The Sanat-sujata-Gita is in the nature of a dialogue between the Rishi Sanat-sujata and Dhritarashtra, contained in chapters 41 to 46 of Udyoga-Parva of the Mahabharata.
If there is anything still left unsaid by you, O Vidura, say it then, as I am ready to listen to you. The discourse is, indeed, charming.
O Dhritarashtra, O you of the Bharata race! That ancient and immortal Rishi Sanat-sujata who, the foremost of all intelligent persons, leading a life of perpetual celibacy, has said that Death does not exist, will clear you of all the doubts in your mind, both expressed and unexpressed.
Rishi Sanat-sujata is no other than Sanatkumara, according to Shankara. The doubts expressed or unexpressed relate to subjects freely discussed by all, or those that may not.
Do you not know what that immortal Rishi will say to me? O Vidura, do you say it, if indeed, you have that degree of wisdom.
I am born in the sudra order and, therefore, do not venture to say more than what I have already said. The understanding, however, of that Rishi, leading a life of celibacy,is regarded by me to be infinite. He, that is a brahmana by birth, by discoursing on even the profoundest mysteries, never incurs the censure of the gods. It is for this alone that I do not discourse to you, upon the subject.
The knowledge of the Rishi is infinite in the sense that it is never-failing. Sanatkumara is, incidentally, the teacher of Narada in the famous dialogue in Khandogya-upanisad.
Tell me, O Vidura, how with this body of mine, I can meet with that ancient and immortal one?
Then Vidura began to think of that Rishi of rigid vows. And knowing that he was thought of, the Rishi showed himself there. Vidura then received him with the rites prescribed by ordinance. And when, having rested a while, the Rishi was seated at his ease, Vidura addressed him, saying:
O illustrious one! There is a doubt in Dhritarashtra’s mind which is incapable of being explained away by me. It behooves you, therefore, to expound it, so that listening to your discourse, this chief of men may tide over all his sorrows. To that extent, he may bear the gain and loss, what is agreeable and what is disagreeable, decrepitude and
death, fright and jealousy, hunger and thirst, pride and prosperity, dislike, sleep, lust and wrath, and decrease and increase, with equanimity.
The ‘gain and loss’ refers to what results from a general dissatisfaction with everything.
Then Dhritarashtra bowed (respected) and questioned Sanat-sujata in a secluded place (free from the presence of ignorant and vulgar people), desirous of obtaining the highest knowledge of the Self:
O Sanat-sujata! I hear that you are of the opinion that there is no death. Again it is said that the gods and the asuras practise ascetic austerities in order to avoid death. Of these two opinions, then, which is true?
Some say that freedom from death is attainable by particular acts (prescribed in the Vedas). Others opine that there is no death. O Kshatriya! Both have been truths since creation. The learned are of the opinion that death results from ignorance. I say that ignorance is Death. So, the absence of ignorance, that is, knowledge is immortality. It is from ignorance that the asuras became subject to defeat and death. It is from the absence of ignorance that the gods have attained to the nature of the Brahman. Death does not devour creatures like a tiger; its form is unascertainable. Besides, some (deluded by worldly objects) imagine Yama to be Death. This is, however, due to the weakness of the mind.
Shankara suggests that asuras (demons) might mean creatures attached to worldly objects and gods might mean those pleased in their own self. The ‘defeat and death’ of asuras is an allegory to the story in the Khandogya-upanisad The pursuit of the Brahman or Self-knowledge is immortality. That imaginary god Yama holds his sway in the region of the Pitris, being the source of bliss to the virtuous, and of woe to the sinful. It is at his command that death in the form of wrath, ignorance and covetousness occurs among men. Swayed by pride, men always walk in unrighteous path. None amongst them succeeds in attaining to his real nature. The being who pursues desires is destroyed (in pursuing) after the desires. With their understanding clouded, and themselves swayed by their passions, such beings cast off their bodies and repeatedly fall into hell (the cycle of life and death). They are always followed by their senses. It is for this that ignorance receives the name of death.
Those men that desire the fruits of action, when the time comes for enjoying those fruits, proceed to heaven, casting off their bodies. Hence they cannot avoid death.
Embodied creatures, from inability to attain the knowledge of the Brahman and from their connection with earthly enjoyments, are obliged to sojourn in a cycle of re-births, up and down and around. The natural inclination of man towards pursuits that are unreal is alone the cause of the senses being led to error. The soul (mind) that is constantly affected by the pursuit of unreal objects, remembering only that with which it is always engaged, adores only earthly enjoyments that surround it. The desire of enjoyments first kills men. Lust and wrath soon follow behind it. Thus, the desire for enjoyment, lust and wrath lead foolish men to death.
Those that have conquered their souls (minds), however, succeed, by self-restraint, to escape death. He that has conquered his mind conquers the senses, regarding them as of no value, by the aid of self-knowledge. Ignorance, assuming the form of Yama, cannot devour that learned man who controls his desires in this manner. That man who follows his desires is destroyed along with his desires. He that can renounce desires can certainly drive away all kinds of woe.
Desire is, indeed, ignorance and darkness, and hell in respect of all creatures. For, swayed that way, they lose their senses. As intoxicated men walking along a street reel towards ruts and holes, men under the influence of desire, misled by deluding joys, run towards destruction.
What can death do to a person whose soul (mind) has not been misled by desire? To him, death has no terror, like a tiger made of straw.
Therefore, O Kshatriya, if the existence of desire which is ignorance, is to be destroyed, not even the slightest wish is either to be thought of or pursued. That soul, which is in your body, associated as it is with wrath and covetousness, and filled with ignorance, is indeed death. Knowing that death arises in this way, he that relies on knowledge entertains no fear of death. Even as the body is destroyed when brought under the influence of death, death itself is destroyed when it is brought under the influence of knowledge.