Chapter 12

free 1 


12. Saguna And Nirguna Bhakti

59. Chapters 6 To 11: From One-Pointedness To Totality

  1. Brothers, the waters of the river Ganga are holy everywhere, but some places on her banks like Haridwar, Kashi (Benares) and Prayag (Allahabad) are considered particularly holy. They have blessed the whole world. The Gita too is holy from the beginning to the end, still some of its Chapters have special holiness like the places of pilgrimage. The Chapter on which I am going to talk today is one such Chapter. The Lord Himself has described it as the nectar: ये तु धम्यामृतमिदं यथोत्कं पर्युपासते ।1 This is a small Chapter with only twenty verses; but it is sweet and life-giving like a spring of nectar. The Lord has Himself eulogised here the greatness of bhakti.

  2. In fact, the principle of bhakti has been introduced in the Sixth Chapter itself. The first five Chapters deal with the science of life. They deal with karma (in the form of performance of swadharma), vikarma (the mental sadhana, the inner complementary process which helps that karma) and the final state of akarma that results from their confluence and burns to ashes all the karma. With this, the exposition of the science of life is complete. In one sense, it is the principle of bhakti that has been discussed thereafter from the Sixth Chapter to the Eleventh. The Sixth Chapter tells us how to have one-pointedness of mind and discusses the means therefor and the need for it. The Eleventh Chapter presents the complete and holistic vision. Let us now see how we have made the long journey from one-pointedness to this vision.

Beginning was made with one-pointedness of mind. Once this is achieved, one becomes capable of pursuing any subject. One-pointedness of mind can be utilized for the study of any subject with good results. But this is not the highest goal of the concentration of mind. The study of mathematics, for example, does not fully test the concentration of mind. Concentration of mind can surely help in achieving proficiency in mathematics or any other branch of knowledge, but this is not its true test. Hence it was recommended in the Seventh Chapter that we should concentrate our mind at the feet of the Lord. The Eighth Chapter exhorts us to try, till the moment of death, to be at the feet of the Lord with all the sense-organs devoted to Him and the whole being dedicated to His service. All our organs must be trained to serve this one purpose. पडिलें वळण इंद्रियां सकळां   भाव तो निराळा नाहीं दुजा  ।। (All the senses have become used to devotion; there is nothing else in the mind.) This is what should happen. All the senses should be madly in love of the Lord. Those around us may be wailing or singing hymns, they may be absorbed in weaving webs of desires and passions, or one may be in the company of saintly persons; whatever may be the condition, the senses should be trained by constant practice in such a way that the thought of the Lord would be in mind at the moment of death. This lesson of constancy has been given in the Eighth Chapter. To sum up, there is teaching of concentration of mind in the Sixth Chapter, that of prapatti or concentration directed to the Lord in the Seventh, of the yoga of ceaseless striving in the Eighth and that of dedication to the Lord in the Ninth Chapter. The Tenth Chapter tells us how to proceed step-by-step to come to grasp gradually that the Lord is pervading the entire creation right from an ant to the creator of all beings. The Eleventh Chapter presents the complete and holistic vision. I call this vision of the cosmic form as the yoga of totality. This vision essentially means realising that the whole world is contained in a grain of sand. This is the complete and total vision. The element of bhakti has thus been examined from different angles from the Sixth to the Eleventh Chapter.

60. The Saguna And The Nirguna Devotee

    1. This discussion of bhakti is going to be completed in the Twelfth Chapter. Arjuna has asked a question here, which is similar to what he had asked in the Fifth Chapter, when the exposition of the science of life was concluded. He asks: Some devotees worship you in saguna formwhile others worship you in nirguna2 form. Whom do you like more?

  • What answer could the Lord give?  It is just like asking a mother having two sons, Whom do you love more?  The younger son is a little child, deeply attached to his mother. He is happy only in her company and is restive if she is out of sight even for a moment. He cannot bear separation from her even for a moment. Without her, the world is like a big void for him. The elder son too is full of love for the mother, but he is grown up and mature. He can stay away from her. He serves her and takes all the burden and responsibility upon himself. Being absorbed in work, he can endure separation from her. He is admired by the world and his reputation pleases his mother. If you tell this mother that she can have only one of these two sons and she will have to choose between them, what could she do?  How can she make a choice?  Try to understand her plight. She will be totally nonplussed and may mumble, I can bear separation from the elder one if I cannot help it. It is more difficult for her to tear away the younger son from her bosom. His special attachment to her will weigh with her and she may reply accordingly. But it cannot be said to be the real answer to the question as to which of the two sons is dearer to her. She will reply, if she must; but it would not be proper to take her words literally.

  • The Lord has been put exactly in the same predicament. Arjuna asks the Lord, O Lord!  One of the two devotees loves You madly. His mind is riveted on You. His eyes long to see You, his ears are eager to hear Your praise, his hands yearn to serve and worship You. The other one is self-reliant, he has controlled his senses and is ever-absorbed in working for the well-being of all. Engaged in selfless service of the society day and night, he does not even seem to remember You. He has realised oneness with the entire creation.  Out of these two, whom do You love more? The Lord has replied exactly like that mother. He says, I love the former—the saguna bhakta—and the latter too is Mine. The Lord is clearly on the horns of a dilemma. He has somehow given a reply just for the sake of replying.

  • In fact, this is the truth. There is absolutely no difference between these two types of devotees. Both have equal merit. To compare the two is to transgress the limit of propriety. The question that Arjuna had asked in the Fifth Chapter about karma has been asked here about bhakti. In the Fifth Chapter, it has been told that man attains the state of akarma with the help of karma and vikarma and that the state of akarma appears in two forms. The yogi works ceaselessly, but does nothing inwardly; while the sannyasi sets the world in motion without doing anything outwardly. How to compare these two states?  How to compare the two halves of the same sphere? They are completely identical. For the two states of akarma, two different terms have been used: yoga and sannyasa; but they have the same meaning. The question of choice between them has finally been clinched on the ground of relative easiness.

  • The question of choice between saguna and nirguna is similar. The saguna devoteeserves the Lord through his organs, whereas the nirguna devoteethinks of the good of the whole world. The former appears absorbed in outward service, but his mind is absorbed in the contemplation of the Lord. The latter does not appear to be rendering any concrete service, but he is certainly rendering a great service from within. Which one of these two devotees is superior? These two types of devotees may appear outwardly different, but they are intrinsically one and the same. Both of them are dear to the Lord. But saguna bhakti is easier. The answer given here is similar to the one given in the Fifth Chapter.

61. Saguna Is Easy And Safe

    1. In the yoga of saguna bhakti organs can be directly employed. The organs could either be a help or a hindrance or both. Whether they save or destroy depends on the way we look at them. Suppose a man’s mother is on the death-bed and he wants to meet her. But there is a distance of fifteen miles between them. There is no motorable road; there is only a narrow trail that passes through a jungle. Now, in this situation, is the trail a means or a hindrance? The man may curse the trail at every step and say, But for this trail, I would be at my mother’s side this moment. For him, the trail is an enemy. He would walk on it, as he must, but he will stamp his feet all along with irritation. If he looks upon it as his enemy and sits down in despair, his supposed enemy will conquer him. But if he walks fast, he will overcome it. Another man may say, The jungle separates me from my mother. But, thank God, at least this narrow trail is there. It will take me to my mother. Otherwise, how could I have crossed this wilderness?  He would consider the trail as a means and walk swiftly along it. He would regard it as a friend and would have gratitude for it. It does not matter what you think of the road; there is no alternative to walking on it. It is your attitude and outlook which will decide whether the road is a means or a hindrance. This is true about the organs as well.

  • For the saguna devotee, the organs are the means (to realise the Lord). They are like flowers that are to be offered to the Lord. With his eyes he beholds His form; with his ears, he listens to His praise and His edifying stories; with his mouth, he chants His Name. He uses his legs for pilgrimage and hands to render service. In this way, he dedicates all his organs to the Lord. For him, they are no longer the means for enjoyment. The flowers are there to be offered to the Lord; one should not put their garland around ones own neck. Likewise, the organs should be used in the service of the Lord. This is the outlook of the saguna devotee. But to a nirguna devotee the organs appear to be a hindrance. He restrains them, starves them, keeps a watch over them. The saguna devoteefeels no need to do so. He surrenders his organs at the feet of the Lord. Both these are methods of controlling the organs. Whatever be the way, it is imperative to restrain the organs and prevent them from wallowing in the pleasures of the senses. But one way is easier while the other one is difficult.

  • Nirguna devotee is dedicated to the good of all. This is no ordinary thing; it is easier said than done. One who is absorbed in thinking about the good of the whole world can do nothing else. Hence nirguna sadhana is difficult. Saguna worship, on the other hand, can be done by anybody according to his capacity. To serve the small village we are born in or to look after our parents is a form of saguna worship. Such service should, of course, not go against the interests of the world. No matter how small your service is, it will have the character of bhakti if it does not go against the good of others. Otherwise it will be a sort of attachment. The saguna worship consists of serving parents, friends, distressed people and saints, considering them as forms of the Lord, and is content therein. It is easy. Hence, although both saguna and nirguna bhakti are essentially the same, saguna is preferable on the ground of relative easiness.

  • Apart from the point of easiness, there is one more point. Nirguna worship is fraught with some risk. Nirguna is all knowledge (Jnana). But saguna is full of love and tenderness and the warmth of feelings. A devotee is more secure therein. There was a time when I relied much on knowledge, but experience has taught me that knowledge alone is not enough. It does burn down gross impurities in the mind, but is powerless to wash away subtler impurities. Self-reliance, enquiry (into the nature of the Self), discrimination (between the Self and the not-Self), abhyasa (constant practice), vairagya (detachment and dispassion)—all these means taken together are of little avail here. Subtle impurities can be washed away only by the waters of bhakti. Only bhakti has the efficacy to do it.You may call it dependence; but it is dependence on nobody else but the Lord. The mind cannot be completely cleansed without His help.

  • Some may say, You are giving a narrow meaning to the word knowledge’ (Jnana). To hold that knowledge cannot cleanse the mind completely is to undervalue it.This objection is certainly valid. But my point is that it is hard to attain pure knowledge while living in the mortal body. The knowledge that we can have while we are encased in this body is bound to be somewhat imperfect and incomplete; its power is bound to be limited. Pure knowledge will undoubtedly burn to ashes all the impurities in the mind; and along with it, it will burn down the mind itself. But when associated with the weak flesh, its power proves to be inadequate. It cannot therefore wash away subtle impurities. One has to take recourse to bhakti for this purpose. A man is therefore more secure in bhakti. This is my personal assessment. Saguna bhakti is easier, as there is reliance on the Lord whereas in nirguna bhakti there is self-reliance. But, after all, what does self in self-reliance mean?  It means reliance on the Lord that dwells within us. You cannot find anybody purified solely through reason. Through Self-reliance, that is, through knowledge of the Self within, we shall have pure knowledge. Thus, even in nirguna bhakti, reliance is on the Self.

62. Without Nirguna, Saguna Is Defective

    1. I mentioned easiness and security as two plus points of saguna worship. I can mention a few plus points of nirguna worship also. In nirguna, one remains within limits. To take an example, we establish institutions to undertake various kinds of service. Initially an individual establishes an institution. He is its main pillar. Everything revolves round him. But as the institution grows, it should not remain dependent on a single individual; it should then be guided by principles. Otherwise decline is bound to set in soon after the departure of that individual. To take my favourite illustration, one cannot continue spinning when the belt on the wheel snaps nor can then one wind up the yarn already spun. This is what happens to the institution when it loses the key person. It then becomes orphaned. This would not happen if the institution advances from devotedness to an individual to devotedness to principles.

  • Saguna needs help from nirguna. One must eventually learn to free oneself from attachment to and preoccupation with individuals and outer forms. The Ganga emerges from the Himalayas, from the locks of Lord Shiva, but she does not linger there; leaving that support behind, she flows through the hills and the forests to the plains, and can therefore benefit the people. In the same way, an institution should be ready to adopt principles as its mainstay in the eventuality of losing the support of the key individual. While constructing an arch, support is given to it; but the support has to be withdrawn later. If the arch remains firmly in place after the support is removed, the support can be said to have done its work. Saguna is indeed the source of inspiration, but the ultimate culmination must be in nirguna, in commitment to principles. Self-knowledge must ultimately emerge from the womb of devotion. The plant of bhakti must blossom into the flower of Self-knowledge.

  • Lord Buddha had realised this. He therefore prescribed three-fold surrender. Initially, one may be loyal to an individual, but that loyalty should, in due course, grow into commitment to principles. If this is not immediately possible, it should at least develop into a commitment to sangha (the community of like-minded persons). Respect for one individual should be replaced by respect for a group of individuals. If there is no love and commitment for the sangha, there would be dissensions and conflicts within it. Loyalty to an individual should thus advance to commitment to the community of the like-minded and from that to commitment to the principles. बुध्दं शरणं गच्छामि  ।  संघं शरणं गच्छामि  ।  धर्म शरणं गच्छामि  ।’  (I take refuge in Buddha, I take refuge in sangha, I take refuge in dharma.’) This is the three-fold surrender prescribed in Buddhism. Love for an individual or for a group is shaky. There must eventually be commitment to principles. Then only the institution will be beneficial to the society. Even though the initial source of inspiration is saguna, saguna must ultimately reach fruition in nirguna.  Saguna becomes defective in the absence of nirguna.  Nirguna keeps saguna balanced and within bounds; and the latter must be thankful for it.

  • There is idol-worship, in some form or the other, in all the religions including Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. Although it is not considered the highest form of worship, it has been accepted and respected. As long as it remains within the bounds set by nirguna, it remains free from defects. As soon as it crosses these bounds, defects appear in saguna idol-worship.This has happened in all the religions: saguna therein has degenerated in the absence of restraint from nirguna. Animal sacrifice was prevalent in yajnas and other rites in ancient times, and even today animals are sacrificed to Goddess Kali. It is a travesty of idol-worship. It means that idol-worship has crossed the bounds and has gone astray. This risk is averted if saguna is restrained by firm commitment to nirguna.

63. Complementarity Between Saguna And Nirguna: Examples From The Ramayana

    1. Saguna is secure and easy, but it needs nirguna. Saguna should, in fact, grow and eventually blossom into nirguna, into devotion to principles. Nirguna and saguna are not opposed to each other; in fact, they complement each other. One must advance from saguna to nirguna; and nirguna alsoneeds the warmth of saguna to remove subtle impurities from the mind. They thus enrich and gain lustre from each other.

  • Both these types of bhakti are beautifully depicted in the Ramayana. We find them first in the Ayodhyakand (the second Chapter) and they have been described extensively throughout the rest of the Ramayana. Bharat, Ramas brother, is an example of nirguna devotee and Lakshman, another brother, is an example of saguna devotee. The nature of saguna bhakti and that of nirguna bhakti will be clear from their examples.

  • When Rama set out for the forest, he was not ready to take Lakshman with him. He felt that there is no ground for taking him along. He told him, I am going to the forest at the behest of our father. You should stay at home. If you accompany me, our parents would be more disconsolate. Serve them and the people. If you are with them, I shall be free from any worries. Be my representative here. Do not be worried about me. Going to the forest is not a matter of misfortune; I would rather have the opportunity to visit the ashrams of the sages.  Rama thus tried to dissuade Lakshman from his resolve, but Lakshman cut short all the arguments in one stroke. Tulsidas has pictured this incident vividly. Lakshman says, You are explaining to me the path of duty prescribed by the scriptures. I should certainly follow it. But I would not be able to bear the burden of princely duties. I am not competent to be your representative. I am just a child:

दीन्हि मोहि सिख नीकि गुसांई   लागि अगम अपनी कदराई

नरवर धीर धरमधुरधारी   निगम नीतिके ते अधिकारी  

मैं शिशु प्रभुसनेह प्रतिपाला ।  मंदर मेरउ कि लेहिं मराला  ।।

—Can a swan lift up the mountains?  O, Rama!  I have been nourished on your love. Please tell about princely duties to somebody else. I am only a child.  Thus he put a stop to the discussion.

    1. Just as fish cannot live outside water, Lakshman could not live without Rama. With his whole being he lived for Rama. His joy lay in serving Rama; in keeping vigil at night when Rama slept. If the eye is attacked, the arm immediately rushes to receive the blow. Lakshman was such a protective arm for Rama. Tulsidas has given a striking simile. A flag flutters proudly and is lustily cheered; but who cares for the flag-staff?  Lakshman was like the flag-staff; it was because of his solid and unstinted support that the flag of Rama’s glory has been fluttering high in the world. He never faltered; never bent. The world sees the flag and adores it, but the value of the staff is hardly reckoned. A spire attracts the attention of the people, but the foundation catches no eye. The banner of Ramas glory is still fluttering, but Lakshman remains unremembered and unsung. For fourteen years, he stood upright and strong. He stayed in the background and spread Rama’s glory. Rama entrusted many difficult, delicate and unpleasant tasks to him. It was Lakshman whom he asked to take Sita to the forest and leave her there. Poor Lakshman obeyed that command too. He had virtually become Rama’s eyes, His hands, His mind. He had merged himself into Rama, just as a river merges into the sea. He had become Ramas shadow. Lakshmans bhakti was saguna one.

  • Bharat, on the other hand, was a nirguna devotee. Tulsidas has beautifully sketched his character too. When Rama left for the forest, Bharat was out of Ayodhya. When he returned, Dashrath, his father, had already died. Bharat was asked by Vasishtha (preceptor of the royal family) to take up the reins of the kingdom. But Bharat insisted on meeting Rama at the earliest. He was impatient to see Rama, but busied himself in making necessary arrangements for the kingdom. He did not consider the throne as his own; and felt that the kingdom rightfully belonged to Rama and he must look after it as Ramas representative. Like Lakshman, he could not just abandon everything and follow Rama. For him, devotion to Rama meant doing his work; otherwise, what value could such devotion have?  He first made necessary administrative arrangements and then only proceeded to meet Rama. He met Rama and said, Dear brother, it is your kingdom, you should..., but Rama did not let him complete the sentence and told him to go back and discharge the kingly duties. Bharat hesitated, but bowed before that command. Ramas word was law for him; he had left everything to Rama.

  • He went back. But, interestingly, he did not live in Ayodhya. He preferred to stay in a nearby forest doing penance and ruled from there. When Rama and Bharat met after fourteen years, it must have been difficult to make out which of them was the true ascetic who had performed penance in the forest. If somebody draws a picture of this meeting, depicting Rama and Bharat looking alike, with just a little difference in age and having the same lustre of penance on their faces, it would indeed be a remarkable and elevating picture3. Bharat was physically away from Rama, but his mind was never away from him even for a moment. Although he attended to the affairs of the kingdom, his mind was with Rama. Nirguna bhakti is thus filled to the brim with saguna bhakti. How can one then speak of separation?  That is why Bharat did not feel any sense of separation. After all, he was doing the Lords work.

  • Young people often say, We cannot understand all this talk of Ramanama, Ramas bhakti, Ramas worship. But we are ready to do Gods work. Bharat has shown how to do Gods work. He overcame the pangs of separation by immersing himself in that work. To keep doing God’s work and so to have no time to feel the sense of separation from Him is one thing; but it is quite a different thing to have nothing to do with the Lord. To do the Lord’s work and lead a life of self-control is rare indeed. Bharats attitude was that of a nirguna bhakta, but saguna continuedto support nirguna. Bharat bowed to Ramas command to go back to Ayodhya and bid farewell to him; but he immediately turned back and said, Rama, my heart is still not reconciled to your decision. I feel that something is lacking.  Rama understood the state of his mind and gave him his sandals. The respect for saguna thus remained intact. Saguna did soften and brought warmth to nirguna in the end. Lakshman would not have been content with Ramas sandals; he yearned for much more. Bharats standpoint was different. Though he stayed away from Rama and worked from afar, his mind was full of Rama. To him, work was worship; still he did feel the need for the sandals. It would have been difficult for him to carry on without them. He ran the administration deriving his authority from those sandals. Both Lakshman and Bharat were Ramas devotees. Their standpoints were outwardly different. But although Bharat was committed to his duties and principles, that commitment too needed the reassuring warmth of a symbol.

64. Complementarity Between Saguna And Nirguna: Examples From Krishna’s Life

  1. Tenderness and warmth of devotion must be there. That is why the Lord told Arjuna, मय्यासक्तमनाः पार्थO Arujna!  Have attachment to Me4 and repeated the advice again and again. The Gita otherwise detests the word attachment and repeatedly exhorts us to work without attachment, love or hate, and expectations. Non-attachment is its constant refrain. Still it asks Arjuna to have attachment to the Lord. But, then, attachment to the Lord is a lofty ideal; it has nothing in common with attachment to worldly things.

Saguna and nirguna are closely intertwined with each other. Saguna cannot altogether dispense with nirgunas support and nirguna does need sagunas warmth. Work is certainly worship, but it needs warmth of feelings. The Lord says, मामनुस्मर युध्य च । (Remember Me and fight.) Work is worship in itself, but devotion has to be there in the heart. The mechanical action of offering flowers to the Lord’s idol is no worship; that action has to be saturated with devotion. Offering flowers to the Lord’s idol is one form of worship; doing good work is another way. In both of them there must be warmth of devotion. If this warmth is not there, offering flowers to an idol will be no different from offering them to a stone. It is the inner feelings that matter. It is devotion which makes the difference. Saguna and nirguna, work and love, jnana and bhakti—all these are completely identical. They all lead to the same ultimate experience.

    1. Look at Uddhava and Arjuna. I am taking a jump from the Ramayana to the Mahabharata; but I do have a right to do so, as there is complete identity between Rama and Krishna. Uddhava and Arjuna are like Bharat and Lakshman respectively. Uddhava always used to be with Krishna, busy in serving him. He could not bear even a moments separation from him. Without Krishna, life was dull and insipid for him. Arjuna too was Krishnas dear friend, but he used to live at Hastinapur, away from him, doing his work. Such was their relationship.

  • When it was time for Krishna to leave His body, he told Uddhava, Uddhava, I am going now. Uddhava pleaded, Why don’t you take me along?  Let us go together.  But Krishna said, No, I am not for that. When the sun sets, it endows fire with its essence—heat and light; likewise I am leaving my essence, my light with you.  He then revealed Self-knowledge to Uddhava and sent him on a journey. During the journey, Uddhava came to know from sage Maitreya that Krishna had bid farewell to this world. But the news made absolutely no impact on Uddhava’s mind. His case was not like मरका गुरउ रडका चेला, दोहींचा बोध वायां गेला । (When the master died, the pupil cried. The teaching and the learning were both wasted.) He did not feel that there was any separation. All his life he had performed saguna worship. He had always lived in the company of Krishna. Now he had begun to experience the joy of nirguna. He had to reach finally the destination of nirguna. Saguna may come first, but it must be followed by nirguna; otherwise there is no perfection, no fulfillment.

  • Arjunas case was just the opposite. Krishna had asked him to protect all the womenfolk after his departure from this world. Arjuna came to Dwarka, took them along and proceeded to Delhi. On the way, dacoits robbed them near Hissar in Punjab. Arjuna was known as a man among men, as one of the greatest warriors of his time. He was known as jaya (the victorious) as he knew no defeat. Once he had even challenged and humbled Lord Shiva. But such a fighter could not face a bunch of dacoits and had to flee for his life!  Krishnas departure from this world had affected him so deeply that he had as if lost all his vitality and strength; he had become a shadow of his former self. Thus Arjuna, the nirguna devotee, was overwhelmed with separation from Krishna in the end. His nirguna ultimately gave way. All his activity came to a standstill. His nirguna had the experience of the value of saguna in the end. Thus saguna has to go into nirguna and nirguna has to go into saguna. They complement each other.

65. Saguna And nirguna Are One: My Own Experience

  1. Hence, words fail while attempting to describe the difference between the saguna devotee and the nirguna devotee. Saguna and nirguna come together in the end. Though the spring of bhakti may flow out of saguna, it reaches nirguna in the end. Long back, I had gone to Vaikom at the time of satyagraha there. I knew that the birth-place of Shankaracharya was somewhere on the Malabar coast. While passing by the Malabar coast, it occurred to me that Kaladi, the birth-place of Shankaracharya must be somewhere nearby. On enquiry, my local companion told me that it was just 10-12 miles away and enquired whether I would like to go there. But I declined. The purpose of my visit was to observe the Vaikom satyagraha.5 I thought that it was not proper for me to go anywhere else. I still think that what I did was right. But every time I went to bed, the village of Kaladi and the image of Shankaracharya would stand before my eyes and I could not sleep. That experience is still fresh in my mind. Thoughts about Shankaracharya—the power of his wisdom, his divine certitude in the advaita philosophy,6 his rare and fiery vairagya that considered the phenomenal world as trash, his serene language, and the infinite debt that I owe to him—would crowd in my mind. Then I realised how nirguna is filled with saguna. Had I visited Kaladi, I perhaps would not have felt such surging emotions. Even in nirguna, saguna is at its zenith. I rarely write letters to friends making routine enquiries, but the thought of them is always there in my mind. Saguna thus lies hidden in nirguna. They are essentially one. Worship of an idol or visible acts of service and constant thinking about the worlds welfare without any outward indication of worship—both these have the same worth and value.

66. Saguna And Nirguna Are Only Apparently Different: To Become A True Devotee Is What Matters

    1. Lastly, I want to say that it is not easy to clearly distinguish between saguna and nirguna. What appears saguna from one angle may appear nirguna from another. In saguna worship a stone idol is looked upon as a symbol of God. But it is in the mother and in the saints that divine consciousness is clearly manifest. Wisdom, love, tenderness of affection are palpable in them. Still they are not worshipped as the idols of the Lord. Instead of serving the people full of consciousness, instead of seeing saguna God in them, God is seen in an inanimate stone!  To see God in a stone is, in a sense, the height of nirguna. It is easier to see God in the saints, the parents and the neighbours who can be seen to have wisdom, love or altruism. It is far more difficult to see God in a stone. Still we worship the stone idol. Is it not verily a form of nirguna worship?

  • On the other hand, one feels that if God is not to be imagined in a stone, where else can we see Him?  A stone is the most appropriate thing to become Gods symbol, as it is unruffled, unmoved, peaceful and undisturbed under any condition. Our parents, neighbours, the people in general, all these have their weaknesses. You are bound to find some or the other weakness or fault in them. Hence, serving them is, in a sense, more difficult than worshipping a stone.

  • To sum up, saguna and nirguna are complementary to each other. Saguna is easier than nirguna. But in another sense, nirguna is easy and saguna is difficult. Both lead us to the same end. In the Fifth Chapter, it has been said that the yogi who does not get attached to karma though he is continually engaged in action and sannyasi, who does all the karma while being apparently inactive, are one and the same. Similar is the case here. Saguna state of karma and nirguna state of sannyasa are one and the same. The Lord therefore faced the same predicament that he faced when he was asked whether yoga was better or sannyasa. Finally, He replied on the basis of comparative easiness. Otherwise, there is no difference between yoga and sannyasa or between saguna and nirguna.

  • The Lord says in the end, O, Arjuna! You may prefer saguna or nirguna, but be a bhakta (devotee); do not remain untouched by devotion.  And then the Lord describes the characteristic attributes of bhakta. The nectar may be sweet, but we have never tasted it. The verses describing the bhakta’s attributes, however, have a rare sweetness that we can experience directly. There is no need for any imagination. Like the verses describing the attributes of sthitaprajna, these verses too should be read daily, reflected upon, ruminated over. We should try to imbibe these attributes bit by bit and go on enriching our life. In this way, life should be gradually led towards the Lord.



  1. The devotees who partake of this immortalizing nectar of dharma, that is, follow the life-giving wisdom as I have taught herein, with faith, keeping Me as their goal, are exceedingly dear to Me’—Gita 12.20

  2. Please refer footnote in Chapter 5.28

  3. Interestingly, a stone image depicting this meeting was unearthed in the course of cultivation at Vinoba's ashram at Pavnar, much later.  He built a temple for it, now known as Bharat-Rama temple.

  4. Gita 7.1

  5. The famous Vaikom satyagraha took place in 1924 for opening the roads around the temple to the untouchables.  Vinoba had gone there as an observer at Gandhi's insistence.

  6. Advaita (Non-dualism) philosophy believes that there is a duality between the Self and Brahman, the Supreme Self.



We have seen from experience that, if we are in the habit of walking regularly on the same road, we are able to think about other things while walking, without paying attention to our steps.