The entire Bhagavad Gita is a series of questions and answers between Sri Krishna and his disciple, Arjuna. In chapter 13, Arjuna asks for knowledge about prakriti and Purusha. Arjuna asks: “What is knowledge and what is it that is to be known?” In those days, none of the spiritual teachers gave lectures. People who were interested in spiritual teachings just came to the Guru, and said, “I don’t understand this; please, shed some light so that I can understand.”

So, Lord Krishna explained that the body is what is called kshetra, or the field, because a field is a place where you sow a seed and it grows. It’s aptly called “field” because, in a field, you can grow anything you want. Whatever you sow will grow and then you reap or harvest the results. If you sow good deeds, then they will grow but if you sow bad deeds then you will reap the bad fruit. The one who knows the field is called the kshetragya, which means, the one who knows that there is a body. In other words, the known is kshetra, the knower is the kshetragya which can also be called the soul or the Self.

Arjuna then asks, “Are there many kinds of souls just as there are many bodies?”  Lord Krishna answers, “No, I am the Self or the soul in all the bodies. The bodies vary, but I am life in all the bodies.” That is what is probably meant by “the image of God” in the Bible when it says, “God made man in his own image.“ The real meaning is that God made everything in God’s own image. Men wrote the Bible, so they used the term “man,” that’s the only reason for that. If a buffalo writes a bible, it would say “God made all the buffalos in its own image.” I don’t think the Bible purposely left anyone out. Probably, there were a few men that were sitting together and they were talking about this and so that’s why it got written that way.

The field and the knower of the field are also called prakriti and Purusha. The knowledge of prakriti and Purusha is what you call true knowledge, or in yogic terms, discriminative knowledge (viveka). Viveka means that you discriminate between what is the essence and what is the non-essence or the manifestation.

We should never miss this point: If you go to a chocolate shop you will see many different shapes of chocolate—round chocolate, square chocolates, elephant and other animal-shaped chocolates. Do you think that the chocolate seller will say give me $1,000 for the elephant chocolate and $10 for the dog chocolate? Does he think one shape is more valuable than another? No, he is not concerned about the shape and the name of it. He will just weigh them both and tell you the price based on the cost per pound. It is the buyer that looks into the name and the form of the chocolate. The one who buys the elephant will think that one is the tastiest and the best and the one who buys the chocolate puppy will think that one is best and they will fight because they don’t see the essence. But the shopkeeper knows the truth; he has the spiritual knowledge.

Knowledge, in the spiritual sense, means to know the ultimate essence and also that all the forms and names are made from the one essence being expressed in different levels. That’s why Arjuna asked, “What is knowledge? Spiritual knowledge is to know the difference between the essence and the manifestation, or the difference between prakriti and Purusha, or the kshetra and the kshetragya, and to realize that they are one and the same. If you limit yourself to the name and form of something that is manifested, you may call it “secular” knowledge and that always causes problems. Secular knowledge, without the sacred knowledge, creates problems. But if you keep the sacred knowledge in mind, you can use your secular knowledge well and even enjoy it. My Guru, Sri Swami Sivananda expressed this very simply: “See the unity in the diversity.” If you can see the unity within everything, then you can truly enjoy all the varieties in the diversity. But if you miss the unity and just see the diversity there will be lunacy!

Here we can see the difference between the material yogis or scientists and the spiritual yogis. The scientists are also yogis but they are only trying to understand the prakriti, which is the manifested part of everything. This is one-sided knowledge. They apply the same methods as the yogis. They concentrate and even meditate on what they want to understand. In a way, they also practice Yoga postures. If you have ever seen scientists sitting in the lab, you would observe that they may even forget to move their legs for hours and hours. They become so absorbed that they may forget to eat and sleep. The rituals and the practices are more or less the same. Many scientists ended up in divorce because they forgot their family responsibilities. A renunciate, or spiritual person, does almost the same thing their interest is in knowing the Purusha, knowing the essence. They are trying to: know that which is to be known by knowing which, you can know everything. That is the difference between the material yogi and the spiritual yogi.

In the fifth and sixth slokas, Krishna talks about the components of the field. The manifested field is comprised of: the five elements, the ego, the intellect, the senses, objects of the senses, (desire, hatred, pleasure, pain, intelligence) and the mind. These are all the different modifications of the field. You may wonder why there is nothing here that is concrete. How can pleasure, pain, emotions, and intelligence be considered as manifested? The reason is that in the ultimate sense, even mind is a form of matter; it is made of subtle matter. And intelligence and egoism are parts of the mind. In the yogic terminology, they are called, manomaya kosha, ( mind sheath) vijnanamaya kosha, (intellect sheath) and anandamaya kosha ( pure ego sheath). They’re all different shapes or different sheaths or dresses for the soul. They change because the mind is constantly changing. Anything that changes is part of prakriti.

You don’t have the same emotion always. Your intelligence waxes and wanes. Sometimes you seem to be dull and at other times you are quite intelligent. Anything that undergoes changes is part of prakriti. Anything that’s constant and never changes is the Purusha. That is why all these things—desire, hatred, pleasure, pain, the emotions, and so on—become part of the manifested prakriti or the field.

The next few slokas are of a more practical nature. They are not just some kind of abstract philosophy. It’s alright to speak about spirit and the Self but, because it’s a very subtle thing, it’s really beyond the grasp of our mind. Even as we talk about it, we are using the prakriti. Even the person who hears us talking about it is using the prakriti. So, prakriti talks and prakriti hears. As we talk about the essence, we remain in the level of prakriti. It’s something like a drop that wants to measure the depth of the sea; this is not possible.

The understanding of the essence or the Purusha is possible only when you are Self-Realized. You have to experience that reality. But on the ordinary level, we are all in real-lie-zation. And that’s what you call maya, illusion—that which is not permanent. Here we should understand that illusion means that it is not something concrete. What you have named as “book” is only an illusion. It was not a book a while ago and it is not going to be a book later on. It is paper pulp made into these sheets and cardboard and put together. Even the print is nothing but ink. When the paper goes through the press, something gets pressed on it with ink and you make sense of all those lines, create words, and a meaning.

It is all these things that make the book. So, it is the name or form that is the book. Suppose I start tearing it apart, page by page and put it into a file? Will you call that a book? What happened? I didn’t do anything. I didn’t omit anything. I didn’t destroy anything. Everything is there, I only changed the shape. So, after all that you no longer call that a book. You call it a heap of paper. Set a match to that and you get a heap of ash. So there is constant changing of names and forms and that is why you call things that are manifested as illusory. They change every minute.

You may buy a book and soon after, you no longer want it and so you try to sell it. But what has happened? It is only worth half the price that you paid for it; it depreciates. Everything depreciates. Nothing is permanent—not your body, not your beauty, your materials, or your money. So, anything that constantly changes is what you call maya. Don’t think that anything is useless, or that they should be ignored or thrown out. Use everything, but don’t think that they are permanent. Know that they are changing and that the essence with which all these things are made is unchanging. This kind of discriminative knowledge is necessary for us to be able to rise above the constant changes in our life, in our emotions. If we know this truth, we are saved. To understand this truth in our normal day-to-day experiences we have to begin from where we are. The best approach is to do something with our own lives, with our own minds that will help us become cultured people, just as a pearl is cultured.

Krishna gives a beautiful list of virtues that must be developed so that the mind will be able to realize the truth. Theoretical understanding won’t satisfy our hunger. We can all memorize an entire cookbook, but does that make the meal? Slokas 7 through 11 describe the qualities that one must have to realize the truth. Some of them are: humility, modesty, forgiveness, and steadfastness. These slokas should be read, contemplated, and applied in our daily lives.

By Sri Swami Satchidananda