The Bhagavad Gita is an inspiring scripture which people frequently turn to for guidance and also quote in support of their arguments. Unfortunately, its aphoristic quality and the backdrop of the war through which its message has been expounded makes it amenable to divergent interpretations. Pacifists tend to be distressed by the justification of war while the warhawks delight in it. The Gita’s enunciation of multiple spiritual paths provides leeway for commentators to selectively highlight the sections they prefer and ignore the rest of the book. Ethicists, for instance, may assume that the Gita preaches the performance of duty above everything. In this article, we examine Sri Aurobindo’s perspective on the Gita.
If everything is consciousness (Brahman), then how does this conscious energy put on the appearance of material solidity. Why does the table appear solid? In order to bridge the gulf between consciousness and apparently durable matter, ancient Indian sages postulated (or “divined”) that all physical things are constituted of five subtle elements called Pancha-Mahabhutas – earth, fire, water, air, ether. These are not the elements known in the conventional sense (e.g. “water” does not imply the water, and “earth” does not mean soil) but are actually subtle conditions which together create the perception of forms which can be sensed by the human mind. The actual names of these five elements are Akasha (ether), Vayu(aeriality), Agni(fire), Apas(liquidity) and Prithvi(compaction). The descriptions of these five constituents are quite similar across Sankhya, Tantra and Buddhist philosophy and even Greek Stoic texts. Furthermore, as I point out later in this article, what is amusing is that these five elements were codified, probably inadvertently, in the Vishnu iconography seen in Indian temples!