Theosophical University Press Online Edition

Notes on the Bhagavad Gita

To help students in studying its philosophy

by T. Subba Row, B.A., B.L., F.T.S.

First printing 1934, second printing 1978, by Theosophical University Press. Electronic ISBN 1-55700-126-x (print version available). All rights reserved. This edition may be downloaded for off-line viewing without charge. No part of this publication may be reproduced for commercial or other use in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior permission of Theosophical University Press. For ease in searching, no diacritical marks appear in this electronic version of the text




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NOTES ON THE BHAGAVAD-GITA, by T. Subba Row, B.A., B.L., was first published in The Theosophist — the magazine founded by H. P. Blavatsky and Col. H. S. Olcott, at Madras, India. The first lecture, entitled 'Introductory,' was delivered at the Convention of the Theosophical Society held in Madras in 1885, and was published in the February, 1886, issue of The Theosophist, Volume VII, No. 77, page 281, with an editorial note stating that it was the introduction to a series of lectures on the Bhagavad-Gita which Subba Row promised to deliver at the next Convention of the Theosophical Society, scheduled for 1886. Thus the four lectures themselves were delivered and published a year later, namely in Volume VIII of The Theosophist, and the discourses were delivered to the delegates attending the Convention of the Theosophical Society, December 27-31, 1886.

In 1888 the lectures were published in book-form by Tookaram Tatya at Bombay, India; but as there are several omissions in this publication, the present edition is reproduced from the lectures as originally published in The Theosophist; however, two footnotes which were added to Lecture I in Tookararm Tatya's edition (pp. 5 and 18 therein) have been included in the present edition — on pages 15 and 31.

On page 511 of The Theosophist, Volume VIII, May, 1887, following an article by Subba Row on 'The Constitution of the Microcosm,' he requested that six corrections be made in his third lecture (indicating page and line), and these have been incorporated in the places designated by him. (These corrections were not made in Tookaram Tatya's edition.) Scholars and students are assured that a faithful reproduction of the original has been made, typographical errors alone being corrected. As regards Sanskrit spellings: the words appear as originally printed; likewise in respect to capitalization, hyphenation, and italicization, even though these vary in the course of the series of the lectures as printed in The Theosophist.

Theosophical University Press
November, 1934


In studying the Bhagavad Gita it must not be treated as if isolated from the rest of the Mahabharata as it at present exists. It was inserted by Vyasa in the right place with special reference to some of the incidents in that book. One must first realise the real position of Arjuna and Krishna in order to appreciate the teaching of the latter. Among other appellations Arjuna has one very strange name — he is called at different times by ten or eleven names, most of which are explained by himself in Virataparva. One name is omitted from the list, i.e., Nara. This word simply means "man." But why a particular man should be called by this as a proper name may at first sight appear strange. Nevertheless herein lies a clue, which enables us to understand not only the position of the Bhagavad Gita in the text and its connexion with Arjuna and Krishna, but the entire current running through the whole of the Mahabharata, implying Vyasa's real views of the origin, trials and destiny of man. Vyasa looked upon Arjuna as man, or rather the real monad in man; and upon Krishna as the Logos, or the spirit that comes to save man. To some it appears strange that this highly philosophical teaching should have been inserted in a place apparently utterly unfitted for it. The discourse is alleged to have taken place between Arjuna and Krishna just before the battle began to rage. But when once you begin to appreciate the Mahabharata, you will see this was the fittest place for the Bhagavad Gita.

Historically the great battle was a struggle between two families. Philosophically it is the great battle, in which the human spirit has to fight against the lower passions in the physical body. Many of our readers have probably heard about the so-called Dweller on the Threshold, so vividly described in Lytton's novel "Zanoni." According to this author's description, the Dweller on the Threshold seems to be some elemental, or other monster of mysterious form, appearing before the neophyte just as he is about to enter the mysterious land, and attempting to shake his resolution with menaces of unknown dangers if he is not fully prepared.

There is no such monster in reality. The description must be taken in a figurative sense. But nevertheless there is a Dweller on the Threshold, whose influence on the mental plane is far more trying than any physical terror can be. The real Dweller on the Threshold is formed of the despair and despondency of the neophyte, who is called upon to give up all his old affections for kindred, parents and children, as well as his aspirations for objects of worldly ambition, which have perhaps been his associates for many incarnations. When called upon to give up these things, the neophyte feels a kind of blank, before he realises his higher possibilities. After having given up all his associations, his life itself seems to vanish into thin air. He seems to have lost all hope, and to have no object to live and work for. He sees no signs of his own future progress. All before him seems darkness; and a sort of pressure comes upon the soul, under which it begins to droop, and in most cases he begins to fall back and gives up further progress. But in the case of a man who really struggles, he will battle against that despair, and be able to proceed on the Path. I may here refer you to a few passages in Mill's autobiography. Of course the author knew nothing of occultism; but there was one stage in his mental life, which seems to have come on at a particular point of his career and to have closely resembled what I have been describing. Mill was a great analytical philosopher. He made an exhaustive analysis of all mental processes, — mind, emotions, and will.

'I now saw or thought I saw, what I had always before received with incredulity, — that the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings, as indeed it has when no other mental habit is cultivated. * * * Thus neither selfish nor unselfish pleasures were pleasures to me.'

At last he came to have analysed the whole man into nothing. At this point a kind of melancholy came over him, which had something of terror in it. In this state of mind he continued for some years, until he read a copy of Wordsworth's poems full of sympathy for natural objects and human life. "From them," he says, "I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life should have been removed." This feebly indicates what the chela must experience when he has determined to renounce all old associates, and is called to live for a bright future on a higher plane. This transition stage was more or less the position of Arjuna before the discourse in question. He was about to engage in a war of extermination against foes led by some of his nearest relations, and he not unnaturally shrank from the thought of killing kindred and friends. We are each of us called upon to kill out all our passions and desires, not that they are all necessarily evil in themselves, but that their influence must be annihilated before we can establish ourselves on the higher planes. The position of Arjuna is intended to typify that of a chela, who is called upon to face the Dweller on the Threshold. As the guru prepares his chela for the trials of initiation by philosophical teaching, so at this critical point Krishna proceeds to instruct Arjuna.

The Bhagavad Gita may be looked upon as a discourse addressed by a guru to a chela who has fully determined upon the renunciation of all worldly desires and aspirations, but yet feels a certain despondency, caused by the apparent blankness of his existence. The book contains eighteen chapters, all intimately connected. Each chapter describes a particular phase or aspect of human life. The student should bear this in mind in reading the book, and endeavour to work out the correspondences. He will find what appear to be unnecessary repetitions. These were a necessity of the method adopted by Vyasa, his intention being to represent nature in different ways, as seen from the standpoints of the various philosophical schools, which flourished in India.

As regards the moral teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, it is often asserted by those who do not appreciate the benefits of occult study, that, if everybody pursued this course, the world would come to a standstill; and, therefore, that this teaching can only be useful to the few, and not to ordinary people. This is not so. It is of course true that the majority of men are not in the position to give up their duties as citizens and members of families. But Krishna distinctly states that these duties, if not reconcilable with ascetic life in a forest, can certainly be reconciled with that kind of mental abnegation which is far more powerful in the production of effects on the higher planes than any physical separation from the world. For though the ascetic's body may be in the jungle, his thoughts may be in the world. Krishna therefore teaches that the real importance lies not in physical but in mental isolation. Every man who has duties to discharge must devote his mind to them. But, says the teacher, it is one thing to perform an action as a matter of duty, and another thing to perform the same from inclination, interest, or desire. It is thus plain that it is in the power of a man to make definite progress in the development of his higher faculties, whilst there is nothing noticeable in his mode of life to distinguish him from his fellows. No religion teaches that men should be the slaves of interest and desire. Few inculcate the necessity of seclusion and asceticism. The great objection that has been brought against Hinduism and Buddhism is that by recommending such a mode of life to students of occultism they tend to render void the lives of men engaged in ordinary avocations. This objection however rests upon a misapprehension. For these religions teach that it is not the nature of the act, but the mental attitude of its performer, that is of importance. This is the moral teaching that runs through the whole of the Bhagavad Gita. The reader should note carefully the various arguments by which Krishna establishes his proposition. He will find an account of the origin and destiny of the human monad, and of the manner in which it attains salvation through the aid and enlightenment derived from its Logos. Some have taken Krishna's exhortation to Arjuna to worship him alone as supporting the doctrine of a personal god. But this is an erroneous conclusion. For, though speaking of himself as Parabrahm, Krishna is still the Logos. He describes himself as Atma, but no doubt is one with Parabrahm, as there is no essential difference between Atma and Parabrahm. Certainly the Logos can speak of itself as Parabrahm. So all sons of God, including Christ, have spoken of themselves as one with the Father. His saying, that he exists in almost every entity in the Cosmos, expresses strictly an attribute of Parabrahm. But a Logos, being a manifestation of Parabrahm, can use these words and assume these attributes. Thus Krishna only calls upon Arjuna to worship his own highest spirit, through which alone he can hope to attain salvation. Krishna is teaching Arjuna what the Logos in the course of initiation will teach the human Monad, pointing out that through himself alone is salvation to be obtained. This implies no idea of a personal god.

Again notice the view of Krishna respecting the Sankya philosophy. Some strange ideas are afloat about this system. It is supposed that the Sutras we possess represent the original aphorisms of Kapila. But this has been denied by many great teachers, including Sankaracharya, who say that they do not represent his real views, but those of some other Kapila, or the writer of the book. The real Sankya philosophy is identical with the Pythagorean system of numerals, and the philosophy embodied in the Chaldean system of numbers. The philosopher's object was to represent all the mysterious powers of nature by a few simple formulae, which he expressed in numerals. The original book is not to be found, though it is possible that it still exists. The system now put forward under this name contains little beyond an account of the evolution of the elements and a few combinations of the same which enter into the formation of the various tatwams. Krishna reconciles the Sankya philosophy, Raj Yog, and even Hatta Yog, by first pointing out that the philosophy, if properly understood, leads to the same merging of the human monad in the Logos. The doctrine of Karma, which embraces a wider field than that allowed it by orthodox pundits, who have limited its signification solely to religious observances, is the same in all philosophies, and is made by Krishna to include almost every good and bad act or even thought. The student must first go through the Bhagavad Gita, and next try to differentiate the teachings in the eighteen different parts under different categories. He should observe how these different aspects branch out from our common centre, and how the teachings in these chapters are intended to do away with the objections of different philosophers to the occult theory and the path of salvation here pointed out. If this is done, the book will show the real attitude of occultists in considering the nature of the Logos and the human monad. In this way almost all that is held sacred in different systems is combined. By such teaching Krishna succeeds in dispelling Arjuna's despondency and in giving him a higher idea of the nature of the force acting through him, though for the time being it is manifesting itself as a distinct individual. He overcomes Arjuna's disinclination to fight by analysing the idea of self, and showing that the man is in error, who thinks that he is doing this, that and the other. When it is found that what he calls "I" is a sort of fiction, created by his own ignorance, a great part of the difficulty has ceased to exist. He further proceeds to demonstrate the existence of a higher individuality, of which Arjuna had no previous knowledge. Then he points out that this individuality is connected with the Logos. He furthermore expounds the nature of the Logos and shows that it is Parabrahm. This is the substance of the first eleven or twelve chapters. In those that follow Krishna gives Arjuna further teaching in order to make him firm of purpose; and explains to him how through the inherent qualities of Prakriti and Purusha all the entities have been brought into existence.

It is to be observed that the number eighteen is constantly recurring in the Mahabharata, seeing that it contains eighteen Parvas, the contending armies were divided into eighteen army-corps, the battle rages eighteen days, and the book is called by a name which means eighteen. This number is mysteriously connected with Arjuna. I have been describing him as man, but even Parabrahm manifests itself as a Logos in more ways than one. Krishna may be the Logos, but only one particular form of it. The number eighteen is to represent this particular form. Krishna is the seventh principle in man, and his gift of his sister in marriage to Arjuna typifies the union between the sixth and the fifth. It is worthy of note that Arjuna did not want Krishna to fight for him, but only to act as his charioteer and to be his friend and counsellor. From this it will be perceived that the human monad must fight its own battle, assisted when once he begins to tread the true path by his own Logos.