66. The Bright and the Dark Paths of Bhagavadgita

Human Body

by Jayaram V

Notes: I have translated the Bhagavadgita twice. The first one was a loose translation. The second one was a word to word translation with a detailed commentary. The commentary is however different from what you will find here. In this section I will share with you my thoughts about the knowledge, philosophy and wisdom of the Bhagavadgita as I understand it from my perspective. Jayaram V

What happens to the souls who depart from here? The Bhagavadgita provides some answers about death and liberation in chapter 8. They are discussed in this essay.

According to the Bhagavadgita there are two eternal paths by which the dead go to the next world, the white or the bright path (Shukla gati) and the black or the dark path (Krishna gati). They are discussed in the eighth chapter of the scripture. By the first, one will never return to the earth to take birth, and by the second, one keeps coming back again and again.

The two paths are also known as the Northern path (uttarayana) and the Southern path (dakshinayana). They are the obvious reference to the journey of the departed souls to the two higher worlds which are believed to exist in the sphere of the sun and the moon respectively. The world which exists in the sphere of the moon is the ancestral world and that which exists in the sphere of the sun is the immortal world of Brahman.

Agni and Sun worship

Vedic people were primarily sun worshippers. They worshipped sun as the highest God (Brahman) and the moon (Chandra or Soma) as one of the heavenly beings. Although they worshipped numerous gods and goddesses and made them offerings, the ultimate recipient of those offerings was the sun god only. In Vedic tradition, the sun symbolizes Brahman as well as Agni, the fire god. Agni is his dynamic aspect upon earth as well as in heaven. He radiates warmth and protects worshippers, driving away darkness and evil from their homes, hearts and minds.

Agni can also be extremely destructive and unleash great fury. Hence, Vedic people kept sacrificial fires continuously burning in their homes to keep darkness and evil forces away. If by any chance, the fires died down, they had to rekindle them ritually after performing penitentiary rites. In other words, the sacrificial fires were no ordinary fires which were used for domestic purposes. They were the sacred fires such as those which burned in the sun, the moon and the heavens, and into which the devas descended every day when the daily sacrifices were offered to them.

The first recipient of all offerings in a Vedic sacrifice is Agni (Sun). He distributes them among gods (devas) who are light beings and partake the nature of Sun (Brahman) just as the rays that emanate from him. Through them the offerings ultimately reach Brahman (Sun) only. This idea is reemphasized in the Bhagavadgita when Lord Krishna says that all paths eventually lead to him only. However, those who worship gods and others go to them before they reach him, while those who worship him reach him directly. It is why the first daily offerings or the morning prayers in Vedic tradition are customarily made to the sun before they are offered to others.

The sun and the moon symbolism

The sun completely drives away darkness upon earth and ushers in bright light. He is the great nourisher who keeps all life thriving and ensures the regularity of day and night, seasons and other celestial phenomena. If the sun symbolizes life, the darkness of night represents Death itself, who is described in the Vedas as the great devourer with insatiable appetite for the things of the world.

As long as darkness exists in our hearts and minds, death exists in our being and slowly devours us. Only the sun can keep the darkness of Death forever out of our existence. The moon also does it, but only partially. It cannot completely drive away the darkness of night as the Sun does. However, the moon is still important. He can shine light upon earth and provide a temporary and partial relief from darkness. He can help people find their way in darkness from one place to another or safeguard themselves from hidden dangers. It is not a complete solution to the problems of darkness and suffering (death and aging). However, it is much better than being in total darkness or in the sunless hells where no light can penetrate.

The Bhagavadgita specifies two conditions for yogis to reach the immortal world of Brahman.

  1. They must die at the right time and in right conditions
  2. They must be knowers of Brahman.

The right conditions are fire (when the sacrificial fires are burning in the home or when the body is cremated), daytime, the waxing period of the moon or the bright fortnight, and the six months in a year when the Sun is traveling in the northern hemisphere. They are auspicious signs. Those who die in such circumstances are most likely to travel to the immortal world, never to return again.

The dark path which leads to transmigration is also described. It refers to the fate of those who have not yet attained perfection or resolved their karma, and who are still caught in the cycle of births and deaths (samsara). The conditions which lead to rebirth are said to be smoke (mist and fog), night (darkness), the waning period of the moon or the dark fortnight, and the six months when the sun is traveling in the southern hemisphere.

Unanswered questions

The scripture says that those who know these two paths are never deluded. Why? It is because by that, they know how to escape forever from rebirth. Although this information helps us with a brief outline of what happens to the departed souls, it does leave many questions unanswered. For example, what happens if a yogi or a self-realized person dies in the night, when there is smoke in the house and sun is in the southern hemisphere? Will he attain immortality or have to stay temporarily in an intermediary plane or sphere until the right conditions manifest? Or, what happens to a person who is not a yogi and who dies in the bright daylight when the Sun is in the northern hemisphere? Will he have the same fate as the one who dies in the night when the sun is in the southern hemisphere?

Hinduism upholds the idea that self-realized yogis can choose the place and time of their death to make their journey to their immortal world easier. However, even self-realized yogis cannot always control what happens to them. They are as vulnerable as ordinary people to acts of God (adhi daivika) or to the actions by others (adhi bhautika). The fact that many saintly people die of chronic diseases and unforeseen circumstances proves that death is not always in their hands. They might have spiritually conquered death, but not physically because the body remains always within the domain of Nature and is never liberated. Liberation is the for soul only.

The importance of self-effort & selfless effort

From the above, it is clear that the Bhagavadgita leaves many questions unanswered while presenting this information. However, if we read it in the context of the whole scripture, considering its other teachings, we may find some answers or draw our own conclusion. The scripture describes many yogas, but puts the onus of attaining liberation upon two fundamental factors namely self-effort and divine intervention. The latter also depends upon the first only. God intervenes in your liberation only when you do your part in resolving your karma through various transformational yogas, and surrender to him completely and unconditionally in pure devotion.

Thus, whether you practice karma sanyasa yoga or jnanayoga or atmasamyama yoga or buddhi yoga or bhakti yoga, self-effort and selfless effort come first. To attain liberation, one must engage in actions without desires, cultivating detachment, devotion, purity etc. The scripture also speaks about the primordial propensities of Nature (gunas) namely sattva, rajas and tamas. It explains the specific qualities and behaviors they generate, and the need to cultivate the predominance of sattva, which lead to the preponderance of divine qualities and the righteous conduct, which are essential to attain liberation.

Spiritual purity

In other words, you may practice any number of yogas and pursue any path, but spiritual purity is of utmost importance. You must be pure and bright as the sun, to reach the sun and be one with it. You must be filled with light and unconditionally radiate it to remove darkness wherever you are. Only then, you are qualified to reach the effulgent world.

A self-realized yogi symbolizes all the qualities and the auspicious nature of the sun. He is the same as the sun, with regard to his spiritual purity (sattva), the heat of his austerity (tapah) and the brilliance (tejas) of his mind and body. Just as the sun, he represents the brilliance and purity of all the factors which are associated with the white path namely fire, light, daytime and the bright fortnight. He is as effulgent as the sun when it is the brightest during the summer or when it is located in the northern hemisphere.

In contrast, those who have not yet attained complete purity or resolved their karma are very much like the moon. They are partially pure and cannot shine much light upon the world or upon their own suffering since they have not yet fully resolved the darkness which exists in them and which arises from their impurities and past actions. They may discern some truths about themselves, but not clearly or completely. Their spiritual purity, knowledge and wisdom very much reflect the mixed nature of smoke, night, the waning period of the moon and the period when the sun is less intense as during the winter or when it is in the southern hemisphere.

What is important for liberation?

Thus, when a person dies is not as important as in what state of purity and spirituality it happened. Neither auspicious time nor a million dips in the River Ganga nor a hundred pilgrimages to our holy temples are going to help an impure soul who does not repent, mend his or her ways or live righteously and selflessly. Purity of the heart, mind and soul is the only means to attain divine love and protection and reach the world of God. Repentance and change in one’s conduct and attitude are very important to escape from the cycle of transmigration.

Karma may play an important when and how we may die. However, the fate of our liberation is not solely left to time, fate or physical conditions and circumstances. It largely depends upon oneself and one’s spiritual effort. A yogi who attains liberation is not subject to any conditions. He is free in all ways. Even if he dies in the most unfortunate circumstances, he will attain the immortal world only. It is the fire within, the light within and the sun within, sustained by one’s own purity and effulgence, by which one will eventually attain the world of Brahman. Of this, there is no doubt.

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