The Supreme Self of the Bhagavad Gita

Dara Eklund – USA

It is gratifying to find, even in recent translations of the Gita a comprehension of the multifaceted Self of Chapter Six and elsewhere. A worthy exemplar of this is Graham M. Schweig's edition [Harper One, 2007]. In his sparse word by word translation he explains a dual usage of the term “self” in footnotes, showing that the “higher self” can mean the Supreme Self, as the divinity dwelling within the individual self, just as our early Theosophical interpreters of the Gita understood this.


William Q. Judge

In his recension William Q. Judge indicates this in his text of Chapter Six (v. 5-6) by use of upper and lower case on the term self. Krishna states that to ascend to meditation a man “should raise the self by the Self; let him not suffer the Self to be lowered; for Self is the friend of self, and, in like manner, self is its own enemy.”  [p. 45 in Theosophy Co. (India) LTD, 1986 ed.]

Ernest Wood

Ernest Wood's The Bhagavad Gita Explained handled this passage by keeping the term Atma and not translating it, with further explanations of verses 5-6 on pp. 132-5. This Theosophical scholar, who mastered Sanskrit while a Professor in India, further explained:  “Atma is also used for 'oneself' in a general way, as a reflexive pronoun. So sometimes the word means the old self which is being overcome.”  [See New Century Foundation Press, ed., L.A. California, 1954.]

T. Subba Row

Yet it is T. Subba Row, in his Notes on the Bhagavad Gita, who provides more exact metaphysical clarity upon the word Self. He speaks of “the continued existence of the jiva as an individual monad.” [p. 41; 1934 & 1978 Theosophical University Press eds.] Row’s lectures on the Gita were originally published in Vol. VIII of The Theosophist magazine, for which we are grateful to H.P. Blavatsky, its editor. The index of the 1978 edition is priceless; being more detailed than several more modern scholars provide in their commentaries. Note how under the term Self one may discern how Krishna analyzes the idea of self, how the real Self is Logos itself, and that the Ego is but a reflection of the real (p. 33 in text). Row illustrates throughout his text the differing interpretations of self from both Sankhya and Raja yoga perspectives, stating that “Almost every great writer on Vedantic philosophy, as also both Buddha and Sankaracharya, have alleged that it is a delusive idea.” [p. 32]

Although rarely capitalizing the term “self” in his text, Graham Schweig has a very clear footnote, added to Chapter Six, verse 7. He translates higher self from paramatma, meaning “wholly absorbed in the self.”  I have wondered why Schweig hesitated to use upper and lower case in the text itself, even though he gives readers optional words in his footnotes.  Then when I came to Chapter 15, I noted he translated “the supreme Self” of verses 17 & 18, as the “Ultimate Person”, even translating the chapter title “The Ultimate Person.” To my mind the term “Person” anthropomorphizes this concept. Therefore I prefer Judge's use of “Primeval Spirit”, or even “Sovereign Lord” for Chapter XV, and especially how he describes Paramatma as the  Supreme Spirit, “who standeth on high unaffected... which permeates and sustains the three worlds.” Upon this, Krishna continued:  “As I am above the divisible and also superior to the indivisible, therefore both in the world and in the Vedas am I known as the Supreme Spirit.”

This statement puzzled me until I read Subba Row's commentary on Chapter XV. I feel we have to honor his superior knowledge of both Vedanta and Buddhism, as well as his connections with the Masters, the original T.S. Founders and the instigators of our Theosophical Movement.

Turning to Chapter XV, Verse 7 [p.102 Notes] Row states this passage has given rise to many sectarian disputes. From premises he has laid in earlier chapters: “what constitutes the Jiva is the light of the Logos,  which is Chaitanyam,  and which, becoming differentiated, forms the individual Ego in combination with the Karanopadhi.” [Causal Body] He had quoted Tookaram Tatya's footnote [p. 31 Notes] affirming that the real entity is the light itself, and not the reflected image [or Karana Sarira]. While showing this verse is susceptible of more than one interpretation, Row goes on to fathom verse 8:

“Here Krishna refers to that human individuality which resides in the Karana  Sarira, that is the one connecting link between the various incarnations of man...” [103 Notes]  H.P.B. calls this the Sutratma,“Thread Soul” [S.D. II, 79].

It is well worth reading Row's interpretations of further verses of this complex controversial chapter XV [103-105 Notes].

Having elsewhere favored a four-fold or even five-fold division of man's nature it is curious that he states: “in every stage of conscious existence, there are seven elements which are always present.” These include the mind and the Ego, and these bring about the environments of future incarnations as determined by past Karma.  

Turning to verse 16 he translates: “These two Purushas – the perishable and the imperishable – exist in the world. The perishable is all the living beings, and the imperishable is called the Kutastha.”  [105, Notes]  Row explains that Kuthastham is “the undifferentiated Prakriti,” and compares it with the  Avyaktam [the unmanifest; primal Nature] of the Sankhyas.  Row continues: “In the succeeding verse he [Krishna] says that these two classes are inferior to himself.” His own nature is even superior to that which is not destroyed at the time of cosmic  Pralaya,  “and that is why he is called Uttama Purusha. [105-6, Notes; defined as Highest Spirit or Individual in John Grimes' Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy, 1996].

For we read in Verse 17:----

“But there is another, the supreme Uttama Purusha, called Paramatma (the supreme Atma) who is the imperishable Lord and who pervades and sustains the three worlds.”

Row also clarifies that “Mulaprakriti should not be confounded with Parabrahman. If it is anything at all, it is but a veil of Parabrahman.” [106, Notes]   

How admirably this supports H.P.B.'s statements about Mulaprakriti in her commentary on the early stanzas of The Secret Doctrine.  The reader is invited to consult Blavatsky's footnote on p.10 of the S.D. Vol. I, where she speaks of it as a veil thrown over Parabrahman and also explore her passages on both Mulaprakriti and Pradhana, by consulting the index in volume III of the 1978/79, TPH edition of her monumental work.  We see that the range of the term Self reaches Cosmic dimensions and by no means is a simple contrast of “Higher” and “Lower” Selves.


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