Hearing and such as horses yoked,
occupied by the self-image, the
dexterous psychic dynamism
the chariot of rati;
mounted therein, the ego
is continuously chasing each
pleasing form outside.
Our organism can be compared to
libidinal chariot yoked to sense perceptions, which are the horses. It is
driven by the mind. Its occupant is the ego, the self-image, which is
restlessly pursuing objects of pleasure in vain.
With hearing and such as horses linked, carrying within
The Self-image, and ruled over by the master of thinking
Such is the libido chariot, mounted whereon the ‘I’
Unceasing deals outward with each form of beauty as it proceeds.
are now entering a very intense section on rati, the inner urge in beings. It
treads the razor’s edge between doing and not doing, intent and surrender. What
really is our role in our life? What are we capable of, and what are we not?
Should we be active or passive? The normal option is to choose one leg or the
other and pursue it with dedication. The Guru’s advice is to synthesize both,
in the act of intelligence called yoga.
life should be meaningful. It should matter to us, very much. This course of
study has laid a solid foundation for us to let go of our restraints and fly
high on the wings of our inspiration. There wouldn’t be much point to it if we
prepped so thoroughly and then stayed stuck on the ground. As Nitya describes
the structure of our being, “Here we have the picture of the vehicle that
conducts you to the great domain of values. The highest abode of values is the
Absolute itself.” So where are we going? Is the Absolute just one more nice
idea, or does it have a transformative impact on us?
the chariot metaphor Narayana Guru employs, each leg of the dialectic is a
horse, a being that symbolizes power, speed and intensity, not to mention
barely manageable wildness. The horses are just like our sense interests,
always probing the environment, always eager to explore. They have to be yoked
together to pull the chariot properly. Yoga means to yoke, to join two (or
more) poles together. The chariot’s progress is vertical, through time, even as
it rolls along a horizontal pathway, but the horses are the positive and
negative factors that provide the motive force. Too much reining in and they
stop; too little and they run away with us.
on paper don’t much convey the dynamism of what they are meant to indicate
here. The class caught a slight whiff of the power of rati, which upset the
docility we for the most part have adroitly substituted for our innate
intensity in our daily lives. A little lightning now and then isn’t a bad
horses have to be trained to work together, or chaos will result. Nitya
presents it this way:
The horses can be either divine or
demonic, and life goes on alternating between them. Unless you can transcend
the duality of this alternation, you will not be able to ride your chariot to
the highest form of happiness, the Absolute.
beings are seeking happiness. The trick is how is it actualized? Narayana Guru
wants us to locate the source of happiness within ourselves and recognize that
the form is merely the incidental opportunity for our happiness to manifest.
It’s a kind of inversion from the social insistence that everything enjoyable
resides in an object for sale outside ourselves. Nitya reminds us:
When you give priority to the form
and forget the essence, you are misled. Only the appearance is there. From the
appearance you judge that something is going to make you happy, but of course
it doesn’t. You run after a pleasing form thinking it will give you happiness,
but in the end you turn away with dissatisfaction and frustration.
Nitya adds, “This is a case
of Americanism.” A little bit of prep and then on to the next attraction. Don’t
hang around long enough to make any real progress. Now, forty years later, we
could revise this to a case study of the human condition. The whole world has
caught our disease.
promised the class to append the Dalai Lama’s take on happiness, and you’ll
find it in Part III. He puts it very simply, but the implications are vast.
Here we are going deeper. The goal of happiness is one, yet infinite are the
ways we employ to chase after it. Can we intelligently choose our route, or are
we hapless victims of fate? Even if we fervently believe in our victimhood, we
have been choosing practically from day one, though not always intelligently.
Narayana Guru and his helpers are trying to throw some more light on this often
murky endeavor so we can up our percentage.
liked to think of the Word (logos) of the Bible as meaning the innate urge in
beings we are familiarizing ourselves with in this class. We all have a drive
built in that does so much enabling for us behind the scenes. Perhaps we should
honor it more. Nitya says:
the Word begins to operate, it is called mahatattva
or the great principle. The supreme principle has a logos, a reason about what
and how it is going to manifest. Whatever is going to be brought into existence
is not going to be done in a haphazard manner. It comes as a cosmic or
universal manifestation of the law. The principle, the meaning, the
relationship, the purpose—all these together can be called the reason of
manifestation, identified with the mahatattva. In this, buddhi, the intellect,
has a priority over everything else because it is nearest to the Supreme, in
the sense that it brings the light of the Supreme to manifest in everything.
The priority of the intellect
because it directs our awareness to the unfolding of the mahatattva, so we can
support it instead of impeding it. This is rather important! I’ll add some very
helpful supporting material on this subject from Nitya’s Therapy and Realization
in the Bhagavad Gita and my own Gita commentary in Part III.
the oft-maligned intellect gets pride of place in this philosophy. As affirmed
in the last verse notes, buddhi is our conscious acknowledgement of the higher
values and our means of access to them. Turning our back on the intellect
basically cuts off our appreciation of those values. It's like throwing away
the reins and sitting back in hopes the horses aren't going to take you
anywhere too awful. I think that notion is grounded in a fond memory of the
early days when our parents toted us around and did everything for us. Nice,
is a subtle dialectic presented in this paragraph:
While there are slight differences in
their metaphors, in the Katha as well as the Maitreya and Mandukya Upanishads
there are references to the body as a chariot, with the senses as the horses,
the mind as the reins, and the ego as the driver. The Guru has combined what is
given in these three Upanishads with the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna holds the
horses and Arjuna sits there as master.
The basic metaphor has us driving
our own chariot. The Gita version has Arjuna (the conscious mind) as rider
while Krishna does the driving. It means we surrender the illusion of control
and allow our higher self to guide us. That the two aspects are combined in
Narayana Guru’s version means we are to find the balance point between doing
and not doing. We have to hold the reins and also invite our inner impetus to
show us the way. It’s a high art form. There will be much more about this is
the next stretch of verses.
noted how each verse seems to have ramifications in our lives that are hard to
explain. The coherency of the study and apparently unrelated aspects of our
daily existence are striking. I feel we are given opportunities to practice
what we’ve heard. That’s why I always solicit input from others, because they
must be having the same sorts of relevant events. There was thunder in the air
and thunder in our week and thunder in the class. I won’t list the coincidences
I noted, only to say that the innate urge coordinates these things so we can
grow and learn. All we have to do is pay attention. As the Gita says, it is
objectively verifiable, as plain as the nose on your face. The guru principle
is always with us.
was also fascinated by the pratima, the divine image that is reflected in each
being. Nitya describes the metaphor beautifully:
A reflection, statue or image is
called a pratima. Vedantins give the simile of individuated selves as being
akin to the foam on the ocean. When a wave breaks, the froth produced consists
of millions of bubbles of various sizes. The sun shining above is reflected by
each bubble, the small ones as much as the large. And not only the sun;
anything the sun illuminates is also reflected on each bubble. When a bubble
bursts, the sun and the world do not disappear. Only their images that were
mirrored in that particular bubble are gone, forever.
and I are the bubbles which mirror this cosmic show illuminated by a sun
outside. There is only one supreme Sun, but we see millions of suns reflected
uniquely in each individual bubble. Each of us has our own sun. This is called
a pratima. Thus, the self that is in the individual ratha is only an image of
Andy wondered if this didn’t
imply we are all perfect, and in a sense it does. Perfect can mean many things.
Our concepts are undoubtedly imperfect mirrors of our perfection, clouded as
they are with the alternating modalities of nature, sattva, rajas and tamas. In
a sense, the spiritual quest is to transcend our reflecting process and merge
with the source, not as a permanent state but as a way to minimize the
distortions we impose on the source and restore the depths of our happiness.
Our beliefs and derangements color and obscure the supernal light, twisting it
into strange configurations that do a lot of harm. The least we can do is try
to cure ourselves of this disease.
discovered (once again) that in intense confrontations, ghosts of our memory
banks rise up to cloak our perceptions in false ideations. Our friend might not
be a foe, but something like him was a foe once, and so we treat him as one
now. Our memory associations bring in the foe where none exists. A
contemplative learns to detect this conditioning in the heat of battle, where
it is most likely to surface and cause problems. Timid people are content to
avoid awakening their confounding demons, and some are fortunate enough to
succeed. Even a sleeping dragon can have a powerful dampening effect on the
try to imagine the sun and try to imagine we are it, overlooking the garbage
pile we sit on. Yet a good driver knows the road conditions, and takes them
into account. There are potholes everywhere! Enjoying the highest values is not
a default setting, once we have gone through the turmoil of growing up. We
reclaim them with the aid of every aspect of our amazing chariot. In sum, “What
we seek is happiness indeed, and we are equipped with an instrument that is
well-suited to this purpose.”
all our junk we are reflections of the Absolute, and so is everyone else. We
shouldn’t mistake the guarded reflection on everyone’s surface for the purity
we can observe when we intelligently cancel out the distortions. We definitely
should start with the premise that inside everyone is the same glowing ember we
cherish in ourself. It’s likely to be well hidden, but it helps a lot to know
exemplified sruti at its best: wise words that cured, uplifted, challenged. His
stinging remarks were intended to break us free of our delusions. Our knee jerk
reaction to them might have been that he was being mean to us, that he was a
nasty fellow, but that was obviously not the case. He corrected us out of love.
Like many a healing practice, it hurt at first but afterward brought relief.
This should be kept in mind when taking your chariot out for a spin!
closing was another classic:
No matter how the Guru is represented
in your life, it should be that guiding light within you, that great power
within which can always direct you to the right orientation. Sruti here is most
important, but we should also remember that everything connected with the
senses is already defeated by our previous dark inclinations, tendencies, experiences
and conditionings, and this makes us always mistake the appearance for reality.
It is really a wonderful verse to meditate on!
Neither This Nor That But . . . Aum:
sounds attract the ear. They are the microwaves that form the warp and woof of
music. In Sanskrit, microwaves are called sruti. Sound is said to be the
quality of ether. We are not speaking here of the medium of sound, but of the
element of which it is a quality. After the failure of the Michelson-Morley
experiment, scientists came to the conclusion that there is no ether. They may
be right. This does not cause any despair to the Vedantin however, except for
the fact that akasa is wrongly translated as “ether.” If akasa is not matter,
it must be non-matter, or spirit. In the present context, we may understand it
as an entity which can function both as a thing and as knowledge. In any case,
it is good to commence a study of life from akasa, which is both thing and
the subtlest ether to the grossest form of matter, such as earth, there are
several grades of materiality. It is well known that all physical things exist
within an electromagnetic field that is not seen; we know it only from its
effect. In the Guru's analogy, he begins with sruti (microwaves), which is
close to this subtle force. Man is a bundle of nerves, and nothing affects him
more intensely than the quality of the sound he hears. It can lull him to
sleep, rouse him to erotics, excite him to flight, or drive him mad. Although
the sound we hear is caused by a vibration that disturbs the fluid in the
cochlea, this is only a minor function of this organ when we consider the fact
that our bodily balance to stand erect and walk on two legs depends very much
on the sound functioning of this organ. Thus, the primacy given to the sense of
hearing is very appropriate.
Narayana Guru's analogy, the ego is mounted on the chariot of rati (the
libido), which is drawn by horses (the senses, such as hearing, etc.). There
are two implied secrets in the analogy of the horses. One is that the horses
always proceed to a goal, as our life, yoked to the senses, is always
goal-oriented. Secondly, the power of locomotion is measured in terms of
horsepower. This implies that the senses are capable of arousing and releasing
the energy required for the motivational pursuit of life.
reference to “hearing” in this verse is similar to the reference to beauty in
verse 8. From this it is evident that each sense has its attraction and they
are all equally irresistible. Although the metaphor of the chariot appears in
the Gita and several Upanishads, the one presented here is more complex than
any given elsewhere.
are three occupants of the chariot: the self-image, the ego and the psychic
dynamism. Of these, the actual execution of the driving of the chariot is
assigned to the psychic dynamism, which itself is an entity constituted of four
factors: the interrogating mind, the recalling memory, the judging intellect
and the affective ego. The separate mention of the ego is to highlight one
aspect of the psychic dynamism, but, in fact, the ego can be bracketed with the
psychic dynamism, which in this verse is further qualified as dexterous.
ego is both an existential thrust and an ontologic awareness. The awareness is
perpetuated by repeatedly recognizing the identification of the knower, the
doer and the enjoyer as I-consciousness, and by constantly saying “I,” “me,”
“my,” and “mine.” The self-awareness of the ego is a mirroring of the eternal
light of the Self. In other words, the ego is a superimposition on the Self.
Although the Self is universal, indivisible, partless and formless, the
superimposed ego is strongly coloured by the finitude of the body in which it
functions. The self-image demarcated by the ego naturally casts a boundary line
in the light of the Self. The individuation thus formed is recognized here as
the image of the Self, atma pratima. Thus, it becomes imperative for the ego to
be flanked on one side by the Self- image and on the other by the psychic
dynamism, which is referred to in this verse as karanam.
From the Sanskrit term it is
evident that the ego (ahanta) is wielding both the motivation and the
instrument of pursuit. The motivation is
happiness. This has a double significance. For the ego to become aware of
itself the only light comes from the Self, which by nature is ananda. Hence, it
is obviously only natural for the ego to remain wedded to happiness. The ego,
however, is not a finite version of the Self, as its substance comes from prakriti,
which is constituted of the five elements and the three qualities known as
sattva, rajas and tamas. These, while being dynamic, are devoid of any light of
their own to be conscious of their functions. The ego is the only link between
the Self and nature. The innate qualities of Self, mirrored by the ego, become
subjected to the veiling principle of maya and, as a result, confusion arises.
Ananda mirrored in prakriti is called rati. The chariot is not real, but a
phantom created by the image of the pleasure-giving on the constantly changing fašade
of sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva, rajas and tamas are only principles and
they have no content except in relation with the manifested elements of ether,
air, fire, water and earth—or the psychic dynamism—when they have manifested
through the individuation of a person.
gives a clear picture of the ego which, goaded to seek happiness by its primary
nature (the Self), finds only the confusion caused by its association with
prakriti when its happiness is sought in the shadowy world of the
psychophysical objects of the senses. This is certainly a most deplorable
THE participation of the Self with the outer world of
interests has a graded, serial, polarised nature which has to be understood
operationally and in globally integrated fashion as a totality in the context
of the Absolute. Piecemeal notions of such verities found in text-books of
different psychological, philosophical or theological disciplines are here seen
integrated together as if hanging by the same peg. Modern phenomenology
undertakes a similar task.
The central reality here is the ‘Self-image’ referred to as
the ‘atma-pratima’. The double description implied has to be justified in the light
of the word karu (core) as employed
consistently even from the very first verse. Like the ‘thinking substance’ of
Spinoza, it is psycho-physical and neutral between mind and matter. What is
more, it does not participate directly in outside action with forms or things
other than itself. Like the ‘unmoved mover’ of Aristotle or the ‘agent of pure
act’ of classical philosophers, this self-image is the most direct and really
given representative of the notion of the Absolute.
On the South Indian soil the sight of such a ceremonial
procession as seen in this verse is familiar to the common man and what is
more, in the Upanishads themselves this same imagery has been employed in
several places, comparing the self with the charioteer and the senses with the
The Katha Upanishad (third valli, verses 3-6 ) states, ‘Know
that the soul (atman, self) as riding in a chariot’. The rest of the analogy is
the same there, except that the manas is further compared to the reins, which
does not contradict the picture the Guru presents here.
Svetasvatara Upanishad (2-9) says:
“Like the chariot yoked with
vicious horses, his mind the wise man should restrain undistractedly.”
Maitri Upanishad, II prapathaka, goes into the functions of
each of these factors in greater detail, beginning, “This body is like a cart
without intelligence...” and explaining how the pure Absolute itself could be
These stray comparisons and analogies have been brought
together here by the Guru in a more complete and coherent form, to serve as the
basis of an integrated notion of the Self in a fully contemplative and
absolutist context, with a scientific status given to it, although put in the
language of antique imagery. The comparison of the Self to an image in an
idolatrous chariot procession (such as takes place to this day at Puri
Jagannath - the ‘car of Juggernaut’ being known to the English idiom itself),
the latter representing the inevitability of the force of providence in human
life, might have an outlandish flavour. When we consider, however, that it is
neither mind nor matter that we have to think of neutrally and
psycho-physically here, this prejudice will lose its force, if any. The image
represents the notion of ‘substance’ rather than of mere matter. The procession
represents a parameter for accommodating graded spiritual factors around the
The more solidly material side of the situation here
portrayed is to be traced backwards into the chariot rather
than forward to the horses
which represent the senses. Between thinking and substance - which are aspects
or attributes of the neutral Absolute - is to be located the neutral
Self-image. After this, more negatively, we have the physical basis of the self
as the libido, as understood in modern psycho-analytic literature such as that
of Freud, Jung or Adler.
The word ‘rati’ which we have translated as ‘libido’ here,
as the nearest corresponding notion of the West, may be
viewed as highly coloured by sex, or only tinted with a shade of the sex
element, according to different schools of psycho-analysis, whose prudery in
such matters might vary according to their puritanism or paganism. That sex is
the basis of the body is sufficiently proved by the fact that the body is born
by sex, even if merely immaculately. When the Bhagavad Gita goes so far as
identifying ‘kama’ (passion) with the Absolute, as it does in chapter VII verse
11, this kind of paganism may be said to be natural to Indian spirituality.
Science and religion do not come into conflict here. Sex in fact enters - or is
the whole of - the stuff that makes up the Self in its negative aspects, while
the senses make up the positive element. Whatever might detract from the
spiritual status of the Self by its participation with the libido on the one
side is made up and added to it by its being linked to the ruler of the
instruments of knowing (the ‘karanas’), which are also related to the same self
on the positive side.
The chief philosophical verity to be extracted from this
verse consists in recognizing the perfect aloofness and
neutrality of the pure
thinking substance that corresponds to the highest Absolute Self. The horizontal forces that
negative operate on a different plane and leave the self-image intact at the
very core. The reference to the aesthetic participation with beauty-forms does not
belong to the
perfectly neutral self but its negative counterpart,
distinguished as the ‘I’
sense, which is slightly asymmetrically located on the negative side of the
scale or graded polarised series in the analogy employed here.
story of the Dalai Lama visiting an American ski area in the mid-1980s ends
As we finished, a young waitress
with tangled, dirty-blond hair and a beaded headband began clearing our table.
She stopped to listen to the conversation and finally sat down, abandoning her
work. After a while, when there was a pause, she spoke to the Dalai Lama. “You
didn’t like your cookie?”
“Not hungry, thank you.”
“Can I, um, ask a question?”
She spoke with complete
seriousness. “What is the meaning of life?”
In my entire week with the Dalai
Lama, every conceivable question had been asked—except this one. People had
been afraid to ask the one—the really big—question. There was a brief, stunned
silence at the table.
The Dalai Lama answered
immediately. “The meaning of life is happiness.”
He raised his finger, leaning forward, focusing on her as if she were the only
person in the world. “Hard question is not, ‘What is meaning of life?’ That is
easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Friends? Or …” He
paused. “Compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try
to answer: What make true happiness?”
He gave this last question a peculiar emphasis and then fell silent, gazing at
her with a smile.
“Thank you,” she said,
you.” She got up and finished stacking the dirty dishes and cups, and took them
Accessed 8/13/14, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/culturebox/2014/02/dalai_lama_at_a_santa_fe_ski_resort_tells_waitress_the_meaning_of_life.2.html
the excerpt from Therapy and Realization in the Bhagavad Gita pertaining to
drive. Nitya is speaking about the end of Chapter II:
people think that if you control your mind and even practice abstinence, then
you will be able to get over the conflicts of life. Here the Gita warns that it
is not like that. Only by seeing the Supreme will you be able to harmonize the
relative. What is required of you is to see the Absolute in order that you may
know how to tackle the relative.
do you see the Absolute?
when you see the Absolute can you say that your prajna is well-established and that your wisdom is
well-established. You are asked here to take the example of a tortoise that
pulls its limbs inward, its head inward, its tail inward. The turtle has a very
significant structure. It has a head, a tail and four limbs on the sides. The
limbs are on the sides and head is on the top and the tail is down at the
bottom. Like that, your personality also has a head and a tail and limbs on
either side. You have a drive and you are heading toward a certain interest.
Your interest has a tail end, too. The tail end is lost in your unconscious and
you don’t know anything about it. What is the urge that is prompting you to do
things again and again and again? All through your life you can see that you have
a master drive.
is this master drive?
you do not know your master drive, you will not be able to control it. To know
the master drive, you should know its head as well as its tail. The head is
consciously seen in your scheming, planning, scheduling, etc. If you examine
the things you have schemed for in a day, what you are planning immediately,
what you planned yesterday, what you want to do tomorrow, you find the head of
your interest. But the tail won’t show up immediately. There is a hidden purpose
in your mind which makes you do all these things, and to discover what this is
you have to go to the tail end. What you actually perform is on two sides. In
one of the Upanishads (it is also quoted in the Brahma Sutras) there is a
structural reference to our happiness. Happiness is said to have a tail and a
head and two wings. Sukham, the
positive awareness of happiness, is the head. The unknown Supreme is its tail.
The general sense of happiness, or the pleasurability of things which you can
imagine, is the left side, modha. The
right side is pramodha, that is, an
individual item of happiness of which you are indulging at a particular time. Sukham
is the head, brahma is the tail, modha
and pramodha are the two wings. This
is how you are led forward in your flight of life.
first thing you are asked is to centralize all these things. You have to find
your own center, and bring sukham,
your positive idea of happiness, to your center. Likewise, you have to find out
your unconscious urges and see that they are also brought to the center. It
helps to bring all your strategies back to the center to have a good look at
your own self first. This center is “I am.” (38-40)
commentary on the Gita, V, 14 and 15 also seems relevant, for those interested:
Supreme does not generate either the idea of agency or activity in regard to
the world, nor the union of action and benefit; the innate urge in beings,
however, exerts itself.
first part means that the idea that we are the doer, that we are the cause of
things happening, and even the very idea that things happen, are strictly human
concepts. They do not exist in the primeval state of the universe. Nor is there
any guarantee that certain actions will produce certain results. Many people
get outraged when bad things happen to good people, or the other way around,
imagining that this casts doubt on the existence of God. All it casts doubt on
is their immature conceptions about how the universe works. Meditating on this
verse will help break the fixation on managing life simplistically that we so
often bring to our spiritual search.
a transcendental neutrality on the part of the Absolute, the innate urge in
beings asserts itself. What exactly does this mean?
described as the will to live, the Úlan vital, life force, and so on, there is
a mysterious but palpable forward motion in all living beings. As it takes
shape in human life, at least, it creates the idea of agency, the sense of “I
am doing this now.” Historically it has generally boiled down to “I am looking
for something to eat, or someone to reproduce with.” Additionally the vital
urge conceptualizes its environment in terms of cause and effect, which is
expressed as the union of action and benefit in the verse. We do something so
we will get an expected result. At a higher level of consciousness we think,
“Here is what I have to do in order to find food or get laid.” Of course, in
modern society this has become highly abstracted, with plenty of additional
needs and wants overlaid on the basic survival and reproductive requirements of
implication here is that the Absolute is veiled in a sense by these cortical
processes, which also generate the sense of ego or self. In meditation we can
temporarily turn off this complex of innate urges and be much more closely in
tune with the Absolute, here referred to as the Supreme because of the mild
duality inherent in this idea. The effect of many spiritual practices,
including psychedelic experience, is to quiet the cortex to allow awareness to
shift to deeper levels of the psyche.
Indian view is that the innate urges arise in the depths of our being far
beyond conscious awareness, in what are called vasanas and samskaras. Vasanas
are like our genetic potentials, and samskaras are the processed memories we
use to interpret our world. These arrange our life and shape our awareness,
sprouting deep in the unconscious and later on passing before the witnessing
eye of consciousness on the way to actualization. For us to take credit for
them in our late stage of awareness, we must be ignorant of their source, and
we are. It seems to us that we invented them from scratch, but in fact they are
almost completely developed by the time we become consciously aware of them. We
wrestle with them to force them into line with social strictures and our
preferred personal narrative, altering and often damaging them in the process.
Their innate perfection is compromised by our ham-handed management. Krishna is
asking us to leave the best of them alone, and sit quiet. We have to sublimate
the bad ones at some point, but the good ones are already sublime. For now we
are learning to participate, not direct. In meditation we should just sit and
watch as the innate urges bubble up through our awareness. Later, when we get
up to act, we can promote the beneficial ones and withhold reinforcement of the
a healthy mind our experiences are recorded as memories, and they begin to form
definite patterns that shape how we relate to the world around us. One typical
example is that if we live in a hostile environment, we become more suspicious
than if we are surrounded with love and protection. Samskara is the term for
how memories condition our outlook. While often treated as a negative influence
because they condition us to habitual trains of thought, samskaras also have a
decidedly positive aspect in that they free us from having to reassess every
item of experience as if it was completely unprecedented. The positive side of
our memories we generally call knowledge, and the negative aspect is named
prejudice or ignorance. Samskaras include all of what we have learned, both
true and false understanding of useful and harmful information.
what we have mentally assimilated is consolidated to an unconscious essence, it
becomes a vasana. Depending on your belief system, vasanas are either the seeds
of karma you carry between lives, or they are the information encoded in the
genes you inherit and pass on to your progeny. No matter what you believe, no
one imagines your superficial memories, like how to get to the store, are
passed along to the next life, but only a highly refined essence or a useful
genetic configuration. Scientists are coming to realize that learning is
occasionally genetically encoded and thus also passed on, but we don’t have to
determine the exact truth here. The impact is undeniable: a major factor in
life is what is glibly called instinct, the pressure of deep-seated urges to
shape the lives of all creatures great and small. Instincts are the same as
vasanas, emerging from the genetic inheritance or memory bank of life or
whatever you want to call it.
is a classic example of how by naming something—often derisively—people think
they have explained it. Yet nothing could be more mysterious than instinct. No
matter how you describe it, it's still a wonder. It appears only those
creatures who've schismed into duality (i.e. humans) have lost the knack of
living harmoniously and expertly in tune with their instinctive urges.
Civilized beings still have instincts, but we are expert at suppressing them.
Some would call that progress; others consider it a tragedy.
isn’t far removed from instinctive understanding. It comes from listening to
our subsurface urges and learning to cope with them. An immense part of our
spiritual program is to try to regain that instinctive, intuitive part of our
psyche, while retaining whatever is valid in our reflective thought patterns as
well. Tricky. And exciting.
emergence of vasanas and samskaras is similar to the idea of unconscious
material rising to the surface in Western psychology, in that if they are
suppressed they cause emotional pain and mental aberrations. Their expression
is the very purpose of life, after all. Society, however, prefers that they be
stifled in the interests of “keeping the peace” or “maintaining law and order.”
Rigid adherents of this attitude can successfully prevent the emergence of
their vasanas and samskaras. The end result is a life lived in vain; no
spiritual or even psychological progress can take place under these
circumstances. Many psychological quirks and bodily diseases have their root in
the suppression of natural urges. The throttling of legitimate inner expressions
is the ultimate waste of existence, and the ultimate triumph of socialization
over individual integrity.
the other hand, uncritical identification with our inner urges will certainly
lead to problems. We have negative proclivities along with positive ones. We
must learn to not be caught by them, otherwise they will continue to be
expressed over and over and build up a lot of momentum that interferes with our
freedom of choice in activities. Going with the flow is not a completely
mindless process, but the mind must be restrained to make room for the flow to
all-pervading One takes cognizance neither of the sinful nor the meritorious
actions of anyone; wisdom is veiled by unwisdom; beings are deluded thereby.
now assures his disciple that although his urges may be harshly judged and persecuted
by society, the Absolute does not use the same measuring rod, or, for that
matter, any measuring rod at all. Everyone has good and bad aspects, and it is
largely a matter of luck which side stands out to our peers. What really
matters is our relation with the inner truth of existence, which is the core of
wisdom. The peeling away of ignorance to attain—or regain—our native wisdom is
the defining theme of human spirituality.
the case of a global awareness, such as the one described here, there is no
room for judgmentalism. There can only be compassion for those who have been
trained to favor the veil over the radiant inner source. Focusing on sin is
often confused with spirituality, but it is in fact a primary distraction from
nature is like the sun in naturally giving off light, but over the course of
our development it first gets obscured by dust and dirt, and eventually whole
blankets of ignorance accumulate over it to keep it under wraps. Its light,
should it shine through the miasma, threatens to reveal the falsehood
permeating so-called normal attitudes, so it must be suppressed at all costs in
the interest of society. Truth is unafraid to stand naked, but falsehood needs
to be artfully dressed up in order to pass muster.
and bad actions comprise the warp and weft of the veiling blanket. Focusing on
them means putting our attention on the veil, and favoring one aspect over the
other just makes the blanket stronger and more rigid. The Gita’s solution is to
stop being mesmerized by the veil and instead attend to the Absolute reality behind
it. By strengthening our connection with the light our bonds will be evanesced
from the inside out.
Guru reminds us that the classical God of myth is obviated by this fearless
The theistic context to which
sinful or meritorious actions belong is more finally abolished in the first
lines here. The pardoning and punishing God of theology… is revalued in the
second line in keeping with the idea of pure wisdom in the most general terms.
Beings are deluded and thus imagine theological gods who punish and reward, and
also imagine that the innermost being is affected one way or another by
necessary activity. All such notions are mere suppositions due to the veiling
effect of ajnana (ignorance or
Giordano Bruno, the sixteenth century European philosopher
who was burnt at the stake for heresy, put the same idea very simply: God
“makes his sun rise over good and bad.” He himself discovered the downside of
this truth at the hands of his Inquisitors, but even a transcendent God finds
it impossible to produce a coin with only an up side.
of synchronous “coincidences” to our Atmo study, fellow traveler Peter Coyote
shared a sweet tribute to his friend Robin Williams, a comedian who committed
suicide recently. Beautiful on its own, Coyote uses a similar horse riding
metaphor to the class notes:
Robin William’s Last Gift
Robin and I were friends. Not intimate, because he was very shy when he was not
performing. Still, I spent many birthdays and holidays at his home with Marsha
and the children, and he showed up at my 70th birthday to say “Hello” and wound
up mesmerizing my relatives with a fifteen minute set that pulverized the
When I heard that he had died, I put my own sorrow aside for a later time. I’m
a Zen Buddhist priest and my vows instruct me to try to help others. So this
little letter is meant in that spirit.
Normally when you are gifted with
a huge talent of some kind, it’s like having a magnificent bicep. People will
say, “Wow, that’s fantastic” and they tell you, truthfully, that it can change
your life, take you to unimaginable realms. It can and often does. The Zen
perspective is a little different. We might say, “Well, that’s a great bicep,
you don’t have to do anything to it. Let’s work at bringing the rest of your
body up to that level.”
Robin’s gift could be likened to
fastest thoroughbred race-horse on earth. It had unbeatable endurance,
nimbleness, and a huge heart. However, it had never been fully trained.
Sometimes Robin would ride it like a kayaker tearing down white-water, skimming
on the edge of control. We would marvel at his courage, his daring, and his
brilliance. But at other times, the horse went where he wanted, and Robin could
only hang on for dear life.
In the final analysis, what failed
Robin was his greatest gift—his imagination. Clutching the horse he could no
longer think of a single thing to do to change his life or make himself feel
better, and he stepped off the edge of the saddle. Had the horse been trained,
it might have reminded him that there is always something we can do. We can
take a walk until the feeling passes. We can find someone else suffering and
help them, taking the attention off our own. Or, finally, we can learn to
muster our courage and simply sit still with what we are thinking are insoluble
problems, becoming as intimate with them as we can, facing them until we get
over our fear. They may even be insoluble, but that does not mean that there is
nothing we can do.
Our great-hearted friend will be
back as the rain, as the cry of a Raven as the wind. He, you and I have never
for one moment not been a part of all it. But we would be doing his life and
memory a disservice if we did not extract some wisdom from his choice, which,
if we ponder deeply enough, will turn out to be his last gift. He would beg us
to pay attention if he could.
his commentary on this verse, Nitya writes, “this is a case study in
Americanism” (p.476). Pursuing one
form after the next and remaining unaware of the treasure under our very
pillows we sleep on each night, we are continuously disillusioned with our
currently-held illusions and go on mindlessly adopting/discarding external
goals empty of content. By expanding on the Guru’s verse, Nitya connects what
we now live daily with the wisdom presented by the rishis (sages) of the Upanishads
and the Bhagavad Gita where the characters Krishna (divine consciousness)
and Arjuna (men and women) are part of the ancient human condition we, for the
most part in contemporary America, think is so unique about our post-modern
his verse, the Guru employs the classic Indian metaphor of the chariot, the
image-archetype of our lives. The
senses/horses draw our body/ego chariots as the mind holds the reigns unaware,
in most cases, of the Absolute/intellect at hand through which the entire
enterprise can be directed to the source for which it was created in the first
place—realization. In Arjuna’s
case (in the Gita), life has arranged
events to be so baffling and unexplainable to his mind (having friends, family,
and enemies on both sides) that he cannot follow through in leading his army
into an Armageddon-battle about to commence. He hesitates right on the about-to-be battlefield with
armies arrayed all around him so immense they fade into the horizon, and he
begins to entertain questions of purpose and value. Turning his attention to his charioteer and long time
servant and confidant, Arjuna begins to listen to what the man has to say and
slowly begins to realize that this one so very close to him all these years is
none other than Krishna himself.
The powers of the senses and the mind-ego have led Arjuna to this
literal dead-end, and Krishna now begins to teach the young man the one way out
of this mess—a journey articulated in the text of the Gita as the two carry on
a conversation that turns out to be the point of the work.
Nitya’s commentary on this verse, the conditions and processes that led to
Arjuna’s predicament constitute Nitya’s text, a general way of living that
mirrors our common American lot.
In short, the Gita, the Guru,
and Nitya all take as given Arjuna’s human condition as a beginning point, and
we have yet to get off the dime.
opens his commentary by spending several pages reinforcing a fundamental
character of our sense-ego mind world.
That system, he summarizes, operates autonomously and moves us to
alternate always between the dual poles inherent to our senses. Swinging from
the divine to the
demonic, our lives are essentially out of control unless “you can transcend the
duality of this alternation . . . and ride your chariot to the highest form of
happiness, the Absolute” (p. 472).
Illustrating this given, Nitya narrates a fable drawn from the Chandogya
and Brihadaranyaka Upanshads in which the gods and demons sought to
defeat one another as the human was formed. As the senses were created, each camp sought to privilege
itself, a conflict that resulted in our capacity to hear, see, taste, etc.
sensations both pleasant and repellant.
This duality extends to the mind itself where, as John Milton once noted
by way of the “lost Arch-Angel” Satan himself as he enters his new demonic
kingdom after being driven out of Heaven along with one third of the angels,
Where joy forever dwells: Hail horrors,
Infernal world, and thou proudest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of
Lost, Book I, lines 249-255)
Nitya and the Guru have noted elsewhere, we are drawn to pursue happiness as a
reflection of the Absolute we seek, but we do so in a manifest world: “the
question is, how do we relate to the supreme Self [while in our body form]?
(p.474). In answering that
question, Nitya traces the connections between our physical selves and our
preceding Absolute state, how the world of the infinite emerges into our being
by way of the “four inner organs”. . . “manas,
the interrogative aspect; citta,
memory; buddhi, reason and intellect,
and ahamkara, ego” (p. 475). The
processes are roughly parallel in
our social and ontological evolutions. Emerging from the Infinite at birth, we
don’t know we exist and make no distinction between “Prakriti and Parusha, the
creative dynamics and the spirit” (p. 475). Citing St. John, Nitya completes the Christian equivalent:
“in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was
God.” Entering manifestation, we
begin to experience the natural/mathematical laws of nature, and events unfold
in a more or less pre-planned manner. At this very early developmental stage
our memory resembles instinct more that a history, and the impulses arising in
us move us to seek nourishment and comfort without any documented history of
ever experiencing them. Nitya
cites the Nobel prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrodinger who observed that no
one needs to instruct the newborn calf on where to seek the udder or why.
the interrogative aspect of the mind begins functioning and aided by reason
establishes the basis necessary for the ego to develop and face the world. For
its part, the intellect is that
capacity most closely associated with the Absolute and, as Nitya pointed out in
his commentary on Verse 68, will come to our aid in our relentless search for
happiness however distorted it may be. It is in discriminating among the options available to us
that we make errors again and again because for many of us inserted in our
American rat race are the demons worked in as the fix from the get-go.
Ken Wilber’s Up From Eden offers a
marvelous overview of the notion that ontogeny and philogony—humankind’s
individual and social evolutions—demonstrate “certain similarities in the [two]
fields of development and that we are able to individualize schemes of the
highest forms of generality which involve all levels of the psyche in its [two]
types of development. We also
recognize structural plans in the two types of development . . . . The whole
point is that it should not surprise us at all if, looking back into those
tales of dim Eden, we find the faint traces and misty trails of the
ever-circling Uroboros, the mysterious serpent of early evolution, standing at
the base of human psychology just as it does ontogeny.” (p. 27)
Charles Sherrington presented a marvelous description of nature’s pre-determined
processes in his 1940 study, Man on his
Nature. One particularly
telling example he details concerns the embryonic development of the eye: “As
wonders, these things have grown stale trough familiarity. This making of this
eye out of
self-actuated specks, which draw together and multiply and move as if obsessed
with one desire, namely, to make the eye-ball. In a few weeks they have done so. Then, their madness over, they sit down and rest, satisfied
to be life-long what they have made themselves, and, so to say, wait for death.
. . . Whence comes the means and whence the prevision? The eye prepared in darkness
in the daylit world.” (p. 128, 134).