Buddhi, an important term of frequent occurrence in the Gita, does not occur in the earliest of the Upanisads. It is derived from a root which in the Vedas means ‘awakening, kindling, enlightenment’, and which is invariably associated with Agni, the unaging (ajara) mystic fire. Buddhi, though not precisely defined in the Gita, is still use there in this original sense of spiritual ‘awakening’ or ‘illumination’. It will be interesting to trace the significance of this concept from the earliest time, always keeping in mind that in India there has been an unbroken spiritual tradition from the hoary antiquity up to the present day and that though the outer garb of a concept has changed with the times, yielding to the demands of the analytic understanding, its inner meaning as a concretely realizable mystic experience has always continued as a sutra or a shining strand of inner truth.
The mystic Fire, as the Vedas say, is ‘the universal life, the immortal principle in mortals’, ‘lying in us in so many wonderful ways to impel us to the journey’, ‘awaiting to be kindled from light to light by the wakeful men’. The root budh and its derivatives are used in the Vedas to speak of this ‘kindling’ or ‘awakening’, and Agni is distinctively called usarbudha, usarbhut, jarabodha, the ever moving traveller that awakes with the dawn of spiritual consciousness, and kindling our waning energies suffuses the symphony of our aspirations pining for the Vision. In the Sankhyayana Brahmana Agni is called Buddhimat, where the word buddhi is perhaps used for the first time, of course bearing the usual meaning of ‘kindling’.
Psychologically speaking, the synonyms of buddhi in the Vedas are dhi with its derivative dhiti and its cognate didhiti. In the Nighantu, dhi is both spiritual knowledge (prajna) and spiritual activity (karma); dhiti is activity and the flames of the mystic Fire figuratively called ‘fingers’; and didhiti is both these flames and the rays of illumination. Taken all together, they seem to depict a flaming aspiration and the internal illumination consequent upon it.
A very significant mantra of the Rgveda, occurring in a hymn of Savita, the luminous Impeller of the aspirant, says: “They yoke the mind and they yoke the dhi – they, the tremulous (aspiring) to the Tremulous one, the Ever-expanding, the Illuminator of the tremors of the Heart.” The express mention of yoga here with its two instrumentations, manas and dhi, following each other leaves no doubt about what the functions of this dhi is.
This concept has been familiarized by the significant term of nididhyasana (striving for internal illumination) used particularly in the BrhadaranyakaUpanisad, the radical meaning of which can be traced from a mantra in the Yajurveda. As dhyana (a term used specifically in the ChandogyaUpanisad), it is one of the constituents of Patanjali’ssamyama and belongs to the fourth level of consciousness known as ekagrabhumi. In the Buddhist psychology the ninefolddhyanacittas also take their start from this bhumi beyond the pale of kamavacara plane. This equation of buddhi with dhi or dhyana illustrates one of the most fruitful of its spiritual functions.
Another term in the Vedas synonymous with buddhi is manisa. The Nighantu explains its derivative manisi as medhavi, meaning ‘a plunger, a penetrator’. Yaska explains manisa as prajna or stuti, the esoteric significance of the latter being ‘an ecstatic attunement with the super-conscious’.Manisa thus connotes both the intellective and the emotive aspects of spiritual experience. Etymologically it is bi-radical like many of the Vedic words, meaning ‘a mental upsurge’. It is well-known in the phrase hrdamanisa manasa (which can be traced to the Rgveda itself), where as a means of abhiklrpti or comprehensive realization, its place between hrd and manas is extremely significant. It is an instrumentation subtler than the mind, but bordering on the heart (cognate with srad), that shining core within the individual which contains ‘the luminous Void vaster than Heaven and Earth’. From the Sankhya account of buddhi in all its implications, its identity with the Vedic manisa becomes palpably apparent.
The nearest verbal similarity with buddhi is found in the Vedic term budhna connoting both ‘fundus’ and ‘illumination’ or ‘the illumination of the depth’, reminding us of a paraphrase of the concept in the familiar term buddhi-guha. Another Vedic term is prabudh meaning ‘awakening’; yet another form in the Brahmans and the Upanisads is pratibodha and its cognates.
The term clearly stands out in the Katha Upanisad, where it first occurs in the famous metaphor of the chariot as its driver, while the atman is the traveller. The chariot metaphor is well-known in the Vedas too; and there, though the word sarathi is not unknown, yet in every case the rathi and the Sarathi in the Katha Upanisad makes a step towards the discrimination between buddhi and atman so familiar in the classical Sankhya. Obviously buddhi is here the psychical principle in the individual, the controller of the mind and the senses; and in the hierarchy of spiritual experience, it just precedes the cosmic illumination denoted by mahan atma. The emphasis is still on its character of spiritual instrumentation; it is the individual knowledge-self (jnana atma) in which the mind principle is to be merged, and at the same time it is the only means which by its ever-attenuated propulsion enables the aspirant to penetrate into the depth of the hidden Reality. Its psychological character is only once hinted at in describing the paramagati, where the ‘the senses with the mind are at a standstill and the buddhi flutters not.”
The spiritual character of buddhi becomes further apparent in its identification with vijnana,a term occurring in the Arthavaveda, the Sankhyayana Brahmana, the Taittiriya Brahmana and the oldest Upanisads and enunciated most clearly in the TaittiriyaUpanisad. As a stage of serial abhiklrpti lying between manas and anandam, it answers to the intermediary instrumentation enumerated in the triad of manas, manisa and hrd. In the Buddhistic system, vijnana as the principle of consciousness forms the finest of the basic aggregates of the subjective organism, and through the evolution of the dhynana-conciousness passes into vijnanantya (infinite consciousness), the second of the formless planes. In one form of Mahayana mysticism, this vijnana, as pure consciousness, is the ultimate plane of Reality, where the polarity of consciousness being once dissolved into the Void is again established in the dharmadhatu (totality of existence). In man’s spiritual journey to the ultimate Reality, vijnana (= buddhi) can aptly be described as the charioteer or the guide par excellence leading him ‘to the end of the Path wherein is That, the highest step of Visnu’. Another equation in the Katha Upanisad, that of buddhi and sattva (essence), is extremely suggestive. The term Sattva occurs only in the Tandya Brahmana as an arthavada of the Vamadevya Sama, where from a penetrative reading of the context, it seems to mean a ‘consummation of mystic experience.’ In the ChandogyaUpanisad it occurs in the term sattvasuddhi (the purification of the essence) which brings upon the aspirant dhruva smrti – a stage where the spiritual upaya of Memory by the intensification of consciousness crushes the time factor and in an integral sweep realizes the eternity. In the MahaUpanisadsattvapatti is described as the fourth jnanabhumika coming after tanumanasa (attenuation of the mind) and is known as the first level of Brahma-realization followed by three higher ones. The conception of sattva as the luminous principle of prakrti is well-known and needs no elaboration.
In the Epic philosophy, which stands midway between the SankhyaYoga of the Upanisads and the classical Sankhya, buddhi is both a cosmological and a psychological principle. Describing the cosmos as brahmavrksa or brahmavana (a concept as old as the Rgveda), sprouting from the seed of avyakta, the epic makes the buddhi its trunk or the first evolute. From a psychical standpoint, buddhi is again the charioteer as in the Katha Upanisad, with this much difference that the traveller is declared to be the bhutatma, corresponding roughly to the lingasarira. This change in the position of the rathi and the sarathi we find in the Gita too, where it is the Lord who is the charioteer of Arjuna. This elevation of the status of buddhi is dictated by a practical necessity in preference to a theoretical enunciation of principles. The Epic again makes the psychological position of buddhi very clear by defining it as vyavasayatmika or consisting of the discriminative and definitive function of reason and distinguishing it from the analytic and discursive function of the mind (mano vyakaranatmakam).
In mystic Buddhism the esoteric aspect of buddhi is represented by bodhi or sambodhi, for the attainment of which a course of strenuous psychical training has been prescribed. By attaining to this bodhi, Siddhartha became the Buddha, the enlightened one, the man of supreme intuition, though in his psychological make-up he was an analyst and a rationalist.From his age, and in spite of himself, the integral experience of mysticism and the analytical reason of philosophy began to drift apart driving a wedge between the hitherto harmonious dual function of buddhi as a mystical intuition and enlightened rationality.
In the philosophical systems, the buddhi as a psychological principle par excellence has been interpreted in different ways. To the Mimamsakas, to whom the self (atman) is a dynamic principle incorporating the dual character of change and continuity,buddhi is identical with the Self. To the Naiyayikas it is a conscious principle distinct from mental instrumentation and covering the whole field of cognitive experience. The Vaisesikas who subscribe to the same view hold it to be an incorporeal but specific property of the self, capable of being introspectively cognized. To the Sankhyas it is a cardinal principle in the scheme of evolution – the first evolute from the evolventPrakrti and having both a cosmic and a psychological aspect. Cosmically it is a great shining principle (mahat), reflecting the luminosity of the transcendental consciousness and necessarily embodying the dual principle of prana and prajna, while psychologically, as described in the karikas, it combines in itself the faculties of intellection and determination, forming a composite of ‘intelligent will’. It then manifests itself in two divergent sets of characteristics, the first set comprising of the urge of the summum bonum(dharma), the faculty of subtle discrimination (jnana), the control and reorientation of the emotive explosions by dispassionateness (vairagya) and the acquisition and influx of supernormal powers (aisvarya). This upward function of buddhi is counterbalanced by another set of characteristics just the reverse of the above, following the downward evolutionary trend of lessening consciousness. In its higher functioning, the approximation of buddhi to atman is so nearly complete as to require the most subtle power of discrimination to enable the aspirant to avoid a plunge into one of the abysses of the layas and cross over to the shores of the Transcendent. The neo-Vedantists, however, have taken buddhi simply as a psychic instrumentation superior to mind and discriminative in character.
Assuming that all philosophies in their upward flight tend to the same goal and differ only in their outlooks on derivative truths, we need glean from the various philosophical accounts only so many practical hints that will help us in our quest of the Truth. From this standpoint, a philosophical concept as clothed in language becomes elastic in connotation, and admits of many subtle nuances always suggestive of the symphonious variations of the ultimate Truth.
The following points emerge from the above considerations: (1) it has been universally admitted that buddhi, whether as a spiritual stage or an instrumentation, is something above the mental plane; (2) it has both a psychological and a cosmic aspect, the relation between the two in spiritual realization being that between a means and an end; (3) its intrinsic character is in the nature of an illumination granted by divine grace, so aptly expressed by Shri Ramakrishna; when remonstrating against an intellectual speculation about spiritual experiences, he cried: “No, not that way! He makes you see in a blaze-up, you know!”
The above brief survey is intended as a preliminary to the understanding of the comprehensive way in which the term buddhi has been used in the Gita. Like many of its esoteric terms, buddhi has not been pinned down to any precise definition, but has been left as a plastic word suggestive of many colourful meanings as is too common in mystic lore.