The Supreme Spirit: Bhagavad Gita Chapter 15

Life presents us with a mystery and our deepest desire is to solve it. Sometimes the mystery presses on us as a question demanding an answer, at others as a vague feeling of incompleteness. The world proceeds in space and time according to the laws of cause and effect. The origin of all this is not in space-time. How does the finite arise from the eternal? Nothing will entirely fulfil us until we have known this. And to know it means to be it; to find our own origin in and as this ultimate source of life itself.

The Bhagavad Gita teaches a way to this knowledge-realisation. It contains both teachings on the nature of reality, and practical guidance on how to approach the goal. One chapter, the fifteenth, focuses on this central question: the apparent coming into being of the finite from the infinite, and our longing to be at one with that. The chapter begins with a metaphorical description:

It is said that the tree of life has its roots above, and branches below. [15:1]

The next verse expands the metaphor to say:

Its branches spread above and below, it is nourished by the gunas [matter, energy and laws of nature], its buds are what the senses experience. Its roots spread below into action in the world. [15:2]

Then the metaphor goes further, with a practical implication:

The form of this tree cannot be seen here, not its beginning, end or middle. Cut down this strongly-rooted tree with the axe of non-attachment. [15:3]

Let us try to understand this. The way the world comes into being in space-time is compared to a sacred, mythological tree, something that starts as a tiny seed and then produces innumerable branchings. The source of space-time is not in space-time, so the roots of the tree are said to be ‘above’, that is, transcendent, and what comes forth is ‘below’, in the manifest world. This seems to be the meaning of verse one.

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This article is from the Winter 2023 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.