the battle that raged about him filled him with such horror.
Let us enter the soul of Arjuna and feel the horror that lived in him when he realized how those who belonged together are about to murder each other. He felt what lived in all the souls at that time and is about to kill itself. He felt as a soul would feel if its body, which is its very own, were being torn in pieces. He felt as though the members of one body were in conflict, the heart with the head, the left hand with the right. Think how Arjuna's soul confronted the impending battle as a battle against its own body, when, in the moment he drops his bow, the conflict of the kinsmen seems to him a conflict between a man's right hand and his left. Then you will feel the atmosphere of the opening verses of the Bhagavad Gita.
When Arjuna is in this mood he is met by the great teacher Krishna. Here we must call attention to the incomparable art with which Krishna is pictured in this scene: The holy god, who stands there teaching Arjuna what man shall and will discard if he would take the right direction in his evolution. Of what does Krishna speak? Of I, and I, and I, and always only of I. “I am in the earth, I am in the water, I am in the air, I am in the fire, in all souls, in all manifestations of life, even in the holy Aum. I am the wind that blows through the forests. I am the greatest of the mountains, of the rivers. I am the greatest among men. I am all that is best in the old seer Kapila.” Truly Krishna says nothing less than this: “I recognize nothing else than myself, and I admit the world's existence only in so far as it is I!” Nothing else than I speaks from out the teaching of Krishna.
Let us once and for all see quite plainly how Arjuna stands there as one not yet understanding himself as an ego but who now has to do so, how the god confronts him like an all-embracing cosmic egoist, admitting of nothing but himself, even requiring others to admit of nothing but themselves, each one an “I.” Yes, in all that is in earth, water, fire, or air, in all that lives upon the Earth, in the three worlds, we are to see nothing but Krishna.
It is full of significance for us that one who cannot yet grasp the ego is brought for his instruction before a being who demands to be recognized only as his own self. Let him who wants to see this in the light of truth read the Bhagavad Gita through and try to answer the question, “How can we designate what Krishna says of himself and for which he demands recognition?” It is universal egoism that speaks in Krishna. It does indeed seem to us as though through the whole of the sublime Gita this refrain resounds to our spiritual hearing: “Only when you recognize, you men, my all-embracing egoism, only then can salvation be for you!”
The greatest achievements of human spiritual life always set us riddles. We only see them in the right light when we recognize that they set us the very greatest riddles. Truly, a hard one seems to be given us when we are now confronted with the task of understanding how a most sublime teaching can be bound up with the announcement of universal egoism. It is not through logic but in the perception of the great contradictions in life that the occult mysteries unveil themselves to us. It will be our task to get beyond what seems so strange and come to the truth within the maya.
When we are speaking within maya we must recognize what it really is that we may rightly call a universal egoism. Through this very riddle we must reach out from illusion into reality, into the light of truth. How this is possible, and how we may surmount this riddle and reach reality, will form the subject of the following lectures.
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