The Three Types of Discipline of the Bhagavadgita by Swami Krishnananda

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(Spoken on September 18th, 1974.)

I have been asked to speak a few words to you on the philosophy of the Bhagavadgita. Normally, this great text called the Bhagavadgita has been regarded as a religious and spiritual gospel of Bharatavarsha, that is, India. There have been commentaries galore published on this wonderful text of India’s heritage, all expounding various aspects or facets of its doctrine or teaching, and even today commentaries are being written on this wonderful book. It only shows the comprehensiveness of the teaching of the Bhagavadgita and the inability of the finite human mind to fathom its depths.

To me at least, the Bhagavadgita has been not merely a religious gospel or even a spiritual guide in the ordinary accepted sense of the term, but I may say it is a very scientific presentation of the technique of discipline carried to the degree of perfection. The Bhagavadgita is a gospel of discipline, and though you may be familiar with this word ‘discipline’, it may be necessary for me to explain what discipline means from the point of view of the Bhagavadgita.

Those of you who are fairly acquainted with what the Gita is may know that it consists of eighteen chapters. These eighteen chapters of the Bhagavadgita are grouped into three sections of six chapters each. The first group of six chapters deals with a particular type of discipline, the second group of six chapters expounds another type of discipline, and the last or the third set of six chapters delineates a novel type of discipline altogether different from the other two mentioned already.

“What is discipline?” may be a question. This is a feature of human life which is very much valued and regarded as an absolute necessity in every walk of life. Everywhere we feel a need for discipline, which means a systematic conduct on our behalf in respect of the duty before us or in regard to the atmosphere in which we are living. A very methodical approach of our total personality in regard to the circumstances in which we are placed may be called discipline.

Now, this definition holds good also from the point of view of the teaching of the Bhagavadgita. As we have a short time before us to discuss this very vast subject, I shall try to clinch the whole matter by touching upon the basic fundamentals of the character of discipline as taught in the Bhagavadgita.

The first six chapters deal with what we may call self-discipline. The second six chapters deal with a vaster and more comprehensive type of discipline, a self-discipline in relation to the whole of the world outside, which takes into consideration not only the individual personality of one’s own self but also the world in which one is situated or of which one is a country. The third discipline is universal discipline, which is the pinnacle that we have to reach in this divine practice of coordination which we have to establish within and without.

As I mentioned, the first six chapters deal with personal discipline. They deal with the individual, the person, the human being as such, how a human being can be integrated psychologically, morally and intellectually. The human personality is not exhausted merely by the physical body. You or I as an individual person does not mean merely this physical vesture that is visible before the eyes. The personality of a human being is more than the physical body. Your character, for example, is the determining factor of much of the success that you are expected to achieve in the world. Your character is not merely the demeanour of the physical body; it is an internal manoeuvre of your mental makeup or status of consciousness. The way of thinking, the inner conduct of the psychological organ, and the capacity of your reasoning faculty to comprehend things all combine to constitute your personality.

Now, what is the human personality, which is supposed to be disciplined, and by which we mean self-discipline? The physical body is only an outer vehicle of a power that is working within the physical body. The body is only a vehicle; it has to be driven by a motive force which is other than the body, and this motive force is intelligent enough. There are the vital organs, the sensory powers, the thinking principal, the volitional faculty, the intellectual endowment, and the moral conscience. All these are present in us not as isolated ingredients thrown together in an unconnected manner, but in a beautiful blend. The faculties that constitute the human personality are not thrown together pell-mell. Our personality is a systematised presentation of self-consciousness, and it may be defined as a centre of self-consciousness. We are aware that we are such and such or so-and-so.

In this consciousness that we have of our own self, we have an integrated feeling of a totality that we are, and not an isolated makeup of bits of essentially isolated characters. It is very difficult to conceive what a human personality is. I mentioned that, psychologically at least, we seem to be made up of various phases of inner conduct, character and understanding. But all these various aspects of our conduct, feeling and understanding, etc., are brought together into a harmony of function, and it is this intelligence which brings the faculties into a harmonious function. It is this that goes by the name of the human individual.

Though there are millions of cells in our body, all different from one another, and though each thought of the mind may be said to be different from other thoughts, and every limb can be separated from every other limb, our consciousness does not feel this isolated location of the parts of the personality. We are a total, we are a whole, we are a completeness. This is an inviolable law of consciousness operating in every person right from childhood up to old age, even up to the event of death.

Now, the Bhagavadgita expects us to discipline ourselves in the sense that these faculties of the human individual should be harmonised so that they do not war among themselves internally. What is this war that is likely to take place within ourselves? This war is what is called psychological aberration, a subject for study in abnormal psychology. Psychological problems are generally the consequence of a war that takes place internally between or among the faculties in the subjective individual. How can a war take place inside our own personality when we are one single complete compact individual?

To give an instance of this predicament or possibility, there can be a war between the understanding and the feeling, and then you will be an unhappy person at home though you may be a dignified public person outside. Your social status and the rational capacities may make you, or at least appear to make you, a noble individual of an elevated status in the eye of the public. You may be a big person or a big gun, as they say, in the eyes of the world, but privately you may be a miserable person at home. This is a phenomenon which is not unknown to people. Most people are privately unhappy though publicly big, rich, well to do and powerful. There can be political power which one may wield, social status and public esteem; all can go simultaneously, hand-in-hand with internal agony and sorrow which one suffers privately in one’s own abode. Why should this happen? It is because while your intellect, your reason, your public capacity works in a particular direction, your emotion works in a different direction altogether.

Love and hatred may be said to be emotional functions, though as an intelligent, cultured, educated person, you may be convinced that love and hatred are not worthwhile characters. You must be an impartial being. This is the philosophical conclusion which your reason may come to, but your emotion will have a grudge of its own against certain aspects of life and affection for certain other aspects.

The Bhagavadgita wants you to bring all these faculties together. The understanding and the feeling are one, like husband and wife, if we can put it in that way. There is a clicking of two clocks together simultaneously, without any kind of discrepancy in the sounds that they make. They speak in the same voice. What you feel, that you understand, what you understand, that you feel. Or, to put it in another way, your thoughts, your speech and your actions are in harmony with one another. What you think, that you speak, and what you speak, that is the way you act. This is a very difficult thing to achieve. Personal or self-discipline may be summed up in the technique of bringing together into a beautiful blend the thoughts of the mind, the words that you speak, and the actions that you perform in society.

Let each one close one’s eyes for a few minutes and probe into one’s own conscience. Am I in harmony with myself so far as my thought, speech and action are concerned? Do I not speak something which I do not really mean in my mind? Is my action not in harmony with my deepest demands of conscience? When there is a diversity of movement among the three functions – thought, speech and action – there is a split personality created within ourselves. We are not a complete whole. We develop psychopathic conditions. When the discrepancy among thought, speech and action is not very serious, it does not disturb us very much. But when it becomes a habit or second nature, it may go deep into our personality and this split may become the essential nature of our own selves, so that we are not wholes but parts sundered from one another, and that is a psychological malady.

So the first six chapters of the Bhagavadgita give a beautiful art of combining these faculties into not merely a complex of different parts as we do in the assembling of the parts of a machine, for example, but into a beautiful organic blend as an artist does when he paints a beautiful picture. In the picture which an artist paints, there is an organic completeness of the various types of ink that he uses so that you do not see the difference of the inks on the canvas or the background of the picture, but you see only the living force that is emanating from that picture that is painted on the canvas. When you enjoy a beautiful painting, you are not enjoying the ink or the beautiful pattern of the arrangement of the ink, but a new character that is projected out of this pattern of the arrangement of ink. That is a new type of art altogether, different from the mechanical assembly of parts of the machine as in a motorcar, etc.

Therefore, we are not supposed to bring about the assemblage of mechanical parts in the discipline of our personality, because that would be an artificial life. We are supposed to conduct ourselves in such a way that our life is an art, a beauty, an attraction, so that our face beams with a joy that draws people towards us as if we are a magnet. Beauty is a source of attraction, and we become a source of beauty on account of the discipline spiritually conducted according to this novel doctrine of the Bhagavadgita.

Now, this is not sufficient, and the next six chapters describe something much more. Whatever be the discipline that you have in your own self – you are a well-integrated, psychologically balanced personality – very good, but what is your relationship with the world outside? India is very big, and it is not exhausted merely by your personality, and it is not the whole world. The world is much bigger than even our country, and it has a connection with the whole international system. Inasmuch as you are an organic part of this country as a citizen, well, you would seem to have a connection with other parts of the world also. And this world, which is this Earth, has a connection with the solar system. Physicists and astronomers know what vital connection this Earth has with the Sun and the entire solar system and the Milky Way, and so on. Astronomers tell us that the whole physical universe is an organic completeness, as our own personality also is.

The second six chapters of the Bhagavadgita tell you how to take into consideration in real discipline of life the factors that are transcendent to your individual personality also. If you are a very well conducted, moral, intellectual, cultural person individually and yet know nothing about the outer world, you will be a failure in life. People will say that this man knows nothing of the world though he is a very good man in his own individual personality. As far as he is concerned, he is an ideal, golden man, but he has no idea about the world outside, and when he is in public, he is a failure.

The Bhagavadgita wants you to also be integrated in your relationship with the public, not merely in your relationship with the parts of your own personality. And what is this public? ‘Public’, according to the Bhagavadgita, does not mean merely the human beings outside. The world is larger than a set of human beings. Mankind is not merely the content of the world; there are many more things than mankind in this world. The forces that control the destiny of the world are not mankind’s forces. They are natural forces. Nature’s wrath is more fierce than man’s wrath, and nature’s bounty also is vaster than man’s bounty. And nature, according to the Bhagavadgita at least, is the whole physical universe, not merely these little mountains and rivers that we see in the geographical realm of our country or this Earth.

The Bhagavadgita takes us into a vaster realm of a wider cosmos, I should say, of which you are a citizen because you are ruled by the government of the universe. Just as you have a constitution for your own country, there is a constitution for the entire universe, according to which every leaf moves, and every wisp of wind blows. Nothing can happen in this world unless it is ordained and permitted by the constitution of the setup of the whole cosmos, of which you are an integral part. You cannot isolate yourself from that. So self-discipline, according to the Bhagavadgita, does not merely mean individual bodily, psychological, intellectual discipline, which of course is necessary. It is also universal and cosmic discipline.

But the Gita is still more. The third step is absolute discipline. This is the only way in which that third type of discipline can be defined. Absolute discipline is that type of unitedness and harmony that you establish in life whereby you are friendly not only with the outer universe but with the profundities of the inner structure of the universe. Just as your body is not your whole personality, the physical universe is not the whole creation. Just as you may mistake the physical body for a human being, you may mistake the visible, physical universe for the total reality. Even as there are many more interesting features within your physical personality, there are riches and vaster secrets internal to the visible physical universes which are not recognisable by human understanding, and not perceptible to human senses.

What does the Bhagavadgita say, finally? Within you is the secret consciousness, the intelligence with which you are identifying yourself every step of your life and every moment of the activities of your life. Even as within the body there are the senses, and within the senses there is the mind, and within the mind there is the intellect, and inside the intellect there is the animating consciousness, there is some such secret within this physical universe also. These inner secrets are called the various layers or realms of being. In our Eastern cosmology, these are called the lokas or the worlds which are internal to the visible physical universe. You must have heard these words Bhuloka, Bhuvarloka, Svarloka, Maharloka, Janaloka, Tapoloka and Satyaloka. There are so many worlds, one over the other, they say. These worlds are not kept one over the other like sandwiches. They are one inside the other, like the layers of your personality. The body, the senses, the mind, the intellect and the spirit within you are not kept one over the other like slices of bread. They are one internal to the other, one controlling the other, one more pervasive than the other, the higher becoming more real than the lower, so that the highest is the real principle of your being. The lokas, or the various realms of being outside, are the internal structural features or peculiarities of the creation before us.

Corresponding to the physical body, there is the physical universe. Corresponding to the mind within, there is the cosmic mind. Corresponding to the intellect here, there is the cosmic intellect. Corresponding to the spirit within you, which is your intelligence, there is the Universal Spirit. That is called God in religion, that is called the Absolute in philosophy, that is the reality of the scientists and physicists which we cannot gainsay, and that is the Ultimate Truth of all truths. Whether it exists or not is an irrelevant question because nothing else can be, and it is only a name for being itself. You are asking whether it exists, and I am saying that it is the name for existence itself. What you call existence is that, and you cannot ask me whether existence exists. That is a meaningless question. That which you call existence in its universal character and in its totality, and also in its internality, is called the Absolute. Just as the limbs of your body cannot be isolated in any manner whatsoever from your total personality, you as an individual cannot be isolated from the total structure of the cosmos and from the ultimate reality, which is the Absolute.

Thus, the goal of the life of the human being is the realisation of the Supreme Being, which is not an outside something but the higher reality of your own personality. The Bhagavadgita is a gospel not only for human beings, not only for India, Bharatavarsha, not only for this Earth, but for the whole of creation. In one sentence I can say that the Bhagavadgita is the exposition of the science of life.