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Chapter Thirteen

The Field & the Knower

This chapter presents us with two sweeping categories: the “field” and the “knower of the field.” To simplify, we may think of the field as the body and the knower of the field as the Self that resides in the body. This chapter, then, is about the duality between “soul and body.” This duality is seen as eternal, a basic division of all things – a fundamental concept elaborated in Sankhya philosophy.

We said that the “field” is the body, but this is not precise enough. The field also includes the mind: in fact, it comprises all the components of prakriti including ahamkara – the awareness each of us has that we are an individual ego, from aham “I” andkara“maker.” Ahamkara is the basic awareness of separateness: that which makes me “I,” a being separate from the rest of creation. In this wide sense the field encompasses everything, except for the elusive consciousness that “knows” the field. The field is the object; the knower is the subject. Krishna is the hidden knower of the field: that is, the Self.

This term “field” is a surprisingly modern one, for it describes what today we might call an extension of the continuum of mass, energy, time, and space to include the strata of mind as well – in other words, a field of forces both physical and mental. Just as physics no longer regards matter and energy as essentially separate, the Gita would not regard matter and mind as separate; they are different aspects of prakriti, the underlying “stuff” of existence.

Another dimension of Krishna’s use of the word “field” is brought out by a traditional Hindu anecdote. A wandering sadhu or holy man is asked what his work in life is; he replies, “I’m a farmer.” When the questioner looks surprised he adds, “This body of mine is my field. I sow good thoughts and actions, and in my body I reap the results.” The Buddha explains, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts; it is made of our thoughts.” What we think, we become, for as Emerson says, the ancestor of every action is a thought. Thus our thoughts, taken together, bear fruit in the actions, decisions, and desires that shape our lives. In part, the body bears the fruit of what we think insofar as our way of thinking affects our health and safety. But in a larger sense, the whole field of human activity (indeed the whole of prakriti) is also a “field of karma” – where, for example, the global environment is shaped by the sum of what its inhabitants do, which in turn is shaped by how they think. This idea will be picked up and elaborated on in detail in the concluding chapters of the Gita.

Verses 7–11 then describe the person who understands his or her own true nature. This is an attractive picture of the modest, truly wise person who is in control of his or her own life. One implication of these verses is that it is quite an achievement to understand the difference between the field and the Self, the knower. Most people confuse the two, taking the body and mind to be who they are. In the usual course of events, we may be totally unaware that there is a Self, a consciousness underneath the surface awareness of a separate “I.” Verses 12–17 describe the ultimate underlying reality: Brahman, pure, undifferentiated consciousness, the divine ground of existence.

Verse 19 returns us to the discussion of the basic duality of mind/matter and spirit (Self). Again the technical terms prakriti and Purusha are used. Purusha is the knower and prakriti the field. From the union of these two all things are born. Both prakriti and Purusha are essential to the creation of the world: nothing could exist without the spiritual basis of Purusha, and nothing could develop in a manifest form without the mind and matter of prakriti.

With its need to think of abstract principles in human terms, Hinduism embodies these two eternal principles in the figures of Shiva and Shakti, the divine Father and Mother. The Gita does not mention these two because it comes essentially from the Vishnu tradition, but in the other great stream of the Hindu faith, Shiva is the eternal Spirit, the Absolute, represented as dwelling aloof on the mountain peak of spiritual peace. Shakti, the Divine Mother, is his creative partner, and without her, Shiva could never have created the world. Shakti – she has many names in her various manifestations – rules in the realm of birth and death; Shiva, Purusha, lives in the realm of the immortal. Together the two represent Brahman, the attributeless Godhead, and the creative power of the Godhead called maya. Thus it is in the union of Shiva and Shakti that all things are born.

This chapter emphasizes that the Self, the real knower, is ever uninvolved in the shifting forces that play over the field. There is no possibility of any soul being eternally lost, for all beings partake of the immortal, pure nature of Purusha. We may endure countless eons of birth and death, but we must finally find our rest in the eternal spirit. By definition, nothing taking place in the realm of prakriti can affect Purusha; but the exact nature of the interaction of these two is a profound mystery.

Verse 32 explains this mystery by drawing a comparison with akasha, the subtlest element recognized by the ancient philosophers. Akasha is space itself. Just as space pervades the cosmos, yet remains pure even in the midst of impure things, so the Self remains completely pure, even though it dwells in all things. Though it seems to live in the land of mortals and to undergo change and death, the real knower in every creature is deathless, “hidden in the heart.” –D.M.

13: The Field & the Knower


1 The body is called a field, Arjuna; the one who knows it is called the Knower of the field. This is the knowledge of those who know. 2 I am the Knower of the field in everyone, Arjuna. Knowledge of the field and its Knower is true knowledge.

3 Listen and I will explain the nature of the field and how change takes place within it. I will also describe the Knower of the field and his power. 4 These truths have been sung by great sages in a variety of ways, and expounded in precise arguments concerning Brahman.

5 The field, Arjuna, is made up of the following: the five areas of sense perception; the five elements; the five sense organs and the five organs of action; the three components of the mind: manas, buddhi, and ahamkara; and the undifferentiated energy from which all these evolved. 6 In this field arise desire and aversion, pleasure and pain, the body, intelligence, and will.

7 Those who know truly are free from pride and deceit. They are gentle, forgiving, upright, and pure, devoted to their spiritual teacher, filled with inner strength, and self-controlled. 8 Detached from sense objects and self-will, they have learned the painful lesson of separate birth and suffering, old age, disease, and death.

9 Free from selfish attachment, they do not get compulsively entangled even in home and family. They are even-minded through good fortune and bad. 10 Their devotion to me is undivided. Enjoying solitude and not following the crowd, they seek only me.11This is true knowledge, to seek the Self as the true end of wisdom always. To seek anything else is ignorance.

12 I will tell you of the wisdom that leads to immortality: the beginningless Brahman, which can be called neither being nor non-being.

13 It dwells in all, in every hand and foot and head, in every mouth and eye and ear in the universe. 14 Without senses itself, it shines through the functioning of the senses. Completely independent, it supports all things. Beyond the gunas, it enjoys their play.

15 It is both near and far, both within and without every creature; it moves and is unmoving. 16 In its subtlety it is beyond comprehension. It is indivisible, yet appears divided in separate creatures. Know it to be the creator, the preserver, and the destroyer.

17 Dwelling in every heart, it is beyond darkness. It is called the light of light, the object and goal of knowledge, and knowledge itself.

18 I have revealed to you the nature of the field and the meaning and object of true knowledge. Those who are devoted to me, knowing these things, are united with me.

19 Know that prakriti and Purusha are both without beginning, and that from prakriti come the gunas and all that changes. 20 Prakriti is the agent, cause, and effect of every action, but it is Purusha that seems to experience pleasure and pain.

21 Purusha, resting in prakriti, witnesses the play of the gunas born of prakriti. But attachment to the gunas leads a person to be born for good or evil.

22 Within the body the supreme Purusha is called the witness, approver, supporter, enjoyer, the supreme Lord, the highest Self.

23 Whoever realizes the true nature of Purusha, prakriti, and the gunas, whatever path he or she may follow, is not born separate again.

24 Some realize the Self within them through the practice of meditation, some by the path of wisdom, and others by selfless service. 25 Others may not know these paths; but hearing and following the instructions of an illumined teacher, they too go beyond death.

26 Whatever exists, Arjuna, animate or inanimate, is born through the union of the field and its Knower.

27 They alone see truly who see the Lord the same in every creature, who see the deathless in the hearts of all that die. 28 Seeing the same Lord everywhere, they do not harm themselves or others. Thus they attain the supreme goal.

29 They alone see truly who see that all actions are performed by prakriti, while the Self remains unmoved. 30 When they see the variety of creation rooted in that unity and growing out of it, they attain fulfillment in Brahman.

31 This supreme Self is without a beginning, undifferentiated, deathless. Though it dwells in the body, Arjuna, it neither acts nor is touched by action. 32 As akasha pervades the cosmos but remains unstained, the Self can never be tainted though it dwells in every creature.

33 As the sun lights up the world, the Self dwelling in the field is the source of all light in the field. 34 Those who, with the eye of wisdom, distinguish the field from its Knower and the way to freedom from the bondage of prakriti, attain the supreme goal.

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