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Darsanamala Part II - Introduction


Introduction to Part II


         Nitya introduces us to the second half of Darsanamala by artfully weaving together some major themes of philosophy and connecting them with the next phase of our study: action or karma. In the course of the first half we reduced our psychological excesses to the minimum, and now are ready to begin reconstructing a meaningful new lifestyle on fresh ground. Since our mind is now in order, it is only logical to begin with action and work toward ever more subtle considerations. From our newly enlightened perspective we should note that our ego is no longer imagined to be the originator of our actions—we are in tune with a deeper dynamic, more like a tide in the affairs of men, as some Bard or other once put it, in Julius Caesar, Act 4:


There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.


         You know, once you become familiar with this wisdom, you find it present in all sorts of art forms, hidden in plain sight. (I checked, and used this fabulous quote as recently as the Maya Darsana notes back in October, but it never fails to rock my socks.) This excerpt is a great example for us, because Brutus’ interpretation of the tide led him to murder, while Narayana Guru’s more thoughtful discrimination led him to bring about a vast, peaceful revolution.

         After touching in an adroit way the Platonic ideals of Truth, Goodness and Beauty, and relating them to the pursuit of happiness (Narayana Guru’s one religion for humanity) Nitya brings us to the threshold of the Karma Darsana. Let’s take a moment to admire his transition. He goes into the lethal repression by the degenerated Christian Church of those very mystics who best embody the teachings of Jesus. An established Church is bound to the tamasic level of activity, while the mystics “brought to the Christian life a fresh legacy of how to live the good in the most beautiful manner.” He goes on:


What is true of any religion is true in all. The Christian mystical notion of life, light and love is identical in meaning with the Vedantic notion of sat-cit-ananda.


Nitya later concludes his introduction:


The Vedantic concept of the Absolute is contained in the phrase sat-cit-ananda. The most primary fact in this is sat. In the vision of action which follows as the sixth in the series of the Darsanamala, Narayana Guru is going to directly relate karma to the primordial existential aspect of the Absolute.


Nice flow there! Then Nitya ties action to sat by underlining its existential verity, implying as well its central role in life:


Unlike theoretical knowledge of some prospective state (such as the promise of a future kingdom of God) action belongs to the immediate present. Every form of transaction in our transactional world has within it the dynamics of action. The existential verity of such action is irrefutable. Action is not something that happens in the fanciful world of a dreamer’s imagination. It has an immediate impact on the present. And it has the power to transmute the potentials of the future so that these become experiential facts of the present. Thus action has a solid basis in the ontological world of existence. This we have already termed as sat.            


Now we come to the question we wrestled with in class: not distinguishing between good and evil, but pondering what is gross action and how it can be evil. Nitya writes:


The first darsana to come in this second part of the Darsanamala is called the “Unitive Vision Of Action.” In Sanskrit action is called karma. Action has a gross aspect, and gross action is considered to be an evil.


I should clarify that the evil here is not the Christian version, and Nitya himself did not believe in evil per se. Note he says it’s considered to be an evil. As Karen pointed out, he even says elsewhere in this essay that nothing is intrinsically evil. The Vedantic meaning of evil is that actions have repercussions that draw us into further actions ad infinitum. What initially may seem to be a free choice binds us to certain natural requirements, which lead to others, and we become more and more entangled in inevitable behaviors. This is especially true of “gross” action—the outwardly oriented, physical types of action. The evil, then, is the reduction of freedom by creating chains of necessity. Nitya makes this eminently clear:


Gross action takes place in the objective world of cause and effect. It initiates a chain of reaction which may reach far into the future, and which may indeed ensure a future at the objective level of pain and misery which might not otherwise have eventuated. Thus the agent of gross action finds himself caught in a structure of obligation and forced to respond to the inevitable consequences of his actions. In short, the performance of gross action guarantees the continuing lack of freedom for man.


Gross action should be contrasted with subtle action such as thoughts. Yet thoughts have binding qualities too. They limit our parameters of thinking, which may lead us to rationalize murder, but we have a better chance of restricting our actions to our imagination and causing less mayhem in our surroundings.

         The Gita is eloquent on the subject of action, and I’ll post some of its most definitive ideas in Part II. It is crucial to keep in mind that the solution to this “evil” is not found in the curtailment of action, as is often suggested in simplistic belief systems where good and evil are fixed in black and white. Krishna’s commonsense arguments to the contrary are most germane. We have to act, but how we do it, with aggressive attachment or relaxed detachment, makes a world of difference. Evil depends on context and is seldom fixed. The Gita goes so far as to exhort Arjuna to kill, which is universally acknowledged as the ultimate example of evil behavior. But he stands in the one place where it is indeed justified.

         Karen thought of gross action in respect to the Women’s March this winter to protest the barbaric actions of the new US government. She felt she was doing something good, standing up for the powerless and the planet as a whole, and it felt great. An inspiring and joyous sense of community prevailed. So how could this kind of action be evil?

         I agreed, and certainly couldn’t see how it was anything to be avoided, even though totally optional. But there were others at the march full of anger. At other protest marches there have been those who vandalize and seek to energize hate. They play into the hands of those in power who are looking for any excuse to delegitimize the protest and ratchet up the repressive countermeasures. They become lifelong outlaws and often go to jail. What does this do for anyone?

         The world abounds in reasons to get really upset, but a contemplative realizes that attitudes like anger are not helpful in reaching a solution. Anger can have a role in breaking us out of frozen states, but should not be considered a viable tactic in transactional affairs.

         I gave a thumbnail definition of gross action as outwardly-oriented action. This got Paul thinking of gross action as that which separates you from another part of existence. He said the ego is the part of us that circumlimits the Self, that cuts it off from the universe, uni meaning one. The individualized Paul in the ego’s view is a superimposition on the ground of the Absolute, a nonparticipant in the high tide of spiritual evolution Shakespeare hints at. (As an amusing side note, Susan reads out her handwritten notes on the class and her computer encodes them to send to me, which helps me remember many important details of the class. The computer doesn’t know Darsanamala, so it mistakenly wrote “Individualized Paul is a super imposition.” I don’t think so! Maybe his kids do though, occasionally. I hope he doesn’t feel that way!)

         Moni noted we don’t have to feel like the agents of our actions. Maya is making all this happen. It is helping us to act. She wondered what it would be like to have a world without maya. Paul figured maya was the only thing than enables us to perceive and experience anything. The choice we have is whether to do it as a separate individual or unified. Paul no longer allows his personal self to have the final word on his decisions, on how he views truth. Raised to be a lifelong follower of someone else’s authority, he has become a contemplative, inviting in the broadest perspective he can muster.

         Karen added that it seems like everyone has a gray area where evil begins and ends. Certain actions are superb for one person and anathema to another. This brings up the need for a normative notion of good and its shadow, evil. Nitya addresses this:


That state which the common man envisions as being good may, in the long run, turn out to be not so. What men usually consider to be good is based on the expedient needs of the individual, not on what is best for the collective society. Thus the necessity arises for a normative notion of what is truly good; that is to say, the good that can ensure its value as the good for all. The good for all and the good which is so at all times is identical with truth. It is in the expression of a general good that truth gains its operational connotation. Truth then ceases to be merely an abstraction or a speculative edifice and becomes a way of life.


While most societies proclaim the goal as maximizing the good for all, it’s a tough matter to pin down, and they usually fall far short. Most transactions wind up with a gainer and a loser, and the whole interchange is complicated by degrees of self-interest and blindness to the needs of others. The current paradigm is 180 degrees opposed to Narayana Guru’s ideal, to wit: maximizing self-interest magically best serves the common good. The vision of oneness the Guru embodied remains limited to fringe elements like mystics and dreamers. But once you grasp that we are all one in essence, it is impossible to think of yourself in isolation any more. Separateness just doesn’t exist. It was a hypothesis we built our egos on, but it turns out to be false.

         Karen’s “gray area” about good and evil reminded Susan of the Horse Parable we’ve occasionally cited in our meetings, and I promised to include a link to where it’s posted on my website:

         Susan posed the fertile question of how wisdom and truth are related. Are they the same thing? I suggested that truth was identical with sat and wisdom related to the chit or conscious awareness aspect. Truth is a definite reality, and our grasp of it ranges from utter ignorance to close attunement. In saccidananda, which defines the absolute or highest value, the chit is optimized as wisdom. Truth does not have grades, but our understanding of it does. Truth is either present or absent, sat or asat. When we mistake the asat for sat, our ignorance is complete. The degree of awareness with which we assess truth gives the situation its meaning or value, which is the ananda leg of the triumvirate.

         The entire Introduction to Part II could contribute a great deal to draining the swamp prevailing in our current political sphere, where politicians baldly insist that asat is sat and vice versa.

         Before closing we took a close look at a complex sentence in the text:


The science of philosophy – or the philosophy of science – can become complete in itself only when it can interpret to us that which is truly good, and do this without freezing or mummifying the functional unfoldment of what is experienced as the good when that good enhances the ability of the mind to admire and appreciate beauty in all its richness.


The tricky part is the freezing or mummifying of the functional unfoldment of the good (truth, beauty, etc.) What has happened in our modern way of thinking is that the over-reliance on analysis has taken a flowing, living reality and converted it to static ideas and isolated frameworks. I likened it to killing a butterfly and pinning it to a board in order to study it. Something very, very important is left out in the process, though something is surely gained as well. Regardless, no outlook is complete without the whole context being included. Life is part of the deal. That’s why as contemplatives we ponder the dynamism of the whole. Some scientists and philosophers do this too, of course, but the truncated mentality far and away predominates.

         Killing the butterfly is the freezing part; mummification means building an unalterable outlook on the partial knowledge of the dead insect and adhering to it no matter what disasters it brings about. Paul aptly called it institutionalized knowledge. We are at a point in history when we are going to pay an immense price for these comfortable follies. Is the world really an infinite source of supply? It doesn’t look like it anymore. Is that packaged food you buy as innocent as it looks in the store, or is there a monstrous nightmare of suffering lurking just below the surface? How much can we ignore and get away with scot free? As Nitya says, “Truth is not pursued for the sake of truth, nor wisdom for the sake of wisdom. The acquisition of either or both should make our life on earth a better one.” When Nitya says “our life” he means all our lives collectively, including nonhuman species. It would sound pretentious to say “make all life on earth better,” but that’s what’s meant. Our life gets better as a subset of all life and not despite the wake of misery we leave behind, smugly tuned out from what we’ve wrought. Our involvement is essential.


Part II


         The Gita’s third chapter, Karma Yoga, or The Unitive Way of Action, opens with Arjuna confessing his confusion about action. Krishna immediately gives an unequivocal answer:


3)           Krishna said:

   There are two kinds of discipline in this world, as declared in ancient times by Me, O sinless One—the unitive way of wisdom of the samkhyas and the unitive way of action of the yogis.


4)           By refraining from initiating activities a person does not come to have the attainment of transcending action, nor can one by renunciation alone come to perfection.


5)           Not even for a single instant can one ever remain engaged in no action at all. By virtue of modalities born from nature, all are made to engage in action helplessly.


6)           He who sits controlling the organs of activity while ruminating mentally over items of sensuous interest—such a lost soul is said to be one of spurious conduct.


7)           He, on the other hand, who keeps the senses under control by means of the mind, then commences unitive activity while still unattached—he excels.


8)           Do engage yourself in action that is necessary; activity is indeed better than non-activity, and even the bodily life of yours would not progress satisfactorily through non-action.


9)           Outside of activity with a sacrificial purpose, this world is bound by action. Even with such a purpose, do engage in work, O Arjuna, freed of all attachments.


The rest of the chapter is divided between first the old way of following rules, and then the new way of acting independently:


17)  But for him who happens to be attached to the Self alone, who finds full satisfaction in the Self—for such a man who is happy in the Self as such, there is nothing that he should do.


18)  Neither is there anything indeed for him resulting from work done, nor anything from work omitted here, nor is there either for him any dependence in respect of anything derivable from any being whatsoever.


19)  Therefore always remain detached, engage yourself in actions that are necessary; indeed, performing actions with detachment man attains to the Supreme.


         My operating definition for sacrifice evolved during my Gita study to mean “freely chosen activity.” There is bound and unbound activity, and there’s little point in studying how to deal with necessary actions in a spiritual text. That doesn’t mean that most of them are not full of exhortations to do your duty, but that’s another issue.

         Wisdom and action—jnana and karma—are the first specific issues addressed after the opening two chapters, in which well-founded reason is achieved. In their unitive treatment they blend together to look like what they are: twin perspectives on one reality. Certainly intelligently voluntary action has to be grounded in wisdom, and wisdom must reveal itself through the actions it embodies.

         This being the case, “evil” action is what leads to greater bondage, and beneficial action has to be that which leads to liberation. Careful contemplation can reveal potential binding factors in advance, helping us redirect our actions from knee jerk to well-founded. “Attaining the Supreme” in terms of karma could also be read “Acting with Expertise.” Verse 26 includes in part: “By behaving unitively the person who is wise should render every kind of action enjoyable.” This sounds like something we can all get behind, eh?


Part III


         Jay sent a nice response that included the Sanskrit, but my computer can’t reproduce it. I’d like to underline that realizing we fall short of grasping wisdom in all its vastness is very important. Those who think they know everything tend to be dangerous and unpleasant. Here’s Jay:


Dear Scott:

As usual I enjoyed the discussion in the email. Occasionally I feel that the hands of my mind fall short to embrace the vastness of wisdom. Yet the interactions like this serve as the lighthouse in the stormy ocean of life. Horse parable reminded me of a saying, “only time tells you if your riding a horse or donkey”.

  Talking about the action and its binding, it is said that action performed without any desire leads to no attachment. This one may call as pure action. Karen’s taking part in women’s march is a good civic action but it is even better when the I or me attached to the march is eliminated. In Gita beside the Ch 3 dialogue, it is also said,


Be beyond the common worldly motives. "To work you have the right, but not to the fruits thereof." Man can train himself to know and to practice that, says the Karma-Yogi. When the idea of doing good becomes a part of his very being, then he will not seek for any motive outside. Let us do good because it is good to do good; he who does good work even in order to get to heaven binds himself down, says the Karma-Yogi. Any work that is done with any the least selfish motive, instead of making us free, forges one more chain for our feet.




         This is an elaboration of Chapter 2 Verse 47, in Nataraja Guru’s translation:


         Your concern should be with action (as such) alone, not for any benefits ever. Do not become benefit motivated; be not attached to inaction either.


Scott Teitsworth