“Like a Tortoise Retracting Its Limbs”: The Bhagavad Gita as Literature, and Its Doctrine of the Two Selves

One of the most enduring pieces of world literature is the Bhaghavad Gita.

And one of the keys to reading the Gita is to understand its doctrine of the two selves. 

In the Gita the two selves are:

  • the “big self”—that is, the Atman, which is the seeing self shared by all conscious beings, and
  • the “little self”—that is, the individual ego with which one usually identifies

Error, in the Gita, consists in identifying with the “little self”; that is, the self of desires and aversions, pleasures and pains, against the “big self” (the Atman), which is pure consciousness, untouched by these passing states and forms.

Here’s a representative passage on the Atman in the Gita (Barbara Stoler Miller’s translation, pt. 2 stanzas 23 and 24):

Weapons do not cut it,

fire does not burn it,

waters do not wet it,

wind does not wither it.


It cannot be cut or burned;

it cannot be wet or withered;

it is enduring, all pervasive,

fixed, immovable, and timeless.

The Atman, according to the Gita (as well as other books of Hindu literature) is the “true self,” the one who is the “Eternal Seer” behind what is to be seen. Hindu literature has two terms for this distinction:

  • Purusha (the seer), and
  • Prakriti (the seen, or everything else in the world)

Suffering thus arises when one identifies the seeing self with what is seen or experienced.

Hence the meditative and yogic tradition is a training—a discipline—in keeping separate the seeing consciousness from what is seen.

So in the Gita Krishna advises Arjuna to relinquish attachment (from pt. 2 stanza 48):

[B]e impartial to failure and success—

this equanimity is called discipline. 

Equanimity through non-attachment of the seer and the seen can be illustrated in any number of ways.

For example, you might notice how easily your own casual language of self-description readily blends the conscious self with the states of the body or emotions and calls it “I”:

I’m getting fat.

I’m depressed.

I’m ugly.

But the meditative or yoga practitioner would ask you, on saying these things, to notice that you can make a distinction between the perceiving self and the shifting states of one’s body or mind by saying:

Noticing fatness.

Noticing depression.

Noticing ugliness.

In fact, any time one notices something, one is, as it were, standing alongside it, metacognizing it. In other words, one is separate from it—and so not directly experiencing it.

The moment, for example, you notice that you’re crying, you cease, in that moment, to be “in” the crying, but rather, at a distance from the crying.

Hindu literature calls the self that notices “crying” the Purusha or the Atman, and the crying itself is Prakriti, that which is noticed. And so when you associate with your crying then you have fallen, as it were, into the state of the ego, which identifies itself with Prakriti states.

Meditations on non-attachment thus bring you to continually ask the question, “Who are you, really? Who is crying? Who is feeling joy or pain? Who is excited about the election, and who is depressed? Are all these ever shifting states really you?”

Setting distance between what one notices as thoughts, bodily states, and emotions, and identifying instead with the dispassionate noticer of those states, is to be on the path to what the Gita would identify as “insight.”

By contrast, attachment to the ego, with its desires and aversions, and identification with one’s ever varying thoughts, bodily states, and emotions, is the formula for suffering.

So the Gita has Krishna say to Arjuna (pt. 2 stanzas 55-58):

When he [the yogi] gives up desires in his mind,

is content with the self within himself,

then he is said to be a man

whose insight is sure, Arjuna.


When suffering does not disturb his mind,

when his craving for pleasures has vanished,

when attraction, fear, and anger are gone,

he is called a sage whose thought is sure.


When he shows no preference

in fortune or misfortune

and neither exults nor hates,

his insight is sure.


When, like a tortoise retracting

its limbs, he withdraws his senses

completely from sensuous objects,

his insight is sure.

Most Western readers will find this degree of ego sacrifice and emotional withdrawal from the world highly problematic.

The West, afterall, from its art to its capitalism, is about the projection of persona and the pursuit of “happiness”—via routes material, emotional, and intellectual.

And what the Gita calls “insight” Western psychology might call “disassociation.”

Still, the Gita has long been appreciated, in both the East and the West, as a piece of literature whose reflections on the self and suffering are novel and profound.

And Western writers such as Arthur Schopenhaur, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg—and a host of others—have been intellectually and imaginitively stimulated by reading the Bhagavad Gita.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to “Like a Tortoise Retracting Its Limbs”: The Bhagavad Gita as Literature, and Its Doctrine of the Two Selves

  1. Pingback: The Eight Ways of Being in the World « Prometheus Unbound

  2. Pingback: Freud’s Oceanic Feeling Associated with Brain Damage! « Prometheus Unbound

  3. Pingback: Atheist universes without end: Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s ironically titled new book, “The Grand Design” « Prometheus Unbound

  4. mary says:

    very interesting

  5. Jim Fedor says:

    I really enjoy your writing style. Explains very deep subject matter with concise, simple language that makes understanding happen. I love this particular post very much.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s