How not to use the Bhagavad-gita

Wouldn’t it be nice if all the religions could get along? Peacemakers like to suggest an impersonal way to do it. Sometimes they even try to use the Gita to support their ideas

I spoke yesterday of well-intentioned people and their currently fashionable notions of atheism. What some thinkers are doing now – and its not really a new thing, but now they have ample reason to do it all the more – is saying something like this:

“Well, we can understand that all you spiritual and religious people still need something to believe in. But please listen to us – there is a difference between the God of Religion and the Ultimate Reality. The first is the figure you believe in, pray to, and have a kind of emotional faith in. The second is a slightly more abstract notion of a state of universal, cosmic light from where all the incarnations and saints, angels and prophets come from and into which they merge after their time with us is finished.”

They continue: “Believe in what you will, according to your local customs and culture, or just your personal choice, but please understand one thing: that ultimately God is one, neither Krishna nor Jesus, Allah nor Buddha, but simply ONE. One ineffable, inexpressible Ultimate Reality. That means that you all, in reality, believe the same thing, which means you can stop fighting with each other.”

There are very many well-meaning intellectuals and peacemakers who speak like this. I meet them everywhere, every single week of the month. What is surprising is just how many of them feel they are telling me something novel that I may not have considered before! Some of them even slow down their talking, (as an Englishman might sometimes talk to a foreigner) just so I can understand their brilliant conceptions!

They all have the same idea, however, and its based on the contrasting notions of the God of Religion and the Ultimate Reality.While the first is good for children, simple minds and emotional people, the second is for grown-ups and people who aren’t afraid to think for themselves.

Unfortunately – and really unfortunately for people who happen to meet me, because I’ve run out of patience – many people try to use the Bhagavad-gita to substantiate their arguments. Sorry, its the wrong book for trying to prove an impersonal, abstract ultimate reality.

There are many popular philosophies today that in various ways relegate Shri Krishna to a secondary, subjective feature of the Godhead; that imagine Him to be a personal manifestation of a higher impersonal supreme.

The corollary of these philosophies is that we as spiritual souls will one day, at the moment of our freedom from spiritual ignorance, realise that individuality does not exist and merge with that formless Divine.

Whilst there is certainly scope for these lines of thought to be accommodated within the entire range of Vedic philosophical systems they are not substantiated by the most widely read scripture: the Bhagavad-gita. The Bhagavad-gita, or ‘Song of God,’ has been acknowledged and annotated by the greatest minds of India for thousands of years. Its 700 verses explain Vedanta philosophy and the conclusion of all Vedanta: devotional surrender of the individual soul to a personal God.

That this is the inner meaning of the Gita and that the Supreme is neither an impersonal energy nor a nihilistic void is amply and clearly evidenced by many verses.

There is no objection if anyone wishes to hold tight to an ultimately impersonal conception and makes that the goal of their spiritual life. Yet if the holder of that conception wishes to substantiate their view with verses from the Gita, there must be a reply from those who know the simple and clear essence of the text.

What follows are verses wherein Sri Krishna, the speaker of the Gita, clearly explains his actual identity and purpose, and the nature of the individual spiritual soul.

Readers may like to inspect the original Sanskrit of these verses and see for themselves that an impersonal conception of Godhead, a conception of a divine one-ness as the Ultimate Reality, can not be proven from the Bhagavad-gita.

2.12 – The eternal individuality of the soul.

2.23-24 – The soul or spirit cannot be cut

4.1 – Krishna declares his pre-existence

4.6 – Krishna says that he is unborn and that his form within the world is transcendental

4.9 – That one who knows the true nature of his divine form will not take birth again

5.29 – He further indicates the spiritual attainment of those who know him

6.30 – That he is all-pervading and that those who know this will never be lost

7.5 – That the souls are his separated energy, and that matter is also

7.7 – That there is no Truth superior to him

7.19 – That those holding to the impersonal conception will attain him after many births

9.4 – That the unmanifested form is a subjective part of him.

9.11 – Those who think his body is temporary and material are foolish

10.8 – That everything material and spiritual emanates from him.

12.2 – Those who fix their minds on his form are most perfect

12.5 – Yet those who meditate on his impersonal form will always have troubles.

14.27 – The impersonal Brahman rests on him, not that he rests on it.

15.7 – Souls are the eternal, fragmental parts of God

18.54 – One who reaches Brahman will reach devotional service to God

18.55 – Devotion is the path to fully understand God

18.66 – All other paths are ultimately to be abandoned in favour of devotional surrender



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8 responses to “How not to use the Bhagavad-gita

  1. Ananda Jagannath Das

    Hare Krishna prabhu

    Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.

    Prabhu, I have a question.

    How do you react internally and then externally when people compromise Krishna or the personal form of God?

    I would like to know so I can also cultivate the proper mood when facing such people? Because honestly, although they come off as educated people, I feel it is all hypocrisy and they are seriously not interested but their own selves and concepts. Seeing this, I get upset and have no desire to engage in further conversations with such people.

    So how do you think one should approach such persons in proper frame of consciousness representing the Guru Parampara and Krishna.

    I know my question is slightly out of scope, please advice.

    Your servant
    Ananda Jagannath Das

    • Its a very valid question, Ananda Jagannath prabhu, and very much in keeping with the subject of this post.

      Well, if you examine Srila Prabhupada’s conversational responses when confronted by either scientific or mayavadi arguments he was almost always very strong and straightforward. You could say that he was intolerant of someone wasting his time with such things and argued for Krishna, the person, and against the impersonal arguments. Short-sighted scientists got the same treatment, too.

      In this, we had a founder-acarya who was coming in direct line from Madhva, with his uncompromising dualism – a stance against the Sankara school – and from Bhaktivinode Thakur, unrelenting in his condemnation of the sahajiya class; and then his son Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur, equally challenging to both the sahajiyas and the materialists.

      In our modern day, the philosophies that keep most people in maya is the old standard: impersonalism, and the new ones: evolutionary biology, and behavioural psychology. Srila Prabhupada constantly spoke against these as he saw them as the main arguments against Krishna consciousness.

      Vapid notions which we hear from those who subscribe to the ‘new-age’ schools are really only sentimentalised combinations of the above.

      But Srila Prabhupada did one other thing: he set up the Bhaktivedanta Institute, a group of scientists that were to challenge the scientific status quo and, in his words, ‘to create doubt in scientific authority’ He wanted them to use scientific terminology in their presentations, and to show that, even by scientific standards much of what was accepted as fact had a poor logical basis.

      So it would appear that Srila Prabhupada indicated two ways for us to present the teachings of the Veda (there are many other ways of course) firstly the direct challenge, secondly the creation of doubt within the listener.

      Either way requires firm faith in Krishna, personal purity, knowledge of the scriptures, some knowledge of the challenger’s points, and refutation of those points; an understanding of the fatal flaws in the challengers arguments; and a flair for timing, choice of words, and delivery. Judgment for time, place, and circumstances will be crucial. And maybe some experience in human emotions along the way!

      Srila Prabhupada had all those qualities, and I suppose what we need to do as preachers is to examine ourselves to see how many of those qualities we possess.

      Personal anger or becoming indignant doesn’t seem to help the force of the presentation in the heat of the moment, and can even make one appear weak. Better that the arguments are strong, along with personal conviction, but that anger is subdued.

      • Ananda Jagannath Das

        Hare Krishna

        Thank you for your elaborate reply. It really helps and allows me to get an insight into how to engage in debate.

        Previously, I have engaged in debate but was deflated due to the lack of honesty from the opponents. I can understand if people dont appreciate a higher spiritual principle but at the least one should be honest to accept the limitations of one’s own ideas when categorically presented. I think an intellectual is an intellectual if he or she appreciates things for its worth and not skew the data which all modern thinkers are doing – hype.

        Your answer has helped my inner thinking on how to approach versus what to expect.

        To possess all those qualities requires surrender unto the Supersoul which I guess is the whole point for aspiring devotees. Hopefully, in surrender I am able to present like you mentioned.

        I will read your answer again and try to understand. Please bless in my endeavors.

        Thank you.

        Hare Krishna

        your servant
        Ananda Jagannath Das

  2. Actually, there is no equation of Adi Shankaracharya with modern-day impersonalists. He actually gave impersonalism only a very narrow scope, but otherwise he is very much a personalist. It is very clear from his commentaries:

    Gita Introductory chapter:

    “Narayana is beyond the cosmic sphere (Narayanah paro avyaktAd)”, “The primordial creator, Vishnu known as Narayana incarnated Himself as Krishna”, “Gita is about the Supreme Soul and Reality known as Vasudeva”.

    Brahma Sutra IV-4-19: “Moreover, there is an eternal form of the Lord outside the effected universe.” Kindly note that he says “form of the Lord”, not some impersonal force.

    Gita 6.47: “Those who worship Vasudeva alone with their minds steadfast, are much better than those who spend their time meditating on Rudra (Siva), Aditya (Surya or Sun) etc.”

    Gita 9.25: “Those who worship Me, the Vaishnavas, reach the Highest Goal (Supreme Abode of Vishnu). The worshippers of the demigods (devas) return to samsara again”. Yes, he says “Vaishnavas”.

    Gita 8.16: “All the worlds, up to the world of four-faced Brahma are subject to returning”

    Vishnu Sahasranama commentary to “bhUtakRt, bhUtabhRt”: “Controlling the mode of rajas in the body of Brahma, he (Lord) creates; controlling the mode of tamas in the body of Rudra, he creates (special kinds of beings) and destroys; taking up the mode of sattva, he protects all creation”.

    Gita 10.2: “The glory of the Lord Vasudeva is not fully comprehended even by demigods starting from Brahma.”

    Gita 13.10: “No being is higher than Vasudeva, He alone is our sole refuge.”

    Moreover, in Brahma Sutra II-2-42, he clearly states that it is mandated by Sruti and Smriti texts that Lord Vasudeva should be worshipped, as per the Pancharatra/Sattvata Samhitas.

    More importantly, in his commentaries to the Upanishads, when the text itself does not even mention the name of the Lord, Shankaracharya adds: “This indwelling controller Lord is known as Narayana” (Brihad. Up. Bhashya 3-7-3), “This deity, who is indwelling in all the three worlds, is known as Vishnu or Anantha.” (Mundaka Bhashya 2-1-4), “The phrase Parama Padam of Vishnu denotes the Supreme Abode of the Lord known by name as Vasudeva”. (Katha Up. Bhashya 1-3-9). One may ask, has he (Adi Sankara) said anything about demigods? Yes, he has clearly stated that they are below the Supreme Lord. He specifically uses the phrase “from Brahma to a clump of grass” umpteen times.

    It is sad that today’s followers of Sankaran Vedanta are not aware of all this.

    • Thank you for this Prahladadas. When I went to see the Sankaracarya of Sringeri some years ago he told me very plainly that the Vedas are ‘apauruseya’ or ‘not man-made’ and therefore the basis of philosophical discussion. Whether we interpret them one way or another, the Vedas are the basis of understanding God. It is a fact that modern impersonalists don’t even bother to quote from the Vedic scriptures at all.

  3. Respected sir,

    First of all, I feel terrible for not having addressed a great BhAgavata with respect, and for not bowing down to touch your lotus feet first.

    Yes, certainly I have much more respect (in terms of scriptural authenticity) for the Sankaracharyas of Sringeri (even though I obviously have differences with them) than for the predominantly-brahmin urban immigrant elite of the west who follow everything under the sun (other than, of course, the commentaries by great pUrva AcAryas).

    I have been in that impersonal maya for long enough and know the confusion, lack of faith, and lack of motivation it can lead to. I blame part of this confusion on (at least some of) the secular education that we receive that make us, from the core of our hearts, feel ashamed at the idea of Narayana as the Supreme Lord of the Universe. A secular elite tends to ask: “A four-armed dude sleeping on a thousand-headed serpent with a conch, disc, mace, and a lotus as God? Naah, all this is just fertile poetic imagination.” Their relegation of “idol worship” in temples as “not very important – it is for those who are not yet fully spiritually advanced” is very telling in this regard.

    Apart from that, I strongly feel that the confusion also has something to do with the political history of South India in the last 500 years (starting from 14th-15th Century) that has lead to this situation. It is something that Indians have to fully take responsibility for and cannot blame the foreign invasions, and is probably too ugly to discuss here.

    Sincerely yours,


    • Impersonalism is easier for some people to accept. It places them at the centre of reality because it says that in some future state they will merge with the sum totality of Brahman. Being at the centre of the universe – both now and in the future – is a very attractive proposition for those who are already desperately trying to be so!

      Although Sankaracarya says: ‘narayano paro vyaktat’ – before creation there was Narayana – still it is unappealing for many. Why? Because as soon as you theoretically admit that Narayana is the ultimate reality it becomes obligatory for you to act on that basis, and that means kainkaryam or seva: acts of service, and placing yourself as a servant.

      For those who identify being a master with enjoyment it is bad news, indeed. However, for those who have even once tasted the bhakti-rasa to be gained from service to God, they can never be parted from that state.

      At the same time that we serve Narayana, He opens our heart to understand His beauty, and the vision of Him reclining on Ananta becomes one of palpable enjoyment for us. Without subjugating the ego the identity of servant cannot be fully experienced, and thus the very form of God, so natural for the inner eyes to behold, will appear strange.

  4. this comment was posted to the copy of your article imported into our website ( via your blog’s RSS feed:

    A need for one more book?


    Why not have a book as a pre-prepared answer, to handle to any of those Mayayapahrta Jnanis? Would be a nice help for all preachers.

    Gadadhara dasa,
    Latvian Yatra

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