Attaining the Supreme


by His Holiness Kirtanananda Maharaja

[This is the eighth in a series of eighteen essays on the chapters of Bhagavad-gita.]

The Eighth Chapter of the Bhagavad-gita begins with a series of seven questions. Arjuna asks, “What is Brahman?” “What is fruitive activity?” “What is the material manifestation?” “What are the demigods?” “How does this Lord of sacrifice live in the body?” “In which part does He live?” And finally, “How can those engaged in devotional service know You at the time of death?” Actually, these questions should not have been in the mind of Arjuna. Arjuna was a ksatriya, a high caste man, supposedly well versed in the knowledge of the Vedas. He should have known all these things; besides, all these questions had already been dealt with by Krsna previously in the first seven chapters: Brahman was analyzed and explained in 4.24, 6.27, and elaborately in 7.6-12; fruitive activities were discussed in every chapter, especially in 2.49, 3.19, 3.28, 3.31, 4.18-22, 5.3, and 6.1; the material manifestation is delineated in 7.4 and 7.30; the demigods are mentioned in 3.11-12, 4.12, 4.25, 5.29, and 7.20-23; the Lord of sacrifice, and where He lives, is explained in 3.9, 15, 4.23-33, 5.29, and 6.31; and even the last question is answered in 2.51, 6.47, and 7.23. For this reason, Krsna is at once again addressed as Madhusudana, the killer of the great Madhu demon, and Arjuna is indirectly asking Krsna to kill these doubts that have arisen in his mind.

The first six questions the Lord deals with very summarily, although completely and authoritatively, because they have been dealt with at length previously. But the seventh question He answers at length and supplies much new information. Therefore almost the whole of the Eighth Chapter deals with how to quit the body at the time of death.

Arjuna also addresses Krsna as Purusottama, which indicates that although he was Krsna’s intimate friend, he was not asking the questions on that basis, but he was asking them of the Supreme Personality of Godhead; therefore, the answers can be expected to be definitive. There is one more important point to note about these two addresses of the Lord. Because Arjuna recognizes doubts as demons and presents them to the Lord (Madhusudana and Purusottama) for final liquidation, it is to be understood that Arjuna is not in illusion at all. Arjuna is not asking the questions for himself at all, but for us. This is also indicated in the Fourth Chapter, where the Lord indicated that Arjuna was one of His eternal associates present millions of years before at the first recitation of the Bhagavad-gita to the sun-god, Vivasvan. The eternal associates of the Lord are certainly liberated persons; therefore Arjuna should not be taken as an ordinary conditioned soul. Rather, these questions were raised so that the Lord could speak Bhagavad-gita and so that His pure devotee and intimate friend (bhakta) could become the first in the new parampara (disciplic succession) and thus give practical example that it is by bhakti (devotion) alone that one can enter into the understanding of the Gita. Arjuna is asking the questions just like a conditioned soul, but he is not himself conditioned. That is the perfection of the Gita: on all sides there is perfect knowledge. The questions are perfect, the answers are perfect, and if any conditioned soul will simply follow in the footsteps of Arjuna, he may also become perfect.

What Is Brahman?

What is Brahman? Sri Krsna says, “The indestructible, transcendental, living entity is called Brahman, and his eternal nature is called the self.” (8.3) Krsna is repeating the Vedic aphorism aham brahmasmi “I am spirit soul.” Krsna very elaborately explained in the Second Chapter that we are not these material bodies. “For the soul there is never birth or death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying, and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (2.20) That eternal, all-pervading, immeasurable self is called Brahman, and Krsna adds: “I am the Self seated in the hearts of all creatures.” (10.20) Can we then conclude that there is only one soul as the Mayavadi impersonalists say? No, we cannot do that, for then we could not understand so many other verses in which the eternal individuality of the soul is clearly established. (2.12, 13.12, 14.27, 15.7 for example). Therefore, Lord Caitanya, who is Krsna Himself disguised as a devotee, clarifies the whole matter by His sublime philosophy of acintya-bhedabheda-tattva, inconceivable, simultaneous difference and nondifference. In other words, the living entity is inconceivably simultaneously one and different from Krsna, the Supreme Absolute. We are Brahman, and He is Parambrahman. We are the energy which is one in quality with the absolute whole, but which is not itself the energetic source.

om purnam adah purnam idam
purnat purnam udacyate
purnasya purnam adaya
purnam evavasisyate.

This is a very beautiful mantra from Sri Isopanisad, one of the oldest of the Upanisads. It is translated by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada as follows: “The Personality of Godhead is perfect and complete. And because He is completely perfect, all emanations from Him, such as this phenomenal world are perfectly equipped as a complete whole. Whatever is produced of the complete whole is also complete by itself. And because He is the complete whole, even though so many complete units emanate from Him, He remains the complete balance.” It is just as if one has a bank account of one million dollars, and he withdraws one thousand dollars every hour. Now each withdrawal is qualitatively the same as the whole. A dollar is a dollar, either singly or in large groups. But suppose one could withdraw one thousand dollars every hour and the original million never diminished? The individual withdrawals have no such reproductive power—when they are spent, they are gone. Then that would be something like the difference between the original purnam, which is the source of everything that be, and the individual parts and parcels, or the cosmic manifestation. We have energy, but are not the energetic.

What Are Fruitive Activities?

What are fruitive activities? The Lord says, “And action pertaining to the development of these material bodies is called karma, or fruitive activities.” (8.3) In the Third Chapter, 28th verse, Krsna says: “One who is in knowledge of the Absolute Truth, O mighty-armed, does not engage himself in the senses and sense gratification, knowing well the differences between work in devotion and work for fruitive results.” In the Fourth Chapter, 19th verse, He adds: “One is understood to be in full knowledge whose every act is devoid of desire for sense gratification. He is said by sages to be a worker whose fruitive action is burned up by the fire of perfect knowledge.” Fruitive activity, therefore, refers to all activities which have for their object self gratification, and conversely the path to freedom (freedom from the control of the senses, which are dragging us into one body after another to enjoy or suffer according to karma) leads to surrendering the results of all actions to Krsna—and that is Krsna’s final summary instruction in the Bhagavad-gita: “Give up all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me; and in return I shall protect you from all sinful reactions.” (18.66) Thus from beginning to end, the teaching of the Gita is one: that the living entity should surrender to the Supreme Lord by engaging himself in full Krsna consciousness according to his own particular talent or duty. Whatever he can do just do it for Krsna.

What is the material manifestation? The Lord says: “The physical nature is known to be endlessly mutable. The universe is the cosmic form of the Supreme Lord.” (8.4). In the Seventh Chapter, 4th verse, Sri Krsna says: “Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence, and false ego—altogether these eight comprise My separated material energies.” So it is concluded that the material manifestation is the temporary manifestation of the Lord for the twofold purpose of giving the living entity a chance to fulfill his material desires and at the same time a chance to cultivate spiritual knowledge so that at the conclusion of this life he does not have to take birth again, but can go back to Godhead. This is very nicely stated in the eleventh mantra of Sri Isopanisad:

vidyam cavidyam ca yas
tad vedobhayam saha
avidyaya mrtyum tirtva
vidyayamrtam asnute.

“Only one who can learn the process of nescience and that of transcendental knowledge side by side can transcend the influence of repeated birth and death, and enjoy the full blessings of immortality.” That is the perfection of the Vedic culture, that everything is so arranged to give every living entity maximum opportunity to advance in knowledge both material and spiritual so that everyone may make his life successful. To that end society is divided into four classes: the sudras to provide manpower, the vaisyas to provide productivity in the form of agriculture, commerce and banking, the ksatriyas—to give administration and protection, and the brahmanas to give spiritual direction. There is no question of inequality—aham brahmasmi. We are all part and parcel of the transcendental body of Krsna. Without recognition of Krsna, the system will never work. Without recognizing the father, how can there be brotherhood? Brotherhood means one father, and as soon as mankind recognizes Krsna as that Supreme Father and all living entities as His parts and parcels, each with a particular talent to be used in the service of the whole, then the social organism will work just befitting the design of Krsna—perfectly. Such consciousness can be realized by the asramas, or stages of life, provided in the Vedic system. As a brahmacari one remains a celibate student and learns the principles of Krsna consciousness; as a grhastha he practices those principles in day to day family living; as a vanaprastha he gradually retires from his worldly affairs; and as a sannyasi he travels all over the world preaching this sublime message of love of God. Nothing is left out, but everything is dovetailed to serve the whole, Krsna.


What are the demigods? That of course has been answered previously by Krsna in the Third Chapter where He outlines the demigods’ functions as universal managers in charge of supplying the various necessities of life (3.11-12). In the Fourth Chapter the Lord adds that one gets quick results from worshiping the demigods in the matter of fruitive activities (4.12), but in the Fifth Chapter the Lord clearly states that He alone is the Lord of all sacrifice, the Supreme Lord of all planets and demigods, the only benefactor and well-wisher of all living entities, and therefore He alone is the giver of peace and relief from the material miseries. And in the Seventh Chapter, 23rd verse, the Lord declares: “Men of small intelligence worship the demigods, and their fruits are limited and temporary. Those who worship the demigods go to the planets of the demigods, but My devotees reach My supreme abode.” They are of small intelligence because they are accepting something temporary and insignificant in place of the highest, the reservoir of all pleasure, Krsna. It is something like a little child, who, if one offers him the choice of some little trinket or a check for a million dollars, takes the worthless toy, never realizing that with a million dollars he could have countless playthings. There are some mental speculators who teach that it doesn’t make any difference what or who is worshiped; the end is all the same. But that is clearly denied here by Krsna. “Those who worship the demigods go to the planets of the demigods, but My devotees reach My supreme abode.” And it is clearly stated that the demigods and everything connected with them are temporary, so how can they be equal to the supreme eternal abode of Krsna, which is sac-cid-ananda, eternal, full of knowledge and bliss? Krsna summarizes the whole matter here in the Eighth Chapter by saying, “The universe is the cosmic form of the Supreme Lord.” (8.4) That means that the demigods (and everything else) are located within the body of the Lord, but the demigods are highly placed administrators for the purpose of universal management; but it is one body, and it belongs to Krsna. Therefore, everything is meant for His satisfaction, and when one knows this and acts accordingly, he is called intelligent and enlightened.

Intimately connected with this discussion of the demigods are the next two questions. “How does this Lord of sacrifice live in the body?” and “In which part does He live?” The Supreme Lord says: “I am that Lord represented as the Supersoul, dwelling in the heart of every embodied being.” (8.4) Similarly, in the Sixth Chapter the Lord told Arjuna: “The yogi who knows that I and the Supersoul within all creatures are one, worships Me and remains always in Me in all circumstances.” (6.31) Actually there was no reason for these six questions, and we will only understand the situation thoroughly if we recall that Arjuna is being placed in forgetfulness (yoga-maya) by Krsna’s superior yogic power (Yogesvara) for our benefit. This repetition is not due to Arjuna’s dullness, nor is it foolish redundancy. Rather, repetition in the scriptures indicates emphasis for the purpose of clarifying and stabilizing a concept. It is another example Krsna’s patience and mercy on His devotees.

At The Time Of Death

The main topic of the chapter, however, is the final question, “How can those engaged in devotional service know You at the time of death?” On this point rests the remainder of the chapter. But in His typical fashion, the Lord states the whole position first, and then slowly elaborates. What is that complete statement? “Anyone who quits his body, at the end of life, remembering Me, attains immediately to My nature; and there is no doubt of this.” (5.5) There are nine authorized processes of devotional service, beginning with hearing, then chanting, praying, remembering, worshiping, serving, rendering personal service, making friendship, and surrendering everything. Remembering Krsna is the central point of all nine. Therefore the instruction of Narada Muni to King Yudhisthira is that “One has to fix his mind on Krsna by any means.” There is no other way. We have to remember Krsna; then we will be successful. “There is no doubt of this,” Krsna says. That is the perfectional practice, and it may be begun at any time and at any place. It is at once the way and the goal, for at all times it is identical with Krsna. But that final point must be Krsna. That is most important. It is clearly indicated in the Srimad-Bhagavatam that after following all the rules and regulations, performing all kinds of austerities, going to thousands of places of pilgrimage, or studying all the Vedas, or rigidly practicing the mystic yoga system, if one doesn’t ultimately come to Krsna, it is all useless, a collosal hoax and waste of time.

The Next Life?

That much is clear; we must finally come to Krsna if we want the ultimate goal, for He is the Absolute Truth. But what of the man who doesn’t quite make it? Or the man who doesn’t even try? What is his fate? “In whatever condition one quits his present body, in his next life he will attain to that state of being without fail.” (8.6) There is no magic, no hokus-pokus involved. It is completely scientific. Consciousness is a continuous flow. We can all see that the consciousness of the baby is flowing into the youth and that of the youth into the old man. There is no break. How one develops his consciousness in life will determine one’s consciousness at death, and one’s consciousness at death will determine his next birth. The Gita teaches from beginning to end that the living entity should surrender unto the Supreme Lord; that will make him happy, both now and forevermore. Krsna is adding here that whatever progress we make in that direction is permanent; it can never be lost. No one ever tries for Krsna consciousness without being elevated. In the Second Chapter the Lord told Arjuna: “In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear.” (2.40) But one should not foolishly conclude that he need not do anything, that somehow or other everyone will make it. That is clearly denied by Lord Krsna. Certainly the Lord is willing, and certainly the Lord’s grace is sufficient to save everyone. But because He is the well-wisher of every living entity, fulfilling each man’s desire, He cannot help us until we desire it. The Lord is absolute and all-powerful, yet He is subservient to our desire; thus for the atheist who is envious of the Lord’s existence, the Lord kindly hides Himself behind His curtain of maya, so that the atheist can never find Him although all the Vedic literature informs us that He is everywhere.

In whatever condition one quits the body, the verse states, that state of being he attains in his next life. What is it that quits the body? It is consciousness. Anyone can understand that the difference between a live body and a dead body is the presence or absence of consciousness. Nor do we all have the same quality of consciousness: one man is meek, another is quarrelsome, another is silent, and some are godly. The particular quality of the consciousness can be changed during one’s life by his acts. That is fact. No one can dispute that. We have all seen a bright-eyed youth turn into a debauched addict, or a generous host become a mean old scrooge; or, on the other hand, we have seen so many ego-centered, sense gratifying young people take to Krsna consciousness and become responsible, sober, intelligent parents and adults. The quality of the consciousness can be changed by changing the activity, and that is called karma. But at death no more change is possible, for activity has ceased; simply we reap the result. If by my activities I have developed cat consciousness or dog consciousness, then I am sure to be offered such suitable bodies by mother nature; if I have lived humanely, then I can again take a human birth, and if I have lived a godly life, I may go to the demigods. But Krsna does not advise any one of these states, because they are all temporary, and from any one of them I will again have to take my birth, where I know not. Therefore, Krsna advises, “Always think of Me, and … you will attain to Me without any doubt.” Krsna is eternal, His abode is eternal, and those who attain Krsna consciousness are eternally happy.

Prahlada Maharaja prays to Lord Nrsimhadeva as follows:

Tvat-sa ksat-karanahlada-
visuddhabdhi-sthitasya me
sukhani gospadayante
brahmany api jagad-guro.

“My dear Lord of the universe, I am feeling transcendental pleasure in Your presence, and I have become merged in the ocean of happiness. I now consider the happiness of impersonal liberation to be no more than the water in the impression left by a cow’s hoof in the earth, compared to this ocean of bliss.” (Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya) The idea is that any pleasure of the material world, even up to the realm of Brahmaloka, or even the pleasure of liberation itself, cannot compare with the pleasure that the devotees enjoy in the association of Krsna. Therefore, Krsna is recommending that everyone take to this process of devotional service and gain that supreme goal. It is the same thing that Narada Muni instructed to Maharaja Yudhisthira: “My dear King, one has to fix his mind on Krsna by any means.”

Link-Up—With Krsna

But still there are some men who will not take to this direct easy process. And so the Lord, who incarnates just to reclaim all the conditioned souls, explains other processes by which, ultimately, with more difficulty, one may come to the same goal, namely Himself. Krsna now describes the mystic yoga system of body control through various sitting postures and breathing exercises in conjunction with bona fide meditation. Bona fide meditation is meditation upon the Visnu expansion of Krsna which resides in the heart of every living entity. The object of meditation is not void or formless, as is sometimes taught today. Actually, all paths of spiritual development, such as Krsna describes in the Gita, are yogas, either karma-yoga, or jnana-yoga, or bhakti-yoga. Yoga means to contact or connect, literally to link up, with Krsna, the Soul of all souls. Without reaching that end, the practice is all useless. There is a verse in the Srimad-Bhagavatam which says that if after performing all the rules and regulations, observing all kinds of vows of austerity, studying all the Vedas and related holy literature, or practicing the yoga system, or visiting all the places of pilgrimage, or giving everything in charity, one does not come to Krsna consciousness, it is all useless, a great waste of time. Similarly, Lord Krsna tells his intimate friend Uddhava, in the same text: “These are, of course, very nice activities, but they are not as attractive to Me as the transcendental loving service rendered by My devotees.” (Bhag. 11.12.1)

That is the way to attract Krsna—by transcendental loving service. But we are now talking about those foolish persons who will not go that way. In verses 10-15 Krsna explains how by practicing the mystic yoga system one can come “to the highest perfection.” But what is the key to that perfection? “Without deviation in remembering Me” and “constant engagement in devotional service.” In the five verses, thinking of or remembering the Lord is mentioned three times, and devotion or devotional service is also mentioned three times. What then is the possibility of reaching or “linking up” with the Lord by some fraudulent system which neglects these two necessities which are declared by the Lord Himself?

The Lord is very anxious for all His sons to leave this material universe, this place of miseries. The next four verses, 16-19, tell us that from the highest to the lowest condition within the material spheres, all are places of misery, because everywhere there is birth, old age, disease and death. No one wants these things, but they are always present even up to Brahmaloka, the planet of Lord Brahma, creator of this universe. Krsna, however, is contrasting this with His own abode, in verses 20-21. That nature, He says, is eternal. Actually, it is sac-cid-ananda, eternal, full of knowledge, and always blissful. It is not void; it is not impersonal. It is only hinted at here by such terms as “My supreme abode,” “never annihilated,” and “infallible.” But this transcendental abode of Lord Krsna is elaborately described in the Brahma-samhita as the cintamani-dhama, called Goloka Vrndavana. “It is full of palaces made of touchstone. There the trees are called desire-trees, and the cows are called surabhi. And the Lord is being served by hundreds and thousands of goddesses of fortune. It is He whose name is Govinda, the primal Lord and the cause of all causes. There the Lord plays His flute. His eyes are like lotus petals, and the color of His body like a beautiful cloud; on His head there is a peacock feather. So attractive is He that He excels thousands of cupids.”

The Highest Truth

There is yet one more process described by the Lord for attaining the Supreme, and that is described in verses 24-26. This process is also connected with the mystic yoga system and is dependent on passing away at certain auspicious moments. The expert yogi is not forced to vacate his body like an ordinary human, and so he may, if he chooses, leave at certain prescribed times and thus attain the spiritual realms. But this is not possible for the ordinary man, and therefore Krsna tells Arjuna in the 27th verse: “The devotees who know these different paths are never bewildered. Therefore be always fixed in devotion.” The devotee does not have to take any thought about how or when he is leaving this material world. The example of Maharaja Bharata is very instructive. Sukadeva Gosvami told Maharaja Pariksit: “The great soul of King Bharata was so much attracted to the service of the lotus feet of Krsna that he very easily gave up his lordship over the earthly planet and his affection for his children, society, friends, royal opulence, and beautiful wife. He was so very lucky that the goddess of fortune was pleased to offer him all kinds of material concessions, but he never accepted any of this material opulence. Any person whose heart is attracted by the transcendental quality of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Madhusudana, not to speak of material opulence, does not care even for the liberation which is aspired to by many great sages.’ ” (Bhag. 5.14.43) Similarly, Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu prays in His Siksastakam: “My dear son of Nanda, I do not want any kind of material happiness in the shape of many followers, nor immense opulence in wealth, nor any beautiful wife, nor do I want cessation from material existence. I may take birth many times, one after another, but what I pray is that My devotion unto You may always remain unflinching.”

Hare Krsna Hare Krsna Krsna Krsna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare

This same highest truth is now confirmed by Lord Krsna in the final verse of the chapter: “A person who accepts the path of devotional service is not bereft of any result of studying the Vedas, performing austere sacrifices, making charity, and pursuing philosophical and fruitive activities. And at the end he reaches the supreme abode.” Nothing is lacking; nothing left out. Krsna and His name are identical, and if one will simply chant Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, his mind will become fixed at that absolute point, and his human form of life will become successful.

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