Bhagavad Gita with Commentaries of Shankara | Discourse 15 verse 1-6



The Tree of Saṁsāra.

Because all living beings are dependent on Me for the fruits of (their) actions, and the wise for the fruit of their knowledge, therefore those who serve Me with Bhakti-Yoga (Devotion of Love) cross beyond the guṇas by My Grace,

through the attainment of knowledge, and attain liberation (moksha); much more so those who rightly understand the real nature of the Self.

Therefore the Lord proceeds in the present discourse to teach the real nature of the Self, though unasked by Arjuna:

First he describes the nature of saṁsāra or mundane existence by a figurative representation as a tree in order to produce vairāgya or absence of all attachment.

For, he alone who is free from all attachment, and no other person, is fit for attaining the knowledge of the real nature of the Lord.

The Blessed Lord said:
1. They speak of the indestructible Aśvattha having its root above and branches below, whose leaves are the metres. He who knows it knows the Vedas.

Shankara's commentary:

As Brahman with Māyā or the unmanifested potentia­lity is subtle in point of time,  as He is the Cause, as He is eternal, as He is great, He is spoken of as the One above. The One above is the root of this Tree of Saṁsāra, which is therefore said to have its root above.

The Śruti says:

With root above and branches below, this Aśvattha is eternal.” (Kaṭha-Up. 3-2-1).

In the Purāṇa also it is said:

“The root from which the Eternal Tree of Brahman has sprung is the Avyakta, the Unmanifested. It has developed by the strength of the same (Avyakta).

Its trunk is Buddhi, the sense-apertures Its hollows, the great elements Its boughs, the sense-objects Its leaves and branches, dharma and a-dharma Its fair blossoms, pleasure and pain Its fruits affording livelihood to all creatures.

And this is the resort of Brahman (the Highest Self), and that Highest Self is (the essence) of that Tree of Brahman.

Having cut asunder and split the Tree with the mighty sword of knowledge and then attained to the Bliss of the Self, none comes back from there again.”

They speak of the illusory saṁsāra as a tree rooted above.

The Mahat, the Ahaṁkāra (Egoism), the Tanmātras (the Elemental Essences), etc., are its branches as it were, and these extend downwards; whence the Tree is said to have its branches below.

They call this tree ‘Aśvattha’ because it will not abide the same even till tomorrow, because it undergoes destruction every moment.

The illusion (Māyā) of saṁsāra having existed in time without beginning, they say that this Tree of saṁsāra is eternal; for, it rests, as is well known, on a continuous series of births which is without beginning or end and is thus eternal.

The Tree of Saṁsāra is further qualified thus:

The metres (chhandases) are its leaves as it were; they are so called because, like leaves, the metres (Vedas) such as Rik, Yajus and Sāman protect (‘chhad’ to cover) the Tree of Saṁsāra.

Just as the leaves of a tree serve to protect the tree, so do the Vedas serve to protect the Tree of Saṁsāra, as treating of dharma ( merit ) and a-dharma (demerit), with their causes and fruits.

He who knows the Tree of Saṁsāra and its Root as described above is a knower of the Teaching-of the Vedas.

Indeed nothing else, not even an iota, remains to be known beyond this Tree of Saṁsāra and its Root. He who knows It is therefore omniscient.

—This is to extol the knowledge of the Tree of Saṁsāra and its Root.

Now follows another figurative representation of the members of this Tree of Saṁsāra.

2. Below and above are its branches spread, nourished by the Guṇas, sense-objects its buds; and below in the world of man stretch forth the roots ending in action.

Shankara's commentary:

From man down to unmoving objects below, and from him up to the abode of Brahma, the Creator of the Universe, whatever regions are attained as the suitable reward of knowledge and action,—each varying according to the character of knowledge or of action,—they are the spread­ing branches as it were of that Tree;

they are nourished and fattened by the Guṇas of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, which form their material basis (upādāna).

The sense- objects such as sound are the buds, as it were, sprouting from the branches of the physical and other bodies which are the result of actions.

— The Highest Root of the Tree of Saṁsāra has been mentioned already, and now will be mentioned the secondary roots as it were (of the uni­verse), as leading to acts of dharma or a-dharma:

i.e., the latent impressions (vāsanās) of the feelings of attachment and aversion, etc., which were caused by the fruits of ac­tions.

These roots are spread in this world of man below—below the regions of Devas and the like—and give rise to acts of dharma and a-dharma, these acts springing up on the up-springing of those vāsanās.

Those roots are spread especially in the world of man. It is while here, as is well- known to all, that men concern themselves with action.

Cut the Tree and seek the Goal.

And as to the Tree of Saṁsāra just described,

3. Its form is not perceived as such here, neither its end nor its origin nor its existence. Having cut asunder this firm-rooted Aśvattha with the strong sword of dispassion,

4. Then That Goal should be sought for, whither having gone none return again. “I seek refuge in that Primeval Purusha whence streamed forth the Ancient Current.”

Shankara's commentary:

As such: as described above. Its form as such is perceiv­ed by nobody here; for it is very much like a dream, a mirage, a gandharva-nāgara (an imaginary city in the sky) produced by a juggler’s art; indeed, it appears and dis­appears.

It has therefore no finality, no end. Neither has it a beginning: nobody knows ‘It has proceeded from this point.’ Its existence—i.e., its nature between the origin and the end—is perceived by nobody.

Dispassion: freedom from attachment to children, to wealth, and to the world.

Strong: strengthened by a resolute bent of mind towards the Supreme Self and sharpened again and again on the whetstone of the practice of true discrimination.

Cut asunder: uprooted the Tree of saṁsāra with its seed.

Then the aspirant should seek for and know the abode of Vishṇu beyond that Tree. Those who have reached this Goal never return to saṁsāra.

—How is that Goal to be sought after?

—It is sought after thus: I seek refuge in Him, the Primeval Purusha,” who is spoken of as the Goal; i. e., He is to be sought for by way of seeking refuge in Him.

—Who is this Purusha?

—It is that Purusha from whom the emanation of the Tree of illusory Saṁsāra streamed forth, just as illusory sights (māyā) issue from out of a juggler.

The Path to the Goal.

What sort of persons reaches that Goal?


5. Free from pride and delusion, with the evil of attachment conquered, ever dwelling in the Self, their desires having completely turned away, liberated from the pairs of opposites known as pleasure and pain, the undeluded reach that Goal Eternal.

Shankara's commentary:

Dwelling, etc.: constantly engaged in the contemplation of the nature of the Supreme Self. Their desires, etc.: they become sannyāsins, all desires having fled without leaving any taint behind. That: described above.

The Goal is the Lord’s Glorious Being.

That Goal is again specified thus:

6. That, the sun illumines not, nor the moon, nor fire; That is My Supreme Abode, to which having gone none return.

Shankara's commentary:

The sun, though possessed of the power of illumining all, does not illumine that Abode, the Abode of Light. That Abode to which having gone none return, and which the sun and other (luminous bodies) do not illumine, is the Highest Abode of Vishṇu.