The true message of the Bhagavad Gita, which seeks to remove the ‘materialness’ of man through a dialogic strategy of sublimation of consciousness, cannot be known without delving into its microcosmic roots. It is the recapitulation in poetic form of the ancient philosopher-scientists’ insights into the mystery of conscious experience.
Realizing quickly that the external universe is composed of dead matter, they abstracted it simply as the world of the sense-objects and instead focused on the human body, its anatomy as well as function. They inspected carefully the organs of the body and saw them for what they are: mere instruments for a spiritual first principle known as the purusa (pure personality). Consciousness is not a phenomenon that arises out of a mere collation of matter but an essential characteristic of purusa. This spiritual entity identifies itself so totally with the circuitry of the brain—its neurological processes—that it has become almost a neural (sensory-motor) entity. This causes purusa to experience births and deaths and afflictions in an endless cycle of existences. The solution then is to educate the purusa regarding his true nature, the ontological category to which he really belongs, which is the same as that of God (the supreme purusa), and to free him from the dharma of the senses by making him develop a “core consciousness” which is rooted not in matter but in the supreme pure personality.
The ancient seers were not content with sketchy outlines; they wanted to know how exactly purusa experiences the taste of sense objects. A hierarchy of neural entities stretching from the sensory receptors (vedas) upwards to the brain was discovered. However these researches remained exceedingly abstruse to the common man and they felt the need to make it both accessible and interesting. So they introduced into this philosophical and scientific account poetical elements like personification, etc.
There are three chief entities of the microcosm: (a) the spiritual personality (Visnu) of the same essence as God (b) the brain (Brahma) and (c) time (Siva). Above this trio however stands Krishna (God) the cowherd, as it were, of the sensory receptors. There has thus been a translocation of God to the neural realm! The import is that he is the supreme innervating entity (paramatma), the supreme actuator of this micro-creation. All those arrayed up against Arjuna, the jiva—purusa connected to brain—are material personalities while he himself is purely spiritual in nature. The grief that he suffers in this gripping dharmic drama is also, in a sense, the grief of ontological confusion.
These material, neural entities which emanate, from the (non-literal) causative point of view, from the body of the supreme purusa, are categorized into several classes based on property and function (guna, karma; Gita 4.13). To each is assigned a specific dharma. The function of some of them is to acquire knowledge or sense-data; for others, like the controlling nerves (devas) of the ‘sun’ (trachea) and the ‘moon’ (oesophagus) and other structures, it is to do motor-action and to subdue the visceral organs. Some engage specifically in the keeping of ‘cows’, the sensory receptors, and the processing of their sensory products; while for others the dharma is to aid and serve the other entities. To digress, the view, therefore, that the caste system of the external world is sanctioned by the Gita is a misinterpretation of the most horrendous kind and is a potent example of how deadly misinterpretation of scripture can be. Such an interpretation is not only wrong, it also is diametrically opposite to the teaching of the Gita which says that this kind of a material gradation among personalities is restricted only to the world of matter, to the sphere of the neural entities.
Now, in this micro-universe, the ignorant purusa works. He thinks himself to be a ‘man,’ a neural entity, and engages in ‘work’ (karma) as dictated by the vedas or the sensory receptors. Moreover, corresponding to his microcosmic ignorance, there is an equivalent ignorance reflected externally in the realm of praxis. The path of karma then becomes a path of microcosmic emulation.
There is mimicry by the material man of essentially two kinds of neuronal activity. In the first mode known as pravritti, alluded to by Krishna (3.14), there is a metaphorical sacrifice, a yajna, going on in the body. Krishna talks about anna sustaining all creatures and this anna, he says, is produced through rain which in turn is made possible by karma performed in yajna. This is the purely autonomic loop that does not involve the spiritual personality. Here, the ‘oblations’ are the transmitted signals; the channel (such as the spinal cord) through which these ascend to the ‘heavens’ (the base of the brain) is the ‘fire,’ and the deva, the activated nerve. The ‘rain’, of course, is oxygen and from it, respiratory metabolism takes place (‘food’ is produced) and from this ‘food’, the neural entities are further nourished.
But in the second mode, the ‘oblations’ of this internal yajna are offered to the spiritual personality. This is the path of nivritti or niskama karma. It is very clear from these microcosmic origins that the path of karma is purely material. Even in the second variant, the purusa continues to function as a material entity but does karma by offering to the supreme purusa. None of these reflects the true nature and function of purusa. As karma pertains only to the material, non-conscious units and not to conscious personality, its practice can be sustained only in the state of ignorance. The doer of karma—the neuronal man—must be instructed to cultivate knowledge of spirit and sublimate his consciousness. It is for this reason that the entire dialogic strategy of the Gita transitions from the karmic to the bhaktic. To the jiva, it is recurrently told that he is not a neural entity but an amsa (15.7) of the supreme spirit, not ksara but aksara, immutable (15.16), that like the ‘knower of the field’, he is distinct from the mind, body and senses and that for the one taking delight in atman, there is no karma (3.17). The glory of paramatma is brought before him so that his consciousness becomes undeviatingly rooted in spirit.The great ontological crisis is thus lifted. However, as soon as the jiva comes out of material mode, his previous microcosmic emulations must also go for these dharmas which are rooted in the philosophy of karma are no longer compatible with his reclaimed status of spiritual personality. Therefore the final call-to-action of the Gita is of sole-refuge (eka sarana) in God forsaking completely all veda-ordained dharmas (18.66).