Krishna starts Chapter 15 with an image of a tree.
Urdhvamulam adhahshakham ashvattham prahuravyayam ||
Chandamsi yasya parnani yastam veda sa vedavit ||15.1||
They say the imperishable ashvatha tree has its roots above, its branches below and the vedas are its leaves. The one who knows that is knower of the Veda.
Adhaschaordhvam prasrtastasya shakhah gunapravrddha vishayapravalah ||
Adhasca mulanyanusantatani karmanubandhini manusyaloke ||15.2||
Its branches that are nourished by the gunas, with sense objects as their shoots out below and above. And below, the diffused roots are the karmas that bind (one) in the world of mortals
Krishna compares the whole of samsara to a banyan tree, something similar to the tree of life you saw in the movie Star Wars. It’s a huge tree covering acres of land and all your fears confront you when you enter the domain of the tree. Similarly, here, the whole of samsara, the manifested world which makes you feel finite, with all the different dimensions, is compared to a tree. It’s a huge Ashvatha tree, generally translated as a peepal tree, but the description is closer to a banyan tree. As a banyan tree has a trunk and the roots too are above, people mis-interpret this to be an upside-down tree. What is meant here is that the root of this tree or the source of this tree is in Brahman and Brahman is beyond or above your experience. As Brahman is beyond your experience, it’s pointed out that the root is above, above human experience, but not above human validation or human understanding. And samsara is what you experience and that is below, meaning it is in our dimension where we can experience it. Krishna continues describing it by saying that all the gunas or vishayas, its branches, are spread both above and below. They spread above into higher dimensions like heaven, etc., and below into the world of men, is earth our dimension of life and it is nourished by Maya i.e; the gunas which are sattva, rajas and tamas.
The sense objects are the buds which see the world outside and impel men to action, and from action comes karma and karma phala (the fruit or results of action). To experience all the karma phala, you need more janma (births). Therefore, Krishna says, Karmena anubandhi, you are bound by karma in the world of mortality, because there is no end to it. Once you are in samsara it keeps going, it’s self-perpetuating, because one thinks one is finite and one is not happy with it and so one wants to get rid of the feeling of finitude by doing actions to get things that make one feel fulfilled. Either that or one takes action to get rid of things that make one unhappy and finite. The person thinks happiness is out there and pursuing this happiness happy requires one to take action, which means doing karma, which has results or phala. Most of the phala/result is given to us in this lifetime, but some (10% to 15%) could be rolled over into another life-time. This keeps adding up and my bondage of karma keeps on increasing. As a result of this increasing bondage, I am caught up in samsara for good.
Krishna also cautions us to not look for a similar tree here, because it’s not a real, physical tree with a form, it’s only an image. The question to ask here is, `How do I get out of this samsara?’ To that Krishna replies, `Using the sword of asangatvam’, meaning `a sense of objectivity or emotional independence’, `cut across the tree of samsara.’ Then inquire into the source of the tree and understand that Brahman. Once you understand Brahman, you are free. This vedic wisdom says that you were never bound but you have believed yourself to be bound due to self-ignorance, and freedom is only pending understanding. What is bondage or karma? A mere sense of finitude which comes out of self-ignorance. Therefore, once you inquire into the nature of the self and understand it, then you are free from your sense of finitude.
Krishna asserts that once this is understood, there is no return to samsara, because knowledge gained is gained for good. One ought to keep the pursuit going until things become clear, and when one knows, one discovers one was really never bound. That is lasting freedom.
In the 5th verse, Krishna refers to the type of people who will gain moksha, a complete understanding of the truth. He says, `Nirmana moha jita sanga dosha’, meaning `he who doesn’t have false pride or any delusory self-justification, he who has won over sanga dosha i.e.whatever is internalized due to the negative experiences and the people around you, who is regular in the inquiry into oneself and has out-grown his desires because he has lived a life of karma yoga…. This person is free from pleasure and pain, and will gain the padam called moksha.’ Krishna says that Reality cannot be objectified, it is the very subject of the knower himself, and when one knows oneself, one discovers one is always free.
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