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The Problem of the Self-Body in the Bhagavadgita

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 steps:

I. The self-body of crisis: language of karman (primacy of sensation, substances).
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, Substances)

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 dharmadhr, 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 of action.

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 karmandharma, action-context: cultural man and his multiple embodiments begin to emerge.

Two Readings

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 and finality.

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 XI.

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. 19-20).

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 (XIV. 6).

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 (V. 3).

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 apriorifor any knowledge of the Gita to be possible.

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-agniprakrti-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 invariant.

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 rationality.


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 made.

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 House, 1978).

2. See II.67, 71; 73; XII.8; IX.34; IX. 1; III.32; IV.40; VI.39; VIl.21; VIII.7.

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’ (XVIII. 19,26,40).

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 karmansamsara, 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 karmaphala (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 “I” speaking).

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 ComeThe Sea Tug ElegiesOf Angels and WomenMostly, 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 insights:

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.