aim of yoga is to optimize action with intelligence in the service of
liberation on all levels, and the practice goes both ways: action must be
infused with intelligence, and insight needs practical situations for its
unfoldment. Happily enough, with the right attitude meaningful chances to
perform karma yoga will continuously present themselves to us. Over the next
several chapters Arjuna will be led into the subtleties of this radical
approach to life.
you are of the opinion, O Krishna, that reason is superior to action, why then
in an action that is ghastly do you enjoin me?
doesn’t quite get it yet. After all, he is just beginning to digest Krishna’s
teachings. Ultimately the Gita is equal-minded about reason and action,
considering both important. They are two ends of the same pole, and both are
necessary to a balanced life. However, in II, 49 Krishna did make reason sound
more attractive than unreflective action, so Arjuna is not totally off the
mark. After all, generations of readers have mistakenly perceived the Gita as
prescribing ghastly action. It is widely viewed as the scripture that advocates
war. Sorting this out will take some serious analysis.
is not the least unusual for beginning disciples to see a reflection of their
own attitudes in the teachings of the guru. Even though Arjuna is striving to
listen and learn, he has to use his own modeling to engage with Krishna’s
explanations. He is being a proper disciple in asking incisive questions, and
he will pay close attention to the answers. The subtly nuanced interchange is
indicative of the developing bipolarity between seeker and preceptor.
words that appear to be mixed up you seem to confound my reasoning. Tell me,
after taking a decision, of that one (way) by which I may obtain merit.
is confounded because Krishna’s reasoning is of a higher order than his. Like
most people, Arjuna’s reasoning is based on a number of unexamined assumptions
that will turn out to be false under close scrutiny. The guru’s primary task is
to reveal the weakness in any and all unwarranted assumptions so that the disciple
will no longer lean on them for support. The transition from falsehood to
truth, from presumption to solid grounding, is bound to be unsettling and
somewhat confusing, since there is always a tendency for us to cling to the
Yoga requires a more open way of
thinking. To bring it into being our neurons have to forge new connections and
decommission old ones, and it takes time for the new system to become
functional. In between there is bound to be a measure of uncertainty.
good to be confused, good to wonder, good to have more things to investigate,
because it facilitates change. Confusion and wondering are a normal part of the
process of opening up to larger and larger concepts. The ego, however, is
afraid of appearing uncertain, so it can easily become an impediment to growth.
It needs to be mollified so it can let go of its favored territory and support
the transformative process.
Arjuna is clearly aware of his
confusion, and reiterates his supplication for instruction, which is exactly the
right thing to do. Since he is not yet enlightened, he couches his request in
terms of merit, implying the dualism of better and worse. This does not mean
that the Gita is in favor of merit—not at all. The Gita propounds a much more
efficient method of decision making than basing it on hypothetical brownie
points. In verse II, 50, Krishna clearly stated the yogic position: “Affiliated
to reason one leaves behind here both meritorious and unmeritorious deeds.” In
V, 15 he will say, “The all-pervading One takes cognizance neither of the
sinful nor the meritorious actions of anyone.” We will go further into the
subject of merit then. For now, suffice to say that Arjuna does not yet fully
comprehend unitive action, so he is still thinking in terms of merit. Getting
over it will demand a long struggle.
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.
original dichotomy of the human plane of existence is knowledge (or thought)
and action. Action is primarily visible, while thought is invisible. In modern
terms we refer to the division as between physical and metaphysical, scientific
and philosophic, or materialist and spiritual. No matter what names we give
them, one without the other is a recipe for disaster, as has been proven over
and over throughout history. People all too often act without adequate
reflection, and just as often retreat into sterile modes of thought when action
is called for. Krishna began his teaching with a broad overview of these two
categories, and now they will be examined in depth. Chapter II presented them
each in general terms, and the next two chapters will ostensibly tackle them
separately. In the Gita’s final analysis they are aspects of a unified vision,
but for the purposes of discussion it is helpful to split them apart before
bringing them back together.
Siegel, in Mindsight (New York:
Bantam Books, 2010) writes about when he was in medical school, and helped a
patient emerge from depression over the serious disease he had contracted,
simply by supplying him additional information. His supervisor took him aside
and chastised him, telling him, “If you want to be a real doctor, you need to
stick to the physical.” Siegel notes that the situation today has markedly
improved, with medical school offering at least a smattering of information
about empathy and stress reduction. The reality of the mind is no longer in question.
This is a highly practical example of how unitive action has crept into the
medical profession, erasing the thick line once drawn between emotions and the
body, between the mind and the brain. While distinct, they depend on each other
and affect each other dramatically; therefore they must be taken together, as a
whole and not as isolated parts. Our physical health most assuredly benefits
from improved mental health, and vice versa.
reference to ancient times tips us off that the Gita is revaluating the old
dichotomy of thought and action in unitive terms. The upcoming section on
Prajapati similarly presents the traditional commonsense attitude and then
upgrades it to a more sublime level. Krishna, as a superb teacher, carefully
begins from the mentality of ordinary thinking and then shows where it has to
go to be converted to wisdom.
refraining from initiating activities a person does not come to have the
attainment of transcending action, nor can one by renunciation alone come to
action, a common fantasy of many religions, is discredited by the Gita in no
uncertain terms. On first blush, it does seem a simple solution to the problem
of liberation from bondage: if you don’t do anything, nothing can go wrong. Too
bad not doing anything is impossible, as explained in the next verse. And, of
course, many things can go wrong when a person fails to heed a valid call to
action, as with Arjuna at the outset of the Gita. If you’re parked on the train
tracks, you’d better move your pickup truck before the 5:09 comes barreling
The Gita teaches the dynamic
integration of action and wisdom, or the horizontal and vertical aspects of the
total knowledge situation, as Nataraja Guru would say. Integration of thought
and action is the key to creative, expert activity, meaning nothing less than
the ability to act outside of conventional boundaries of every type. Daniel
Siegel agrees from the medical standpoint, asserting (p. 55) that integration
is at the heart of well-being.
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
you’ve gotten to a secluded spot far from civilization. You’ve had a good meal
and hung your mosquito netting over a smooth rock. You sit there. At last there
won’t be any activity to distract you! You can commune with God! This is the
moment you’ve been waiting for.
so. Activity still continues, albeit on a quieter level. All the while you
continue to breathe and digest and perspire and shift your position. Soon your
nose itches and your legs ache. Thoughts, a subtle form of action, continually
come. You can stop them briefly with active suppression, but they spring back
stronger than ever. Now, darn it, you have to pee.
religions offer hypnotic autosuggestion techniques at this point to “still” the
mind, counting beads or chanting mantras and so on. Generally they are nothing
mystical, but merely repetitive activities, which our minds, geared as they are
to notice changes in the sensory environment, rapidly inure to. For awhile they
might distract you, and they can even produce unusual states of mind, but the
rishis do not consider them spiritual. They are beside the point, even contrary
to it. The aim is to achieve an alert mentality, not a stupefied one.
is not to say that setting aside some time for meditation at the outset isn’t
beneficial. Necessities can certainly get in the way, presenting an endless
stream of petty problems to be dealt with. You have to break out a place apart,
step out of the war zone of life and into a sheltered nook where you can ponder
wisdom in the company of your teacher or with helpful books. Once you are
familiar with an inwardly focused mind, you have to develop steadiness to carry
the meditative state into your everyday activity. Then life’s incidents become
part of the solution instead of adding to the confusion: opportunities to put
your spiritual growth into practice. This will be dealt with in more detail as
that there is a goal shimmering in the future, a perfect moment to be attained,
instead of continuously participating in an endless flow of perfect moments in
the present, is a common misunderstanding. The Gita will suggest setting aside
a place for an open form of meditation, simple yet profound, in Chapter VI, and
provide plenty of tips for controlling the wandering mind, in the early going
of consciousness is the essence of all meditations, but the Gita avoids
self-hypnosis and espouses a “wisdom sacrifice” of contemplation coupled with
an active, vital engagement with life in all its vicissitudes. The yoga of the
Gita produces clarity coupled with aliveness. There is no presumption that life
is a disease for which meditation is the cure. Meditation is a way of becoming
more attuned and more adept at living. Yoga dialectics—the active uniting of
opposites—is the Gita’s primary technique.
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
most common error of religious aspirants is to take the instructions of their
faith literally and outwardly conform to them. They believe that by “being
good” they will get right with God or get to heaven or whatever. Inwardly they
are unreformed, but they force their persona, their social mask, to follow the
dictates they aspire to, so that they appear holy to their compatriots. Krishna
is wise to warn Arjuna of this foible early in his course of instruction.
call such people as described in this verse hypocrites, but it is easier and
not at all uncommon to begin one’s path by imitation of an ideal rather than by
grasping the subtleties of the unitive state all at once. A seeker doesn’t
truly become a hypocrite until the imitation becomes fixed in place. A guru can
help a lot here, by not allowing the disciple to become complacent or
idolatrous. Sometimes they can be rather fierce about it, offering an
aggressively moving target that parries every attempt to arrive at a simplistic
in the religious context is often a euphemism for the derangement produced by
suppression of healthy, natural inclinations and needs. To outward appearance
such “lost souls” are well behaved and intense, even to the point of appearing
“spiritual.” The inner struggle to maintain control is largely invisible, until
it bursts forth like a volcanic eruption. Wars such as the one raging around
Arjuna and Krishna are an explosive release from repression, which accounts for
way the seething anger of repression manifests is through public hatred of what
the “holy” person secretly desires. Self-righteous types commonly release their
pent up hostility on those of “loose morals,” which is what they desperately
want to have too. Their morals are crying out to be loosened. Since they have
denied enjoyment to themselves, and suffered mightily in the process, they howl
with rage when someone else refuses to perform the same auto-castration. Their
rage is magnified by doubt, since God doesn’t seem to be punishing the
miscreants. (The doubts come from the psychic system trying to rebalance
itself, but such people don’t dare admit to even having doubts—it would impute
a lack of faith.) This leads to the further humiliating behavior of putatively
spiritual people being harshly delighted at the sufferings of others, because
they imagine God is finally ratifying their derangement. All too often found in
the pulpit, or the bully pulpit of political office, these are truly lost
souls, who substitute loud noise and aggression for wisdom. Their conduct is
spurious in the extreme: a sham put on for the benefit of others, usually to con
them one way or another, often accompanied by strong desires to inflict pain
socialized behavior even outside the religious context wields the same
repressed resentments. Citizens are invariably shocked when their well-behaved
and seemingly “normal” neighbors release their repressions by shooting up a
shopping center or joining a lynching party or some other mob. Atheists and
agnostics are by no means exempt from having disproportionately negative
reactions to perceived faults in other people. The best recourse is to remember
to focus any criticism primarily on your own shortcomings, and to try to give
the other person the benefit of the doubt. Jesus put this idea beautifully in
his parable of the mote and beam, which appears in both Matthew and Luke:
And why beholdest thou the mote
that is in thy brother's eye, but
perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Either how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me
pull out the mote that is in thine
eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou
hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou
see clearly to pull out the mote
that is in thy brother's eye. (Luke 6:41 & 42)
holiness, though it should never be called that, is the incidental outgrowth of
profound understanding, of a direct appreciation of the Absolute. There is no
forcing or fakery involved, and the benign activity is wholly natural. When the
connection with the Absolute is there, “all things are added unto you,” as the
Bible puts it. Speaking of the Bible, the Tower of Babel is a symbolic story of
how constructing an artificial edifice (a hypocritical persona) to try to reach
heaven inevitably breaks down sooner or later. When we are not integrated we
on the other hand, who keeps the senses under control by means of the mind,
then commences unitive activity while still unattached—he excels.
Gita keeps everything in balance all through, so after railing against hypocrites
in the previous verse, Krishna immediately provides the antidote. In place of
either wanton behavior or the active suppression of activity, the mind is used
to dialectically sublimate the inner urges, redirecting the energy to an
intelligently selected purpose. Unattached unitive activity means you act
according to the situation and your dharma, without selfishness and without
imagining what the outcome might be. Expectations about the outcome block you
from acting as freely as the changing situation may require. If you can break
free of all those impediments, your actions will truly excel.
and expectations go hand in hand, and neither is necessarily conscious. Unconscious selfishness includes the way
suppressed traumas impel us to unwittingly turn away from the best choices,
guarding and blocking any number of valid alternatives. Expectations also
generate a great deal of energy below the radar, emerging into consciousness in
veiled or distorted fashion. It takes determined contemplation to recognize how
these obstacles impede the free flow of our intelligence, which alone gives us
the incentive to sublimate them.
and sublimation are more effective in the presence of conflict than its
absence. It is a mistake to postpone these practices until the waves on the
pond die down.
those of us who are not monks or nuns, our lives must be lived even while we
are still works in progress. We suppose we should become fully knowledgeable
before taking action, but the truth is we will never figure things out
completely. Sooner or later we have to shake off our doubts and plunge in.
There is not just one right way, there is the way we go. Right and wrong are
tangential, incidental, and inevitable. Life is not a problem to be solved but
an adventure to be lived.
too, are inevitable. Often we make them despite our best intentions, and we
should not be afraid to admit what we’ve done. We will not go to hell for them,
but if we anxiously cover them up we will be cursed with a hellish state of
mind. If we can put ethical matters in their proper perspective, it will be
much easier to repair our inadvertent transgressions. It’s the inner child’s
dread of punishment that foists good versus evil dualism onto natural, unitive
science has discovered is that our brains learn more by making mistakes and
then correcting for them, than from straightforward good intentions. That means
we should welcome mistakes as learning opportunities instead of shrinking from
them as inviting suffering. This also shows how wrongheaded punishment is,
especially for well-intentioned mistakes, training us to avoid the very things
that help us to grow. No wonder the human race is in such a mess!
Chaitanya Yati laughingly relayed some thoughts on mistake making from two
gurus, in That Alone, p. 680:
We should see the light side of life
rather than becoming so grumpy about everything. If you make a mistake it's
because Mother Nature wants you to make it. So don't have any sense of guilt, make
your mistakes gladly. If you don't make little mistakes, God will call out to
you: “Fool! I gave you a chance. I sent you to the world, and you didn't make
any mistake. Stupid! Get out!” If you are here in this world, make some
mistakes. Maya is sitting there and asking us to do all these things. Nataraja
Guru used to tell us in the Gurukula that we should make interesting mistakes,
not stupid or clumsy ones. Whatever mistakes you make should be very clever and
Peters tells a great story about Gurdjieff. At his school one time he had to be
away for a few days, so he put a trustworthy woman in charge in his absence. On
his return she showed him a little black book in which she had kept track of
all the offenses the students had committed. It was quite a long list. To
everyone's surprise, Gurdjieff took out his wallet and started giving each one
money, paying so much per offense. Fritz had been at the top of the list so he
got the most money, but he was ashamed to spend it, feeling the old woman had
been let down. She had carefully chronicled all the crimes, and now Gurdjieff
was giving everyone presents for their mistakes. But Gurdjieff said life was
like that, and if you didn't make mistakes life would never be interesting.
lot more will be said about unitive action—one of the Gita’s main themes—over
the course of the work. This is only the beginning of Krishna’s instruction on
the matter. In the early chapters the emphasis is more on crude problems like
hypocrisy, while as we attain to the heights of the arch the teaching becomes
more and more refined.
is interesting to note the parallel between verses 62-65 in Chapter II and 6-7
here. They cover basically the same subject with the same negative-positive
dialectic presentation, but we have moved up a notch in subtlety. I recommend
taking a moment to read them both over in the Verses Only section.
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.
is a whole school of thought that believes if you don’t do anything, nothing
bad can happen to you. Krishna does not agree. Inaction leads to stagnation,
and then the system begins to break down. Our bodies, including the brain, are
designed to thrive on feedback and stimulation, including exercise. The Gita’s
yoga aims to hone in on acting with expertise by minimizing distractions. It
does not ask us to avoid life’s bounteous invitations to evolve.
mainly stumble forward impelled by necessary actions, meeting problems only as
they arise, in the “crisis management” mode. Only at rare moments do
contemplative intelligence and a significant course of action become joined,
which produces a quantum leap of creativity. Otherwise we employ a kind of “unnatural
selection” of more or less successful responses to emergencies. For the Tao or
evolution to felicitously unfold, we should at the very least respond optimally
to necessary demands made by the environment. Once we become expert in unitive
action, we can chart our own course above and beyond the dictates of necessity.
is nothing “unspiritual” in living our personal life with a modicum of
preparedness and foresight, warding off future complications. Unfortunately,
contemplatively-inspired thinking has a low status in the public arena at
present. In the political realm, for example, those who seek to avert disasters
in advance are considered “naysayers” and marginalized or even turned out of office.
It doesn’t seem to matter how obvious or essential the impending problems are,
they haven’t arrived yet so they don’t exist. Only when they finally do arrive
is there concerted action, by then possibly futile or at least much more
the Gita’s day, fasting and other extreme forms of self-abnegation were widely
practiced. The idea was if you totally suppress or even destroy the self,
whatever is left will be free from the demands of necessity. These extreme
practices sometimes produced forms of delirium that the gullible might mistake
for possession by the gods. Mainly they weaken the body and invite illness.
Being sick or weak from hunger is about as distracting from contemplation as
you can get. Hence Krishna’s advice, which doesn’t sound especially foreign to
us moderns: take care of your body and it will take care of you. Ignore it and
it will keep you riveted to its aches and pains. Don’t go to extremes of either
indulgence or abnegation; find the balanced, middle way.
in renunciation will be addressed in detail toward the end of the work, but the
Gita is unequivocal from start to finish that yoga in the best way to become a
full participant in life. Tuning out is considered at the very least a waste of
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.
we encounter Krishna’s first mention of the broad subject known as sacrifice.
As with much of the Gita’s wisdom, it goes against the grain of popular
understanding. To the casual contemplative, sacrifice calls up religious
ceremonies, offerings placed in a fire, giving things away or giving up
enjoyable activities. Throughout the next two chapters, Krishna will refine the
idea of sacrifice to bring it in line with unitive action. If we look carefully
at this verse, he is saying that sacrificial acts are those that are not driven
by necessity in the way the rest of our actions are.
Most of our behavior is more or
less obligatory. Bodily activity such as breathing, digesting, sensing, or
nurturing a fetus goes on continuously with little or no volitional involvement
on our part. These are mandatory actions that we can’t avoid even if we try.
Social demands such as one’s role in a family or tribe, job requirements, and
upkeep and presentation of the body are a bit more flexible, but can only be
curtailed at a significant price. They are quasi-mandatory actions, often
involving explicit or implicit quid pro quo. Thus nearly everyone is
constrained to carry out all sorts of behaviors. Sacrificial action, on the
other hand, is that which is performed freely, solely at the individual’s
discretion. This is the arena where choices can affect the trajectory of life
dramatically, either toward or away from bondage.
of what is usually thought of as sacrifice falls under the semi-mandatory
category. Religions enjoin us to do certain activities aimed at a god or gods,
in order to bring about anticipated results. We may also be pressured by the
threat of divine retribution or hell, or we may have become convinced by others
that such activities are the way to become spiritual. There is an implied
contract in all such actions: if I do this I’ll get that particular benefit
from it. The Gita takes great pains to redirect the seeker away from this type
of superstitious, goal-oriented sacrifice toward a truly noncontractual way of
for a moment that you are a king, or even a god. What would please you more,
that your supplicants kowtow to you according to strict rules laid down and
enforced by other people, or that they address you in a spontaneous manner, of
their own volition? In the first case they are being forced to do it, while in
the second they are doing it out of genuine respect. Clearly the latter is much
more meaningful and valuable, unless you are a tin pot dictator afraid of
losing your untenable position.
We must be on guard to avoid
stereotyped ideas about sacrifice and remember to read it as “freely chosen
activity.” This is to be transferred to how we interact with the world as well
as in our private creative life. Instead of following rules of good conduct or
polite conversation, behaving the way we “ought” to behave, if we can learn to express
ourselves without conditioning, directly, out of our unique and sovereign
nature, we will be connected with the onrushing wave of Life with a capital L.
Krishna’s teaching is all about how this can be accomplished.
and harsh reactivity are perfect examples of how our conditionings and
attachments produce unhappiness. There are times when anger is a legitimate
response to the situation, and others when it is an exaggerated, conditioned
reflex, but we have learned to repress both kinds equally. Even when anger is a
genuine reaction to something stupid or harmful, the invisible hand of our
parents and teachers reaches out of the past to tell us no, it’s bad to get
angry. We must stifle our emotions. Between our honest feelings and our self-generated
suppression of them, we naturally feel conflicted. Often there is a sense of
shame too, which is a replay of how we felt as children in such situations.
Remember how your cheeks burned when you were humiliated for doing something
exciting and innocent that was officially frowned on? It was precisely because
you didn’t think what you did was wrong at the time. It felt unjust and
arbitrary to be punished for your openness, as indeed it was.
suppression of personal authenticity is our common plight as civilized humans,
and it is exactly the recurrent conflict that the Gita seeks to disentangle us
from. If we’re less conditioned than most, we may still be aware of the upsurge
of righteous feelings within us, but then we immediately bottle them up. Very
often we feel guilty about even having them. Those feelings are not approved!
Bad boy! Bad girl!
was right that as we “mature” we take over the job of self-policing from our
parents and teachers. A socially “healthy” adult has an active superego so that
everyone can leave them to their own devices, safe in the knowledge that they
will behave themselves according to conventional standards. The “healthiest”
ones hardly notice their true feelings at all any more.
order for us to trust ourselves enough to produce authentic expressions again,
we need to turn away from the socially conditioned world to the much vaster
realm of the spirit, the divinity within us. The Gita’s recommendation is to
learn to see the Absolute in everything and everyone. This frees us from the
fear that our natural tendencies will be bad or evil. Freud’s great failing was
to accept the Judeo-Christian view that our true nature is evil and must be
beaten out of us, and so to treat suppression as necessary. The Gita celebrates
the spirit of life as neutral yet full of beauty, something that should be
promoted rather than eradicated. Insight into this benevolent part of our own
nature is a tremendous relief, in that all our self-denial can begin to be
mitigated. As it is withdrawn, our naturally loving and compassionate essences
flood back in to assume their rightful place in our life.
dialectical balancing of control versus no control is the key to this opening
up process. Our spontaneous reactions are routinely stifled by the controlling
side of the mind. A yogi should step back and examine the situation
contemplatively, perceiving that neither of these by itself is adequate, but
some kind of dynamic equipoise can bring about the ideal response. A wholly
unmonitored reaction invites an equal or greater negative reaction in the other
party, and a stifled reaction produces heartburn and all the other symptoms of
a repressed personality. Finding a balanced synthesis is the Gita’s way out of
all such impossible conundrums, and it is filled with advice on how to
you regain balance in your life, the anger inside dissipates. It turns out that
anger builds up from the very act of stifling yourself and frustrating your
expression. Once the dam is breached you will begin to discover that your
reactions are more compassionate and more in tune with positive solutions. The
desire to self-censor can be eased off simultaneously. This most definitely
leads to a happier life.
ancient times, having created the peoples with sacrifice as pertaining to them
(necessarily), Prajapati said: “By this shall you grow and multiply; let this
be to you the milch-cow of all desires.
verse begins a section where the Guru Krishna recalls the ancient wisdom of
Prajapati, the primordial Lord of All Creatures. Most commentators take it as
yet more injunctions of the Gita, but it is not. One must carefully read
Krishna’s comments at the end of the section, in 16-19, where he makes it clear
this is not his recommendation,
though it is good enough as far as it goes. Prajapati is brought in to present
the dualistic, pre-Gita idea of sacrifice, as a more or less physical ritual to
unite men and gods, which is the commonly accepted version followed
unquestioningly even today by many Hindus. The Gita is going to revise it
significantly for the serious seeker of truth.
away we get an opportunity to remind ourselves that sacrifice is freely chosen
activity, and not some arcane ritual from the distant past. It is not a
prescribed outer action but an inner attitude of personal integrity that is
rarely found in socialized human beings.
have to turn the order of the verse around to catch its drift: Whatever causes
us to grow and multiply, in other words to expand our consciousness, is
sacrifice. In the next chapter a number of types of sacrifice, ranging from
mindless to mindful, is delineated. Rote, repetitive activity may have some
effect of freeing consciousness, but the Gita’s highest recommendation is the
wisdom sacrifice, where intelligence is intensely focused to probe the
mysteries of life. As we investigate the Unknown with an open mind, it
gradually reveals its secrets. There is apparently no end to the human
potential to learn more and more about our infinite universe and how to relate
The laws of nature are grounded in
reciprocity, and this section featuring Prajapati elaborates how it works. It’s
important to realize there is a coherence to life, that it doesn’t just exist
in a vacuum where what we do can be detached from its effects. Life is not a
heap of distinct grains of sand in a desert, it is a meaningful garden of
delights, where each specimen affects the rest. That’s the essence of
Prajapati’s wisdom. After reviewing it through verse 15, Krishna will explain how
we can transcend the reciprocal effects so that our life can be as free as
possible. That’s not at all the same as acting in ignorance of reciprocity, as
if you can get away with murder. Living in reciprocal parity is a thesis, and a
moral vacuum is its antithesis. Their synthesis is unitive activity, which is
simultaneously unbound and interconnected with everything.
wish granting cow, Kamadhenu, symbolizes the reciprocal principle that the
seeker has to reach out to the guru for wisdom transmission to take place.
Scientists investigate their chosen subjects confident that they can discover
meaningful secrets, even though they have little or no idea what they might be.
The Bible codifies the same principle for religious seekers in Jesus’ famous exhortation
to “seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you,” (Matt.
7:7). Similarly, Hindus visualize the universe as a divine cow brimming with
delicious milk, just waiting to be poured into a cup and tasted.
guru is the principle of enlightenment, or call it the alluring potential for
enlightenment. If we don’t pull on the cow’s udder, no milk comes. That means
we have to go looking for knowledge; it doesn’t spring up on its own. A lot of
religions portray wisdom as arriving as if by magic, delivered by some savior
to worthy recipients, but the Gita sees it as a reciprocal exchange where a
seeker has to actively dig it out of its repository.
Nitya offers an important consideration we should keep in mind throughout this
section: “Prajapati is only a personification of the process of individuation.”
(Isa Upanishad commentary, n.d., p. 71.) Seen in this light, Prajapati
epitomizes the self-interest of the ego that Krishna will immediately upgrade
to a more spiritual perspective.
close examination of verses 10-19 will reveal the gist of the difference
between Krishna’s and Prajapati’s approaches. Prajapati is an earlier
incarnation of Vishnu, the sustainer god, and Krishna was the present
incarnation in the Gita’s time. They are thus the same in essence, although
Krishna will soon be refining Prajapati’s earlier teachings. Not only does the
ego become transformed in spiritual life, but universal truths of every era must
be periodically restated and revised to meet changed circumstances. This will
be discussed in detail in the next chapter.
this do you gratify the gods, and the gods gratify you; thus gratifying
reciprocally you shall reach to supreme merit.
last question involved merit, so it is only fitting that his Guru answers in
terms of merit. Part of the art of teaching is to begin precisely at the level
of understanding of the student, and proceed from there to the revised view.
Arjuna’s attitudes are based in the old Vedic outlook epitomized in this section.
Krishna is basically saying, “Your questions are grounded in an outdated
philosophy.” Many commentators love this section, because their attitudes are
Keep in mind that the Gita will be
presenting a unitive revision of this dualistic outlook. Gratifying gods and
gaining merit are intertwined, but Krishna will update us to a more scientific
and concentered state of mind very soon.
reciprocity is a very important aspect of existence. Krishna isn’t quoting
Prajapati to put him down, he’s describing a world view with plenty of, well,
merit to it. Ultimately we can go beyond reciprocity to a unitive
understanding, but it doesn’t hurt to have a solid grasp of how everything fits
together as polarized factors. Krishna will also be going beyond the outdated
idea of the gods being responsible for everything that happens, to offer a more
scientific perspective of natural processes. Reciprocity is a normal
consequence of existence, and doesn’t need to be managed by external forces
like gods. It just happens.
gods shall bestow on you all the gratifications you desire; one who eats what
is given by them without giving in turn to them—he is a thief indeed.
verse and the next compare and contrast selfless and selfish activity. As
Narayana Guru puts it in verse 23 of his Atmopadesa
Satakam, “having given up self-centered interests, the compassionate person
acts; the self-centered man is wholly immersed in necessity, performing
unsuccessful actions for himself alone.” This means that there is a paradox at
the heart of action: selfish activity rebounds to undermine self-interest at
the same time as it degrades everything around it, while selfless actions are
beneficial to both the performer and the recipient.
already noted, reciprocity is the major factor in this picture of sacrifice. If
we recognize the reciprocal nature of the universe, popularized in sayings like
the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) and the Law
of Inertia (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction), we can
easily agree with Krishna’s and Prajapati’s advice. Knowing that the universe
embodies reciprocity, we cease imagining that we can steal a piece for
ourselves without engendering a compensatory reaction to our thievery. Instead,
if we act as willing participants in the good of all, negating our selfish
desires, the rebound will be positive.
of the time sacrifice is conceived horizontally: I’ll do this for you if you’ll
do that for me. I’ll put a flower on your altar and you please send me a proper
spouse. There is an implicit contract filled with expectations and obligations,
with ample opportunity for things to go wrong. By contrast, Arjuna and Krishna
are involved in a vertically reciprocal situation, where the one aspires to the
heights of supreme merit and the other sends down showers of grace in the form
of wisdom insights. In reality, grace is pouring down on everyone all the time,
and thus “merit” is universally distributed. If we take those manifold blessings
for granted and don’t consciously honor them, we are what Prajapati calls a
thief. Appreciating the miracle of existence is the least we can do, and it helps
us to keep our actions grounded and sane.
life is indeed a miracle, and as such the best subject for contemplation as
well as participation. As Martin Heidegger and others have memorably mused, the
fundamental issue of philosophy is “Why is there something rather than
nothing?” Our very existence is at once self-evident and extremely unlikely.
The popular claims that God made everything, or there really is nothing and
something is only an appearance, are actually ways to beg the question, by
substituting a preselected assumption for a real answer. A sincere
contemplative will discover a world of wonder in pondering the miracle of
existence, and what a fortune each of us receives in exchange for the pittance we
we are called, both by ancient decree and the implications of the present, to
be generous and share our wealth, in whatever form we have it. Everything is
given to us by our environment, and we must pass it on to keep it alive. To
hold on to what we wrongly desire to posses as “ours” is to kill it. Even to
imagine that we have wrested our good fortune out of an unresponsive, unfeeling
world “on our own” requires a highly selective view of reality, amounting to
ignorance. It is the truest case of thievery to stockpile the sustenance that
is freely given to all beings.
good man who eats of the remnants of a sacrifice is absolved of all faults;
however, those sinners eat of evil itself who cook with themselves alone for
is used symbolically in the Gita to stand for what we nowadays call input, or
what we take in from outside. It is the flip side of gifting, which symbolizes
what passes from us out to the world. Both will be addressed in more detail in
Here Prajapati is using the image of a classical sacrifice
where food is first offered to the gods, and then the priest and the congregation
eat it afterwards. Those who are not willing to share the bounty with others
are committing a sin and acting evilly. This is good common sense, yet it isn’t
the Gita’s final opinion, which, as we well know, transcends good and evil and
does not countenance sin. Learning to share and not covet is a bedrock
foundation of moral behavior, and certainly dovetails with Krishna’s more
advanced teachings on action in this chapter. But the really liberated attitude
goes much farther. It is very well expressed by the poet James Stephens, in The Hill
of Vision (London: Macmillan
and Co., 1922):
Good and bad and right and
Wave the silly words away :
This is wisdom to be strong,
This is virtue to be gay :
Let us sing and dance until
We shall know the final art,
How to banish good and ill
With the laughter of the heart.
commentators are easy to spot, not only because they don’t laugh much but
because they get excited whenever sin and evil are mentioned. They refuse to
abandon the Prajapati level of understanding and do not comprehend Krishna’s
excellent revaluation, even though they may consider themselves Krishna
devotees. The alert reader should immediately realize that dualistic ideas
appear in the Gita only so they can be revalued. What’s in store for sin and
evil is a parallel to Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5)
where he refers to the older dog-eat-dog attitudes and then offers his unitive
revaluation. The best part of this famous section is verses 43-48:
Ye have heard that it hath been
said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your
enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for
them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
That ye may be the children of
your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and
on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
For if ye love them which love
you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
And if ye salute your brethren
only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
Be ye therefore perfect, even as
your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
By the same token as those who claim that Krishna is against
sin and evil, should we conclude that Jesus is saying we should love our
neighbor and hate our enemies? Hardly. They are both showing the common
attitude and then refuting it. As Gandhi put it, “An eye for an eye makes the
whole world blind.” These liberating scriptures are intended to raise us above
brute reactions to a more sublime relationship with our environment. We are
called to stop blinding each other and learn to see.
that sacrifice is “freely chosen activity,” the verse means that if our options
are directed toward benefiting ourself in isolation, it is very unhealthy and
leads to disastrous consequences. Short term selfish gains produce long term
losses. Breaking the flow of reciprocal beneficence that characterizes Nature
to seize and keep a part for ourselves disrupts the entire system. On the other
hand, when you think of the world as a unified whole, you realize that your
fair share comes naturally as a “remnant” of the actions you perform, as what’s
left to you after it is universally poured out.
use of the word cook is very
contemporary sounding. Actually, “cooking” is used in modern English slang to
mean “operating at high speed or efficiency,” as with a jazz ensemble. When
they are playing their hearts out, all in tune with one another, they are
“really cooking.” You can cook for yourself alone or cook with the group. In
Prajapati’s traditional view, flying solo is bad, as if the saxophonist is
playing strange noises in an unrelated key. Musical improvisation should bear
some relation to the song being performed. However, the Gita is very much more
about independent, personally directed investigations. Perhaps the ensemble
should try to follow the lead of the improviser and see what new territory they
can discover. In spiritual life, we can’t always wait for others to catch up to
us, we should plunge ahead on our own. Afterwards we are free to share our
insights with our fellows, but the community aspect is clearly secondary. If
anyone wants to come along with us, it’s their choice.
is treated here in “old fashioned” terms, perhaps to address Arjuna’s
understanding, which is grounded in them. If there is no bipolarity with
something of value—and it doesn’t have to be a recognized guru—the disconnected
person becomes increasingly isolated and distraught. A friend, a spouse, even a
pet, can help pull us out of our dark dungeon and into the light, going from
spinning our wheels and getting nowhere to really cooking.
is about to detail a lengthy chain of causation relating to transactional life,
and extending backwards from the symbolic “food” that actually enters into a
person’s system. Again, this is all fine as far as it goes, but it falls short
of the absolutist vision aimed at in Krishna’s teaching, which breaks free of
the bondage of cause and effect.
is the cause of beings, and from rain food is produced; sacrifice has its
effect in rain, and sacrifice has its origin in action.
this is taken as a fancy way of saying that action produces food to keep people
alive, it isn’t overly profound, despite being poetically expressed.
Symbolically though, it can mean that what we do makes us who we are, in other
words, we are the product of nurture as well as nature. Although the role of
nurture has often been downplayed until very recent times, accepting it leads
to a profound revelation: it opens the door to personal freedom.
Rain and sacrifice are the vertical
poles of the dialectic of worship, with rain symbolizing divine dispensation
and sacrifice the specific form of action that relates to it. We reach up
toward the heights in our aspirations, and grace rains down in response. The
world is geared to respond to everything, good, bad and indifferent, exactly
appropriately. The “food” this bipolar relationship produces is everything that
sustains us, from physical food, through emotional and intellectual
stimulation, and on to spiritual enlightenment.
If we think like Prajapati, we will
believe we are dependent on external management from something like a god or nature.
While this is perfectly logical and even moderately scientific, the Gita’s
radical revaluation is to bring us to also appreciate the degree to which we
have a hand in shaping our lives, in other words, our independence. We are both
dependent and independent at once.
Since support for our existence is
built into the very fabric of the universe, it creates an unnecessary
division—which is the intrusion of dualism—to view it as coming from outside
ourselves. We are free to acknowledge our dependence on a myriad of factors,
but we are also called to rise up to a level of co-creators of our world. The
more psychologically independent we are, the more creative and beneficial our
actions will be. This requires abandoning the hypothesis of gods running the universe,
and understanding it is based on immutable laws rather than celestial whimsy.
Krishna does not agree with the school that insists we are at our best when we
become self-abnegating slaves to “God’s will,” as interpreted by powerful
humans who stand to benefit from our docility.
life is dualistically conceived as a chain of causation it leads to a paradox.
If effects are the product of their cause, then in a sense the cause is real
and the effect is merely consequential, and so in a sense unreal, or at least
dependent on whatever brings it about. As all effects must have a cause, and
their cause is an effect of a previous cause, we can regress to the dawn of
time in search of reality. Causation thus leads us to imagine an unreal
universe contingent on a First Cause, like God or a Big Bang, which is the only
reality. Unitive philosophy, on the other hand, imbues all things with
full-fledged reality in the present, since they participate in and in fact are the
Absolute. They are what they
are, instead of being puppets on someone else’s string. Interestingly, this
implies that causation is the less real part of the picture, rather than
existence. The eternal existence in and through the transient flux of becoming
is what is true. Our efforts are then bent to comprehend the immediacy of our
environment and our place in it, instead of looking elsewhere for its source.
we carefully scrutinize this seemingly bland section referring back to Prajapati,
we can detect a seriously radical tenor. It is precisely here that the Gita
makes its great leap forward from bondage to freedom.
that action arises from Brahma, and that Brahma traces his being to the
Imperishable. Therefore the all-pervasive Absolute is eternally bound up with
15 brings us to the end of the summation of Prajapati’s world view, with a god
residing at the heart of creation. In case we failed to catch the implication
earlier, Krishna makes it explicit by mentioning the god Brahma as the
intermediary between the Absolute and manifest reality. Not surprisingly,
religiously minded enthusiasts are wild about this. The only problem is this is
the old-age thinking that the Gita is about to leave behind. It’s very nice as
far as it goes, but Krishna has a more sublime perspective in store for us.
the creative principle, could easily be the favorite god of materialist science
also, where the tide of evolution is guided solely by reproduction and
survival. Edward O. Wilson, in The Social
Conquest of Earth, (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2012,
p.8-9) addresses “the great riddle of the human condition”:
Consciousness, having evolved
over millions of years of life-and-death struggle, and moreover because of that
struggle, was not designed for self-examination. It was designed for survival
and reproduction. Conscious thought is driven by emotion; to the purpose of
survival and reproduction, it is ultimately and wholly committed.
There is much to commend this uncompromising belief, and we
can always substitute evolution for action in verses like this one. The
crushing limitation is that this view does not allow for any possibility of
something more enlightened than survival gambits. It consigns us to an eternal
bloody battle from which there is no escape. Krishna is about to introduce the
possibility of extricating ourselves from the bondage of our animal heritage to
actualize our higher potentials. As this verse claims, Brahma definitely binds
the conceivable Absolute to respond to old-style sacrifice, but the real
Absolute cannot be bound.
one type of meditation, an object is traced from its objective appearance
through increasingly subtle aspects, all the way back to the ineffable
Absolute, which will thus be seen by extrapolation to pervade everything. This
little excursion into Prajapati’s outlook is an example of exactly how to do
this. Krishna proceeds by stages of subtlety back to the very source. Here he
points out that action arises from the creative principle itself, personified
as Brahma, the God of Creation, who is one main aspect of the manifested
Absolute, along with Vishnu for Preservation and Shiva for Destruction. This is
the essence of enlightened dualism. The Gita, however, is a textbook on
led Arjuna all the way in to the core of creation, Krishna returns to the
original subject, sacrifice, thus completing one cycle of yogic meditation. We
can see that the disciple’s instruction is quite profound already by this third
chapter. The guru has called up a very beautiful conception of sacrifice as a
reaching out for truth, matched with a natural reciprocation to form a bond or
union. A familiar example of such reciprocal movement takes place when we
strive to understand something and then take a break to “sleep on it.” Very
often fresh insight emerges from the unconscious after such a pattern of hard
work followed by quiet reflection.
annals of science are filled with tales of great discoveries made while resting
or sleeping off the stress of mental gymnastics performed to solve a problem.
Recent research has also shown that we consolidate what we have newly learned
only when we turn off our transactional mind and take rest. The conscious
effort, the sacrifice, is essential to the process, but it is not the whole story.
The effort must be followed by a letting go—another kind of sacrifice—which
invites the involvement of a much wider spectrum of intelligence to come into
play. Such an attitude can be cultivated regularly, by replacing
self-deprecating thoughts such as “I can’t do this,” or “I’m not smart enough,”
or even “I have to figure this out,” with “I’m going to open myself to all the
abilities hidden within me, and I’m sure they can help me rise to the
occasion.” Or “let’s see what the universe has to offer.” A simple change of
attitude like this can harmonize many chaotic and disused talents, allowing
them to imbue our steps with almost unlimited inspiration. That’s why one of
the most important beginning projects in the spiritual search is to befriend
yourself, to come to know that you are made of “star stuff” just like everybody
else, and that your potential is infinite.
who leads a life hereunder that does not conform to the rotation of such a
wheel—such a man of vicious lifetimes lives in vain indeed.
we return to Krishna speaking for himself. He endorses Prajapati’s concepts,
but only up to a point. The Prajapati section mainly served to demonstrate the
intricacies of contemplative investigation, using an important topic,
sacrifice. Arjuna will be expected to examine many other subjects on his own
using the same technique. Krishna’s final advice to him at the very end is to
scrutinize every situation and then act as he thinks best, and doing it
correctly requires a holistic vision. Acting on partial information invariably
goes off course.
Prajapati’s outlook epitomizes the
widely held belief in a world ruled by gods, which was being supplanted by a
more scientific outlook even in the Gita’s time. The tension between a fearful
humanity unable to embrace a universe of natural laws and a visionary few who
refuse to be bound by baseless theories is a perennial theme of human history.
In the second half of the work we will examine some of the impediments that
cause people to cling to absurdities and despise those who challenge them. The
next three verses propose the unitive solution that a yogi is expected to bring
to bear. Yogis are those who—like Arjuna—can no longer be constrained by
superstition, who are impelled to make progress in understanding despite
entrenched tribal attachments to the status quo.
wheel Krishna mentions is a symbol of living in harmony with nature, and how
give and take must be balanced for life to function smoothly. Those who take
for themselves without giving back live vain—empty—lives, and have a vicious
effect on the whole. They are the thieves of verse 12 and the evil sinners of
verse 13. Krishna has a major diatribe about such people in Chapter XVI. So the
spiritual quest begins with learning reciprocity with nature in all its
aspects, but that is only a launching pad to spring to the next level. A guru
will naturally exhort a disciple to perceive how important it is to be
unselfish and global in their understanding. Yet all this is only useful up to
a point. It pertains to the transactional plane, but is not essential to a seer
who has transcended the bondage of action, as already promised in II, 39, and
soon to be a major thrust of the teaching. The Gita’s decided recommendation,
unitive action, begins in the next verse.
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.
the next three verses Krishna describes the liberated seer who has overcome the
wheel of mandatory, reciprocal karmic activity. Once anyone attains a bipolar
relationship with the Absolute—the capital S self—there is true freedom. The
chains of obligation are broken and need not be reforged. For such a seer
“there is nothing he should do.”
Anything may be done, but there is no requirement, because the spirit of the
Absolute unfolds at all times with perfection. There is no need for any ritual
or the propitiation of any god, as they are extraneous to the direct absorption
in truth. They do serve as symbolic touchstones for some people, and as such
will be tolerated and even encouraged, but in themselves they are not
totally transcending any question of merit, the perfected state of attachment
to the Absolute is related to the supreme merit of verse 11 above. The ultimate
in terms of merit is attaining entry into heaven or becoming like a god or
having a terrific placement at rebirth. Truly supreme merit leaps out of the
context of merit entirely. Unity in the Absolute transcends all these alluring
but limited states, as will be made clear in the course of Krishna’s
unfoldment begins with deep attachments to the needs and requirements of
everyday life, not excluding religious matters, and moves to an ever-greater
attunement with the subtle, non-obligatory context that the Gita terms
sacrifice. In essence, the seeker’s trajectory is to transition from bondage to
freedom. Prajapati’s outlook, while decent, was nonetheless mired in obligatory
requirements, which accounts in great measure for the paeans to duty that are
so common among Gita advocates. The dedicated yogi should aim to go beyond not
only the bad but also the good forms of bondage or duty.
Gita has frequently been co-opted, like many scriptures, in the service of the
rich and powerful who wish to dictate our duty to us. Surprise! It turns out
our duty is to serve them and deny our own needs so we can get some future
payoff in heaven or the next life. As twentieth century philosopher Bertrand
Russell put it, “The concept of duty has been a means used by the holders of
power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than
for their own.” This is a very old sucker play (because it hardly ever fails to
work), but it’s crucial to realize that that’s what it is. In many places such
as this one, the Gita is abundantly clear that the individual, with
intelligence honed by deep contemplation, is the final arbiter of their own
actions. The few references to duty in the Gita direct the yogi away from
external influences to the “duty” of fealty to their authentic nature. The
Absolute speaks through the living, not the dead.
yogi should be especially alert regarding obligatory spiritual or religious rules,
which are often designed to convince people of the benefits of denying
themselves and serving someone else. There is a fine line between the healthy
reining in of the untempered ego and abusive self-abnegation, and it takes a
long time to develop the trust required before a disciple can safely surrender
their judgment to a guru or other therapist. The Gita counsels caution, and it
will take until the eleventh chapter before Arjuna’s trust is grounded firmly
enough to completely lay his doubts to rest.
misreading the Gita as an exhortation to duty, commentators insist that Krishna
is teaching Arjuna to get back to his appointed task, back to his war. On the
contrary, the Gita is showing us that sooner or later—often in a crisis—our
acceptance of an externally defined role brings us to a dead end, from which we
must somehow extricate ourselves. In the process of correctly addressing the
imbroglio we will rediscover our inner nature, our dharma. Once we know that,
we are free to choose our own path.
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.
verse directly contradicts Prajapati’s harmonious setup. The liberated one is
outside of cause and effect, the coils of karma, so the ancient laws have no
impact. Any results of work could be categorized under the terms of merit and
demerit. Such ideas bring the future into the picture, changing the outlook
from unitive to dualistic. This cannot be permitted by the Guru of the Gita.
Merit is therefore wholly and categorically discountenanced.
is elaborating the “there is nothing that he should do” (emphasis on should)
of the previous verse. Any
further implications of action beyond itself are false. In truth there is
nothing real that persists after action occurs. No action has any real or
lasting effect. This is a very radical, enlightened state of mind. Ordinarily
we are deflected to endless ramifications by our attachment to what we have
done, either positively or negatively. This unitive attitude leads directly to
the conclusion stated in the next verse. Because it is counterintuitive,
Krishna will spend some time explaining it in detail in the rest of the
sure to note the symmetrical dialectical reduction in this definitive verse: no
results from work done or work not done; no dependency on any other being
whatsoever. The tangled skeins of action (karma) are to be shed in their
always remain detached, engage yourself in actions that are necessary; indeed,
performing actions with detachment man attains to the Supreme.
the first time the Gita mentions detachment, which is one of several buzzwords
like sacrifice and worship in dire need of revaluation. Simplistic
interpretations lead to psychic deadening, quite the opposite of the Gita’s
intention. Does a dispassionate attitude mean nonparticipation in life? The
usual assumption is that it does; yet the usual assumption is wrong. As with
dualistic vs. unitive action, there is a subtle distinction involved that makes
all the difference.
adopt a negative, unhelpful form of dispassion as children, when our
enthusiasms are thwarted by adults and we have no way to express ourselves as
we wish. We learn to turn off our own feelings and sit in a sullen, resentful
stillness, which adults often consider acceptable. After all, to them being
still is being “well behaved.” If we’re well behaved we are left alone to work
out our personal programs in secret. This is a very common behavioral quirk
that gets easily laid over the transcendental concept of dispassion. We think
we are supposed to suppress ourselves in the interest of some externally
ordained divine program. It’s an extension of following the rules of polite
of action leads to chaos in the psyche. It will appear to be exemplary behavior
for awhile, and may fool other people, but it has an extremely corrosive effect
in the long term. The process of severing ties with the world that passes for
detachment is often cruel and unnecessary. The Gita prefers expert interaction
with everything one encounters.
is teaching that detachment is not the mere withdrawal from action, not simply
the antithesis of impulsive behavior. By balancing the urge to act with the
stillness of inaction, a neutral, poised state of mind emerges as the
synthesis, which is the optimal attitude. We can most easily see this in the
artist who holds all extraneous thoughts in abeyance while simultaneously
plunging ahead with the production of the work.
a nutshell, when one is satisfied in the Self, fully absorbed and grounded in
the eternal Absolute, it is easy and effortless to view fleeting events from a
detached perspective. In ordinary life we fixate on the changing and forget the
eternal aspect of what we encounter. We are now being asked to reincorporate
the eternal into the transient. Both the lasting and the temporary belong
together in a total realization of the nature of the universe.
it bears mentioning that the necessary actions Krishna is referring to are
things like taking care of the body, activities really and truly mandated by
nature. Religious-minded commentators always imagine that their particular
favorite ideology is “necessary” but that is an unwarranted interpretation
contrary to the spirit of the Gita.
and such others reached perfection even performing acts. Again, having due
regard for the integration of the world too, you have to act.
is a famous king of ancient India, whose story is recounted in the
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and elsewhere. He is brought in to emphasize the
supreme value of living a life of wisdom engaged in the world. A king is
subject to an unending series of demands from events and other people.
Beginning students of spirituality believe they should discard all activities
in order to attend to their inner growth. But life coaxes forth inner growth
via a series of outer conundrums we must deal with intelligently. Turning away
from them is tantamount to turning away from our innate guru-principle.
Gita is a textbook of dialectics, also known as yoga. This means in part that
you should find a happy medium between your personal self-interest and the
world’s needs. Your own happiness and that of others should be able to coexist.
At least from your side there is no grasping for what belongs to the other. If
the other is grasping for what’s yours, it often serves them better to be
rebuked than to just selflessly be given what they’re after. At other times it
may work fine to unreservedly give it to them. The trick is that each situation
is different. The more you can be awake to the nuances of the moment and the
more you are free from acting out of a pre-established formula, the more
helpful and in tune with the greatest good your actions will be.
best thing you can do for the world is to bring your own happiness and wisdom
to every situation. You can’t teach happiness if you yourself don’t experience
it. So find it and then share it.
may be the way of life that a superior man adopts—that very one is (followed)
by other people. What he makes his guiding principle, the world behaves even
according to the same.
seamless flow of ideas in this chapter takes one’s breath away. Particularly in
contradistinction with the heterogeneous format of most Indian scriptures, the
coherence of the Gita is spectacular. Each verse leads ingeniously to the next,
which simultaneously resolves it and furthers its implications. Even
disregarding the significance of the teachings it contains, this organization
reveals a masterwork virtually unequalled in human endeavor. No wonder some
enthusiasts are tempted to wax rhapsodic, even calling it the work of a god!
though some like to think of Krishna as God—and he certainly symbolizes the
Absolute here—few serious scholars argue that the work is anything other than a
wisdom teaching written down by an anonymous human being. A very brilliant
human at that.
21 is quite simple, after some previous heavy going. Those in the public eye
teach by example, more than they ever could communicate by mere words. Those
interested in wisdom use the wise for guidance (just as those interested in
arrogance find the arrogant inspiring, the greedy are inspired by the greedy,
etc.). Disciples are supposed to study the actions of the guru, which embody
the truth of the teachings. Of course if the actions are at odds with the teachings,
then the guru is a hypocrite and they should look elsewhere for instruction.
Ultimately the disciples are not expected to lift their behavior out of thin
air; only the spirit of it needs to be original. The point here is that
learning by example is superior to learning by rote.
is a tremendous implication to this simple idea. So many humans feel that they
have to instruct others on how to behave, it amounts to almost a mania of the
species. We especially feel a compunction to be didactic with children. But dry
argumentation is more off-putting than inspiring, and children especially are
acutely sensitive to any discrepancy between words and deeds. What is really
communicated is our beingness, not our verbiage. We teach by example much more
than by directive. Therefore we should teach ourselves, and hold back on the
primal instinct to manage others’ lives. If we want to improve others we should
that in this verse Krishna is warning Arjuna to be careful of his behavior are
way off base. This is not about adopting an artful persona to parade before the
public, as many religious and political figures obsess over. Acting
self-consciously is contrary to the unfettered spiritual openness that is a
keynote of the entire work. He is merely reminding us to act with expertise,
because who we are has a direct effect on people.
is nothing in the three worlds that I am obliged to do, nor anything
unaccomplished to be accomplished, while still I remain active (in principle).
spherical pulsation model of the manifested world characterizes the Gita’s
overview of existence. Everything emerges from a point or seed, expands to its
natural limit, and then contracts to be epitomized once again in a new seed.
This contrasts with the linear model adopted by the narrow purview of modern
rationalism, where everything is linked in an endless chain of simplistically
conceived causation. Local events on planet earth appear to be evolving in a
linear fashion, but that is only because such a small sample is being taken. In
the same way, the earth appears to be flat to its inhabitants, though those
with a wider comprehension know it to be spherical. For those experiencing
flatness it would be beside the point to assert that the sphericality of earth
mattered, and so commonsense perception can deal with local evolution without
particularly taking note of the bigger picture. Expansion of consciousness is a
voluntary matter, after all.
modern times, physicists have looked far enough back in time to posit a Big
Bang of our universe bursting from a singularity, and now in the twenty-first
century are suspecting the existence of prior Bangs. It is quite logical that
the miracle of the universe would pulsate gradually on and off, if you stop to
think about it, since everything happens in waves.
you think about things even more, there must be some kind of impetus to the
universe. Theologians call it the inscrutable Will of God; scientists conceive
of an inconceivable primal force. Whatever it is can be described in various
ways without losing any of its power. Names do not limit what they are naming,
except possibly in the minds of the namers.
an inconceivable wavelike impetus energizes the universe, or an infinite chain
of universes. We go along with the pulsation like fish in a current. In some
such manner the Absolute is involved with and yet beyond existence. It’s a fine
subject for contemplation, as when a true mystic opens their heart to the
onrushing wave, as Henri Bergson put it.
three worlds of ancient Indian philosophy are earth, heaven and the in-between.
In modern terms we would say matter, space (or emptiness), and either subatomic
particles or energy. Once being created, a universe runs along quite nicely on
its matter and energy for a very long time.
is an additional implication here, that the universe is not building to some
teleological goal. It is created for sport, for the fun of it, nothing more or
less. Again, if we examine only a small part it looks very much like more
complex animals are being evolved from less complex, which implies that there
is a super-complex being in our future. Perhaps that is why Bergson also joked
that the universe is a machine for making gods. But from a remote enough viewpoint,
everything is implicit in the original seed, and it comes into and goes out of
existence in a cosmic day and night cycle, purely for the delight of being
alive. That’s what Krishna means by saying that there is not anything
unaccomplished yet to be accomplished. Even the gods that are created by day
are dissolved in the absolute darkness of the cosmic night.
we are working toward a divinely appointed end makes for hell worlds of duty
and merit, filled with hard work and punishment. Accepting the divine sport
model should make for paradise on earth, as humans amplify and share the
intended delight of creation. Happiness and kindness make for a more enjoyable
journey, wherever we may be going.
I should not remain active (in principle), never relaxing, men in every walk of
life would take to my (inactive) way.
not only emulate other people, they emulate the Absolute without even knowing
it, since its currents run in the very veins of the universe. If you take a
broad view of history or evolution, you can see large-scale trends in which
individual achievements are like single bricks in a gigantic edifice: they have
their important place, but its location is determined by the overall structure.
Without this coherence, the glorious Taj Mahal of human achievement would more
closely resemble a pile of rubble. Nothing can exist in isolation. Life is a
web of interrelations.
world is full of gyroscopes, used ubiquitously in transportation through fluid
mediums, in everything from bicycles (their wheels) to spacecraft. They
stabilize movement and resist changes in direction, and so are essential to
guidance. Spinning atoms are complex miniature gyroscopes as well. There is
thus an intrinsic directional force in the very core of nature, and macrocosmic
phenomena surf its waves. The innate urges in beings are impelled by these
energies. We call the direction these energies take “the meaning of life.”
meaning, the coherent direction of evolution would peter out. Humans who lack a
sense of meaning act chaotically, and even criminally. Homing in on the
unifying hub of the Absolute provides a polar star to sail by.
is a paradox here. Lazy people like to believe that since a god is running
things they don’t have to do anything: it is all taken care of. Fate is in
charge, not them. But the Gita is saying that precisely because the Absolute is
active, humans must also be active. This is because we are the very mechanisms
that are able to bring the impetus of the Absolute into being. Conversely, if
the universe was static, there would be no need for us to be creative. But it
is by no means fixed. It is an experiment to see what we can come up with, and
we are integral participants in it.
this verse, Krishna is merely pointing out to Arjuna that the unfoldment of
each universe is coherent and intelligent. As a result, life is coherent and
intelligent. It is meaningful. Humans are extremely fortunate this is so,
otherwise everything would have to be built up from scratch and there would be
no time left over for what we call creative endeavors: tinkering with the raw
materials that nature so generously gifts us.
crazed fundamentalists have adopted the term “intelligent design” as a code for
their god, scientists have been drawn into their game and insisted there is no
intelligent design. But how much more intelligent can the world be? It is
already spectacularly intelligent. It’s just that the intelligence is intrinsic
to every part, and not governed from without. It is a process and not a fait
accompli. Try inventing your own plant or animal or star some time, and you’ll
realize just how brilliantly complex the ones we see around us on every side
are. The yogi is encouraged to wonder and be moved by the amazing intelligence
pulsing in every corner of the cosmos, without having to imagine any celestial
puppeteer behind the scenes.
(various) worlds would fall into ruin should I refrain from activity, and I
would become the agent of (evolutive) confusion, killing in effect the peoples.
Absolute is the epitome of creativity, and its activity is creative activity.
When creativity is absent from activity, it is like a living death. Repetitive,
empty action is soul destroying, while variety is stimulating. So in order to
live an exceptional life, we must bring the Absolute in as a creative factor.
This not only makes every action exciting and productive, it reveals its
meaningful relationship to everything else. Confusion occurs when meaning is
absent, when the connection with the Absolute is absent. Meaning gives
direction and purpose to life.
is once again providing Arjuna with a rich source of contemplative insight, for
him to further pursue on his own. One example of a typical meditation on this
verse could be the development of a fetus, which takes place totally without
any direct conscious involvement. An unbelievably complex series of events
unfolds with a high percentage of perfect success, completely on its own, so to
speak. Where does the guidance for this masterful symphony come from? Can a
human (merely) being, as E. E. Cummings would call us, coax a sprout to come
out of a seed? How would you train it to reach up and absorb light, and another
part to go down and imbibe mineral-filled water? Meditating on the vast
preponderance of life that comes to us freely as a form of blessing from the
cosmos is like placing a gyroscope of gratitude and stability in your psyche.
The bloated ego that imagines itself to be an isolated agent deflates in
consequence to a more normal size, while the heart expands to fill the vacuum.
disciple who has not imagined that they are a beneficiary of nearly infinite
largesse on the part of the universe, and is likewise incapable of giving
anything significant in return, is not yet fit to begin wisdom study. This is
another preliminary matter the guru is directing us to sort out.
me put this same proposition in positive terms, lest all those negatives
confuse you. A disciple must imagine that they are the beneficiary of nearly
infinite largesse on the part of the Absolute or the universe. Such awareness
brings the humility of realizing you don’t really have much to offer a wholly
complete Source that has nothing unaccomplished to be accomplished. Where you
once thought you were a “hot shot” you now know you are just one part of a
magnificent process. This brings an even-minded humility that is a proper
starting point for the development of wisdom.
the same manner as uninstructed people would take to activity with attachment
to work, the instructed man likewise should act without attachment, interested
(merely) in world order.
upon a time, before time began, the unmanifested Absolute wondered “What good
am I?” and all of Creation is the infinite answer to the infinite potential of
that question. Each of us is a unique piece of the answer. If we try to imitate
somebody else, or worse yet follow in the ruts laid down by self-serving
control freaks of the past, we aren’t doing anything to liberate our uniqueness
so we can reveal the nature of the Absolute to itself. Creativity reveals the
new and repetition preserves the old, and both are to be exercised together to
optimize our contribution.
affords us a million opportunities to creatively support and love our neighbors
around the globe. The justice this engenders is the enlightened world order
that Krishna is speaking of. Too often verses propounding order are cited to
support a static, joyless, totally programmed workaday world reminiscent of the
anthill of fascist imagination. Au contraire: the Absolute’s non-obligatory
order is wholly dynamic and creative.
the verse means is that many people believe they should be kind, and so try hard to live up to their expectations. It’s
hard work, and their balloon can easily be popped, causing rage and
frustration. Others are kind, and so
their default setting is kindness. When their balloon pops, they are still
kind. That’s the difference between dualistic and unitive behavior. We become
kind not by trying to be it, but by admiring the absolute perfection at the
heart of existence. The more we attune to what the world really is, the more
kind, compassionate, loving, and so on we will be. Naturally.
humble attitude developed in the previous verse is hereby invited to join the
fray. We should participate as best we can in lending our energies to the
harmonious expression of the divine in life. This is only safe to do after we
have thoroughly practiced the foregoing meditation on our true place in the
scheme of things and experiencing for ourselves the benign nature of the
underlying paradigm, otherwise we may unintentionally underwrite the nefarious
activities of merely human manipulators.
is well aware that for the uninstructed this teaching can lead to an emphasis
on work as an end in itself. Calvinist and Puritan workaholism and fascist
slave labor camps are recent examples of how this type of thinking can go wrong
in the hands of misery-motivated theologians and philosophers. Those who
fantasize an angry, vengeful God inject poison into the system. Fighting in
God’s army should be ruled out in advance. We are instead called to appreciate
the amazing and kindly harmony through which our life is maintained, and to
seek to further it, both in ourself and for the benefit of others.
only way to guarantee that we won’t be led astray into some self-righteous mob
mentality is to act without attachment. So much blood has been shed in the name
of God or some other version of the highest good, we should have learned by now
not to take the bait. But over and over again the human race goes to war or
builds a police state to “set things right.” It takes a lot of creative insight
to see how repression and intolerance are the very attachments that must be
given up, because they are our gut reactions. The true way to set things right
is to learn compassion and tolerance, and practice extending them to everyone.
person who is wise should not give room for disruption in the way of thinking
of those who have not attained wisdom, but by behaving unitively should render
every kind of action enjoyable.
operative principle here is making life enjoyable. It’s not only that we should
aim at increasing the general happiness, but that the impetus of the Absolute is
always in that direction. All we have to do is link up with it, and we will be
on the right track.
being said, humans have a penchant for viewing others, especially those from
different ethnic groups, extremely critically. Why is it that half-baked
thinkers always imagine the other person is the one in need of correction? It
is far easier to see someone else’s mistakes than our own, but unsolicited
advice is a double fault. It insults the recipient and reveals an ugly
pretension of superiority in the proselytizer. The other person is already
doing the best they can, so we should tend to our own business unless our
advice is asked for.
secret truth is that many humans learn to point to the faults of others in
order to turn attention away from their own shortcomings. They feel exposed and
embarrassed about themselves, so they make a lot of noise about their
neighbors. The ruse can become magnified into bullying behavior, which is on
very public display in the swaggering political pundits of today. All the sound
and fury is an expansion of deeply felt insecurity and self-doubt. Those who
are comfortable with themselves will also be comfortable with other people and
behavior in interactions with ordinary people outside our preferred wisdom
context means being attuned to the requirements of the situation as it unfolds,
without expectations and without clinging to our limited models. We must
relinquish the evidently normal assumption that we are on the side of right,
and folks who feel differently are wrong and in need of discipline. Once we
imagine we are helping someone as their superior, that fantasy deflects our
attention from full participation and corrupts the interchange. What could be
enjoyable becomes bitter. When we are unitively engaged in meeting
contingencies as they arise, especially with another person, and even more
especially with someone outside our normal comfort zone, the exchange becomes a
deeply exciting and satisfying challenge.
easiest way to cure the nearly universal impulse to enlighten others is to
meditate on the perfection and wonder of every aspect of creation, and in
particular of each human being. They are so completely unique, despite sharing
a common structure, we could learn an infinite amount from every one of them.
Merely appreciating how special they are could keep us entertained for years.
Meditating on how little we actually know of even our closest friends takes
this even further. We have only to step out from behind our assumption of knowing
when we really know almost nothing, and we can easily relinquish our false
sense of superiority. The ego is afraid to admit its ignorance, but yogis
should take their own immeasurable limitations for granted.
people who think they are wise intentionally disrupt the thinking of trusting
folk who are searching for wisdom. They are pleased to win them to their
preferred cause by whatever means, and consider it a victory to scramble the
truth and then serve up a persuasive facsimile. The outcome is usually an
increase in hostility based on factionalism. To distinguish between proper and
improper actions, Krishna offers a measuring rod of unitive activity: it
renders every action enjoyable. True joy is felt by all involved. Although some
humans take delight in expressing hatred and cruelty, their victims do not
share their pleasure. Joy is not only gentle and kind, it fosters similar
sentiments in those in the neighborhood.
don’t have to agree with the wild notions that others may be carried away with,
but we can smile and nod and not combat them, so long as they are not
particularly harmful. Toxic beliefs are a different matter, and we are
counseled to stand firm against them. Yet, as always, the real battleground is
in our own psyche. Our example to others should be of the manifold blessings
that come from a well directed self-examination.
wise always seek opportunities to improve themselves. Nitya Chaitanya Yati
nicely sums up the practice of yogic self-examination in his commentary on Patanjali’s
Yoga Shastra (pp. 195-99):
· understand the screen on which the
play of life is projected and that you are not different from the experiences
you are projecting
· create a conducive environment by
carefully structuring your world
· withdraw your mind from the
marketplace where it gets easily soiled
· respond to your nightmares arising
from irrational fears by going deeply into the areas of the mind and
illuminating them with the inner light of the Self
· see the impermanence of the causes
· avoid that which can be avoided,
mitigate that which can be mitigated
· live simply
of the occasion, it is nature that through the gunas accomplishes every act.
One possessed of egoism, however, thinks of himself as the actor.
Gita maintains that life is nature unfolding and expressing itself according to
its innate potential. We are fortunate to be able to witness the process, the
“greatest show on earth!” as the circus marquees state, but are in charge of
only the tiniest part it. The ego tries to validate itself by taking credit for
making things happen, but the Absolute, which really does animate the whole
game, bears no such sense of inadequacy. As we mature, we should get over the
need to prove ourselves, and just be who we are, which is wonderful enough. We
should identify with the Absolute and not so much with our ego. Spiritual
unfoldment includes enlarging our identity from the ego to the Absolute.
Rabindranath Tagore visited Narayana Guru and complimented him on all his
achievements as a social reformer, on the “great work” he was doing for the
people, his response was immediate. “Neither have we done anything in the past
nor is it possible to do anything in the future. Powerlessness fills us with
sorrow.” The Guru could see many things he would like to have happen, but he
knew he was at most an incidental cause, and life was ripening all around him
at its own pace. Relinquishing the egoism of imagining ourself as the actor,
doer and enjoyer of things that will eventually happen anyway releases us from
much frustration and misery.
the other hand—and in yoga there is almost always a flip side to any
argument—historical personages can on rare occasions have a very influential
role in the unfolding of collective karma. They can function as a kind of
shorthand for the mysterious dynamism taking place, becoming a rallying cry and
uniting link for widely divergent factions. They can inspire transformative
efforts, whether they themselves are active or not. Most subtle of all, they
can be, as in the case of important religious or mystical figures like Narayana
Guru or Muhammad, scientists like Einstein or Newton, political theorists like
Marx or Jefferson, and so many more, living channels for the transformative
energy itself. The key is that the energy only flows when there is little or no
ego to block it. The moment you think, “I’m in charge,” or “I’m bringing light
to the people,” etc., the transparency of the original impetus becomes tainted.
The clear light of the Absolute becomes colored. Once the fountain source is
cut off, the pool it previously refreshed begins to stagnate. Thus Narayana
Guru had to firmly reject Tagore’s compliment, in order to preserve his purity
as a disinterested conduit.
that aside, isn’t it amazing that we so often imagine ourselves to be the
initiators of events, when in actuality we have only the slightest imaginable
effect, and are really only going along with what is already taking place? We
see how an act of ours causes certain trivial effects, and get a swelled head
over it. We say we do this or that, but what we are actually doing is meeting
contingencies as they arise. Our present is a bundle of effects from previous
causes stretching into the infinite past. Even those few who “change the course
of history” are mainly in the right place at the right time with the right
tools. Leo Tolstoy, in War and Peace,
makes the same point:
In historical events great men—so
called—are but the labels that serve to give a name to an event, and like
labels, they have the last possible connection with the event itself. Every
action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in an
historical sense not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous
history, and predestined from all eternity.
A healthy spiritual attitude recognizes this fact and
doesn’t have any problem letting go of imagining it is in control. Instead we
should be admiring the magnificent way that life unfolds and includes us in its
wide embrace, inviting our participation.
is a tribute to the boundless hubris of human beings that they can believe that
man alone in all the universe has achieved the ability to think and act
unconditionally, thereby transcending trial-and-error methods. Yet all other
forces, including the impulse that created the universe, are bound by ironclad
laws. The human mind, due to its unique complexity and nothing else, has at
long last succeeded in bringing reason onto the scene. As Mark Twain would say,
“Isn’t that just like an oyster?” that being another creature that Twain
humorously supposed imagines it is the end point and shining pinnacle of
evolution. Such conceit is highly destructive, as a glance at the current state
of the planet will attest.
apologize for picking on E. O. Wilson, because he’s not the most execrable of
the materialists by a long shot. That’s why I’m reading his book. But speaking
of oysters, there is no hint of tongue in cheek in his statement:
In every game of evolutionary
chance, played from one generation to the next, a very large number of
individuals must live and die. The number, however, is not countless. A rough
estimate can be made of it, providing at least a plausible order-of-magnitude
guess. For the entire course of evolution leading from our primitive mammalian
forebears of a hundred million years ago to the single lineage that threaded
its way to become the first Homo sapiens, the total number of individuals it
required might have been one hundred billion. Unknowingly, they all lived and
died for us. (op cit. 21-22)
Twain’s ghost must be roaring with laughter!
gunas or nature modalities will be described in detail through much of the last
third of the book, being one of the Gita’s major themes. Briefly, they are
three aspects of nature that combine in various ways to affect or color each
person’s experience. As a group they may be read simply as “nature.” The
Upanishadic attitude presented in this verse is closely akin to that of modern
materialist science, which finds very little if any room for original actions,
holding that consciousness is nothing more than a conditioned response of
complex structures of inert matter. While perhaps an excusable corrective for
egoism, as it is here employed, it smacks of rampant fatalism. Happily,
Vedantins (and some postmodern scientists) do postulate in addition to our
helplessness a state of creative, unconditioned consciousness, the exploration
of which is the goal of the Gita’s teachings.
the other hand, the one who knows the principle underlying guna as distinct
from karma, holding the view that (subjective) modes inhere in (their
corresponding objective) modes, is not affected.
is a difficult verse, but if thought of as the dialectical opposite of the
previous one, it becomes much more clear. Taken together, the pair is quite
spectacular. We can either think of ourselves as making decisions based on our
wants, or we can posit that our decisions can entrain a kind of “cosmic
background radiation” of natural forces. The former attitude generates anxiety
and fear of failure, while the latter breeds trust and appreciation; the first
is grim and the second is permeated with a sense of humor: an unbearable
lightness of being.
gist could be rendered as saying that if you know that actions pertain to the
realm of action, and you relinquish the sense of agency, you will not be caught
by the chains of effects that your actions produce. Or: if you don’t think of
yourself as the actor, and keep in mind that the action realm is automatic and
predetermined, you are not bound, even though you continue to perform actions.
practice this means that before starting a spiritual quest we have been trained
to totally identify with what we do. We think our actions define us. Gradually
we come to realize we are much more than the field of action: our true being is
far greater than any of our actions, our knowledge, or even our enjoyment of
living. When we know this greater self (which we often capitalize as Self), we
can still own our experience but it doesn’t have the devastating impact it once
did. If we know that our deepest being is eternal and remains steady through
all the vicissitudes of existence, it is easy to keep a “cool head” under
Gita is agreeing closely with modern notions of the brain and mind, where all
thoughts, desires, and mental states are viewed as the inevitable outcome of
chemical processes. The rishis somehow were also aware that most of our
apparent freedom of choice is merely learned behavior in fresh guises, and our
drives are subconsciously impelled by memories and neural wiring and trace
metal contamination and so on. The Gita acquiesces that it is very rare for
anyone to escape this natural bondage, yet the book has no reason to exist
beyond showing us the way it can be done.
the search is on to discover the physical basis of every disease or disquiet of
the mind, to say nothing of consciousness itself. Such a viewpoint must bring
despair over the totality of the shackles we are subjected to. Inherent structural
defects that dictate our actions are virtually impossible to rectify, so we
must accept them as our lot in life.
science thus preaches its own brand of fatalism. It may some day seek a route
to liberation from all this determinism, which would be a useful science
indeed. It would then be following the glowing traces of the Science of the
Absolute as bequeathed by the ancient seers.
philosophy agrees with science that the mental and physical aspects of life are
not two separate things; if not identical they are at least intimately related.
All liberation is imaginary that does not take every aspect of bondage
seriously. That’s the correct starting point of the search. Arjuna’s despair on
the battlefield is due to this exact awareness of how constrained he was to
ghastly options, and it pressed him to seek a radical solution. Bondage can
either force our resignation or motivate us to a powerful effort. As Shankara
put it, you must desire wisdom as much as a deer caught in a forest fire wants
to escape. Lukewarm indulgences don’t motivate you enough.
literally must be room for creativity
in life, for new things to occur. Otherwise the universe would be completely
static, with all options decided in the first nanosecond. No creativity means
either everything was made at the very outset, or at least the blueprint for
everything was set in stone, predestined. These are very unappetizing options,
sounding much more like religion than science. Anyone who believes in
evolution, for example, should have no problem with accepting a potential for
freedom of some form of choice within the sea of fixed conditioning. Are we
probing into the Unknown, or merely replicating the known, like placing our
feet on a dance chart on the floor? And who made that dance chart in the first
place? Even if free choice is exceedingly rare, the smallest amount of it must
outweigh all the forced choices in the galaxy. The real tragedy is that so many
are striving to stamp it out in its infancy, rather than promoting it to the
crucial role it could play in furthering evolution.
the perspective of the ancient rishis, the first division of a unitive
world-situation was into two: purusha and prakriti, usually translated as
spirit and nature. Nature is the part that conforms to physical laws, while
spirit is creative and metaphysical. We can think of it as the realm of ideas,
with different laws than the physical. Its parameters are the laws of harmony,
synthesis, reciprocity, and the percolation of inventiveness into life.
Creativity. Exploring this terrain is an exercise in freedom.
science to imagine it has completely grasped reality is an absurd conceit
perennially disproved by a flood of new findings. If science does not intend to
explore human liberation, it will be consigning itself to backwater issues of
minimal importance. The self-limiting hypotheses it adopts should be properly
understood as temporary gambits and not some kind of finalized wisdom.
confounded by the modalities of nature become attached to objective modalities
existing in works. Such men who are not all-wise, and are dull, should not be
unsettled by those who are all-wise.
nature—the creative urge and manifestation of the Absolute—impels us to act, we
don’t notice the impulse itself, we only see the interface we have with the
world around us. We become embroiled in wrestling with “things,” and so in a
sense become captivated by them. We have to deal with the effects of the unseen
Cause, and they can come at us fast and furiously, like a volley of arrows.
Wisdom consists in remaining aware of the overarching cause behind the myriad
effects, which automatically allows a substantial degree of healthy detachment
from their demands. The First Cause is of course what philosophers call the
Absolute, symbolized in the Gita by Krishna.
Gita lumps everyone who loses sight of the Cause and becomes mired down in
aftereffects dull witted, no matter how intelligent they might be. There are
some very intelligent people who stringently insist on limiting their
parameters to a very narrow window. The ninth verse if the Isa Upanishad
famously says: “Into blinding darkness enter they that worship ignorance. Into
darkness greater than that, as it were, they that delight in knowledge.” The
Upanishad is asserting that an ignorant person will at least potentially have
an open mind, while an intellectual who insists that the panoply of effects is
all that matters will refuse to admit anything else into their consciousness,
and by zealously guarding their darkness they become permanently confounded.
science vaporized the imposing walls of materialism based on appearances at the
beginning of the twentieth century. More than a hundred years later we have still
not fully grasped the implications of relativity, uncertainty, and quantum
mechanics, none of which are aligned with “common sense.”
than once the Gita counsels the wise to not upset the balance of those who
aren’t interested in contemplation. If you want to relate solely with the
apparent “facts” of the sensory world, you should be free to do so. Only when
those facts bare their teeth in a crisis situation do some begin to wonder
about the wizard behind the curtain, as L. Frank Baum pictured the invisible
causative principle of disorienting illusions in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Buddha is reputed to have said, “Do not teach those who do not want to know.”
This is excellent advice. Pressing your beliefs on a resisting party has only
negative effects. Yet once someone becomes “unsettled” they most certainly may
be offered succor if they request it.
in Me all works, coming to be without expectation or possessiveness, with a
full awareness about the Self, do fight with fever gone.
30 culminates the very important section on the gunas and action begun in verse
27. When Krishna speaks of himself, we must always remember the Gita is
referring to the Absolute, the unlimited, incomprehensible, supreme mystery.
Krishna is a guru teaching Arjuna, but guru nature is identical with the
Absolute. We will be led very far astray into absurdities if we mistake the
temporal embodiment for the eternal Source. We may certainly honor the
embodiment, but we must always refer to what it is an embodiment of, or we are
guilty of idol worship. Substituting an idol for the Supreme kills the spirit
and leads to the creation of beliefs and religions. The Gita considers this a
serious error, as will be frequently noted.
guru’s instruction here is to renounce all actions into the Absolute, which
permits us to be without possessiveness or expectations. What exactly does this
of all, we can’t help but have hopes for our endeavors, and stifling them
outright is not healthy. They are intrinsic to our vision and sense of purpose.
Hopes—which after all are a lighter version of expectations—are a natural part
of action, and should be treated as such. We should take note of them with
compassionate amusement. The yogic technique to deal with them is to bring in
doubt as an antithesis to expectation, by assuring ourself that the future
isn’t going to happen the way we imagine or wish it would. The opposing
propositions of hope and doubt then cancel each other out, leaving us with an
open, balanced mind, expectant but not anticipatory.
that expectations color results no matter how strenuously we try to keep them
at bay is the reason scientific experiments employ a double blind format, where
the participants don’t even know what they’re testing. It has been repeatedly
demonstrated that our unconscious assumptions have a measurable impact on our
environment. We can have the best intentions in the world to remain unbiased,
but simply because we view things from a particular perspective they take on a
certain slant. Like dedicated scientific investigators, spiritual seekers of
truth don’t want to impair their vision with prejudices, but rather see clearly
what is in front of them. Attaining the proper frame of mind requires
substantial effort to annul both conscious and unconscious desires. If we are
able to keep our mind open, life will always exceed our expectations.
examining the entire spectrum of possible feelings on any conceivable continuum
we can attain a balance of mind that precludes the need for conscious
expectations, at least. In other words a clear-eyed assessment is adequate
enough that we don’t need to lay any additional desires onto the situation.
Moreover, a state of equipoise doesn’t require any additional input from us to become
what it already is. Once we are in tune with our dharma, our innate
propensities, our actions will unfold naturally and do not need to be prodded
along with any goal-orientation. Until we know our dharma, though, the goal of
discovering it is a reasonable expectation to have.
you meditate on action as a general category, the specific impulses arising
from your personal needs are lessened and eventually brought to a minimum.
Certain actions still are necessary, and these are to be understood as arising
from the Absolute as the supporter of the General Good. What you do is no
longer selfishly motivated, but is in keeping with the greatest benefit of
everyone involved, including you. Admittedly, this is very tricky and requires
a lot of thought. The Gita describes it as “elusively subtle indeed” (IV, 17).
But even a beginning effort weans you away from selfish motivations, which are
the source of most of the misery and conflict on the human plane of existence.
Gita has a very practical plan to achieve unitive action, recommending that you
subtract any expectations about the outcome from the actions you perform. By
not having expectations you become totally open to what’s happening in the
present moment, and can truly experience things as if for the first time. This
artistic, zenlike attitude of direct involvement has been watered down and
muddied by countless interpreters peddling slavish adherence to doctrine and
duty, which is clearly the opposite of the Gita’s intent.
action is poetically presented in the Bible, especially Matt. 6:25-34, part of
the Sermon on the Mount, well worth a reread, by the way. Jesus asks his
followers to consider the lilies of the field, which don’t fret about anything
but just grow. Birds are mentioned also, because they are more active than
plants but live elegantly without premeditation or fearfulness. He concludes
this beautiful passage by recommending his disciples seek the Absolute first
and foremost, and all their needs will mysteriously be taken care of. This is
the same concept as Krishna’s “renounce in Me all works.” As with many
religions, the purity of the initial teaching has been redirected later on into
manufacturing zombie-like rule-obeying acolytes by certain power-mongers.
more will be said about action as we proceed, but one of the key teachings of
the Gita is that we should arrive at a place where we are no longer driven by
possessiveness and expectations for future gains. We can and should have
things, especially those essential to our well being, but we need to be free
from attachment to them, so that we don’t grieve when they inevitably
disappear. An inner confidence can be cultivated in the all-supportive
Absolute, which has ever, and will always continue, to provide for our needs.
There is no spiritual benefit to worrying about these matters, even as we
attend to them with our own best efforts. More on possessiveness can be found
particularly at IV, 21.
last part of this verse is also the first significant transmutation of the battle
cry that opened the war. In the first chapter there is a real war about to
break out, and Arjuna wants to learn how to resolve the crisis with
intelligence rather than bloodshed. In II, 37, in the section devoted to
rationalism, Krishna says “Therefore arise, O Arjuna, making up your mind to
fight.” Because the war is meant to stand for the ubiquitous challenges of
life, the Gita has rapidly moved up from the transactional setting to the level
of thoughtful reflection. Now we have come to the idea of a balanced actor
performing actions without attachment to the pressure of necessity, as
epitomized by the gunas. There remains a vestige of the battlefield context in
Krishna’s call to fight, but the battle is to be fought as a calm
contemplative, not as an impassioned warrior. If you stop here you would
believe Arjuna should still go ahead and fight as a righteous warrior in the
actual war, but with a sense of detachment. This is as far as many people go in
adopting unitive action from the Gita—doing what they were going to do to begin
with, only without desire—but it is by no means the final word, as we shall
refinement of this subject lies ahead. At the end of this chapter, Krishna
tells Arjuna to “kill that enemy in the form of desire, so difficult to
overcome.” At the end of the following chapter Krishna’s exhortation becomes:
“Therefore, sundering with the sword of Self-knowledge this ignorance-born
doubt residing in the heart, stand firm in the unitive way, and stand up,
Arjuna.” Beyond that the directives become even more sublime, including “at all
times remember Me and fight,” (VIII, 7), culminating in the conclusion at the
end of the work: “critically scrutinizing all, omitting nothing, do as you
like.” These developments will be discussed as we come to them. Whether Arjuna
as a warrior should actually fight or not can be argued until doomsday. Leaving
that issue aside, the Gita is aiming for a general exhortation for all people
in all circumstances who are mature enough to include unitive wisdom in their
purview. We are being called to engage in life, and not try to escape it.
too, who ever adhere to this doctrine of mine, men full of faith and free from
any mistrust in respect of it—they gain release from (obligatory) works.
his commentary, Sri Aurobindo is worried by the idea of freedom from
obligations, fearing the collapse of civilization if people don’t do their
duty, but he makes a terrific point in favor of freedom first. Citing the
famous story of the Buddha stealing away in the night from his wife and child,
seeking long and hard, and finally giving up and becoming enlightened, he
compares it to the widespread belief that Krishna is instructing Arjuna to get
back into the battle and fight. Does this mean that the Buddha shouldn’t teach
after he becomes enlightened, but instead merely return to his family and his
princedom? Should Swami Ramakrishna hie back to the humble grade school in
which he was teaching and avoid the limelight? Not likely. We turn away from false
or trivial obligations to find the truth of our inner nature, and afterwards we
will be on a new trajectory that cannot be directed by anyone else. We will
follow the promptings of the Tao within.
notions of faith and trust mentioned here will be discussed in due time, faith
especially in Chapter XVII and trust at the beginning of Chapter IX. We should
once again remind ourselves that Krishna has a very open mind when he says
“They who adhere to this doctrine of mine.” His doctrine so far is simply to
infuse action with wisdom, and he has just recommended the abandonment of
possessiveness and expectations as the means to accomplish this. Nowhere is
there any implication that there is a prescribed code of behavior tied up with
the other hand, those soulless ones who look upon this my doctrine with
mistrust and adhere not to it—know them as shut away from all knowledge and as
again mentions his doctrine, and we have to remember that it is not a typical
one, but extremely open minded and open hearted. We are more familiar with
doctrines that specify rules and punishments in detail, but Krishna’s doctrine
is intended to help us break free of rules, habits and conditionings. It’s more
like an invitation than a doctrine.
most commentators use teaching in
place of doctrine for the Sanskrit matam.
MW has matam as (in addition to
doctrine and belief) intention, purpose, even simply idea. Krishna is making an argument for a radically revised, very
liberal view of the whole shebang, but perhaps with an excess of hyperbole
here. Probably he is goading Arjuna to get more serious, because the ball is
really starting to roll. In any case, the flavor of “my way or the highway,” in
this verse should be compared to upcoming verse IV, 11: “As each chooses to
approach Me, even accordingly do I have regard for him. My very path it is, O
Arjuna, that all men do tread from every (possible) approach.” You can’t get
much more open than that!
of us tend to have too narrow a view of what spirituality or spiritual growth
consists of. Since our upbringing is largely based on tangible forms and
concrete ideas, we associate this very invisible and free flowing noncondition of
spirit with buildings and books and classes and so on. This inevitably limits
our self-image drastically and unnecessarily. If we don’t go to church or
practice our meditation, we think we aren’t doing anything spiritual, and
sometimes we get down on ourselves because of it.
spiritual growth is something that goes on whenever we ponder something,
contemplate an aspect of existence, admire a beautiful object, spend time with
a child (or even an adult!), take a hot bath, make love, walk in the woods, and
lots more. It’s something we participate in almost all the time, and when we
aren’t, it’s because we’re storing up energy for another go at it. Thoughts
like “I’m not doing anything spiritual right now” or “I need to get my life in
order so I can begin to do spiritual things later” are impediments that can
easily be discarded. Instead, adopt the simple attitude that “life itself is
spiritual unfolding” and your self-image will instantly and permanently
growth happens especially when we aren’t directing our energies into narrow
channels with predictable outcomes, but are open to what the “guru” of life
itself brings our way. It’s almost never what we expect, because we don’t have
a clue what’s ahead, really. But being open to the flow teaches us quite
quickly that life has a big heart and is embracing us even before we open our
arms to receive it.
consider a concrete example of “denying Krishna,” one who denies the doctrine
of non-possessiveness is one who clings to possessions. Such a one is lost in
the same sense as the person who is dull witted in this chapter’s verse 29,
because they don’t see beyond the obvious. They aren’t really even having a
spiritual practice at all, whatever they may think. The Gita ever strives to
turn our attention from the things that come and go to what is eternal, but it
is battling deeply entrenched habits that drag the disciple back to transient
interests again and again. This explains Krishna’s surprising vehemence here.
a man of wisdom behaves in conformity with his own nature. All creation goes on
subject to nature. Of what avail is control?
first blush this verse seems to indicate that we have no role to play in our
lives; that we should just go along with it and “put up and shut up.” Since
this is absurd, we know we have to look a bit deeper.
on in contemplative practice we are well advised to examine just what parts of
our life are under our control and what parts are not. This allows us to work
effectively and not waste our time trying to repress our natural proclivities.
The next verse gives an instance, advising us to steer clear of
attraction-repulsion situations, to help maintain a neutral posture as we tread
our path. In any case, there is much we can do and much we cannot, and sorting
this out is an excellent meditation. Where the worshipful disciple might bow
down and think “Oh, Krishna is telling me not to try to control anything!” the
intelligent disciple should realize the verse is posing a question that demands
an answer: Just what exactly does control avail?
we are to meet the Absolute face to face on its own terms, we must not put our
faces to the ground. We are called upon to be expert and fearless, to “stand
up.” An excess of humility can definitely be a fault rather than a virtue. It
drives gurus crazy that people just accept what they say with a reverent nod,
in place of responding with an original thought of their own. They know that
the momentary pool of insight will be evaporating from the mind shortly, and
the reverent one will be complacently slipping back into old habits.
and everything on earth is part of an overriding flow that determines the
parameters for what we can express, and even what we can be. While humankind mainly
tinkers with one edge of this stream of consciousness through developing
technology and social evolution, by and large we are flotsam in a sweeping
flood of events over which we have very little control. We should admire this
flood as pouring from the very mouth of the Divine Source, rather than trying
to manipulate it based on our personal wants and very limited viewpoint. No one
knows where the flood is taking us. This does not mean we should be complacent
about the injustices perpetrated by greedy people. The flood is carrying us
toward universal justice and higher consciousness, but on the way there are
plenty of rocks, eddies and whirlpools we have to avoid so we don’t get stuck.
We participate to whatever degree we are capable of.
psychologists are well aware, humans are very clever to disguise our unsavory
personal predilections in altruistic terms, terms we believe will sound
acceptable to other people. When this blanket of verbiage is stripped away, the
self-interest at its core is revealed. The Gita recommends we be more honest
with ourselves, and take a good hard look at our motivations, both inner and
outer, as an early stage in aligning our actions with the Absolute. When our
action stands uncamouflaged, we are in tune with our svadharma, our finest action proclivities. Once that happens we can
“go with the flow” instead of floundering against it.
normal training directs us to constantly ask “What do I do now?” and we are
expected to approach this question from a self-interested point of view,
bringing in everything we’ve been taught.
Gita suggests instead that we subtract the idea of ourselves as agents of
action (“I am the doer”). We should sit back and contemplate the most general
possible overview of the situation. By sitting calmly (“with fever gone”) and
without prejudice in favor of our own position (tricky!), we can come to
understand what is required in any predicament. This equal minded position is
only truly possible when we apprehend the Absolute as universally present in
all things. We also need to know our own inner nature and predilections, having
shrugged off society’s molding of us into its idea of “normal”, which is to a
greater or lesser extent foreign to us.
tuning in with this global perspective, our own course of action will be
intuitively seen to flow naturally out of the whole.
all is said and done, what is being gotten at here is that we should be
satisfied with who we are, and not try to be someone else. The trick is that we
arrive at this point in life as an imitation of others, and we have lost touch
with our essential nature. Practically from the day we are born we observe
those around us and model ourselves after them. It’s not a bad thing, as far as
it goes, because it allows us to fit in and survive, but it is not fully
satisfactory. We also need to add our own unique contribution as the finishing
touch to a life well lived. Adulthood is achieved not when we become
praiseworthy imitators, but when we take the next step and become creatively
independent actors in tune with ourselves.
are attracted to famous and talented people, and think “That’s what I want to
be!” They may spend a lifetime trying to fulfill the role they covet. The
Gita’s advice is to forget all that. Instead we should unleash our authentic
nature, our dharma, and in that way we can actualize much more of what we have
in us. Even if we become rich and famous by putting on an act, there is a
hollowness to it that kills the joy.
or later, living as an imitation of a mirage loses its thrill, and we insist on
knowing the truth of our self. We arrive at this crossroads of our life as a
bundle of contradictions and poorly developed hypotheses, and we desperately
need to find our true being somewhere in the midst of them. Arjuna’s confusion
at the beginning of the Gita can be understood as his becoming aware of the
gulf between who he knows he is and who others expect him to be. Krishna
relentlessly directs him into himself, counseling him to throw off both his own
and everyone else’s expectations. He definitely does not teach him to be satisfied
with his mediocre existence and step back into his allotted role.
place of “To what avail is control?” Radhakrishnan has “What can repression
accomplish?” This gives the sense better. We repress our true nature in order
to force ourselves into our imitative social role playing. Repression, then, is
the opposite of the spiritual impulse, which aims at freedom. One of the
primary causes of the misery of the human race in the midst of Paradise is the
glorification of repression and the denigration of individual authenticity. The
Bhagavad Gita stands firm against this foolhardy reversal of good sense.
abide mutually, between the senses and their sense-objects. One should never
come under their double sway. They are indeed one’s twin path-hindering
Absolute is everywhere, so isn’t everything just fine? Well yes, but in
actuality our minds can and in fact must produce the illusion of separation,
for us to function as individuated beings. This is an intriguing paradox. We
develop from birth into dualistic beings who have learned—quite appropriately—to
separate one thing from another. In the process we invariably forget the
oneness out of which we have bifurcated. Since the Absolute is unitive, we need
to move from duality to unity to reunite with it. We begin by seeing it as yet
another separate item to be obtained, but the seers advise us that it is
nothing like that. In the transition from seeking the Absolute as a distinct
item to seeking it as our own beingness, we convert from duality to unity.
Therefore, when a reconnection with our unitive core is desired—as a way to
bring us back to our native perfection—certain intermediate steps may be found
to be very helpful.
steps taken to go from duality to unity are called a spiritual path, even
though the path doesn’t really lead anywhere. We are journeying from our self
to our Self. But “all roads lead to Rome,” as the saying goes. In IV, 11 quoted
earlier, Krishna affirms that we are free to choose the way we take to the
Absolute, and it can’t help but deliver us there, since it is our true nature.
The Gita doesn’t make a list of sequential steps. It merely provides a number
of extremely helpful suggestions for us to incorporate into our personal
journey as we see fit.
ego is the sum total of our decisions regarding what is attractive and what is
repulsive. In the transition to maturity we go from “the kid in a candy store”
mentality to a deliberate selection of what will be most beneficial. We learn
that candy in excess will produce a stomach ache, and that immediate
gratification may give us a hangover or make us ill. We also find that deferred
gratification for a loftier goal can be much more rewarding. In the final
chapter (XVIII, 37-39), Krishna sums this up based on the three gunas of
purity, activity and darkness:
that happiness which is like gall
at first, ambrosial at the end, born of lucid self-understanding, is called
that happiness arising out of
contact of the senses with objects, at first like ambrosia, at the end like
gall, is called rajasic;
that happiness which at first and
in after-effects is self-confounding, arising from sleep, lassitude and
listlessness, is called tamasic.
From this we can conclude that not all repulsions are to be
avoided; some are to be worked through. The most valuable projects often
present “difficulty at the beginning,” as the I Ching calls it. Remember that
Krishna tried to repel Arjuna at the beginning of his discipleship, to test his
dedication. You may meet with a frowning dismissal at a first approach to a
guru. Likewise, if you go to her and she hands you a lollipop and tells you to
come back in a year, you should politely decline it and ask for instruction
instead. If you take the lollipop and go away, you are a sucker.
we grow beyond immediate attractions and repulsions and begin to focus on the
One Beyond as a supreme goal, we can make better decisions. We choose what
appeals to our better judgment, logically enough. Still, our choices are
complicated by many competing voices offering advice from perspectives that may
not serve us well. We have to sort out what advice to take and which to leave
behind. It’s not easy, because the loudest and most immediately attractive
voices are often the most deceptive.
Lehrer, in How We Decide (Boston:
Mariner, 2009), reviews the complex science of decision-making in detail. The
book is an excellent adjunct to the study of the Gita. Lehrer notes that pure
reason by itself is not adequate, because it is too limited. The brain
compounds vast amounts of information into emotional cues. What we have to
learn is when these cues are legitimate wise decisions or when they are selfish
short-term desires in disguise. Our ability to judge between our wise and
foolish impulses is a high art form that requires considerable practice, and
does not lend itself to hard and fast rules.
verse offers a key distinguishing mark to differentiate intelligent advice from
merely attractive advice. We are drawn to what attracts us, by definition. But
if we are attracted and afterwards repelled, it is an unmistakable mark of
duality. We should be seeking an attraction which is ever attractive and never
repulsive, and this sustainability is a helpful mark to aid us in
distinguishing between the lasting and the transient.
are many types of repulsion. Religions play up guilt, but that is learned
repulsion, for the most part, and highly abstract. Repulsion also appears as
various physical and mental illnesses, social rejection, failure to develop,
wasted efforts, depression and downheartedness, and so on. It is worthwhile to
try to figure out in advance what actions may blow us off course, but when we
inevitably blunder, repulsion provides negative feedback to urge us to change
is not mental illness: it is the brain’s way of impelling a change of face. It
informs us that we have not found our true calling. If we medicate it away, we
will stay stuck where we are instead of blazing a new trail. There are some
serious problems that are often miscast as depression, and that’s a different
both unity and duality are attractive, and the difference is difficult to
notice at first, we very often go wrong in our initial efforts. As Krishna
says, this hinders our progress on the path, because we spend time on things of
little or no value. Contemplative assessment will help sort these matters out.
If we make a mistake and put our energies into dualistic attractions, a state
of repulsion eventually comes along to remind us to seek elsewhere. But we have
to be alert for early signs of being caught, because many activities are
addictive. Look around, and you will see a world filled with addicts of various
stripes, stuck fast in mediocre and unsatisfactory states of mind.
the obvious addictive activities, there is a plethora of more clandestine ones.
The most important example for the spiritual neophyte is the lure of simplified
means to enlightenment. They may imagine that some savior or charismatic
teacher will do their work for them, or that by practicing certain body
postures or chanting mantras they will rapidly evolve to some imaginary exalted
goal. These are subtle types of sensory attraction, forms of veiled eroticism.
When the results don’t appear as hoped, they either reject that path and look
for another or force the issue until they have a breakdown and go mad.
Frittering away one’s efforts on superficial matters or becoming deranged will
indeed hinder one’s progress, possibly for an entire lifetime.
itself is an attraction to many people. If you aren’t seeking liberation, then
magnifying the surges of attraction and repulsion may increase the impact of
temporary pleasures. If your life seems meaningless, intensity of sensory experience
may be an appealing substitute for the sense of emptiness you feel. This is
fine up to a point, so long as no harm is done to unwilling participants, but
it is not what the unitive flow of spiritual life entails. A spiritual search
is all about finding the true meaning of your life, which then provides
satisfaction and steadiness beyond all of life’s ups and downs. The all-too
typical and very tragic response to emptiness is to cram more and more
distracting activities into the day. The Gita’s advice is that emptiness is an
indicator that we need to change direction, to seek within instead of without.
No amount of “stuff” can fill up the hole in our psyche made by the absence of
the Absolute. We have only to rediscover it, though, and it instantaneously
refills the emptiness.
is activity rightly conforming to one’s own nature, though lacking in superior
quality, than activity foreign to one’s own nature, although it may be well
done (otherwise). (Even) death by the performance of what fits one properly has
merit. Activity foreign to oneself is fraught with danger.
we have a key teaching of the Gita, repeated near the end of the work in
(XVIII, 47). It is imperative for each of us to discover and explore who we
are. If there is any “Divine Plan” this is it! Each of us is a unique being
charged with holding our place in space, in other words, with being ourselves.
When we become clones of some static idea, we die to the spirit. What is the
point of such an imitation existence? None, really. It is only the bad dreams
of control freaks that urge them to advocate conformity. This is such an
important point that Krishna says to stay with it even to the death. Don’t ever
let other people bully you into being what they want you to be, if it doesn’t
accord with who you are.
attempt to avoid death is in fact one of the reasons we most avoid life. If we
have full confidence in our true nature we will have no impetus to try to be
someone else, or to try to unduly prolong our existence either. The threat of
death is a powerful tool to force us to accept inferior conditions. If we know
that in advance, we are prepared to resist such manipulation. This attitude
bubbles up periodically in the revolutionary spirit, epitomized in the State
Motto of New Hampshire, USA: Live Free or Die.
back to Eric Sharpe’s characterization of this verse (mentioned in I, 43) as
meaning “It is better to perform the duty of one’s own caste badly than
another’s duty well,” we can see first of all that there is no duty suggested
here at all. Nor is caste mentioned. Krishna is trying to show Arjuna how to
uncover his own true nature, and thereby find the best way to act: to become
attuned to his svadharma, as it is called. Our pure, untrammeled nature which
springs from the Absolute is covered over by layers of beliefs and exhortations
laid down by society, as recognized by Arjuna back in the first chapter.
Fixations such as caste and duty are included in these unhealthy conditionings
that stifle the freedom within, leading to strife and misery.
well-respected Gita commentator Radhakrishnan says of this verse, after some
well-intentioned platitudes, “However distasteful one’s duty may be, one must
be faithful to it even unto death.” What a horrific concept! One’s “duty” or
dharma is determined by what you enjoy; anything less could be an excuse for
someone else to manipulate you. Make no mistake, after subtracting reactions
that may be pleasing to the ego alone, following your joy is the way to realize
your own dharma. Sure, there will be challenges and setbacks, but once you are
firm in your resolve, these can be taken in stride. In a perfect world everyone
would be performing activity in keeping with their personal tastes and
predilections. In an imperfect world, the strong enslave the weak with the help
of concepts like duty, honor, and country.
act as we have been taught. Almost everyone is thus busily engaged in activity
foreign to their nature. How does the Absolute’s beneficence flow out into the
world, when it is bottled up by “shoulds” and “oughts” and other “duties”? The
untrammeled expression of our divine nature requires perfect flexibility and
openness, unbound by conditioning. The Gita’s whole reason for being is to
teach us how to achieve this freedom, which is central to a meaningful
verse applies to much more than a person’s work. The key is to understand
dharma as activity in accord with a person’s inner nature, as opposed to
externally applied duty. Activity in keeping with one’s inner nature applies to
the whole of life. Sexual preference is a major issue that can be resolved with
Krishna’s perspective here. Traditional society holds a powerful
anti-homosexual bias, and the lives devastated by homosexuals repressing their
true feelings are legion. According to the Gita, following your inner
promptings, even in a tentative and confused way, is better than a well
executed life of fakery, such as many homosexuals and other non-regulation
types have been condemned to live throughout history.
of the strong emotions kicked up by sexuality, there is a lot of confusion
about it. Homosexuals engender the hatred of some heterosexuals, and then
respond in various ways, including returning the hatred. A detached viewpoint
is thus hard to come by. The wise yogi can easily see that a harmonious blend
of male and female elements comes closest to the neutral poise recommended by
the Gita. Scientifically speaking, all humans contain both male and female
chemicals. The most extreme polarities measure in at 52 percent male hormones,
or 52 percent female, with the norm much closer to 50-50. The differences are
so slight, it’s readily apparent how a person’s body type might be out of phase
with their chemistry. Isn’t it wonderful, though, that no matter how we’re
tilted, everyone can find a suitable partner! Such is the potential of a
reciprocal universe, where everyone’s needs are met by what they seek. Only
societal terror tactics stymie the natural propensity for widespread happiness.
is very important in this and all matters to carefully examine yourself to
separate out reactions to conditioning from your own true inner nature. (In the
meantime, go ahead and have that fling—how else will you know?) Very often what
we believe to be our real self is nothing more than an internalization of
outside forces, and those need to be countermanded to arrive at a clear
self-image. Much of society consists of antisocial people, especially those
making the transition from childhood to adulthood. All of us are vulnerable to
fads, which appeal to our desire to be ourselves but are in reality veiled
forms of conformity. The contemplative has to resist going along with the
crowd, and instead look within. It takes courage, sometimes even to the degree of
facing death threats, to hold to your guiding star. The Gita is part of your
support group in finding your true path and avoiding the pitfalls.
Hutz, of the gypsy-rock group Gogol Bordello, starts the song Ultimate with
words in the spirit of this verse:
If we are here not to do
What you and I wanna do
And go forever crazy with it
Why the hell we are even here?
sum up, although perfect attunement is possible while being engaged in both
pleasant and unpleasant activities, it is far easier to become unitively
involved in action if it is something you like, something in keeping with your
true nature. You can’t fake what turns you on. At the same time, most of our
actions spring from a more superficial level than our essential core, and so
are a mixture of our learned behaviors and outside influences (or the rejection
of them). The more we can set these aside to dive into our dharma, the more our
actions will be true to our real self, and not just a subtle form of mob
impelled by what does man lead such a life of sin even against his will, as if
disciple hereby does his duty and responds to Krishna’s question from verse 33,
“Of what avail is control?” He is not yet confident enough to give an opinion,
but is engaged enough to ask a question that furthers the dialogue on this very
has felt inner impulses that contradict his better judgment, which is the big
question of this chapter: How do we bring ideals and actions together
harmoniously? And why are our impulses so powerful, so much stronger than our best
start out in life with untamed urges springing up inside, the germinating seeds
of genetic potentials (vasanas in
Sanskrit) bursting into rampant growth. They offer us a wide range of
capabilities to be actualized. Some of our vasanas are survival-based and
dangerous, while others encode our most highly evolved attributes, with most
falling somewhere in between. The tragedy is that as we grow up we are taught
to repress them all and substitute a traditional generic blueprint laid down in
the distant past. In the process our uniqueness is destroyed or driven
underground. Arjuna is now in the process of reclaiming his integrity as an
gives us strict moral codes to set in opposition to our vasanas, regardless of
whether they are good, bad or indifferent. Some people—the wild ones—stick with
their urges, and others, the law-abiding ones, follow the codes. Arjuna has
come to realize that neither version is wholly acceptable to him. The codes
only repress the urges, and don’t in any way further them, but the raw urges
could well lead him into serious trouble. He wants to know the elusively subtle
secret of how to bring his urges and his intelligence into harmony. At this
early stage, though, he is content to hear more about the effects of the
impulses themselves. The more he knows about them the easier they will be to
sure to take note that once again it’s Arjuna the seeker who mentions sin,
which, like merit, lies outside the scope of unitive action. The threat of
punishment for sin is the voice of social repression. Krishna, like any good
guide, offers positive encouragement rather than punitive intimidation.
dilemma is critical, amounting to how we can have free will when so much of our
makeup is fixed. Neuroscience is now at a pass where it appears that humans are
utterly at the mercy of hardwired decision making from the unconscious, and
free will is nowhere in evidence. While this is an important first step in
comprehending consciousness, it is a premature conclusion, to say the least.
science involved, while admirable, is statistical analysis of the responses of
limited groups in measurable scenarios. For instance, David Eagleman reports,
in his book Incognito, that at least
some aspects of sexual attraction is unconsciously motivated.
aside the fact that many of these studies are made with college age students,
who are cheap and readily available, and also powerfully driven by hormonal
forces, all of the studies I am aware of focus on easily measurable quantities
like this, aspects of desire and anger. Several thousand years ago this type of
response was already known to be conditioned, and Krishna is about to go off
about it. He calls it “the eternal enemy of the wise,” because it is
conditioned thinking that produces predictable behavior. The spiritual
position, if you will, is that there is a region of tremendous creativity and
excitement beyond the reach of conditioned thinking. The spiritual seeker of
truth aims to transcend the bonds of conditioning to achieve their full
potential. Their potential may still be limited, but it is limited in the way
Mozart or Leibnitz or Hypatia were limited. We should be so fortunate! The
contributions of such geniuses far outshone anything previously evolved,
demonstrating there is something more than programming at work in creative
isn’t presently possible to have a statistical analysis of unique, creative
thinking. If we presume, as some scientists are doing, that all thought is
conditioned, it implies that everything has already been invented. There is
nothing new under the sun, only its slow emergence from the depths over time.
This is perhaps plausible, but it is still a very large presumption. The
simpler explanation is that creative people can go beyond their conditioning to
come up with new inventions. Evolution is then a creative process, even if you
attribute it to accidents.
drugs are fantastic boosters of the psyche, out of the gravitational field of
conditioned thought, giving explorers an inviting glimpse of their genius
potential. When the doors of perception once again close as the drugs wear off,
many of them are inspired to work toward more open states of mind, in the most
exciting journey anyone can undertake.
will have to find new ways to measure conditioning and creativity before it can
admit the existence of exceptional abilities. Genius in our highly conditioned
societies is rare, and people under the influence of psychedelics are not
quantifiable. They are not interested in providing test answers, and if they do
they will be all over the map. In an unconditioned state, no one wants to
define themselves, which reinstitutes a conditioned perspective. Basically,
answering questions constrains consciousness to a narrow band, already highly
have a motto: self-description is stultifying. In other words, it makes you
stupid, conditioned. It limits you. If you are trying to transcend limits, you
don’t want to keep describing yourself in familiar terms.
definitely have to acknowledge the value of knowing that most of our seemingly
free choices are in fact not free at all. The Gita is a psychological science
that instructs us on how to detect our unconscious bondage and overcome it. As
such it is among the most valuable tools available to us, at least those of us
who don’t want to capitulate to our limitations. Arjuna is really chaffing at
his limitations, because Krishna has helped make him aware of them.
much more inspiring it is for us to know we have an infinite potential than to
feel doomed to naturally selected mandatory choices!
is desire, such is anger, born out of the modality called rajas, all-devouring,
all-vitiating; know this to be the enemy here.
is one form vasanas take as they emerge into consciousness, struggling to
become actualized. If they are thwarted—as they usually are—the pressure to
push forward against the obstacles produces the heat of anger. Anger is the one
of the ego’s primary responses to opposition.
they are so closely related, desire and anger are often lumped together, but
they aren’t exactly the same. One definitely proceeds and produces the other.
Anger is consequent to desire. If we relinquish our desires, anger flickers out
like a flame whose fuel has been turned off.
and anger are the strongest emotions—especially when hyperbolically inflated by
fear—that grab us by the lapel and motivate us to all the actions that bring
devastation to our world. Unless they are subdued, the seeker of truth remains
a pretender, in every sense of the word. The thirteenth century sage
Dnyaneshwar Maharaj waxes wroth about them:
These enemies are ruthless and
they are like death itself…. Being enemies of life [desire and anger] are held
in great respect in the city of death. There is no limit to their hunger, and
hope itself increases their activities…. [They] have their root in egotism.
Desire and anger create hypocrisy and the suppression of truth. They destroy
mental peace and substantiate maya, which overpowers even the sages. They
undermine discrimination, disinterestedness and patience. They ruin
tranquility, courage and joy. They cut at the root of knowledge and make
happiness impossible. They are born with the body and are inseparable from it.
In this way they run parallel with consciousness itself and appear before the
mind’s eye under the pretence of being judgment. Hence it is, that these are
difficult to control. (Gita Explained,
Sounds like he was watching a lot of television! Plenty of
florid melodrama there. But the Maharaj is onto something essential. Our
deepest emotions are inseparable from the body, from our self-identity, so they
appear perfectly natural to our mind’s eye. We aren’t able to see how they
cloud and blinder our vision, unless we step back and take a long view. The
essence of meditation or spirituality is to carefully observe the subtle winds
that blow us off course and correct for them. The neutral state we always speak
about is “shelter from the storm,” a calm refuge protected from the howling
gales of cravings and frustrations, where we can make good decisions.
is revealing an important truth in alleging that desire and anger are at their
most insidious in the guise of judgment, or indignation about other people’s
behaviors. Nothing expands the self-righteous ego more than anger. It’s as if
the furious opinion of the moment was received directly from God. History is
filled with murderous, self-assured, angry zealots bubbling over with fire and
brimstone. They can always find a scripture to sanction their obsessions.
Obviously yogis take care not to be carried away by their emotions, reserving
judgment until wisdom can be brought to bear in a pacific manner.
neutrality is an important step, but it is not the whole project. We are then
called to bring forth our best abilities, promoting the vasanas that further
psycho-spiritual evolution. Spreading conflict and misery are not the yogi’s
is not just an individual emotion: whole societies can be gripped by it. In a
build up to war, propagandists fuel the anger and resentments of entire
populations, until an explosive conflagration results. A yogi is always alert
to not be drawn into such a vortex, either personal or societal. At every
moment we can choose whether to abandon ourselves to the prevailing mania or
not. Staying free takes serious intentionality.
consumer societies of modernity—Dnyaneshwar’s medieval “cities of death” as we
know them today—are addicted to artificially creating desire in order to sell
products to satisfy the desire. Vast amounts of energy and psychological
expertise are directed to keeping us all enslaved to our “needs,” which are
really wants, things we have learned to desire, very different from the desires
of our natural abilities trying to express themselves. The ancient rishis would
easily have predicted that such an unhealthy system would breed tremendous
anger and consequent violence. As rampant greed torpedoes the shaky structure
of consumer societies, desperation over the prospective loss of prosperity
fuels wars far and near. Angry “pundits” lash out at the well intentioned, the
innocent, and even the victims, seeking to place the blame anyplace but where
it belongs. “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of
innocence is drowned,” as Yeats put it in his poem, The Second Coming. Krishna
characterizing this delirium as a serious enemy is not at all overblown.
smoke shrouds fire, as a mirror (is beclouded) by dirt, as the fetus is
enclosed in the amnion, likewise by such is This surrounded.
the materialistic model of the universe, everything is built up out of small
pieces, like the parts of a machine or a building. The constructs only last a
short time, and then they fall apart or die. Because of this, nothing means
anything. This attitude blots out the glowing heart of creation with a
deadening pall of ignorance.
Upanishadic model, by contrast, is one of continuous pulsation. There is a
central core of truth, stable and unchanging, that manifests outwards,
radiating in all directions as the world of name and form. Where the former
model is linear, the latter is spherical or multidimensional, and filled to the
brim with meaning because every part retains its connection with the central
hub, termed the Absolute here. The meaning of life itself is the struggle to
reconnect with the blissful core of life whenever it is obscured by the
blinding effects of manifested existence.
for our everyday awareness, only the outermost shell of the sphere is perceptible
to beings on the periphery, and since we are oriented looking outward, awareness
of the core can only be arrived at intuitively. It isn’t so much hidden as we
are looking in the wrong direction. In a healthy philosophy, outward-oriented
manifestation is balanced by inward contemplation, the movements being
complementary and reciprocal. By doing so, the meaning is not lost even as the
details are assessed critically. The twin aspects of reality, form and meaning,
do not have to be in conflict.
the pulsation model, the perceivable outer shell—what we call the everyday
world—is necessarily dual, made up of things that are relatively high and low,
hot and cold, helpful and useless, etc., while the core is a unity that
transcends all such attributes. Krishna is calling our attention to the
neglected core of wisdom, because where we go wrong is by treating the
perceptibles in isolation, divorced from their source. Taking everything
separately and forgetting the unifying continuum, we become needy and greedy,
imagining we have to scheme how to get things from our surroundings. Instead of
participation in a benign symmetry, we learn to desire what we prefer, and we
become angry when something thwarts its attainment. And in a world of needy and
greedy people, satisfying our needs becomes ever more daunting. Yogis are
directed to avoid such unnecessary traps.
three gunas have a role in verses 37 and 38. The previous verse explicitly
mentions rajas, the activist guna, and the present verse explores aspects of
tamas, the obscuring guna. Awareness of the heart of manifestation is sattvic,
whose classic image is a clear mirror. Sattva is also compared here to a bright
light unobscured by smoke, and—in a very charming and unusual touch—to an
unborn babe that has not yet undergone any conditioning.
says that the Absolute resembles
these things, because they are after all descriptions. Sattva is the most
accurate resemblance of concepts to the underlying reality. The Absolute is the
true essence, and the clearest conception of it, as unadulterated as possible,
is called sattvic. Still, an image is not the reality, and the danger with
sattva is that it can easily be mistaken for reality. When the Absolute is
partially obscured we are in a rajasic condition, and when it is totally hidden
we are in a tamasic state. The gunas perennially rotate in ordinary awareness,
from clear to agitated to muddy, and then (if we are lucky) back to clear.
is another subtle relationship in these images, described in Vedanta as
sat-chit-ananda; or in English, truth, consciousness and value. As an elemental
manifestation of powerful invisible forces, fire stands for truth. A mirror
reflects what is going on in the vicinity, making it a favorite symbol of
conscious awareness. The third image must then indicate the meaning, the
ananda, usually translated as bliss. It is almost unbearably sweet that the
value or meaning of all manifestation is exemplified by the new life, well
hidden in its protective womb and swelling toward birth. To Krishna, then, the
meaning of the universe is life. Other than life, what would be the point of it
materialists pulverize everything and then can find no meaning in the detritus.
Their very logical philosophy—which we share to a significant degree, whatever
we may believe—takes us to the brink of despair. Rishis and other lovers know
that meaning emerges from complexity, from relationships. A single note may
have very little significance, but a symphony can move and inspire its
listeners every time it is heard.
it takes billions and billions of years for a universe to produce complex
enough creatures to animate its emptiness with intelligence. Humans, with our
immense potential for creative expression, are a spectacular achievement,
whether we have evolved randomly or otherwise. How tragic that many bright
minds can see nothing but meaninglessness wherever they look, when every drop
is charged with significance. Everything is happening for the very first and
very last time. Each instant of life should be cherished, fostered, and used as
a springboard for further artistic achievements. Then the hungry soul can be
replete with joy, while despair vanishes in a puff of tamasic smoke. In this
final section of the third chapter, Krishna is urging us to make the herculean
effort required to overcome our mundane obsessions and open our eyes to the
stunning reality of existence.
is enveloped by this which is the eternal enemy of the wise, remaining in the
form of desire, Arjuna, which is a fire that is difficult to satiate.
importance of not being bewildered by desire is emphasized by it receiving an
unusually long section of verses by the Guru, Krishna. Yes, we have to address
all the issues of maintaining our existence, but these can be done gently and
without grasping. Then equal attention can be paid to the core of wisdom, which
sustains the whole.
much else, desire is most often taken in the most literal, obvious sense, to
mean sexual desire and similar appetites, like hunger and thirst. Seekers spend
their lives trying to suppress their natural (and healthy!) biological urges,
but they are much less of an issue if they are simply given an unexaggerated place
in our life. Suppression places them at center stage and entices them to grow
huge. On the other hand, Krishna is right that they don’t go away by satiating
them, either; that can also make them more prominent. The advice from II, 59 is
apt: the more the blissful Absolute is the center of attention, the more the
ordinary diversions lose their allure. The Gita’s advice is to locate the
Absolute right in the center of whatever activity we are doing, which enhances
its beauty and harmonizes its effect on everyone involved. The simple fact that
action in tune with the Absolute is more blissful than action without it causes
it to stabilize around the central hub of truth.
usual, though, treating desires as objective entities misses the mark. It isn’t
so much the actions themselves, but the attitude with which they are performed
that counts. Like most activities, sex can be beautiful or ugly depending on
whether it’s done lovingly or abusively. So can tennis or soccer, for that
matter, or business.
really problematic desires are things like greed, selfishness, coveting
possessions, and the like. These substitute material objects for the desirable
goal of union with the Absolute, and so really are the eternal enemy of the
wise, because they distract us from what is truly important. As an endless
litany of abusive celibate priests has proved, giving up sex doesn’t confer any
benefit by itself. The urge has to be transmuted and sublimated into something
else just as stimulating, or there will be trouble.
Gita was composed long before the puritanical era of spirituality set in, and
its advice tends toward moderation rather than suppression. More will be said
about sex renunciation in VI, 14 and elsewhere. Modern science has observed
that sex has a number of health benefits, including for the brain. Kelly
Lambert, in A Tale of Two Rodents,
reports on a study of rats at Princeton University, “Even though sexual
behavior is stressful, at least in the beginning, the rewarding aspects of the
behavior appear to lead to both new nerve cells and more sophisticated
connections among existing neurons in a brain area critical for learning and
memory. This study suggests that sex builds more complex brains.” (Scientific
American Mind, Sept/Oct 2011.)
fire analogy is apt. In the last verse the fire stood for the Absolute, but
here it symbolizes desire. Desires can be beneficial or detrimental depending
on their relationship with the Absolute, and distinguishing the two kinds of
fire requires expert attention and almost invariably outside assistance. We are
too easily fooled, so friends or advisors should be consulted whenever
we attempt to placate our desires by satisfying them, without any contemplative
distance, it is like throwing another log on the fire to try to put it out. The
seeker should merely observe as the fire burns itself out, possibly stirring up
the ashes so it will burn a little faster. Once the exciting and mesmerizing
fire goes out, peace creeps in on little cat feet.
who are as yet happily motivated by their desires can still learn a great deal
from the Gita, but what separates seekers from the regular folks is their being
burned out on and wishing to go beyond desire-prompted action.
is said to be lodged in the senses, mind and reason. By means of these, this
(desire) bewilders the embodied one by veiling his wisdom.
chapter ends with a grouping of four verses, 40-43, presenting three main
aspects of the individual in a graded series. Different types of desire are
present in each aspect—senses, mind and reason—but all lead the seeker away
from the core. They are like arrows directed outward. Meditation and
contemplation redirect the flow inward toward the Self or Absolute. In the
pulsation model, desire expands outward towards objects, and has to be
counterbalanced by a movement back toward the center. The subtle teaching here
is to finish with unhelpful desires by working simultaneously from the outside
in and the inside out, dialectically.
schizoid tendencies of spirituality stem from treating desire as an external
enemy and pitting ourself against it. The battle then is us against ourself,
and it is very destructive. It is most often energized by self-loathing
stemming from social rejection. The wise assure us that desire is an integral
part of our very self. Our first step, therefore, should be to befriend our
self, including its desires. We have to make peace and unify our splintered
psyche before we can live and act harmoniously.
are easily deluded by desire precisely because it is integral to us. It is who
we think we are. The Absolute is the principle that transcends our limited
identity with what we see and think. It is outside the context of desire. Thus,
if we identify with it, desire surrenders without a fight, so to speak, and we
can be content to simply be ourself.
mastering first the senses, slay this which is of sin, which can destroy both
pure and practical wisdom.
most obvious way we are led astray by desire is through the senses. Despite
indisputable scientific knowledge that they are deceptive, our sense inputs are
so convincing we repeatedly fall under their spell. We believe what we see. It
takes a serious philosophical dedication to functionally realize that what we
see is a performance staged in our mind’s eye, colored by our beliefs, hopes,
fears and desires. Until we can step back and gain a little distance from the
play we’re putting on, we remain utterly spellbound by it. Like Sleeping
Beauty, its spell will render us unconscious forever, unless we are fortunate
enough to be awakened by a royal kiss.
mentions sin because his disciple is confused about it, not because it exists
independently. His teaching is to do away with desire and anger, which are perfectly
normal but cloud our intelligence. If there is any sin it is just the confusion
that shrouds truth, diverting wisdom in both its pure and practical senses. We
should think of sin as a stumbling block, which takes away the taint of evil
associated with it. It is certainly an internal factor, not something imposed
by hostile outside forces.
that Arjuna’s question was why he couldn’t actualize his visions easily, that
there was some invisible force pressing him off course. Krishna’s response is
that desire arises from within, with its own agenda more or less out of synch
with our conscious intentions. It is a part of us, not some alien creature to
be rejected but our own psyche to be redirected. The language is harsh, but the
taming must be done artfully, because desire is clever enough to draw strength
from the very efforts pitted against it.
destroys (or at least undermines) pure wisdom or equipoise by superimposing
multiple layers of emotion and conceptualization on its unitive essence, like
the wind making ripples on a still pond. It raises us out of our peaceful seat
to go in search of its satisfaction. At the early stages of a spiritual
practice like meditation, desire must be struggled with and made to wait for
the period of time allotted to the practice. Here too, slaying desire is a bit
strong in terminology, though it implies a certain heroic energy that can be
helpful. Doing away with desire completely is a very rare condition, and
imagining that to be the goal causes inner conflicts that are far more
detrimental to spiritual calmness than the original desire. There is every
temptation to hate oneself for one’s desires, and to hate others who
unintentionally activate those desires. It’s better to treat desires like
unruly children, well-intentioned but in need of gentle discipline and
often mentions the pure and the practical together, as the Gita is always
trying to integrate them. Here the dialectic isn’t especially important,
however. He is merely asserting that desire can deflect the efficacy of both
types of wisdom. An artist who produces paintings for money exemplifies how
desire perverts practical matters, since the art will suffer in direct
proportion to the extraneous considerations involved. The money may not
suffer—in fact “selling out” may be highly lucrative—but the mysterious quality
called artistic inspiration surely will. Likewise any worker will be less
enthusiastic if they are doing their job only for the money than if they enjoy
their task. Probably the term destroy is a bit excessive for the practical
considerations in this verse. Disrupt is more like it.
any rate, desires are not susceptible to direct attack. The Gita recommends
affiliation with the Absolute as the means to truly lay them to rest. The bliss
of the Absolute is far more attractive than individual habitual desires, and so
they are naturally effaced as the attention turns to That. Again we should
recall II, 59, where Krishna said of desires: “Even the residual relish reverts
on the One Beyond being sighted.”
is taught that the senses are great; beyond the senses is the mind, beyond the
mind is reason, and beyond reason is That.
senses are given their due here as windows on the world, vast and enchanting,
but even in ancient times it was well known that they weren’t absolutely
trustworthy. They aren’t particularly accurate, and can lead us astray on many
levels. The mind is viewed as a kind of sixth sense, collator and coordinator
of sensory input. This roughly corresponds to the material brain of modern
science, extremely useful but subject to many delusions and misunderstandings.
Reason or intellect is metaphysical, the part of the individual that soars
beyond the chains of actual objects and events. It can learn to compensate for
the defects of the mind and senses. At its best it is aimed at union with the
Absolute, though as we know it is more often used to control the actual world
through manipulation. Whether or not it is an epiphenomenon of the material
brain is irrelevant to Krishna’s teaching.
graded series telescopes inward and upward. The senses are great because they
translate the objective universe into a form of computer code that can be used
by the brain. They perform a vast reduction of the myriad manifested things to
a manageable level. The mind then utilizes this input to perform transactional
assessments, further sorting and abstracting the data. Afterwards the intellect
may make generalizations, grouping similar events so it can draw conclusions, make
excuses, and so on.
to desire, the senses begin the game by being tickled by stimuli, and they have
a natural interest in stimulation. After all, that’s their game. The mind then
decides preferences, and directs the body to repeat the experiences it likes
and avoid those it doesn’t. Again, that’s its natural and most important role. As
a person becomes more sophisticated, desires are cloaked in all sorts of
rationalizations and excuses. The intellect can vindicate detrimental desires
because it always knows exactly the argument the mind will agree to.
important to remember that param,
translated as beyond, doesn’t necessarily have any spatial component. Beyond,
within, transcending, exceeding, prior to, and much more are implied in the
term param. The mind is not only
beyond, it is within the senses,
animating and supporting them; the intellect is likewise within the mind, and
the Absolute is within everything. In addition to its utter immanence, the
Absolute is beyond even the very concept of beyond, and its mysteriously
indefinable status will be sung throughout the entire work. Needless to say,
infusing the intellect, mind and senses with the harmonizing factor of the
Absolute is the aim of Krishna’s teaching.
word used in this part of the Gita for the ultimate beyond, sah, refers to the purusha
philosophy, which is a little like the western God and will be definitively
dealt with in Chapter XV. Sah is usually translated (correctly) as he, but
since the Gita is in the process of revaluing this ancient concept to that of
the nongendered Absolute, brahman, I
have translated it here as That, which also clarifies its contrast to This (desire)
of the previous verses. Gods are famous for their desires, but the Absolute is
beyond all such mundane considerations.
knowing That to be beyond reason, stabilizing the self by the Self, kill that
enemy in the form of desire, so difficult to overcome.
call to Arjuna as a warrior now begins to be seriously reevaluated (compare
III, 30, “do fight with fever gone”). The true enemy is not anything “out
there,” it is desire and anger limiting one’s purview. That Arjuna is asked to
kill it is a distant echo of the battlefield context. So yes, in a way the Gita
does ask the seeker to kill—to kill desire. But not to be a killer of men,
though, which would violate the call to ahimsa
(non-hurting) given in Chapter XIII and elsewhere.
is famously hard to overcome, since it is lodged deep in the psyche, for the
most part out of reach of the will and the intellect. By the time a desire
becomes apparent to consciousness, exactly like the tip of an iceberg, it
already has a tremendous momentum. Deep-seated biological desires like hunger,
thirst and sex must be addressed to maintain the health of the organism, and they
are repressed at our peril. Techniques like fasting, wandering in the desert,
and celibacy do provide temporary respite from those imperatives. While they
may induce visions, whether these are due to divine contact or chemical stress
on the body is open to question. A less risky method is to satisfy desires in
moderate amounts, after which they retreat into the background. The aim in any
case is to neutralize their influence on the thinking and decision-making
processes. Anyone who spends all their waking hours satisfying various bodily
urges has no time for the contemplation of wisdom.
superficial predilections are a different subject altogether, not especially a
part of this study. They are mainly a matter of personal taste. The Gita’s
recommendation is to cultivate an overriding interest, which will subsume
distracting factors and eliminate them by attrition. The Absolute is the most
attractive of all interests.
a conclusion from the sequence of the last verse, a secret teaching is made as
plain as possible here, worded as “stabilizing the self by the Self.” For
stabilization of the psyche, the senses are gathered into the mind, and the
mind is gathered into intelligent reason. From this point a leap is to be made,
for a kind of inner connection with the Beyond. We do not know (since it is
beyond reason) how to do this or what to aim for, yet we can have an inward
gesture that opens us up to the kindly light of the Absolute. When we can
relinquish our sense of agency into the “arms of the Divine,” our personal self
becomes stabilized in the universal Self. Stabilization means that the self and
the Self become unified. At this point desires lose their grip and will become
irrelevant to the centered consciousness.
or self is a very complex term. At
one end of an imaginary continuum, the small ‘s’ self refers to an individual
person, and at the other end the capital ‘S’ Self is indistinguishable from the
Absolute. Grasping which is meant by atman is sometimes a slippery business,
though clear enough in this instance. Since in the final analysis the
individual and the Absolute are not two, the difficulties interpreting atman
are an aid to contemplation rather than a stumbling block.
Guru concludes this chapter with an important corrective well worth quoting:
Karma Yoga (unitive action) in
popular Vedantic literature, lapses into a trite picture of a man who is
offering all actions prayerfully to the lotus feet of the Lord. In the light of
the contents of this chapter… such a pious and holy version of karma yoga is,
to say the least, puerile. Much eloquence is often wasted by religious
enthusiasts in the cause of such piety. God does not eat the fruits offered to
him. It is the priest or the worshipper himself who finally gobbles them up,
and to speak of offering to God the fruits of action which seems to follow
close on this imagery, does not make any meaning at all. The whole purport of
the Gita as a critical study, full of precise definitions and enumerations
belonging to an exact or positive science, and not to a sentimental theism,
would be completely and sadly compromised.
static picture of simplified karma yoga that Nataraja Guru describes is very
widely held. The problem with any formulaic spirituality is that it becomes
lodged in the ego, which thinks something like “I am doing what I am supposed
to by performing actions this way.” The transcendent brilliance of unitive
action is nowhere to be found in such an attitude. Part of the challenge is to
relinquish the learned desire for a simple formula to reduce life into, and to
recapture an open, dynamic and flexible approach to living.