Lord Krishna’s instructions to Arjuna involve various levels of confidentiality in regard to the nature of reality.
By Satyaraja Dasa
Lord Krishna speaks on different levels of confidentiality in His teachings to Arjuna.
Generally, when one thinks of esoteric Gaudiya Vaishnava literature, masterworks like Gita-govinda, Ujjvala-nilamani, Govinda-lilamrita, and Gopala-champu come to mind, since these works embody confidential knowledge of Krishna’s loving exchanges with His devotees. Indeed, they require a certain qualification (adhikara) to fully understand. Cautions abound. Great Vaishnava acharyas discourage fledgling devotees from entering into these texts too quickly, lest the weeds of confusion throttle their devotional creeper and their spiritual life become utterly compromised. But the Bhagavad-gita is a different matter. We are told that it is a basic text, safe for practitioners at any stage of spiritual development. While this assessment of its introductory stature is true, the Gita has an esoteric dimension, too, espousing deep, confidential knowledge that holds all the secrets of transcendence, at least in seed form.
If we analyze the teachings of the greatest Vaishnava authorities throughout history, such as Sridhara Swami, Jiva Goswami, Vishvanatha Chakravarti, and Bhaktivinoda Thakura, we can discern five levels of instruction found in the Bhagavad-gita.
First, one finds general teachings and insights, ranging from moral codes and ethical principles to rudimentary spiritual truths. A few examples: “While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises. From anger, delusion arises, and from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost, and when intelligence is lost, one falls down again into the material pool.” (2.62–63) “For one who has taken his birth, death is certain, and for one who is dead, birth is certain.” (2.27) “He who is temperate in his habits of eating, sleeping, working and recreation can mitigate all material pains by practicing the yoga system.” (6.17) These are essentially the teaching of dharma, or duty, and karma-yoga, the science of action, along with fundamental philosophical principles, such as reincarnation.
A second level of teaching has been described by Krishna Himself as “secret,” or guhyam. It usually revolves around the spiritual nature of the soul, how it is distinct from the body and a part of the Supreme Soul. This teaching is found throughout the Gita’s early chapters. It is knowledge of Brahman, the basic spiritual constitution of God, the soul, and the spiritual world. It is the second level of teaching.
For the third level, Krishna uses the word guhyatara (“more secret”), and this refers to the fact that two souls occupy the body – the self (jiva) and the Superself (Paramatma), that is to say, the individual soul and God. This includes the notion that all living beings are subservient to the Supreme and should, through deep contemplation and yogic processes, perceive God’s presence everywhere – within the heart of all and within and between every atom.
More advanced still, Krishna says, is the most secret knowledge (guhyatamam), revealed for the first time in the ninth chapter (text 34): “Engage your mind always in thinking of Me, become My devotee, offer obeisances to Me and worship Me. Being completely absorbed in Me, surely you will come to Me.” Implicit in this verse is an emphasis on Krishna in His original form as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Clearly, throughout the Gita Krishna’s divine personhood is acknowledged as the most confidential aspect of spiritual truth. He states this Himself: “Whoever knows Me as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, without doubting, is to be understood as the knower of everything, and he therefore engages himself in full devotional service, O son of Bharata.” (15.19) Immediately after making this most important proclamation, He adds, “This is the most confidential [guhyatamam] part of the Vedic scriptures, O sinless one, and it is disclosed now by Me. Whoever understands this will become wise, and his endeavors will know perfection.” (15.20)
Moreover, 9.34 is where Krishna first recommends becoming His devotee (man-mana bhava mad-bhaktah), a teaching He will reiterate in the eighteenth chapter. In other words, this instruction is so important and confidential, He says it twice. The urgency of becoming a devotee, as expressed here, is the Bhagavad-gita’s fourth level of instruction.
Yet Krishna’s straightforward articulation of this truth in chapter nine does not include an explanation of just how He feels about His devotees. True, He says that one should absorb one’s mind and consciousness in Him, and that because of this one will come to Him in the end. But for a deeper understanding of why Krishna makes this promise – or why such absorption is so dear to Him – one must look to the reiteration of this verse in the eighteenth chapter (text 65): “Always think of Me, become My devotee, worship Me and offer your homage unto Me. Thus you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this because you are My very dear friend.”
While most of this verse is the same as the one in chapter nine, the last few words are different, offering us knowledge that is yet more confidential.
In chapter nine, the final part of the verse says, mam evaishyasi yuktvaivam atmanam mat-parayanah: “Being completely devoted and absorbed in Me, surely you will come to Me.” In 18.65, however, Krishna ends the verse by saying, mam evaishyasi satyam te pratijane priyo ’si me: “Thus you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this because you are My very dear friend.” In chapter nine, then, Krishna emphasized His devotees’ love for Him, but here He focuses on His love for His devotees.
Although Krishna’s additional words in chapter eighteen are hardly highlighted outside the Gaudiya tradition, for followers of Sri Chaitanya they overflow with meaning. Indeed, embedded in these words is the most secret of all secrets (sarva-guhyatamam), for it gives a hint of the love that abides between Krishna and His devotees. It is not a one-way affair, but reciprocal. The tradition has thus detected the seed of rasa, or rapturous relationship, in this verse, and although not expounded upon in the Gita, stalwarts of Gaudiya Vaishnavism would eventually unpack it for the Vaishnava world.
It should also be noted that Sri Chaitanya Himself highlighted this verse as the most important or powerful (balavan) instruction of the Gita. (See Chaitanya–charitamrita, Madhya 22.57–59.)
In terms of the text’s three “secret” teachings, then, one can discount the first level of instruction, since it is not delivered as a secret message but rather as underlying truth. Krishna’s secret instruction begins with the second level of teaching, and it is essentially the teaching of Brahman, or the impersonal Absolute, and the nature of the soul. The third level, which focuses on Paramatma, is seen as more confidential, and indicates the second level of secret truth.
The fourth and fifth dimensions of instruction can be combined into one, for they both focus on the worship of Krishna as the Supreme Person, though the more esoteric level of being “dear to Krishna” is certainly a higher conception. In fact, it is this notion of having a loving relationship with Krishna that is the third and ultimate secret of the Gita. Briefly, in terms of the Sanskrit: guhyam is positive knowledge, guhyatara is comparative knowledge, and guhyatamam is superlative knowledge. Sarva-guhyatamam is the complete form of superlative knowledge, and the topmost secret of all secret teachings. Because sarva means “all,” it is an enhanced form of guhyatamam.
Over the centuries, Gaudiya Vaishnava teachers have articulated these secret levels of truth in slightly different ways, though in the end they naturally point to the same underlying formulation. The lauded Vaishnava commentator Sridhara Svami (c. fourteenth century), for example, conveys an early version of this when explaining Bhagavad-gita 9.1, expressing the idea in general terms: “The secret knowledge (guhyam), jnana, was [articulated elsewhere]. The more secret knowledge (guhyataram) is knowledge of antaryami. The most secret knowledge is worship consisting of complete surrender and the mind thinking of the Lord, the Supreme Person.”*
Jiva Goswami adds further insight into the highest level of confidentiality in his Krishna-sandarbha (Anuccheda 82.2):
[B]ecause it is specifically Sri Krishna’s glory that is unparalleled and unsurpassable, He Himself in the concluding statement of the Gita, the essence of the meaning of all scripture, instructed Arjuna in His bhajana alone, which surpasses that of all other manifestations. This bhajana is in the form of love for Bhagavan, which is venerated by all devotees as the most confidential secret of all (sarva-guhyatamam). . . . [Sri Jiva now quotes the Gita on the respective truths of Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan. Then:] [The] Gita is prescriptive of the supreme goal alone (paramartha). And even among teachings on the supreme goal, the Gita’s precepts are more confidential (guhyatara) than other instructions, as stated above: “Hear again My supreme instruction, the foremost of all secrets (sarva-guhyatama) (Gita 18.64). This more confidential knowledge (guhyatara) is presented from verse 18.61 onward. . . . [Gita 18.63 says:] This knowledge [of Ishvara, or Paramatma] is more confidential (guhyataram) even than the knowledge of Brahman, which is specified simply as confidential (guhya). The comparative suffix tarap [applied to the word guhya] is used to show the superiority of the former over the latter.
Sri Jiva goes on to show that even among incarnations and manifestations of God, such as Narayana, Krishna is the highest and thus the most appropriate recipient of all worship. He also emphasizes that Krishna reveals all this to Arjuna because he is “most dear to Him,” using the words “extremely dear” (dridha ishta). Krishna, says Sri Jiva, “thus exhibits special love for Arjuna,” and it is this that is the most confidential of all the Gita’s secrets. Indeed, it is this all-encompassing love that Gaudiya Vaishnava practitioners aspire for.
Vishvanatha Chakravarti (c. 1626–1708), in commenting on Gita 9.1, broadens the scope, averring that any knowledge leading to liberation could be considered confidential (guhya), and that this can be seen as a general reference to Brahman. He identifies this knowledge as coming from the Gita’s “second, third, and other chapters.” In contrast, knowledge revealed in the seventh and eighth chapters, he says, which is suitable for attaining Krishna, i.e., knowledge of the Lord within the heart, can be called guhyatara, “more secret.” Finally, says Vishvanatha, in the eighteenth chapter the Lord delivers knowledge that is kevala, or pure, in the realm of shuddha-bhakti, or untainted devotion, which is “by far guhyatamam, or ‘most secret.’”
While Bhaktivinoda Thakura (1838–1914), one of the greatest teachers of the modern era, offers a general overview of the three secret levels, he then more precisely explains them as referring to Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan. First, his initial statement as found in his Gita commentary on 9.1: “The wisdom of self-realisation in the second and third chapters of Sri Gita are the profound (guhyam) teachings of Lord Sri Krishna. The Lord’s descriptions of Himself as the Supreme in the seventh and eighth chapters are more profound (guhyataram), indicating that knowledge gives birth to devotion. In chapter nine, the most profound (guhyatamam) teachings begin as the Lord describes the symptoms of exclusive devotion (kevala-bhakti).” But Bhaktivinoda continues. He quotes Krishna in his commentary to 18.64:
I spoke brahma-jnana, knowledge of My featureless aspect, to you. This knowledge is confidential (guhya). And I told you of ishvara-jnana, knowledge of My localized aspect, which is more confidential (guhyatara). Now, I am instructing you on bhagavat-jnana, knowledge of My personal aspect, which is most confidential (guhyatamam). Please listen. This bhagavat-jnana is superior to all the other teachings I have given in Bhagavad-gita. I am imparting it to you for your welfare, because you are very dear to Me.
Bhagavat–jnana, according to Bhaktivinoda, can be divided into two levels of knowledge, as explained in the beginning of this article. The first level, in Gita 9.34, is said to emphasize the importance of our love for God, in that we are instructed to become His devotee and to think of Him always. But this is only the initial stage. Thus, Bhaktivinoda writes, “In chapter nine, the most profound (guhyatamam) teachings begin as the Lord describes the symptoms of exclusive devotion (kevala-bhakti).” Note that he says that this is where they begin. But when they are reiterated in 18.65, they appear with a new ending, and here we learn of God’s love for us, which is not only the most confidential teaching but the culmination of true knowledge (vedanta).
Western academics acknowledge this truth as well. Renowned Gita scholar Robert Minor writes in his classic The Bhagavad Gita: An Exegetical Commentary (South Asia Books, 1982), “Whereas the former was ‘more secret than the secret,’ in 18.64–69, Krishna gives his final message which is his ‘supreme message,’ shrinu me paramam, and ‘the highest secret of all,’ sarva-guhyatamam. This secret is the devotion, bhakti, to Krishna, which is the key to all else (18.65–66), but Arjuna is able to hear it only because he is greatly loved by Krishna.” (emphasis added) Thus Krishna’s reciprocation with His pure devotee is recognized outside the tradition as well, at least intellectually.
This same notion has been eloquently highlighted by the devotee scholar Graham Schweig. In his edition of the Gita, known as Bhagavad Gita: The Beloved Lord’s Secret Love Song (HarperOne, 2010), he re-envisions the three levels of guhyam for the contemporary world, based squarely on the original Sanskrit text.
First, he combines the ethical and moral teachings of the Gita with the first level of secret instruction, which can be aligned with a general spiritual sensibility, known as Brahman, as mentioned by Bhaktivinoda Thakura. Then, for the second level, Schweig highlights loving God, which is, of course, among the Gita’s central teachings, particularly in chapter nine. Schweig’s description of the ultimate secret clearly parallels that of his predecessors.
To elaborate, he writes about “the great secret,” “the greater secret,” and “the greatest secret of all.” Although what constitutes these different levels of secret teachings is presented throughout the sacred text itself, in numerous layers, they are, as Schweig points out, most dramatically declared in the final, eighteenth, chapter, progressively building from the great message to the greatest.
In order of appearance, Schweig continues, these secrets might be expressed as follows: (1) The first secret is how we should act in the outer world of conflict; that is, we should always act out of love. Love should inform all our actions, he says, as much as possible. The Gita lets us know how to do this. (2) The greater secret is that God, in whatever way one perceives of Him, should be fully embraced with a mood of loving devotion, stemming from within the devotee’s own heart. (3) The greatest secret of all appears in verses 18.64–66, says Schweig, in which Krishna reveals that He fully reciprocates His devotee’s love: “You are so much loved by me,” Krishna says. While most editions or translations emphasize that the devotee needs to develop love for God, Schweig’s edition notes that Krishna loves His devotee, too. Perhaps more than we can ever love Him. This, indeed, is the ultimate secret of the Gita.
The Jewel in the Jewel Box
The Gita is traditionally described as a jewel box, containing the most precious gems of krishna-bhakti, or love of God. Far from being a rudimentary spiritual literature, it has the content to bring one directly in touch with the spiritual realm, particularly if one reads it in disciplic succession, taking shelter of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is.
It was Vishvanatha Chakravarti who popularized the jewel box analogy, dividing the Gita’s eighteen chapters into three sections. He writes that the first six are primarily concerned with karma, or the “actions” that bring one closer to God, and that the final six focus on jnana, which uses “knowledge” in pursuit of transcendence. The middle six chapters give us bhakti, or devotion – the Gita’s essence and its highest prize. Vishvanatha writes:
The final six chapters of the scripture Sri Gita are jewels of spiritual education. They form part of a treasure chest containing the rarest secret of bhakti, or devotional service. The first six chapters, dealing with karma, form the golden lower part of the chest, and the third six chapters, dealing with jnana, form its gem-studded cover. The bhakti found within is the most precious treasure in the three worlds. It has the power to bring Sri Krishna under one’s control.
In commenting on the above, Vishvanatha’s disciple Baladeva Vidyabhushana takes the analogy further, addressing the verses highlighted in this article. According to Baladeva, the following verses are like a confidential inscription on the box, revealing its true meaning and value: “Because you are very dear to Me,” Lord Krishna says to Arjuna, His exemplary devotee, “I am speaking to you the most confidential part of knowledge. Hear this from Me, for it is for your benefit. Always think of Me and become My devotee. Worship Me and offer your homage unto Me. Thus you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this because you are dear to Me.” (18.64–65)
In the entire Gita there are only two instances of texts being spoken twice, and the other instance is not pertinent in the present context.** Verses 9.34 and 18.65, however, are extremely pertinent, for here Krishna utters an ultimate, secret truth about becoming His devotee, and this occurs at the Gita’s center, as the last verse of the ninth chapter (9.34). Significantly, this verse is found in the heart of the Gita’s bhakti section, as a central feature of the transcendental jewel box, and again toward the Gita’s end, where Krishna reveals the culmination of all knowledge.
In other words, this verse is so significant, and so much at the heart of Krishna’s teaching, that He deigns to repeat it, emphasizing this fact with the word bhuyah, “again,” in 18.64. And in this same verse, Krishna also underlines that this teaching – to always think of Him and become His devotee – is the most confidential part of knowledge, and that His love for His devotees is even more confidential than that.
*In this article I have relied on translations by Bhanu Swami, Kushakratha Dasa, and Satyanarayana Dasa. My thanks to them.
**The other instance of a verse being repeated in the Gita occurs at 3.35 and 18.47, where we are told that it is better to engage in one’s own duty imperfectly than to engage in another person’s duty perfectly.