The Gita’s Message for Self-transformation

By Swami Prabuddhananda

Swami Prabuddhananda, a senior monk of the Ramakrishna Order, is the Head of the Vedanta Society of Northern California, San Francisco.

This article was originally published in the December 2008 edition of Vedanta Kesari.

Search for the Self

The self, as we ordinarily understand it, is fluctuating every moment. In spite of its changing nature, however, it is through the self alone we perceive and experience ourselves and the world. The self is the sense of ‘I-consciousness’ or individuality that we all have, though initially our identity is unclear. It is only after a long, sustained effort that we will be able to realize the true nature of this ‘I.’ The process of arriving at this knowledge is what we call self-transformation. What gets transformed is really the concept of ourselves; the apparently divided self becomes whole. This is in essence the teaching of the Gita. Truly speaking, self-discovery is the only quest in spiritual life—nay, in life itself.

Sometimes this quest is direct; sometimes it is indirect. But ultimately the purpose of life centers around this search for self-knowledge, the true ‘I,’ whether one is leading a secular or a spiritual life. It is interesting to note how psychologist Carl Rogers insightfully refers to this self-inquiry in the book, The Self:

A frequently raised question is, ‘What problems do people bring to you?’ . . . I always feel baffled by this question. One reply is that they bring every kind of problem one can imagine. . . . I feel baffled as to how to answer this simple question. I have however come to believe that, in spite of this bewildering horizontal multiplicity, there is a simple answer. . . . Below the level of the problem situation about which the individual is complaining—behind the trouble with studies, or wife, or employer, or with his own uncontrollable or bizarre behavior, or with his frightening feelings, lies one central search. It seems to me that at the bottom each person is asking: ‘Who am I, really? How can I get in touch with this real self, underlying all my surface behavior? How can I become myself?’

Another modern psychologist, Dr. Nathaniel Branden, refers to this search in this way in Honoring the Self:

To evolve into selfhood is the primary human task. It is also the primary human challenge, because success is not guaranteed. At any step of the way, the process can be interrupted, frustrated, blocked, or sidetracked, so that the human individual is fragmented, split, alienated, stuck at one level or another of mental or emotional immaturity. To a tragic extent, most people are stranded along this path of development. Nonetheless, the central goal of the maturational process is evolution toward autonomy.

How to evolve toward this autonomy?

The Bhagavad Gita, as is well-known, deals with all aspects of life: physical, mental, moral, and spiritual. In this comprehensive scheme, the first step in our evolution is to develop a well-defined personality. An average person’s identity or personality is an unstable, bewildering jumble of the external world, body, and mind. As a result of this inner disharmony, many people end up living aimless, thoughtless lives. So in this process of self-discovery, it’s imperative that one develops a strong character, a distinct unwavering sense of self-identity and purpose. In the language of the Gita, become manly. ‘Do not yield to unmanliness, O Partha, it is not worthy of you. [Gita 2:3]’ Have faith in yourself, stand up and fight the battle of life with firmness of mind, clarity and inner strength.

This step toward becoming autonomous is what Swami Vivekananda calls manliness, or man-making. That’s why Sri Krishna exhorts Arjuna to be a man in the true sense of the word. Become a strong person with self-respect, one who is able to defend his reputation by living up to one’s ideals and thereby maintain his position in life with assurance and courage.

Following the Law of Our Being

In this cauldron of man-making, firming up who we really are, the important instruction Sri Krishna gives to Arjuna is that he should do his duty, his svadharma. Dharma, in general, is a function of the universal moral order, rita; it is that which protects and holds us together, nourishing our inner being. Sva means that which is one’s own. It connotes a feeling of identity, or ‘myness.’ Svadharma is the law of one’s being, which is determined by an individual’s inner tendencies, inclinations, or mental impressions. These tendencies greatly influence our present actions. Therefore we should live according to our psychological makeup—our bent of mind, our aptitudes. In short, be yourself; don’t imitate others. Stand on your own feet. ‘Better is one’s own duty, though imperfect, than the duty of another, well performed.’ [Gita 18:47]

In the words of Emerson, ‘Imitation is suicide.’ On the basis of your svadharma, do your duty; what has fallen to your lot. Don’t be attracted or misled by the duties of others. As someone said, ‘For better or for worse, you must play your own little instrument in the orchestra of life.’ Ascertainment of what our svadharma is, what we should do, requires the use of our intrinsic determining and discerning faculty, or buddhi, which lifts us from a mere mechanical existence. (In Vedanta philosophy, the concept of mind is comprehensive having four divisions defined by function: weighing pros and cons, determination, the sense of ‘I-ness,’ and memory. Sometimes the terms mind and buddhi are used interchangeably.)

Our lives should be governed and determined by a well-trained buddhi. We have the innate capacity to distinguish between right and wrong, true and false, good and bad, etc., and on this basis we are relatively free to make intelligent choices. ‘Far inferior is work (prompted by desire) to work done through buddhi yoga, O Dhananjaya. Take refuge in the buddhi,’ buddhau saranamanviccha. [Gita 2:49] Again Sri Krishna says, On those who are ever devoted to Me and worship Me with love, I bestow the yoga of understanding [buddhi yoga], by which they come to Me. [Gita 10:10] Solely out of compassion for them, I, dwelling in their hearts, dispel with the shining lamp of wisdom the darkness born of ignorance. [Gita 10:11]

It is through the purification, development and assiduous exercise of the buddhi that self-transformation moves forward. The Gita describes this process of self-purification or transformation in terms of different conditions of the mind: tamas, rajas, and sattva. These three gunas are the constituents of nature, or prakriti, in general and of the mind in particular. Our understanding and judgment are colored by the gunas which are characterized by certain qualities: Tamas is marked by darkness, laziness, dullness; rajas by attachment, pain, passion, restlessness; and sattva by clarity, luminosity, and healthy-mindedness, prakasakam anamayam.

When sattva becomes predominant, a person feels mentally expansive and psychologically healthy in spite of the ups and downs in life. As the sattva quality increases within oneself, the mind by degrees becomes integrated and well-balanced. The Gita beautifully describes this mental condition as one that leads to the comprehension of unity in diversity, to nonattached action, and to freedom from selfishness and passion. The unillumined, unrefined mind, which is dominated by tamas and rajas, however, is our greatest enemy. But the same mind can be educated to be our most reliable friend as well. It is through this friend alone, and through no other, that we can progress in either secular or spiritual life. We have to befriend our mind; be a friend to ourselves, not be inimical to or fight with our self.

Sri Krishna instructed Arjuna, ‘One should raise oneself through the self . . . for the self alone is one’s friend and the self alone is one’s enemy.’ [Gita 6:5] Self-transformation means attenuating tamas and rajas and increasing the proportion of sattva. When sattva prevails, the mind becomes more transparent and one experiences an enhanced sense of well-being, vitality, and strength. Swami Vivekananda spoke frequently about the necessity of strength. ‘The sign of vigor, the sign of life, the sign of hope, the sign of health, the sign of everything that is good is strength.’[Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 6:2]

There is a striking parallel between the Bhagavad Gita’s description of a sattvic mind and positive mental health according to psychologist Marie Jahoda. In her article, Criteria for Positive Mental Health, she lists six indicators of a mentally healthy attitude toward self.

1. Self-acceptance: Self-acceptance is a realistic perception of oneself, including awareness of one’s pluses and minuses. This assessment of oneself fosters independent thinking and self-confidence.

2. Self-actualization


Self-actualization is the actual process of an individual’s growth or becoming based on certain concepts of what one wishes to be and the subsequent striving to unfold one’s inner potential. Eric Fromm elaborates this idea further, ‘Virtue is the unfolding of the specific potentialities of every organism; for man it is the state in which he is most human.’

3. Integration of personality


‘Integration refers to the relatedness of all processes and attributes in an individual.’ But it also implies that the individual is aware of a unifying principle underlying his personality, which broadens his outlook on life.

4. Autonomy: Autonomy or self-determination connotes an individual’s ability to deal independently with a variety of environmental factors.

5. Perception of Reality


Perception is considered healthy when it corresponds to what is actually there.

6. Environmental Mastery


Environmental mastery indicates that an individual can readily adapt and adjust to circumstances appropriate to the need or occasion. Thus sattva is healthy-mindedness which is needed not only in ordinary life, but is a sine qua non for the unfoldment of self. A healthy mind is a friendly mind.

Dimensions of Self

A healthy mind is a great gain, no doubt. Becoming a well-developed psychological self, however, is but a phase in our evolution. Being a separate unique individual, though necessary for our growth, is not an end in itself. After all, an individual is a part of nature, which comprises the spectrum of the pairs of opposites. It is an egocentric state of existence and is extremely fragile. At any time our world can fall apart.

As one matures, one’s awareness of oneself and the outside world expands. Then we will recognize that we are not isolated, separate beings, but in truth are related to one another. In addition to this, gradually we become aware, though indistinctly at first, of a higher power that is guiding and coordinating our lives. We may call it our higher Self or God. Whatever it is, we become conscious of two entities, as it were, within ourselves—the lower self and the higher Self, the apparent and the real man. As our insight deepens, we will feel progressively an inseparable connection between these two.

Thereafter, self-transformation is gauged by the strengthening of this relationship between the two aspects of self; ultimately it is the realization of the one Self. This union occurs in two ways: by expansion of consciousness; that is, including others in our lives more and more by leading an unselfish life and by establishing a connection with the higher Self or God within us. As we practice these two exercises, expanding the self and connecting the individual with the higher Self, the limitations of the empirical self—attachment, ignorance, and their effects such as lust and greed— gradually wear out. Veil after veil drops off and the true ‘I’ emerges. This process is quickened through spiritual disciplines. In the terminology of the Gita, it is through yoga.

Self-transformation through Yoga

Yoga as delineated in the Gita is the means of uniting our individualized self with our higher Self by utilizing all of our faculties. Yoga has many aspects based on different functions of the mind—thinking, feeling, and willing. Whatever we do is transformed into spiritual practice by following the technique of yoga. According to Sri Krishna, culture of the mind is the bottom line of yoga discipline. In fact, even-mindedness is yoga. He eloquently describes mental balance, or equanimity of mind, starting with the instructions regarding our ordinary daily activities, right up to final realization of becoming a sthitaprajna, a person of steady wisdom; one who is unaffected and remains even-minded through all the vicissitudes of life: success or failure, health or illness, profit or loss, happiness or misery, good or bad, and so on.

‘Established in yoga, O Dhananjaya (Arjuna), perform actions, giving up attachment and remaining even-minded both in success and in failure. This equanimity is called yoga.’ [Gita 2:48] ‘Regarding alike pleasure and pain, gain and loss, success and defeat, prepare yourself for battle.’ [Gita 2:38] ‘Even here is the relative existence conquered by them whose mind rests in equality.’ [Gita 5:19]

As with equanimity of mind, similarly he extols and recommends the practice of same-sightedness, samadarshana. Seeing the unity in diversity, by trying to perceive the infinite or God in the heart of all beings and as the centre of the universe, is the essence of samadarshana. ‘The man whose mind is absorbed through yoga and who sees the same (Brahman) everywhere, sees the Self in all beings and all beings in the Self.’ [Gita 6:29] ‘He who sees Me everywhere and sees all things in Me, does not lose sight of Me, nor do I of him.’ [Gita 6:30] ‘He who worships Me residing in all beings in a spirit of unity, becomes a yogi and, whatever his mode of life, lives in Me.’ [Gita 6:31] ‘He who by comparison with himself looks upon the pleasure and pain in all creatures as similar—the yogi, O Arjuna is considered the best.’ [Gita 6:32]

Another practice of uniting the self is through focusing the mind on the higher Self in meditation. Development of virtues such as self-restraint, truthfulness and non-injury is essential for the practice of meditation and is the bedrock foundation of self-transformation. A true moral sense is an inner awakening in a person that incites him to do what is right and checks him from going astray. Sensitivity to this inner voice of conscience requires lifelong discipline. Further as an aid to meditation, Sri Krishna recommends avoiding extremes in daily life:

Yoga is not for him who eats too much nor for him who eats too little. It is not for him, O Arjuna, who sleeps too much nor for him who sleeps too little.’ [Gita 6:16] ‘For him who is temperate in his food and recreation, temperate in his exertion at work, temperate in sleep and waking, yoga puts an end to all sorrows. [Gita 6:17]

However, in spite of these practices, the main obstacle to successful meditation is the tremendous restlessness of the mind. The antidote for this turbulence is constant practice and dispassion. ‘The mind is restless and hard to control; yet by practice and dispassion, O son of Kunti, it is controlled.’ [Gita 6:35] Without these, abhyasa, practice and, vairagya, dispassion, real meditation is impossible. ‘When the mind, well-controlled, rests in the Self alone, and free from craving for all enjoyments, then is one said to have attained yoga.’ [Gita 6:18] ‘Restraining all the senses, the self-controlled one should sit meditating on Me. Verily, his wisdom is steady whose senses are under control.’ [Gita 2:61] ‘Endowed with a pure understanding, restraining the mind with tenacity, turning away from sound and other objects, and abandoning love and hatred.’ [Gita 18:51] ‘Dwelling in solitude . . . in speech, body and mind, ever engaged in the yoga of contemplation, and cultivating dispassion.’ [Gita 18:52]

The practice of discrimination or vichara is another significant aspect of yoga. Knowledge of the immortal nature of the Self is revealed through discrimination between the real and the unreal. Through vichara one separates fact from fancy; that is, that which is eternal from that which is perishable. The Gita views this issue of the eternal and the non-eternal from a variety of angles. For example, analysis of the nature of the body and the soul reveals that the body is mortal and therefore subject to illness, decay, and death, whereas the soul is undivided, indestructible. ‘For one who is born, death is certain.’ [Gita 2:27] ‘The unreal never is. The real never ceases to be. The conclusion about these two is truly perceived by the seers of Truth.’ [Gita 2:16] ‘That by which all this is pervaded know to be imperishable. None can cause the destruction of that which is immutable. [Gita 2:17] ‘There is indeed nothing so purifying here as knowledge. One perfected in yoga attains that automatically in himself in time.’ [Gita 4:38] ‘Even as a blazing fire burns the fuel to ashes, O Arjuna, even so the fire of knowledge burns to ashes the effects of all actions.’ [Gita 4:37]

Throughout the teachings in the Gita, we find the emphasis on living an active life by following our svadharma, which includes our interactions with other people. ‘Yoga is skill in action.’ [Gita 2:50] What is this skill? Keeping oneself disentangled while working or dealing with people; that is, avoiding being caught in the intricate maze of activities and relationships. How? By giving up attachment to the results of action, not being satisfied with the immediate, ephemeral fruits, but striving for the highest fruit; that is, Self-realization.

Self-realization is really our svadharma, which is living in the Indwelling Self or God, whose dharma or essential nature is purity, freedom, wisdom, love and bliss. Through such action attachment is gradually erased and one’s innate freedom manifests. Men of selfless action, giving up attachment, perform action through the body, mind, intellect, and senses, for the purification of the mind. [Gita 5:11] To work alone you have the right, but never to its fruits. Never let your motive be the fruit of action, nor be attached to inaction. [Gita 2:47] Giving up attachment to the fruit of action, ever content, and dependent on none, though engaged in work, he does no work at all. [Gita 4:20]

But even selfless service and other spiritual practices should be performed giving up attachment and fruit—this is My conclusive and final view. [Gita 18:6] This attitude of non-attachment has to be applied not only to work, but while interacting with others as well. Seeing the Divine in all as the basis of love and service is the means of detaching ourselves from others. Non-envious, friendly, and compassionate toward all beings, free from ideas of possession and ego-consciousness, sympathetic in pain and pleasure, forgiving, always contented . . . with his mind and intellect dedicated to Me. [Gita 12:13—14:12—13-14] Alike to foe and friend, unaltered in honor and dishonor [Gita 12:19]. They who worship the imperishable . . . all-pervading . . . immovable, and eternal, having controlled their senses, even-minded under all conditions and devoted to the welfare of all beings, attain Me alone [Gita: 12:3-4].

The Gita concludes, as it were, with yet another salient practice for self-transformation: Offering all activities to the Supreme, which culminates in complete self-dedication, wherein we give ourselves to God. Thus transformed we will become God-centered. The small self loses its smallness and the true Self emerges in all its glory. Whatever you do, or eat, or sacrifice, or give, whatever austerity you perform, that, O son of Kunti, offer unto Me. [Gita 9:27] By worshiping Him through the performance of duty does a man attain perfection. [Gita 18:46] This divine illusion of Mine, consisting of the gunas, is indeed hard to overcome. But those who take refuge in Me alone, shall cross over this maya. [Gita 7:14] Surrendering, in thought, all actions to Me, regarding Me as the supreme goal, and practicing steadiness of mind, fix your heart constantly on Me. [Gita 18:57] He who performs actions dedicating them to the Lord and giving up attachment, is untainted by sin, as a lotus leaf by water. [Gita 5:10] Giving up all duties, take refuge in Me alone. I will liberate you from all sins, do not grieve. [Gita 9:30]

Although a person may be under the spell of bad karma, he will be purified and made holy through worship of the Lord. Even if the most wicked person worships Me with unswerving devotion, he must be regarded as righteous; for he has formed the right resolution. [Gita 9:30] He soon becomes righteous and attains eternal peace. Proclaim it boldly, O son of Kunti, that My devotee never perishes. [Gita 9:31] Fix your mind on Me alone, rest your thought on Me alone, and in Me alone you will live thereafter. Of this there is no doubt. [Gita 12:8]

The Self Transformed

In the inward journey of self-discovery, we evolve from an indefinite individual to a psychologically well-integrated healthy person, and then ultimately to our true Self which is one without a second. In this process the all-round growth of our personality is harmonious not piecemeal. It is not necessarily a step-by-step progression, but all our faculties work together in unison. Sometimes at a certain stage in our development, emphasis may be given to a particular practice or attitude because of individual need at the time. But on the whole, all of these disciplines are undertaken coordinately for our inner transformation.

The Gita’s message for self-transformation is this integrated self-unfoldment. Thus we see self-transformation comes through self-purification. Self-purification leads to self-dedication. The acme of self-dedication is Self-realization.

Vivekananda’s Vision of Vedanta
December 1, 2008
Swami Brahmananda: A Spiritual Dynamo
February 2, 2009
Show all

The Gita’s Message for Self-transformation